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Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex, and Society since Gorbachev

Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex, and Society since Gorbachev

by Adele Marie Barker

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With the collapse of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s, the Russian social landscape has undergone its most dramatic changes since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, turning the once bland and monolithic state-run marketplace into a virtual maze of specialty shops—from sushi bars to discotheques and tattoo parlors. In Consuming Russia editor Adele Marie


With the collapse of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s, the Russian social landscape has undergone its most dramatic changes since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, turning the once bland and monolithic state-run marketplace into a virtual maze of specialty shops—from sushi bars to discotheques and tattoo parlors. In Consuming Russia editor Adele Marie Barker presents the first book-length volume to explore the sweeping cultural transformation taking place in the new Russia.
The contributors examine how the people of Russia reconcile prerevolutionary elite culture—as well as the communist legacy—with the influx of popular influences from the West to build a society that no longer relies on a single dominant discourse and embraces the multiplicities of both public and private Russian life. Barker brings together Russian and American scholars from anthropology, history, literature, political science, sociology, and cultural studies. These experts fuse theoretical analysis with ethnographic research to analyze the rise of popular culture, covering topics as varied as post-Soviet rave culture, rock music, children and advertising, pyramid schemes, tattooing, pets, and spectator sports. They consider detective novels, anecdotes, issues of feminism and queer sexuality, nostalgia, the Russian cinema, and graffiti. Discussions of pornography, religious cults, and the deployment of Soviet ideological symbols as post-Soviet kitsch also help to demonstrate how the rebuilding of Russia’s political and economic infrastructure has been influenced by its citizens’ cultural production and consumption.
This volume will appeal to those engaged with post-Soviet studies, to anyone interested in the state of Russian society, and to readers more generally involved with the study of popular culture.

Adele Marie Barker, Eliot Borenstein, Svetlana Boym, John Bushnell, Nancy Condee, Robert Edelman, Laurie Essig, Julia P. Friedman, Paul W. Goldschmidt, Judith Deutsch Kornblatt, Anna Krylova, Susan Larsen, Catharine Theimer Nepomnyaschy, Theresa Sabonis-Chafee, Tim Scholl, Adam Weiner, Alexei Yurchak, Elizabeth Kristofovich Zelensky

Editorial Reviews

Nina C. Ayoub
[Eighteen] essayists...explore... jolts in the landscape of post-Soviet popular culture....[T]he writers consider topics from rock music and religious cults, to jokes, sports, and tattooing, to pornography, pyramid schemes, and pet care. A recurrent theme is the changing ideological value of symbols.
Chronicle of Higher Education
From the Publisher
“An invaluable key to reading the cultural salad of today’s Russia, useful to students as well as to their teachers. Barbie dolls, detective fiction, raves and the gay scene, tattoos and graffiti, even an Argentine soap opera that advertises a pyramid scheme: Consuming Russia is great as a classroom text and as a guidebook to the changing face of popular culture.”—James von Geldern, Macalester College

“This volume on post-Soviet Russian culture is noteworthy for its range and critical edge. The authors comment on the impact of Western productions and practices, as well as the reformulation of longstanding Russian traditions. Adele Barker is to be congratulated. From rock and sport to film and popular literature, here is a cook’s tour of the sad, curious, and sometimes marvelous carnival of post-Soviet public expression.”—Jeffrey Brooks, Johns Hopkins University

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Consuming Russia

Popular Culture, Sex, and Society Since Gorbachev

By Adele Marie Barker

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9641-3




Sometime in the spring of 1993, I had occasion to spend more than an hour in a cab with a Moscow taxi driver hurling and honking his way through the streets in our mutual quest for an address that had been given to me. After an hour of precipitous stops—as the driver leaned out, hailed passersby, asked for directions, and engaged in protracted discussions over how to find the elusive address—we arrived at our destination, only to have the embarrassed driver confess that he knew all along where the address was and would have gotten us there sooner if only the "bastards" at the top hadn't changed the names of all the streets in Moscow.

This taxi ride suggests the kinds of disorienting surface changes that abound in post-Soviet society. Streets metamorphose, their "old" familiar revolutionary names giving way to even older, less familiar names from the prerevolutionary past. Billboards advertise everything from the laundry delights of Prokter i Gembl to dzhinsy Wrangler or Levi-Strauss. A cathedral erected to celebrate Russia's victory over Napoleon, then subsequently blown up in 1931 to make room for Stalin's Palace of Soviets but turned instead into a swimming pool, now rises again out of the cavernous mass that once housed the pool. Oddly inappropriate buildings—office high-rises, a neighborhood Orthodox church, and a McDonalds—eye each other uncomfortably on property once state owned, now privatized. And living spaces—once communal and scarcely able to contain those who dwelt within them—now squeeze out their former inhabitants as the New Russians remodel and renovate this former domestic territory. The geographic and physical landscapes of urban Russia today—ruptured, defamiliarized, jolting to the eye and to other senses as well—speak of other kinds of displacements and permutations at work, this time in the cultural landscape of the new Russia. These dislocations may best be summed up by Anna Krylova in her chapter in this volume on Soviet and post-Soviet anecdotes ("Saying 'Lenin' and Meaning 'Party': Subversion and Laughter in Soviet and Post-Soviet Society"): Krylova recounts an evening in 1994 spent at a performance of Erofeev's play Moskva-Petushki, a play she had first seen in 1988. Returning to Russia after six years, she sat in the audience and noticed that something had changed. "The audience was laughing, but it was not laughing the way I remembered it, expected it, and wanted it to laugh. But," she adds, "I [myself] did not know when to laugh."

I begin my introduction to this volume on popular culture, sex, and society since Gorbachev with these two moments from post-Soviet life because they represent the enormous changes that have taken place in Russian society and culture over the past ten years and the kinds of questions we need to ask about these changes. Like the construction sites themselves, which seem to throw together past and present, disparate styles, or no style at all, so too does the new cultural landscape of Russia present itself as an indecipherable and sometimes impenetrable maze of everything from high fashion to rave clubs, from sushi parlors to shi-shi dog-grooming studios, at once imitative and original, and all reflective of the new popular culture that is emerging in this newly emerging nation.

The transformative changes that have taken hold of Russian society since the mid-1980s, unprecedented as anything that has occurred in that country since the Bolshevik Revolution, have brought with them a restructuring not only of the political and economic landscape but of cultural life as well. One of the most obvious changes in the life of the nation has been the emergence of a new popular culture: new kinds of TVprogramming, pulp fiction, cruising strips, and tattoo parlors. Like Russia itself, this new popular culture finds itself torn between its own heritage and that of the West, between its revulsion with the past and its nostalgic desire to re-create the markers of it, between the lure of the lowbrow and the pressures to return to the elitist prerevolutionary past.

The contributors to this volume have attempted to navigate through the maze of popular culture in the new Russia. Although there are numerous areas in which the popular has made its mark, not all could be included in this volume. Much remains to be done, for example, on the relationship between structures of ownership and control of culture in post-Soviet Russia, on fashion, reading habits, and popular culture in the rural areas—to name just a few—that for reasons of space could not be included. The chapters that do appear here raise some of the most salient questions regarding popular culture in contemporary Russia: How, for example, are Russians negotiating cultural stereotypes from their past in the production of this new culture? How have notions of the public and the private realm changed? What is the relationship between the producers and consumers of this culture and between elitist and popular culture in post-Soviet society? And finally, to what extent are Western paradigms applicable to both the production and the study of this culture? Many of the issues raised here may serve as a guide to research in other areas of the popular culture boom in Russia today. For example, Eliot Borenstein's insights on the new religious cults ("Suspending Disbelief") might serve as a framework within which to examine alternative realities and the UFOcraze in Russia today; Nancy Condee's analysis of tattooing the postcommunist body ("Body Graphics"), Laurie Essig's chapter ("Publicly Queer"), and my own chapter ("Going to the Dogs") might provide an entree for those wishing to study configurations of public and private in postcommunist Russia.

This volume is divided into sections dealing with popular culture, sexualities, society, and social artifacts. Just as studies of popular culture examine how culture, gender, economics, and national identity come together in the formation of culture, a similar kind of weaving is at work between the various chapters in this volume. Although Alexei Yurchak's "Gagarin and the Rave Kids" and Theresa Sabonis-Chafee's "Communism as Kitsch" appear in different sections, both are engaged with patterns of consumption in the transition from the Soviet to the post-Soviet state, specifically with what happens when certain signs and symbols lose their ideological value in the new order. Similarly, Julia Friedman and Adam Weiner's "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," which explores the nationalistic strain among some Russian rockers today, and Essig's "Publicly Queer" both look at issues pertinent to the construction of identity. Essig argues that the notion of identity as it is understood in the West is simply not applicable to queer life in Russia today, which she sees as being more accurately defined as a set of subjectivities. Similarly, Friedman and Weiner explore the desire among certain Russian rockers not only to move explicitly away from any identification with the West but to find a way to negotiate the Russian past, which, in the authors' words, is simultaneously rock's "saving grace and deadliest temptation." Similarly, the complex and not easily resolvable issue of the past—where to put it, how to think about it—is fundamental to several chapters, notably Friedman and Weiner's chapter, Larsen's "In Search of an Audience," Boym's "From the Toilet to the Museum," Bushnell's "Paranoid Graffiti at Execution Wall," Judith Kornblatt's "Christianity, Antisemitism, Nationalism," and Eliot Borenstein's "Suspending Disbelief."

This volume is both descriptive and theoretical. It is an attempt both to chart some of the manifestations of a newly emerging popular culture and to understand how this new culture is informed by models from both past and present, from both within and without. In Chapter 2, "The Culture Factory," I look at what happens to Western theories of popular culture transplanted onto Russian soil. Western culture critics continue to debate the precise nature of the relationship between elite culture and popular culture, a question complicated by the fact that popular culture is often produced by an elite class for the benefit of the masses. And thus this phenomenon potentially raises the question of whether the production of that culture becomes a form of social control. I trace the evolving history of the relationship between elite and popular within Soviet society and examine one of the fundamental premises to the study of popular culture in the West—the concept of everyday life—and how that concept is nuanced differently for those who lived under Soviet rule and those in the West who study Soviet society. Specifically, I suggest that the ambiguous nature of the public-private dichotomy in Soviet history is still a felt presence in post-Soviet life, pointing to the often complex interaction between older social and cultural patterns and the popular culture of today. Indeed, any study of TV viewing habits in the new Russia would have to take account of this public and private dyad. Television viewing in early post-Soviet society is exposing domestic spaces—Russian and foreign—to the public sphere. The average post-Soviet viewer is being treated vicariously to people's private lives, an area Soviet citizens protected zealously precisely because the state implicitly condoned intrusion into those lives through its infamous system of donosy (denunciations).

The chapters in part 2 are all concerned in some way with what Dick Hebdige defines as "a set of generally available artifacts," under which he includes films, music, TV programs, pulp fiction, jokes, and so on. Within the Russian context those artifacts would be those pastimes and forms of entertainment generally available to the average Russian today in the urban areas.

Several of the chapters in this section take up the production and consumption of culture since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although not market based, the Soviet Union was nevertheless a consumer society. What was produced was ideology; what was consumed was some portion thereof, depending on the degree to which the average Soviet identified with the ideology and the degree to which the ideology happened to match the needs of the people at various times. Ideology had its own reklamy (advertisements) in the form of billboards heralding larger-than-life figures engaged in the process of moving the country into the "radiant future" (svetloe budushchee ). But there .are differences, and very important ones, between Soviet and post-Soviet society in matters of consumption. Most important is the fact that the Soviet Union was not a monied economy. Although people had money—some a great deal more than others—privilege, not money, was the determinant of power. And that privilege was predicated on whom one knew and, in the case of Russia's writers, on the traditionally semisanctified role of the Russian writer. In "Markets, Mirrors, and Mayhem," Catharine Nepomnyashchy discusses what happens to the writer's, and more specifically the female writer's, authority as the traditional role of the Russian writer is supplanted by the market. These differences between Soviet and post-Soviet society are crucial in understanding the situation that the hapless Russian television viewer faced in the summer of 1994, as narrated by Eliot Borenstein in "Public Offerings: MMM and the Marketing of Melodrama." Borenstein recounts the infamous MMM scandal that mesmerized all of Russia in the summer of 1994. MMM was just one of many pyramid schemes that came into being in Eastern Europe and Russia between 1990 and 1994 (the largest and perhaps most outrageous by all accounts being the infamous Caritas scheme in Romania), set up ostensibly to help the beleaguered citizens of these countries survive the transition from a socialist to a market economy by multiplying depositors' funds within a matter of months. MMM was not just another pyramid scheme. One of its distinctive features was the way characters in soap operas were used to entice the Russian viewer to invest, promising her new furniture, trips, and even romance. Borenstein explores what happened when Russian viewers, formerly such astute readers of party ideology, allowed themselves to become not only the TV viewers but the partners and even the coauthors of a narrative that most failed to read correctly.

Issues of how products and the ideologies they implicitly advertise are marketed in the new Russia are also taken up by Elizabeth Zelensky in "Popular Children's Culture in Post-Perestroika Russia." Zelensky focuses her attention on how Russia's children are negotiating their way through the maze of new consumer products and integrating models from their own past with the Americanized life around them. The effect of the transformative economic and social changes on Russia's children is far from clear. Recent studies have shown that children are among the biggest consumers of TV and billboard ads in Russia. Slogans from the ads have crept into the language of the youth subculture, a fact the older generation finds extremely worrisome and which has increased nationalistic sentiment among them as they respond to the increasing Americanization of Russia and Russian values. My chapter "Going to the Dogs" looks at the new pet culture not only as an example of what has happened to traditional notions of public and private in the new Russia but at what happens when economics transforms popular culture from a potential site of resistance back into the domain of elitist culture.

One of the underlying tensions in Russian popular culture today, no less than in other forms of post-Soviet life, is the still unresolved relationship with the Soviet and prerevolutionary past. Alexei Yurchak's "Gagarin and the Rave Kids" is an anthropologist's view of how Russia's youth, particularly its rock groups and the organizers of its nightlife, have been negotiating the disappearance of what he calls "the cultural logic of late socialism." Yurchak sees cultural production in postcommunist Russia as being framed by a "symbolic creativity" within which many of the traditional Soviet symbols, such as that of the cosmonaut Yury Gagarin, have been lifted out of the context of Soviet ideology and made to seem relevant to a youth culture for whom the figure of Gagarin is ideologically meaningless.

Anna Krylova's chapter, "Saying 'Lenin' and Meaning 'Party'," like Yurchak's, examines how forms of resistance come about and what happens when a cultural artifact such as a joke ceases to circulate as oppositional discourse and enters the "free marketplace of ideas." Both Krylova and Yurchak identify moments in Soviet life during which Soviet citizens operated simultaneously within official and nonofficial cultures, thus suggesting that in Russia, as in the West, the origins of countercultures often lie within authoritative and dominant discourses. Nancy Condee's "Body Graphics: Tattooing the Fall of Communism" similarly looks at what happens when the symbolic import of nonofficial culture falls away. Condee traces the fate of the symbolic designs of skin decoration in light of the disappearance from post-Soviet life of the social and political context within which they were once produced. She argues that tattooing in Russia has changed to reflect people's reappropriation of their bodies from state control. Theresa Sabonis-Chafee looks at how the past has carved out a place for itself in the Nostalgia bank of postcommunist culture through the symbols of communist kitsch, most of which are happily consumed by thepostcommunist consumer. John Bushnell provides another take on this tension between past and present in "Paranoid Graffiti at Execution Wall," which details how the old Russian custom of creating martyrs for the cause is reflected in the transition to the new order. Similarly, Robert Edelman, in "There Are No Rules on Planet Russia," suggests that post-Soviet sport is still as much a contested terrain as it was under communism, although it is no longer the party vying for control of that terrain with the people, but rather a struggle between various members of the newly emerging elites. In a slightly different take on this relationship between the post-Soviet present and the Soviet past, Svetlana Boym, in "From the Toilet to the Museum," explores the dialectic between past and present in postcommunist Russia by asking what happens when an artist such as Ilya Kabakov begins to tamper with nostalgia and collective forgetting and alters the popular narrative of nostalgia.


Excerpted from Consuming Russia by Adele Marie Barker. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Adele Marie Barker is Associate Professor of Russian and Comparative Cultural and Literary Studies at the University of Arizona. She is the author of The Mother Syndrome in the Russian Folk Imagination and coeditor of Dialogues/Dialogi: Literary and Cultural Exchanges between (Ex)Soviet and American Women, also published by Duke University Press.

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