I’ve only got a little over a hundred pages left in Karl Schlögel’s Moscow, 1937, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the time and place; it immerses you in just about every imaginable aspect, from construction projects to literature to music (Utesov, Dunayevsky, Shostakovich) to the brand-new Gorky Park to the unstoppable, unmanageable flood of people from the starving countryside to the capital, where at least there was the hope of a job in one of the many new factories and therefore of survival. Here’s an excerpt on the latter subject that I found enlightening:
Proletarskii District and the car plant thus became a giant social laboratory. It represented a break with the past and a starting point for the metamorphosis of a world that had been smashed but had not yet disappeared. It was filled with expectations, dreams, hopes and traumas. This was where people encountered new opportunities. It was the site of a millionfold mimicry and a desperate need to fit in, a process of acculturation under the conditions of a state of emergency, since everything depended on whether a person could discover a route into the new, Soviet society. The way back had been cut off, blocked; the only route that remained was the escape into one’s new role, one’s new identity. The creation of a workforce with an identity of its own was of crucial importance for the stability of the country and the regime.
The conditions in which this process unfolded have been well described by an American working in the USSR:
Kuznetsov lived with about 550 others, men and women, in a wooden structure about 800 feet long and fifteen feet wide. The room contained approximately 500 narrow beds, covered with mattresses filled with straw or dried leaves. There were no pillows or blankets. Coats and [other] garments were being utilized for covering. Some of the residents had no beds and slept on the floor or in wooden boxes. In some cases beds were used by one shift during the day and by others at night. There were no screens or wall to give any privacy to the occupants of the barracks. . . I could not stay in the barracks very long. I could not stand the stench of kerosene and unwashed bodies. The only washing facility was a pump outside. The toilet was a rickety, unheated shanty, without seat.
In order somehow or other to come to terms with this daily experience, with no electric light, no waste disposal, but instead with overcrowded dormitories and corridors, lice, rats, brawls, and rapes, there were Comrades’ Courts for the dispensation of justice in barracks with over 100 inhabitants. Even so, the barracks were one step higher than the worst living conditions of all—the self-made, improvised shelters in wooden huts and dugouts.
Without some knowledge of this background, it is not possible to understand the outbursts of rage, despair, hatred and desire for revenge that were common occurrences in the works meetings during 1937. The cause of such outbursts almost always lay in such basic needs: light, heating, toilet facilities, hygiene, health care and transport. The whole process of coping with these novel and barely tolerable conditions brought the new arrivals from the villages to the point of total exhaustion, and it is a miracle that there were not any major outbreaks of fury or excesses of violence. Basically, there were social spaces in which the immigrants were left to their own devices and their own fates, territories from which ‘the state’ was absent, but where the black market, prostitution and violence were daily occurrences and where the police never ventured. ‘Hooliganism’ was the name for an entire spectrum of ‘antisocial behaviour’. Stabbings occurred daily. ‘Gangs had to patrol their neighbourhoods because they could not rely on the police to maintain order in their settlements.’ Paradoxically, the state had in fact ‘faded away’, but more in the sense of being a ‘failing state‘.