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Material World of Late Soviet Society in the Cold War: Technological Innovations in Production and Representation of Mass Consumer Products

The research project is focused at searching for new approaches to material history of the Soviet society and the Cold War through the history of technological innovations. The project was supported by the Russian Science Foundation in July, 2019.

About the project

The project examines the activities of scientists, designers and engineers who have contributed to the development of
Soviet consumer goods technology and produced consumer goods (milk, bread, beer, clothing, personal protective equipment) and the so-called symbolic products such as caviar, champagne and Finnish cheese. Particular attention is paid to the role of technological transfers for the Soviet industry; the problem of industrial implementation of engineering developments; the problem of supply and consumption of products related to a wide range of food security issues; the question of how to represent and promote Soviet technologies and products in the domestic and international markets, and their importance for both domestic consumption and for the formation of exports.

Studying the interrelations of key participants in the process of inventing, introducing and promoting technological innovations, our research group reconstructs unqiue professional networks that contributed to the development of Soviet industry. The understanding of successes and failures in the development of Soviet technologies as well as the mechanisms of interrelations among scientists, engineers, designers and managers at scientific institutes and industrial enterprises of the Cold War period may become useful for the contemporary managers involved into practical realization of the innovation policy's scenarios. 

The research purpose

The purpose of this project is to show the peculiarities of the history of Soviet technological innovations in the field of mass consumption goods production and their importance in the Soviet society in the conditions of the Cold War through the history of material objects.

In order to achieve the goal of the project, three closely interrelated objectives were set, namely:

  • To explore the history of Soviet technological innovation in the field of mass consumption goods, tracing the hard way from the project of a new product to its production and distribution;
  • Analyze the culture and practices of everyday social consumption in the Soviet Union and the impact of innovation on consumption;
  • Investigate the methods and practices of representing Soviet achievements at the national and international levels.

This project will enable to give new interpretations of the history of Soviet society from the point of view of consumer society.

Plans and methodology

The research in the project will be built on different levels:

  1. local - the activities of specific individuals: engineers, workers, scientists, managers and managers of different ranks;
  2. institutional, covering the activities of ministries, scientific institutes, and industrial enterprises;
  3. national, considering the state as a separate actor, especially in the international arena, when it comes to the representation of success and society as a whole, when we consider changing patterns of consumption.

The project will be based on a large number of new archival and published materials. First of all, the materials stored in the Russian State Archive of Economics (RGAE), the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), the Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documentation in St. Petersburg (RGANTD), the Central State Archive of St. Petersburg (TsGA SPb), the Leningrad Oblast Archive in Vyborg (LOGAV) and others will be studied. The materials of oral interviews with engineers and workers of industrial enterprises, as well as consumers of the goods under study and periodicals (thematic journals and newspapers) will also be used.

The main topics of the current research team are:

  1. Milk and dairy products: meaning, invention and production;
  2. Beer and dakery;
  3. Textile industry;
  4. Personal protective equipment: technologies and representations;
  5. Symbolic consumer goods: caviar, champagne and Viola cheese;
  6. Advertising consumer goods in the late USSR;
  7. The economy of things: materiality of Soviet consumption.
  • The Results of the First Stage (2019-2020)

    During the first research year, the project group focused on collecting data, preparing publications, as well as on organizing academic events. Furthermore, the research group significantly advanced in elaborating a shared theoretical approach to the problem of materiality of the late Soviet society. The project participants developed an overarching analytical framework while expanding and nuancing initial thematic areas of research.

    Internal seminars of the research group occurred on a regular basis allowing discussions of relevant publications and archival findings. It helped developing a shared conceptual framework while focusing on three key areas of research: technological innovations in production of goods; mass consumption of goods and labor safety; quality of goods.

    The following conclusions were achieved:

    Firstly, a research into the history of materiality of Soviet consumption requires considering different stages of organization of production chains. By doing so, it is possible to trace not only the complex history of a commodity, but also to reveal roles of different participants (designers, innovators, producers, consumers, and power institutions). Such approach reveals how differently agents could have influenced a material object which role, functions and status turn out to be essentially modifying.

    Secondly, while exploring the material world of late Soviet society, it is crucial consider the factor of the Cold War, which impacted meanings of material objects, turning them into items of dual-use. An unexpected conclusion that emerged from group discussions is that food and goods consumption is historically connected to the problem of security and safety. Thus, histories of Soviet Cold War hygiene of food (e.g. milk), skin and face protection (work clothes and gas masks) reveal how Soviet mass production considered the issue of biopolitics.

    Thirdly, while discussing the problem of competitiveness of social and technological systems, the research group came to the conclusion that the issues such as abundance and economy of resources should be considered as crucial discursive elements in the construction of modern Soviet society. Also, it seems that avoiding a complex and largely unpromising term modernity when speaking about the Soviet Union might shed new light on the history of materiality. 


    International symposium “Cold War Matters: (In)visible Economies of Things”

    On December 16th and 17th, the Laboratory for Environmental and Technological History and the History Department hosted the symposium "​Cold War Matters: (In)Visible Economies of Things." The goal of the symposium was to look at the Cold War from a different angle, one that differed from politics and military. Instead the focus of the symposium was to look at the Cold War through consumer culture, art, science, industry, and the exchange of these things across the permeable Iron Curtain.

    During the Symposium, participants put things in the center of research in order to make trajectories of objects more visible. Papers by scholars of various disciplines--from history of science to history of art--challenged disciplinary borders and demonstrated the complex intersections of technical and aesthetical matters, as well as of practical and ideological ones.

    The symposium was supported by the Commission on Academic Planning of HSE - St. Petersburg, University of Jyväskylä and Society for the History of Technology (SHOT).

    Workshop “Economic Cooperation between CMEA Countries: Motives, Resources and Challenges of the Cold War”

    On January 18, 2019, the round table “Economic Cooperation between CMEA Countries: Motives, Resources and Challenges of the Cold War” was held at the Laboratory of Environmental and Technological History of the Center for Historical Research and was dedicated to the history of integration and cooperation of CMEA countries.

    The participants made the following conclusions according to the results of the round table: the topic of cooperation between the third world countries and social countries within the CMEA framework has not been sufficiently studied in historiography, more attention should be paid to the CMEA actors (specific states, organizations, individuals), as well as the relations that they formed in the result of their activities. 

    The online workshop “Materiality of late Soviet production and consumption”.

    On May 5, 2020, the online workshop "Materiality of late Soviet production and consumption” was held at the Laboratory of Environmental and Technological History of the Center for Historical Research. The participants of the project presented the results of their research.

    Toghether with the project participants the invited specialists Roman Abramov (HSE), Alexey Golubev (University of Houston), Elizaveta Berezina (CEU) and Julia Lajus (HSE-Saint Petersburg) discussed the production of Soviet mass consumption goods, everyday and special clothing and personal protective equipment, the problems of Soviet quality and the role of specialists in the development of Soviet innovations.

  • The Results of the Second Stage (2020-2021)

    The project continued the initial research directions, such as Soviet modernity and the representation of goods in the late Soviet society. Cumulatively, case studies have shown that creating a “modern” society was a major ambition of Soviet intuitions within the Cold War. Inventing “modern” food (healthy products), “modern” consumption practices (rational beer consumption), “modern” modes of representation (beautiful and safe clothing) and increasing the quality of working conditions (inventing protective equipment) were priorities. This allows us to speak about the phenomenon of late-Soviet "policy of care" as a distinctive feature of Soviet modernity.

    Research group members presented the results of their work at the following conferences:

    • the annual conference of the International Committee for the History of Technology (ICOHTEC);
    • the open regular seminar of the University of Erlangen;
    • the annual convention of the Association of Slavic, Easter European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES);
    • VDNKh at the European University in St. Petersburg;
    • Baltic Connections: Conference in Social and Science History (the University of Helsinki).
    Materiality and Representation of Progress in the late USSR: to the history of Soviet things

    On May 11, 2021 the public round table "Materiality and Representation of Progress in the late USSR: to the history of Soviet things" (in Russian) was held online on the basis of the Laboratory for Environmental and Technological History.

    The opening presentation was given by the specialist in Soviet design history Yulia Karpova (University of Copenhagen).

    The round table attracted significant attention from Russian researchers of Soviet materiality.


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