David L. Hoffmann


On his book Cultivating the Masses: Modern State Practices and Soviet Socialism, 1914-1939

Cover Interview of January 12, 2012


The Soviet case is frequently omitted from comparative historical analyses. Scholars tend to view the Soviet Union and its distinctive socio-economic order as anomalous and therefore fundamentally incomparable to other countries.

My examination of social policies, however, indicates the value of including the Soviet Union in such comparisons, as a means to highlight certain features of state interventionism and population management in the interwar period.

In particular, the Soviet case illustrates the connection between welfare and warfare. Welfare programs at this time were intended primarily to safeguard human resources and fulfill a set of reciprocal obligations between the state and its citizens. The Soviet health care system demonstrates how the rise of social medicine led to state-administered public health initiatives. It also provides an example of an authoritarian regime that adopted an environmentalist approach to maintaining its population’s bodily wellbeing. Soviet reproductive policies show that even a government as committed to social renovation as the Soviet regime could reject eugenics for disciplinary and ideological reasons, and could construct an essentialist gender order that nonetheless upheld women’s place in the workforce. The Soviet government’s extensive use of surveillance and propaganda confirms that in an era of mass politics, even authoritarian rulers felt compelled to monitor and influence people’s thinking. And in the area of state violence, the Soviet case reveals the lethal potentialities of techniques of social excision, particularly when wielded by a revolutionary dictatorship intent on achieving social transformation and state security.

Placing Soviet history in an international context also provides new perspectives on the Soviet system and allows us to move beyond explanations that attribute all aspects of Soviet social intervention to socialist ideology.

While Marxism-Leninism imparted to Party leaders both a set of social categories and a particular historical teleology, it did not provide a blueprint for their policies. I differ from those who see socialist ideology as a single, concrete program that, when put into practice, led inexorably to Stalinism.

Often coupled with a reified view of socialist ideology is its portrayal as a doctrine “out of step with reality”—an artificial attempt to reorder human society. My purpose in placing Soviet social policies in an international context is to illustrate that both the idea of social transformation and the technologies to pursue such a transformation in fact predated the Soviet system and were common to many ideologies and regimes of the twentieth century.