The history of Russia in the first half of the twentieth century is marked by so much turmoil and upheaval that it seems to speak of another world. Having grown up in the relatively peaceful milieu of middle-class America in the last decades of the twentieth century, I find it difficult to imagine a life that knew revolution, world war, another revolution, civil war, domestic political terror, another world war, and exile to an alien land. I continue to be fascinated with, and drawn to, the questions of how such events come to be, and how ordinary people manage to carry on in such circumstances. I was happy to find in Robert Reincke’s book, Death of a Past Life, some insight into this last question. This book traces the lives of the author’s grandmother and mother, from the end of Russia’s “belle époque,” to their escape from the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. Continue reading →
Reflecting on a Recurrent Theme in the Art and Literature of the Soviet Union: The Nature and Importance of the “Housing Problem” for Urban Dwellers in the U.S.S.R.
Reflecting on the subjects I have studied and written about for this blog over the past year, there is one topic that comes up so often, and is discussed with such passion, that I am led to conclude that it was an important part of the social consciousness of many Russians during the Soviet period, particularly that of city dwellers. Mikhail Bulgakov, when describing an office in the home of the Moscow’s writers’ union that presumably dealt with this issue for its members, labeled it “Housing Problem.” I will look at three sources that point to the prevalence and importance of the “housing problem,” and argue that while such problems are a common by-product of the rapid urbanization that accompanies modernization and industrialization, the unique path to modernity adopted by the Communist Party, and its responses to the realities thereof, defined the character of this problem for the population in the big cities of the US.S.R. Continue reading →
One could be excused for imagining that a book with the title Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking might be a collection of recipes, with details about the finer points of food preparation in the former Soviet Union. The subtitle, “A Memoir of Food and Longing,” hints at a more personal account. Neither of these, however, prepare the reader for the epic of family history, biography, autobiography and scholarly assessment of the Soviet Union presented in this excellent new book by Anya von Bremzen, former citizen of the USSR and three-time James Beard Award winner. While this may seem like too much for a single volume, it is artfully stitched together using food, in all its meanings, as thread. The tale of the creation and eventual dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is one of, if not the grandest narrative of the 20th century. Anya’s stories of herself, her grandmother, and especially her mother, are engaging and endearing, and breathe life into the stock of familiar characters and events in the history of the USSR. Her well-crafted distillations of the theses and arguments of prominent academics on subjects such as the “nationalities question” and Stalinist totalitarianism are usually spot-on. All this is brought together by how it informs, and is informed by, food.
Any illusions that this is a book celebrating the quality of Soviet cuisine are quickly put aside when the author admits, in mentioning her mother’s love for sosiski, i.e.- Soviet hotdogs, that “besides sosiski with canned peas and kotleti (minced meat patties) with kasha, cabbage-intensive soups, mayo-laden salads, and watery fruit kompot for desert—there wasn’t all that much to eat in the Land of the Soviets.” Continue reading →
In 1946, George Kennan argued that the “ideology, and the circumstances of power” inherent in the Soviet regime required the Communist Party to have enemies to point to in order to legitimize its exercise of complete and exclusive control over the economic, political and social life of all citizens of the U.S.S.R. Kennan believed that by the end of World War II, it had become increasingly difficult to target internal “enemies of the revolution”—the purges of the 1930s could hardly have been more effective at eliminating them. But the war, and the subsequent competition among the victors for regional and global influence, allowed the Party to point to external enemies: the capitalist regimes of the West. Thus, with Kennan’s help, the Cold War was initiated.
But who were these “enemies” within the Soviet Union prior to the Second World War? Douglas Smith goes a long way to bring home the reality of one group of these “counter-revolutionaries”—the so-called “former people.” Continue reading →