Potato Ontology: Surviving Postsocialism in Russia

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Asked to explain the mechanisms of everyday survival in Russia, many people answer with one word: “potato.” Potato is a key factor in subsistence throughout postsocialist countries, but potato discourses and practices serve as well to dramatize the stark devolution of state–society relations and the ceaseless industry of the population. This essay posits potato as an axis of practice, around which myriad gestures of labor, exchange, and consumption are organized; it also presents potato as a complex system of knowledge, embedded in historical memory and encapsulating local theories of economic devolution. Several ethnographic and economic studies have analyzed the significance of postsocialist food growing; this essay focuses on the chief product of that labor and the narratives that circulate around it. It argues that although potato conveys popular critiques of social stratification, it also frames experiences of personhood.

Untitled. May 2009 via Nancy Ries.

"Potato Ontology." May 2009 via Nancy Ries.

Editorial Overview

In the May, 2009 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Nancy Ries examines the role of the potato in postsocialist Russia, looking beyond the potato as a means of subsistence to a complex system of knowledge, embedded in historical memory and encapsulating local theories of economic devolution. A rich set of potato discourses and practices, Ries finds, dramatizes the devolution of state-society relations as well as the ceaseless industry of the Russian population.

In “Potato Ontology,” Ries recounts her travels through Central Russia alongside a team of Cornell potato sciences during 2003. Drawing upon these experiences, Ries frames potato as a “cognitive resource” coupled to the social mind – an irreducible vehicle of thought about and action in the world, lending shape to particular forms of practice, interaction and intentionality. Ries implicates potato in the structuration, maintenance and regeneration of the postsocialist world, and details how potato discourse legitimizes and celebrates the population's ability to feed itself autonomously. For Ries, potato says something fundamental about Russian society, and about how a material thing can act as an integral and integrating vehicle of social consciousness.

Editorial Footnotes

This essay was the winner of the Society for Cultural Anthropology's Cultural Horizons prize in 2010. 

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays which examine the post-Soviet dynamic. See for example, Karolina Szmagalska-Follis' “Repossession: Notes on Restoration and Redemption in Ukraine's Western Borderland” (2008); Paul Manning's “Rose Colored Glasses? Color Revolutions and Cartoon Chaos in Postsocialist Georgia” (2007); and Alexia Bloch's “Longing for the Kollektiv: Gender, Power, and Residential Schools in Central Siberia” (2005).

Cultural Anthropology has also published essays discussing food as cultural production. These include, Heather Paxson's “Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States” (2008); Mark Leichty's “Carnal Economies: The Commodification of Food and Sex in Kathmandu” (2005); and Carolyn Rouse & Janet Hoskins' “Purity, Soul Food, and Sunni Islam: Explorations at the Intersection of Consumption and Resistance” (2004).

About the Author

Nancy Ries is currently an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Peace & Conflict Studies at Colgate University. She is the chair of the Department of Sociology & Anthropology, and author of Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation during Perestroika (Cornell University Press, 1997).

Nancy Ries' Colgate University faculty profile

Interview with Nancy Ries

(June 17, 2009), Post-Soviet Potato.

Prof. Ries discusses the politics of 'potato' with Laurie Taylor of BBC Radio 4/The Open University's "Thinking Allowed" and John Reader, author of The Untold Story of Potato. Vintage: London (2009).

Links from the Essay

Argumenty i fakty

OpenDemocracy/Russsia: Life on the Poverty Line

Russsian Federation State Statistical Service (Goskomstat)

World Bank: Russia - Reducing poverty through growth and social policy reform

Yavlinsky, Grigory. (2002), Demodernization.


Organization Links

Center for Peasant Studies and Agrarian Reforms

Cornell-Eastern Europe-Mexico International Collaborative Project in Potatao Late Blight Control (CEEM)

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

Global Potato News

International Potato Center

International Year of the Potato 2008

Kroshka Kartoshka

The Potato Museum

World Potato Congress

Key References

Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Clark, Andy and David J. Chalmers. "The Extended Mind." Analysis 58(1998: 10-23.

Gaddy, Clifford G. Russia's Virtual Economy. Brookings Institution, 2008.

Gallagher, Catherine and Stephen Greenblatt. Practicing New Historicism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Giard, Luce. "The Nourishing Arts." In The Practice of Everyday Life, 2: Living and Cooking, ed. Michel de Certeau, Luce Giard, and Pierre Mayol. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

Mintz, Sidney W. and Christine M. Dubois. "The Anthropology of Food and Eating." Annual Review of Anthropology 31(2002):99-119.

Salaman, Redcliffe N. The History and Social Influence of the Potato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949.

Select Additional Works by Nancy Ries

Communal Living in Russia: A Virtual Museum of Soviet Everyday Life. Co-authored with Ilya Utekhin, Slava Paperno, and Alice Nakhimovsky. National Endowment for the Humanities Teaching and Learning Resources, 2006-2008.

"Everyday Comfort and Terror: Anthropology and Local Theory." New Literary History 33.4(2002), 725-742.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. What are examples of other 'cognitive resources' such as potato? How so? How does Ries' rendering of potato as a 'cognitive resource' differ from Karl Marx's rendering of shoes as a commodity?

2. Ries writes that the qualities that make potato beloved across cultures are also those that make it a tool of political leverage. Discuss the political implications of potato farming in contemporary Russia.

3. What does Ries mean by the 'science of frugality'? How does her ethnographic evidence suggest that this is less than an exact science?

4. How is 'potato' an economic contradiction? In this regard, what does Ries mean by 'primitivization'?

5. Discuss the iconic, indexical, and symbolic features of potato in contemporary postsocialist Russia.

6. What is 'potato time'? How do the temporal aspects of potato impinge upon the existential status of contemporary Russians?

7. Ries argues that 'potato' mediates a wide range of binaries and 'sits on the cusp between desperate hope and the terror of insecurity.' In what ways does Ries' analysis of 'potato' reveal fundamental tensions in Russian society?

8. The author poses the question: 'how do we become who we are?' How does her argument both explicitly and implicitly address this basic anthropological question? In what ways do you agree or disagree with her approach?

9. After viewing the video about the International Year of the Potato, consider how Ries' ethnographic study challenges and affirms the local and global dynamics of the potato?

10. Select a food item that is grown locally in your community. Using Ries' study as a model, explore your chosen food item as a 'cognitive resource.' Examine the ways in which 'a material thing can be an integral and integrating vehicle of social consciousness as well as consciousness of society.'

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