Here is a pioneering account of everyday life under Stalin, written by a leading authority on modern Russian history. Focusing on the urban population, Fitzpatrick depicts a world of privation, overcrowding, endless lines, and broken homes, in which the regime's promises of future socialist abundance rang hollowly. We read of a government bureaucracy that often turned life into a nightmare, and of how ordinary citizens tried to circumvent it. We also read of the secret police, whose constant surveillance was endemic at this time, and the waves of terror, like the Great Purges of 1937, which periodically cast society into turmoil.
In a parallel to her 1994 Stalin's Peasants, a textured study of life in the countryside, Fitzpatrick, a University of Chicago historian known for her writing on social and cultural history, addresses the trials and tribulations of urban life in Stalin's Soviet Union. Based on archives and interviews, her newest fleshes out our general knowledge of the hardship Russians endured under Stalin. Not only did people gravitate blindly to queues, but the few goods available, such as shoes, were terribly made. In poorly equipped, cramped communal apartments, residents hung sacks of food out of the windows for space and preservation. The transformative spirit went well beyond propaganda: men dropped peasant names for more modern identifiers (Frol for Vladimir). The totalitarian state was so imposing that many people blamed Soviet power in their suicide notes. But citizens had their strategies to counter the oppression, among them blat (which translates as pull, influence or, under the Soviets, thievery) and subversive jokes that twisted Soviet slogans--for, as Fitzpatrick concludes, "Homo sovieticus was a string puller, an operator... a survivor." While she notes that the Great Purges of 1937-1938 could be endured but not explained, she cites the state's manipulation of patriotism and its provision of welfare as reasons for Soviet citizens' acceptance of their government. Fitzpatrick's absorbing study provides solid details for the general and student reader and lays the groundwork for future research.