- The Body Soviet: Propaganda, Hygiene, and the Revolutionary State
In her book The Body Soviet, Tricia Starks examines the propaganda discourse on health, hygiene, and sanitation in Soviet Russia during [End Page 547] the New Economic Policy (NEP) era (1921–1928). Health care, she argues, was an issue of vital importance to an early Soviet state that needed healthy citizens in order to promote population growth, expand industrial production, improve military readiness, and recover from the demographic disaster of almost a decade of total war, civil war, multiple revolutions, mass famine, and epidemic infectious disease. In its concerns over population decline and state power, the early Soviet state, as Starks points out, echoed many of the anxieties of European, American, and prerevolutionary Russian social reformers and public health professionals. Where the early Soviet campaign on health differed, she asserts, from those of its ideological archenemies in the industrial democracies was in its ideological utopianism and in its aggressively invasive nature.
Soviet health and hygiene polices, Starks shows, were part of a Bolshevik project to use science, propaganda, and state power to create a clean-living class of enlightened and orderly Soviet subjects capable of constructing communism and proving its superiority to a capitalist world plagued by ineradicable dirt, disorder, and decline. Starks traces the roots of the Bolshevik romance with hygiene to the utopian socialist writings dear to the heart of Russia's nineteenth-century revolutionary intelligentsia, all of which celebrated science, communalism, and cleanliness. From these popular writings, the Bolsheviks, Starks argues, learned to see dirt and disorder in political terms as symbols of superstitious tradition and of an oppressive capitalist system that had to be conquered to create both a healthy body politic and an antiseptic communist modernity purged of the backward politics, people, and pathogens of the bourgeois past.
To assist in their efforts to both banish dirt and build communism, the Soviet state had, at its disposal, the social hygienists of the People's Commissariat of Health and their grassroots community volunteers. These activists sat at the apex of an institutional infrastructure of dispensaries, sanatoriums, and consultation points through which the Soviet system sought to instill in its subjects the civilizing practices of rational, orderly, and sanitary living. Based on Western and prerevolutionary precedents, these institutions used on-site care, intrusive home inspections, and extensive propaganda efforts (ranging from educational pamphlets and posters to movies and mock trials) to saturate society with the message of Soviet hygiene.
Soviet attempts to create a clean-living society also involved efforts to instill ideologically appropriate leisure practices and to avoid the contamination of a NEP-era cityscape lurking with petty capitalist [End Page 548] entrepreneurs, prostitutes, and corrupting Western influences and entertainments. In special institutions like spas and houses of leisure, Soviet citizens could rest and relax in an acceptable environment centered not on chain smoking, problem drinking, and sexual promiscuity but on self-improvement, physical culture, and the construction of clean and incorruptible communist minds and bodies. Attempts to instill appropriate health and hygiene regimes also led to the recruitment and activation of grassroots volunteers to invade and inspect homes for possible sources of pollution.
To aid these policies, Soviet hygienists targeted the overworked wives and mothers who, as the agents of stifling tradition and the masters of the domestic sphere, served paradoxically as both the cause of household dirt and disorder and as the only source for a potential solution to these pervasive problems. As source and solution to the unclean domestic order, Soviet women had to be educated, guided, and assisted by the hygiene establishment and its activist base. As the womb of the proletariat, Soviet womanhood also had to be subjected to the state's pronatalist policies and propaganda devoted to the healthful and ideologically wholesome rearing of children.
While spending much of the text's space analyzing the verbal and visual discourse of the social hygienists' clean-living campaigns, Starks does not lose sight of the many difficulties these enterprises faced. Most urgently, these...