Issue 152 expands upon a central topic for NLO: the anthropology of closed societies. In this instance, we concentrate on the Soviet project, which the authors of this issue examine through a number of case studies relating to various socio-political issues (such as the fate of the metaphor of the writer as an “engineer of human souls”), the fate of new media (from photography in the 1930s to television under Brezhnev), and of course, literature. The issue’s focus is the Brezhnev era — the subject of our opening selection of articles. Unlike the Stalin era, or even the “Thaw,” the Brezhnev years remain relatively under-examined in contemporary Slavic Studies. Nevertheless, we can uncover in this period the preconditions for the future post-Soviet condition and the intellectual and societal explosion that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Stagnation”? The Brezhnev Era 35 Years Later
Guest Editors Catriona Kelly and Albert Baiburin
These selected articles problematize the concept of “stagnation,” a period of Soviet history that has primarily been viewed as a time of predictability, stability, and monotony — a time when “nothing happened.” And yet, as shown in the articles collected here, this “stability” was more a slogan of the Soviet leadership than an objective description of events. This was a time of very significant and dramatic changes in political culture and social life (the effectiveness of these changes being a whole other question); a time of constant nervous strain and an acute fissure between official ideological dogmas and actual practices; a time when the boundaries between the public and private spheres were eroded, while the “indefinite territories” of semi-private, semi-social spaces were hotbeds not of dissidence per se, but of dissenting and nonconforming opinions among Soviet people who remained loyal in all other respects. This period — which was distinguished not by its “eventfulness,” but by its “devotion to everyday life,” which proved uncomfortable in its fixation on comfort, which was, moreover, “gray” and tense — evokes thoroughly mixed feelings. But this makes it all the more deserving of the reflection that the articles published here invite. This section is based on papers for the conference “‘Stagnation’? The Brezhnev Era 35 Years Later,” which took place at the European University in Saint Petersburg on 23–24 September 2016.
1. The Politics of Memory During the Brezhnev Period
Konstantin A. Bogdanov’s “Genre Art and Its Role in Communist Education” is devoted to the official Soviet reception of Socialist Realist artist Aleksandr Laktionov’s painting Into a New Flat (1952). If it was criticized right after its creation for its “excessive devotion to everyday life” and its departure from the representation of an ideal Soviet life, which appeared to threaten the tenets of Socialist Realism, in the 1970s the “anti-everyday” spirit of this criticism became much more muted, while Laktionov’s naturalist approach came to be perceived as one that could integrate and remove the contradictions of official ideological doctrine. In the Soviet art of the Brezhnev era, subject matter remained subordinate to ideology, as before, yet oversight of its pictorial and literary representation had diminished.
In “‘The Emperor Surveyed the City’: Surrealist Socialism and the Politics of Memory,” Jeanne Kormina discusses certain regional specialists and preservationists of historical and cultural monuments during the Brezhnev era who were, at first, entirely loyal to official Soviet policy but came to engage in a form of civic engagement that undermined it. There arose a regional politics of memory that was an alternative to the state version and became embodied in local commemorative practices, as a result of which collective memory retained even that which the Soviet political elite would have preferred to expunge. Through the example of the struggle between the local activists of the city Sverdlovsk to preserve the Ipatiev House — where Nicholas II and the rest of his household were executed in 1918 — and to preserve the memory of this historic event after the house’s demolition, the author shows how local social mechanisms of commemoration directly contradicted the policies of central authorities, and the initiatives of historic preservationists became aligned, to the surprise of the activists themselves, with the activities of monarchists among the Soviet elite.
2. Film of the “Stagnation” Period
Catriona Kelly’s “Period zapoya: Film-Making in Brezhnev-Era Leningrad” examines the history of the Lenfilm studio in the Brezhnev era (from the late 1960s to the early 1980s). After a variety of conflicts over films in production and removal from circulation of films already on release, the studio was considered ideologically suspect, but from the early 1970s, it was also subject to sanctions for financial mismanagement. At the same time, the creative process was always interpreted as a specific and distinctive form of production, not comparable with industrial manufacture in the normal sense. These contradictions were exemplified in the widespread interpretation of filmmaking as a kind of intoxication, whether metaphorically or in the most literal sense (cf. the evidence of alcohol use in the studio and especially on location). Alongside an exploration of film production and its links with consumption, the article examines the representational significance of alcohol in the cinema, particularly in the period after the passing of the 16 May 1972 statute on the fight with alcohol abuse. The article concludes that the anti-alcohol campaign also acted as a paradoxical incentive to the representation of drunkenness on screen, and more broadly, licensed the representation of social anomie in the cinema, which could be seen not as subversive, but as an enactment of government campaigns. It also looks at the counter-cultural importance of alcohol abuse and the ways in this facilitated a convergence of the preoccupations of so-called “official” and “unofficial” art.
In her “Risk and the End of History: Negotiating Uncertainty on Television and Film in the Brezhnev Era,” Christine E. Evans uses late Soviet television and film productions dealing with risk and chance as a lens on questions of ideological contradictions and change of the Brezhnev era. On the one hand, the promise of predictability and security which emerged during the Cold War, became increasingly central to Soviet propaganda efforts; on the other hand, the official recognition of risk and chance as a feature of Soviet life was also growing, while risk itself could emerge as a desirable quality due to reduced political violence, progressive legitimation of consumerism, and need for cultural play and self-expression. For Soviet television producers and filmmakers, this was a spur to reflection on the relationship between uncertainty and the Party’s millenarian promise. The possible negotiation strategies varied and included: parodying the rigidity of Marxist-Leninist millenarianism, celebrating the return of certain pre-Revolutionary configurations, the notion of game as a “general rehearsal for life” (V. Voroshilov) in a world ruled by pure chance, or seamless inscription of gambling into the promised good life of late Socialism. All this enables, it is concluded, the vision of late Soviet cultural life as not an era of stagnation, but of reinvention and innovation, in which the groundwork was laid for future change.
Victoria Donovan’s “Soviet Comedies of ‘Our Time’: Remakes in Twenty-First Century Russian Cinema” examines a number of remakes of classic Soviet comedies of the 1970s produced in the 2000–2010 period, and the audience reactions to these films. Brezhnev-era comedies, such as The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!, Office Romance, and Gentlemen of Fortune are revealed not only as constituent parts of a collective past, but as cultural objects that continue to function as a source of cultural identity in the post-Soviet period, despite the political, social and cultural changes that have taken place since 1991. The contemporary remakes of these films, which might be defined as hybrid forms — simultaneously “domestic” (i.e. produced within the same culture as the originals) and “cross-cultural” (adapted from a foreign culture) — have provoked extreme reactions in spectators who are not prepared for such a radical transformation of their collective memory.
Anthropology of the “Soviet”
By examining several cases from various periods of Soviet history, the articles in the section attempt to delineate the specific characteristic practices of the Soviet cultural formation. So, Victoriya Faybyshenko’s article traces the history of the prominent metaphor of the writer as an “engineer of human souls,” inscribing it in the broad context of Soviet subjectivity. Aleksandr Goncharenko examines how this new subject was constituted through material objects — for instance, through photography, the mention of which generally referred to “formalism” and naturalism. Finally, Ilya Kukulin examines the real-life prototypes of Vsevolod Kochetov’s novel, which has generally been received as a manifesto for the conservative, Stalinist forces of the 1960s. All these diverse subjects allow us to form a three-dimensional rendering of the distinguishing anthropological features of the Soviet project during various periods of its existence.
Victoriya Faybyshenko’s “From One Engineer of the Soul to Many: The History of a Fabrication” examines the phrase “engineers of human souls,” the foundational formula for constructing the Soviet author, as a result of successive semantic and pragmatic transformations. The probable source of this formula, which the author has discovered in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel À Rebours, allows us to perceive the development of the theme of engineering souls in the broad context of constructing modern subjectivity, which is associated with several aesthetic and political projects. The article traces the semantic transformation that this phrase underwent in various usages (Stalin, Mayakovsky, Olesha, Gorky) on its way to becoming an anonymous formula, as well as their correlations with the formation of “Soviet subjectivity.”
The section continues with Ilya Kukulin’s “A Bizarre Encounter: On the Influence of the Prototype for Portia Brown on Vsevolod Kochetov’s Novel What Do You Want Then?” Vsevolod Kochetov’s (1912–1973) novel What Do You Want Then? (1969) was perceived in the USSR and the West as a manifesto for far-right, neo-Stalinist forces. This opus was an extended lampoon of the “liberals of the sixties” — those poets and authors who, while maintaining quite conformist public behavior, strove to make the Soviet regime and Soviet literature more democratic and (in their view) contemporary. In this novel, Kochetov essentially accused the “liberals of the sixties” of being involuntary agents of the West. This article shows that Kochetov gathered information about the private lives of the “liberals of the sixties” from an unexpected source: the American reporter Patricia Blake’s articles in Encounter magazine. While working on this article, Blake met with many “liberals of the sixties” and separately with Kochetov. The poet Andrei Voznesensky has previously shown that Patricia Blake was the prototype for Portia Brown, the main negative heroine of Kochetov’s novel. This article also proposes to refine notions about the place occupied by the “roman à clef” in Soviet literature.
The literature-centrism of the Stalin era showed itself vividly in Soviet critics’ attitude toward photography. Images of photographs and film were frequently used to criticize Western writers and formalist/naturalist tendencies in Soviet art. Analyzing this corpus of criticism, Aleksandr Goncharenko’s “Photography as a Metaphor for the Absence of Ideology in the Arts in Socialist Realist Criticism of the 1930s” tentatively identifies three groups. The first group consists of articles about the photograph-like writing of foreign authors (Dos Passos, Aldington, Joyce) in the late 1920s through the first half of the 1930s. The second group of materials was published during this same period, and it was provoked by the struggle against formalism, especially against positions taken by Novyi Lef and Litfront. The third group of materials was produced during the campaign against naturalism initiated by the Party press in early 1936.
Constructing the “Soviet” in Children’s Literature
Oleg Lekmanov’s and Mikhail Sverdlov’s “The Menagerie in Kornei Chukovsky and Soviet Children’s Poets in the 1920s—1930s” examines the development and disappearance of the tendencies established by Korney Chukovsky’s poem The Crocodile in books of children’s poetry about the zoo in the 1920s —
1930s. As this subgenre develops, one can discern in the 1920s — 1930s a gradual abatement of the revolutionary codes established by Chukovsky’s “Crocodile” and a transition from the 1920s concept of “zoo as theater” to the concept of “zoo as school” active in the 1930s and later. These observations are made with reference to Samuil Marshak’s Kids in Cages in various editions, as well as books about the zoo by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sergey Shervinsky, Boris Pasternak, Sofia Fedorchenko, and others.
Children’s literature is often used a channel for transmitting moral norms and values, i.e., as an educational channel. As part of such an instrumental approach, certain specific functions (in Propp’s sense) formed in children’s literature as elements for constructing a narrative. These motive functions are normativity and sanction. In his “The Function of Sanction in Soviet Children’s Literature,” Sergey Troitskiy also proposes to identify as subjects performing these functions the source of normativity, the instance of normativity, the source of sanction, and the instance of sanction. Using several of Korney Chukovsky’s fairy tales as examples, this article describes in detail a proposed approach to examining works of children’s literature.
Klavdia Smola’s “Chekhov’s Text and Rhetoric of Knowledge in His Time” analyzes rhetoric in Chekhov’s prose as a discursive reflection of the intellectual era in which he lived. Drawing upon an analysis of the poetics of culture practiced by the New Historicism school, in the words of Chekhov’s characters and narrators, the author examines a number of epistemological discourses that were pressing at the time: biographical examples of scientific and medical altruism; the cult of asceticism, which in the 1860s had spread from religion into non-noble intellectual everyday life; Darwinism, which re-popularized the character of the intellectual standing before the dilemma of “faith” vs. “science”; etc. They all refer to the period of the last third of the 19th century, when, in many respects, literature acquired the status of an intellectual “craft” related to publishing, journalism, and ethnography, and serving different areas of knowledge. Thus, Chekhov’s declaration of a new responsibility for the word found parallels in the general intellectual phenomena of the era: the increase of the influence of science and medicine in the humanities, as well as the importance of philosophical movements focused on science.
Viktor Krivulin: The Leningrad Underground Revisited
This thematic section is devoted to one of the major poets and leaders of Leningrad’s unofficial culture, Viktor Krivulin (1944–2001). It opens with Grigory Benevich’s article “On the Composition, Formation, and Spirit of Viktor Krivulin’s First Book of Poems,” which studies — on the basis of not only the poet’s print and online publications, but also his typewritten samizdat collections — those characteristics of Viktor Krivulin’s poetics that are connected to the character of his development as a poet and the principles of how he organized the corpus of his texts. A posthumously published collection of notes by B.I. Ivanov, “‘Eleven Lines’ that Exploded Viktor Krivulin’s ‘Culturological Project,’” discusses Viktor Krivulin’s very important essay of self-commentary “A Noontime Eleven Lines in Length,” published in the samizdat journal Chasy (1977, No. 9), which has not previously come into the attention of researchers. A close reading of this essay allows B.I. Ivanov — another central figure of the Leningrad underground and one of the founders of Club 81 — to draw conclusions about the paradigmatic shift that occurred in the poet’s mindset and aims in the latter half of the 1970s, a shift that influenced both his own close associates and the further development of the unofficial scene in Leningrad as a whole. This section concludes with an article by Thomas Epstein dedicated to the poet’s (underrated) only experimental novel,
which the American researcher regards as the crowning text of Soviet (Russian) underground literature.
Book as Event
Victor Lapitski. Having Come to the Wasteland (Nun komm der heiden Heiland) [Novel] Saint Petersburg: Pal’mira; Moscow: Knigi po trebovaniiu, 2017. 383 pp.
This section introduces Victor Lapitski’s novel, which was written in 1983–1986, but on account of its radicalness has remained concealed all these years and has only now been published. Critics, translators, and writers discuss various aspects of this radicalness, from the novel’s Babel-like multilingualism to its prescient understanding of how new media affects the contemporary human. The contributors are Sergei Fokin, Aleksei Shestakov, Aleksander Ulanov, Elena Kostyleva, Aleksander Zhitenev, Aleksander Markov, and Valerii Kislov.
The Bibliography section contains reviews of the latest literature in the humanities field. In the “Chronicle of Scholarly Life,” one can find summaries of several conferences during 2017.