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Government Issue: The Material Culture of the Red Army 1941-1945

  • Author(s): Schechter, Brandon Michael
  • Advisor(s): Slezkine, Yuri L
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation uses everyday objects to explore the meaning of the changes in Soviet society during the Great Patriotic War. The war was a fundamental shift in relations between citizen-soldiers and the state. It was also the greatest threat to the survival of the Stalinist state and Soviet people. The state survived by providing soldiers with the necessities and motivation to defend it. The former included rifles, boots, spoons and shovels, while the later encompassed harsh discipline, concern for well-being, and a shift to celebrating the accomplishments of the Russian Empire. All of this played out in objects, from underwear kept lice free, newspapers and books to occupy soldiers' time and lamps to light their bunkers, to the introduction of medals depicting Russian Imperial heroes.

Focusing on things (e.g. uniforms, weapons, tools, personal possessions) allows us to see the intersection of ideology and everyday life, of prescription and practice. Every chapter presents a different object or series of objects and uses them to both provide an ethnography of life in the Red Army and to highlight an aspect of the changes that took place in Soviet society during the war. In every chapter, we see how common experiences based on using the same objects – eating from the same pot, sleeping in the same bunker, receiving the same medal, crewing the same gun – brought people of different ages, ethnicities, classes, creeds, and sexes together. The first three chapters focus on the soldier’s body and identity. Starting with the body itself, discussing how a diverse group of people became state property and how both the state and the soldiers managed this new relationship. Chapter 2 shows how uniforms refashioned soldiers’ biographies and made them readable texts consisting of medals and insignia, while allowing the state to present itself as having ancient roots. Chapter 3 focuses on how the state provided and soldiers used rations. The next section is devoted to violence. Chapter 4 examines the uses of the soldier’s spade and attempts by individuals to stay alive and craft something like normal life in the trenches. Chapter 5 is dedicated to weapons: both the act of killing and social hierarchy associated with different arms. A third section focuses on possessions, presenting a final chapter (6) on trophies, covering a sea change from a state that claimed a monopoly over everything on the battlefield to one that encouraging soldiers to take what they wanted from the defeated Third Reich. The dissertation concludes with a brief discussion of the subjects fostered by these objects.

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