The Soviet Century

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From The Wall Street Journal:

We have had reason of late to think anew about the Soviet Union and the legacy of the Cold War—the fighting in Ukraine reverberates with the ruthless geopolitics of an earlier era. In “The Soviet Century,” Karl Schlögel takes us on a tour of the Soviet past in all its materiality, a tour that puts on display, as he puts it, the “archaeology of a lost world.”

He begins with a visit to the vast outdoor flea market at Moscow’s Izmailovsky Park, where, as the Soviet Union began to collapse in the early 1990s, “an entire world-historical era was being sold off on the cheap.” A modern-day refuse heap, the bazaar showcased the offerings of hundreds of individual households eager to turn their once-cherished tchotchkes into much-needed cash.

It wasn’t only in Moscow that such a selling-off was attempted. Haphazard bazaars, Mr. Schlögel says, sprang up across the country. Using blankets or folding tables, people displayed samovars, cups and saucers, Red Army hats, insignia pins, captured German military uniforms, pennants, Communist Party membership cards—“the debris and the fragments of the world of objects belonging to the empire that has ceased to exist,” as he writes. Anything that might attract a buyer.

Mr. Schlögel doesn’t mention the avoyska—a “just in case” knitted bag—that Soviet citizens routinely carried with them on the chance they would happen upon tomatoes or melons for sale on a street corner (something I used to see for myself on my visits to the Soviet Union in the 1980s). He does note that when urban dwellers lined up for goods—not only at bazaars but at the entrances to subway stations, where people sold loaves of bread and articles of clothing—they often did so without knowing what everyone else was waiting for and just assumed it would be for something they needed.

For Mr. Schlögel, an esteemed historian based in Frankfurt, such improvised markets are an emblem of a broader theme. His focus is not on the foreign relations or domestic crises of Soviet rule but on outward appearances: the look, the smell, the sounds of everyday life. Based on decades of research and an intimate knowledge of history and culture, “The Soviet Century” is a fascinating chronicle of a not-so-distant era.

Among much else, we learn about life in a typical communal apartment, where several families had to share a space that was now divided into single rooms for each multigenerational family. As late as the 1970s, 40% of Moscow’s population “enjoyed” such accommodations, with all of its inevitable tensions, petty disputes and invasions of privacy. We learn about the system of door bells: “Ring once for Occupant A, twice for Occupant B and so forth.” And about the lavatory as a semipublic space. “A toilet for over thirty people . . . was not untypical,” Mr. Schlögel writes. A gallery of toilet seats would hang on the lavatory wall.

Other stories in “The Soviet Century” (translated from the German by Rodney Livingstone) capture unique and surprising moments in cultural history. Who would have guessed that the original formula for the Soviet perfume Red Moscow—developed before the Revolution but introduced to the public in 1927—led to the creation of Chanel No. 5? Or that when the special archive of banned books and periodicals was finally made available to researchers during the time of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in 1987, it included “300,000 book titles, 560,000 journals, and a million newspapers”? Of course, the Soviet century included bannings of another sort. As Mr. Schlögel reminds us, more than 200 “philosophers, writers, university teachers, and agronomists” were personally chosen by Lenin and banished to Western Europe in 1922. Others were simply shot.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG suggests that, while some details have changed, Putin’s Russia still seems a lot like Stalin’s Russia.