Marjorie L. Hilton presents a captivating history of consumer culture in Russia from the 1880s to the early 1930s. She highlights the critical role of consumerism as a vehicle for shaping class and gender identities, modernity, urbanism, and as a mechanism of state power in the transition from tsarist autocracy to Soviet socialism.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Russia witnessed a rise in mass production, consumer goods, advertising, and new retail venues such as arcades and department stores. These mirrored similar developments in other European countries and reflected a growing quest for leisure activities, luxuries, and a modern lifestyle. As Hilton reveals, retail commerce played a major role in developing Russian public culture—it affected celebrations of religious holidays, engaged diverse groups of individuals, defined behaviors and rituals of city life, inspired new interpretations of masculinity and femininity, and became a visible symbol of state influence and provision.
Through monarchies, revolution, civil war, and monumental changes in the political sphere, RussiaÆs distinctive culture of consumption was contested and recreated. Leaders of all stripes continued to look to the “commerce of exchange” as a key element in appealing to the masses, garnering political support, and promoting a modern nation.
Hilton follows the evolution of retailing and retailers alike, from crude outdoor stalls to elite establishments; through the competition of private versus state-run stores during the NEP; and finally to a system of total state control, indifferent workers, rationing, and shortages under a consolidating Stalinist state.
Tracing common motifs across a turbulent half century in Russian history, Hilton constructs a compelling, engaging argument about the importance of retail culture in the development of a modern urban society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. . . . Highly recommended.
This book will be of interest to scholars of culture, gender, and politics. Smoothly, yet pointedly written and thoughtfully organized . . . a little something for everyone in these pages.
Hilton has presented a rich and rewarding analysis of the attitudes and policies that shaped retail commerce in late imperial and early Soviet Russia. She provides useful points of comparison by consistently keeping an eye on analogous developments in Western Europe.
The most compelling part of Hilton's study is her treatment of prerevolutionary retailing . . . . A masterful and engaging study.
Hilton offers a well researched book on Russia's stores, shops, retail arcades and marketplaces from 1880 to 1930. . . A compelling argument that retail space impacts the construction of social identities . . . and that consumerist culture goes beyond consumption as a series of interrelated acts organized around the key activities of buying and selling.
At once entertaining and scholarly, 'Selling to the Masses' provides intriguing insights into the changing relationship between retailers, consumers and the Russian state during one of the most turbulent periods of that country's history. Hilton painstakingly demonstrates how in the late tsarist and early Soviet periods retailing in Russia functioned as a site of ideological struggle, a means of imposing social order and affirming national identity. As such, her book will be of immense interest to students of Russian history, Soviet studies, business history, gender studies and anthropology.
One of the strengths of Hilton's book is its vividness. The author writes well and her sketches of shops, shoppers and shop workers go some way to offering the reader an accessible and carefully realized entry into the world of late imperial and early Soviet consumerism.
The commercial space across Red Square from the seat of state power has for centuries been 'as much a part of Russia's history as the Kremlin and St. Basil's,' whether as the trading rows of the Imperial era or the state department store (GUM) of Soviet times. This claim demands a cognitive shift for most historians, for whom commerce is far less central to the Russian past than politics, church or state. Yet Marjorie Hilton's work succeeds in demonstrating how embedded retail trade has been in broader policies and culture, and indicative it can be of both changes and continuities in the relationship between state and society throughout the revolutionary era. Hilton treats 1880-1930 as 'one continuous period of socioeconomic and cultural transformation.' This chronological span is one of the book's major strengths and contributions, as it challenges the extent to which the two regimes diverged in terms of attitudes towards buying and selling, regardless of the ideological contrasts." . . .Highly readable and offers a window into retail trade from multiple perspectives throughout an era when commerce was about far more than economic activity, but became infused with social, cultural and political meanings.
A welcome addition to the deepening conversation about whether and how a consumer culture developed in late tsarist Russia and whether or not that culture survived past 1917. Rather then ending her book in 1917, [Hilton] brings her story through the revolutionary decades and into early Stalinism. In this way, her book revises traditional periodization and challenges the idea that the Revolution destroyed whatever retail culture was emerging at the end of the old regime. Despite the Bolshevik state's attempt to politicize retail after 1917, it could never direct consumer desires in the ways that it intended. Perhaps the most entertaining part of 'Selling to the Masses' revolves around Hilton's discussion of consumer complaints (such as the contest for the worst retailer) in the 1920s. The complaints printed in the various journals and newspapers that she examines illustrate the state's attempts to move from 'a retail culture that stressed personal interaction between buyer and seller' to a culture based on 'collective rights of workers and consumers.' Consumers, however, did not necessarily go along with these transformations.
Marjorie L. Hilton is assistant professor of history at Murray State University.learn more