Greatly Obliged

On International Women's Day in 1936, Pravda ran an open letter to Stalin from the female employees of the Bolshoi Theater, which read in part, "We are obligated to you, our own Josef Vissarionovich, for the great respect, honor and love women receive in the Soviet country and for the recent concern and attention of the Party and government for our children." In 1938, the paper printed another open letter from a grateful couple who wrote, "With all our hearts we thank the Party and our beloved Comrade Stalin, who raised our son as a proud falcon of the country of socialism."

For more than half a century, Soviet media waged an unceasing campaign to indoctrinate the populace with the idea that it owed all its blessings to the kind attention of the government and of Stalin personally. Surprisingly, this ubiquitous phenomenon and its insidious consequences for civic society and public life have never been studied adequately until now.

Thank You, Comrade Stalin, by American historian Jeffrey Brooks, performs a great service by documenting how the Soviet government developed and then tirelessly implemented a program that created "a contorted 'moral economy' in which the state was presumed to dispense necessary goods and services, and the tremendously beholden citizens were obligated to provide their labor in return."

No doubt this important subject has been so little studied because of the unimaginably tedious research it entails. Brooks has truly performed a Herculean task: He slogged through more than 2,500 Pravda articles from 1917 through Stalin's death in 1953, plus a generous helping of fare from Krasnaya Zvezda, Trud, Komsomolskaya Pravda and other lesser newspapers.

What emerges from this mind-numbing exercise is a study of a political and social culture that not only eliminated any state accountability to the public but also killed off any popular expectation that such accountability should exist. "Thank you, dear Marshal [Stalin], for our freedom, for our children's happiness, for life," as Pravda wrote in 1943.

The Bolsheviks understood the crucial importance of total media control in propping up their 1917 coup d'?tat, which was carried out with minimal public support. On his first full day in power, Lenin issued his "Decree on the Press," which was justified as an "emergency measure" but was never rescinded. It represented the first step toward the complete nationalization of culture. "The printing press," Lenin wrote in 1918, "is our strongest weapon." The Russian people were the target.

"Thank You, Comrade Stalin" demonstrates how Communist culture shifted in the transition from Lenin to Stalin. Throughout the 1920s, the dominant imagery of the Communist press was martial. Every problem was a "front" on which the "foot soldiers" of Communism must fight. The Bolshevik's original economic plan was called "War Communism" and the Communist Party itself was described as the "general staff" of an army of workers and peasants.

Initially, the purpose of the press in the Soviet state was to win public support for the new regime and to motivate the public to participate in Soviet programs. A state directive to journalists in 1924 instructed, "You are not informers but organizers of the workers' affairs." However, Brooks argues, this initial effort was doomed to failure because the poorly educated mass audience was not able to understand the Marxist jargon that the state imposed on journalists. One reader in the 1920s complained that his newspaper was written "not in Russian but in political language."

This failure to connect led to a much simpler, but more brutally effective policy. By the 1930s, the purpose of Soviet culture was to convince the public that it must be unquestioningly grateful for any policy that the state sees fit to pursue, no matter how much sacrifice it entails for average people. The media created a culture of dependence and gratitude that caught on quickly among the undereducated rural population, but eventually left its imprint on every Soviet citizen. Ironically, the "culture of the gift" created intense pressure on average citizens to express their gratitude by demanding less and sacrificing more: "What more can I give the homeland to repay her as a true daughter for my training and for all her attention and love?" wrote one collective farmer.

Although Brooks says little about it, another important consequence of this culture was its effect on politicians, who have come to expect gratitude and to despise any expectation of accountability. Post-Soviet politicians continue to demonstrate their paternalistic contempt of the public by, for instance, running for office without a platform or rescheduling elections at their convenience. Last month, Russian Health Minister Yury Shevchenko told CNN that the solution to Russia's public health crisis was to reeducate the people into thinking of their individual health as part of a "single national resource of health." In other words, people will take care of themselves only if we convince them that they owe it to the state.

The only significant shortcoming of "Thank You, Comrade Stalin" is a lack of context. As a noted historian of pre-revolutionary Russia, Brooks could have done more to show how the timeless Russian rural traditions of extended family, paternalistic village communes and the "Tsar-Father" laid the groundwork for Stalin's culture of gratitude. Likewise, Brooks could have done much more to elaborate the continuing legacies of this culture. Frankly, I had given up hope that any of the post mortems of the Soviet Union that have flooded the market in recent years would have any real relevance to the problems of Russia's present transition. But Brooks has proved me wrong: "Thank You, Comrade Stalin" is a powerful indictment of Soviet socio-culturalpolicies that continue to undermine efforts to build an open, democratic society. Russia - sadly - still has much for which to be "grateful" to Lenin and Stalin.

"Thank You, Comrade Stalin! Soviet Public Culture From Revolution to Cold War," by Jeffrey Brooks. 312 pages. Princeton University Press. $35.

Robert Coalson lives in St. Petersburg and is a program director for the National Press Institute.