Jessica Bachman: Towards a Material and Cultural History of Soviet Book Consumption in Post-Colonial South Asia, 1954–1973
In Western academic discourse, Soviet books are often characterized as “weapons” which were strategically deployed during the Cold War in an ideological battle for the “hearts and minds” of the decolonizing Third World. This paper challenges the utility of this military metaphor by looking at what readers from post-colonial South Asia actually did with Soviet books. Applying Arjun Appadurai’s well-known argument that things, like people, have social lives to the study of material and textual objects that remain stubbornly pigeonholed as “propaganda,” Bachman argues that for many South Asian readers, the widespread circulation of Soviet books on the subcontinent between the early 1950s and 1990s served as an exciting opportunity to create new cultural objects. Her analysis, based on a reading of archival sources and letters from India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka reveals how a variety of imaginative bricolage practices emerged out of readers’ material engagements with Soviet books and associated printed ephemera (e.g. dustjackets, photographs, color illustrations, pocket calendars). In doing so, Bachman sheds light on how everyday individuals were able to cultivate a sense of belonging both at home and in the world in a post-colonial context where paper was always in short supply, book ownership was a luxury, and local print media was rarely produced using multi-tone offsetting printing processes.
Jessica Bachman is a PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of Washington. She specializes in modern South Asian and global Cold War history. Her dissertation looks at the USSR’s establishment of the world’s largest global book translation and publication program during the Cold War and analyzes its cultural and social effects across South Asia. She has received grants from the Mellon Foundation, SSRC, Fulbright-Hays, American Councils, and CAORC to conduct two years of dissertation research in Russia and India where she will be based between 2018 and 2020. Prior to graduate school, she worked as a journalist in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Bangalore reporting for Thomson Reuters, the Economist, Time, and other publications. Bachman also runs an oral history project entitled Bollywood and Bolsheviks, which features oral history interviews with former South Asian translators, distributors, and readers of Soviet books. The online project originally formed part of a 2016 exhibition entitled Bollywood and Bolsheviks: Indo-Soviet Collaboration in Literature and Film, 1954–1991, which Bachman organized at the University of Washington’s Suzzallo and Allen Library.