Style and Socialism: Modernity and Material Culture in Post-War Eastern Europe

Style and Socialism: Modernity and Material Culture in Post-War Eastern Europe

Style and Socialism: Modernity and Material Culture in Post-War Eastern Europe

Style and Socialism: Modernity and Material Culture in Post-War Eastern Europe


This book explores the material and visual world of the socialist Bloc from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. The essays, by authors from a range of disciplines, examine the forms and uses of material objects that made up the environment of life behind the 'Iron Curtain', and investigates the particular ways in which these objects came to represent the often divergent aspirations of regimes and peoples in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.The two decades after the end of the Second World War considered here constitute two contrasting periods: that of post-war Stalinism and the 'sovietization' or 'stalinization' of Eastern Europe; and, from the mid-1950s, the period of destalinization and relative cultural liberalization known as the Thaw. During the Thaw, consumerism and a moderate fashion consciousness began to be tolerated or even encouraged to varying degrees in different parts of the Bloc. Style, regarded as a suspect notion under Stalin, became a legitimate and even urgent issue. What forms of dress, home furnishings and housing, as well as of fine art, would provide a stimulating environment that could meet the physical and ideological needs of -- and give shape to -- modern, socialist life? Challenging the assumption that all cultural norms were generated and effectively imposed by Moscow, essays in this anthology investigate the interactions and exchanges between the countries of the Eastern Bloc and and ask how, even in socialist economies, the consumption of material objects -- or the refusal to consume -- could project personal and collective identities and even articulate resistance.Anyone who seeks to understand the effects of state socialism on life in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, or who is interested in the intersection of politics with art, design and material culture will find this book absorbing and illuminating.


For those of us working on the material culture of the Soviet bloc – my own field is architecture – these materialized manifestations of such societies always seemed more revealing and enduring descriptors of their attributes and tensions than the ephemera of properly ‘political’ analysis. So history has proved.

Kremlinologists and their East European equivalents looked upon us as lightweights who swam in the froth while they probed the depths. When decontextualized and purely stylistic accounts were the norm they could argue a case, but that era is past. in the post-modern world we understand the potency of the fragment as a diagnostic site for exploring the condition of a whole system. We realize that any attempt to rewrite the histories of these states, any building of new understandings, must begin precisely by digging some new boreholes into their daily lives and looking afresh at the elements, the strata, the tensions and pressures we find there. the essays assembled here are such fragments and boreholes.

Mountains of documentation were hoarded in these states and their so-called ‘collapse’ has opened the doors for precisely such probing. the richness of the research that is emerging across all fields of cultural history, of which only a small front is represented here, is reflected in the way academic conferences on Sovietbloc issues have become dominated by panels and papers from these areas, whereas previously it was earnest debates on political and economic minutiae which held sway.

The pre-collapse situation in Soviet-bloc studies had its ironies. Most prominent, perhaps, was the assumption, deeply inconsistent with the Marxist materialism underlying the polities being studied, that we can understand a superstructure without reference to the technological and material base that actually structures it. Modern systems analysis is enough to show us, without recourse to Marxism, if preferred, that it is what we would call in the broadest sense ‘the technologies’ that make possible certain lines of communication, which pattern certain paradigms of thought, which open or foreclose certain practical options for every organization or individual. While economic and political analysis focused on the middle term, those two more telling predictors of a system's behaviour, the meta-narrative and the detail, were ignored. the result was a failure to see that the system was becoming so unstable in relation to the external environment, and so organically . . .

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