I’m finally reading Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation by Alexei Yurchak, which I got for my birthday last year, it having been recommended by both Sashura and slawkenbergius in this thread. It is, as Sashura said, a good complement to Zubok’s book; it is, however, more academic, and ipso facto less readable. As slawk warned, “the first chapter is overloaded with pomo namedropping” (as was the introduction to the Buckler book I wrote about here)—not only are there the requisite genuflections to Derrida and Bourdieu (as requisite in contemporary monographs in the humanities as comparable bows to Marx and Lenin were once in Soviet works), the dreaded Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler are cited as well, not to mention John Austin, Karl Mannheim, and Grumbly’s beloved Sloterdijk. Once past the first chapter, you’re pretty much out of the woods in terms of postmodern obeisances, but you still have to deal with the two besetting sins of academia, constant theorizing and the time-honored rhetorical strategy of presenting everything at least three times: “I will be telling you X… I am telling you X… As we have seen, X…” This means that there is less actual information per page than there is in the Zubok, but what there is is fascinating, so I’ll stop the griping and get to the good stuff, of which there is plenty.
The second chapter opens with a history of “revolutionary language” in the Soviet Union, beginning with the wild-eyed euphoria of linguists (Marr “argued that all languages developed toward unification by means of revolutionary explosions and mixing… and that in the communist society all spoken languages would finally merge into one communist language”) and writers—he has an exemplary quote from Velimir Khlebnikov:
The goal is to create a common written language shared by all the peoples of this third satellite of the Sun, to invent written symbols that can be understood and accepted by our entire star, populated as it is with human beings and lost here in the universe. You can see that such a task is worthy of the time we live in…. Let us hope that one single written language may henceforth accompany the longterm destinies of mankind and prove to be the new vortex that unites us, the new integrator of the human race.
He then moves on to Stalin’s assuming “the position of the ‘master’ external to ideological discourse” and therefore the unquestioned judge of all linguistic matters, citing this remarkable 1935 statement by Kalinin: “If you asked me who knows the Russian language better than anyone else, I would answer, ‘Stalin.’” The master’s death threw the situation into confusion (one might compare the effect of the disappearance of the Twelfth Imam on Shi’ism): “Since there was no longer any unambiguous and uniquely explained external canon against which to calibrate one’s own texts for ideological precision, what constituted the ‘norm’ of that language became increasingly unknowable, and any new text could potentially be read as a ‘deviation.’” His explanation of the results is thorough and interesting; one rhetorical tic, however, becomes increasingly irritating: on nearly every page he says that although the performative aspect of discourse began to play a greater role than the constative [i.e., the apparent semantic content of the words], this did not mean that meaning became unimportant; on the contrary, the discourse became “open to new interpretations, enabling the emergence of new and unanticipated meanings, relations, and lifestyles in various contexts of everyday life.” Naturally the reader wants to know about these unanticipated meanings, relations, and lifestyles, but I’m now a third of the way through the book and he hasn’t breathed a word.
However, I’m confident he’ll tell me all about it, and in the meantime I’m gobbling up juicy analyses of Pravda editorials and their uses (no wonder I found them so unreadable as a Russian major!), explanations of what actually went on at Komsomol meetings, and wonderful material like the stories of two young girls in different cities around 1970 who were each yelled at by their teachers for their childish attempts to draw Lenin:
To Masha and Lyuba these experiences came as a surprise and they remembered them well. They had thought that their portraits demonstrated their pioneer devotion; however, the obvious distortions in the representation of Lenin made both teachers uneasy about publicly displaying them. Their comments made it clear that the problem was not the unsophisticated technique of childish drawings, but that it was applied specifically to Lenin. The teachers were also nervous that such pictures by their students might suggest their own ideological carelessness. What students learned in such experiences was that “Lenin” was not just one among endless Soviet symbols, but a central organizing principle of authoritative discourse, its master signifier and external canon through which all other symbols and concepts were legitimized. That signifier grounded the whole authoritative discourse and was directly linked to the “original.” This is why only specially designated propaganda artists depicted Lenin and to guarantee the trace of the original used in their work Lenin’s death mask and the cast of his head, linking their images to the actual physical body.
I’ll put up with a lot of jargon to get that kind of insight.