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POTATO ONTOLOGY: Surviving Postsocialism in Russia



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.

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