- Beam Me Up/Out/Elsewhere, TovarishchNegotiating the Everyday in Late Socialism
For quite a while now it has been common knowledge that the Iron Curtain may have been iron, yet at the same time it provided huge holes to look through.1 Recent rephrasings of the Iron Curtain include terms like “Nylon Curtain” or “semipermeable membrane.”2 Even as the notion of a transparent [End Page 433] curtain became prominent in new histories about the Eastern bloc, the transparency of the Iron Curtain seems to be more of a one-way street. This can be observed in how rarely present-day historians or political scientists interested in “Western history” engage with the East. As much as postcolonial history, global history, or transnational history have gained in popularity in the last decade or two, these global perspectives often end where the iron curtain used to be.3 Until the 1930s, the East provided the place where “Western” people went to search for their utopian dream, but this situation dramatically changed with the onset of the Cold War.4 The “imaginary West” (to quote Alexei Yurchak) was omnipresent and informed consumption practices and lifestyles among all social strata of the socialist bloc during late Stalinism. The same cannot be argued for an “imaginary East.” There were hardly consumption practices or lifestyles that made it into the capitalist West. The “imaginary East” was perceived as the land of gray and did not provide anything to be copied or hoped for (even hardboiled Western Communists had trouble finding anything desirable in the East other than rather abstract ideas).
The notion of an “imaginary West” in the postwar socialist bloc, however, not only was extremely vibrant but essentially provided a utopia people longed for.5 The “West,” both “imaginary” and “real,” is an important reference in all three books under review. Although since Yurchak’s intervention it seems fair to assume that a Komsomol teenage youth leader could wear blue jeans and listen to the Beatles without meaning to challenge the system he/she lived in, some doubt still lingers when, for instance, Michael David-Fox considers Western influences to be “fateful.”6 A similar perspective is brought forward in many research areas as consumption and leisure, dissent [End Page 434] or grassroots activism. The assumption of many scholars dealing with late socialism seems to be that practices that by themselves on an individual level were not threatening, and certainly not for an entire political system, those practices on a larger scale gained momentum. At one point the situation had to flip—and it did flip. The books under review implicitly all deal with this flipping moment, the moment in which late socialism turned from being forever into being no more.7
Anna Ivanova’s book explores the paradoxes of Soviet consumer culture. Once a suspect notion among historians of the Soviet Union it has become common knowledge that there was not only consumption in the Soviet Union but indeed a consumer culture.8 While many books in recent years have looked at Soviet consumer culture by focusing on items that transformed from luxury to almost everyday use (cars, dachas, refrigerators), Ivanova decidedly studies shopping options. Her topic of interest are berezki, closed stores under the auspices of the Soviet government, which sold rare or foreign products for either hard currency or certificates. Consequently, the group of customers in berezki was privileged per se. Western tourists could shop for foreign currency in a chain of stores around the Soviet Union. Those Soviet citizens who either had access to foreign currency (the use of which within...