12 March 2008

Overcompensating Kids of 'Kulaks'

From The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin's Russia, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2007), pp. 143-145:
Many 'kulak' children ended up as ardent Stalinists (and even made careers for themselves by joining the repressive organs of the state). For some the transformation involved a long and conscious process of 'working on themselves' that was not without its psychic costs. Stepan Podlubny is an example. Born in 1914 to a peasant family in the Vinnitsa region of western Ukraine, Stepan and his mother fled to Moscow in 1929, after his father had been exiled as a 'kulak' to Arkhangelsk. Stepan found a job as an apprentice in the factory school of the Pravda printing plant. He joined the Komsomol, headed a brigade of shock workers, edited a wall-newspaper (a form of agitprop), became a member of the factory board, and at some point it seems he was recruited as an informer by the police. All this time he carefully concealed his 'kulak' origins. He kept a diary which charted his own struggle to purge the 'sick psychology' of his peasant ancestors and reconstruct himself as a Soviet citizen. He tried to read the correct books, to adopt all the correct attitudes, to cultivate himself by dressing neatly and learning how to dance, and to develop in himself the Soviet public virtues of activity and vigilance. He drew up a 'balance sheet' of his 'cultural progress' at the end of every year (just as the state's own planning agencies drew up annual balances of economic progress in the Five Year Plan). His 'kulak' background was a constant source of self-loathing and self-doubt. He saw it as an explanation for his own shortcomings, and wondered whether he was capable of ever really becoming a fully equal member of society:

13.9.1932: Several times already I have thought about my production work. Why can't I cope with it painlessly? And in general, why is it so hard for me? ... A thought that I can never seem to shake off, that saps my blood from me like sap from a birch tree – is the question of my psychology. Can it really be that I will be different from the others? This question makes my hair stand on end, and I break out in shivers. Right now, I am a person in the middle, not belonging to one side nor to the other, but who could easily slide to either.

Podlubny was constantly afraid that his origins would be exposed, that he would be denounced at work (a 'snake pit' filled with 'enemies'), leading to his sacking and possible arrest. Eventually his 'kulak' origins were indeed discovered by OGPU, which told him it would not take action, provided he 'continued to do good work for them'. It seems likely that Podlubny began to inform on his work colleagues. In his diary he confessed to feeling trapped – he was repulsed by his public persona and he clearly longed to 'be himself'.

8.12.1932: My daily secretiveness, the secret of my inside – they don't allow me to become a person with an independent character. I can't come out openly or sharply, with any free thoughts. Instead I have to say only what everyone [else] says. I have to walk on an uneven surface, along the path of least resistance. This is very bad. Unwittingly I'm acquiring the character of a lickspittle, of a cunning dog: soft, cowardly, and always giving in.

The news that a fellow student had not been punished after he had been exposed as the son of a 'kulak' was greeted by Podlubny as a 'historical moment', suggesting as it did that he no longer needed to feel so stigmatized by his social origins. He embraced this personal liberation with joy and gratitude towards the Soviet government.

2.3.1935: The thought that I too can be a citizen of the common family of the USSR obliges me to respond with love to those who have done this. I am no longer among enemies, whom I fear all the time, at every moment, wherever I am. I no longer fear my environment. I am just like everybody else, free to be interested in various things, a master interested in his lands, not a hireling kowtowing to his master.

Six months later, Podlubny was accepted as a student at Moscow's Second Medical Institute. He had always dreamed of studying at a higher institute, but knew his 'kulak' origins would be a stumbling block. The fact that the Komsomol at the Pravda plant had supported his application was for him the final affirmation of his new Soviet identity.
It sure would be nice if a lot of people who are either born into 'class enemy' status or educated into it could work out their feelings of guilt and entitlement outside the political realm. Let them manage hedge funds, not governments.

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