Everyday Life in State Socialist Societies

Conference in Pula, Croatia, 12-15 May 2022

Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Southeast Europe in cooperation with Centre for Cultural and Historical Research of Socialism (Juraj Dobrila University of Pula), International Institute of Social History (Amsterdam), Department for Sociology and Social Work (Babeș-Bolyai University), Faculty of Philosophy and Religious Studies (University of Zagreb), Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies (Regensburg), Department of Gender Studies and Department of History (Central European University).

The «history of everyday life» continues to be an important research approach for historians of state socialism, careful not to reduce the richness of social relations in these societies to the extremes of totalitarian subjugation and heroic resistance. Concepts closely related to this approach, such as Eigen-Sinn, help uncover how socialist citizens negotiated practices, interactions, and meanings with the seemingly all-powerful party-state in their immediate surroundings. After the initial spread in the German-speaking historiography and research focused mostly on the GDR in the 1990s, the approach to state socialism «from below» was picked up by scholars of diverse countries in recent years. The goal of the conference organizers was to connect the current doctoral students and junior scholars of lived experience under state socialism with the rich literature on Alltagsgeschichte and inspire them to think comparatively about the similarities and differences, not only in space but also in time, across shifting, highly differentiated periods of communist parties’ rule.

Observing various sessions and debates in retrospect, one can say that the conference highlighted five distinct clusters of themes related to work, consumption, culture and leisure, gender and intimacy, and the spread of socialist values in society. With regard to work, the papers shifted the focus away from the well-researched topics of industrial labor and the communists’ attempts to create workers with «socialist consciousness». Instead, they analyzed the more marginal forms of labor in peripheral spaces and searched for continuities with pre-socialist and post-socialist practices and ideologies of work.

Faruh Kuziev (Budapest) described the symbiosis of formal and informal economies in sovkhoz in late socialist Tajikistan. Looking at the creative ways in which state-owned farm workers appropriated land and machines for private usage, he underlined the potential of planned economies in crisis to nurture proto-capitalist practices from below. Sara Žerić (Regensburg) presented the case of returning «guest workers» (Gastarbeiter) from Western Europe and their impact on the small Croatian town of Imotski. The dilemma faced by the local authorities of this underdeveloped region was how to mitigate conspicuous consumption and find a productive outlet for the private capital accumulated abroad that does not contradict socialist Yugoslavia’s ethos of workers’ self-management. Melanie Foik (Münster) showed how the harsh working conditions of medical nurses in socialist Poland were officially legitimized with the help of Christian notions of female care and compassion in suffering, ironically the very ideological traditions that the communist authorities wanted to abolish. Márton Szarvas (Budapest) looked at the staff employed in the Hungarian «houses of culture» in the times of increasing marketization of Hungarian socialism. He showed how demands for decentralization and economization put more burden on these cultural institutions to finance their activities and pushed the educating staff to transfer their «cultural capital» into political engagement.

Several papers looked at the redistributive policies of state socialism, analyzing how the changing patterns and unpredictable trends in everyday consumption (de)legitimized communist rule. Jelena Piškurić (Ljubljana) explained how the citizens of socialist Slovenia went around complicated state regulations and waiting lists, engaging in widespread illegal construction to resolve their housing situation. She concluded that this practice was motivated primarily by economic necessity but also broader cultural patterns, with people from different social strata opting for this informal practice. Anna Sokolova (Moscow) presented the case study of berry picking in timber production settlements of 1970s Soviet Karelia. Initially, a side activity to modern industrial timber production, the archaic practice of hand-picking berries became the main commercial activity, connecting the region with trade partners in Finland and Japan and turning it into a hotspot for imported luxurious goods. Clemens Villinger (Erfurt) looked at the everyday consumption practices of East Germans on the eve of 1989. His paper concluded that social inequality was an accepted way to organize society already before the transformation period due to the widespread acceptance of individual performance as a criterion for allocating income. The socialist slogan of «distribution according to work» thus served to ease the introduction of the market as a potentially more objective and just redistributive mechanism than the party-state.

Contributions focusing on culture and leisure often kept «westernization» as an implicit analytical frame influencing mass consumer culture and spare time activities in state socialism. Evgeniia Platonova (St. Petersburg) talked about the models of masculinity in the Soviet fashion of the 1950s and 1960s. Pointing to bodily features and clothing styles, she concluded that male fashion ideals were similar to those of Western countries at the time. Marko Zubak (Zagreb) and Goran Krnić (Oldenburg) underlined the importance of basketball at the amateur and professional level in socialist Yugoslavia, explaining its evolution from an exotic game with minimal local tradition in the interwar period to a ubiquitous part of everyday life in the socialist period, that embodies modernity and urban sophistication. Claudiu Oancea (Bucharest) presented the career steps of becoming an established rock musician recording for a state publishing house in socialist Romania. He underlined the omnipresent censorship of song lyrics and the importance of black markets for records of local and foreign artists. Olha Martynyuk (Kyiv) presented the changing status of a bicycle as a means of transportation throughout the existence of the Soviet Union, from obligatory registration, taxation, and condemnation of biking for pure pleasure in the interwar years to the gradual spread of private bicycle ownership after World War Two. She noticed how until the very end of the Soviet Union, bicycles remained associated with rural environments where they were part of the barter culture and facilitated personal connections. In contrast, the large cities were built on a techno-utopian vision focused on motorized vehicles.

When it comes to gender and intimacy, the conference participants explored how to gender Eigen-Sinn and looked into state socialist policies on sexuality. Alissa Klots (Pittsburgh) analyzed the letters written by Soviet teenage girls from working-class families to Aron Abramovitch Dubrovitskii, a «sex education» (polovie vospitanie) enthusiast and morality speaker in the mid-1960s. These letters reveal the tension between two competing sets of norms: Soviet morality discourse and traditional rules of conduct between genders. Presenting a comparative overview of state fertility regulations in Eastern Europe, Mona Claro (Liège) concluded they shared common traits such as early legalization of abortion and a pronatalist stance. She highlighted the case of the Soviet Union, where abortion was available on request. However, the government feared that free access to hormonal contraception would enable women to gain too much reproductive autonomy and threaten the pronatalist policy’s efficiency. Drawing on oral history interviews with women and men, Jill Massino (Charlotte) explored the gendered dimensions of Eigen-Sinn in socialist Romania. She focused on the shop floor, the family, and reproductive politics, analyzing how women mobilized to challenge sexist or discriminatory practices of the state. In this way, Eigen-Sinn served as a coping mechanism, a vehicle for self-preservation, and a medium for promoting civic and gender justice.

Finally, a group of papers explored the mechanisms for creating social consensus and (self)legitimization of the ruling ideology. George Bodie (Cambridge) followed the solidarity funding campaigns with Third World struggles initiated by the Free German Trade Union Federation (FDBG) among its rank and file. His paper identified various forms of top-down and horizontal pressures to become active and donate but also allows for a variety of responses from below, from open resistance to tacit acceptance and popular enthusiasm among the workers. Arina Kolodina (St. Petersburg) analyzed letters of complaints sent by Soviet citizens to Komsomol in the 1950s. She viewed these moral grievances as a form of mutual surveillance and state control over society. At the same time, Kolodina rejected the analytical usefulness of the «communist morality» as a notion, seeing this type of control as intrinsic to all modern states seeking social cohesion. Marie Lániková (Brno) looked at the construction of the meaning of the late socialist order from below in the case of the Czechoslovak Women’s Union. In her paper, women entered local chapters as a strategy of overcoming difficulties they faced (shortage of consumer goods, lack of information), thus forming a «community of solving issues», which helped them gain a sense of agency and make sense of their lives. Sašo Slaček Brlek and Jernej Kaluža (Ljubljana) analyzed the discourse of self-managed media in socialist Yugoslavia as well as popular reactions to their reporting. They paid particular attention to the double representation of Josip Broz Tito as a political leader and a «celebrity figure», which helped create a common political and cultural space in a highly decentralized state.

Next to the panels, the conference organized three guest lectures given by Igor Duda (Pula), Marsha Siefert (Budapest), and Martha Lampland (San Diego), as well as a roundtable that consisted of panel discussants, key lecturers, and two members of the conference organizational committee: Alina-Sandra Cucu (Nantes) and Marcel van der Linden (Amsterdam). The keynote speakers and the roundtable participants pointed out that most papers implicitly took the nation-state as their analytical framework. Most commentators recognized the necessity and importance of conducting micro-historical research of distinct case studies but also appealed for more comparative and transnational approaches. They underlined the potential advantages of looking at different forms of state socialism and capitalism from below without block categories and recognizing similarities and differences from a fresh perspective. The organizers suggested moving the research agenda forward in practical terms by continuing with mutual exchanges and forming a support network of historians interested in the social and everyday histories of state socialism.

Author: Goran Musić, Research Platform for the Study of Transformations and Eastern Europe, University of Vienna.