So I recently read Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia and also Svetlana Alexeivitch’s La fin de l’homme rouge : Ou le temps du désenchantement
. The first is well known to readers, the second is a kind of oral history of the end of the Soviet Union as seen by self-identifying “Soviets”, i.e the people the people mocked as sovoks, supposedly a contraction of “sovetsky chelovek”.
Figes’ book gives a strong sense of Russia as a kind of internally colonial society, where the “nest of gentlefolk” celebrated in literature looks weirdly like the British empire’s quartet of engineer, doctor, district commissioner, missionary. Groups of privileged persons, claiming to be the bearers of culture, almost disappearing in the vast spaces and the masses of the unrecorded majority.
I really liked the point, which falls out of this, that the slavophil/westerniser distinction is really a false one because the slavophiles really had no idea and the westernisers by definition didn’t care. Figes argues that the astonishing achievements of 19th century Russian culture were in a way a consequence of the new sciences of archaeology, anthropology, and structural linguistics. Rather than speculating about the unknowably distant peasant universe, there was hard evidence of a pre-existing culture deeply influenced by Asia, by Islam, by Europe, and by its own Finno-Ugric, idiosyncratic, independent creativity. It was time to relaunch.
This left me wanting Erik Lund‘s view on Russian history. The combination, which Figes constantly pursues, of vast artificial cultural distinctions imposed on a background of identities changing yard by yard and hour by hour, and the paradox of a submerged past constantly romanticised, reminds me very much of his view of New England.
Alexeivich, meanwhile, shows the Soviet people, as distinct from the people who happened to inhabit the Soviet Union, as a follow-on aristocracy. This is probably unintentional, and may well be life imitating art, for good and for ill. For example, there is a weird absence of normal people.
Workers as such are not really included in the nostalgia for the state that called itself a workers’ state. Instead, there is a huge quasi-aristocratic condescension towards them. Picturesque individual say touching things, like servants in 19th-century literature. In practical politics, this manifests itself as the utter astonishment of the numerous party officials she interviewed at the outbreak of public protest. They were by turns horrified, amazed, exalted, and reduced to hunkering down in the bunker. Either Alexeivitch’s subjects, or her French translator, constantly speak not of workers or of the people but of the little people, les petites gens, like the ones who pay taxes. I couldn’t help but think that Russians (or Ukrainians, or Georgians) were the scum and the Soviets the elite.
Another odd thing is a strangely un-Marxist trope of contempt for materialism. What are Marxists, of all people, doing denying that economics is important? But so many of them express contempt for money, which isn’t bad, and then go on to whine that the rabble are only interested in money or even food. There is a PhD to be written just on the subject of sausages in this book. Literally everyone interviewed used the word “sausage” at least once. Very often, the very notion of food is considered a profoundly unworthy concern. This comes, needless to say, from people who weren’t going to go without.
There is a sort of complex of loathing that goes trade-Jews-food-kitchens-women in these recollections. Horrific sexism is a theme that explains a lot. A very important official (internal evidence suggests either Aleksandr Yakovlev or someone close to him) indeed remarks that the most surprising thing he and his colleagues noticed about Gorbachev was that he seemed to love his wife.
If worrying about what you might cook in your kitchen was unworthy, hanging out in it was cool. Another big theme is the strange sight of party officials celebrating the dissident kitchen circle of samizdat culture, or even taking credit for it. As in Figes’ Russia, a sort of equation exists balancing private culture with public obedience and what is very much an aristocratic loathing of trade or even work, with one exception.
That exception was the production of weapons of war. There is a hell of a lot of emotional militarism here. Nearly everyone quotes Sergei Akhromeyev saying that the factories couldn’t be expected to make pots and pans. The attitudes are most scary regarding the nuclear. People keep positively complaining that there hadn’t even been a war, and the USSR would have won.
There’s also a fair bit of pure tragedy and deep horror. Ex-prisoners’ children are astonished to encounter a cat because they’d never seen one or even heard of such a creature. An early Bolshevik recalls never learning to dance because his local branch considered it unsound. He later actually guarded trainloads of deportees.
There’s also a lot of whining from people who have clearly never imagined or even feared that they might have ever been wrong. After a while I started to think of it as Soviet UKIP, the human universal of being tiresome about the kids on your lawn. I set out on the book with the intention of being sympathetic, having occasionally thought that I might be British in the same sense that you might be Soviet or Yugoslav, the civil service as party. But if its mission is just to write down the reality, the reality is a lot of entitled old colonial district commissioners whining that they aren’t allowed to be self-important any more.
After all, there is a Maidan in Calcutta as well as in Kiev.