Socialist Realist Science in the Soviet Union


A review of Socialist Realist Science: Constructing Knowledge about Rural Life in the Soviet Union, 1943-1958, by Maya Haber.

Neglected for years before the Second World War, the Soviet countryside entered a full-fledged crisis by its end. Productivity plummeted, exacerbating food shortages, and many collective farmers refused to return to the kolkhoz. If in the past, the Soviet state had resorted to coercion and brute force to impose its will on the peasantry, it changed tack in the postwar period, calling on social scientists to produce usable knowledge that would help it better govern the rural population. Marshaling an impressive array of archival sources, journals, and memoirs, Maya Haber’s dissertation, “Socialist Realist Science: Constructing Knowledge about Rural Life in the Soviet Union, 1943-1958,” traces the efforts of social scientists to supply the state with this critical information.

Haber’s focus is less on the knowledge produced than the social scientists, themselves, and the methodologies they employed. These ethnographers, statisticians and economists form a colorful cast of characters whom she argues are better thought of as “social engineers,” rather than traditional academics (p. 7). The development of Soviet social scientists’ professional identity and their commitments to the Party and the state are the subject of Chapter 1, in which Haber also explores their personal backgrounds at length. Social scientists like Pavel Kushner, a professor of ethnography whose roots were in Bolshevik revolutionary activity, were dedicated to the Party, the state and the advancement of communism. As Haber observes, by the postwar period, a majority of scholars were older and many had trained in Tsarist academic institutions. They survived the Revolution, Civil War, the liquidation of their academic fields during Stalin’s Cultural Revolution, and the Terror – all of which inspired caution and pride in their work, and in a younger generation of scholars who looked up to them. Possessing an instrumental view of knowledge, they roundly criticized “armchair scholars” who took an overly academic approach to social problems and were detached from reality, preferring an “active methodology” centered on “purposive” activity that stemmed from the social ethic of the pre-revolutionary Russian intelligentsia (pp. 35-37). Ethnographers emphasized their authority in the village, issuing recommendations for improvement and using Party connections to secure resources and right social wrongs (p. 61). However, asserting their authority as scholars and airing unconventional opinions could bring social scientists into conflict with the Party. For example, the economist Vladimir Venzher was reprimanded for making off-the-cuff remarks on the efficacy of machine-tractor-stations (MTS) in Bulgaria in 1957, offering his opinion as as a scholar when he should have been speaking as a communist (pp. 49-60, 62).

In this mission to change society, social scientists were guided by “socialist realism,” a doctrine more commonly associated in Soviet historiography with literature and the arts. In Chapter 2, Haber examines how the anti-cosmopolitan campaign of the late 1940s, with its concomitant emphases on Marxism, patriotism and Party-mindedness (Partiinost’), led to the adoption of socialism realism in the fields of ethnography and statistics. The social sciences had been in crisis since the 1930s, with some scholars arguing that their disciplines would “wither away” under socialism; ethnography and statistics thus struggled to present themselves as “truly soviet sciences” (pp. 71-72). Haber argues that both ethnographers and statisticians faced a paradox: describing social reality “as it was” made them targets for accusations of cosmopolitanism, while describing it only “as it should be” led to accusations of being “divorced from practice” (pp. 102-103). Socialist realism allowed them to balance the competing demands of utopia and realism.

Chapter 3 focuses on ethnographers’ hunt for a typical village based on the socialist realist paradigm. Ethnographers looked for a village that preserved Russian national traditions, had an economy based on grain or cattle breeding, and was making strides in its cultural development. Economic success was not their primary consideration, leading them to reject “ideal” kolkhozes studied by other social scientists; as Haber argues, “in the search for a realized socialist realist master plot, scientists looked not for the perfect kolkhoz, but for one that germinated the seeds of a communist garden” (p. 119). However, their first choice, twin villages in Voronezh province, proved unsatisfactory because their economic development did not fit this narrative criterion, leading them to abandon the research site in 1952.

In the late 1940s, Soviet leaders criticized statistics for being overly focused on averages and not pointing to areas for improvement. Chapter 4 thus looks at the development of collective farm taxonomies and the debate over appropriate statistical measures of socialism. Indeed, as Haber points out, in the absence of a system of classification – i.e. farms were differentiated on the basis of size and district, but not on concrete conditions like soil and weather – the Soviet state could not make sense of the raw data it was collecting (p. 136). Statistics that supported the claim that farmers’ average pay were rising, for example, downplayed the fact that many farmers were paid little or no money for their work. Haber argues that there was an inherent tension between socialist realist discourse and economic rationality: the former rejected material motivation, while the latter assumed that people needed motivations rooted in self-interest. The clearest example of this tension was the workday (trudoden’), the non-cash payment offered to collective farmers (p. 154). The workday was supposed to produce an emotional affect because labor was ethicized in Soviet culture, but it had little to do with actual work performed and helped to keep peasants outside the money economy (p. 163). Social scientists identified a rural subject who worked tirelessly on behalf of communism, requiring no material incentives for his labor, an idealized image that corresponded to the socialist realist narrative but scarcely resembled reality.

Finally, Chapter 5 deals with the attempt to break free from the confines of socialist realism after the death of Stalin. Haber argues that post-Stalin agrarian reforms treated the peasant as a “liberal subject,” in other words, as a rational actor concerned with self-interest (p. 170). She chooses as a case study the reorganization of the MTS, which Khrushchev argued created a dual power structure in the countryside and had outlived their purpose (p. 171). This led to a national discussion on how best to reform them, culminating in the 1958 decision to sell the machinery directly to collective farms. Venzher had suggested this very measure to Stalin in the early 1950s and had been publicly rebuked for it. In the mid-1950s, he argued that peasants intuitively sensed the “law of value” and made rational economic decisions, as a result (pp. 180-185). Khrushchev formulated his MTS reform to comply with the liberal subject; if collective farms owned their own tools, according to this logic, they would labor more efficiently. In Haber’s view, post-Stalin agrarian reforms demonstrate the leadership’s acceptance of the “law of the market” and their realization that peasants’ labor, contrary to socialist realist depictions, was not benevolent (p. 187). But the allure of socialist realism remained strong, and Khrushchev eventually steered his reforms back toward utopian fantasy (p. 15).

Haber skillfully demonstrates how social science became implicated in the larger crisis of postwar Soviet governmentality and, as such, this dissertation will be of great interest to historians of the late Stalinist and Khrushchev eras, as well as scholars of the Soviet state. It provides crucial context for the direction of postwar and post-Stalinist agrarian reforms, illuminating how the regime arrived at the decision to offer increased material incentives to peasants and thus submit to market logic in order to solve the problem of agricultural productivity. Truly knowing and governing the countryside necessitated looking beyond idealized depictions of the peasant and his labor; however, as Haber emphasizes, the concrete knowledge the state demanded also laid bare inconvenient truths about the state of socialist agriculture.

Kristy Ironside
Department of History
The University of Chicago

Primary Sources

The Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences (ARAN)
State Archive of Kaluga Province (GAKO)
State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF)
Russian State Archive of the Economy (RGAE)
The Russian State Archive of Scientific & Technical Documentation (RGANDT)
Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (RGANI)

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2013. 238 pp. Primary Advisor: J. Arch Getty


Image: A picture of a new house in the Pobeda kolkhoz, the village of Nastas’ino, Dmitrovskii district, Moscow province, taken by researchers of the Erisman Scientific-Research Institute of Hygiene in Moscow in 1951. From Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi  arkhiv nauchno-tekhnicheskoi dokumentatsii/The Russian State Archive of  Scientific & Technical Documentation (RGANTD) f. 140, op. 1, d. 737, l. 31

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