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Elemental materialism : objectifying power and selfhood in the late USSR, 1961–1991 Golubev, Alexey


This dissertation explores the link between materiality and individual and collective selves in late Soviet society. Focusing on material objects ranging from space rockets to heritage buildings to weightlifting equipment to TV sets, it argues that material objects in late socialism were key elements in the organization of the Soviet historical and spatial imagination. They embodied various, often contrasting social techniques and understandings of time and space, and acted as material coordinates of the Soviet self. The central concept of this dissertation is elemental materialism, by which I mean a culturally rooted recognition of the power of matter and things to shape human bodies and selves, a prominent feature in the Soviet system of signification which regulated the production of meanings on daily basis. Soviet elemental materialism was a social reaction to pre-ideological experiences of daily life, including entangled assemblages of bodies, objects and physical space which exercised a social agency that did not originate from the dominant Soviet ideology. It was a set of spontaneous and situational cultural forms which gave Soviet people ways of making sense of the social agency of things. At the same time, my research historicizes Soviet things and material space in their spontaneity and affectivity as actual agents of historical change in the late USSR on a par with people, social institutions, and ideologies. By tracing the biographies of Soviet things and spatial constructions, I demonstrate how the material world of late Soviet period determined people’s habitual choices, social trajectories, and imaginary aspirations. This research contributes to several key debates in Soviet history including how the Soviet state fashioned its citizens into subjects, and how Soviet people embraced and questioned the dominant paradigms of selfhood. My study of social reactions to the recognition of the power of things over people – that is, elemental materialism of Soviet society – contributes to a better understanding of cultural logic of late socialism. In a broader context, my research contributes to the debates on how we as historians should conceptualize the role of objects in history.

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