Education:B.A., History, University College at the University of Toronto, (2005); M.A., European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, University of Toronto, (2007); PhD, History, University of Chicago, (2014)
Kristy Ironside recently concluded a postdoctoral fellowship at the International Center for the History and Sociology of WWII and its Consequences at the Higher School of Economics, and is beginning a new position as the Lecturer in Russian, East European and Eurasian history at the University of Manchester.
When did you first develop an interest in Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies?
I always get asked when and why I became interested in Russia (especially by people in Russia), and many are surprised to learn that I have no family connection to it. My parents emigrated from Northeastern Scotland to Canada, where I was born. This fact would be irrelevant were not for the many, many times I’ve been told that I must have a tolerance for miserable weather which has helped me adjust not only to Russia’s climate, but to its moods. The more plausible explanation is that I went to an excellent institution for Slavic, East European and Eurasian studies for my undergraduate degree, the University of Toronto, where I had my pick of Russian history, politics, culture, and language courses. Because I tend to throw myself into everything I do, I decided that I also needed to experience the country firsthand. This led me to travel alone to St. Petersburg for an immersive Russian language course in the summer of 2003. I’ll admit it: I hated my first few weeks in Russia and I doubted my decision to pursue my interest in it. I vividly remember being dropped off in front of my dorm, a crumbling brezhnevka at the end of the metro line on the Gulf of Finland, and thinking to myself: “I’ve made a huge mistake.” As a Canadian who had done very little international travel at that point, everything seemed so unintuitive and everyone seemed so cold and unfriendly at first. The weather was indeed terrible. I thought about changing my plane ticket and coming home early. But Russia also gets under your skin in a good way, and by the end of those six weeks, I was hooked.
How have your interests changed since then?
I came into my PhD with the idea that I would write a dissertation on Soviet living standards. I was fascinated by the question of why socialism, a system that seemingly consistently failed to provide for its citizens and had frequent shortages and crises, endured for as long as it did. Initially, I planned to focus on everyday life and, in many ways, the question of how Soviet citizens experienced socialism is still at the heart of my project; however, I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of Soviet economic history in a way that still surprises me. Economic subject matter can seem daunting, with its jargon and its sometimes contradictory and often incomplete data. I have no formal training in economics. However, I came to believe that our knowledge of everyday life under socialism is vastly improved by putting these two fields in conversation with one another, by contrasting the Soviet government’s economic thinking and its practical and ideological limitations with ordinary citizens’ experiences and expectations.
Furthermore, much of our existing analysis of the Soviet economy was written before the opening of the archives, at a time when a Western scholar would have given her right arm to access the data that I can now relatively freely sift through in the Russian State Archive of the Economy and the State Archive of the Russian Federation, much of which remains untouched by researchers. As a historian, the feeling of entering uncharted archival terrain is exhilarating; moreover, I am consistently surprised by the range of economic reforms that Soviet leaders and bureaucrats explored and their often heated internal debates, to which Sovietologists simply had no access when they were doing their research. Finally, another major change in my interests is I am increasingly drawn to non-urban and non-Russian areas of the Soviet Union. I am striving, as much as possible, to move away from a Moscow- and RSFSR-focused approach and to highlight regional differences in policy implementation and in ordinary people’s experiences.
What is your current research/work project?
My current research focuses on the role and meaning of money, an ideologically problematic vestige of capitalism, in the Soviet Union. At the moment, I’m revising my dissertation for publication as a monograph entitled The Worker’s Ruble: Money and the Pursuit of Communist Prosperity in the Postwar Soviet Union, 1945-1964. In accordance with Marx’s criticism of money’s corrupting influence and his argument that it would be unnecessary when commodity production ceased following the revolution, the early Bolsheviks sought to abolish it. However, these efforts proved disastrous and, by the onset of the New Economic Policy, pragmatism had won out and the Soviet Union had a money economy. As he rose to power, Stalin offered a different take on the quandary of money’s lingering existence, suggesting that money was not inherently capitalist, but could be adapted to the needs of socialism, especially in the realm of trade. He maintained that the ruble and the money economy needed to be “strengthened” rather than allowed to fade in importance – a project that was completely derailed by the Second World War amid massive inflation and the near collapse of retail trade. Rebuilding after the war involved resuming this project of strengthening the ruble in the realm of distribution but also, within the context of the Cold War and the quickening pace of communist construction, deploying money more broadly and in new ways.
In my book, I suggest that money was assigned a crucial function in expanding the Soviet welfare state after the war and achieving the economic growth its benefits depended upon; moreover, this turn to money was not seen by the Soviet government as an ideological compromise. Both the Stalin- and, more surprisingly, the Khrushchev- era regime viewed money-based benefits including lower prices and rising real wages, more take-home pay, increased pensions, and growing personal savings, as evidence of the Soviet Union’s revolutionary progress. A strong, stable currency with real value was seen as essential to move toward communism, when abundance would reign, the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” could finally be realized, and, as it was still maintained, money would finally become obsolete. At the same time, although state propaganda continued to portray capitalism as exploitative and unstable, Soviet policymakers quietly worried how their efforts sized up against the increasing standard of living and welfare benefits emerging in the West during a period of unprecedented prosperity. In spite of advances in living standards, many citizens still struggled to get by or simply to make use of their money amid persistent shortages, a reality that shook their confidence in Soviet power and in the communist project, itself.
What do you value about your ASEEES membership?
Academia is increasingly a globalized endeavor, and I think ASEEES does a great job connecting scholars from all over the world. I really enjoy attending and presenting at the annual conventions because they give me the chance to learn about all the new projects people are working on and to get feedback on my work. They also allow me to build new contacts and catch up with the friends I made in graduate school and at other events, as well as over tea in the archives’ cafeterias.
Besides your professional work, what other interests and/or hobbies do you enjoy?
I am an avid cook and an adventurous gastrophile. As a historian, I’m accustomed to open-ended projects requiring long, solitary hours of research and writing. I like cooking because it has a clear beginning, middle and end, but also because it’s social. My partner and I cook elaborate meals together, throw dinner parties, and explore new cuisines and restaurants as often as we can. I’ve even become notorious for my dinner parties in Moscow – I am probably one of the few people in history to have successfully made carnitas in Russia using Soviet-made cookware. Cooking, for myself and for others, keeps me sane.