- Socialist Consumption and Brezhnev’s StagnationA Reappraisal of Late Communist Everyday Life
In a survey conducted by the Levada Analytical Center in Russia in January 2014 among a sample of 1,600 urban and rural citizens, participants were asked which economic system they found more attractive: one based on state planning and distribution or one based on private property and the market. More than half preferred state planning.1 In another survey conducted by the same agency in March 2015, people were asked whether they agreed that it would be better if everything in Russia remained as it used to be before [End Page 665] perestroika. The majority answered positively.2 These figures illustrate the well-known phenomenon of nostalgia about the Soviet past, which is widespread not only in today’s Russia but also in other postsocialist countries. Indeed, following the aspirations for Western democracy, demands for change, and rejection of socialist practices in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many citizens of the postsocialist countries were hit by the material difficulties of their new life, grew disappointed in market values, and began to look backwards. A careful study of this period and its practices can help us reconstruct the image of everyday socialism and better understand the reasons for its collapse as well as the subsequent nostalgia. The consumer culture approach combined with new archival documents, oral interviews, and media materials appears to be an efficient tool for the fulfillment of this task.
Historians’ interest in the problematization of consumption dates back to the 1980s and reached its peak in the 2000s. The reason for this interest, according to Frank Trentmann, one of the founders of the history of consumption, is “historians’ turn away from an older male, production, and class-oriented vision of social democracy,” replaced by “the attention to the politics of everyday life, family and gender.”3 One of the first such projects was “Consumer Cultures in Historical Perspective,” directed by Victoria de Grazia in 1991–93, whose results were published as a collection of essays.4 The aim of the book based on material from the 19th and 20th centuries was to show how Western societies think about and use goods and how goods shape identities. Later Lizabeth Cohen, Frank Trentmann, Matthew Hilton, and Leora Auslander, to name just a few, used the lens of consumer culture to study the formation of modern citizenship.5 For example, Cohen argued that with the rise of mass consumption in postwar American society, improving one’s well-being became a citizen’s duty, since personal consumption was seen as essential to national prosperity.
In its early stages, the consumption approach was seen as useful mainly for the study of Western modernity and modern capitalism. The traditional view [End Page 666] had it that since the production of goods in the socialist states was centralized, shortages were constant, and governments were not interested in looking into and satisfying citizens’ demands, socialist citizens were not “real” consumers.6 Later on, however, the consumer culture approach was also applied to the study of socialist societies. The first socialist country to be studied as a consumer society was the German Democratic Republic (GDR).7 The scholars who looked at the Eastern Bloc tried to determine whether one could talk about a consumer culture in a state-planned economic environment with a lack of consumer choice. Studies showed that the politics of consumption in socialist countries was not so different from that of the capitalist world: for example, Susan Reid, who was the first to study the consumer culture of the USSR, found that for the Soviet...