Lenin of course had started to take into the Party, or to make sympathetic to the Party, many specialists, doctors, professional men in general, the fact is that many people with low qualifications went up to chairs of faculties or departments, in the institute that were being created right and left. They needed people to fill the vacant posts that were created by these institutes. Part of the old professionals had emigrated or part had been repressed. Some people who had no qualifications or almost no qualifications received very high positions. It must be said that very few of the old intellectuals went over to the Soviets or Communists because of ideology. It is very difficult, just impossible to say exactly what a man actually feels in his heart. You can judge a man only by his actions, what he does and how he does it. Therefore almost all believed that many of these people did not like the Soviets. Actually they behavedlike Soviets or Communists and therefore climbed up very rapidly. In 1930 the six points of Stalin were a turning point and it was decided by the Party to create their new Soviet cadres. There had been purge of cadres in 1924, and in 193o a second purge followed. Both purges, as to the loyalty of these people were under the supervision of the party. The loyalty of these people could be challenged by either one or a combination of the three following agencies: The GPU, or through complaints which could be mailed to the party, or complaints which could be dropped into a special complaints box, or at the assembly where these persons were discussed. Someone could get up and accuse somebody of not being a good Soviet citizen and this person would then be accused of being harmful.The Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System is a uniquely fascinating body of documents, although, strangely enough, it is virtually unknown outside of a shrinking group of specialists. On the most basic level, the project consisted of a large-scale attempt to interview hundreds of Soviet citizens who had either fled the USSR during or after the war or had been left behind by the retreating wave of German occupation. The result was not the litany of misfortunes borne and evils suffered that one might expect from a Cold War research effort. Instead, it was a pile of conflicting and contradictory human stories that--while certainly leaving the reader with no pleasant impression of the Soviet Union--revealed a much more comprehensible and complex society than the Western reader would have had any reason to expect. The Russians, it turned out, not only "loved their children too" but also hated their better-paid neighbors--and that with as much vigor as any American suburbanite.
- Harvard Refugee Interview Project, Schedule B, Vol. 21, Case 40
Most readers, of course, never saw the interviews. What they saw was a respectable-sized monograph crammed full of tables and entitled The Soviet Citizen. From a contemporary vantage point, this text has value mostly as a curiosity. Its Parsonian assumptions and preoccupations render it quite boring even for the academic reader. Of course, it's hard to deny the value of this kind of research, even when it has little historical staying power. But what makes it problematic is the way it concealed the rich substance of the narrative sources underneath. Despite the deliberate history-blindness of the interviewers and the questions, we can certainly poke and prod at the texts they produced to figure out the mindsets that drove their subjects as representatives of the Stalin era--it's just that we still haven't tried very hard.
One overriding quality distinguishes these transcripts from the prodigious Jewish personal literature that was popularized in the United States in the wake of the Holocaust. Where Anne Frank and Primo Levi are very much aware that they are the subjects (or, rather, objects) of a campaign of extermination, this seemingly obvious fact escapes the Russians completely. They feel themselves victimized as peasants, as workers, or as Party members, but they never make the intellectual leap to a total notion of state terror orchestrated by Stalin against something called "the Soviet people"--or even, for that matter, the Ukrainians. It is important that this inability or unwillingness to conceptualize oneself in this way did not come from a overly-limited sense of historical perspective or myopia. As recent work on the Soviet Union has shown, even non-intellectuals living under Stalin displayed an exceptional sense of the grandeur and historical significance of the events they were experiencing. The Great October Revolution, with all the appropriate capital letters, was comprehensible to them; the Great Stalinist Terror was not.
The endless debate over who was worse, Hitler or Stalin, will probably always be with us. It's hard to resolve it in a satisfying way: neither Zizek's nostalgic socialism nor the body-count approach of most liberal thinkers is at all appealing. (Why shouldn't we consider how many people were born as well?) These interviews, though they of course discuss much more than that, help us see one way out of the dilemma. The Holocaust was, on its own terms, one thing; the Stalinist terror was a whole complex of things, none of which could be judged unambiguously. From the peasants' perspective, what happened to the Party members in 1937 was either well-deserved or unworthy of notice in comparison to their own plight from 1929 onwards. From the perspective of many Party members, the peasants, while undoubtedly oppressed and put-upon, were a recalcitrant, reactionary mass that largely deserved its fate.
It is in this sense that the events of the Stalin period were, and remain, much more challenging to received ideas than the Holocaust was. The evil of the Holocaust is a matter of consensus for the victims and, nowadays, even the perpetrators. (The success of Holocaust denial within the larger ecosystem of extreme-right thought is symptomatic of this development.) By contrast, few things frustrate liberal critics of Russia more than the country's apparent refusal to repudiate or even to distance itself emotionally from the heritage of the Stalin era. For contemporary as well as past Russians, there is no need or even possibility of using sophisticated theoretical arguments to prove the link between modernity and mass terror. The two are intertwined so thoroughly that the ability to judge them as a whole disappears--and the link no longer functions as the decisive evidence for a postmodern case against modernity. History, in this case, has fragmented the exhibits of the case beyond recognition.
[I'm going to be posting four times a month, as opposed to six, from now on. Grad school is finally taking its toll. Also, here are a few newish translations of Mayakovsky.]