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Reviewing a play of mine

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Post 28 Jun 2014, 05:20
Hello everyone,

I am a dramatist who is very interested in history and often likes to write period pieces. One of my first plays, written a few years ago, is set in the Soviet Union, starting around the time of the Great Purge and ending around Khrushchev's Thaw (obviously with great leaps in time!). Having written it with decent knowledge of Soviet history and a bit of culture, it is important to know that my knowledge of every facet of their society is not comprehensive. The play, in certain ways, is invariably infused with my youthful American sensibilities. I would like to correct that and help to make the play more real and true to Soviet life.

If you would like to read the play in full, please PM me.

For those who are not able to do so, I have certain specific questions that maybe you can answer:

1. In the play, the main character Ivan lives with his wife. He has an aging father who lives an unspecified distance away. His brother is an anti-communist instigator with unknown lodgings. Is this a feasible set-up?

2. Ivan is employed at the beginning of the play as an article-writer for Pravda. His previous employment history is unknown. He is later fired from his job, presumably because of his connection to his brother. Seems reasonable?

3. Early in the play, a sum of 30,000 roubles is extracted mysteriously from Ivan's account. It is a part of ruse concocted by his father with the help of an unscrupulous banker/NKVD collaborator. Does this seem feasible?

Thanks for any help you can give.


Post 28 Jun 2014, 12:21
Welcome TheRedCrow;

Here's what I think:

1. If these people are all living separately like this, especially in the Stalin period, it indicates that they are pretty important/high up people (Party leaders, professionals, top engineers, managers, etc.), especially if the story takes place in Moscow. The 'couples living together with parents' problem wasn't entirely solved even by the 80s, though by then it was close. In the 30s-50s for most ordinary people, collectivization and industrialization, the war, and the lack of modern building technologies and highrise construction that would later help alleviate the problem resulted in communal apartment living at best, barracks at worst (especially in new, industrializing cities that received a vast inflow of people from the countryside). If your character is a journalist for Pravda, in the 30s he would most likely be stuck in a communal apartment, or at least in an apartment with his father; by the early-mid-50s, it would be more possible for them to live separately (that's when housing construction was in full swing again and many ordinary people in big cities started getting their own apartments).

2. Yes, the point about losing his job due to his brother's explicitly anti-state activities seems like a reasonable possibility. I have heard about this occurring on many occasions (although usually it was done preemptively -i.e. preemptive background checking), not just in the USSR but in Eastern Bloc countries as well. I do want to note here that the type of crime seems to make a difference. Over the Stalin period, a large percentage of the population went through the Gulag system; it would be impossible from a cadre standpoint to exclude everyone from important jobs who had relatives arrested. This means that if a person were imprisoned because they stole from a storage depot, that would have less serious consequences for the family than, as in your story, if a person was wanted for anti-state political activity. Also, the person's social and work collective matters too. Many well-known artists, workers at institutes, and other members of the intelligentsia etc. could have problems with the state up to and including loss of work, but often times their circle of friends would help them find work at another theater, another institute, etc. Although this phenomenon was more from the later Khrushchev/Brezhnev periods, I'm certain there were instances of it happening in the Stalin period as well, so that's something to keep in mind.

3. Even taking account of the revaluation of the ruble in the early 1960s, 30,000 in the 30s-40s seems like an inordinately huge sum. According to source 1 below, the average monthly pay in the mid-1930s was 150-200 roubles.

1. Economy of the USSR in the 1930s

Here, from another source, is a breakdown for salaries by category in March, 1936:

1. in heavy industry -231r
5. in construction -224r
6. in sovhoz, coophoz, and other agricultural enterprises -140r
9. railroad transport -227r
20. research institutes -302r
22. universities and technical colleges -336r
28. health institutions -189r
31. management of various levels -427r
36. village councils -144r
38. courts and legal council -252r

translation mine; forgive the strange, apparently selective numeration; that's how it appears in the source.

In other words, 30,000 seems like an unrealistically large sum, even if Ivan is a serious saver. I'd say 3,000 would be a more reasonable sum, for the purposes of your story.
Post 29 Jun 2014, 01:48
Thanks so much for your thorough and expeditious reply!

One more bit to add that could use some council: Ivan's father, Pavel Andreyovich, turned to crime, in order to advance his family's wealth. Maybe something in the ways of smuggling, with black market goods and such. Does this make sense? And also, Ivan later robs his father of this money and runs away from home. Does this make sense?

I'll add more things if and when I come across them.

Post 29 Jun 2014, 11:06
Well, it's difficult to say. In the USSR from Stalin up to the late 80s it was very difficult for criminals whose main motivation was wealth accumulation. This was because there was very little that they could legitimately spend their money on, and certain things, like housing, were not so much 'suspicion arousing' as simply impossible to attain only with money; it would be necessary to bribe someone. And considering that it was very difficult and risky being a corrupted bureaucrat, in the Stalin period especially, trying to find one would be a challenge in and of itself.

As far as I've come to understand it, the criminal underclass in the USSR had their own sub-culture. As a whole, it seems that they did what they did more as a rebellion against officialdom, the state, the ideology, etc. They showed that they didn't care about what the state would do to them, despite the very accurate maxim 'you steal, you get drunk, you go to jail, repeat'. Financial crimes for the most part were about getting money, blowing it quickly living fast and hard, and repeating until you got caught -all very depressing and nihilistic in my view.

Black marketeers were another story, and became more tolerated from the 60s on when the state would fail to deliver fast enough on people's rising expectations and demands for consumer goods. Up to the late 1920s they were even officially tolerated, though hated, as 'NEPmen' -the Soviet bourgeoisie. I can't really say what the case would have been in the Stalin period. I'm sure they had to have existed, but again, the strictness of society at the time in relation to 'speculators' and 'corruptioneers' at the time must have made their lives very difficult.

Your idea makes sense, although if Ivan were to rob his father and give all his money to some charity organization, it would be more in line with the ideals most people held to at the time.
There's actually a movie called 'Beware of the Car', from the thaw period, where an insurance salesman finds corrupted people, steals their cars, and gives the money to charity.
It's one of the most beloved Soviet classics.
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