The Soviet Union continues to haunt the imagination two decades after its demise – not just in Russia (and the former Soviet states itself) but throughout the world. Yet there have rarely been genuine attempts to explain what the Soviet system really meant in terms of a social system, a lived system and, in spite of Sovietology being a boom industry for many academics in the Cold War years there have been few accounts of Soviet society that did that much justice. Now two decades after the end of the Soviet system, the Soviet system is just as hard for contemporary Russians to mentally grasp as it once was for foreigners. An attempt to get to grasps with the Soviet as social system took place last December at a scientific conference initiated by the Institute of Globalisation and Social Movements (IGSO) and, in the past month, a book has come out with the title “USSR: Life after Death” published by the Higher School of Economics in Russia and edited by Irina Glushchenko, Boris Kagarlitsky and Vitaly Kurennoi. The book was presented at the Moscow bookshop ‘Falanster’ and authors of the various articles tried to give their short accounts of different fields (from an illustration of the ideological world of the children’s ABC school textbook, through to sport, from labour relations to sex in the Soviet Union). A truly fascinating peak at what living in the Soviet world actually felt like.
Instead of looking at the Soviet system through a prism of totalitarian theories, the authors of the book took a look at different fields of social experience and tried to reconstruct a more sociological view of what the Soviet Union felt like. From looking at the relations of production through to discovering how ‘socialist collectivism’ worked in practice as well as seeing the USSR as ‘a machine for the prodution of nations’ as one essay by Oleg Kil’diushov puts it. Some of the more curious information is in the sections devoted to social and cultural practices as well as those describing the formation of a consumer society as well as how the USSR is seen or remembered today. Other essays on Video Culture in the 1980s and 1990s as well as the specifically Soviet relationship to the car are equally revelational. Yet it is perhaps the ones related to consumerism that have the greatest interest. Gilyana Basangova describes the psychology of a Soviet consumer of the 1960s through the aid of a reading of a story by Anatoly Rybakov called The Adventures of Krosha – it describes how after receiving their first paypacket a couple of friends spend their earnings on a set of less than useful things as well as describing the psychology of the Soviet consumer in the face of the queue.
Regarding the Soviet Union as seen or remembered today there is a fascinating essay on how Soviet branding has become the reply of the noughties to the wave of western mania of the 1980s and the 1990s. Studies have shown, as Elizabeta Podshivalova argues in her essay, that even wrapping up identical products in different wrappers (one Soviet-style, the other not) people will immediately choose as tastier the Soviet brand. This is often associated with the view that in the Soviet period no (or few) preservatives were used in foods compared to nowadays. But even so it is a total reversal of the belief previously that anything western was necessarily better. Even western companies such as Nestle’ have been forced by circumstance to rebrand their products according to Soviet models.
Yet the idea that the Soviet model was altogether different from other ‘bourgeois’ models of society is hard to argue- all essential elements of a bourgeois society existed in Soviet society too: forms of private property, market based exchange, consumer culture, even religiosity and similar forms of education and leisure (competitive sport). Therefore, the Soviet society, especially in its late period, had many of the features that post Soviet society has in spite of the tremendous transformations that appear to have separated the two periods.