The Illusion of the New Soviet Man

“’Life has become more joyous,’ Stalin exulted in November 1935” (Freeze pg. 362). And indeed, despite the brutality that would ensue with the Great Purges of 1936-38, it had; the mid-1930s brought an “imagined harmony” in the Soviet Union (Freeze pg. 362). Former enemies’ of Stalin began to heap praise on the dictator, most notably at the Seventeenth Party Congress in 1934 (Freeze pg. 362). Socialism was officially declared to have been achieved in the 1936 Constitution, and became “responsible for life’s joyfulness” (Freeze pg. 362).

The era of joyfulness spurred an individualistic movement in Soviet culture. The outstanding achievements of some were held up as an example of what it meant to be a “New Soviet Man or Woman.” The most celebrated individual achievement of this period came from Aleksei Stakhanov in August of 1935; Stakhanov, a thirty year old coalminer, collected, in one day, “102 tons of coal—more than fourteen times the norm for a six-hour shift” (Freeze 363). Stakhanov’s feat led the Communist Party to launch the Stakhanovite movement—the title of which “quickly superseded that of shock worker.” The Stakhanovite movement carried with it lessons on how to work and live.

Stalin capitalized on the celebration of the Stakhanovite movement at a conference in 1935, where, after Stakhanov himself gave a speech praising the dictator, he remarked that in the “land of socialism … Life has become better, and happier too.” Stalin’s words would serve “as the motto of the movement.” Soviet culture also placed emphasis on showing how Stakhanovites “were admired by their comrades and considered worthy of holding public office.” Stalin used the image of the Stakhanovite to represent stories of the “prosperous present and the even-more prosperous and happy future;” this image was used to draw a contrast between that idea and the “harsh, oppressive past.” Simply put, the Stakhanovite came to represent “a broad range of themes—mastery of technology, the creation of the New Soviet Man, the cultured working-class family … [and] upward social mobility” (Freeze pg. 363).

The Stakhanovite movement, nonetheless, ended up increasing resentment “among workers who either could not become Stakhanovites or, having achieved status, did not receive commensurate rewards;” it also raised expectations that the innovations of the Stakhanovite movement would “raise labor productivity” that went “largely unfulfilled” (Freeze 363). Despite this, the Stakhanovite movement is emblematic of Soviet struggles with labor production—desperately searching for a way to incentivize innovation and hard work in a society that now had no such incentive. The Stakhanovite movement was a product of Stalinism, and proved to be an illusion with the Great Purges and wars that would ensue.

Works Cited:

  • Russia A History by Gregory L. Freeze, Third Edition

Party Politics No Longer

In 1991, General Secretary Gorbachev “desperately sought to preserve the Soviet Union as a federal state,” as it teetered on the brink of collapse (Freeze 463). The Soviet Union’s unraveling had been coming for decades, but it was sped up by a number of factors. First were the structural flaws of the economy, which had become highly dependent on commodities (particularly oil and natural gas, which plummeted in the late 1970s and early 1980s). Second, agriculture, the perpetual “Achilles heel of the Soviet economy,” failed to “meet domestic demand,” forcing the government to spent an inordinate amount on importing grain from abroad (Freeze 4452 & 455). Third, rampant defense spending put even greater strains on an economy that was stagnant and severely hampered by debt. Forth, Gorbachev’s policy of “glasnost (openness and publicity),” characterized by democratizing policies such as legalizing a truly free press and instituting local elections, created even more domestic turbulence (Freeze 459). The people were hurting, and were finally exposed to the terrors of previous regimes. All of this not only hurt Gorbachev’s legitimacy, but also the legitimacy of the entire Soviet system.

All of these factors emboldened “explosive nationalist movements … all across the borderland republics” (Freeze 461). Particularly in the “Baltics, Ukraine, and [the] Caucuses,” various republics began to demand greater autonomy, and, eventually, independence (Freeze 462). So, in 1991, “in a last attempt to save some semblance of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev laboured to win adoption of a ‘New Union Treaty,'” that would turn the U.S.S.R. into a loosely organized confederacy with a “common presidency, foreign policy, and military” (Freeze 463). Gorbachev even got a majority of republics to sign on to the treaty, and “scheduled a formal signing ceremony in Moscow on 20 August 1991” (Freeze 463).

To many conservative elites, the idea of such a treaty was unbearable. Several decided to launch a coup d’état. Organized by a group that included Gorbachev’s own Vice President and KGB Chief, “the coup of August 1991 was timed to prevent the signing of the new Union Treaty which would have fundamentally recast the relationship between the center and the republics in favor of the latter” (Siegelbaum). The group placed Gorbachev under house arrest and declared a national emergency. The coup, however, never gained traction. It ended after only three days; the image of Boris Yeltsin, in the streets of Moscow standing against the coup, became the takeaway from the whole affair. Further, the coup “gave the republics an easy opportunity to declare independence” (Freeze 464). Despite the intentions of the old conservative elite, their coup, if anything, sped up the rate of the U.S.S.R.’s dissolution; Gorbachev’s “New Union Treaty” was a last chance effort to preserve the cohesion of the Soviet system, even if that meant radical change. The treaty’s defeat was the last straw for the Soviet system of governance.

Secrecy Then, Secrecy Now: Khrushchev’s Denunciation of Stalinism

From: http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1956-2/khrushchevs-secret-speech/khrushchevs-secret-speech-images/#
Depicted: Nikita Khrushchev directly to the left of Josef Stalin (1946)

The Twentieth Party Congress (1956) served as a “watershed” moment in the political history of the Soviet Union (Freeze 416). It included many new faces in the delegation, as a means for Khrushchev to consolidate power, and avoided the contentious issue of Stalin’s legacy initially (Freeze 416). That changed with Khrushchev’s “bombshell,” “late-night” speech on February 24, 1956 (Freeze 416). Given behind closed-doors, “before assembled delegates to the Communist Party’s Twentieth Congress as well as observers from foreign Communist parties,” Khrushchev gave a blistering speech denouncing the transgressions of his predecessor — Stalin (Siegelbaum).

His speech focused on the “cult of the personality and its consequences” (Freeze 416). It was a 26,000 word speech that took Khrushchev nearly four hours to deliver. In it, he detailed numerous crimes of his predecessor, dating all the way back to the murder of Kirov in December of 1934; he presented “shocking statistics” regarding the “number of party members, congress delegates, and military leaders” who were killed or who had disappeared (Freeze 417). He went even further to sharply criticize the “unpreparedness of the country at the time of the Nazi invasion in June 1941; numerous wartime blunders; the deportation of various nationalities in 1943 and 1944; and the banishing of Tito’s Yugoslavia from the Soviet bloc after the war” (Siegelbaum). And for all of these problems, Khrushchev pointed out one culprit — Stalin’s “cult of personality” (Siegelbaum).

Khrushchev’s speech was significant because it represented a shift in Soviet society away from showing loyalty to — or, at least, refraining from criticism of — the Stalin regime. Khrushchev’s regime was “cautiously” attempting to de-stalinize Soviet society, beginning as early as 1954, to dismantle “the Stalinist system of repression and secrecy” (Freeze 412). De-stalinization began at first with silence — but did not earn any more tangible footing until Khrushchev’s secret speech in February of 1956. Following his speech, a party commission set off to “interview political prisoners” to allow them to be released (resulting in the release of over 50,000 people, and the reduction of sentences for another nearly 20,000). However, Khrushchev made a careful point to distinguish the crimes of Stalin from the Communist Party itself; in fact, he used his populist mantle to ally the Communist Party with the people — to frame itself, along with the people, as the victims of Stalin’s oppressiveness and brutality.

Khrushchev’s speech, while important to the de-stalinization movement, had negative ramifications. Following its leak, and eventual publication in Western media, it had several effects. First, it galvanized opposition to Khrushchev (Freeze 419). Many party members and members of the Politburo were opposed to de-stalinization (partially to cover up their own crimes as well as Stalin’s); and Stalin’s home republic of Georgia, staunchly supportive of the deceased dictator, because strongly anti-Khrushchev as a result. Second, it “sent shock waves throughout the Communist world and caused many western Communists to abandon the movement” (Siegelbaum). In short, the “foreign and domestic turbulence” unleashed by Khrushchev’s speech “impelled” him to back down from a “public campaign against Stalin” (Freeze 420).

Railroads, Industrialization, and a Rapidly Changing Russia

“A Bashkir switch operator poses by the mainline of the railroad” Link to photo

This image was taken in 1910 by the Russian photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii; it shows a Bashkir switch operator standing near the mainline of a railroad. For background, the Bashkirs “are a Turkic people who primarily live in the Ural Mountains of … Russia.”[1] Historically, the “Bashkirs are very closely related to the Russian Tatars,” and, before the 1917 revolution, a distinct “Bashkirian culture did not even exist.”[2]

This image was taken of the Trans-Siberian Railroad near the town of Ust’ Katav “in the Ural Mountain region of European Russia.”[3] It is significant within the context of economic modernization and industrialization in Russia that began in the second half of the 19th Century. Railways, as we discussed in class, are “the flywheel of the economy,” and critical to the industrialization strategy of state capitalism (otherwise known as the Witte System).[4]

The Witte System, named after the Minister of Finance Sergei Witte, was developed after the industrialization strategy of high taxes, tariffs on imports, and exporting as much grain as possible resulted in a widespread famine in 1892.[5] (It should be noted that Witte himself was a “former railway executive” before serving as the Minister of Finance).[6] Despite the Witte System’s emphasis on railways, railroad infrastructure development had been rapidly occurring in Russia since 1861. In fact, between 1861 and 1887, the total number of “railway lines increased nearly thirteenfold.”[7]

Before this, however, the lack of transportation across Russia, “especially the virtual non-existence of railways … meant that key resources (such as iron ore and coal) and markets could not be easily and economically linked.”[8] Before the development of railways across the Empire, it was not easy “to mobilize and attract venture capital.”[9] As late as 1855, Russia only had one railway – which ran “between the two capitals.”[10]

The Russian Empire’s prioritization of railway development was a part of their broader goal of economic modernization; Russia’s industrial ambitions began with the Crimean War. “As one high-ranking official explained: ‘Russia is not Egypt or the Papal States – to be content to purchase materials for her entire army from abroad; we must build our own factories…’”[11] In short, the Crimean War woke the Russian Empire up and gave them “a new and deeper appreciation for the importance of industrialization.”

Another interesting aspect of railway development in the Russian Empire was that it was a part of the broader development of an industrial working class. This would become significant in the lead up to the Soviet Revolution, as the rise of the industrial working class (that helped fuel railway and factory development across the Empire) contributed to the increased political instability that led to the events of 1917. The increase in the “size and concentration of the working class” came as a result of Witte’s policies; it also had the effect of expanding “the arena of radical activity” by expanding the number of people in the working class.[12] Simply put, “rapid industrialization, though vital for military power abroad, ignited deep-rooted unrest in both town and country.”[13]

[1] https://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/10705/RS

[2] https://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/10705/RS

[3] http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire/transport.html

[4] Dr. Nelson’s lecture notes “Thurs. 1-31-19”

[5] Dr. Nelson’s lecture notes “Thurs. 1-31-19”

[6] Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

[7] Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

[8] Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

[9] Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

[10] Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

[11] Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

[12] Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

[13] Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

Simply put, “rapid industrialization, though vital for military power abroad, ignited deep-rooted unrest in both town and country.” (Freeze p. 234)

A map of the Russian Empire. The town of Ust’ Katav where the photograph was taken is marked by a black ‘X’