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.


  1. rootlesscosmo says

    A joke I heard from a member of the East German party (SED) Central Committee:
    In 1970 (Lenin Centenary) there is announced a competition to design a Lenin Memorial Cuckoo Clock. Third prize: cuckoo emerges on the hour, repeats “Learn! Learn!” (Lenin’s watchword for the youth–“Lernen!” in the version I heard.) Second prize: cuckoo emerges on the hour, repeats “Lenin! Lenin!” Grand prize: Lenin emerges on the hour, repeats “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!”

  2. 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.”
    It seems that “performative aspect of discourse” here means something like “performative obedience, i.e. saying only what is permissible”. That is a million miles away from the speech-act sense of “performative” as introduced by J.L. Austin in the ’50s. So far away, in fact, as to constitute a dumb-ass misuse of the word.

  3. Hat, I am assuming of course that it is Yurchak who uses “performative” in this way. In the unlikely case that it is a word you yourself chose to describe what he is saying, then please think of “dumb-ass” as being replaced by “reprehensible”.

  4. his book stands out because of its ‘normality’, it’s neither a ridiculous post-cold war anti-Soviet treatise, nor an equally ridiculous post-Soviet defence of the system, it’s about how it was for the majority of those in between the dissidents and the nomenklatura.

  5. It seems that “performative aspect of discourse” here means something like “performative obedience, i.e. saying only what is permissible”.
    No, that’s actually not how he uses it. Deciding how an author uses a word based on a single sentence taken out of context is usually a bad idea.

  6. Well, I got the impression from all you wrote – not just one sentence – that this was the burden of his song. Creative communication under conditions of monitored speech – the old totalitarian thing.

  7. Kári Tulinius says

    Sometimes you need jargon to get to insights. Theories are tools. A good craftsman makes it appear that no tools were used to make an object, but its churlish to heap opprobrium on those who can’t hide every trace of their tools.
    Everything Was Forever does seem like an interesting book, and I can hardly imagine higher praise than you and Slawkenbergius both recommending it.
    Oh, I’ve just started reading ‘Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400–800’ by Chris Wickham. It seems right up your alley, though it’s not really about linguistic matters.

  8. Charles Perry says

    I thought the two besetting sins of academia were belaboring the obvious and presuming the dubious.

  9. Regarding classroom instruction: I hope this isn’t too far off-topic…
    I’d read that schoolteachers used to teach the following about religion: They would tell the kids to close their eyes and pray to God for candy. When they opened their eyes there wouldn’t be any.
    Then they prayed to The State for candy, and the teacher would put candy on each desk…
    I’m sure some kids peeked and saw the teacher handing out the candy. Or they prayed for money, or ice cream, and learned that The State either doesn’t listen or doesn’t care…
    I don’t know if that story is true? Would that have contributed to the cynicism and so on?
    I don’t know if they had ice cream in the Soviet Union? What was it like?

  10. rootlesscosmo says

    The “praying for candy” technique is depicted in the film “Europa, Europa.” Whether it has any factual basis I don’t know.
    When I was in the Soviet Union in 1980 hotel dining rooms (not restaurants, there was no menu) regularly served ice cream. Pretty good, as I remember.

  11. They didn’t serve candy or ice cream in school cafeterias … just like most of the rest of the civilized world I suppose 🙂 The korzhiki pastries were legendary good tho’. For ice cream, you’d go to the street kiosks by the bus stops, peddling the stuff year round. Great ice cream! There were also ice cream parlors, serving champagne and ice cream cakes and fancy stuff like that, not really catering for the grade school kids (dress code etc.)

  12. I can attest that the ice cream was fantastic when I was there (forty years ago now).

  13. Hey, when I started elementary school in the U.S. (oh my goodness, that was 40 years ago this month!), we could get ice cream in the cafeteria every day for lunch if we had the cash in pocket. (I believe it was either 4 cents or 6 cents – some specific not-a-nickel number like that — for a dixie cup of vanilla, chocolate, or mixed, with the little disposable wooden paddle to eat it with.) I am doubtful this is still on the first grade menu in the place where I grew up, but in those days the dairy industry lobby was much more powerful than the agita-about-childhood-obesity lobby, and there was no doubt some crony-capitalistic subsidy for getting calcium into our little bodies BAMN involved. One nice little bit of unhomogenized (as it were) detail – the vanilla had little black specks in it, as this was in one of the minority regions of the country where that was customary and expected. I think it was fake (i.e., not actual fragments of vanilla bean) and thus gratuitous (the coal-tar derivative vanillin flavoring did not need to come in identifiable black specks), but it’s nice to recall that some regional variation was holding on at the nadir of that sort of thing (i.e., prior to the nascent stirrings of foodie cultism, craft-beerism, etc. that started with the rise of the yuppie->bobo social types in subsequent decades).

  14. Charles Perry says

    Russian ice cream is still pretty good because it’s very rich, heavy on the cream and egg yolks.
    On the other hand, I wouldn’t boast about the Intourist Omelet, baked 100 servings at a time, or the phony chocolate bars (they seem to be carob-flavored paraffin).

  15. Wow, omelet baked 100 at a time? Like maybe baked in a tray and then cut into an soft inch-thick rectangles? Sounds like a preschool menu omelet to me, one of the foreva-fav food memories for both myself and my spouse. I thought they are not making ’em anymore!
    Isn’t amazing how a stupid joke about candy lead the discussion to such truly fundamental cultural experiences LOL?

  16. That’s what I love about this place!

  17. PS: … and to cut right to the title of the matters which were forever, too! 🙂
    I gradually got used to scrambled eggs served at this side of the pond, but still can’t help thinking how these people make such a mediocre meal out of such a good ingredient! A tray omelet would be sooo much better 🙂
    Of course to impress the foreign tourist the most, the top-notch hotels inflict all sorts of ritual abuse on the eggs, like Benedict etc. Hotel Saga in Reykjavik strikes me as the most culinary honest. They serve simple hard-boiled eggs – with ghostly pale little local tomatoes and cucumbers and an assortment of herring.

  18. yes, that omelette used to be about two inches thick and it did come in squares. Anyone remember semolina pudding and rice pudding? with jam or condensed milk on top?
    In our school canteen we had korzhiki, and also rum baba (sirop soaked sponge cake) and croissant-shaped ‘marzipan’ rolls. No ice cream.

  19. I can’t help remembering some rhymed lines when I think about some word or concept. The lines which floated up in my mind with the memories of grade school food in Russia are admittedly a bad poetry.
    школьные завтраки -дело серьезное
    вам поскорее помогут они
    сделаться умными, сильными, взрослыми
    так как полезны и очень вкусны
    Anyway here are the links:
    Worldwide collection of school lunches @ Runet, and blast-from-the-past korzhiki, too

  20. Rice pudding is a fine thing, and I eat sugar-free versions of it when I can.

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