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Reconciling Failure and Success: Soviet Elites and the Collectivized Village

The Adventure of Individuality. Visual Representation of the Post-War Soviet Village and the Ambivalences of Ethnographic Photography during Late Stalinism and the "Thaw"

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The photographic inventory of the collectivized Soviet village during the Stalinist period mainly consisted of images of progress based on examples of technological modernization such as tractors and depictions of the villagers made happy by it. In the context of this "poverty of images", a photo album with pictures taken during an ethnographic expedition under the aegis of the Moscow Academy of Science to the Russian Central Black Earth Region in 1952 provides a unique insight into everyday kolkhoz life and its hardships during the lean postwar years. Of course, the Moscow Institute of Ethnography's research project was framed by the norms and values of the late Stalinist period. The ethnographers were expected to reveal obstacles to socialist progress and thereby help overcome them. Therefore, they had to study a 'typical' (yet carefully chosen) village with an ordinary kolkhoz and all its real problems. The young amateur photographer Vladimir Gorlenko's photographs of this 'typical' kolkhoz life did not correspond to the published visual norms of "socialist realism". At the same time, they did not comply with the standards of ethnographic photography as a mere means of documenting "material culture" such as clothing or housing. In the end, the research in Voronezh was dropped in favour of a more promising village in the neighbouring region of Tambov, which was presented in the famous monograph The Village of Viriatino.

The article examines visual patterns in the depiction of kolkhoz life in a larger context, both within and beyond ethnographic photography and discusses the permissible visual narratives during late Stalinism and the "Thaw". It shows how Gorlenko to a certain extent stretched the framework of ethnographic photography towards social documentary photography.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2017

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  • The Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas ("East European History") present the discipline in its entire breadth; for thematically focused articles the emphasis lies on the territory of the former Russian Empire and the former Soviet Union. A double-blind review process with international experts ensures adherence to the annals' recognized high quality standards. An extensive section devoted to reviews informs the reader about current trends in German and international research. In addition, the editorial board publishes an electronic review supplement under the title jgo.e-reviews at
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