Tim Harte, Fast Forward: The Aesthetics of Speed in Russian Avant-Garde Culture.
Corinna Kuhr-Korolev and Dirk Schlinkert, eds., Towards Mobility: Varieties of Automobilism in East and West. 220 pp. Wolfsburg: Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft, 2009. ISBN-13 978-3935112345. 24.90 [euro].
Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile. 328 pp. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008. ISBN-13 978-0801446382. $49.95.
Reviewing two volumes on cars together with Harte's study on speed in early Soviet art proves to be quite challenging, since neither of the car volumes refers to the more abstract symbolic meanings of mobility, speed, and advancement, whereas Harte never mentions the Soviet car industry. Yet the books seem to have an important common denominator: progress. (1) The term was coined in an era when industrialization proceeded in parallel with social emancipation in many European countries. Freedom of the spirit, scientific innovation, and technological advancement would help humanity dominate the forces of nature and bring about a glorious future. Ever since, discourses on progress are characterized by the motifs of mobility, speed, and social dynamics.
In Fast Forward, Tim Harte explores the speed cult of the Russian avantgarde and the early Soviet era. By linking different types of art such as painting, poetry, and film, the book aims to trace the far-reaching aesthetization of speed. Harte regards the notion of acceleration as fundamental to his period of analysis (1910-30). This cult of speed, based in the futurism of 1909, was the leitmotif of the modern era. Critics of modernization regarded the rapidly growing cities of the industrial age as incubators of diseases such as hysteria and of general human degeneration. For them, speed represented a particular danger for the body and soul, and they proclaimed an "age of nervousness." (2) For others, speed signified the overcoming of space and time, as it was associated with the future and social utopias. Scientific insights such as the idea of the speed of light figured large in artistic works. Speed-induced blurred vision enabled better (in)sight. (3) Both lyric poetry (Blaise Cendrars) and the performing arts (Robert Delaunay) dealt with speed. Just as perception of the landscape changed while riding fast on the train, so film transformed the possibilities of vision. The linking of the locomotive, landscape, and speed was a frequent motif in poetry (David Burliuk) and in avant-garde cinema. The train figured as a mechanical double for silent cinema and as an ideological symbol of the "proficient means of communication and transportation that Soviet society hoped to achieve" (214). Harte guides us through the films of the avant-garde, in particular those of Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, and Viktor Turin. The "Express" as a harbinger of revolution leads us into the new era, exemplified by the film Turksib (1929). In his conclusion, Harte uses a close reading of Valentin Kataev's 1932 novel Vremia, vperea! (Time, Forward!) to draw a distinction between the avant-garde and Socialist Realism. In the era of the five-year plans, speed was incorporated into a Stalinist model of modernization through purposeful progress. This linear approach, Harte argues, had little in common with the dynamic and experimental concepts of speed of the avant-garde. In this regard, Harte differs from Boris Groys, who highlights the motif of speed as a linking theme between the avant-garde and Stalinism.
Accounts of the hypermodern age were accompanied by forms of extreme mobility, and not only in the science fiction works of Aldous Huxley and Evgenii Zamiatin. Speed meant progress but also success: it came to signify individual advancement. In today's societies, the car is the closest we have to a universal symbol of individual advancement and status. In the Soviet Union, however, the age of acceleration and industrialization paid homage to the train as the collective means of travel into the future. Harte's examples make it clear that the Soviet avant-garde associated speed with the railway. Even beyond the Soviet Union, the locomotive--not the automobile--was the metaphor of progress of the industrial age. (4) It not only transformed the perception of the landscapes one passed at speed but also enduringly changed the landscape itself. The railway was a symbol and catalyst of industrialization, a civilizational development project for remote regions, and as such promoted the expansion of secondary infrastructures. (5) In the Soviet Union and fascist Italy, in particular, the locomotive was regarded as a symbol of unstoppable progress. Germany, by contrast, was already focusing on the automobile in the interwar period. (6) Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union the rallies of the 1920s and 1930s were presented as part of the struggle against roadlessness. (7) Soviet cars were built not for speed but for endurance. Although modeled on Western cars, they were adapted to Soviet standards with regard to the chassis and wheel suspension and were therefore heavier. Iurii Pimenov's iconic 1930s painting Novaia Maskva (The New Moscow) is focused not on speed but on the place we observe through the windscreen together with the woman at the steering wheel: it depicts not a departure into the future, rather the arrival in communism.
Automobile research has many dimensions, given the significance of the automobile industry, Taylor's and Ford's roles as prophets of the industrial means of production, and the American influence on the industrialization of the Old World. Yet this growing subfield still awaits systematic treatment. In Cars far Comrades, Lewis Siegelbaum proposes a division into three areas: automobilization and the establishment of the automobile industry in the economic context of regional industrialization; the social significance of the car (ideology, social distinction, car culture); and infrastructure (streets, fuel, maintenance). An additional focus of the book is the history of technical transfer from the West.
Siegelbaum categorizes the three automobile cities Moscow (ZIL, founded in 1916), Nizhnii Novgorod (Gor'kii; GAZ, founded in 1928), and Tol'iatti (VAZ, the product of a deal with Fiat in 1966) according to three distinct phases of Soviet automobilization. In the early Soviet period, cars were contested property and belonged to the army or to Bolshevik leaders and their comrades. The 1936 constitution made private ("personal") ownership a possibility, but it was only after the war that a small quantity of cars became available for "enthusiasts." The turning point toward mass automobility came when the first Zhiguli rolled off the assembly line at the VAZ plant in 1972. A chapter on roadlessness in Russia and the construction of a road network then offers an interesting perspective on the meaning of the size of the country and the necessity for cohesion by means of infrastructure. An additional chapter is dedicated to the social significance of the automobile in the Soviet Union: on the one hand, the shift from the social "ostracization" of car owners as individualists toward more tolerance of them in the 1960s and ultimately to the promotion of mass automobilization in the 1970s; on the other hand, the social categories attached to particular car brands. In the Soviet Union, passenger cars were usually owned by men, and Siegelbaum is able to show that spaces linked to cars such as courtyards and garages (as well as black markets for car parts and fuel) were spaces of male socializing. Here they could escape from cramped Soviet living spaces, which were controlled by women. According to Siegelbaum, by the end of the Soviet era automobiles and problems with their maintenance dominated the private lives and conversations of many Soviet citizens. Brezhnev's decision to further mass production of passenger cars without offering accompanying infrastructure for fuel supply, parking, or maintenance is labeled a "Faustian bargain," as these shortcomings caused the emergence of a giant second economy. In short, this is a seminal, synoptic work on Soviet automobile history in all its many ramifications--from industrialization to everyday life and gender. (8)
In the context of East--West competition, the automobile was a consumer object of great symbolic significance. It was and is a crucial element in industrialized economies, acting as a nexus of markets and technologies. Purchasing power and social status were and are defined in many places by car ownership and brand names. Brands in their turn translate speed and progress into beauty and success. Soviet cars, by contrast, were associated with status, but never with speed. Even the heroes of later Soviet road movies did not travel fast and far but rather struggled with breakdowns and engaged in the kinds of improvisation that made the everyday lives of Soviet car owners an adventure. In the 1930s, aviators who carried out pioneering long-distance flights were the heroes of Soviet progress. In the 1960s, achievements in space and in nuclear physics made a substantial contribution to the general atmosphere of a new departure. Space in particular quickly entered Soviet political discourse as well as everyday iconography and folklore. The passenger car was much less present in the Soviet imaginary than in Western cultures, where the carfriendly city became the model of choice. The socialist city sported magistrali (large boulevards) for parades instead of urban freeways.
As Western firms have become involved in the enormous, unsaturated automobile markets of the postsocialist world, they have helped promote research on East European automobile history. The Volkswagen-sponsored conference volume Towards Mobility: Varieties of Automobilism in East and West fits the pattern. The origins of the book lie in the decision to open a Volkswagen manufacturing plant in Kaluga; they also reflect the company's many years of involvement in scholarly research. The individual chapters follow three principal directions, beginning with the Central European socialist countries after 1945, where dismantling and reparations shaped further developments as did the newly installed centralized industrial planning. The second and main focus was placed on the new findings on Soviet automobile history and its post-Soviet legacies. The third part of the volume is dedicated to the corporate cultures of U.S., French, Soviet, and German automobile manufacturers. The book makes cultural comparisons not only between East and West but also among different national industrial cultures. It highlights connections between the East European and West European automobile industries while examining the transfer of technology, in particular between both parts of Germany and the Soviet Union.
In the Soviet Union, salary increases and the mass relocation into new apartments in the 1960s triggered an increase in consumption. For the first time in Soviet history, the purchase of long-term consumption goods such as refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, and sometimes even a car became an achievable ambition. (9) Passenger cars, as an individual means of transportation, first had to free themselves from the negative image of serving individual and not collective aims. The contrast between individual and collective transportation pervades Soviet automobile history and points to the fundamental socialist dilemma regarding consumption: between the promise of prosperity and abundance under socialism, on the one hand, and the socialist morality of self-discipline and asceticism, on the other (see the chapters by Luminita Gatejel, Lewis Siegelbaum, and Maria R. Zezina). There were various ways of squaring this ideological circle. Gatejel emphasizes the extremely direct relationship that socialism established between work and consumption: those who did not work also should not eat. Work, in other words, entitled people to consume.
Modern mass consumption societies developed in the 1920s in the United States, but not until the 1950s in Europe. (10) The automobile reflects this time lag. In contrast to the West, socialist mass consumption societies first developed without automobilization. The socialist countries, whose division of labor was organized within Comecon, had very heterogeneous economic structures. Some countries such as Romania were purely agricultural. Only Czechoslovakia and East Germany could draw on prewar automobile industries. Kurt Moser points out that in both parts of Germany cars tended to be more of a social commodity than an economic necessity at the beginning of the automobilization era. Cars were a prestigious consumer item for leisure time. In the West they were associated with the single-family home, and in the East with the dacha. In both cultures, socialization toward "automobility" took place early, despite the scarcity of passenger cars in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Burghard Ciesla regards the double burden of reconstruction and reparations as the fundamental problem of the East German automobile industry. In East Germany, significantly fewer, smaller, and technically more basic cars were manufactured. The Trabant and Wartburg were the peoples' cars (Volkswagen) of East Germany. They embodied modest prosperity. The East German automobile industry, however, had nothing to compete with the Volkswagen Golf. The history of the Czechoslovak automobile factory Skoda is recounted by Valentina Fava. During the First Five-Year Plan (1949-54) in Czechoslovakia the automobile industry was marginalized, but the phase of de-Stalinization brought a reorientation. Engineers who had undergone "American" socialization during the interwar period succeeded in asserting their visions over the socialist party bureaucracy. Fava tells the story of Skoda as a success story, although the comparative articles reveal that structural problems and the failure of planned cooperation with East Germany complicated Czechoslovakia's access to world markets after the 1970s. The beginning of mass automobilization began everywhere with simple and inexpensive models for starters; after an innovation-driven upswing in the 1950s and 1960s, Eastern Europe lacked the investment capital for further developments in the areas of safety, efficiency, and design.
In the Soviet Union, the production of passenger cars for private use did not begin on a large scale until the end of the 1960s. Maria Zezina examines the distribution of automobiles by means of waiting lists at the beginning of the mass production phase in the early 1970s. On the basis of public debates conducted through letters to magazine and newspaper editors, she eloquently elaborates on the ideas of social justice held by Soviet citizens. In due course, a distribution system through labor unions and firms took shape. Yet because the demand was never satisfied, rationing efforts continued until the collapse of the Soviet Union--along with their corollary, a black market in used cars.
Luminita Gatejel places automobile production and the joint ventures with Fiat and Renault in the 1970s in the context of the informal consumerist pact between the Soviet government and its citizens. Soviet consumption and socialist driver culture were conceptualized as different from aggressive capitalist driving. The socialist car was a means of useful transportation, not a status symbol. The campaign to reduce the number of car crashes reflected the ultimate goal of a peaceful socialist society. Finally, to overcome the possible contradiction between consumption and ascetiscism, propaganda drew on the kul 'turnost' concept (i.e., revived the concept of socialist cultured behavior).
Three additional articles deal with the Volga Motor Works (AvtoVAZ). Andrei Sokolov emphasizes the layout of the AvtoVAZ as not a simple factory but an all-embracing company town. Tol'iatti was to become an example of the new socialist way of life. It stood, if not for speed, then for progress toward a bright future. But as often happened in Soviet history, housing problems and a lack of qualified personnel stood in the way of the socialist city. Productivity was not a top concern for the management. The concept of the company town led to the uncontrollable growth of the workforce. Only a part of the workforce was involved in manufacturing and management, while the others were engaged in providing the social services a city requires. Productivity decreased as the number of employees increased. Forms of mobilization by socialist competition withered away and by the late 1970s gave way to attempts to combine material and moral rewards. In the 1970s, the shop floor was beset with absenteeism, drunkenness, and theft. Theft was a general problem in Soviet manufacturing, since shortages gave rise to black markets and complex systems of bartering. Sokolov conveys well the process of social and industrial decline, the chaos of the 1990s (including theft, corruption, gang crime, and prostitution), and attitudes toward work and relations between workers and management in the wake of privatization.
Sokolov's chapter is best read in combination with Sergei Zhuravlev's piece on negotiations between the management and the workforce after privatization. His chapter and Vladimir Iamashev's on economic development provide a full picture of the financial difficulties that followed the Soviet collapse and the complex maneuvering it took for the factory to stay in business. The financial crisis of 1998 was a lucky coincidence that brought down the prices of Russian cars and raised those of Western competitors. In the post-Soviet era, the original design of the company town proved a burden, as it was necessary for the management to get rid of its social and cultural facilities as well as the factory's housing program, which was stopped in 1994. However, the workers could not be left without social services, health care, and a pension fund.
Companies, Dirk Schlinkert tells us, always did have cultures, even before they started to spell out a programmatic corporate culture. But do we have to think about those cultures in national containers? None of the articles on U.S., French, and German corporate cultures addresses issues of global interdependence, even though the firms in question have operated transnationally for decades. Whether German managers in the automobile factories of occupied France or American engineers in Russia, there are many such transfer stories. But how exactly was experience transformed alongside technology? A question raised by Patrick Fridenson in his chapter on corporate culture in the French automobile industry is significant here: what distinguishes French cars from German, Russian, or American cars; and how have the differences changed over time?
The Soviet automobile industry was characterized by technology transfer from the very beginning. It followed the pattern of European industrialization, as entrepreneurs flocked to Detroit even before World War I to study Ford's production methods. In his book, Siegelbaum thoroughly elaborates on the long history of Soviet cooperation with the United States. The Soviet Union purchased not only models for reproduction but also machines and automobile parts. It also had American entrepreneurs construct complete factory facilities and invited engineers and specialized workers from the United States. Based on a thorough analysis of sources, the article by Andrej Miniuk in the Volkswagen volume provides a complementary overview of the results of large-scale technology transfer from the postwar occupied territories into the USSR. As for the more recent period, it would be interesting to have more detail on the exact interests that guided the involvement of Fiat, Renault, and VW in the Soviet economy in the 1960s and 1970s. As regards Fiat, we at least know from Siegelbaum that the Tol'iatti adventure was a zero-sum game--which was, however, viewed by the firms' directors as part of a cultural and political mission. But more general questions of transfer, including the cultural "missions" that often accompany such interactions, are not addressed.
Given that so much of "automobile studies" has taken the form of manufacturer histories, subjects such as markets and consumer cultures have been relatively neglected. This point also applies to secondary economies, whose role in the Soviet era has been discussed by Siegelbaum. After 1991, Eastern Europe immediately became a gigantic sales market for used cars. The complex networks that made possible theft, smuggling, and sale have still hardly been researched. Western automobile manufacturers saw the secondhand market as an advance guard for their brand-name products. These imported cars enabled postsocialist drivers to experience their first "speed rush." Consequently, the whole concept of driving changed--a process yet to be investigated.
Car cultures generate a complex set of meanings, scripts, and routines. Old-timer cars became a hobby for some even very early in automobile history. Nowadays, "socialist cars" have taken on a cultlike status as classic cars: for example, the Trabi and the Yugo as well as the Chaika. So there is room for further analysis. When comparing the place of the automobile in American and Soviet life, one could say that the automobile had transformational functions and meanings in both cultures. In American culture, the quest for happiness takes place by means of the automobile, which is a symbol of progress, prosperity, and individual freedom. The automobile is represented as a vector for the development of the individual personality, an attribute of "coming of age," a kind of rite of initiation. Road movies also existed as a genre in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but despite this basic resemblance they were dominated by the theme of workers' solidarity and resourcefulness in overcoming breakdowns. One can read them as commentaries on the shortcomings of Soviet "progress" in everyday life and consumer services.
The Soviet Union paid homage to the cult of speed in its rhetoric of progress toward communism. The automobile has parallels to the railway and space exploration: once again, a new technology of speed was legitimized by the role it played in exploring new territories, promoting a civilizing mission, and serving military interests. Yet it was also distinctive in important ways. The private automobile was associated with consumption, whereas the railway was associated with industrial development. Only to the west of the "Iron Curtain" were trains and railways turned into a radically negative lieu de memoire due to the exploitation of the railway for industrialized killing and the Holocaust. (11) On the Soviet side, the largest mobilization project of the late Soviet era was tellingly a railway line: the Baikal--Amur Magistrale (BAM). (12) Planning for BAM (ahead of the start of construction in 1974) coincided with the decision to commit to the mass production of automobiles. Perhaps the railway line, as a collective symbol, was supposed to compensate ideologically for individual mobility. Highway construction became a large-scale project only in the post-Soviet era, which threw itself into "catch-up automobilization"--much to the disappointment of some Western observers, who once again believed that Russia did not need to repeat the errors of the West. (13)
(1) On the political iconography of progress, see also Vera Wolff, "Fortschritt," in Handbuch der politischen Ikonographie, ed. Uwe Fleckner, Martin Warnke, and Hendrik Ziegler, 2 vols. (Munich: Beck, 2011).
(2) Joachim Radkau, Das Zeitalter der Nervositat: Deutschland zwischen Bismarck und Hitler (Munich: Hanser, 1998).
(3) Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Geschichte der Eisenbahnreise: Zur Industrialisierung von Raum und Zeit im 19. Jahrhundert (Munich: Hanser, 1977).
(4) Paul Virilio, Vitesse et politique:Essai de dromologie (Paris: Editions Galilee, 1977); Reinhart Koselleck, Vergangene Zukunft: Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten, 4th ed. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1995).
(5) Frithjof Benjamin Schenk, "Die Neuvermessung des Russlandischen Reiches im Eisenbahnzeitalter," in Osteuropa kartiert--Mapping Eastern Europe, ed. Jorn Happel and Christophe von Werdt (Munster: LIT, 2010), 13-35.
(6) Kurt Moser, "Motorization of German Societies in East and West," 55-72, in Towards Mobility.
(7) Lewis H. Siegelbaum, "Soviet Car Rallies of the 1920s and 1930s and the Road to Socialism," Slavic Review 64, 2 (2005): 247-73.
(8) This field of research has recently been developed further in Siegelbaum's edited The Socialist Car:Automobility in the Eastern Bloc (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011).
(9) Yuri Levada, "'Rupture de generations' en Russie," The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville 23, 2 (2002): 15-35; Boris Dubin, "Goldene Zeiten des Krieges: Erinnerung als Sehnsucht nach der Breznev-Ara," Osteuropa 55, 4-6 (2005): 219-33; Stephan Merl, "Konsum in der Sowjetunion: Element der Systemstabilisierung?" Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 58, 9 (2007): 519-35.
(10) Stephan Merl, "Staat und Konsum in der Zentralverwaltungswirtschaft: Russland und die ostmitteleuropaischen Lander," in Europiiische Konsumgeschichte: Zur Gesellschafis--und Kulturgeschichte des Konsums (18. bis 20. Jahrhundert), ed. Hannes Siegrist, Hartmut Kaelble, and Jurgen Kocka (Frankfurt am Main: Campus 1997), 205-24.
(11) Horst Bredekamp, "Bildakte als Zeugnis und Urteil," in Mythen der Nationen: 1945--Arena der Erinnerungen, ed. Monika Flacke (Berlin: Deutsches Historisches Museum, 2004), 1:2966, here 58-62.
(12) Johannes Grutzmacher, Die Baikal-Amur-Magistrale: Vom BAMlag zum Mobilisierungsprojekt unter Breznev (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2011); Christopher J. Ward, Brezhnev's Folly: The Building of BAM and Late Soviet Socialism (Pittsburgh: Univerisity of Pittsburgh Press, 2009).
(13) Robert Argenbright, "Platz schaffen fur die neue Mittelklasse: Moskaus dritter Verkehrsring," Osteuropa 53, 9-10 (2003): 1386-99; Argenbright, "Avtomobilshchina: Driven to the Brink in Moscow," Urban Geography 29, 7 (2008): 683-704.
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|Title Annotation:||'Towards Mobility: Varieties of Automobilism in East and West' and 'Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile'|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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