Recommended Reading

Two of my favorite magazines, the London Review of Books and Vanity Fair, have two must read articles on Russia in their recent additions. Vanity Fair‘s annual “Green Issue” is full of amazing articles, particularly Phillippe Sands’ well researched article “The Green Light,” which exposes how White House lawyers “legalized” the use of torture.

In regard to Russia, Alex Shoumatoff’s “The Arctic Oil Rush” delves into the logic behind Russia’s scramble for the North Pole. This time, however, the rush back to the Pole isn’t solely driven by the exploratory urges of Frederick Cook or Robert Perry. The Cold Rush, as Shoumatoff calls the Arctic Great Game, is spurred by, you guested it, oil. Scientists estimate that 25 percent of the world’s remaining fossil-fuel reserves sit under the Arctic floor. Russia, the United States, Canada, and Denmark are now in a renewed effort to claim possession over the the globe’s ice cap.

But the main contribution of Shoumatoff’s article is not so much the Cold Rush, as it is how global warming is affecting the million residents of Yakutia. The capital, Yakurtsk, is a boom town, mostly because of diamond mining. In good Putinist fashion, Alrosa, the diamond company which dominates the region, is jointly state owned by the Russian and Yakutia governments. Vyacheslav Shtyrov, the president of the Republic of Sakha, is a former president of Alrosa.

Life for Yakutia’s native population is far removed from the the political and corporate machinations of Russia’s political elites. The three main ethnic groups, Eveny, Evenki, and Yukaghir, like many indigenous peoples around the world are more victims of the double pronged assault of modernity. The first is cultural. Much of their nomadic life, language and religion has been destroyed by a two century old effort of Russification and modernization. One of the oldest groups, the Yakaghir, only number 1,509 people, and only 23 of them still speak their language with fluency.

The second prong is of course global industrialization and its ecological consequences. Global warming, which most Russian scientists reject (they actually think the world is getting colder), is having detrimental effects on the two staples of the Eveny, Evenki, and Yukaghir people: reindeer herding and fur trapping. As Shoumatoff explains:

The Eveny and Evenki people (same way of life, different linguistic heritage) have been relying for centuries on reindeer (known in the Nearctic as caribou), which provide transport, food, shelter, and clothing. There are still a few thousand nomadic reindeer herders in Siberia, moving with their animals in the largest territory of any remaining traditional people. But the wild and domesticated reindeer have been experiencing massive die-offs in the spring and fall, I’m told by Eveny and Evenki activists. Reindeer eat mainly lichen, and now when the seasons change there is more rain that freezes at night, often with melted snow, into a sheet of ice that the reindeer can’t break through with their hooves, so entire herds are starving to death.

Vyacheslav Shadrin, the head of the council of Yukaghir elders, tells me that in the Upper Kolyma basin, 700 miles north of Yakutsk, where he is from, last November and December, when it is normally minus 40 degrees Celsius (also Fahrenheit—Celsius and Fahrenheit converge at 40 below), it rained. That means it was 72 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual. The Yukaghir are one of the oldest aboriginal peoples of Siberia. There are only 1,509 of them left, as of the last census, and only 23 who still speak the language fluently. They are a culture on the way out, unless something is done fast to keep it going.

The Upper Kolyma Yukaghir are hunters and fishermen whose main source of income is trapping sable. “Usually in one season a hunter can get 20 to 25 pelts, half of them in the middle of October, when the sables all go to their winter hunting ground,” Shadrin says. “By then the snow comes thick and the lakes are frozen and the hunters can go out to the winter routes on snowmobiles. But now it’s no longer safe to go out until mid-November, because the snowmobiles can fall through the ice, so the hunters are losing the most important month and a half for their income.

“Every year the pasture for the wild reindeer, which the Yukaghir hunt, is getting less and less because the taiga is coming up from the south,” Shadrin goes on. “Grasses, birches, and some bushes like willow are covering the lichen. And the reindeer no longer come to their traditional river crossings, which is the best place to kill them. The hunters no longer know where they are going to be, so they lose time and are less successful.

“The quantity of wolves is growing,” he says. “Before, we used to have only tundra wolves. Now we’re getting taiga wolves, too, which run in bigger packs. The wolves kill many reindeer and give trouble to the herders. So for all these reasons, both wild and domestic reindeer are disappearing. Also, geese and sea ducks have changed their migratory routes and schedules. Hunters used to wait for them where they rested at night in the beginning of June; now they don’t know what time to go. Last few years the waterfowl have been appearing in very small quantity. They must have changed their route to another river basin. Trapping polar foxes was a big part of our traditional life, but in the last 10 or 15 years there have hardly been any. No one knows why.

I recommend reading the whole article, if not the whole issue.


The London Review of Books is unsurpassed in its book reviews. They’re in depth, engaging, and well written. I eagerly await its delivery in my mailbox every fortnight. For Russia watchers, I highly recommend Lewis Siegelbaum’s “Witness Protection,” which disassembles the analytical logic of Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. Unfortunately, the review is only available to subscribers. Here a lengthy but key passage:

Figes’s own narrative is constructed around the idea of the family as a site of ‘human feelings and emotions’, a ‘moral sphere’ that was opposed to the ‘moral vacuum of the Stalinist regime’. The antithesis is striking but unsustainable. First, it is based on an ahistorical notion of the family. Millions of abandoned and orphaned young people roamed the cities of Russia in the early 1920s not because of Bolshevik hostility to the family but because the combination of war, revolution, civil war, penury, epidemics and famine had carried off their parents. In these historical circumstances attempts by the state to take over responsibility for functions previously associated with the family both assumed urgency and attracted widespread interest abroad. Figes is silent about them.

Second, associating the family with morality and the ‘Stalinist regime’ with its absence may give us a comfortable feeling that we are on the right side of history, but historians have a responsibility to try to explain what those alien beings from the past thought they were doing. This is not a matter of ‘tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner,’ but of granting Stalinists – yes, even Stalinists – the capacity to believe they were acting morally. Claudia Koonz entitled her book The Nazi Conscience: why is the notion of a Communist morality impermissible? Figes puts the words in inverted commas and asserts the impossibility of being ‘a Stalinist in public life’ without letting ‘the morals of the system infect personal relationships’.

There is another reason why the dichotomy cannot be sustained. From the middle of the 1930s, as Figes says, ‘the Party adopted a more liberal approach towards the family and the private home.’ If not exactly a volte-face, the ideological promotion of the family – including images of Stalin as the ‘father’ of the Soviet people and a ban on abortion – made it possible for male members of the elite to tell their wives that their place was now ‘in the home’, even while most urban families continued to live in communal apartments. The family, it turned out, was very adaptable. So adaptable that Figes can claim it ‘emerged from the years of terror as the one stable institution’, the only place where people ‘felt a sense of belonging’. I suppose many people did feel this way, but there is evidence of other customs and social institutions emerging from the years of terror, everything from the keeping of pets and the cultivation of friendship to the strengthening of ties among people from the same village or district (zemliachestvo) or the bonds forged in desperate circumstances between soldiers, workers and camp inmates. Many of Figes’s witnesses cite these new forms of association, which in some cases were a substitute for the family. Figes, though, reads into their testimony evidence of split identities. On the one hand, ‘millions’ of children bearing the ‘stigma of a tainted biography’ needed to ‘prove themselves as fully equal members of society’. On the other, they ‘could not help but feel alienated from the system that had brought such suffering on their families’. They were thus ‘constantly torn’. Figes presents this as a Manichean struggle, made all the more tragic by the capacity of the system to ‘infect’ personal relationships with its perverse morality. This evidently is what Mikhail Gefter, the Russian historian quoted here, meant by the ‘Stalinism that entered into all of us’. To adopt Stalinist ways was ‘a necessary way of silencing . . . doubts and fears’, a ‘way to make sense of . . . suffering’. The whispering of the parents thus resulted in a ‘silent and conformist population’, the ‘one lasting consequence of Stalin’s reign’.

Leaving aside the question of how to explain the Stalinism of other people, what we have here is a modified picture of the individual in a totalitarian society: not the brainwashed automatons of Cold War nightmares, but surreptitiously resisting liberals assuaging their fearfulness and shame by becoming complicit in their own and others’ victimisation. ‘It was impossible to be oneself,’ one of the interviewees says, as if such an authentic self existed. This may have been the case in some instances, but applied universally it flattens out all complexity. People were fearful not only of persecution or arrest but of being excluded from the giant project of building socialism, of being out of step with history at a time when the capitalist world appeared hellbent on destroying itself. They lived ‘in the expectation of a happy future’; they believed that ‘Soviet history was correct’; they yearned to be ‘part of an enormous “We”’.

This flattening of all complexity of life under Stalin is rendered in part though the interviewer’s lack of interest. The interviews, though rich, have moments in which the interviewee is hectored into a giving an answer that fits into the desires of the interviewer. Here is one example Siegelbaum gives:

[Figes’] assertion that, because witnesses can be cross-examined, oral testimonies are more reliable than written memoirs remains an article of faith – unless one consults the transcripts provided in the original Russian on Figes’s website, orlandofiges.com. There one can find not only cross-examination but occasionally hectoring on the part of the interviewer; or incomprehension, as in these extracts from an interview with Leonid Saltykov, the son of a priest who was shot in 1938:

Q: What did you think of Stalin in the 1930s after the arrest of your father, and in the 1940s?

A: Well, first of all, we knew little of politics, very little; second, even if my father suffered and so many others did too, we related to Stalin better than to our leaders now. He was an honest man . . .

Figes renders the passage somewhat misleadingly: ‘Yes, my father suffered, and so did many others too, but Stalin was still better than any of the leaders that we have today. He was an honest man.’ The interviewer continues:

Q: So it didn’t occur to you that the country’s repressive policy was mainly at Stalin’s initiative? That your father suffered because of Stalin, such thoughts didn’t arise?

A: We weren’t given to such philosophising. First, throughout the country factories and roads were being built. Practically every year Stalin was lowering prices, bread arrived and there was no more hunger, we could buy things . . .

After Saltykov has explained that he didn’t learn of his father’s execution and posthumous rehabilitation until 1962, the interviewer asks at what point he changed his opinion of Stalin:

A: Well, we felt that under him there was more order, although granted, he was guilty of many things.

Q: But I’m asking when did you start to feel that he was guilty?

A: [Sighs deeply. Begins to speak very emotionally] I will tell you something else. A lot of people are saying on the contrary that if Stalin were around now there would be order, more order . . .

Saltykov then starts talking about the way Stalin related to his own children, is interrupted, and gets onto the subject of the army. Again he is interrupted and asked about his own family: ‘A: We did our work, we fulfilled our duty as people, we fulfilled . . .’ Although Saltykov had more to say, the transcript indicates that ‘no substantive information’ was forthcoming. The interviewer tries one last time:

Q: So, throughout your entire life, when you were working in the 1960s and 1970s, it never occurred to you to be sceptical about the Soviet system?

A: No. Now there are few hard workers like those with whom I worked, whom I directed, and who when we meet will always say: ‘Oh, Leonid Konstantinovich, how well we worked with you.’ They trusted me and I trusted them.

Again, ‘no substantive information followed.’ This is a good example of the trickiness of oral history: it all depends on what one is looking for. Figes speaks of ‘nostalgia’, noting (twice) that Saltykov kept a picture of Stalin on his desk right up until his retirement. What seems to be difficult for him and the interviewer to accept is that Saltykov’s identity as a hard and successful worker, an identity intimately and inextricably tied up with that of his country, may have nothing to do with the victimisation of his father and his own ‘spoilt biography’. Whether it should or should not is another matter.

And such is the analytical challenge for understanding Stalinism. To sidestep its horrors is an injustice not just to its victims, but to humanity. But to reduce all life under Stalin to terror fails to understand the often contradictory complexity the human condition.  A balance must be struck if we are ever able to understand Stalinism as a period where happiness and horror often existed as concomitant experiences within the individual.

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