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Choi Chatterjee, David L. Ransel, Mary Cavender, Karen Petrone, eds., Everyday Life in Russia, Past and Present

Donald J. Raleigh
p. 971-975
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Choi Chatterjee, David L. Ransel, Mary Cavender, Karen Petrone, eds., Everyday Life in Russia, Past and Present, Bloomington – Indianapolis : Indiana University Press, 2015, 448 p.

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1This bulky, eclectic volume originated from conversations among its editors (who had collaborated before) that resulted in an interdisciplinary workshop at Indiana University in 2010, “Everyday Life in Russia and the Soviet Union.” The purpose of the gathering, and of the book, “is to highlight and integrate current work in a variety of fields in which the analytical focus is on identities and subjectivities that were formed in the nexus of everyday life” (p. 2) in order to identify fresh approaches to understanding Russia. The editors rightly abandon the notion that an a priori everyday life exists, noting that, in modern times, the power of the state and various well‑meaning professionals intruded on the quotidian. Indeed, that is exactly what cultural revolution is about, both under the tsars and Soviet commissars. In her afterword to the collection, Sheila Fitzpatrick aptly calls attention to a contemporary Russian concern that the concept of everyday life represents a kind of conceptual “swamp” (p. 390). Indeed, to prevent the otherwise boundless category of everyday life from losing coherence, the editors define it as “the contact zones of daily life where grand historical events and ideological contests are personally experienced” (p. 2), and as “a series of spatial, discursive, and experiential locations” (p. 4). To further impose structure on the seventeen essays composing the volume, they loosely group them into five thematic clusters. Collectively, the chapters speak to interdisciplinary, longue durée, and transnational issues in Imperial, Soviet, and post‑Soviet Russia. They address a wide range of topics—housing, aesthetics, film, literature, television, gender, Chinese students in Soviet Russia, economics, and more—from a variety of disciplines: history, anthropology, literature, art, and film studies. And they privilege a range of sources to capture the everyday such as state‑generated records, memoirs, travel accounts, oral histories, fiction, and film. Volumes of such diversity frequently miss the mark, but this one represents a welcomed introduction to and a “must” read for anyone seriously interested in the subject.

2What constitutes the everyday and whose everyday are we interested in? The essays in part 1, Approaches to Everyday Life, tackle these questions in varying degrees, especially David L. Ransel’s informative survey of the scholarship on everyday life. Mary Cavender considers scientific agronomic practices of Russian provincial elites in the nineteenth century to suggest how they ascribed meaning to their lives. Olga Shevchenko admits that she is “not entirely sure what ‘everyday life’ means” (p. 52), but, in dealing with her skepticism, she offers an insightful reading of historical and sociological models of the everyday, while challenging presumptions about the prospects of civil resistance in Russia today. Douglas Rogers explores the main oil company, Lukoil‑Perm’s impact on contemporary festivals in the Perm Region, analyzing the intersection of oil wealth and everyday life. The author dissects the differences between the Russian word povsednevnost´, “a zone in which people experience, contemplate, and act on the world around them in the ordinary, habitual, unremarkable times of their lives” (p. 75) and the term byt, denoting the way‑of‑life static cultural practices of ethnographic subjects. Rogers does so in order to give meaning to the local population’s shift in focus on the everyday challenges of life (povsednevnost´) and their politics in the 1990s to “displays of everyday life as a means by which Russian state agencies and corporations like Lukoil‑Perm categorized and classified people and projected their own emerging power” (byt) (p. 77). In effect, Lukoil‑Perm subsidized celebrations of traditional culture, resulting in a shift away from debate and disagreements in the public realm.

3Part 2, Public Identifies and Public Space, opens with Natalia Pushkareva’s investigation into how women academics understand their success, based on extensive life interviews. She concludes that “women narrators do not recognize their delusions or their deviations from their previous trajectory in life but rather see in their ability to adapt to changing conditions a great accomplishment and not in any way a concession” (p. 115). Elizabeth Skomp surveys popular representations of motherhood in manuals and advice literature on motherhood during the L.I. Brezhnev era in order to shed light on the context in which writers Natal´ia Baranskaia and I. Grekova challenged expectations placed on mothers, thereby spotlighting their double burden. Her methodological intervention demonstrates how prose fiction and advice literature “intersect and diverge in several significant ways” (p. 118). David L. Ransel draws on a set of interviews he conducted in the factory town of Khot´kovo northeast of Moscow in the summer of 1994, to understand attitudes toward how privatization had brought a loss of local access to “formerly accessible recreational properties and social facilities” (p. 156) and what this means.

4Deborah A. Field’s essay on conceptualizing public and private during the Khrushchev period starts off part 3 on Living Space and Personal Choice. She reminds us that under Soviet power byt or “way of life” acquired new meanings of banality and backwardness that needed to be transformed. By the time of Stalin’s death, the term “included domesticity, lifestyle, and personal relations and continued to be the object of official and professional attempts at reform” (p. 163). Ultimately, she underscores the inadequacy of the public/private binary, even if she does not formulate new metaphors. In his rich chapter, Steven E. Harris takes us into Soviet mass housing to reveal how its “glaring deficiencies allowed ordinary residents to take an active role in creating community in often unintended ways” (p. 198), thereby laying bare the gap between propaganda and ordinary citizens’ lived experiences. Complementing Harris’s essay, Susan E. Reid invites the reader inside the standard apartment to consider its aesthetics, specifically display cupboards. According to the author, individuals used the mass produced furniture to create a sense of modern individuality. Turning to the post‑Soviet communal apartment or kommunalka, Ilya Utekhin shows how in post‑Soviet Russia this much decried living arrangement “has become one of the cheapest and most accessible forms of housing and one that partly evades control and surveillance by the state” (p. 250). That is, today’s kommunalka reflects a very different set of social practices than that of the Soviet past.

5The final part of the anthology, Myth, Memory, and the History of Everyday Life, begins with Peter C. Pozefsky’ discussion of everyday Stalinism in transition‑era film (from 1984 to 1998). “The films betray a nostalgia for what was supposedly lost in the decades following Stalin’s death,” (p. 273) he maintains, in particular the hope of the possibility of utopian community. Next, Serguei Oushakine examines how late socialism is “objectalized” in two popular post‑Soviet television biochronicles, Dzhanik Faiziev and Leonid Parfenev’s Namedni [Lately] and Vitaly Manskii’s Chastnye khroniki: Monolog [Private Chronicles: Monologue], which catalog the past without offering understandings of it. Writes Oushakine: “Their final product is not a story. It is not even a proper biography. It is a list of things and events. It is an inventory of objects and people. Yet without their catalogs of these crucial phenomena, it is hard to imagine late Soviet culture now, let alone—understand it” (p. 307). Benjamin Sutcliffe’s short piece considers Booker Prize‑winning author Liudmila Ulitskaia’s novel, Medea and Children (1996). In assessing what distinguishes this novel from other family chronicles, he observes that it “argues that the family and quotidian it forms may bring either hope or despair” (p. 313), but, importantly, it serves as a refuge from the brutality of the century. Elizabeth McGuire’s fascinating look at everyday experiences of disgruntled Chinese Revolutionaries in Moscow military schools at the end of the 1920s offers insights into “how silly the sinister can be but also how easily grand strategies of international revolution could be caught in quagmires of prosaic detail” (p. 344). Karen Petrone explores the reintegration of Afghan veterans into Soviet everyday life, more specifically, what many of them felt to be the inadequacy of the Soviet state and people’s response to the sacrifices they had made abroad. The rupture between the veteran’s expectations and the late Soviet and post‑Soviet systems’ ability to the address the everyday needs of the soldiers had a profound result as the “veterans envisioned violence as a currency with which they could redefine this broken exchange.” The result, she maintains, is that this “led to the violence of war penetrating the psyche and sometimes the security of the Russian home front” (p. 365). Choi Chatterjee analyzes the memoirs of American visitors to the Soviet Union from the revolution to the eve of World War II “in the material culture of Soviet socialism” (p. 369). Acknowledging her indebtedness to postcolonial and postsocialist scholarship, she establishes that these commentators, “both on the right and the left, perceived everyday life in the soviet Union as fundamentally anomalous, as devoid of moral and ethical meaning even for the native inhabitants of the Soviet Union, and for the most part they represented Soviet consumption and retail practices as an aberrational form of modernity” (p. 371). She further posits that American standards of consumption later played a significant role in bringing about the end of the Soviet experiment. Sheila Fitzpatrick’s afterword focuses on the insights that the volume’s three approaches to the everyday (interdisciplinary, longue durée, and transnational) offer, and makes a case for how the approach can inform her work own in progress on the political dynamics of the Politburo over thirty years. I especially appreciate her reminder of how an author’s own experiences and subjectivity can affect studies of “near‑contemporary,” a consideration that might have received more attention in the volume.

6The book, then, invites conversation on everyday life, serving as an introduction to the topic, and offering discussions of methodological approaches to and examples of some of the many iterations of the everyday and of the sources that can be interrogated to understand them. Despite the broad range of topics addressed in the book, some are noticeably absent such Soviet food ways, fashion, leisure, and religious practices. I mention this, of course, not as a criticism, but to emphasize Sheila Fitzpatrick’s point that “historians have often privileged other aspects of life, but it is the everyday we all live in. Elusive though it may be, we cannot afford to leave it outside our field of vision” (p. 402). Point well taken.

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Donald J. Raleigh, « Choi Chatterjee, David L. Ransel, Mary Cavender, Karen Petrone, eds., Everyday Life in Russia, Past and Present  », Cahiers du monde russe [En ligne], 57/4 | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2016, Consulté le 13 décembre 2017. URL :

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Donald J. Raleigh

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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