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  • Being Soviet: Identity, Rumour, and Everyday Life under Stalin, 1939–53 by Timothy Johnston
  • Robert Kindler
Being Soviet: Identity, Rumour, and Everyday Life under Stalin, 1939–53. By Timothy Johnston (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 288 pp. $99.00).

At the foundation of this book lies an important insight: Under dictatorships, most people are neither enthusiastic partisans of the regime nor explicitly against it. They simply want to “get by” and live their lives as well as possible. But how do [End Page 1113] people try to balance the requirements of the system and their personal needs? How do they make sense of the world around them under the conditions of lacking resources and scarce information? Timothy Johnston tries to answer these questions by focussing on popular strategies of communication and behaviour. He is particularly interested in rumours, the analysis of extended oral information networks and in what he calls the techniques of “bricolage” and the “tactics of the habitat.” Johnston argues that these strategies should not be mistaken for resistance. He rather makes the point that the essence of “being Soviet” lay in the connection of “Official Soviet Identity” and these popular practices.

Being Soviet shows, which different concepts of “Sovietness” were introduced by the Soviet state between 1939 and 1953 and how ordinary citizens responded to official discourses during these years and interacted with them. One of Johnston’s main arguments is that national identities (particular Russian) lost much of their relevance, whereas a pan-Soviet identity became significantly more important for both the official identity and popular self-identification. This held true especially during the Second World War. Another important point is the regime’s relative tolerance towards intellectual, cultural and scientific expressions during the war and their subsequent persecution afterwards. The book demonstrates in great detail how people made use of opportunities and how they sought to integrate different cultural and ideological influences into their own “Soviet” identities. Johnston shows how these identities were shaped to a great extent by the relationship with the “West,” especially with the United States and Great Britain. The Anglo-American world had an enormous influence on what it meant to be Soviet during High-Stalinism.

The first part of the book deals with the years between 1939 and 1941, when the Soviet-German pact caused great confusion among the Soviet population. Yesterday’s enemies had become partners overnight and the official propaganda obviously faced some difficulties explaining this new course. Soviet citizens tried to conceptualize the Soviet Union’s new role in international relations. This was the heyday of rumours of all kind, including stories about a forthcoming war. But, as Johnston convincingly shows, these rumours were not entirely “anti-Soviet,” but mostly belonged to the genre of “loyal rumours” that were the results of fragmented information and an incoherent official discourse. People spread rumours to make sense of a situation incomprehensible to them: they did not perceive their behaviour as harmful or even hostile to the Soviet state.

The war gave millions of Soviet people the opportunity to get in contact with the outside world in a way which the Stalinist elite did not foresee. Soldiers of the advancing Red Army saw European standards of living, others used American products provided by the Lend Lease program, or enjoyed western movies and Jazz tunes. Some even made personal contact with the sailors convoying goods to Soviet ports. These experiences clearly had a lasting effect on the Soviet population, since it brought people to compare their own reality to the fragments of western lifestyle they were confronted with. Johnston shows why the Soviet Union performed better in such individual comparisons than one might have expected. Many people acknowledged the quality of certain goods (for example American trucks) or favoured American Jazz over domestic tunes, but this did not change their general feelings of pride and national consciousness. Johnston argues that this had much to do with the failure of the Allies to open the long awaited second front against Germany. [End Page 1114]

The third part discusses Soviet identity after the war, when the Cold War formed the new context of relations between the USSR and its former...


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