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Men out of Focus

Men Out of Focus: Women, War, and Crisis (Erica Fraser)

Erica Fraser

After the year we have all had, kicking off the summer by reading and thinking about Soviet masculinities feels, to me, like a comforting return to normalcy. It is a topic I began researching and writing about as a graduate student over two decades ago now (good grief!) I was fascinated in the late 1990s by research on machismo coming out of Latin American history and on men of the Victorian public sphere in British history. By 2002, Imperial Russian and Soviet history had its own pioneering volume of essays on masculinities (Russian Masculinities in History and Culture, ed. Clements, Friedman, and Healey), and the field has only expanded from there.

That’s not to say we are yet gleefully awash in histories of the Soviet gender order, which in my view remains an under-researched field despite the crucial contributions of many of our colleagues in women’s history, the history of sexuality, and now Soviet masculinities. There is certainly room for more, in all eras of Russian and Soviet history. My own research interests lie in the Second World War and its aftermath in Soviet culture, and so I have very much been looking forward to reading Marko Dumančić’s new book, Men Out of Focus. It does not disappoint. Dumančić is generous in drawing on and building from the scholars that have come before him, including most recently Claire McCallum’s 2018 book, The Fate of the New Man: Representing and Reconstructing Masculinity in Soviet Visual Culture, 1945-65, and my own Military Masculinity and Postwar Recovery in the Soviet Union from 2019, but his research also shows us several exciting new paths forward.

In this brief contribution to our conversation about the book, I want to focus in particular on three main topics that Dumančić discusses: the role of women in Sixties films; the specter of the war; and the framework of “crisis” – which, of course, has not only been applied by historians and theorists but was a key theme in Soviet media and culture of the mid-to-late Soviet era itself.

I admit to rifling through the pages of my new copy of the book immediately to jump to chapter 4, “The Trouble with Women: Consumerism and the Death of Rugged Masculinity.” One historical issue in which I am very invested is the absolute necessity of including women in studies of masculinity – and not only including, but ensuing that our analyses consider how masculinized cultural terrains are too often built and maintained through the demonization, violation, or erasure of women. In his study of Sixties films, Dumančić finds several that played on specific tropes about “man-eating, gold-digging, and momism” (151) as ways of building sympathy for the leading man. I appreciate Dumančić’s focus on women as consumers in this chapter, drawing on the work of Susan Reid, Christine Varga-Harris, Deborah A. Field, and others, and adding further evidence to his argument throughout the book that the troubled growing pains of an updated vision of Soviet modernity after Stalin ran parallel to the West in the same time period, both on film and in broader (consumerist) culture.

I can’t help but wonder how postwar demographics might have influenced these film portrayals. As Mie Nakachi and others have demonstrated, the Soviet Union was a country of women after the war. The misogyny that the film industry showed through its focus on women’s supposed frivolity, greed, propensity for entrapment, and so on seems to me to be directly tied to men in power (in government and in film alike) trying to exert cultural control over this majority, for fear of their power and influence. I also wonder about film representations of men’s consumption, thinking in particular about Brandon Gray Miller’s work on men’s fashion and Lewis Siegelbaum’s on cars. Were film representations of consumption cultivated to celebrate “manly” buying power and demonize women’s material demands, or was men’s consumption simply absent? Regardless, this section of Dumančić’s book provides very welcome new evidence that women’s inequality remained a feature of Soviet socialism after the war – despite longstanding labor contributions and the government’s ideological insistence on parity. Moreover, the revelation that such anti-woman plots onscreen were so popular among audiences should influence how we think (and teach) about the toxicity of the Soviet gender order in everyday life.

Regarding the Second World War, I suspect that Dumančić and I will never quite agree on this, since our books take quite different approaches to the significance of the war on Soviet society in the 1950s and ‘60s. I have argued that the catastrophe of the war – and the damage done to men’s demographics as well as male survivors’ bodies – was paramount to understanding the government’s postwar re-centering of masculinized institutions like the military and scientific research centers. Dumančić, however, minimizes the war in his book. While I still think there might be more to say about its influence on postwar film, I actually find Dumančić’s periodization of masculinity shifts in postwar film fascinating. He argues that a particularly rugged, industrial “Stalinist masculinity” fell out of favor after the leader’s death in 1953. He then labels the era from 1953 to about 1968 “the Sixties,” again seeking to establish a parallel with this era in western film. Many scholars of the postwar and post-Stalin eras have argued for challenging our traditional Stalin-to-Khrushchev periodizations, from Miriam Dobson’s attention to Gulag amnesties of the early 1950s to Christine Varga-Harris’ investigation of housing priorities beyond the usual “Thaw” markers, among others. Through his persuasive film analysis of sons rebuking Stalin-era fathers, for example, Dumančić makes a strong case for a timeline in which the war alone does not explain the emergence in Sixties films of a post-Stalin modernity filled with ennui among male protagonists. Denise Youngblood’s work on Soviet war films has shown the significance of that genre at certain moments in postwar life, and so Dumančić opens up new avenues by drawing our attention to lesser known films in other genres that demonstrate the influence of this unmoored cinematic Sixties man.

Finally, I am grateful to Dumančić for renewing and refreshing an older conversation in gender history about the notion of masculinity in “crisis.” He is well versed in the broader discussion, sparked most recently when French historian Mary Louise Roberts declared in a 2016 piece that the concept of a crisis of masculinity has been semantically overworked and no longer holds distinct meaning. If men are/were in crisis, is it constant across historical times and places, and if so, how can historians move the conversation forward? In my book, I shied away from the word “crisis,” as my evidence of rebuilding in militarized institutions did not seem to support the word’s sense of fatalism and urgency. Dumančić leans into it in his subtitle, “The Soviet Masculinity Crisis in the Long Sixties.” In this he is supported by the research: the sense of crisis comes directly from his primary sources, beginning with his page one discussion of a 1968 op-ed that openly discussed the place of Soviet men in modern society.

Dumančić’s analysis is persuasive here and to take it further, we might expand the question to: crisis for whom? Were men in power, including in the film industry, using the concept and expressing such handwringing about men’s place because of threats to their own power, real or perceived? Did unmarried urban women share the sentiment? Tajik teenage conscripts? Or was it about a certain demographic of Slavic men in power in the government and media (and even perhaps among film audiences) fussing over the changing world in the sixties that challenged them?

I am reminded of a seemingly unrelated new book that I read around the same time as Dumančić’s: Jeff Sahadeo’s excellent Voices from the Soviet Edge: Southern Migrants in Leningrad and Moscow. The topic is outside Dumančić’s scope and his depth of research is already admirable, but as we continue building up our picture of the nuances of society and culture in the Soviet postwar era, I wonder whether the cultural crisis in Slavic masculinity was influenced not only by the new modernity or by perceptions of (Slavic) women’s consumerism, but by the increasing visibility of men from Central Asia and the Caucasus in central Soviet cities. More research on the intersections between gender and nationality in forming Soviet conceptions of masculinity would be welcome. Those are just a few of my thoughts, but I look forward to further discussing Men Out of Focus this week. Overall, it is a marvelous contribution to Soviet cultural and film history as well as gender studies.

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: Women, War, and Crisis (Erica Fraser)”

This question about the relationship of the war to postwar masculinities is a compelling one. It clear that the war and its demographic impact played a substantial role in shaping both realities and fantasies of men and masculinity throughout the USSR in the postwar decades. I appreciate that Dumancic’s work addresses generational differences in this regard. Being a member of the wartime generation (of any gender) was starkly different from being a member of that first postwar generation. I wonder if this played into the issue of momism beyond creating a demographic imbalance and a deficit of live fathers? How were these (real or imagined) mothers’ expectations shaped by their wartime experiences?

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