Book Review: It’s Only a Joke Comrade! Humor, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin, written by Jonathan Waterlow

I had the enormous pleasure of reviewing Jonathan Waterlow’s brilliant book It’s Only a Joke Comrade! Humour, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin (Oxford: CreateSpace, 2018), for Soviet and Post-Soviet Review.

This is a pre-print of a Book Review which was published in The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review Vol. 37, No. 2(June, 2020): 242–45. The published version can be accessed at:

Jonathan Waterlow, It’s Only a Joke Comrade! Humour, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin (Oxford: CreateSpace, 2018), xxi + 285 pp. £14.99 (pb), ISBN 978-1-985-63582-1.

Stalinism is not usually associated with laughter. The debates provoked by the withdrawal of a Russian screening licence for Armando Iannucci’s black comedy The Death of Stalin in January 2018, for example, testify to the complexities of playing Stalin’s murderous regime for laughs. Yet as Jonathan Waterlow’s perceptive book reminds us, ordinary Soviet citizens frequently laughed and joked about the darkest moments of the 1930s. Humour provided a coping mechanism and a means of creating community in the bleakest of times. Far from a frivolous subject, this study breaks new ground in examining how Stalinist citizens made sense of the world around them, and the psychological mechanisms required to live under an authoritarian regime. “Studying their jokes,” as Waterlow notes, “brings their experiences back to life and contradicts many long-held views of the period as one of fearful atomisation or gullible belief in Stalin.” (2) Through humour, and the social and psychological bonds it engendered, many people found ways to deal with the privations, pressures and uncertainties of Stalinism. Jokes (anekdoty), humorous ditties (chastushki), wordplay, graffiti, visual humour, and other forms of mockery are central to this study, but its contributions stretch beyond immediate exploration of what was funny to wider discussions of social structures, psychological mechanisms, Stalinist subjectivities, and the reach of Soviet ideology. Humour was frequently more than a joke! Subsumed within the vibrant joke telling culture of the 1930s was a complex web of social meanings, practices and relations.

One of the most impressive aspects of this book is the richness and variety of its primary research. Its evidence has been diligently pieced together from across the archival record; the tone and inflection of past language read with great care and sensitive. Material relating to humour is often fleeting and fragmentary, but this research offsets weaknesses in specifics sources by triangulating between a wide range of documents. Waterlow eschews late-Soviet published collections of recycled and decontextualized anekdoty, which reveal little about how they were told. Svodki, summaries of popular mood and opinion, and the review files for anti-Soviet agitation cases conducted by the USSR procuracy provide more vivid insights into Stalin-era humour and its social functions. They are supplemented by the undervalued interviews of the Harvard Interview Project, the diaries of Stalinist citizens, and the accounts of western visitors to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. These personal sources introduce a cast of characters whose stories are woven throughout the book.

The six chapters of It’s Only a Joke Comrade! are structured in three parts, which in the author’s own words flow, “from a focus on the content and character of jokes themselves, to the repercussions of telling them, and on to the psychological and social motivations and effects of sharing them.” (10). Chapter 1 examines the multiple ways in which Soviet citizens mocked their leaders, thereby asserting a “quiet power” and superiority over them. These humorous acts included concealed graffiti, creative misspellings, moving portraits and banners to send sardonic messages. These relatively minor subversions, provided an opportunity to place untouchable leaders in ridiculous situations, poke fun and pick holes in official rhetoric. Far from being protected by his widespread personality cult, Stalin was routinely and roundly mocked. Furthermore, the murder of the Leningrad party boss in Sergei Kirov in December 1934 was met by, “a deluge of carnivalesque, absurd, sexualised, violent and dirty humour.” (32) These waves of scatological and sexual mockery were aimed at individuals and institutions, rather than the wider Soviet project. Chapter 2 examines the critical responses to key Stalinist policies, including state loan subscription campaigns, the Five-Year Plans, collectivisation, the ‘Great Terror’, the 1940 Labour Law and the Nazi-Soviet pact. It provides a clear exploration of the content of popular humour, as well as the range of creative responses to widespread hardships and traumas. Far from being paralysed by fear, joke tellers harnessed gallows humour to deflate propaganda. As we are reminded, “terrible experiences could be reconfigured to provoke pleasurable laughter, or at least to mitigate outright, resignation and despair.” (77). Chapter 3 introduces the important conceptual innovation of crosshatching. In humour we can see a wealth of perspectives and attitudes about gender, religion, history, antisemitism, and much beside, that conflicted with official ideology. In Waterlow’s analysis these older cultural assumptions were crosshatched with the new Soviet worldview and values, in a complicated process of  hybridization. This notion offers an important refinement to Stephen Kotkin’s influential work, by demonstrating that many people through their jokes were, “often gleefully speaking more than Bolshevik.” (107). Through Waterlow’s research the mechanisms by which, “elements of ‘belief’ and ‘disbelief’ appear to have coexisted within everyone,”[1] becomes clearer. Hidden in humour were a variety of “shadow languages” (130) and “contraband meanings” (132) that enable people to mediate official ideology, created sense out of remarkable times, whilst blend criticism and acceptance of the regime.

Chapter 4 examines how the Stalinist regime perceived the joke-telling population, and its attempts to contain unofficial humour. Although the Bolshevik party-state wasn’t humourless and deployed laughter as a didactic weapon to discredit its enemies, over the course of the 1930s the state’s attitudes towards humour hardened. By 1935 jokes were seen as dangerous agents of viral infection. Keeping up with shifting official attitudes, combined with retrospective prosecution, made it hard for individuals to evaluate the risks they were taking whilst joking. Surprisingly, who the joke teller was often mattered more than what they said when it came to prosecutions for anti-Soviet agitation. Women, the young, un-educated and blue-collar workers were considered a lower political threat than others. Nevertheless, telling jokes was a risky and unpredictable business, but one that was worth it because of the important social functions humour fulfilled.

The final two chapters examine how telling jokes operated as a coping mechanism. Far from representing an oppositional act, as the controlling regime feared, joke telling, as chapter 5 argues, could be understood as an exercise in adapting to and normalising extreme circumstances. Even mildly transgressive humour offered an opportunity to demonstrate personal agency and was empowering. Many jokes were underpinned by a desire that the regime should live up to its own rhetoric, rather than anti-Soviet sentiment. Indeed, it was in the cross-hatched spaces of humour that many people resolved the confusing dissonance between official and unofficial discourses. “Humour did not just pick holes in the fabric of the official world and its claims,” (217) it represented an attempt to accommodate oneself to the regime through a momentary act of self-deception. It also offered an opportunity to forge new social bonds and networks and build communities of trust and mutual support. In chapter 6 Waterlow challenges the totalitarian argument that Stalinism atomised society, destroying public interactions. In contrast the culture of joke telling reveals the persistence of unofficial forms of sociability, and the durability of trust groups. Sharing humour in the circumstances of the 1930s was a process of intimating trust, of discovering whether others held similar views, but with the possibility of back-tracking should the risk seem to great. Jokes were also, “active, performative processes of identity affirmation” (245), which contributed to wider processes of self-fashioning.

Writing about humour without killing the joke takes great skill. Many of the jokes retold in this book will prompt a chuckle, others belly laughs. Since each culture’s humour has its own specificities, Waterlow sometimes needs to provide historical context to explain precisely what Stalinist citizens found so amusing. Yet, great care is taken to avoid over-analysing the sources. Indeed, the author succeeds in preserving the humour through their own dry wit, and a lively turn of phrase. This is a beautifully written and designed volume, which deserves a wide readershi It offers original perspectives on how ordinary citizens experienced Stalinism, and the mechanisms by which they managed life in a highly authoritarian society. By virtue of its accessible pricing it has every opportunity to reach far beyond the academy. Historians of Stalinism whether their interests are political, social or cultural, will learn a much from this fantastic book, but it also has much to offer students and general readers keen to explore the vibrant world of 1930s popular humour.

Robert Dale

Newcastle University

(1396 words)

[1] Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 1995), 228.

John Strohm and the Ruins of Stalingrad

I’ve purchased another of John Strohm’s photographs from his visit to the Soviet Union from his visit in 1946. This image shows cattle grazing in the ruins on the outskirts of Stalingrad. Without the caption to the image it would be impossible to tell this was Stalingrad. Cattle grazing on inappropriate plots of land, including mass graves and cemeteries, was a common post-war problem reguarly encountered in post-war archival reports.

Cattle graze in Stalingrad, taken by John Strohm in 1946

This image captures something of the nature of the landscape of the warzone almost entirely laid waste by the experience of modern industrialized warfare. The shell-craters, and piles of rubble were redolent of many urban locations that after the war were closer to moonscapes than normal urban spaces.

Strohm’s visit to Stalingrad was one of a number taken by foreign visitors in the immediate aftermath. John Steinbeck and Robert Capa visited the city in 1947, also writing an account of the visit and taking a number of striking images. Indeed, Strohm’s account has often been overshadowed by the more literary and more visually polished A Russian Journal

This particular photograph was not published in the final version of his travelogue Just Tell the Truth, but Strohm did provide a fuller description of his encounter with this kind of ruined urban landscape:

A tour through the sepulchre-like ruins of Stalingrad – forty miles of shattered buildings, dugout homes, and rubble heaps – reveals both Russia’s strength and one of her weak points.

              You see Stalingrad and you feel like taking your hat off, for here the battle tide was turned. You see ragged, barefoot people living in holes in the ground, trudging wearily to the battered factory once again turning out tractors instead of tanks. You see farmers cutting grain with sickles, stooping over to pick up unexploded shells, putting up hay with camels. They’re the people who saved Stalingrad, and perhaps the war, because they obeyed the simple order: “Die, but don’t give an inch!” Many died, but Stalingrad was saved.

              Stalingrad should be a monument where the whole world pays homage to the little people who saved it. Yes, the people of Russia are her strength.

              But in these very same ruins – and the ruins of countless other industrial centres – you see one of Russia’s weak points.   They have a rebuilding program which makes out post-war problems seem like peanuts. I’m not a military strategist but I agree with a Russian friend who said to my confidentially:

              “Any one who says the Soviet Union wants war is crazy – unless it is our leaders who are crazy, and that I do not believe. The people have been living on promises of better things in the sweet by and by ever since the Revolution. They accepted World War II as an excuse why they could not achieve a higher standard. Now they want to work for peacetime goals. Our government must consider the people – not war.”

              One night I was walking down the street in Stalingrad.  I passed the railroad station where a hundred people huddled on the ground. Some were sleeping, some talking in a low voice, other munched pieces of black bread, as they waited for the trains that never seemed to come.

              In the daytime, I wondered where people lived in this devastation. At night, when I saw lights coming from the worst of these debris piles, I knew that somewhere in the wreckage they had cleared a room or a cellar to make a home.

              I heard the sad music of a Russian accordion in the dark street ahead, and soon came to a crowd circled around couples who were dancing on the sidewalk. Girl danced with girl or biy, and boys even danced together.

              “There’s no other place to go, nothing to do,” said the girl with whom I danced on the rough sidewalk. She and her sister live in a dugout and work in the Stalingrad tractor factory. But a dugout is no place for a nineteen-year-old girl on a warm night with a moon shining overhead. So she walks the streets with her friends of dances on the sidewalks.

              She told me about the wonderful plans for rebuilding this city, how she gave a day of her time each week to help carry away the blasted bricks and other debris, as they go about the job of clearing the city three years after its liberation.

              The next sat while watching a group of German prisoners at work on a road project in Stalingrad, I noticed a crippled Soviet soldier and his wife who had set down their heavy basket to rest. He handed his cane to his wife and started to roll a cigarette with a crumpled bit of newspaper.

              Handing him an American cigarette, which he accepted with a flush of pleasure, I found out that he had just come from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. He was an Uzbek, his wife was a Russian. All of their possessions were in the baskets and boxes they were carrying. He had just arrived in Stalingrad.

              He made a disdainful gesture towards the German prisoners who resembled a slow-motion version of a WPA crew at work. “Japanese prisoners in Tashkent are doing ten times as much work,” he remarked.

              Later I visited the Stalingrad tractor factory, built with the help of American engineers in 1932. It switched from tank to tractor production at the end of 1942 and is now steadily getting back into introduction, with about two-thirds of the workers it had before the war. Still partially in ruins, this factory turned out 6,000 tractors in 1946.

              Seventy thousand towns were completed razed – 30,000 industrial plants were either destroyed or stripped during the war.

              Willard Thorp, Assistant Secretary of State, estimates that more than one-half of the total pre-war national wealth in western Russia was destroyed. And because of this giant rebuilding job, the total level of Russian wealth will be “only one-third that of the United States, even at the end of the present Five Year Plan.”

              The millions of man hours put in on industrial reconstruction are man hours lost for such things as clothing and radios and furniture. Agricultural losses mean a continuation of a diet that leaves many Russians with a perpetually empty stomach.

              Vodka toasts, like campaign oratory, usually go in one ear and out the other. But I’ll never forget one toast given by a government official. Among the things he said was:

              “You have seen the destruction we have suffered. You have seen us working with cradles, with sickles and with flails. We want you to come again when we have put away these things. Some of you people say we want war. When you go back won’t you tell them – how can we possibly want war now when there is so much for us to do at home?”

              Yes, problems of reconstruction are enormous, particularly in a nation which has so many problems of just plain construction ­roads which have never been built, factories which have never been put up, mines which have never been opened, forests which have never been entered.

              The Soviet Union is an untapped giant of many facets.

John L. Strohm, Just Tell the Truth: The Uncensored Story of How the Common People Live Behind the Russian Iron Curtain (New York: Charles Scribner, 1947), 66-69.

I’ll be writing more about the urban reconstruction of Stalingrad over the course of this year, so it was good to find an image that I now have the rights to, which I can use in this research!

A Intriguing Image: John Strohm and Demobilised Veteran

In May 1947 John Strohm published an account of a visit he made to the Soviet Union in 1946.  The book Just Tell the Truth: the Uncensored Story of How the Common People Live Behind the Russian Iron Curtain was intended to be an honest account of everyday life in Stalin’s Soviet Union in the aftermath of the war.  Strohm hoped to give his readers a glimpse behind in the Iron Curtain as the cold war began, humanising ordinary Soviet citizens.  In 1946 he resigned his job as the managing editor of the Prairie Farmer in order to travel to the Soviet Union and write about its people.  Apparently his access to the Union was only granted after a personal appeal to Stalin.  Precisely how free Strohm’s access to the Soviet Union was isn’t entirely clear, he claimed to have permission to go where he wanted, to talk with whom he liked, and to take photographs at will, provided he “Just Tell the Truth.” Given how visiting westerners and visiting journalists were usually managed, normally monitored by official handlers, this seems a little unlikely.  Yet the book offers a genuine insight into how ordinary Soviet citizens lived, worked and possibly thought.  The Rotarian, for example, certainly thought that it was a sympathetic study of ordinary Soviet people.  Strohm published some accounts of his travels as he went in various newspapers and magazines, collating them with other impressions in this volume.

Strohm took his own photographs on this trip; unlike John Steinbeck’s A Russian Journal published in the same year, which could call on Robert Capa’s talents.  Remarkably I’ve managed to purchase what appears to be an original, which was distributed by ACME.  The seller had bought a large collection of photographs from press collections that had been dissolved, perhaps when ACME was sold to Corbis, or Corbis changed ownership in 2016.

The image captures a recently demobilised Red Army veteran clutching a pair of boots, which the image description on the back explains as:  “Just demobilized, this Red Army soldier of Byeorussia carries a pair of U.S. Army shoes – UNRAA supplies. The shoes bring $100 per pair in Moscow. The solider turned down a barefoot women’s offer to barter a supply of canned goods for the shoes.”

Although this naturalistic image serves Strohm’s purpose of humanising Soviet citizens, it raises a number of interesting questions.  The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) operated in Belorussia and Ukraine, but not in Russia.  For more on UNRRA in the Soviet Union see Andrew Harder’s article: “The Politics of Impartiality: The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in the Soviet Union, 1946-7.” Journal of Contemporary History 47, no. 2 (April 2012): 347-69. Link

However, there are a number of curious aspects of this image and the description.  Demobilised veterans according to the 23 June 1945 demobilization law were to be supplied with a pair of footwear on their discharge.  It seems odd that UNRRA was directly supply shoes to a veteran who already appears to be wearing a serviceable pair of boots (sapogi), especially when people nearby why barefoot.  UNRRA supplies, however, were perhaps being issued to demobilized veterans by the Soviet authorities.  Footwear was a deficit commodity in the immediate post-war period, and returning soldiers were perhaps privileged citizens in getting access to these supplies.  Although, it should be noted that obtaining shoelaces of the requisite length was not necessarily going to be easy (unless those are laces tied around the veteran’s right wrist?).  The description on the back of the photograph, however, demonstrates just how widespread barter and private trade was in the immediate post-war period.

Strohm’s trip to visit to the Soviet Union certainly deserves further consideration, both in his own account but perhaps also in his papers preserved at the University of Illinois Archives:  Link   Given Strohm’s extensive international connections throughout his career, an intellectual biography and international contacts and networks would be a really interesting project.

N.B. 18/10/19

Just to add that this photograph was actually published in Strohm’s book.

From Stalingrad to Leningrad: Rebuilding Cities and Communities in Post-War Soviet Russia

This is a re-post of a blog post that I wrote for the AHRC Research Beyond Borders Blog, about my AHRC – International Placement Scheme:

For some research, travel is essential. While the wealth of historical information that’s available online grows by the day, some sources must be delved into first hand.

In today’s blog, Robert Dale – a historian and lecturer in Russian History at Newcastle University – discusses how the AHRC International Placement Scheme helped him bring to life the extraordinary story of six men, including a bricklayer and engineer, who cycled to 2,000 km in the hope of uniting two of Soviet Russia’s largest cities.

One of the greatest challenges faced by researchers, especially social and cultural historians, is to make connections between published record and the archival traces created by different institutions, whose archives are both geographically dispersed and fragmented by decisions about what to preserve.

With persistence, diligence, and a smattering of good luck it is sometimes possible to piece together remarkable stories from materials located in different archives and libraries. For historians of Russia and the Soviet Union this process can involve extensive travel, visiting central archives and libraries in Moscow and St. Petersburg, regional and local archives, and slavonic libraries across the globe. Although ‘archival rats’ like myself enjoy nothing more than immersing themselves in Russian archives and libraries, picking up the threads of different documents gathered and different institutions, and preserved by archives with limited opening hours and access restrictions is far from easy.

My Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) International Placement Scheme Fellowship held in the summer of 2018 enabled me to spend three precious months exploring the riches of the Library of Congress. The collections of the world’s largest library have something for almost every researcher, but the prospect of being able to draw together many different forms of evidence within one Library was truly remarkable.

It wasn’t until I arrived at the library, met the reference specialists in my field, and got set-up in my cubicle in the Kluge Centre that I fully appreciated the opportunity the Fellowship presented.

The project that had taken me to the library was entitled: Rebuilding Socialism: The Reconstruction of the Soviet Union and its Official Ideology Through the Lens of Post-War published sources. As the title indicates, I had anticipated working with newspapers and ideological journals, but it was possible to draw together and make connections between a much wider body of evidence, including microfilmed archival materials, digitized archives, personal papers, newspaper databases, as well as huge collection of Russian language books in the main collection.

Working with these rich collections, and with the help of subject-specialist librarians, it was possible to make some remarkable connections between materials, reconstructing stories which illustrated the wider aims of my research. The project seeks to explore the processes by which Soviet cities and the nation’s physical infrastructure was rebuilt, whilst the political, social, ideological and cultural foundations of Stalinism were simultaneously re-laid. In rebuilding the fabric of urban, and indeed rural society, Soviet citizens were drawn into ideological acts.

In laying new foundations and brickwork, they were also re-establishing communities, relaunching the Soviet project, and creating the future edifice of Socialism. The history of the Soviet Union’s post-war reconstruction was much more than economic history of investment in capital reconstruction, building materials, structures rebuilt, and labour patterns.

Material reconstruction also served the purposes of rebuilding a sense of national community at a time of fragmentation and when many sections of society had been cut-off from the Soviet mainland or had retreated inwards in the interests of survival. A key element in the story of post-war reconstruction, then, was establishing links between cities and communities with divergent wartime experiences and identities.

One episode pieced together in materials accessed at the Library of Congress illustrate these issues particularly eloquently. It was testimony to the richness of the Library’s collections that this remarkable story emerged from the research. On 23 June 1944, whilst the Red Army pushed deeper into Eastern Europe, the executive committee of Stalingrad regional communist party passed a resolution permitting the local Komsomol organisation and the regional committee for Physical Culture and Sport to stage an endurance cycle race between Stalingrad and Leningrad.[1]

The event’s sporting value, aside from as a statement about Soviet masculinity, was secondary to its propaganda value. Although, Stalingrad and Leningrad had very different wartime experiences and faced different post-war problems, this event was designed as an ideological act to unite these two key wartime cities in a statement about the equality of Soviet sacrifice.

On 9 July 1944 a group of six young men set off on a 1950 kilometre journey, taking them through the cities of Tambov, Riazan’, Moscow, Novogorod, before a final leg onwards to Leningrad. The six intrepid individuals selected for this task by the Stalingrad Komsomol were Anton Efimovich Timokhov (a party member, party instructor, and the group’s leader), Ivan Vasil’evich Smol’ianikov (a candidate party member, and recipient of the title “outstanding” Stalingrad city bricklayer), Viktor Borisovich Rostovshchikov (a Komsomol member, defender of Stalingrad, and fitter at Stalingrad’s power station), Boris Aleksandrovich Beliakov (a candidate party member, and tractor factory engineer ), Ivan Vasil’evich Selikov (a mechanic in a tractor factory), and Vladimir Maksimovich Shipilenko (a Komsomol member and electrician at a timber plant).

The profiles of these men suggest that they were selected not because of any special cycling ability or experience in the peloton, but because of their role in Stalingrad’s urban and industrial reconstruction, and their party affiliations. All but Ivan Selikov were either full or candidate members, or Komsomol members.

Stalingrad, 9 July 1944, the cycling team are seen off by M. A. Vodolagin, Secretary of the Stalingrad oblast’ party committee.

A photograph published in the popular magazine Ogonek captured the ceremony that marked the cyclists’ departure from central Stalingrad at 13.00 on 9 July. Proudly holding their bicycles, panniers slung over their crossbars, M. A. Vodolagin, the Secretary of the Stalingrad oblast’ party committee, shakes the hand of one cyclist, furnishing them with a ceremonial letter to the workers of Leningrad from the workers to Stalingrad.

In the background, a crowd of Stalingrad’s citizens, and damaged buildings with unglazed window frames can be seen.[2] The cycling team were also given letters of greeting from the Stalingrad oblast Komsomol and the Stalingrad physical culture administration to deliver to their counterparts in Leningrad.[3] Delivering these letters, and establishing the connection between Stalingrad and Leningrad was a key part of the purpose of the cycle race.

Without access to memoirs or personal papers, we can only speculate what motivated these men to sign-up for this feat of endurance cycling during a time of war. Amidst rationing, widespread hunger, and disrepair on the nation’s road cycling nearly 2000 kilometres was a remarkable undertaking. Perhaps, participation opened up access to better and more plentiful food, an opportunity to escape the ruins of war-ravaged Stalingrad, and the physically draining labour of reconstruction. Nor should we rule out that these six cyclists genuinely believed in the ideological act of uniting the workers of Leningrad and Stalingrad. Certainly, setting out on this endeavour brought a level of public prestige, the opportunity to see more of the country, and visit Leningrad, the Soviet Union’s cultural capital.

According to a report in Pravda published on 19 July 1944, the first 1,200 kilometres of the journey from Stalingrad to Moscow were covered in just six days, an impressive average of 200 kilometres a day. Furthermore, the group had been slowed down by having to walk approximately 150 kilometres of the route because of rain, or more probably because the rain turned unsurfaced road to a quagmire. At 05.00 am on 19 July the group set out from Moscow on the final leg of their journey, after what appears to have been a couple of days rest (and possibly sight-seeing).[4] They finally arrived in Leningrad on 24 July after, according to Izvestiia, just twelve days in the saddle. Here they were greeted by Leningrad dignitaries: a meeting at which the all-important letters of greeting were delivered, followed finally by a physical culture parade.[5]

Leningrad, 24 July 1944.

Left to Right: Anton Efimovich Timokhov (Commander), Boris Alexandrovich Beliakov, Ivan Vasil’evich Smol’ianinov, Viktor Borisovich Rostovshchikov, Vladimir Maksimovich Shipilenko.

Yet having delivered their correspondence, their work was far from done. Whilst in the city they had a number of official engagements, including speaking to meetings about the “heroic defence of Stalingrad and grandiose reconstruction work in the hero city.”

The members of this cycling team were not simply there because of a passion for pedalling, they had a political message to convey about reconstruction. For example, Ivan Smol’ianinov, the prize-winning Stakhanovite bricklayer, visited a Leningrad building site in order to pass on advice about how to over-fulfil brick-laying norms, explaining how he had overfilled norms for a shift by 12 to 14 times.

These activities, designed to rebuild the fabric of Stalinist ideology and community, were of far greater importance than the cycling itself. Indeed, by the end of their visits discussion were underway to try and establish a tradition of an annual cycle race between the two cities, switching the route around each year.

Although this was a remarkable and unusual event, it does reveal some of the mechanism by which post-war reconstruction was harnessed in order to help re-establish a sense of national community and reimpose Stalinist values.  Without access to the remarkable resources of the Library of Congress it would have been difficult to piece this together.

[1] Kul’turnoe stroitel’stvo v Volgogradskoi oblasti, 1941-1980 gg. Sbornik dokumentov i materialov. Tom 2 (Volgograd: Nizhne-Volzhskoe knizhnoe izdatel’stvo, 1981), p. 83.

[2] Ogonek, No. 32, 1944, p. 16.

[3] Kul’turnoe stroitel’stvo v Volgogradskoi oblasti, 1941-1980 gg, p. 83.

[4] “Veloprobeg Stalingrad-Moskva-Leningrad,” Pravda, 19 July 1944, p. 4.

[5] “Stalingradskie velosipedisty v Leningrade,” Izvestiia, 25 July 1944, p. 4.

Book Review: Harriet Murav and Gennady Estraikh (eds), Soviet Jews in World War II: Fighting, Witnessing, Remembering (2014)

Two years ago I submitted a review to a journal (which I won’t name), but which has still not appeared and I doubt it ever will.  Given that the publishers allow you to post the review on your own website immediately, that is what I am doing, in the hope it will be of some use here.

Soviet Jews in World War II: Fighting, Witnessing, Remembering

Harriet Murav and Gennady Estraikh (Eds)

Boston, MA.: Academic Studies Press, 2014,

270 pp., $69.00 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1-61811-313-9.


This excellent volume explores the important role that Soviet Jews played as combatants, journalists, writers, poets, film-makers and photo-correspondents waging war against the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War. Rather than focusing on the Holocaust’s victims, these essays tell the stories of soldiers who fought on and survived the frontlines, and cultural figures who helped frame the Soviet narrative of the war. By highlighting Soviet Jewish martial achievement this book raises awareness of the Jewish contribution to Soviet victory, and counters the wartime and postwar slanders that Jews sat out the war safe behind the lines. It also draws attention to a wealth of previously unknown or neglected sources, including diaries, memoirs, newspapers, poetry, prose and archival documents.

The chapters are neatly divided into two sections. In the first part the essays examine individual and collective histories of the multiple ways in which Soviet Jews experienced the war and Holocaust. Mordechai Altshuler explores how young sovietised Jews serving in the Red Army responded to their encounters with the Holocaust in their letters, memoirs, poetry and prose; experiences which often shaped their future identities. Joshua Rubenstein’s contribution reminds readers how Il’ia Ehrenburg, one of the Soviet Union’s most influential war correspondents, documented the extermination of the Jews, and reproduces five of his most important articles. The frontline diaries of Jewish soldiers are the focus of Oleg Budnitskii’s essay. These sources, many of them unknown in the West, reveal what everyday life was like on the front for “Private Abram”. Gennady Estraikh examines how Jewish authors depicted Jewish wartime heroism by appropriating imagery of Cossack martial behaviour. The focus on the construction of Jewish heroism continues with Arkadi Zeltser’s study of how Jewish writers in the Yiddish language newspaper Eynikayt created recognisably Jewish heroes.

In the second part of the volume the focus shifts towards the representation and documentation of the Holocaust, revealing a Soviet Jewish literary and cultural response that has frequently been ignored. Marat Grinberg’s and Harriet Murav’s essays both deal with poetic responses focusing on the work of Boris Slutskii and Il’ia Sel’vinskii respectively. Olga Gershenson and David Shneer, in contrast, offer chapters focusing on visual representations. Gershenson analyses The Unvanquished, the first Soviet feature film to deal with the Holocaust, a fascinating source because of its rare depiction of Jewish suffering. David Shneer deals with Evgenii Khaldei’s acclaimed photographs. He examines what they reveal about the relationship between the Soviet and Jewish elements of Khaldei’s identity, and postwar and post-Soviet collective memory. In a final afterword Zvi Gitelman puts the themes of the collection into context.

One of the key contributions of this volume is to demonstrate the ways in which experiencing the war and encountering the Holocaust, as a combatant or witness, problematized Soviet Jewish identity. The Stalinist state’s encouraged greater ethnic identification during the war, which fed into many individuals’ growing sense of themselves as Jews, albeit in complicated and subtle ways. Its value also lies in making available sources in translation for teaching as well as research. Included in chapter 10 are selected passages from the memoirs of Boris Slutskii, the film director Mikhail Romm, and the novelist Mikhail Rybakov. Soviet Jews in World War II takes an inter-disciplinary approach, and will therefore be of interest to a wide potential audience, including scholars of both Russian and Jewish studies with historical, literary and cultural interests.

Robert Dale

School of History, Classics and Archaeology

Newcastle University

First Thoughts From the Library of Congress

I’ve had my first couple of days working in the Kluge Centre at the Library of Congress. Aside from getting set up on new systems, registering for passes and cards, actually doing some work, and getting terribly lost in underground basements looking for coffee, I’ve enjoyed a brilliant tour of the Libraries buildings, and the Capitol.  Something, however, in today’s tour stuck in the mind, even more than splendours of the building, the private reading rooms for congressmen, and seeing Woodrow Wilson’s private library.  At one point we were pointed towards a sofa (perhaps I should write couch) were the previous Librarian of Congress used to take power naps, or sometimes bunk down in the building.  This I thought could only have been James Billington, the previous Librarian of Congress who retired at the end of September 2015, after twenty-eight years in the post.

I’ve been telling people at home that really my trip was thanks to Billington, and that he was to blame for my three month trip.  Which in some respects this is true, but in others perhaps a convenient anecdot, much like the one about Billington’s couch.  I’d assume that the reason who the Library of Congress has so much useful material for my research, was that Billington must have prioritised purchasing Russian and Soviet materials.  This, of course, might still be true, and I won’t dismiss my fantasy entirely.  But, when I didn’t quite appreciate before getting here is the enormity of the Library of Congress machine.  Apparently it receives 22,000 new items a day, and that there are a series of warehouses holding materials across Virginia. Indeed, the Library of Congress maintains offices across the globe (including Jakarta and Nairobi).  It struck me as we made our way through the stacks, and basement corridors (at one point descending to where books are processed via a semi-hidden door in the main reading room) that my being being here is also thanks to the huge army of staff cataloguing, preserving, digitising, and moving items.

But, in one final way I am perhaps here because of Billington.  The Icon and the Axe, James Billington’s landmark study of Russian cultural history, first published in 1966, was a really important book for me long ago.  It was a book that I think was on the recommended reading for Lindsey Hughes’s fantastic course of Russian visual culture, and using images as historical sources, which I took in my MA in 2003/4.  If I remember correctly, this was a book that was recommended before the start of the MA, and I read it at home that year.  It certainly made a big impression on me, although not as big as Lindsey.  Her module was one of the best things about my MA at SSEES, and although I didn’t know Lindsey well, being taught by her was always one of the highlights of the week!  The Icon and the Axe, then, was almost an induction into the new world of Russian culture that Lindsey helped open up for me and my peers.  Enabling me to do what I now do.

Billington’s The Icon and the Axe, first published in 1966.

The Roads of War – Ilya Glazunov and the Memory of the Great Patriotic War

When I set up this blog some time ago, I chose part of Ilya Glazunov’s painting The Roads of War as part of the banner at the top.  The painting seemed to capture many of the things that I am interested in my research into the post-war reconstruction of the Soviet Union.  The image shows us both the wartime experiences of both soldiers and civilians, but also men and women, children and the elderly. At the time it was a useful visual prompt for thinking about the war’s impact across society.

Ilya Sergeyevich Glazunov died on 9 July 2017, and as a result I’ve been prompted to return to thinking about Glazunov and this particular painting. Born in 1930, Glazunov was 87 years old, a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad and the Great Patriotic War. His life and artistic career mirrored Soviet and post-Soviet history in surprising ways. His own career enjoyed ups and downs which often shadowed wider political and cultural developments. His 1976 painting the Mystery of the Twentieth Century was so controversial that it the state may even have been considering deporting him. It is hard not to read his assignment to work on painting of labourers on the Baikal-Amur Railway (BAM) as a punishment.

The New York Times‘ obituary of Glazunov can be found here:

I’ve long been fascinated by Glazunov’s huge monumental works like Mystery of the Twentieth Century (1976) The Contribution of the People of the USSR to World Culture and Civilization (1980), Eternal Russia (1988), The Great Experiment (1990), and The Market of our Democracy (1999). All of these images strike me as statements about historical memory, and taken together they reveal much about how historical memory and official historical narratives shifted across the late Soviet to post Soviet periods. Difficult to read and interpret these images nevertheless attempt to say something powerful about the past.  Glazunov was of course a very controversial artist. His painting were criticised by the Soviet state in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union he had a reputation as xenophobe and anti-Semite, and somebody with close links to the Kremlin.

This focus on memory in Glazunov’s work can clearly be traced back to The Roads of War, a painting informed by his own wartime experiences, the reception of which again reveals an enormous amount about historical memory, in this case – the challenges of remembering the Great Patriotic War.

Glazunov, who was eleven when the Wehrmacht invaded in June 1941 (b. 10/06/1930), old enough to understand the horror of what surrounded him. Trapped in besieged Leningrad he lost his mother, father, and other close relatives.  It appears that his uncle facilitated his evacuation in 1942, now orphaned, to the village of Greblo in the Novgorod oblast’. The Roads of War is said to be informed by his childhood experiences, and perhaps we can read in it some of the wartime traumas which surely must have deeply shaken the young man. Returning to the city in 1944, he eventually enrolled at the I. E. Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in 1951. It would be interesting to know much more about how Glazunov coped as an orphan in late Stalinist Leningrad, and how he occupied himself during these years. His graduation piece in 1957 was The Roads of War.  The civilian and soldiers resting on the side of the road bathed in light on the left of the canvas, find themselves surrounded by darkened storm-filled sky, as well as darker signs of the impact of war, including military aircraft and wartime destruction.

This unglamorous and unheroic treatment of war was heavily criticised, and the painting was deemed so incendiary that it was removed from an exhibition in 1957 and destroyed.  The version of the painting that we have today is recreation of the original work that Glazunov made in 1985. Forty years on from the end of the war, this in itself gives a hint in how the memory of the war was shifting.


Welcome to the Blog

Welcome to the blog for my project From Fractured Society to Stability: Overcoming the Aftermath of the Great Patriotic War, 1945-1955.

In this blog I’m going to be posting material related to my current research project on the aftermath of the Great Patriotic War and its long-term impact on late Stalinist society.

I’ll also be including posts about my current impact work related to my work on the demobilization and post-war readjustment of veterans, particularly Red Army veterans, after 1945.