Out of Reach
One Day We Will Live Without Fear:
Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State
(Hoover Institution Press, 2016)
My great-grandmother on my grandfather’s side was born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1888. She was twenty-nine when the Russian Revolution toppled the Tsar. She was in her early thirties when her brother, Daniel, was shot after a spurned lover baselessly denounced him to the first incarnation of the KGB. She was forty-nine when another brother, Jacob, was arrested because he had once been to Germany on a business trip; he was executed two years later, in 1939. So although my great-grandparents shielded their only child from the very tangible realities of life in the Soviet Union, it is no surprise that in 1937, during the height of Stalin’s terror, they often didn’t sleep for fear of the KGB’s fateful nighttime knock. That they escaped this fate is chance. (Fun fact: the building in Odessa in which my grandfather grew up subsequently became local KGB headquarters. One of his former neighbors was interrogated there after the conversion.)
Such is the reality of state-sponsored terror. Representing it is Mark Harrison’s goal in One Day We Will Live Without Fear. Harrison begins in the 1930s and works his way through the Soviet Union’s collapse. He looks at people from different corners of the U.S.S.R., from the far-east to Lithuania to Kazakhstan, and from different social strata, in an attempt to convey the reach and range of the consequences that confrontation with the Soviet police state could entail. From his case studies he derives seven principles—among them, “Your enemy is hiding” and “Stamp out every spark”—meant to explain the motivations that guided internal security policy and behavior.
Unfortunately, Harrison fails to live up to his endeavor. From the beginning, his project is limited by its breadth; the broad scope makes it difficult to provide the requisite background information. Perhaps if readers were already conversant in Soviet history, his patchwork overview would suffice. But it is unclear who Harrison’s intended audience is. On one hand, his simplified principles imply a naïve reader. On the other, his offhand descriptions of major eras and events indicates an expectation of more than passing familiarity with Soviet history. Harrison only briefly mentions collectivization, for example, when it is necessary to flesh out and contextualize an escalating conflict between a character named Old Man Nikolayenko and his local kolkhoz, a collective farm. (As the government expropriated private property, peasant farms were consolidated into collective farms. The program, known as collectivization, entailed a massive famine; the death toll numbers in the tens of millions.) By “briefly,” I mean that his description is essentially as long as mine.
Stalin is famously (and maybe apocryphally) quoted as saying, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.” Harrison’s descriptions of massive purges, which were essential to creating a paralyzing climate of fear, seem to be of a piece with that infamous quote. To gloss over the toll of these purges is to render them meaningless. After all, it is very difficult for us to conceptualize large numbers. As such, Harrison’s concept is good: in his preface, he writes, “For some of these hundreds of millions on some days, life was like this.” But the individuals selected to illustrate Stalin’s police state are not representative. Take, for instance, the case of Stanislav Bronikovsky, a man caught in a KGB entrapment scheme that led to the unjust arrest of 150 people in far eastern Siberia. While his story packs narrative punch—and his fate was certainly unfair—the conditions of his arrest were highly unusual. In the late ’30s, most arrests were part of large sweeps to fill government mandated quotas. The number of such arrests exceeds, by multiple orders of magnitude, the number of people caught in Bronikovsky’s situation. Needless to say, the arrest quotas were very successful in making fear a central component of everyday life. So it is strange to select Bronikovsky’s case as a way to examine everyday terror when it is so out of the ordinary and does not communicate the nature of fear in a police state. For a better depiction of the 1930s in the Soviet Union, look to Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, or Anatoli Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat, or Yuri Trifonov’s House on the Embankment.
The book improves as Harrison moves forward in time and the régime’s repressive policies become milder. Instead of execution and jail, citizens are subject to warnings from the KGB, demotions, Party expulsion, and surveillance. Harrison relies on archival KGB files and informant reports to demonstrate how surveillance functioned and convey its omnipresence. However, he does not use any primary sources—interviews, diaries, letters—that would reveal the average citizen’s experience. Thus, the image is inherently incomplete. Harrison can only speculate about how these people felt. Of one person’s actions he writes that she “probably thought she had done her boss a favor by her little deception.” A complete portrait would require other primary materials. Alternately, fiction can fill in these gaps. But Harrison has neither.
Harrison states that the case studies he presents chose him: “They chose themselves for their humanity and their inhumanity, shining a clear light on many tragic, funny, and bizarre aspects of Soviet life.” Yet the book does not give rise to these same feelings in me. His overwhelming reliance on dry, detached, and biased KGB case notes makes it difficult to articulate the emotional reality of life in a police state. His own narration is not dynamic enough, either. In short, Harrison does not deliver on the title’s promise; he does not convey the fundamental fear and helplessness that a police state engenders through the use of arbitrary arrest and an absence of justice. Instead he writes, awkwardly, “In the Soviet Union there was injustice. To compensate, there was justice. Soviet justice took many forms: poetic justice, delayed justice, and secret justice.” Vindication, maybe. Guilty people may have been punished—as they were by Khrushchev’s government following Stalin’s death—but this was incidental to the maintenance of power. Justice was an abstract concept devoid of meaning. His choice of words indicates, to me, an incomprehension of the principles underlying Soviet government policy, which was based in a profound apathy for the lives of its citizens.
Harrison’s intended project is important. We are lucky not to have to monitor what we say, not to have to constantly distinguish between official ideology and our lived experience, between who we can share our observations with and who we can’t. Most of us do not know what that feels like, how words can become passwords. One Day We Will Live Without Fear could have illustrated precisely that. But it does not.