schweizer geschichtstage

Ekaterina Emeliantseva Koller participated at the Swiss National Conference “Schweizer Geschichtstage” at the University of Zurich.

Panel: Money and shortness of money in the Soviet Union after 1945

Freitag, 7. Juni
11:15 bis 12:45 Uhr
Raum KO2-F-172

Convener: Ekaterina Emeliantseva Koller, U of Zurich

Papers: Ekaterina Emeliantseva Koller, U of Zurich: Money and other things in the late Soviet village
Kirsten Bönker, U of Bielefelde: »…but in those times we were all equal«. Post-Soviet representations of poverty, wealth, and equality in the late Soviet Union
Ksenia Tatarchenko, U of Geneva: “Soviet Innovation as a Cash Machine”: Studying the case of the scientific industrial association “Torch” (1965-1970)
Comment: Alexey Tikhomirov

A panel report was written by Barbara Martin and pictures taken by Florian Wiedemann on behalf of

Foto_5 Schweizerische Geschichtstage_1

As well, conducted an interview with Ekaterina Emeliantseva Koller.

Panel description

The significance of money that should eventually disappear in Communism remained ambivalent through the whole Soviet period. The Soviet criticism of “bourgeois” consumption and social inequality based on purchasing power goes back to the formation period of the early Soviet state but it received special attention during the final decades of the Soviet Union vis-à-vis the rising living standard of Soviet citizens and the ideological challenges of global consumerism. With the emerging of mass consumer society after WWII, when consumption possibilities became an asset in ideological rivalry of Cold War superpowers, the new “Soviet Way of Life” was meant to demonstrate the superiority of state Socialism not only in a moral sense but in material terms too. Higher salaries and pensions, low living costs and taxes, higher purchasing power counted in this race as much as arms and space technology. For the material wellbeing, the available money to spend, and better consumption options should play cohesive roles for the fabric of late Soviet society.

In practice, the emerging consumerism has led to a greater stratification of Soviet society and inequality. Such phenomena as fartsovka – illegal trade with much sought after foreign consumer items that were unavailable in state shops but could be acquired by foreign tourists – brought about a situation when various segments of Soviet society were engaged in illegal activities and the boundaries between legally and illegally acquired material wealth became blurred. With the introduction of money economy during the 1960s in rural areas, when collective farm workers began to receive a salary in money and not any more in kind, material inequality between rural and urban population and the experiences of cash shortages in rural areas became even more obvious.

The process of social differentiation of late Soviet society in view of new consumption promises and practices was accompanied by the criticism of consumerist attitudes not only by party and state officials but by Soviet intellectuals of various ideological background, from anti-modernist nationalist “Village prose” authors to cultural pessimists among Soviet film directors.

The aim of the panel is to balance the ambivalences of ideological programme and consumerism criticism against new practices and to discuss one of the central issues of late Soviet society: the quality of the simultaneous integrative and disintegrative dynamics within the societal texture. Drawing on different conceptualizations of money – as object of practices and discourses and as a “vibrant matter” (Bennett) – speakers will address the following issues:

1.What kind of images and meanings of wellbeing, poverty and wealth did new consumer practices and discourses manifest? Is it possible to discern thereby specifically “Soviet” aspects?

2.How did the modes of socialising change in the process of emerging late Soviet consumer society? What kind of new practices did emerge with different kinds of money use (cash and credit)? How were the experiences of inclusion or exclusion and inequality manifest in those practices?

3.What is the significance of new consumption practices and experiences for the discussion of cohesion and disintegration of late Soviet society?

Abstract: Money and other things in the late Soviet village

Ekaterina Emeliantseva Koller, U of Zurich

This paper will look at rural subjectivities in the late Soviet period by focusing on villagers’ attitudes towards money.

Soviet citizens in rural areas, especially agricultural workers of collective farms, became involved into money economy with the reforms during the Brezhnev era. It was only since 1966, when they were paid in money for their work and not in kind, as used to be the case in previous decades. The process of change in rural economy was accompanied by shifts in social stratification and the emergence of new consumption practices. While in some regions, villagers could generate monetary surpluses, others did suffer from chronic lack of cash. Even in prosperous areas, the rural everyday rarely did live up to programmatic promises of new life in “urbanized” villages. Although the gap in living standards between rural and urban areas grew bigger, new consumer practices acquired specific creative forms in rural areas. To address the social implications of this process, I will engage material perspective and challenge the narrative of disintegration of late Soviet society and people’s growing disbelief into the state. The aim of the contribution is to discuss the complexity of late Soviet experience with its volatile and contingent participation in and distance to the political regime through the lens of cash and its substitutes, such as bread or vodka, and the ability of those “vibrant things” (Bennett) to reorganize spaces and narratives, to shape relations and affect subjectivities in face-to-face rural communities.

Abstract: »…but in those times we were all equal«. Post-Soviet representations of poverty, wealth, and equality in the late Soviet Union

Kirsten Bönker, U of Bielefeld

Soviet propaganda painted a picture of an egalitarian, ”humane” and “warm” socialist society whereas the disdained stereotype of capitalism suggested social relations that were dominated by materialism, egoism, and money. Against this backdrop, the perestroika reforms brought about a harsh state of social disintegration for many people. Based on 42 oral history interviews, the paper explores the attitudes of former Soviet citizens towards money. It analyses how the respondents retrospectively assessed the social order of the late Soviet society regarding socio-cultural distinctions. It highlights the respondents’ classifications with which they (de-)legitimized Soviet values and social attributions. In doing so, the paper also analyses Soviet money practices that represented socio-cultural distinctions.

Many interviewees deplored the lost equality that had allegedly characterized the Soviet society and complained about the fact that only money seems to determine the post-Soviet social order. From a comparative perspective on Soviet and post-Soviet times, Soviet money practices offered reliability and predictability of living conditions in an environment of less consumer choice than today. Many people perceived the Soviet social, cultural and economic framework as having provided comparatively greater security in everyday life. Therefore, the paper addresses three questions: What kind of classifications and narrative strategies establish the comparative representations about poverty and wealth in the late Soviet Union and the current Russian society? Which narratives help to embed new self-representations into the experiences of radical societal changes? In what respect do the interviewees’ narratives about »poor« and »rich« reflect former Soviet habits of dealing with money?

Abstract: “Soviet Innovation as a Cash Machine”: Studying the case of the scientific industrial association “Torch” (1965-1970)

Ksenia Tatarchenko, U of Geneva

If cash was scarce in the Soviet Union, make-do solutions were many. This paper combines the approaches from history of science and innovation studies with economic history to study the brief existence of the scientific industrial association “Torch.” This organization was created in the Novosibirsk Science City to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration and the professional integration of young scientists. This firm, organized under the auspices of the local Komsomol organization during the late 1960s, effectively generated millions of benefice, redistributed in cash as salary payments and not accounted for by the state planning structures. At the same time, the flow of money also transformed the social fabric of the Siberian science-city by financing its many unique cultural and social initiatives. “Torch’s” dramatic success was predicate on several conditions beyond the city’s concentration of human resources: a creative interpretation of the Soviet labor regime; the special legal status of the Komsomol accounts, namely the possibility to turn credits into cash; and the support of local authorities. Effectively a cash machine operating on a large scale, the eventual downfall of the firm was unavoidable, and its accounts were frozen in 1972. The paper argues that reconstructing the brief history of “Torch” is not simply an exercise in rescuing a strange illustration, a curious exception to the Soviet experience. Rather, the transgressive arrangements of the firm provide crucial insights into the normal. The case of “Torch” helps both to better understand the everyday operation of the Soviet moral economy of scientific expertise and to elucidate the difficult question of knowledge transfer under the plan. This case study challenges received narratives about the very notion of innovation in Socialist economy and opens new avenues for considering present-day capitalist knowledge economies.

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