“The past is always richer than the way we write our history about it”

10 December 2020

In The Things of Life. Materiality in Late Soviet Russia, Alexey Golubev examines objects and places of everyday life, cultural goods and symbols to revisit the late socialist era anew. In the interview, Golubev points out the benefits of a “materialist” approach for studying the making of Soviet citizenship

© Alexey Golubev

Taking the material world into focus, your book revolves around the question what made Soviet people Soviet. You grew up in the Soviet Union and lived in Russia until your first university degree. Did your biography have an influence on the development of your object-oriented approach? 

Yes and no. We produce new knowledge by either reusing old narratives or trying to invent new ones, and my interest in the “material turn” was a result of my academic training. The approach of following the social biographies of things is a very useful heuristic device for finding new points of access to the Soviet historical experience. At the same time, one thing that I took from my experience was the understanding of a wide gap between rather narrow historical narratives about the Soviet state, that is, its ideological framework, and the actual historical experiences of the Soviet population. The past is always richer than the way we write our history about it and it is not very often that new stories make their way into the big historical narratives. With my book, I sought to address this gap.

Could you describe the general structure of the book and comment on your choice of the examples?

The first chapter is about the techno-utopian visions of the post-Stalinist era and its grand technological objects associated with progress. In the second and third chapter, I look at popular objects that “materialized” history for the Soviet educated urban audience: scale models, an increasingly popular hobby since the 1930s, and heritage wooden architecture, which became a real trend in preservation in the 1960s. Chapter four deals with marginal and transitory urban spaces. There was a lot that happened in staircases and basements and I am interested in how people used them and what role they played in the organization of the Soviet urban life. Chapter five is about bodybuilding: a hobby that was seen as threatening to the state although the young men practicing it saw themselves as loyal Soviet citizens, fully dedicated to protecting the system from “liberal enemies” and dissident youth. Finally, chapter six is about the Soviet television set.

Can you elaborate on the political meaning of the Soviet phenomena you analyzed, for example those scale models?

I had wondered why nationalist understandings of history could get so strong in Soviet Russia, although, at the time, school and university history textbooks taught you about the class struggle and Marxist theory. However, when you look at the example of the scale model hobby, there was a state-sponsored, very widely developed net of extracurricular activities, based in the Houses and Palaces of Young Pioneers. When kids would come to study these extracurricular activities, they became immersed in narratives of national pride and military glory. As a good modeler should try to get as much information that he can find about it, they would start reading military literature and so get immersed in this nationally oriented historical imagination. This is interesting, because on the official level you still have Marxist historical narratives, but on the “ground level” of this cultural practice, you have an absolute prevalence of nation-oriented, sometimes even nationalist narratives, and the objects became the medium of them.

How about the symbolic dimension of ancient Russian wooden architecture and its musealization from the 1960s on?

It is pretty much the same for the old wooden buildings, primarily churches: I studied articles of Soviet intellectuals who became so fascinated with historical Russian architecture that they devoted their entire lives to preserving them or popularizing the knowledge about them. By romanticizing ancient Northern Russian traditions, like the region Karelia and its wooden heritage buildings, they created an idealized image of the national past, while remaining completely blind to histories of violence, inequality, etc.

So you argue that by distributing certain ideological narratives through these practices, they get even deeper into the collective imagination?

Yes. And this is quite obvious especially in heritage architecture as a movement. The people who are engaged in the protection of heritage architecture now are using precisely the same narratives that were developed back in the mid-20th century by the early enthusiast of architectural preservation. Although my book is not about the Post-Soviet era, I take some excursions into the present. One of the things that I was hoping to elucidate was the relation between the late Soviet Union and present-day Russia. Why can we observe so many continuities between the two? The social structures changed radically, and obviously the political structures, too. The continuation actually lies in the symbolic structures that both the Soviet and the post-Soviet educated class have been and are using. Architectural preservation, including its discourses, is a good example, but also is, for example, early education and early schooling of children.

My findings are, in a way, analogous to and influenced by what Karl Marx states in “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”. He argues that the reason why French rural population was supporting Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III, was not that France was the same as it was during Napoleon’s time. France did change. What did not change were the kind of the symbolic structures surrounding French politics. Even though the social structure of French society was radically different in the mid-19th century compared to half a century earlier, the same narratives were reused. I find a lot of this in post-Soviet Russia as well.


Alexey Golubev is an Assistant Professor at the Department of History, University of Houston, with a focus on social and cultural history in twentieth-century Russia. He got his Cand.Sc. (kandidatskaya) degree at the Petrozavodsk University, Russia, (2006) and holds a Ph.D. degree from the University of British Columbia (2016). During the academic year 2020-21, he serves a Joy Foundation Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

Alexey Golubev, The Things of Life. Materiality in Late Soviet Russia (2020). Cornell University Press.