Dina Fainberg, Artemy Kalinovsky, eds. Reconsidering Stagnation in the Brezhnev Era: Ideology and Exchange. London: Lexington Books, 2016.
This edited volume aims to do precisely what its title suggests: to reconsider the period of Brezhnev’s tenure as the CPSU General Secretary in terms of historical change, development, and the emergence of new trends. They start by looking at the genealogy of this metaphor of ‘stagnation’ which they trace to Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts at political mobilization from 1986 on. This sentiment was, in fact, shared by some contemporaries (they quote Anatoly Chernyaev’s diary as an example). However, some of the contemporaries also noted the increased complexity of Soviet society and politics, including urbanization and education, improved agriculture, rising standards of living, the successful cooptation of intellectual and non-Russian elites, and upward mobility (p. xi). The editors conclude: “As one starts to add up the exception, the accuracy of the term ‘stagnation’ begins to crumble” (p. xii). While attempting at the deconstruction of this term, the editors stop short of offering another conceptual framework: “The purpose of this volume is to push the discussion of the Brezhnev era beyond the debate over the possibility of reform. We do not seek to replace the stagnation narrative with a new story, but to examine the Brezhnev era on its own terms and to situate it on the continuum of Soviet history” (p. xiv).
Natalya Chernyshova in her “Consumers as Citizens: Revisiting the Question of Public Disengagement in the Brezhnev Era” suggests that the persistent interpretation of civic life in terms of “privatization” and “disengagement,” esp. in regards to consumerism (as in Shlapentokh) is misleading, as this argument misses that consumer culture during the Brezhnev Era involved a great deal of public engagement, such as writing letters to the state bodies and building social networks. The chapters “highlight[s] the participatory character of Soviet shopping and show how it was a collective, rather than individual, experience” (4). Even black market was connected to the state in multiple ways, and dealing with the problems of urban retail trade forced Soviet people to address the authorities as citizens (4) – in other words, shopping did contribute to a changed understanding of Soviet citizenship that the editors discussed in the Introduction. Chernyshova starts by discussing how the structure of consumption changed during the Brezhnev era: “Material well-being assumed a significant role in making people feel good about themselves and society” (6), a claim advanced by Soviet sociologists who studied tastes of Soviet people at that time. Late Soviet consumerism, produced by the official state policies (which implied that happy citizens will be happy workers), was in many ways very similar to other forms of modern consumerism. Both officially and in practice “consumption was a way to engage with the Soviet collective rather than isolate oneself from it” (7). The forms of engagement include queueing, establishing contacts with sales clerks, and even illegal activities. In contrast to James Millar who argued about the “Little Deal” that the Soviet government intentionally allowed its subjects to profiteer from the black market, Chernyshova argues that it was caused by the inability of the penitentiary system to deal with the scale of petty theft in the late USSR, which caused the authorities to realize that “combatting underground practices through police action would have little impact without serious changes to the entire economic system” (11). Even (or perhaps especially) nomenklatura was involved in the shadow economy (12). Foreign tourism and business trips were another source of prestige commodities in Soviet society, sold either privately or through a network of second-hand stores (14). “[I]n their capacity as consumers, Soveit urbanites engaged with the state system almost on a daily basis. They did not eschew state retail altogether but took initiative to adapt it to their needs, for instance, by persuading salesclerks to hod back high-demand goods for them, and to supplement it by acquiring things imported by individuals rather than official trade organizations, by buying from friends, colleagues, and profiteers… Consumers got increasingly enmeshed in a complex network of goods circulation that did not necessariliy involve a simple visit to a shop but which was not, nonetherless, disconnected from state retail as well as other state institutions altogether” (15).
Simon Huxtable in “The Life and Death of Brezhniev’s Thaw: Changing Values in Soviet Journalism after Khrushchev, 1964-68” discusses the shift in journalism that followed the dismissal of Khrushchev and transition to a more thorough political control over it from the late 1960s on. Huxtable argues that this transition period was, in fact, vibrant with hopes “in the press’s power to promote a new kind of technocratic governance, based on rational discussion of the country’s needs through publicistic writing and criticism” (22). These hopes were a product of the Thaw that a new professional ethos “which included an innate sense of ethical responsibility and a shared sense of professional goals,” including striving for intellectual and professional autonomy (Ibidem). Under Khrushchev, journalists reconceptualized their profession in terms of public control over officials (although usually low- and mid-level) and educating public opinion. In the four years after Khrushchev’s dismissal, Soviet journalists tried to implement this ethos in their professional activities. For example, some of the debates of that period sought to “place Soviet journalism on a new, more scientific footing” (27). New forms of writing (publitsistika) also played as tools for journalists’self-fashioning as responsible Soviet subjects (29) – Huxtable here loses an opportunity to place this argument within a broader discussion of Soviet writing techniques as self-fashioning tools (Hellbeck, Halfin, Pinsky, Kharkhordin, etc.). The journalists further tried to use the officially sanctioned kritika i samokritika to improve Soviet society (32), although this argument would benefit by a quick discussion of how it was different from the journalism of the 1930s that was all about kritika i samokritika. This trend brought journalists into an increasing conflict with bureaucracts: “a tension emerged between the need for the press to perform a watchdog function in the interests of social transformation and the need to maintain stability in the face of domestic and international tensions. Although politicians were committed to change in principle, when it came to their own fiefdoms, they were fiercely protective… Over time, it is not surprising that fewer journalists were willing to risk attacking entrenched bureaucracy and corruption, even if those remained the press’s officially mandated tasks” (34). By 1968, this challenge from outside the party structures lead the Party authorities to launch a campaign against the journal Zhurnalist, a flagship journal of Soviet journalism. This represented the desire of the party apparatus to take back control over the press, which was now supposed to focus on the criticism of outside threats and ideological support of the party initiatives. Yet the ethos of ‘critical journalism’ did not die during the 1970s and early 1980s, which prepared their activities during the perestroika.
Lewis Siegelbaum in “People on the Move during the ‘Era of Stagnation’: The Rural Exodus in the RSFSR during the 1960s-1980s” examines the ‘third stage’ of rural outmigration after World War II when “between 1959 and 1978, cities absorbed 1.5 million rural migrants every year. Over the next census period (1978-88), the rate declined to nine hundred thousand.” (46) Men led this process (partially due to the vertical mobility channels offered through compulsory conscription). Industry kept on its recruitment in the rural areas as well. Women followed men (marital patterns), but also tried to move to the urban areas to improve their living standards. Despite certain efforts to slow down or reverse this process, it resonated with the dominant ideology, so no radical measures were taken by the authorities (52). The rural outmigration led to the process of ‘liquidation’ of rural settlements.
Christian Noack in “Brezhnev’s ‘Little Freedoms’: Tourism, Individuality, and Mobility in the Late Soviet Period” examines a conflict of two ideas of “proper” summer vacation: the officially encouraged vacations provide by trade unions for its members, and thus offered on an individual basis, vis-à-vis ‘wild’ (non-organized) tourism that became increasingly popular among families during the late Soviet era. The article suggests that, even though there was a push ‘from below’ to incorporate family vacationing into the state-funded infrastructure, the beachside infrastructure in the USSR did not provide a material basis for family vacationing, and only well into the 1970s began to accommodate to the popular demand. Due to these tensions, tourist officials came in the end to support individual tourism, first of all, its motorized version. However, a huge influx of motorized tourists to beach towns led to another set of problems: that with parking, sleeping premises, and even water and food provision.
In Chapter 5, Andrey Shcherbenok examines how the turn to the aesthetics of decay in late Soviet cinema heralded the new ability of Soviet cinematographers to go around without any authoritative discourse. In Chapter 6, Sari Autio-Sarasmo aims to reassess the idea of “stagnation” by switching the focus from the Soviet competition with the US to the Soviet cooperation with Finland and West Germany. Autio-Sarasmo registers how the desire of Soviet leaders to modernize their industry led them to create an intensive network of technical cooperation with Western countries which, despite a discourse of stagnation, was active and effective throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. This cooperation was facilitated by personal contacts and commercial interests of western companies such as Nokia and Siemens. However, this cooperation produced limited results as “the main weakness was that the domestic R&D capabilities were unable to assist in the adaptation and exploration of new technologies and the inability of the system to generate innovations” (99).
Anna Gelzer in Chapter 7 “Stagnant Science? The Planning and Coordination of Biomedical Research in the Brezhnev Era” compares two perspectives on biomedical research: the top-down planning process in the Academy for Medical Sciences, which was extremely complicated by the large and ineffective bureaucratic structure, and the activities of the Moscow Institute of Oncology and, in particular, its director N.N. Blokhin who rebuilt it into a comprehensive National Oncology Scientific Center. In Chapter 8, Juliane Fürst discusses the evolution of a Moscow hippie group, known as Sistema, from a generally open student subculture that had a lot in common with Western hippies to a much more limited and closed group under the pressure of the Soviet authorities, and in doing so came to resemble a typically Soviet dissident/non-conformist organization. Sistema existed in a paradoxical symbiosis with the official state system of the Brezhnev era. Finally, Courtney Doucette in Chapter 9 on Norton Dodge, an American collector of Soviet unofficial art, and Simo Mikkonen in Chapter 10 on Soviet-Finnish musical exchanges examine transnational networks of Soviet artists and musicians, respectively, arguing that they were part and parcel of the international cultural milieu.