Was the Soviet Union modern?
Department of Sociology Uppsala University Uppsala, Sweden
Was the Soviet Union modern? This is the core question in the lively controversy that has been going on among the historians of the Soviet Union and socialist Eastern Europe in general since the collapse of communism. On the one hand, the "Modernists", "led" by Stephen Kotkin, the author of the famous work "Magnetic Mountain", have emphasised that the building of socialism shared many of the tendencies and aspirations essential to the project of modernity like economic and scientific progress, urbanization, etc. On the other hand, the "Neo-Traditionalists", "led" by Sheila Fitzpatrick, have repeatedly pointed out that despite some of its seemingly modern features, the Soviet Union was more traditional than modern lifting up, among others, the role of clientilism and the importance of ascribed social statuses, both ethnic and professional, as well as the privileges and corruption following from them (that is, a kind of pseudo-estates). The answer to this question undoubtedly depends on what one means by a modern society or modernity. As is usual in scientific disputes like this, the adversaries often talk about different things and thus their arguments, however well-founded, fail to convince the other side.
In a recent article, summarizing, the dispute, Michael David-Fox suggested that we should pay more attention to the concrete forms of cultural transfer between the capitalist West and the socialist East and to the various ways in which they were adapted and modified in their countries of destination. In this paper, we shall follow his suggestion by describing and analysing one specific, important field of Soviet consumption: the clothes fashion. If we are to believe the great sociologist of modernity, Georg Simmel, fashion, if anything, is essential to our experience of modernity. According to Johan Arnason, in evaluating the multiple paths to modernity it is exactly the experience of modernity which is important. We shall describe both the establishment of the major social institutions and organizations of fashion as well as the development of the aesthetic and moral discourse or etiquette, which regulated or guided the common Soviet man and woman in their everyday relations with fashion.