The Soviet Union is gone, but its ghostly traces remain, not least in the material vestiges left behind in its turbulent wake. What was it really like to live in the USSR? What did it look, feel, smell, and sound like? In The Soviet Century, Karl Schlögel, one of the world’s leading historians of the Soviet Union, presents a spellbinding epic that brings to life the everyday world of a unique lost civilization.
A museum of—and travel guide to—the Soviet past, The Soviet Century explores in evocative detail both the largest and smallest aspects of life in the USSR, from the Gulag, the planned economy, the railway system, and the steel city of Magnitogorsk to cookbooks, military medals, prison camp tattoos, and the ubiquitous perfume Red Moscow. The book examines iconic aspects of Soviet life, including long queues outside shops, cramped communal apartments, parades, and the Lenin mausoleum, as well as less famous but important parts of the USSR, including the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, the voice of Radio Moscow, graffiti, and even the typical toilet, which became a pervasive social and cultural topic. Throughout, the book shows how Soviet life simultaneously combined utopian fantasies, humdrum routine, and a pervasive terror symbolized by the Lubyanka, then as now the headquarters of the secret police.
Drawing on Schlögel’s decades of travel in the Soviet and post-Soviet world, and featuring more than eighty illustrations, The Soviet Century is vivid, immediate, and grounded in firsthand encounters with the places and objects it describes. The result is an unforgettable account of the Soviet Century.
"An impressively evocative look at material life in the USSR, from gulags and the planned economy to Red Moscow perfume and the Soviet toilet — a “lost civilisation” of utopian fantasy and unbridled terror."—Financial Times
"Who else could have a whole chapter on Soviet-era doorknobs? This is a fascinating book about the material loose ends, the pamphlets, the clothes, the non-existent phone books, the shop signs, the chest medals, and the bric-a-brac — among many other items — of the Soviet Union. . . . This is in my view one of the better books for understanding the Soviet Union."—Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution
"The Soviet Century . . . presents history in a novel way, showcasing customs and traditions, values and artefacts, that offer many poignant insights and helps readers understand the Russian psyche today. . . . It’s a fascinating, multi-faceted read that both takes historical stock and zooms in on miniature details."—Jana Bakunina, Financial Times
"His focus is not on the foreign relations or domestic crises of Soviet rule but on outward appearances: the look, the smell, the sounds of everyday life. Based on decades of research and an intimate knowledge of history and culture, ‘The Soviet Century’ is a fascinating chronicle of a not-so-distant era."—Joshua Rubenstein, Wall Street Journal
"[A] magnum opus. . . . This invaluable study casts a lost world in a new light."—Publishers Weekly (Starred review)
"Who knew that, apart from his experiments with dogs, Ivan Pavlov wrote a preface concerning nutrition for a bestselling Soviet cookbook? That’s one of just many oddments Schlögel assembles in this utterly absorbing tour through the material goods that defined the Soviet era, from pulpy wrapping paper to the medals veterans wore, from canned goods to perfume and tchotchkes and everything in between. . . . A superb blend of social history and material culture, essential for students of 20th-century geopolitics."—Kirkus Reviews (Starred review)
"A pinnacle in Soviet studies. . . . A splendid book."—Library Journal (Starred review)
"Formidable. . . . The emergence of this book in our intellectual landscape is timely, as we seek to better understand Russia in an era when systematic political, economic, social, and even cultural approaches have failed to explain or predict the current resurrection of the 'Soviet Leviathan.' Indeed, perhaps 'the devil is hidden in the details,' and by diving yet again into these minute but culturally rich details of Soviet banal routine, spiritual life, and rituals, we can make a step forward in our comprehension of why the dark side of 'Soviet civilization' keeps reemerging again and again."—Oksana Ermolaeva, EuropeNow (Editor's pick)
"Fascinating. . . . The scholarship of the work is evident throughout, but 'The Soviet Century' is both more powerful and more subtle than a typical work of scholarship. At its heart, it’s a gigantic, heartfelt elegy, one of the most stunning tributes ever paid to the Soviet Union."—Steve Donoghue, Big Canoe News
"Extremely timely and utterly indispensable."—Vitali Vitaliev, Engineering and Technology
"Nine hundred pages in length and wonderfully illustrated throughout. . . .It is a welcome and unique contribution to Soviet studies."—Steven Andrew, Morning Star
“If the past is a foreign country, The Soviet Century is a unique travelogue from one of the world’s most innovative observers of urban space and material culture. Karl Schlögel’s scholarly Baedeker is the culmination of a lifetime of study, travel, and thought. It guides us across nothing less than a continental empire and a century of upheaval. But Schlögel’s greatest accomplishment is to connect stunningly eclectic new detail to the big picture, allowing us to see and feel a lost civilization anew.”—Michael David-Fox, Georgetown University
“Karl Schlögel has created a rich and fascinating mosaic of Soviet culture focusing on the manifold sensory qualities and experiences of everyday life. His insatiable curiosity leads him to wide panoramas and meaningful closeups of a culture that lives on in histories, memories, and appropriations.”—Joes Segal, The Wende Museum
“From the voice of Stalin’s favorite radio announcer to Kolyma’s vast system of Gulag camps, and from Red Army soldier graffiti to the Red October piano factory, Karl Schlögel’s The Soviet Century describes a vast culture that was by turns hope-inspiring and harrowing. A unique, immensely readable book!”—Jan Plamper, University of Limerick
“A museum of the totality of Soviet life would be impossible, but Karl Schlögel’s vividly written panorama comes close. With clarity and dry wit, Schlögel digs up the Soviet Union’s daily routines, rituals, landscapes, spaces, objects, and values to reveal how the empire’s reach could be both terrifyingly deep and astonishingly shallow.”—Yuliya Komska, author of The Icon Curtain: The Cold War’s Quiet Border
“The Soviet Century is a great monument to the vanished Soviet world. Rich, witty, and entertaining, the book offers a comprehensive textual museum that is all the more important because no such real-life museum exists in Russia or elsewhere, and I doubt that it will be created anytime soon. The more difficult it is to go to the White Sea Canal, the Lenin Mausoleum, or a Russian dacha, the more enjoyable is this book.”—Alexander Etkind, Central European University