UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


The ‘Biography Boom’: personality and propaganda in Late Soviet publishing

20 January 2020, 5:15 pm–7:15 pm

Polly Jones

This event is part of the SSEES Russian Studies Seminar Series. A talk by Polly Jones, Associate Professor of Russian, University College Oxford.

Event Information

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Claudia Roland


Masaryk Senior Common Room
16 Taviton Street
United Kingdom

In the Brezhnev era, a true 'biography boom' dawned in Soviet publishing, as biographies and biographical series enjoyed unprecedented popularity and prominence in Soviet culture. This paper examines the reasons why biography was able to thrive and innovate in this time of supposed 'stagnation', taking as its case study the over 150 biographies published from 1968 to 1990 in the 'Fiery Revolutionaries' (Plamennye revoliutsionery) series, published by Politizdat. It argues that this most conservative and propaganda-focussed Soviet publisher inadvertently created the conditions in which an extraordinarily broad range of writers (including many dissidents and marginal authors) were able to publish experimental and sometimes subversive texts about a wide range of historical 'revolutionaries'. Responding to distinctively late Soviet pressures to rekindle enthusiasm for revolution, and to the increasingly sophisticated view of selfhood embedded in the doctrine of developed socialism, editors and publishers sought to make political biography emotionally engaging at virtually any cost: one of the outcomes was a large number of texts read as 'Aesopian' criticisms of revolution and socialism. The series' history thus epitomises the tensions between stagnation and innovation that continued to play out in Soviet political publishing until the Soviet collapse.

About the Speaker

Prof Polly Jones

Associate Professor of Russian at University College London

Polly Jones is Associate Professor of Russian and Schrecker-Barbour Fellow at University College, University of Oxford. She has published widely on Soviet cultural history, including Myth, Memory, Trauma: Rethinking the Stalinist Past in the Soviet Union, 1953-70 (2013) and edited volumes including Writing Russian Lives: The Poetics and Politics of Russian Biography (2018) and The Dilemmas of De-Stalinization: Negotiating Cultural and Social Change in the Khrushchev Era (2006).

More about Prof Polly Jones