This dissertation studies the rise of rural-based cultural nationalism in the USSR in the years between the death of Stalin in 1953 and the break-up of the USSR in 1991. It analyzes the lives and work of a multinational group of writers who were part of a massive wave of rural-to-urban migration that took place in USSR after the Second World War. It traces the emergence and development of the Russian Village Prose movement and demonstrates that it was part of a broader, pan-Soviet phenomenon. In literary works composed between the 1950s and 1980s, rural-born writers articulated a critique of modern Soviet life that reversed longstanding Soviet ideas about the supposed superiority of the progressive urban proletariat over the “backwards” peasantry. They argued that peasant culture should form the basis of national culture and championed the preservation of historic churches, peasant material culture, and the natural world.
The dissertation shows how intellectuals from villages navigated the complex world of Soviet “cultural politics” in order to spread their ideas in an authoritarian system. Working largely through official Soviet cultural institutions, they mobilized state resources, networks of like-minded intellectuals, and connections with political elites. I adopt a pan-Soviet approach to the development of rural-based cultural nationalism, focusing on the republics of Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, and Moldova but analyzing the Soviet cultural world as an integrated system based in Moscow. The dissertation demonstrates that center-periphery dynamics in the USSR created opportunities for nationally-minded writers to promote their views. Drawing on archival and published materials in Russian, Ukrainian, Armenian, and Moldovan/Romanian, the dissertation considers how Russian and non-Russian nationalism evolved in tandem. Over the course of the Brezhnev era, a shared sense of frustration at the Soviet state’s seeming inability to halt national and rural decline developed among rural-born intellectuals. These frustrations exploded in the late 1980s, when Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost’ allowed writers from villages to emerge as leading national spokesmen. Several assumed leading roles the nationalist movements, and their ideas became foundational in the new post-Soviet states.
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