This is the twenty-sixth entry of Russia’s Alien Nations: The Secret Identities of Post-Socialism, an ongoing feature on All the Russias, as well as the thirteenth entry of Chapter 1. It can also be found at russiasaliennations.org. You can also find all the previous entries here.
The Russian Futurists called two of their most important manifestos “A Trap for Judges;” in Russian, “sadok sudei,” challenging their readers to adopt an evaluative stance while warning that engaging in aesthetic distinction is fraught with danger. Perhaps late Soviet culture is a “sovok sudei,” a “sovok of and for judges”? Could the sovok also be a kind of trap?
The sovok is a problem of both value and values, particularly for those who are tempted to condemn him. Looking down on the sovok may appear to be simple snobbery, but it can verge on philistinism: how comfortable should we be when we laugh at people who are unwilling or unable to keep up with the demands of conspicuous consumption? In mocking the sovok, are we implicitly accepting consumer capitalism as the measure of all things?
Accepting the sovok is no less a trap; does it mean aligning oneself with the self-righteous voices of Komsomol organizers lambasting a teenager for wanting to buy jeans? Or accepting the basic premises of Soviet economics, which neglecting human comfort in favor of heavy industry, military buildups, and vague promises of a better future, all undermined by the obvious corruption of the well-connected elites? Or, even worse for members of the Last Soviet Generation, does accepting sovok mean that their parents’ generation, the “sixties people” (shestidesiatniki), who talked endlessly about humanism and morality, might actually be right?
In other words, the most destabilizing thing about the sovok was that he might simply be a typical member of the late Soviet intelligentsia. This is more or less the case made by Victor Pelevin in his 1993 essay “John Fowles and the Tragedy of Russian Liberalism.” Using the British author’s famous novel The Collector as his point of departure, Pelevin compares the plight of the post-Soviet intelligentsia to that of Miranda, the novel’s kidnapped heroine. Miranda’s complaints about the soulless, money-obsessed people surrounding her remind Pelevin of essays in the (then) contemporary Russian press by outraged and confused intellectuals, whom he also compares to the pathetic protagonists of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard. This last comparison, while not original to Pelevin, is particularly apt, since The Cherry Orchard is a play about the hapless members of a dying class forced to sacrifice what they thought they’ve always truly valued (the beautiful, the spiritual) for what turns out to be the only value recognized by the world around them (money).
Pelevin cites an essay by Genis, apparently from Nezavisimaia gazeta, but every reference I have found to it cites only Pelevin’s own essay. Therefore, I will use it the same way Pelevin does: as a point of departure. According to Pelevin, Genis took a brief detour into the “metaphysical aspect of sovkovost’:”
Freed from the laws of the market, members of the intelligentsia [intelligenty] lived in an imaginary, illusory world. External reality in the form of the beat cop only now and then would wander into their version lived according to the laws of The Glass Bead Game. Strange, blurry esoteric phenomena with no counterparts in the other, real world were born here.
Pelevin argues that the sovok is merely a recent name for an old phenomenon, one that in Russia is usually associated with the intelligentsia: Sovok “is quite simply a person who does not accept the struggle for money or social status as life’s goal.” As such, sovok can only be superfluous in the Russia’ of the 1990s: “Now this nonfunctional appendix of the Soviet soul turns out to be an unaffordable luxury.” His conclusion inevitably leads us to the protagonists of our next chapter, the New. Russian:
Of course the sovok must be displaced (потесниться), but the problem is that his replacement is not homo faber, but rather the dark, criminal big shots (пупки) who can be considered middle class only after a fifth shot of vodka. In addition, the majority of the ideological opponents of sovok can’t seem to understand that being petit bourgeois—and especially being ethusiatic about it—hasn’t gotten any less vulgar due to the collapse of Marxism.
On the battleground of market capitalism, then, sovok is a metaphysical conscientious objector. Pelevin’s approach is revived over a decade later by Dmitri Bykov in an article for Moskovskaia Pravda. Expanding on the idea that the sovok lives in an imaginary world, Bykov adds:
His country is imaginary, and that is why romanticism is possible there. Today’s Russia, where there is no place at all for idealism, is a place that the sovok has nothing to do with: now it’s hard to imagine that, for an entire generation, The Master and Margarita was a cultural event, and the Taganka [Theater] was a spiritual luminary (“Sovetskoe—znachit shampanskoe!” September 9, 2005).
All the different understandings of sovok-the-person share a sense of backwardness, of being left behind, but they vary according to the speaker’s attitude toward the nature of the post-Soviet order, the Soviet past, and the extent to which “the Soviet” is identified with something lofty (defeating Hitler, for conservatives; “high culture” for intellectuals). Yet framing the sovok as a member of the intelligentsia is at least as much a trap as simply looking down on him as a bad consuming subject. The sovok-intelligent depends entirely on accepting the opposition between market and culture that was so important to the intelligentsia itself. In other words, it requires an acceptance of a late-Soviet intelligentsia outlook, one that looks increasingly limited with the passage of time. Are our choices really between the Soviet-Style intellectual and the thug? For an answer, we need look no further than the two men who appear to be making this argument. If anyone has had a career demonstrating that intellectuals and the market can come to an arrangement, it is Victor Pelevin and Dmitri Bykov. Each is hugely popular, and their work is taken seriously in intellectual circles; even when a book by Pelevin or Bykov is raked over the coals, there is no question that they cannot be ignored.
Neither Bykov nor Pelevin could be called “romantics,” so their defense of the sovok as an outmoded intellectual is intriguing. They were young enough and flexible enough to bridge the gap between the Soviet and the post-Soviet, and to express highbrow concerns with the tropes of mass entertainment. Perhaps for them the sovok is a holdover of a different kind: for writers who have made it big in the post-Soviet world, the sovok is a poignant reminder of those who have been left behind. They never had to face the choice to sell the cherry orchard, but they were old enough at the time to recognize that something important was being lost.
Next: “I’ll Buy the Wife Some Boots”