In This Review

The Things of Life: Materiality in Late Soviet Russia
The Things of Life: Materiality in Late Soviet Russia
By Alexey Golubev
240 pp, Cornell University Press, 2020
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Comradely Objects: Design and Material Culture in Soviet Russia, 1960s–80s
Comradely Objects: Design and Material Culture in Soviet Russia, 1960s–80s
By Yulia Karpova
248 pp, Manchester University Press, 2020
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Two books explore the meaning and impact of material objects in the Soviet Union. Golubev’s intriguing work closely follows a recent academic trend that focuses on how objects facilitate historical change. He delves into the significance of a number of everyday things and spaces, including scale models, the TV set, bodybuilders’ dumbbells, and apartment building stairwells and basements, tracing their influence on Soviet attitudes and social practices. The scale models of ships and planes that children would build in youth centers emphasized the historical continuity of Russian and Soviet technological breakthroughs, implicitly undermining the official narrative of the Bolshevik Revolution’s radical break from the prerevolutionary era. Iron weights were a key element in shaping what Soviet bodybuilders imagined to be the proper Soviet body and character. Although bodybuilding was not officially sanctioned until the late 1980s, bodybuilders sought to discipline, often by force, alternative, “non-Soviet” collections of youths, such as hippies or punks. At times, the author drifts away from his focus on materiality. In the chapter about the TV set, for instance, he dwells more on the social context of TV viewing and on specific TV shows than on the TV set itself as a material object.

Karpova’s research into Soviet objects goes beyond the study of material culture and makes a great contribution to late Soviet intellectual history. After Stalin’s death, the political thaw and the partial opening to the West resurrected debates, abandoned after the 1920s, about ways to make Soviet commodities a strong alternative to capitalist ones. Karpova’s meticulous analysis includes grand projects, such as the construction and furnishing of the Palace of Pioneers in Moscow, a youth center she describes as iconic and emblematic of Khrushchev-era Soviet modernism; the 1960s design of everyday items, such as alarm clocks, refrigerators, and kitchenware; and the shift away from practical functionality toward objects charged with symbolic meaning. Intense artistic and philosophical debates accompanied the evolution of Soviet design. Karpova chronicles the transition from the functionalism of the Khrushchev era, which praised basic interiors and useful objects, to the more florid “neodecorativism” of the late 1960s, which emphasized a diversity of tastes and spirituality, and, later still, to a conceptual move away from objects and toward integrated and balanced environments in which objects and materials were well organized.