Gleaning for Communism. The Soviet Socialist Household in Theory and Practice

Cherkaev, Xenia A.
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Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Anna Ivanova, Institut für Geschichtswissenschaften, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Soviet propaganda insisted that property relations in the USSR were fundamentally different from those in a capitalist society. Most property was declared as common and there supposedly remained no room for individualistic gain seeking. But did this setting actually turn Soviet citizens into collectivists who were not driven by self-interest? Traditionally, it has been widely assumed in the historiography that people in the Soviet Union were not so different from their Western counterparts in their economic behavior. They were described as liberal subjects who did not believe state propaganda and cheated the state in order to advance their own interests. In the situation of goods’ shortages, they engaged in semi-legal and illegal practices to circumvent the system and maximize their profit and their behavior was portrayed as proof of the failure of the socialist project.1

Xenia Cherkaev challenges this view by arguing that Soviet subjects were indeed guided by collectivist ethics. She shows how the Soviet system articulated and propagated socialist ownership and how people embraced these values. The reason for this embracement, Cherkaev claims, was not only and primarily ideological but rather that of the material base, which, according to Marx, shapes the superstructure of society, such as ideology (the Marxist optics is fundamental to Cherkaev’s narrative). This material base, however, was not formed by the planned economy itself but rather by its inefficiencies. Thanks to these inefficiencies and in the absence of the market, citizens had to redistribute the socialist commons as they saw fit. As a result, Cherkaev argues, they viewed the Soviet household as collective property, which allowed them to freely take from it but also contribute to it by helping each other out.

The socialist household was thus built on ethical principles, in which people wanted to help each other, mainly through the exchange of goods and favors, and they saw these economic activities as their contribution to the common good. This mutual aid manifested itself in the actions of the so-called tolkachi, i.e. the managers of enterprises who did their best to get something useful for their enterprise in circumvention of the official planning mechanism; or in the actions of an ordinary worker who smuggled from their factory something that a friend of theirs needed; or those of a clerk who did a favor to a relative. Here, Cherkaev explicitly argues against Alena Ledeneva’s famous understanding of blat (personal connnections) as selfish practices aimed at private gain.2 For Cherkaev, these actions represented the distribution of commons and were a form of self-management of the society. This idea of redistribution, especially of the unused stockpiles (izlishki), created by the poorly functioning planned economy, is crucial and this is where the title of the book comes from: gleaning was an ancient practice, in which after the farmers had collected the crops, the poor had the right to pick up the leftover grain from the field.

In the Soviet case, according to Cherkaev, personal and collective property were not competing, as in the case of the market environment, but each citizen had individual use rights to socialist commons. In this sense, the Soviet system resembled the pre-modern arrangement, when the society was organized not according to the principle of private property and the rule of law, which protected it, but rather around communal use and customary rights.

Since Cherkaev is an anthropologist, her main source is interviews, which she mainly conducted in St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region in the 2010s. However, she uses oral interviews mainly for her first chapter and for her overall claim, while for her other, historical chapters she refers to ideological texts, pieces written by Soviet legal scholars, and Soviet movies. Chronologically, Cherkaev’s book covers the period from the 1930s, when the system of socialist property was introduced as a result of collectivization and introduction of the planned economy, to the 1990s, when this system collapsed due to Gorbachev’s economic reforms. The book consists of four chapters. The first chapter sets the stage by describing how Soviet citizens smuggled materials from the factories they worked in and used them to produce various goods. Cherkaev suggests that this smuggling should not be interpreted as an individualistic act of private greed, because oftentimes the goods people produced from smuggled materials were understood by her informants as a contribution to the common good.

The second chapter looks at the beginning of the socialist household in the Stalinist period. This was the time when a new notion of property, namely socialist, was introduced as a result of dispossession of private owners, while the concept of private property was replaced by “personal” property, which, as opposed to the former, did not contradict the socialist property. The following chapter, which focuses on the Khrushchev’s period, argues that despite historiographical claims about destalinization as the main characteristic of this era, Khrushchev did not unmake Stalinist system of property. On the contrary, he made socialist property even a more tangible reality by introducing the new Party Program and the Foundations of Civil Legislation (both in 1961), which emphasized collective property rights. Moreover, these documents proclaimed that the formal laws were less important than the socialist ethics, which enabled people to use socialist property as they saw fit. The final, fourth, chapter focuses on the period of Perestroika, when, paradoxically, the socialist system of property was ruined by the very attempt of supporting it. Gorbachev, Cherkaev suggests, decided to formalize these informal ethics of distribution by adopting laws, which made workers more materially interested in the private gain of their enterprises, which canceled for them their collectivist obligations.

Cherkaev’s book fascinates the reader by the scale of the argument. She reinterprets the whole logic of Soviet society by challenging the idea of it as either failed communism or distorted capitalism and instead takes Soviet collectivist values seriously. Moreover, she manages to show how the inefficiencies of the planned economy, which are usually seen as evidence of the failure of Soviet attempt of creating alternative anti-market system of values, on the contrary, were the source for its success. Another merit of the book is that it focuses not on the shortages, which is often the case in the historiography, but rather on the excesses, which was indeed another important side effect of the planned economy. In Cherkaev’s view, it was exactly these excesses that made Soviet collectivist ethics work. However, despite the persuasive nature of her argument and the laudability of the very attempt to show the genuine character of the Soviet collectivism, the narrative raises some questions. First, it is the question of the boundary between the common good and the private gain. There were, for sure, a lot of cases in the Soviet everyday, in which people did try to maximize their own profit, either by just smuggling goods from enterprises for their own use (not for others or for collective use as in most examples cited in the book) or even for illegal sale and thus for personal enrichment. Should we still interpret these cases in the framework of collectivist ethics? It seems that a discussion of illegal economic activities done for profit, and of the role of money in Soviet society more broadly would have helped to make the picture more multi-faceted.

Another question is that of the regional variety. Here, I am wondering to what extent the collectivist values Cherkaev delineates were uniform for the whole Soviet Union. We know, for example, that the prevalence of the illegal trade, mentioned above, and the moral acceptability of it was different depending on the republic (more widespread in the Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as the Baltics). So was the perception of the socialist property as commons universal to the whole territory, on which people had to circumvent the inefficiencies of the planned economy, or did it differ depending on the cultural or material factors? Despite these questions, this book is to be praised, primarily, for granting Soviet citizens subjectivity without making them liberal subjects. It is a great contribution to the conversation about alternative modernity and a thought-provoking, engaging and clever reading.

1 See, for example, Gregory Grossman, The “Second Economy” of the USSR, in: Problems of Communism (1977), pp. 25–40; James Millar, The Little Deal: Brezhnev’s Contribution to Acquisitive Socialism, in: Slavic Review 44,4 (1985), pp. 694–706.
2 Alena V. Ledeneva, Russia’s Economy of Favours. Blat, Networking and Informal Exchange, Cambridge 1998.