CFP: The Soviet public during “Perestroika” (1985-1991)
Social consciousness in the Soviet Union underwent a rapid transformation in the mid-1980s.
The government and party leadership’s “Glasnost'” had created a critical public which soon took on a life of its own. Changes to the rules of communication also transformed political practice. A committed media succeeded in both effectively discrediting the communist dictatorship within a very short period of time and in raising the issues of a new and more humane and rational political and social order.
The conference (to be held at the German Historical Institute in Moscow, 13-15 November 2008) therefore invites participants to sum up the current status of research into the public in Russian-speaking countries and to discuss the prospects for future research into its role throughout contemporary history.
The historical preconditions of this transformation of consciousness should also be investigated. What conclusions about the political culture of the preceding decades can be drawn from Soviet citizens’ attitudes and behaviour in the years from 1985-1991 ?
The following subject areas, among others, lend themselves to this discussion:
Reform-oriented government politicians, established scientists, committed journalists, intellectuals and “ordinary” citizens often associated the creation of a new, debating public with very progressive aims and expectations.
What should also be examined is how these actors regarded the phenomenon of “the public”, which Soviet, Russian or Western concepts and experiences they applied, and what public activity strategies they developed themselves.
Interest in political issues
Many social and political problems whose existence had previously been denied, such as alcohol abuse, environmental degradation, the weak growth of the socialist command economy, the falsification of Soviet history and, finally, the numerous national conflicts, were soon being intensely discussed.
How did the public become aware of these topics? Was it a spontaneous process? Did it always take place in the same way with the same public, or did different topics produce their own public and have their own “clientele”?
Media and Mediality
The relaxing of censorship and changes in news coverage resulted in a boom in almost all media formats.
How was the media landscape generally transformed? Which “alternative” or private media and information agencies (magazines, news agencies, information services, opinion polling institutes) were able to establish themselves? How did the atmosphere and power structures in the major editorial departments change? How did the moral and practical attitudes of journalists to their work, and their relationship with readers and viewers change? Were typical careers made as a result of this transformation?
“Micro-publics” and the culture of communication
“Informal organisations” and special clubs that invited everyone to discuss public affairs were set up in many cities. The private and semi-public areas of companies and large-scale organisations were also often used as places for holding intense debates.
What effect did this “informal public” have on the larger mass media public?
What did those involved hope to gain from their involvement? What sort of culture of discussion and rhetorical style prevailed? What role did these forums play in generating contacts and functional networks that were useful in the long term?
The formation of political opinion
Political conflicts were also soon again played out in the public arena. In 1988 the first (still illegal) parties were founded, there were mass demonstrations, and in autumn the first “real” election campaign was held under the new and freer electoral laws.
Many contemporary observers and actors were both pleased about the democratisation and afraid of political instability.
What opinion did Soviet city-dwellers have of their fellow citizens’ democratic maturity?
Did they have faith in their good will to solve conflicts peacefully? How did they judge the virulence of national conflicts? How did the security forces behave in the unusual situation, and how can their actions now be assessed in retrospect?
To what extent did the new parties and candidates regard public (street) space as a stage for the raising of their own profiles? What image did the candidates have of their potential voters and which methods of electoral advertising proved successful? Was there a difference between the city and the country?
Economic liberalisation enabled the marketing of information deficits and the exploitation of excessive attention. The advertising market, public opinion polling agencies and the advertising industry all underwent a rapid boom.
Were there attempts to use political and social insider knowledge commercially? Did the commercialising of public space have repercussions for the mechanisms of the “political” public?
Irrational feelings and expectations
At the end of the eighties, reports of UFO landings, miraculous healings and supernatural events were disseminated by an officious mass media as “news” and uncritically received by the majority of the public.
How was the belief in miracles interpreted by trusting and by sceptical contemporaries?
Can research into such mass hysteria contribute to an understanding of the political public in the late Soviet Union?
We would like to ask you to submit 1-2 page exposés by the 15th of March 2008.
Travel and accommodation costs may be reimbursed if other funds are not available.
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