Interview with Alexei Yurchak
Alexei Yurchak is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and core faculty member in the Department of Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2006, Yurchak published a groundbreaking study of the late-Soviet period, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton University Press), which earned him widespread recognition. Analyzing a variety of major shifts in political representation and meaning after the middle 1950s, and ensuing changes in late Soviet everyday practices—from Soviet ideological language to the fascination with Western rock music, the spread of popular jokes and anecdotes, among others—the book refutes a widespread take on this period as being structured by binary oppositions, such as public versus private; the people versus the state; the official versus the unofficial sphere, or the Soviet versus the anti-Soviet. Drawing on this extensive ethnographic study of the late-Soviet period, Yurchak expands in this interview on why the notions of the “dissident” or “nonconformist” artist are inadequate for characterizing informal artistic groups in the late-Soviet period.
Andres Kurg: In your book, Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More, (2006) you redefined the whole problematic of binary oppositions that are conventionally used in the writings on late-Soviet history — such as official culture vs. unofficial culture, “us” (the people) vs. “them” (the state, the system), or “first economy vs. second economy.” You discuss two different languages: the stagnant and repetitive “authoritative discourse” of the party-state, and the experimental and inventive language of other registers of discourse. However, instead of keeping these two languages apart form each other, which is done in most accounts of Soviet cultural history, you brought them together: in your account they are directly linked and even depend on each other. Could you say a few words about how you arrived at this subject and how you developed your approach?
Alexei Yurchak: The way I first thought about late socialism as a topic of research was partly shaped by my experience living and studying in the US. I came to the US from the Soviet Union in 1990 to attend graduate school at Duke University, to study cultural anthropology. I sent my application to Duke from Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in 1989, and a few months later I learned that I had been admitted. At that time, the US media, Americans, and even academia in the US had a very vague understanding of life in the Soviet Union. Much of that knowledge was shaped by Cold War stereotypes. To a large extent this is still the case. At the same time, post-Soviet Russian accounts of the Soviet past were also becoming increasingly problematic to me; that past is either rejected altogether, or reinterpreted in terms of a cartoonish heroic struggle with an evil regime. My interest in revisiting the last several decades of Soviet history was formed against the background of these ideologically shaped accounts coming from both the US and Russia. I wanted to respond to them.
My other formative experience came from an earlier period, the 1980s, when, living in Leningrad, I was working as a scientist and was involved in the so-called “informal” art scene. I was especially close to the “informal” rock band AVIA, and to “informal” theaters Litsedei and Derevo. In 1987 I left my scientific career and became AVIA’s full-time manager. This may explain to some extent why I turned to language as a prism through which to look at the late-Soviet period. In AVIA we experimented with the “official” party discourse that everyone constantly encountered in slogans, speeches, and newspaper articles. Another important experience came during Perestroika in the late 1980s. At that time, the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) became the first ideological state organization to be authorized to provide “informal” Soviet rock bands and theaters, as well as the first “informal” businesses, with a state-institutional affiliation that allowed them to perform as “professional” enterprises and to make money off these performances in the Soviet Union and abroad. These activities were made possible because of a peculiar dual identity that local Komsomol Committees had at the time. On paper it looked like these committees organized the concerts and tours of informal bands, while in practice we were organizing everything ourselves. The only thing they did was produce official documents and write official reports that characterized our activities to the state as “Komsomol youth work.” This formal linguistic representation (or rather, misrepresentation) of our activities by an ideological state institution allowed informal rock groups and theaters in the late 1980s, for the first time in Soviet history, to become “professional” groups and theaters—i.e. to make a living off their musical and theatrical activities, play official concerts, go on tours, sell tickets, records and T-shirts, and so on. This formal representation freed us from almost any control from the state; what we, in fact, performed and how much we earned became largely invisible to the state during those years. Between 1987 and 1991, AVIA was one of many informal bands that used that system. We performed in many Western European countries, played at festivals, released a record in the UK (AVIA, Hannibal Records, 1990) and several others in the Soviet Union (until then it had been impossible for informal bands to release or sell records).
Paradoxically, an ideological state institution freed us from the very state that it represented. That experience reflected a particular relationship between the form of ideological discourse and the meanings that were able to develop under the auspices of this form. While this ambivalent relationship to ideological form existed in all periods of Soviet history, it was during Perestroika that it expanded and became explicitly used and abused by the Komsomol and the party, becoming one of the engines of the Soviet system’s internal transformation.(Not surprisingly, many former Komsomol and Party officials emerged as the “winners” during the early years of the post-Soviet market reforms. The special position of these ideological institutions in the late 1980s allowed for the first private companies to accumulate considerable capital, with this practice remaining largely invisible to other state institutions and the public (examples of this process include such former Komsomol leaders and future oligarchs as Mikhail Khodorkovsky). See a discussion of this development of business under the auspices of the Komsomol in A. Yurchak, “Entrepreneurial Governmentality in Post-Socialist Russia: A Cultural Investigation of Business Practices,” in The New Entrepreneurs of Europe and Asia. Bonell, Victoria and Thomas Gold, eds. (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2001).)
There was another important experience in my work with AVIA. It was more than a band: it was also a theater, with twenty performers on stage, and with amazing artists and actors affiliated with it, all working towards recreating a remarkable Soviet spectacle on stage, with elements of Soviet parades, meetings, human pyramids, ideological symbols, avant-garde poetry—all wrapped into a mixture of punk, ska, and military march music. This was done ironically, but with a straight face and in a style that invoked not only enthusiasm but also insanity. For example, one of our tours was called Navstrechu 1000-letiyu velikogo oktyabrya! (Let’s Meet the 1000 Year Anniversary of the Great October Revolution!), which was an overblown version of a common party slogan that called on everyone to work “Towards the 70th anniversary of the Great October”, or Lenin’s “100th anniversary.” One thousand years replaced one hundred years to stress that the group was even more enthusiastic, overly enthusiastic, in its use of the official party rhetoric, than the party functionaries themselves. This was instantly hilarious to the audience, but it also seemed strange to many viewers, since most other informal rock bands tried to be either apolitical or, by the end of Perestroika, overtly critical of Soviet slogans. But AVIA performed under a huge Soviet-looking banner, on which slogans were not ridiculed, but “over-celebrated.” The point was to remain pure to the ideological form—to march, sing and perform enthusiastically, like stereotypical “good Soviets,” but also to do this in a manner that was somewhat over-the-top. This subverted the meaning of everything without explicitly describing the act of subversion.
Many informal musicians and artists in the Soviet Union felt that if an artist performed a direct, explicit attack on Soviet ideology his/her art was uninteresting, banal, or in bad taste. Of course, expressing direct support for the Soviet party rhetoric was even worse. It was important to maintain a subtle balance—to be ironic but not explicitly so, to be critical but not negative. AVIA always tried not only to be ironic towards the rigid ideological symbols and rhetoric, showing their absurdity, but also to preserve some warmth and respect towards the original revolutionary, utopian, avant-garde ideals from which these ideological symbols had emerged. Later we learned that a similar position was practiced by the Slovenian rock group Laibach, the art group Irwin, and by other members of the Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) movement. We saw their videos for the first time around 1988.(For a more detailed comparison of Laibach and AVIA see Alexei Yurchak. “Mimetic Critique of Ideology. Laibach and AVIA.” Chto Delat’ # 19. Available at: http://chtodelat.org/b8-newspapers/12-51/mimetic-critique-of-ideology-laibach-and-avia/) In Laibach’s performances, “totalitarian” images and symbols were also treated in an ambivalent manner. However, Laibach’s style was serious, somber, and even spooky, while AVIA’s was insanely enthusiastic and fun.
The experience of working with AVIA in those years made the distinction between the ambivalence of ideological symbols visible in two ways: in the way the band experimented with this ambivalence, and in the way the Komsomol, by “sponsoring” rock bands, manipulated it. Later in the book I distinguish between the literal sense of ideological symbols and the meaning of their ritualized form, calling these “constative meaning” and “performative meaning.” These terms are derived from John Austin’s theory of the performative, although originally I didn’t think in terms of that theory because I didn’t know it at the time.
It was a little later that I encountered references to Laibach and NSK in my studies of language and ideology. Around 1991–1992, I came across Slavoj Žižek’s book The Sublime Object of Ideology(London, Verso, 1991.) and his remarkable essay “Why Are Laibach and NSK not Fascists”(M’ARS, N. 3/4, 1993, pp. 3-4.) and instantly knew that this is a kind of perspective on state socialism that I wanted to draw upon. Žižek had been very close to NSK and Laibach, wrote some texts for them and about them, and has been influenced by their work. At the same time, I intuitively felt that I could not completely agree with Žižek’s provocative tendency to over-generalize, his anecdotal evidence, and even his ironic style of writing. His texts were evocative and influential for me, but I also wanted to make a step backwards or sideways from them, by trying to investigate real socialism in a more empirically grounded and ethnographically rich way. I wanted to do “fieldwork” within the socio-cultural context of Soviet socialism as an anthropologist, which also meant doing historical anthropology, since socialism had already ended.
AK: Another important point you make in your book is that there was a big difference between texts written inside the Soviet Union during the Soviet period (1970s and early 1980s) and texts written about it retrospectively. You argue that in memoirs of Soviet life written after the fall of the Soviet Union, authors tend to remember themselves as more critical of the Soviet system and more detached from it than they had actually been at the time. This can be demonstrated by comparing their post-Soviet memoirs with their Soviet-time texts. This concerns not only officially published Soviet texts, but also the unedited or uncensored texts of samizdat, and even private diaries. In other words, you argue that many post-Soviet accounts of Soviet life are tainted by a critical ideology that emerged after Soviet history ended. Did your recognition of this tendency grow out of your own life experience during the late-Soviet period?
AY: Yes, to some extent this recognition grew out of my own experience of the 1970s and 1980s. But I should also stress that much of that realization was shaped by the fieldwork research of late socialism that I conducted in the 1990s. Until my research, I had not been aware of the hidden paradoxes and mechanisms of the Soviet political system, of the multiple cultural ideologies of different social groups and institutions, and of the many types of social relations, attitudes and lifestyles that developed in the late-Soviet period.
I came of age and started independent life in the early 1980s. During Soviet times many younger people, members of my generation, including “informal” artists, distanced themselves from political issues, which meant distancing oneself not only from active participation in the state, but also from dissident circles. However, by the end of Perestroika, and especially in the 1990s, it became quite common to claim that one had always been in active opposition to the “regime.” Perestroika brought with it a new dominant form of cultural ideology and a new kind of discourse, which provided a way of conceptualizing the Soviet past and talking about it in terms that were different from how it was experienced and talked about before. As a result of this shift of ideology and discourse, one’s assessment of reality and one’s own role within it changed. People’s memories of themselves became profoundly reshaped by this change. Many of them now remembered themselves as having been more explicitly “oppositional” in the political sense than they actually had been. Their previous quiet alienation from the state now was often re-articulated as an active opposition. This does not necessarily mean that people consciously manipulated their recollections of the past because it had become advantageous to do so, although such calculated reasoning also existed. Rather, it means that the powerful socio-cultural rupture of people’s symbolic world that Perestroika produced made it difficult to revisit one’s personal life experience before the change, during the years when that change had been still unimaginable. It became hard to suspend one’s present-day understandings and instead to re-encounter one’s previous self as it had existed before the rupture. The location from which people were able to “access” their own histories had radically shifted.
Of course, not everyone claimed that their identity during the Soviet times should be characterized in oppositional terms. Some people explicitly refused making such a claim in the terms offered by the suppression-resistance paradigm. This refusal seemed especially common when Soviet individuals encountered “Western” Cold War stereotypes about the Soviet subject that tended to trivialize that subject and his/her life. The counter-reaction that such stereotypical accounts produced helped many Soviet people to preserve their memories of the past. Incidentally, the experience of the so-called “Soviet nostalgia” and “Soviet patriotism” of the last decade in Russia have also partly developed as a counter-reaction to persistent Cold War images of the Soviet past, and increasingly also of Russia’s present.
When the famous “unofficial” Soviet artist Ilya Kabakov arrived in the US in the early 1990s, he was interviewed by an American art historian who started his interview by asking the artist to describe his life as a dissident Soviet artist. To this Kabakov replied with visible irritation: “I was not a dissident. I did not fight with anything or anybody. The word does not apply to me.”(Renee Baigell and Matthew Baigell, eds. 1995. Soviet Dissident Artists: Interviews after Perestroika (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995), p. 142. See a more detailed discussion of this point in: Alexei Yurchak, “Post-Post-Soviet Sincerity: Young Pioneers, Cosmonauts and other Soviet Heroes Born Today,” in Thomas Lahusen and Peter Solomon, eds., What is Soviet Now? (LIT Verlag, 2009).) Clearly, Kabakov was not a fan of the Soviet system. However, his answer showed his refusal of the simplistic binary descriptions of Soviet life and the Soviet subject. Such reactions confirmed my personal experience that the terms “dissident artists” or “nonconformist artists” (another term that became popular in post-Soviet descriptions of the Soviet past) did not accurately capture the existence of a large number of informal artistic groups during the Soviet years.(See a discussion of the post-Soviet term “nonconformists” in: Alexei Yurchak, “Politika vnenakhodimosti: ukhod ot binarnogo razdleneiia sovetskoi kul’tury na ofitsial’nuiu i neofitsial’nuiu.” Mify i teorii v iskusstve Rossii 1970 – 2012 godov. Art-tsentr “Pushkinskaia 10.” Musei nonkonformistskogo iskusstva. SPb, 2013.)
In the late 1980s, I also knew other members of the St. Petersburg informal artistic scene: the Necrorealist circle of filmmakers (Evgeny Yufit, Vladimir Kustov, Kostya Mitenev), artist and cultural ideologist Timur Novikov, and the remarkable musician, composer, philosopher, and provocateur Sergei Kurekhin(On the aesthetic and political experiments of Kurekhin see: Alexei Yurchak. “A Parasite from Outer Space: How Sergei Kurekhin Proved that Lenin was a Mushroom,” Slavic Review, vol. 70, n. 1, 2011. On some cultural work of Timur Novikov and his circle see Alexei Yurchak, “Gagarin and the Ravekids: Transforming Power, Identity and Aesthetics in the Post-Soviet Night Life,” in Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex, and Society Since Gorbachev, in: Adele Barker, ed. (Duke University Press, 1999).) After the fall of the Soviet Union, I talked to Yufit and Kustov about how they started their artistic work. They began already in the 1970s, when they were still in the eighth or ninth grade of elementary school. At first they simply organized occasional pranks in public places in Leningrad, not thinking of these practices as “art.” Rather, they saw themselves as people who conducted “experiments” in front of other Soviet people. They wanted to provoke the unsuspecting Soviet public, to see how they would react to strange events and characters. These experiments were provocative and had some subversive overtones, but the group members avoided conceptualizing them in explicit political terms.(See analysis of the early beginnings of Necrorealism in Alexei Yurchak, “Necro-utopia: The Politics of Indistinction and the Art of the Non-Soviet,” Current Anthropology, vol. 49, n. 2, 2008.)
This does not mean that the Necrorealists were apolitical: their early films contained some critical references to Socialist Realism and one cannot help feeling that they were deeply ironic. But their messages were indirect and hard to interpret. They were political, but in a different sense that did not fit the binary of oppression/—resistance. The effect of these actions and later films was not to provide an articulate critique of the Soviet system, but rather to carve out an alternative space within that system in which one could be neither in favor not in opposition to it, leading a different life altogether. The fact that the Necrorealists created strange creatures who were not quite human (they were either crippled and insane, or a hybrid of a human and a corpse, or a human and a tree) was their way of referring to that alternative space of life that existed within the Soviet reality but did not follow its official binary logic. Creating such spaces amounted to creating an alternative form of freedom that cannot be described simply as “freedom from” (Isaah Berlin’s “negative freedom” – e.g. freedom from the state, from political oppression) or “freedom to” (Berlin’s “positive freedom” – e.g. freedom to do things within the state, within its laws). This was another kind of freedom, the freedom of being inside and outside the system at the same time, the freedom of vnenakhodimost’ (inside/outside-ness), as I like to call it in Russian.(For a detailed discussion see the Russian version of Yurchak’s book, Eto bylo navsegda, poka etogo ne stalo. NLO Books, M., 2014.) This freedom emerged when one abided by the laws of the state in form but used that form to create new unexpected meanings, relations, subjectivities that the state neither anticipated nor controlled.
Interacting with these and other artists in the late-Soviet 1980s and again in the post-Soviet 1990s made one see how important it was to study the actual interaction of “official” and “unofficial” elements in Soviet life in all their complexity, to study them ethnographically, empirically, which included studying the complex mythologies about them that had been created in different periods and places.
There was another important influence on my thinking about these problems. In the mid-1990s, when I was studying in the doctoral program in Anthropology at Duke University, I became involved in intense discussions among graduate students about the meaning and forms of “politics.” It was an interesting time atDuke: Fredric Jameson and Stanley Fish were teaching on language, ideology and postmodernism in the Comparative Literature department; Michael Hardt gave his lectures on politics and imperialism, which later became part of his and Negri’s Empire; Žižek frequently visited with talks on everything imaginable. The questions of politics, revolution, socialism, capitalism were all actively debated. The fall of the Soviet Union was still a recent event, and the “post-communist condition” of the world was still felt acutely in the American humanities and social sciences.
AK: There was a shift in the discourse of the young urban generations in many parts of the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when certain attitudes and values changed. Yet the dominant regime in the Soviet Union did not notice that change, which resulted in a miscommunication between them and the young people.
AY: I think you are right. This was an international phenomenon, which in the Soviet case manifested itself in a peculiar way. Among young people, it often took the form of actively refusing to identify with anything “political” because the meaning of the term “politics” was dominated by the discourse of the party-state, and implied either the position of the Communist Party or the position of antisovetchik, being an anti-Soviet person, a dissident. The serious rejection of the conservative official definitions manifested itself in the West in the student movement, in protests against the Vietnam war, and so on. In the Soviet case, it took the form of experiments with alternative forms of freedom that refused to be defined in the terms set by the state—including the idea of being opposed to the state—and that claimed instead that the political as such was irrelevant and uninteresting.
AK: You argue in your book that this apolitical position was different from withdrawal, or apathy…
AY: Exactly. It was not a form of apathy, withdrawal, or apolitical cynicism because it involved not just ignorance, but an active and constantly maintained act of distancing. When someone finds it important to insist that he or she is not interested in any engagement with the political life of the state, as either its supporter or its dissenter, and instead actively tries to carve out a non-political existence — this should warn you that their form of existence may be not simply “apoliticial” or apathetical, but instead may have an alternative political significance. Actively disengaging from what the state recognizes as “political” is not the same as being ignorant of political choices or ethical positions altogether. Such existence in fact allowed many young Soviets to lead a form of social life that undermined many foundations of the party-centered system without openly confronting it. I argue that active attempts by these people to distance themselves from anything that was officially recognized as “political” should be seen as an important political reaction in its own right. They created an alternative form of “politics”, even when they refused to call their position by this tainted word (a word whose meaning was defined in the terms set by the state). We may call this alternative form of politics “apolitical politics.” In my work I also call it the politics of vne and the politics of vnenakhodimost’ (of being “inside/outside”), in analogy with the alternative form of freedom that I mentioned earlier. This political position was neither pro-state nor anti-state; rather, it amounted to actively reinterpreting reality in completely new, non-binary terms. In the Soviet Union, this alternative politics was a phenomenon of the 1970s and it spread into all spheres of Soviet life.
In the artistic sphere, this alternative politics enabled the experimental art about which we spoke earlier. For example, many younger Soviet artists, groups of friends and individuals actively organized their existence around this phenomenon of “apolitical politics,” this politics of vnenakhomimost’, pursuing interests that neither coincided with nor opposed the official values of the Soviet system. Most actually participated in the official state institutions, events, rituals, and elections. They also utilized many of the services offered by the system: subsidized education, housing, vacations, professional training. At the same time, many of the practices and lifestyles of these young people were at odds with the system’s ideological messages. Their lifestyle contributed to the reproduction of the Soviet system, but it also undermined that system’s meanings without directly countering them. So, although it was not organized as an articulated political movement, it nevertheless had important political effects and contributed, for example, to creating the conditions for the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union. I suspect we may find this kind of politics in other parts of the world and historical periods as well; it is likely to exist in all contexts that precede the unexpected collapse of a dominant political and social system.
AK: But then you go a step further by arguing that there existed a continuity of values between the repetitive authoritative discourse of the party-state and these other alternative practices that deviated from it. You suggest that certain socialist values and aspirations that originated in the early revolutionary period were still being reproduced in the late-Soviet period, even among alternative groups. What were these values and how did they manifest themselves during the late socialist period, especially among informal circles?
AY: Let’s take the group AVIA: they were always excited by early 20th-century avant-garde art, the irrational poetry of the futurists (Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov), the art of Malevich, the literature of the “Oberiu” circle, or the absurdist stories of Kharms. They were interested in these artists and movements not simply for their irrational or absurd stylistics, but also for their genuine enthusiasm for revolutionary change and their desire to invent a new world by using these experimental stylistics. What makes the avant-garde and early post-revolutionary art probably the most important Russian art in the 20th century is this genuine and sincere spirit of experimentation, the desire to engage, and to change. It was this spirit that made earlier avant-garde art so curious and even endearing to many artists of the 1970s and ’80s. With AVIA, you see this link with the avant-garde and with post-revolutionary experiments quite clearly. These early experiments influenced AVIA’s stage sets, music, texts, even their off-stage lifestyles. You see this also with the NSK collective in Slovenia who always refer to Malevich as a direct influence. Many ethical values and commitments of those earlier revolutionary artists cannot be reduced to the stagnant value system of the later party-state. While the Soviet bureaucratic system in its late period employed many ideological slogans of revolutionary times, that system had already lost the original ethos of experimentation, sincerity and genuine commitment to the future that existed during the early period. However, that ethos survived in various forms in mundane Soviet life even during late socialism in spite of the stagnant bureaucratic party system. One place where it survived was informal Soviet art.
Another cultural feature of these informal artistic circles was their disdain for the financial side of life. Money as a tool for calculating the meaning of actions and ideas was largely absent from that scene. This was another clearly “socialist” feature of the informal art scene. This does not mean that these groups and circles consciously agreed with the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the communist party-state; itrather means that they developed under conditions that were free from market pressures, i.e., the very conditions created by the Soviet state. These conditions quite literally enabled very particular non-liberal and non-capitalist kinds of social relations, cultural ideology, and forms of creativity. In general the kind of alternative social spaces that existed in the late-Soviet period, including informal artistic groups, were more compatible with the philosophical foundations of socialism than with liberalism; they became possible because one could practice there a particular, detached relationship with the economic sphere, in a situation where one did not have to face it too explicitly.
However, when market reforms began in the 1990s, including the neo-liberal ideology of individual freedom and of worth that can be calculated economically, not only the Soviet state but also the “informal” socialist world started to disintegrate rapidly and violently. The arrival of the post-Soviet market quickly affected everything, from prices and forms of property to social relationships, one’s experience of time, and so on. The valuation of life itself changed. Many friendships were destroyed and many social values overturned. This was when a new perception emerged: that the previous interests and activities of the Soviet people had been inefficient, pointless, badly organized, naïve, and ethically problematic. Many people commented that they were losing their friends, their free time, and their sense of meaning. A big revelation of the 1990s was that during the Soviet period many socialist values had been important to alternative and informal circles in spite of the Soviet state, even if they did not realize that fact until after the collapse of that state.
AK: You describe this phenomenon not only in the context of select artistic circles, but as a wider social tendency that had repercussions everywhere, including in the context of the Komsomol. What role did official Soviet education play in this? How much of these ideals came from the school system?
AY: Socialism, like most modern political systems, was based on a paradoxical mix of control and liberation. On the one hand, according to the cultural ideology that dominated Soviet education, a good person was supposed to be inquisitive, open-minded, independent in his or her thinking, engaged in disputes, keen on experimentation. Ideally that person wrote poetry, kept a diary, was interested in the theater, literature, science, etc. He/she was also supposed to openly criticize conservative bureaucrats (a “bureaucrat” was a bad word in the Soviet Union). On the other hand, the party and its active members and leaders were seen as the ultimate bureaucrats, and ubiquitous bureaucratic party control was the other side of Soviet cultural ideology. So, a good Soviet citizen was supposed to be two things at once: liberated, enlightened, and independent, and, at the same time, keen on attending endless tedious meetings and participate in ideological rituals where he/she repeated ideological phraseology and supported ideological decisions that had been closely controlled by the party apparatus and that had little to do with independent spirit and experimentation.
This paradox was there from the very beginning; it was written into the very logic of Bolshevik revolutionary practice, as well as avant-garde experimentation. But by the 1970s, this paradox reached its peak. Now a person could desire to be a liberated and educated individual, and think of these traits as normal and even normally Soviet, but without having to invest this desire with any real affinity for the Communist Party. Similarly, one could feel real alienation from party and Komsomol rituals and language as they pervaded one’s life, but without necessarily casting such alienation in terms of political opposition.
Another curious aspect of this paradox was that many people might feel alienated not necessarily from “the system” as a whole, but only from some of its more bureaucratic or mechanistic parts, while feeling affinity for other elements, from its cultural ideology to its ethical claims about social responsibility, education, and work. In other words, “the system” was usually experienced not as one whole body divided into official and unofficial parts, or into the people and the state, but in terms of multiple internal contradictions, divisions, and caesura. During my research for the book it was a revelation to find a number of materials such as, for example, the letters written in the 1970s by a young man from Yakutsk to his friend in Leningrad. I write about these letters in Chapter 6 of my book. They show a guy who was very active in the Komsomol throughout his youth, at first in school and later at the university. He was genuinely interested in the philosophical foundations of Communism, more so than most of his peers at the time. He read Marx and Lenin and discussed their writings with his friend in the letters. More importantly, he argued that many party and Komsomol bosses did not understand communism correctly; he was quite critical of party bureaucrats, from the position of someone who was interested in communism despite these bureaucrats. He was not an uneducated, uncouth guy either; on the contrary, he was a talented mathematician who had won many math Olympiads. In addition he was also a great lover of Western rock music and collected many “black market” recordings of Western bands: King Crimson, Yes, David Bowie, Pink Floyd. In his letters he tries to analyze their music in a sophisticated way, with the same passion with which he discusses communism and mathematics.
One may say that this young man and his friend were not typical Soviets; their case demonstrates that these different interests, values and commitments could coexist in one person. This young man’s passions for Western rock and for the philosophy of communism, as well as his critique of the party bureaucrats were all real. He never experienced them as incompatible; in fact, he actively argued that the best examples of Western rock were directly linked with the communist dream. This and other examples show that positing communist values and “informal” cultural forms as a priori incompatible with each other, as located on two different sides of a binary divide, can be a gross oversimplification. When I was writing my dissertation at Duke, I had an argument with a young political scientist from Bulgaria who argued that it was impossible to love Led Zeppelin and be a young communist at the same time. I asked him whether this statement was based on any thorough research or just his personal feeling. And of course, he did not do any research apart from reading a few post-communist memoirs and interviewing a couple of his friends from the younger, post-communist generation. While his position was shared by many people during socialism, it certainly did not represent the only possible way in which these different cultural artifacts and ideologies could relate to each other. The Yakutsk example demonstrates that it is necessary to draw not only on memoirs and interviews from the present, but also on the materials from the past, such as letters and diaries.
AK: Your current research is looking at Lenin and the body of Lenin. This seems to represent again a new moment in the research done on the Soviet Union and its iconic figures. While the post-Soviet discourse in the 1990s had a very ironic take on Lenin and his body lying in the Mausoleum, using it as material for numerous jokes, you return to Lenin in a serious way. I do not mean this in the official-bureaucratic sense, as if you abstain from critical-theoretical reflection, but in the sense that you do not ridicule this material.
AY: I am less interested in discussing Lenin’s “real” ideas than in analyzing how a certain “Lenin-symbol” was constructed and functioned in Soviet history. I focus on several key moments in that history, the way I see them. The first one starts with the early 1920s, when Lenin fell seriously ill and was relatively isolated from political life, and it continues until several years after he died in 1924. It was in the early 1920s that a certain “artificial Lenin” was first aggressively constructed by choosing, editing, misquoting, censoring, and inventing some of Lenin’s texts and ideas, by disconnecting his real statements from their original context, by creating and imposing normative stories and normative visual representations of Lenin. The construction of this artificial “Lenin,” of course, did not end with the 1920s – it continued throughout Soviet history, differently in different periods. But some of its formative parameters were set in the 1920s.
One trait of the constructed “Lenin” that remained the same until the Soviet collapse was that this artificial figure occupied an external position in relation to the Soviet political system, functioning as its “anchor.” This means that on the level of Soviet ideological discourse, “Lenin” could not be questioned, and that this figure had to be constantly invoked and referred to as a means for legitimating any political statement or act. This “constructed Lenin” became the embodiment of the external Truth of the Soviet symbolic system – the kind of “truth” that in any political system has to be treated as a priori beyond doubt, in order for that system to exist at all. That Truth cannot be questioned or proven by means of the system’s political discourse because it functions as a condition for the very existence of that discourse, not the other way around.
In this new book I also focus on the last years of Soviet history, from the late 1980s to 1991. At that time the Soviet leadership claimed that democratic reforms of socialism required that we go back to the “authentic” Lenin. It was claimed that Lenin had been distorted during previous periods of Soviet history by Stalin, Brezhnev and others, and that if we managed to return to the original undistorted version of Lenin then true democratic socialism would be finally possible. That claim actually was produced many times in the previous Soviet periods too—during the Thaw of the late 1950s, and a few other times. But during Perestroika this claim developed further. A new understanding now emerged: that Lenin had been distorted not just in some problematic periods of Soviet history, but during all of Soviet history from beginning to end – that Soviet history was one long distortion of the original Lenin’s thought. This new development in the Perestroika argument meant that the original undistorted Lenin, to whom the country was supposed to return, was in fact unknown and first needed to be discovered. During the final years of Perestroika the party reformers argued that we must find that “unknown Lenin,” rediscover the person whom we had never known, let his hidden voice speak to us for the first time. But this also meant that the political discourse of the party was now shot through with a peculiar paradox: on the one hand, that discourse was making the usual claim that we must return to the true undistorted Lenin; on the other hand, it was also saying that this Lenin was unknown. In this paradoxical situation the legitimacy of the party and the Soviet system—a legitimacy that had been based on constant references to “Lenin”—could no longer be sustained. The Soviet Union imploded; this happened first and foremost on the symbolic level, and this symbolic crisis was of course soon reflected in the political, economic and other crises.(For a discussion of this argument see: Alexei Yurchak. «Esli by Lenin byl zhiv, on by znal chto delat’. Golaia zhizn’ vozhdia», Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, N 83, 2007. An online version is available here: http://magazines.russ.ru/nlo/2007/83/ur13.html)
What is particularly interesting to me is how the ongoing construction and reconstruction of the figure of the artificial “Lenin”was directly linked to the practice of preserving, improving, and changing the body lying in the Mausoleum. That body cannot be understood as simply a symbol created for public propaganda, the way it is usually understood.(See, for example, Nina Tumarkin. Lenin Lives! Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia (Harvard University Press, 1983).) It is located outside the field of politics and propaganda, outside of political discourse and representation, in a location that is external to the Soviet symbolic system. It functions as a material form of that system’s external anchor, of its foundational, unquestionable, and indescribable Truth.
I want to write a history of that body and a history of the scientific experiments and procedures to which it has been subjected over the years. I have done a lot of research in this unique area, much of which has not been studied and remains unrepresented in open archives and publications. Part of my research has been ethnographic and was conducted in close contact with the scientists involved in this project. I cannot say more at this point. However, my main interest in this project is not just historical. I want to figure out how to make sense of this body in relation to the figure of the external, artificial “Lenin” that I described earlier. The scientific and political project of maintaining Lenin’s body has been extremely complex. It has included many extravagant procedures and techniques to which that body is being subjected, such as frequent re-embalmings, constant testing, handling, fixing and reconstructing. It has also included the ongoing development of a unique experimental science.
This project is remarkable because it provides us with a glimpse of the symbolic structure of a political system that cannot be studied purely discursively since its external anchor has also an irreducible material core, a kind of metaphysical materiality. The body in the Mausoleum is then also a complex and constantly emerging material form, with peculiar chemical, physical, biological, mechanical characteristics. And this is not simply an isolated form, but an extension of the many scientific experiments, labs, manipulations, discoveries, and remarkable breakthroughs in “regular medicine” to which this research has inadvertently led.
AK: What is fascinating about all these processes around the body–embalming and re-embalming, preserving its mechanical characteristics, its flexibilities, etc. — is the truly experimental nature of the whole procedure. It is never known in advance what is going to happen to it eventually. The project doesn’t have a clear predefined goal. I’m thinking here of the argument about socialism in your previous book, where you also related the emergence of the internal tension within late socialism to the spirit of experimentation, to the constant quest for the new.
AY: You are absolutely right. It is important, for example, that the party leadership and the scientists did not know in the beginning, in 1924, what would happen to Lenin’s body. Originally, for the first several weeks there was no clear intention to preserve that body forever, or even for a considerable period of time. Thinking about that body in terms of eternity, in terms of “forever” emerged gradually. That idea was not formulated as an original goal; and when it was formulated, the body had already changed quite substantially, and it meant something quite different form the original corpse of the leader.
It is also important that the scientific procedures to which that body is subjected have been changing and evolving over the years. This affected the criteria according to which the body has been maintained. The procedures, criteria, and scientific knowledge concerning different tissues, materials and parameters have been evolving, and the body as a material form has been evolving with them. Some of the body’s parameters have been steadily improving over the years, because the science around it has been developing and becoming more sophisticated.(See a discussion of this analysis in: Alexei Yurchak. «Netlennost’ formy: Leninism i material’nost’ mavzoleinogo tela», Neprekosnovennyi zapas, N. 3, 2013. An online version is available here: http://www.nlobooks.ru/node/3732)
Despite all the developments and changes of this project, the scientists at the lab have always used one reference point in all their multiple measurements, the moment of Lenin’s death. That moment constituted not just the end of a person but also the beginning of a new system. This had repercussions for the material form of that body. It was not preserved once and for all; rather it had become a form that has been continuously unfolding and changing in order to remain “the same.” Its properties are dynamic and regularly develop further, its materials are replaced and renewed, there is a future-oriented momentum in all of this. What is being preserved here is not just Lenin but a temporal unfolding that started at the moment of his death, a kind of ongoing time that cannot stop on its own.
AK: Thank you.
Tallinn, December-February 2013/14