This book is fascinating. For most of my life the terms USSR and Russia were synonymous, but I was totally wrong. First, the actual Russians are of Serb origin and were often quite different from the party leadership. I also figured that the Russian citizens were just like the US, but with Communist leaders. That's wrong also! We see ourselves as rugged individualist whereas the average Russian lived in a village which considered itself as a unit lead by village elders and responsible to group. When the Tzar or church levied taxes or recruited soldiers it was to the village as a whole. If one person ran off, the village still had to send the same amount of soldiers or pay the same amount of taxes. All their actions impacted the whole village, which resolved differences by agreement and not by a simple majority. Russians have always seen themselves as a part of a unit under some kind of authority. This gave me a whole different understanding of the use of communes.
I'm on page 103 and have already learned so much. The book is well written and pretty easy to follow, given the subject. So far, I am very pleased.
I'm on page 175 now and have been utterly fascinated with what I am learning about the Russian people. After the early days of the Revolution, the party leaders wanted a multi ethnic state which embraced the various traditions and languages of the many people who made up USSR. They built a policy which was like "affirmative action" for all the groups except the Russians, who were the majority. Ethnic areas would govern and teach in their native languages even though Russian had always been the language of government. However the populations were very mixed. Russians made up 35 to 45% of the population in all the various countries and a whopping 58.4% of Kazakhstan. Even in the Ukraine and Beloruss had large populations of ethnic Russians and yet the instruction and daily business was to be conducted in Ukrainian. This was very difficult as most of these language didn't have many of the terms that were needed to conduct business.
As with so many things, the idealistic plans of the reformers didn't take into consideration the impact on the country as a whole. People were driven out of their homes because they were of the wrong ethnic group or were considered "wealthy peasants" and left to fend for themselves. Skilled people turned into beggars or, if they were lucky, emigrated and soon there were not enough skilled people to keep the economy going and people were starving. What happened in the Ukraine was unimaginable. Eventually, they had to reverse the process and try to gather together what they had recently disbursed. Unfortunately, it couldn't be done. The Communists, who could bear no wrong, had to rewrite the history books so that the enemies were no longer enemies and old heroes were no longer heroes.
As I read this book, I am constantly thinking about the tendency of human beings to constantly look for simplistic solutions to complex problems. The Tzar had already made many reforms including freeing the peasants. Had there been no revolution, it is very possible that Russia would evolved into the kind of Monarchy we see in Great Britain and some of the other European countries. He was moving the country in a forward direction, but the Revolution happened and now the Russian Federation is trying to make up for 90 years of terrible decisions.
July 26, 2009
I've finished the book and found it to be fascinating all the way up to the end. I hope the author has written more about Russia. The last part dealt with the question of Russian history. A country without a history is shallow and the people are rootless. It's very important in sharing a common identity. The problem is how the events of the Revolution and Stalin are handled by history is very complex. Children must learn from textbooks, scholars must research and gain insight into their country. Everyday people need celebrations of a shared memory which bond them together.
On the other hand, a detailed study of the Communist excesses and the wholesale slaughter of so many Russians is not something the Communists want to have on display. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, people needed new celebrations and holidays. Celebrating Stalin's birthday was complicated, especially after many of the records of the government were opened. Memories, especially in the Ukraine were long and without force, people no longer wanted to celebrate such leaders.
After atheism was declared the state policy on religion, people often commemorated special events such as marriage at Lenin's tomb. Speeches were made there and reviewing stands for parades centered there. With communism in a shambles, there was a need for new people and things to celebrate.
I never thought about how necessary these celebrations and a shared history are in the life of a nation. I also never thought about how important a national personality and heritage were. These things are even necessary for members of the nation to protest against. I will never forget the burning of draft cards and flags during the 60's and burning a country's flags and presidents in effigy are still the number one methods of protest against a foreign government. All of these things point to a national identity.
What the country will do with the fallout from the past 100 years is a huge question with many ramifications.