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Indiana University Press
Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow

Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow

by Olga Shevchenko


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In this ethnography of postsocialist Moscow in the late 1990s, Olga Shevchenko draws on interviews with a cross-section of Muscovites to describe how people made sense of the acute uncertainties of everyday life, and the new identities and competencies that emerged in response to these challenges. Ranging from consumption to daily rhetoric, and from urban geography to health care, this study illuminates the relationship between crisis and normality and adds a new dimension to the debates about postsocialist culture and politics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253220288
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 12/17/2008
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 3 Months

About the Author

Olga Shevchenko is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Williams College.

Read an Excerpt

Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow

By Olga Shevchenko

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2009 Olga Shevchenko
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35248-4


Introduction: Living on a Volcano

In the mornings, Lina's bedroom serves as a playroom for her granddaughter. In the evenings, it becomes a living room. This is where she and her husband receive guests, socialize, watch TV. Sitting in this modestly furnished room with a view onto a quiet Moscow yard, its hostess, a fifty-five-year-old retired chemical engineer and the matriarch of a family of four, was treating me to homemade pumpkin jam with tea. Our conversation wandered back and forth between culinary recipes and political developments. Before long, we hit the topic of Avgustovskii krizis — the financial breakdown that had occurred four months earlier, in August 1998, and had, in a matter of days, led to a rapid escalation of prices. "The scariest part," she remembered,

was a few days after August 17, when the dollar exchange rate jumped up and immediately all the food vanished from the stores. Absolutely all of it. That is, you come into a store and you see nothing but boxes of oatmeal and of the most expensive cigarettes. Me, personally, I was just terrified. Because there's family, kids ... How am I going to feed them? How are we supposed to live? What if it stays this way forever? Little by little, products appeared, but at much greater prices, that was the next shock. But at least I knew: all right, there is stuff out there, even if I can only afford minuscule amounts. And after a while, we got used to the way it became. Because, what are you going to do? ...

In December, a few months after the ruble collapsed, the consequences of this event for everyday life in Moscow were still acute. For a sociologist with an interest in the experiential dimension of social change, this dramatic event presented an opportunity to explore how individuals' methods of coping evolve under the influence of sudden political and economic disruptions. It was not long, however, before I realized that I had been interpreting the situation all too narrowly. A few days after my conversation with Lina I met with Konstantin, an engineer in his early fifties who lived on the opposite side of town with his wife and school-aged daughter in a small-sized khrushchevka apartment. Konstantin's life during the 1990s was full of twists and disappointments. After a lifetime career in an aviation research institute, he was forced by economic need to turn first to retail, then to small-scale commerce, and finally to contract construction work. At the very end of the 1990s he returned to his old post at the institute, which, in the course of the decade, managed to piece together enough commercial contracts for its staff to get by. The conversation with Lina was still fresh in my mind, and so I asked him how he and his family were affected by the recent crisis. But instead of sharing his experience of recent events, Konstantin looked at me with feigned incomprehension and said, "Which crisis do you mean? We are in crisis all the time."

Konstantin's response illustrates the inadequacies of viewing crisis and everyday life as polar opposites. The notion of crisis typically evokes connotations of a sudden rupture, of a breakdown in the natural order of things, of all that everyday life is not. It is an event out of the ordinary, a powerful force that inevitably destroys the habitual patterns of existence. With its roots in the Greek krinein, "to decide," crisis was traditionally used to indicate the decisive stage in the development of an illness, after which the patient either recovers or dies. Although the medical associations have given way to a far broader contemporary usage, the term retains its connotations of emergency and impermanence to this day.

Such a discrete vision of crisis is blind to the possibility apparent in Konstantin's response: that a crisis may be perceived not as an isolated occurrence, but as a routine and unchanging condition. In such circumstances, the crisis evolves from a singular and alien happening into the very stuff of everyday life, the immediate context of decisions and actions, and, after a certain point, the only reality with which individuals have the social and cultural tools to deal. Crisis may become the default expectation that organizes people's priorities and desires, as well as the benchmark against which they measure their successes or failures. How are we to approach crises such as these, and what are the tools with which one can assess their workings?

The closing pages of Kai Erikson's classic study of the Buffalo Creek flood propose a framework for thinking about routinized emergencies in terms of what he calls chronic disasters, ones that "gather ... force slowly and insidiously, creeping around one's defenses rather than smashing through them" (1976, 255). While many of my Russian interlocutors would take issue with this definition of a chronic disaster (there was nothing slow or creeping about the avalanche of social, political, and economic transformations they had witnessed over the past decades), the value of Erikson's distinction is undeniable. It points to a far closer connection between disasters and everyday life than was previously recognized, and it pushes one to investigate the links between the two.

This study builds on Erikson's insight into chronic disasters (or, as I call them here, total crises) as diffuse conditions without boundaries and expiration dates, which blend with everyday reality and transform it in a myriad of complex ways. But Erikson's distinction should be pushed further. For all the conceptual value of classifying chronic disasters as a separate category, their effects have so far been considered identical to those of acute crises. Here is the (by no means finite) list of symptoms outlined by Erikson: "A numbness of spirit, a susceptibility to anxiety and rage and depression, a sense of helplessness, an inability to concentrate, a loss of various motor skills, a heightened apprehension about the physical and social environment, a preoccupation with death, a retreat into dependency, and a general loss of ego functions" (1976, 255-256). These traumatic symptoms are sufficient for one to conclude that a disaster has taken place, but does this also mean that any chronic crisis inevitably generates these, and only these, symptoms? Even a cursory observation of the streets and squares of Moscow in the late 1990s would suggest otherwise. One could observe in Muscovites' behavior plenty of apprehension about the physical and social environment, but also a pronounced, almost obsessive preoccupation with the beautification of their personal living quarters. There was a sense of helplessness but very little retreat into dependency; if anything, postsocialist Muscovites took a certain amount of pride in their learned self-sufficiency and independence. In short, the scope of reactions to what was unanimously recognized as the "crisis decade" was far wider than the traumatic symptoms enumerated by Erikson.

Given this observation, one may question the applicability of crisis imagery in this particular case. But one should also question the a priori assumptions about the necessary and inevitable outcomes of any chronic crisis. The theoretical value of setting chronic crises apart as a separate category is in the recognition that a routinized long-term condition has a different dynamic than an acute event. It seems logical to propose that it may have different effects as well, and that it should be subjected to a different pattern of inquiry.

Indeed, from the works of Fernand Braudel to the tradition of disaster research in sociology, instances of social crisis have been conceptualized as singular and unique, while everyday life is imagined as the realm of routine and repetition. Even where the crises in question are considered chronic, crisis is opposed in this binary vision to the "normal" flow of everyday life. This assumption is buttressed by the metaphors used to describe the workings of crisis. When one speaks of the "impact" or "imprint" that crises leave on a community, a conceptual separation between the two is taken for granted: the "crisis" is always an alien force, while the "community" is the recipient of its destructive impact. This imagery encourages the researcher to frame her agenda as a balance sheet, concentrating mainly on the damage the crisis inflicts upon the community's morale, solidarity, and patterns of trust. Such logic is justified in application to disaster research and short-term crises, where the primary goal is to assess the losses and to formulate a program of recovery. But in situations where the crisis is embedded in everyday life and represents for its constituents the most familiar and habitual operating environment, the conceptual separation between its manifestations and "normal" existence becomes more problematic. This dictates a different set of questions than the ones asked in situations of acute disasters. Without doubt, a state of routinized emergency has a bearing on the community's patterns of association, social trust, and solidarity. But it is also true that a chronic crisis may become the very essence of a community's identity, a mode of living and a way of self-imagining without which the community is inconceivable. In order to assess these patterns in their complexity, then, one has to explore them for their own sake and not merely in terms of their deviation from some past standard. In fact, the very notion of the past standard can be dangerous, because as the crisis unfolds, particularly if it spans generations, it begins to form its own standards. This means that at a certain point, the "damaged identity" becomes merely an "identity," "survival" becomes "life," and the crisis itself, originally conceptualized as a temporary breakdown in the social and economic field, becomes indistinguishable from the people's habitus. The traditional question of the immediate effects of crisis (i.e., what crisis does to people) has, then, to give way to an exploration of the durable forms of social organization in its midst (i.e., what people do in crisis). Such a question calls for a systematic investigation of the art of living, as Konstantin put it, "in crisis all the time."

Studying Everyday Life

Everyday life is an immediately appealing and yet elusive object of sociological inquiry. Its appeal is both political and epistemological. In terms of epistemology, it is grounded in the intuitive, taken-for-granted character of everyday perspectives — the quality identified by Garfinkel (1967) as their indexicality, their ability to skip over controversial or questionable evidence and definitions, and thus to preserve the coherence and continuity so crucial for the maintenance of the social order. In other words, the realm of the everyday embraces the sphere of unquestioned practical knowledge, and as such it comes closest to the shared foundations of action and relation-formation that make society possible. An inquiry into everyday life holds the promise of revealing the unspecified assumptions that underlie the patterns of routine interactions and that account for much of the resilience and variability of daily existence.

The political allure of the everyday in sociology stems from its role in the critique of capitalism. In sociological literature, everyday life is constructed as a last vestige of poetry and spontaneity lost during the capitalist era, as opposed to the rationalization and alienation of most modern-day activities. This perspective on everyday life was explicitly formulated by Henri Lefebvre and the Situationist movement and later developed in the works of Michel de Certeau (1984), who, drawing on Bakhtin and the tradition of the Annales School, emphasized the spontaneous, subversive, and anti-authoritarian character of daily practices. By championing the value of routine experiences, students of everyday life deliberately expand the scope of sociological inquiry in order to include and legitimize the perspectives of the powerless, who rarely leave behind anything other than the marks of day-to-day existence. The sociology of everyday life shares this inclusionary vision with cultural studies, analyses of resistance, and the Alltagsgeschichte tradition in history, all of which seek to redress the redundant emphasis in the social sciences on the outstanding at the expense of the trivial, the recognizable at the expense of the anonymous, and the heroic at the expense of the self-effacing. Reclaiming the analysis of everyday life as a legitimate method of inquiry into social reality, these approaches effectively affirm the democratic ideal of a total history without excluded categories and silences of omission.

And yet, despite the considerable attractions of this inclusive vision, as a conceptual category, everyday life presents certain difficulties. Some of these are direct extensions of its democratic pathos, since in its openness to the experiences of the "ordinary people," everyday life comes close to turning into a class category: once it is equated with the life of the powerless, there is little space left for considering the possibility that it could figure equally prominently in the experiences of elites (and indeed, studies of everyday life rarely engage the routine details of the wealthy few). Operationalizing everyday life raises other problems as well. At its most ambitious, the concept could be interpreted so widely as to subsume the totality of experience of a social stratum. In more modest interpretations, everyday life designates a fixed range of chores but fails to address the principle of their selection, as well as their structural connections with the wider sociopolitical context, without which it remains close to impossible to comprehend their significance.

In order to redress the conceptual fuzziness of everyday life without losing its heuristic potential, this study defines it as all activity based on everyday knowledge, on notions widely shared and largely accepted without question in the contemporary Russian setting. The spontaneity of this activity, or its promise of resistance matter far less than its taken-for-granted character. This definition of everyday life encompasses, as I quickly discovered, ideas and practices relating to spheres as varied as consumption, political sentiments, moral order, and safety. In other words, I address everyday life as the stock of practical knowledge and activity that can be, and is, widely considered self-explanatory and comprehensible, not only to one's friends and colleagues, but to generalized hypothetical others. Through such a definition, I aim to get at ideas and practices representing what Sewell (1992) calls deep cultural schemas that cut across social categories and provide for the possibility of interaction and collective identification among individuals, even if this identification is informed by assumed, rather than actual, agreement regarding the fundamentals. This interpretation owes more to Garfinkel (1967) and Berger and Luckmann (1967) than to the substantially more romantic vision of de Certeau (1984) and Lefebvre (1991), although it shares the latter's interest in the mutability and creativity of everyday strategies. The project of exploring everyday life thus amounts to, first, figuring out what the activities are that constitute this sphere in the people's eyes; second, understanding the meaning of these activities in a larger social context; and third (and this is where the mutability of everyday life comes in), grasping the role they play both in the reproduction of habitual cultural patterns and in their selective reinterpretation in response to novel social conditions.

An important consequence of this pragmatic definition of everyday life is that its actual content could not be defined a priori, but could only be delineated in the course of the fieldwork. Ethnographic observation alone could identify what my informants designated as the areas of commonsense understanding, the problems and ways of mastering them that required no further clarification, and the expectations that were most likely to be violated by my inappropriate requests to specify and explain things that "reasonable people can understand as is." In this sphere of inquiry, interviewing techniques turned out to be questionable allies, since they often undermined the expectations of presumed understanding. While in certain ways such violations were helpful, since the surprise and bafflement of the interlocutor were the best confirmations of the fact that the conversation was treading into the waters of everyday life that "reasonable people understand as is," I often chose to resort to implicit markers (trajectory of the narrative, selections of examples, comparisons and metaphors) instead of repeatedly asking people to explain themselves.


Excerpted from Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow by Olga Shevchenko. Copyright © 2009 Olga Shevchenko. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments

1. Introduction: Living on a Volcano
2. How the Crisis of Socialism Became a Postsocialist Crisis
3. A State of Emergency: The Lived Experience of Postsocialist Decline
4. The Routinization of Crisis, or On the Permanence of Temporary Conditions
5. Permanent Crisis, Durable Goods
6. Building Autonomy in Everyday Life
7. What Changes When Life Stands Still
8. Conclusion

Appendix 1. Methodology
Appendix 2. List of Respondents
Appendix 3. List of Interviewed Experts
Appendix 4. Discussion Topics
Works Cited

What People are Saying About This

William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor Emeritus of Sociology and American Studies, Yale University - Kai Erikson

"A sensitive, thoughtful, and compelling portrait of life in Moscow during the final years of the last century by an observer who truly knows whereof she speaks. This is ethnography at its best."

Michele Rivkin-Fish

"Elegantly written and insightful, [this book] offers important new understandings of the struggles and strategies that Russians undertake to manage life amidst post-Soviet transition"

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