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War, Power and Society in the USSR, 1930-50s: Transformations of the Soviet System

Priority areas of development: humanitarian

Goal of research

The aim of the project is to conduct comprehensive research into the Soviet state and society during World War II as well as Stalinism in the interwar, war, and postwar periods. Particular areas of analytic focus include economic changes and the dynamics of repressive practices over the course of the war and into the postwar period. The latest scholarly approaches to the study of Nazi occupation policy, along with collaboration and the motivations of collaborators, are also examined.


The project’s research methodology relies on an interdisciplinary approach, including political, social and cultural history. It also synthesizes the diverse national historiographies on the topic. Additionally, the authors consider the latest comparative approaches while examining continuity and change in Soviet history.

Empirical base of research

The project’s source base consists of archival documents pertaining to World War II and 20th-century Soviet history, many of them are receiving scholarly attention for the first time. The study makes particular use of materials from Russian state and former Party archives, other Russian institutional archives, and state archives of the Republic of Moldova, as well as personal and autobiographical sources.

Results of research

Results of the research are reflected in 16 articles published in international academic journals included in Web of Science and Scopus citation indexes. Over the course of the project, the researchers looked at the most recent historiographical approaches and new sets of sources on the history of Stalinism, Soviet society, and World War II. A particular area of research focus was the Soviet economy during the war period, especially the use of labor resources. As our study shows, two interrelated trends were observable in the economy: On the one hand, the introduction and broad implementation of emergency labor laws suggest significant reliance on repressive measures and forced labor to ensure wartime production. On the other hand, evidence of the numerous means used to sidestep enforcement of labor decrees indicates that coercion in the Stalinist mobilization system had its limits. Institutions, local authorities, and workers themselves found ways around the existing laws, enabling them to square the contradictions inherent to the Soviet system of military mobilization and adapt the political course in response to socio-economic realities. 

Along with wage workers, we see different forced labor populations playing a significant role in the Soviet wartime economy, in particular former soldiers of the Red Army who had been in German captivity and after liberation were undergoing political verification in NKVD camps. As early as 1942, these groups were already used as a source of labor, while their “filtration” could take many weeks and months. Furthermore, their filtration was often artificially delayed to accommodate the economic exploitation of a camp contingent. All of this points to the presence of contradictory and conflicting trends in the economy of the Soviet home front during the war years.

As this study shows, numerous contradictions within the Soviet economy endured into the postwar period. Although the Stalinist system strove for complete control, it was unable to achieve it. Rules and laws that were difficult to enforce invited widespread violation. This is illustrated in our study by the activities of the Pavlenko corporation, which offers the most extensive known example of private shadow entrepreneurship in the postwar USSR. The shadow economy filled significant lacunae in the Soviet planned economy, profiting from the scarcities precipitated by economic planning and inefficiencies in state regulation of prices and distribution of resources.

In addition, our research has yielded a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of Soviet practices of repression in the war period. In particular, our work has identified a significant increase in repressions and applications of the death penalty in 1941 and early 1942, when the number of death sentences handed down for state crimes at times approached the levels of 1937-38 and accounted for nearly 40% of total sentences. As they had been during the Great Terror, repressions in 1941 were ordered from above and, similarly, were eased almost instantaneously starting in March 1942. Our study revealed a link between the ebb in repressions and such factors as a marked shortage of human resources, the need to take the popular mood into account and to rely, at least in part, on traditional values. It was these circumstances that led to a shift in law-enforcement policy.

Our work also sheds light on the attitudes of Soviet citizens toward the Soviet system and Nazi occupation policy. For example, in analyzing the actions of collaborators in occupied Soviet territory, project participants found that an individual’s behavior during the war was often determined by the situation in which he found himself rather than by his social or national identity or political views. Collaborators adapted to the prevailing conditions and joined collaborationist units, faithfully fulfilling the demands of their superiors. After the Nazi retreat, many of these same people were mobilized into the ranks of the Red Army, where they just as faithfully carried out the orders of their commanders, with a few even honored with Soviet military decorations. In recent years, this contradictory nature of collaboration as a phenomenon has been highlighted in both the Russian and foreign historiography, as discussed in our study.

Further, our work inventories features of postwar Soviet culture, particularly the international context surrounding the appearance of “trophy films.” Against a backdrop of escalating tensions with the United States, Soviet theaters in the years following the war showed American movies captured in Germany, arguing that these films, as war booty, were not subject to copyright agreements.

The project has thus analyzed a broad spectrum of questions connected with the development of new historiographical approaches as applied to the Soviet state and society during World War II and to adjacent periods of Soviet history, from the 1930s through the 1950s. Drawing on a broad range of archival sources, personal documents, and current historiographical approaches, the project’s scholars have examined the contradictions of the Soviet wartime and postwar economy. As a result, the project has furnished a new understanding of the dynamics of political repression, especially during the war’s initial stage, as well as the changing attitudes of Soviet citizens toward a repressive system. Other outcomes of the project include a more complex understanding of Soviet citizens’ collaboration with the invading Nazis and the influence of the international context on postwar Soviet practices in the cultural sphere. These themes, investigated through the methods of social, cultural, and new political history, have relevance for the most topical areas of contemporary historical research. 

Finally, the project culminated in such international scientific conferences and seminars as “Oral History of the Great Patriotic War: Creative and Interpretive Practices,” “World War II and the Themes of Soviet History,” and others, organized as part of the project. These conferences brought into relief the significance of oral sources for the study of the history of the Great Patriotic War and addressed recent trends in historiography.

Level of implementation, recommendations on implementation or outcomes of the implementation of the results

The results of this project can be utilized widely for the research and teaching of Twentieth Century Soviet and European history and culture. They are especially relevant to the history of Stalinism and World War II. More specifically, the results of this project will be used for developing courses in the social and political history of Russia, and for research seminars at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics. The project’s results can also be used for the further development of scholarship on the Soviet state and society, as well as World War II.


Estraikh G. The Life, Death, and Afterlife of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee // East European Jewish Affairs. 2018. Vol. 48. No. 2. P. 139-148. doi
Budnitskii O. The Great Terror of 1941: Toward a History of Wartime Stalinist Criminal Justice // Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History. 2019. Vol. 20. No. 3. P. 447-480. doi
Viola L. A., Barenberg A., Goldman W. Z., Penter T. A roundtable on Lynne Viola’s Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine // Canadian Slavonic Papers. 2019. Vol. 61. No. 2. P. 225-243. doi
Makhalova I. Heroes or Perpetrators? How Soviet Collaborators Received Red Army Medals // Journal of Slavic Military Studies. 2019. Vol. 32. No. 2. P. 280-288. doi
Орлова Г. А. Дискурсивное дозирование радиации // Laboratorium. Журнал социальных исследований. 2019. Т. 11. № 1. C. 82-119. doi
Орлова Г. А. Ремонт и курирование большого формального метода // Новое литературное обозрение. 2019. Т. 157. № 3. C. 26-34. 
Khlevniuk O. V. Deserters from the Labor Front. The Limits of Coercion in the Soviet War Economy // Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History. 2019. Vol. 20. No. 3. P. 481-504. 
David-Fox M. Illusions of Influence and the Mystique of Power: The Fellow-Travelers and Stalin as Philosopher-King, in: Ideological Storms. Intellectuals, Dictators, and the Totalitarian Temptation. Budapest : Central European University Press, 2019. С. 25-40.