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Pleasures and Perils of Socialist Modernity: New Scholarship on Post-War Eastern Europe


What role did consumption, the mass media and popular culture play in post-war Eastern Europe? Did they help ‘normalise’ state socialism or rather inspire outlooks and desires incongruent with communist regimes’ goals? These questions are central to recent scholarship which has departed from conventional Cold War studies centred on narrowly-conceived political elites and modes of Soviet domination. Instead, using the lens of social and cultural history, scholars have turned to exploring Eastern European societies as independent subjects in their own right. Looking at workers, middle classes, women, tourists, hippies, shoppers, television audiences and other groups, this new body of work has questioned the impenetrability of the Iron Curtain and has highlighted Eastern European participation in broader European and global trends. Instead of enumerating failures of the socialist system from ‘economics of shortage’ to the depressing ‘greyness’ of apartment blocks, scholars now explore ‘pleasures in socialism’, including leisure, fashion and consumer culture. In place of preponderant societal resistance against the controlling state, they expose complex ways of appropriation, accommodation and identification with elements of state socialism by individuals and groups.

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1 The phrase comes from Kornai, János’s influential book Economics of Shortage: v.A (Contributions to Economic analysis) (Elsevier Science ltd, 1980).

2 See, for example, Crowley, David and Reid, Susan. E., eds., Pleasures in Socialism: Leisure and Luxury in the Eastern Bloc (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2012); Giustino, Cathleen M., Plum, Catherine J. and Vari, Alexander, eds., Socialist Escapes: Breaking Away from Ideology and Everyday Routine in Eastern Europe, 1945–1989 (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2015); Bren, Paulina, The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010); Bren, Paulina and Neuburger, Mary, eds., Communism Unwrapped: Consumption in Cold War Eastern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

3 ‘AHR Roundtable. Historians and the Question of “Modernity”. Introduction’, American Historical Review, 116, 3 (2011): 631–7, 634.

4 See, for example, Pence, Katherine and Betts, Paul, ‘Introduction’, in Pence, Katherine and Betts, Paul, eds., Socialist Modern: East German Everyday Culture and Politics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008), 134, esp. 11–5.

5 For recent scholarship on borderland urban environments in Eastern Europe see, for example, Amar, Tarik Cyril, The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv: A Borderland City between Stalinists, Nazis, and Nationalists (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015); Frick, David, Kith, Kin, and Neighbors: Communities and Confessions in Seventeenth-Century Wilno (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013); Greble, Emily, Sarajevo 1941–1945: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Hitler's Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011) and Wood, Nathaniel D., Becoming Metropolitan: Urban Selfhood and the Making of Modern Cracow (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010).

6 Lebow, Katherine, Unfinished Utopia: Nowa Huta, Stalinism, and Polish Society, 1949–1956 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013).

7 Kotkin, Stephen and Gross, Jan T., Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (New York: Modern Library, 2010).

8 See, for example, Bren, Paulina and Neuburger, Mary, eds., Communism Unwrapped: Consumption in Cold War Eastern Europe (Ithaca: Cornell, 2012).

9 Neuburger, Mary, Balkan Smoke: Tobacco and the Making of Modern Bulgaria (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012).

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Contemporary European History
  • ISSN: 0960-7773
  • EISSN: 1469-2171
  • URL: /core/journals/contemporary-european-history
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