Posts Tagged ‘Magnetic Mountain’

“Pervy blin narkomom”

August 14, 2016

This summer I tackled my first real history book – real in the sense of first-class scholarship drawing directly on primary sources. The topic was 1930s Soviet industrialization, and the author is Stephen Kotkin. I chose Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, the second of his books on Magnitogorsk, a large planned Soviet-era industrial and mining town. His first book deals with its more recent history, and I may read that one too, or one of his other titles about Russian history in the transition and post-Communist eras.

His research questions, in studying primary sources, included these: What was Russian about Stalinism, what was inevitable (inherent in the project of governance under communism), and what was idiosyncratic about it? This book is especially interesting in light of Putin’s heavy-handed efforts to rehabilitate Stalin, which can best be understood as reactionary conservatism, an attempt to reverse the demoralizing effects hindsight had on the Russian people during the late Communist era of de-Stalinisation, when so many skeletons were taken out of the closets to be buried.

I was largely unprepared for what I learned from this book, having always associated Russian Communism with American Socialism and the progressive movement. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken the movie Reds at face value. Socialists and other progressives were persecuted violently under Stalinism, as were any officials who questioned the official line, not to speak of rank-and-file Party members. And I was completely surprised to learn that Party membership was far from universal in Communist Russia. Apparently the Communist Party itself was made up of a highly selective new ruling elite – membership was tightly restricted, and yet at times during the Party’s history, Party members were the first to feel the brunt of a violent purge.

Kotkin paints a vivid portrait of everyday life for both workers and officials under Stalin, and the picture of a society in turmoil is engrossing. He documents ordinary workers’ adoption of communist values in everyday life as well as their grumblings, some violently suppressed and others blithely noted in passing by the keepers of official records. One witnesses rapidly rising expectations in terms of standard of living, and a glaring gap between these utopian promises and the reality on the ground. The lightning-speed eradication of illiteracy in the early years of Communism is documented alongside the extreme cultural paucity of the radical censorship regime. Promises to meet every citizen’s material needs are juxtaposed with images of famine, sometimes episodic and sometimes prolonged, but never equally distributed across the population.


It becomes difficult to see Stalinism as a civilization when it seems that everything we associate with civilization today was banned under Stalinism, with the notable exception of jazz (which was always considered suspiciously bourgeois, but never quite fell out of favor with the ruling elite). But Kotkin convincingly attributes a sense of ownership of the revolutionary project to the Russian people in this era, and a deep sense of popular commitment to the goals of rapid industrialization, however traumatic the pace.  As a sense-making project, the book is definitely a success.

Perhaps the most valuable lessons to be learned from this book are the lessons of the purges within the Communist Party – while the author barely describes the purges of non-Party members, which were in fact far more extensive. Very likely this bias reflects a bias within the official record, with far more evidence available from which to describe the Party purges vividly. Kotkin recognizes the “housekeeping” rationale of the iterative bloodbaths alongside the vicious cycle of recriminations and careerist incriminations fostered by Stalin’s murderous directive that the Party engage in “self-criticism”, a byword which survived as a tenet of Party ideology even into the Khrushchev thaw.

If there had been any “housekeeping” agenda at work in the purges, it was a desperate and double-dealing project from the outset. Take the example of an official “purged” for engaging in illegal trade with state resources in order to finance his mandated quota of services and goods provided. His motive was simple: he had orders to deliver, and no budget with which to work. And had he not found ways to meet his quota, very likely he would have been “purged” for nonperformance.

The vulnerability of the Communist elite can be explained by the redundancies built into the Russian government under Communism: there were two chains of command, the state pyramid and the Party pyramid. Every organ of the state thus operated under two chains of command, the ordinary one and the Party one, which was to serve as an ideological watchdog and which was liable for the successes and failures of its counterpart. Hence the redundant Party bosses could easily be painted as self-serving leeches on the system, if any flaw could be found in their performance.

The first to be purged were the ideological non-conformists, lumped indiscriminately under the banner of Trotskyists. Later purges associated their victims with the fascist threat from abroad, and accused officials lagging in industrial performance (or guilty of ruining their equipment in an overeager attempt to exceed its production capacity to meet official targets) of sabotage and espionage in one breath. Kotkin illuminates an enduring level of xenophobia and ignorance of the outside world that could explain how some officials were purged simply for having foreign-sounding names.

Yesterday I discovered an anecdote about Shostakovich and his Symphony No. 5 that illuminates the era of the Great Purge nicely. The symphony was written while the composer (living in Russia) had fallen into disfavor, in the late 1930s. His opera Lady Macbeth had been a great success until the day Stalin came to see it, but the composer was “white as a sheet” by the end of the performance. Stalin had laughed during an explicit sex scene and had later walked out. The next day Pravda carried a scathing editorial about the opera, and not until Symphony No. 5 brought the audience to their feet with tears in their eyes was Shostakovich restored in stature. You can judge for yourself what the symphony is about.

The Russian proverb I used as the title of this blog entry appears untranslated as an epigraph to Kotkin’s last chapter, and he says it is untranslatable. But I was able to find the source:

“‘How was that as a first try?’ asked Trotsky. [Vladimir] Mayakovsky answered with a devastating pun: ‘The first pancake falls like a People’s Commissar’ (pervy blin lyog narkomom), a play on the saying ‘the first pancake falls like a lump.’”

This and other gems make Kotkin’s description of the “little tactics of the habitat” under Stalinism a real page-turner, and I am looking forward to checking out more of his work. But for now I am chewing through Khrushchev’s memoirs, the first half of which are profoundly depressing in this context. Over and over again he shares anecdotes about directives from Stalin that he carried out against his own better judgment for fear of the consequences of gainsaying the boss. I’ve made it up to the point of Stalin’s death now, and I’m hoping the second half of the book will show up the author’s engaging personality more fully, out from under the shadow of pervasive sycophancy in an environment of totalitarianism.