Caroline Humphrey. The Unmaking of Soviet Life: Everyday Economies after Socialism. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002. xviii, 265 pp. Map. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $45.00, cloth. $18.95, paper.
Caroline Humphrey has an established and well-deserved reputation as one of the leading anthropological specialists on the USSR and its successor states. This book is a collection often essays, all previously published (between 1991 and 2000) as either journal articles or chapters in edited collections, and introduced by Bruce Grant and Nancy Ries. They focus on the diverse ways in which different groups in post-Soviet Russia and Mongolia have sought to cope, both physically (largely, but not exclusively, in an economic sense) and spiritually, with the legacies of the communist past and the often harsh realities of their divergent post-communist situations. While the various situations are often depressing, Humphrey looks for signs of innovation and renovation, and can usually find them in unexpected places.
One theme permeating much of the book is that most citizens have been living in a "state of radical uncertainty" and insecurity since 1991. Another is that the political and the economic continue to be too closely intertwined in the post-Soviet world, which helps to explain popular mistrust of the state. A third is that Russia and Mongolia are in many ways still societies in which conceptions of property are fluid and hazy, and in which there continues to be greater commitment to the notion of the collective than is typical in many Western (especially predominantly Protestant) societies.
Part One is titled "The Politics of Locality in an Unstable State." It deals primarily with how people cope in a time of breakdown and near-chaos by attempting to create "localities," their own identifiable and manageable spaces. This assumes highly diverse forms, including even identifying goods as insider (ours) and outsider (from somewhere else). Unfortunately, it also often involves exclusion of other people, not just goods, as dislocated groups and individuals seek to bring greater stability into their lives through the construction of identifiable boundaries. Some of the analysis of provincial and village Russia resonates well with Richard Rose's arguments concerning pre-modernity in post-communist Russia.
My own research interests in corruption and organized crime meant that Part Two-"Strategies Beyond the Law"-was the most interesting for this reviewer. It examines the ways in which some people have sought to cope by exploiting confusion and desperate need, or by learning ways to make the authorities more manageable and human through bribery, which can soften otherwise hard boundaries. …