Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR: 88 abstracts, 14 chapters, 3 years…
I’m writing this from the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies annual convention where three years ago I travelled just after sending out acceptances and rejections for chapters people had proposed for a volume I was editing on Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR, last year I chaired a panel with several of the contributors meeting for the first time to present research from their chapters, and this year some more of us will be meeting just as the book is published in hardback and paperback on 18 November – so yes, there is still time to use it for your spring-semester classes.
Historians and other scholars of gender in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the 20th Century, especially during the state socialist period, already have several excellent edited volumes at their disposal, where scholars specialising in many different countries have been able to combine their own specialisms into saying something wider-reaching about simultaneously one of the most intimate and one of the most public topics in politics and history.
Ours is a volume that emerged at a time when historians of state socialist Europe have been striving to put the region’s connections with the rest of the globe, not just the West, into the centre of analysis; when questions about women’s agency and activism under state socialism are live controversies; when research on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender pasts and presents is both expanding and embattled; when ways to think about gender in its intersections with other kinds of oppression are ever more accessible and ever more necessary; when narratives of inevitable progress in social equality or political freedom looked ever more shaky even before the US election campaign that overshadowed our volume’s run-up to publication.
It would also be published in a series where most works are on Western Europe and North America and where the task of showing the complexity of the region(s) we study, balancing the similarities of their historical experience with pan-European and global lenses that show them to be much more than a marginal periphery, was both an opportunity and a responsibility.
The 88 abstracts I received when I invited chapter proposals in autumn 2013 covered East Germany to Kyrgyzstan, the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries to the present day. Selecting the chapters was as close as I’ve ever come to a three-dimensional jigsaw: the volume needed balanced coverage across the century, without over-representing any one country; I can’t have all my interwar chapters based on Poland (let’s say) and all my state socialist ones based on Czechoslovakia; if I take this innovative chapter proposal here, I’m going to have to turn down that one elsewhere; my own research is on the Yugoslav region, so I’ve got more proposals about there than anywhere else, and I’m going to have to turn more of them down; and why did everyone have to publish their ground-breaking work on that topic last year?
And then a law criminalising the ‘promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors’ went through the Russian Duma.
Three years later, we have a volume of fourteen chapters which will offer specialists exciting new research by emerging and established scholars, and teachers of European /20th-century gender history ways to incorporate Eastern Europe and the USSR into their syllabus.
Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR has a ‘long’ 20th century, beginning in late Habsburg Bohemia with Cynthia Paces‘s chapter on ‘Czech Motherhood and Fin-de-Siècle Visual Culture’. Throughout the book, I’ve tried to balance excitingly new research topics with original approaches to themes which have been at the core of gender history since it started being written. Cynthia’s chapter on Czech materialist nationalism is a great example of the latter, and points to comparisons with imperial and anti-colonial feminisms at the same time which I hope others will be more able to take further because of the suggestions here.
The next chapter, Olga Dimitrijevic‘s ‘British-Yugoslav Lesbian Networks During and After the Great War’, draws together two separate lesbian history-making projects to reveal a connection that I’d simply never heard about before I read Olga’s abstract: the relationships between Scottish Women’s Hospitals volunteers who travelled to Serbia in WW1 and women on the Yugoslav avant-garde art scene, particularly the painter Nasta Rojc. Olga had discovered the SWH connection while researching Rojc for the first volume on Serbian and Yugoslav gay and lesbian history, and retraces a link that eluded even the lesbian British historians who have written the queer relationships and gender non-conforming performances of SWH volunteers into Britain’s lesbian past.
What excited me on reading the proposal for Jo Laycock and Jeremy Johnson‘s chapter on ‘Creating “New Soviet Women” in Armenia? Gender and Tradition in the Early Soviet South Caucasus’, meanwhile, wasn’t just how it could extend the scope of the volume beyond a metropolitan-Russia-centric view of Soviet gender history but also how much its questions about constructing ‘ethnicity’ and ‘tradition’ resonated with themes in the study of south-east Europe. If today’s ‘area studies’ often keep the Balkans and the Caucasus apart, a view from the late 19th century Ottoman Empire – or from 21st-century historians trying to reassess the late Ottoman period on its own terms – would see them as much more part of the same region – a lens it’s become much easier to see through since working with Jo and Jeremy.
The tensions between similarity and contrast that run throughout the volume are encapsulated by Jenny Kaminer‘s ‘Mothers of a New World: Maternity and Culture in the Soviet Period’, which returns to the theme of motherhood first explored in Cynthia Paces’s chapter on Bohemia, but in the context of the radical transformations the Bolsheviks sought to achieve in Soviet private and public life, and through the changing priorities of Stalin, Khrushchev and the late Soviet leaders. Jenny uses popular literature to illustrate how the roles of ideal Soviet mothers were imagined at all these moments, suggesting limits to how far historians can generalise about gender policy even in one country, let alone the whole region.
Katherine Jolluck‘s ‘Life and Fate: Race, Nationality, Class, and Gender in Wartime Poland’ takes on the harrowing, necessary task of explaining how gender, as well as race, ethnicity, nationality and class, determined the experiences of Poles and Jews exposed to both Nazi and Soviet persecution between 1939 and 1945. As the allusion to Vasily Grossman’s novel of WW2 in Katherine’s title suggests, this is an unflinching chapter, without which our account of the 20th century would simply not be complete.
Another chapter on the Second World War, Kerstin Bischl‘s ‘Female Red Army Soldiers in World War II and Beyond’, covers a topic which both in historical research and in Russian society has been a subject of growing interest since the end of the Cold War. Beyond the stories of individual war heroes such as the sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko or the famous ‘Night Witches’ fighter pilots, Bischl shows how the stories Russian women have been able to tell and have heard about their service have themselves changed within shifting Soviet and post-Soviet memory politics.
The last chapter on the interwar/WW2 period (though not limited to that), Erica Fraser‘s ‘Soviet Masculinities and Revolution’, exemplifies one of the objectives I had for the volume from the very beginning – to create ever more dialogue between studies of gender in this region and elsewhere. Using the concept of ‘revolutionary masculinities’, well-known in Latin American studies of Cuba and other revolutions in the 20th century, and studies of how the French revolutionary regime thought of itself as a ‘band of brothers’, Erica reassesses how later Soviet authorities as well as the Bolsheviks imagined leadership and revolution. I couldn’t have framed my own introduction to the volume in the same way without this chapter, and its approach informed me as an editor as I encouraged authors to bring out latent transnational comparisons and contrasts in their own work.
The volume then turns to state socialist rule in Eastern Europe, beginning with a chapter on ‘Gender and Youth Work Actions in Post-War Yugoslavia’ by Ivan Simic – whose first paper on Yugoslav Communist adaptations of Soviet gender ideology I’d had the pleasure of hearing earlier in 2013, without having any idea it was actually his first. Yugoslavia would emphatically develop its own interpretation of Communism after 1948, when Stalin ejected it from the Soviet bloc; in 1945-8, the period at the centre of Ivan’s chapter, it was perhaps the most enthusiastically Stalinist of all Eastern European Communist regimes, and the chapter both traces how Yugoslav Communists made sense of Soviet policies and picks up what are now recurring themes of health, youth, modernity and the body.
Judit Takács, in her chapter on ‘Listing Homosexuals since the 1920s and under State Socialism in Hungary’, uses her discovery of an astonishing document in the Hungarian national archives – a list of suspected homosexuals, attached to government correspondence during the Second World War about subjecting minorities to forced labour – to point to continuities between, on the face of it, three very different political systems in Hungary: the late Habsburg period, the authoritarian ‘Regency’ regime which went on to collaborate with the Third Reich, the even more brutal Arrow Cross regime of 1944-5, and state socialism. Police practices of surveilling, listing and blackmailing gay men, Judit suggests, did not differ appreciably from regime to regime, and some are even likely to have persisted after the decriminalisation of sodomy in 1961 – an argument that complicates any neat division of 20th century history into periods based solely on political regimes.
The most everyday, domestic, intimate aspects of life under state socialism – which reveal how far Communist regimes sought to reach into their subjects’ private life – are the subject of Maria Bucur‘s ‘Everyday: Intimate Politics under Communism in Romania’. Drawing first on her own experiences growing up in Communist Romania, then on a large oral history project she has been conducting for some time with Romanian women, Maria shows how oral history and the ‘Alltagsgeschichte’ (everyday history) approach can illustrate the workings of Communist power and the ways that individuals tried to navigate endemic scarcity and hold on to private space. One of Maria’s own volumes on east European gender history, co-edited with Nancy Wingfield (Gender and War in Twentieth Century Eastern Europe), was a key work for me in thinking about how I wanted to frame this collection, and I’m delighted that she suggested this chapter for ours, which is a product of intergenerational as well as international exchange.
The run-up to the collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe figures in this book through Anna Muller‘s chapter on ‘Masculinity and Dissidence in Eastern Europe in the 1980s’, which uses the writings and letters of male Polish political prisoners in particular to offer new insights into the dissident masculinities of late state socialism and even, bearing in mind the careers of many ex-dissidents after 1989, to draw connections between the ideas about gender formed in opposition movements during the 1980s and the impact on gender relations that postsocialist politics would have. The transnational history of imprisonment is another emerging area in modern history, and reading this chapter made me think for instance of studies of masculinity and imprisonment in Northern Ireland; here as elsewhere in the volume, fresh connections between Eastern Europe and other regions start emerging all the time.
By asking ‘What is Political in Post-Yugoslav Feminist Activism?’, meanwhile, Adriana Zaharijevic both gives an overview of how the collapse of Yugoslav state socialism, the impact of ethnopolitical violence in Croatia and Bosnia, and the effects of more recent global financial crises affected women’s movements in the Yugoslav region, and makes a suggestion that earlier volumes like this simply could not have made because less time has passed: the postsocialist period, which scholars in east European studies have been so used to debating as the present, might already be over. Whatever might follow it – Adriana suggests the present period might be defined by the political logic of neoliberalism – today’s movements would be well advised not to lose sight of the radical insights of their predecessors just because the state and big financial donors might be better predisposed towards women’s movements than they used to be.
Maria Adamson and Erika Kispeter, writing on ‘Gender and Professional Work in Russia and Hungary’, adapt the comparative methodology of a well-known work in east European gender studies, Éva Fodor’s study of women and the workplace in Hungary and Austria, to directly address the problem of how far conclusions based on evidence from the USSR can automatically be extrapolated to Eastern Europe. Behind the state socialist ideal that posts in professions such as law and medicine should be equally open to women and men, Adamson and Kispeter find divergent experiences across the national borders and even changes of policy and practice within them, suggesting what level of depth is necessary for solid comparative work.
My own last chapter for the volume, ‘Transnational “LGBT” Politics after the Cold War and Implications for Gender History’, covers a set of political and social struggles which took further turns even as we were compiling the volume, with foreign responses to state homophobia/biphobia/transphobia in Russia often highlighting the kind of simplistic West/East divisions that east European scholars of sexuality, such as Robert Kulpa and Joanna Mizielinska, had already been criticising – just as global queer studies has often done from postcolonial perspectives. Centering struggles for trans recognition and health care as well as struggles for sexual rights in this post-Cold War period brings into view a question that historians of gender non-conformity before the 1990s would also do well to consider: how do historians know the gender of their historical subjects, and how do we do justice to the constructions of gender and sexuality that were present in subjects’ own place and time while accounting for the presence throughout history of people who today might be called trans?
I feel confident in saying that no previous volume on east European gender history has integrated sexual diversity and gender non-conformity with the breadth of this one: rather than just having ‘the LGBT chapter’, queer ways of being appear in multiple ways across the century, as of course they have. We could have had even more. As well as regretting the many excellent proposals I had to turn down because they were harder to balance into a table of contents or closely matched a proposal I knew I needed to include because of another innovation it had made, the field of east European and post/Soviet gender studies has developed even further since the end of the 2000s that I’ve heard so many excellent presentations at ASEEES and other conferences and thought ‘If only they’d done this research a couple of years earlier it could have been perfect for the volume’. If I were planning the volume now, there are more themes I’d want to seek out somebody to cover – in particular, I wish now the volume had had a chapter on race and the ‘global Cold War’, and there’s a much wider range of people working on this than there used to be.
In the meantime, I hope everything this volume does achieve will inspire historians of gender inside and outside the region to ask some new questions; to carry on connecting Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR with how their colleagues study gender around the rest of the globe; and to suggest how knowledge and theory about gender relations grounded in evidence from the region can also inform studies and understandings of gender politics elsewhere.