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Men out of Focus

Men Out of Focus: Marko responds to Erica

Marko Dumančić

I’d like to start by saying that Erica’s Military Masculinity and Postwar Recovery in the Soviet Union is a masterful monograph that I read and re-read as I finalized Men Out of Focus because it was revelatory for me. It dazzlingly unpacks the intentional project of restoring the spirit of martial masculinity following WWII. Although war does not loom large in my analysis, I imagine Military Masculinity and Men Out of Focus being complementary in that both identify the ways in which significant postwar shifts disrupted the Soviet interwar and wartime gender order. For instance, Erica’s keen observation that reconnecting masculinity and military service was, in part, a (by)product of the fact that the USSR had demographically become “a country of women” and that “the growing plurality in postwar society increasingly offered young men the option of locating their identities in nonmartial categories.” It seems to me that both our works identify if not a crisis, then certainly an anxiety about a kind of misalignment of men’s “proper” postwar role(s). I wholeheartedly agree with Erica’s claim that ever since the Civil War the image of the Red Army serviceman remained central and loomed large in Soviet culture. At the same time, the Cold War competition was as much about beating the US in the production of meat and milk as it was about military supremacy. Perhaps Erica’s focus on the legacy of WWII and my focus on non-military gendered sites meets in the Virgin Lands campaign, which is framed as the postwar generation’s crucible but is more about “bread and butter” issues than about defense and battle-readiness.

As we discuss the topic of martial masculinity, I was reminded during my conversation with Sean Guillory that the Cold War (much like WWII) does not define the story I tell. I certainly looked for the connection between masculinity and the superpower conflict, but it remained elusive for me. Erica’s research (especially Part II of Military Masculinity) persuasively shows the tangible connections between the Cold War rivalry and constructions of masculinity. My sources, however, are strangely mum on the Cold War. There’s certainly plenty of references about “foreign and alien” ideologies and anti-capitalist sentiments, but the Cold War as a measure of Soviet men’s worth as men did not materialize in my research. I hypothesized that this silence was, in part, because of the regime’s investment in peaceful coexistence and détente as foreign policy principles (which are expertly traced in chapter three of Erica’s book).

Finally, Erica’s “crisis for whom” question is brilliantly on point. It seems to me that it is a crisis for the gender project Lenin articulated when he demanded the “old Oblomov” has remained and when he insisted that “for a long while yet he will have to be washed, cleaned, shaken and thrashed if something is to come of him.” Similarly, it is a crisis for the gender project Stalin continued by rejecting the idea of Hamlet as an overly cerebral and indecisive anti-hero. It is perhaps this same crisis point that focused the Soviet’s military attention on “making men out of boys” in the postwar period?

By Joshua Sanborn

David M. '70 and Linda Roth Professor of History
Department of History
Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)

One reply on “Men Out of Focus: Marko responds to Erica”

To weigh in on the “crisis” question, I have to say that the idea of a “crisis of masculinity” in the postwar USSR (or at least in Soviet Russia) does ring true for me. In my own research on postwar food culture, I found echoes of it in the way that men’s location in the home seemed uncomfortable and uncertain. Would it be unmanly to assist with housework? Were women emasculating their partners by suggesting that they should? Or was this emasculation coming from the women’s very ability to shoulder the double burden, while their menfolk appeared to struggle so mightily under the weight of the burdens they carried? Was domestic ineptitude a mark of manliness or was it pathetic? Was there such a thing as “manly” cooking beyond grilling shashlyk? While it might not be appropriate to talk about a “crisis of masculinity” in every context where it has been deployed, it appears very useful for understanding the specific moment that you examine in your book, since it is a peculiar and distinctive era that sees a serious rupture with the past, as well as a meaningful shift in not only Soviet ideology, but also how the public related to that ideology.

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