Bringing Beauty into Life: How Soviet Workers Discovered Aesthetics after Stalin

Seminars and Colloquia

It has become commonplace by now to think of the late USSR in terms of shortages, deficits, and other forms of deprivation. For decades, lack was the key meta-metaphor around which the Cold War vision of the Soviet Union was structured. The Soviet was typically equated with a lack of freedom, a lack of housing, or a lack of basic food items. While certainly true, this emphasis on lack and absence tends to obfuscate a profound fascination with things, objects, and material culture that was so typical for the late Soviet period. Serguei Oushakine argues that it is precisely the materiality of these things and objects that made the Soviet experience durable. Focusing on things allows us to foreground a different dimension of the social. Less imaginary, perhaps. Maybe, even less ideological. Certainly, more graspable, sensuous, and concrete. A social experience that lasts. 

Starting with the second half of the 1950s, one could easily trace the emergence of a distinct set of ideas and arguments and a network of social actors that provided a viable alternative to the dominant process of the formation of the new Soviet person. The mass housing projects generated strong attempts to envision a purposefully organized material environment. It was this palpable environment (not norms and rules) that was supposed to nudge and direct the individual towards more effective styles of consumption and behavior.

In his talk, based on a book-length manuscript he is working on right now, Oushakine focused only on one aspect of this late Soviet materiality: by reading closely materials published in the 1960s–1970s, he showed how Soviet sociologists, urbanists, and designers tried (though ultimately failed) to transform new mass apartments (khrushchevki) into an effectively constructed material ecosystem (ob'ektanaia sreda). Material aesthetics––not ideology––was seen as a major force that could productively shape the perceptions and demands of the Soviet individual.

Serguei A. Oushakine is Professor of Anthropology and Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. In his research, he focuses on transitional processes and situations: the formation of newly independent national cultures after the collapse of the Soviet Union to post-traumatic identities and hybrid cultural forms. Oushakine published, among others, edited volumes on trauma, family, gender and masculinity. He was a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, a recipient of the ACLS’ Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship, and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. During his current stay at IWM, Serguei Oushakine plans to work on two book-length projects. One of them is a book on the material production of personal living space in the late Soviet Union. The second project is based on a long-term ethnographic fieldwork that the author has been conducting in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) and Minsk (Belarus); the book proposes to look at post-socialist development in these countries through the lens of postcolonial theory.

Franz Graf, Fellowship Program Coordinator at the IWM and Lecturer at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna, provided commentary.

Clemena Antonova, Research Director of The World in Pieces at the IWM, introduced the speaker and moderated the discussion.


Fellows Colloquia are internal events for the IWM Visiting Fellows and Guests.