A. Golubev: The Things of Life

The Things of Life. Materiality in Late Soviet Russia

Golubev, Alexey
Anzahl Seiten
240 S.
$ 39.95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Alexandra Oberländer, Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung, Berlin

In the past decade Alexey Golubev has published an impressive number of articles on an incredibly wide spectrum of topics: DIY culture, wooden heritage architecture, prostheses, affective machines or photography in late Soviet Russia. His monograph “The Things of Life” is the result of all this research, condensing some of his previously published 30 page long articles into subchapters of 3 pages each; a praiseworthy yet painful process of revising thoughts for the sake of a much bigger argument. And indeed, it is a big argument Golubev aims to make. What is it that holds prostheses and bodybuilding, stairwells and wooden heritage architecture together? As Golubev would claim, it is the materiality of Soviet life that connects all these disparate topics. He thus applies a highly controversial concept resting on the radical claims made by Bruno Latour and his alleged agency of things.[1] However, Golubev does not follow Latour’s radical notion in analyzing Soviet material culture.[2] Although he speaks about “historical agency” and thus sometimes echoes Latour’s wording his claim is more modest: Things “produce social effects” (p. 165), they “structur[e] the social” (p. 2).

Golubev reminds the scholarly community of the simple fact that the Soviets were “elemental materialists”, a phrase Friedrich Engels had coined (p. 4). Hence it should come as no surprise that material conditions were supposed to and did influence behavior, decision-making, and Soviet subjectivity. It was part and parcel of the Bolshevik worldview to begin with. However, only a minority of scholars have put the “material material” to the forefront when looking at the recently dominant topics in late Soviet history like housing or consumer culture for example. As so often, once the big arguments are out in the open, they do not seem so big anymore. In fact, they are so convincing that one wonders, why haven’t we seen it before? In this sense, Golubev does a wonderful job in alerting us to a somewhat ironic lacunae: In order to explain a materialist project he proposes to look at precisely that: the materiality. Golubev rejects the notion that Soviet selfhood is “derived exclusively from language” (p. 13) stressing that there is a lot more to Soviet life than ideology.

So what was the material world of late socialism and how did it shape (late) Soviet people? In Golubev’s reading (and here he follows to some extent recent histories of consumption in the USSR[3]) there is a material world to talk about in the first place. The Soviet Union was a lot more than the state management of lack following the state production of scarcity; it was home to techno-utopian visions of abundance. To be sure, in the first chapter we remain on the level of ideology and follow Golubev into his analysis of the “productivist language of Soviet culture” (p. 20). Methodically speaking, he uses language in a similar form as in later chapters “things”, i.e. how productivist language framed a certain understanding of the Soviet self by providing the conditions and limits of the (un)thinkable. This kind of language was productivist in the sense that it imagined a future of technological objects, rational organization and scientific progress and above all a future in which man figured as the creator. Golubev explicitly disputes the notion of Soviet people merely being cogs. Instead he emphasizes “practices of selfhood” (p. 6) or “technologies of the self” (p. 21) resulting from the material environment by showcasing the prevalent DIY culture in the late Soviet Union among many other examples. Materiality affected Soviet people through their bodies which is why Golubev also employs affect theories in analyzing how “practices of selfhood” were “object-centered” (p. 2). Chapter 2 extends into the extracurricular leisure activities of school children who were encouraged to participate either in replica modeling (planes or spaceships) or in actually scaling down large objects of technological progress into much smaller models. Often, these models ended up in exhibitions or museums, hence becoming objects of regional if not national identity and most importantly history itself – a history mostly handcrafted by boys.

Grasping “things”, Golubev deals with both material objects and space. The “mastery of space,” he writes, “was a male prerogative in Soviet culture” (p. 35). Two of his chapters interpret stairwells and cellars in mass-housing as sites of deviance, non-elitist culture and masculinity. Soviet youth appropriated the stairwells as their favorite hang-out-spots and thus inflicted a sense of anxiety among the dwellers. Stairwells were perceived as dangerous places and their material conditions of no light, smell and dirt contributed to this notion of fright. The picture however becomes a bit lopsided when Golubev dismisses a reading of these sites as “spaces of alienation” (p. 111) and attributes this notion to an elitist understanding of culture, which he detects among scholars as well as Soviet dissidents and intellectuals. However, the anxieties about stairwells were well reasoned among women and girls from whatever social background. As Golubev himself demonstrates, stairwells were a frequent site for (gang-)rape, sexual harassment and “premarital and extramarital sex” (p. 91), sex which was not necessarily consensual. Thus, it is a highly charged point that Golubev makes when he takes issue with the elitist understanding of stairwells as alienated and instead emphasizes that the “Soviet working-class and marginalized urban groups […] retained social agency” (p. 105) in these spaces. In fact, one could argue that this “social agency” is less a result of the particular space or the muscles formed by the “power of iron” (p. 118) than a testament to a predominant version of masculinity which thrived on notions of violence, dominance and hierarchy. Moreover, if we assume that it was a certain conception of masculinity which led Soviet youth to appropriate stairwells and cellars (rather than vice versa), the question becomes: What remains of the claim that the material structured the social?

To some degree, this tension is present in the third chapter, too, in which Golubev discusses the restoration of wooden churches and sailing boats. Again masterfully picking up a thread from a previous chapter this revolves around objects “performing history” (p. 15). The wooden churches were considered important if they “performed authenticity and traditionalism” (p. 78). Soviet restoration experts as well as heritage institutions and eventually Soviet history and politics used the wooden structure (form) rather than the spiritual purpose of the building (content) for imagining a Russo-centric, romantic and thus nationalist history of local identities. As intriguing as this chapter is on its own, I sometimes had difficulties to link it to the general argument. How wood was inscribed with all sorts of meanings seemed to reverse the process of the material allegedly shaping the practices and technologies of the self. Rather, it seemed as if ideologies were too prominent to let the wood “speak” for itself, and more often it seemed people and institutions wanted it to ‘speak Soviet’ in the first place; in other words, the subject-object relation remains subject-centered.

In reading Golubev's book, one sometimes could overlook the motion of the object producing the social, within which the subject would then operate. Often, it was a short distance from enthusiastic nodding (“Soviet artifacts had their politics”, p. 164) to raising a critical eyebrow (“Soviet materiality acquired its historical agency”, p. 165). This, however, produced the curious and very engaging effect that reading Golubev’s book felt at times like having a conversation with the author. His masterful and impressively short book definitely provides us with a lot to think, reflect and argue about. This might be part of a larger intervention if not a material turn in (late) Soviet history. It is time.

[1] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, New York 2005.
[2] Neither do Brandon Schechter, The Stuff of Soldiers. A History of the Red Army in World War II through Objects, Ithaca 2019, or Serguei Oushakine, „Against the Cult of Things“. On Soviet Productivism, Storage Economy, and Commodities With no Destination, in: The Russian Review 73/2 (2014), pp. 198–236.
[3] Anna Ivanova, Magaziny “Berezka”. Paradoksy potrebleniia v pozdnem SSSR (The Berezka Shops. Paradoxes of Consumption in the Late Soviet Union), Moskva 2017; Natalya Chernyshova, Soviet Consumer Culture in the Brezhnev Era, London 2013.

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