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American Historians Association, 1997

By F. Kreisel, January 7, 1997.

The 1997 meeting of the American Historians Association was held in New York last week. This writer attended the meeting and a few of its sessions, and wishes to report on one of the seminars, entitled "Resistance Against the Soviet Regime and Its Policies in the Stalin Era". The meeting was chaired by Lewis H. Siegelbaum known for his study "Soviet State and Society Between Revolutions, 1918—1929". The three papers presented at the session were critiqued by Sheila Fitzpatrick, well known as the Chicago School pioneer of the current wave of revising the history of the Russian Revolution. This school of historical revisionism aims to prove that the events of October 1917 were just a coup by a ruthless band of conspirators, not a popular revolution.

Dr. Siegelbaum opened the meeting with a note that while his generation of Sovietologists was looking for signs of support for the Soviet regime, the younger historians are searching for signs of opposition and for reasons for the regime's collapse. This was an indirect reference to the fact that all the Western Sovietologists signally failed to foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union and reflects a continuing crisis in this profession.

Wendy Z. Goldman of the Carnegie Mellon University presented a paper entitled "Stalinism and the Death of the Women's Movement". Her presentation dealt with the organization of the "Zhenotdel", the Women's department under the Central Committee which was set up in 1919 under pressure from women activists in the Communist Party.

The chairperson of Zhenotdel was Alexandra Kollontai, a member of the Central Committee in 1917 and very active at that time in the extreme left wing of the Bolshevik Party. In 1918 Kollontai was one of the leaders of the Left Opposition; in 1920 — 21 she was the principal spokesperson of the Workers Opposition. She was also one of the principal proponents of the concept of "free love" and of women's liberation, and promoted a frontal assault on patriarchal values, the Family and the Church. Kollontai was very active in various Party oppositions until 1925. Afterwards she dropped all opposition to Stalin, became, much like Lenin's widow, Nadezhda Krupskaia, one of the regime's decorative figures, and, unlike the overwhelming majority of Old Bolsheviks, actually managed to die unmolested in her own bed in 1952. Unfortunately, none of these aspects of Kollontai's history was brought up by the speakers.

The Zhenotdel existed as a network of local chapters of women activists organized in each region, factory, local Soviet and trade union until 1930. These chapters and the whole national organization exerted continuous pressure and organized campaigns on issues of child care, vaccinations and public health, education, literacy campaigns among women, struggle against alcoholism and wife and child abuse, promoted the setting up of public laundries, bath houses, cafeterias and take-out food canteens, dealt with problems of housing, forced marriage and many other family and social issues. Many of the problems addressed by the women's departments were reflections of the backwardness and low economic and cultural level of czarist Russia. The program of the Zhenotdel in turn derived from basic socialist principles and their ultimate goal of the achievement of social equality.

The Zhenotdel was shut down by the Stalinists in 1930 and from then on the ruling clique suppressed any discussion of the conditions of life of both women and men. This was directly related to the sharp worsening of the everyday conditions of life both in the cities and in the countryside during the years of the First Five Year Plan.

Unfortunately, Dr. Goldman avoided defining the tasks and concerns of the Zhenotdel. She instead constantly referred to the Russian word "byt" (everyday life), and generally allowed the audience to make the mistake, common in the middle class, of equating the working class women communists of the Zhenotdel with the upscale feminist proponents of verbal "political correctness" today. This left the anti communist Professor. Fitzpatrick free to comment that the closing by Stalin of the Zhenotdel was the result of his bowing to the wishes of the male chauvinist majority of the Communist Party membership, i.e. that this was just another example of these awful male bullies trampling down on women's rights. In a particularly patronizing remark the learned Professor ascribed the creation of the Zhenotdel in 1919 to the wish of some powerful Bolsheviks like Zinoviev and Trotsky to provide high visibility sinecure positions for their wives and girlfriends.

D'Ann R. Penner of the Kennan Institute gave a talk entitled "Give Me My Horse or Give Me Death: Peasant Resistance in the Upper Half of the North Caucasus Territory, February — July 1930". Dr. Penner showed the differentiated attitude of the rural population of the North Caucasus region towards the Communist Party and to Soviet power in general. While the hereditary Cossacks were generally hostile to the regime the large non-Cossack population was generally sympathetic to the Reds during the Civil War. She stated that during the 1920's the overwhelming majority of the population never even thought of returning to tzarism and acknowledged the legitimacy of the Soviet regime, supporting its social and cultural policies, like the separation of Church and State, literacy and public health campaigns, the fiscal policies of the NEP period, the military draft and so on. Dr. Penner showed that the peasants actively supported the Soviet regime during the war scare of 1927.

The title for the paper is derived from the slogans of some of the peasants who were protesting the wholesale collectivization of 1929—1930. Dr. Penner explained the attachment of the peasant for his livestock, especially the draft horse, and that whole villages, some of them populated with the former Red Partisans of the Civil War, would protest at the orders to surrender all their livestock. The peasantry naively supposed that the local leaders were perverting the liberal policy of Moscow and raised slogans in favor of Soviet power but against the Kolkhoz. Throughout 1929 and 1930 the rural areas of the Soviet Union were ablaze with peasant unrest. This unrest remained disjointed and unarticulated, and Stalin's regime suppressed it brutally. Penner did not mention that the Stalinist regime was able to mobilize tens of thousands of urban workers to act as the enforcers of collectivization on behalf of the regime. Stalin was also able to find local scapegoats for his absurd and criminal policy of mass dekulakization and forced collectivization. He even used the crisis atmosphere of the period to strengthen the police apparatus supporting his regime.

Marxists (Trotskyists) have long explained the Bonapartist nature of the Stalinist regime, its role as the arbiter of class conflict. It mediated the class differences within the country, primarily the conflict between the working class and the peasantry. It also acted as the mediator of the conflict between the workers' state and the imperialist encirclement. Penner was unfortunately unable to see this.

Jeffrey J. Rossman of the University of California at Berkeley read a paper on "Worker Resistance Under Stalin: The Experience of Soviet Cotton Workers during the First Five-Year Plan". Rossman explained how the living conditions of the textile workers in the Ivanovo region sharply worsened with the beginning of the First Five-Year Plan in 1928. Supplies of foodstuffs and consumer goods dried up and their quality deteriorated. As the regime allocated a lion's share of all resources to the building of heavy industry all the social expenditures were curtailed, workers' housing deteriorated, public health and educational institutions in the region suffered. Eventually, even wage payments began to arrive late, or not at all. Here, the seminar audience heard the only reference to the present situation in Russia, as Rossman referred to the current non-payment of wages by the Yeltsin regime.

Rossman pointed out that women workers, — and the majority of the textile workers around Ivanovo were female, — were extremely active in organizing meetings, protests, petitions and even strikes. When Fitzpatrick tried to object that these were only "economic" forms of protest, Rossman quite correctly rejoined that under the totalitarian Stalinist regime all "economic" protest immediately became political. He noted that tens of thousands of workers at a time participated in protest and strike actions, and that Party members on the shop floor joined these protests.

Fitzpatrick in her critique tried to put forward two points. Firstly, she tried to undermine the findings of Penner that the Soviet regime enjoyed mass support during the 1920's. Secondly, she asserted that what opposition there was to the regime was purely local, concerned with narrow economic issues and disorganized. Fitzpatrick then confessed her quandary: Where was the actual opposition to the regime? Fitzpatrick's position leaves more questions in its wake. Why did the Soviet regime survive and even grow in strength? Why were the Purges so cruel and wide spread? Why did the Soviet bureaucracy, supported by the privileged layers of intellectuals in the major cities, eventually engineer the collapse of its own regime?

This writer was able to speak only briefly. After introducing myself as a publisher of Trotskyist literature in the Russian language I said that the real opposition to the Stalin regime was by that time in prisons and exile. Thousands of Left Oppositionists were arrested in 1927 and thousands more were being arrested all the time. Professor Vadim Rogovin's works investigating the history of political opposition to the Stalin regime are uncovering evidence of widespread opposition within the Communist Party. The Stalin faction was a minority in the Party, and here lies the solution to the riddle of the mass Purges of 1936—38.