I’ve finally finished Alexei Yurchak’s Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (see previous post)—”finally” because it was beginning to feel like a real slog—and now I want to vent a little. Mind you, I’m not in the least sorry I read it; it had enough good bits that I would recommend it, with appropriate reservations, to anyone interested in the period. But it disappointed and irritated me on at least two separate counts. Since the second involves my own ideological orientation, I’ll save it for last and start with the more objective complaint: the book is way too full of self-important repetitions of its main thesis, and thus way too long (I’d estimate it could be cut by two-thirds with no loss whatever).
His main point is a valuable one: foreigners (and some Russians) tend to have a simplistic, and in his view fundamentally mistaken, view of late Soviet society as divided between a smallish group of brutal overlords together with their lackeys and enforcers and a much larger group of Suffering Millions, who used irony and indifference to disguise the hatred they could not afford to express. In fact, the vast majority of Soviet citizens were neither (in Yurchak’s terms) dissidents nor activists but “normal people,” who used the structures provided by the state (e.g., Komsomol meetings) to accomplish their own aims, which had nothing to do with official ideology. Furthermore, the same people were capable, at one and the same time, of believing in Communism (the ideal, not the version they were living in) and loving things the official ideology deplored, like Western rock music. These are important points, and he includes striking quotations and examples to illustrate them.
But those quotations and examples are like bits of apple included in a large and tasteless muffin made up mostly of endless restatements of his (not all that complicated) theoretical point. By comparison, Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia, by Vladislav Zubok (see this post), is an apple pie, full of delicious fruit with just enough pastry to make it cohere. And Zubok’s point is basically the same one—it’s just that he’s content to make it and then provide endless illustrations of how it worked, with a new insight or striking quote on just about every page. The difference, I believe, is that Zubok’s main interest is in having you understand late Soviet life and society, whereas Yurchak’s is in having you fully assimilate his thesis (and perhaps be able to recite it in your sleep).
In my earlier post on the book, I wrote “Once past the first chapter, you’re pretty much out of the woods in terms of postmodern obeisances,” but that turns out not to be true: the final chapter is increasingly studded with Žižek, Sloterdijk, & Co. Furthermore, the theoretical discourse gets disturbingly out of control; he can’t mention a few parodies of the sort all intelligent young people everywhere have composed from time out of mind without saying solemnly, “The striking parallel in their stiob engagements with authoritative discourse constitutes an important ethnographic fact about the discursive shifts of the late Soviet period.” In fact, so thick and fast do phrases like “formulas of authoritative discourse” and “performative shift” and “ritualized social discourse” come that the eye begins glazing over and it becomes difficult to focus on what he’s ostensibly trying to say. And the horrible suspicion grows that what he is actually doing is reproducing the effect of “formulas of authoritative discourse” in his own text—making his own references and catchphrases as ubiquitous and ultimately meaningless through repetition as Marx, Lenin, “communist construction,” and “social consciousness of toilers” were in late Soviet texts, so that the reader is forced to “deterritorialize” them (another of his favorite terms) or go mad. While that might be an amusing experiment to foist on (say) a classroom full of graduate students, it doesn’t seem fair to try it on the public at large, which just wants to learn something about Soviet culture. And the Conclusion is almost entirely a ponderous restatement of the contents of each of the previous chapters; if he’s trying to make it possible for harried students to absorb what he has to say without actually reading the preceding 281 pages, again, that seems unfair to the general reader, who probably won’t have the savvy to skip to page 282.
My second problem with the book is that Yurchak seems to share, rather than simply reporting on, the viewpoint of the “normal people” he quotes: that the dissidents were just as boring and annoying as the activists, and that the sensible person ignored the lot of them and concentrated on fun stuff like rock music or staging public fights to épater les camarades. (He clearly is friends with many of the people he quotes, and managed one of the rock groups he writes about.) While I would never condemn anyone for withdrawing from public affairs to cultivate their gardens, especially in a context in which being a dissident could bring very severe penalties, to (by inference) mock people who had the courage to protest publicly seems to me, to use a good Russian term of abuse, подло. But as I say, that’s just, like, my opinion, man.
Addendum (Jan. 2016). Sashura was good enough to send me a link to an excellent review article by political sociologist Maria Turovets and anthropologist Artyom Kosmarsky about Yurchak’s book, which has been translated into Russian and has won an award as the best popular science book of 2015. Turovets and Kosmarsky are not impressed, and conclude that Yurchak, like many Russian intellectuals, is not able or willing to fulfill one of the main functions of an intellectual, to interpret and describe the past [осмыслять и описывать прошлое]. They sum up one of their avenues of attack with the damning question “If all orders having an influence on the life, death, and welfare of citizens are carried out, and even take the form of decisions of the ‘collective,’ what does it matter to the wielders of power if those who carry them out do so ironically?” [Если почти любые распоряжения, влияющие на жизнь, смерть и благосостояние граждан, исполняются, да еще и принимают форму решений «коллектива», какое дело носителям власти до иронии исполнителей?] This is in response to Yurchak’s thesis that the USSR collapsed because young people were thinking about Led Zeppelin rather than Lenin when they voted at Komsomol meetings. (I summarize jocularly, of course, but not unfairly.) And they point out (as have many critics) that Yurchak focuses almost exclusively on his own set of Leningrad artsy types, ignoring the rest of the Soviet Union; the only passage in which he mentions other parts of the country does so in terms of love for Georgian cooking, Riga beaches, the alleys of Odessa and Tallinn, the markets of Samarkand, and the like — “as a set of favorite dishes and tourist itineraries for consumers from the center” [как набор любимых блюд и туристических маршрутов для потребителя из центра]. The only thing I would quarrel with them about is their praise of him for his “important and valuable” [важно и ценно] description of the period under discussion as “late socialism”; that term has been in use at least since the 1990s. At any rate, it’s an excellent piece and I recommend it to anyone who reads Russian.