Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
John Steinbeck visited the Soviet Union in 1947 when it was going through its post-war purgatory. What an encounter: between the author of The Grapes of Wrath (later to win the Nobel Prize) and the emerging superpower. In the rubble of Stalingrad, he saw a traumatized young girl. ‘Somewhere in the terror of the fighting in the city, something had snapped, and she had retired to some comfort of forgetfulness. She squatted on her hams and ate watermelon rinds and sucked the bones of other people’s soup,’ he wrote. ‘Her face was of a chiselled loveliness.’
How did the Soviet Union recover from this disaster? In Smolensk, only nineteen per cent of the pre-war housing stock still existed in 1945. If nothing was done, society would disintegrate. No longer could the government completely neglect the wellbeing of the people as it has done during the 1930s. The Stalinist order retained the same aims and ethics — the end of communist utopia justified the destruction of individuals — but the policies changed. Precisely in order to secure Stalinist power, kickstart re-industrialization, and entrench the security state, elements of a housing programme emerged; social security was expanded; healthcare became more extensive. There would be no re-run of the Great Terror. Some people therefore enjoyed incidental benefits, though others did not. This was late Stalinism, a modification of the pre-war version.
The period was also marked by social tension and anxiety. Despite close supervision during his trip, Steinbeck met all sorts of people. His mild and modest tone magnifies what he records: the limits of ideology, the survival strategies of ordinary citizens, the inequalities and contrasts of post-catastrophe.
One of Steinbeck’s stories shows that the government could not reconstruct the country by itself, and had to release the autonomous energies of its citizens. Historians have come to see this limited compact as one of the characteristics of late Stalinism. Steinbeck wrote: ‘We stopped at a tiny house that a bookkeeper in a factory was building. He was putting up the timbers himself, and he was mixing his own mud for plaster, and his two children played in the garden near him.’
In looking for human universals, the American visitor found some truths about ‘late Stalinism’. The man shows Steinbeck his scrapbook, which ‘was like all the scrapbooks in the world. The photographs showed him as a baby, and as a young man[.] […] There were pictures of his marriage, of his wife in a long white wedding gown. […] It was the whole history of his life, and all the good things that had happened to him. He had lost everything else in the war.’ But he was now building a new life with his own hands. The government let him do so, and might even (in line with a law of 1944) have released to him the cheap credit that made it possible. And in six years, Stalin would be dead, and everything would change again.