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  • The Things of Life: Materiality in Late Soviet Russia by Alexey Golubev
  • Milena Veenis (bio)
The Things of Life: Materiality in Late Soviet Russia By Alexey Golubev. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020. Pp. 220.

Golubev's book stands in a rich tradition of investigating the social agency of things and the entanglements between humans and objects in Soviet Russia and other European socialist countries. Well-known studies in this field have focused on the more striking meeting places between people and things, such as kitchens (Reid, "Cold War in the Kitchen," 2002), architecture (Varga-Harris, Stories of House and Home, 2016), and food (Gronow, Caviar with Champagne, 2003). Golubev directs his attention to unexpected human-object entanglements, like youth hobby clubs for modeling miniature ships, planes, and vehicles; bodybuilding activities that many people undertook in the basements of their flats; and Karelian politicians' activities to protect wooden architecture.

The book's best chapters wonderfully bring to life the affective subjectification of late soviet Russia's material landscape. Golubev combines archival sources, specialized journals, interviews, and letters to sketch the world of hobbyist model constructors (ch. 2). Building scale models of military vehicles, going back to long before both world wars, was a very popular pastime among school children and an extracurricular activity the state and state organizations strongly promoted. The idea behind this promotion was that making history palpable would bridge the gap between famous historical figures and school-age kids (p. 49). Through this activity, children learnt "in a casual and noncentralized manner" to recognize Soviet history [End Page 306] as a continuation of the Russian nation-building project, in which they became entangled in an inconspicuous and everyday way (p. 52).

Golubev claims, however, that the collections of such miniatures are more than just assemblages of historical copies; they are performative, because "they materialize and transform into a spectacle the epistemological and political categories of historical time" (p. 57). Sentences such as these clearly show the author's theoretical position on the relationship between people and objects. Building on work by Igor Kopytoff and Daniel Miller on the role of things in the objectification of social life, and on Bill Brown and Michel de Certeau regarding materialities' subversive potential, Golubev shows that, because objects can materialize emotions, meanings, and regimes of knowledge, they allow for processes of subjectivation that contest the dominant frameworks of their time (p. 165).

This argument is best substantiated in chapter four, aptly titled "When Spaces of Transit Fail Their Designers," where Golubev sketches how young people appropriated public space by spraying the walls of the stairwells and landings in apartment blocks with graffiti, charcoaling their ceilings, and having sex on the stairs. In these interactions with the material surroundings, the youth showed their affective response to what they experienced as the materialization of their own social marginality. Marking public space with graffiti and charcoal was teenagers' way of engaging in a conflict with "the values and principles of the dominant socialist discourse," where not just the boredom of youth, but "the very livability of late socialist urban space" was at stake (p. 108).

This chapter's focus on such mundane places and materialities like stairwells and ceilings illustrates Golubev's argument in a nutshell. People make sense of the historical time and social landscape they live in through the material objects that surround them, and the interaction with these things causes affective responses that lead to historical change.

With its focus on groups of people who were not endowed with an official cultural voice, Golubev's book is certainly a welcome addition to the academic literature on (post)soviet materiality. Finding the "true" voice and experience of ordinary people as users of material culture and technology is no easy job in this context. Because everything was politicized in the Soviet Union, it is extremely difficult to strike the right balance between paying tribute to this omnipresent politicization and not reproducing it. Golubev not only succeeds rather well in this, he also makes a strong plea to "de-Sovietize" the country's history. Investigating it through the lens of the government's political agenda would not only miss the agentive potential and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
pp. 306-308
Launched on MUSE
2022-01-06
Open Access
No
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