a1 University of Wisconsin-Madison
The term totalitarian has often been used by scholars to characterize the Soviet Union's system of government, and in many studies the emphasis has fallen on assessing the degree of effectiveness of the ruling apparatus in exercising its total control over society. Whatever the actual condition of public life in the Soviet Union (USSR), a desire to use the totalitarian system undeniably existed; and regardless of the degree to which people were able to retain an autonomous private sphere, their lives were shaped by this urge to total control. The best examples of this come not from the realm of high politics but of mundane personal practices such as the pursuit of hobbies. During the period from 1921 to 1939, the Soviet government redefined the hobby of stamp collecting, socially reconstructing it in terms of the regime's values. In the process, the Soviet regime demonstrated its totalitarian goal in ways that had ramifications in everyday life, as can be seen in the state's relations with the philatelists and in the realm of hobbies. The fact that the government strictly controlled and circumscribed something as seemingly innocuous and insignificant as stamp collecting reveals how strongly the state aspired to have total control of society. More important, this urge sprang not from the top of the Soviet apparatus but, rather, from mid-level officials.