Soviet Culture - Russian Kul'tura

Culture, ideology and globalization in the Soviet Union and thereafter, as compared to similar Western phenomena...

Finn Sivert Nielsen

Paper Presented at the Research Seminar: "Continuity and Change in Post-Soviet Societies"
Skibotn, Norway, October 1994

© Finn Sivert Nielsen. Distributed by
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In anthropology as elsewhere, there is a persistent tendency to think of "modernization" or "development" as linear, unidirectional processes. The postmodern wave of the 80s, and the ongoing deconstruction of such anthropological "grand narratives" as "culture" and "society", has of course represented a major step away from such ideas, nevertheless, the recent debate on "globalization" and "global culture" (as Mike Featherstone's 1990 compilation was entitled) continues to reflect the same totalizing tendency, albeit in a somewhat jazzed up and post-modernized mode. Most of the authors in Featherstone's book, like the participants at the still more recent 4th Decennial ASA Conference on Global and Local Knowledge at Oxford in 1993, were very careful to distance themselves from the idea that "globalization" may be understood as a simple, unilinear process. "Global culture", they remind us, is always embedded in local cultures, and interacts with these ceaselessly, to found countless semi-localized variations over the universal global theme.

Nevertheless, Featherstone's book continues to suggest a simple, two-tiered scheme, which cannot help remind one of dichotomies such as "primitive-modern" (or "nature-culture" for that matter), and which thus harks back to the classical European worldview of Darwin and Descartes. One the one hand, there are many, specific, local cultural traditions; on the other, a single, dominant, global culture: abstract and depersonalizing in its claims, technologically sophisticated in its means, gloriously or ingloriously hegemonic in its power. Even Appadurai, who sees the global totality as consisting of functionally differentiated and poorly integrated "scapes", does not consider the possibility that there might be several competing "global cultures", with radically different visions of the future, and alternative methods of enforcing transregional integration.

I feel that the Eastern European experience allows us to draw the conclusion that "global culture" is not one, but many. We are taught everywhere in the (so-called) "West" to think of capitalism as the prototype of modernity, and the only possible economic infrastructure of a globalized world. But in what we refer to as the "Communist Block" this was not taken for granted. State ideology, of course, defied it outright: the fact that the Soviet Revolution was the harbinger of 20th century decolonization is often not remembered in the West, though it has been widely appreciated in such regions as Latin America. Such claims, however, may easily be dismissed as political rhetoric. It is less easy to deny that the entire economic and administrative structure of the Sovietized states was organized along radically different lines than prescribed by the "Western" norm. It is true that this organizational order was ultimately undermined and toppled by external forces; this does not mean, however, that the social order that fell was in some way or other unreal, that it did not, in fact represent an alternative to the Western consensus.

We are thus dealing with a transnational region with a characteristic non-capitalist ideology, economy, and political structure; and similar systematic differences are found in countless other institutional spheres as well: education, ethnic policy, styles of urbanization, etc. It would be strange if a region that differed from Capitalism in so many significant respects, did not also, in some sense, develop its own, characteristic "culture", which, like the "culture" of Capitalism, made a bid for global hegemony. It is this "culture of communism", the complex, interwoven fabric of values, norms, contacts, careers, ideals, and fates that knit the entire Sovietized region together into a global lifeworld, with a "style", "esthetic" or "habitus" of its own. We have all felt this fabric envelop us as we crossed the Berlin Wall, or landed at the Pulkovo airport outside of Leningrad, or exited from the Swedish-built Hotel Pribalti'skaya into the soft grey Soviet shabbiness of Vasilievski Ostrov.

In the West, it is all too often tacitly assumed that Communism was merely an ideology, which people, rightly or wrongly, either believed in or not. In fact, of course, ideology was merely one of many cultural expressions of a vast community of people, knit together by common fortunes and misfortunes, adapting variously to the necessities of their world. Communist ideology was one expression of this "Soviet culture", the opposition against Communism was another. Anthony Giddens has reminded us that all power necessarily implies resistance to power. We might extend this, anthropologically, to an assertion that all culturally specific forms of power, imply equally specific and idiosyncratic forms of cultural resistance. In the Capitalist West, resistance to power has largely been channelled through what we call sub-cultures, which keep reappearing on the margins of the "mainstream", even though they are continuously being absorbed into it. The efficiency of power may thus be measured in terms of the ability of the "mainstream" to perform this absorption. In the Soviet culture-area, both power and resistance were exercized in completely different ways from this. Instead of a linear race between innovation and consumerism, we here see an irregular movement of erratic, focused control and slow, diffuse subversion. After perestroika it has become common knowledge that mafia-like organizations wield immense power within the Sovietized region. It is less often appreciated that this has been the case at least since Stalin, under whose auspices formal bureaucracy on all levels was hollowed out from within by ethnically, regionally or institutionally based systems of patronage and clientage. As the old power-system crumbled, these forms of resistance could no longer be effectively checked, and their expression was suddenly obvious for anyone to see.

Cultural opposition tended to distance itself very strongly from economic resistance of this kind, nevertheless, as I have argued elsewhere, in actual life the two forms of activity were inseparable. Of course, different networks of full-time oppositionals would focus their efforts predominantly in either one direction or the other, and tended to speak of each other in highly derogatory terms. Nevertheless, most common people were mildly engaged in resistance of both kinds. During my fieldwork in Leningrad, which took place in various stages, starting in 1978, all my informants were engaged in some kind of "dealing", some things simply had to be done po blatu, no matter how idealistic you were. Conversely, all the people I knew were somehow emotionally engaged in "cultural" issues that were at variance with the official rhetoric of the state.

Some of the most popular public figures of the Soviet era achieved their prominence because they managed to give expression to both forms of resistance simultaneously: a very clear example of this is the singer Vladimir Vysotski, who could play Hamlet in the avant garde theatre of Juri Lyubimov, sing of convicts in their own language, write sensitive lyrical poetry, and die at an early age from hard living and drink. In 1983, several years after his death, Vysotski was still one of the very few public figures in the Soviet Union that was never criticized: strictly orthodox communists seemed to recognize themselves in him as easily as black marketeers, or intellectual, Christian dissidents. He was an acclaimed hero in muslim Dagestan as well as Russian Leningrad. He was untouchable for the State.

The union between "culture" and "criminality", "opposition" and "ideology" that Vysotski represented, is a clear indication that a coherent "Soviet culture" did indeed exist. This, in fact, was exactly what official ideology, and official social science, explicitly claimed. Soviet ethnographical texts of the period, for example, speak of the evolution of a "new -historical community, the Soviet people"; and this was not mere rhetoric, as anyone who has travelled around in the Soviet Union at all will have noticed. The "Soviet people" were a real social entity, bound together by a common fate, and by a common, recent history of unprecedented human suffering. Soviet ethosociological texts thus correctly emphasized the role of the "Great Fatherland War" in forging the "Soviet community". We may choose to read the sufferings of the War as ideologically correct shorthand for the suffering of the entire Soviet epoch, in which perhaps some 100 million people lost their lives from war, starvation, epidemics, deportation, and terror; but this expansion only strengthens the validity of the assertion being made. Soviet history provided a common background for millions of people that no-one could ignore, no matter how strenuously certain aspects of this history were denied or falsified by the State.

It is true, of course, that "Soviet culture" was not equally distributed or equally interpreted throughout the entire Sovietized region. Different localities, even within the Soviet Union itself, were very differently affected by it, as contrastive studies of Central Russia and the Caucasus, for example, very clearly demonstrate. This, however, is just what we would expect of any global culture. The coherence it imposes on the world is by its very nature partial and contradictory; indeed, the mediation of such dissonances is a central aspect of what global cultures achieve. Thus, though "Soviet culture" was present in various localities in very different ways, the fact that it was present and had to be accomodated everywhere, attests to the fact that it had a real, existential impact on people's lives.

Finally, I want to suggest that many of the social problems that have arisen in recent years in various parts of the former "Soviet block", may be attributed to the fact that the cultural cohesiveness of the area has been severely shaken, and that a real lifeworld, heavy with shared experience, meaning, and emotion, has been taken away from people, and is now in many cases being denied any relevance at all to their lives. It is not uncommon to hear this pointed out, by Eastern Europeans as well as Westerners, though it is not a view that has achieved much prominence in the media. Thus, Jens Reich - one of the founders of the East German New Forum - pointed out, in an 1990 interview in Time, that the Soviet system forced you to retreat into a "snail's shell", where you would "hide and defend what you considered worth living for". "But in our shells," he says, "we always had time for others. People in our circle of friends became a little like Slavs, who in their long winters seem to have plenty of time to play chess, chat or discuss their religion." "I hope," he concludes somewhat wistfully, that "these habits do not wane". The "retreat into a snail's shell" as well as the presence of "plenty of time" are, I suggest, not so much expressions of Slavic identity, as aspects of what Soviet culture entailed; and the fact that "these habits did in fact wane" is an important reason why many people in the region today feel alienated and uprooted.

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In the rest of this paper I shall address the issue of how "Soviet culture" may be described. The opinions I here express form a part of the argument of my Doctorate thesis, which I am at present in the process of concluding. This is still, however, very definitely "work in progress", and the ideas are therefore somewhat tentative.

"Soviet culture" may be conveniently approached by way of the emic Russian term kul'tura, which of course means "culture". Kul'tura, and its derivatives kul'turny (cultured), and kul'turnost' (culturedness), are very common words in modern Russian, and are used in a far wider range of contexts than the corresponding English words. There are, of course, significant similarities between the Russian and the English terms; they are used in common parlance, more or less as synonyms of "civilization", and thus connote a fan of meanings including classical esthetical form, educational excellence, decorous behavior and morality, rational argument, informed opinion, and scientific progress. Historically, this constellation of meanings, all of which are somehow related to a stylistic preference for moderation, adherence to form, and to what Max Weber called, "the economic impulse functioning within bounds", derives, as Jürgen Habermas has argued, from the Western European bourgeoisie of the 18th and 19th centuries. In the present-day context, however, as I argue in my Doctorate thesis, the coherence of this "grandest narrative" of classical Europe has everywhere been fundamentally challenged by the incredibly rapid global changes that have taken place in the twentieth century. Even in the Western European heartland, "culture" no longer means what it used to. Russian kul'tura, however, represents a far more radical departure from the classical norm than this.

Let me illustrate this point with some examples. First, let us consider a case in which kul'tura seems to overlap very adequately with what is referred to, in standard English, as "High Culture". During a field-trip to Dagestan in 1983 with, among others, several Russian students, I had occasion to observe their reaction to a context that was clearly more "primitive" than the cosmopolitan Leningrad from which they came. The Russians, not surprisingly, described the Dagestanis as dirty, disorderly, ignorant, and backward. They decried the lack of "cultural" institutions: libraries, theatres, concerts, and in general affirmed the superiority of bourgeois ideals as well as any 19th century European. More surprisingly, perhaps, they told me that Dagestanis were nekul'turnye because they had to work so hard, they had no leisure. Of course, we might say that a "gracious" bourgeois life-style could not be maintained without free time in which to cultivate one's personality and interests. Still, in the bourgeois worldview, a life without work would be meaningless. The impression I got from my Russian companions, however, was that hard work was in itself somehow demeaning and nekul'turno, and that what they meant by "leisure" was in fact rather distant from what I tended to assume.

We can gain an appreciation of this discrepancy by considering two other encounters I had during fieldwork in 1983. Both took place while I was on my way to Leningrad through Sweden and Finland.. On the train in from Helsinki, I shared a compartment with a young Russian mother with her ten or twelve year old daughter, who were returning home, after a two-year stay in Sweden. She was one of almost 500 Russian girls who married Swedish construction workers, who worked in Leningrad on the building of the Hotel Pribaltiskaya. She had moved West with her husband, entered into an uncertain life of unemployment and short-term and low status jobs; finally, she had divorced the man, and was now very relieved to be on her way home. She was completely disgusted by Sweden, and one of the main reasons she gave for this was that she had been forced to work so hard. She could never take it easy on the job; someone was always overseeing and controlling her: "there is nowhere you can escape to in Sweden", she concluded, nékuda bezhat' v Švedcii. For this woman, clearly, work was associated with such fundamental bourgois values as punctuality, loyalty to duty, and self-discipline - but these values were intolerable to her.

Two days before this, I had a very similar conversation with another Russian emigre, a young, ambitious, articulate upper-class woman, who had also married a Swede and moved West, but who was as enthusiastic about Sweden as her working-class counterpart was critical. Life in Russia, according to her, was nekul'turny, in the sense that it was backward and primitive. "People at home," she said, "have to think things out on their own that have been successfully resolved in the West many years ago." In the West, therefore, it was possible for people to "be creative", "do their own thing" (zanimat'sya svoim delom). Seemingly this woman is voicing views that are quite the opposite of the woring-class mother's. Where the latter despised work, the former revelled in it. But again, appearances are deceptive: my intellectual friend did not simply look forward to work, but to work that was meaningful, a "spiritual" (dukhovny) sense, to work as a a personal "calling", an activity that was far from what we normally imply by a career.

Another aspect of her story was also revealing: when she described Russia as seen from the West, she used almost the exact same phrases as the Russian students had used in Dagestan: Russians, like Dagestanis, were dirty, backward, ignorant, and disorderly, and thus nekul'turny. Kul'tura, as conceived by Russians, might thus seems to have a somewhat elusive quality: it is something that Russians themselves have or aspire to, but at the same time something they see themselves as lacking. And, as the story of the working-class emigre returning home indicates, this lack is not merely seen as negative. Once in Moscow I took a walk through the outskirts of the city with a Russian friend. We passed through the typical tumbledown landscapes of potholed roads, crooked dachas, overgrown gardens, and leaning fences. Suddenly my companion turned to me and said, with a smile: u nas s poryadkom plokho ("we have some problems with order in this country"). She was laughing, and when I asked her, it emerged that she found the disorder charming and appealing, while the well-run, efficient Norwegian society I described to her, though definitely very "civilized", was somehow sterile and inhuman, and therefore not quite kul'turny.

These glimpses of Russian attitudes touch on some very important facts about Soviet culture as I learned to know it. Kul'tura, they seem to indicate, has a precarious and ambiguous status in people's minds: on the one hand, Russians identified themselves with kul'tura, on the other, they would see it as something they lacked; on the one hand, it represented a set of ideals that they aspired to, on the other, the very lack of these ideals was valuable in itself. The examples leave me with an feeling that kul'tura is somehow insubstantial and miragelike; and this impression has been confirmed again and again in the course of my travels to Russia. "Culture" to the European bourgeois, had a practical, down-to-earth quality; it was a necessary quality of life for any civilized and well-rounded person, but at the same time it was perceived as "natural", as a birthright of class. To Russians in contrast kul'tura represented an elusive, ideal world outside the practical necessities of daily life: a dream of beauty, purity, and romance, of leisurely, endless conversations about the meaning of life, or of a happiness and wealth that would always remain out of reach, and whose very desirability perhaps depended on it remaining unattainable.

Again the reactions of Russians in the West are revealing. In 1989 I brought an old friend of mine, who was very ill from cancer, out of the Soviet Union to undergo treatment in a Norwegian hospital. I drove in from Helsinki to get her, and after we had passed the border, we stopped by the roadside deep in the backwoods of Eastern Finland to streach our legs. My friend stood as if in a daze, looking at the trees and fields around her and the roadbed beneath her feet. She kneeled, picked up some pebbles from the ground, and held them out to me: "Look," she said, "they're completely clean". At this moment, I think my friend came closer than at any time during her stay in the West to having her dream of kul'tura realized: the purity, the quiet, the rural setting, the sudden transition from Leningrad's streets, all conspired to give her the feeling that she had "arrived" at the secret homeland of kul'tura. As soon as this magic circle was broken, however, she wanted to get back home: the illusion now seemed a trivial, cheap trinket, and though she tried to be polite about it, it was clear that she preferred the shabbiness of her home town as a background for her dream.

Kul'tura, I thus suggest, represents an ideal world that is by its very nature impractical. It epitomizes attitudes that have evolved in response to a world where the individual has very little practial control over his own life, where the social order is highly disorganized, the circumstances of life are unpredictable, and where systematic planning and focused, cumulative goal-oriented action seems self-defeating or absurd.

This "passive impracticality" of Soviet culture is even more visible if we turn to another sphere in which the values of kul'tura were often explicitly invoked. In public contexts, e.g. on the bus, in queues, accusations of nekul'turnost' were endemic. Such eruptions generally seemed to be brought about by behavior that, on the surface, resembles bourgeois ideas of "impoliteness", but as I have elsewhere discussed in detail, the short, clipped, eliptic style of Russian communication in public indicates that we are dealing with sanctions against behavior of an altogether different order. Being nekul'turny in public, I argued, meant that you did not follow "the rules". These "rules" had none of the richly textured flexibility of bourgeois politeness. They were few and rigid, and insistently proclaimed in the style of Soviet propaganda posters. But like the posters, also, the "rules" were not at all consistently followed, even by those who defended them most vociferously. In part this has to do with the simple fact that it was often very hard to know exactly what "the rules" meant, what their sphere of application was, etc. In part, the reason for such "illoyality" was simply that the rules were so rigid that life would become vastly complicated, and indeed often impossible, if they were to be followed with consistency.

The informal rules kul'turnost' in public communication in the Soviet Uninon were thus "impractical", and "passive", since they could not be applied strategically in systematic pursuit of cumulative goals. They share these qualities with the dreamlike romance of the ideal kul'tura we have described above. In both cases, kul'tura is "somewhere else", a miragelike spiritual world, floating above and outside the world of everyday worries and activities. On this background, it is not hard to discern the logic of the "retreat into the snail's shell" described by Jens Reich. Nor is difficult to see why "leisure" should be valued above "work"; or why "work", when it is valued highly, is seen as a personal and idiosyncratic pursuit of a delo, a hobby, a cause, a truth.

Indeed, I think we may say that it is this secretive, elusive quality of kul'tura that gives it its spiritual and political power. We may consider, for example, of the attitude of Eastern Europeans to Western consumer items, that is so vividly evoked e.g. by Slavenka Drakulic: a doll brought in from Italy acquires a mystical, almost magical aura, as a talisman derived from the world "out there". This world, I have argued, is not really the West at all, but the mythical homeland of kul'tura. My informants in Leningrad would often have dreams of this world: one man told me he had dreamt that he was transported to New York, where there was an area of town that was built up as an exact replica of Leningrad - without the queues, the worries, the daily grind; a woman had a dream of a "city of friends", clean, beautiful, silent, filled with birdsong and musical waters; another man dreamt that he had moved to Switzerland, where he lived a peaceful life in a chalet in the mountains, surrounded by his books, his friends, and nature. These dreams describe the place from which kul'tura comes, a place that is not real, but that has power for that very reason. These observations also have political implications. In pre-perestroika days it always seemed something of a paradox that the materialistic Soviet state should place such emphasis on control over cultural expression. The reason for this, we may now surmise, is that "culture" had a vast power to move the minds and emotions of people, precisely because it was immaterial.

These fragmentary examples indicate some of the depth, the pervasiveness, and the specificity of the "global culture" of the Soviet order. Today, that order has been disrupted, but it would be premature to think that the dream of kul'tura is extinguished. Its expressions, I think, are being transformed, and the paradoxes and conflicts that these changes entail may play an important role in the many movements of "cultural revival" that are sweeping the region today: ethnic conflict in the Balkans, neo-nazism in Eastern Germany, or neo-slavophilism in Russia; but it was also the power of kul'tura, released for a moment to materialize itself in the world, that was expressed in the rich and spontaneous humanistic innovation of the perestroika days themselves.