Being Soviet: Everyday Life Under Stalin

Being Soviet: Identity, Rumour, and Everyday Life Under Stalin 1939-1953
Timothy Johnston    Oxford University Press  294pp  £61

A key debate in recent Soviet historiography has concerned the impact of Stalinist propaganda on citizens’ attitudes and identities. It has tended to focus on their resistance to authority at one extreme and an inability to resist Soviet models of identity at the other. Timothy Johnston’s study suggests a possible middle way, arguing that most citizens engaged with official rhetoric but also compared it with other ‘unofficial’ sources. Such bricolage or ‘fusing’, he argues, was the key ‘tactic’ of Stalinist life, more common than either conformity or resistance.

Johnston outlines the shifts in the rhetoric of Sovietness from wartime to postwar Stalinism and then presents an array of popular responses to each ‘ebb and flow’. While necessary to his analysis of popular responses, the chronological survey of ‘Official Soviet Identity’ offers little new compared with Jeffrey Brooks’ earlier study of the Stalinist press. It also tends to flatten the complexity of Soviet culture, especially during the war, when ‘official’ media evoked Soviet experience in strikingly new ways. The insistence that Soviet identity was constructed chiefly in relation to the West also overlooks the Marxist-Leninist narratives of domestic progress, which had crucially defined Soviet identity in the previous two decades (This post-revolutionary context is  neglected in the otherwise comprehensive introduction.)

The investigation of popular responses to these narratives draws on a remarkably broad range of sources: postwar and post-Soviet interviews, citizens’ diaries and letters, police surveillance and local propagandists’ reports and memoirs. While offering one of the fullest pictures of popular attitudes in this under-researched period, the collation of these sources often overlooks the significant differences between them as sources, especially for the Stalinist mentalité that this book also seeks to reconstruct.

During this period, while official media often contained a bewildering shortage of information and coherence, its audience tried to dispel confusion through empirical observation, insights from other media or speculation and rumour. As Johnston persuasively argues, these practices extended beyond Stalinism, forming a consistent response to Soviet ‘information hunger’. However, his conclusion, that ‘unofficial’ culture inexorably overwhelmed ‘official’ culture after Stalin’s death and led to the Soviet collapse, under- estimates attempts to inject greater ‘truthfulness’ and debate into post-Stalinist public life, particularly under Khrushchev and Gorbachev.

The book’s kaleidoscope of popular narratives amply confirms that Stalinist citizens could be ‘creative’ and far from ‘passive’; however they were not necessarily more coherent or logical than the ‘confused’ media. The notions of bricolage and ‘fusing’ imply that ‘unofficial’ narratives were always more comprehensive and insightful than ‘official’ ones. Viewing any combinations of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ culture also conflates actions that were ‘tactical’ to different degrees. Was the life and death business of information-gathering about the war really comparable to consorting with foreigners, as described in the book’s most captivating chapter, with Soviet sailors in the Arctic Circle enjoying Holly- wood films and jazz? These all show that Soviet citizens could be flexible and pragmatic, but were they all equally important ‘tactics’ for the Stalinist ‘habitat’? At times, the vivid picture of Stalinist life, so assiduously unearthed by the author, spills out beyond his tight theoretical framework, suggesting that there may be more ways to understand the different behaviours of this eventful period.

Polly Jones is Schrecker-Barbour Fellow and Associate Professor in Russian at University College, Oxford.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week