Friday, September 25, 2015

A few points that might interest people

A few days ago I quoted from Oleg Khlevniuk's recent biography of Stalin and I propose to do so again. I am going to avoid the description of the real horrors: the collectivization and subsequent famine or examples of Soviet "justice" first introduced by Stalin and some of his colleagues and henchmen during the Civil War (he and Voroshilov were highly unsuccessful commanders and strategists but rather good at torturing and murdering their opponents) and repeated subsequently until they reached their apogee during the first great purge in the thirties and the second purge (less well known) in the later forties early fifties.

What I want to concentrate on is the period when times were better. Some years ago a friend told me about reading Solzhenitsyn's One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich soon after it came out in English and being horrified by the ending. Some of my readers might remember how it ends. After a day of quite unspeakable horror for anyone who had not gone through those camps, Ivan Denisovich, the canny peasant, goes through the events and enumerates various small successes, sighing contentedly that it had been a good day. That? A good day? Well, all things are relative.

So let us look at the very end of Khlevniuk's book when he describes the situation in the Soviet Union not long before the dictator's death, in the "relatively prosperous year of 1952" not during the famine of 1931 -1933 or that of 1946 1947.
Most people lived primarily on grains and potatoes. Budgetary studies conducted on the eve of Stalin's death, during the relatively prosperous year of 1952, established the following daily nutritional intake in worker and peasant families: the average Soviet citizen consumed approximately 500 grams of flour products (primarily bread), a small amount of cereals, 400 - 600 grams of potatoes, and approximately 200 - 400 grams of milk and milk products.

These items accounted for the bulk of the typical diet. Anything else, especially meat, was a special occasion. The figure for per capita consumption of meant and meat products averaged 40 - 70 grams per day and 15 - 20 grams of fat (animal or plant oils, margarine or fatback). A few teaspoons of sugar and a bit of fish completed the picture. Average citizens could permit themselves an average of one egg every six days. These rations are approximately equal to the dietary norm for prison camps.
Let us not forget that these figures were compiled and published by the Central Statistical Directorate and were probably on the generous side. The reality was probably worse, especially for the peasants.

How very different from the descriptions of the long and, in their own way, painful suppers that Stalin held for his henchmen in the Kremlin or one of his dachas. Somewhat different from the lives of the various privileged sections of Soviet society, the bonzy, who could shop in special shops where many other goods were available, both home-grown and imported and whose salaries together with the special konverty (envelopes with extra bonuses that remained a secret between the organization and the recipient) amounted to a great deal more than the pay most people received.

Of the good listed above, the more luxurious ones, such as meat or sausage were not available outside the big cities and people from all over the country had to travel to them in order to buy a few things to feed their families with.

Those were the good years. What of the vozhd, the leader himself? We have had, as I mentioned above, many accounts of the sort of feeding that went on around his table, even during the hungry years of the war and the famine immediately after, never mind the relatively good years after that.

Here is an account of the sort of budget that went on the immediate Main Guard Directorate under its leader of many years, Nikolai Vlasik. (He, too, was demoted in 1951 and arrested in 1952 but released in 1956.) Some of the accounts, especially of Stalin's last days, come from him.
Under Vlasik, the Main Guard Directorate became a powerful and influential government agency. In early 1952 it comprised 14,300 people and had an enormous budget of 672 million rubles. Vlasik's directorate was responsible not only for protection, but also for the maintenance of the apartments and dachas of top-level Soviet leaders, keeping Central Committee members supplied with consumer goods, handling the transportation and lodging of foreign guests, and overseeing the construction of new government buildings. In 1951 approximately 80 million rubles of the directorate's budget went toward maintaining the dachas and apartments of the fourteen highest-ranking Soviet leaders (including expenses for protection and servants). Staling was, of course, the most expensive of the fourteen. A total of 26.3 million rubles were spent on his apartment and dacha in 1951. This sum probably did not include such expenses as automobile transport.

Serving in the Guard Directorate was both prestigious and lucrative. In 1951 the average compensation for members of Stalin's security team (including uniforms, housing, etc.) was 5,300 rubles per month, at a time when the average monthly wage throughout the Soviet Union was 660 rubles and the average per capita income for collective farm workers was approximately 90 rubles per month. In addition to material benefits, Vlasik's relationship with the leader gave him significant political influence, leading to his increasing involvement - with Stalin's encouragement - in the political intrigues that roiled round the vozhd (leader). Having a powerful patron and sense of impunity was intoxicating. Vlasik drank and enjoyed a promiscuous love life, and so did his subordinates.
There was, of course, a down side: if the vozhd so desired you could be arrested with all that entailed. Earlier a number of the personal security guards were executed or chose to commit suicide as an easier way out.

By and large it was Stalin's colleagues who trembled with fear and tried to protect themselves at all costs. Towards the end of Stalin's life, as the second purge raged, Vyacheslav Molotov and Georgy Malenkov had been demoted and were waiting for worse. Molotov's wife had been arrested during the second purge, largely because she was Jewish, and not only did her husband not dare to speak up for her but he he agreed to divorce her on Stalin's orders. She was released after the dictator's death and, as far as I know, the two re-married.

Stalin's invitations to come sup with him and watch a film or just "have a bit of fun" were never refused though guests tended to wonder whether they would be returning home after the party or going somewhere quite different. And those were the "good years".

No comments:

Post a Comment