Twelve Chairs- A Revolutionary Society

I was extremely interested by the depiction of Soviet society in this movie. This film, set in late 1920s Russia, seemed to reflect the theme of the old, Tsarist ruling class pitifully struggling to remain relevant while a new proletarian society emerges around them. The main plot if the movie revolves around representatives of the nobility and clergy scrambling to find some old jewels hidden in a chair, a quest that (spoiler alert) ultimately turns out to be in vain. While these metaphors for the Tsarist ruling classes are searching for their old wealth, we can see the signs of the old society dying and a new one rising around them. The death of the old order can be seen in things like the terrified meeting of old Russian officials and the auctions selling off their stuff. Meanwhile, the Soviet society is starting to emerge around them, as seen in the Red Army troops marching and singing, the public lectures, choirs, propaganda posters, and just a general sense of camaraderie among the people. With all that in mind, I’d like to pose the question: what message does the film want us to take from this? Do they think the fading of the old order is a good or bad thing?

A Contradictory Policy

I found this reading very interesting. Given the long history of anti-Semitism in both Russia and Europe as a whole, I went into this excerpt wondering how exactly the Soviets would address the Jewish people of Russia. It’s not exactly a surprise that the Stalinist government handled the issue by attempting the creation of a Jewish community in their image, out in the Far East. The thing I found most interesting was the contrast between the material and the cultural effort that the Soviets put into this region. The Soviet government did a great deal to promote Soviet Jewish culture both in the region and abroad (in a way that they never did in the Kresy), while neglecting the actual physical needs of the inhabitants. As such, this begs the question: was this a legitimate effort to help the Soviet Jewish community or a simple propaganda move? And if it was to be a sort of “model community”, why wasn’t more effort put forward to improve the material conditions of the inhabitants?

From Bad to Worse: Stalinist Policy in the Kresy to 1935

Reading through chapters 3-5 of “A Bureaucracy of No Place”, it quickly becomes clear to the reader that the Soviet bureaucracy’s handling of the Kresy zone was wildly inconsistent and seemed to have only made things worse with every measure it took. Economically, the issues started with the New Economic Plan, where (among other issues) peasants found that they were having an immense amount of difficulty producing enough crops to support themselves. The economic issues were further compounded by the Soviet crash implementation of mass collectivization, which produced an immense amount of pressure on the peasants. Conditions got so bad that this region eventually went into a state of open revolt against the Soviet government. The fallout from this debacle earned the Soviet authorities the resentment of many of the border peoples, which they responded to initially by imprisoning many suspected “nationalists” and “foreign agents” before settling on the mass deportation of ethnic Poles and Germans to other parts of the Soviet Union.

What really struck me while reading this section of the book was simply how inconsistent and uncoordinated the Soviet administration was during this episode. This can be seen in instances such as the logistical difficulties Zborovskii faced while overseeing the deportations, which were the result of poor upper level communication and administration. One other particularly bizarre example was a section of the main Soviet Presidium declaring the scattered Polish cultural measures a rousing success and ordering more teachers into the Kresy. The situation became even stranger when 40% of those teachers were arrested by the Ukrainian NKVD on charges of “nationalist activity”.

All in all, this whole affair was a debacle for the Soviet government, and is an accurate reflection of the atmosphere of paranoia and inconsistency that dominated Soviet thinking during this time.