Perestroika and the “Wild” 1990s: State, Society, and the Individual in Eastern Europe, 1985–2000
This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the workshop “Perestroika and the ‘Wild’ 1990s: State, Society, and the Individual in Eastern Europe, 1985–2000,” which will take place on March 17–19, 2022 at the German Historical Institute in Moscow. We talked to the convener, Alexey Tikhomirov from Bielefeld University, about the upcoming event. Please find more information on the conference here.
As the convener of the upcoming conference “Perestroika and the ’Wild’ 1990s: State, Society, and the Individual in Eastern Europe, 1985–2000,” how did you come up with the idea for this event?
I would like to start to answer this by mentioning an important point: perestroika was a unique historic experience which set in motion tectonic geopolitical shifts—the breakup of the Warsaw Pact, the fall of the USSR, and the end of the Cold War. It still reverberates in the current protest movements in Belarus and Russia. Perestroika was also a quite unexpected experiment. No one anticipated that after his appointment as the general secretary of the CC CPSU in March 1985 the relatively young party leader Mikhail Gorbachev would soon announce the policies of glasnost’ and accelerated political, social, and economic development (uskorenie) as the main features of his political course, which was directed toward renewing and democratizing every area of life in the USSR. After decades of boring news from the “birthplace of socialism,” when glasnost’ was introduced the USSR became the world’s most interesting country. Everyone was watching an unprecedented wave of democratization, which was exponentially gathering speed and spreading over the former “evil empire.” At the height of his international popularity, Gorbachev received the Nobel Peace Prize and during his trips abroad people everywhere greeted him with friendly cries of “Gorby!” In the USSR itself, Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost was received with significantly less enthusiasm because of the series of economic crises that followed, the anti-alcohol campaign, and the breakup of the “biggest country in the world.”
In Eastern European history, the period of perestroika and the 1990s has been and continues to be little studied. This has to do with the fact that historians move forward chronologically: at first, they focused intensely on the history of Stalinism. Then they turned to the postwar and post-Stalin periods (the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras). And only now, thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Eastern bloc of socialist states, has the right moment to historicize the quite recent past come.
The opening of the archives, with increased access to sources, also helped. The appearance of a large number of ego documents—memoirs and diaries—was a distinctive sign of perestroika itself and the 1990s. The process of the “privatization of history” (as Irina Paperno put it), the result of an upsurge in the publication of sources of personal provenance, decentralized official (Soviet) representations of history and made it possible to create more pluralistic histories. These were grounded in the ways that individuals described their experiences of living through radical political and economic transformations, the dissolution of the bloc of socialist states, and the removal of the bipolar ideological opposition of capitalism and socialism. The conference, which Kirsten Bönker and I organize, is focused around a central question: How did the downfall of “Soviet civilization” in Central and Eastern Europe—the former Soviet zone of influence—impact the redefinition of interactions between the state, society, and the individual in the changing global realignments triggered by the fall of the socialist bloc and the end of the Cold War?
We want to distance ourselves from classical political history. In other words, we are stepping away from looking at historical processes “from above,” usually through the prism of high politics and the fate of the most important leaders. We are much more interested in helping to conceptualize the cultural history of perestroika. This means paying close attention to symbols and discourses, representations and media, the resources and social practices of the era of transformation. During this period, the field of the political expanded dynamically. It was reconfigured because new topics, which had formerly been excluded from public communication, attracted and actively politicized an enormous number of previously hidden, passive actors. The work of the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR is a vivid example of this. It held its opening session after the first alternative elections in 1989, when it was actually possible, for the first time in Soviet history, to elect democratically minded candidates. The congress was broadcast live on central state television. Millions of viewers watched as the country’s best representatives, especially Andrei Sakharov and Boris Yeltsin, addressed their fellow deputies. Thousands of letters expressing support for the democratic transformations sent to the deputies in Moscow, which was also the site of the first meetings of the liberal’naia obshchestvennost’ (liberal public). The key thing to keep in mind is that the congress set the agenda for perestroika and became a platform for open discussions about issues which had previously been taboo in official Soviet discourse, for example ecological problems, gaps in the historical record, and the nomenklatura’s extremely privileged position. In this sense, perestroika could be called a media revolution which itself contributed to making the media more pluralistic—and helped turn its consumers into political actors of democratization.
We are also going to look at how perestroika and the 1990s were reflected in daily life and changes in the lifestyles of men, women, and children, across the generations, and in different social groups. For example, intensified struggles for national independence in the Soviet republics exacerbated relations between national groups in (post)Soviet space. But during that period, tensions based on nationality led to military conflicts and the traumatic experience of family relationships breaking up, forced migration, and the difficulties of making a life in a new place. A breakthrough to the Western way of life took place at the same time. I want to mention just one instance of this. In 1987 the German fashion magazine Burda Moden (now called Burda Style) began to be published in the Soviet Union. Although its print run was 100,000 copies, each issued was passed from hand to hand, read until it was literally in tatters, and every woman wanted to look through it. Sotheby’s Moscow office held its first auction that year. Kilometer-long lines marked the opening of Moscow’s first McDonald’s, which confirmed a collective desire to spend at least a short time on an island of Western everyday life. But catch-up Westernization/Americanization was only one aspect of this transformative period and we would like to avoid the bipolar approach of treating this period solely in terms of democratization and inclusion in the privileged club of Western powers. We think it is much more important to ask how ordinary people made sense of life during perestroika and the 1990s, an era that saw people remodeling their public and private lives as well as a significant redefinition of discursive boundaries and patterns of behavior.
Last but not least, in analyzing perestroika and the 1990s, we would like to go beyond the framework of writing national histories. Instead, we want to look at this period and the region from the perspective of entangled history. That is, we want to examine processes of transfer, exchange, adaptation, and communication, especially as these took place between different countries, informal networks, and individual actors. For example, in the 1990s, a combination of economic difficulties, the newly granted permission to engage in private entrepreneurial activity, the beginnings of a market economy, borders opening, and unprecedented opportunities to travel brought a new social group into being. “Shuttle traders” took goods produced in Russia to the former “people’s democracies,” where they bought clothing, various kinds of equipment, and other goods which were in high demand but short supply in Russia to sell when they returned home. Another example is the emotional communities which formed after the collapse of the Eastern bloc. These brought together people from foreign countries who had studied in the USSR, men and women who had participated in large-scale Soviet projects of constructing socialist societies and were now nostalgic about the “golden” past of the epoch of developed socialism. For the most part, members of this type of emotional communities had mostly positive feelings about the socialist experiment. These and other cases of Soviet internationalism before and after 1991 are extremely important for understanding the driving forces and actors of nostalgia, the engines and brakes of democratic transformations in post-socialist space.
According to your call for papers, the conference will take methodologically innovative approaches. Can you elaborate on which methodological approaches might be particularly useful when working on perestroika and its consequences?
I would argue that to shed new light on the dynamics of perestroika we need a combination of approaches and their application to new and traditional sources. We are encouraging the scholars who will be participating in our conference to immerse themselves in the spirit of the epoch and to be ready to experiment in order to generate new knowledge about the last decades of the twentieth century and new ways to study these turbulent years.
At this point, I would like to announce some fascinating topics our presenters will discuss. These range from the key role “small people” played in the fate of a large country, for example by writing letters which were read during radio programs, to street protests in Moscow and Kazakhstan; from cooperation between twin cities to identifying vegetovascular dystonia (VSD) as the main illness of the period of transformation; from new consumption practices, female solidarity, and self-help to the emergence of civic initiatives, spaces, and ways to talk about the new topics of ecology and sexuality. The talks will plunge us into the atmosphere of the Hungry Duck, a bar that opened in Moscow in the early ’90s, give a glimpse into post-Soviet women’s kitchens, take us through letters written to the authorities, let us browse newspapers of the time. In other words, figuratively speaking, the presentations will offer us something like photo-album of the transition period.
These topics call for a combination of approaches from the history of medicine and the history of the body, the history of everyday life and economic history, the history of mentalities and historical anthropology, the history of subjectivity and social history, microhistory and entangled history. In my opinion, the spatial, emotional, and sensory turns in history create an extremely heuristic analytic prism for analyzing societies in transition and studying dissonant lives on the threshold of a major change in governments and value systems. Taken as a whole, the spectrum of topics and the approaches mentioned above indicate our intention to move toward a cultural history of perestroika and the 1990s.
You intend to publish the papers as an edited volume. Which future debates would you like to encourage with your conference and the resulting publication?
We plan to publish a volume in the De Gruyter series Rethinking the Cold War, which is edited by my co-convener, Kirsten Bönker. In doing that, we hope to achieve several specific goals and, more broadly, to enrich ongoing academic debates on some strategic topics.
First, it is important to situate perestroika and the 1990s in the broader study of global post-Cold War tensions. As we know, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of bipolar confrontation did not lead to what Francis Fukuyama called the “end of history” and the triumph of the Western idea of liberal democracies. At this moment in time, it is very important to look at the “global 1990s” to see how different countries, political orders, and societies reacted to the disappearance of the Soviet empire, the loss of the meaning which antagonistic ideological narratives offered, and the formation of new alliances. Research on this period should examine the interconnected processes of political, economic, and cultural transformation but it is also important to take account of the partial acceleration and partial slowdown of globalization operating during this time. Likewise, questions about the formation of new communication networks and transnational communities and the pluralization and individualization of lifestyles are key areas for scholarly activity.
This brings me to the next point: analyzing perestroika from the perspective of global history. It seems to me that perestroika became a global phenomenon that left traces in politics, memory, and practices around the world. By looking at what happened to economic behavior and consumption, the media and communication, intergenerational dialogue and conflict, mobility and migration, and issues around human rights and the dignity of the individual, we are reflecting on historical change in the evolving relationships between the state, society, and the individual.
This means that our volume will contribute to scholarship on totalitarian subjectivity by focusing on the individual dimension of negotiating life under a dictatorship and during the transition to daily life in a new socio-political framework, between 1989 and 1991. Many questions about how citizens perceived and lived through this transformational period still await deeper analysis. Did people see this time in terms of danger or opportunity, crisis or progress, loss of face or liberation? Did they experience discomfort and depression or happiness and a sense of freedom as new identities were being constructed, resources redistributed, and social hierarchies rearranged? This micro-historical perspective expands our understanding of the macro-level changes by analyzing its individual dimension, but it also has a larger goal: to treat the experience of individuals—what is unique or partially distinctive to a particular person—as a factor in historical change.
Finally, our conference is another step toward studying the contemporary history of the twenty-first century, which has seen the establishment of Vladimir Putin’s regime of “managed democracy,” the complications of democratic transformation in post-Soviet and post-socialist space, and a succession of “color” revolutions and social protests which have continued into the present. To legitimize Putin’s regime, the Kremlin describes the 1990s as a period of poverty, criminal activity, and instability, contrasting it with the current representations of the country’s prosperity, a widespread sense of stability, and Russia’s regained international authority. We also want to look at the current, state-sponsored narrative about Russia’s “bad 1990s” with a critical, scholarly eye.
More broadly, we hope the conference and our publication will stimulate research on historic situations where change, by necessity and demand from society, was able to mobilize different social groups and unite them into a powerful force for transformation. Current protests against the contested presidential elections in Belarus and protests in Russia (Khabarovsk, Kushtau, Kuzbass) accentuate the timeliness of scholarly reflection on how the demand for change matures and erupts in different societies living under authoritarian orders. Perestroika can be described as waiting for and demanding change. Above all, we are interested in how this need for change takes shape in society, in the state, and on the individual level. It is significant that from Minsk to Khabarovsk a song “I Want Change!” (Khochu peremen!), which was written and performed by the wildly popular perestroika-era singer-songwriter Viktor Tsoi, has become the anthem of current protests. This song has created transnational solidarities and mobilized people to undertake political struggle for more than thirty years. In doing so, it has helped them move towards strengthening a civil society based on the universally held value of human rights.
The words of Viktor Tsoi’s hit song, which he sang for the first time in Sergei Solovyov’s 1987 film Assa, and which post-Soviet societies have continued to sing through following generations, remind us about the meaning of perestroika and its power to generate historical change:
Changes require our hearts,
Changes require our eyes,
In our laughter and our tears,
And with pulsing veins
We are waiting for change.
The organizers would like to express their gratitude to the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Moscow and the German Historical Institute Moscow for their financial support.
Alexey Tikhomirov is Assistant Professor in East European History at Bielefeld University. His first monograph, “The Best Friend of the German People”: The Stalin Cult in East Germany, 1945–1961 (2014), was published in Russian by ROSSPEN in the internationally acclaimed series History of Stalinism. His articles have been published in Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasia History, Slavonic and East European Review and the Journal of Modern European History. He is currently completing a second book, entitled Forced Trust: Emotional Bonds between People and State in Soviet Russia (1917–1991).
Citation: Alexey Tikhomirov, Perestroika and the “Wild” 1990s: State, Society, and the Individual in Eastern Europe, 1985–2000, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 13.10.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/25013.