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Social and Human Sciences in the Soviet Union: A laboratory of Modernity in the 20th Century?

Article proposals should be sent before June 1st, 2019

Notes de la rédaction

Coordination of the thematic issue: Isabelle Gouarné and Olessia Kirtchik

As a follow-up to the thematic issue “Sociology Behind the Iron Curtain” published by Revue d’histoire des sciences humaines in 2007, this project aims to revisit the history of the social sciences and humanities (SSH) in the Soviet Union, against the simplistic clichés that have long considered them as an exceptional case, cut-off from the history of modernity in the 20th century. The Soviet SSH were thus thought above all as “impeded”, without real autonomy, victims of censorship and violent repression, when it was not the whole discipline (sociology, psychotechnics, paidology, or psychoanalysis, for example) that was condemned. Intellectual innovations originating among Soviet SSH scholars were very often analyzed only as the result of their strategies of evasion, resistance or smuggling in the face of the Soviet power.

Without ignoring the political and ideological constraints in which they were taken, the objective of this thematic issue is to question this narrative depicting the Soviet SSH as a counter-example of the Western humanitarian sciences shaped in the 20th century by the processes of autonomisation and professionalisation. Since the 2000s, indeed, a finer and more complex view of the relations between the SSH and the Soviet power has emerged. A whole series of case studies have taken as their object statistics, economics, ethnology, and other disciplines valued for their “social utility,” linked with planning and construction of a socialist state. They have pointed out the convergences that could have existed not without misunderstandings, or the multiple tensions between the political vocation of the SSH and the Soviet project of a socialist state.

In this perspective, we suggest to put at the heart of the analysis strategies and practices deployed in order to develop negotiated research spaces, with greater or lesser freedom according to the period of time. Paper proposals may deal with various disciplines and subfields of the Soviet SSH and possibly question the Soviet particularities in disciplinary demarcations and labelling. Social history approaches, paying a special attention to institutions, actors, but also to ideas, theories and knowledge produced, are highly welcome. In particular, the articles may choose to address, non-exclusively, the following issues:

  1. How, first, to think about the forms of adherence, consent, resistance or avoidance that emerged in the face of the avatars of the Party-state aiming at framing production and circulation of knowledge as well as other scholarly activities (such as censorship organs, party cells and youth organizations at research institutes and universities)? These institutions of political and ideological control willing to dominate the whole of intellectual life could only function by associating scholars, thus forced to deploy strategies of compromise, adaptation or challenge. Could these control mechanisms not only be the instruments of imposition and state repression, but also resources mobilized in the intellectual struggles or even places of negotiation, where some muted contestations of the Soviet order and its hierarchies were possible?

  2. We are also interested in the relations that the SSH have maintained with State expertise by specifying the multiple modalities by which Soviet scholars were, according to the periods, mobilized for the construction of the socialist state: “counseling” and “diagnosis”, participation in the implementation of governmental policies in various social and economic domains, and so on. How did the Soviet SSH (and with what expectations) respond to the social demand, implicit or explicit, from the State which pretended to rest upon “scientific basis”? In what ways did this state mobilization of knowledge articulate scientific and/or political forms of legitimization?

  3. Finally, we question the ambivalence of the internationalization of Soviet science, especially during the post-Stalin and “late socialism” periods. If it offered Soviet scientists new opportunities as well as material and symbolic resources, the policies of international openness also created additional constraints, because of the strict control exercised by the political power over contacts with foreign scholars and institutions. To what extent could expressions of loyalty be combined with forms of protest aimed at redefining the boundaries of the SSH, both institutionally and intellectually? How has internationalization been able to foster strategies jointly of intellectual autonomy and, at the same time, reaffirmation of the usefulness of this knowledge and its anchoring in the political project of the socialist governance of society?

Breaking with the binary oppositions inherited from the Cold War (East / West, ideology / science, closed / open society, dissent / loyalty and so on), this thematic issue aims to question the place of the Soviet SSH as a laboratory of modernity in the 20th century. The discussions that they provoked, the affinities that they had with the political project of social transformation, the close relations that they forged with the state power, and also the repressions they suffered, interrogate this striving to govern rationally the populations that was at the heart of modern societies and the impasses to which it led in the 20th century.

Instructions for authors

Article proposals (3000 characters maximum), in English, French or Russian, should be sent before June 1st, 2019 to the following addresses:;;

The thematic issue will be published at the end of 2020. The journal accepts articles in English and French, from 30,000 to 50,000 characters (spaces included).

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