Soviet Cultures Between the Past and the Future

Nari Shelekpayev


In January 2019 three of Paris’s cultural hubs, Châtelet, Théâtre de la Ville, and Centre Pompidou, hosted the premiere of DAU, a series of films that had been in production for over a decade. DAU’s key protagonists were the Soviet physicist, Lev Davidovich Landau, his wife, Kora, and other people who surrounded Landau, including scientists and bureaucrats as well as friends, lovers, and family members. Many scenes were filmed in Kharkiv, in a place that served as the prototype for a scientific institute of the 1930s.[1] The key idea of DAU’s director, Ilya Khrzhanovsky, was to explore “Soviet reality through artistic means”: all of the actors wore “Soviet” clothes and ate “Soviet” food while cameras followed everyone to see how their behavior would transform in a “totalitarian” atmosphere.[2] A saga of many hours was divided into chunks at a later stage, and only a few people were able to watch the production in its entirety.

The Soviet Union collapsed when I was five. Most of what my generation and I know about the USSR and its culture derives from primary sources or historical reconstructions. The premiere of DAU combined the two. Interestingly, I was able to assist at the premiere po blatu. The tickets were sold out, and a friend (also born in the USSR) escorted me from the service entrance with someone else’s pass. My “Soviet” experience with DAU, by and large, ended at that. The organizers went out of their way to recreate Soviet materiality by means of clichéd objects and decorations (furniture, newspapers, books, utensils, and so forth). Yet such stylization seemed to essentialize the original. Eclecticism, liminality, the prevalence of details over content – these might be the terms to describe the screening and the film itself. DAU was held to represent Sovietness as a totality, where everyday life, politics, and culture were inseparable. The reconstruction of Soviet materiality drifted towards myth-making despite attempts to be historically accurate. Soviet culture, in this project, appeared as something palpable and at the same time subject to disintegration. Examples such as DAU stimulate reflections about the handling of the past in the present more broadly. Khrzhanovsky and his team chose a peculiar path: they excavated certain artifacts to create a pastiche, creating an immersive experience into a “Soviet” atmosphere. Yet such a method is impractical for scholars, for whom the past is the object of inquiry. To deal with the past, scholars commonly turn to texts written by their peers on related subjects. The problem, however, is that the frequent appearance of new scholarship compels us to focus on recent work. As a result, intellectual horizons shrink while epistemological shifts boil down to a priori assumptions.

The anniversary of The Russian Review is an occasion to rethink its intellectual trajectory and contribution to the field of Soviet studies. Eighty years is a long period of time, of course, and editorial policies as well as stylistic requirements have evolved. Over time, articles became longer and more academic in nature. Before the collapse of the USSR, authors were almost exclusively Western or émigrés, while the post-1991 era has featured many articles by scholars living in the former Soviet Union itself.

Soviet culture is the primary theme explored in this retrospective collection dedicated to the eightieth anniversary of The Russian Review. When I was first invited to join this project, I was enthusiastic. With time, however, I became increasingly uncertain about the approach to take. The term “Soviet” is amenable to definition, despite its complex meaning. The Soviet Union was established after the October Revolution and the Civil War and came to end in 1991. Formally “Soviet” can thus refer to anything related to the Soviet Union during its decades-long existence. The term “culture,” in a general sense, refers to the material, spiritual, and artistic ways of life of a particular group of people. Particular, in this phrasing, evokes a certain coherence, a system of interconnected codes or shared references.

But what kind of particular group were the Soviet people? And were they a particular group at all? The way we answer the latter question has consequences for our understanding of Soviet culture. Can this culture be explored as a sum of its parts, or should we focus instead on its various components? In what ways did political and generational shifts shape approaches to Soviet culture within and beyond the former USSR? While this introduction does not attempt to answer these questions conclusively, I pose them in the hope that they might provide a useful frame for readers exploring this online collection.

The complexity of cultural phenomena during the Soviet era eludes clear-cut definitions. The “Soviet novel,” for example, was often associated with socialist realism, at least until the 1960s.[3] But was, say, Tikhii Don, a socialist realist work? When one looks at science, one faces another conundrum. Soviet physicists, for example, frequently travelled to the West and collaborated with foreign scholars in the 1920s and 1930s. Science, in their view, could not by definition be Soviet, American, or German, because it arose from a transnational production of knowledge.[4] Or take the matter of Soviet cuisine: in popular culture, dressed herring is frequently identified as a typical Soviet dish, yet millions of former Soviets neither heard of nor tasted it. Popular audiences as well as scholars have often failed to problematize Soviet culture as an entangled project across chronological, national, and territorial boundaries.

To be sure, the Soviet state existed for over seventy years and achieved a certain degree of homogeneity, especially in the second half of the twentieth century. Yet to what extent did Soviet cultural production conform to the Soviet state’s intentions? Despite attempts to create a homogeneous entity, the USSR never fully became one, and its people never adopted a uniform identity. The constituent parts of Soviet culture were rooted in knowledge and practices that predated the revolution and were appropriated or reinvented by Soviet citizens of various origins. Lenin’s socialism did not grow on trees, as Yuri Slezkine famously put it, nor did music in Soviet Uzbekistan or medicine in Soviet Russia.[5] Such observations are not limited to the Soviet Union, of course. One witnesses debates regarding the meaning of national culture in many societies, and the political implications of these debates have been far-reaching.  None of these debates, however, has led to an abandonment of a national framework, such as “French” or “American” culture. Yet they have led to a rethinking of inclusion and exclusion, the complexity of cultural representations, and the policies that reinforce identities within or against dominant cultures.

Although the Soviet state ceased to exist in 1991, Soviet culture has remained an object of study for many academic disciplines. The central role of the state has been an important focus, and many scholars have approached Soviet culture as a product of policies conceived in Moscow and Leningrad and spread across the Union. There have been attempts to investigate cultural borders and scrutinize the political shifts that defined or pre-empted cultural policies in given periods of time.[6] The existence of an official culture (along with unofficial and underground cultures formed in relationship to it) has led to a focus on subjugation and resistance as well as explorations of the transformation of various local cultures under pressure from the center.[7] A few authors have examined the impact of the state’s cultural policies on Soviet citizens.[8] To a lesser extent, scholars have explored the construction of various Soviet cultures and the ways these cultures interacted among themselves horizontally, bypassing the center. Does the persistence of these scholarly trends suggest that the study of Soviet culture is bound to remain, at least in the near future, between the Scylla of instrumentalism (which reduces the study of Soviet culture to the interplay between official culture and the experiences of Soviet citizens) and the Charybdis of particularism (because the Soviet Union was too heterogeneous a territory to establish cultural uniformity)? Notably, both trends downplay the importance of political and generational shifts and the ways these impacted Soviet culture.[9]

While intellectuals and elites conformed to, adapted to, or resisted state policies, the broader audience for Soviet culture was never uniform. They spoke different languages, were educated in different ways, and had different approaches to the public and private spheres when it came to spirituality and entertainment.[10] Stalin’s Great Break attempted to render Soviet cultural production more manageable and coherent. Yet many people failed to grasp the new Soviet cultural language, or rather its distinctive patois, not because they found it unacceptable or were unable to learn it, but because conditions for internalizing it were contradictory or illogical.[11] A change arguably occurred during World War II, when the mobilization of a multiethnic army of Soviet soldiers and the use of wartime propaganda unified the population in the face of a common threat.[12] Postwar generations spoke better Russian, were educated according to more uniform standards, and grew up with an understanding that their culture was Soviet or a “natural” part of their identity. That perception was less marked by the rhetoric of revolution and a break with the past (as was the case in the 1920s), or by the attempt to fit one’s culture into a unionwide frame (as in the 1930s). Rather, it was shaped by a shared experience, or a constructed sense of belonging to a common project. With time, however, this feeling of belonging was replaced by gradual disillusionment, a renewal of interest in local identities beyond the Soviet one, or a vnenakhodimost’, a way of behavior and thinking that occupied a liminal space between the official and the dissident.[13]

Another major shift occurred after the Soviet collapse. In contrast to postwar baby-boomers, for whom a fundamental point of reference was the Twentieth Party Congress and the Thaw, the point of reference for later Soviet generations shifted to 1991. Today, contemporary audiences, who often did not experience the Soviet past directly, tend to regard it with nostalgia. This, in turn, leads to a blurring of boundaries between the perception of Soviet culture on one hand, and the historical conditions of its production on the other hand. Sheila Fitzpatrick once reflected that the debates between the totalitarian and revisionist schools ended not because of new archival findings or theoretical breakthroughs but because the political tension that nurtured them eased.[14] While it is true that the Soviet collapse toned down debates about the nature of the Soviet regime, it also became a point of departure for younger scholars, who now look to the Soviet past to explore the origins of their present. In recent years, the interest of researchers has shifted to material culture and the intellectual landscapes of the Soviet Union, the mobility and cultural versatility of Soviet citizens, and the contested memories and traumas of the Soviet past.[15]

This online collection is an attempt to explore Soviet culture through an archeology of articles that appeared in The Russian Review between 1951 and 2019. Each article is accompanied by an essay written by a scholar who was asked to comment on it. The juxtaposition of the authors’ perspectives enables a jeu d’échelles (scale game) and a way out of the epistemic trap in which our work is limited to an overview of latter-day scholarship shaped by recent historiographical concerns.[16] The goal of the contributors is to reassess the contribution of The Russian Review to the study of Soviet culture.  Some contributors chose to focus chiefly on the original articles and examine them in a new light (see Alexey Golubev on Vera Sandomirsky and Catriona Kelly on Serguei Oushakine). Others delved into the historiography in order to rethink the original authors’ approaches and place their contributions in a broader perspective (see Claire Roosien on Kirill Tomoff and Daria Ganzenko on Roshanna Sylvester). A few advanced new research on the basis of existing articles (see the essays by Botagoz Kassymbekova, Anatoly Pinsky, and Katherine M. H. Reischl). Taken as a whole, this collection is an attempt by The Russian Review to foster a stimulating dialogue between the scholarship of the past and the scholars of the present.


Nari Shelekpayev is an associate professor of Soviet history at the European University at Saint Petersburg. 

I would like to thank Botagoz Kassymbekova, Anatoly Pinsky, and Erik Scott for their useful comments on drafts of this essay.

[1] Josie Thaddeus-Jones, “It Started as a Movie. As It Ballooned, Its Troubles Mounted,” The New York Times, January 23, 2019.

[2] Peter Bradshaw, “DAU. Natasha review – an exquisitely sinister study of Soviet oppression,” The Guardian, February 26, 2020.

[3] The foremost reference on the Soviet novel is Katerina Clark, The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual (3rd ed.), (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).

[4] David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), 114.

[5] Yuri Slezkine, “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism,” Slavic Review 53, 2 (Summer 1994): 417.

[6] For cultural policies and political shifts see, for example, Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism. Russian Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992); Evgeny Dobrenko, Pozdnii Stalinism: Estetika Politiki (Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2020). See also Vladimir Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Nariman Skakov, “Culture One and a Half,” in Comintern Aesthetics, ed. Steven Lee and Amelia Glaser (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020). Regarding transnational history, in recent years scholars have drawn attention to the ways Soviet cultural forms and agents made up multiple, overlapping networks outside the USSR’s borders. The term “socialist global ecumene,” introduced by Katerina Clark, is helpful in this sense because it allows us to rethink the center-periphery dichotomy. See Katerina Clark, “Berlin–Moscow–Shanghai: Translating Revolution across Cultures in the Aftermath of the 1927 Shanghai Debacle,” in Lee and Glaser, eds., Comintern Aesthetics, 81-108. Everyday culture in different regions of the “socialist global ecumene” during the Cold War was illustrated by Glennys Young in The Communist Experience in the Twentieth Century: A Global History through Sources (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). For transnational analysis and intellectual history see also Clark, Moscow, The Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011) and Michael David-Fox, Crossing Borders: Modernity, Ideology, and Culture in Russia and the Soviet Union (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015). See also Rossen Djagalov, From Internationalism to Postcolonialism: Literature and Cinema between the Second and the Third Worlds (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

[7] For resistance see, for example, Botagoz Kassymbekova, Despite Culture: Early Soviet Rule in Tajikistan (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016). See also Cloé Drieu, Cinema, Nation, and Empire in Uzbekistan 1919 – 1937 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019); Volodymyr Kravchenko, “Fighting Soviet Myths: The Ukrainian Experience,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies 34, 1-4 (2015-16): 447-84.

[8] See Igal Halfin, Terror in My Soul (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); Jochen Hellbeck, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Anatoly Pinsky, “The Diaristic Form and Subjectivity under Khrushchev,” Slavic Review 73, 4 (2014): 805-27.

[9] See, for example, Juliane Fürst, Flowers Through Concrete: Explorations in Soviet Hippieland, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021). Alexei Yurchak’s Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006) is a compelling and provocative study of what the author refers to as “the last Soviet generation.” One wonders, however, whether Yurchak’s protagonists were the last or the first Soviet generation in terms of common cultural references and shared experiences. There are also questions about the extent to which this “generation” was representative.

[10] See, in particular, Sergei Abashin, Sovetskii kishlak: mezhdu kolonializmom i modernizatsiei (Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2015). For early Soviet nationality policies see Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001) and Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005). See also Kate Brown, A Biography of No Place: from Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[11] Stephen Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) remains a fundamental reference for the study of how power relies on language. For a critique of Kotkin’s approach, see Anna Krylova, “Stephen Kotkin and the Bolshevik Predicament,” Contemporary European History 23, 2 (2014): 167-192. See also Kassymbekova, Despite Culture.

[12] See, for example, Roberto J. Carmack, Kazakhstan in World War II: Mobilization and Ethnicity in the Soviet Empire (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2019). See also Gulnaz Galeeva, “‘Copper-Faced Sons of the Fatherland?’: The Problem of the Representation of Bashkir Cavalrymen in the National Memory of World War II, 1940-1960s,” Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie 6 (2020): 430-444.

[13] The concept is explored in Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More.

[14] Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Revisionism in Soviet History,” History and Theory 46 (2007): 88-89. See also Lewis Siegelbaum, “Whither Soviet History?: Some Refections on Recent Anglophone Historiography,” Region 1, 2 (2012): 213-230.

[15] See, for example, Vladislav Zubok, Zhivago's Children: the Last Russian Intelligentsia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Serguei Oushakine and Elena Trubina, eds., Travma: Punkty (Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2009); Donald J. Raleigh, Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Anna Ivanova, Magaziny Berezka: paradoksy potrebleiia v pozdnem SSSR(Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2018); Jeff Sahadeo, Voices from the Soviet Edge: Southern Migrants in Leningrad and Moscow (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019); Alexei Golubev, The Things of Life: Materiality in Late Soviet Russia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020). Catriona Kelly’s most recent book, Soviet Art House: Lenfilm Under Brezhnev (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021) explores Soviet filmmaking in the Brezhnev Era.

[16] See Jacques Revel, Jeux d’échelles: La micro-analyse à l’expérience (Paris: Seuil, 1996).