In 1935 Stalin declared ‘life has become better’. This was clearly not the case for everyone, but feelings had to be expressed very carefully.
The Soviet project claimed to have dismantled the causes of oppression and, by the construction of socialism, the emancipation of women and drives to imbue the populace with grammatical and political literacy, to have rendered the causes of unhappy feelings and suffering obsolete.
Unhappiness under or with Soviet power could, therefore, be perceived as dissent, ‘tantamount to a political crime’, to quote the historian Catriona Kelly. When, in 1936, the Stalin Constitution codified his assertion that ‘life has become better, life has become merrier, Comrades’, negative emotions became, in effect, anti-Soviet, individualist, decadent: almost political taboo. Yet, people’s lives rarely matched the ideals of the state.
Soviet citizens sent thousands of letters to political leaders, officials and newspapers, the majority of which went unpublished. The state also solicited letters to newspapers and journals and sought to assess the ‘public mood’ through consultation on policy. People wrote for material assistance, to appeal convictions, make complaints, seek advice, or simply confide in a figurehead of power.
While it would be naive to assume that letters allow us to view the true ‘inner life’ of their authors (or that such a thing exists), we can see how carefully and deftly these correspondents worked to make their emotions politically acceptable. In 1928, for example, Maria from Ulianovsk wrote to Nadezhda Krupskaia, Chair of the Education Committee (and Lenin’s widow), for advice:
I am 23, and it is now seven years since I married, I have two children, and now my husband, almost every day tells me that, he can cheat on me anyway because I have nowhere to go … And if I leave him, I will have to go on the streets and sell myself. Actually he’s right, there’s nowhere to go.
The sparseness of her words emphasises the desperation of her situation and the hurtful truth of her husband’s cruel remarks: she has no choice but to stay unless she and the children are to become destitute. Maria emphasises that she is not a ‘parasite’; she married during the devastation caused by civil war so as not to burden her mother, or to live off the labour of others. And she certainly does not blame their destitution on the widespread the upheavals of the revolution.
She makes clear, too, that her circumstances are not a result of her own inaction in the construction of socialism, emphasising her desire for self-improvement. She had tried to find work and education, had made the most of the opportunities provided for women and had gone to a summer school. But she was unable to complete the class when one of her children contracted measles:
Whether to study and where, or somewhere to arrange to work and how to arrange it. I would of course very much like to study to know everything.
Notably, Maria chose to write to Krupskaia, who was a figurehead for both children’s and adult education.
Elsewhere, an expectant mother expressed distress over her position on her collective farm in a letter to the peasant newspaper Krest’iankskaia gazeta. Hitherto a Stakhanovite, she had worked in heavy farm labour through three months of pregnancy but, after experiencing pain, her doctor certified that she could undertake light-medium labour. Disagreeing, she asked the farm for lighter work and was compelled to attend a board meeting, at which an attempt was made to shame her into complying:
Listening to all this ridicule and blackmail, I cried, I begged, that I can’t go to heavy labour. I was put to particularly great shame then, when [the Chairman] spoke with insult and mockery about my pregnancy.
Her new husband had, to her dismay, sided with the board.
After all, I’m just in my first year of marriage, and I want to become a happy mother, but because I have been so bullied and forced into a ruinous job, they extorted from me and with tears I said that I would go to work. Then everything calmed down, and they said: ‘So, that’s how to disassemble the sick women, and everyone will go to work’.
What stands out here is the author’s use of the verb ‘become’ rather than ‘be’, indicating a chasm between her current emotional experience and that which she desired. She presents, too, her emotional response as performance – tears, begging – not as characteristics intrinsic to who she was. The board’s bullying was reinforced by their own words: describing her as a ‘sick’ woman contradicted the protections for pregnancy and motherhood that Soviet policy increasingly claimed to prioritise. The stand that she took was, therefore, motivated not by personal insult, but by a sentiment of righteous anger on behalf of other women:
I see that these brutish attitudes towards women are impossible to break … but I tried and made sure that not simply I, but all women receive help. And one outcome is that each of us will be paid her own allowance, which is a relief for women on our kolkhoz [farm].
Nonetheless, she ends on a note deferential to central authorities, her hope indicating an emotional investment in the promises of Soviet power:
But I should not be thrown out as a quitter, because I am not able to work. I urge you not to delay your response to me. I hope, wait with anticipation, I will not give up work before I receive an answer.
Such letters offered the opportunity for citizens to reconcile the conflict between their emotional lives and the boundaries of what it was acceptable to express. ‘The road to emancipation’ opened for women by the construction of socialism, the celebration of motherhood and the work of women’s emancipation also offered a means by which women could reconcile their emotional lives with Soviet power. In this way, it also offered the promise of resolution.
Hannah Parker is a lecturer in Soviet history at the University of Gloucestershire.