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Life and Death under Stalin: Kalinin Province, 1945-1953.

Life and Death under Stalin: Kalinin Province, 1945-1953. By Kees Boterbloem. (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999. Pp. xxv, 435. $49.95.)

Kees Boterbloem's Life and Death under Stalin: Kalinin Province, 1945-1953 provides much-needed scholarship for two areas of the Soviet field: first, it is a splendid addition to the growing catalog of regional studies based on archival sources; second, it looks at the largely unexamined period of Soviet history from the end of the Second World War until the death of Stalin in 1953.

The region that Boterbloem has chosen to study was known as Tver' province until 1935, when it became Kalinin oblast.' The author's model is clearly Merle Fainsod's classic work, Smolensk under Soviet Rule (1958), which relied on archival material that had been captured by the Germans and was later claimed by American troops. Boterbloem has also stayed close to Fainsod geographically, as Kalinin actually borders on Smolensk. Although the Smolensk archives contain certain types of information that were unavailable to Boterbloem in the regional archives of Kalinin, such as reports by the NKVD (secret police), still, it is a wise approach to follow in the tradition of Fainsod. In fact, any scholar wishing to penetrate the regional archives and to understand the workings of the Communist Party and Soviet apparatus should make sure that a dog-eared and well-highlighted copy of Fainsod's book is an essential item in one's luggage.

In addition to his extensive archival research (based on work in the party and state archives in Tver, plus three archives in Moscow), Boterbloem also attempts to integrate oral history into his project by conducting interviews with inhabitants of the area who lived through the postwar era. Although this ambitious undertaking turned out less successfully than had been hoped, resulting in only 105 interviews, the author has tightly interwoven these interviews into his narrative, and they often reveal a fascinating contrast between official versions of events and popular memory. One minor defect of the book is that the author refers the reader to his dissertation, published in 1994, for details on the methodology and results of these interviews.

Boterbloem has divided the work into two parts. In the first of these, he provides two chapters that describe the historical background for the region prior to 1945. The first chapter covers a great deal of ground in less than 40 pages, describing the geography, demography, and economic features of the region and then moves quickly forward through the revolution, New Economic Program (NEP), collectivization, and the Great Purges. The second chapter deals with the impact of the war on the region and its shaky recovery. In the book's second part, Boterbloem approaches his subject topically. The third chapter deals with the Party, while the fourth explores the relationship between the Party and the people. The fifth chapter ("Victims") is one of the most problematic, as the author explores postwar "political crime" increases in criminality of the more common sort, and ends with a rather weak description of "the Isles of Kalinin in the Gulag Archipelago" The sixth chapter outlines the postwar situation in the region's towns, and chapter seven describes the deteriorating conditions in the countryside. Chapter eight flows from the latter, since the dismal conditions on the region's kolkhozes (collective farms) led to what the author describes as an "exodus" to the cities.

Boterbloem makes several jabs at so-called "revisionists" who do not agree with the use of the word "totalitarian" yet in the end, his working definition of the word is one with which few revisionists would disagree. Unfortunately, this definition is contained within a footnote, and it should have been brought forward directly into the text. Boterbloem concludes that "[t]otalitarian control became indeed technically feasible but was certainly far from the Soviet reality of the 1940s and 1950s because of the underdeveloped state of Soviet technology in many aspects; despite that, the attempt was undertaken [italics in the original] to control every aspect of social, intellectual, political, and economic life" (311). To be sure, any reasonable definition of Stalinism must contain "aspirations towards totalitarian control" as a major component.

In fact, Boterbloem's work is filled with statements and evidence that continually undermine the totalitarian model. In spite of his protestations to the contrary, Boterbloem has produced an outstanding piece of revisionist work. To cite just one example in full, Boterbloem concludes that "propaganda utterly failed to mould the inhabitants of Kalinin province into rational, atheistic, and modern Communist people during Stalin's lifetime. The regime lacked the technological means for genuine total control of society, even during the grim latter half of the 1930s" (266). For a few further examples, simply skim pages 102, 126-128, 131, 171-172, 229-231 and 268-269. At times also, Boterbloem's actual definition of totalitarianism seems to run closer to describing a regime that utilized violence or the threat of violence to maintain its control over society (78). This is especially true of the chapter on "Victims," which essentially argues that threats and an occasional recourse to violence were the only thing keeping society (including Party members themselves) in line. Still, a vicious dictatorship is not the same thing as a totalitarian society.

Boterbloem makes several major points about the war and the postwar period. He argues that the population rightly expected a change from the repressive Stalinist regime after their exertions to win the war. Surprisingly, the renewed imposition of control in the latter stages of the war was not met with strong resistance. Boterbloem attributes this "postwar conformism" to "exhaustion from the war, the security organ's control over the population, and a common wish to believe in utopia in this life or hereafter." He remarks that this desire for a radiant Communist future soon came into conflict with the harsh realities of the postwar situation (134). Boterbloem notes too that the growing cynicism regarding unfulfilled Stalinist promises was reflected in a steady increase of crime and corruption. Indeed, one of the author's most compelling arguments is that "the roots of the corruption at all levels of society, particularly during and after Brezhnev's time, can already be unearthed in Stalin's last years" (266).

As Jeffrey Brooks acknowledges, the research for Thank You, Comrade Stalin! began in the final stages of the Soviet period; thus, it is not based on material now available from the Russian archives. Certainly, the book would have had greater impact if it had been published seven or eight years ago, yet this does not detract from its usefulness or from the extensive amount of research that went into it.

Brooks, a cultural historian, sees the work as an investigation of public culture over a 40 year period based on "a close reading of the press from the early days of the October Revolution to Stalin's death in March 1953." The author's approach ranges from a quantitative analysis of the "varying themes and characteristics" found in samples taken from newspapers at given intervals to samples taken from articles clustered around specific major events (xviii-xix). In an example of the former, Brooks writes that "by the late 1930s female figures constituted a third of the exemplary people portrayed in Pravda and Labor [Trud]" and that this conclusion is based on an examination of every tenth issue of Trud for 1936-1938 and Pravda for 1938 (90, 273).

In his first chapter, Brooks establishes the institutional foundation for the Communist Party's monopolization of the media. The second chapter presents an unexpected picture of the first decade of Soviet rule, where even with total control of the press the Party had difficulty conveying its message to barely literate readers who were unfamiliar with terms such as "dialectic," "imperialism," "budget," "deficit," and "blockade" (13). The third and fourth ("The Performance Begins" and "The Economy of the Gift") describe public culture under Stalin from 1928 until the Nazi invasion in 1941 and contain the central thesis of the book. They define the creation of the cult of Stalin as political theater and outline how the press sought to create a bond between the regime and the people by emphasizing every citizen's indebtedness to his leader and to the state for the gift of a wonderful socialist society. The fifth chapter describes the incorporation of literature and the arts into this social performance. The sixth, utilizing Russian concepts of honor and dishonor, examines the division of Stalinist society into those who fulfilled obligations and "enemies" who did not. The disruption of this prewar culture, during which Stalin receded into the background following the early military defeats of the war, is portrayed in chapter seven, while the reformulation of the cult when victory finally appeared possible is discussed in chapter eight (appropriately titled "Many Wars, One Victory"). Brooks's epilogue briefly examines the persistence of elements from the charismatic cult of Stalin until the glasnost era.

Although Brooks focuses on material from Pravda, which he rightly identifies as the center of the informational system, articles from many other newspapers are scrutinized as well, including Trud, Krest'ianskaia gazeta, Izvestiia, Komsomol'skaia pravda, and Gudok. Nevertheless, Thank You, Comrade Stalin! is definitely not a study of the Soviet press as an institution. Indeed, it is largely "unpeopled" with specific individuals and is instead filled with terms such as "the press," "the editors," or "Pravda" as agents of action. The switch from Bukharin as editor of Pravda to Stalin's crony, Mekhlis, in 1930 is only peripherally noted, as is the change to Poskrebyshev, "Stalin's faithful dog" in 1937 (59). Therefore, Brooks's assertion that he describes "how editors and journalists covered the events of their time" is really applicable only to the chapter on the Second World War, where information is readily available from the numerous memoirs of writers and correspondents. This is actually one of the most interesting chapters in the book, and it is unfortunate that the same sort of material was not available for other periods so that Brooks could have fleshed out earlier chapters, especially that on the formation of the cult of Stalin. Brooks does an admirable job of relating how the public persona of the dictator was created and maintained in the pages of the press, but contributes little to our understanding of exactly how editors and writers participated in this--and, just as importantly, why they did so. To be sure, Stalin's stage management of the cult and his omnipresent role in directing the press is apparent throughout Brooks's narrative, but the author insists that the dictator was not the cult's sole architect.

Brooks maintains that the "charismatic aura of Stalin's manufactured persona anchored the new order" (59). He indicates that the cult contained the classic attributes of primitive ritualistic drama: recurrent themes, stereotypical characters, and symbolic settings. Moreover, the political theater of high Stalinism attempted to draw in the active elements of society, engaging them in both participation and complicity (66). Additionally, an integral part of the cult, a core Soviet value, was the idea of reciprocity, wherein all citizens were "immeasurably beholden to the leader, the Party, and the state" (xv). As Brooks correctly notes, statements in the press to the effect of "Thank you Comrade Stalin, for a Happy Childhood" were hardly atypical (84). Nor, as archival material amply demonstrates in support of his argument, were such effusive statements limited to the state-controlled press--they reached far beyond into the standard discourse of Soviet officials and common citizens.

Despite this, however, the author pointedly argues that, in comparison to National Socialism, the Communist regime failed to provide a program that resonated with the population and gained long-term support; therefore, instead of manipulating the press it was compelled to nationalize it (10). Thus, when persuasion failed, they shifted to compulsion (18). In addition, the repeated failures of various campaigns and programs to fulfill the promises of socialist construction increasingly caused dissatisfaction with the regime. Although Brooks makes some use of recent archivally based work on public opinion (most notably the pioneering work of Sarah Davies), his book would have greatly benefited from the addition of more material on genuine resistance to the regime. In that regard, Brooks himself indicates that he sees the book as a point of departure for future archival research by a new generation of scholars and this is, at the very least, surely a valid appraisal of the book's value to the field (xx).

The forced deportation of numerous ethnic groups by the Stalinist regime was investigated during the 1970s by Robert Conquest and Aleksandr Nekrich, but with the opening of the archives a large number of outstanding publications in Russian have substantially added to our knowledge of these tragic events. J. Otto Pohl's Ethnic Cleansing in the USSR, 1937-1949 essentially attempts to capitalize on the these publications by Russian scholars. Pohl, described in the book's biographical note as a freelance writer and historian, has produced a slipshod piece of work based almost entirely on the research of noted authors such as Alieva, Zemskov, and Bugai. Indeed, the overall effect of Pohl's book suggests a rush to publish, and it is doubtful if the manuscript was ever touched by an editor's pencil.

Pohl's writing style is awkward and lifeless, with long sections from many chapters appearing to be little more than poorly abridged and mediocre translations of the original work. Simple spelling mistakes abound ("Bhuddism" on 61 and 62), but it is the author's haphazard and cavalier approach to transliteration that will be a constant irritation for Russian speakers and a danger for others. Why is it kolhoz and sovhoz appear (instead of kolkhoz and sovkhoz) throughout the book, when the same letter appears otherwise in Kazakhstan or Khabarovsk (which is also misspelled as "Khabarvovsk" on page 57 and "Kharabovsk" on page 101)? Similarly, different systems of transliteration are mixed to produce such oddities as kray and raion or Altai kray in the same sentences. One general is cited as both "Appolonov" and "Appollonov," but never "Apollonov" as it actually appears in the archival documents (34, 38). Pohl also repeatedly mistranslates certain phrases from archival documents. Where documents referred to the number of NKVD employees and "workers of the militsii" (the police or NKM) present during operations, Pohl misreads this as "workers' militia" perhaps confusing this with part of the meaning of the official acronym (39-42).

No doubt, Pohl's most egregious error is in rendering the key concept of korenizatsiia as korenzatsiia throughout the book. Roughly meaning "nativization," this word described the Soviet policy of fostering ethnic cultural institutions and promoting non-Russians to state and party positions within ethnic regions; thus, it promised ethnic diversity within the context of the Soviet state. What Pohl fails to note is that when the Stalinist regime turned to mass deportations of entire ethnic communities in the late 1930s (at the point where the regime's collective paranoia had outpaced both ideology and propaganda value), certain elements from the policy of korenizatsiia were still continued, even amid the death and deprivation of these forced population transfers. It is this paradox that seriously undercuts Pohl's assertion that the deportations amounted to genocide (3).

Pohl has also failed to examine recent scholarship that investigates the ethnic dimensions of the mass operations conducted during the Great Purges of 1937-1938. Material on this topic is available in Russian works by Khaustov, Petrov and Roginskii, Uimanov, and Samosudov, while Terry Martin has produced solid research on this subject in English. Although Pohl makes slight mention of the arrest of nationalities at this time, he seems unaware of the mass operations against "national contingents" including the Finns, Greeks, and Germans (on which he has individual chapters), as well as Poles, Latvians, Estonians, Chinese, and Kharbintsy. This ethnic terror accounted for over one third of the persons arrested during the mass operations--therefore deportation was hardly the only weapon in the Stalinist armory available for dealing with stigmatized nationalities.

Aside from the compilation of numerous tables (based either on those from his sources or a compilation of details found in their material), the book contains little of the author's own work or analysis. The one-and-a-half page preface is, in fact, a poorly aimed attack on "revisionists" who purportedly downplay the tragedy within the Soviet Union and maintain that the Holocaust was the only example of ethnic cleansing. The introduction (minus several tables and their notes) amounts to barely six pages, and the conclusion is hardly over a page. One of the author's few concluding remarks is far off the mark when it argues that the deportations provided the government with a source of skilled labor to develop the infrastructure of sparsely populated areas (138). On the contrary, in the case of the uprooting of the Koreans, this action caused immediate and severe damage to the economy of the Far Eastern region, and their agricultural skills (wetland rice farming and utilization of fish ponds) could initially contribute little to the economies of arid regions, such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The regime obviously was not attempting to match up regions with job descriptions and populating underdeveloped areas was at best a secondary consideration. Strangely enough, Pohl's book is actually overreferenced, at least in the sense that the notes section is overburdened with long columns of unnecessary footnotes listing only "Ibid." Typical are footnotes (239-249) that could have easily been condensed into one note, since Pohl merely reproduces two paragraphs worth of details from a single document (50-51, 155).

Ethnic Cleansing in the USSR, 1937-1949 is a slim volume (179 pages) with a high price tag. Hence, libraries would do well to invest their limited budgets elsewhere. The author's careless errors in translation and transliteration also make it questionable if readers can ultimately depend on his narrative for accurate details. There is a vast amount of archival material now available concerning these ethnic deportations and the subject undoubtedly demands a more thoughtful and reliable presentation than Pohl provides. In the end, one wishes that his publisher had just employed a competent translator to make at least one of Pohl's sources available to a wider audience.
Steven E. Merritt
University of California, Riverside
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Merritt, Steven E.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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