A Time of Troubles

Surveillance and Terror.  These two terms were used in Sheila Fitzpatricks chapter, A Time of Troubles, as a way of discussing the Great Purges of 1937 and 1938.   In this Chapter, Fitzpatrick explored the many ways the Great Terror took hold of the Soviet State and how it spread throughout the state.

The one part of Sheila Fitzpatrick chapter that really stood out to me was her section on how the Great Terror Spread.  Fitzpatrick noted that there were several ways that the Great Purge spread.  The first was through the “NKDVs practice of interrogation, in which arrested ‘enemies of the people’ would be forced to write confessions naming their conspiratorial associates.”  ((Fitzpatrick, Sheila. “Surveillance and Terror” in Everyday Stalinism; Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 205-206.))  If people found themselves in hot water, whether it was true or not, were forced to write down names of who helped them commit crimes, even if their ‘associates’ actually existed or not.  This seemed really interesting to me because it seemed like the state was just as interested in weeding out potential enemies than actual enemies.   The states main weapon, in the case of spreading the terror and finding enemies, was the use of fear.  The fear of violence, the fear of being sent to Gulags greatly impacted peoples decisions to write down names or tell the state who is an enemy.  People were afraid that if they didn’t cough up names, they themselves could have ended up in the Gulag and possibly end up dead.

Within Fitzpatricks section of how the Great Purge spread, the example of how children were used in the process of finding enemies was really interesting.  She stated that children thought “catching spies seemed like Great Sport.”  ((Fitzpatrick, Sheila. “Surveillance and Terror” in Everyday Stalinism; Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 207.))  She used an example of a girl named Lena who was on a bus coming back from camp and overheard a man speak in German about “rails” and “Signal”. ((Fitzpatrick, Sheila. “Surveillance and Terror” in Everyday Stalinism; Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 207.))   This example that Fitzpatrick used was really fascinating to me, but it was also a reminder that children in the Soviet Union were a key component of the states future in the eyes of the party.  As Fitzpatrick noted with this example, the minds and behaviors of children were incredibly important and helpful to the state.  Not only could the state change their minds through indoctrination, but they could also use these children as spies within homes, within camps, and within schools to rat out enemies of the state.  What really intrigues me is why children saw this as a sport?  What kind of images or stories would the state use on children to help them see a connection between ‘sport’ and ‘catching spies?’  If there were any rare cases of intelligent children who could see beyond this propaganda game that the State was playing on the children, what do you think might have happened to them?


The “Nature” of Communism

A key aspect of the Soviet Union’s quest for true Communism was becoming waste-free and efficient. Every single resource was utilized for the common good of the state; this included people, materials, machines, and even nature. Unused land was waste, and waste had no place in the Party’s strategy.

Looking back, particularly with today’s heightened emphasis on preserving the environment, it is easy to see the ways in which these policies of brutal extraction from the land would lead to future consequences. The desiccation of the Aral Sea has not only caused serious environmental repercussions, but has also been linked to an increase in medical problems, such as cancer.

I was reading the excerpt on the Aral Sea thinking, “whew, so glad we know better now,” when I realized that thought was dead-wrong. We don’t really know any better. And the biggest environmental offender today? China, the other communist powerhouse from the 20th Century. Chinese cities have some of the worst air and water pollution ratings in the entire world, yet when it was approached with the Kyoto Protocol, which would require it to curb its actions that are so detrimental to the environment, it refused. China’s reasoning was that it was still a “developing nation” and shouldn’t be subjected to such environmental restraints—restraints that other, now-developed nations did not have to adhere to on their path to modernity. Russia would be one such example.

When using this China-parallel it would be easy to conclude that destroying the environment to the states’ benefit is a common facet among Communist states. I’m not sure I can soundly make that assertion, but I don’t think it is a coincidence that the two largest Communist (or near-Communist) countries have committed some of the worst atrocities towards the environment.

A classic struggle of “us against them”

In her article “Us Against Them” in Fitzpatrick’s Stalinism: New Directions, Sarah Davies describes a society in the Soviet Union that is fraught with discontent. In the mid to late 1930’s the elite party leaders were attempting to reconstruct a class system–albeit a different one than before–and the people were growing weary.

The long-term goal of the revolutionaries was to abolish the class system and bring to fruition a country ruled by the working class, but it was a goal that proved to be nearly impossible. If the ideology of the party was based on a hatred for the Bourgeoisie and the belief that the workers ought to rule, eliminating all class structures and identification made it more difficult for the party to differentiate between its allies and enemies. Consequently, some new system had to be constructed to distinguish friend from foe. 

In hindsight it is easy for us to see the flaws in the plan, but at the time it seemed the logical solution to a party-made problem. Elite party members became a new “class,” with workers, peasants, and other social groups like Jews classified at lower statuses. What resulted was in essence a new Bourgeoisie (the Party), with the lower working class remaining in the same old social stratum.

The workers had been “liberated” by the revolution and been given the hope that someday in the near future they would rule the Soviet Union, yet here they were less than two decades later being governed yet again by a class of elites–this time by members of the same revolutionary movement that deplored class distinctions. The grand strategists of this plan created an “us against them” environment that was counterproductive to its overall goals. Additionally, history shows that this dichotomy is a powerful motivating force–just look at the Russian revolutions.

The Communist Party may not have successfully abolished all class distinctions with their revolution, but they did instill a new mentality in the Proletariat. It was this new mentality that sparked discontent towards the new “classes” in the 1930’s, and ultimately eroded the revolutionary foundations of the Soviet Union.