I spent some time this past week preparing for my fall class on the Soviet Union. Each time I’ve taught it here at Hawai’i, I’ve made use of an unique resource at our Library, the “Social Movements Collection,” which is a large group of pamphlets and books that had been collected by Eugene Bechtold, a bookseller and former instructor at the Chicago Workers’ School. While much of the collection relates to American Communism, anarchism, and peace movements, it also contains a rich source of material on the Soviet Union.
The first time I taught the Soviet course here I required students to read one pamphlet produced by the Foreign Language Publishing House in Moscow, and then the topic of that pamphlet became the topic of their research paper for the semester. The second time, I limited the students to just material produced in 1939, which we think was distributed at the New York World’s Fair. In total, we hold sixty pamphlets in that group, which cover a variety of topics, but primarily industrialization, collectivization, education, “leisure” activities, the status of non-Russian nationalities, and then a few on aviation, transportation, and Polar exploration. Though a few of these pamphlets have been cited here and there, particularly Bergelson’s Jewish Autonomous Region, I have yet to see anyone deal with the collection as a whole. [For the purpose of this post, I consider the authors on each cover to be the author, though that seems somewhat questionable in several cases.]
There’s great material in these pamphlets. I was recently struck by Vyshinskii‘s Crime Recedes in the USSR, which eloquently describes the goal of the Soviet penal system: “But, alas, no prison system, however numerous and varied the scorpions used to chastise its victims, can possibly make any headway in the battle against crime unless it has been preceded by a radical change in the system of social relations” (p. 8). After numerous statistics providing overwhelming evidence that crime had in fact been reduced with the end of personal property, Vyshinskii concludes “Socialism, which establishes a new culture, re-educates the people, changes their psychology, induces them to adopt a new attitude to the world that surrounds them, to other people, to society” (p. 22).
When you read several of the pamphlets on a given topic, there is a great coherence to the overarching narrative. In the “nationalities pamphlets” (my term – Ch. Aslanova’s The National Question Solved, Yanka Kupala‘s Cultural Progress among the Non-Russian Nationalities of the USSR, and M. Papyan’s Industrial Progress in the Soviet Republics of the Non-Russian Nationalities), we discover that the “backward” and “primitive” non-Russian peoples have been embraced by the Soviet government and freed from their “enslavement” (in Kupala) or from “prison” (in Aslanova). The Soviets condemned tsarist Russification, but under the new “enlightened” system “The Russian language is everywhere eagerly studied. Russian literature is cherished by all peoples of the USSR as their own literature” (Kupala, 31). The lesson is that now the non-Russian peoples will appreciate Russian literature in their own language, but the apparent irony was not remarked upon.
I do think the pamphlets are wonderfully eloquent. Papyan describes “The tempestuous rate of development” in Kazakhstan (14), which apparently can save it from its primitive state. The good news was that “our formerly backward nations needed little more than a decade to develop into flourishing Socialist republics, where exploitation of man by man and national oppression have been wiped out once and for all” (31-2). As Aslanova reveals that the national question has been solved (by 1939, hooray!), we learn that “Only Soviet power brought the women emancipation. The Soviet laws are in every respect the same as those of men. Under the beneficent rays of Soviet national policy, thousands of women in the East have developed and become statesmen, doctors, engineers, fliers, teachers, agricultural experts, etc.” (28).
I have learned a few things about using these pamphlets with undergrads. The first is that I have to sit in the Library with them to answer questions, otherwise they aren’t sure where to begin because the pamphlets are so persuasive, proven by the evidence in photos, statistics, and quotes. The second is that I no longer describe this as propaganda, because students automatically assumes that means it’s all lies. But I’m more convinced than ever that navigating between the lies by omission and the included data makes a wonderful assignment, as the students’ struggle to situate the official Soviet version of life in 1939 with their own expectations of Stalinist society. Without question, my students consider it the best assignment of their history careers, as they try to learn what the Soviet Union was “really like.”