After WWII ended and the Soviet regime was victorious, they quickly realized that they had a problem.  Multitudes of former soldiers, refugees and citizens were no longer isolated from Western ideals or standards of living.  For Stalin and Andrei Zhdanov, this was a problem that needed to be immediately addressed and corrected before Western influence gained further ground and potentially undermined the regime.[1]  Numerous writers and publishers were criticized for falling under the influence of the Western bourgeois.[2]  Zhdanov published a report demanding that Russian writers be guided by politics and the party in order to maintain and preserve the country’s revolutionary spirit.[3]  Contrary to the spirit of many Western writers, Zhdanov demanded that art could not be ‘art for art’s sake.’[4]  Instead, writing was to play a pivotal role in the social life and development of the Russian people, and therefore had to be aligned with party ideologies, policies and politics.[5]  The fact that Stalin announced that writers were ‘engineers of human souls’ meant that Russian writers and publishers had a responsibility not only to the party, but to the Russian people as well.[6]  Mistakes and ideological blunders had to be corrected immediately, and no perceived weakness would be tolerated.[7]

For Stalin and Zhdanov alike, the victory in war had strengthened the position of socialism on the world stage, and that strength needed to be preserved and enhanced internationally as Russia rebuilt.[8]  Soviet literature, therefore, not only had to refute the false accusations made against socialism on an international stage, it had to attach the western bourgeois culture that stood against it as well to demonstrate socialism’ superiority.[9]  The purpose of literature, therefore, under the policy of Zhdanov was to educate people – nationally and internationally – on the ideologies inherent in socialism by utilizing socialist realism, which would allow no weakness in socialism to be expressed.[10]  The impact it would have on writers would be tremendous.  It not only told them what to write, but how to write it, and failure to do so could result in censorship or worse.  They had to strictly adhere to the party line, which was not fixed but changeable depending on circumstances.  They had to be continually up to date or risk publishing something that was already outdated by the time it reached the press.

[1] Robert V. Daniels (editor), A Documentary History of Communism in Russia, (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1993), 235.

[2] Daniels, A Documentary History, 235.

[3] Daniels, A Documentary History, 236.

[4] Daniels, A Documentary History, 236.

[5] Daniels, A Documentary History, 236.

[6] Daniels, A Documentary History, 236.

[7] Daniels, A Documentary History, 236.

[8] Daniels, A Documentary History, 236.

[9] Daniels, A Documentary History, 236.

[10] Daniels, A Documentary History, 237.


Bodies and Souls

There is no comparable word for the middle class in the Russian language.[1]  The closest word that can come close to describing a middle class in post-World War II Russia is the term “meshchanstsvo.”[2]  Even in broad terms, this term does not equitably describe the soviet middle class, but it does describe many of their characteristics, mannerisms and values – and also their opponents.  The mentality of the meshchanstvo is prejudicial, vulgar and greedy, aspiring to careerism and personal, material possessions.[3] The unity between the party and the meshchanstvo created a new social order, allowed for social mobility and ultimately served to unite a country that had been broken and splintered after many years of total war.[4]

Opposed to the meshchanstvo were the intelligentsia, which remembered the past, remembering and worrying over social wrongs and lives in a cycle of continual dissatisfaction, relishing the ideals of self-sacrifice for social good.[5]  Where the intelligentsia saw social wrongs, inequality and the overwhelming balance of history, the meshchanstvo were happy to remain ignorant, focusing instead on their upward mobility and material gains.[6]

Similarly, Dunham describes briefly the difference between kultura and kulturnost.    Kultura, embraced by the intelligentsia, embraced a high-brow culture, fusing together knowledge, history and ideologies that sought to place the bar of culture in Russia higher.[7]  Kulternost, on the other hand, it simply described the way that people were expected to behave in the public sphere.[8]  It embraced conservatism and sought to present the Soviet culture and its people as self-righteous and dignified both internally and abroad.[9]

Given these two opposing positions, when Dunham mentions that Stalin as the country’s ultimate, nearly omnipotent ruler, desired for his citizen’s bodies, not their souls, it brings to mind an ideology that focused more on right-actions, exemplifying kulternost, rather than right-thoughts or beliefs.  Meshchanstvo were not ideologs, they were careerists who sought to improve their social stations and increase their material possessions.  They were therefore not interested in examining Soviet history, poking into issues of social justice and equality or bringing up the legacy of pain and want that had plagued Russia since the Revolution with few peaceful interludes.  While her conclusion is compelling in some ways, it falls short in others.  Stalin was most definitely interested in what his subjects were thinking – he demanded absolute loyalty, and that would be defined not only how people behaved, but what they said and did both in private and public spheres.  Even thinking or questioning the party’s policies or their implementations was tantamount to treason in Stalin’s Russia, and while the bodies were important to do the necessary work of rebuilding the country, loyalty in action, in word and in thought was required of all faithful citizens as well.

[1] Verna S. Dunham, In Stalin’s Time, (Durham, Duke University Press, 1990), 19.

[2] Dunham, In Stalin’s Time, 19.

[3] Dunham, In Stalin’s Time, 19.

[4] Dunham, In Stalin’s Time, 162.

[5] Dunham, In Stalin’s Time, 21.

[6] Dunham, In Stalin’s Time, 21.

[7] Dunham, In Stalin’s Time, 22.

[8] Dunham, In Stalin’s Time, 22.

[9] Dunham, In Stalin’s Time, 22.

Stalin’s Big Deal

In her pivotal work, historian Vera Dunham points out that after the war, Stalin and the party were faced with a decision – they could choose to honor the promises and concessions that they had granted to their people during the war in order to garner their support or to abandon it completely.  Instead of choosing either side, the party chose a middle ground – making an effective treaty with some of these people.[1]  This treaty was between the party and the middle class, which Dunam terms “the big deal.”  The Communist party needed a way to rebuild the country from the destruction faced by war, and the middle class was its best option.[2]  The regime needed a dependable and dedicated force of workers, and to gain the support of the middle class, the party was willing to accommodate pre-eminent middle-class values in order to keep the status quo in balance.[3]

This treaty was mutually beneficial to both parties.  The regime received loyalty, hard work, commitment, professional dedication and nationalism.[4]  The middle class did not leave this arrangement empty handed.  They wanted incentives which would include luxuries, time off and better housing – material possessions that would foster a sense of security, beauty and normalcy.[5]  Ultimately this arrangement worked for the simple reason that both sides desperately needed it to.[6]  Although the Big Deal fundamentally opposed some of the ideologies and tenants espoused by Marxism, neither the party or the middle class was particularly interested in ideology during this period.[7]  They were able to work together in order to stabilize a country that had been devastated by war and desperately needed stability in order to rebuild, grow and become one of the world’s superpowers in the wake of one of the most brutal and bloody wars in history.

[1] Vera S Dunham, In Stalin’s Time, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), 13.

[2] Dunham, In Stalin’s Time, 13.

[3] Dunham, In Stalin’s Time, 14.

[4] Dunham, In Stalin’s Time, 17.

[5] Dunham, In Stalin’s Time, 17.

[6] Dunham, In Stalin’s Time, 187.

[7] Dunham, In Stalin’s Time, 17.

World War II and the Soviet Hero Myth

The hero myth surrounding the soviet veterans of WWII was created by a well-oiled machine of propaganda, the Sovinformburo and the memories of soldiers and civilians alike in the decades following the end of a war that claimed 27 million soviet lives.[1]  The myth of these heroes sought to describe soldiers of the Red Army as every-day citizens, loyal to their motherland, brave and happy to do their duty.[2]  These soldiers were not afraid of dying for their homeland and they fought selflessly for the good of the people they left behind.[3]  They never demeaned their place by failing in their task, panicking while facing a formidable enemy or experiencing doubt about their honorable and righteous cause.[4]  According to Merridale, it is only with great irony that “their state should have instilled in them a sense of pride so powerful that few could see how thoroughly it disinherited them.”[5]  Though this myth was fully developed and exploited during WWII and the decades that followed, it existed in some form before the first shots were ever fired in poetry and even masterpieces like Tolstoy’s War and Peace.[6]  The scope of the myth was further enhanced by the Sovinformburo and its censorship of news that would have caused soldiers and civilians alike to lose hope.[7]  Censorship minimized losses on the battlefield, focusing instead solely on pieces of progress that had been made against the fascist army – even if that meant only delaying an inevitable attack.[8]  Nothing was allowed in the press that even suggested the presence of fear, rewriting the official narrative of the war’s first year as a steady stream of heroism in the face of a great and terrible adversary.[9]

The myth held, in part, because no one particularly wanted to relive the pain and loss they endured throughout the war years.[10]  Survivors had much to gain by allowing the official, mythic narrative to stand, and much to lose by contradicting it.[11]  Even decades after the war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Merridale found that the overwhelming majority of veterans still felt obligated to keep their real experiences private.[12]  This silence was, in fact, their official duty to the state and demobilized soldiers were required to sign documents to that effect before they would be allowed to return home.[13]  This propaganda and censorship campaign allowed returning veterans to maintain a sense of pride and it served as the face they would continue to present to the public, regardless of the trauma they had either experienced – or in many cases – inflicted upon others.[14]  After the war was over, in fact, challenging the official narrative of the war could turn a veteran from a hero into an enemy of the state.[15]  In addition, loyal veterans were given pensions.  For many, to speak against the motherland seemed, at least symbolically, a dishonor to the millions who had given their lives for it.[16]

[1] Catherine Merridale, Ivan’s War, (New York: Picador, 2006), 4.

[2] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 6.

[3] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 6.

[4] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 7.

[5] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 8.

[6] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 51.

[7] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 189.

[8] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 189.

[9] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 189.

[10] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 189.

[11] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 281.

[12] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 207.

[13] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 356.

[14] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 375.

[15] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 375.

[16] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 375.

Holocaust By Bullets

Although I had a prior understanding of the nature of the Holocaust on the Eastern front and how much it differed from what thoughts of the death camp typically entail, I have to admit that I found Desbois’ book chilling and haunting on every level, and I was not prepared for the scale and the sadism of the Eastern Holocaust.  What was most troubling to me was how very personal the killing seemed and how close it occurred to ‘normal’ everyday life.  The book tells only a fraction of the stories of the 1.5 million Jews who were murdered just outside their former home villages, many who were forced to dig their own graves before being shot at extremely close range.[1]  Rather than the more impersonal gas chamber which is practically synonymous with holocaust imagery, these men, women and children faced their executioners and the executioners similarly faced their victims as they shot them.[2]  Meanwhile, former neighbors and friends were often close enough to witness the massacre first-hand – if not, they could almost certainly hear the shots.[3]  Holocaust studies has largely focused on the more massive extermination efforts at the infamous concentration camps – so much so that these initial mass-victims have almost dropped out of the pages of history.[4]  In a chilling sense of irony, this lack of remembrance is what the Nazi’s sought – to make these Eastern Jews disappear – almost as though they were never there at all.[5]  Although Soviet leadership was eager to chronicle the atrocities in their fight against Germany’s fascism, the records were largely sealed until the fall of the Soviet Union and Perestroika.[6]  Given the scope and horror of these atrocities, many scholars believed the records to be exaggerated until they began studying them in earnest and seeing first-hand what remained of Russia’s Jewish population after the devastation of WWII.[7]  In this grisly yet important work, Father Desbois seeks to – at least in some small part – return the humanity to these nameless, faceless victims of a vicious policy of a racist regime.

The stories that witnesses to these atrocities relay to Desbois and his team are horrific, and while decades often make memory more subjective and muddled, I find it hard to think that these events could ever be stricken from the minds of those who witnessed them or who were forced to participate.  In some areas, the killings lasted not for days or weeks, but for months on end.[8]  In one extermination site of the Ukraine, over 90,000 people were exterminated.[9]  I cannot even imagine what living so close to killings on that scale would do to those left behind with the remains and the memories.

There were undeniable heroes in the East who, despite the danger to themselves, attempted to shelter and protect the Jews in their communities – much like what was happening throughout Western Europe.[10]  Many of them suffered and died along with their Jewish neighbors as a result.[11]  There were also those who betrayed their Jewish neighbors and/or those who sheltered them to the Germans, resulting in a death sentence for Jews and their protectors alike.[12]

One of the things that struck me the most, however, was the story of the village of Sataniv.  The Jews in this village made up almost half of its population.[13]  The Germans rounded them up and walled them, alive, into the cellar of the marketplace.[14]  Witnesses recall the ground moving with those buried alive for five days after they were walled in before it was finally silent.[15]  Yet no one remaining in the village thought to open the cellar door for another 12 years, leaving their Jewish neighbors at the site of their execution and simultaneous burial for over a decade after the war was over.[16]

While it was certainly a difficult book to stomach, it gave life to the millions of Jews, almost forgotten, on the Eastern front of WWII.  Their stories most definitely deserve to be remembered, along with the millions more from the camps, and the relevance of this work bears repeating, especially given the fact that many of the survivors and remaining witnesses will soon reach the end of their lives, leaving no eyewitnesses to these historical horrors, leaving a vacuum of memory for future generations.

[1] Father Patrick Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), vii.

[2] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, vii.

[3] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, viii.

[4] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, viii.

[5] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, ix.

[6] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, ix.

[7] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, x.

[8] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 113.

[9] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 116.

[10] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 193.

[11] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 193.

[12] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 196.

[13] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 204.

[14] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 205.

[15] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 205.

[16] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 205.

Perpetrators and Victims

The demarcation between perpetrators and victims under the soviet system is not nearly as cut and dry as it is when examining the perpetrators and victims of Nazi Germany.  Lynne Viola makes a point to criticize the comparison between the two systems, stating that it is not a representative comparison.[1]  In Nazi Germany, a Jew was a Jew regardless of their economic or social status, and were the outsider to the German system and were thereby targeted.[2]  Under the Soviet system, by contrast, the enemy was not an outsider – it was internal, and virtually anyone could be targeted by the system as an enemy of the people.[3]

In Goldman’s book describing her arrest, interrogation, imprisonment and life within the gulag, she brought this home for me personally in her description of one of her fellow prisoners, Valya Streltsova.[4]  Remaining silent for the majority of her imprisonment, Valya supposedly confided to a friend as she was dying that her denunciations of others had resulted in several dozen death sentences.[5]  In this regard, Valya was a perpetrator of pain upon others by denouncing them which ultimately resulted in their deaths.[6]  In the same way, however, she was simultaneously a victim of the system – sentenced to solitary, hard labor and imprisonment as a political prisoner acting against the soviet government.  The same concept arose in the early chapters of Goldman’s book as she was pressured to denounce others repeatedly throughout the course of her interrogation.

Similarly, Viola describes the “grey zone” in the perpetrator/victim relationship in which the binary between the two position disappears and former perpetrators often become victims themselves.[7]  By the end of the Great Terror, a great number of elites within the soviet system became victims, including members of the secret police whose activities had terrorized so many.[8]

Like Viola, Goldman’s article points to a wide-based pyramid of perpetrators that often became victims themselves.  For example, after former oppositionists were largely eliminated from the country, the party turned upon itself and many who had denounced numerous others became victims themselves.[9]  She goes further, stating that “the process of ‘unmasking’ involved the mass participation of coworkers, relatives, friends and colleagues who turned against each other, poisoning the atmosphere with terror and fear.”[10]  This culture of suspicion and paranoia created a system by which neighbors turned against each other, often resulting in mutual arrests or at least suspicion by the state.

[1] Lynne Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator in Soviet History,” Slavic Review 72, no. 1 (Spring 2013) 10, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5612/slavicreview.72.1.0001.

[2] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 10.

[3] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 10.

[4] Wendy Z Goldman, Into the Whirlwind, (San Diego, Harcourt, Inc, 1995), 308.

[5] Goldman, Into the Whirlwind, 308.

[6] Goldman, Into the Whirlwind, 308.

[7] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 10.

[8] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 14.

[9] Wendy Z Goldman, “Twin Pyramids – Perpetrators and Victims,” Slavic Review 72, no. 1 (Spring 2013) 25, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5612/slavicreview.72.1.0024.

[10] Goldman, “Twin Pyramids,” 25.

Lynn Viola and the Ecosystem of Violence

In describing the ideologies, historiographical schools of thought and the arbitrary cycle of both victims and perpetrators in Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937-1938, Viola describes an ecosystem of violence – one that came from many directions and grew almost of its own volition across the Soviet State as a whole.[1]  Viola carefully describes the subjective and often malleable nature between both victims and perpetrators in the Soviet system, which differentiate drastically from that of Nazi Germany, to which Soviet Stalinism is often compared.[2]  The soviet system created a pyramid of perpetrators, and those who once denounced their neighbors and were thereby perpetrators to their own destruction often later became victims themselves.[3]  This ecosystem of continual violence was two pronged, the first being specifically Russian environmental factors and a second, modernizing feature.[4]  Bolshevik thought, from the very beginning of the revolution, believed that the ends justified the means, making violence an often unavoidable tool in the creation of socialism throughout the Soviet Union.[5]  The rapid pace of modernization combined with the language of war, making anyone who refused to comply a “wrecker” or “saboteur” – enemies of the state who needed to be removed from the party and the population at large for the good of the growing socialist society.[6]

Viola also describes multiple motives for those who became perpetrators under the soviet system.  While alcohol often accompanied violence under soviet Stalinism, as it was in the case of Nazi soldiers, Viola remarks that it was more likely a lubricator for the violence, enabling it and allowing it to continue rather than a root cause behind the violence itself.[7]

Opportunism and Careerism surely played a role in the perpetrator pyramid, although it was also undeniably a dangerous road to travel.  Many of those who sought to align themselves with the party in its beginning stages in order to achieve social mobility often found themselves caught within the confines of the party and subject to suspicion, caught up in the trap of repression that their own system had created.[8]

Ambition, like opportunism also played its own role.  After collectivism had taken hold and the first five-year plan was put into place ambition played a large role in the fulfilling of quotas, creating a competition for arrests which caught up many more people in the ever-increasing nets of the police.[9]  Along with ambition, economic advancement played a role in the repression, as the belongings of those arrested often became the property of those that arrested them rather than property of the state.[10]

It also seems obvious in hindsight to historians like Viola that fear played a role in the scope of the repressions and cycles of denunciations that accompanied them.[11]  Cadres sent out to enforce collectivization, for example, feared being labeled as “rightists” should their quotas go unmet.[12]  In addition, the system that the soviet government created was one that required reports of suspicious activity or even potentially suspicious activity – a failure to report something could (and often did) result in suspicion being placed on those who failed to report anti-Soviet sentiment in the first place.[13]

Lastly, Viola expands on the ideologies underneath soviet policies which played a role in the scope of the purges that swept the country.  There were large numbers of loyal party members who were fully devoted to Bolshevik ideologies in practice and in thought, which in turn created a system by which victims often became their own accusers due to their linguistic parity.[14]  Viola also argues that “ideology in one form or another permeated all dimensions of Soviet life and consequently shaped official behavior at all levels.”[15]

[1]Lynne Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator in Soviet History,” Slavic Review 72, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 10 http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5612/slavicreview.72.1.0001.

[2] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 10.

[3] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 10.

[4][4] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 14.

[5][5] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 14.

[6] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator, “ 15.

[7] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 12.

[8] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 12.

[9] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 12.

[10] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 12.

[11] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 13.

[12] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 13.

[13] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 13.

[14] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 13.

[15] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 13.