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Review December 2023

The everyday lives of Soviet things in Cuba and India

Review by Hana Bortlová-Vondráková
Sudha Rajagopalan, 2023
ISBN 9780367686574
248 Pages
Published by: Routledge
A Soviet-made Moskvitch car in Havana, Cuba, 1974. Fortepan / Mészáros Zoltán

Blackouts in Cuba are a recurrent problem that have been affecting the island’s population for decades but which have intensified in recent years due to the economic crisis and fuel shortages. Hot summer days go by without a fan or air-conditioning, with food spoiling quickly in uncooled refrigerators. It is no exaggeration, I believe, to say that the daily life of today’s Cubans revolves mostly around these problems. It is these everyday objects such as fridges, fans, air conditioners and washing machines that are at the heart of Journeys of Soviet Things: Cold War as Lived Experience in Cuba and India. Soviet objects, to be precise, with, in addition to household appliances, also cars, watches, sewing machines, irons, film projectors, and even souvenirs.

As Indian cultural historian Sudha Rajagopalan points out, many books have already been written about Cold War inter-state relations, diplomats and functionaries. Rajagopalan has chosen to look more closely at lived experiences and reflect on their significance for our understanding of the Cold War. Arguing that Cold War relations were realized, enacted and lived through the flow of everyday material objects as much as through official economic treaties and military alliances, she seeks answers to questions about how Cold War geopolitics and transnational relations materialized in everyday lives and the objects people used in their homes. (And still do, in fact, because most Soviet things still work.) 

In doing so, Sudha Rajagopalan challenges and disrupts in a creative way the grand mainstream narratives of Cold War transnational relations. Her exploration of individuals’ memories of how they experienced these relations within their homes fits in the current scholarly discourse that seeks to break down binary visions about the Cold War – offering entangled visions of the “other”, concentrating on interactions between and cooperation of non-state and small actors on both sides of the Iron Curtain.  

Rajagopalan excavates her interlocutors’ geopolitical subjectivities by asking them to show her their Soviet objects and to talk about them, and about actions and feelings linked to them.

With an impressive body of theoretical literature behind her research, which she uses in subtle and differentiated ways (the book is at the intersection of cultural history, material culture studies, memory studies and feminist geo-politics), the author’s main empirical evidence comes from 66 interviews with people living in Cuba and India. She works with the terms “geopolitical artefacts”, indicating the studied objects of everyday use (household appliances, mod cons and mnemonic objects), and “geopolitical subjectivities”, which are the interlocutors´ positions in relation to geopolitical events and processes.  Rajagopalan excavates her interlocutors’ geopolitical subjectivities by asking them to show her their Soviet objects and to talk about them, and about actions and feelings linked to them. This helps them, she claims, to speak about how their lives bore the imprint of Cold War geopolitics, and to invoke narratives which show both attachment to (mostly) and detachment from (exceptionally) what the Soviets represented until 1989. 

But before she gives the floor to her respondents to narrate their memories of the Soviet role in their country, in chapters 1 and 2 she offers a brief, balanced and engagingly written history of how the ties between the USSR and Cuba evolved in 1959–1991, showing, among other things, how the transition from American ally to Soviet ally had material consequences in the lives of Cubans. Some small factual errors or ambiguous interpretations in this section are not to be overlooked, however. To my knowledge, Cuba did not join COMECON in 1974 but two years earlier (pp. 44–45); this may seem like a small detail but it is relevant to the whole debate about the “institutionalization” of sovietisation in Cuba in which many of Rajagopalan’s respondents frame their narratives. Rajagopalan claims that Castro had toned down the anti-Soviet rhetoric by the late 1970s (p. 50), but I would argue this happened much earlier, specifically after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, which coincided with Cuba’s total economic collapse and possibility of safe attachment to the Soviet orbit. By agreeing with the invasion – whether because of his genuine perception of Czechoslovak reforms as a threat to the stability of the anti-American bloc, as suggested by Antoni Kapcia, or more likely because of his pragmatism (I tend to agree with Louis A. Pérez on this), or both – Castro secured Soviet aid for the island. This lasted for two more decades, although the price was a more thorough sovietisation (of various areas of life) starting precisely in the early 1970s. 

The narrators who possess Soviet things frame these goods in what Rajagopalan calls “moral scripts” or moral readings that mainly foreground gratitude, solidarity and genuine partnership. This dimension is something of a real “game changer” for me, as is the respondents’ prevailing tendency to frame Soviet objects in positive, solidary terms. No matter how this probably stems from (among other things) the association of Soviet things with their youth, as Rajagopalan rightly points out, that is from the nostalgia mechanism, I see this alternative perspective as extremely valuable and inspiring for further research. I also greatly appreciate Rajagopalan’s effort to stay balanced, unbiased and to discern as best as she can why the people she interviewed act and speak the way they do.

for the Indians and Cubans in this project, the goodwill and solidarity of an inclusive Soviet state that respects their countries’ distinctive identity is the primary “moral discursive frame”.

However, having grown up in the Czechoslovakia of the 1980s, it seems to me that the repressive factor of the Soviet system is perhaps not sufficiently considered in the book. Why would those who spoke to her be “more willing to ascribe malicious intent to the Americans before the revolution, than to the Soviets after the revolution” (p. 80)? The narrative of the Soviet role in silencing the US, especially in the case of Cuba, and fortifying Cuba’s defences is, of course, dominant, as is the fact that Cuba is still subject to crushing US sanctions today. Among the respondents are surely those with a strong desire to support the regime, who have learnt to appreciate Soviet things and Soviet help, particularly among older Cubans, whose lives were changed radically by the revolution. But what about Cubans who do not identify so closely (or at all) with the Cuban regime? Do these really dare to speak freely and openly, knowing that they are being recorded and their answers published? Would solidarity and gratitude with people and ideas not so much in line with the Cuban communist regime be equally expressed? An understanding of the factor of repression that existed throughout the communist era in the Eastern Bloc and which exists – although in a different form – today in Cuba is, in my eyes, crucial for an accurate depiction of society, politics, geopolitics and of history in general. As a Central European citizen who today has the great benefit of living under a democratic system I cannot simply set aside the importance I attach to being able to speak openly about what I believe or being able to travel abroad freely. As Rajagopalan concludes, “what the […] stories tell us is less about the intrinsic value of the Soviet system and more about the relational value of the Soviet Union: what it meant for, could do and did do for others.” (p. 213) The relational value of the Soviet Union in East European stories would probably come out as a very different story, much less characterized by gratitude and solidarity. But for the Indians and Cubans in this project, the goodwill and solidarity of an inclusive Soviet state that respects their countries’ distinctive identity is the primary “moral discursive frame”. This is certainly worth noting and it is precisely this decentralised alternative approach of the book that has gained my sympathies.

At the same time, I would like to reflect on one of the methodological aspects of the oral history research that forms the backbone of the book. Rajagopalan’s oral history fieldwork, truly pioneering in many senses, consists of 66 interviews, of which 34 were done in Cuba and 32 in India. At first, she simply selected people whom she knew had owned Soviet cars and washing machines in Cuba, but in India they owned other types of objects, mostly books and decorative items. This had a snowball effect, with people introducing her to other people. The majority of her respondents were born in the 1930s to 1960s (although some interviewees were born in the 1980s and the 1990s). All the Cuban interviewees live in Havana and work as professionals and they all appear to be university graduates, and at the time exponents of the Cuban revolution, students, scholarship holders who studied in Moscow (or Sofia, Prague, East Berlin, Budapest), engineers, other specialists, embassy employees, and members of diplomatic missions and official delegations. This important factor – making life and career choices that centred on that country and on ties with that country – of course greatly influences the stories we hear. Could the framing of Cuban stories of Soviet things be different for the rural population, or among blue-collar workers, or among people from cities other than Havana? The assembled “geopolitical subjectivities” could have a significantly different tone there. This might not have a major impact on the author’s main conclusions, but it would have given prominence to more critical insights. Of course, most scholars today have only a finite amount of time and resources for fieldwork but this limitation can be acknowledged and reflected upon in oral history research. 

Suggesting that we start looking more closely at connections and continuities rather than tensions and ruptures, Rajagopalan’s book is a new examination of the ways in which we can do the history of international relations. Her actor-centred research reveals opinions, preferences and feelings that transcended ideological bloc thinking and points to an alternative worlding, equally shaped by global and local, national and personal experiences. Her main argument is that Cold War geopolitics, since it was lived as everyday experience, intersected with peoples’ everyday lives at the home level, via objects where the abstract values of Cold War geopolitics (cooperation, solidarity, trust) were actualized, epitomized. The objects, in turn, communicate, create and recreate the respondents’ past. In contrast and in complementarity to the narratives of state imperatives we find in many books that have already been written, Sudha Rajagopalan offers intimate memories which reveal a different Cold War geopolitical history, one constituted by everyday flows of things and people, their relationships and interactions that so much influence who we are. 

Hana Bortlová-Vondráková is a researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences and deputy editor of Soudobé dějiny / Czech Journal of Contemporary History. Her main research interest is the history of Czechoslovak foreign policy towards Latin America in the twentieth century, Spanish Civil War and the history of Czech encounters with the Ibero-American space in general. She also focuses on oral history, especially in relation to the period of normalization and post-communist transformation in Czechoslovakia. She has published a monograph entitled Československo a Kuba v letech 1959–1962 and a book of interviews Španělská vesnice. Reflexe ciziny ve vzpomínkách odborníků na hispánský svět.