Alan Barenberg, Associate Professor of History at Texas Tech University where he specializes in the social and economic history of the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1970s. He is the author of Gulag Town, Company Town: Forced Labor and its Legacy in Vorkuta.
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By Sean — 2 years ago
Guest: James Casteel on Russia in the German Global Imaginary: Imperial Visions and Utopian Desires, 1905-1941.
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?Post Views: 498
By Sean — 10 years ago
Prime Minister Putin continued his annual Q&A with the Russian people on Thursday. A full English transcript is now available on Putin’s website. Russia watchers have already began combing through his words, interpreting their significance, and assessing their political resonance. As most reports emphasize, Putin spoke at length about the economic crisis assuring Russians that things will get bad but the nation will weather the storm. It’s not surprising that the PM’s comments focused on the economy. Issues like unemployment, inflation, benefits and pensions were naturally what concerned most people.
Russians were eager to pose questions to the PM, or as a caller named Dasha Varfolomeeva called him, “Uncle Volodya.” About 2.2 million flooded in via phones, text messages, and the Internet. At times it appeared the studio was barely handling the deluge. At one point, Maria Sittel, the event’s co-host said, “The load is tremendous, Mr Mackevicius. No time for rest. I think we have crossed an important psychological barrier: 2.2 million communications, including 1.5 million telephone calls and just over 600,000 text messages. The rest is from the Internet.” Putin may not be president, but he certainly is “the father of the nation.”
This idea of Putin as “father” or even “uncle” to the masses is certainly not a new political idea for Russia. Direct communication with the Father, whether it be the Tsar, General Secretary, President or Prime Minister has been a dynamic between leader and people for centuries. Normally, the distance between leader and led is vast, giving the opportunity to be in the leader’s proximity a momentary but significant symbiotic relation. Here I find myself in agreement with Masha Lipman’s explanation of this event:
“[It] emphasizes the paternalistic nature of the regime. It is a style of government in which the most important thing is the rapport between the top decision-taker and the people. Many of those questions were local or even individual. And people have their own legislators. They have federal legislators they voted for, they have their own governors and yet there is this sense that maybe the only way to get a problem solved is to get through to the supreme authority.”
Putin’s Q&A does say a lot of about the personalized nature of the regime, but it also says that Russians themselves recognize this as an effective means to get problems solved. For example, the Financial Times notes,
From the southern city of Nizhny Novgorod, a mother called to complain that a subsidised baby food clinic had been closed. Half an hour after the show, the governor of the province announced the miraculous resolution of the problem.
The Tsar + people against the boyars dynamic continues to function. The interests of the leader are sublimated into the people so that for one brief moment they embody the sovereign body of Putin. When looked at closely, the whole exercise exerts an air of the carnivalesque.
The notion of proximity between leader and lead is further seen in how so many Russians crafted their questions. Not only did they address subjects as wide ranging as Christmas trees and pedophiles, how callers crafted their questions says volumes about the language of appeal. The questions were often personal and callers were quick to give Putin a short autobiographical note mixed with a political statement. For example,
Good afternoon, Mr Putin. My name is Oksana Klimova. I’d like to express the pain of many people who live in the Far East. We feel detached from central Russia, since many families cannot buy train or air tickets, because air tickets cost around 30,000 rubles or even more. My kid asked me if we could go to St Petersburg for winter holidays, but I said No.
What will be done for the healthcare and education professionals to help them afford such luxury?
Good afternoon, Mr Putin. My name is Olga Savelyeva.
I am a single mother. My daughter is 16. She studies in the 11th grade, this is her final year. I work at the radio-electronics plant, the Kontakt plant with billions in sales. These days, they have announced layoffs because of the crisis. Out of its 4,000 workers, 1,500 will be dismissed. I have worked as a production engineer for more than 20 years, and my salary grew from 6,000 to 8,000 rubles, but now it is being reduced. I am afraid I may lose my job.
Mr Putin, how will you deal with massive unemployment?
As someone who has read a number of appeals to leaders during the Soviet period, I’m struck by their narratological similarities. Often letters to power began with an autobiographical introduction of some sort. Since those appeals were written, the authors tended detail their life in greater depth than those fielded by Putin. Citizens’ requests from the early Soviet period also had a similar individual tone. I have letters to Komsomol General Secretary N. Chaplin asking for advice on marriage, employment, money, and other forms of assistance. Sometimes people got results. On some letters to Stalin, one can see his marginal notes directing the appeal to the appropriate authority. In other cases, letters of complaint and denunciation opened up investigations of local officials.
Finally, I think the most interesting part of the Q&A was the final part when Putin took short questions and at many points took personal responsibility for their resolution. Here are a few examples:
“I have eight children, my eldest daughter is 20. I have not received the Order of Maternal Glory, and, hence, I don’t get the benefits.”
It goes without saying I will check on this. I can’t comment on this particular case now, but this mistake should be corrected. I hope you’ve left your address here. We will find you.
“Dear Mr Putin, I found my father’s grave killed during WWII on the Internet.” The man asks to help with restoring the monument, which the local budget cannot afford.
We shall contact you. This is a sacred duty of local and regional authorities alike. If they do not have enough money, I would stress that the matter implies not only money but also morals. We shall help if they cannot afford such things, but I don’t think this is a matter where thrift should come in to play.
“We have no school and no art or knitting classes near our home. The children hope you will help.”
This is also a matter of regional scope, but we shall help, as the message has reached me. We shall certainly help.
“My request concerns my son, who will be conscripted next autumn. He dreams of serving in the Kremlin Regiment.”
Good boy! It’s great that he wants to go into the army. As for the Kremlin Regiment, it has certain qualifications. I will pass your message along to the Federal Guard Service, and I believe its chiefs will do something for you.
Whether Putin actually comes through on these is immaterial. What is important is that he acknowledged people’s individual voices in a very public forum. In the big political sense, that recognition is more important as any results.Post Views: 604