Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
Historians who possess souls want to see, touch, and hear the past. They share an instinct with most of their fellow-citizens to imagine what came before: how their families lived, what people were wearing when they brushed past each other in the streets. Sensing the past is a personal communion, neither political nor analytical. Determined to emphasize the scientific robustness of their discipline, historians might insist that such a sense should be confined to antiquarians and family historians. But if they do, they only make the point of their work more incomprehensible to outsiders.
One of the most direct ways that this instinct can be satisfied in professional historical research is to focus on material culture, on objects and their meanings. The study of consumption, of what people bought and how they used it, has become one of the most important of scholarly historical enterprises. But what does it mean in the communist world, where people apparently had so little to buy? Does it pass the ‘so what?’ test?
If volume of research is an indicator of importance, then the answer must be yes. It follows a pathbreaking approach that dates back thirty years, in which histories of production (the factory) have given way to histories of consumption (the shop). At its richest, this trend has opened up new historical questions, notably concerning gender and domesticity. At its least exciting, it offers repetitive descriptions of yet another consumer good in yet another place.
In the last decade, imagining the communist consumer has become one of the most rewarding of historical problems. It is a link between the needs of local people in the region — remembering their pasts, looking at the objects of their childhoods in museums of everyday life — and the historical scholarship that seeks to explain these realities. Histories of cigarettes, televisions and cars have shown us how people in Eastern and Central Europe (the USSR is always part of Eastern Europe in this blog) understood their consumer rights, interpreted the meaning of equality at a time described as socialist, and engaged with the second economy. These are major aspects in any analysis of socialist-communist life.
But they are not the first questions. The role of violence in the establishment and consolidation of the dictatorships, perhaps especially in the USSR in the 1930s, must always be studied first. Before we can understand the existence of any kind of right in a communist dictatorship, we have to understand how and why all rights were first violently extinguished. There remains a hierarchy of historical questions, and understanding the communist consumer is not at the top.