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Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation

Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation

by Alexei Yurchak


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Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation

Soviet socialism was based on paradoxes that were revealed by the peculiar experience of its collapse. To the people who lived in that system the collapse seemed both completely unexpected and completely unsurprising. At the moment of collapse it suddenly became obvious that Soviet life had always seemed simultaneously eternal and stagnating, vigorous and ailing, bleak and full of promise. Although these characteristics may appear mutually exclusive, in fact they were mutually constitutive. This book explores the paradoxes of Soviet life during the period of "late socialism" (1960s-1980s) through the eyes of the last Soviet generation.

Focusing on the major transformation of the 1950s at the level of discourse, ideology, language, and ritual, Alexei Yurchak traces the emergence of multiple unanticipated meanings, communities, relations, ideals, and pursuits that this transformation subsequently enabled. His historical, anthropological, and linguistic analysis draws on rich ethnographic material from Late Socialism and the post-Soviet period.

The model of Soviet socialism that emerges provides an alternative to binary accounts that describe that system as a dichotomy of official culture and unofficial culture, the state and the people, public self and private self, truth and lie—and ignore the crucial fact that, for many Soviet citizens, the fundamental values, ideals, and realities of socialism were genuinely important, although they routinely transgressed and reinterpreted the norms and rules of the socialist state.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691121178
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/03/2005
Series: In-Formation Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Alexei Yurchak is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More

The Last Soviet Generation

Chapter One


Mimicry is a very bad concept, since it relies on binary logic to describe phenomena of an entirely different nature. The crocodile does not reproduce a tree trunk, any more than the chameleon reproduces the colors of its surroundings. The Pink Panther imitates nothing, it reproduces nothing, it paints the world its color, pink on pink. -Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

An Eternal State

"It had never even occurred to me that in the Soviet Union anything could ever change. Let alone that it could disappear. No one expected it. Neither children, nor adults. There was a complete impression that everything was forever." So spoke Andrei Makarevich, the famous songwriter and musician, in a televised interview (1994). In his published memoirs, Makarevich later remembered that he, like millions of Soviet citizens, had always felt that he lived in an eternal state (vechnoe gosudarstvo) (2002, 14). It was not until around 1986 and 1987, when reforms of perestroika (reconstruction) were already afoot, that the possibility of the socialist system notlasting forever even entered his mind. Many others have described a similar experience of the profound feeling of the Soviet system's permanence and immutability, and the complete unexpectedness of its collapse. And yet, Makarevich and many Soviet people also quickly discovered another peculiar fact: despite the seeming abruptness of the collapse, they found themselves prepared for it. A peculiar paradox became apparent in those years: although the system's collapse had been unimaginable before it began, it appeared unsurprising when it happened.

When the policies of perestroika and glasnost' (openness, public discussion) were introduced in 1985, most people did not anticipate that any radical changes would follow. These campaigns were thought to be no different from the endless state-orchestrated campaigns before them: campaigns that came and went, while life went on as usual. However, within a year or two the realization that something unimaginable was taking place began to dawn on the Soviet people. Many speak of having experienced a sudden "break of consciousness" (perelom soznania) and "stunning shock" (sil'neishii shok) quickly followed by excitement and readiness to participate in the transformation. Although different people experienced that moment differently, the type of experience they describe is similar, and many remember it vividly.

Tonya, a school teacher born in Leningrad in 1966, describes the moment she first realized, around 1987, that "something impossible" (chto-to nevozmozhnoe) was taking place: "I was reading on the metro and suddenly experienced an utter shock. I remember that moment very well ... I was reading Lev Razgon's story 'Uninvented' (Nepridu-mannoe), just published in Iunost' [the literary journal Youth]. I could never have imagined that anything even remotely comparable would be published. After that the stream of publications became overwhelming." Inna (born in Leningrad in 1958) remembers her own "first moment of surprise" (pervyi moment udivleniia), which also occurred around 1987 and 1988: "For me perestroika began with the first publication in Ogonek of a few poems by [Nikolai] Gumilev," a poet of the Akmeist circle whose poetry had not been published in the Soviet Union since the 1920s. Inna had already read the poetry in handwritten copies but had never expected it to appear in state publications. It was not the poems that surprised her but their appearance in the press.

The stream of new publications began to rise exponentially, and the practice of reading everything, exchanging texts with friends, and discussing what one had read soon became a national obsession. Between 1987 and 1988, the circulation of most newspapers and literary journals jumped astronomically, as much as tenfold and more in the course of one year. Often it was impossible to find many of the more popular publications at newsstands because of the speed at which they sold out. In letters to the weekly magazine Ogonek, readers complained of having to stand in line at a local kiosk at 5 A.M., two hours before it opened, to have any chance of buying the magazine. Like everyone else, Tonya tried to read as much as possible: "My friend Katia and I started subscribing to monthly literary journals (tosltye zhurnaly): Oktiabr', Nash Sovremennik, Novyi Mir, Znamia, Iunost'. Everyone tried to subscribe to different journals so they could exchange them with friends and have access to more materials. Everyone around us was doing this. I spent the whole year incessantly reading these publications."

Reading journals, watching live television broadcasts, and talking to friends who were doing the same quickly produced new language, topics, comparisons, metaphors, and ideas, ultimately leading to a profound change of discourse and consciousness. As a result of this process, in the late 1980s, there was a widespread realization that the state socialism which had seemed so eternal might in fact be coming to an end. Italian literary scholar Vittorio Strada, who spent much time in the Soviet Union before the transformation began, summarized the experience of the fast-forwarded history that he encountered among the Soviet people in the late 1980s: "[N]o one, or almost no one, could imagine that the collapse ... would happen so soon and so fast ... The timing of the end and the way in which it occurred were simply startling" (Strada 1998, 13).

The abrupt change was also quite exciting. Tonya, who had always felt proud of being a Soviet person and never identified with the dissidents, unexpectedly found herself quickly engrossed in the new critical discourse and, in her words, "felt elated" that most people were doing it-"this was all so sudden and unexpected and it completely overtook me." Tonya remembers reading

Evgeniia Ginzburg's Steep Route (Krutoi marshrut), then Solzhenitsyn, then Vasilii Grossman. Grossman was the first to imply that Communism could be a form of fascism. This had never occurred to me before. He did not say this openly but simply compared the tortures in the two systems. I remember reading it lying on the sofa in my room and experiencing an intense feeling of a revolution happening all around me. It was stunning. I had a break of consciousness (perelom soznania). Then came the books of Vladimir Voinovich. I shared everything with my uncle Slava.

As these and endless other stories about the late 1980s suggest, the system's collapse had been profoundly unexpected and unimaginable to many Soviet people until it happened, and yet, it quickly appeared perfectly logical and exciting when it began. Many discovered that, unbeknownst to themselves, they had always been ready for it, that they had always known that life in socialism was shaped through a curious paradox, that the system was always felt to be both stagnating and immutable, fragile and vigorous, bleak and full of promise. These experiences suggest an important set of questions about Soviet socialism: What was the nature of the late Soviet system and way of life that had this paradox at its core? On what kind of internal systemic shifts at the level of discourse, ideology, social relations, and time was this paradox predicated? Furthermore, what was the nature of the production and communication of knowledge in this system, and of the forms in which it was coded, circulated, received, and interpreted? These questions are not about the causes for the collapse but about the conditions that made the collapse possible without making it anticipated. With these questions in mind, this book sets out to explore late socialism-the period that spanned approximately thirty years, between the mid-1950s and the mid-1980s, before the changes of perestroika began, when the system was still being experienced as eternal. This book will investigate this period through the eyes of its last generation, focusing on these people's relations with ideology, discourse, and ritual, and on the multiple unanticipated meanings, communities, relations, identities, interests, and pursuits that these relations allowed to emerge.

Binary Socialism

One of the motivations for writing this book is to question certain problematic assumptions about Soviet socialism, which are implicitly and explicitly reproduced in much academic and journalistic writing today. These common assumptions include the following: socialism was "bad" and "immoral" or had been experienced as such by Soviet people before the changes of perestroika, and, further, the collapse of Soviet socialism was predicated on this badness and immorality. These assumptions are manifest today in the terminology used to describe that system-for example, in the widespread use of phrases such as "the Soviet regime," with the myriad assumptions often packed into it-and in the use of binary categories to describe Soviet reality such as oppression and resistance, repression and freedom, the state and the people, official economy and second economy, official culture and counterculture, totalitarian language and counterlanguage, public self and private self, truth and lie, reality and dissimulation, morality and corruption, and so on. These terminologies have occupied a dominant position in the accounts of Soviet socialism produced in the West and, since the end of socialism, in the former Soviet Union as well.

In the most extreme examples of this discourse, Soviet citizens are portrayed as having no agency: in this portrayal, they allegedly subscribed to "communist values" either because they were coerced to do so or because they had no means of reflecting upon them critically. In the late 1980s, Françoise Thom argued that, in the context of ubiquitous ideological language, linguistic "symbols cease[d] to work properly," making the Soviet Union "a world without meaning, without events and without humanity" (Thom 1989, 156). In the late 1990s, Frank Ellis went further:

"When reason, common sense, and decency are assaulted often enough, then personality is crippled, and human intelligence disintegrates or is warped. The barrier between truth and lies is effectively destroyed Schooled in such a climate, fearful and deprived of any intellectual initiative, Homo Sovieticus could never be more than a mouthpiece for the party's ideas and slogans, not so much a human being then, as a receptacle to be emptied and filled as party policy dictated." (Ellis 1998, 208)

Even when granted some agency in accounts of this type, the voices of these subjects are often still unheard due to oppression and fear. For example, John Young describes Soviet citizens as "non-conforming" dissidents, who "counter the deceptions of government by setting forth 'the facts' in contrast to official falsehood" in "conversations with frustrated friends behind closed doors, in sign language devised by family members who suspect the secret police have bugged their apartment, in a manuscript or on a tape recording passed around from person to person" (Young 1991, 226). These are extreme examples; however, they represent a definite trend in conceptualizing Soviet life.

Binary metaphors are also widespread in retrospective analyses of socialism written inside the former Soviet Union since the "collapse." In such accounts, Soviet culture is divided into the "official" and the "unofficial"-a division that, according to sociologists Uvarova and Rogov, can be traced back to a particular dissident ideology of the 1970s which held that "nothing good could appear in an [official] Soviet journal in principle; and a real text could only be published in an unofficial publication (samizdat) or a foreign publication (tamizdat)" (1998). Critiquing this division, Uvarova and Rogov propose instead to divide Soviet culture into censored (podtsenzurnaia) and uncensored (nepodtsenzurnaia). This change of terms helps to highlight the ambivalence of cultural production in the Soviet Union; however, it still reduces Soviet reality to a binary division between the state (censored) and the society beyond it (uncensored), failing to account for the fact that many of the common cultural phenomena in socialism that were allowed, tolerated, or even promoted within the realm of the officially censored were nevertheless quite distinct from the ideological texts of the Party.

One reason for the persistence of these binary models is the particular "situatedness" (Haraway 1991) of much critical knowledge about Soviet socialism: it has been produced either outside of, or in retrospect to, socialism, in contexts dominated by antisocialist, nonsocialist, or post-socialist political, moral, and cultural agendas and truths. As Rogov demonstrates in his research, diaries from Brezhnev's period, produced during the 1970s, and memoirs produced retrospectively in the 1990s are not only written in two distinct voices and languages; they also evaluate the everyday realities of Soviet socialism, both implicitly and explicitly, in two different ways. The memoirs not only tend to be much more critical of the socialist system than the diaries, but also to conceive of it and of the author's place within it in terms that emerged only in retrospect (Rogov 1998). Patrick Seriot has also shown that by the end of perestroika in the late 1980s, it had become politically important, especially for members of the intelligentsia, to emphasize that during socialism there was no "mixing [of] the language of power with their own language" and that their own language was "a free space to be extended through struggle" (Seriot 1992, 205-6). But this story of divided languages was, to a large extent, a retrospective late- and post-perestroika construction.

Furthermore, the term stagnation (zastoi), which figures prominently as a tag for the period of Brezhnev's rule, also emerged only in retrospect, during the time of Gorbachev's reforms, after Brezhnev's period had ended and the socialist system was undergoing its rapid transformation. In fact, the very conceptualization of the late 1960s and 1970s, when Brezhnev was the party's general secretary, as a certain "period" with concrete historical features, also emerged retrospectively during perestroika. According to Rogov, "The [Soviet] person in the 1970s had a rather vague understanding about the historical coordinates of his epoch, considerably vaguer than became apparent to the same person from the perspective of the late 1980s and 1990s" (1998, 7). The perestroika critical discourse which exposed many unknown facts about the Soviet past and critically articulated many realities that had been implicitly known but unarticulated until then, also contributed to the creation of certain myths about it that were colored by the newly emergent revolutionary ideas and political agendas of the late 1980s. Many binary categories in the accounts of the vanishing system gained their prominence within that revolutionary context.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Chapter 1: Late Socialism An Eternal State 1
Chapter 2: Hegemony of Form Stalin's Uncanny Paradigm Shift 36
Chapter 3: Ideology Inside Out Ethics and Poetics 77
Chapter 4: Living "Vnye" Deterritorialized Milieus 126
Chapter 5: Imaginary West The Elsewhere of Late Socialism 158
Chapter 6: Tr ue Colors of Communism King Crimson, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd 207
Chapter 7: Dead Irony Necroaesthetics, "Stiob," and the Anekdot 238
Conclusion 282
Bibliography 299
Index 319

What People are Saying About This


In this remarkable book, Alexei Yurchak asks: How can we account for the paradox that Soviet people both experienced their system as immutable and yet were unsurprised by its end? In answering this question, he develops a brilliant, entirely novel theory of the nature of Soviet socialism and the reasons for its collapse. The book is must reading for anyone interested in this most momentous change of contemporary history, as well as in the place of language in social transformation. A tour de force!
Katherine M. Verdery, author of "What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next?"

Stephen Collier

This book makes an important contribution not only to anthropological studies of the former Soviet Union but to the broader discussion about Soviet power, ethics, and public space. Yurchak provides a subtle alternative to traditions of debate in Sovietology that counterposed an analysis of totalitarian accounts of Soviet power to the 'revisionists' of the 1970s who saw a much more dynamic space of social maneuverings. What is more, he persuasively shows a level of commitment to Soviet ideals that has rarely been appreciated in scholarship. Indeed, he makes the important point that many Russians actually have memories of being much more critical of the Soviet Union than they actually were when it existed.
Stephen Collier, New School University

Caroline Humphrey

This ambitious book admirably combines a new theoretical approach with detailed ethnographic materials. Written in a clear and engaging style, it is both thorough and precise, and provides a new and convincing insight that will definitely be central to all serious discussions of Soviet-type systems for years to come—namely, that the shift in Soviet life from a semantic to a pragmatic model of ideological discourse served to undermine the ideological system.
Caroline Humphrey, University of Cambridge, author of "The Unmaking of Soviet Life"

Nancy Ries

Alexei Yurchak brilliantly debunks several widely held misconceptions about the lived experience of late socialism in Soviet Russia, and does so through a compelling dossier of materials, all creatively conceived, organized, and analyzed. The writing is fluid, accessible, interesting, and beautifully structured and styled.
Nancy Ries, Colgate University, author of "Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation during Perestroika"

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