Josh’s post got me thinking about my disinclination to more directly acknowledge the connection between the Cold War and Soviet masculinity – esp. given that it’s (implicitly) present in the book. The Cold War is relevant to this book because it influenced the logic of the period and gave the impetus for the various modernization reforms the USSR pursued. The nuclear race, the Virgin Lands campaign, the space race, and the revival of light industry were all clearly linked to the superpower contest. But even as the Cold War impacted this period, I think it had less of an immediate and intimate influence on the thinking of everyday Soviet citizens—at least based on this set of sources. The anxieties and insecurities Soviet protagonists experienced is, I think, more of a product of a postwar moment that was evident across the continent regardless of a country’s superpower status. France, Italy, and Britain all struggled to come to terms with their sudden postwar affluence, their authoritarian/imperial past, and rapidly changing demographics. The call to not only to rebuild but also to reimagine national life after twin evils of totalitarianism and WWII defined the long Sixties. The film characters and their audiences did not speak in the language of the Cold War; rather, they talked about issues “closer to home” that were results of marriage laws, consumerist policies, de-Stalinization, and (sub)urban renewal. For instance, the stories of celluloid Cold War nuclear scientists were ultimately about maintaining their integrity and dignity in a system run by their country’s bureaucrats. On the other side of the spectrum were scientists who created their versions of robotic Frankensteins and learned that they shortcut their humanity at their own peril. The lesson these scientist learned were about romance and the dangers of red tape and in this way scientists, as men, were no different than men who tried to figure out how to become adequate father figures or men who tried to avoid the discreet charms of the bourgeoisie. The title of the book centers the masculinity crisis of the Sixties, even as the Cold War certainly shaped the terrain of this period.
Robert’s provocative post helped me recall his excellent book Cold War Femme: Lesbianism, National Identity, and Hollywood Cinema. In it, Robert demonstrates how the Cold War transformed the understanding of lesbianism in the US. Whereas in the first half of the twentieth century, lesbianism was seen as a gender inversion (masculine/butch woman), the Cold War context reconfigured the lesbian into a “femme” and lesbianism became more about object choice. The lesbian had gone “incognito” and was tougher to identify. My working hypothesis was that this Cold War transformation did not take place in the USSR precisely because of the postwar masculinity crisis. To compensate for the masculine lack, women had to firmly occupy traditional and stereotypical female spaces – and then some.
In the hopes of generating some more discussion, I thought I’d interject briefly as the facilitator of this conversation to follow up on a thread raised by Marko and our panelists in the hopes that they (and any of our readers) may want to respond.
Now that I’ve officially embarked on a study of the overall weirdness of temporality in the post -Soviet era , thinking about Men Out of Focus makes me feel strangely unstuck in time. After all, this is the book I really wish I could have cited when I was writing my dissertation thirty years ago. Perhaps the next frontier in digital humanities could involve rocketing manuscripts into the past. Is that really too much to ask?
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?
The question of how to determine the political significance of alternative models of masculinity, especially when they are anchored in normatively raced, classed, and sexed bodies, has long been central to queer studies, the field in which I work. Marko Dumancic’s richly textured analysis of the crisis of masculinity that emerged in the Soviet Union during the Khrushchev era suggests why this question is not always easy to answer. In riveting and meticulous detail, Marko traces how Thaw-era filmmakers’ rejection of the heroic masculinity celebrated in the social realist cinema of an earlier era threatened to undermine the Communist Party’s authority.
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.
It has been a while since our last book conversation here on the Russian History Blog, so the pressure was on to emerge from our pandemic cocoons with style. We can think of no better volume to do this with than Marko Dumančić’s wonderful Men Out of Focus: The Soviet Masculinity Crisis in the Long Sixties (University of Toronto Press, 2021). As someone with a deep interest both in gender history and in late Soviet culture, I was particularly eager to get my hands on this book and to talk with others about it. I’m looking forward to a vibrant conversation over the next few days. Please read on to find out more about the book and about our panelists!