Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Review of "Rulers and Victims", Part 1

Geoffrey Hosking's Rulers and Victims: the Russians in the Soviet Union is the chronological continuation of the historian's earlier exploration of the relationship between Russian national identity and the Russian Empire in Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917. And though this book eventually arrives at a conclusion similar to the first volume's (that the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation, like the Russian Empire before them, are not nation states advancing any coherent Russian national identity), I found the history to be interesting for its portrait of the Soviet Union as a constantly changing construction that meant different things to succeeding generations of intellectual and political factions.

Hosking's explanation of the Bolsheviks' success during the Russian Revolution is fresh to me. The Reds won out not because the Russian population (and the rural, peasant population in particular) was particularly susceptible to Marxist ideas imported from Western Europe, but because the Bolsheviks were better organized than the Whites and the "Greens" (those "independent" Russians who fought against both of the major sides during the civil war). Unlike the two former groups, the Reds also presented a unified, consistent message and made popular concessions. Indeed, one of the key factors that helped generate widespread support for the October Revolution was Vladimir Lenin's Decree on Land, which authorized members of the rural population to seize land and make it their own private property (at least initially). Leaders in the White Army, by contrast, differed on whether to reconstitute the fallen Provisional Government and the Russian Empire, and "[t]he only formula on which they could all agree was 'Russia, one and indivisible'" (34). The Whites were advancing an extremely vague notion of Russia, and most often they were characterized negatively by what they were against (and not what they were for) by the population at large: "Most peasants, workers, and soldiers feared that the Whites would deprive the peasants of their recently won land and self-government [in the form of the workers' soviets], bring back capitalism, and let foreigners rule Russia" (34-35).

I was struck from the author's description of the civil war by how the whole conflict represented a huge step backward in the country's material living conditions. Hosking reminds us that given the sustained wartime conditions that public sanitation and even indoor plumbing ceased to function in urban areas. (I wonder if the situation was not also negatively influenced by the general exodus of the professional middle classes after the Revolution, including those responsible for maintaining public infrastructure). Disease and famine spread widely and quickly. Hosking quotes Emma Goldman, who, upon returning to Petrograd in 1921, noted that the city

was almost in ruins, as if a hurricane had swept over it. The houses looked like broken old tombs upon neglected and forgotten cemeteries. The streets were dirty and deserted; all life had gone from them. . . . The people walked about like living corpses. . . . Emaciated, frost-bitten men, women and children were being whipped by the common lash, the search for a piece of bread or a stick of wood (41).

I have read other secondary and even primary sources about the first years of Soviet rule and the civil war (for The Russia Reader I even translated an account (A. Okninsky's "Two Years among the Peasants in Tambov Province") of what was going on in one slice of the countryside in 1919). But Hosking's account really communicated to me the complete horror of trying to live a day-to-day existence under such conditions, particularly in the capitals of Moscow and Petrograd.

The author's description of how the Soviet Union initially represented the abolition of private domestic space is also appreciated. The general trend of urbanization that characterized the entire history of the Soviet Union (and which was perhaps made most acute by the mass exodus from the countryside to the cities prompted by the beginning of Collectivization in the 1930s) coupled with the lack of new residential construction in the cities precipitated a housing crisis that forced all urban residents (with the exception of the elite members of the upper echelons of the Party hierarchy, the nomenklatura) to live in communal apartments. It was not until the establishment of the large apartment building projects of the Khrushchev era (the so-called novostroyky) starting in the late 1950s that many Soviet citizens were able to acquire private living spaces. One conclusion that Hosking makes from this evidence that I find most striking is that for the first formative decades of the Soviet Union the state could rely on people to police each other. (This is despite the fact that the state always had at least one central institution dedicated to carrying out repression). Especially during the 1930s, people lived in fear of their neighbor denouncing them to the authorities. There was no space for any kind of private reflection, whether innocuous or seditious, and the result was that people carried out their lives constantly in public and thus always practiced the self-censorship. As Hosking nicely summarizes, "[t]he communal apartment and [. . .] the Soviet enterprise ensured the continuation of what Daniel Bertaux has called the 'communal' model of Russian life: equality, joint responsibility [krugovaya poruka, which is an important concept in Hosking's general analysis of Russian culture], discipline, and subjection to authorities, with enforced interdependence generating a certain reluctant solidarity" (118).

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