Normal People

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • Everything Was For Ever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation by Alexei Yurchak
    Princeton, 331 pp, £15.95, December 2005, ISBN 0 691 12117 6

If there is a prize for best title of the year, this book surely deserves it. Alexei Yurchak, a Russian-born, US-trained anthropologist, has written an interesting and provocative book about the way young Soviet Russians talked in the Brezhnev period and what they meant by what they said. For Yurchak, discourse is everything: there is no ‘real world’ outside the world we construct via language. He argues that socialism really existed in the Soviet Union because people not only talked the talk (as they had to do) but at some level actually believed it. He also proposes that the Soviet system collapsed when, and because, people stopped talking the talk: ‘Soviet late socialism provides a stunning example of how a dynamic and powerful social system can abruptly and unexpectedly unravel when the discursive conditions of its existence are changed.’

Anthropologists usually get their information by talking to people, but if the information you want is about the past this technique doesn’t work: by definition, Russians are not talking Soviet anymore. So Yurchak had to become a quasi-historian and look for documentation of past ways of talking, which he did quite ingeniously. It helped that he was a native Soviet speaker. ‘The last Soviet generation’ is Yurchak’s own, which means that the book, despite its disguise as Western theoretically-informed anthropology, has a submerged relationship to a favourite Russian genre, the ‘history of my generation’, non-confessional autobiography that tells the story of a milieu rather than a person.

But the disguise is heavy. Homi Bhabha, Claude Lefort, Slavoj Žižek, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Lacan, Tzvetan Todorov, Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler: an extraordinary range of theorists is included. Derrida, Bourdieu, Habermas, De Certeau and Althusser are not forgotten, and even Freud (though not Marx) makes it into the bibliography. We hear about Foucault on modernity, Chakrabarty on postcolonialism, Austin on performative language, Tassi on masks and Deleuze on the rhizome. We are instructed about deterritorialisation, hypernormalisation and manifest intertextuality. Sentences beginning ‘In a critical reading of Butler’s discussion of performativity, Saba Mahmood draws on Butler’s Foucauldian point’ may be left forever unfinished by some readers, perhaps unfairly, as the sentence in its entirety usually makes sense and has some relevance to Yurchak’s argument. As the profusion of luminaries suggests (and my list is only partial), Yurchak is not writing within a particular theoretical framework. Rather, he selects whatever serves to illustrate his own ideas and insights, which seems to me preferable to selecting a theoretical template and then finding data to fit it. Yurchak, in short, has something of his own to say; he just feels that he has to legitimate it by authoritative citation.

In any case, only the first hundred or so pages are truly weighed down by theory. The good stuff comes in the five chapters in which he deals with the conventions of Komsomol talk, alternative lifestyles, the imagined West, rock music and jokes. While part of Yurchak’s data comes from memoirs and post-Soviet recollections of the 1970s and 1980s, he is well aware of the problems with this type of source: at the best of times people backread current attitudes into the past, but in this case all the informants had just been through a revolution that cast their whole understanding of the past into question. So Yurchak looked for personal documents from the 1970s and 1980s: diaries, letters, written notes, drawings, jokes, slang, music recordings, amateur films. He got them partly by placing advertisements in newspapers, first in St Petersburg, then in Moscow and six provincial cities, asking people for ‘personal writings, diaries and correspondence’ to document ‘our feelings and experiences of the Soviet years’, and urging that ‘these … important historical documents … not be allowed to vanish’. Many people responded (Yurchak does not give any precise information), most of them in their thirties and forties, and most of them well-educated. Yurchak also had his own experiences and memories, though he rarely cites them directly and rejects the label of ‘native anthropologist’, given his fifteen years in the United States and his intellectual re-formation in an American graduate school.

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