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Rulers and Victims: The Russians in the Soviet Union

Book review by Edna Boardman

Hosking, Geoffrey. Rulers and Victims: The Russians in the Soviet Union. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.


The author’s focus in this book is not on politics but on the experience of the ethnic Russians, a group that was such a large majority in the Soviet Union that it is easy to lose sight of the fact
that they had a unique experience across the Soviet period. Hosking says, in his introduction, "There was a way of being Russian that was un-Soviet." As the book unfolds, Hosking tells of the communists’ efforts to destroy the old identities, which had for centuries revolved around the peasant commune and the Orthodox Church, and replace them with manufactured-in-Moscow holidays, slogans, and loyalties. It becomes clear that this caused people, Russians and ethnic minorities
alike, plenty of trouble. The book is of interest to Germans from Russia because "many of the experiences of Russians described in this book were shared by non-Russians."

It would be of value, before you read this book, to know a bit about the communist period because Hosking often omits background and context, surely to keep it from being unmanageably long and to keep from wandering off-topic too much. Yet, he is very clear about what was going on with the common people from one portion of the Soviet period to another. He begins with the communist takeover and the slaying of Czar Nicholas and his family around the time of World War I and leads
the reader through the civil war period, the solidification of Bolshevik power, the New Economic Policy period, the time of Stalin’s great terror in the 1930s, the Second World War; then, following
Stalin’s death, the hardening of communism during the cold war, and finally the confusion that followed the breakdown of communism, largely because of internal stresses, in the early 1900s.

Hosking traces what was happening in the everyday lives of the people. He looks at religion (especially the Orthodox Church, to which most Russians belonged), culture, the rural villages where most Russians had historically lived, housing, the experiences of Jews, and at permitted associations. He shows the struggles of the Russian people as they have sought to define their identity.

The Orthodox clergy tried desperately to keep their church alive, but every time they compromised, thinking it would provide them with a spot of safety or breathing room, the communists undercut them further. It was only during World War II that there was a respite. Bewildered priests were returned from labor camps to provide religious services, but they were closed down again after the war.

The communists were determined to destroy the ancient village system, and most of the villagers were Russians; only a relatively small portion were other ethnic groups. The ruling elite (referred in the book as the nomenklatura) were for a long time oblivious to the fact that the land was the source of food and that humans had to interact with sometimes unpredictable nature to produce it. Only after years of food shortages, did the suits in Moscow figure out that they had to change how they handled the rural people if there was going to be food on people’s tables. To bring things to such a precarious pass, the communists had emptied the countryside of workers through hating and alienating the people who produced the food. They deported them, took away their physically-able workers to be soldiers and factory workers (often leaving only old people and women and children to do the heavy
work of the farm), requisitioned their products without leaving them enough to sustain their own lives, and often, in the early days, rounded up most of the men in a village and shot them. Collectivization
of the villages separated people from their animals and from their closeness to the nature with which they had to cooperate if they were going to have a harvest at all. Whoever could, left, and that thinned the countryside population further. State-of-the-art tanks were manufactured in the same factories as primitive farm tractors, showing where the priorities lay. Housing the rural population in high rise buildings, which was done late in the Soviet period, was a kind of last straw because it is hard to care for animals from a fourth floor apartment.

The communists were surprisingly tuned into cultural things and questions of absolute loyalty to the Soviet system. They focused in sharply on what messages people were getting and how they were
motivated and influenced. To shape the people, they concocted holidays to replace religious observances and even tried, unsuccessfully, to replace the seven day week with one ten days in length. If anyone had contact with a foreigner, whether that person was a soldier in the Russian army (especially if he was a POW), was a receiver of foreign correspondence, or was even a foreign diplomat, they were suspect. Returnees from the labor camps were treated in a cavalier fashion even
when their innocence was clear. The communists monitored all writing, including journalism, poetry and fiction, and sports, which they found was a way to gain status in the world. Science, with its need for free inquiry, was especially troubling to them. As an instrument of control, with the added benefit of developing the wilds of Siberian Russia, they sent thousands to labor camps.

Hosking is especially aware of a Russian culture of joint responsibility, forged in the villages, and shows how it is important to the way the country is organized. He understands the importance of
World War II, which cost so much suffering and so many lives. He sees clearly the difference between the old culture and what the communists tried to put in place. He talks about a tradition of Russian messianism, a sense long nurtured in the country, that they had a responsibility first to spread the truth of Orthodoxy throughout the world, then to spread the benefits of communism. It sounds outrageous to our western minds, but we had to deal with the effects of the latter imperative for much of the twentieth century.

This book answered an important question for me. Were Germans, especially those who lived in the Ukraine, singled out for special persecution during the Soviet period? The answer seems to be no,
because the stories told about the plight of the Russian peasants are every bit as horrific as those told by the Germans. But one thing that was so striking about the book to me was how invisible we Germans continue to be to historians. Several times, Hosking says that certain areas were particularly productive or particularly troublesome to the communist leaders, but never does he say that these were also the areas where ethnic Germans were concentrated. When he lists nationalities, of
which Germans would have been one, only a few times does he acknowledge the presence of Germans among the affected minorities; usually, when he gives examples, we are not included in the list. The short-lived Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Germans on the Volga was never
mentioned, even in charts at the end of the book. I had to rustle up the name from another source.

Materials published by the Germans from Russia group or presented at our conventions detail the sufferings endured by those who stayed behind during the Soviet period. Other books tell what was going on at the Kremlin in Moscow. People’s stories of their personal experiences are often discounted by historians as biased and self-serving, incomplete and unreliable, or probably not representative. Hosking, in putting an historian’s affirmation to the experiences of ordinary people and adding how these experiences were shaped by the leadership and for what reasons, has done a tremendous service.

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