Comment: Socialism's Mal(e)contents

Masculinity as Performance Art in Postwar and Late Socialism

in Aspasia
Marko Dumančić Western Kentucky University, USA

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This article reflects on how the authors in this Special Forum collectively advance the work in the subfield of critical masculinity studies. The several significant themes emerging in this collection of articles include: persistent state intervention in gender relations, the impact of longstanding patriarchal norms, the rapidly changing postwar gender equilibrium, and the continuing significance of war and martial masculinity. Furthermore, the Special Forum illuminates the importance of micro-histories and ego-documents to the study of masculinities in Central and East Europe. Finally, by framing agency as a relational process affected by a variety of constraints, these authors’ work marks a productive forward movement for the future study of critical masculinity studies more generally.

I was born in Libya in 1979 to Yugoslav parents and grew up in post-Tito Yugoslavia, during the twilight of that peculiar brand of South Slav socialism. Although my most formative years were spent during wartime and in Croatia's postsocialist, ultranationalist period, I find my own masculinity informed by ideas and practices specific to this bygone, nostalgia-worthy era. Because my membership to this last generation of Yugoslavs came just as the system disintegrated, I often feel distantly related to it, recalling Yugoslav sociopolitical realities in blurred outlines and shady remembrances. But because elements of that culture survived in my family and upbringing, the term “former,” when applied to Yugoslavia, seems incongruous and false. I therefore read these excellent articles with the interest and enthusiasm of an amnesiac archeologist seeking traces of a socialist culture that hides in plain sight. There are several themes and methodological approaches interwoven throughout these articles that strike me as significant to the continued study of East and Central European masculinities.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of these articles are the sources and the methodologies employed. Given the emphasis scholars (this author included) have already placed on official archival and published materials that make transparent the dynamism and constraints of state-sanctioned culture, it is refreshing to consider masculinity from the perspective of less frequently used sources. The various materials used in this Special Forum—diaries, interviews, photographs, published memoirs, internal party documents about spousal abuse allegations, and others—allow us to go beyond an analysis of normative, officially sanctioned, and idealized masculinity. The focus on personal, less public, and less visible gender-specific experiences expands the scholarship on gender history under state socialism by providing a sense of men as both objects of state policy and as subjects whose reactions could only partially be predicted and controlled. As Magali Delaloye poignantly puts it in the case of male medical personnel serving in the Afghan War: “they actively constructed and actualized their gendered presentation of self.”1

Many of the articles make excellent use of ego-documents. This is in part due to the fact that the post-Stalinist period legitimized self-expression, however constrained, and encouraged citizens to pay attention to and express their inner lives. Unlike during the Stalinist period, the focus was not on monitoring oneself in order to line up one's subjectivity with state expectations for socialist morality. Rather, it was, at least in part, a genuine act of self-exploration. For instance, Natalia Jarska's research draws on around five hundred unpublished memoirs, responses to four 1960s contests relating to marriage and family life and a published volume of a 1973 contest focusing on men's roles as husbands and fathers. Even when the ego-documents were written for public consumption (as in the case of mostly Russian doctors who served in Afghanistan) or self-censored and edited by party officials or publishers (as in the case of Polish veterans and Soviet couples writing to newspapers about their amorous woes), these sources allow us to understand the wider culture as well as the constraints and opportunities available to historical subjects during the postwar and late socialist periods.

Much in the way these scholars expertly mine their sources and their context, they skillfully reflect on their subjects’ intersectional identities. Changes in socialist masculinities were shaped not only by party-state policies and official discourses but also by everyday negotiations taking place in both homogenously male and mixed gender contexts. The scholars included in this volume thus adopt an intersectional approach, taking gender, generation, class, profession, and regional geography into account. Even when the demographic and autobiographical information are either unobtainable or obscured, the articles responsibly unearth the silences concealed in the primary sources or reflect on the limitations of their documents. Delaloye, for instance, notes that doctors serving in Afghanistan occupied a unique space because their professional identity, advanced education, and lack of military training separated them from combat personnel with whom they sought to connect. Similarly, Erica Fraser and Kateryna Tonkykh show how Nikolai Petrovich Kamanin's overlapping identities—a man of the Cold War, of the space age, and of the Stalinist successor class—impacted his interpretations and judgments of his charges’ behavior. Equally as insightful is the approach taken by Jarska, who explains that Polish men's resistance to married women's paid employment should be understood simultaneously through the categories of gender, generation, and class. The sensitivity to intersectionality allows Jarska to conclude that while working-class men born between the late nineteenth century and the early 1950s viewed the working wife as a threat to the family structure and the husband's identity, middle-class urbanites born in the early 1950s and after tended to positively evaluate the dual income model because it achieved a better standard of living and engendered a sense of personal fulfillment for the wives. Jarska's focus on multiple identity categories makes it clear why the resistance to women's participation among working-class males failed to disappear.

The sensitivity to the intersectional approach allows the authors (most explicitly Delaloye) to pen evocative micro-histories. The micro-historical approach generates two key outcomes. First, the focus on individuals and their ego-documents showcases how men adopted and adapted to various positions: as observers of their own experience, as objects of internalized historical and contemporary norms, and as actively resistant subjects. The fact that men sometimes occupied these contrasting positionalities presents a notable methodological advance in the study of socialist masculinities. These micro-histories frame agency as a relational process affected by a variety of constraints. Agency thus becomes a conditional possibility by which men negotiate both state discourses and the subjectivity these discourses aim to impose on them. What is thus impressive about this research is the fact that agency is not assumed a priori but is created through an individual's idiosyncratic response to their context. The historical subjects of these articles are not limited to either accepting or rejecting state norms but, rather, engage with differing gendered scripts in contrasting ways. Second, the micro-histories adroitly reveal big-picture processes and trends of postwar socialist regimes and societies. Rather than limiting themselves to a particular male subculture in postwar/late socialism, the authors here make visible larger social, political, and historical trends impacting the workings of these subcultures. The big-picture processes include: the state operating as a “third gender,” the persistence of longstanding patriarchal norms, the rapidly changing postwar gender equilibrium, and the continuing significance of war and martial masculinity.

It was, and remains, important to consider normative discourses as well as dominant ideological perspectives when investigating socialist masculinities. Even though socialist citizens reacted to the prevalent public framing of gender and sexuality in unpredictable, idiosyncratic, and often invisible ways, state-sponsored norms acted as a force field that citizens had to negotiate in order to advance their own interests. It is not for nothing that the socialist state is often identified as the third gender given its interventionist modus operandi.2 Many of these articles demonstrate that, in an ironic twist, state-sponsored feminist policies were often thwarted or minimized as the party apparatus reinscribed the patriarchal dividend in different ways. For instance, although the intense promotion of women's employment after 1945 gained positive traction in Poland among educated, urban white-collar classes, the socialist state failed to shift working-class men's disapproval of married women's work. Despite the state's efforts, which were arguably halfhearted and at odds with pronatalist incentives, the male breadwinner model persisted during postsocialism. Similarly, Brendan McElmeel establishes that the discourse about amorous relationships was a complicated mix of radical and traditional, as writers utilized terms that sounded prerevolutionary “but also demanding working-class solidarity, gender egalitarianism, or love itself, as moral goods.”3 The normative and proscriptive standards about gender expectations in the post-Stalinist period remained contradictory as the disconnect between ideology and praxis remained the rule, rather than the exception.

Part of the problem the state had in altering longstanding cultural scripts was the enduring historical trends that affirmed the patriarchal dividend and continued to privilege particular kinds of male experiences, especially when it came to the public sphere. Cristina Diac shows us that the Romanian Communist Party was loathe to handle issues related to Party members who physically abused their wives. Despite the fact that the authorities recognized spousal abuse as contravening the fundamentals of socialist morality and the country's criminal laws, their responses appeared to be conditioned as much by eighteenth-century norms as they were by the party's own progressive gender legislation. Similarly, as Delaloye notes, Soviet doctors in the Afghan War had to regularly perform life-threatening acts to fit in and remain integrated with the combat soldiers. Finally, Soviet cosmonauts, who acted as walking and talking embodiments of the USSR's technological and ideological superiority, were not immune to contravening principles of post-Stalinist socialist morality that included inebriation, disorderly conduct, and spousal abuse. These throwbacks to un-Soviet behavior were monitored and regulated by Nikolai P. Kamanin, a well-placed official in charge of cosmonaut selection and chaperoning. Fraser and Tonkykh reveal the ways in which privileged male actors, such as Kamanin, positioned themselves not only as arbiters but also as enforcers of communist morality. It is thus particularly instructive that even a man with as much political capital as Kamanin and as much direct control over his charges could not alter the stereotypically muzhik behaviors of his mentees, especially Titov and Gagarin.

All the articles speak to men's responses to the unprecedented and rapidly changing conditions of the postwar era. The economics of a female-dominated consumer culture, the de-emphasis of martial experiences, and rapidly advancing technology, all appeared to throw socialist citizens and institutions off-kilter in terms of what constituted the postwar male ideal. A case in point is the Statute of the Romanian Communist Party (RCP), which defined the ideal type of masculinity imprecisely, leaving a lot of room for interpretation in terms of judging cases of husbands physically abusing their wives. On the one hand, the RCP frequently turned a blind eye to domestic abuse in the absence of a public scandal or unless abuse was linked to abandonment or refusal to pay alimony. On the other hand, there were cases in which the RCP actively intervened and placed pressure on abusive husbands. Even the local press of the industrial heartland of Sverdlovsk oblast manifested quite the variety of views on love, from idealistic to pragmatic and back again. The blurred expectations for romantic entanglements reflected two general camps: those who justified intervention based on notions of socialist morality or those who championed non-intervention based on a sense of individual agency. The persistence of these two lines of thought on romance during the long Sixties proved correct the adage that all is fair in (socialist) love and war.

While much changed as a result of postwar reforms, the legacy of World War II as well as Cold War tensions cast a long shadow over the socialist project. Despite the fact that the post-Stalinist period was famed for the expansion of private space and consumerism, it was important both for the state and for men themselves to maintain and restore martial masculinity. Moreover, despite the fact the postwar authorities were invested in advancing the peace movement, within specific contexts men remained dedicated to old cultural scripts about how to perform martial masculinity. This is most visible in Wojciech Śmieja's analysis of the memoirs of Polish war-disabled veterans. Key to the tension evident in these published autobiographies was the fact that the men's disability was simultaneously a representation of their elevated status in state discourse and an object of pity. Rather than stress the reality of their disability, the memoirists argue that “a man is a man as long as he proves he is useful, comparing everyday struggles with bricklaying, a true emblematic occupation in postwar Poland.”4 Delaloye's provoking examples further demonstrate the lengths male medics would go to affirm the dominant cultural scripts about martial masculinity. To bridge the divide that separated them from soldiers, doctors would regularly place themselves in harm's way and even go out of their way to orchestrate opportunities to demonstrate their steely resolve. Particularly striking was the doctor who exposed himself to a hellish sunbathing session in punishing temperatures in order to demonstrate to the soldiers the self-control he maintained over his body and his indifference to truly infernal elements. Doctors’ demands to be seen by other combatants as legitimate wartime participants demonstrates the resilience of traditional masculine roles in a wartime environment.

The above discussion testifies to the quality and originality of the scholars who contributed to this Special Forum and speaks to the ways the field of critical masculinity studies has diversified in terms of source base, methodology, and topics. Also impressive are the ways in which all the authors connect their case studies with masculinity studies in other regional and national contexts. I confess that suggesting more explicitly comparative studies either within East-Central Europe, or with the West and the Global South is easier said than done. However, given how significant this comparative approach has been for studies of 1968 as a year of revolutions and for genocide studies, it strikes me this would be a natural, if not the easiest, future avenue of research. Another intriguing angle would be to examine how encounters with masculinities from the West and the Global South impacted socialist masculinities.5 Given that a number of studies have recently explored the engagement of socialist regimes with each other or with countries from other blocs or non-aligned states, this seems to be a possible next step.6

While I began this article by discussing the ways these articles engaged the Yugoslav and socialist legacy I inherited as a child and young adult, I would like to end the discussion of these thought-provoking articles with a note about gender and sexuality. As a gay cisgender male who negotiated his sexual identity in a period of ultranationalism in Croatia, I find this research incredibly important. Coming to terms with my homosexuality in the wartime 1990s, I felt my masculinity lacking and experienced a keen need to compensate for this lack by “passing” through mimicry, which was, in retrospect, a kind of drag performance. Much in the way I cannot “shed” my Yugoslav self, I find it difficult to determine how much of my “hetero-passing” has now become so habituated that it feels authentic. Because these articles go a long way to show all masculinity as performance constructed in response to idiosyncratic conditions, they constitute a productive forward movement for the future study of Central and East European masculinities as well as critical masculinity studies more generally.



Magali Delaloye, “Heal and Serve: Soviet Military Doctors ‘Doing Masculinity’ during the Afghan War (1979–1989).”


The concept of the third gender originated in Zhanna Chernova, “The Model of ‘Soviet’ Fatherhood: Discursive Prescriptions,” Russian Studies in History, vol. 51, no. 2 (2012), 35–62.


Brendan McElmeel, “From Don Juan to Comrade Ivan: Educating the Young Men of the Urals for Love and Marriage, 1953–1964.”


Wojciech Śmieja, “Masculinity, Disability, and Politics in Polish War-Disabled Memoirs (1971).”


A few examples of this approach include: Sally Engle Merry, “Early Pacific Encounters and Masculinity: War, Sex, and Christianity in Hawai'i,” Current Anthropology 62, no. S23 (2021), S54–S65; Yasuhiro Okada, “Race, Masculinity, and Military Occupation: African American Soldiers’ Encounters with the Japanese at Camp GIFU, 1947–1951,” The Journal of African American History 96, no. 2 (2011), 179–203; Ali Bilgiç, “Migrant Encounters with Neo-Colonial Masculinity: Producing European Sovereignty Through Emotions,” International Feminist Journal of Politics 20, no. 4 (2018), 542–562.


Anne E. Gorsuch and Diane P. Koenker, eds., The Socialist Sixties: Crossing Borders in the Second World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013); Maxim Matusevich, “An Exotic Subversive: Africa, Africans and the Soviet Everyday,” Race & Class 49, no. 4 (2008), 57–81; Sean Guillory, “Culture Clash in the Socialist Paradise: Soviet Patronage and African Students’ Urbanity in the Soviet Union, 1960–1965,” Diplomatic History 38, no. 2 (2014), 271–281; Barbara Keys, “An African-American Worker in Stalin's Soviet Union: Race and the Soviet Experiment in International Perspective,” The Historian 71, no. 1 (2009), 31–54; Anne E. Gorsuch, “‘Cuba, My Love’: The Romance of Revolutionary Cuba in the Soviet Sixties,” The American Historical Review 120, no. 2 (2015), 497–526.

Contributor Notes

Marko Dumančić is Associate Professor of History at Western Kentucky University. His first book, Men Out of Focus: The Soviet Masculinity Crisis in the Long Sixties, was published in 2021. His other work appeared in The Journal of Cold War Studies, Men and Masculinities, Cold War History, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema, and The Cambridge History of Communism. His next project examines the role of masculinity in the Bosnian genocide. ORCID: 0000-0001-8627-9564

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The International Yearbook of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European Women's and Gender History


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