Despite the soviet government’s attempt to portray society as cohesive and progressive in the 1920s and 1930s, their claims could not be further from the truth.  In two informative and influential works, authors Lynne Viola and Wendy Goldman shine a light on the often-ignored side of soviet history, highlighting the fractures between the party and the citizens it claimed to represent.  More than that, however, both Goldman and Viola show how effective these forms of resistance could be in altering official state policy and in changing the way that ordinary citizens interacted with their government.  Whether the focus was on soviet family policy and the ‘withering away’ of both the law and the familial unit as explored by Goldman or the resistance against collectivism described by Viola, both of these works paint an alternative picture to the official party line presented to the country and the rest of the world.  Additionally, both of these books preset a masterful case for revisionist soviet history, showing definitively that although everyday people were often victimized by Stalin’s regime, they were neither powerless nor voiceless, demonstrating time and time again that both active and passive forms of resistance could affect real, lasting change in official state policy.

Women, The State and Revolution by Wendy Goldman focuses primarily on family and social law, beginning with the 1918 Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship and continues on to discuss the unforeseen consequences the code created and its impact upon the people it strived to govern.  The code was rewritten in 1926 amidst massive debate and controversy over the role of the family, the inequality facing women in the workforce, divorce and homeless children.  Goldman chronicles those debates and highlights the problems facing the many women and children throughout the country.  Finally, in 1936, the soviet government shifted their position in an abrupt about-face and made efforts to stabilize rather than dismantle the family – a reversal of the original code of 1918.[1]

The 1918 code in theory was both progressive and revolutionary and it focused on gender equality and claims of liberation.[2]  The state saw the family unit as eventually obsolete, removing both women and men from the restrictions of traditional marriage and allowing both partners to participate equally in the workforce and in politics.[3]  Along with the concept of making the importance of the family irrelevant, the state saw the law as temporary and that the appearance of a true proletarian revolution would make the necessity of law superfluous.[4]  The increase of socialism would move the majority of the housework typically reserved for wives and shift it to the public sphere, allowing for an advance in female education and employment – a liberation of soviet women from the chains which had traditionally bound them to the home and out of public and political life.  The socialist ideal, therefore, was a nation of individuals who were equal in choosing their own partnerships in which the government would not interfere.[5]  The state was about to discover, however, that ideologies did not necessarily comport with reality and the best laid plans did not always work out the way that they were supposed to.

As women increasingly left the home to pursue employment, several problems inadvertently presented themselves.  The first issue facing the state was that of Besprizornost – orphaned, abandoned or runaway children that flocked to the cities in search of food and shelter.[6]  Children’s advocates originally advanced the idea of socialized child-rearing, claiming that these children belonged to the state and were the state’s responsibility.  This adopted the language of liberation, freeing them from the confines of the family and allowing them the opportunity to realize their potential.[7]  In 1926, the soviet government retreated from the ideology of socialized child-rearing, removing the sanction on adoption.[8]  Although a socialized system of raising children was attractive, it was simply infeasible under the country’s current economic conditions.[9]

The other large problem that became quickly apparent after the family code of 1918 went into effect was two-fold.  First, the concept of free love was designed to create a society of equality, but the ease of divorce caused economic catastrophe for single mothers across the country.[10]  Secondly, the economic conditions created by the NEP made it incredibly difficult for women to obtain employment, and wages and opportunities were anything but equal for women in the workforce.[11]  Women became increasingly dependent upon men as a result in order to survive in an economy that favored men, providing few support services to the increasing number of single women.[12]  These disadvantages forced many women, like female Besprizornost, to turn to prostitution in order to feed their dependents and themselves.[13]

The revisionist scholarship Goldman employs in her work is often over-shadowed by its seemingly totalitarian policies.  Yet Goldman displays a keen sense of explaining the multitude of ways that women were able to become their own advocates in the burgeoning soviet government, asserting their voices effectively and with a unity that produced lasting and impactful results.  Although the original policies passed down in the family code of 1918 and its revision in 1926 were totalitarian and nature and negatively affected the overwhelming majority of the population, these affects did not go unnoticed, and women were able to speak out in their own interests and affect change.  Ultimately this resulted in a reversal of policy after 1926 in regards to male responsibility, the importance of the family and the family’s role in raising children effectively.

Like Goldman, Lynne Viola highlights the effectiveness that ordinary people could have upon government policy and practice.  Her work, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin focuses on the problems of forced collectivization in the countryside and does an amazing job of showing just how widespread and effective peasant rebellion could be under a brutal and often violent regime.  She painstakingly describes the varied means of rebellion employed by peasants that made up the majority of the USSR’s population and the real danger these rebellions posed to soviet authority.  From passive resistance to more direct and confrontational forms, Viola describes what life was like as collectivism was forced upon an unwilling majority and details the threat that it posed not only to peasant culture but its livelihood as well.[14]

Viola describes peasant resistance as a civil war, framing her work from the very beginning as a revolution within a revolution with a culture that found itself at odds with the authority of the state.[15]  The fight took many forms, from the female led revolts of the Bab’i bunty to letter writing and the protection of villagers in danger of being labeled kulaks.  Many of these peasants eagerly took matters into their own hands, imposing self-dekulakization to reframe their own social status, or razbazarivanie – destroying or selling off their property to remove the potential kulak label before it could be applied.[16]  Due to the insistence of the state to label peasant as dark, backwards, uncultured and uneducated individuals, many of these methods had surprisingly effective results.[17]  Women, who were usually immune from prosecution as they were denied agency and thereby incapable of political protest were often the first to protest church closings, and often acted to protect their village priests and the kulaks within their midst.[18]  Unable to assign responsibility to these female results, kulaks were often blamed for their actions.[19]

The majority of peasant resistance, however, was passive in nature, knowing full well that if violence began, retaliation by the state would be overpowering.[20]  Although letter-writing was common before collectivism was widespread, the main form of resistance after the spread of collectivization was simply tikhaia sapa – on the sly.[21]  The most common form of this was simply not showing up to work, known as a lack of labor discipline.[22]  Theft of food, supplies, and labor days were also common as peasants became desperate to feed themselves and their family among an unreasonable percentage of governmental grain requisitions pushed many towards starvation.[23]

Like Goldman, Viola takes a revisionist approach to soviet history.  Although the peasants were unable to fend off collectivization on massive scale, they were able to gain rights for themselves under the socialist system that could at least provide some measure of sustenance in the form of private plots.  These plots also produced surpluses which could be sold or traded for necessary items throughout the village.  The peasants under soviet collectivization were certainly victims of the system, but they did not take their impending victimization laying down – they fought back with every tool at their disposal, from letter writing, to female led rebellion, to refusing to work and focusing their attention instead away from the collective farms and towards their own private plots.  In these ways, these ‘simple-minded’ and backwards Russian people were able to affect real, lasting change.

While easy to demonize the soviet regime for all of its problems and violent reprisals, these works combined show the effectiveness of rebellion carried out by everyday people in the course of their daily lives.  In response, soviet party policy was faced with the choice of change or death – forced to evolve to the reality of their population or to lose power over the nation almost before their power had begun.  The state’s willingness to acquiesce to pressures asserted by both women and peasants illustrated by both Viola and Goldman shows a different perspective from the totalitarian school of historiographical thought, and creates an alternative narrative to the typical top-down approach often taken when studying the Soviet Union.











Goldman, Wendy Z.  Women, The State and Revolution.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.


Viola, Lynne.  Peasant Rebels Under Stalin.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.



[1] Wendy Z. Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 296.

[2] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 1.

[3] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 1.

[4] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 1.

[5] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 3.

[6] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 59.

[7] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 63.

[8] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 90.

[9] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 100.

[10] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 101.

[11] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 103.

[12] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 109.

[13] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 119.

[14] Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), vii.

[15] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 3.

[16] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 69.

[17] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 69.

[18] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 189.

[19] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 189.

[20] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 157.

[21] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 205.

[22] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 211.

[23] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 227.


Was Peasant Rebellion Irrational?

As the Soviet government pushed peasants towards collectivism throughout the countryside, resistance from the peasants was inevitable.  Collectivization forced peasants into socialized farms, threatening not only their culture and their way of life, but threatening their very survival as well.  Soviet authorities relied on the ability to classify peasant resistance as illogical and irrational thereby avoiding the reality of acknowledging that 80% of the population could be viewed in a state of official rebellion against the Soviet government.  Viola not only argues against the official party line of dismissing peasant rebellion, she provides numerous, important examples to illustrate the fact that peasant resistance was anything but irrational and illogical.  In chapter 3, she begins by describing peasant self-help initiatives aimed at self-defense of the peasant communal cohesion when initial dekulakization efforts began.  She states outright that “peasant self-help was neither irrational nor the emanation of backwards peasantry.  It was, rather, logical, political and humane.”[1]  The first example provided is razbazarivanie, the squandering of livestock and/or resources which allowed peasants who were fearful of the dreaded label kulak to transform their socio-economic status.

Perhaps the most impressive example of the logical and rational nature behind peasant resistance against the state was the prevalent practice of the babii bunt which the state officially deemed female hysteria, spontaneous and irrational.[2]  In reality, however, the babii bunt was anything but.  Led by women, these rebellious not only showed evidence of prior planning and inter-village cooperation, they also shielded the participants in many cases from the state’s brutal repression that was often brought to bear on male-led rebellion.  By officially denying women political agency, it was thereby impossible for the baba to stage a political protest, protecting her in most cases from the otherwise frequent repercussions often visited upon others.[3]  The fact that women were virtually ‘untouchable’ by state reprisals was not lost on the women or their male villagers which was often exploited to their advantage in preventing the closure of a church or kulak deportation.[4]  The very fact that the state’s resistance to prosecute the baba was used strategically by the village shows clear insight and planning that was often successfully employed in achieving village objectives.  This is the epitome of rational and determined actions against a repressive government.

[1] Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 68.

[2] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 237.

[3] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 237.

[4] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 237.

Harris and The Great Fear

In The Great Fear, James Harris tells a story that leads up to Stalin’s infamous Great Terror of 1937-38 – a purge responsible for the imprisonment and execution – not only of party leaders – but of thousands of ordinary soviet citizens as well.[1]  Harris painstakingly describes not only the key events leading up to the purge, but also the way these events were perceived by soviet leadership in contrast to how they are perceived by historiography today.

The central theme throughout Harris’ work is perspective versus reality, and he frames this debate in the context of a Russian history that greatly predates the Bolshevik revolution.  From the very early years of Muscovy rule, challenging those in power was punished by either death or exile.[2]  The struggles for power, the regular conspiracies to overthrow it and the nature of the relationship between the ruling elite and those who were owned by them resulted in a cycle of increasing political violence.[3]  A secret police force was established by the autocracy as early as 1682, and its lessons continued through the age of revolutions.[4]

The strong state/weak state paradox that Harris describes in his introduction describes the controversy between the totalitarian and revisionist schools of historiographical thought in the realm of soviet history.  A strong state as proposed by authors like Robert Conquest focused on the consolidated power of Stalin as a dictator who implemented the purges as an effort to further solidify and maintain his power.[5]  The revisionist school of thought of the 1970s and 1980s as described by authors like J. Arch Getty focused instead on the effect that the civil war, Bolshevik ideologies and Russian cultural history contributed to political violence in Stalin’s regime, creating a system in which enemies existed everywhere.[6]  Harris’ thesis throughout his work describes the disintegration between the regime’s reality and its perception by those in power.

The lingering fear of war led to the misperception that the regime – and indeed the revolutionary movement as a whole – was in eminent danger.[7]  This threat convinced soviet leadership that repression and violence was the only way to survive and remain in power.[8]  Continual accusations of wrecking and sabotage were not legitimate attempts to overthrow the government – they were a direct result of the unrealistic expectations that Stalin imposed on both agriculture and industry that were nearly impossible to meet.[9]  As leaders were denounced and their conspiracies to meet those expectations were exposed, it further convinced Stalin of the eminent danger the party faced from within and without.[10]  This vicious, self-reinforcing cycle led to the increase of violence, arrests and executions of ordinary citizens with little to no evidence of their actual guilt.[11]

From the introduction through the conclusion, Harris strategically builds his argument through the various phases of the revolutionary regime through Stalin’s.  Due to the nature of the NKVD’s hunt for conspirators and their use of both confessions under torture and denunciations, it was impossible to find an ‘end’ to conspiracy.[12]  Although Stalin and other party leadership eventually admitted that there were ‘excesses’ and that innocent people had suffered as a result, the culture of suspicion, fear and threat contributed to the scope and the violence of the purges.[13]  Ultimately, Harris places the blame not on Stalin (or at least not solely on Stalin), but on faulty methods of gathering intelligence and the continual misperceptions that intelligence generated and perpetuated throughout party leadership as a whole.[14]

[1] James Harris, The Great Fear, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016), 2.

[2] Harris, The Great Fear, 7.

[3] Harris, The Great Fear, 7.

[4] Harris, The Great Fear, 9.

[5] Harris, The Great Fear, 3.

[6] Harris, The Great Fear, 3.

[7] Harris, The Great Fear, 142.

[8] Harris, The Great Fear, 142.

[9] Harris, The Great Fear, 167.

[10] Harris, The Great Fear, 167.

[11] Harris, The Great Fear, 168.

[12] Harris, The Great Fear, 182.

[13] Harris, The Great Fear, 183.

[14] Harris, The Great Fear, 186.

Agricultural Collectivism and Protest: The Babii Bunt

Out of all the examples Viola provided in her incredibly interesting account of peasant protest, the one that surprised me the most and that I found the most interesting was the babii bunt.  Chapter six is almost entirely devoted to the practice of babii bunt in which the women of the villages took control and took rebellion into their own hands.  Translated literally as a woman’s riot, which were officially dismissed by the state as ignorant and hysterical.[1]  Although a bunt is defined traditionally as irrational, unorganized and spontaneous, the reality of the babii bunt in peasant rebellions was far from that definition.[2]  The state’s official position of dismissal of the babii bunts worked to the peasant’s advantage, as they were tolerated far more than male-led resistance.[3]  In fact, Viola points out that in some instances, not only was the state’s perception of the baba and babii bunts used advantageously, they were also exploited, allowing the baba to manipulate the system in order to achieve their objectives.[4]  Viola points out that “bab’i bunty belied the official depiction of peasant women’s protest and were not as irrational as they appeared to outside observers.”[5]  For the soviet government, all peasants were backwards and uncultured, and this was even more true in reference to peasant women.[6]  This allowed the baba to act in ways that their male counterparts could not, bringing protest to the state in ways that were not only organized and rational, but in some cases effective as well.

The party went even further in its dismissal of peasant women which allowed these women to act in ways that could not even be fathomable by male rebellion.  Not only uncultured, dark, and irrational, peasant women were denied political agency at all, meaning that they lacked any semblance of political consciousness.[7]  The women were therefore excused for their behavior in most cases and could not be held responsible for rebellion and the blame was transferred to kulaks who took advantage of these ‘highly susceptible’ simple women.[8]

Many babii bunts focused on opposition to the closing of village churches.  Women in traditional village life were the keepers of village religious life and fulfilled important roles within the church structure.[9]  In defending the church, these women were not only defending their religion, but their community as a whole since the church often represented village cohesion.[10]  Contrary to the official position of the babii bunt, many instances showed not only initiative and organization and political awareness that the state steadfastly insisted on denying.[11]

[1] Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 181.

[2] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 182.

[3] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 182.

[4] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 182.

[5] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 183.

[6] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 183.

[7] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 184.

[8] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 184.

[9] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 188.

[10] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 188.

[11] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 194.

Wendy Goldman and the Grotesque Hybrid

In the conclusion of her compelling and intricate work on women’s issues throughout the early years of the Soviet system, Goldberg describes the family policy as a ‘grotesque hybrid” – a system that originated in an idealized socialist system that crashed headlong into poverty and the economic and social realities that women faced throughout the Soviet Union.[1]  She expands on this assertion by pointing out the emphasis towards women joining the workforce and leaving behind their traditional roles in the household.  Yet despite this seemingly progressive ideal, the soviet system in the 1920s and 1930s was unprepared – or possibly unaware – of the ramifications this push would have on society and their overextended resources.

By pushing women into the workforce, they forced the majority of women into underpaid, low positions and there was little hope for advancement, especially in competition with male rivals.[2]  Women faced discrimination, harassment and inequality in the labor force when they were able to get a job.[3]  Unemployment was a massive problem for women who were willing to work, and many turned to prostitution as a last resort before succumbing to starvation.[4]  By pushing an ideology and equality while failing to see the inherent problems in the economic and social spheres, soviet idealism smashed into reality with no viable resolution which resulted ultimately in a hybrid of socialist ideology and hard reality with little recourse available.  As the state began to reverse its earlier positions on the ‘withering away’ of the family and an increasing reliance upon the state, it simultaneously turned to repression and persecution in order to enforce its mandates upon a stricken and nearly-helpless majority.[5]  Although the Party’s official position in essence reversed itself between the 1920s and the 1940s in regards to the family, it clung to the claim of continuity, all while espousing the notion of female liberation from dependence upon men.[6]

Despite these obstacles and the reality on the ground, the Party continued to insist that its original socialist vision for its population was intact.[7]  What Goldman finds even more upsetting, however is that women – removed from the revolutionary ideology and social debates that framed the revolution itself began to see the implemented system as liberation and socialism despite its flaws, imperfections and economic disadvantage.[8]

In some regards, the socialist vision of gender equality and a social order is incredibly progressive, especially when compared to many of the ideas put forward by both religious and social conservatism both in Western Europe and the United States.  The idea of free unions, simplified divorce and the removal of the bonds of marriage seem to strive for equality in a way that, in theory, seems ideal.  In practice, however, it is clear throughout Goldman’s book that the State was completely unprepared for the reality of this liberation.  They did not have social institutions in place that would provide childcare for the thousands of women entering the workforce.  They did not have adequate support in place for women who found themselves suddenly divorced and unemployed with no legal protections or recourse.  They did not have provisions in place for the hundreds of thousands of orphaned and abandoned children who roamed the streets.  They did not have the resources necessary to implement the sweeping social programs that would have been necessary to make their vision a success.  Given the failings in these areas, Goldman’s assessment of this ‘grotesque hybrid’ seems accurate and fitting.  Had the infrastructure, resources and institutions been put in place prior to the implementation of the new family code, the situation may have been far different than reality showed.  Given the overwhelming majority peasant population, however, and the reliance on family agricultural units throughout the majority of the countryside, implementing these ideas would have taken a great deal of time and effort – neither of which the state or the party seemed inclined to spend, given the push for social revolution and the implementation of the socialist ideal.  The bottom line for Goldman seems to be that what ended up happening throughout the Soviet Union between 1920 and 1940 was anything but socialism and freedom.  Rather than gaining economic and social independence, women found themselves forced into prostitution in order to provide for themselves and their children, or to accept jobs that paid the lowest wages because nothing else was available.  Unable to make a living wage and unable to make ends meet, women became even more economically dependent both on men and on the state, and both women and children suffered under this ideology while still calling it liberation because they were cut off from any other definition of the word or the knowledge of what true liberation could be.

[1]Wendy Z. Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 342.

[2] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 116.

[3] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 116.

[4] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 119.

[5] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 342.

[6] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 342.

[7] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 343.

[8] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 343.

Soviet Family Code of 1918 – Divorce

When the Central Executive Committee ratified the code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship in October of 1918, it was under the banner of liberation, women’s equality and the inevitable belief that the family unit would ultimately wither away as a socialist society became firmly planted and took root.[1]  Under Soviet idealism, the family unit as well as the law itself would find itself no longer necessary as socialism grew, and the family code reflected those ideals that looked towards the future.  Socialism would make the confines of marriage obsolete by transferring household chores that normally tied women to the home to the public sphere, freeing women to enter public life fully and with equality to their male counterparts.[2]  Instead of formal, church-sanctioned marriage, free love would replace it, allowing men and women both to choose their partners on a healthier basis of respect and love, and were free to leave these unions should they become unfulfilling.[3]  While these ideologies seemed incredibly liberal and progressive when compared to the moral underpinnings of most of the rest of Europe, in practice they proved disastrous for society, and for women in particular.

For the Bolsheviks, one of the ultimate indicators of individual freedom was the freedom to divorce should a union find that it is no longer based upon love and the partners do not share a mutual respect.[4]  They viewed the right to divorce as liberating for women, who would no longer find themselves confined to the bonds of marriage to the detriment of their own feelings and development.[5]  Unfortunately for women and ultimately for the state itself, this practice put women in a precarious and dangerous position rather than liberating them.  While to socialists advocated a free society, the economic reality of every day life under the NEP forced women into greater dependence on the family due to wage inequality, lack of available child care and increasing female unemployment.[6]  As divorce rates began to skyrocket throughout the USSR, the position of female economic dependence upon men and the family system became clearer.[7]  Despite the attempts by the Party to legislate an end to gender discrimination, employers failed to comply, leaving thousands of women unemployed and able to support themselves and their children independently.[8]  With few other viable alternatives, many women found themselves turning to prostitution in order to feed and house themselves and their families, demonstrating the opposite of the liberation that the family code sought to implement.[9]  Desperation led many women to turn to the courts for relief, but while the family code of 1918 allowed for liberal child support regardless of legitimacy, alimony was only granted to those who were disabled for a period of six months.[10]  Able-bodied women, even if they could not find work, were not entitled to alimony benefits from their ex-husbands.[11]

When the family code was revised in both 1925 and 1926, women did not find much improvement in their desperate economic dependency.  Female voices in the many meetings on the proposed drafts opposed easy divorce on the basis of their woeful economic condition.[12]  These continuing factors contributed to sexual conservatism on the part of women, who demanded more responsibility from men in regards to both sexuality and child-rearing.[13]  Ultimately, however, although joint property was recognized as well as de-facto marriage, simplified divorce was also included in the ratified draft of the code of 1927.[14]  Ironically, the fight against the restrictions of bourgeois marriage led to further difficulty for women under the code, leaving them more vulnerable economically to their male counterparts.[15]  As the state reversed its position in 1936, focusing on the strengthening rather than the withering away of the family, women and peasants alike realized that, until the state was in a position to accept greater responsibility for social well-being, the consequences economically for greater social freedom was too much to bear.[16]

[1] Wendy Z Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 1.

[2] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 3.

[3] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 3.

[4] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 101.

[5] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 101.

[6] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 103.

[7] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 109.

[8] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 117.

[9] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 118.

[10] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 133.

[11] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 133.

[12][12] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 244.

[13] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 133.

[14] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 248.

[15] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 250.

[16] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 252.

Review – Stalin: Profiles in Power; Kuromiya

Kuromiya, Hiroaki.  Stalin: Profiles in Power.  Harlow, England: Pearson, 2005.  Xviii + 227 pp.  $42.91.  ISBN 0-582-78479-4.


Hiroaki Kuromiya’s Stalin: Profiles in Power is a definitive yet concise profile of a controversial yet critically important Soviet leader.  It is small enough to make it accessible to lay-readers, yet comes from a historian with over 30 years of experience in the field, making the information contained in it dense and informative.  Kuromiya’s approach to Stalin is unique to profiles of the former leader in that he paints Stalin not solely as a totalitarian dictator, nor as a multi-faceted human being.  For Kuromiya, Stalin is politics – it was his life’s blood, and everything else was secondary.  Stalin ‘lived by politics alone’ and was not constrained by sentimentality in the way most other politicians are.[1]  At the crux of Kuromiya’s argument, Stalin’s politics, his view of himself as the voice of the party and his inability to separate himself from it throughout his political career take center stage in the overall structure and context of the work.  This contextual framework is painted throughout the various stages of Stalin’s life and career, and by framing Stalin’s legacy this way Kuromiya creates for the reader a portrait of Stalin that is unique as a biographical work.  Overall, Kuromiya achieves his objective naturally, and he makes it simple for both the casual reader and the student of history to fit the pieces together both in his central theme and in his subject overall.

Kuromiya’s work separates Stalin’s life into seven chronological sections which begin at Stalin’s birth and end shortly after his death.  These sections represent key phases in Stalin’s life and career ranging from his upbringing, education and entry into political life through the post-World War II Soviet empire.  Between these two sections are chapters that discuss the revolution, the struggle for power within the party after Lenin’s death, the agricultural collectivization enterprise, famine and the purges and WWII.  Each chapter is an overview of the material contained within it, and careful attention is paid to Stalin’s role, tying everything back to Kuromiya’s thesis, thereby viewing everything through a political lens.  While sub-arguments are introduced in the introduction to each chapter, they all tie back to the central theme by framing the context through the political sphere to the necessary exclusion of other factors and interpretations.

From the opening salvo of this work through to its conclusion, Kuromiya tackles the controversial figure of Stalin with the knowledge and curiosity of a practiced historian.  He goes out of his way to avoid fitting neatly into either the totalitarian or revisional school of historiographical thought, nor does he embrace post-revisionism.  Instead, he focuses on aspects of all three.  He is not afraid of the controversy or of presenting evidence from each school of thought, balancing all with both primary and secondary sources.  He frames his own conclusions but allows the reader to do so as well.  He has no problem placing blame with Stalin for many of his brutal practices as a totalitarian would, yet he refuses to make moral pronouncements either on the man himself or the overall regime and chooses to focus on the facts and evidence available instead.  Like revisionists, he highlights the participation of the everyday people and average party members in addition to party elite and points towards their support of the regime, yet also ensures that party leadership takes its share of the responsibility for some of its most horrific actions.   Yet Kuromiya takes a step back from prior historiography to approach the subject of Stalin from a different perspective, attempting to neither humanize him or to place him as a power-hungry despot desperate to cling to power regardless of the cost.

From the preface onward, Kuromiya critiques the bias of many former biographers as being unduly harsh to Stalin due to their personal and cultural dislike, rather than taking a more objective approach.  Kuromiya’s bias, on the other hand, swings a bit in the opposite direction.  It seems as though on some level, Kuromiya admires Stalin – not for his brutality but more for his ability to single-mindedly focus all of his energy into the political sphere.  Stalin does this to the extent that the will of the party became indistinguishable from his own.[2]  For Kuromiya, Stalin rose to power not by accident but by careful preparation and organization, sparked at just the right moments by a dose of Lenin’s sponsorship.  Kuromiya admires both Stalin’s political acumen as well as his administrative organization, repeating several times that Stalin’s rivals grossly underestimated both is ability and his political intellect which led ultimately to their downfall.[3]

Kuromiya’s approach to the Great Terror specifically, as one of the most controversial topics of Stalin’s reign is particularly interesting.  Given the rise of Hitler in Europe and the increasing probability of being drawn into a war, Kuromiya frames the terror as a form of war preparation and an attempt to root out potential spies, saboteurs and party enemies.[4]  Kuromiya acknowledges Stalin’s role in the introduction as a desire to maintain power by eliminating his rivals.[5]  By combining the chapter on terror with the section on the famine that preceded it, Kuromiya can place a broader context for the upheaval and repression by intoning a fear of possible rebellion.[6]  This chapter also covers the suicide of Stalin’s second wife and Stalin’s reactions to it.[7]  The combined loss of Kirov and Nadezhda, Kuromiya posits, removed any lingering faith in people Stalin may have possessed.  This assertion is confirmed by evidence from Stalin’s daughter Svetlana.[8]

The subject of Stalin’s leadership of the Soviet Union is vast and contentious.  Given the enormity of the topic as well as the evidence supporting it, it is understandable that Kuromiya’s attempt could not even begin to scratch the surface of its complexity.  By focusing on Stalin as a man who ‘lived by politics alone’ as argued in the thesis, Kuromiya is able to focus on critical pieces of support while still providing a broad and comprehensive summary of Stalin’s life.[9]  Readers without introductory knowledge on the Bolshevik revolution and Stalin’s regime may find the mass amount of names, abbreviations and locations confusing, but Kuromiya does a good job of hitting key points, expanding upon explanations when necessary while still keeping the chronological narrative moving forward at a quick yet manageable tempo.  His unique thesis proves sound, and Kuromiya does an excellent job of breaking with the norm to explore Stalin the politician in a new and interesting light.  It is accessible to historians and lay-readers alike and provides a good summary of the life and ideologies of one of history’s most controversial leaders.

[1] Hiroaki Kuromiya, Stalin: Profiles in Power, Harlow: Pearson, 2005, ix.

[2] Kuromiya, Stalin, 67.

[3] Kuromiya, Stalin, 68.

[4] Kuromiya, Stalin, 126.

[5] Kuromiya, Stalin, 106.

[6] Kuromiya, Stalin, 100.

[7] Kuromiya, Stalin, 109.

[8] Kuromiya, Stalin, 107.

[9] Kuromiya, Stalin, ix.