259 Caroline Humphrey is a truly remarkable per

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259 Caroline Humphrey is a truly remarkable per
Sergei Abashin. A Review of The Remaking of Russia in Asia: Caroline Humphrey. Post-sovetskie transformatsii v aziatskoi chasti Rossii...
259
Sergei Abashin
Institute of Ethnology
and Anthropology of the
Russian Academy of Sciences,
Moscow
[email protected]
REVIEWS
New Subjects, Social Transformations: Caroline Humphrey.
Post-sovetskie transformatsii v aziatskoi chasti Rossii:
Antropologicheskii ocherk [Post-Soviet
Transformations in Asiatic Russia. Anthropological
Studies]. Moscow: Natalis, 2010. 382 p.
Caroline Humphrey is a truly remarkable person, and a remarkable scholar. She belongs to
a very select group of Western researchers who
in the Brezhnev era managed to carry out
genuine anthropological field research in the
USSR, and not in Moscow or Leningrad, but far
away from these more or less socially advanced
centres — in Buryatia, deep in the countryside.
It is hard to say how she managed to do this
(Humphrey herself speaks about this issue
briefly in the foreword of the book reviewed
here). A possible contributing factor was the
short-lived international lessening of political
tension (‘dйtente’) — the alleviation of the Cold
War at the end of the 1960’s and beginning of
the 1970’s, or the fact that Humphrey’s parents
were connected, albeit in the past, to the
Communist movement. But in any case this
research resulted in the voluminous book that
was published in English in 1983, Karl Marx
Collective: Economy, Society and Religion in
a Siberian Collective Farm [Humphrey 1983],
which is almost the only anthropological work
written about the USSR and the ‘era of developed socialism’ by a foreign (‘bourgeois’!)
author on the basis of field-research materials
collected by the author herself.
The collapse of the USSR in 1991 opened the
doors of the former Soviet Union for Western
anthropologists, and Humphrey’s book instantly
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went from being a work on hard-to-find Soviet ‘exoticism’ to being
a popular and important starting point, even a unique point of
reference, for understanding how Soviet society was organised on
a local, micro-social level, and what subsequently began to happen
to these institutes, relations and notions once the Soviet ideology had
ceased to be their straitjacket. Caroline Humphrey herself, incidentally, wrote a follow-up to her book about the ‘Karl Marx
Collective’ and gave her work, which was republished in 1998, the
resounding title Marx Went Away — but Karl Stayed Behind
[Humphrey 1998].
The collection of articles which is the subject of this review, the first
by Humphrey to be published in Russian, is a development and an
expansion (thematically, geographically and conceptually) of the
issues that were initially posed in the first book about the SovietBuryatia collective farm and which were then examined more deeply
in the second aforementioned monograph.
Anthropological (or ethnographic, in this case it is not important)
studies of (post) socialism encountered a number of significant
dilemmas.1 After 1991 it very quickly transpired that post-communist
societies do not develop in accordance with the ‘Western’ (liberal)
trajectory, but instead follow some completely unexpected and not
always comprehensible or predictable zigzags. The temptation arose
to explain this as ‘socialist heritage’ which was formed in the Soviet
era and which now determines the specifics of ‘post-Soviet transformations’. This was an attractive stance as it allowed one to criticise
such universalistic (or Europe-centric) concepts as ‘transition’,
‘modernisation’, ‘development’, and the deterministic historical
scenarios that had been written using them. Socialism/Marxism,
which itself was invented as an ‘alternative’ universalistic (and even
Europe-centric) concept, always was, and has remained, a powerful
weapon in the struggle against European liberal-modernist universalism.2 Writing an ‘anthropology of (post-)socialism’ also allowed
one to criticise the essentialist concept of ‘national (ethnic) culture’,
pointing out that national peculiarities take shape under the influence
of certain social and political conditions.
However, from such an anthropological point of view, ‘socialism’
itself turned into a particular ‘culture’ with specific practices and
identities. And such an interpretation looked, on the one hand, like
a continuation of an apparently dead or dying Sovietological tradition
(which reduced all explanations of society to the strict structural
1
2
Incidentally, Humphrey herself formulated these dilemmas in one small note [Humphrey 2002].
It is not by accident that the anthropologist Katherine Verdery, one of the most consistent advocates
of the study of ‘(post-)socialism’ as a separate ‘field’, tries to find overlaps with the concept of ‘postcolonialism’ (see [Chari, Verdery 2009]).
Sergei Abashin. A Review of The Remaking of Russia in Asia: Caroline Humphrey. Post-sovetskie transformatsii v aziatskoi chasti Rossii...
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peculiarities of totalitarianism), and on the other like a unique
essentialisation of ‘Sovietness’, a conversion of the ‘(post-)Soviet/
(post-)Socialist’ into a cultural ‘other’ (in relation to the ‘West’),
and the amalgamation under this term of very different historical
and biographical destinies. In this way both approaches have their
limitations, and neither is satisfactory from a methodological point
of view.
This dilemma is one of the inner narratives, at first not very noticeable,
which I found it interesting to observe when reading Humphrey’s
book. In the text we do not see an entire, systematically expounded
and logically constructed concept of ‘(post-) socialism’. The British
researcher knows only too well the dangers of such a generalisation
and therefore, avoiding categorical judgements, she writes an empirical ethnography of individual subjects and issues. However, the
fact that the collection has been divided into sections encompassing
the subjects of social order, the economy, infrastructure and spiritual
life leaves one with the feeling of a claim precisely to a voluminous
analysis of ‘(post-)socialism’. The dangers that I mentioned do not
disappear even if they are cloaked in empiricism; they inevitably
remain, and in many respects they determine the reader’s understanding of the text.
The first section, which is entitled ‘Sotsialnoe ustroistvo’ [Social
Order],1 includes two articles. In one of these articles, ‘Sudby traditsionnykh sotsialnykh ierarkhii v kommunisticheskikh Rossii i Kitae’
[The Fate of Traditional Social Hierarchies in Communist Russia
and China], Humphrey carries out a comparative analysis of what
became of the traditional social hierarchies of the Buryats, the ‘i’
people, and the Chinese Mongols during the transformations in the
USSR and the PRC. Humphrey tries to show that the changes were
influenced by both the nature of the hierarchy itself that the society
had before this, and the nature of the reforms that were carried out.
The scholar thinks that in the case of the Buryats the former, quite
amorphous social hierarchies could not resist the repressive policy of
the destruction of the elite and the forceful interspersion of social
groups. Sovietisation and Russification, in Humphrey’s opinion, had
a very profound effect: they tore down the social barriers instead of
conserving them as in the case of the Chinese reforms which just
recoded the former social statuses into new hierarchies.
In the second article, ‘Neravenstvo i isklyuchennost: emotsionalnyi
komponent rossiiskoi politicheskoi kultury’ [Inequality and Exclusion: the Emotional Component of Russian Political Culture],
the question is asked why some forms of inequality are not noticed
1
Here and below, we have back-translated from the Russian, since the ways in which the original titles
have been interpreted is of analytical interest. [Editor].
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and become a problem for people while others, conversely, are
loaded with a lot of emotion. Humphrey positions herself against the
domination of the economic and rational interpretation of inequality, switching her attention to a subjective interpretation of the
latter which is formed, for example, through political culture. In
Soviet Russia there arose, in her opinion, a notion of ‘unity’, supported by the dichotomy of ‘we’ and ‘they’ and at the same time by
the constant exclusion of various people and groups from this ‘unity’
(‘collective’). In the post-Soviet era economic inequality became
rampant, but people kept the previous Soviet notions of ‘inequality’,
the former practices of excluding ‘foreigners’, and the ways of
creating the discursive space of inequality (access to some or other
symbolic blessings, a symbolic shared ‘body’).
The second section, ‘Preobrazovaniya v ekonomike’ [Transformations
in the Economy], consists of three articles. The first article, ‘Torgovlya, “besporyadok” i “rezhimy grazhdanstva” v rossiiskoi provintsii 1990-kh gg.’ [Trade, ‘Disorder’ and ‘Modes of Citizenship’ in
the Russian Provinces of the 1990s], starts with a rejection of the
liberal-modernist theory of ‘transition’ and the Marxist ‘stadial’
theory for explaining the phenomenon of post-Soviet trade. Instead
of this Humphrey separates and analyses individually the various
categories of traders (businessmen, brokers, dealers, shuttle traders,1
entrepreneurs, merchants, the ‘trading minorities’ — people from
the Caucasus, middle-Asia and China). She describes trade as
relationships of trust in which all types of personal connections are
activated. Humphrey is also interested in the nature of the struggle
between ‘modes of citizenship’ (the complex hierarchies of local
allegiances) which formed in the Soviet era and divide society into
the ‘deep-rooted’ and ‘people from outside’, and traders who cross
over boundaries and endanger the ‘social body’ which is attached to
a certain territory.
In the article ‘Gryaznyi biznes, “normalnaya zhizn” i mechty o zakone’ [Dirty Business, ‘Normal Life’ and Dreams of Legal Control],
the actors of the post-Soviet economy continue to be analysed.
Humphrey rejects the dichotomous model in which there are only
the ‘old’ Soviet personnel with the former corporate practices, and
the new market entrepreneurs. Instead of this, she distinguishes
between many different economic actors who are distinct in terms of
their particular practices and who operate their own ‘rules of play’.
The last article of the section is called ‘Krestyanstvo i naturalnoe
khozyaistvo kak ideologemy sovremennoi Rossii’ [Peasantry and
Subsistence Farming as Ideologemes of Modern Russia]. Humphrey
1
‘Shuttle traders’ [chelnoki] were a widespread phenomenon of the 1990s: they were highly mobile dealers who imported scarce or sought-after goods into Russia, carried in personal luggage. [Editor].
Sergei Abashin. A Review of The Remaking of Russia in Asia: Caroline Humphrey. Post-sovetskie transformatsii v aziatskoi chasti Rossii...
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lists and examines post-Soviet agrarian practices (small holdings,
dachas, farming) and asks the question: why, despite the growth
in their significance for people’s self-sufficiency, do those involved
in such practices not call themselves ‘peasants’. She seeks the answer
in the Soviet era, when people formed notions according to which
a backward, lowly nature was attributed to ‘the peasant way of life’.
The ‘Soviet heritage’ again predetermined the strategies for forming
social preferences, names and statuses.
The third section, ‘Infrastruktura i arkhitektura’ [Infrastructure and
Architecture], begins with the article ‘Villy “novykh russkikh”:
Ocherk postsovetskikh modelei potrebleniya i kulturnoi identichnosti’
[The Villas of the ‘New Russians’. A Study of Post-Soviet Models of
Consumption and Cultural Identity]. Humphrey investigates the
identity of the ‘new Russian’, and how this identity is imposed from
outside and formed from within. The identity is built up from
disparate elements that contradict one another and therefore look
awkward. These elements do not mark membership of some or other
social group as much as they define one’s life ambitions. The villa
remains just a symbol and not a real life space, an eclectic symbol
that includes the resources of both Russian history and European
culture, and also takes its bearings in contradictory and amorphous
social notions and attitudes. ‘New Russians’, Humphrey writes, are
not the full masters of their cultural identity; as before they adapt to
the Russian tastes and limitations that formed in the Soviet era.
The section’s other article is, in my opinion, somewhat artificially
grouped with the previous one — ‘Novyi vzglyad na infrastrukturu:
Sibirskie goroda i “bolshoi yanvarskii moroz” 2001 goda’ [A New
Way of Looking at Infrastructure: Siberian Towns and the ‘Great
January Freeze’ of 2001]. The explosion at thermal power plant no.1
in Ulan-Ude in 2001, Humphrey writes, showed that the existence of
the (post-) Soviet town depends completely on infrastructure —
public transport, the communal electricity and heating system, and
so on. The post-Soviet reforms that ostensibly put Ulan-Ude on the
global map in actual fact resulted in an infrastructural crisis, and this
turned into a source of problems and unrest. The practices of getting
about the city and using [communal] services changed (the space
increased in size, time became compressed, contrary to expectations);
there was more of a loss of modernity than a transition to ‘modern
society’.
The majority of the book’s articles deal with Buryatia, but only on
one occasion is this indicated in the names of the sections — ‘UlanUde — post-sovetskii opyt gorodskikh transformatsii’ [Ulan-Ude:
the Post-Soviet Experience of Urban Transformations]. This section
consists of two articles. In the first, ‘Suverenitet i povsednevnost’:
“sistema” marshrutnykh taksi v stolitse Buryatii’ [Sovereignty and
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Daily Routine: the ‘System’ of Fixed-Route Taxis in the Capital of
Buryatia], the author analyses the ‘localised forms of sovereignty’
(as opposed to the global and national forms thereof), and ‘previously
inconceivable social spaces’ which came into being in the chaos and
uncertainty of the post-Soviet era. The ‘everyday forms and practices
of sovereignty’ on the streets of Ulan-Ude in the form of fixed-route
taxis, which are an illegal system, ensure that the city can function.
This micro-world has its own form of sovereignty: it can exclude,
kill, punish, it collects tolls, and so on. The mafia turned out to be
more effective than the state, and Humphrey traces its roots in the
Soviet era, recalling how the official Soviet collectives and unofficial
youth groups were organised at the time.
The second article in the section, ‘Novye subyekty i situativnaya
vzaimozavisimost — posledstviya privatizatsii v Ulan-Ude’ [New
[Federal] Subjects and Situational Interdependence — the Consequences of Privatisation in Ulan-Ude], acts as a continuation of
the group of texts on the new space of the small Siberian town.
Humphrey here turns to pre-Soviet history and traces back the formation of Ulan-Ude. In her opinion the post-Soviet era is characterised by the fragmentation of space into various autonomous —
social and cultural — segments which settle in anew with the help of
various symbols and rituals and various social networks.
In the concluding section entitled ‘Dukhovnaya zhizn’ [Spiritual
Life] the reader will find the article ‘Stalin kak Sinii Slon: problema
paranoii i souchastiya v (post)kommunisticheskh metaistoriyakh’
[Stalin as a Blue Elephant: the Problem of Paranoia and Complicity
in (post-)Communist Meta-Histories], which talks about the
interpretation of the history of Stalin’s Purges through a special
Buddhist language of allegories and metaphors. According to local
legends, Stalin is turning into the reincarnation of the Blue Elephant
who a long time ago pledged to destroy Buddhism. In this legend
Humphrey sees a ‘paranoidal discourse’ where contradictions
produced by one’s own subconscious mind are transferred/projected
onto other people and the surrounding world; a paranoiac lives in
a distorted supernatural reality that constantly needs to be interpreted
and decoded. And the legend, the scholar thinks, lays bare the
problem of personal responsibility: exculpating Stalin for the Purges
equates to lifting the personal guilt from every person who participated
in them.
The last article in the book, ‘Shamany i shamanstvo kak novyi
fenomen gorodskoi zhizni’ [Shamans and Shamanism as a New
Phenomenon of Urban Life], examines how the current Buryatia
shamans view the everyday urban routine and which additional
meanings they see in it. Humphrey returns to her thought that UlanUde, a modernist city, broke up, after the collapse of the Soviet
Sergei Abashin. A Review of The Remaking of Russia in Asia: Caroline Humphrey. Post-sovetskie transformatsii v aziatskoi chasti Rossii...
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order, into fragments out of which it is not possible to piece together
any meaningful order: everywhere one can see chaos, frightening
and unknown spheres, explosions, violence. In their imagination
the shamans, mixing together various cultural images, create their
own town and see it as a part of their own personal world.
Thus the work that I am reviewing presents a collection of quite
diverse studies that reflect Caroline Humphrey’s very broad research
interests. They are brought together as a logical collection by the
constant upfront references to the Soviet era — the social practices
and notions that formed in it which, if they cannot be said to predetermine post-Soviet identities and actions, have at least left
a noticeable impression on these.
At the same time, one’s attention is arrested by the fact that the
majority of the articles in the original book were published in 1998–
2004, and the latest one — about the ‘consequences of privatisation’
in Ulan-Ude — as long ago as 2007. This means that most of the time
they speak of what was happening in Russia (and in its ‘Asiatic’ parts
at that) during the 1990’s. It goes without saying that this in many
respects influenced the choice of topics to be analysed (privatisation,
shuttle trade, ‘new Russians’, dacha economy, the ‘mafia’, and so
on), as well as the way in which they are examined: emphasis on collapse, chaos, uncertainty, the formation of unofficial networks, an
intensification of local allegiances, etc. It is beyond doubt that in the
1990’s the ‘(post-)Soviet heritage’ was alive and — this is generally
agreed — it sculpted people’s actions and thoughts. But, reading
these articles in 2010, we can see that a lot of the topics have already
lost their topicality, and many phenomena that were typical of the
Yeltsin era have already almost disappeared or have undergone
substantial changes (Humphrey herself acknowledges this in her
opening word); different realia, social groups, dividing lines, notions
and identities have arisen. Various components of the former space
which 30–50 years ago were following, as it seemed, converging and
intersecting trajectories, today move further and further apart, are
less and less similar to one another and have different reference
points/guiding lines and prospects in the future. The extent to which
one can explain these transformations with reference to the socialist
past is diminishing all the time. The researchers of these new
processes try to place them in broader, more comparative contexts in
which they become just an instance of more general tendencies for
change in ‘Europe’, ‘the West’, ‘the East’, ‘the South’, ‘Eurasia’,
‘the post-colonial world’, ‘the global world’, ‘the global periphery
and semi-periphery’, and so on.
It is probably too early to predict the end of ‘the anthropology of
(post-)socialism’. One can still observe how, for example, socialist
China, occupying the geopolitical position of the former USSR, is
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resisting ‘normalisation’ (although it seems that China is also ready
to give in to this). What is more, ‘the anthropology of socialism’
retains its historical value. Many historians and anthropologists
refuse to slot the Soviet epoch into the universalising framework that
has all too obviously been created in accordance with the templates
of a single history written in American and European universities
(although one can also observe an ever-intensifying desire to explain
socialism using more general principles1).
Humphrey’s book is not dictated by just one way of theoretical
thinking. In the genre of not very binding studies, the researcher
maintains a distance from big concepts, speaks about local examples
and does not clearly state her position in respect of the viability of any
‘anthropology of socialism’. This cautious standpoint may, on the
one hand, be attractive for its flexibility, but on the other hand may
bemuse the reader due to the incompleteness of the conclusions. In
any case, Humphrey puts readers in a position where they themselves
must decide which conceptual framework should house what they
have read. The reader becomes an unwitting co-author, completing
the thoughts and text contained in Humphrey’s book and deciding
for him- or herself whether or not ‘the anthropology of socialism’
still has a right to exist.
References
Chari Sh., Verdery K. ‘Thinking between the Posts: Poscolonialism,
Postsocialism, and Ethnography after the Cold War’ // Comparative
Studies in Society and History. 2009. Vol. 51. No. 1. Pp. 6–34.
Humphrey C. Karl Marx Collective: Economy, Society and Religion in
a Siberian Collective Farm. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1983.
_______. Marx Went Away — But Karl Stayed Behind. Updated Edition of
Karl Marx Collective: Economy, Society and Religion in a Siberian
Collective Farm. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1998.
_______. ‘Does the Category ‘Postsocialist’ Still Make Sense?’ // Hann C.
(ed.). Postsocialism: Ideals, Ideologies and Practices in Eurasia.
London: Routledge, 2002. Pp. 12–15.
Kotkin S. ‘Modern Times: The Soviet Union and the Interwar Conjuncture’ // Kritika. Winter 2001. Vol. 2. No. 1. Pp. 111–64.
Translated by Thomas Lorimer
1
Steven Kotkin is one of the clearest representatives of this tendency (see [Kotkin 2001]).
Elena Nosenko-Shtein. A Review of The Shtetl Revisited: V.A. Dymshits, A.L. Lvov, A.V. Sokolova (comp.)...
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Elena Nosenko-Shtein
Institute of Oriental Studies
of the Russian Academy
of Sciences,
Moscow
[email protected]
REVIEWS
The Shtetl Revisited: V.A. Dymshits, A.L. Lvov,
A.V. Sokolova (comp.) Shtetl: XXI vek. Polevye
issledovaniya [The Shtetl in the Twenty-First Century.
Field Studies]. SPb.: Izdatelstvo Evropeiskogo
universiteta v Sankt-Peterburge, 2008. 292 p.
(Studia Ethnologica. Issue 5)
The book under review deals with an interesting
phenomenon: the shtetl, or the Jewish hamlet. It
focuses on the phenomenon of culture — the
culture of the Jews of Eastern Europe (Eastern
Ashkenazi), rather than being a history of specific localities on a geographical map. Only
a few works of this kind have been written in
nearly a century. Furthermore, after the Second
World War and the Holocaust, during which the
culture of the shtetl was practically destroyed
(together with the overwhelming majority of its
bearers), there has hardly been any research on
this subject area. Studying the shtetl was hindered by the almost complete disappearance of
not only the object of the research, but also the
‘subjects’ of that research — i.e. researchers and
an entire scientific school (or indeed various
schools).
Several texts have been written on the origins of
research on the subject with which this book
(appearing as it does in the Studia Ethnologica
series) is primarily concerned: the traditional
ethnography and folklore of the Jews of Eastern
Europe at the end of the nineteenth — beginning
of the twentieth centuries in the Russian Empire,
and on the gradual ‘suppression’ of such research
in the USSR during the 1930s, followed by the
almost complete abandonment of ‘Jewish
studies’. Just a few examples of such texts that
were published in Russian might include the
following: [Lukin 1993; Ganelin, Kelner 1994;
Nosenko 2007; Nosenko-Shtein 2009].
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The foreword of the book under review, written by A. Lvov, focuses
to a significant degree on this problem of a discontinuous historiographical tradition. Research on the shtetl recommenced in the
1990s, almost 100 years after the time of the well-known expeditions
of S. An-sky in 1912–1914 to little villages located in the Pale of
Settlement. It was precisely then that expeditions were made ‘in
An-sky’s footsteps’, and not just in his footsteps. These trips were
initiated by scholars from St Petersburg (which to this day remains
the most significant centre of such research in Russia). They managed
to release a series of works on the results of their expeditions
[100 evreiskikh mestechek 1997; 100 evreiskikh mestechek 2000].
The organisation and conduct, starting in 2004, of summer student
field-research schools served as a continuation of these field studies
on a qualitatively different level. This is a joint project of the
Interdepartmental Centre ‘Petersburg Judaica’ of the European
University in St Petersburg and the Centre for University Teaching
of Jewish Civilisation ‘Sefer’ (Moscow). The participants of these
‘schools on wheels’ — students and teachers alike — were given the
unique opportunity to combine classes with trips around the former
Jewish settlements of Ukraine and participate in gathering new fieldresearch materials. The book under review is to a significant extent
the result of all of these endeavours.
The paradox is that the book is devoted to something that, as many
people thought, no longer exists: destroyed, dead, irretrievably stuck
in the past. However, the studies that made it into the book show us
that this is not at all the case.
It is not possible on the pages of one review to give a proper analysis
of all of the articles in the collection (especially as some of them
deserve extensive separate treatment). Therefore I will try to give an
overall assessment of the entire work, and also those articles which
seemed the most interesting to me.
I found the structure of the book to be successful and completely
logical. It includes a conceptual foreword (pp. 9–26); a section
‘Issledovaniya’ [Studies], which consists of seven articles devoted to
the various aspects of the life and everyday culture of the shtetl; and
a section entitled ‘Materialy ob etnografii i folklore evreev Podolii’
[Materials on the Ethnography and Folklore of the Jews of Podolia],
in which three articles present the results of individual fieldwork.
The collection ends with a list of the cited interviews, a list of the
interviewees, and also an Acknowledgement and Summaries.
I would like to go into a bit more detail about the aforementioned
preface ‘Shtetl v XXI v. i etnografiya post-sovetskogo evreistva’ [The
Shtetl in the Twenty-First Century and the Ethnography of PostSoviet Jews]. Apart from a comprehensive overview of the work carried
Elena Nosenko-Shtein. A Review of The Shtetl Revisited: V.A. Dymshits, A.L. Lvov, A.V. Sokolova (comp.)...
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out at various points in time and in various countries in the field of
traditional ethnography and the folklore of Eastern European Jews,
it also contains a successful attempt to trace back the unique
transformation of the ‘image of the shtetl’ in the minds of researchers.
Apart from this, Alexander Lvov strives to answer the question of why
shtetls — traditional Jewish local communities — are studied so
actively in this day and age. The answer, in the author’s opinion, lies
not just in the fact that these communities ‘because of the continuity of
their local history can be viewed (and, what is more important, view
themselves) as the direct heirs of the classical shtetl of the nineteenth
century’ (p. 11). Lvov states at the outset that formulating the issue like
this is likely to be controversial — mainly as a result of the marginal
place allotted to anthropology in Jewish studies. And it is here that we
encounter a dispute with several researchers (amongst them A. Shternshis [Shternshis 2006]) who are of the opinion that as a result of the
anti-religious campaigns and the Holocaust only the urban Jewish
culture and identity remained intact in the USSR (p. 18). Lvov tries to
prove that the shtetl still lives and functions today — and this represents
the second part of the answer to the question that he poses.
As a matter of fact the entire book under review — the articles, notes
and field-research materials — is a unique confirmation of the theory
of the reality of the existence of the shtetl in our age.
I found Alla Sokolova’s article one of the most interesting and
enlightening texts in the book (‘Evreiskie mesta pamyati: lokalizatsya
shtetla’ [Jewish Sites of Memory: Localisation of the shtetl], pp. 29–
64). In the very name of the article one can clearly hear a reference
to the famous ‘places of memory’ of Pierre Nora, and the researcher
shows that the shtetl performs this function — being places of collective Jewish memory — in our age too. What is more, the memories
‘live’ not just in the synagogues and cemeteries (and also as memories
about the synagogues and cemeteries), but also in ordinary buildings
(and also as memories about them). Relying on a rich resource of
fieldwork materials gathered by her over many years, Sokolova strives
to delineate the structure of the shtetl, the typical trademarks of
‘Jewish homes’ and their subsequent ‘exoticisation’: the mythologisation of the ‘secrets of Jewish house-building’ in the consciousness of non-Jewish informants (pp. 60–62).
Overall, Alla Sokolova’s writings are among a very small number of
Russian studies to focus on Jewish material culture. To date, such
research in Jewish studies has been slightly in the background, seen
as less important than studying ‘high culture’ and even than research
on Jewish folklore. Aside from its novelty, this article is important
not just as an example of well-executed field research, but also as
a successful attempt at rising above purely empirical material to
a qualitatively new level of generalisations and conclusions.
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If one looks at the contents of the book attentively, one is able to
discern in it the ‘research cycles’ typical of traditional ethnography
(although the articles and reports are not organised logically within
the framework of these cycles). For instance, there are numerous
works that relate to the life cycle: the birth of a child (Svetlana
Amosova, Svetlana Nikolaeva ‘Chelovek rodilsya: zametki o evreiskom rodilnom obryade’ [A Person Has Been Born: Observations on
the Jewish Birth Ritual], pp. 83–98); weddings (Valentina Fedchenko, Alexander Lvov ‘Svatovstvo, pomolvka, svadba’ [Matchmaking, Betrothal, Wedding], pp. 226–260); and burials (Valery
Dymshits ‘Evreiskoe kladbishche: mesto, kuda ne khodyat’ [The
Jewish Cemetery: a Place People Don’t Visit], pp. 135–158). Other
items in the collection include interesting materials on Jewish
folklore (Mariya Kaspina ‘Predstavleniya o durnom glaze’ [Notions
of the Evil Eye], pp. 219–225; Dina Gidon, Valentina Fedchenko
‘Yiddish Songs’, pp. 261–278).
Adjoining them — supplementing them, but also standing alone as a
study precisely of Jewish urban culture — is ‘Slovar lokalnogo teksta
kak metod opisaniya gorodskoi kulturnoi traditsii (na primere
Mogylyova-Podolskogo)’ [The Dictionary of the Local Text as
a Method of Describing the Urban Cultural Tradition (A Case Study
of Mohyliv-Podilskyi)], edited by M. Lurye (pp. 186–215). This is
one of relatively few attempts to ‘throw a bridge across the river’
separating the past from the present, relying on modern texts.
This article is joined by the articles of Marina Hakkarainen, ‘Mestechko vspominaet o proshlom: rasskazy o evreiskikh remeslennikakh i remeslakh’ [The Jewish Settlement Remembers the Past:
Tales of Jewish Craftsmen and Handicrafts] (pp. 159–176) and
Sonya Izard, ‘Ekonimika evreiskoi svadby v Mogileve-Podolskom
sovetskogo perioda’ [The Economy of the Jewish Wedding in
Mohyliv-Podilskyi in the Soviet period], (pp. 177–185). Here, the
researchers have not only sourced new and interesting fieldwork
material, but have also shown how traditional subjects function in
a present-day context.
My attention was also arrested by the article by Anna Kushkova
entitled ‘Ponyatie “ikhes” i ego transformatsii v sovetskoe vremya’
[The Concept of ‘ikhes’ and Its Transformations in the Soviet Era]
(pp. 99–134). The author analyses the concept of ‘ikhes’ which is
important for traditional Jewish culture. Its original meaning, ‘noble
born’, could not fail to undergo substantial changes in the Soviet era.
In the opinion of Kushkova, it was precisely then that it gradually
acquired the meaning ‘coming from a “respectable family”’. Moreover, this status assumed the bearer had received a good, secular
education. In the Soviet and post-Soviet era, the idea of the
‘respectable family’ and ‘a good education’ certainly prevailed, and
Elena Nosenko-Shtein. A Review of The Shtetl Revisited: V.A. Dymshits, A.L. Lvov, A.V. Sokolova (comp.)...
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this meaning currently prevails in the Jewish identity and selfidentification over ‘noble lineage’ in its traditional sense (pp. 130–2).
Kushkova’s article is one of the most successful in the collection, not
only in terms of the wealth of material contained in it, which itself is
well systematised (the diversity alone of the types and forms of
‘ikhes’ listed by the researcher is impressive), but also due to the
serious nature of the interpretation of this cultural concept.
I cannot fail to mention also an article by Alexander Lvov that deals
with one of the aspects of the complex and often extremely unhealthy
interethnic and inter-confessional relations between Jews and nonJews: ‘Mezhetnicheskie otnosheniya: ugoshcheniya matsoi i “krovavyi navet”’ [Interethnic Relations: The Serving of Matzos and the
‘Blood Libel’], pp. 65–82). The article does not just offer rich and
interesting field-research materials; the author shows us how the
infamous ‘blood libel’, having survived for many centuries, has
undergone transformations and still functions today. Furthermore,
treating people to matzos, Alexander Lvov thinks, is a distinctive
indicator of interethnic relations. For Jewish people it is a sort of
‘litmus test’ — and one that may even have provocative force — for
their neighbours’ attitude to them. For non-Jewish people this type
of ‘provocation’ can serve as grounds to reinforce rumours about
blood being added to the matzos (p. 81), i.e., can work to revive an
ancient negative stereotype.
Once again I would stress that many of the articles deserve to be
analysed at length individually, something there is no space to do
here. And in conclusion, I would say that Shtetl: XXI vek is a unique
and successful attempt to address the traditional topics of Jewish
ethnography and folklore, yet also to go beyond these. The book is
important above all because its success in addressing the image of the
shtetl, an image which is alive and living today. I categorically do not
share the opinions of sceptics who think that this type of research
‘scrapes the bottom of the barrel’, studying the ‘remnants’ of a once
very rich culture. Studying the residual elements of traditional culture is one of the tasks of ethnography which strives to record,
describe and preserve some or other phenomena and processes, i.e.
allocate them a place in historical memory. In addition — and in this
case this is very important — the book clearly and cogently traces the
‘temporal link’, since many phenomena are extensively examined in
their current, present-day state.
As a researcher whose interests are more focused on present-day
issues, I would dare to assert that there has not been nearly enough
research into precisely the mechanisms by which cultural information
is transmitted from one generation to another. The majority of
interviewees questioned by the book’s authors are elderly people.
Therefore one can only guess if such transmission takes place and
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how intensive it is. Do young people of Jewish descent live in modern
shtetls and, if they do, are the residual elements of the traditional
culture passed on to them? In other words, has the culture of the
shtetl been preserved in the collective memory of Russian Jews
today? Or is it only the image of the shtetl, as arduously re-created
here by this talented band of scholars? One can only hope that in the
future this void in our knowledge will be filled.
References
100 evreiskikh mestechek Ukrainy [100 Jewish Settlements in Ukraine]. Issue
1. Podolia. SPb.: Jerusalem Centre for Documenting the Heritage of
the Diaspora, NP1 ‘Petersburg Judaica’; Jerusalem: Ezro, 1997.
100 evreiskikh mestechek Ukrainy [100 Jewish Settlements in Ukraine]. Issue
2: Podolia / Comp. Lukin V., Sokolova A., Khaymovich B. SPb.:
Jerusalem Centre for Documenting the Heritage of the Diaspora,
NP ‘Petersburg Judaica’, 2000.
Ganelin R. Sh., Kelner V. E. ‘Problemy istoriografii evreev v Rossii. Vtoraya
polovina XIX — pervaya chetvert XX vv.’ [Problems of the
Historiography of Jews in Russia, 1850–1925] // Evrei v Rossii:
istoricheskie ocherki. M.; Jerusalem: Bridges of culture — Gesharim,
1994. Pp. 183–249.
Lukin V. ‘K stoletiyu obrazovaniya peterburgskoi nauchnoi shkoly evreiskoi
istorii’ [The ‘Petersburg School’ of Jewish History: A Centenary
Portrait] // Istoriya evreev v Rossii: Trudy po iudaike. Seriya “Istoriya
i etnografiya” / Ed. by Elyashevich D. SPb.: Petersburg Jewish
University; Institute of Diaspora Research, 1993. Iss. 1.
Nosenko-Shtein E. E. [as Nosenko E.] ‘Eshche raz ob antropologii, iudaike
i ikh vzaimootnosheniyakh (otvet moim opponentam) [Once More
on Anthropology, Jewish Studies, and their Interrelationship (Reply
to My Critics)]’ // Diaspory. 2007. Nos. 1–2. Pp. 238–46.
_______.’Antropologiya i iudaika: vozmozhen li simbioz? [Anthropology
and Jewish Studies: Is Symbiosis Possible?]’ // Etnograficheskoe
obozrenie. 2009. No. 6. Pp. 3–7.
Shternshis A. Soviet and Kosher. Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union,
1923–1939. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.
Translated by Thomas Lorimer
1
Not-For-Profit Organisation. [Trans]
Alena Pfoser. A Review of The Soviet Man in the Feminine: Yulia Gradskova. Soviet People with Female Bodies...
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Alena Pfoser
Loughborough University
in the UK
[email protected]
REVIEWS
The New Soviet Man in the Feminine:
Yulia Gradskova. Soviet People with Female Bodies.
Performing Beauty and Maternity in Soviet Russia
the mid 1930s–1960s. Stockholm:
Stockholm University Press, 2007.
The Soviet gender experiment — and its contradictory politics oscillating between the creation of an androgynous ideal for women and
biological conceptions of gender qualities — has
aroused the interest of both Western and Russian
researchers in the last three decades; and many
books have been published that deal with the
problems of gender, maternity and beauty in
Soviet Russia. Historians, sociologists, and feminist scholars have been studying for example
the politics and institutions on motherhood (see
e.g. [Ashwin 2000; Engel 2004]), sexuality and
abortions (e.g. [Engelstein 1992]), beauty and
glamour (e.g. [Goscilo, Holmgren 1996]),
Soviet advice literature [Kelly 2001] and family
and welfare politics in the Soviet Union (e.g.
[Goldman 1993]) — to name only a few important studies. Yulia Gradskova’s dissertation,
Soviet People with Female Bodies, focusing on
the performance of beauty and maternity in the
mid 1930–1960s, can be located within these
studies of Soviet social history and history of
everyday life. Gradskova’s interest lies especially
in the enactment of femininity in the everyday
practices of women. Concentrating on maternity
and beauty — two areas that were usually
interpreted in an essentialist way during the
Soviet period — she provides an analysis of the
everyday practices of women during the mid
1930s–1960s, the changes that occurred during
this time, and the normativities that lie behind
the everyday practices.
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Gradskova relates her study to works on gender studies (amongst
others for example the intersectionality approach), as well as on
Foucault’s understanding of ‘normality’ and de Certeau’s idea of
everyday practices that stresses the active role of people in reappropriating spaces, discourses, and their bodies. She assumes that
the construction of normality is shaped by discursive practices, which
are not only imposed by the state, but also exist as common sense
knowledge in everyday routines. In their everyday practices people
do not only reproduce normality, but are also engaged in practices of
resistance and reinterpretation of dominant discourses. Gradskova
applies a two-fold methodological approach, including a discourse
analysis of publications on beauty and maternity and oral history
interviews with women living in Russia. Doing so, she aims to relate
the reported practices of women to the dominant discourses of the
Soviet time, and tries to show how they were used for the presentation
of personal experiences. The studied period, the mid 30s to the 60s,
can be considered as the middle period in the history of the Soviet
state, where, according to Victoria Semenova, ‘the only real Soviet
generation’ was coming of age [Semenova 2002].
After introducing the theoretical and methodological background of
the study, in the second part of the book (chapters 2–4), Gradskova
tries to reconstruct the discursive fields of beauty and maternity in
mass media publications and advice books between the 1920s and
the 1960s: on the basis of a plentitude of material, she analyses the
main characteristics of the two discourses, and their changes within
the studied period: Regarding maternity, she contends that the
discourse on the natural predestination of women to become
a mother, and the social and medicalised treatments of motherhood,
proved to be dominant, although different voices questioning the
instinctual understanding of a child’s need and the naturalness of
becoming a mother become apparent over time, especially by the
end of the 1960s. Nevertheless Gradskova characterises the discursive
field of maternity as rather stable. It was often addressed in the genre
of authoritative medical advice and the state’s care. Beauty, in
contrast, was a rather diverse field with a stress on hygiene, modesty,
inner beauty and good taste; it was shaped by institutions with ‘less
authoritarian ways of disciplining’, as beauty did not play a major
role in Soviet politics. The discourse on beauty underwent significant
changes in the period that Gradskova studies, due to the modernisation
of the country, new production technologies for clothes and beauty
accessories, and the influence of ‘Western’ beauty norms that caused
changes in the construction of beauty, most obviously from the
1960s, when fashion started to gain importance.
Gradskova’s analysis of Soviet discourses in some aspects reproduces
the results of previous studies — especially in regard to maternity,
where the official discourse has been already analysed by other
Alena Pfoser. A Review of The Soviet Man in the Feminine: Yulia Gradskova. Soviet People with Female Bodies...
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researchers, who have written on the Soviet discourse on the natural
predestination of women, the medicalisation of motherhood and the
construct of the working mother (for example [Ashwin 2000]).
Gradskova’s results are especially interesting when it comes to the
comparison of the Soviet discourse with similar discourses in the
‘West’. Although she only secondarily refers to developments in
the ‘West’, she convincingly argues that Soviet discourses on
maternity and beauty were not radically different from discourses
in many European countries. The stress on hygiene and physical
exercise, the claim for state assistance for mothers, and the medicalisation of motherhood are indications of similar developments,
which are connected to the project(s) of modernisation in the West
and in the Soviet Union.
However, the following oral history study makes the particularities
of the Soviet context clear: The third part of the book (chapters 5–7)
is based on interviews that the author conducted with 21 women in
three Russian cities, Moscow, Saratov and Ufa. It shows how the
practices of the women were shaped by the shortages of goods, by
official restrictions (i.e. abortion ban, medical control, school and
work uniforms) and also ‘tacit disciplinary practices’ for example on
the part of medical authorities and educational institutions, not to
speak of within the family.
Firstly, Gradskova gives an overview of maternity and beauty norms
in an everyday context. She traces the institutional changes and
changes in women’s practices between the 1930s and 1960s, and how
the discourses were appropriated and modified by the women.
‘Normal femininity’, as Gradskova reconstructs it on the basis of the
interviews with women, was defined by a set of rules commonly
referred to by the women (‘common sense normativity’) and was
composed of different elements of the dominant discourses on beauty
and maternity. In everyday life, these different elements of the
discourses could be misused, mixed up, combined and adjusted by
the women in changing their internal logic. A special focus of the
analysis lies on the description of the environments and technologies
that shaped women’s practices, as well as on the skills and resources
of the women. Already here the reader gets an impression of the
diversities of the practices connected with beauty and maternity, and
how they were used to create and reproduce social differences (for
example through unequal access to beauty facilities and services). In
the second part of her presentation of the results of the oral history
study, Gradskova provides a deeper analysis of selected cases: She
analyses the interconnections between different categories of social
belonging and shows, which influences they have for example on
the beauty skills of the women and their experience of becoming
a mother. Here, the advantages of an intersectional approach become
clear: Gradskova analyses in detail how the social status, age, place
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of living and ethnic identity of the informant play a role in the
construction of femininity and the everyday practices of women.
Its richness in detail is one of the greatest merits of the study, as it
shows the changing normativities in the diverse fields of beauty and
maternity, common sense rules in different everyday practises, and
individual appropriations of discourses. As with many other studies
on everyday life in the Soviet Union, Gradskova concentrates her
study in an urban context, but due to the fact that the informants
included women from different ethnic and religious backgrounds,
many of them born in rural environments, the reader gets a differentiated picture of the performance of femininity in Soviet
everyday life. Gradskova shows, for example, that the modernisation
project of the Soviet state and the new normativities connected to
it were interpreted as a form of Russification and colonialisation
by Bashkir women. Traditional ethnic, religious and rural practices,
offering a different set of rules, could put dominant Soviet discourses under question, but could also be combined with them, as for
example in the discourse on modesty: paying attention to inner
beauty (modest appearance, limited use of cosmetics) the practices
of Muslim Bashkirs could be adjusted to the Soviet discourse (p. 247).
The analysis of the interviews also makes clear that — as has also
been suggested by other studies on Soviet everyday life (see for
example, [Fitzpatrick 1999]) — in the fields of beauty and maternity
people used the system of privileges and semi-official resources to
improve their lives. The discourses in the fields of beauty and
maternity, with their sometimes conflicting normativities, could be
used by the women for their personal goals, reaching from survival to
self-realisation. Whether these individualised ways of dealing with
discourses can be considered as ‘subversion’ of the Soviet order of
discourse, as Gradskova argues, is questionable though. The practices
of women should be, rather, characterised as small acts of resistance
to dominant discourses and distinction from others than as subversion taking its place in a radical political vocabulary.
The richness in detail of the study also implies some limitations as it
is sometimes difficult to get a clear picture of the studied objects and
to link the results with each other — Gradskova analyses many
different kinds of phenomena from the interactions between women
and the medical stuff in maternity clinics, to the division of domestic
work and childcare and the practices of sewing at home; she focuses
on the characteristics of the discourses, their changes between the
1920s and 60s on one hand, and on the practices of the women in
different environments, the normativities behind these practices and
their changes over the time on the other hand, as well as the role of
several categories of social belonging in the practices of women. This
diversity is increased by analysing the everyday practices of both
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beauty and maternity — which are analysed in separated chapters
throughout the book, but hardly linked in the final analyses. In
concentrating only on one of these topics — beauty or maternity —
the study would have been more compact and more integrated in
terms of the results and the analysis of the discourses and the practices
of the women could have been interlinked better. The tightly
organised structure of the book to some extent outweighs the diverse
images one gets, especially in the oral history part of the study.
References
Ashwin S. (ed.). Gender, State and Society in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia.
New York: Routledge, 2000.
Engel B. A. Women in Russia 1700–2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2004.
Engelstein L. The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in Finde-Siиcle Russia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.
Fitzpatrick S. Everyday Stalinism. Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times:
Soviet Russia in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Goldman W. Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and
Social Life, 1917–1936. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1993.
Goscilo H., Holmgren B. (eds.). Russia: Women: Culture. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1996.
Kelly C. Refining Russia. Advice Literature, Politice Culture and Gender from
Catherine to Yeltsin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Semenova V. V. ‘Two Cultural Worlds in One Family — the Historical
Context in Russian Society’ // History of the Family. 2002.
Vol. 7. Pp. 259–80.
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New Insights, Old Paradigms? Melanie Ilic and Jeremy
Smith (eds.). Soviet State and Society under Nikita
Khrushchev. London: Routledge, 2009.
Katharina Uhl
St Antony’s College,
Oxford
[email protected]
Just as Stalinism was the focus of the most
innovative historiography devoted to the Soviet
era during the late 1990s and the early 2000s
(see e.g. [Kotkin 1995; Fitzpatrick 2000]), the
Thaw period, which owes its shape to the
reformative policy of Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev between 1956 and 1964, has recently
become the field of interest for Western
historians to apply new theories and groundbreaking approaches to topics that were formerly
left out in historical analysis. Two volumes by
historians working at universities in the United
Kingdom can serve as examples for this development. Melanie Ilic, Susan Reid and Lynne
Attwood’s co-edited volume on Women in the
Khrushchev Era brings together articles on all
aspects of women’s lives, on their perception of
the changing realities around them and on the
cultural production of meaning that was to
provide certain patterns of perception. The
topics are wide-ranging, covering the work and
housing situation, religion and space-flight as
well as the self-conception of women in diaries
and the construction of feminity in films [Ilic,
Reid, Attwood 2004]. The volume on The
Dilemmas of De-Stalinization: Negotiating Cultural and Social Change in the Khrushchev Era
edited by Polly Jones focuses on an equally broad
scope of approaches to social and cultural life in
the Thaw period, shedding light on ‘the negotiations of the Stalinist legacies bequeathed to
Katharina Uhl. A Review of The New Insights but Old Paradigms? Melanie Ilic and Jeremy Smith (eds.), Soviet State and Society Under Nikita Khrushchev
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Stalin’s successors’ [Jones 2006: 1]. The contributions to the volume
reveal that de-Stalinisation of society and culture was not a process
that followed immediately on from Khrushchev’s exposure of the
‘cult of personality’ but one that was initially rejected harshly by
society as people were unable to think outside the Stalinist terms of
perception of reality. The various articles take into account a broad
scope of sources ranging from archival material and letters to the
editor to examples of fiction and poetry as well as historiographic
works. The volume’s major conclusion is that the Khrushchev period
can by no means be viewed only as a time of liberalisation and
thawing of the cultural atmosphere but it is rather the replacement of
open terror by subtle means of social and moral engineering that is
crucial for the years of Khrushchev’s reforms.
This theme was further developed by Klaus Gestwa, professor of
Eastern European history at Tьbingen University (Germany) and
Susan Reid, professor of Russian Visual Studies at Sheffield University (UK). Gestwa’s works focus on the topos of the malleability of
the human being that dominated the minds of the Stalinist as well as
the post-Stalinist leadership. Manifested at the ‘Stalinist Great
Construction Sites’ since 1948, this notion underpinned the strong
will of the communist leadership to shape the minds and souls of the
Soviet people [Gestwa 2010; Gestwa 2009]. Susan Reid’s articles
examine the scope of influence that the Party-state had on the
individual via subtle discursive or visual strategies and how his or her
perception of reality was shaped e.g. by guidelines and discourses
regarding interior design, thus exerting a certain impact on the
private sphere in the Soviet context [Reid 2005; Reid 2006a, 2006b].
Another topic that both academics and other historians working
about the Thaw period are concerned with is the significance of the
Cold War for the leadership as well as for ‘ordinary people’. Research
focuses on battlefields other than the traditional historiography had
examined: instead of an analysis of the arms race, recent studies on
the Cold War focus on the symbolic meaning of the space flihts, the
cultural significance of contacts between East and West as well as the
symbolic importance of the conflict of systems for everyday life —
e.g. when it comes to Western life as background for the perception
of Soviet everyday life [Reid 2002; Gestwa 2009; Richmond 2003;
Gorsuch, Koenker 2006].
Given this historiographic background, it might seem to be an
anachronistic undertaking to investigate the relationship between
state and society. Nevertheless, Melanie Ilic states in the introduction
to the volume Soviet State and Society Under Nikita Khrushchev that
it is the explicit goal of the book to explore ‘the relationship between
the Soviet state and society, between the CPSU and government at
central, regional and local level on one side and ordinary Soviet
citizens on the other’ during the period of Khrushchev’s government
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between 1953 and 1964. The individual chapters figure as ‘case
studies’ for this question (p. 1). This somewhat traditional approach
seems all the more awkward given the state of the changing academic
world that is shaped by decades of attempts from side of the cultural
history to detect the influence of culture, discourse, patterns of
perception and the like on the allegedly objective structures of
society. But some ideas from both the recent historiography and the
cultural history are, however, considered in the volume when its
editor puts the question about the Thaw society as a ‘surveillance
society’ (p. 3) which resulted in an increasing degree of social and
moral engineering engendered by the new ideological outlook. This
is also the case when exploring the meaning of the main characteristics of the period, the de-Stalinisation and the revived ideological
impetus since the XX Party Congress in 1956, for the everyday lives
of the citizens and for ‘the way people came to view the Soviet state’
as well as ‘the way in which individuals came to construct their
relationships with one another’ (p. 1).
Interestingly, rather than looking at more or less innovative ways of
analysis provided by recent historiography, some contributions to
the volume apply traditional approaches despite the fact that the
authors are mostly young historians and doctoral students, and that
the volume covers a broad scope of topics concerning the major
interests of recent historiography on the Thaw period: the Third
Party Programme and its ideological agenda, Khrushchev’s reforms,
various social groups such as youth, women, and workers as well as
political dissent and social unrest. At the same time, the methodological approaches adopted by other contributions are quite diverse
and inspired by recent research, some of them going beyond what
Ilic anticipates in the introduction.
A problematic aspect of the introduction as well as of the volume in
whole can be seen in a certain vagueness of terminology regarding
the terms ‘society’ and ‘state’ and the unclear distinction between
governmental organs and public (obshchestvennye) organisations.
It remains ambiguous which conception of society Ilic thinks that
the authors are applying: the Soviet definition that regards state and
society as merging to express the will of the party, as a system that
is directed by the Communist Party expressing the will of the
people — ‘society’ — and exerting power through particular
‘transmission belts’ or ‘levers’ — governmental organs as well as
voluntary public organisations [Meissner 1966; Meissner 1982: 39–
40; Beyrau 2003; Hough in Fainsod, Hough 1979: 277–319]; or the
classic Western liberal idea of society as something opposed to the
state and worth protecting from the state’s grasp. Although recent
studies on Stalinism and the relationship between the public and
the private have argued that such distinctions are invalid for the
Soviet context [Kotkin 1995; Siegelbaum 2006], the contributions
Katharina Uhl. A Review of The New Insights but Old Paradigms? Melanie Ilic and Jeremy Smith (eds.), Soviet State and Society Under Nikita Khrushchev
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to the volume seem to accept the split between state and society as
a matter of fact. Accepting this distinction, the contributions
examine the participatory character of the Soviet state — through
the analysis of the impact that mass organisations had on state
affairs — as well as the influence that the state exerted on society,
whether through ideological discourse or voluntary groups and
organisations.
The individual chapters thus mainly concentrate on the relationship
between state and society and on the participation of the latter in the
former. A common theme is the influence that various interest groups
had on decision-making. In his article on the behaviour of the
commanders of the Red Army during the public unrest in Novocherkassk in 1962, Joshua C. Andy argues that a newly acquired
‘professionalism’ (p. 181) among the leadership of the Red Army
resulted in disobedience to party rule during the crisis — the commanding staff refused to lead their troops against the uprising workers.
A similar phenomenon is observed by Laurent Coumel in his article
on the public discussion of the 1958 education reform, arguing that
parts of the public, mainly the scientists and pedagogues, set out to
form an ‘interest group’ (p. 73) that was able to express an opinion
that differed significantly from that of Khrushchev; this process
resulted finally in ‘the emergence of a pluralism that did not fit with
the leadership’s understanding of ‘public opinion’’ (p. 82). The
impact of this pluralism can be seen in the fact that ‘Khrushchev’s
desire to mobilize opinion through a ‘general discussion’ was turned
against him’ (ibid.). Helen Carlbдck examines the influence that the
public discussion of the legal status of unmarried mothers and
fatherless children had on the actual situation of the person concerned, concluding that ‘it is doubtful whether this [the discussion,
KU] really affected thinking on a broader level’ (p. 100). Other
organisations that are examined in the volume are the Women’s
Committees, the zhensovety (in an article by Melanie Ilic), and the
trade unions (inn an article by Junbae Jo) that both served as a forum
where citizens could express their views or complaints on certain
topics and that had an impact rather on an individual and local level
than on a large-scale decision-making.
Although the question about the impact of participation is a rather
old one — Jerry Hough stated already in the 1970s that ‘(t)he crucial
question is the impact of that participation’ [Hough, Fainsod 1979:
314] — the contributions provide an interesting overview of various
ways in which the individual Soviet citizen could implement his or
her own ideas in regard to state and society. Some of the articles
represent the first studies on the organisations or the discussions in
question, thus giving important empirical input to research on the
Thaw period. They also underline the ambiguity of the Thaw period,
pointing at the growing possibilities of the individual to influence
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the state of affairs in his or her own surrounding, at the same time
showing the increasingly applied subtle strategies of influencing the
individual Soviet citizen and society in whole through discourse and
social control. This ambiguous space opened up the possibility to
express protest and dissatisfaction, a process that the case studies of
the volume show convincingly for their particular area of interest.
Thus the contributions on the participatory character of the Soviet
state provide a broad scope of material to outline the tension between
liberalisation and social control that was characteristic for the
Khrushchev years.
The contributors to the volume also set out to examine the
interwoven nature of the concepts of de-Stalinisation and the
revival of the ideological project which were both launched during
the XX Party Congress in 1956. On the basis of the housing
programme of the 1905s, Mark B. Smith demonstrates how the deStalinising notion of legal certainty and rationality was rhetorically
connected with the ideological agenda of the communist future and
that the common ground for the three themes was the revival of
‘Leninist principles’. Julie Elkner outlines the attempts of the
security organs to restore their image, which had been seriously
affected by the Stalinist purges, showing that the KGB actively
linked its present legitimation to the Leninist past — mainly through
the revival of the cult of secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky —
and thus to the ideological agenda of the day. Another trend of
society under Khrushchev that was engendered by both deStalinisation and the ideological re-launch was political dissent.
As it is shown in the chapter by Robert Hornsby, initially supporting
Khrushchev in his reforming energy and impressed by the communist project, the emerging dissenters soon were disappointed
with the actual outcome and turned their anger against the First
Secretary. Alexander Titov dedicates his chapter completely to the
new 1961 Party Programme that officially promised the communist
future. He outlines the context of its emergence and the public
reception which he evaluates as predominantly positive until it
became obvious that the leadership would not be able to live up to
its promises: serving as ‘official benchmark against which Soviet
reality could be measured’ (p. 21), the Programme clearly showed
‘the increasing gap between official rhetoric and the increasingly
grim reality of life in the Soviet Union’ (p. 21).
The chapters on the ideological dimension of the Khrushchev period
offer a good overview of this re-evaluation of the ideological impetus
without providing a genuinely new insight on its significance for
everyday life. Thus their findings rather than being innovative
correspond in general with those of former studies on the topic,
though they do take into account additional material and recognise
a broader scope of areas in which the ideological impetus became
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effective during the period in question.1 Yet, despite this relative
conservatism, the chapters do provide an important input to historiography as their authors seem to pick up the call of historians who
work on Stalinism and stretch the importance of ideology and
language for the conception of the ‘Soviet self’, thus demanding an
innovative perspective for historiography on the Soviet Union in
general.2 Showing the close fit between this reassessment of ideology
and de-Stalinisation, the chapters provide a novel view on the period
in question and make a valuable contribution to research.
Part of the ideological impetus was the emphasis that was put on
‘peaceful coexistence’. Thus a last theme that is present in some
chapters of the volume is the growing importance of the international
context in which the Soviet Union had to position itself. A major
attempt to improve the image of the country abroad was the 1957
International Youth Festival. Pia Koivunen shows in her chapter
(which is at some distance from the major themes of the volume) that
the festival served as a means of improving the country’s image as
well as testing the Soviet Union’s ability to serve as a host for tourists.
The festival demonstrated, through the openness with which Soviet
citizens could meet foreigners, the effects of de-Stalinisation on
society, but on the other hand, it made it possible to set new limits of
openness; it also showed the longevity of the Stalinist legacy in the
deeply rooted xenophobia among the Soviet population.
Judging from its title as well as the introductory remarks, the volume
on Soviet State and Society under Nikita Khrushchev seems to follow
a completely out-dated approach to the Thaw period and to cover
rather well-known topics and questions. A second glance, however,
reveals that the chapters provide a rather broad scope of topics and
approaches that were applied in recent research on the period in
question. Thus most of the contributions demonstrate clearly the
ambivalent atmosphere of the Thaw period, ranging from a liberalising notion to tight social control. Also the impact of de-Stalinisation receives significant attention in the volume as some of the
chapters point at the negotiating processes about the borders of the
acceptable that took place after the revelation of Stalin’s crimes.
Pointing at the interwoven character of de-Stalinisation and the
relaunch of the communist project, some of the contributions refer
to recent input into historiography on the Soviet period to take the
ideological dimension into account and pay tribute to its outstanding
significance for people’s perception of reality. The volume therefore provides solid albeit not completely innovative research into
the major themes of historiography of the Khrushchev period,
Other studies on the influence on ideology during the Thaw period are e.g. [Beyrau 1993; Fürst 2006;
Field 2007].
See e.g. [Fitzpatrick 2008; Halfin, Hellbeck 1996].
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summarising recent scholarship as well as filling some gaps in
historiography such as the organisational history of the KGB or the
trade unions. All in all, it will thus be quite a useful starting point for
new studies on the relevant topics and questions.
References
Beyrau D. Intelligenz und Dissens: Die russischen Bildungsschichten in der
Sowjetunion 1917 bis 1985. Gцttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht,
1993.
______. ‘Das bolschewistische Projekt als Entwurf und soziale Praxis’ //
Hardtwig W. (ed.). Utopie und politische Herrschaft im Europa der
Zwischenkriegszeit. Mьnchen: Oldenbourg, 2003. Pp. 13–39.
Field D. Private Life and Communist Morality in Khrushchev‘s Russia. New
York: Lang, 2007.
Fitzpatrick S. (ed.). Stalinism. New Directions. London: Routledge, 2000.
______. ‘Revisionism in Retrospect: A Personal View’ // Slavic Review.
2008. Vol. 67. Pp. 682–704.
Fьrst J. ‘Friends in Private, Friends in Public. The Phenomenon of the
Kompania among Soviet Youth in the 1950s and 1960s’ // Siegelbaum
L. H. (ed.). Borders of Socialism: Private Spheres of Soviet Russia.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Pp. 229–49.
Gestwa K. Die Stalinschen GroЯbauten des Kommunismus: Technik- und
Umweltgeschichte der Sowjetunion, 1948–1967. Mьnchen: Oldenbourg, 2010.
______. 2009a. ‘Social und Soul Engineering unter Stalin und Chruschtschow, 1928–1964‘ // Etzemьller T. (ed.). Die Ordnung der
Moderne. Social Engineering im 20. Jahrhundert. Bielefeld: Transcript-Verlag, 2009. Pp. 241–77.
______. 2009b. ‘“Kolumbus des Kosmos”. Der Kult um Jurij Gagarin’ //
Osteuropa. 2009. Vol. 59. Pp. 121–52.
Gorsuch A. E., Koenker D. P. (eds.). Turizm: The Russian and East European
Tourist under Capitalism and Socialism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 2006.
Halfin I., Hellbeck J. Rethinking the Stalinist Subject: Stephen Kotkin’s
“Magnetic Mountain” and the State of Soviet Historical Studies //
Jahrbьcher fьr Geschichte Osteuropas. 1996. Vol. 44. Pp. 456–63.
Hough J., Fainsod M. How the Soviet Union is Governed. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1979. Pp. 277–319.
Ilic M., Reid S., Attwood L. (eds.). Women in the Khrushchev Era. London:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Jones P. (ed.). The Dilemmas of De-Stalinization: Negotiating Cultural and
Social Change in the Khrushchev Era. London: Routledge, 2006.
Kotkin S. Magnetic Mountain. Stalinism as Civilization. Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1995.
Meissner B. Verhдltnis von Partei und Staat. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag,
1982.
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_______. ‘Wandlungen im Herrschaftssystem und Verfassungsrecht der
Sowjetunion’ // E. Bцttcher (ed.). Bilanz der Дra Chruschtschow.
Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1966. Pp. 141–71.
Reid S. E. ‘Cold War in the Kitchen: Gender and the De-Stalinization of
Consumer Taste in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev’ // Slavic
Review. 2002. Vol. 61. Pp. 211–52.
______. ‘The Khrushchev Kitchen: Domesticating the ScientificTechnological Revolution’ // Journal of Contemporary History. 2005.
Vol. 40. Pp. 289–316.
______. 2006a. ‘Khrushchev Modern: Agency and Modernization in the
Soviet Home’ // Cahier du monde russe. 2006. Vol. 47. Pp. 227–68.
______. 2006b. ‘The Meaning of Home. The Only Bit of the World You
Can Have to Yourself’ // Siegelbaum L. H. (ed.). Borders of Socialism:
Private Spheres of Soviet Russia. New York: Palgrave Macmillan,
2006. Pp. 145–70.
Richmond Y. Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain.
University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003.
Siegelbaum L.H. (ed.) Borders of Socialism: Private Spheres of Soviet Russia.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
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From Hygiene to Glamour: The (De)Sovietisation
of Underwear Olga Gurova. Sovetskoe nizhnee belyo:
mezhdu ideologiei i povsednevnostyu [Soviet
Underwear: Between Ideology and the Everyday].
M.: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2008.
Catriona Kelly
Oxford University
[email protected]
1
2
3
‘Every girl absolutely must have a couple of sets
of sexy underwear in her wardrobe,’ announced
a Ukrainian website in 2009. It went on to claim,
with great confidence if scant plausibility,
‘Women who often change their underwear are
less likely to have men cheat on them.’1 This
ethos of compulsory glamour2 and desirability
(though one might wonder how anything obligatory, even sex, could be the source of desire)
sits, however, alongside a quite different ethos,
as exemplified by another set of equally categorical instructions from the post-Soviet ether,
‘Intimate hygiene also embraces the choice of
underwear: one has to change it every day, and
it is also advisable to select underpants made of
natural fibres (cotton, linen, silk). If you feel
a nasty sensation in your crotch rather like an
itch in the breasts, then you should immediately
remove any underwear made of synthetic
fibres — it could be that an ordinary allergy to
synthetic fibres is to blame.’3 It is the contrast
between these two fundamentally different conceptions of the primary purpose of underwear,
<http://meha.kiev.ua/rulez-nijnee-belje-404.html>. Last accessed 23 October 2009.
This idea is widespread in post-Soviet popular culture. For example, a discussion in Metro-St Petersburg from 11 September 2009 inspired by a widely-publicised photograph from the magazine Glamour
that showed a young American model, Lizzie Millie, whose slightly prominent stomach had not been
airbrushed out generated the following strictures from a person described as ‘stylist, proprietor of
“Image-Studio 28”’. ‘Everyone has the right not to be perfect, but not to make a big deal of not bothering with their appearance and to pass off defects they could perfectly well sort out as natural beauty.’
<http://ladystory.ru/?p=770/>. Last accessed 23 October 2009.
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or to be more precise, the transition between the ‘hygiene’ conception — prevailing in the early Soviet period — and the ‘sexual
attraction’ one, which started to dominate in the 1970s, which is the
subject of Olga Gurova’s study. A pivotal point in this evolutionary
narrative is Leonid Gaidai’s popular film Brilliantovaya ruka [The
Diamond Hand] (1968), where the seductress Anna Sergeyevna,
played by blond bombshell Svetlana Svetlichnaya, as Gurova
describes, ‘at the moment of climax will be found wearing a bikini,
the top half of which will later fall to the ground’ (p. 103).
In itself, this set of binary oppositions between femininity as biology
and femininity as performance, between beauty and utilitarianism,
constructs a perfectly cogent, if not particularly innovative, framework for the examination of Soviet history.1 But Gurova has picked
a particularly striking, not to say sensational, topic, and one with
a vexed relationship to the idea of ‘Soviet identity’. The sheer
awfulness of Soviet underwear was the subject of astonishment from
visiting foreigners (Gйrard Philippe, the French actor, is cited here
on p. 77), and was taken for granted by many Soviet citizens themselves. At the same time, the idea that the defining feature of this
culture was ‘bad underwear’ would seem absurdly frivolous. Gurova
is thus faced with showing precisely what the topic illuminates about
wider themes such as attitudes to the body, the relationship with
material objects, consumption, fashion and self-display, and so on.
The discussion is accordingly more in some respects more ambitious,
if also less clearly focused, than the central montage of ‘glamour’ and
‘hygiene’ would suggest. The Introduction [Vvedenie],’Sovetskoe
obshchestvo v gumanitarnykh naukakh’ [Soviet Society in the
Humanities], begins by asserting the marginality of ‘private life’
topics, such as underwear, in academic discussions before the recent
past, a situation that, Gurova argues, has been altered by the
increasing recourse to material culture as evidence (p. 2). The
exhibition ‘Pamyat tela: nizhnee belyo sovetskoi epokhi’ [Bodily
Memory: The Underwear of the Soviet Era], held in 2000–2001, is
mentioned as an inspiration for Gurova’s own interest in the topic.
Gurova moves on to the separation of ideology and everyday practices
in Soviet culture, and then alludes to three different approaches to
Soviet culture — ‘totalitarian’ (which, she asserts, sees no distinction
between ideology and private life), the ‘revisionist’ approach (represented here by Vera Dunham’s In Stalin’s Time: Middleclass
Values in Soviet Fiction. Cambridge, 1979, and Sheila Fitzpatrick’s
Everyday Stalinism, New York, 1999, Oleg Kharkhordin’s The Collective and the Individual in Russia, Berkeley, CA, 1999, and N. LeOne might compare the binary contrast between ‘maternity’ and ‘glamour’ that underlies the recentlypublished dissertation by Julia Gradskova Female Bodies in the Soviet Union: Performing Beauty and
Maternity in Soviet Russia in the mid 1930–1960s (Department of History, Stockholm University, 2007).
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bina and A. Chistikov’s Obyvatel’ i reform. SPb., 2003); and a ‘third
generation’ (no examples of which are given), where scholars are
concerned with topics such as nationalism and gender issues,
and have turned to methods such as discourse analysis and oral
history, as well as the ‘close reading’ of texts and the examination of
rituals.
Gurova’s outline sketch is a little approximate. Scholars belonging to
the so-called ‘totalitarian’ school — Robert Conquest would be an
example — often, on the contrary, were concerned to present Soviet
ideology and public practices as a distortion of the private thoughts
and feelings of significant sectors of the Russian population, and an
interest in nationalism was characteristic of the ‘totalitarian’
orientation too. Equally, there are plenty of examples of studies
dealing with gender issues and ritual going back to the 1970s and
early 1980s (the work of Gail Lapidus, Dorothy Atkinson, and
Elizabeth Waters, on the one hand, and Christel Lane or Caroline
Humphrey on the other — and these are only a few of those one
might mention). The description of the ‘third generation’ also papers
over significant points of conceptual disagreement (particularly
between ‘discourse analysts’ such as Jochen Hellbeck and Igal
Halfin, and social historians) and gives no attention to the fact that
oral history, for instance, can be used in very different ways. It would
have been more helpful to give a more thorough examination of the
recent trends in historiography that are most relevant to this particular
study (a search of online journals could have provided some kind of a
start). In addition, since Gurova’s comments in her analysis of Soviet
underwear have often been inspired by precedents in studies of
fashion history by Western writers, it would have been useful to have
an outline of that material and its presuppositions as well, particularly
given that on p. 10 of the Introduction she also stresses her commitment to examining Soviet culture in terms of its ‘emic categories’,
rather than in comparative perspective.
In the final pages of the Introduction, Gurova emphasises the main
concerns in her book: with the association between proscriptions
about underwear and the Soviet ethos of hygiene more generally, and
the ‘civilising process’ in the USSR; and with the relationship
between the ‘concealed’ or ‘secret’ area of everyday life and the
regulation of personal identity. While the book, in the event, is
concerned with more than this would suggest — another important
thread is the discussion of Soviet consumerism — these topics are
certainly central to the later narrative as well. This statement of
‘research questions’ is followed by some brief observations on sources
(written documents, visual texts, material objects, and oral history),
and then by a chapter outline.
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The remainder of the book is organised not as a narrative history, but
as a series of ruminations on individual issues in the evolution of
Soviet underwear. Chapter One consists of a terminological discussion that addresses the history of the term belyo itself, as well as
alternative words, such as ispodnee, and also names for individual
garments, such as trusiki (here Gurova accepts the conventional
derivation of the word from the French trousses, ‘korotkie shtany ili
sharovary’ [short trousers or long wide trousers] (p. 25);1 one does
wonder, however, whether a derivation from the English trunks,
which were used to name the identical garment from the late
nineteenth century, might not also be possible). The chapter finishes
with a discussion of the sayings kopatsya v gryaznom belye [to rake
through dirty linen] and svoya rubashka blizhe k telu [one’s own shirt
is nearer to the body]2 (though the ‘underwear’ function of the word
rubashka is not discussed anywhere else).
Chapter Two uses a handful of texts from Soviet women’s magazines
and other comparable sources to discuss the emergence of the
‘underwear-hygiene’ link; by contrast, Chapter Three opens with
observations on the ‘glamour’ ethos portrayed in sources such as
Soviet magazine advertisements, while the final part of the chapter
explores the paradox of concealment versus display, asexuality versus
eroticism, hygienic body versus aestheticised body that ran through
popular understandings of underwear and ‘the boundaries of shame’
(grani styda). While there was nothing ‘indecent’ about sunbathing in
your underwear in a public park, even in the late Soviet period, massmarket films such as Brilliantovaya ruka represented underwear in
a quite different way: to wear underwear because you had to was
different from actually parading this. The chapter finishes with
observations on the polarisation of ‘Soviet’ and ‘non-Soviet’ underwear. In the words of one of Gurova’s informants, foreign films
raised the question of what starlets such as Lolita Torres wore
underneath their elegant clothes: ‘They all walked round beautifully
dressed, and we realised that their underwear must be beautiful too.
And when we compared it with the dreadful things we had to wear, it
left a rather bad taste behind’ (p. 106). (One might add that the bikini
scene in Brilliantovaya ruka is an indoor version of the famous scene
of Ursula Andress wearing a similarly-styled, if different coloured,
costume in the James Bond film Dr No (1962) — thus even the most
‘glamorous’ Soviet films had a ‘glamour referent’ outside the culture)
.
French dictionaries make clear that this word has a restricted meaning: ‘Les chausses que portaient
autrefois les pages’ (the word chausses itself being a much more widely-used term for what in English
are called ‘breeches’). See e.g. Dictionnaire de L’Académie française, 6th Edition (1832–5), <http://
www.lexilogos.com/francais_langue_dictionnaires.htm>, last accessed 23 August 2012.
A justification of selfishness: cf. ‘blood’s thicker than water’, though the meaning of the Russian phrase
is closer to ‘looking after Number One’. [Editor].
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The three following chapters deal with underwear from a different
point of view — issues of manufacture (both commercially, in
Chapters Four and Five, which are concerned with the diversification
of techniques and materials as Soviet history progressed, and by
consumers themselves, in Chapter Six). Other issues considered are
vending (in shops, but also on the black market), and the ‘make do
and mend’ ethos that extended the life of undergarments and even
provided an afterlife for them (stockings turned into rag rugs, old
underpants into cleaning cloths...) The three final chapters deal with
the classificatory principles applied to underwear (through binary
oppositions such as old/young, male/female, elite/ordinary people);
the relation of underwear to the public/private division (so that
concern over whether it was appropriate to let one’s bra straps show
existed alongside complete lack of embarrassment about walking
round a communal flat in underwear or hanging items up to dry in
the ‘public’ parts of the flat, such as bathrooms); and the emotional
resonance of underwear.
The danger of a thematic structure of this kind, for an author who is
clearly at some level concerned with historical development, is that it
makes chronology harder to grasp. Indeed, some eras of Soviet
history come in for scant discussion. For instance, there is no
consideration of how people coped with wartime shortages, and one
is left simply assuming that Soviet women confected underwear out
of parachute silk, as certainly happened elsewhere in Europe. The
importance of underwear in the context of weddings (the recent
exhibition Topografiya schastya [Topography of Happiness] at the
Kremlin Museum filial in Tsaritsyno included a token made out for
trusy [underpants]) is another topic that is omitted.1 Gurova’s
discussion is also a little repetitive at times — for example, there is
quite a lot of overlap between Chapter Two and Chapter Eight, and
the material on manufacture and vending might have been clearer
if the two activities had been separated out into discrete discussions.
To give just one example: there was presumably a market for homemade or tailor-made underwear, as well as for factory-made goods;
one suspects, indeed, that the most demanding Soviet consumers
(certainly at eras when foreign-made clothes were hard to obtain)
would have been more likely to have a seamstress run up some crepede-chine knickers and slips than to dress in what shops such as GUM
were selling to less lucky consumers.
A more important issue — since it is always possible to find individual
topics which a writer could or should, in a reviewer’s eyes, have
1
When I returned to Britain for three weeks in the middle of my year as an undergraduate visiting
student (stazhor) in Voronezh (during February 1981), my two room mates asked me to buy them each
a bra as a gift. I carried out this assignment in Marks and Spencer (guessing at the sizes). The reaction
of one of them was to exclaim: ‘Gosh, you could only wear a bra like that to get married in!’
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addressed — is that Gurova never addresses the issue of exactly which
garments should be classified as ‘underwear’. Thus, her remit includes tights, stockings, nightwear, and dressing gowns, all of which
are ‘on display’ to a much greater extent than bras, knickers, or
indeed vests and singlets and might be seen as having a different
relation to the issues of decency. While trunks are considered at some
length, sportswear such as leotards, judo outfits, and tracksuits (the
last of which were in widespread use by the late Soviet period as
a substitute for pyjamas in some situations, e.g. when travelling on
overnight trains) more or less escapes the field of view.
Still more strikingly, an entire domain of underwear functionality —
its role in terms of support and body-shaping — is left out. Certainly,
there is some reference to the demise of the traditional corset, but
substitutes such as basques and all-in-ones such as ‘bodies’ (combining bras and figure-hugging underpants in a single garment) are
not discussed. Of course, perhaps the issue here is that such items
simply didn’t figure in the Soviet wardrobe, but that cannot be the
reason why Gurova has failed to say anything about jock straps. It is
also interesting (though rather hair-raising) to wonder about what
this hygiene and health-obsessed culture did about underwear for
categories of Soviet citizen who did not fit the ‘ideal body’ stereotype
so well. One wonders what was done about provision for patients who
had undergone mastectomies, or who were suffering hernias or
problems with continence. The woeful state of sanitary protection for
‘normal’ women in the Soviet era would suggest that people were left
to their own devices in such unmentionable predicaments as well.
In a sense, all this is beyond Gurova’s remit, since she is, as mentioned, essentially concerned with the tension, in the official and
popular view of Soviet underwear, between form and function,
hygiene and glamour, concealment and display, and other such
obviously relevant, if perhaps also somewhat predictable, binary
oppositions. The book belongs to an emerging tradition of culturological examinations of Soviet fashion history that has also been
elaborated in the work of such scholars as Olga Vainshtein, whose
work is cited in Gurova’s bibliography. Gurova shares with these
observers a preoccupation with clothing as text, with its role as the
expression of identity, above all among city-dwelling women
belonging to what might, loosely speaking, be described as the Soviet
middle classes. In this perspective, the entire absence of discussion of
what the majority population of this (until the late 1950s) overwhelmingly peasant country wore under its outer clothing is no
surprise, nor should it raise eyebrows that no evidence is presented at
all about exactly what underwear was being produced when and
where by which Soviet factories. The relative paucity of information
about male underwear in the book is a side-effect, once again, of the
glamour-hygiene opposition (though presumably fashionable actors
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and ballet dancers on foreign tours shopped for their Hom underpants
alongside female colleagues reaching for Lejaby bras). None of
Gurova’s informants — tellingly enough — were male, and one
suspects that consultation with the other gender would have thrown
up rather a different perspective, in which, for instance, comfort
(a quality not mentioned in the book) would have figured much more
strongly.
Yet, given the discursive slant to the discussion, the most important
omission is, surely, the absence of an extended discussion of the
Pamyat tela [Bodily Memory] exhibition — the inspiration for the
volume — in its own right. Gurova has mined the exhibition for
primary material, but it might have been interesting to consider the
rationale behind it, the principles of selection, and the reaction in the
Russian press, not to speak of the exhibition comment books. Both
this material, and Gurova’s interviews, raise intriguing questions
about the function of Soviet underwear in the memory practices of
the post-Soviet period. Garments such as semeinye trusy [‘family
underpants’, i.e. baggy ones to the mid-thigh] provoke embarrassed
sniggers rather than lyrical epiphanies about how everything was
more attractive and more authentic back then. Soviet underwear has
signally failed to inspire the sort of retrospective day-dreaming
generated by boxes of sweets, old radio-sets, and vintage Volgas. But
at the same time, commentators often slide sideways from the less
promising terrain of ‘underwear’ in its own right on to the more
comfortable terrain of recollections about the moral superiority of
the past. In the words of a discussion on Radio Liberty quoted by
Gurova on p. 239: ‘But when they were in bed, women of that era
wound up men in a different way, it wasn’t underwear, it was…
Innocence, lack of experience.’ In the context of the conviction that
there was no ‘sex’ (in the sense of commercialised intimate relations)
in the Soviet Union — the correlative of which was, of course, the
idea that only in the Soviet Union did people really understand
love — attractive underwear, it is remembered, could be a sign that
you were not serious. One of Gurova’s informants remembers on
p. 239 how several of her workmates reacted rather negatively to the
sight of a slip edged with black lace which she had bought for her
marriage: ‘One of them said, so how on earth are you ever going to
get undressed? You’ve got a husband, after all. Won’t you be
ashamed? And I said, so why should I be ashamed? It was such
a lovely ship. She says, Oh I just couldn’t… But she could when it was
those family underpants, I expect.’ While here, as at many other
points of the book, one might wonder how much of what Gurova
describes is actually specifically Soviet — urban women and men in
other industrial, modernising cultures of the mid to late twentieth
century were faced with very much the same practical issues and
conflicts between different moral imperatives as their Soviet
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counterparts — Gurova does succeed in showing how the desire not
to ‘stand out’ and the conviction that attitudes to decency were
fundamental to your status as a fully-fledged member of society were,
even in the relatively consumer-driven Brezhnev era, central to the
relationship of many with the culture in which they lived.

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