I. Kahanov: Konstruiuvannia “radians’koi liudyny” (1953–1991) [Constructing the “Soviet Man” (1953–1991)]

Konstruiuvannia “radians’koi liudyny” (1953–1991): ukrains’ka versiia. [Constructing the “Soviet Man” (1953–1991): The Case of Ukraine]

Kahanov, Iurii
Zaporizhzhia 2019: Inter-M
Anzahl Seiten
432 S.
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Olena Palko, Departement Geschichte, Universität Basel

Iurii Kahanov’s book focusses on the processes of popular Sovietisation and the making of the Soviet “New Man” in the context of late Soviet Ukraine. The state intervention in the process of Soviet refashioning of self is discussed through three main research blocks, namely education, mass media, and other socio-cultural factors, such as language, popular jokes, cinema, music, and popular celebrations. The author pays particular attention to popular reception of those policies, thus challenging the overall success of those official intentions.

The book opens with a lengthy historiographical review detailing the existing approaches and arguments on the nature of Soviet identity-building. It comprises several sections that separately discuss western, Soviet, Ukrainian and Russian historiography. From this overview, it remains unclear, however, how informed the scholars in Ukraine (and potentially in Russia) are with those historiographical shifts in the west; and whether there are any common approaches to discussing these topics. Otherwise, instead of building bridges, such (often artificial) categorisation by country (or language) contributes to even more rifts between different historiographical traditions. Moreover, while this literature review occupies a good one quarter of the book, the author’s contribution to this well-established debate remains unclear.

Neither in the introduction or the main text does the author reveals the pre-war origin of the process of construction of the new self. The term “construction” suggests a process, and this process hardly started with Stalin’s death in 1953. Instead, the post-war practises were a continuation of the pre-war social engineering. So how do those strategies and mechanisms in late socialism differ from earlier attempts? Arguably, the state did not return to the 1920s policy of encouraging ethnic diversity, neither did it follow the path of violence against its citizens as it was the case in the late 1930s. Systematic Russification of Ukraine can be defined as one of the overarching tendencies elucidated in the book. However, what were the objectives pursued by the authorities with such a strategy? And what makes Ukraine a peculiar case study of such centralising Russification, especially given the fact that Kahanov himself concludes that in all “national peripheries of the ‘red empire’, social contradictions were coupled with the national ones” (p. 340). So how different was “the ideological situation of Soviet Ukraine” (p. 7) from other non-Russian Soviet republics?

The book is divided into three parts, each of which examines a particular factor in the process of constructing the Soviet “New Man”. The first thematic section discusses the contributing role of education (both secondary and higher) on the making of the new self, as well as the extent of popular dissent to those unifying processes. The author shows how schooling and higher education contributed to general Russification of Ukraine, and consequently diminished the role of the Ukrainian language and culture to that of private use only. The second thematic block looks at mass media – newspapers, radio and television, the main mechanisms of transmission of central values to the so-called Soviet peripheries. Finally, the third section discusses the role of cinema, music and public celebrations in cementing the Soviet self, as well as political anecdotes, considered as an avenue for limited popular dissent against the homogenising state. Although the author is aware of a selective nature of such an approach, no justification is given to this study’s methodology, and why these aspects were given priority in comparison to other no less important parts of everyday life under socialism.

The author determines to examine each of the above-mentioned aspects through the dichotomy of “declared” vs. “real”, concentrating on the study of social reactions towards enforced Soviet ideologization. Nonetheless, parts of the book still read as a narration of top-down policies and their seamless implementation on the ground. This is not to say that popular reactions do not play a role in this study. Those opinions and views towards the Soviet regime and its policies are being deduced from oral interviews conducted by the author, the letters sent to the editorial houses, the party institutions, as well as memoirs and popular recollections of the time. Those accounts, as presented by the author, suggest that Ukrainians were generally sceptical of the Soviet regime, and never considered its policies in earnest.

Kaganov is determined to demonstrate that the process of constructing the new self was something influenced from above, and implemented against the wishes and expectations of the society. In the introduction, he justifies his choice of “construction” (konstruiuvannia), rather than more passive “formation” (formuvannia), maintaining that this was a systematic policy with “concrete tasks and deadlines”. To that end also serves the use of terminology (e.g., “indoctrination of Soviet identity”). That said, each section is structured in a way that the discussion of the state policies is followed by their critical social reception. However, most of the oral interviews, which form the main source base of this study, were not with ‘ordinary men and women’, but persons who became quite well-known figures in independent Ukraine. Their today’s status in Ukraine conditions their critical reception of the past. As such those accounts cannot be extrapolated on the society as a whole. The overwhelming attention dedicated to different forms of dissent in Ukraine mistakenly creates an impression of Ukraine as a dissident society (p. 7), which was not necessarily the case.

Overall, the book under review provides a broad overview of different aspects of everyday life and varied avenues of state intervention into the process of identity construction in late socialism. The book is most informative when those top-down policies are concerned. It also provides interesting insights into different forms of individual dissent during the last decades of the Soviet era. Nonetheless, those accounts cannot be used as a mirror for the Soviet society more broadly and should be treated with caution.

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