Between Starvation and Gluttony: Resituating Food and Corporeality in Soviet Literature and Film, 1920s–1940s

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Slavic Languages and Literatures

First Advisor

Clark, Katerina


This dissertation positions food and the body as the two key tropes in Early Soviet culture and ideology. I argue that it was horror and suffering, not pleasure, that was associated with food consumption in early Soviet culture, and that the body’s boundaries were porous and fluid. Drawing from food studies and anthropology of consumption, as well as from Mikhail Bakhtin and Julia Kristeva’s perspectives on the body, this dissertation locates the sensory and the corporeal within film and literate in Soviet culture from the first years after the revolution to the end of the Second World War—the 1920s to the 1940s. I specifically focus on extreme body experiences related to food consumption: cannibalism, abject cuts of raw meat at slaughterhouses, uncontrollable gluttony, and forced starvation.The first chapter examines the image of the fat man used in Soviet political caricatures. I argue in this chapter that, despite what Soviet propaganda wanted to portray, there was no single normative body of the Soviet citizen, instead, there was a fluidity and multiplicity of different bodies. This is especially visible in Yury Olesha’s and Mikhail Zoshchenko’s oeuvres, where the images of fat class enemies appear alongside characters whose fatness is presented simultaneously as a positive or even sexually desirable feature. In particular, I examine Olesha’s novel for children, Three Fat Men (1924), and a novel for adults, Envy (1927), and several of Zoshchenko’s short stories from the 1920s. In my second chapter, I look at representations of the Soviet meat industry. I argue that the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and the writer Boris Pilnyak intended to produce propagandistic narratives demonstrating Soviet modernization. However, Eisenstein’s The General Line (1929) and Pilnyak’s Meat: A Novel (1936) actually show the vulnerability of Soviet masculinity, threatened by dismemberment and castration. In my third chapter, I demonstrate how Andrey Platonov, in his novel Happy Moscow (1933–1936), and in several short stories, used the trope of cannibalism to criticize power that not only figuratively but also literally consumes and exploits the bodies of citizens until nothing is left of them. Furthermore, this chapter proposes that Platonov not only presents a critique of cannibalistic abuse of power, but also suggests an alternative model of ethical consumption based on the practice of remembering everyone whose labor contributed to the creation of the food item. Finally, the fourth chapter explores the complicated relationship between starvation and the ability to narrate this traumatic experience in Lidia Ginzburg’s and Gennadii Gor’s accounts of the blockade of Leningrad during the second world war. Ginzburg wrote a semi-autobiograhical account, Blockade Diary (1984), which she only managed to publish forty years later, and Gor wrote a collection of poems in 1942–1944, which were published only after his death. This chapter argues that there is a close link between physical starvation and the inability to produce literature, and it demonstrates that both Ginzburg and Gor were unable to narrate their suffering in the moment of extreme starvation, thus regaining the ability to write again was a sign of their partial recovery from the bodily trauma of the siege.

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