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Susan Reid’s “Cold War in the Kitchen”

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In her article “Cold War in the Kitchen: Gender and the De-Stalinization of Consumer Taste in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev” (Slavic Review 61.2 [2002]), Susan Reid examines the representation of women and consumer culture in domestic advice manuals and the Soviet press, particularly in Ogonek,[1] in the Khrushchev era. It is her contention that the visual and textual representation of women demonstrates a variety of ways in which manipulation and regulation were simultaneously used to construct a new concept of the ideal female consumer. This discourse, Reid argues, emerged as a result of the Khrushchev administration’s perception of women as powerful yet irrational patrons of mass consumerism. A rational, functional, stripped-down and modern taste for consumer goods, therefore, needed to be instilled in them.

Khrushchev’s enterprise served two purposes: first, to consolidate and exercise power upon the populace without resorting to terror and coercion, a political move strategically made to distance him from the Stalin regime. Second, this Khrushchevist discourse of gender and consumption propagated rationality, modernity, and austerity, seeking to dictate women’s private indulgences as well as their domestic sphere. According to Reid, this particular form of state control could be interpreted as an effort to impose “communist morality,” which demanded that citizens cultivate self- discipline in even the seemingly most mundane matters of their daily lives.

But Reid’s article is not solely about Khrushchev’s mode of governance, but also about the penetration of Cold War competition into the domestic realm. In 1951, American sociologist David Riesman, the mastermind behind the Nylon War scenario, urged the Soviet regime to “turn out consumers’ goods, or face mass discontent on an increasing scale” (p. 222). This Nylon War campaign, which involved successive waves of air-dropped samples, was described as a “bombing campaign” to disrupt citizen satisfaction “as [its] housewives saw for their own eyes American stoves, refrigerators, clothing and toys.”[2] In other words, the U.S. authorities, having launched an offensive armed with goods instead of guns, imagined that they would be able to force Moscow to scale down its heavy industry and weapon production in order to satisfy consumer aspirations.

As both powers assumed that domesticity and consumption were inherently female concerns, it is no surprise that the kitchen suddenly became an important battlefield of the Cold War. Opened in the late summer of 1959 in Moscow, the American National Exhibition showcased the “typical” American homes which featured a kitchen full of modern appliances. The display was, to some extent, misleading as not every contemporary American working-class household could afford such model homes furnished with latest Macy’s designs from Manhattan department store.[3] It created, nevertheless, immense pressure on the Soviet state to compete with the Western adversary through improvements in its citizens’ living standards, including housing and consumer goods. The Khrushchev regime was, however, not totally passive in this “peaceful” confrontation. In fact, it sought to present socialism as a system that could meet consumer aspirations.

According to Reid, Ogonek, the major verbal and pictorial source of her research, proves to be a useful site of study given the fact that it contents paradoxically and strategically covered both conventionally feminine concerns and current affairs. Her article also draws on a number of eyewitness accounts by Western journalists and members of specialist delegations visiting Soviet Union in the late 1950s and early 1960s. By using these eyewitness accounts, her study moves beyond state policy and Soviet mainstream press to present more individualized remarks on Soviet people’s consumption patterns on Moscow streets and their desire for a variety of consumer goods, ranging from a pair of shoes to Western high-end fashion. On the one hand, Reid is rightly cautious about the possible lack of authenticity in these contemporary eyewitness accounts, which were “ideologically over-determined, genre-bound, and framed in the terms of the Cold War construction of the Soviet Union as the communist “other,” as well as being “unapologetically patriarchal” (p. 215). It is, on the other hand, precisely these characteristics of the observations that captured the growing centrality of consumption in the Cold War politics, one of the major arguments of the article.

This study is an effort to offer critical insights into consumer culture in the thaw, a largely marginalized topic despite scholars’ growing interest in consumerism in post-Soviet Russia and the potential for substantial historical analysis of the Khrushchev era. It also presents a challenge to the common dismissal of Soviet Russia as a non-consumer society. Furthermore, given its focus on women and consumption, the article underlines the importance of the micro level of power in understanding the ways post-Stalinist regimes exercised and maintained their authority. Another significance of the study lies in Reid’s sensibility to both historical continuities and changes which, in many ways, shaped the Khrushchev-era discourse of gender and consumption.

As Reid herself has pointed out, one limitation of this study is the absence of female subjectivity as a consumer, who, she believes, “through her consumption choices, or refusal to consume, may or may not have had an impact on the way policy and ideology were shaped, and who made her own meanings of government-issue consumables in the process of active appropriation and bricolage” (p. 214). While it is undoubtedly necessary for scholars to conduct further research on female agency in Soviet consumer culture, it is also crucial to do so without losing sight of the important role of men in influencing women’s consumption habits. It may also be useful to investigate the impacts of the Khrushchev-era discourse of gender and consumption on the leisure culture of Soviet urban life.

The modern era marked the rise of a “mass society” and of “mass consumption.” Such phenomena have been commonly associated with capitalism and democracy rather than socialism and authoritarianism. By focusing on the Khrushchev era, this article presents, however, a distinct case in which mass consumption can be identified with the latter, in particular, the Soviet state’s manipulation and governmentality of women as the owners of the kitchen space. In other words, while the Soviet structure and practice of consumerism was significantly different from those experienced by Western societies, they show how mass consumption was, in fact, part of a shared modernity.

[1] Ogonek was a popular illustrated news magazine along the lines of the British Picture Post or the American Life and Look. It had a large readership consisting of both men and women.

[2] Greg Castillo, Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), vii.

[3] Ibid, ix.


Hanh H. Nguyen
PhD Student in History
Binghamton University
Posted November 2014

 

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