Daily Archives: 7 March 2008

Early Soviet Outer vs. Inner Life

From The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2007), pp. 37-38, 46-48:

Increasingly, there was nothing in the private life of the Bolshevik that was not subject to the gaze and censure of the Party leadership. This public culture, where every member was expected to reveal his inner self to the collective, was unique to the Bolsheviks—there was nothing like it in the Nazi or the Fascist movement, where the individual Nazi or Fascist was allowed to have a private life, so long as he adhered to the Party’s rules and ideology—until the Cultural Revolution in China. Any distinction between private and public life was explicitly rejected by the Bolsheviks. ‘When a comrade says: “What I am doing now concerns my private life and not society,” we say that cannot be correct,’ wrote one Bolshevik in 1924. Everything in the Party member’s private life was social and political; everything he did had a direct impact on the Party’s interests. This was the meaning of ‘Party unity’—the complete fusion of the individual with the public life of the Party.

In his book on Party Ethics, Solts conceived of the Party as a self-policing collective, where every Bolshevik would scrutinize and criticize his comrades’ private motives and behaviour. In this way, he imagined, the individual Bolshevik would come to know himself through the eyes of the Party. Yet in reality this mutual surveillance did just the opposite: it encouraged people to present themselves as conforming to Soviet ideals whilst concealing their true selves in a secret private sphere. Such dissimulation would become widespread in the Soviet system, which demanded the display of loyalty and punished the expression of dissent. During the terror of the 1930s, when secrecy and deception became necessary survival strategies for almost everyone in the Soviet Union, a whole new type of personality and society arose. But this double-life was already a reality for large sections of the population in the 1920s, especially for Party families, who lived in the public eye, and those whose social background or beliefs made them vulnerable to repression. People learned to wear a mask and act the role of loyal Soviet citizens, even if they lived by other principles in the privacy of their own home.

Talk was dangerous in this society. Family conversations repeated outside the home could lead to arrest and imprisonment. Children were the main source of danger…. The playground, especially, was a breeding ground of informers….

Many families did lead a double life. They celebrated Soviet public holidays like 1 May and 7 November (Revolution Day) and conformed to the regime’s atheist ideology, yet still observed their religious faith in the privacy of their own home…. The secret observance of religious rituals occurred even in Party families. Indeed it was quite common, judging from a report by the Central Control Commission which revealed that almost half the members expelled from the Party in 1925 had been purged because of religious observance. There were numerous Party households where Christ rubbed shoulders with the Communist ideal, and Lenin’s portrait was displayed together with the family icons in the ‘red’ or ‘holy’ corner of the living room.

The nanny, another carrier of traditional Russian values within the Soviet family, was a natural ally of the grandmother. Nannies were employed by many urban families, especially in households where both parents worked. There was an almost limitless supply of nannies from the countryside, particularly after 1928, when millions of peasants fled into the cities to escape collectivization, and they brought with them the customs and beliefs of the peasantry.

Virtually all the Bolsheviks employed nannies to take care of their children. It was a practical necessity for most Party women, at least until the state provided universal nursery care, because they went out to work. In many Party families the nanny acted as a moral counterweight to the household’s ruling Soviet attitudes. Ironically the most senior Bolsheviks tended to employ the most expensive nannies, who generally held reactionary opinions.

I have a hard time conveying to people who’ve never experienced it what life is really like in a totalitarian dictatorship—whether communist or theocratic, it matters not. To academics, I like to say that the level of paranoia is as if everyone is constantly under evaluation for tenure, but can never be sure the evaluation period is over. Few are more paranoid than pretenure academics whose future careers ride on the outcome. But the passage cited above suggests another parallel. It’s as if everyone is constantly running for political office and can become the object of oppo research by anyone who resents them for whatever reason, whether real or imagined.

The other side of the coin in totalitarian societies is the rare friendship that allows you to puncture the public tatemae and get to each other’s inner honne, even when you know your treasured friend (or lover, as in Orwell’s 1984) may have to betray you to placate those who can do real harm to both of you. The shared danger of revealing one’s apostasy heightens the sense of intimacy, as does your appreciation of the duress that leads your intimates eventually to betray either you or themselves. Is it all that different among candidates and their staff in electoral democracies?

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