the best (worst) of both worlds

Comrade chat 10-2

1. The main character of this novella, Olga, is meant to be a typical Soviet woman, living a typical Soviet life under Brezhnev’s developed socialism. How would you characterize her life? What possibilities are open to her? What limitations hold her back? What expectations do the people in her life place on her shoulders? What expectations does she place on her own shoulders? What insights does her story give us into the “double shift” or “double burden” of Soviet women’s lives?

Olga’s life at a distance seems like the best of both worlds. She balances having a respectable job with being a loving mother. However, as soon as you zoom in you see the reality of her situation. I would characterize her life as a lose lose situation. Olga achieved the opportunity to work in a lab. Which is a possibility that a lot of women at the time would not have considered. Olga also gets to have her family unit. Both of these things limit her. When she tries to get the kids ready for the day, she is late to work. When she stays late at work to finish her reports, she gets home late and upsets her husband. Olga does not have the ability to be devoted to both aspects of her life 100%. It’s not possible.

Despite the legitimate impossibility of working two demanding jobs 24/7, Olga expects herself to manage both being a mom and her job in the lab. Partially these expectations come from Dima. He is upset with her for coming home late and the next morning Olga describes herself as, “listening submissively to all the complaints and apologizing” (Baranskaya, 45). Even though she had to take care of something at work, Dima is mad at her for not being a “better” mom. He also wants her to quit her job and be a full time housekeeper. Olga’s boss at work also expects her to give 100% to her job in the lab. She is chastised for being late and for missing days when her kids were sick. Olga gets pressure from both of her responsibilities and even from herself. 

The entire novella made me think about how the dilemma that Olga faces is still prevalent in today’s society. Women are told that they can have a high power career or be a good mother. If the kids are sick, the woman has to stay home from work to take care of them. Our society and the typical family unit is not structured to allow two full time working parents. And the moms who do work are either considered not a good mom or not a good employee. If you are a stay at home mom you are chastised for not having a job. If you have a full time job as a woman and that’s your primary focus you are considered a bad mom. It was really interesting (albeit sad) that this theme is prevalent across two vastly different countries. 

Comrade Chat! Leah’s Video for “A Week Like Any Other” (Week 10, Day 2)

Hello, Comrades! This is our video for Week 10, Day 2. Today we’re continuing our exploration of the Brezhnev Era, and our teaching assistant is [cat.] I have been behind schedule this week and am posting this video rather late on Thursday, so I don’t expect you to respond by Friday at 5. Go ahead and take the weekend, if you need it.

The only announcement I have for you today is that you should continue to think about your final papers. It would be a good idea to choose your topic this week and start thinking about the argument you want to make. Remember that your one-paragraph introduction and your outline for the paper will be due on Sunday, April 19.

Today, we’re discussing Natalya Baranskaya’s novella A Week Like Any Other, which was first published in the literary journal Novyi Mir in 1969. Novyi Mir was the a highly respected journal. Its editors were known for pushing the boundaries of acceptable literature. For example, that in 1962 Novyi Mir published Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the first account of the Stalinist Gulag to appear in an official publication. Readers looked to Novyi mir to lead the way on cultural questions. The fact that Baranskaya’s novella was published there meant that it was widely read and discussed in Soviet society.

Natalya Baranskaya was a relatively new voice in Soviet literature in the 1960s, but she was not young, herself. She was born in 1908, almost the same year as Dmitrii Shostakovich (whose Seventh Symphony we listened to before Spring Break). She spent her career working in literary museums and only began writing fiction after she retired. Most of her short stories and novellas deal with the lives and concerns of Soviet women. A Week Like Any Other is by far her most famous work. After it appeared in Novyi Mir, it generated international interest was translated and published in other countries, including the US. It’s interesting to consider that while this is not a particularly flattering portrayal of Soviet life, it was officially approved for both domestic and international publication. You might also consider that communication across the “Iron Curtain” was strong enough at this point that American editors were reading Soviet publications and looking for material to translate for their own audiences. As you read, you might consider what this reveals about the situation for Soviet writers in the Brezhnev Era.

I also encourage you to compare this novella to Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered and Sholokhov’s Fate of a Man. Consider whether A Week Like Any Other can be called Socialist Realism and how Soviet literature has evolved over the decades.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. The main character of this novella, Olga, is meant to be a typical Soviet woman, living a typical Soviet life under Brezhnev’s developed socialism. How would you characterize her life? What possibilities are open to her? What limitations hold her back? What expectations do the people in her life place on her shoulders? What expectations does she place on her own shoulders? What insights does her story give us into the “double shift” or “double burden” of Soviet women’s lives?

2. The novella opens with Olga rushing into work fifteen minutes late and getting yelled at by her boss, Yakov Petrovich. Soon we notice that all of the researchers in Olga’s lab are women, while the supervisor is a man. What do you make of this gender disparity? What factors make it difficult for women to rise to the level of supervisor? How does the conversation between Yakov Petrovich and Olga on pp. 1-2 (including the things she thinks but does not say out loud) help us understand the reasons behind this gender disparity and how women like Olga are expected to behave? Is this a particularly Soviet problem, or do we see aspects of it in our society as well?

3. A recurring theme in this novella is the questionnaire, which the women in the lab have been asked to fill out. Find the passages where the questionnaire is described and discussed. What sorts of questions does it ask? What assumptions about women’s lives do these questions imply? Why do the women in Olga’s lab find it both ridiculous and frustrating? If we think of the questionnaire as a literary device, what purpose does it serve for Baranskaya? In other words, how does it help her tell this story?

4. The questionnaire prompts the women in Olga’s lab to talk about the issue of having children. They feel pressured by the government and by their partners to have at least two children a piece. But most of them resist having multiple children, and Dark Lusya has even had an abortion to avoid it. Why are they resistant to having more children? What factors are part of this choice? How does their conversation on pp.19-21 help us think through the complexities of their decision-making? How does this relate to Olga’s feeling that missing 78 workdays makes her a bad citizen, even though all of those days have been spent taking care of her children?

5. Note that at the end of this passage, Olga mocks official rhetoric in an effort to wrap up the conversation (p.21). Does this make her an anti-Soviet person? How does her comfort making this kind of joke in front of her colleagues at work help us understand the relationship between citizens and the state in the Brezhnev Era?

6. It seems clear that official pressure is not working on these women. If the Soviet state really wants them to have more children, what other steps could it take to encourage them that might be more effective? Or do you think that women will always have to choose between ambitious careers and having children, no matter what system they live in?

7. Consider the situation of Dark Lusya’s abortion on pp.47-48. Why does she make this decision? How does her story compare to the story of Lyuda in the film Bed and Sofa, which we watched back in Week 3? Consider how Lyuda’s situation in the 1920s compares to Dark Lusya’s in the 1960s. What does this comparison reveal about the development of Soviet society? What does it reveal about changes, or lack of changes, in Soviet women’s lives?

8. One thing that keeps Olga going through all her stress is the strong friendships among the women at her lab. We might conceptualize this as a form of emotional labor that they perform in addition to their other duties. Is this labor part of their obligation as workers, as women, or both? Would Pasha Angelina recognize the relationships among the women researchers? Would Eugenia Ginzburg recognize them? Do these relationships represent continuity or change in life of Soviet women?

9. Olga remarks several times that she is lucky to be living in one of the new housing complexes that began to appear in the Khrushchev Era. Based on her description, would you consider her apartment luxurious? What infrastructural problems make it hard for her to do things like grocery shopping and commuting to work? How does this shed light on the “good life” the Soviet Union was providing to its citizens at this point?

10. Olga’s relationship with Dima is also an important part of this novella. The women in the lab consistently praise Dima as a good husband. Yet we often see him sitting by while Olga does the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and the majority of the childcare. How do you analyze their relationship? How does it compare to relationships among American couples in the late 1960s (you might ask your parents or grandparents for help with this)? If Dima is considered a good husband, what does that reveal about relationships between men and women in the Brezhnev Era? What would Alexandra Kollontai think of all this?

11. Consider Olga and Dima’s relationship, as well as the other factors we’ve discussed today. In light of all of this, why do you think she is so resistant to quitting her job, as Dima suggests? What reasons does she give explicitly? What reasons does she leave unsaid? Do you think she is right to hold on to her job, despite everything? Why or why not?

Question 7

After losing the safeguards of the Soviet Era, artists and fans alike felt nostalgic for the safety of rights such as housing and health care, and the safety of a job. It reminds me of a passage I read in an earlier class about single mothers in post-Soviet Berlin, who missed the childcare provided by the government so that they could work. In an ideal world, we could have both the freedom of speech and the freedom from want (in this case, I would categorize that as basic human rights such as housing, healthcare, childcare and another category of work provided by the state). However, this is obviously not the case and so the choice has to be made. Things go awry when the freedom of speech is taken away. Things also go awry when freedom of speech without consequence takes place, as we have seen in the last five years (ex we have public displays of nazism). I think in this case, however, freedom of speech still outweighs the freedom of want. It guarantees that social change can occur when things start going wrong and can help keep minorities protected. Without freedom of speech there would not be any civil rights movements, or women’s rights movements, free love, etc. However, the nostalgia for safety is something that needs to be taken into account. The struggle of the average person is something that can be greatly lessened with social change.

snow white but soviet edition

comrade chat week nine video 2

. In the final scene, Kolya heads through the empty Metro station singing the film’s theme song. We’ve heard the music several times at this point, but this is the first time we hear the words. What is this song really about? How does it express the values and outlook of the Thaw generation? Why do you think it became a popular hit?

In Snow White and the Seven Dwarves there is a song that is whistled several times during the movie. There is only one part of the movie where Snow White puts the lyrics to the song. The song is called, “Whistle While You Work” and I thought it tied in well to the movie. Songs like this become popular because they get stuck in your head. I am currently singing this outloud much to the chagrin of my little brother. They are catchy. For that and because of its deep meaning, that’s why I think it became such a popular hit. Both songs are very catchy and upbeat and have lyrics that are relatable to most anyone.

The first time we hear the words is in the end. This is significant because it indicates a resolution albeit a comical one. In Snow White we finally get the words to the song right before the evil witch tries to kill her. She thinks everything is fine and is just focused on being a good little worker bee. Kolya is happily singing and wandering through the station. As we learned in lecture, the happy beginning of Khrushchev’s rule only lasted for a little while. Soon there were uprisings and death and tension etc. The fact that we hear the words only at the end seems to me like a “yay we think everything is fine and we solved our problems when in reality it’s gonna get worse” indicator just like in Snow White. Now I know that a disney princess and soviet worker do not have much in common but the parallels between work and singing really stood out to me. Even though Kolya isn’t actively working, the metro station was a place of work during the film.

The lyrics represent a more relaxed attitude that people were able to have at the beginning of the thaw. Plus there is a lyric that states, “under the snow I’ll find a violet And remember Moscow” which is a subtle nod at the current time period.

prodigal son

comrade chat week 9, video 1

 What role does Lenin play in this speech? In taking down Stalin, why does Khrushchev replace him with Lenin? Why not replace him with Khrushchev? Why replace him at all? Why might it be difficult to not replace him with somebody?

Every successful speech giver knows the benefit of riding on someone else’s coat tails. And any regular old Joe of the street can tell you the power of association of a famous name. “Yeah my sister’s husband’s cousin’s dog’s massage therapist also works with Keanu Reeves poodle.” And then average Joe is like oh damn we with the high rollers right now. This is not a twenty first century jedi mind trick. In fact, I think this is exactly what Khrushchev was trying to accomplish in his ~SeCreT SPeeCh.~

Lenin plays the role of the prodigal son. Stalin is the son that is already home. Khruschev is like the father. This is all from that one parable in Luke chapter fifteen. Lenin has been gone aka dead. The son Stalin has been the only one at home and boy has he been wreaking havoc. Then after years and years the father, Khruschev, sees his long lost son return and then there is a celebration. He tells everyone that his son, HIS SON, is the great one that has finally come back to him. Stalin feels sleighted. Lenin is celebrated. The moral of the story is blah blah blah forgiveness blah blah. I’m not sure what it is, that part isn’t relevant. 

What is relevant is how Khrushchev chooses to celebrate Lenin. This is an appeal to the emotions and assosciations the people have of/with him. Lenin is referred to as, “the genius of the revolution” because he put the history in the hands of the people (Krushchev). Khruschev uses lots of positive rhetoric when referring to Lenin. The void where Stalin was needed to be replaced. Khrushchev needed to unite his people. And you know what they say, nothing unites people like mutual hatred. I think Khruschev was trying to get his audience to rally around Lenin as a way to subliminaly cause them to hate Stalin. Stalin needed replaced because the people needed a new someone to rally around.

There’s a reason why Khrushchev mentions Lenin and not himself. Khrushchev mentions that, “Lenin detected in Stalin those negative characteristics which later resulted in grave consequences” (Khruschev). This gives a sense of power and wisdom to Lenin. Khrushchev shows him respect and puts Lenin above himself. This move makes him seem humble which would make him seem more favorable to the people. Also Lenin was much more well known than Khruschev and so replacing Stalin with Lenin packed more of a punch.

the love of my life

comrade chat week 8, second video

8. Zhdanov addresses Socialist Realism specifically in this speech. Consider the paragraph that begins with: “To show these great new qualities of the Soviet people…” Is this the same definition of Socialist Realism than we got in 1934? How is it similar or different? What specific tasks does it present? Think again about Zoshchenko’s “Adventures of a Monkey.” In your analysis, does it violate this definition? Why or why not?

I have decided that Andrei Zhdanov is the second love of my life. First place belongs to Anthony Hopkins aka Hannibal Lecter and no I do not care that he is 85, he is the love of my life. Zhdanov was all up in everyone’s business when it came to literature. In my opinion he really seemed to be the first person (given my limited knowledge of Russian history) who really took advantage of and utilized literature as a means to control aspects of society. Zhdanov was a big advocate for socialist realism and demanded that it was the only way to go. However, in this speech from 1946 I think he adopts a slightly different definition of socialist realism. 

Zhdanov wanted literature to be a beacon for all that is good, a beautiful representation of Soviet culture in 1934. He believes it is important to maintain integrity and represent the people accurately. By 1946 he gets a little more aggressive with it. Zhdanov considers writers, “on the forward fighting line” (Zhdanov). And uses other rhetoric that draws similarities between the literature and war culture. In 1946 he still acknowledges the importance of literature as a way for the people to rally around. But now he believes that literature must also be a weapon. Now literature is not just for defense of the soviet people. It is time to pick up the pen as a weapon and be on the offense. Zhdanov declares, “the task of Soviet literature is not only to return blow for blow against all this vile slander…but also boldly  attack bourgeois culture” (Zhdanov). The concept of anti bourgeois literature is the same for socialist realism as it was in 1934. But Zhdanov added a new component to the defintion. Thus the definition introduces offense as an important part of socialist realism as well as defense. 

When it comes to the monkey story, I think it is the kind of literature that Zhdanov would say is anti socialist realism. As it is a satire it would not strengthen nor defend the soviet image. It would instead serve against it. Which ultimately is why there were literary reforms and why Zhdanov readdressed and altered the definition of socialist realism. All in all, my boy Zhdanov was a little crazy but very passionate about literature. You gotta admire the tenacity and devotion and utter control freakness that was all for the sake of the Soviet Union.  

Sex, drugs, and rock n roll

Comrade chat chapter 8, 1 video

 Consider the case of the stiliagi, the young people who loved Western music and fashion. What are some ways historians have explained their fascination? Which explanation do you find most convincing? The stiliagi saw themselves as uninterested in politics. But were their activities subversive after all?

After reading about the stiliagi in chapter eight I was reminded of this book I read in my junior year of highschool. I could not for the life of me find the name of it. But it was about how teenagers in the sixties adopted this new culture and new attitudes that had never been seen before. It also talked about how the overall public view of sex changed during that time. They called it the sexual revolution. These teenagers and young adults were not intentionally trying to change culture. They were not trying to change societal norms. They were just having fun. Yet they had a profound impact on culture. In my opinion the stiliagi did something similar. The text asks, “Should it be seen as subversive or as a form of apolitical youthful rebellion” (Chatterjee, 163). As if the answer is binary. I think it was both. They engaged in their enjoyment of western culture because it was fun but also because it made the “old folks” mad. As a byproduct of their rebellion there were cultural changes. 

Historians cite a particular movie where the Indians fight against the yankees as a favorite of the stiliagi. They believe that the youth enjoyed this film because it portrayed American’s as the losers/bad guys. I do not agree with this explanation because stiliagi loved using American slang and listening to American music. The movie might have been “anti-American” but the rest of the things stiliagi enjoyed were not. I also do not agree that it provided, “an alternate form of masculinity” (chatterjee, 164) for those men who could not go to war. Stiliagi were focused on the American aesthetic. Aesthetic isn’t a macho concept, especially when stiliagi loved music and fashion. Ultimately, the most convincing reason for the way the stiliagi behaved is the good ole flame of teenage rebellion. 

Comrade Chat! Leah’s Video for The Brezhnev Era (Week 10, Day 1)

Hello Comrades! This is our video for Week 10, Day 1. Our subject is Brezhnev’s Stagnation, and our teaching assistant is Maggie. Like all cats, she is a big fan of stagnation.

Let’s start with announcements. Thank you for your good work on the blog these past two weeks. I think we are managing to have good conversations there, despite our difficult circumstances. There are a couple of you who haven’t yet made any posts. If that applies to you, then you probably got an email from me at the end of last week. If I wrote to you individually, please respond. You don’t need to do you blog posts before you write back to me. My main concern is to find out whether you are okay, or you are having difficulties. So please write back and let me know what your situation is.

Now that we’re in Week 10, it’s time to start thinking about your final papers. I know, it feels quick and we’ve just started to get our bearings with remote learning. But the end of the semester is coming up, so we need to start working on our final projects. I sent out the assignment to you by email on Sunday, and you can find it on the course website under Assignments, too. In this paper, I am asking you to build a historical argument by putting multiple primary sources on context with each other. I’ve given you five topics to choose from. They are meant to be broad and open-ended, so that you can develop your own, unique argument based on your interests. As part of that breadth, the prompts are fairly long. The question you must be sure to answer is the question in bold. Everything else in the prompt is there to help you think through your ideas. You don’t need to respond directly to anything other than the bold question.

I’ve scaffolded this assignment into a few different steps, to make it more manageable. Your first deadline is in on Sunday, April 19 at 5pm. That is the due date for your Introduction + Outline. Please review the assignment sheet for details. And remember to carefully read the HIS 240 Writing Handout, which you can find under Writing Resources on the course website.

After you have submitted you Intro + Outline, I will meet with each of you individually on April 23 or 24 to talk through your materials. I will create a sign-up sheet as a shared document, so keep an eye out for my email sharing it with you soon. If you’re not able to do a video meeting on Teams, you should still sign up, but let me know your situation. We can do your meeting by phone. If you have any questions about the final paper assignment, please let me know!

That’s all for announcements. Now let’s talk about the Brezhnev Era. As I told you last week and you read in Russia’s Long Twentieth Century, by the early 1960s Nikita Khrushchev was becoming increasingly erratic in his behavior. In 1964, the Politburo decided to force him into retirement. It’s notable that Khrushchev was the only Soviet leader who did not die in the saddle. Leonid Brezhnev soon took full power, and he remained in office until his death in 1982.

As your textbook note, Brezhnev was vain, but he didn’t command a lot of respect. Soviet citizens saw him more as a peacock than a great man. That gave rise to many jokes about him. The textbook quote several of them, and I’ll give you one more: They say that Brezhnev died during an operation to expand his chest, which was necessary to accommodate all the medals he had awarded himself.

Part of the reason Brezhnev didn’t command much respect is that while he was in office, the Soviet economy was losing momentum, and he didn’t do much to stop it. Unlike Khrushchev, Brezhnev was not a reformer. He was a stabilizer. And in the Soviet Union’s case, stability was not enough. True, the standard of living had improved: people made more money, lived in their own apartments, and had more consumer goods. But there still weren’t enough goods available for people to buy with the money they now had. And, true, you could often get what you wanted by using blat or buying it on the ever-growing black market. But the black market grew at the expense of the official market, and having to use these methods further undermined people’s faith in their government and its planned economy. In the Khrushchev Era, people wanted for things, but they had Khrushchev’s bold rhetoric about “catching up and overtaking the West” and building communism by 1980 to fire their souls. The Brezhnev Era was more stable, but it was also more disappointing. Not only were Khrushchev’s promises walked back, but few new promises were made to take their place. Now, it’s important to clarify that when I say people felt disappointed, I do not mean that they were stating to doubt the value of socialism or communism. For the most part, Soviet citizens still believed in their form of government. But they were increasingly doubtful that Brezhnev and his bevy of aging bureaucrats could carry the country forward, and there seemed no end to his premiership in sight.

Your textbook gives you a good overview of this ins and outs of the Soviet economy in this era. One thing I’ll add is that the Cold War arms race was a major drain on resources, alongside aid to developing nations. This actually had a positive effect in terms of boosting the policy of détente. Under Brezhnev, the Soviet  Union led the way in seeking arms limitation and reduction treaties. During the 1970s, the US was amenable to these ideas, though that would change in the 1980s. One of the most insidious effects of the underperformance of the Soviet economy was that as factory equipment aged and became out of date, it often was not replaced, for lack of funds. That had a knock-on effect of slowing things down even more, creating a negative cycle. As a result, the Soviet Union increasingly relied on revenue from export of raw materials, particularly oil, which jumped in price on the global markets during the 1973 oil crisis.

Brezhnev’s military adventures in this era were also deeply shocking and disillusioning to Soviet citizens. When Khrushchev sent Warsaw Pact tanks in to crush the Hungarian Revolt in 1956, de-Stalinization had just started. Soviet citizens had little information about the Hungarians’ demands and they were still in the habit of not questioning the leader’s moves. But when Brezhnev sent Warsaw Pact troops to crush the Prague Spring in 1968, it had a much deeper effect. After more than a decade of the Thaw, and with more access to information about the situation in Czechoslovakia, many Soviet citizens were deeply  upset by Brezhnev’s actions and by the Brezhnev Doctrine. Indeed, some thought the reforms proposed in Czechoslovakia—the creation of “socialism with a human face,” as Czech leaders framed it—looked promising and hoped the Soviet Union would learn from them, not crush them. The Afghan War (1979-1989) had a different and ultimately more detrimental effect on Soviet society. In this case, thousands of young men were conscripted and catastrophically injured or killed in a war that it seemed to most people the Soviet Union didn’t need to be involved in. Your textbook invokes the parallel of the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War. This is as accurate for the societal effects of the Soviet-Afghan War as it is for the military and political aspects.

It was not all dark times under Brezhnev, though. We’re going to talk about dissidents next week. For now, I’ll mention that the arts in the Soviet Union were quite vibrant during this period, though almost entirely in the underground scene. Your textbook points to the development of the underground rock and roll scene, which drew on many of the same unofficial sources of inspiration and information as the jazz-loving stiliagi a generation before. A great deal of new literature was also being produced in the underground, including memoirs written by those who had survived the Stalin Era Gulag. For example, Eugenia Ginzburg’s memoir Into the Whirlwind, which we read a few weeks ago, was first published in this underground scene. Last but not least, visual artists were creating work that defied the norms of socialist realism and playfully mocked official Soviet symbols. They were inspired in part by the abstract art that had been displayed at the Sixth International Festival of Youth and Students in 1957. Because this art could not be exhibited in official venues, artists created their own exhibitions in their apartments or even in public parks. So, when we look to the arts, we find another area in which many things are developing below the surface of Soviet society.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. The big question about this period in Soviet history is, should we continue to classify the Brezhnev Era as a period of stagnation? Taking into account everything you’ve read and the points I’ve brought up with you in this video, would you say that, on the whole, stagnation is still the most accurate characterization of this era, or would you use a different term? If you would use a different term, what would it be? Be sure to use specific information to back up your answer.

2. In discussing Brezhnev’s decision to crush the Prague Spring in 1968, our authors note the similarities between the Brezhnev Doctrine and the Truman Doctrine, which US president Harry Truman had articulated in the late 1940s. As a thought experiment, put yourself in Brezhnev’s shoes. Consider the fact that the US had already demonstrated its willingness to use military force to combat the spread of communism through its interventions in the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1955-1975), which was still ongoing. Given the high stakes of the Cold War at this point, would you also have intervened in Czechoslovakia? If not, how would you have justified your lack of action?

Did Brezhnev’s military intervention result in greater security and stability for the Soviet Union or not? You can answer this question for the Soviet-Afghan War, as well.

3. Consider the case of Lily Golden’s husband, Abdulla Hanga, whose story is recounted on p. 199. How does this story help us understand the role of the Soviet Union in shaping decolonization struggles in the developing world?

4. The Soviet underground economy grew fast in the Brezhnev Era. Its “entrepreneurs” were motivated and highly productive. Should we understand the vibrance of this economy as evidence for or against overall stagnation in this era?

5. We will talk about dissidents more next week, but your textbook already raises an important question about them. Does the existence of the dissident movement serve as evidence that Soviet society was still thriving, albeit in different areas than before? Or does the fact that it remained a small movement, which the government was eventually able to suppress, render it irrelevant?

6. As our authors note, there is an ongoing historiographical debate about the phenomenon of the underground Soviet rock and roll scene. Some scholars see it as evidence of popular resistance against the state. Others see it as just another form of fun, which Soviet young people could enjoy while still believing in communism. Look carefully at the two sides of this debate on p.208. Which side do you agree with and why?

7. An important issue raised in this chapter is the issue of freedom. The underground rock and roll and art scenes existed because Soviet citizens didn’t have free speech. If they wanted to listen to music or express a message with which the government did not agree, they had to do it out of sight. On the other hand, part of what made these scenes so vibrant is that their members didn’t have to worry about commercial success. They all had day jobs, housing, and health care guaranteed by the state. Looking back after the Soviet Union’s collapse, many artist and fans felt nostalgic for the safeguards of the Soviet Era. Which form of freedom do you think is more important? Would you trade freedom of speech for freedom from want? Why or why not?

Comrade Chat! Leah’s Video for “I Walk Around Moscow” (Week 9, Day 2)

Hello Comrades! This is our second video for Week 9, and our subject today is the Thaw Era film I Walk Around Moscow. I’m afraid me don’t have a furry teaching assistant today, because the cats are on strike for better pay. I also don’t have any new announcements for you, except to say: Thanks for your thoughtful comments on the blog and keep up the good work!

The historical background information that you read in our textbook and that I gave you in the previous video pretty much covers the context for this film. The main characters are all members of the “Thaw generation,” which came of age while Nikita Khrushchev was the leader of the Soviet Union. Notably, they are also all members of the working class. Kolya is a construction worker on the Moscow Metro, Volodya is a fitter at a construction site in Siberia, Alyona works in a shop, and Sasha is an army recruit. Their jobs let us know that they are all upstanding Soviet citizens, honest workers helping to build communism.

I Walk Around Moscow was made in 1964, and it was quite revolutionary for its time. Its director, Georgii Daneliia, had a long career as a director of Soviet comedies, but this was certainly his most famous film. It was also the debut film of Nikita Mikhalkov, the actor who plays Kolya, who went on to become a major star in the Soviet Union and remains one in Russia today. I Walk Around Moscow is considered revolutionary for a few different reasons. The storyline departs significantly from those of Stalin Era films, which focused on the glories of industry and agriculture and on the exploits of Soviet military heroes. The style of the film is also a departure. In making it, Daneliia drew heavily on the French New Wave.

I Walk Around Moscow premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1964. It won a prize there, which Khrushchev was happy to tout as evidence of Soviet superiority in the Cold War competition over culture. It was also extremely popular with Soviet young people, and the theme song became a hit on its own.

I hope you enjoyed watching it! This is one of my favorite Soviet films.

Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. Consider the main characters, particularly Kolya. What specific characteristics and actions mark them as children of the Thaw Era? What are their tastes and values? How do they express those values through their behavior? Are their values entirely new, or are some of them familiar from the prewar Soviet Union?

Watch the first minute of the film, the scene where Volodya arrives and talks to the happy young woman at the airport. How does this scene set up the film’s main values?

2. How would you describe the atmosphere or “feel” of this film? How does it compare to How the Steel Was Tempered? Consider the storyline. Is this an example of Socialist Realism? Be sure to justify your answer with specifics.

3. Our textbook authors explained that Soviet young people were hungry for more “sincerity” in the arts. They wanted more realistic portrayals of love and conflict and how people really live. Does this film answer that demand? What do you make of the fact that love is a central theme of this film, yet we never see Alyona and Volodya kiss?

4. The love story in this film is really a love triangle. Kolya likes Alyona, but she prefers Volodya. Consider the two male leads: why do you think the director has Alyona choose Volodya? What values are expressed in this choice? Do you agree with Alyona’s preference, or would you choose Kolya instead?

Compare this love triangle to the one we saw in Bed and Sofa. How does the difference in the two storylines help us understand how Soviet society has evolved from the 1920s to the 1960s. Think about this both in terms of morals and how the characters live.

5. The second scene (from 0:1:15 to 0:2:45) shows detailed footage of Kolya’s crew at work on the Metro. Shortly after (from 0:3:00-0:4:45), we see aerial shots and ground-level shots of Moscow in all its glory and hustle-bustle. In addition, throughout the film we get tidbits of Moscow’s history. What are these scenes doing in the film? What are they meant to convey, both to a domestic audience and a foreign audience?

6. Foreign languages also play a role in this film. In the scene at Volodya’s place, which runs roughly from 0:10:00-0:16:30, the café worker listens to English lessons and an English pop song on his record player. Soon after, when Kolya and Volodya encounter the taxi driver (0:20:00-0:22:30), they use German and English to communicate with the Japanese tourist. Why bring foreign languages into the picture? What does it signal about our heroes that they have interest and ability in speaking English? Given that they have this ability, why is it so limited? What might the director be trying to balance here?

7. Volodya is a pipe fitter, but he’s also an aspiring writer. In the scene from 0:33:00-0:40:00, he and Kolya visit Comrade Voronov, a man with an established literary career who has read Volodya’s first story and taken an interest in him. Volodya has an intense argument with a man he thinks is Voronov, who quotes Stalin (“Writers are the engineers of human souls”!) and tells him his story isn’t true to life. It turns out this guy is a janitor. But when the real Voronov turns up, he barely gets one line. Can you unpack this scene? In your analysis, what is the subtext?

8. The difference in generations comes up several times in this film, mostly when the older generation is trying to put the younger generation in their place. For example, the recruitment officer tells Sasha he’s too young to get married, the Metro conductor yells at Kolya for singing, and it’s a middle aged man who accuses Volodya of being up to no good at the park. What is the film’s take on this generational conflict? Is it serious or harmless? Which generation comes out looking better? Can each generation learn from the other? If so, how?

9. Kolya is a good friend. He helps Volodya throughout the film and even saves him from being arrested after the chase in Gorky Park. He also helps hotheaded Sasha get past his fight with his fiancée and get married. But Kolya ends up alone, back at work in the metro, while the others find love and Volodya finds his calling as a writer. What do you make of Kolya’s ending? Is there something particularly Soviet about it, or could you imagine the same thing happening in an American film?

10. In the final scene, Kolya heads through the empty Metro station singing the film’s theme song. We’ve heard the music several times at this point, but this is the first time we hear the words. What is this song really about? How does it express the values and outlook of the Thaw generation? Why do you think it became a popular hit?

Comrade Chat! Leah’s Video for Week 9, Day 1

Hello, Comrades! Welcome to Week 9. Today our teaching assistant is Dante. I have a few quick announcements for you.

First, thank you to all who posted on the blog last week! I’m recording this on Monday, March 30, and about half of you have posted your comments. I think it’s going well so far! I appreciate the close reading and critical thinking you all are doing.  I think we’re still managing to have a substantive discussion to the best of our abilities, given the limits of this format. For those of you who have not managed to post on the blog yet, I want to reiterate that that’s okay. Whenever you get your comments posted, you will get full credit. But I recommend that you try to keep up with our regular schedule, so things don’t pile up on you. Also, if you opt to respond to my discussion questions, I want to clarify that you do not need to answer all of them. You can focus on one question that interests you most. If you have a particular situation that is making it hard for you to post on the blog, please let me know by email.

Another thing to keep your eye on is that we are coming up on the final paper assignment. Sometime this week I will email the assignment to you and post it on the blog.

Now I’m going to add a few points of historical context to supplement the excellent information that you gained from your reading of chapter 9 of Russia’s Long Twentieth Century.

As you read, Stalin did not appoint a successor before his death in 1953. You might consider on your own what reasons he would have for wanting to leave that up in the air. Within a year, though, Nikita Khrushchev managed to gain the upper hand over his rivals in the Central Committee, in part by playing the fool and making himself seem non-threatening. Khrushchev was one of Stalin’s new elites, a worker promoted into higher education in the 1930s who then rose through the Party bureaucracy. This tells us that he was shrewd and ambitious. But the “country bumpkin” persona he used to get ahead without making enemies also meant that there was no question of him succeeding Stalin in Stalin’s style. Instead, he dealt with Stalin’s legacy by enacting a policy of de-Stalinization. The centerpiece of this policy was the “Secret Speech” denouncing Stalin’s crimes, which Khrushchev gave at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, and which you read an abridged version of for today. In the 1950s, Khrushchev also released many Stalin Era convicts from the Gulag, whose return had a profound impact on Soviet society. Finally, he allowed the “punished peoples” who were deported to Central Asia in the 1930s and 1940s to return home—all except the Crimean Tatars.

Khrushchev had some very ambitious plans for reforming the Soviet Union, many of which you read about in Russia’s Long Twentieth Century. A new openness to the West was expressed through increased tourism and youth festivals. The Soviet Union’s interest in the new African and Asian nations that liberated themselves from European imperialism in this era—as well as its desire to win them over to the socialist camp in the Cold War—was expressed through the establishment of the People’s Friendship University and massive aid grants. And a general renewal of Soviet society and culture was promoted through the lightening of censorship, relaxation of marriage and family laws, and new emphasis on communist morality.

In keeping with the Cold War competition over which system could best provide “the good life” for its citizens, Khrushchev also undertook a massive program of new housing construction, which enabled many families to move from communal apartments into individual ones. Last but not least, he shifted the economy’s emphasis to the production of more consumer goods, a move that was welcomed by the less political, more materialistic postwar generation.

The Khrushchev Era was an exhilarating experience for Soviet citizens, in good ways and bad. In keeping with the metaphor of the “thaw,” rebirth and new growth was in the air. Khrushchev took on the entrenched Stalinist old guard through a policy of bureaucratic decentralization, allowing more decisions about governance to be made at the local level. Unfortunately, this didn’t cut down much on corruption; it just put it in different hands. Economic developments in the 1950s presented a similarly missed opportunity. The Soviet economy boomed in the 1950s and the standard of living increased substantially, but Khrushchev failed to use this moment to modernize infrastructure and increase the productivity and quality of output. In the realm of technology, the Soviet Union was winning the Space Race. They launched the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, and four years later, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth. But as in the US, these advances went hand in hand with the development of nuclear weapons. Perhaps most damningly, Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands Campaign, which aimed to increase agricultural production by sewing wheat on the grasslands of the Kazakh SSR resulted in environmental disaster. Irrigational canals did irreparable damage to the Aral Sea, and soil erosion turned the region into a dustbowl.

While all this went on inside the Soviet Union, de-Stalinization also had a major impact on the new communist regimes of the Eastern Bloc, which had spent a tumultuous first decade consolidating their power, modernizing their economies, and undergoing a spate of Stalinist political purges. The Secret Speech had immediate effects. In June 1956, Polish workers staged a protest, which spread across the country and forced the government to institute Khrushchev-style reforms. Four months later, in October 1956, intellectuals and students in Hungary launched a similar movement. In this case, the hardline head of the Communist Party was ousted and replaced by a reformer, who tried to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev ordered Warsaw Pact troops to intervene, and the revolution was crushed. This was deeply shocking for Soviet citizens and Eastern Europeans. It’s worth considering how Khrushchev’s decision-making was shaped by his political apprenticeship under Stalin. This was not the last moment of unrest in the Eastern Bloc, but it was the last one Khrushchev would deal with personally.

Despite generally warmer relations with the West during the Thaw, the Cold War never let up. In fact, some of its tensest moments date to this era. Germany, new divided into two countries, remained a locus of tension. West Berlin was a particular thorn in the Soviets’ side. East German citizens used the city to flee to the West by the thousands in the 1950s. In 1959, Khrushchev finally demanded that Western forces withdraw from the city, which they refused to do. Tensions ramped up for the better part of two years, until, on the night of August 12, 1961, Soviet troops constructed the Berlin Wall, and the Western powers decided not to fight it. Berliners were the chief victims of this development. Families found themselves separated, and over the next three decades, hundreds of people were killed trying to cross.

By the early 1960s, Khrushchev was becoming increasingly erratic. Famously, he nearly brought on WWIII when, in 1962, he got the bright idea to send Soviet missiles to Cuba, which had become communist after its revolution in 1959. This triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis, which concluded when Khrushchev was embarrassingly forced to back down. Fed up with such missteps, the Politburo ousted him in 1964 and replaced him with Leonid Brezhnev, who remained in power until his death in 1982.

We’ll talk more about arts and culture in future videos. Now let’s get to some discussion questions.

Leah’s Discussion Questions
Russia’s Long 20th Century
1. Let’s consider the guiding questions provided by our textbook’s authors. In your analysis, did the Thaw constitute a fundamental break with Stalinism? How did the Soviet system change and in what ways did it remain the same? To what extent did the Thaw bring about more freedom? In what ways did it bring new restrictions to people’s lives?

2. After reading this chapter and the “Secret Speech,” what is your overall assessment of Nikita Khrushchev? Do you consider him a genuine reformer or still a Stalinist at heart?

3.  What do you make of the popular demands for greater sincerity and complexity in literature and film during the Thaw? How does this help us understand the differences between the new postwar generation and their parents? Is it possible to create storylines that answer these demands while conforming to Socialist Realism?

4. Please read the primary sources on pp.191-193 and analyze them using the discussion questions provided by our authors.

Nikita Khrushchev, ” The Secret Speech
1. Read the first two paragraphs of this speech. How would you describe Khrushchev’s tone? Why do you think he is being so aggressive? In the third paragraph, Khrushchev calls this situation the cult of personality. Why do you think he chose the word “cult”? How does it shape his audience’s response?

2. What role does Lenin play in this speech? In taking down Stalin, why does Khrushchev replace him with Lenin? Why not replace him with Khrushchev? Why replace him at all? Why might it be difficult to not replace him with somebody?

3. It’s significant that Khrushchev openly talks about the Great Purge in this speech. Find the paragraph that begins with the words “On the whole, the only proof…” Read that paragraph and the next one. Remember, for most Soviet citizens this was new information. What kind of impact do you think it had on them? If you had denounced an “enemy of the people,” or even if you had stood by while someone was arrested, how would these revelations make you feel?

Lenin shows up again here. How does Khrushchev use Lenin to make a distinction between the bad practices of Stalinism and acceptable Soviet practices?

4. Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin raises an obvious question: why didn’t the other members of the Politburo, including Khrushchev, stop him? Throughout the speech, Khrushchev answers this question by claiming that Stalin wasn’t always bad. Some of his policies, particularly the early ones, were good and necessary. And later on, they were too afraid. Can you analyze this explanation? Why does Khrushchev limit his criticism of Stalin? What would be the danger of saying that absolutely everything he did was harmful? If you were a Soviet citizen, would you be satisfied by his explanation of the Politburo’s behavior?

5. In the last couple paragraphs, Khrushchev urges his audience to proceed calmly and not “wash our dirty linen before [the enemy’s] eyes.” (Khrushchev, web) What is Khrushchev really worried about here? If he still fears “enemies,” has he escaped the cult of personality, himself?

Evtushenko, “Mourners Crushed” and “Stalin’s Heirs”

Evgenii Evtushenko, “Mourners Crushed at Stalin’s Funeral” and “Stalin’s Heirs”
1. Carefully read the first two paragraphs of Evtushenko’s account of Stalin’s funeral. How does he convey what it was like to live under Stalinism? How does this help us understand Khrushchev’s decision to make the Secret Speech?

2. What happens at the funeral? In what way does Evtushenko undergo a personal moment of de-Stalinization? How does his experience embody both the Party’s hopes and its fears about the effects of de-Stalinization on Soviet young people?

This experience leads Evtushenko to greater sense of civic duty. But could it also have had the opposite effect? How would you have felt in his shoes?

3. By the time he went to the funeral, Evtushenko was already writing poetry. De-Stalinization reinforced his commitment to this career path. Why does he believe poetryis the best way for him to contribute, as a citizen? Do you think he’s right? Do the arts have a particular role to play in such situations?

4. Let’s look now at his poem “Stalin’s Heirs.” Who are Stalin’s heirs? In your analysis, what is this poem really about? For Evtushenko, what will it take for Stalin’s heirs to truly be vanquished?

5. Carefully read the lines from “And I appeal to our government” through to “The arrests of the innocent.” (Evtushenko, “Stalin’s Heirs,” web) How is Evtushenko using the politics of memory in this passage? How does his account of Stalinism compare to Khrushchev’s in the Secret Speech? In this poem, is Evtushenko writing as a voice of protest or of support for the state?