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Running head: SOCIAL ARTIFACTS 1

Social Artifacts from the Fall of Eastern European Socialism and What They Mean

Thomas Cole

University of Minnesota – Twin Cities

ANTH 3031

March 22, 2011

Dr. Sára Kaiser


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Social Artifacts From the Fall of Eastern European Socialism and What They Mean

When I chose the title for this paper, I drew upon perhaps the largest impression I came

away from this course with: a feeling of deep and profound loss. Perhaps I have been a bit swept

up by the nostalgia that is nearly palpable in postsocialist Europe myself, but I cannot help but

feel that even with the numerous flaws present in the socialist system of the former USSR, the

loss of this system, this way of life, is nothing short of a tragedy. Most certainly, the aftereffects

of the transition to the Western way that are still exacting tremendous tolls on the people of these

countries are tragedies in themselves. The sheer levels of exploitation by the Western, ever

consuming capitalist machine has ravaged the lands and people, both physically and mentally, in

ways that they have yet to recover from. It is, however, through the studies of these events that

the possibility of a brighter future for all mankind remains possible, as this grand social

experiment was not nearly the failure that capitalist detractors have made it out to be.

The term artifact was chosen with a deliberate purposefulness, as the idea of these

remaining social constructs as artifacts assigns them a sense of value. After all, there had never

been a social experiment of this type before, implemented with such rapidity, in the history of the

modern world. While the early democracy in America was revolutionary in its time, this was the

progress of a much slower evolution; in stark contrast, the socialist republics of the former USSR

were born nearly overnight, implemented with a near ruthless precision. However, with their

demise at the hands of forces like inflexibility and resistance to change, many questions about

what could have been remain, and what lessons can be taken forward should such a grand

undertaking happen again.


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The Culture of Disillusionment

When discussing such a colorful term as “the culture of disillusionment” a myriad

cornucopia of images comes to mind. However, in this specific instance, the culture of

disillusionment describes a particular phenomenon prevalent in the former socialist countries of

Eastern Europe. In his work, Creating a Culture of Disillusionment, Humphrey describes the

particular culture of disillusionment that is prevalent in these countries. This culture is a

pervading attitude among Russian citizens that Western goods are much like the shop windows

in the former USSR; all for show, and unobtainable. A specific example of this would be the

man who was taken to a shop in Germany by his granddaughter. Looking around, he stated

“take me to a shop for ordinary people,” because the highly polished and supposedly enticing

aura of capitalism led him to believe it was a trick (as cited in Humphrey, 2002, p. 54). This

perception of trickery leads to what Humphrey refers to as a crisis of values, which she defines

as the inability or unwillingness of the people to adjust to the idea of prices rising due to costs

rising; under socialism, prices were fixed arbitrarily and were not subject to the whims of the

market. With no sort of stability, then, people consider traders to be cheating them (as cited in

Humphrey, 2002, p. 43).

A large part of this reaction stems from the fundamental difference in the attitude towards

the acquisition of goods. Under Soviet rule, there was an underlying sense that goods were not

purchased by choice so much as they were allocated by the regime, and furthermore, there was a

basic understanding that as citizens, they were on the receiving end of the state distribution

system (Humphrey, 2002, p.44-45). So, as Humphrey states, the Western ideal of shopping as a

leisurely activity simply did not occur to Russians, because it was not a cultural value held under

socialism (2002, p. 44). These differences naturally lead to a rejection of consumer capitalism as
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it was incompatible with what was considered the Russian way. In the United States, market

research is performed on every product, continually searching for new ways to entice buyers into

purchasing goods. As such, in America, goods often use names which do not readily identify the

exactly what the item is; for instance, if one were unfamiliar with Nike, one would be hard

pressed to realize that they were shoes. Such was not the case under socialism and briefly after

the fall of socialism. Items sold by the state were given axiomatic names, such as “Meat”,

“Footwear”, and “Bread” (Humphrey, 2002, p.45), which are far more identifiable than Hormel,

Nike, or Sara Lee. At first, when the floodgates opened and western goods came pouring into

Russia, the citizens mobbed the stores, purchasing as much as they could, as Western goods had

previously held not only a positive social stigma, but were also a subtle way to show defiance to

the regime (Humphrey, 2002, p. 55). However, when the novelty wore off, this massive influx

of glamorous and glitzy westernized goods had aroused something in Russian citizens nearly as

old as the former socialist regime itself: suspicion.

As Humphrey explains, deceit was an accepted way of life under the Soviet regime for

the majority of its existence. Between the shortage economy and the misleading Soviet

propaganda which depicted a wide variety of goods being available, even though they were not,

and the relentless assertion that Soviets were the forefront of every sphere of influence in the

world, even though they were not, Russian citizens became used to being deceived (2002, p. 52-

53). So, once the initial novelty of the availability of Western goods wore off, and the realization

that these former status symbols had now become commonplace, suspicion, bordering on

xenophobia, set in. This suspicion then became a way for Russian citizens to express their

disappointment with the change in regime. Things as simple as salami became entirely suspect,

as the glossy packaging led Russian citizens to the question of why it was so glossily packaged,
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and the resolution that eating domestic sausage would save them from consuming strange

chemicals (Humphrey, 2002, p. 55).

The rebellion against the new regime is not limited to Russia, nor is Russia the strongest

example. In Slovenia, part of the former Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, a much more

overt form of resistance to the new regime is occurring, as the country has been swept up by “red

nostalgia”. Red nostalgia, or musealisation as it is also known, is the phenomenon where

citizens of a country embrace the ways and systems of the former socialist state as being superior

to the current environment. What is most remarkable about this phenomenon is that not only is it

encompassing youth which have no prior experience with socialism, but it is also taking root in

Poland, which took tremendous strides to distance itself from communism during the last decade

of the twentieth century (Spaskovska, 2008, p. 137).

A surprising feature of red nostalgia is that sixteen years after the breakup of the Federal

People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, young Slovenes feel more attached to former citizens of

Yugoslavia than they do other Europeans, in what Spaskovska refers to as a reformation of the

Yugoslav cultural identity (2008, p. 141). In addition, when a cross-country survey of European

youth was given, Slovenian youth bucked the trend of seeing the liberation of Eastern Europe

from socialism as a liberation; instead, they viewed it as follows:

This really looks like an expression of regret over the course of events, and this in a

country which seems to have come out of the trouble of the nationalist antagonism

following the breakdown of the communist hemisphere first …. One aspect is the

liberalization from the totalitarian aspects of individual and collective life in real existing

socialism, the other one is the notion that this presents a kind of defeat, or even loss (as

cited in Spaskovska, 2008, p. 143).


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This social trend among Slovenian youth is baffling, as it is difficult to explain how the

romanticized version of socialism was transmitted to a generation that had little contact with the

regime (Spaskovska, 2008, p. 143).

In a more generalized trend, the sweeping red nostalgia in Slovenia and Poland is seen in

tangible form, much like in Russia, by the resurrection of communist-style consumer products

that had all but vanished until recently. From laundry detergent to vacuum cleaners, Slovenes

and Poles are flocking back to national-socialist brands, moving them from near obscurity to the

top of shopping lists (Spaskovska, 2008, p. 146). This romanticizing of the past serves as a

defiant counterpoint to the idea that socialism and its history could be quickly erased from the

minds of Eastern Europe, and as a poignant reminder that not every aspect of socialism was as

wretched and miserable as its Western detractors would have you believe. As Spaskovska

eloquently states, “the socialist/communist ideas and heritage are an alternative, avant garde,

different way, a way to express revolt against contemporary reality, in the same way in which

dissidents of the communist era used to look up to the ideas of liberal democracy” (2008, p. 148).

In a region impoverished by the onset of capitalism, with the harsh realities of consumerism

running rampant, it would appear that in some instances the peoples of former socialist countries

have realized that capitalism is much like the products it produces: all flash and substance in the

packaging for a substandard product.

Located at the opposite end of the former Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia,

Bulgaria also has its share of both nostalgia and difficulty adjusting to the new capitalist regime.

Creed summarizes the situation in Bulgaria perfectly by saying “For many Bulgarian villagers,

the world of goods continues to be significant precisely because it has not materialized” (2002).

While Bulgaria seems to have fared better economically than most former socialist states, it is
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not without its share of troubles. Supported by a rich agricultural community, Bulgaria actually

prospered briefly, shortly after the fall of the socialist regime in 1990. But even with the limited

prosperity enjoyed by certain regions of the country, the same prevalent attitude towards non-

Bulgarian goods has quickly surfaced, but for different reasons. As Creed states, during the

socialist regime conspicuous consumption often suggested illicit activities, but at the same time

showed a person’s ability to bypass the state mechanism; consumption was a form of resistance

to the socialist regime. However, without the socialist regime in place and nothing to resist, any

accumulation of wealth is now assumed to have come from illicit gains, and are no longer

worthy of respect (2002).

Another culprit in the reluctance to consume is the quality of goods available to

Bulgarians. In an attempt to be more “global,” which in actuality is an attempt to be more

capitalist, Bulgarians are confronted with two dilemmas. Primarily, as a common complaint

made, the transition from socialism to capitalism is one in which individuals changed from

having money and no goods to purchase, to one in which they have goods to purchase and no

money to do so (Creed, 2002). However, this common complaint from across the former Eastern

Bloc is buttressed by the quality of goods that are available due to lack of purchasing power. As

such, the markets and bazaars are full of cheap and low quality goods from Turkey and China,

which Bulgarians assume to be of inferior quality, or as Creed cites, “garbage” (2002).

While the more urban centers of Bulgaria and the areas with heavy agricultural industry

have prospered under capitalism, other rural areas of Bulgaria have not seen similar results.

There are still signs of economic growth, albeit at a far slower pace, as evidenced by construction

of new homes, but the complications of inferior goods is exacerbated by the distance from urban

centers (Creed 2002). As such, the villagers of these remote villages have commoditized their
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literal position and embraced the tourism industry, banking on the draw of folklore and rustic

country life to supplement revenue. Creed again summarizes this position rather eloquently, by

saying “if you can’t consume, you must be consumed” (2002). In this instance, as tourism in

Bulgaria centers on western foreigners, Bulgarians have found an almost socialist way to bypass

the lack of quality goods available through the small trickle of western currency brought in with

the commercialization of their way of life.

Swinging slightly to the east of Slovenia, to the former People’s Republic of Hungary, we

see an entirely different adaption to the new capitalist regime. Fehérváry paints an entirely

different portrait of postsocialism, one in which the attitudes of a country have become nearly

completely Americanized, right down to living far beyond one’s means (2002, p. 369).

Hungarians seem to be enraptured with the quest to become “normal”, with normalcy defined as

full integration to the “average” lifestyle of Western capitalists. Indeed, the strive for normalcy

has gone as far as to consider the structures, social mechanisms, and features of socialism, some

of which are still present in the country, to be entirely abnormal. Fehérváry defines “abnormal”

as being synonymous with inhumane and catastrophic (2002, pp. 372-373).

This rejection of anything resembling socialism, including the remnants of the second

economy, stops critically short at one factor. While nearly everything associated with socialism

appears to be almost reviled within Hungary, with special attention paid to living spaces such as

the kitchen and bathroom, one curious and important tenet of socialism seems to remain

ingrained within the Hungarian populace: the idea of social egalitarianism. The cultural move in

this country to embrace Western ideals and standards seems to come without the realization that

not everyone can be middle class, especially under capitalism which requires the existence of a

proletariat lower class in order to function.


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As a brief tour of former socialist countries, this illustration of the adaption to

postsocialism creates an interesting view of the adaption of capitalism in several countries.

While most of the countries visited in this article share a similar experience, one appears to have

bucked the communist nostalgia and is quickly on the way to the full embrace of capitalism.

Throughout several former Eastern Bloc countries, the influx of Western goods is met with

resistance, usually through the saving of earnings, the purchase of domestic goods, and the wish

for a return to a better time. Likewise, the fanciful dream painted by the West of the glory of

capitalism has yet to be realized, and in several places the shortages and frustrations are the

same, if not greater, as they were under Soviet rule.


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The Advantages and Disadvantages of an Ethnographic Approach

As a student of psychology, hearing the word “ethnography” for the first time was an

interesting phenomenon. I was previously unaware of what this word meant so, curiously, I

asked a classmate to define it for me. Delightfully, upon hearing her explanation, I arrived at the

conclusion that an ethnography is very similar to a case study in psychology; the study of an

individual and their environment. However, while a psychological case study reflects on the

inward workings of a person, and to a lesser extent their interaction with the external world,

ethnography is, in several ways, the complete opposite. After reading several ethnographies in

the readings for this class, it was quite stimulating to see a tool I was familiar with applied in

such a distinctly different fashion. The act of taking a snapshot of a moment in time of an

individual or group of individuals, to summarize what life is really like in an area brings a

fundamental advantage in the study of culture.

Ethnography, most certainly, captures what the study of laws and systems of the time

could never begin to cover: the actual experience of living in these conditions. This is, naturally,

a system of recording events that comes with both great advantages and disadvantages. In

example, in her ethnography, Potato Ontology: Surviving Postsocialism in Russia, Nancy Ries

tells us everything we could ever possibly want to know about potatoes, and more. Ries feeds us

interesting facts about the potato, such as how potatoes were first introduced to Russia by Peter

the Great, promoted by Catherine the Great, forced as an agricultural staple by Tsar Nicolai I,

and eventually came to be an agricultural staple under the socialist regime (as cited in Ries,

2009, p. 184), giving a historical and scientific review of the history of the potato in Russia.

However, the ethnographies present in Ries’s work serve as an incredible enhancement to the

presentation of facts. When detailing Tanya, an affluent housewife living in a Moscow dacha,
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we are given a brief history of her life, and that of her immediate family, and taken through the

events of a visit over the course of a day in Tanya’s household (Ries, 2009, p. 186). Through the

observation of seemingly innocuous tasks, such as sorting apples, Ries is able to come to an

understanding of what life in postsocialist Russia is:

The underlying mode of being in the world is the same, a largely unspoken, nearly

unspeakable frugality embodied in everyday labor, foundational to the concatenation of

nutritional, physical, discursive, and political-economic processes. The science of

frugality that I observed in Tanya’s kitchen is a practice of bodies and of the body politic,

ripe with meaning but grounded in things (2009, p. 186).

This ability to take common events like this and create an understanding of how life functions in

a world far removed from our own is nothing short of masterful. While ethnography provides

tremendous benefits in the actual experience of a culture, it does have a drawback. As detailed

as the experience may be for one person, or for a group of persons, it is imperative to understand

that these experiences can play out differently for other individuals. Ethnography may perfectly

capture the experience for an individual, but at the same time, it may fall short when comparison

is made to another individual. In this sense, however, ethnography is perfect for what it sets out

to do, as it gives us the most direct and closest reproduction to actually experiencing the culture

first hand.

Ethnography also serves a tantalizingly dichotomous purpose, as it both confirms and

destroys culturally ingrained Western stereotypes about what life was like in the Soviet Union.

As I am old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, I do recall a lot of indoctrination in

elementary school about the evils of the Soviet Union, and what the typical commoner endured

under the totalitarian regime. When I pictured Russia, as a child, I envisioned women, dressed
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much like the traditional matryoshka dolls, living on a subsistence diet of dirt and potatoes,

condemned to fierce winters in hovels that could barely be considered shelter. Even to this day,

this ingrained cultural image is something difficult to combat, even as incredibly racist and

classist as it is. Ries’s ethnography relates a tale which very much confirms this stereotype, as

follows:

Always on the verge of starvation, her aunts did not waste even those dirty, unappetizing

peels but saved and mashed them into pancakes. One day, Aunt Shura dropped the hot

frying pan and the pancakes slid into a bucket of dirty washing water. “Here comes the

most important part of the story,” Marina says. “Aunt Shura took them out of the filthy

wash water, rinsed them off, re-cooked them, and they ate them. I will never forget that,

never,” Marina says (as cited in Ries, 2009, p. 195).

Naturally, if this and several of the other ethnographies that I read for this course were all that I

was subjected to, I would be somewhat convinced that my dirt-eating peasant image was more or

less correct. This view, however, plays right into the sense of nationalist arrogance that

permeates ever level of social class in the United States; there are just as many tales of similar

levels of poverty here within our own country that we turn a blind eye to.

It is far more striking, however, when the ethnographies completely negate the ingrained

stereotypes, such as in the film The Lives of Others (2006). While I realize that the film is

historical fiction, only loosely based on the events that transpired in Eastern Germany, the idea

of electricity, running water, automobiles, and a seemingly “normal” life, as the film depicted, is

in stark contrast to my image of the poor peasant woman. The truth, though, I believe is found

somewhere between these two depictions, of the somewhat “normal” life, and the stereotype of

horrendously poor rural living. When Christa-Marie comes back from being interrogated by the
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Stasi (The Lives of Others, 2006), and takes a shower, she mentions that she had been out in the

country for a few days, and that there was no water. This process of controlling when water is

available is an example of the “etatization” of time. This process, also known as a time tax, was

a policy instituted by the socialist regime to minimize the free time of the populace and break

down resistance to the regime’s policy. This was also achieved by random power outages,

requiring quotas from the personal plots of villagers, erratic work schedules, and planned

gasoline shortages which disrupted transportation (Verdery 1996).

Before viewing The Lives of Others, I had a somewhat difficult time wrapping my mind

around the concept of the etatization of time. However, scenes such as at the very beginning,

where the person was being interrogated about the covert migration of another individual to the

West, I more fully understood it (2006). The individual who was being interrogated had,

personally, done nothing wrong as he did not aid in the person escaping, and yet he was held

against his will until he finally confessed what he knew. This etatization of time was difficult for

me to grasp due to the nature of time in a capitalist society; As Verdery states, “Capitalist time

must be rendered progressive and linear so that it can forever be speeded up” (1996, l. 828). So,

the idea of time being stagnant and immobile is a totally foreign concept, given the extreme

contrast. Under capitalism, time is money and money is everything, while under the socialist

regime, time is not money, but a force to subjugate and control and best serves the interests of

the regime by being controlled and rationed out sparingly, much like any other commodity.

Another stereotype that was challenged by the film, The Lives of Others (2006), is the

idea that the entire regime was corrupt and monstrous, preying on the populace through nefarious

deeds and actions. Although Minister Hempf did indeed confirm this stereotype, by using his

position to seduce and dominate Christa-Marie, and make life difficult for Georg Dreyman, the
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actions of Agent Wiesler completely turned this stereotype into falsehood. As a ranking official

in the Stasi, Wiesler uncovered the actions of Minister Hempf and proceeded to cover up the

treasonous actions of Dreyman. This sort of resistance against the regime is a common feature

of the populace under socialism, and far more subtle than anything in a capitalist society. While

Agent Wiesler’s resistance to the regime can be seen as more overt, such was not the norm under

socialism, as overt resistance often lead to varying levels of punishment. Covert resistance,

however, was an entirely normative behavior that, in some cases such as the second economy,

was even unofficially supported by the state (Verdery, 1996).

The very idea of a second, underground economy is a somewhat foreign concept in itself,

and also one that challenges a cold-war stereotype about life under socialism. While there is

surely some form of a secondary economy in the United States, I would wager that it comes

nowhere close to approaching the size and depth of the secondary economy under socialism. The

secondary economy of socialist countries once again trots out my false image of the poor,

starving Russian woman and shows that while this stereotype was true in some cases, especially

during war or famines, it was not the normal scheme of things. Verdery, in her book What Was

Socialism and What Comes Next?, discusses in great detail the depth and expansiveness of the

second economy in Romania, and how the citizens pushed back against the etatization of time

and the sometimes heavy levies placed on commodities (1996). The level of secrecy from the

state, the ideas of “borrowing” or “reclaiming” goods from the collective farms, and the amount

of what we would consider bribery that occurred every day under socialism is in itself somewhat

fascinating (Verdery, 1996).

As a distinct cultural difference from the United States, the idea of social capital being of

less worth than social or symbolic capital (Berdhal, 1999) is a feature of life under socialism that
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allowed for the idea of my poor, starving Russian peasant to prosper. Much like profits from

outside work or a personal plot, the fact that goods were possible to come by even in a shortage

economy was well hidden. To some extent, the idea of “who you know” is prevalent in

American culture, especially with the imminent popularity of social networking via the internet,

but I would argue that it does not approach the level of value that it did under socialism. While

who you know in American culture might get you some perks, who you knew under socialism

allowed for the acquisition of goods and services that would otherwise be unavailable or

extremely out of reach without spending a great deal of time waiting in line (Berdhal, 1999). So,

once again, the use of ethnography allows for a much clearer understanding of just exactly how

the processes of the times worked; one can bandy about the terms “second economy”, “symbolic

capital”, and others, but the experience of actual individuals who lived under socialism is far

more effective in conveying the meaning of what it was to live in a socialist state.

Unfortunately though, from a postsocialist perspective many of these stereotypes look far

truer than they did under socialism. The quick conversion to capitalism was not without fatality

or flaw, as the same conditions of poverty and shortage exist currently, but without the extensive

support of either the primary socialist economy, which made certain basic necessities were

provided, or of the secondary economy, which allowed for more goods to be acquired as needed.

Socialism was not perfect, obviously, but there is a healthy argument to be made that these

countries were better off under socialism than they are now. Thanks to the efficiency and ease of

understanding provided by ethnography, even non-anthropologists can come to this conclusion

with a little reading.


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Conclusion

As a whole, this study of socialism and postsocialism has created numerous reactions for

me. Perhaps due to my ultra liberal leanings, and more likely to my complete dissatisfaction

with the base and revolting avarice which drives capitalism, it is entirely disheartening to learn

more about the fall of Russian socialism. This frustration, however, is tempered with the

knowledge that Russian socialism was no idealistic utopia, and indeed had its fair share of

problems and troubles. However, even though hypothetical questions are often an exercise in

futility, I cannot help but wonder how Russian socialism would have fared if Trotsky would have

taken the reins after Lenin, instead of Stalin. Would the outcome have been different? Would

socialism have succeeded in its goals and supplanted capitalism globally? Would we all be

living in a much better position?

It is entirely and irrevocably tragic that the answer to these questions will never be

known. However, as a glimmer of hope, the most important thing I can take away from this in

depth study of socialism is that, for a time, it worked and things such as homelessness,

unemployment and the current economic disparity were unheard of. I have often wondered,

though, about the disparity between socialism and Christianity; what Christianity teaches is what

socialism offers, and yet the two seem diametrically opposed. So, while the problems of

homelessness, unemployment and financial disparity may have been solved and replaced by

other problems, it is difficult to sit on my side of the fence, and look across at what once was and

wonder if it was somehow, someway, better.


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References

Berdhal, D. (1996). What Was Socialism and What Comes Next? [Kindle version].

Retrieved from Amazon.com

Creed, G. (2002). (Consumer) Paradise Lost: Capitalist Dynamics and Disenchantment in Rural

Bulgaria. Anthropology of East Europe Review, 20(2), 119-125. Retrieved from

https://moodle.umn.edu/course/view.php?id=13299

Fehérváry, K. (2002). American Kitchens, Luxury Bathrooms, and the Search for a ‘Normal’

Life in Postsocialist Hungary. Ethnos, 67 (3), 369-400. doi:

10.1080/0014184022000031211

Humphrey, C. (2002). Creating a Culture of Disillusionment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University

Press.

Ries, N. (2009). Potato Ontology: Surviving Postsocialism in Russia. Cultural Anthropology,

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Wiedemann, M. (Producer), & von Donnersmarck, F. H. (Director). (2006). The Lives of Others

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