The best books on Soviet social history

Who am I?

I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Foreign Language Teaching Methodologies at Vyatka State University in Kirov, Russia. My book Stalin’s Constitution: Soviet Participatory Politics and the Discussion of the 1936 Draft Constitution was published in November 2017.  Most recently I have published an article-length study entitled Peasant Communal Traditions in the Expulsion of Collective Farm Members in the Vyatka–Kirov Region 1932–1939 in Europe Asia Studies in July 2012. I am currently conducting research for a future book manuscript on daily life on the collective farms and the day-to-day relationships between collective farmers and local officials.

I wrote...

Stalin's Constitution: Soviet Participatory Politics and the Discussion of the 1936 Draft Constitution

By Samantha Lomb,

Book cover of Stalin's Constitution: Soviet Participatory Politics and the Discussion of the 1936 Draft Constitution

What is my book about?

Upon its adoption in December 1936, Soviet leaders hailed the new so-called Stalin Constitution as the most democratic in the world. Scholars have long scoffed at this claim, noting that the mass repression of 1937–1938 that followed rendered it a hollow document. This study does not address these competing claims, but rather focuses on the six-month-long popular discussion of the draft Constitution, which preceded its formal adoption in December 1936.

Drawing on rich archival sources, this book uses the discussion of the draft 1936 Constitution to examine discourse between the central state leadership and citizens about the new Soviet social contract, which delineated the roles the state and citizens should play in developing socialism. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Graphic Satire in the Soviet Union: Krokodil's Political Cartoons

Why did I love this book?

Soviet satire is often overlooked or dismissed as purely propaganda. John Etty offers a refreshingly updated look at a key Soviet publication and provides the casual reader with an introduction to the colorful and humorous content in the USSR’s premier satirical journal. He explores how content was created, revealing a collaborative process that could involve everyone from the head of the party to everyday readers. While there was oversight and interference from state censors and political authorities, and self-censorship in the 1930s due to repression, Etty reveals that editors and creators had a great deal of creative freedom.

Etty also explores the Krokodil “Extended Universe”. In the 1920s, when there was a severe shortage of paper and many citizens were illiterate, Live Krokodil, a repertory company was organized in theatres, workers’ and Red Army clubs. Additionally, Krokodil published the Krokodil Library (Biblioteka Krokodila) which included cartoon compendiums and a crowdsourced satirical encyclopedia that listed serious and humorous definitions of everyday terms and words encountered in the magazine. Most interesting was Krokodil’s sponsorship of two bright red, crocodile-shaped planes that flew around the country in the 1930s meeting with readers in various locations. His rejection of antiquated Cold War interpretations and his focus on previously unexplored aspects of Krokodil’s existence make this a worthwhile read.

By John Etty,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Graphic Satire in the Soviet Union as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

After the death of Joseph Stalin, Soviet-era Russia experienced a flourishing artistic movement due to relaxed censorship and new economic growth. In this new atmosphere of freedom, Russia's satirical magazine Krokodil (The Crocodile) became rejuvenated. John Etty explores Soviet graphic satire through Krokodil and its political cartoons. He investigates the forms, production, consumption, and functions of Krokodil, focusing on the period from 1954 to 1964.

Krokodil remained the longest-serving and most important satirical journal in the Soviet Union, unique in producing state-sanctioned graphic satirical comment on Soviet and international affairs for over seventy years. Etty's analysis of Krokodil extends and…

Book cover of It's Only A Joke, Comrade!: Humour, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin (1928-1941)

Why did I love this book?

Jonathan Waterlow’s book It’s Only a Joke Comrade looks at humor in the Stalinist period, exploring how average citizens used humor to understand the contradictions of their daily reality and to relieve stress. Looking at the way Soviet leaders were mocked Waterlow investigates how people subversively commented on policies that left them hungry and poorly clothed, joking for example that Stalin rid himself of pubic lice (crabs) by announcing he would create a crab collective farm, causing even the lice to flee in terror. Jokes also touched on policy issues such as five-year plans, repression, and even the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, showing how people thought about and discussed these issues. Furthermore, Waterlow looks at the social aspects of telling jokes, which could have dire consequences if told to the wrong person. He studies how jokes helped create and reinforce trust circles, challenging old notions of atomization in the USSR. This witty, well-written, and very humanizing book is a must-read.

By Jonathan Waterlow,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked It's Only A Joke, Comrade! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A stunningly original study of Stalinist society... Essential reading for anyone interested in how human beings navigate a path through times of extraordinary upheaval, privation and danger' – Daniel Beer

In the shadow of the Gulag, Soviet citizens were still cracking jokes. They had to.

Drawing on diaries, interviews, memoirs and hundreds of previously secret documents, It’s Only a Joke, Comrade! uncovers how they joked, coped, and struggled to adapt in Stalin’s brave new world. It asks what it really means to live under a dictatorship: How do people make sense of their lives? How do they talk about it?…

Book cover of The Experiment: Georgia's Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921

Why did I love this book?

Lee explores the 1918 Revolution in Georgia, where the Social Democrats (Mensheviks), led by Noe Zhordania remained committed to a democratic and inclusive revolution, which stands as a counterpoint to the Bolshevik notions of a strict, disciplined party and a limited, undemocratic but participatory system of government. When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1918, the Georgian Social Democrats reluctantly broke away from Russia and sought to navigate the charged political waters, trying to stave off invasion from Turkey and Denikin's White forces with alliances with first Germany and then Britain. They also tried to apply classic Marxist principles, creating not socialism but a bourgeois industrial revolution and a corresponding democratic regime.

This new democratically elected Menshevik government tried to solve issues of pressing concern, carrying out land reform and encouraging judicial reform, and encouraging industrial development, while trying to maintain the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their new nation. Eventually, due to Georgia's size and geopolitical location, this revolution failed, but Lee provides a fascinating account of what the country briefly looked like under Menshevik rule and how this compared to the regime established by Georgia's most famous son, Stalin.

By Eric Lee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Experiment as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For many the Russian Revolution of 1917 was a symbol of hope. In the eyes of its critics, however, Soviet authoritarianism and the horrors of the gulags have led to the revolution becoming synonymous with oppression, threatening to forever taint the very idea of socialism.

The experience of Georgia, which declared its independence from Russia in 1918, tells a different story. In this riveting history, Eric Lee explores the little-known saga of the country's experiment in democratic socialism, detailing the epic, turbulent events of this forgotten chapter in revolutionary history. Along the way, we are introduced to a remarkable cast…

Book cover of American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream

Why did I love this book?

Julia Mickenberg’s American Girls in Red Russia touches on a wide array of topics: American women’s participation in pre-1917 revolutionary movements, famine relief in during the Civil War period, the creation of an American colony in Siberia, the establishment of an American-run English language newspaper in Moscow, modern dance, African-American theater and film performances, and the creation of pro-Russian World War II propaganda. But she masterfully weaves these topics together using a central theme: American women, from various cultural spheres, seeking the equality and freedom they thought redefined gender roles in the Soviet Union would give them.

Mickenberg’s book captures the real depth of interest, hope, and fascination that the Soviet Union held for many well-educated, left-leaning American women, and how these feelings were colored by the gap between Soviet ideals and realities. She provides a fascinating account of these women’s willingness to uproot their lives in search of careers, sexual liberation, and the ability to participate in the construction of a new communal society, contrasting the opportunities the Soviet Union offered with the limitations these women faced at home.

American Girls in Red Russia is a well-researched and engaging book that uses the vibrant and humanizing personal histories of a handful of women to show the enthusiasm and hope that many people had for a new, utopian world in the Soviet Union and how those hopes were dashed by Soviet realities.

By Julia L. Mickenberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked American Girls in Red Russia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

If you were an independent, adventurous, liberated American woman in the 1920s or '30s where might you have sought escape from the constraints and compromises of bourgeois living? Paris and the Left Bank quickly come to mind. But would you have ever thought of Russia and the wilds of Siberia? This choice was not as unusual as it seems now. As Julia Mickenberg uncovers in American Girls in Red Russia, there is a forgotten counterpoint to the story of the Lost Generation: beginning in the late nineteenth century, Russian revolutionary ideology attracted many women, including suffragists, reformers, educators, journalists, and…

Book cover of Laboratory of Socialist Development: Cold War Politics and Decolonization in Soviet Tajikistan

Why did I love this book?

The Soviet Union’s periphery was a fertile testing ground for large-scale development projects, comparable to European colonial and post-colonial development projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Like many colonial projects, Soviet development projects were not just designed to modernize the physical landscape but the people as well.

The Russian concept of kul'turnost' (culturedness), a concept rooted in specific notions of European middle-class modernity, was a fundamental driving force in the Tajik modernization campaigns as well. But, it was surprisingly mutable, with local elites often creating their own definition of cultured behavior. Laboratory of Socialist Development grapples with how universal ideas were negotiated locally and ultimately reshaped. Additionally, Kalinovsky reveals how the modernizing paradigm changed as large-scale investment failed to yield the hoped-for result for both European and Soviet modernizers, who sought to recreate European style modernity in the Third World and Central Asia but instead often wound up marginalizing indigenous communities and destroying livelihoods. He compares the Tajik experience with experiences in countries such as India, Iran, and Afghanistan, and considers the role of Soviet and Tajik intermediaries who went to those countries to spread the Soviet vision of modernity to the postcolonial world. Laboratory of Socialist Development provides the reader with a new way to think about largescale development projects globally.

By Artemy M. Kalinovsky,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Laboratory of Socialist Development as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Artemy Kalinovsky's Laboratory of Socialist Development investigates the Soviet effort to make promises of decolonization a reality by looking at the politics and practices of economic development in central Asia between World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Focusing on the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, Kalinovsky places the Soviet development of central Asia in a global context.

Connecting high politics and intellectual debates with the life histories and experiences of peasants, workers, scholars, and engineers, Laboratory of Socialist Development shows how these men and women negotiated Soviet economic and cultural projects in the decades following Stalin's death.…

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