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Here is a pioneering account of everyday life under Stalin, written by a leading authority on modern Russian history. Focusing on the urban population, Fitzpatrick depicts a world of privation, overcrowding, endless lines, and broken homes, in which the regime's promises of future socialist abundance rang hollowly. We read of a government bureaucracy that often turned life into a nightmare, and of how ordinary citizens tried to circumvent it. We also read of the secret police, whose constant surveillance was endemic at this time, and the waves of terror, like the Great Purges of 1937, which periodically cast society into turmoil.
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Most popular books about the Stalin era feature the big names and a firm narrative shape: Robert Conquest's The Great Terror; Alan Bullock's Hitler and Stalin. Some books yield their revelations at a glance, like the stunning The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia.
But scholar Sheila Fitzpatrick is famous for letting the common people and the facts speak for themselves, in all their complexity. Her new book on Soviet life in the 1930s--based on research in newly opened archives--does for urbanites what her Heldt Prizewinning Stalin's Peasants did for rural victims. The many witnesses in this fascinating horror story cast doubt on Stalin's notorious 1935 slogan "Life has become better, comrades; life has become more cheerful."
A comment made by a victim of Ivan the Terrible would be more apt: "We Russians don't need to eat; we eat one another and this satisfies us." Famine, caused by bad weather and worse policies, plagued the decade, and life became a chronic struggle to wrest crumbs from an incompetent bureaucracy. Stalin's sly methods of deflecting blame from the state onto allegedly disloyal citizens provoked orgies of denunciation (which could backfire on denouncers). A mad starch factory director forbade comrades to get shaves or haircuts at home--it would have been disloyal to the factory's hairdresser. One kid, Pavlik Morozov, reported his father for grain hoarding in 1937, was murdered by relatives, and became a national hero to kids. Andrei Sakharov's future spouse Elena Bonner was shocked at her 9-year-old brother's response to his father's arrest: "Look what these enemies of the people are like--some of them even pretend to be fathers." The celebrated Moscow Children's Theater put on The Squealer, a drama strikingly like Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront.
Fitzpatrick gives a sense of what it really was like to live under the satanic circus master Stalin: it was beyond Kafka, and it was bloody hard work. --Tim AppeloAbout the Author:
Sheila Fitzpatrick teaches modern Russian history at the University of Chicago. A former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, and a co-editor of The Journal of Modern History, she is also the author of The Russian Revolution, Stalin's Peasants, and many other books and articles about Russia. She lives in Chicago.
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