The best books on Soviet social history

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By John Etty

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

Why 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.


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

By Jonathan Waterlow

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

Why 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.


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The Experiment: Georgia's Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921

By Eric Lee

The Experiment: Georgia's Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921

Why 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.


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American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream

By Julia L. Mickenberg

American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream

Why 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.


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

By Artemy M. Kalinovsky

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

Why 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.


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