Comments on Leslie P. Moch’s “Moving in Russia: Repertoires in the Soviet Era”

Dr. Leslie P. Moch’s  presented her lecture on November 7, 2013 at Washington University in St. Louis.

BY MARGAUX BAVLSIK

Dr. Leslie Moch is a Professor of History at Michigan State University

Dr. Moch’s lecture on Soviet internal movement focused on seven different profiles of migrating people in the Soviet Union. She sought to recognize that migrants were not always passive agents, being shuffled around like so many pieces on a playing board; rather, they were agents of their own movement. She described seven types of workers: settlers, seasonal migrants, migrants to the city, military migrants, career migrants, refugees and evacuees, deportees, and itinerants.

The settler was described as following in the footsteps of earlier, past peasants, reenacting their roles, and even going as far as occupying the structures which had been abandoned by them. Seasonal migrants (shabashnikiki) were a continuation of the tradition of seasonal peasant workers (otkhodniki) who would work in cities during times when they were not needed in the village for agricultural work. With the disruption of the Civil War and the decline of the peasant labor force, non-peasant shabashniki began to enter into the system. Those who were city-going migrants (generally northern cities, in this context) were enticed by better pay, better retirement plans, and increased vacation time. If a person received a higher education, then they were obligated to serve the state for three to five years at a predetermined location and so constituted a career migrant. Dr. Moch also included military men in her discussion of migrants, with the understanding that those men were fully enveloped in a new subculture that depended heavily on their location. Evacuees, refugees, and deportees were relatively similar in situation, with the major exception being that evacuation and deportation were both facilitated by the state.

Framing the presentation in this manner, Dr Moch travels along a scale of migrants’ individual agency, with the settlers having the most, and the deportees the least. The major exception here would be the itinerant workers. This may be because these are the “people who fell through the cracks,” the beggars, orphans, gypsies, and reindeer herders who did not fit into the organized plans of the Soviet Union.

The issuance of passports in the Soviet state placed people into fixed categories, based on race and nationality—similar to Dr Moch’s kukushkinlisting of migrant types. Wendy Goldman, in her book, Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, discusses how the implementation of internal Soviet passports shifted work from peasant to female laborers. It would be interesting to consider the role (or simply the manifestation) of gender in migration. From the presentation, it appears that the profiles of the workers with greater agency (settlers, seasonal migrants, soldiers) tended to have been male. However, it is not clear whether this was a general trend or simply a chance occurrence. (I’m told that her upcoming book discusses this notion further.)

Additionally, Dr Moch noted how party bosses and important officials generally had special privileges which extended to their ability to migrate. During Stalin’s regime, high-ranking party officials and members of the nomenklatura had access to special stores full of imported and expensive consumer goods, dachas to vacation in, higher pay, special healthcare systems, and free or subsidized holidays. However, I wonder whether or not the party bosses’ evacuation (such as in the siege of Leningrad during World War II) was not so much a privilege as it was an ostensibly necessary measure, taken by the government in order to protect itself and its components.

SovietPersonally, I was intrigued by the idea of the itinerant workers—the ones who seem to be fundamentally at odds with the central government’s need for control over all of its resources. I think it is fascinating how the Soviet state often failed to successfully enforce those policies most necessary for its efficacious existence. With centralized planning, it would be of the utmost importance to supervise the workforce and its movements. Given the frequent food and supply shortages, it would seem that employing every person within the union would be supremely useful. Additionally, in a nation brimming with various ethnicity, with differing religions and cultures, a singular approach to all groups seems rather foolhardy.

Although there was some discussion of the Soviet Union’s tools of coercion—namely passports and permits—it might be interesting to see a list of steps and requirements necessary to obtain such documentation. Despite being another example of the heavily bureaucratic nature of the state, it might be illuminating to know what sorts of people under what types of conditions the Soviet Union was most willing to allow to move about. I would imagine that workers involved in essential would have been more restricted, but I would like to find out if demographic characteristics played any sort of major role—such as if younger people were often allowed to be more mobile, or if families tended to have to remain stationary.

Ultimately, I most appreciated Dr.  Moch’s method of breaking migrants into different groups, and then characterizing each. It was a thought-provoking contrast to the generalized migrant who traveled from town to city to find work and food. Moreover, I had not really considered the notion of migrants’ individual agency in the Soviet Union (though in the case of deportees and criminals, the lack is obvious). For me, the lecture emphasized the need to remember that history is comprised of people, and that, though the Soviet state was monolithic, its residents were not necessarily without personal histories, desires, motivations, wills—and most importantly—means of their own.

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Margaux Bavlsik is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at mbavlsik@wustl.edu

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