A Post-war ‘Quicksand Society’?
Updated: Sep 14
Visitors to the Reception of the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, 1946-1953
In reaction to the stresses brought on by rapid industrialization, Russia turned into “a country of vagrants” and a “quicksand society,” in the words of historian Moshe Lewin.[i] The Second World War brought on similar dislocation, and the Soviet population remained in flux well into the post-war period. As Nazi Germany invaded and as the front moved in the first years of the war, millions were evacuated to the east. Life in evacuation was challenging, to say the least, and evacuees often had few resources left to draw upon as they returned home in the late 1940s. Once there, they often discovered that their homes were destroyed or occupied, their possessions had been stolen, and their loved ones were nowhere to be found. Wounded veterans—“invalids of the Great Patriotic War” (invalidy velikoi otechestvennoi voiny) in the parlance of the time—often spent extended periods of time in hospitals, sanatoria, and boarding houses (internaty) recuperating from their injuries far away from home. Upon being released, they too returned to disappointment and indignity, and often took off in search of better prospects. As the countryside reeled from the war’s damage and as a famine struck in 1946-1947, many rural citizens turned to their traditional reaction to crisis and fled. Countless socially marginal citizens also wandered the country for no reason in particular. As Mark Edele argues, nomadism was a feature of Soviet society from the 1930s into the early 1950s; their itinerancy thus continued trends established long before the war.[ii]
The records of the Reception of the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR (Priemnaia presedatelia prezidiuma verkhovnogo soveta SSSR) provide a unique snapshot of this post-war ‘quicksand society,’ to borrow Lewin’s term. En route home from evacuation, in pursuit of medical treatment, reuniting with relatives, or in an attempt to stay in Moscow (legally or otherwise), thousands arrived at the Chairman’s office requesting his assistance. Although it was not an organ of the Soviet welfare system, the Reception unofficially performed a range of welfare functions, such as helping to arrange jobs, housing, and residency permits, including the coveted propiska required to legally reside in Moscow. It also provided ration cards and “material assistance” (material’naia pomoshch’) typically small sums of money—a legacy of its iconic first Chairman Mikhail Kalinin’s reputation as a sympathetic soul and defender of the downtrodden.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
In a recent article, I looked at the politics behind this institution’s decisions to approve or deny one-time monetary aid to those who showed up asking for it during the tenure of Kalinin’s successor, Nikolai Shvernik, and what this revealed about the late Stalinist welfare state’s priorities.[iii] What that article only fleetingly dealt with, by virtue of its focus and for want of space, was the vast distances that many petitioners had or claimed to have travelled before ending up there.
Due to its proximity and out of simple convenience, most petitioners came from the RSFSR and, of these, a majority came from Moscow and the surrounding regions.[iv] Petitioners from the Ukrainian SSR were the next most common visitors. However, much of the money distributed went to people who had travelled far greater distances, and, in many cases, could not afford the cost of their onward travel. Many petitioners, in making a case for why they should be helped, described long and arduous journeys to Moscow where, under the country’s prohibitive passport regime, they had no right to linger.[v] Some even claimed to be living in the city’s train stations and streets. In their records, Reception staff assiduously noted petitioners’ points of origin, places of registered residence, and their travel plans; petitioners themselves often freely offered these details in the written statements (zaiavleniia) they produced as part of their formal requests for help.
I mapped these petitioners’ routes and categorized their reasons for travel based upon the information they and Reception staff provided, and, where possible, reproduced their personal statements, partly because hundreds of petitioners’ stories did not make it into the article and because I wanted to see if patterns emerged. The below map shows the paths petitioners claimed to be on, as well as, in some cases, the areas they were forcibly returned to by Soviet authorities after making their requests for help.[vi] This sample of petitioners, it should be emphasized, is far from comprehensive, but a mere fraction of the people who visited the Reception during Shvernik’s tenure as Chairman. It consists of petitioners clearly identified by name (although sometimes only by surname) who requested money and other assistance during their travels or after turning up penniless and homeless in Moscow. It draws upon the reception’s monthly reports (spravki) and annual accounts (otchety), as well as transcripts of petitioners’ conversations with Shvernik (stenogrammy) and handwritten notes in the stenographs’ margins regarding petitions’ outcomes, when available.[vii]
See the full interactive map here
Sources: GARF, f. 7523, op. 33, d. 1, l. 122, 163; d. 2, l. 143, 152, 158-159, 164; d. 3, l. 34; d. 10, l. 168; op. 55, d. 12, l. 4, 9-11, 15-18, 27, 40-42, 48; d. 18, l. 15-19, 24-26, 32, 35, 39-41, 44, 46-48, 51-53, 55-56, 58, 62, 75, 82-83, 87, 95, 98, 105, 106-108; d. 27, l. 7, 9-14, 22, 33, 37, 42, 44-45, 54, 59, 70-71, 87-88, 92-95, 101-102, 104-106, 111; d. 33, l. 50, 150; d. 38, l. 4-7, 10-15, 20, 22, 24, 29, 35-37, 52-53, 70-71, 90; op. 65, d. 601, l. 4-9, 12-17, 19-23; op. 85, d. 273, l. 3, 22, 24, 26; d. 276, l. 37; d. 282a, l. 3.
Though providing far from a complete account of their reasons for travel or reflection of their experiences on the road, these petitioners’ statements allow the historian to “recover and listen to the voices of migrants,” as Lewis Siegelbaum and Leslie Moch have recently implored Russian historians to do.[viii] The snippets they left behind also leave the historian craving more details. The case of M. M. Borisova, who turned up at the Reception in September 1948 asking for money after falsely claiming that she had been robbed en route from Berlin to Khabarovsk stands out here: how did she end up working as a prostitute in Berlin? How did she cross the Soviet border? Borisova’s was an exceptional case, although lying to the Reception about one’s need for money and the reasons for one’s travels was far from unusual, as we shall see.
What were some of the reasons petitioners offered for making journeys that could entail thousands of kilometres, which put them at risk of violating the country’s passport regime and which, by their own admission, they could not afford? Of the 200 cases in my sample, petitioners gave the following reasons for making the journey to or through Moscow:
Note: of these 200 petitioners, 135 were female and 65 were male.
Over one-third (72) of these petitioners gave no or an unclear reason for travel, or none was identified by Reception staff and around one-third (70) had no point of origin listed. It is highly likely that many of these people were, in fact, illegally living in Moscow. The Reception was eager to send these petitioners back to their registered places of residence, as the case of E. B. Purikova demonstrates. She came to the Reception and spoke personally with Shvernik on November 18, 1949:
“Shvernik: Where have you come from?
Purikova: From the town of Uralsk.
Shvernik: Where are you headed to now?
Purikova: Right now, we’ve arrived here (in Moscow). But no one will take me on to work. I have six children and I’m pregnant again. No one will take my husband on to work either.
Shvernik: We’ll sort that out today.”[ix]
Shvernik gave the family 500 rubles in one-time monetary aid, but he also ordered that the Purikovs be returned to Kazakhstan as soon as possible. He instructed Reception staff to have a word with the factory her husband had previously worked in about getting him his job back, as well as the Uralsk city soviet, about getting Purikova a job.
Around one-fifth (41) of the 200 petitioners requesting money were deemed to have made fraudulent statements, usually about being robbed during their travels. For example, in 1948 A. E. Goloshanova claimed to be traveling from South Sakhalin to Lvov (now Lviv)—a distance of well over 7000 kilometres!—when she was robbed; however, it was revealed that she was actually an unemployed drifter who wandered aimlessly around the Soviet Union.[x] Other common fraudulent statements included, in the case of women, being abandoned by their husbands (who usually conveniently ran off with their documents), bringing orphaned children to live with out-of-town family members, and being recruited for work in another part of the country. Petitions often featured some combination or permutation of these stories, the ‘master narratives’ of which seem to have circulated by word-of-mouth.[xi]
Many of these petitioners likely cited faraway places in an effort to make it more difficult to verify their stories. Many also claimed to have had their personal documents lost or stolen, adding an additional layer of obfuscation. Neither was a sure-fire strategy, since Reception staff telephoned or sent telegrams to local authorities in their stated points of origin, and they asked for official documentation certifying claims of theft, especially after they were instructed to take a more uncompromising “hard-line” approach to scrutinizing petitioners’ claims to “weed out liars and charlatans” beginning in mid-1947.[xii]
By the early 1950s, the Reception’s records on requests for one-time monetary assistance start to thin out. After reaching a peak in 1947, their number also began to decline, a fact the managing Chairman, Petr Savel’ev, attributed at the close of 1950 to the rising standard of living in the post-war Soviet Union.[xiii] It also reflected the cementing of the quicksand, as people settled into new homes, jobs, and routines. At the same time, many socially-marginal figures continued to move around the country at will and in defiance of the country’s labour laws and passport regime, often showing up at the Reception of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet asking for money—to Savel’ev and the staff’s chagrin.[xiv] Disappearing into the quicksand remained a very real possibility long after the Soviet Union had supposedly returned to ‘normal'
Kristy Ironside is a historian of modern Russia and the Soviet Union and an Assistant Professor at McGill University. She is especially interested in the political, economic, and social history of Russia/USSR’s twentieth century. She is currently finishing her first book, based on her doctoral thesis and tentatively entitled Money and the Pursuit of Communist Prosperity in the Postwar Soviet Union, 1945-1964. Her articles have appeared in Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review, Slavic Review, Europe-Asia Studies, and The Journal of Social History.
[i] Moshe Lewin, The Making of the Soviet System: Essays in the Social History of Interwar Russia (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 221.
[ii] Mark Edele, “The New Soviet Man as a ‘Gypsy’: Nomadism, War, and Marginality in Stalin's Time,” Region
Vol. 3, No. 2 (2014): 285-307.
[iii] Kristy Ironside, ““I Beg You Not to Reject My Plea”: The Late Stalinist Welfare State and the Politics of One-Time Monetary Aid, 1946–1953,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 51, No. 4 (2018): 1045–1068.
[iv] In 1946, a majority of visitors came from the RSFSR (77.7%) followed by Ukraine (7.6%). Of those from the RSFSR, 55.9% came from Moscow or Moscow oblast. See: GARF, f. 7523, op. 65, d. 583, l. 9-10. By 1947, of the 69,980 individuals served, 44,952 or 64% were from Moscow or Moscow oblast. See: GARF, f. 7523, op. 65, d. 587, l. 13.
[v] On the passport regime and population movement, see: Gijs Kessler, “The Passport System and State Control over Population Flows in the Soviet Union, 1932–1940,” Cahiers du Monde Russe, Vol. 42, No. 2/4 (2001): 477-504; David Shearer, “Elements Near and Alien: Passportization, Policing, and Identity in the Stalinist State, 1932–1952,” Journal of Modern History, Vol. 76, No. 4 (December 2004); 835-881.
[vi] It was not uncommon for the Reception to send petitioners to the train station or to their final destination under administrative arrest, accompanied by a spetspriemnik (detention official) who made sure they left town. This did not necessarily mean they were denied its financial assistance; in some cases, they were handed money while seated on the train or by local authorities in their registered places of residence.
[vii] By my count, between May 1946 and January 1953, the Reception received at least 41,147 requests for money; the 200 who make up my sample here thus constitute less than 0.5% of all those who visited. The reports typically identified a petitioner by name because his or her request for money was granted or because it was denied, often due to fraud.
[viii] Lewis H. Siegelbaum and Leslie Page Moch, Broad Is My Native Land: Repertoires and Regimes of Migration in Russia's Twentieth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014), 6.
[ix] GARF, f. 7523, op. 33, d. 25, l. 50.
[x] GARF, f. 7523, op. 55, d. 27, l. 11.
[xi] Petitioners who were caught in a lie often claimed that they had listened to other people’s advice about how to frame their requests.
[xii] GARF, f. 7523, op. 55, d. 27, l. 14.
[xiii] GARF, f. 7523, op. 65, d. 602, l. 28.
[xiv] GARF, f. 7523, op. 85, d. 282g, l. 2–6.