Skip to main content Accessibility help

Postsocialisms Unbound: Connections, Critiques, Comparisons

  • Douglas Rogers


This is the introduction to a cluster of Slavic Review articles that argue for retaining and expanding the analytic rubric of postsocialism beyond the era of “transition” and beyond the conventional borders of the former Soviet bloc. With primary attention to recent developments in anthropology, Douglas Rogers outlines and evaluates three strategies for unbinding postsocialisms: exploring connections and circulations that lead outward from the formerly socialist world; embarking on new kinds of critical projects that call categories of western social science into question; and developing new varieties and vectors of comparison, especially among socialist and postsocialist contexts around the world. Each of these strategies builds upon and extends the work of the first two decades of research on eastern European and former Soviet postsocialisms. Each also points to significant areas of recent scholarship that new research on postsocialisms is primed to join.



Hide All

1. By “anthropology,” I mean largely British, American, and French social-cultural anthropology, although agreements, disagreements, and cross-fertilizations between these “western” scholars and ethnographers trained in the region have been a crucial part of the development of the field of postsocialist studies. In the case of Russia, for instance, see Tishkov, Valery A., “The Crisis in Soviet Ethnography,” Current Anthropology 33, no. 4 (August-October 1992): 371-94 and 34, no. 3 (June 1993): 275-79; Tishkov, Valery A., “U.S. and Russian Anthropology: Unequal Dialogue in a Time of Transition,” Current Anthropology 39, no. 1 (February 1998): 117 ; and “Cultural Anthropology: The State of the Field,” a special issue of Antropologicheskii Forum /Forum for Anthropology and Culture], no. 1 (2004); for eastern Europe, see Buchowski, Michal, “Hierarchies of Knowledge in Central- Eastern European Anthropology,” Anthropology of East Europe Review 22, no. 2 (Autumn 2004): 514; Skalnik, Petr, ed., A Post-Communist Millennium: The Struggles for Socioaillural Anthropology in Central and Eastern Europe (Prague, 2002); and Hann, Chris M., “Anthropology's Multiple Temporalities and Its Future in Central and Eastern Europe: A Debate” (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology Working Paper No. 90, 2007).

2. For instructive appraisals of the development of the anthropology of east European and Soviet socialisms, see Verdery, Katherine, What Was Socialism and What Comes Next? (Princeton, 1996); Hann, Chris M., ed., Socialism: Ideals, Ideologies, and Local Practice (London, 1993); and Halpern, Joel Martin and Kideckel, David A., “Anthropology of Eastern Europe,” Annual Revieiu of Anthropology 12 (1983): 377402 . For some reviews and major statements of anthropologists’ work on the postsocialist period, see, for instance, Verdery, What Was Socialism and What Comes Next?; Hann, Chris M., “After Communism: Reflections on East European Anthropology and the ‘Transition,'” Social Anthropology 2, no. 3 (October 1994): 229-49; Rethmann, Petra, “Chto Delat'? Ethnography in the Post-Soviet Cultural Context,” American Anthropologist 99, no. 4 (December 1997): 770-74; Wolfe, Thomas C., “Cultures and Communities in the Anthropology of Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union,” Annual Review of Anthropology 29 (2000): 195216 ; Burawoy, Michael and Verdery, Katherine, “Introduction,” in Burawoy and Verdery, eds., Uncertain Transition: Ethnographies of Change in the Postsocialist World (Lanham, Md., 1999); Hann, Chris M., ed., Postsocialism: Ideals, Ideologies, and Practices in Eurasia (London, 2002); Buyandelgeriyn, Manduhai, “Post-Post-Transition Theories: Walking on Multiple Paths,” Annual Review of Anthropology 37 (2008): 235-50; and Ries, Nancy, “Anthropology and Eurasia: Why Culture Matters in the Study of Postsocialism,” NewsNet: Nexus of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies 45, no. 4 (August 2005): 15 .

3. See, for instance, Verdery, Katherine, “Bringing the Anthropologists (Back) In,“ NexusNet: Nexus ofthe American Association for the Advancement ofSlavic Studies 46, no. 1 (January 2006): 111 . On broader transformations in the western academy over which the above paragraphs skate briskly, see, for instance, Pletsch, Carl E., “The Three Worlds, or the Division of Social Scientific Labor, circa 1950-1975,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23, no. 4 (October 1981): 565-90; Simpson, Christopher, ed., Universities and Empire: Money and Politics in the Social Sciences during the Cold War (New York, 1998); and Chomsky, Noam et al., eds., The Cold War and the University: Toxuard an Intellectual History of the Postxuar Years (New York, 1997).

4. My choice of the phrase “add new dimensions” is quite intentional. I do not wish to be understood as implying that studies based in only one place, or studies that do not take up the kinds of transnational connections or comparisons I focus on here, are somehow outmoded. On the contrary: anthropology without focused, single-site monograph-style ethnographies is, to me at any rate, unimaginable; indeed, these kinds of studies are the absolute precondition for many of the claims I advocate below. My point, rather, is that there are now enough anthropologists working in this part of the world to permit several analytical strategies to be employed at once, each informing different parts of a larger conversation.

5. Lemon, Alaina explores this theme under the rubric “Multidirectional Influences“ in “Writing against the New ‘Cold War,'” Anthropology News 49, no. 8 (2008): 1112 .

6. For studies of this phenomenon based on ethnography during the early postsocialist years, see Berdahl, Daphne, Where the World Ended: Re-Unification and Identity in the German Borderland (Berkeley, 1999); Hann, Chris M. and Hann, Ildiko, “Samovars and Sex on Turkey's Russian Markets,” Anthropology Today 8, no. 4 (June 1992): 36 ; and Humphrey, Caroline and Sneath, David, The End of Nomadism? Society, State, and the Environment in Inner Asia (Durham, 1999). More recently, see, for instance, Keough, Leyla, “Globalizing ‘Postsocialism': Mobile Mothers and Neoliberalism on the Margins of Europe,” Anthropological Quarterly 79, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 431-61; Pelkmans, Mathijs, Defending the Border: Identity, Religion, and Modernity in the Republic of Georgia (Ithaca, 2006); and, on a somewhat different kind of migration, Caldwell, Melissa L., “Development Migrants in Russia: The Global Movement of Aid, People, and Status,” in Deema Kaneff and Frances Pine, eds., Emerging Inequalities in Europe: Poverty and Transnational Migration (London, forthcoming).

7. Alaina Lemon's recent work also makes productive use of the ethnography of gendered sentiments and emotions to revisit Cold War assumptions and interpretive frameworks. See, for instance, Lemon, Alaina, “Sympathy for the Weary State? Cold War Chronotopes and Moscow Others,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 51, no. 4 (October 2009): 832-64, and Lemon, Alaina, “Hermeneutic Algebra: Solving for Love, Time/Space, and Value in Putin-Era Personal Mis” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 18, no. 2 (September 2008): 236-67.

8. Adams, Laura L., “Globalization, Universalism, and Cultural Form,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 50, no. 3 (July 2008): 614-40. For another useful study of ideas flowing in multiple directions, see Bockman, Johanna and Bernstein, Michael A., “Scientific Community in a Divided World: Economists, Planning, and Research Priority during the Cold War,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 50, no. 3 (July 2008): 581613 . Examples of this kind of research could easily be multiplied. The spread of religious ideas and practices into the postsocialist world, for instance, has drawn increasing attention from scholars. Catherine Wanner nicely articulates some of the themes I explore here in a recent study of evangelicals in and beyond Ukraine: “When a Nigerian opens a Church in Ukraine that sends Ukrainian believers to the U.S., Germany and elsewhere to save the unsaved and church the unchurched, it is no longer a case of core exerting influence on the periphery. Rather the interconnections and the cultural flow of ideas, objects and people are also significant among non-Western regions and from the so-called Second and Third Worlds to the First“; see Wanner, Catherine, “Converson and the Mobile Self: Evangelicalism as ‘Traveling Culture,'” in Pelkmans, Matijis, ed., Conversion after Socialism: Disruptions, Modernisms, and Technologies of Faith in the Former Soviet Union (Oxford, 2009), 174 . See also Wanner, Catherine, Communities of the Converted: Ukrainians and GlobalEvangelism (Ithaca, 2007), which combines astute historical study with ethnography sited in both Ukraine and the United States to explore the transformations of Baptist communities after the end of socialism.

9. Verdery, What Was Socialism and What Comes Next?.

10. Verdery, Katherine, The Vanishing Hectare: Property and Value in Postsocialist Transylvania (Ithaca, 2003).

11. Putnam, Robert, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton, 1993); Putnam, Robert, Boiuling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of America Community (New York, 2000).

12. Chari, Sharad and Verdery, Katherine, “Thinking between the Posts: Postsocialism, Postcolonialism, and Ethnography after the End of the Cold War,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 51, no. 1 (January 2009): 634 .

13. A significant secondary benefit of the kind of conversations that Chari and Verdery propose would be the continued deepening of conversations between historians, anthropologists, and other scholars about the Russian and Soviet empires, including the question of whether or not the Soviet Union can be usefully understood as a colonial power. On the issue of empire alone—far from the only zone for such conversations—see Jane Burbank, Mark von Hagen, and Anatolyi Remnev, eds., Russian Empire: Space, People, Power, 1700-1930 (Bloomington, 2007); Bruce Grant, The Captive and the Gift: Cultural Histories of Sovereignty in Russia and the Caucasus (Ithaca, 2009); “Locating the (Post-) Colonial in Soviet History,” a special issue, edited by Adeeb Khalid, of Central Asian Survey 26, no. 4 (December 2007), and Adeeb Khalid, “The Soviet Union as an Imperial Formation: A View from Central Asia,” in Ann Laura Stoler, Carole McGranahan, and Peter C. Perdue, eds., Imperial Formations (Santa Fe, 2007), 123-51; Todorova, Maria, “Balkanizem in postkolonializem: O lepoti pogleda z letala,” Zgodovinski Casopis (Historical review, Ljubljana) 61, nos. 1-2 (2007): 135, 141-55; Hirsch, Francine, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca, 2005); Martin, Terry, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Ithaca, 2001); Douglas Northrop, Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia (Ithaca, 2004). On anthropology and history in the region, see also Rogers, Douglas, “Historical Anthropology Meets Soviet History,“ Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 7', no. 3 (Summer 2006): 633-49, and Hann, “Anthropology's Multiple Temporalities.“.

14. Stoler, Ann Laura and McGranahan, Carole, “Introduction: Refiguring Imperial Terrains,” in Stoler, McGranahan, and Perdue, eds., Imperial Formations. .

15. In particular ethnographies, comparison is often used to highlight the specificities of the case at hand. Verdery's Vanishing Hectare, for instance, includes an entire chapter on the course of property reform across the former Soviet bloc as part of her effort to situate the case on which the book focuses and to indicate the ways in which her conclusions may or may not be generalizable. Comparison within the region has also been a favorite technique, often in edited collections juxtaposing different ethnographic contexts. See especially Burawoy and Verdery, eds., Uncertain Transition; Ruth Mandel and Caroline Humphrey, eds., Markets and Moralities: Ethnographies of Postsocialism (Oxford, 2002); Daphne Berdahl, Matti Bunzl, and Martha Lampland, eds., Altering States: Ethnographies of Transition in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union (Ann Arbor, 2000); Hann, ed., Postsocialism; Rubie S. Watson, Memory, History, and Opposition under State Socialism (Sante Fe, 1994); Gal, Susan and Kligman, Gail, eds., Reproducing Gender: Politics, Publics, and Everyday Life after Socialism (Princeton, 2000); De Soto, Hermine G. and Anderson, David G., eds., The Curtain Rises: Rethinking Culture, Ideology, and the State in Eastern Europe (Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1993). As I note below, only the volumes edited by Hann and Watson in this list stretch their comparative scope beyond the former Soviet bloc—to China in both cases. Notable among the existing comparisons that stretch still farther is Robert Hayden's thought-provoking comparison of “antagonistic tolerance” at religious shrines in India and the Balkans and its implications for theories of democracy and tolerance; see Robert M. Hayden, “Antagonistic Tolerance: Competitive Sharing of Religious Sites in South Asia and the Balkans,” Current Anthropology 43, no. 2 (April 2002): 205-31. On the utility of comparison in the future of postsocialist studies, see also Don Kalb, “Afterword: Globalism and Postsocialist Prospects,” in Hann, ed., Postsocialism..

16. Burawoy, Michael and Lukács, János, The Radiant Past: Ideology and Reality in Hungary's Road to Capitalism (Chicago, 1992); Burawoy, Michael, Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process under Monopoly Capital (Chicago, 1979).

17. Two studies that make excellent use of this brand of comparative framing to situate their own detailed ethnographies are Dunn, Elizabeth C., Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labor (Ithaca, 2004); and Gille, Zsuzsa, From the Cult of Waste to the Trash Heap of History: The Politics of Waste in Postsocialist Hungary (Bloomington, 2007).

18. Boyer, Dominic and Yurchak, Alexei, “American Stiob: Or, What Late Socialist Aesthetics of Parody Teach Us about Contemporary Political Culture in the West” (unpublished manuscript, Rice University and University of California, Berkeley, 2009).

19. Alexei, Yurchak, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton, 2006), 249-50 (emphasis in the original).

20. Susan Gal and Gail Kligman's situated comparison of the politics of gender after socialism is another recent and important contribution to this strategy of unbinding postsocialisms; see SGal, usan and Kligman, Gail, The Politics of Gender after Socialism: A Comparative-Historical Essay (Princeton, 2000). In their analysis, highly gendered discourses, such as those about the family in postsocialist contexts being a traditional constant in a rapidly changing world, come into much sharper analytic focus when they are juxtaposed with discourses about the family in western European welfare states and the United States (where many see the family as “in crisis“). In the course of their analysis, Gal and Kligman also offer an additional useful framework for situating particular ethnographic and historical studies in larger contexts: the fractal, in which distinctions and shapes are reproduced recursively at several levels of analysis. As Greenberg's analysis in this issue suggests, the fractal offers a potentially new and distinct strategy for unbinding postsocialisms that deserves wider attention.

21. Ledeneva, Alena, “Blat and Guanxi: Informal Practices in Russia and China,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 50, no. 1 (January 2008): 118-44; Pitcher, M. Anne and Askew, Kelly M., “African Socialisms and Postsocialisms,” Africa 76, no. 1 (2006): 1-14 (see also the subsequent articles in this thematic issue of Africa); Brotherton, P. Sean, “We Have to Think Like Capitalists but Continue Being Socialists“: Medicalized Subjectivities, Emergent Capital, and Socialist Entrepreneurs in Post-Soviet Cuba,” AmericanEthnologist 35, no. 2 (May 2008): 259-74; Kipnis, Andrew, China and Postsocialist Anthropology: Theorizing Power and Society after Communism (Norwalk, Conn., 2008); and Pieke, Frank N., “Introduction: A Chinese Century in Anthropology?” Social Anthropology/Anthropologic Sociale 17, no. 1 (February 2009): 18 . Even within anthropology alone, this literature rapidly becomes daunting in its scope and diversity, but see also Helen Siu, F., “China's Century: Fast-Forward with Historical Baggage,” American Anthropologist 108, no. 2 (June 2006): 389-92; Fikes, Kesha and Lemon, Alaina, “African Presence in Former Soviet Spaces,” Annual Review of Anthropology 31 (2002): 497-524; Melissa Caldwell, “Food Relief in Russia: The Global Politics of Race and World Status” (unpublished manuscript, University of California, Santa Cruz, 2008); Donham, Donald, Marxist Modern: An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution (Berkeley, 1999). Also diagnostic of this emerging field of inquiry is the recent translation of classical texts in the study of eastern European socialisms into Chinese: see, for instance, Szelényi, Iván, Essays on Socialism, Post-Communism, and theNeiu Class (Beijing, 2009).

22. For one exchange on whether approaches to “the transition” should be based in area studies scholarship or universalizing assumptions and large-scale comparisons about shifts from authoritarianism to democracy, see Schmitter, Philippe C. with Terry Lynn Karl, “The Conceptual Travels of Transitologists and Consolidologists: How Far to the East Should They Attempt to Go?” Slavic Review 53, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 173-85; and Bunce, Valerie, “Should Transitologists Be Grounded?” Slavic Review 54, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 111-27.

23. Early disputes between anthropology and political science took place in a context in which anthropology sought to gain an institutional traction in this part of the world just as political science grappled anew with its overall commitment to area studies and the scientificity and universality of its methods and claims. This context likely helps account for some of the more heated polemical debates that attended the emergence of the anthropology of postsocialisms. Now that the intensity of this moment has begun to fade, 1 hope there is room for more substantial and constructive engagement among anthropologists and political scientists of the region. My thanks to Venelin Ganev (both in person and in his instructive writings) for pushing me to think about these points; see, for instance, Ganev, Venelin I., “The ‘Triumph of Neoliberalism’ Reconsidered: Critical Remarks on Ideas-Centered Analyses of Political and Economic Change in Post-Communism,” East Eurojjean Politics and Societies 19, no. 3 (Summer 2005): 343-78, and Ganev, Venelin I., Preying on the State: The Transformation of Bulgaria after 1989 (Ithaca, 2007).

24. See, for instance, Wanner, , Communities of the Converted; Grant, The Captive and the Gift; and Douglas Rogers, The Old Faith and the Russian Land: A Historical Ethnography of Ethics in the Urals (Ithaca, 2009).

25. Pitcher and Askew, “African Socialisms and Postsocialisms.“.

26. Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, 2000).

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Slavic Review
  • ISSN: 0037-6779
  • EISSN: 2325-7784
  • URL: /core/journals/slavic-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed