- Category: History
- Created on Friday, 05 November 2010 11:27
- Written by Mike Ely
In two accompanying posts, we explore some of the effects of Soviet methods in the 1930s -- particularly the large numbers of prisoners within Soviet society, and their experiences. Because that can be understood somewhat one-sidedly, I would like to inject this counter-story:
I was reading Sheila Fitzpatrick's book, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. Without giving away the plot, it is a story of great struggle and sacrifice, where despite shortages and madness, ordinary people felt (deeply) they were part of a great historic experiment, consructing a radically different and better world.
"This was an age of utopianism.... Most memoirs about the period, including many written in emigration, recall the idealism and optimism of the young, their belief that they were participants in a historic process of transformation, their enthusiasm for what was called "the building of socialism."
In one of the chapters dealing with institutions like education, I came to the part that started to talk about prisons. And I thought to myself, "OK, here we go," and mentally braced myself for the discussion of a "dark side" of Soviet socialism.
I was wrong.
Instead, Fitzpatrick discusses that the prison experiences of the Soviet Union in the 30s were a remarkably innovative and remarkably successful exercise in rehabilitation. In the aftermath of great civil war and disruption, there were quite a few people who ended up in "anti-social" activities, including crime, and she describes the techniques and methods of a remarkably forward looking prison system. And then she says that there emerged a spontaneous mass movement among career criminals -- who over and over would present themselves at police stations and ask to be rehabilitated. I laid down her book, and just thought for a while about what that represented: How society at that time felt like it was going somewhere, and the "anti-socials" felt excluded from something positive and attractive, and how they had heard about the personal transformations in the lives of their former accomplices, and how they wanted to be helped back in, and trusted the new socialist society, its authorities and the prisons (!) to help them transform.
It strikes me as an example of the highly complex and contradictory nature of Soviet socialism that this story emerges in the same period as the other stories we have posted today.
I apologize that i have not posted Sheila Fitzpatrick's account directly in this post. I scoured the house for her book, but couldn't find it. But I wanted to share this story today -- so our discussion of Soviet socialism does not (by omission) remain onesided. And I promise to post those paragraphs from her book when I get them. (If you have the book, take a moment, type her discussion, and send it in for posting.)