Cornell University Press

Materiality in Late Soviet Russia

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The Things of Life: Materiality in Late Soviet Russia is a social and cultural history of material objects and spaces during the late socialist era. It traces the biographies of Soviet things, examining how the material world of the late Soviet period influenced Soviet people’s gender roles, habitual choices, social trajectories, and imaginary aspirations. In doing so, The Things of Life expands our understanding of what made Soviet people and society “Soviet.”

In this Q&A, author Alexey Golubev provides insights into the process of researching Soviet archives.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

When I was gathering archival materials for this book in Russia, I had to deal with the complicated work schedule of Russian archives and libraries. Only some of them are closed on Saturdays and Sundays; some others do not work on Wednesdays, and some others – on Mondays or Fridays (but are open during the weekends).

To optimize my research time, I ended up working between two cities: St. Petersburg and Petrozavodsk. On Sunday night I would take a night train or bus from Petrozavodsk to St. Petersburg, arrive early Monday morning and spend three days working in the archives there. On Wednesday night I would take a night train or bus back from St. Petersburg to Petrozavodsk, arrive early Thursday morning, do my research in the local archive for the following two days, and use the weekend to work in the National Library of Karelia or interview people for the book. On Sunday night the cycle would relaunch. These were several exhausting months, but they let me find extraordinary materials.

2. How do you wish you could change the field of Russian and Eurasian Studies?

I would like the field of Russian and Eurasian Studies to be more attentive to the historical experience of those social groups that were marginalized in the Soviet era and hence left fewer historical sources and voices than, for example, urban or national intelligentsia. This is, in fact, one of the themes in The Things of Life where I examine some of late Soviet social group that were removed from political and cultural capital, and whose historical experience is often invisible in historical narratives of this period.

This is one of the heuristic potential of writing social biographies of things: by following their passage through society one can see what conventional historical narratives tend to omit.

*Featured photo by Kong C.

Alexey Golubev is Assistant Professor of Russian History and Digital Humanities at the University of Houston. He is coauthor of The Search for a Socialist El Dorado.

See all books by this author.

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