Strategies of letter-writing and letter-reading in the 1920s-1930s Soviet Union

Dr Hannah Parker reports on 10th International Congress for Central and East European Studies

A generous grant from the Society for the Study of Labour History allowed me to participate in the 10th International Congress for Central and East European Studies, in a panel titled ‘Strategies of Letter-Writing and Letter-Reading in the 1920s-1930s Soviet Union’.

A woman using what appears to be a Linotype typesetting machine.
‘Women at Work’, from Zhenskii zhournal (1928). Image: Hannah Parker. Click for a larger image

The congress theme was ‘Bridging National and Global Perspectives’, and our panel sought to bring together scholars of Soviet letter-writing from England, Ukraine and Finland, to consider how letters as textual and material sources have bridged the perspectives of Soviet citizens and Soviet power across the nations of the Soviet Union, and between Soviet workers, across hierarchies and borders nationally and internationally. Unfortunately, Samira Saramo (Migration Institute of Finland) had to withdraw her paper ‘“Not much has Happened”: Silences and Omissions in the Letters of Finnish North Americans to Soviet Karelia’ from the panel, however the panel was still able to produce some compelling and complementary arguments about the strategies used and unused by Soviet citizens in their letters. Research presented by Olga Ryabchenko (H.S. Skorovoda Kharkiv National Pedagogical University) in ‘Features of Self-Presentation of the Students of Soviet Ukraine in 1920s-1930 in letters to Authorities’ focused on letters from students of different social backgrounds to ‘authorities’ reflected a wide range of feelings and ideas of young people about the country, and their own status, discussing their level of reflection, the protective mechanisms of the psyche of the young people, and the degree of sincerity of their life narratives.

With a focus on letters from women to Soviet ‘authorities’, my paper on ‘Experiences and Emotions in Women’s Letters to the Interwar Soviet State’ argued that though letter-writers ‘spoke Bolshevik’, the ways they reproduced, navigated, and deviated from this ‘script’ reveal both their sense of their gendered social identities, and the emotional repertoire of Soviet society, demonstrating that women created space for their lives within the fledgling Soviet project. While women employed several discursive strategies around their statuses as workers, mothers, and citizens of a proletarian background, to express feelings otherwise in tension with Soviet emotional expectations, I contend that the practice of letter-writing also crystallised the affect of letter-writers into both a tactile form and a recognisable emotional form, eliciting an emotional response from writer and intended reader by materially evidencing their lives.

Nadezhda Krupskaia: one letter writer thought carefully about her narrative style before writing to Krupskaia, the Deputy Minister for Education

Of particular interest during the discussion was the degree of ‘emotionality’ contained in letters from different demographics of workers and citizens, and what this signified. In her paper on the self-presentation of students in Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s, Ryabchenko argued that the degree of emotionality expressed in students’ letters was determined by the ability to reflect possessed by the students – with students responding with ‘high emotion’ in the immediate aftermath of allegations that their family backgrounds contained socially alien elements, but with less emotional language once time had been allowed to reflect on available options. This mirrored the findings from my own research, which showed that the space to reflect enabled female letter-writers to ‘craft’ the emotional styles contained within their letters’ narratives: one letter writer seeking to contribute to the Soviet state through work or education choosing a sparse and factual narrative style after having ‘considered for a long time whether or not to write to’ Deputy Minister for Education Nadezhda Krupskaia; another who described her highly emotional responses in a collective farm hearing regarding her obligations to work throughout her pregnancy as external, impermanent actions, rather than internal states of being, and justifying her discontent as a response to the anti-Soviet treatment of women and mothers by her kolkhoz

Dr Hannah Parker (she/her) is an early career researcher currently affiliated to the University of Sheffield as an Honorary Research Associate. She is the author of ‘Would it not be more honest on my part to say that I am not fit for purpose and leave?’: Education, Labour and Self-Worth in Women’s Letters to Soviet Authorities, 1924-1941’, in A. Arnold-Forster and A. Moulds (eds), Feelings and Work in Modern History: Emotional Labour and Emotions about Labour, (London: Bloomsbury, Feb 2022), and the co-editor of a special issue on Public History currently under review with History: the Official Journal of the Historical Association

Woman worker checking a newspaper as it comes off the press.
‘Women at Work’, from Zhenskii zhournal (1928). Image: Hannah Parker

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