Post-Stalinist Soviet Masculinities

BrandonMiller1

A review of Between Creation and Crisis: Soviet Masculinities, Consumption, and Bodies after Stalin, by Brandon Gray Miller.

It is a crucial time for studying gender and sexuality issues in Russia. The past few years have seen Russian president Vladimir Putin embark on a particularly harmful legislative path regarding top-down notions of gender conformity and proscriptions around sexual identities and behaviors. Where political scientists, sociologists, and literature scholars have produced many crucial studies of the rich terrain of gender and sexuality issues in Russia, however, historians seem to have become less surefooted of late in arguing for these topics’ importance to Russian/Soviet history. While Russian women’s and gender history proved a vibrant field in the 1990s and early 2000s, we have seen far less published work on these issues in more recent years, and fewer graduate students seem to be pursuing the subject. Happily, as Brandon Gray Miller’s dissertation shows, a new generation of scholars is indeed poised to continue asking questions about Soviet gender history, particularly the understudied field of Soviet masculinities, and to build on the research done by innovators in this field such as Dan Healey, Lilya Kaganovsky, John Haynes, Rebecca Friedman, and Karen Petrone. Miller is not content only to continue along previous lines of research, though, but also pushes older questions in new directions.

Miller situates his subjects within broader conversations in recent literature on post-Stalin society, in particular de-Stalinization, private life, youth culture, and consumption in the Khrushchev era. Each of his four chapters focuses on an innovative case study of “male consumptive practices” (p. 23), including scholarly treatments of alcoholism, drug use, fashion, and sex. Through these cases, Miller finds that manhood broadly construed after Stalin was in flux, joining more particular social groups such as veterans, released prisoners, “hooligans,” and others attempting to navigate the new political and social terrain. (On those topics, respectively, see past work by Mark Edele, Miriam Dobson, and Brian LaPierre.) He argues that the party-state attempted to calm these ripples, prescribing “male consumptive and bodily practices in order to rid [men] of politically and socially destructive tendencies” (p. 2), with authorities focusing on consumerism in particular—on consuming in the correct ways, never in excess—as the best method of shaping respectable Soviet manhood in the 1950s and 1960s. The four chosen case studies navigate this topic well, investigating consumption practices deemed harmful as well as beneficial, and showing the ways in which gender analysis can help prise open broader social and cultural issues.

Miller heads straight into the destructive side of consumption with Chapter One, “Tearing Down the ‘Men’s Club’: Alcohol Politics and Masculinity.” It is a bold choice that pays off. The unsettled landscape of post-Stalin society is immediately brought into sharp relief as Miller at once focuses on a population group—women concerned about their male relatives’ drinking—that tests the boundaries of compliance and complaint; a state apparatus similarly walking an uncertain line between reeducation and punishment; and the men themselves redefining older categories of comradeship and belonging, in this case the “men’s club” of regular alcohol use or abuse. The section in which Miller analyzes letters of complaint written by women to the media as well as to the Supreme Soviet stands out in this chapter as particularly poignant: “These women drew on bits of the scientific-technical, modernist discourse through activation of medical tropes and a language of renovation prevalent during the Khrushchev era to make claims on proper Soviet masculinity,” writes Miller (p. 43). While referencing the longer tradition in imperial Russian and Soviet history of letter-writing to state officials, Miller shows that in this era of new possibilities after Stalin, women seeking state intervention in their families offer us “a chance to reflect on the ways in which Soviet citizens conceived of their position vis-à-vis the state and the extent of their belief in the transformative possibilities of the system” (p. 54).

Destructive consumption habits continue in Chapter Two, “The New Soviet Narkoman: Drugs and Youth.” In comparing this topic to that of the first chapter, however, Miller points out that the legality of alcohol versus the “unspeakable secret” (p. 81) of drugs informed both the social discourse about drug use and the state’s ability to police both users and traffickers. In a fascinating section on Soviet Central Asia as part of transnational networks in the global drug trade, Miller ventures into the vastly understudied field of Soviet masculinity and nationality. He finds that many Central Asian traffickers carved their own post-Stalin identities and asserted their masculinity not only through membership in those networks, but through the conspicuous consumption enabled by the profits.

Chapter Three is the centerpiece of the dissertation, as Miller moves his study of consumption and the masculine body to the realm of fashion. In “Mod and the Modern Man: Clothing Practices and the Soviet Male Consumer,” Miller draws on a wealth of previous studies of women’s fashion to root menswear choices and availability not only in discourses about utility or consumerism, but also in the state’s increasingly particular aesthetic goals for men. “The arrival of technologies meant to manage the appearance of men during this time further served to sand off their rough edges, transforming them into visibly appropriate inhabitants of a changing state,” argues Miller (p. 130). The sources in this chapter are particularly rich, as Miller analyzes a decade of Zhurnal mod, a popular fashion and design magazine. This is a topic with great potential for masculinity studies, drawing on historiographies of the home, design aesthetics, and taste. Much like Susan Reid’s pioneering work did in drawing attention to postwar socialist consumption, the topic of fashion has the potential for dialog with European and other global histories that still often perpetuate Cold War characterizations of Russia as a drab, conformist society. As Miller shows, Zhurnal mod’s question, “how should a man dress?” became a key question in post-Stalin society (p. 136), and the conversation about that theme continued to hold consumers’ attention despite persistent shortages or outrageous prices (p. 149). Through that question, moreover, authorities seem to have moved purposefully into the space inhabited by the stiliagi, the fashion-conscious young men who had emerged after the war. Although Miller does not go this far in his argument, one wonders whether the state’s interest, through Zhurnal mod, in seeking to guide clothing choices was not also part of the conscious Khrushchev-era rejection of arbitrary arrest or terror to discipline rogue social elements. (On that point more broadly, see Miriam Dobson, Khrushchev’s Cold Summer: Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform after Stalin. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.)

The final chapter, “Sexual Bodies in a Post-Stalinist Landscape” investigates sites of contact between sexuality—one of the most private and individualistic of human behavior—and the party-state apparatus, which was concerned with surveilling the individual for the supposed benefit of the collective. Male sexuality is a vastly understudied topic in Soviet history, particularly heterosexual male sexuality, as Dan Healey has done crucial research on gay and lesbian subcultures in imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. In this chapter, Miller focuses on the ways in which “officials and experts confronted sex” (p. 188) in the Soviet population, including Komsomol responses to members’ rape charges, race-based fears of foreign (male) students’ fraternizing with Soviet (mostly female) youth, and the revived “science” of sexology in the 1960s, as authorities attempted to clarify sources of knowledge about sex. Interestingly, we see through Miller’s Komsomol documents that sexual violence was a major concern for the organization, as it catalogued rape statistics, described incidents in detail, and repeatedly engaged in discussions about how better to educate both men and women (often blaming the victim) about healthy sexual behavior. Anxiety about the moral consciousness of youth more broadly is evident here, and Miller’s contribution comes in linking these anxieties to broader issues of gender performance. Elsewhere in the chapter, Miller uses South African archives to great effect to investigate the anxieties of both Soviet authorities and young men about the perceived threat of male African students dating Soviet women. Here Miller argues that “sexual anxieties merged with tropes of material privilege, envisioning arriving ‘third world’ students as comparatively wealthy and able to use their advantages to (unintentionally) marginalize Soviet men” (p. 219). While Chapter Three on fashion showcased consumption as constructive, this final chapter expertly brings the dissertation back around to its opening subject: we conclude as we began with the destructive patterns and consumption habits of Soviet men that drew the attention and concern of authorities. In this final chapter, the unhealthy ways in which men consumed sex speak to a particularly troubled post-Stalinist social landscape in which negotiations—and uncertainties—about male power and privilege haunted the Thaw era.

Miller ultimately finds that manhood and modernity in the postwar and post-Stalin era were mutually constitutive. Authorities sought to “produce productive male citizens of a modern mold freed of the rough and coarse habits associated with working-class and village masculinities” (p. 2). They did this by focusing on the consumption habits of Soviet men, trying to fashion the ideal post-Stalinist man by shaping his habits, behaviors, and the material goods that mattered to him. Where the state might have wished to control and direct, however, Miller also finds men themselves shaping their own stories, intent on consuming—alcohol, drugs, clothing, and even sex—in their own ways, with or without state permission. This study is highly original and important, contributing to the understudied field of Soviet masculinities while also shaping the questions that will take Soviet gender and sexuality histories forward and integrate these with broader questions of Soviet, European, and global modernities.

Erica L. Fraser
Adjunct Professor
Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies
Carleton University
erica.fraser@carleton.ca

Primary Sources

State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF)
Russian State Archive of Social and Political History (RGASPI – Komsomol branch)
South African National Archives Repository (NAR)
Zhurnal mod

Dissertation Information

Michigan State University. 2013. 253 pp. Primary Advisor: Lewis Siegelbaum

Image: Winter formal wear as shown in Zhurnal mod (Winter 1962), p. 28. Uncropped image shown here:

ZM 62 p28

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