The Pursuit of Happiness (1932–6)


In 1932, Fania Laskina married Mikhail Voshchinsky, a Party worker and chief administrator of building works at the Vesnin Brothers’ architectural workshops, one of Moscow’s leading construction companies. Fania left the Laskin home on Zubov Square and, after a few months in rented rooms, moved with her husband to a three-room apartment in the fashionable Arbat area. It was a tiny apartment, just 58 square metres in total area, but in comparison with the living conditions of the vast majority of Muscovites it was modern and luxurious, with its own kitchen, its own bathroom and toilet, and even its own private telephone.1

Fania Laskina and Mikhail Voshchinsky (wedding photograph) Moscow, 1932

Moscow grew at a furious pace in the early 1930s. From 1928 to 1933 the population of the capital increased from 2 million to 3.4 million, mainly on account of the mass influx of peasants into industry. Their arrival put enormous pressure on the housing stock. After 1933, the growth of the city was controlled by the passport system and by mass expulsions of ‘alien elements’.2 To live in Moscow was the dream of millions. The city was the centre of power, wealth and progress in the Soviet Union. Propaganda portrayed it as living proof of the better life to come under socialism.

The Laskin household in the Arbat: Sivtsev Vrazhek 14, apt. 59

Stalin took a personal interest in the ‘socialist construction’ of his capital. In 1935, he signed an ambitious Master Plan for the Reconstruction of Moscow. The Vesnin Brothers, Leonid, Viktor and Aleksandr, were among the architects responsible for drawing up the plan under the direction of the Moscow Soviet. The plan envisaged a city of 5 million inhabitants, with vast new residential suburbs connected by highways, ring roads, parklands, sewage systems, communication networks and a Metro system that would be the most advanced in the industrial world. Everything was planned on a monumental scale. The medieval city centre, with its narrow streets and churches, was largely cleared to make room for wider streets and squares. A vast new parade route was constructed through the centre of the capital. Tverskaia (renamed Gorky) Street was broadened to a width of 40 metres by knocking down the old buildings (many architectural monuments, including the eighteenth-century chambers of the Moscow Soviet, were reassembled further back from the main road). Red Square was cleared of its market stalls to allow for the march of the massed ranks past the Lenin Mausoleum, the sacred altar of the Revolution, on 1 May and Revolution Day. There were even plans to blow up St Basil’s Cathedral, so that the marchers could file past the Mausoleum in one unbroken line. Stalin’s Moscow was recast as an imperial capital, a Soviet St Petersburg. Bigger, taller, more advanced than any other city in the Soviet Union, it became a symbol of the future socialist society (Bukharin said that the Master Plan was ‘almost magical’ because it would turn Moscow into ‘a new Mecca, to which the fighters for mankind’s happiness would flock from all the ends of the earth’).3

The Vesnin Brothers played a leading part in this transfiguration of the capital. Their work on it involved a dramatic change in their architectural philosophy. During the 1920s, the Vesnins had been in the vanguard of the Constructivist movement, which sought to incorporate the Modernist ideals of Le Corbusier in Soviet architecture. Their adoption of the neoclassical and monumental style, in which Stalin’s Moscow was to be rebuilt, represented an artistic and a moral compromise. But as architects they depended on patrons, and the only patron was the state. The brothers had been on the planning committee for the grandiose Palace of the Soviets, intended for the site of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, demolished in 1932. The Palace was supposed to be the tallest building in the world (at 416 metres it was to be 8 metres taller than the Empire State Building, which opened in New York in 1931) with a colossal statue of Lenin (three times the size of the Statue of Liberty) at its summit.4 The Palace was never built,* but for years the site was a monument to the promise of Moscow.

The Vesnins also helped to oversee the construction of the Moscow Metro, another icon of Communist progress. The tunnelling began in 1932. By the spring of 1934, the enterprise employed 75,000 workers and engineers, many of them peasant immigrants and Gulag prisoners. The digging was extremely dangerous work. There were frequent fires and cave-ins, because of the softness of the soil, and more than a hundred people died during the construction of the first line, 12 kilometres of track between Sokolniki and Gorky Park. Gulag labour was employed in all the city’s major building projects during the 1930s (there were several labour camps in the vicinity of the capital). A quarter of a million prisoners took part in the construction of the Moscow–Volga Canal, which provided water for the growing population of the capital. Many of them died from exhaustion, their bodies buried in the foundations of the canal. Like Peter’s capital, St Petersburg, which was in many ways its inspiration, Stalin’s Moscow was a utopian civilization constructed on the bones of slaves.

When the first Metro line was opened, in 1935, Lazar Kaganovich, the Moscow Party boss, hailed it as a palace of the proletariat: ‘When our worker takes the Metro, he should be cheerful and joyous. He should think of himself in a palace shining with the light of the advancing, all-victorious Socialism.’5 The Metro stations were built as palaces, with chandeliers, stained-glass panels, brass and chrome fittings, walls of marble (there were twenty different kinds), porphyry, onyx and malachite. Maiakovsky Station (1938) matched the beauty of a church, with its oval ceiling cupolas, mosaic designs, marble patterned floors and stainless-steel arches, which created a bright and lofty atmosphere in the central hall. Drawing up their plans for the Stalin Factory (Avtozavod) Metro Station during the late 1930s, the Vesnins likened the effect they aimed to achieve to the atmosphere inside a cathedral. The finished station (1943), with its high, almost gothic marble columns, its simple use of space and light, and its white marble bas reliefs depicting the ‘achievements’ of the Five Year Plans (Magnitogorsk, the Stalin Factory, the Palace of the Soviets, the Moscow–Volga Canal), perfectly accomplished their ideal.6 The splendour of these proletarian palaces, which stood in such stark contrast to the cramped and squalid private spaces in which the majority of people lived, played an important moral role (not unlike the role played by the Church in earlier states). By inspiring civic pride and reverence, the beauty of the Metro helped to foster popular belief in the public goals and values of the Soviet order.

Maiakovsky Station, 1940

Avtozavod Station, 1940s

The Vesnin brothers were also involved in building private homes. They were commissioned to design two- and three-room apartments, like the one Mikhail Voshchinsky and Fania Laskina occupied after their marriage. ‘We were very happy there,’ recalls Fania. ‘It was the first time that either of us had ever lived in an apartment with a bathroom and kitchen. Misha [Mikhail] had his own study. And there was always room for visitors to stay.’7

This new emphasis on the construction of private apartments represented a fundamental change in Soviet housing policy. During the 1920s, when the utopian dream of building new collective forms dictated policy, the Bolsheviks had given priority to ‘commune houses’ (doma kommuny) – huge communal blocks with rows of rooms for several thousand workers and their families, shared kitchens and washing and laundry facilities, which would liberate women from domestic drudgery and teach the inhabitants to organize their lives collectively. The Constructivists in the Union of Contemporary Architects had been in the vanguard of this Soviet campaign to obliterate the private sphere by making people live in a communal way. But Moscow’s housing priorities were turned around in 1931: despite the chronic shortages of accommodation in the Soviet capital – a situation exacerbated by more than a million new arrivals – it was decreed that the main type of housing to be built in Moscow was the luxury house with individual family flats.

The change in policy was obviously connected to the rise of a new political and industrial elite, whose loyalty to the Stalinist regime was secured by the handing down of material rewards. The Five Year Plan had produced a huge demand for new technicians, functionaries and managers in all branches of the economy. According to the chairman of Gosplan, the state planning agency, 435,000 engineers and specialists were needed for the new demands of industry in 1930. The old (‘bourgeois’) industrial elites were mistrusted by the Stalinist leadership (only 2 per cent of Soviet engineers were Party members in 1928). Many of these specialists had been opposed to the fantastically optimistic targets of the Five Year Plan in industry. They were massively purged (as ‘saboteurs’ and ‘wreckers’) in the industrial terror of 1928–32, when the chaos introduced by the Five Year Plan and the constant breakdown in the supply of fuel and raw materials led many workers to denounce their bosses when the factory shut down work and they lost pay. The hounding out of the ‘bourgeois specialists’ from senior positions of industrial management, the economic commissariats, the planning agencies, the academies and the teaching institutes created opportunities for the ‘proletarian intelligentsia’ to be promoted in their place. The first Five Year Plan was the heyday of the Factory Apprentice Schools (FZUs), which trained workers, many of them peasants who had recently arrived from the countryside, for the expanding ranks of the industrial professions and administrative posts in the economy. From 1928 to 1932, the number of students in the FZUs increased from 1.8 to 3.3 million (nearly half of them of peasant origin); 140,000 workers were promoted from the factory floor to management (many of them trained while on the job); and 1.5 million workers left the factory for administrative jobs or higher schools. Meanwhile, a million workers were enrolled in the Party. Controls were dropped to encourage recruitment (in many factories the entire workforce was enrolled en masse), as the Party leadership attempted to create a proletarian social base to support and implement its policies.8

Stalin needed reliable support. The Great Break had created social chaos and widespread discontent, which destabilized his leadership. The archives of the Party and the Soviets are filled with letters and petitions of complaint from angry workers and peasants about the hardships of the Five Year Plan. They wrote to the Soviet government, to Mikhail Kalinin, the Soviet President, or directly to Stalin, to complain about the injustices of collectivization and the over-requisitioning of peasant grain, about the problems they encountered in their factories, about the corruption of Soviet managers and officials, the lack of housing and foodstuffs in the shops.9 This was not a people resigned to its fate. There were uprisings and strikes throughout the land.10 Anti-Soviet graffiti was almost just as visible as Soviet propaganda in many city streets.11 In rural areas there was widespread opposition to the Soviet regime which was voiced in rhyming songs (chastushki):

The Five Year Plan, the Five Year Plan

The Five Year Plan in Ten.

I won’t go to the kolkhoz:

The kolkhoz has no bread!12

Within the Party there was no formal opposition to the Stalin line, but there was a good deal of concealed dissent and discontent about the enormous human costs of 1928–32. In 1932, this began to coalesce around two informal groups. One was made up of Trotsky’s former followers from the Left Opposition of the 1920s (I. N. Smirnov, V. N. Tolmachyov, N. B. Eismont), who held various meetings at which there was talk of removing Stalin from the leadership. The other consisted of remnants of the more moderate Right Opposition, led by supporters of the NEP such as Rykov and Bukharin, and in particular by N. N. Riutin, a former district secretary in the Moscow Party organization. Riutin held a small and secret meeting of old comrades in March 1932, the outcome of which was a 194-page typewritten document entitled ‘Stalin and the Crisis of the Proletarian Dictatorship’. It was a detailed critique of Stalin’s policies, methods of rule and personality, which was circulated in the Party’s ranks, until OGPU intercepted it. All the leading members of the so-called Riutin Platform were arrested, expelled from the Party and imprisoned in the autumn of 1932. Most of them were later to be shot in the Great Purge of 1937, when many more Old Bolsheviks, veterans of 1917, were charged with some connection to the group.13

The exposure of the Riutin group increased Stalin’s paranoia about opposition in his own Party. It coincided with the suicide of Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda Allilueva, in November 1932, which seriously unhinged the leader, making him mistrustful of everybody in his entourage. In January 1933, the Politburo announced a thoroughgoing purge of the Party’s ranks. The purge instructions did not mention members suspected of belonging to opposition groups, but their call for the expulsion of ‘duplicitous elements who live by deceiving the Party, who conceal from it their real aspirations, and who, under the cover of a false oath of “loyalty” to the Party, seek in fact to undermine the Party’s policy’ made it clear that weeding out dissenters was an urgent task for the Party, which needed to close ranks behind the leadership.14

Through the purging of the old and the recruitment of the new, the nature of the Party was gradually evolving in the 1930s. While the Old Bolsheviks were losing ground, a new class of Party bureaucrats was emerging from the industrial rank and file, largely made up of workers promoted to administrative posts (vydvizhentsy). The vydvizhentsy were the sons (and very rarely, the daughters) of the peasantry and the proletariat, trained in the FZUs and other technical institutes during the First Five Year Plan. This cohort of functionaries became the mainstay of the Stalinist regime. By the end of Stalin’s reign, they composed a large proportion of the senior Party leadership (57 of the top 115 ministers in the Soviet government of 1952, including Leonid Brezhnev, Andrei Gromyko and Aleksei Kosygin, were vydvizhentsy of the First Five Year Plan).15 The emerging elite of the early 1930s was generally conformist and obedient to the leadership that had created it. With only seven years of education, on average, few of the new functionaries had much capacity for independent political thought. They took their ideas from the statements of the Party leaders in the press, and parroted their propaganda slogans and political jargon.* Their actual knowledge of Marxist-Leninist ideology was meagre and easily contained in the The Short Course (1938), Stalin’s history of the Party, which they all knew by heart. They identified completely with the Stalinist regime; they linked their personal values to its interests, and all of them were eager to advance their own careers by implementing orders from above.

The character of this new elite was caustically portrayed by Arkadii Mankov, an accountant in the Red Triangle Factory in Leningrad. The son of a lawyer, Mankov was working at the factory so that he could qualify as a ‘proletarian’ and gain entry to the Institute of Librarians. In a 1933 diary entry, he described his boss – a young man of twenty-five, who started his career in the same way as tens of thousands of young men:

He appeared in Leningrad from nobody knows where, and through the labour exchange got a job at the factory. When he had worked there for a couple of months, he joined the Komsomol, became an activist – that is, did everything that he was asked to do – and spoke up at the meetings, showing off his knowledge of Stalin’s and Molotov’s articles, whereupon he was suddenly promoted to work in the administration as a labour economist… His entire achievement consists in having an important title, and in getting nicely paid (300 roubles a month). He gives the impression of a highly successful person who is pleased with himself and his position. He smiles sweetly, wears a spotlessly white English shirt and tie and a dark new jacket and has a confident and even arrogant manner. Although he holds a high post, he has no specific job. He does all the petty tasks: keeps tabs on people, checks the accounts, sets the work norms. He considers it his business to stick his nose into everything – to express ‘the factory view’ – to insist, shout, threaten. He collects information carefully and fills out pointless forms and cards which are never seen by anyone. He takes a particular interest in investigating the legality of all innovation in the workshop and is always checking the rulebook.16

Competing for material and political rewards, this type of functionary easily turned against his rivals in the Soviet hierarchy. In 1932, a manager at Transmashtekh, a vast industrial conglomerate, wrote to the Soviet President Mikhail Kalinin:

The problem with Soviet power is the fact that it gives rise to the vilest type of official – one that scrupulously carries out the general designs of the supreme authority… This official never tells the truth, because he doesn’t want to distress the leadership. He gloats about famine and pestilence in the district or ward controlled by his rival. He won’t lift a finger to help his neighbour… All I see around me is loathsome politicizing, dirty tricks and people being destroyed for slips of the tongue. There’s no end to the denunciations. You can’t spit without hitting some revolting denouncer or liar. What have we come to? It’s impossible to breathe. The less gifted a bastard, the meaner his slander. Of course the purge of your Party is none of my business, but I think that as a result of it, decent elements still remaining will be cleaned out.17

In The Revolution Betrayed (1936), where he outlined his theory of the ‘Soviet Thermidor’, Trotsky pointed to the vast ‘administrative pyramid’ of bureaucrats, which he numbered at 5 or 6 million, on which Stalin’s power depended.18 This new ruling caste did not share the democratic instincts or the Spartan cult of the Old Bolsheviks, who had been so worried that the Party rank and file would be corrupted by the bourgeois influences of the NEP. On the contrary, they hoped to become a Soviet bourgeoisie. Their interests centred on the comforts of the home, on the acquisition of material possessions, on ‘cultivated’ pursuits and manners. They were socially reactionary, clinging to the customs of the patriarchal family, conservative in their cultural tastes, even if politically they believed in the Communist ideal. Their main aim was to defend the Soviet system, from which they derived their material well-being and position in society.

The system, in turn, made sure they were content. During the Second Five Year Plan (1933–7) the government increased its investment in consumer industries, which had been starved of capital in the rush to build new factories and towns. By the middle of the 1930s, the supply of foodstuffs, clothes and household goods had markedly improved (millions of children who grew up in these years would recall the mid-1930s as a time when they were given their first pair of shoes). From the autumn of 1935, rationing was gradually lifted, giving rise, in Soviet propaganda, to an optimistic mood among consumers as shop windows filled with goods. Cameras, gramophones and radios were mass-produced for the aspiring urban middle class. There was a steady rise in the production of luxury goods (perfumes, chocolate, cognac and champagne), which catered mainly to the new elite, although prices were reduced for Soviet holidays. It was important to the Soviet myth of the ‘good life’ to give the impression that luxury goods previously affordable only by the rich were now being made accessible to the masses, who could afford them too if they worked hard. New consumer magazines informed the Soviet shopper about the growing diversity of clothing fashions and furnishing designs. Huge publicity was given to the opening of department stores and luxury food shops, like the former Yeliseyev store, renamed Grocery No. 1, which reopened on Moscow’s Gorky Street in October 1934. ‘The new store will sell more than 1,200 foodstuffs,’ announced the newspaper Evening Moscow:

In the grocery department there are 38 kinds of sausage, including 20 new kinds that have not been sold anywhere before. This department will also sell three kinds of cheese – Camembert, Brie and Limburger – made for the store by special order. In the confectionary department there are 200 kinds of sweets and pastries… The bread department has up to 50 kinds of bread…

The next day, the store was visited by 75,000 people (most, one suspects, just to look).19

The promotion of a Soviet consumer culture was a dramatic ideological retreat from the revolutionary asceticism of the Bolsheviks in the first decade of the Revolution, and even in the period of the First Five Year Plan, when Communists were called upon to sacrifice their happiness for the Party’s cause. The Soviet leadership was now communicating the contrary message: that consumerism and Communism were compatible. Socialism, Stalin argued in 1934, ‘means, not poverty and deprivation, but the elimination of poverty and deprivation, and the organization of a rich and cultured life for all members of society’. Stalin developed this idea at a conference of kolkhoz labourers in 1935. Reprimanding the collective farms for trying to eliminate all private household property, Stalin called for the kolkhoz workers to be allowed to keep their poultry and their cows, and to be given larger garden allotments, to stimulate their interest in the collective farms. ‘A person is a person. He wants to own something for himself,’ Stalin told the delegates. There was ‘nothing criminal in this’ – it was a natural human instinct to want private property, and it would ‘take a long time yet to rework the psychology of the human being, to re-educate people to live collectively’.20

A further sign of this retreat from the ascetic culture of the Revolution was the new importance the Party now assigned to personal appearance and etiquette. The early Bolsheviks considered it anti-socialist to care about such petty things. But from the 1930s the Party declared that cultivated manners and good grooming were compulsory for the young Communist. ‘We endorse beauty, smart clothes, chic coiffures, manicures,’ announced Pravda in 1934. ‘Girls should be attractive. Perfume and make-up belong to the “must” of a good Komsomol girl. Clean shaving is mandatory for a Komsomol boy.’ Perfumes and cosmetics were sold in growing quantities and varieties during the 1930s. Conferences were held to debate fashion and personal hygiene.21

There was also a new emphasis on having fun. ‘Life has become better, comrades. Life has become more joyous,’ announced Stalin in 1935. ‘And when life is joyous, work goes well.’ Dancing, which had been condemned by the early Bolsheviks as a frivolous pursuit, was officially encouraged by the Stalinist regime. It soon became the rage, with dance schools opening everywhere. There were carnivals in Moscow’s parks, and huge parades to celebrate the Soviet holidays. The Soviet cinema churned out happy musicals and romantic comedies. The people did not have much bread, but there were lots of circuses.

The consolidation of the Stalinist regime was closely connected to the creation of a social hierarchy structured by the granting of material rewards. For those at the top of the pyramid these rewards were immediately available for industry and loyalty; for those at the bottom they were promised in the future, when Communism had been reached. The regime was thus connected to the establishment of an aspirational society, at the heart of which was a new middle class made up of the Party and industrial elites, the technical intelligentsia and professionals, military and police officers, and loyal industrial workers who proved their worth by working hard (the Stakhanovites).* The defining principle of this new social hierarchy was service to the state. In every institution, the slogan of the Second Five Year Plan (‘Cadres Decide Everything!’) served to uphold the state’s loyal servitors; and their loyalty was handsomely rewarded with higher rates of pay, special access to consumer goods, Soviet titles and honours.

The emergence of a Soviet middle class was further supported by the regime’s cultivation of traditional (‘bourgeois’) family values from the mid-1930s. This represented a dramatic reversal of the anti-family policies pursued by the Party since 1917. It was partly a reaction to the demographic impact of the Great Break: the birthrate had declined disastrously, posing a serious threat to the country’s labour supply and military strength; the divorce rate had increased; and child abandonment had become a mass phenomenon, as families fragmented, leaving the regime to cope with the consequences. But the return to traditional family values was also a reflection of the conservatism of the new industrial and political elites, most of whom had risen only recently from the peasantry and the working class. As Trotsky wrote in 1936, the change in policy was a frank admission by the Soviet regime that its utopian attempt to ‘take the old family by storm’ – to root out the habits and customs of private life and implant collective instincts – had failed.22

From the middle of the 1930s, the Party adopted a more liberal approach towards the family and the private home. The notion of ‘private life’ (chastnaia zhizn’) – a closed and separate sphere beyond the state’s control and scrutiny – was still rejected ideologically. But the idea of ‘personal life’ (lichnaia zhizn’) – an individual or family realm that remained open to public scrutiny – was actively promoted by the state. In this configuration of the private–public division, the private and the personal were defined in terms of individuality; but the domination of the public sphere demanded visibility of every aspect of the individual’s life. The practical effect was to liberate a space within the four walls of the home for the free expression of domesticity (consumer taste, ways of living, domestic habits, and so on), while retaining political controls on the private conduct of the individual, especially the Communist. ‘The Party does not interfere or create standards for the trifles of the everyday life of the Communist,’ announced Rabotnitsa, the Party’s main newspaper for women, in 1936; ‘it does not insist on rules of behaviour for every Party member in every aspect of a member’s life. But the Party does require that every member behave in their private life in a way that serves the interests of the Party and the working class.’23

The new emphasis on building private homes was one sign of this change in policy. All the major ministries had their own blocks of flats in Moscow, which they allocated to their leading officials. Bolshevik families who had led a relatively austere existence in the 1920s now enjoyed lives of relative luxury, as they were rewarded with new homes, privileged access to food shops, chauffered cars, dachas, holidays in special government resorts and sanitoria. For many of these families, the 1930s were a time when they first gained their own domestic space and autonomy. The granting of dachas to the Soviet elite – organized on a large scale from the 1930s on – was particularly important to the encouragement of private family life. At the dacha, safe from watchful eyes and listening ears, relatives could sit and talk in ways that were inconceivable in public places; moreover, the everyday routines of simple country life – swimming, hiking, mushroom-picking, reading, lounging in the yard – provided families some respite from the constraints of Soviet society.

Within the home the Stalinist regime promoted a return to traditional family relations. Marriage became glamorous. Registration offices were smartened up. Marriage certificates were issued on high-quality paper (from Vishlag) instead of on the wrapping paper used before. Wedding rings, which had been banned as Christian relics in 1928, reappeared in Soviet shops after 1936. A series of decrees aimed to strengthen the Soviet family: the divorce laws were tightened; fees for divorce were raised substantially, leading to a sudden fall in the divorce rate; child support was raised; homosexuality and abortion were outlawed. Among the Soviet elite there was a return to conventional and even rather prudish sexual attitudes. The good Stalinist was expected to be monogamous, and devoted to his family, as Stalin was himself, according to the propaganda of his cult.* The conduct of the Bolshevik in his intimate relations was closely scrutinized. It was not unusual for a Bolshevik to be expelled from the Party because he was judged to be a bad father or husband. The wives of Party members were expected to return to the traditional role of raising children in the home.

This ideological restoration of the family was closely tied to its promotion as the basic unit of the state. ‘The family is the primary cell of our society,’ wrote one educationalist in 1935, ‘and its duties in child-rearing derive from its obligations to cultivate good citizens.’ From the middle of the 1930s, the Stalinist regime increasingly portrayed itself through metaphors and symbols of the family – a value-system familiar to the population at a time when millions of people found themselves in a new and alien environment. The cult of Stalin, which took off in these years, portrayed the leader as the ‘father of the Soviet people’, just as Nicholas II had been the ‘father-tsar’ (tsar-batiushka) of the Russian people before 1917. Social institutions like the Red Army, the Party and the Komsomol, and even the ‘Proletariat’, were reconceived as ‘big families’, offering a higher form of belonging through comradeship. In this patriarchal Party-state the role of the parent was now strengthened as a figure of authority who reinforced the moral principles of the Soviet regime in the home. ‘Young people should respect their elders, especially their parents,’ declared Komsomolskaia Pravda in 1935. ‘One must respect and love parents, even if they are old-fashioned and do not like the Komsomol.’ It was a dramatic change from the moral lessons taught by the cult of Pavlik Morozov, which had encouraged Soviet children to denounce their parents if they were opposed to the policies of the government. As of 1935, the regime reinterpreted the Morozov cult, playing down the story of Pavlik’s denunciation and emphasizing new motifs, such as Pavlik’s hard work and obedience at school.24

Children of the Soviet elite who grew up in these years recall them with nostalgia, particularly for the experience of ‘normal family life’. Marina Ivanova was born in 1928 to a family of senior Party officials. Her father was the Secretary of the Party in the town of Mga, 50 kilometres south-east of Leningrad, where the family had a spacious dacha, although they lived mostly in the Leningrad apartment of Marina’s grandfather, a former nobleman. ‘The apartment was luxurious,’ recalls Marina,

with ten large rooms where I could run as a child. The rooms had high ceilings and enormous windows looking out onto the gardens… Oil paintings [copies] by Repin and Levitan hung on the walls. A grand piano and a billiard table stood in the two reception rooms… This apartment is the place of my happiest childhood memories. I remember crowded parties, with family friends and relatives, and all their children, gathered in our home for the New Year. The children had on masquerade costumes, and Papa would dress up as Uncle Frost and appear with chocolates and gifts for everyone, which he would put around the New Year tree.25

Inna Gaister’s family moved to the prestigious block of flats reserved for senior Soviet officials (the ‘House on the Embankment’) opposite the Kremlin in Moscow after her father Aron became the head of the agricultural section of Gosplan in 1932. They had a large apartment with the latest Soviet furniture provided by the government, and a library with several thousand books. The family enjoyed a cultured Russian lifestyle, combining their Communist ideals with the privileges of the Soviet elite. They had a pass to the Imperial Box at the Bolshoi Theatre. There were frequent holidays to special Party resorts in the Crimea, and Astafevo, near Moscow. But Inna’s fondest memories are of summers at their family dacha at Nikolina Gora:

The settlement was located in a beautiful pine forest, on a high hill above a bend in the Moscow River. It was a place of magnificent beauty, one of the finest in the Moscow area… Our plot was right above the river, on a high bank. The dacha was a large two-storeyed house: my mother’s brother, Veniamin, with barely hidden envy used to call it her ‘villa’. There were three large rooms downstairs and three upstairs. And an enormous verandah. The rooms were usually full of people. There were always some of my parents’ many relatives – mostly my cousins – staying there. On weekends my mother’s and father’s friends would come from Moscow… and I had my own friends from the nearby dachas. We used to spend most of our time on the river. Papa had built a stairway from our dacha down to the river, to make it easier for my grandmother to get to the water. It was a winding stairway – the slope was very steep – with at least a hundred steps. Long after we left, people still called it Gaister’s stairway. At the bottom there was a little wooden pier for swimming. Since the water around our pier was very deep, I was only allowed to swim there with my father. My friends and I preferred the pier below the Kerzhentsev dacha, where the water was shallow and good for swimming.26

But such happy memories were not everyone’s lot. For many families, the 1930s were a time of growing strain. The restoration of traditional relations often created tensions between husbands and their wives. According to Trotsky, who wrote extensively on the Soviet family, the Stalinist regime had betrayed the commitment of the Bolshevik revolutionaries to liberate women from domestic slavery. His assertion is supported by statistics, which reveal how household tasks were divided within working-class families. In 1923–34, working women were spending three times longer than their husbands doing household chores, but by 1936 they were spending five times longer. For women nothing changed in the 1930s – they worked long hours at a factory and then did a second shift at home, cooking, cleaning, caring for the children on average for five hours every night – whereas men were liberated from most of their traditional domestic duties (chopping wood, carrying water, preparing the stove) by the modernization of workers’ housing, which increased the provision of running water, gas and electricity, leaving them more time for cultural pursuits and politics.27

But Trotsky also had in mind the sexual politics of families:

One of the dramatic chapters in the great book of the Soviets will be the tale of the disintegration and breaking up of those Soviet families where the husband as a Party member, trade unionist, military commander or administrator, grew and developed and acquired new tastes in life, and the wife, crushed by the family, remained on the old level. The road of the two generations of the Soviet bureaucracy is sown thick with the tragedies of wives rejected and left behind. The same phenomenon is now to be observed in the new generation. The greatest of all crudities and cruelties are to be met perhaps in the very heights of the bureaucracy, where a very large percentage are parvenus of little culture, who consider that everything is permitted to them. Archives and memoirs will some day expose downright crimes in relation to wives, and to women in general, on the part of those evangelists of family morals and the compulsory ‘joys of motherhood’, who are, owing to their position, immune from prosecution.28

Vladimir Makhnach was born in 1903 to a poor peasant family in Uzda, 60 kilometres south of Minsk in Belarus. His mother died while giving birth to him, and his father emigrated to the USA in 1906, leaving Vladimir to be brought up by his aunt. At the age of fourteen, he ran away from home to join the Red Guards, taking part in the seizure of power in Minsk in October 1917. He spent the next four years in the Red Army and fought against the Poles, who invaded Soviet Russia in the Civil War. In 1921, Vladimir joined the Bolsheviks and began his studies at the Mogilyov Agricultural Academy, where he met and fell in love with Maria Chausova. Born in 1904, Maria was the daughter of a peasant trader in the small town of Krichev, 100 kilometres east of Mogilyov. The youngest of six sisters, and the first to study beyond secondary school, Maria graduated from the Agricultural Academy with a distinction in agronomy and economics in 1925. The couple lived together as de facto man and wife in Mogilyov (like many Soviet youths in the 1920s, they refused to register their marriage as a sign of protest against bourgeois conventions). After graduating from the Agricultural Academy, Vladimir pursued a career in research. In 1928, he went to Moscow, where he joined the Institute of Peat (then regarded by the Bolsheviks as an important source of energy) and researched a dissertation under the direction of Ivan Radchenko, the veteran Bolshevik and friend of Lenin, who was the head of the institute. Vladimir’s impeccable credentials, his proletarian origins and his enthusiasm for Stalin’s industrialization plans soon attracted the attention of the Moscow Party organization, which called him up to work with Radchenko on the development of new energy supplies for Moscow in 1932. Vladimir became the first director of the Mosgaz Trust – a newly founded industrial complex entrusted with the task of providing gas to the rapidly expanding capital.29

Maria followed Vladimir to Moscow, where she worked in the Commissariat of Agriculture as an economist until 1933, when their son Leonid was born. On Vladimir’s promotion to Mosgaz, they moved from a small room in a communal apartment to a large private flat on Sparrow Hills (renamed the Lenin Hills in 1935). They enjoyed all the privileges of Stalin’s new elite: a chauffered government limousine; a private dacha in the exclusive settlement of Serebrianyi Bor; and access to the secret shops reserved for Party workers, where hard-to-get consumer goods were readily available. Leonid describes his earliest memories as

fragmentary recollections filled with a sense of abundance and the atmosphere of a magical fairy-tale: there I am on my father’s strong shoulders looking round at a sea of lights and marble splendour (it must have been in the newly opened Metro in Moscow)… There we are by the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square on 1 May.30

Maria employed a nanny, who lived in the pantry of the Makhnach apartment. Maria’s aim was to go back to work at the Commissariat. But Vladimir was violently opposed to the idea (he told Maria that ‘a senior Party leader should have a wife who stays at home’) and lost his temper when she tried to change his mind. Like many Party men, Vladimir believed that his family life should be subordinated to his Party obligations: because his work was more important to the Party than his wife’s, it was her duty to support him by organizing a ‘well-ordered Communist home’. In November 1935, he wrote to Maria from a work trip to Leningrad:

My darling! I shall be away for several weeks. I shall write to you with my news and instructions. For the moment all I need is a few books [a list follows]… It would be a good idea to decorate the hall, it’s a little dark. That is all. Make sure our little one is safe and sound. And take care of yourself. Wrap up warm when you go out… Forget your illusions of going back to work. Your place now is in the home.31

Vladimir Makhnach, 1934

Maria and Leonid, 1940s

The return to ‘bourgeois’ material values was sometimes yet another source of tension within families. Anatoly Golovnia was a leading figure in the Soviet cinema, the cameraman and close collaborator of Vsevolod Pudovkin, who directed several classic Soviet films, Mother (1926), Storm over Asia (1930) and The Deserter (1933), and won the Stalin Prize no less than five times. Golovnia was born in 1900 in the Crimean town of Simferopol. His father, a minor nobleman, died when he was two, leaving his mother to raise Anatoly and his brother Pyotr on a small pension. The family moved to Kherson, where the boys received a grant from the Noble Assembly to study at the First Gymnasium, a type of grammar school. After the October Revolution, Anatoly joined the Cheka, while Pyotr joined the Whites. In 1920, Anatoly was put in charge of a small Cheka unit with the task of ambushing a White brigade encamped nearby. The brigade was led by his closest friend at school, the son of the chairman of the Kherson Noble Assembly. Anatoly could not bring himself to carry out the order, so he plied his men with vodka and crossed over to the Whites to warn them to escape. This whole episode of Anatoly’s life – which is documented in his diaries – was erased from his biography. For the next three years, Anatoly lived on the run from the Reds. First he settled in Tashkent, where he tried to become an agronomist, but after he was rejected from the agricultural school, he fled to Moscow, where he enrolled at the State Technical-Institute of Cinematography (GTK), the newly opened film school in the Soviet capital, to study camera-work in September 1923. It was there that he met and fell in love with Liuba Ivanova, a young actress of extraordinary beauty, who had just arrived in Moscow from Cheliabinsk in the Urals, where she had been born in 1905, the youngest of fourteen children in a peasant family. The couple were soon married, but they spent a lot of time apart, working on location for their films. Their daughter Oksana was often sent by train to stay with aunts in Kherson, or to Cheliabinsk, where she would stay with her grandmother.

In 1933, Anatoly and Liuba received their first apartment – two small rooms in a communal flat located in the courtyard annexe of a large housing block in the centre of Moscow. Their daughter Oksana, who was then aged seven, recalls the apartment in her memoirs (1981):

The floorboards were painted red [because there was no carpet]… Today’s young people, who live for material possessions, would think that they were visiting a store of discarded furniture, or even a rubbish dump. The most valuable thing in our flat was the ‘Slavonic’ chest of drawers. All our kitchen goods were stored in a home-made cupboard painted white. There were two spring mattresses, Papa’s writing table, and three Finnish bookcases with glass fronts – my favourite piece of furniture, because they contained our books… I slept on a fold-up camp-bed behind the china cupboard in a corner of the living room. The camp-bed was the only thing that ‘belonged’ to me. I would talk to it at night. I used to think it told me dreams.32

These were modest living quarters for two important figures of the Soviet cinema. By this time Liuba was a leading actress at the Mezhrabpomfilm studios and had starred in several silent films. Anatoly attached little significance to personal property. He was ‘opposed to it on principle’, as he often said, and strongly disapproved of luxury and abundance. ‘White shirts and ties were the only things he owned in excessive quantities,’ recalls Oksana. Anatoly’s austerity was rooted in the values of his class (the impoverished nobility from which so many of Russia’s leading writers, artists, thinkers and revolutionaries had emerged) and the frugal habits of his mother, who had raised her sons on a small widow’s pension, making sacrifices so that they could go to school. It was precisely this ethos of hard work and discipline that had attracted Anatoly to the Bolsheviks in 1917. According to his granddaughter, there was ‘always something of the Chekist in his character. He was severe and strict as a grandfather and never once indulged me as a child.’33

Liuba was different. Warm and affectionate, excessive in her passions, she was used to being spoilt, as she had always been as the youngest and most pretty in her family, and eager to enjoy the high life of Moscow. She dressed expensively and had a lot of jewellery. In 1934, Liuba fell in love with the glamorous and handsome boss of Mezhrabpomfilm, Boris Babitsky. She left Anatoly and went to live with Babitsky at his dacha in Kratovo, just outside the capital, where he was living with his

From left: Anatoly Golovnia as Chekist, 1919; Liuba Golovnia, 1925; Boris Babitsky, 1932

son (Volik) from a previous marriage. In the autumn, Liuba and Boris returned to Moscow. They moved into a spacious apartment (just beneath the offices of Mezhrabpomfilm) in the Comintern hotel (Hotel Lux), in the centre. The apartment was luxurious, four large rooms off a corridor with parquet floors, and a large kitchen where a housekeeper and a nanny slept. ‘It was a palace, a museum, a fairy-tale,’ recalls Oksana, who went to live there in 1935. The interior was designed and built by a French worker from the Comintern. The furniture – valuable antiques, bronze vases, leather chairs and Persian carpets – was purchased at heavily discounted prices from the NKVD warehouses in Leningrad. The furniture had been confiscated from families of the old nobility and bourgeoisie who had been arrested and expelled from their homes, on Stalin’s orders, following the murder of Sergei Kirov, the Party boss of Leningrad, in December 1934. ‘Mama was very proud of her acquisitions,’ recalls Oksana, ‘and liked to tell us stories about every piece.’34

Anatoly’s mother, the domineering Lydia Ivanovna, who took her values from the old nobility, thought that Liuba had ‘bourgeois pretensions’. She ridiculed her ‘vulgar tastes’ in clothes and furniture because they reflected the ‘material acquisitiveness of the new Soviet elite’. She thought her son had married beneath him and once even said in a heated argument that Oksana was ‘the biggest mistake of the Revolution’, because she was the child of their mismarriage. Convinced that Liuba left her son for Babitsky because he could better satisfy her expensive tastes, Lydia tried to persuade Anatoly, who was distraught by Liuba’s departure, that he might lure her back with a more spacious apartment. But Anatoly would not compromise his principles. Looking back on these events in her memoirs, Oksana reflected on the three conflicting views on property that agitated her family: those of the nobility; the Spartan attitudes of the revolutionary Bolsheviks; and the materialistic attitudes of the new Soviet elite. Oksana sympathized with her mother’s position. She felt that her attachment to her country home was not so much a desire for property as a yearning for the sort of family life she had known as a child:

Mama always used to say that we were going to ‘our dacha’ – as if it belonged to us. I remember this because Papa often said that he was opposed to the idea of things belonging to anyone. At that age, I had no idea about property and did not think about my mother’s aspirations to have something of her own. Today, as I try to understand her better, I think that it was not just about property. Mama was not simply building a dacha – she was building a family. She made her family out of real things, just as her peasant ancestors had done for centuries. She loved Boris, she loved me and she loved Volik, and that love was the focus of her home.35

Volik Babitsky and Liuba and Oksana at the Kratovo dacha, 1935


Few people enjoyed the lifestyle of Liuba Golovnia. For most of the Soviet population the 1930s were years of material shortage, and even for the new bureaucracy, with access to special shops, the supply of goods was hardly plentiful. According to one estimate, during the first half of the 1930s the number of families receiving special provisions (a good estimate of the Soviet nomenklatura) was 55,500, of which 45,000 lived in Moscow. The goods they received allowed these families to live in greater comfort than the vast majority, but by Western standards they still lived very modestly. Here is a list of the goods received by the families of government workers in the centre of Moscow for one month in 1932:

4 kg of meat

4 kg of sausage

1.5 kg of butter

2 litres of oil

6 kg of fresh fish

2 kg of herring

3 kg of sugar

3 kg of flour

3 kg of grains

8 cans of food

20 eggs

2 kg of cheese

1 kg of black caviar

50 g of tea

1,200 cigarettes

2 pieces of soap

These families could also purchase clothes and shoes from special shops with coupons given to them by the government, and they had first access to any luxury foods or consumer goods when they became available. But their privileged position was relatively marginal, and the majority of Stalin’s ordinary functionaries lived a modest existence, with no more than a few extra clothes or a slightly larger living space than the average citizen. As Mankov noted with sarcasm in his diary: ‘The most that anyone can dream to own: two or three different sets of clothes, one of which is imported, an imported bicycle (or motorcycle) and an unlimited opportunity to buy grapes at 11 rbs a kilogram (when they are on sale).’36

There was a direct correlation between the allocation of material goods and power or position in the socio-political hierarchy. Below the Soviet elite nobody had many possessions – most people lived in a single pair of clothes – and there was barely enough food for everyone. But in the distribution of even these few goods there was a strict ranking system with infinite gradations between the various categories of employee based on status in the workplace, skill level and experience, and to some extent on geographical location, for rates of pay were better in Moscow and other major cities than they were in the provincial towns and rural areas. Despite its egalitarian image and ideals, this was in fact a highly stratified society. There was a rigid hierarchy of poverty.

Private trade partly compensated for the frequent shortages of the planned economy. People sold and exchanged their household goods at flea markets. If they could afford it, they could buy the produce grown by kolkhoz peasants on their garden allotments and sold at the few remaining urban markets tolerated by the government. People were allowed to sell their furniture and other precious items at the state commission stores, or exchange their jewellery and foreign currency for luxury foodstuffs and consumer goods at the Torgsin shops developed by the regime in the early 1930s to draw out the savings of the population and raise capital for the Five Year Plan. The black market flourished on the margins of the planned economy. Goods unavailable in the state stores were sold at higher prices under the counter, or siphoned off to private traders (bribe-paying friends of the manager) for resale on the black market. To cope with the problems of supply an ‘economy of favours’ came into operation through small informal networks of patrons and clients (a system known as ‘blat’). In many ways the Soviet economy could not have functioned without these private connections. To get anything (a rented room, household goods, a railway ticket, a passport or official papers) required personal contacts – family and kin, colleagues, friends, or friends of friends. The same black-market principles were known to operate in Soviet factories and institutions, where many goods and services were supplied and exchanged on the basis of personal contacts and favours. Soviet propaganda portrayed blat as a form of corruption (the aim of rooting out these private networks of patron–client relations assumed an important role in the purges), and this view was shared by many workers, in particular. But most people were ambivalent in their attitude to blat: they recognized that it was not right morally, and certainly not legal, but relied on it, as everybody did, to fulfil their needs and get around a system they knew to be unfair. Without blat it was impossible to live with any comfort in the Soviet Union. As the proverb said: ‘One must have, not a hundred roubles, but a hundred friends.’37

Housing shortages were so acute in the overcrowded towns that people would do almost anything to increase their living space. The mass influx of peasants into industry had put enormous pressure on the housing stock in the cities. In Moscow the average person had just 5.5 square metres of living space in 1930, falling to just over 4 square metres in 1940. In the new industrial towns, where house-building lagged far behind the growth of the population, the situation was even worse.38 In Magnitogorsk, for example, the average living space for working-class families was just 3.2 square metres per capita in 1935. Most of the workers lived in factory barracks, where families were broken up, or in dormitories, where a curtain around their plank-beds provided the only privacy. One female worker in Magnitogorsk drew a vivid picture of life in her barracks:

Dormitories without separate rooms, divided into four sections, tiny kitchen areas where it was impossible to turn around, stoves thoroughly overrun with pots and pans, people in greasy work clothes (there were no showers at the steel plant), children in the hallways, queuing for water, wretched ‘furniture’ – metal cots, bedside tables, home-made desks and shelves.

Many barracks were deliberately built without kitchens or washrooms in order to force their inhabitants to use the public dining halls, public baths and laundries. But most of the workers in Magnitogorsk proved resistant to this collectivization of their private life and preferred to live in dug-outs in the ground (zemlianki), where, despite the primitive conditions, there was at least a modicum of privacy. In 1935, about a quarter of the population of Magnitogorsk lived in these dug-outs. There were entire shanty towns of zemlianki on wasteland near the factories and mines. Workers demonstrated fierce resistance to the Soviet’s attempts to wipe out this last zone of private property.39

In Stalin’s Russia human relations revolved around the struggle over living space. According to Nadezhda Mandelshtam:

Future generations will never understand what ‘living space’ means to us. Innumerable crimes have been committed for its sake, and people are so tied to it that to leave it would never occur to them. Who could ever leave this wonderful, precious twelve and a half square metres of living space? No one would be so mad, and it is passed on to one’s descendants like a family castle, a villa or an estate. Husbands and wives who loathe the sight of each other, mothers-in-law and sons-in-law, grown sons and daughters, former domestic servants who have managed to hang onto a cubby hole next to the kitchen – all are wedded forever to their living space and would never part with it. In marriage and divorce the first thing that arises is the question of living space. I have heard men described as perfect gentlemen for throwing over their wives but leaving them the living space.40

There are endless tales of bogus marriages to obtain a place to live, of divorced couples sharing rooms together rather than give up their living space, of neighbours denouncing one another in the hope of getting extra space.41

In 1932, Nadezhda Skachkova, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a peasant widow in Tver province, was studying at the Railway Institute in Leningrad. She was living in a student hostel, sharing one small room with several other girls. Like many recent arrivals from the countryside, Nadezhda was not registered to live in Leningrad. With the introduction of the passport system, she stood to be evicted from her room. Through acquaintances Nadezhda got in contact with a young Ukrainian soldier who had a room (8 square metres) in a communal apartment. The soldier was about to join his unit in the Donbass. Nadezhda paid him 500 roubles to marry her, money which her mother raised by selling her last cow and household property, and then moved into his room, where she was joined by her mother. Nadezhda met her husband only once:

We went to see him the evening before he left for the army. We settled the payment. Then we went to the registry office to marry and after that to the house administration so that they could register us [Nadezhda and her mother] as residents. And that was that. The people in the house administration smiled, of course – they knew that we were getting round the rules. They checked that all the details were correct. My husband left the next morning. And Mama and I had eight square metres to ourselves… Of course I never thought to live with him. He was a simple country lad, barely literate. He sent us one or two letters – ‘How are you?’ and that sort of thing. He wrote not ‘Donbass’ but ‘Dobas’. Good Lord! Even that he could not spell.42

The most common type of living space in the Soviet cities was the communal apartment (kommunalka), in which several families co-inhabited a single apartment, sharing a kitchen, a toilet and a bathroom, if they were lucky (many urban residents relied on public baths and laundries).43 In Moscow and Leningrad three-quarters of the population lived in communal apartments in the middle of the 1930s, and that way of living remained the norm for most people in those cities throughout the Stalin period.44 Along with everything else, the kommunalka, too, changed in nature in the 1930s. Whereas its purpose in the 1920s was to address the housing crisis and at the same time strike a blow against private life, it now became primarily a means of extending the state’s powers of surveillance into the private spaces of the family home. After 1928, the Soviets increasingly tightened their control of the ‘condensation’ policy, deliberately moving Party activists and loyal workers into the homes of the former bourgeoisie so that they could keep an eye on them.45

The Khaneyevskys experienced every phase of kommunalka living. Aleksei Khaneyevsky came from a wealthy clan of merchants in Voronezh. He arrived in Moscow to study medicine in 1901. Aleksei became a military doctor, serving with distinction in the First World War, when he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, a rank that gave him the status of a nobleman. In 1915, Aleksei rented a comfortable and spacious apartment on Prechistenka Street near the centre of Moscow. He lived there with his wife, Nadezhda, their two young daughters, Irina (born in 1917) and Elena (1921), together with a nanny, until 1926, when the Moscow Soviet imposed its ‘condensation’ policy on the family. A factory worker, Marfa Filina, moved into a room in the apartment, followed by the family of a tailor, Vasily Kariakin, and then the family of Nikolai Sazonov, a Red Army veteran of proletarian origins who had risen to become a professor at the Communist Academy. Where three adults and two children had been living in the 1920s, there were fourteen people cramped in the apartment by 1936, when Nikolai Sazonov’s second wife moved into the flat with her mother. They shared the hallway, the kitchen (where two houseworkers slept), a toilet and a bathroom, which had no water (it was used as a store) so the only place to wash was at the cold-water tap in the kitchen. The Khaneyevskys attempted to isolate themselves from their new neighbours by putting up a door to close off the back of the apartment, where they lived. Their neighbours liked the door because it added to their privacy as well. In 1931, the district Soviet ordered that a bathroom be installed – it was part of the Soviet campaign for personal hygiene at that time – so the door was taken down. But life without the door proved very difficult, with constant arguments between the Khaneyevskys and the Sazonovs, so Aleksei paid a bribe to the Soviet to let them take away the bath. The bathroom was again turned into a store and the private door returned. The Khaneyevskys’ relations with the Sazonovs remained problematic, however. Nikolai’s mother-in-law was mentally unstable and often threw a fit in the corridor, accusing somebody of stealing food, which she hid beneath her bed. Class differences played a part in these conflicts. Nadezhda worried that the Sazonovs would steal her silver. She took offence when they appeared semi-naked in the corridor. She said they smelled and told them they should wash more frequently.46

The Khaneyevsky household (communal apartment), Prechistenka (Kropotkin) Street, 33/19, Flat 25

Many of the old apartment owners felt that they were picked on by the new inhabitants because they were seen by them as members of the ‘bourgeoisie’. Vera Orlova, a countess before 1917, lived in a communal apartment that had once been a part of her family’s house. She and her husband moved into a single room with their daughter, who describes the poisonous atmosphere in the apartment during the 1930s.

Communal life was terrifying. The inhabitants measured every square centimetre of the corridor and every patch of common space and protested because mother left some valuable pieces of furniture there. They claimed they took up too much space, that she had to keep them in her room, that the corridor did not belong to her. The ‘neighbours’ timed how long we spent in the bathroom. In some communal apartments the inhabitants installed timers [on the lights] in the toilet, so that no one consumed more than their fair share of electricity.47

The Khaneyevsky household was not overcrowded by comparison with the majority of communal apartments in Moscow and Leningrad. Yevgeny Mamlin grew up in a kommunalka with sixteen families (fifty-four people), each one living in a single room, and all sharing one kitchen. There were two toilets, and two basins with cold water, but no bathroom.48 Minora Novikova grew up in a communal apartment in Moscow. There were thirty-six rooms – each with at least one family – on a corridor that ran round three sides of the house. In her room there were ten people living in a space of only 12.5 square metres. ‘How we slept is hard to say,’ recalls Minora.

There was a table in the room, on which my grandmother slept. My brother, who was six, slept in a cot underneath the table. My parents slept in the bed by the door. My other grandmother slept on the divan. My aunt slept on a large feather mattress on the floor with her cousin on one side, while my sister (who was then aged sixteen), my cousin (ten), and I (eleven) somehow squeezed in between them – I don’t remember how. We children loved sleeping on the floor: we could slide our bodies underneath our parents’ bed and have a lot of fun. I don’t imagine that it was much fun for the adults.49

Nina Paramonova lived in a similar ‘corridor system’ in Leningrad. The apartment occupied the whole floor of a house that had been requisitioned from a German baron by the Institute of Trade in 1925, and Nina moved there in 1931 with her husband, a ship designer, when she took a job as an accountant in the Leningrad railway administration. The apartment had seventeen rooms, with at least one family in each. Altogether there were over sixty people, who all shared a kitchen, a toilet and a shower room (with cold water).50

At the other end of the social spectrum, the Third House of Soviets, a communal apartment for government workers in the centre of Moscow, also had a ‘corridor system’. The brother of Stalin’s wife, Fyodor Alliluev, lived with his mother in a room on the second floor. Ninel Reifshneider, the daughter of a veteran Bolshevik and political writer, lived with her parents, her grandparents, her brother and her sister in one of the nine rooms on the floor below, a living space of 38 square metres for six people, not counting her father, who usually slept in the Metropol Hotel, where he also kept a room. There were thirty-seven people living in the nine rooms of the corridor. They shared a large kitchen, where there was a shower and a bath behind a screen on one

Communal apartment (‘corridor system’), Dokuchaev Lane, Moscow, 1930–64

side and a toilet cubicle on the other side. There were two other toilet cubicles at the end of the corridor. In the yard there was a communal woodshed, with wood for heating the cookers and the stoves. The house was conceived as an experiment in collective living but it had the services expected by the Soviet elite. There was a playground for the children, a club-house and a cinema in the basement. On each corridor there was a cleaner, a housekeeper and a nanny, paid for by the residents collectively.51

The communal apartment was a microcosm of the Communist society. By forcing people to share their living space, the Bolsheviks believed that they could make them more communistic in their basic thinking and behaviour. Private space and property would disappear, family life would be replaced by Communist fraternity and organization, and the private life of the individual would be subjected to the mutual surveillance and control of the community. In every communal apartment there were shared responsibilities, which the inhabitants would organize between themselves. Bills for common services, such as gas and electricity, or the telephone, were distributed equally, either on the basis of usage (e.g. the number of telephone calls, or how many light bulbs there were in each room) or on the basis of room or family size. Repair costs were also paid collectively, although there were often arguments about individual responsibility that usually had to be resolved by a meeting of the residents. The cleaning of the common spaces (the hall, the entrance, the toilet, bathroom and kitchen) was organized by rota (usually displayed in the hall). Everybody had ‘their day’ for washing clothes. In the mornings there were queues for the bathroom, also organized by a list of names. In this mini-state, equality and fairness were to be the ruling principles. ‘We divided everything as equally as possible,’ recalls Mamlin. ‘My father, who was the elder of our household, worked out everything to the last kopeck, and everybody knew how much they had to pay.’52

The post of elder (otvetstvennyi kvartoupolnomochennyi) was established in 1929, when the communal apartment was legally defined as a social institution with specific rules and responsibilities to the state: the enforcement of sanitary regulations; tax collection; law enforcement; and informing the police about the private life of the inhabitants.53 The elders were supposed to be elected by the residents, but in fact it was more common for them to elect themselves and to be accepted by the residents, either through the force of their personality or else their standing in society. Nina Paramonova remembers that their elder ‘ran the household like a dictatorship. We all respected her because she was so strict. We were afraid of her. Only she had the authority to make people do the cleaning when it was their turn.’54 A new law of 1933 placed the elders in sole charge of the communal apartment; their links to the police were reinforced; and they were given the command of the yardmen (dvorniki), notorious informers, who cleaned the staircase and the yard, patrolled the household territory, locked the courtyard gates at night and kept an eye on everyone who came and went. Through the elders and yardmen, the household management became the basic operational unit of the police system of surveillance and control.

By the middle of the 1930s the NKVD had built up a huge network of secret informers. In every factory, office, school, there were people who informed to the police.55 The idea of mutual surveillance was fundamental to the Soviet system. In a country that was too big to police, the Bolshevik regime (not unlike the tsarist one before it) relied on the self-policing of the population. Historically, Russia had strong collective norms and institutions that lent themselves to such a policy. While the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century sought to mobilize the population in the work of the police, and one or two, like the Stasi state in the GDR, managed for a while to infiltrate to almost every level of society, none succeeded, as the Soviet regime did for sixty years, in controlling a population through collective scrutiny.

The kommunalka played a vital role in this collective system of control. Its inhabitants knew almost everything about their neighbours: the timetable of their normal day; their personal habits; their visitors and friends; what they purchased; what they ate; what they said on the telephone (which was normally located in the corridor); even what they said in their own room, for the walls were very thin (in many rooms the walls did not extend to the ceiling). Eavesdropping, spying and informing were all rampant in the communal apartment of the 1930s, when people were encouraged to be vigilant. Neighbours opened doors to check on visitors in the corridor, or to listen to a conversation on the telephone. They entered rooms to ‘act as witnesses’ if there was an argument between man and wife, or to intervene if there was too much noise, drunken behaviour or violence. The assumption was that nothing could be ‘private’ in a communal apartment, where it was often said that ‘what one person does can bring misfortune to us all’. Mikhail Baitalsky recalls the communal apartment of a relative in Astrakhan where there was a particularly vigilant neighbour living in the room next door: ‘Hearing the sound of a door being unlocked, she would thrust her pointed little nose into the corridor and pierce you with a photographic glance. Our relative assured us that she kept a card index of his vistors.’56

In the cramped conditions of the communal apartment there were frequent arguments over personal property – foodstuffs that went missing from the shared kitchen, thefts from rooms, noise or music played at night. ‘The atmosphere was poisonous,’ recalls one inhabitant. ‘Everyone suspected someone else of stealing, but there was never any evidence, just a lot of whispered accusations behind people’s backs.’57 With everybody in a state of nervous tension, it did not take a lot for fights to turn into denunciations to the NKVD. Many of these squabbles had their origins in some petty jealousy. The communal apartment was the domestic centre of the Soviet culture of envy, which naturally arose in a system of material shortages. In a social system based on the principle of equality in poverty, if one person had more of some item than the other residents, it was assumed that it was at the expense of everybody else. Any sign of material advantage – a new piece of clothing, a better piece of kitchenware, or some special food – could provoke aggression from the other residents, who naturally suspected that these goods had been obtained through blat. Neighbours formed alliances and continued feuds on the basis of these perceived inequalities. One woman, who still lives in the communal apartment in Moscow where she grew up in the 1930s,* recalls a long-running feud between her mother, who worked in a bakery, and the yardman’s wife, who was well known as an informer. Whenever cakes or buns appeared in the kitchen, the yardman’s wife would accuse her mother of theft or sabotage and threaten to denounce her to the authorities.58 Mitrofan Moiseyenko was a factory worker who supplemented his income by repairing furniture and windows and doing odd jobs for the residents of his communal block in Leningrad. In the spring of 1935, he was involved in an argument with his neighbours, who accused him of charging them too much for his repairs. His neighbours denounced him to the police, absurdly claiming that he had been hiding Trotsky in his workshop in the basement of the block. Mitrofan was arrested and sentenced to three years in a labour camp near Magadan.59

The kitchen was the scene of many arguments. In the evenings, when it was bustling with people, it was always prone to overheat. The kitchen was a common space, but within it, in most communal flats, each family had its own ring for cooking on the stove, its own private kitchen table, where meals were normally eaten and its own place for storing food in the kitchen cupboards, on the open shelves, or between the inner and the outer windows, where winter temperatures were as cold as in a fridge. This confusion between private and common space was a constant source of friction; using someone else’s cooking ring, their utensils or their supplies was enough to stoke a scandal. ‘They were not malicious arguments,’ recalls Minora Novikova. ‘We were all poor, and nobody had anything worth stealing. But there was never enough room, everyone was tense in the kitchen, and petty squabbles were unavoidable. Imagine thirty women cooking at one time.’60

The Reifshneiders’ room (38 square metres) in the Third House of Soviets, Sadovaia Karetnaia, Moscow

The lack of privacy was the greatest source of tension. Even in the family’s own room, there was no space to call one’s own. The room had many functions – bedroom, dining room, a place to receive guests, a study for the children to do their schoolwork, sometimes even a kitchen. ‘In our room,’ recalls Ninel Reifshneider,

there were no private things or bits of furniture, no special shelf or chair or table that belonged to anyone as property. Even my grandparents, who had their beds behind a curtain screen to give them some privacy, had nothing they could really call their own. My grandmother kept some special items in a trunk beneath her bed, but the table by her bed, for example, was used by all of us.

In many family rooms the younger children slept behind a makeshift screen, a bookcase or a wardrobe, to give them some quiet apart from the adults and their evening guests (and to stop them watching the adults when they got undressed and went to bed). Parents had to make love quietly in the middle of the night.61

In such close quarters, little was left to the imagination. Neighbours grew accustomed to seeing one another semi-naked in the corridor. They saw each other at their worst – in drunken or unguarded moments – without the mask that people wore to protect themselves in public areas. They knew when their neighbours had a visitor from the doorbell system (in which every room had its own set number or sequence of rings on the front-door bell). Rooms used for the most intimate functions (the bathroom, kitchen and toilet) were shared by everyone; inferences could easily be drawn from bits of evidence that were left behind. The clothes line in the kitchen, the personal items in the bathroom, the night-time trips to the toilet – these told neighbours everything. In this form of ‘public privacy’, private life was constantly exposed to collective scrutiny.62

People felt the lack of privacy in many different ways. Some resented the constant intrusions – neighbours entering the room, knocking on the bathroom door or spying on visitors. Others reacted to the constant noise, the lack of cleanliness or the sexual attentions of older men towards the girls. The toilet and the bathroom were a source of constant friction and anxiety. In the communal apartment where Elena Baigulova lived in Leningrad in the 1930s there was just one toilet for forty-eight people. People brought their own soap and toilet paper, which they kept in their room. In 1936, one of the inhabitants married a black man. ‘There was a scandal when he first appeared,’ recalls Elena. ‘People would not share a toilet or a bathroom with the man. They thought that he was dirty because he was black.’63

Private conversations were a particular problem. Talk was clearly audible between adjoining rooms, so families adapted by whispering among themselves. People were extremely careful not to talk to neighbours about politics (in some communal apartments the men would not talk at all).64Families from a bourgeois or noble background were careful to conceal their origins. Alina Dobriakova, the granddaughter of a tsarist officer, grew up in a kommunalka in Moscow where all the other residents were factory workers and their families, ‘a conglomeration of unfriendly people’, as she recalls. Alina was forbidden to say a word to anyone about the photographs of her grandfather which were kept hidden in their room. Her mother joined the Party and took a job as an official to conceal their past. ‘If our neighbours knew who my mother’s father was,’ recalls Alina, ‘there would have been much unpleasantness… so we lived in a grave-like silence.’65 Talking in a communal apartment could be very dangerous. In the Khaneyevsky household, Nadezhda was practically deaf, but outspoken in her anti-Soviet views. She would explain to her daughters how life had been better under the tsar and would start to shout. Her husband Aleksei, who was terrified of the Sazonovs in the next room, would remind her not to shout: ‘Whisper, or we shall be arrested.’66

People battled for a modicum of privacy. They kept their towels and toiletries, their kitchen pots and pans, their dishes, cutlery, even salt and pepper in their rooms. They did their washing, cooking, eating, drying clothes in the privacy of their own room. Areas of common space were partly privatized: families might claim a place on the shelf; a patch of corridor; a section of the kitchen table; a peg or space for shoes by the front door in the hallway. All these arrangements were well known to the inhabitants, but a stranger coming into the apartment would not be aware of them. People dreamed of a private space where they might get away from their neighbours. Yevgeny Mamlin ‘yearned for a kitchen with a serving hatch connected to his room so that he could cook and take his meals without using the communal kitchen, but that was just a dream,’ recalls his daughter. The escape to the dacha in the summer months was a relief from the pressures of the communal apartment, for those who could afford to rent a country house.67

At its best the communal apartment fostered a sense of comradeship and collectivity among its inhabitants. Many people look back with nostalgia to their years in a communal apartment as a time when they shared everything with their neighbours. ‘Before the war we lived in harmony,’ recalls one inhabitant:

Everybody helped one another, and there were no arguments. No one was stingy with their money – they spent their wages as soon as they were paid. It was fun to live then. Not like after the war, when people kept their money to themselves, and closed their doors.

Part of this nostalgia is connected to recollections of childhood happiness, of a time when, despite material hardships, the yard was clean and safe for children’s games, and the communal apartment retained the atmosphere of an extended ‘family’. In the kommunalka children mixed with other families far more than their parents did: they played together and were always in each other’s rooms, so they experienced this togetherness more than anyone. ‘We lived as one big family,’ recalls Galina Markelova, who grew up in a communal apartment in Leningrad during the 1930s:

In those days everybody lived with their doors open, and we children had the run of the whole house. We would play in the corridor and run from room to room while the adults played at cards or dominoes. They didn’t play for money, just for fun. And there was always lots of laughter. There were too many adults for them all to play, so they would take turns, with some watching while the others played. We celebrated Soviet holidays together, like a family, with everybody bringing something nice to eat or drink. It was very jolly on birthdays, with lots of games and songs.68

But the closeness could be stifling. The film director Rolan Bykov, who grew up in a communal apartment in the 1930s, recalls the way of life as repressive, as an effort to stamp out any sign of individuality. The ‘law of the collective’ ruled in the household, recalls Bykov, and there was no use trying to kick against it – that ‘would unite everybody’ against those who refused to conform. Elizaveta Chechik had similar feelings about the communal apartment she grew up in:

To some extent we were brought up together by all the adults on the corridor. Some of the children I played with had very strict parents, Bolsheviks. I was afraid of them and felt uncomfortable in their presence. Looking back now, I realize that I grew up with the feeling that I was not free, that I could not be myself, in case someone observed me and disapproved. It was only when I was in the apartment and no one else was there that I felt release from this fear.69

The communal apartment had a profound psychological impact on those who lived in them for many years. During interviews many long-term residents confessed to an intense fear of being on their own.* The communal apartment practically gave birth to a new type of Soviet personality. Children, in particular, were influenced by collective values and habits. Families lost control of their own children’s upbringing in a communal apartment: their cultural traditions and habits tended to be swamped by the common principles of the household as a whole. Looking back on her childhood, Minora Novikova believes that the kommunalka made her more inclined to think in terms of ‘we’ rather than in terms of ‘I’.

Everything was held in common. There were no secrets. We were all equal, we were all the same. That is what I was accustomed to, and in later life it seemed strange to me when I encountered different ways. I remember on my first trip [as a geologist] I bought some sweets and shared them all around. The group leader said to me: ‘You should write down how much you spent, so that you can get reimbursed.’ That struck me as a monstrous idea, because from my childhood I was used to sharing anything I had.

Others who grew up in a kommunalka credit communal life with teaching them the public values of the Soviet regime – love of work, modesty, obedience and conformity. But a sense of wariness, of self-consciousness, was never far behind. ‘It was a constant effort to control oneself and make oneself fit in,’ recalls one inhabitant.

It was a different feeling of repression from arrest, imprisonment and exile, which I’ve also experienced, but in some ways it was worse. In exile one preserved a sense of one’s self, but the repression I felt in the communal apartment was the repression of my inner freedom and individuality. I felt this repression, this need for self-control, every time I went into the kitchen, where I was always scrutinized by the little crowd that gathered there. It was impossible to be oneself.70


Soviet citizens were quick to protest against material shortages and inequalities. They wrote in their thousands to the government to complain about corruption and inefficiencies, which they linked to the privileges of the new bureaucracy. Yet at the same time there were many citizens who perservered in the expectation that they would live to see the Communist utopia. The Soviet regime was sustained by this idea in the 1930s. Millions of people were persuaded to believe that the hardships of their daily lives were a necessary sacrifice for the building of a Communist society. Hard work today would be rewarded tomorrow, when the Soviet ‘good life’ would be enjoyed by all.

In Ideology and Utopia (1929) the German sociologist Karl Mannheim discussed the tendency of revolutionary Marxists to experience time as a ‘series of strategical points’ along a path to a future paradise, which they perceive as real and tangible. Because this future is a factor in the present and defines the course of history, it gives meaning to everyday realities. In the Soviet Union this idea of time had its origins in the utopian projections of the 1917 Revolution. For the Bolsheviks, October 1917 was the beginning of Year One in a new history of humanity (just as 1789 marked the start of the new world created by the Jacobins). Projecting the present into the future, Soviet propaganda portrayed the Revolution moving forwards (on the ‘march of history’) towards the Communist utopia; it hailed the achievements of the Five Year Plans as proof that this utopia was just over the horizon.71

The Five Year Plans played a crucial role in this utopian projection. The conception of the Plan was to accelerate the arrival of the socialist future by speeding up the tempo of the whole economy (hence the slogan ‘The Five Year Plan in Four!’). Indeed the Plan was to conquer time itself by subordinating it to the proletarian will. In the capitalist economies of the West work was organized according to a strictly rational division of time. But in the Soviet Union work was structured according to the goals set by the Five Year Plans. Because the achievement of this goal was always imminent, it made sense to ‘storm’ production, to work for a brief but frenzied spell to reach that goal, when it would be possible to rest. The Stalinist economy was based on this ‘storming’ of production to meet the Five Year Plans, just as the system as a whole was based on the idea that present hardship would be rewarded in the Communist utopia. Nikolai Patolichev, a vydvizhenets of the First Five Year Plan who later rose to the Party’s senior ranks, remembers: ‘We Soviet people consciously denied ourselves a lot.’

We said to ourselves: ‘Today we don’t have things that we really need. Well, so what? We shall have them tomorrow.’ That was the power of our belief in the Party’s cause! Young people of my generation were happy in this belief.72

Looking back on the 1930s, many people recall a sense of living for the future rather than for the present. The feeling was particularly strong in the generation that had grown up since 1917 – young people, like Patolichev, who were totally immersed in the values and ideals of the Soviet regime. For this generation the Communist utopia was not a distant dream but a tangible reality, just around the corner and soon to arrive. Soviet schoolchildren in the 1920s and 1930s imagined Communism as a transformation of their own immediate reality (cows full of milk, busy factories) rather than in far-off science-fiction terms.73 That was how they had been brought up to regard the Soviet future by Soviet propaganda and by Socialist Realist literature and art. Socialist Realism, as officially defined at the First Congress of the Writers’ Union in 1934, entailed the ‘truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development’. The artist’s role was to portray the world not as it was in the present but as it would become (and was becoming) in the Communist future.

According to Liudmila Eliashova (born in 1921) and her sister Marksena (1923), this conception of the Communist utopia was widely shared by their friends at school in Leningrad:

We were all educated in the expectation of a happy future. I remember when my sister broke our favourite porcelain doll. We did not have the money to buy another doll but we went to the department store, where there were dolls on display, and Marksena said: ‘When there is Communism we shall have that doll.’ We pictured Communism as a time, which we would live to see, when everything would be free, and everyone would have the happiest life imaginable. We were glad to be waiting for this beautiful future.74

Raisa Orlova, who grew up in Moscow in the 1930s, recalls the sense of ‘hurtling towards the future’. It made the present seem unreal:

I had an unshakeable conviction that my existence between these old walls [the apartment on Tverskaia Street in Moscow where she grew up] was merely a preparation for the real life to come. That life would start in a new and sparkling white house; there I would do exercises in the morning, there the ideal order would reign, there all my heroic achievements would commence. The majority of my contemporaries – whether they lived in tents, dug-outs, communal flats or what were then considered luxurious private apartments – shared the same kind of provisional, rough and ready approach to life. Faster, faster towards the great goal, towards the new life. Everything could and should be changed: the streets, the houses, the cities, the social order, human souls. And it didn’t seem all that difficult. First the enthusiasts would outline the plan on paper. Then they would tear down the old (‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’). Then they would clear the rubble, and in the space that had been cleared they would erect the edifice of the socialist dream. That’s how Russia was being reconstructed. We thought it was possible to do the same with people.75

Moscow was the building site of this utopia. In the imagination of the Communists, where ‘soon’ and ‘now’ were all confused, Moscow had a legendary status and significance as a symbol of the socialist utopia that was under construction. In this city of fantastic dreams and illusions, a foundation pit was a future housing block, the demolition of a church signalled the appearance of a Palace of Culture. The German Communist Wolfgang Leonhard, who arrived in Moscow with his parents in 1935, describes their confusion when they sought to replace their outdated 1924 map: the new map showed all the improvements which, according to the Master Plan, were destined for completion by 1945. ‘We used to take both town plans with us on our walks,’ Leonhard writes: ‘one showing what Moscow had looked like ten years before, the other showing what it would look like ten years hence.’76

The speed of change in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s was intoxicating. The illusion that a new world was being created led many people – including a large number of socialist intellectuals in the West – to delude themselves about the Stalinist regime. Nina Kaminskaia, a young law student, continued to believe in the new world even after her father was sacked from his job in a Soviet bank and evidence of a darker reality was mounting. In her memoirs she remembers a song she and her friends would sing, a song of joy at the happy life to come, which symbolized the optimism of their generation and their blindness to the tragedy which their parents were already going through:

Believing in our country is so easy,

Breathing in our country is so free:

Our glorious, beloved Soviet land…

Our Soviet life is so good and bright

That children in ages to come

Will probably cry in their beds at night

Because they were not born in our lifetime.77

Members of the Soviet intelligentsia were so swept up by this optimistic atmosphere that they closed their eyes to the horrors perpetrated by the Stalinist regime in the name of progress. Boris Pasternak wrote to Olga Freidenberg, in April 1935:

The fact is, the longer I live the more firmly I believe in what is being done, despite everything. Much of it strikes one as being savage [yet] the people have never before looked so far ahead, and with such a sense of self-esteem, and with such fine motives, and for such vital and clear-headed reasons.

Nadezhda Mandelshtam recalls how she and her husband, the poet Osip Mandelshtam, were also sometimes drawn to think this way, fearing momentarily that the Revolution would pass them by if they ‘failed to notice all the great things happening before our eyes’. Osip was arrested in 1934, after he had read out to his friends his seditious poem about Stalin (‘the murderer and peasant-slayer’). As Nadezhda Mandelshtam observed, it was easier to believe in what was being done for the Communist utopia than to insist, as her husband had, on confronting reality: ‘A man who knew that you cannot build the present out of the bricks of the future was bound to resign himself beforehand to his inevitable doom and the prospect of the firing squad.’78

To accept this vision of the future entailed adopting certain attitudes that smoothed the way to collusion with the regime. It meant the acceptance of the Party as the source of Truth. For many people this belief involved a constant struggle between the observed truth of existing reality and the higher Revolutionary Truth of the Party. They were forced to live in the margins between these two truths – to acknowledge the failures of the Soviet system while still believing in the promise of a better life to come – something they could only accomplish through a conscious act of political faith. Lev Kopelev, a young Communist who took part in some of the worst excesses against the ‘kulaks’ in 1932–3, recalls his efforts to subordinate his moral judgement (what he called ‘subjective truth’) to the higher moral goals (‘objective truth’) of the Party. Kopelev and his comrades were horrified by what they were doing to the peasantry, but they deferred to the Party: the prospect of retreating from this position, on the basis of what they had been brought up to dismiss as the ‘bourgeois’ ideals of ‘conscience, honour [and] humanitarianism’, filled them with dread. ‘What we feared most,’ recalls Kopelev, ‘was to lose our heads, to fall into doubt or heresy and forfeit our unbounded faith.’79

Wolfgang Leonhard was similarly conscious of a dual reality. By the time he joined the Komsomol, he had ‘long since realized that reality in the Soviet Union was completely different from the picture presented in Pravda’. His mother had been arrested in 1937; his friends and teachers had all been taken away; and he had been living in an orphanage. But, as he explains to his Western readers, who ‘might find it strange’ to read about his joy on being admitted to the Komsomol,

Somehow I dissociated these things, and even my personal impressions and experiences, from my fundamental political conviction. It was almost as if there were two separate levels – one of everyday events and experiences, which I found myself criticising; the other that of the great Party line which at this time, despite my hesitations, I still regarded as correct, from the standpoint of general principle.80

Even at the height of the Great Terror of 1937 – 8 there were many believers who managed to keep their faith. They explained away the mass arrests according to the abstract formula ‘les rubiat – shchepki letiat’ (‘When the forest is cut down the chips will fly’, or ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’).

Believing in the ‘march towards Communism’ required an acceptance of its human costs. The Party told its followers that they were involved in a life-or-death struggle against ‘capitalist elements’ at home and abroad which would end in the final victory of the Communist utopia. Hitler’s rise to power, in 1933, was a crucial turning-point in this struggle. It was taken as a vindication of Stalin’s theory that the further the Soviet Union advanced towards Communism, the greater its enemies’ resistance would be. The Party hardened its position, forcing sceptics to put aside their doubts and join the struggle against Fascism (or run the risk of being denounced as ‘Fascist hirelings’). From 1933, the purging of the Party was intensified, with closer scrutiny of individual deeds to root out passive members and ‘hidden enemies’. Whole sections of society were targeted as ‘enemies’ and ‘alien elements’, beginning with the remnants of the old nobility and the bourgeoisie in Leningrad, who were arrested and exiled in their thousands following the murder of the city’s Party boss, Sergei Kirov, in December 1934. Any group that was deemed to be a ‘relic of the capitalist past’ (former ‘kulaks’, petty traders, gypsies, prostitutes, criminals, vagrants, beggars and so on) was likely to be purged as an obstacle to the building of a Communist society. Between 1932 and 1936, tens of thousands of these ‘socially harmful elements’ were rounded up by the police and expelled from the towns.81 Most of them were sent to the Gulag.


In August 1933, a ‘brigade’ of 120 leading Soviet writers went on a boat tour of the White Sea Canal organized by Semyon Firin, the OGPU commander of the labour camps at the canal. The idea of the trip had its origins in a meeting that took place in Maksim Gorky’s Moscow house in October 1932, at which a number of the country’s leading writers discussed the tasks of literature with several Politburo members, including Stalin, and other Party functionaries. In one of the earliest statements of the Socialist Realist doctrine, Gorky called for a heroic literature to match the ‘grand achievements’ of the Five Year Plans, and Stalin, who compared the Soviet writers to ‘engineers of the human soul’, proposed a tour of the canal to inspire them. Everything was organized by OGPU. ‘From the minute we became the guests of the Chekists, complete Communism began for us,’ the writer Aleksandr Avdeyenko later commented ironically. ‘We were given food and drink on demand. We paid nothing. Smoked sausage, cheeses, caviar, fruit, chocolate, wines and cognac – all was in plentiful supply. And this was a year of famine.’82

After staying at the luxury Astoriia Hotel in Leningrad, the writers went by train to the White Sea Canal, where they inspected dams and locks and visited the cultural centre to watch a theatrical performance put on by the prisoners. From the safety of their ship, they saw convicts working, but were not allowed to talk to them. To many of the writers it was obvious that they were being presented with a sanitized version of camp life. ‘It was evident to me that they were showing us “Potemkin Villages”,’ recalled Tamara Ivanova in 1989. But if the writers had their doubts, few were brave enough to voice them at the time. During the trip the writers had the chance to question Firin, who acted as their guide. According to Avdeyenko, the only writer who asked about the use of forced labour was Dmitry Mirsky – a former prince (Prince Dmitry Sviatopolk-Mirsky) who had fought with the White Army in the Civil War, emigrated to Britain, joined the Communists and returned to the Soviet Union in 1932 because he believed that Stalin’s Russia was ‘going to play an enormous role in world history’, and he wanted to be part of it. Mirsky’s questioning made the other writers uncomfortable. He clearly had his suspicions about the reasons for the secrecy surrounding the construction of the canal. ‘Here at every step there are hidden secrets. Under every dam. Under every lock,’ Mirsky told Avdeyenko, seemingly referring to the corpses buried there. But even Mirsky did not let such doubts interfere with his participation in the publication of a book commissioned by OGPU to celebrate the completion of the canal. Edited by Firin and Gorky, The White Sea Canal was compiled at shock-work speed by thirty-six leading Soviet writers (including Mikhail Zoshchenko, Viktor Shklovsky, Aleksei Tolstoy and Valentin Kataev) together with the artist Aleksandr Rodchenko (who took the photographs). The book was presented ‘as a token of the readiness of Soviet writers to serve the cause of Bolshevism’ to the delegates of the Seventeenth Party Congress in January 1934. Though it was presented as a history of the canal’s construction, the book’s chief theme and propaganda message was the redemptive and liberating influence of physical labour. By taking part in the great collective work of building the canal, criminals and ‘kulaks’, it was claimed, ‘began to feel useful to society’. Through penal labour, they were remade as socialists.83

The writers had different reasons for colluding in this legitimation of the Gulag. No doubt there were some who believed in the Stalinist ideal of perekovka, the remoulding of the human soul through penal labour. Zoshchenko, for one, wrote a story for The White Sea Canal about a petty thief called Rottenberg who, having lost his way in life, returns to the correct path through penal labour on the canal. As he explained in an article for Literary Leningrad, Zoshchenko believed the factual basis of his tale:

I was interested in people who had built their lives on idleness, deceit, theft and murder, and I gave all my attention to the theme of their re-education. In truth, I was quite sceptical at first, supposing that this famous reforging was simply the cynical expression of the prisoners’ desire to receive freedom or bonuses. But I must say that I was mistaken on that score. I saw authentic reforging [on the trip to the White Sea Canal]. I saw real pride in the construction workers and noticed a real change in the psychology of many of these comrades (as they may now be called).84

Gorky was also a believer. He never visited the White Sea Canal. But this was no obstacle to his glowing praise of it in the book commissioned by OGPU (just as ignorance was no obstacle to foreign socialists, like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who also praised the canal as ‘a great engineering feat… a triumph in human regeneration’ in 1935). Having spent the 1920s in the West, Gorky had returned to the Soviet Union on the first of several summer trips in 1928 and had settled there for good in 1931. The ‘great Soviet writer’ was showered with honours; he was given as his residence the famous Riabushinsky mansion in Moscow; two large dachas; private servants (who turned out to be OGPU spies); and supplies of special foods from the same police department that catered for Stalin. So perhaps it is not surprising that Gorky failed to see the immense human suffering that lay behind the ‘grand achievements’ of the Five Year Plan. In the summer of 1929, Gorky had visited the Solovetsky labour camp. The writer was so impressed by what he was shown by his OGPU guides that he wrote an article in which he claimed that many of the prisoners had been reformed by their labour in the camp and loved their work so much that they wanted to remain on the island after the completion of their sentences. ‘The conclusion is obvious to me,’ Gorky wrote: ‘we need more camps like Solovetsky.’85

Other writers went on the trip from curiosity, as Mirsky no doubt did. Or because they were afraid of the consequences if, like the writer Mikhail Bulgakov, they refused to have anything to do with the project. Viktor Shklovsky, the literary theorist and novelist whose brother was imprisoned in a labour camp, did not join the writers’ brigade, but he made a separate trip to the White Sea Canal and promoted the idea of perekovka, not just in the OGPU volume but in several other works. He even wrote the screenplay for a propaganda film about the White Sea Canal. It seems unlikely that Shklovsky wrote out of conviction (during his trip to the White Sea Canal he responded to an OGPU officer’s question about how he felt to be at the canal with the quip: ‘Like a live silver fox in a fur store’). In the words of his daughter, it was just ‘the price he had to pay for his brother’s life’. Shklovsky’s brother was released in 1933. But in 1937 he was rearrested and disappeared for ever in the Gulag.86

Careerist motives also played a role. They were certainly a factor for Avdeyenko, an unknown writer of proletarian origins when he joined the trip to the White Sea Canal, although only two years later, in 1935, his first novel was critically acclaimed in the Soviet press. ‘The trip is how I got to the top and my life took off,’ Avdeyenko later acknowledged. ‘A shock worker called to literature! In one action I joined the ranks of writers worthy of high honour in the Soviet pantheon.’ Avdeyenko became a regular contributor to Perekovka – the in-house OGPU (NKVD) journal of the labour camps at the White Sea Canal – where he wrote in praise of penal labour as a form of human reforging.87

Konstantin Simonov was another ‘proletarian writer’ to make his name through the White Sea Canal. In 1933, he was working as a mechanic – one of the hundreds of technicians under the command of Boris Babitsky – at the Mezhrabpomfilm studios. Simonov and the other mechanics would spend their lunch-breaks watching Pudovkin and Golovnia at work on the film set of The Deserter (an experience which, he claimed, awoke his interest in the arts). ‘In those years,’ recalls Simonov, ‘I had no proper education, but I read a lot of books, history books in particular, and for the first time in my life I tried to write.’ Inspired by the propaganda of the White Sea Canal, Simonov ‘filled a notebook with bad poems’ about the reforging of the penal labourers which somehow came to the attention of Goslitizdat (the State Publishing House) and OGPU. Extracts from one of these poems, ‘The White Sea Canal’, were published in a collection of poetry by young Soviet writers in 1933. On the back of this success, in April 1934 Simonov applied to Goslitizdat for permission to visit the canal and collect materials about the reforging of its convict labourers for a collection of poetry in praise of the labour camps. Goslitizdat approved the trip and paid for Simonov to spend a month at the Medvezhegorsk labour camp on the White Sea Canal, where he was employed as a journalist by Perekovka. He lived in the barracks with a team of prisoners, who did not take the nineteen-year-old poet very seriously (‘they laughed at me when I told them I was writing a poem about the White Sea Canal’). For this reason, it seemed to Simonov, the prisoners ‘were relatively natural with me’.88

By the early summer of 1934, the construction of the White Sea Canal had been largely completed. The labourers observed by Simonov were engaged in building roads and installations – relatively easy tasks compared with the heavy manual digging of the main canal in 1931–3, when tens of thousands died. As the project came to an end, the camp administration rewarded labourers with bonuses, honours and medals. It also granted early release orders to some of the petty criminals who made up the workforce on the part of the canal visited by Simonov. The main aim of these rewards was to fulfil the myth of perekovka. They gave the prisoners an incentive to work hard and reform themselves (or give the impression that they were reformed) in order to gain their freedom or material advantages. Simonov was taken in. He was young and innocent. As he recalled in his memoirs, he returned from the White Sea Canal ‘ready to write new poetry about the reforging of people through labour’:

Even though I had not been there long, I was convinced that I had seen with my own eyes how that reforging was actually taking place – as I believed it should – for what else but labour can redeem a person’s sins in a society such as ours?

Simonov was particularly impressed by a story he had been told about an engineer, a close associate of the Provisional Government (‘practically the last commandant of the Winter Palace’),

who was sentenced to eight if not ten years under Article 58 and worked so well in his capacity as an engineer on the White Sea Canal that he was released after just three years; he then worked voluntarily as the chief engineer on a construction site connected to the Moscow–Volga Canal. That kind of story was reinforced by my own impressions from my journey.*

In reality, the willingness of certain specialists to go on working in the Gulag system after their release was seldom the result of reforging. But Simonov believed that what he saw at the White Sea Canal matched the stories he had heard or had read in the Soviet press. ‘In my perception,’ Simonov recalled in his memoirs, ‘the White Sea Canal was not just about the construction of a canal, but a humanitarian school for the reconstruction of bad people into good, of common criminals into builders of the Five Year Plan.’89

For Simonov – a nobleman involved in the reconstruction of his own identity as a ‘proletarian writer’ – the idea of perekovka had a special resonance. In his memoirs Simonov recounts how he perceived the reforging of the ‘kulaks’ and ‘bourgeois saboteurs’ as ‘highly promising for society’, and as an inspiration for himself, because it showed ‘the possibility of burying the past and moving on to a new path’. The reforging of the former oppositionists at the Seventeenth Party Congress (the ‘congress of victors’) in 1934 was another inspiration to the young writer, as he strove to make a career for himself in an artistic sphere that was so tightly supervised by the Party. At that congress several Party leaders who had been opposed to Stalin’s extreme policies (Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Rykov, Tomsky, Piatakov and others) were allowed to speak. They recanted their old positions and heaped praise on Stalin in the name of Party unity, and they were received in a manner that suggested that the Party leadership had rehabilitated them. Simonov took comfort from their example. As he saw it, the reception of the repentant oppositionists proved that the Party was a place where people like himself might receive forgiveness for their past. Simonov understood that his own reforging would depend on the reconstruction of his political personality. Like the former oppositionists, he had to show that he was a worthy Communist by renouncing his own past. His writings on the White Sea Canal were the means to that end. After he returned from the canal Simonov applied for a second time to join the Komsomol. On the previous occasion, following the arrest of his stepfather in 1931, he had been advised to withdraw his application. But this time he was invited to join. This acceptance was a ‘huge relief’ for Simonov. In his memoirs he remembers 1934 as the high-point of his hopes in the future:

I cannot speak for other people of my age, but for me 1934 was the year of brightest hope in all my youth. There was a sense that the country had come through a difficult period and that, although problems still remained, life was becoming easier, in both spiritual and material terms. I was happy to be taking part in the building of this new life… The correctness of Stalin, who was leading the industrialization of the country and achieving great success, seemed indisputable to me. As I saw it, he was right to argue with his opponents and to show that they were wrong.90

In the summer of 1934, shortly after his return, Simonov wrote a poem, ‘Horizon’, about the reforging of a criminal in the labour camps. The poem was heavily edited – and in places censored – by the Cultural-Educational Department of OGPU, which concluded that the poem was very badly written (‘pretentious’, ‘clumsy’, ‘cacophonous’, ‘mechanical’ and ‘sentimentalized’) but worthy of publication for its propaganda value nonetheless.91 ‘Horizon’ was reworked by Simonov and eventually published as ‘Pavel Chyorny’ in 1938. In later years Simonov would look back at this poem ‘with feelings of horror’. He insisted on excluding it from all collections of his published works.92 But the poem was the making of Simonov’s career. It demonstrated his ability to turn out poetry that could be used by the Stalinist regime. Simonov was encouraged to apply to the Gorky Literary Institute. He was even given a recommendation by his political patrons in Goslitizdat and the Cultural-Educational Department of OGPU.93

Located in the former Herzen palace on the Tver Boulevard, the Literary Institute was opened in 1933 to encourage writers from the working class (until 1936 it was called the Workers’ Evening Literary University). Classes took place in the evening, which allowed Simonov to continue with his job at Mezhrabpomfilm and supplement his 200 rouble grant. Most of the students at the Literary Institute were not from the working class at all. They had been born to noble or bourgeois families and, like Simonov, had qualified for entry to the institute by going through a factory school or by working in a factory. Half the students were members of the Komsomol or the Party. The institute was a cosmopolitan place, with writers from twenty-seven different nationalities.94 Among the many Jewish students were two young women who would become Simonov’s first wives: Natalia Tipot, the daughter of a well-known variety theatre-man, who married Simonov in 1935; and Zhenia Laskina, the youngest daughter of the ruined NEPman Samuil Laskin, who joined the institute in 1936 and married Simonov in 1939.

By his own admission Simonov had no special affinity for literature. It was a career he pursued because of his spoilt biography. ‘If it were not for my noble origins,’ he had told Natalia, ‘I would not have been interested in literature at all, only in politics and history.’95 Nor was Simonov considered to be among the most talented students at the Literary Institute (in 1936 he was ranked seventh in a list of excellence headed by the poet Margarita Aliger). But he was known as a conscientious student who was well organized (he carefully planned out the time he spent on working, reading, even socializing) and always punctual in completing his tasks. His fellow students nicknamed Simonov the ‘iron bottom’ because he worked so hard. ‘He just sat down and wrote and wrote,’ recalls the poet Yevgeny Dolmatovsky (who came in second on the list of excellence). Aliger remembers Simonov as someone who stood out as a leader from the start. Usually dressed in a leather jacket, like the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, or in a jacket, shirt and tie, Simonov distanced himself from the bohemian culture of the other students at the institute, spending his spare time in Komsomol activities or writing book reviews rather than in playing billiards. Not surprisingly, he was held in

Simonov in 1936

high regard by the administration of the institute, which saw him as a Party loyalist and entrusted him with many tasks (in 1937 he would play a leading role in the denunciation of ‘anti-Soviet elements’ within the institute). Simonov was serious and censorious, more like a literary bureaucrat than a young poet. ‘Not having written my own book,’ he recalled in 1945,

I wrote many critical reviews of books written by others. I was very strict and impatient, which just goes to show that the most crudely negative reviews of a book are always written by reviewers who have not succeeded or could not succeed in writing such a book themselves.96

As a poet at the institute, Simonov was learning how to write for his political superiors. The theme of perekovka, which became a commonplace of the Socialist Realist tradition in the 1930s, reappeared in several of his early poems, which returned to the subject of the White Sea Canal. But increasingly his poetry was shaped by the hopes of the Five Year Plans and by the heroic theme of struggle epitomized by the Spanish Civil War. Here Simonov was deeply influenced by his poetry teacher, Vladimir Lugovskoi (1901–57), a charismatic figure to the young poets at the institute, whose room was filled with swords and guns, memorabilia from his fighting days in the Russian Civil War and the last campaign against the Basmachi Muslim rebels in Central Asia in 1931. Simonov explored the theme of masculinity and heroic courage in poems like ‘The General’, which was inspired by the death of the Hungarian Communist Mate Zalka (also known as General Lukach) in the Spanish Civil War. For Simonov, who took his basic values from the military ethos of his stepfather, the bravery and self-sacrifice of fighters such as Zalka were not just ‘wonderful human qualities’ but ‘virtues of the first necessity’ in a world engulfed by the struggle between socialism and Fascism. As Simonov explained to a foreign journalist in 1960, ‘we young Communists of the 1930s hated with a passion anyone who showed signs of complacency by imagining that our future victory would be easy and bloodless’. This was a generation immersed in the notion of struggle – a generation that lived in readiness for war. Recalling his student years, Simonov was speaking for a whole epoch when he wrote in 1973:

The Literary Institute opened the same year the Nazis came to power. All our years of study were overshadowed by the sense of an impending war with Fascism. These were years when it was impossible to think of literature and one’s path in it without thinking how, sooner or later, we too would be forced to play a part – whether with a pen or a rifle in our hands was not yet clear – in this looming struggle with Fascism.

On 1 January 1936, Simonov had his first poem published in Izvestiia, ‘New Year’s Toast’. It was an early sign of the favour with which the young poet – then just twenty years of age – would come to be regarded by the Party leadership. In the poem, Simonov conjured up the idea of a final struggle between light and dark:

Friends, today we stand on high alert!

Wolves encircle our Republic!

So we raises our glasses,

And drink in silence

To those who stand by the machine-gun,

To those whose only friend is the rifle,

To everyone who knows the verb ‘to fight’,

A sad verb that we need to know.

To those who can leave a silent room

And walk into the unknown fire… 97

At the same time as Simonov was making his career, his three Obolensky aunts were languishing in exile in Orenburg, a city on the eastern Volga steppes 1,500 kilometres south-east of Moscow, having been expelled from Leningrad in the repressions that followed the murder of Kirov. Simonov was fond of his three aunts. He had written to them regularly since he was a child. Liudmila, the eldest of his mother’s three sisters, had married an artillery captain from a family of Russified Germans, Maximilian Tideman. His death in the First World War had left Liudmila and her three children stranded in Riazan, where Maximilian’s regiment had been based. After returning to Petrograd in 1922, Liudmila worked as a teacher in a school for handicapped children. By the time of her arrest, in 1935, her three children had grown up. Two went with her to Orenburg, but her eldest son remained in Leningrad, where he was highly valued as a manager at the Red Triangle Factory, which helped to protect him from arrest. Daria, or ‘Dolly’, the middle sister, was severely handicapped, the left side of her body deformed and paralysed, which made it hard for her to move. Personal misfortune had turned her into a cantankerous old maid. Dogmatically religious, she made no secret of her hatred of the Soviet regime and clung to the traditions of the aristocracy. In 1927, Dolly came to visit Aleksandra in Riazan. There were constant arguments about religion which, claims Simonov, led him to become an atheist (although in his later letters to his aunts Simonov continued to express religious sentiments). Simonov visited Dolly in Leningrad on several occasions, but he thought of it as a duty call. He much preferred Sonia, his third and youngest aunt, with whom he often stayed in Leningrad. Sonia was a plump woman with a ‘round face and a kind smile’ which reflected, as Simonov recalls, ‘her simple good nature and openness’. Unlike Dolly, Sonia adapted to the Soviet system, although her manners, values and beliefs retained traces of the nineteenth-century culture of the aristocracy. Trained as a teacher, she worked as a librarian and lived alone in a large room in a communal apartment. But she was not bitter or unhappy with her lot. On the contrary, Simonov recalls her as the liveliest and most fun of all his aunts. Not having children of her own, she loved to have her nephews and her nieces stay with her. She had a soft spot for Konstantin, her youngest nephew, whose interest in books she helped to stimulate. ‘My dear, darling Kiriushonchik,’ she wrote to Simonov, ‘I hope that you grow up to become useful and a comfort to us all, who love you so dearly. I hope that you will always have enough to eat, as we had in olden times.’98

The last time Simonov saw Sonia was in the autumn of 1933, when he stayed with her in Leningrad. He wrote his first poems in her room. In February 1935, Sonia was exiled with Liudmila and Dolly to Orenburg. Simonov recalls his mother’s reaction when she found out, in Moscow, that her ‘three sisters had been sent into exile, along with many other people she had known since her childhood in St Petersburg’.

She sat there in tears with the letters [she had just received from Orenburg], and suddenly she said: ‘If I had returned then with Liulia [Liudmila] from Riazan to Petrograd, I would be together with them now, of course.’ I remember being shocked by the way she said these words. She spoke with some sort of guilt that she was not with them, that she had somehow managed to escape the ordeal that afflicted her sisters. Then she asked my stepfather: ‘Maybe, we will be exiled from here?’ When she said ‘we’ she was not talking about the family; she meant herself, her origins, the Obolensky clan.99

Simonov does not explain why he was so shocked. Perhaps he was surprised by his mother’s expression of guilt. But there was something else besides. Simonov had been brought up to think of himself as a ‘Soviet person’. Even the arrest of his stepfather had failed to shake him from this view. On the contrary, it had reinforced his striving to fashion for himself a proletarian identity. All his efforts to recast himself, first as an engineer and then as a ‘proletarian writer’, had strengthened his identification with the Soviet system. But his mother’s response to the arrest of his aunts – which was, it seems, the first time that he had heard her identify herself as a ‘social alien’ in Soviet terms – forced him to confront reality.

Simonov’s mother and stepfather sent monthly packages of food and clothes to Orenburg, and he himself put aside a part of his own earnings to help with these parcels. In 1936, Aleksandra visited her three sisters. As Simonov recalls, she was afraid that she might not return (many people feared that they would be arrested if they visited their exiled relatives). Simonov’s stepfather, always practical, thought it would be better if she did not go, because if she was arrested it would be even harder to help her three sisters. But Aleksandra insisted on going, because, as she said, ‘if she did not, she would cease to be herself’. On her return from Orenburg, Aleksandra was ‘exhausted, sad, worn out from the long journey and the terrible conditions there’, recalls Simonov, ‘but she was not without hope for the future… because she thought that nothing worse could happen to them now’.100

But worse was to come. In 1937, Sonia and Dolly were arrested and imprisoned in Orenburg. Sonia was shot, and Dolly later died in a labour camp. Only Liudmila survived. Looking back on these events in the last year of his life, Simonov recalled his reaction to the death of his favourite aunt:

When I found out that she had been imprisoned, and then we ceased to hear from her, and then they told us that she had died – although not where or how – I remember experiencing this strong and painful feeling of injustice that was related entirely to her [Sonia], or most of all to her. The feeling would not leave my soul – I am not afraid to say this – and it stayed forever in my memory as the main injustice committed by the state, by Soviet power, against myself, personally. The feeling is particularly bitter because I know that, had Sonia been alive, she would have been the first person I would have helped when I was in a position to do so.

Simonov’s regret was based on the awareness he gained in later years – the awareness that he had colluded in the system of repression that destroyed his aunts. Yet as he admits in his memoirs, at the time of their arrest his reaction had been different. He felt sorry for his aunts, but he found a way to rationalize and perhaps even justify their fates:

I cannot remember what I thought about it then [in 1937], how I judged and explained to myself what had happened… I know that I could not have been unaffected, if only because I loved one of my aunts [Sonia] very much… But perhaps I thought: ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.’ This acceptance seems much more cynical today than it felt then, when the Revolution, the breaking up of the old society, was still not so distant in people’s memories, and when it was rare to have a conversation without recourse to that phrase.101

If Simonov’s encounter with the White Sea Canal brought him closer to the regime, for others it had the opposite effect. In 1929, Ilia Slavin, the former Zionist and a leading jurist at the Institute of Soviet Law in Moscow, was transferred to Leningrad to bolster the legal department of the Communist Academy. During the purges of that year the Law Department of Leningrad University had been closed down and its ‘bourgeois’ academics expelled. The legal department of the Communist Academy, which replaced it, was deemed in need of trusted Bolsheviks like Slavin to strengthen its resolve against the ‘bourgeois Rightists’ of the Soviet legal world whose presence was still felt in Leningrad.102 Slavin had become a major figure in the field of Soviet law. An adviser to the Commissariat of Justice, he was also a member of the commission that had written the Soviet Criminal Code of 1926, the first major overhaul of criminal law since 1917. In Leningrad the Slavins had two rooms in a large apartment which they shared with another family (in Moscow they had lived in a communal apartment shared by fifteen families). Eventually, they moved to a three-room flat in the House of the Leningrad Soviet, where many government workers, scientists and artists lived. ‘We were relatively privileged,’ recalls Ilia’s daughter Ida Slavina.

My brother and his wife had their own room, my parents had another, where my father also worked, and I slept in the dining room. When there were guests I went to sleep in my parents’ room and then was moved to the divan in the dining room when my parents went to bed… But there was no hint of luxury – it was a Spartan, almost puritanical, way of life, entirely dedicated to the socialist ideals of my father… We shared our extra rations – of which father was ashamed – with our poorer friends and relatives… Books were our only luxury.103

Slavin served his political patrons with a violent attack on the ‘bourgeois tendencies’ of a number of leading Soviet jurists in a book commissioned by the Communist Academy as part of the regime’s purge of the legal academic establishment in 1931. In this short but poisonous text, Sabotage on the Front of Soviet Criminal Law, Slavin compared the writings of several leading academic laywers in the 1920s with their writings before 1917 in order to expose what he claimed were their real but concealed ‘bourgeois’ views. Writing from political conviction, in the belief that the old legal thinking needed to be rooted out, Slavin denounced these jurists for attempting to subvert the basic ideological tenets of the Soviet legal system. He singled out for criticism the former Law Department at Leningrad University, which, he maintained, had been training ‘yesterday’s priests and White Guardists’ to pose as ‘the Marxists of today and the Communists of tomorrow’. Several of the jurists Slavin attacked were subsequently removed from their posts in the universities of Leningrad and Moscow, and forced to look for work in the provinces.104

In the Slavin family archive there is a photograph of Ilia Slavin with his fellow teachers and some students at the Communist Academy in 1931. On the back it is inscribed: ‘To Comrade Slavin! In fond memory of you as a firm Communist of the Bolshevik guard, as our teacher, as a steadfast fighter on the ideological front, an iron broom purging vermin from the academic heights.’ For Ida Slavina it is hard to reconcile this description with her memory of her father as a soft and tender man. Perhaps Slavin was sucked into the system of repression because he was too weak to resist the demands of the Party. Maybe he felt vulnerable because of his previous involvement in the Zionist movement and wrote the book to prove his worthiness as a member of the ‘Bolshevik guard’. Or perhaps, as Ida thinks, he ‘lost his way’ because he was misled by his beliefs.

Slavin believed in perekovka. Before 1917, he had carried out experiments in reforging by setting up a workshop and a cultural centre for the prisoners of a local jail in Mogilyov, where he worked as a legal assistant and was acquainted with the prison governor. The idea of reforging surfaced in many of his legal writings in the 1920s and 1930s,

Teachers and students of the Law Department of the Communist Academy in Leningrad, 1931 (the white-haired Slavin is seated on the far left of the front, seated row)

particularly in his articles on the idea of Comrade Courts (tovarishcheskie sudy), tribunals at the workplace, in which he argued for the use of penal labour as a form of community service to reform the prisoner.105

In 1933, Slavin was given a new task by the leadership of the Communist Academy – to write a book provisionally entitled ‘The Reforging of Penal Labourers as Exemplified by the White Sea Canal’.106 In essence, he was asked to come up with a legal and philosophical justification for the Gulag labour camps. Perhaps Slavin’s previous writings on reforging played a role in earning him this dreadful commission. But the main reason why he had been chosen was because he had already shown, through Sabotage on the Front of Soviet Criminal Law, that he was prepared to construct legal arguments for the regime’s system of repression.

To believe in perekovka was one thing, to see it in action another. In 1932–3, Slavin made several trips to the White Sea Canal and to other sites of penal labour, including the Moscow–Volga Canal and the Kolyma labour camps in north-east Siberia. What he saw there destroyed his belief in the Soviet ideal of reforging. Ida recalls how her father returned from these trips ‘exhausted and depressed’ – how ‘he would not talk to anyone for several days, as if he was living in a state of shock’. Slavin was particularly shaken by his visit to a children’s labour colony, where he was alarmed by the brutal discipline that was used by the guards to ‘reforge the children in the Soviet spirit’. Slavin could not bring himself to write the book on the White Sea Canal. For several years he postponed its completion. A number of draft chapters were torn up (one of them entitled ‘Fascist Distortions in the Policy of Reforging’), as he came to realize that there was no perekovka in the camps.

Slavin knew he was trapped. After the murder of Kirov, when half the staff was purged from the Communist Academy, Slavin feared that he would be arrested too. Ida recalls her parents locking themselves in their room: ‘They sat up talking, whispering, all night.’ The Party archives confirm that in December 1934 Slavin’s name was added to a list of political suspects (‘to be arrested at a future date’) who had left other parties to join the Bolsheviks.107

Under growing pressure from the leaders of the Communist Academy, Slavin submitted some draft chapters of the book on the White Sea Canal. In these chapters Slavin offered a number of criticisms of the daily workings of the Gulag system, but made no reference to the policy of reforging, of which he had seen no evidence. The chapter he had once called ‘Fascist Distortions’ now appeared as ‘Distortions in the Policy of Reforging’. It was a courageous act, for which Slavin was sharply criticized by the editorial commission of the Communist Academy in May 1935. That event was a moral turning-point. Sensing that he could no longer hold to his Bolshevik beliefs, he renewed his old contacts with the Zionists – a desperate attempt, in Ida’s words, ‘to put the clock back and make up for his political mistakes’. But Slavin must have known that it was too late. He was in a hopeless situation. Completing the book on perekovka might have saved him, but he could not do this morally, so he kept putting it off, surely aware that the longer he delayed the closer he was moving to his own arrest. ‘I am finished,’ Slavin told a meeting of his Party comrades at the Communist Academy in March 1937, ‘I am a political bankrupt.’108


In the middle of the 1930s, the Gulag population swelled to huge proportions, as the victims of collectivization and the famine were rounded up and sent to labour camps, now considered an integral component of the Soviet industrial economy. Between 1932 and 1936, the population of the labour camps, labour colonies and ‘special settlements’ reached 2.4 million people (the prison population would add another half a million).109 This slave labour force played an especially vital role in the timber, construction and mining industries in the remote regions of the Arctic North, where free labour would not go. Consequently, even inside the Gulag it was possible for people to advance their careers. Opportunities were available, not only to prison guards and administrators, whose service in the Gulag often brought promotion in the NKVD, but also to a select number of prisoners, provided they had skills required by the Gulag system and the commitment – or willingness to adapt – to the Party line.

Pavel Vittenburg, the geologist who had played such a leading role in the Soviet exploration of mining areas in the Arctic zone, was arrested in April 1930. He was one of several hundred scientists expelled in a purge of the Academy of Sciences. Imprisoned in Leningrad, he was gradually broken down by interrogations and by threats against his family, until he finally confessed to belonging to a monarchist organization that had helped to organize the Iakutsk rebellion in 1927 (when Vittenburg had been involved in the exploration of the Kolyma goldfields in north-east Siberia). The breaking point had come when his interrogator had got up in his presence and made a call to order the arrest of Pavel’s wife, Zina (Zinaida). While Pavel was in jail, Zina lived in constant expectation of arrest. The family was forced to move into one room of their spacious country house in Olgino, while an OGPU informer occupied the other rooms and organized the confiscation of their property. Pavel’s daughter Yevgeniia recalls accompanying her mother on weekly trips to Leningrad to enquire about Pavel at the OGPU offices on Gorokhovaia Street:

She would leave me, an eight-year-old girl, by the fountains (which were not working then) in the Admiralty gardens, telling me that I should wait for her return. If she did not come, it would mean that she had been arrested, and I was to go to an address she had written on a piece of paper, which I kept in my pocket. Tatiana Lvovna lived there, and she would take me in.

In February 1931, Pavel was sentenced to be shot. At the last moment he was given a reprieve and sentenced to ten years in a labour camp instead. His house at Olgino was confiscated (it became the dacha of an OGPU official). Pavel was sent to the Mai-Guba logging camp to fell timber for the White Sea Canal and then transferred as a sewage engineer to the labour camp near Kem, on the northern sector of the canal where it ran into the sea. Zina meanwhile moved with two of her daughters, Yevgeniia and Valentina, into a single room in a communal apartment in Leningrad (her eldest daughter Veronika had moved to Dagestan). There were sixteen people living in the communal apartment, including its original owners, an elderly couple who occupied the front room and their former servant, a woman full of ‘class hatred’, who lived behind a curtain in the corridor. During the summer Zina sent her two daughters to stay with relatives in Kiev, while she worked as a volunteer doctor in the labour camp at Kem so as to be close to her husband.110

Shortly after Zina’s return to Leningrad, in August 1931, Pavel was sent as a geologist to the island of Vaigach as part of a special OGPU expedition to explore the possibility of mining its precious minerals.

Zina and Pavel Vittenburg at the Kem labour camp (White Sea Canal), 1931

Pavel was lucky. He was saved by his expertise as a geologist. Although still a prisoner, he was allowed to work in his own field and demonstrated his talents in the service of the Gulag. The Vaigach expedition was led by Fyodor Eikhmans, the OGPU head of the whole Gulag, who left his post in Moscow to set up the first camp on the remote Arctic island in the Kara Sea in June 1930. Nearly half of the 1,500 prisoners were geologists, topographers and engineers, who surveyed the island’s rich deposits of zinc and lead and searched in vain for gold and platinum, Eikhmans’s real reasons for getting involved in the project. The Nenets people (Samoyeds), who lived on the island and provided transport for the expedition, told of ancient legends about the ‘golden woman’, a totem doll of solid gold. Conditions in the camp were very difficult, especially in the first months before the barracks had been built, when everybody had to live in tents. The zinc and lead mines were all dug by hand, discipline was harsh – people were shot for the slightest infraction

– and many died from the extreme cold, which regularly reached temperatures of -40°C during the winter.111

By the time Vittenburg arrived the hunt for gold had become desperate, which probably explains why he was called up to reinforce the number of geologists already there. Pavel was quickly made the chief geologist. He completed the survey of Vaigach, which led to the opening of the Gulag mining complex, the first mines within the Arctic Circle, in 1934. He published several articles about the expedition in OGPU periodicals and even kept a scrapbook on the island’s natural history. For a prisoner, Pavel enjoyed a privileged existence. He received special rations, lived in a separate house for specialists and even had his own office. In March 1932, he was allowed a visit by his family, who returned in the summer to accompany him on a major expedition around Vaigach. Leaving Valentina with a friend in Leningrad, Zina came with Yevgeniia to live with Pavel in the summer of 1933, when the new commander of the camp, Aleksei Ditsklan, who replaced Eikhmans in October 1932, allowed specialists to be joined by their families. Her letters home describe the conditions:

Vaigach Is.

26 Aug. 1933

My dear little daughters, Veronichka and Liusenka [Valentina]. Late in the evening on the 24th we finally arrived at Papa’s. It took 6 days, 3 of them in cold force-five winds, to get here. Gulenka [Yevgeniia] was very brave considering that most of the passengers around us were sea-sick all the time… Papochka met us on the ship, loaded everything onto his motorboat, and by 11 o’clock we were home. Papochka looks very well, he has put on weight, his face is an excellent colour, without a single wrinkle. His mood is good, he is full of energy and, as always, he is happy in his work… We are living very well in a house for specialists, remarkably in fact, if you stop to think that this is the 70th parallel. We have two delightful rooms, each with three windows, so they are very light, even though they face towards the north-east and north-west. There is an enormous stove with an oven, so I shall have to improve my housekeeping skills, which I have completely lost. I shall send you a photograph of Papa with the next ship, and you will see for yourselves how good it is here and how much weight Papa has put on… Yesterday evening we were at a reception to bid farewell to those [prisoners] returning to the mainland, and to welcome the new arrivals. We liked the speeches very much, and the Heroes of Labour were very well received. The Vaigach expedition, it appears, came in first in the All-Union Socialist Competition. There is a wonderful reforging (perekovka) of people happening here: all the prisoners return to the mainland as qualified, literate and conscious workers. If only we could reforge more like that… The evening ended with a ‘living newspaper’ [a form of agitprop] and an excellent concert. That’s all my news from the first one and a half days…112

Gradually, within the confines of the labour camp, the Vittenburgs returned to the routines of family life. Zina worked as a doctor in the camp clinic. Yevgeniia attended the school for children of the specialists and administrators. ‘Our life revolved around the work of Mama and Papa,’ recalls Yevgeniia.

Every morning, in whatever temperature, Papa filled a pan with cold water and washed himself in our room, ate some breakfast and then went to work in the geological section. When he returned we would eat our dinner, and then he would sit down at his desk. Mama was always tired from her work. In the evening she had barely strength to read. I did all the housework after school, because I had the most time. I fetched our dinners (two for voluntary workers and one for a prisoner) from the canteen. The cooks were all Chinese. They were excellent, they taught me how to bake. In general the food seemed royal to us compared with what we had in Leningrad.113

Pavel Vittenburg in his office, Vaigach labour camp, 1934

What lies behind this rosy view of the Gulag? According to Yevgeniia, Zina’s optimism, even her belief in perekovka, was genuinely held, not just written in her letters for the benefit of the censors.114 No doubt the happiness of being reunited as a family must have played a part. But equally important were the relatively privileged conditions of specialists like the Vittenburgs which sheltered them from the worst aspects of life inside the camp. Possibly, too, they were so wrapped up in their work that they willingly accepted any view that allowed them to continue with it and sleep easily at night.

In 1934, there was a revolt on the island of Vaigach. A gang of prisoners working on the far side of the island rebelled and killed their guards. There was nowhere for the rebels to escape, and eventually they were shot or captured and brought back to the camp. As one of the camp doctors, Zina had to inspect their wounds and decide which prisoners were fit to return to work. She saw evidence of terrible beatings, but nothing shook her faith in perekovka, nor her readiness, as she had agreed in her contract of employment, to enforce the camp’s regime of labour discipline by reducing the time spent by prisoners on sick leave. For her work in the aftermath of the uprising, Zina was rewarded with the honourable title of ‘shock worker’ (udarnitsa) and listed in the ‘Red Book’ of the camp. She helped to teach the prisoners to read and to learn a craft in the belief that this would help reforge their personality and rehabilitate them to society. She even joined the Party school and wrote to tell her daughters that she loved her studies there.115

Pavel was equally prepared to go along with the official view of the Gulag, according to Yevgeniia. In her view, he ‘lived entirely for his science’ and ‘took little interest in politics’. He was ‘grateful to the Soviet regime for giving him the opportunity to continue working in his field, and grateful too that his family had been allowed to join him at Vaigach’. If he believed the propaganda about perekovka, it was because, according to his daughter, ‘he was sincere, naive perhaps, and romantic by nature’. Much of this is perhaps true. But it is the viewpoint of a loving daughter who cherishes the memory of her father. Seen from a different perspective, Pavel’s actions could be described as a profound moral compromise. His work was clearly flourishing in the environment of the labour camp, where everything he needed was provided for. ‘How pleasant to be a commander at Vaigach,’ Pavel wrote in his diary. ‘There is a semi-military discipline and complete obedience among the workers here.’ In July 1935, Pavel was given early release, six years before the end of his sentence, in recognition of his valuable work. But he wanted to complete his geological research on Vaigach, so he signed a contract with the administration to continue working voluntarily. This, it seems, was a crucial turning-point, the moment when he ceased to be a prisoner, working for the Gulag by compulsion, and became a collaborator in the Gulag system to advance his own research.

After finishing his work on Vaigach, Pavel went to the Dmitrov labour camp, where he was employed as a geologist in the construction of the Moscow–Volga Canal. Meanwhile, Zina and Yevgeniia, having returned to Leningrad, found that ‘life became more comfortable’. They went back to the communal apartment where they had lived before – and Valentina and Veronika joined then. They soon received an extra room, after the old owners of the apartment were arrested in the Leningrad terror following the murder of Kirov. Because they were not allowed to recover their old furniture from Olgino, which was still used as a dacha by the NKVD, the Vittenburgs were invited to the NKVD warehouse and allowed to help themselves to furniture confiscated from the victims of the Leningrad arrests. Valentina and Veronika picked out a pair of antique armchairs, a divan, a mirror, a bookcase and a grand piano.116

Pavel returned to Leningrad in 1936. For the next two years, he worked for the Gulag administration of the Arctic Ocean, leading several expeditions to Severnaia Zemlia. ‘How to get more living space so that we can live together comfortably – as one united close-knit family – that is the task I cannot seem to solve,’ Pavel wrote to Yevgeniia in 1936. Although he had managed to secure a privileged position through his work in the Gulag, he still felt insecure politically, and he worried about his family.

It is hard to accept that I am so powerless to arrange a comfortable life for all of you, as you deserve after all your suffering with me. The one thing I could do is build a little house, but Mama will not hear of it. Powerful people, who might help me, have turned their backs on me. When will I regain even a tenth of the influence I had before 1930?

Pavel made a conscious effort to Sovietize himself. He took lessons in the Party’s history, and embraced the Truth that it taught him. By the end of 1936, he was ready to accept its teachings on the ‘Trotskyists’ and other ‘enemies’ of the Soviet regime. ‘What a shame that I never knew anything about this,’ Pavel wrote in his diary. ‘If only I had known how reading history broadens the horizon and enables one to reach a proper understanding of the Party’s general line. Maybe my life would not have been forced on to the stony path of exile and imprisonment. For what was my life destroyed? That bastard Trotsky is to blame for thousands of lost lives!’117

Pavel’s story reminds us that the Gulag was far more than a prison camp. As one of the driving forces of the Soviet industrial economy, it employed a vast army of specialists and technicians – engineers, geologists, architects, research scientists, even aircraft designers – and gave them unique opportunities to develop their careers.

Pavel Drozdov was born in 1906 to a peasant family in Chernigov. His father was actively involved in the Marxist movement before 1917. After both his parents were killed in the Civil War, Pavel went to Moscow, joined the Economics Faculty of Moscow University and then trained as an electrician. (He later worked for Moscow Energy, the power station responsible for the electrification of much of the capital.) In 1925, Pavel was arrested for his participation in a student organization at Moscow University. He was exiled for three years to the Krasnovishersk region, where he worked in a logging camp attached to Vishlag, then still in its early days. On his release, in 1927, a year before the end of his sentence, Pavel chose to remain at the camp, where he was employed as an accountant. He married Aleksandra, a young peasant girl from a village near the camp, and had two children, who lived with him in the hostel for administrators in the camp complex. In 1929, when Eduard Berzin, the ‘enlightened’ Gulag chief, arrived at Vishlag, Pavel’s fortunes changed dramatically. Berzin championed the reforging of prisoners, and in Drozdov he believed that he had found a living example of his ideal. Berzin recognized the talents of Pavel, in particular his photographic memory (Berzin liked to say that Pavel had a ‘built-in calculator in his head’). He rapidly promoted Pavel in the camp administration, and often drew attention to the former prisoner as an example of reforging in his talks to senior officials at Vishlag. In 1929, Pavel was appointed chief accountant of the logging camp and, in 1930, chief accountant of the entire Vishlag complex. As one of Berzin’s close associates, Pavel followed Berzin when he left Vishlag to organize the Dalstroi network of labour camps in north-east Siberia. In Magadan, the capital of this Gulag empire, Pavel became the chief accountant in the Planning Section of the Dalstroi Trust and an inspector of the Dalstroi labour camps. Promoted to the rank of lieutenant-general in the NKVD, Pavel was rewarded with a four-room flat, which was big enough to house not just his family, but the family of his sister too. He was also given an apartment in Moscow, where Aleksandra and the children would spend the winter months. The family lived a privileged existence, with access to the special shops and sanatoria exclusively reserved for the Stalinist elite, and manufactured gifts from the Dalstroi factories on the Soviet holidays.118 Not bad for a man who, only a few years before, had been a common prisoner in the Gulag.

Mikhail Stroikov was born in 1901 to a family of Old Believers near Ivanovo, 300 kilometres north-east of Moscow. In 1925, he enrolled as a student at the Moscow Architectural Institute and married Elena, a young artist at a rabfak school (which prepared students from working-class backgrounds to study at an institute). Their daughter Julia was born in 1927. Just before her birth, Mikhail was arrested and exiled to Siberia: he had belonged to a student group opposed to the agrarian policies of the Bolsheviks. Elena was expelled from the rabfak school and went to work in a textile factory. In 1930, Mikhail returned to Moscow and rejoined the Architectural Institute, but two years later he was rearrested and imprisoned for two years in the Butyrki jail. Mikhail was considered a brilliant student. He had not been able to complete his dissertation before his arrest, but thanks to the intervention of his professor, he was allowed to do so in the Butyrki, and even to defend it at the institute. It is inconceivable that Mikhail could have done this without the support of the political police. He had two uncles in OGPU, and one of his oldest friends was Filipp Bazanov, Elena’s first husband, who was also a senior official in OGPU. Bazanov helped Elena (and tried to persuade her to return to him) while Mikhail was in jail. In 1934, Mikhail was exiled to Arkhangelsk. Although he had relatives in Arkhangelsk, among them the family of the former vice-governor of Murmansk, Mikhail did not visit them, because he did not want to endanger them.

Mikhail was saved by his architectural expertise. He was employed by the NKVD as a planner-architect on several major building projects – factories and bridges – using Gulag labour from the nearby camps. He soon became one of the chief architects of Arkhangelsk. Even as a prisoner in exile, Mikhail enjoyed better living conditions than Elena and Julia in Moscow. Mikhail was earning good money. He ate in the NKVD cafeteria for engineers and technicians, where meat was served every day, whereas Julia and Elena were living in Moscow on a diet of porridge and bread. Mikhail sent them money to buy meat. Julia was often ill and desperately needed better food. At the end of 1934, Elena sent her to live with her father in Arkhangelsk, in the hope that she would benefit from Mikhail’s relatively comfortable position. The last time Julia had seen her father (the only recollection she had of him) was two years earlier, in the Butyrki prison, a visit which had left her in such a state that, at the age of only six, she had tried to commit suicide. Mikhail rented the corner of a room from an old woman, Elena Petrovna, who prepared their meals. Julia recalls these meals – pork cutlets with macaroni, pancakes with mincemeat, chicken legs, ice cream – with nostalgia.

In the evenings, when Papa returned from work, he would ask me: ‘What shall we order from Elena Petrovna? What do you want to eat?’ I couldn’t get enough of her delicious food and I would always say [the first dish she had cooked for us], ‘Macaroni and cutlets! Macaroni and cutlets!’ One day Papa had enough. He implored me: ‘Liusenka, think of something else, I can’t eat any more.’ But I could not think of any other food.

For Julia the years she spent in Arkhangelsk, from 1934 to 1937, were the happiest in her life. She thrived at school. She loved the ballet. Her father took her to the theatre and bought a gramophone so she could dance to ballet music in their tiny living space. ‘Papa’s Corner’, as Elena called this living space, was just seven square metres, with a plywood partition and door constructed by Mikhail to divide it from the rest of the room, where Elena Petrovna lived. Mikhail was very proud of his construction, which created the illusion of a separate room. ‘Papa’s Corner’ was just big enough for a single bed, a table, a chair and a bookcase on the wall. But it was a home of sorts, and Julia was happy to be living there with her father.

‘Papa’s Corner’. Drawing by Mikhail Stroikov, 1935

In January 1937, Elena came to Arkhangelsk. The end of Mikhail’s sentence was approaching, and she wanted to return to Moscow as a family. But the authorities would not let her stay in Arkhangelsk until the end of Mikhail’s exile, and so Elena went back to Moscow with Julia. A few weeks later, in March, Mikhail was arrested and sentenced to five years in a labour camp for ‘counter-revolutionary agitation’ (he was shot in 1938). Elena knew nothing about his arrest. There were no more letters from her husband. She only learned what had happened the next summer when she went back to Arkhangelsk and spoke to Elena Petrovna.119

The Vittenburgs, the Drozdovs and the Stroikovs were exceptional, of course. The vast majority of the Gulag population was used as slave labour, or left to languish in prison camps and remote settlements, with little access to the comforts of normal life, or even prospect of reprieve. The cost in human lives was enormous. NKVD statistics show that over 150,000 people died in Soviet labour camps between 1932 and 1936.120 These figures cast a different light on the mid-1930s, a period which has often been regarded as the calm before the storm of 1937–8 (the poet Anna Akhmatova called the middle thirties the ‘vegetarian years’). For those whose lives were devastated by the Great Terror, that view of the mid-thirties may be true. But for millions of people whose families were scattered in the Gulag’s labour camps and colonies, these years were as bad as any other.

Reading the letters of these prisoners to their relatives at home (letters that were written with censorship in mind), it is striking how the Gulag changed the values and priorities of so many of these prisoners – particularly the ‘politicals’, who had sacrificed so much for their ideals. Where before they might have looked for happiness in their career, or in the promise of a Communist utopia, years of living in a prison camp or exile forced them to rethink and place greater value on the family.

Tatiana Poloz (née Miagkova) was born in 1898 to the family of a barrister in the Borisoglebsk region of Tambov province. Her mother, Feoktista, the daughter of a priest, was a member of the Social Democratic Party who sided with the Bolsheviks when they split with the Mensheviks in 1903; she encouraged Tatiana to enter politics. In 1919, Tatiana joined the Bolshevik Party and took part in propaganda work behind the lines of Denikin’s White Army on the Southern Front in the Civil War. It was there that she met her husband, Mikhail Poloz, a leading member of the Borotbists (Socialist Revolutionaries), the only Ukrainian party with a mass peasant following, who at that time was serving in the Military Council of the Ukrainian independent government. At the end of the Civil War, the Borotbists merged with the Bolsheviks, the Ukraine was brought under Soviet rule, and Poloz became the Ukraine’s political representative (polpred) in Moscow. Tatiana joined the Higher Party School, attending lectures by Trotsky. In 1923, Mikhail was named Commissar of Finance in the Soviet Ukrainian government. He and Tatiana settled in Kharkov (the capital of Soviet Ukraine until 1934), where their daughter Rada was born in 1924.

Three years later, Tatiana was exiled to Astrakhan, and then, in 1929, to Chelkar in Kazakhstan. She was accused of being an active oppositionist, with links to the Smirnov group, an important faction of the Left Opposition led by Trotsky until the expulsion of its leaders from the Party in 1927. In the autumn of 1929, Mikhail visited Tatiana in Kazakhstan. He pleaded with her to renounce her opposition politics for the sake of their daughter, who was then living with her grandmother. At one point, according to a fellow oppositionist who was also exiled in Chelkar, Mikhail whispered something in her ear: ‘It was some sort of secret information that left her utterly despondent and defeated.’ Perhaps Mikhail had told her that Smirnov and his group had been negotiating a capitulation with the Stalinist authorities in the hope of being reinstated in the Party. On 3 November 1929, an article by Smirnov appeared in Pravda in which he declared his full support for the Five Year Plan and the ‘general line of the Party’, renounced his Trotskyist position and called on all his followers ‘to overcome their hesitations and return to the Party’. Four hundred members of the Smirnov group subsequently signed a declaration of submission to the Party’s general line, including Tatiana, who was then released from exile and allowed to return to her family.121

In 1930, the family moved from Kharkov to Moscow, where Poloz became Deputy Chairman of the All-Union Soviet Budget Commission, while Tatiana worked as an economist in the automobile industry. They lived with Tatiana’s mother, Feoktista, and a housekeeper, in a large apartment in the House on the Embankment, the prestigious block of flats for government workers opposite the Kremlin, although, as romantic revolutionaries who had always lived for their ideas, the family did not attach much importance to their privileged lifestyle. Tatiana kept to her Trotskyist position, against the wishes of both her husband, who insisted that opposition to Stalin was futile, and her mother, who was a convinced Stalinist. In 1933, Tatiana was rearrested, along with the rest of the Smirnov group, and sentenced to three years in a special isolation prison camp in Verkhneuralsk in the Urals. Mikhail was arrested a few months later, in 1934, convicted of attempting to establish a Ukrainian bourgeois government and sentenced to ten years at the Solovetsky labour camp. Evicted from the House on the Embankment, Rada and her grandmother moved to a furnished apartment in the outskirts of Moscow, where they were joined by Rada’s aunt Olga, whose husband had been arrested three years earlier, and their son Volodia. Feoktista ‘tried to teach me to respect and love my parents,’ recalls Rada.

But at the same time she expected me to love and respect Soviet power. It was not an easy task, but somehow she managed it. Grandmother sincerely believed that Stalin did not know about the scale of the arrests… She thought that there were so many enemies of Soviet power that it was hard for the authorities to work out which ones were guilty. In our house one often heard the expression, ‘You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.’122

The Poloz family, 1934: Rada is standing between her aunt Olga and her grandmother, Feoktista. The boy is Olga’s son Volodia

Between 1933 and June 1936, Tatiana wrote 136 letters to Feoktista and Rada, an average of one letter every week. This is one of the largest surviving collections of private letters from the Gulag.123 The early letters reflect Tatiana’s political preoccupations. She asks for Marx’s writings to be sent. She comments in detail on the latest political events. In June 1934, for example, Tatiana’s letters were full of praise for the crew of the Cheliuskin, which had just completed a pioneering voyage across the Arctic Ocean from Leningrad to the Bering Straits. The journey had ended in disaster when the steamship was crushed by ice and sank beneath the Chukchi Sea in February 1934. But the crew, which camped on an iceberg, was finally rescued by Soviet planes and flown back to Moscow, where propaganda turned their story into one of heroic survival. The Cheliuskincrew had ‘shown the world what Bolsheviks are!’ Tatania wrote on 24 June, adding four days later, on the same subject:

Pride in being a Soviet citizen was probably never as all-embracing and intense as it is today. Pride in the ‘good qualities’ of the Soviet people, in the fine Soviet aeroplanes, in the good Soviet scientists and sailors and all the rest, pride in Bolshevism, which showed the supreme power of its ideas and organization on those icebergs. And what power that must have for the education of children!

Rada’s political education was a constant concern in these letters. ‘Mama was always writing about how Communism should be built,’ recalls Rada.

She wanted me to become an engineer and a writer… And her letters had an influence on me. Although I was brought up by my grandmother, I liked to think that, through these letters, I was being brought up by my mother too.124

Tatiana wanted Rada to grow up as a Communist. She spilled a sea of ink on commentaries about her behaviour at home (which she said she had read about ‘in the newspapers’ to avoid revealing Feoktista as her source).

12 June 1935

And how are our household duties going, my little monkey? In the newspapers they write that you do your household chores without much pleasure and often forget what has to be done. But they also write other things. I read this telegram in Izvestiia: ‘Moscow (TASS) – the shockworker and model student Rada, 11, today was asked to clean the dishes and the kitchen. The task was fulfilled very well. The dishes were cleaned and everything tidied. Rada surveyed the results of her labour with great satisfaction and told our correspondent that from now on she will fulfil all her chores to the same standards of excellence.’ The correspondent approved, of course, and so do I. Study, little monkey, cook, wash, clean, as you are asked: the main thing is to do as you are asked.

The longer Tatiana remained in prison, the more her letters were preoccupied by family relationships. Mikhail was not allowed to write to Moscow, but he was allowed to correspond with Tatiana, whose letters thus became the only means of information for Rada about her father, and for Mikhail about his daughter. Reflecting on her mother’s letters, Rada believes that they allowed Tatiana to maintain the family connections she needed to survive. They were ‘full of optimism’, Rada

Letter (extract) from Tatiana to Rada, 12 June 1935

writes in her memoirs; ‘she was always reminding us that time was passing, and was always looking forward to the happy time when the family would be together once again’. Many of Tatiana’s prison letters came with little gifts – rag dolls, toy animals and even clothes – which she had made for Rada in the prison camp.125

On her release from the Verkhneuralsk prison in 1936, Tatiana was exiled to Uralsk and then to Alma-Ata. Feoktista spent two weeks with Tatiana in Uralsk in March 1936. These were precious weeks for Tatiana, who later wrote of a new intimacy she experienced with her mother when they sat together, ‘my head resting on your shoulder’, and talked about the past.126 Shortly after Feoktista’s return to Moscow, Tatiana wrote: ‘Mamusenka! I came home but this is not a home. You are not here, there is no home [written in English] – no cosy warmth.’ In April, when Tatiana moved to Alma-Ata, she began to pin her hopes on the possibility of Rada coming to be with her. She invested all her energies in organizing the move. Her letters from this time were filled with hopes and excitement, as Rada writes: ‘Her stubborn strength and persistence were completely focused on the tasks of finding work and a little room where she could live with her daughter.’ The trip did not materialize. In June 1936, just as Rada was about to leave Moscow to join her mother in Alma-Ata, Tatiana was rearrested and sent to an unknown labour camp. ‘We bought the train tickets to Alma-Ata,’ recalls Rada,

we found some people to look after me on the journey, packed all my things and sent a telegram with details about my arrival. The answer came: ‘The addressee does not live here.’ We returned the ticket. I stayed in Moscow and never saw my mother again.

Tatiana was sent to Kolyma, one of the worst of Stalin’s Gulag colonies. In November 1937, she was shot. Mikhail was executed in Karelia during the same month. His correspondence with his wife (a ‘Trotskyist’) was recorded in his NKVD file as sufficient proof of guilt to sentence him to death.127

Rada did not know about her parents’ death. She tried not to think about them, because she did not know if they were alive or not. But once she saw her mother in a dream:

To start with I was on the deck of a ship in the middle of the sea. In my hands I held two schoolbooks covered in glued-on brown paper. I opened one of them and recognized my mother’s handwriting. The first sentence was very strange: ‘When you read these lines, I will already be at the bottom of the sea…’ I read a few more lines, which I can’t recall. Then I became gripped with fear. There were enormous pipes with water gushing out. My fear increased, seizing hold of me, until I awoke.128

Rada believed the ‘message’ of her dream – that her mother had been drowned – and began to think about her all the time. Later, when she heard tales from Kolyma survivors about a ship of prisoners that had gone down, she was even more convinced of her mother’s fate. She continued to believe her dream for many years and, even after she received a death certificate from the authorities stating that her mother had been shot, Rada went on thinking that she had been drowned.

Tatiana Poloz was not the only fervent socialist who felt the pull of family after imprisonment. Nikolai Kondratiev was born in 1892 to a peasant family in Kostroma province, 400 kilometres north-east of Moscow. He studied economics at St Petersburg University, joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party and played a leading role in formulating the agrarian reforms of 1917. In the 1920s, Kondratiev was a prominent economist advising the Soviet government. He was a firm supporter of the NEP, favouring the primacy of agriculture and the manufacturing of consumer goods over the development of heavy industry. It was at this time that he advanced his theory of long-term cycles in the capitalist economy (‘Kondratiev waves’) which made him famous throughout the world. But with the overturning of the NEP Kondratiev was removed from all his posts. In July 1930, he was arrested on charges of belonging to an illegal (and probably non-existent) ‘Peasant Labour Party’. Stalin wrote to Molotov: ‘Kondratiev and a few other scoundrels must definitely be shot.’129 But in fact Kondratiev was sentenced to eight years in the special isolation prison camp housed in the fourteenth-century Spaso-Yefimeyev Monastery in Suzdal, where he was imprisoned from February 1932.

Kondratiev’s health deteriorated rapidly. He was in and out of the prison hospital with complaints of severe headaches, dizziness and intermittent deafness, chronic rheumatism in the legs, diarrhoea, vomiting, insomnia and depression. By 1936, he was practically blind. Yet Kondratiev carried on with his research and prepared five new books. He wrote over 100 letters to his wife, Yevgeniia,130 nearly all of them with little notes attached for his daughter Elena (‘Alyona’), who was born in 1925. The pain of separation which Kondratiev felt is almost palpable in these letters. It is his daughter that he misses most. The situation was all the more poignant because Kondratiev was obviously such a loving father. He desperately wanted to play an active role in his daughter’s upbringing, and the worst part of his suffering in jail was not being able to do this. ‘How terrible that she is growing up in my absence,’ he wrote to Yevgeniia in March 1932. ‘This torments me more than anything.’131 As a father, Nikolai poured all his love into his letters to Elena. When she did not write to him, he reproached her for not loving him enough. Nikolai would constantly remind her of little incidents from their life together before his arrest. He drew pictures in his letters and told her stories about the wildlife around the monastery – birds that came to visit him, foxes he had seen. In many of his letters Nikolai included pressed flowers, or grasses from the meadows near the monastery. Above all, he focused his attention on his daughter’s intellectual development. He set her riddles and puzzles. He recommended books for her to read, asking her to write with her impressions about them. He encouraged her to keep a diary, corrected the mistakes in her letters and nagged her to ‘write neatly and always try to do things well’.132 On the bottom of many of his letters a young child has written the word: ‘Papa’. They were all Elena had of him. She grew up to become a botanist, a professor of Moscow University. Perhaps her father’s letters influenced her interest in botany.

Nikolai and Elena (‘Alyona’) Kondratiev, 1926

In 1935, Nikolai sent Elena a fairy-tale which he had written and illustrated to mark her name day.133 ‘The Unusual Adventures of Shammi’ tells the story of a kitten who goes in search of the ideal land, where ‘people, animals and plants live in happiness and harmony’. Shammi sets off with his friend, the tomcat Vasia, who is very cowardly and reluctant to go. On the way they encounter many animals who try to dissuade them from going on, promising them happiness if they give up the search, but Shammi pushes ahead, attracting various animals – a goat, a donkey, a horse and a hen – who ‘all work hard and want a better life’. But soon the travellers lose their way. They begin to argue among themselves. Some get eaten by a crocodile. Others are shot by hunters in the wood.

On 31 August 1938 Kondratiev wrote to his daughter:

‘The Unusual Adventures of Shammi’ (detail)

My sweet darling Alyonushka.

Probably your holidays are over now and you are back at school. How did you spend the summer? Did you get stronger, put on weight, get tanned? I very much want to know. And I would like very, very much to see you and kiss you many, many times. I still do not feel well, I am still ill. My sweet, Alyonushka, I want you not to get sick this winter. I also want you to study hard, as you did before. Read good books. Be a clever and a good little girl. Listen to your mother and never disappoint her. I would also be happy if you managed not to forget about me, your papa, altogether. Well, be healthy! Be happy! I kiss you without end. Your papa.134

This was the last letter. Shortly afterwards, on 17 September, Nikolai was executed by a firing squad.

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