Review: "Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times"
Throughout historian Sheila Fitzpatrick’s book, Everyday Stalinism, Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, the author explores the impact of the Great Purges on citizens living within the Soviet Union during the reign of Joseph Stalin. Similar to Orlando Figes’ later account (2008), Fitzpatrick focuses predominantly on the experiences of urban classes within Soviet cities, and points out the difficulties and hardships that each and every citizen faced in their day-to-day life under Stalinism. In contrast to historians such as Robert Thurston who argue that Soviet citizens viewed Stalin as a savior and hero to the people, however, Fitzpatrick’s use of memoirs and letters paints an entirely different story. As she points out, letters from Soviet citizens to Stalin illustrate the frustration and contempt that many people held towards Stalin and his regime – particularly during the economic hardships that gripped the Soviet Union throughout the 1930s. However, as Fitzpatrick demonstrates, personal memoirs also reveal a general tendency amongst the Soviet populace to hide such feelings since the presence of the NKVD secret police was ever-present, and always on the lookout for dissenters. Nevertheless, Fitzpatrick points out that individuals still found ways to silently resist the pressures of the purges through theft, bribery, and lies. Only by succumbing to these mannerisms, Fitzpatrick argues, were ordinary Soviet citizens able to effectively (and successfully) escape from the horrors of the purges; even though these forms of passive resistance were not always successful either, she concludes.
Fitzpatrick’s account fits nicely within modern historiographical works as her book focuses heavily upon the lives of common people, rather than the traditional, elite-centered interpretations of the purges that is often pursued by most historians. Moreover, her work rejects any notion of the Soviet people being passive victims to the terror that was unfolding around them. Fitzpatrick demonstrates through multiple examples how ordinary Soviet citizens resisted imprisonment, torture, and execution through the adoption of methods more often associated with negative connotations rather than positive.
All in all, I give Fitzpatrick’s work 5/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in a history of the early Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, and the Great Purges of the 1930s. This highly readable and well-written account offers an account of Soviet history that should not be ignored. Definitely check it out if you get the opportunity! You will not be disappointed.
Questions to Facilitate Group Discussion
1.) What was Fitzpatrick's main arguments and thesis in this work? Do you find her main points to be effective and persuasive? Why or why not?
2.) What were some of the strengths and weaknesses of this book? Were there any specific areas that could have been improved upon by the author? What areas of this work really stood out for you?
3.) What type of primary source material does the author rely on in this work? Does this help or hinder their overall argument? Why or why not?
4.) What did you like most about this work?
5.) Would you be willing to recommend this book to a friend or family member? Why or why not?
6.) Is there anything that you learned after reading this book that you did not know before? Were there any facts that surprised you?
Were Soviet citizens able to effectively resist Stalin and his regime?
Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
© 2017 Larry Slawson