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.

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