Cities and Culture in the Cities
The course focused on cultural and social history of the USSR and invited participants to explore Soviet experiences through the lens of urban history. During the spring semester of 2018 the participants of the seminar have focused on one of the largest Union Republics – Soviet Ukraine. Timewise, the course has covered almost five postwar decades and highlighted several periods of Soviet history while taking into account recent discussions between historians not only about when the "thaw" or the "stagnation" periods started and ended, but also about the very definitions and their timelines. For example, the seminar discussed when and how much has the Soviet “thaw” been liberal; has the "stagnation" been really stagnant; and what was the role of "perestroika" in finishing the Soviet project. Hence, we aimed at reconsidering such established divisions as "late Stalinism," "thaw," "stagnation," and "perestroika." However, our key topics were mainly about "reconstruction," "reloading", "rethinking," "localizing", "stabilizing" and "rebooting" the socialist project.
First, the seminar examined different experiences of exits from the war, peculiarities of the postwar urban reconstruction, emergence of new social and professional horizons and roles, unfolding of cultural wars and ideological rivalry in the context of "Cold war," integration of new territories acquired during the war into the Soviet system in general, and into specific republic in particular. This helped understanding how the Soviet project was "rebooted" after Stalin’s death, how the new political top leaders were shaped, and how the understanding of cities and Soviet culture has transformed in this context. Timelines of two postwar decades furthermore helped tracing the processes unleashed by the war, and also seeing the changes brought by reformatting and uncrowning of Stalin’s cult. Thus, the analysis focused on features typical for this period of time such as new urban planning and understanding of priorities, emphasis on new interpretations of revolutionary ideals of the early times of the Soviet project, and release of excessive clichés from Soviet culture.
Some sessions and texts examined closer how rethinking of Socialism in the 1960s led to certain disillusionment among intelligentsia. At the same time, conversations at the seminar have developed about the roles of local, regional, and conventional factors in further reconsideration of the Soviet project. In this respect, participants were asked to contemplate over the development of Socialist ideas of heritage, historical cities, and preservation of cultural legacy of the past, which resulted in emerging new attitudes towards cultural revival and discussions on co-existence of old and new within culture and urban space. Final sessions of the course tackled cultural reconsideration of what makes a socialist city and Soviet culture in terms of “post-Chernobyl” debate and recession of Soviet economy. At the summary session, joint discussion explored the legacies left behind the Soviet projects and experiences on the level of approaches, institutions, practices, and actors.
Workshop questions included, among others:
- How far does the framework of "totalitarian system" allow or does not allow understanding the post war Soviet Union?
- How can we correlate and inscribe it into a broader European and global history and how does it change it?
- Has there emerged a certain new configuration of Soviet civilization in the second half of the 20th century, or has Soviet Union been always dependent on culture established in the "high Stalinism" period?
- How did ideological imperatives balanced with pragmatics ones within the party-state model?
- How domestic and international circumstances drastically changed throughout Soviet history?