Paulina Bren, The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring. 264 pp. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010. ISBN-13 978-0801476426. $24.95.
Leonid Parfenov, Namedni: Nasha era. Sobytiia, liudi, iavleniia. To, bez chego nas nevozmozhno predstavit', eshche trudnee--poniat' (Recently: Our Era. Events, People, Phenomena. That Without Which It Is Impossible To Imagine Us, Much Less Understand Us). 4 vols. Moscow: Kolibri, 2011. 1961-1970 (278 fenomen desiatiletiia [278 Phenomena of the Decade]). 272 pp. ISBN-13 978-5389002487. 1971-1980 (282 fenomena). 272 pp. ISBN-13 978-5389005754. 1981-1990 (304 fenomena). 288 pp. ISBN13 978-5389000322. 1991-2000 (342 fenomena). 306 pp. ISBN-13 9789538911076.
Kristin Roth-Ey, Moscow Prime Time: How the Soviet Union Built the Media Empire That Lost the Cold War. 320 pp. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011. ISBN-13 978-0801448744. $39.95.
Russia's recent reconsideration of its political present in the streets has been preceded and accompanied by the most extensive public exploration of the Soviet past since the late 1980s. The past under examination is not the Stalin era, however, but the decades that followed, which have come to be seen as relevant to the post-Soviet present. Undermining a decade of efforts to project a vigorous, shirtless masculinity, Vladimir Putin's announcement that he would run for the Russian presidency again generated a new image, in which Putin's face--wrinkled, sagging, and with enhanced eyebrows--sits superimposed on Leonid Brezhnev's be-medaled chest. (1) In 1999, Leonid Parfenov, a Russian journalist who has taken a leading role in the recent protests against electoral fraud, began work on a 40-episode documentary television series titled Namedni (Recently). In the 12 years since he began that project, he writes in a new four-volume work based on the series, his view of the relationship between the recent Soviet past and present changed. "It seemed," he writes, "that in the future the Russian would take over and replace the Soviet. It turned out that the Russian more often repeats and continues the Soviet" (Namedni: Nasha era, 1961-1970, 6).
This new interest in the continuities between the Brezhnev and Putin eras is troubled, however, by the extreme uncertainty, both in Russia and in the West, about how exactly to characterize either that era or the present one. Namedni's television documentary episodes, each devoted to a single year of Soviet and post-Soviet history, 1961-2001, open with Parfenov in a room full of floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets, apparently representing the vast and diverse contents of the recent past. The labels on each file cannot be made out--how are they organized, if at all? The book, like the television series before it, is likewise organized in the manner of medieval annals, by year, as a kind of list of unconnected memories, "278 Phenomena of the Decade," as the subtitle of volume 1 indicates. (2) Perhaps readers won't mind; Parfenov's books are lavishly illustrated and well researched. The photographs alone are invaluable for anyone teaching the post-Stalin period.
Yet Parfenov's editorial choices do reflect a subtle argument about how we can better understand the last Soviet decades: a very large proportion of his vignettes are drawn from the media, and from television in particular. Two important new books, by Paulina Bren and Kristin Roth-Ey, take up the argument that we have much to gain by looking at post-Stalinist socialist societies through the lens of their mass media. Taken together, they offer us a way to understand and begin organizing Parfenov's vast filing cabinets of postStalin memory and experience, one that is likewise centered on the creation and embrace, by the Soviet and Czechoslovak states, of a vast new mass media system with the capacity to engage socialist citizens in unprecedented ways.
The late 1950s and the 1960s saw the transformation of Soviet culture by a media revolution that made television the most important and emblematic medium of the 1970s. …