In 19 and 20 of April 2023, RECET organised a CENTRAL Workshop: “Commodities, Trade, and Materiality in the Global Cold War”, hosted at the University of Vienna. The workshop brought together historians and sociologists whose research covers different fields, with interesting and unexpected intersections between the works. Out of 13 presentations, 6 were on the history of medicine, allowing for productive exchanges on this theme, and discussion on broader material cultures, the production and exchange of goods and expertise in socialist countries during the Cold War.
Standardisation and the Postproduction Life of Things
The workshop opened with a presentation by Sergei Oushakine (Princeton University) on theories on things (veschism) in the late Soviet period, one thinking of things as part of socialism life and the other on aesthetic materialism. Both theories converged that socialism rejected the imposition of needs on the individual, thus criticising the abundance of options in capitalist economies.
The first panel on “Distribution and Scaling up” had two presentations on the life of medicines in State Socialist Hungary. Gergely Magos (ELTE) presented his work on the transformation of Hungarian Pharmacy in the 1950s, showing how the nationalisation of drug shops was a form of sovietisation. Aimed to modernise Hungary by making drug dispensation more efficient and integrated to the planned economy, the sovietisation meant a reduction of autonomy of pharmacies’ skilled workers and the destruction of a cultural heritage.
Ilona Kappanyos (ELTE) exposed how the emergence, production and distribution of birth control pills intertwined with demographic and health policies. The “antibebi” pills, as contraceptives became known in Hungary, started being locally produced and distributed in 1967. However, their availability was a recurring issue, as was getting a prescription. Strong side effects meant a great number of women stopped using the pills. As abortions remained the main birth control method, Ilona showed how the issue was framed mostly as a health problem, occupying hospital beds and doctors, and a gender role issue with abortion hospitalisations preventing women from working and caring for their other children.
Rosie Johnston (University of Vienna) completed the first panel with a presentation on the relations forged around the production of T-72 Soviet tanks in Martin, Slovakia. She showed that there were multiple interests attached to the tank’s production, which combined geopolitics and local imaginaries. The tank production had an important impact on Martin also in non-military spaces, as it shaped the local territory and local slang.
Decolonisation Wars and Medical Solidarity
The second panel had two very complementary presentations on medical solidarity during decolonisation wars in Africa. Each presentation illuminated one side of the networks of medical intervention. Jelena Đureinović’s (University of Vienna) presentation showed how Yugoslavia’s war veterans’ associations offered rehabilitation to fighters, and later civilians, injured during the Algerian independence war. This humanitarian initiative was continued in the 1960s with the wars of independence against Portugal in Africa. Her archival research showed how medical aid was improvised outside state institutions answering immediate demands, later being co-opted by the State. The establishment of hospitals and the training of local personnel and collaboration with medical professionals from other socialist countries, such as Cuba, shows how different networks of solidarity engaged in transfers of knowledge.
Alila Brossard Antonielli’s (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin) presentation exposed how the demands for medical support were made in the case of the Mozambique Liberation Movement (FRELIMO) in the 1960s. Different lists of medicines and medical products were created and distributed as FRELIMO members turned into their different networks of support in socialist countries and religious organisations in the West. Up to this point Alila had only found sources on the medicines needs lists that circulated in the United States, but Jelena confirmed having seen the same lists in the War Veteran’s association archives. Two intersecting themes of the presentations revolved around the role of the state: as existing and co-opting or inexistent and being invented through healthcare and distribution of health products.
Currency Reserves and Foreign Trade
Ondřej Vojtěchovský (Charles University) presented his work on the Yugoslav workers hired to build infrastructure and buildings in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. The two countries had longstanding economic ties and Yugoslav workers and their building expertise was considered efficient and of better quality. The strategy of bringing Yugoslavian knowledge and technologies on construction was thus a way to allow Czechoslovakia to access and benefit from new modern building techniques.
Martin Gumiela (University of Vienna) has been doing his PhD on the Polonia firms, created in the late socialist period in Poland as small and medium private companies outside the planned economy. Managed by the Polish diaspora, these firms could import machines from the west and introduce new products and technologies in Poland. Their products were considered of better quality and attracted consumers, albeit the firms were considered as speculators, showing tensions between ideology and the need to attract investment in late socialism.
Ema Hresanová (Charles University) investigates how the infant incubator uses and production in Czechoslovakia allows understanding the morality on birth survival. From the first incubators, given to Czechoslovakia by the United States in 1947, to the local production of Czechoslovakian incubators in the 1950s, discussions emerged among health personnel on strategies to improve neonatal care. Although the development and local production of Czechoslovakian incubators was successful, in the 1970s the Ministry of Health decided to import better quality incubators from aboard, along with Echography machines, resulting in an important impact on the health budget. Interestingly, the Czechoslovakian incubators were a significant part of that country medical aid to Cuba in the 1960s, showing how one technology and commodity can have different uses and meanings at the same time.
Popularising Science and Its Impact on Infrastructure in the Soviet Union
Alexey Golubev (University of Houston) gave a keynote on the trajectory of the National Society for the Dissemination of Political and Scientific Knowledge in the Soviet Union. He showed how popularising science made knowledge a commodity, using different kinds of media support and public lectures. It also impacted infrastructure as buildings were designed to interrupt people’s way in the cities and make then consumers of knowledge. Thus scientific knowledge became embedded in one’s daily experiences and the organisation of daily life (the byt).
Anna Calori (University of Vienna) presented her work on exporting Yugoslav knowledge and industrial development models, in which different commodities tell different stories of globalisation. She showed first how the Yugoslavs helped Panama with its Banana production and trade to central Europe, tapping into the Non-aligned movement principle of “trade not aid” and geopolitical aim of stopping the United States fruit cartels. Her second example was maize production in Zambia with Yugoslav genetic seed development and the creation of research centres and circulation of plants grown in Serbia and Zambia. In this latter case, the political alliances of the Cold war shaped the physical commodity of maize itself.
Jakub Mazanec (Charles University) presented a part of his PhD dissertation where he looks at the export of Czechoslovakian hydro expertise to Africa. Czechoslovakia has a long tradition of water expertise and during the Cold War it created an industrial complex linked to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Trade, water research institutions, universities and companies. It started with contracts in Comecon countries, and later focused mostly on newly independent African states. As with Anna’s presentation, Jakub shows a different story of globalisation and circulation of expertise mixing ideology, trade and foreign currency needs in bilateral relations and multilateral organisations (UN agencies).
Dora Vargha (University of Exeter/Humboldt Universität zu Berlin) analysed the experience of the Hungarian medical relief mission in North Korea during and after the Korean War (1950–1957). She commented how these missions were very well documented and gave way to memory politics the following decades in Hungary. Cross-cutting with Jelena’s presentation, Dora also stressed how chaotic the aid logistics was and the progressive co-optation by the socialist state. Lists of medical materials but also food needs were important to show the lack of supplies of all kinds in North Korea, leading to a reflection among Hungarians of their country’s relativity prosperity even at times of scarcity following the Second World War.
The workshop was concluded with reflexions on the entry of materiality for the history of the Cold War, how to navigate the different scales in our research and to integrate bottom-up perspectives. Paying attention to commodities means looking more closely at their production, circulation, and consumption.
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