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.

His inquiry starts from the premise so eloquently expressed in his title: that to Soviet citizens, the Soviet system seemed unchanging and eternal – until it suddenly disappeared. ‘Although the system’s collapse had been unimaginable before it began, it appeared unsurprising when it happened.’ That is the book’s initial paradox. During the perestroika period, many of his informants reported experiencing ‘a sudden “break of consciousness” and “stunning shock” … quickly followed by excitement and readiness to participate in the transformation’. Strangely enough, this epiphany did not typically occur in a public setting, or in response to some dramatic event. It usually took place while reading, and resulted in more reading. Perestroika, which made possible the publication of all sorts of hitherto inaccessible work, from the religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev to George Orwell and Nabokov, is described by Yurchak as primarily a ‘discursive deconstruction’ of the late Soviet system. He in turn wants to look at discourse – both the formal discourse of newspaper editorials and politicians’ speeches and the way ‘normal people’ talked in public and to each other – to explain his opening paradox.

Yurchak is critical of Western scholarship’s assumption that everything in the Soviet Union was ‘bad’ and ‘immoral’, and so regarded by its citizens; that Soviet citizens were brainwashed into believing what ‘the regime’ taught them; and that those who rejected Soviet discourse were substituting ‘truth’ for ‘lies’. He also dislikes the idea that Soviet culture was strictly divided into ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’, public and private, and that people used distinct voices, languages and value systems in the two contexts. Yurchak isn’t keen on ‘binaries’. But it’s more than a binary that makes him dislike the idea that Soviet-style socialism ‘was based on a complex web of immoralities’. As he sees it, socialism (in the way Soviet Russians understood it) was a moral system, and it was alive and surprisingly well in the late Soviet period. According to his informants, the socialist value system, which people regarded as both theirs and Soviet, embraced such fundamental values and ideals as ‘equality, community, selflessness, altruism, friendship, ethical relations, safety, education, work, creativity and concern for the future’. His informants didn’t of course think that these values were fully and consistently expressed, either in everyday life or in official ideological pronouncements, which they often found boring and formalistic. Igor, a provincial Komsomol organiser in the late 1970s, despised the Komsomol’s ‘tedious formalism’ yet he felt ‘personally invested in what he saw as its collective ethos and concern for the common good’; his parents were both doctors, and he saw the government’s basic concern as ‘caring for people, free hospitals, good education’. Mikhail, similarly, ‘had always thought’ that the ‘actual idea’ of socialism was ‘profoundly correct and that this was how things should be … I had realised,’ he said, ‘that there were distortions … But I thought that if we managed to get rid of them everything would be great.’

A key term in Yurchak’s analysis is ‘authoritative discourse’, which for the lay reader means something like ‘the Party line’. For theorists, it is a Bakhtinian concept used to describe discourse that has a special autonomous status, independent of other discourses, which have no power to ‘interfere with its code and change it’ but must ‘refer to it, quote it, praise it, interpret it, apply it’; authoritative discourse, consequently, is experienced as something that can’t be questioned, as immutable. Once upon a time, Yurchak says, it was considered important that people stick to the substance as well as the rhetoric of the Party line. But by the post-Stalin period all that had changed: ‘the performative dimension of authoritative discourse started to play a much greater role than its constative dimension’ – i.e. all that mattered was using the right form of words. Soviet authoritative language was formal, stilted and highly stylised. It involved frequent quotation, not just from the masters of Marxism-Leninism, but also from itself; often whole blocks of language were borrowed from one authoritative text for use in another. Certain constructions became obligatory; argument had to be structured in a certain way; particular nouns had their own correct adjectives.

This was the language not just of newspapers and ideological pronouncements but of public life at all levels, and its clichés found their way (often with ironic and parodic inflections) into informal Soviet talk as well. Sometimes, as we know, people resented having to reproduce Soviet authoritative discourse. But Yurchak shows – and this is one of his original and useful contributions – that they often enjoyed it, for its rhetorical élan when performed straight or in the equally popular parody version. Masha, a high-school Komsomol committee member in Kaliningrad in the mid-1980s, fell in love with authoritative discourse early on (‘Even as a child I was always impressed by such serious and unclear phraseology’) and learned to reproduce it so well that ‘often I would be unable to explain what I wrote in my own words.’

Authoritative discourse had to be used in any official context, from a Pravda editorial to a district Komsomol meeting or a school essay on Lenin. This meant that everybody had to master it, and one of Yurchak’s questions is why and in what spirit they did this. While even Komsomol secretaries often regarded reproduction of the discourse as empty formalism, Yurchak believes that this did not imply complete cynicism and indifference to socialist ideology, for it was possible – indeed, normal – to make a mental separation between ritual and values. The question, ‘Do you support the resolution?’, which always had to be answered affirmatively, had nothing to do with substance; according to Yurchak, its real meaning was: ‘Are you the kind of people who understand that the norms and rules of the current ritual need to be performatively reproduced?’ When local Komsomol secretaries appealed to others to fulfil ritual requirements (attend meetings, vote for resolutions, turn out for parades), their appeal was often based on friendship and group solidarity: in effect, ‘Don’t make waves so that we can all have a quiet life and/or get on with the things we really want to do.’

Although in theory all Komsomol officers were ‘activists’, by the late Soviet period the term was reserved in ordinary speech for the minority of enthusiasts whose insistence on literal reading of content as well as strict observance of form was an embarrassment to the Komsomol majority, who considered themselves ‘normal people’ – neither ‘activists’ nor ‘dissidents’. ‘Dissidents’ were even more of a minority than activists; in fact, hardly any ‘normal people’ ever met a real dissident, although they knew about them from the newspapers. They did, however, know a few individuals with dissident inclinations (dissidentstvuiushchie), and generally perceived them to be sick people, with ‘a screw loose’.

A good deal of Yurchak’s story has to do with alternative lifestyles, fascination with the West, rock music and jokes: late Soviet phenomena that scholars often put in the category of ‘resistance’. Yurchak dislikes this idea because it involves a ‘them’ and ‘us’ binary and implies that rock enthusiasts and joke-tellers were necessarily anti-Soviet. In his view, Soviet structures not only tolerated but actually ‘enabled’ such informal activities. He points out that some of the distinctive milieux that emerged in the late Soviet period – the privileged world of Dubna’s theoretical physicists, for example – were generously supported by the state. ‘Authoritative discourse’ encouraged interest in the West in some contexts and discouraged it in others. Some foreign broadcasts were jammed even as (state) production of shortwave radios soared, along with that of tape-recorders (magnitofony), which made possible the rapid nationwide dissemination of Western pop.

This argument is generally convincing, though it shouldn’t be pushed too far. With regard to jokes (anekdoty), it’s true that in the great age of joke-telling from the 1960s to the late 1980s, there were a few jokes about dissidents to offset the thousands of ‘anti-Soviet’ jokes, and true, too, that many of the jokes about the quirks of Soviet life were not ‘anti-Soviet’ in the way Westerners thought, being wryly directed against ‘us’ rather than bitterly against ‘them’ (the regime). No doubt Yurchak is right, too, to reject the crude assumption that any young adult who wanted to play Red Indians in an imagined American West (a weird fantasy game of the 1980s and early 1990s described by the anthropologist Jennifer Rayport Rabodzeenko) or spend all day talking philosophy in Leningrad’s Café Saigon was ipso facto rejecting socialism and the Soviet regime, or indeed making any kind of political comment. Yet it’s not unreasonable to regard dropping out as a kind of resistance – as in the ‘boiler room’ phenomenon, in which young people gave up professional careers in favour of jobs as watchmen, loaders and street-sweepers so as to have more time to pursue their intellectual and cultural interests unimpeded. ‘Enabled’ may be too active a verb for the role that official Soviet institutions and discourse played in the proliferation of new ideas and practices in the late Soviet period; I would say that these developed, as Frederick Starr put it, in the ‘interstices’ of official structures. Working with the monolithic concept of ‘authoritative discourse’, Yurchak is too inclined to make a monolith of Soviet institutions. Where there was simultaneous official discouragement and encouragement, this was often because one Soviet institution discouraged while another (whether because of policy disagreement or simple lack of attention) did the opposite.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book, and the one that best illustrates Yurchak’s thesis that people who responded to the new in the late Soviet period were not necessarily rejecting what they understood as socialism, is the one about rock music. Rock was often condemned as a degenerate Western import in Soviet authoritative discourse (Yurchak publishes in its entirety a wonderful official document from 1985 listing various pop groups whose songs were ‘ideologically harmful’ in various ways: the Sex Pistols – ‘punk, violence’; Pink Floyd – ‘distortion of Soviet foreign policy’; Tina Turner – ‘sex’ and so on). But the ‘last Soviet generation’ fell in love with rock. ‘Normal people’, including local Komsomol officers, often did not take the official condemnation seriously; and Soviet institutions often ‘enabled’ the craze by providing venues for rock concerts. The interesting point that emerges from Yurchak’s data is how firmly some enthusiasts rejected the idea that rock and Soviet values were incompatible, and how unworried they were when ideologists said the opposite. Andrei, a Komsomol secretary in Leningrad, believed in socialism – he retrospectively described his gradual loss of belief in the late 1980s as his ‘personal tragedy’ – but accepted only part of the official position on bourgeois popular culture (he agreed that capitalism tended to commodify art, but not that rock was evil or anti-Soviet) and was an enthusiastic organiser of rock concerts. Alexandr from Novosibirsk said that ‘the building of Communism is the task of my life,’ yet regularly bought rock records on the black market with no sense of incongruity. For him, as for many of his generation, rock was a gateway to ‘deep truths’ as well as an avant-garde aesthetic perfectly compatible with Communism, with its orientation towards the future. Told that a Soviet professor of aesthetics considered rock trivial, Alexandr responded (using impeccable SovietSpeak in a private letter to a friend) that she must be a ‘dogmatist’ without vision or imagination who ‘lagged behind’ his generation.

Yurchak’s general theory about the enabling function of authoritative discourse becomes clearer when we look at the case that may be closest to his heart, its reproduction in a particular genre of absurdist humour known by the slang word styop (stiob in Yurchak’s American transliteration, but the English version is truer to pronunciation: a crisp one-syllable styop). Styop, a late Soviet product, was ‘a peculiar form of irony that differed from sarcasm, cynicism, derision, or any of the more familiar genres of absurd humour. It required such a degree of overidentification with the object, person or idea at which [it] was directed that it was often impossible to tell whether it was a form of sincere support, subtle ridicule, or a peculiar mixture of the two.’ Styop was often used to comic effect in private correspondence, mock-formal invitations and so on. It became famous, at least in avant-garde circles, through its deployment by a Slovene rock group, Laibach, and a Russian one, AVIA (Yurchak was once its manager). Laibach’s specialty was to overidentify with the ‘serious, heroic, and slightly terrifying part of Communist symbolism’, mixing this with some Nazi ‘Blut und Boden’ symbols, but in a way that was more suggestive of punk than politics. AVIA drew on specifically Soviet imagery: in its ‘performances up to twenty actors in workers’ overalls fervently marched in columns, shouted slogans and “hurray”, and built human pyramids. In the role of “young builders of Communism” they looked so cheerfully zealous that sometimes it all verged on insanity.’ Some people thought AVIA pro-Soviet, others anti, but in Yurchak’s opinion both were wrong. What can confidently be said is that AVIA – like the omnipresent anekdoty of the Brezhnev period – was a deeply Soviet phenomenon in the sense that without Soviet authoritative discourse it couldn’t have existed.

Does all this help to explain Yurchak’s initial paradox? Yes, insofar as he shows how an increasingly detached way of reproducing authoritative discourse could prepare the ground for an apparently sudden repudiation of it. But does his argument really work? Perhaps, as he would have it, the Soviet collapse was a totally hermetic, circular process whereby ‘the more the immutable forms of the system’s authoritative discourse were reproduced everywhere, the more the system was experiencing a profound internal displacement … Reproducing the system and participating in its continuous internal displacement were mutually constitutive.’ Yet the perestroika that Gorbachev initiated was surely an intervention, not part of a circular process; and one would have to be very committed to a belief in the ‘primacy of language’ to accept the notion that the ‘profound internal displacement’ within the Soviet system that led to its collapse had only discursive causes.

Yurchak doesn’t so much argue the idealist case as take it for granted: untypically, he fails even to cite theoretical authority for his position. The reason, perhaps, is that the primacy of language is one of the givens of the postmodern theory in which he was educated at graduate school. Or, to put it another way, it is the cornerstone of the Western academic ‘authoritative discourse’ of postmodernism. I found Yurchak’s explication of authoritative discourse quite illuminating in this context, as well as the Soviet one. To understand postmodernism’s obsessive habits of citation and intertextuality, its esoteric lexicon and striking deference to authority – to grasp why, to paraphrase Bakhtin, it is imperative always to refer to the canonical theoretical works, quote them, praise them, interpret them and apply them – we clearly need a theoretical paradigm that has so far been lacking. Take Masha, the Komsomol leader with an aptitude for Soviet authoritative language who ‘memorised a lot of phraseology and learned how to create special constructions instead of the ordinary ones used in everyday language’. Consciously or not, she was seeking both to bond with the community of users of this particular authoritative discourse (the Soviet equivalent of the Masonic handshake) and to appropriate some of the mysterious power of the ritual itself:

by meticulously citing these multiple levels of authoritative form, from concrete phrases and words, to structural principles, temporal modalities, and voices, Masha gained access to Bourdieu’s ‘delegated power of the spokesperson’. The more faithful the language of her speeches and reports was to the authoritative form, the more she inhabited the position of ‘authorised spokesperson’ of the ideological institution and therefore the more she was endowed with its ‘delegated’ power.

Without labouring the analogy between Masha’s deployment of authoritative discourse in one world and Yurchak’s in another, it may be helpful to turn once again to Yurchak’s useful concept of styop. Yurchak’s work might be considered a styop tour de force, a performance in which mastery of Postmodern discourse wins admiration regardless of content, were it not for the fact that the book is full of new and interesting ideas. Styop is the wrong idiom for that, and Yurchak is doing himself and his readers a disservice by so extravagantly wrapping his message in theory. At the risk of intertextual ambiguity, I cannot resist a final word of advice: styop it.