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Catriona Kelly. ‘Encyclopaedia of [Lost] Russian Life.’ Rev.: Karl Schlögel, The Soviet Century...

Catriona Kelly. ‘Encyclopaedia of [Lost] Russian Life.’ Rev.: Karl Schlögel, The Soviet Century: Archaeology of a Lost World, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Oxford and Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2023).


Abstract: This review of Karl Schlögel’s encyclopaedic compendium on Soviet material culture argues that the book is representative rather than exhaustive – for example, most of the material relates to Russian Soviet culture specifically -- and organised in a way that depends on associative, rather than strictly rigorous classifications. While a few entries seem to have been composed more out of duty than real engagement, overall, the book is an essayistic tour de force, even if academic readers may miss a strong analytical drive, and detailed attention to recent secondary literature.

Key words: Soviet history; Stalinism; material culture; visual arts; urban studies

Catriona Kelly, Senior Research Fellow in Russian, Trinity College, Cambridge, UK

Honorary Professor of Russian, University of Cambridge, UK. Email:

This enormous book attempts nothing less than an all-encompassing panorama of Soviet (or more accurately, Soviet Russian) historical realia, from the city spaces on and in which the October Revolution took place, to the ‘Moscow kitchens’ in which members of the oppositional intelligentsia mounted their clandestine, countercultural discussions. The book’s organisation eschews obvious classifications (exterior versus interior spaces, rural versus urban, leisure versus work and home). For instance, Part VI of the book addresses living space, Part VII ‘public spaces’, but the dacha, which could have fitted into Part VI, appears in ‘Oases of Freedom’ (Part V, Chapter 24), while the enormous territories created by the crash building programmes of the late 1950s-early 1980s figure in Part VII, Chapter 37. Naturally, the individual topics break out of their confining categories – a ‘border’ is of course not just a space of ‘rituals’ (Part IX, Chapter 41), but also a ‘public space’, and indeed, by 1991, as Vladislav Zubok described in his recent tome on the Gorbachev era, Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021), it would equally well belong in Part I, ‘Shards of Empire’, since on New Year’s Eve, none of the border guards at Sheremetevo had actually turned up to man passport control. However, this sense of ‘unclassifiability’ is plainly Schlögel’s intent.

Such deliberate waywardness is characteristic of a book that, as the publisher’s blurb suggests, is as much a ‘museum’ and ‘travel guide’ as an academic analysis. It would be straightforward to list omissions from this ‘encyclopaedia of [lost] Russian life’, twenty-first-century style. Trains and stations have their own section (Part XVI, ‘The Railroads of Empire’), but airports (already heavily used by the late Soviet period) do not. Several mini-essays deal with labour camps and prisons, but none with hospitals (as opposed to sanatoriums) or schools (as opposed to informal intellectual gatherings for adults). On the whole, these omissions are not systematic. Yet the discussion of dachas with primary attention to the opulent structures of the Stalin era (as evoked for celluloid by Nikita Mikhalkov in Burnt by the Sun, 1994) rather than sadovodstva, and the focus on communal apartments rather than the one-family khrushchevki and their nameless successors of the Brezhnev era, bespeak Schlögel’s relative lack of interest, the dissident world aside, in the late Soviet period. Noticeable also is the tendency to ‘follow the literature’: if Schlögel’s discussion of food is more or less limited to the flagship Book of Tasty and Nutritious Food, overlooking canteens, cafés, and indeed most of the fare (grenki and salat oliv’e aside) served in ‘Moscow kitchens’, then that is because there is a copious literature on cookbooks (bigger, in fact, than his minimal notes would suggest), while to date relatively few sources address other aspects of food culture (though Erik Scott’s ‘Edible Ethnicity: How Georgian Cuisine Conquered the Soviet Table’, Kritika, vol. 13, no. 4 (2012), pp. 831-58, represents a substantive contribution published several years before completion of the German edition that could have sent Schlögel down another rabbit hole if he had wanted).

This dependence on extant historiography does not mean that Schlögel’s treatment of his material is inert or unoriginal. If cooking is an area where his discussion seems more dutiful attention to an obviously important topic than an expression of genuine interest, elsewhere there is often a stronger sense of personal involvement. ‘Magnitogorsk, the Pyramids of the Twentieth Century’ (Part II, Chapter 7) interweaves the author’s own visit to the city in 1993 with the history of its construction, drawing explicitly on Stephen Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Princeton, NJ and London: Princeton University Press, 1995). However, the tribute to ‘the peculiar beauty of industrialised and planned landscapes’ (p. 144) and evocation of how ‘the ruins of the megamachine lie all over the country’ (p. 154) are Schlögel’s own. Several of the chapters are essayistic tours de force: for instance, ‘DniproHES: America on the Dnieper’ (Part II, Chapter 6), or ‘Wrapping Paper, Packaging’ (Part IV, Chapter 16), or the tributes, in other chapters, to china ornaments and pianos. An especially striking aria addresses the ‘toilet [in the sense, water closet] as a civilising space’, if also the repellent and disgusting features of this amenity – a luxury for many Russians (as Schlögel does not point out) until recent times.

Schlögel’s phenomenological eye takes in underappreciated entities such as dioramas, as well as ones that are extremely familiar from belles-lettres, journalism, and historical discussions (the queue, Communist parades, the ‘special sections’ of banned books in major libraries). He seems defeated only where the nature of the material slips out of his personal reach: an awkward section on the provinces, ‘Russkaya glubinka – The World Beyond the Big Cities’ (Part VII, Chapter 38) combines regurgitation of other people’s observations with his own out of the window of a speeding bus. The compensation even here, though, is a capacity for effective phrase-making: whether or not a political geographer would approve the description of modern Russian agroholdings as ‘latifundia’ (p. 447), it certainly sticks in the mind.

At one level, Schlögel’s panorama is restricted, in that parts of the USSR beyond the RSFSR are to all intents and purposes absent. The main exceptions, rather unluckily, given present circumstances, are Donbas and Crimea. At the same time, the spread is ambitiously wide, reflecting both the size and variety of Russia’s terrain, and the scale of the historical events concerned. In such a broad-brush treatment, some detail inevitably gets smudged. One reason is the limited use of primary sources. Describing ‘Red Moscow’ perfume, Schlögel relies on retrospective evocations, rather than the recipes of Soviet industrial chemists or the regulations of Gosstandart (some of which are locatable from one’s desk using legal databases online). Another is the overall tone. Schlögel’s standard mode is the enthusiastic riff, sometimes, perhaps, a little too enthusiastic. While all of us might agree, relative to the illustrations in The Book of Tasty and Nutritious Food, 1952, that ‘the colour quality is amazing’, not all of us would give that insight as positive a slant as Schlögel. Occasionally, he gets carried away completely. One amusing instance is the choice of Galiullin Khabibulla, ‘the illiterate Tatar woman [sic.] who learned how to build a blast furnace’, to illustrate the insight that in the 1930s ‘the young woman who made a career as a shock worker was no longer the bride who could be married off to the man who made the best offer’. This gaffe is all the odder given Schlögel’s extended discussion of Magnitogorsk and Khabibulla’s status as primary local hero (definitely not heroine). More often, the slips are simply careless: ‘the end of communal apartments’ certainly did not coincide with ‘the end of the Soviet Union’ (p. 325), and to claim that ‘there was no house without books nor where books were not read’ (p. 167) is testament to mythology (samyi chitayushchii narod v mire) rather than to the first-hand reports of Soviet librarians. Specialists in Russian history may also grumble at the relatively restricted range of secondary literature that is acknowledged. While acknowledgement of at least some historiography in Russian is a plus, the Notes and List of Further Reading published with the original German edition, Das sowjetische Jahrhundert (München: Karl Beck, 2018) have not been updated to replace or augment the 18 out of 47 recommended books that are available only in German with comparable sources in English, or reflect publications in any language that have appeared over the last five years.

It would be a pity, however, if minor flaws of this kind distracted attention from what Schlögel has achieved in putting together his sweeping ‘archaeology of a lost world’. Thought-provoking and written with panache (here Schlögel has also been lucky with his translator, Rodney Livingstone), the book is a pleasure to read. Other studies may provide more information about why and how the components of Schlögel’s phenomenology came to exist in the way that they did, and about their existence outside a certain ‘snapshot moment; they may also more effectively convey the sense of what was specifically ‘Soviet’ about the phenomena excavated from the past. But few can boast the imaginative force and narrative sweep that Schlögel commands at his best.

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