My interview with Laurie Manchester on her book Holy Fathers, Secular Sons: Clergy, Intelligentsia, and the Modern Self in Revolutionary Russia is online.
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By Sean — 9 years ago
Lewis Siegelbaum has a cover interview with Rorotoko for his recent book Cars for Comrades. I didn’t know about this interview until I received an email from Cornell University Press’ Publicity Manager. I should note, however, posting a blurb about Siegelbaum’s interview isn’t purely out of disinterest. He’s on my dissertation committee and bringing attention to his book is the least I can do to thank him for his quick and gracious reading. Plus Cars for Comrades is a book worth mentioning regardless of my relationship with him. For car lovers it tells a story virtually unknown in the West. For lovers of Russian history, it adds to our knowledge of Soviet culture and consumerism through something we in the United States take completely for granted: the car.
Cars for Comrades also provides some historical context to accompany all the recent articles decrying the state of Russia’s roads and how Russia leads European countries in road fatalities. This past few weeks have been particularly bad for the Russian driver and passenger. According to Pravda.ru, 592 people died in accidents between July 20 to 26 alone. Between 30,000 and 35,000 people die in car accidents in Russia a year. The spate of red asphalt over the last few weeks put this year’s total over 10,000. Even President Medvedev commented on the state of Russia’s road system. “We can’t bury so many people because our traffic system is organized like this,” he said on the Kremlin’s website.
Then there is the current status of the Russian car industry as symbolized by last year’s protests in the Far East against new car import taxes. Not to mention many union struggles, assembly line closures, mandatory furloughs, layoffs occurring the Russian car industry. All of this makes the upcoming protest by AvtoVAZ workers against the indefinite closure of their auto plant, and their possible firing, worth paying attention to.
But Siegelbaum’s book is not a treatise on road fatalities or the class struggles within the Soviet auto industry. As he explains to Rorotoko:
I set out to write a book not so much about the varieties and comparative deficiencies of cars in the Soviet Union as what these objects meant to Soviet citizens. The structure and organizing principles of the book were among the first things to become clear. There would be three chapters on the “Soviet Detroits” – the places where automobiles were built, the people who built them, and how the cars and trucks they produced both embodied the state’s agendas and inspired popular identification.
I settled on Moscow’s AMO factory (later known as ZIS and still later ZIL) from where the first Soviet-made motor vehicles emanated in 1924; the Gor’kii Automobile Factory (GAZ) that began turning out Model A cars and trucks in the 1930s and later the Pobeda, Volga, and Chaika; and AvtoVAZ, the giant factory built on the banks of the Volga in the late 1960s and early 1970s to produce the Zhiguli, or as it became known abroad, the Lada.
These chapters would be followed by one on roads and their construction, the forms of labor relied upon to build and maintain them, and other dimensions of the struggle against “roadlessness.” The final two chapters would tell the story of how Soviet citizens experienced trucks and cars in their daily lives, how Communist ideology eventually accommodated the private automobile, but why cars required a lot of semi-legal or illegal activity to keep them on the road.
The book is structured around three axes: foreign and domestic, public and private, and continuity and change.
Contrary to Cold War-era assertions, the Soviet automobile industry was neither entirely dependent on nor completely autonomous from western technological developments. It did a lot of copying, mixing and matching, and innovating on the fly. In the 1930s, Soviet highway design and construction emulated Fascist Italy’s autostradas and Nazi Germany’s autobahns but for better or for worse otherwise depended on indigenous inspiration and approaches. Foreign trucks and cars – the pre-revolutionary playthings of the aristocracy, the “Renochka” that the revolutionary poet Vladimir Maiakovskii bought as a gift for his mistress, the legendary Lend Lease Studebakers, the trophy cars that Red Army officers brought back from defeated Germany, Detroit’s finest on display at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow – were icons of a world few Soviet citizens had seen. Yet, Soviet citizens took pride in “their own” luxury models (ZIS and ZIL limousines, Chaikas, etc.), thrilled to accounts of auto races and rallies in which Soviet drivers heroically overcame obstacles, and for the most part leapt at the opportunity to acquire even the most modest of Soviet models.
Actually, even the state’s property – trucks and, until the 1970s, the vast majority of cars – often was appropriated for private or personal purposes by drivers and officials in need of wheels. With the proliferation of privately owned cars in the 1970s and 80s, owners appropriated state supplies of parts and gasoline too. The mutuality of such relationships and the hybridity of forms they produced meant that occasional ruptures in the life of the Soviet automobile did not prevent the emergence over the long haul of a Soviet “automobility.” Many of its features survived the collapse of the USSR itself.
The book’s main argument is that the Soviet automobile had to adapt to Soviet circumstances as much as it provoked adaptation. If the particularities of Soviet socialism can better inform us about the history of cars and trucks, then the Soviet automobile can help teach us about Soviet socialism.
Soviet socialism via the Soviet automobile. Hey, we evaluate America through the car, so why not?
By Sean — 9 years ago
It has been a long haul and I’m slowly crawling out of my hole.
For those who don’t already know, I filed my dissertation, We Shall Refashion Life on Earth! The Political Culture of the Communist Youth League, 1918-1928, on Monday. The process of filing was a bureaucratic nightmare in and of itself. Back and forth between UCLA’s Murphy Hall because my middle name, “Christopher” (which I never use, but I somehow put down when I registered at UCLA), was not on the the dissertation. Then two trips to the library to get it checked over by the dissertation lady. What a thankless job that must be! A quite unpleasant, though somewhat charming, woman sits in a small office surrounded by dissertations, goes through each and every page to make sure the margins and typeface are correct. I was told she busts out a ruler but this must be an urban myth. I made a few slip ups and had to go back to the History Department to repair them, then go back to her to get her signature on the appropriate form. Then it was back to Murphy to get my “Certificate of Completion.” It was a journey that started at 10:30, and should have been over by noon at the latest, but ended at 2:30. The last time I experienced this many bureaucratic entanglements was paying for photocopies from the Komsomol archive and dealing with my health insurance provider. But what am I really whining about? After all, at the end of this red-tapist’s wet dream was a PhD. Still, the 1968 slogan “Humanity won’t be happy till the last capitalist is hung with the guts of the last bureaucrat” had renewed relevance.
So what now? Well back to blogging is an immediate goal. I have a lot of catching up to do in the world of Russia, and sadly, as I peruse the hundreds of news stories I’ve neglected over the past several weeks, I am reminded once again how much of the reporting is a rerun of the shame shit over and over again. Will Putin run for President in 2012? Will Medvedev? Who’s really in charge of Russia? Are US-Russia relations hot? Cold? Do they exist? Does Medvedev really like hobnobbing with Obama? Was dropping the missile shield a concession or appeasement, or just the US facing reality? Who really started last year’s war? Georgia? Russia? A pox on both houses! Iran? Is Russia an abettor to who my wife’s grandmother calls the “Second Hitler”*? Or are they on the side of the “good guys” i.e. the West? The specter of Stalin.** Back in vogue or never left the room? What to make of Medvedev’s stinging critique in his manifesto “Forward Russia!”? Does he mean business or was it just yet another empty gesture? Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan are looking like more of a mess everyday. Oh, and by the way, it kinda sucks to be a journalist (please feel free to substitute “human rights activist” or “oppositionist”) in Russia. Um, like, duh?
It is not like these issues aren’t important. They are. It’s just that when you’ve read one, you’ve read it all. There has to be some expectation of new knowledge, or at least a fresh way of looking at it. Sometimes I wonder if journos have a keyword database of ten topics that are randomly spirited to their Blackberries. A word like “Putin” appears and the article flows accordingly. The names change but the narratives always stay the same.
Now, don’t ask me how this rehashing of narratives can be avoided. Its ideological hold is so strong that even its most aware, dogged opponents (of which I include myself) can’t help but be pulled into its vortex. Events in Russia certainly don’t help. But the news filter is so thick and the categories of thought so rigid, that what’s really going on there is impossible to pinpoint. At most, we, who watch and write about the place, are only able to dance around the periphery of truth in an everlasting rendition of the hokey-pokey. Much of our thought about Russia is governed by a silent watchman akin to what Michel Foucault called a “regime of truth.” This regime is backed by a whole host of apparatuses, economic, cultural and political forces, “scientific” knowledge, categories, and rhetorics that are all deployed by a long list of christened “experts.” All of this makes anyone’s attempt to think about Russia otherwise a poster child of deviance: Putin apologist, Kremlin shill, FSB agent, etc. (See the great Anatoly Karlin’s blog for a full list of said deviants.) It is this power over knowledge, or in Foucault’s terms power-knowledge nexus, that engulfs us. It is the reason why I think everyone, Russophile and Russophobe (two categories which already delimit thought), are ultimately engaged in an orientalist project.
As I enter into a new era of intellectual exploration, armed with a degree that is equally revered and vilified, perhaps I can add a few new steps to the hokey-pokey. Perhaps I can inch a bit closer to the truth lurking behind the mystifications that govern the discourse about Russia. It is this modest task that serves as my manifesto.
Lastly, everyone, and I do mean everyone, should read Claudia Verhoeven’s The Odd Man Karakozov: Imperial Russia, Modernity, and the Birth of Terrorism. I’m about half way through it and it is hands down one of the best books I’ve read in a while.
Oh, and Anna Applebaum has really gone over to the side of lunacy. Whereas before she was merely an intermittent visitor.
*I wonder who was the first post-Hitler Hitler. A friend swears that it was Sadat.
**Another friend recently sent me the best Stalin quote ever. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal it all, because, well, it’s an academic thang. Anyway this tidbit should suffice. Stalin on Party appointments based on personal connections in Transcaucasia in 1931:
“If you pick people that way, then they will fuck you up. It’s no good. They will just fuck you up. It’s a chieftain system, totally without a Bolshevik approach to picking people…. But they do it otherwise: who is their friend, who supports them. Everybody says, “we have no disagreements; why fight?” It’s a gang.”
Makes you wonder how different this is from political appointments anywhere.
By Sean — 8 years ago
Some of you might remember review Maya Haber and I wrote of Miriam Dobson‘s book Khrushchev’s Cold Summer: Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform After Stalin. Now there’s an interview I did with Miriam about the book on the New Books in Russian and Eurasian Studies site.
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