David L. Hoffmann

 

On his book Cultivating the Masses: Modern State Practices and Soviet Socialism, 1914-1939

Cover Interview of January 13, 2012

In a nutshell

The Stalinist regime was among the most repressive and violent in all human history. Under Stalin’s leadership, the Soviet government carried out a massive number of deportations, incarcerations, and executions. Yet, paradoxically, at the very moment that the Soviet government was killing hundreds of thousands of people, it was engaged in an enormous pronatalist campaign to boost the population. Even as the number of incarcerations and executions grew exponentially, Communist Party leaders enacted sweeping social welfare and public health measures to safeguard people’s wellbeing. Extensive state surveillance of the population went hand-in-hand with literacy campaigns, political education, and efforts to instill in people an appreciation of high culture.

Cultivating the Masses examines the Party leadership’s pursuit of both “positive” and “negative” population policies in order to grasp fully the character of the Stalinist regime, a regime intent on transforming both the socio-economic order and the very nature of its citizens, and ready to employ unprecedented levels of social intervention to do so.

In this book, I analyze a range of social policies and present Soviet social intervention as one particular constellation of modern state practices—practices that arose in conjunction with ambitions to refashion society.

Soviet social policies reflected a new ethos by which state officials and nongovernment professionals sought to reshape their societies in accordance with scientific and aesthetic norms. This rationalist ethos of social intervention first arose in nineteenth-century Europe, and it subsequently prompted welfare programs, public health initiatives, and reproductive policies in countries around the world.

Social intervention intensified with the rise of mass warfare. The tremendous mobilizational demands of the First World War in particular impelled the leaders of all combatant countries to expand their use of economic controls, health measures, surveillance, propaganda, and state violence—all of which became prominent features of the Soviet system.