What Was Postsocialism, and What Comes Next? (Russia’s Alien Nations)

This is the thirteenth entry of Russia’s Alien Nations: The Secret Identities of Post-Socialism, an ongoing feature on All the Russias.  It can also be found at russiasaliennations.org. You can also find  all the previous entries here.


What Was Postsocialism, and What Comes Next?

(with apologies to Katherine Verdery)

Why are we in such a hurry to move on from postsocialism and the post-Soviet? Kevin Platt declared an end to the post-Soviet back in 2009, partly in response to the Russian invasion of Georgia. Five years later, the Russian annexation of Crimea makes Platt look either prophetic, or premature.  Integral to both Platt’s and Putin’s declarations of the end of an era is an understanding of the post-Soviet to be about state power, as well as the strength that the country projects to the broader world. Not that there aren’t difference in their approach; Putin quotes Russophile, quasi-fascist philosophers, while Platt quotes Timur Kibirov.  Also,  Putin has an army, and, last I checked, Platt does not (Kevin, if I’m wrong about this last one, please give me a call so we can discuss the terms for my surrender).  One argument is built on sheer strength, the other on nuance.

Platt references Serguei Oushakine’s important 2000 article on post-Soviet aphasia, which argues that the sheer “in-betweenness” of the post-Soviet “does not provide any cues about the direction to follow, it does not channel one’s identificatory process; instead it outlines the paths that should not be taken.”(995)  Oushakine writes further:

I have suggested that one of the most striking aspects of this discursive behaviour […]  was the loss of a metalanguage and thus the loss of ability to ‘dissect’ the metaphor of the ‘post-Soviet’. This lack of knowledge about one’s own location and being, I proposed, is closely connected with absence of the post-Soviet field of cultural production that could have provided the post-Soviet subject with adequate post-Soviet discursive possibilities/signifiers. Such absence of an adequate post-Soviet interpellation capable of ‘naming’ the subject undermines the very foundation of the existing discursive field and its institutions. The ‘post-Soviet’ remains an empty space, a non-existence, devoid of its subjectifying force, its own signifier, and its own meaning effect. (1010)

One of the many things I love about this paragraph, besides its insights into the post-Soviet condition, is how many times a set of sentences talks about the emptiness of the post-Soviet finds itself using the phrase “post-Soviet.” I do not take issue with Oushakine’s thesis about the discursive void left by the Soviet collapse; there’s a good reason that it’s so influential. But (admittedly with the benefit of nearly two decades since the essay’s publication), I would suggest that we look for the meaning of the post-Soviet in other places.   Oushakine’s work is that of an anthropologist, while Platt has proclaimed an “anthropological turn” in literary studies; I propose pushing a bit further into anthropology in order to find our way out of it.  The collapse of the Soviet Union was the culmination of a decades-long process that was about not just political ideology, but fundamental belief systems.  It is instructive to look at the language that older, anti-liberal post-Soviet citizens often use to describe perestroika and the subsequent undermining of Soviet values:  кощунство (sacrilege), святотатсво (also sacrilege), even богохульство (blasphemy).  Whether we talk of the lack of “morality,” or a “national idea,” what is lost is the sense of something sacred.

But how long can that loss last? As the Russian saying goes (and the title of Victoria Smolkin’s recent book on atheism reminds us), a sacred space is never empty. Or, at least, it doesn’t stay that way.  “Post-Soviet” is, initially, meaningless, but so was “Soviet” (from the Russian word for council, it was appropriated by the Bolsheviks out of naked opportunism). “Post-Soviet” eventually means something from the sheer accumulation of instances of its use.

We cannot expect people to provide a coherent definition of the “post-Soviet” in a set of ethnographic interviews.  Again and again, attempts to address the post-Soviet “ideological vacuum” head-on end up frustrating (as Yeltsin’s state commission to develop a new “national idea” demonstrates).  Asking for a coherent formulation of the post-Soviet on demand is like expecting native speakers to explain the fine points of a grammar that they have internalized without consciously learning (just ask the average Russian to elucidate verbal aspect or verbs of motion, or native English speakers to provide rules for using the definite article).  I submit that these discursive issues revolve themselves indirectly, through strategies that I would call “oblique” if Brian Eno had not so successfully appropriated this term for a different purpose.

Multiple definitions of the post-Soviet and postsocialist can be teased out by examining the various answers to two sets of questions: first,  the interrogative “Who are we?” or “Who is this subset of us?”, which is the focus of the first three chapters of the present study.  What are the identity formations that have some purchase in the wake of the Soviet collapse?   The second set of questions are inherently conditional-subjunctive:  we find out who we are by looking at who we could have been (the RussoFuturism of Chapter 5) or by compulsively traveling to the key historical moments that led us to this day (the popadantsy of Chapter4).

These are the secret identities of postsocialism.  It’s time to see what’s behind the masks.


Next: Chapter One