Alexey Golubev. Russian Studies in History. Volume 58, Issue 2/3. 2019.
In Ivan Efremov’s Hour of the Bull (1969) there is a curious episode that describes representatives of communist Earth preparing for their first encounter with the capitalist world of the planet Tormans. This passage brims with visual images and action. In order to make a stunning aesthetic impression on the locals, the protagonists work carefully on their outward appearance. First they choose outfits in a color that matches the color of their hair, then they take “tanning pills,” and, finally, they use chemical stimulants to change their eye color. The scene culminates when one of the protagonists exclaims, “Give us all radiant eyes, eyes that call stars to mind, and let them see an earthling from a distance, in any crowd!”
In this episode, along with all of the other scenes describing encounters between the communist and the capitalist worlds, Efremov goes above and beyond in visualizing and aesthetizing the way in which his protagonists perceive the capitalist world, through contrasting the images of the vivid and harmonious people of Earth and the lackluster inhabitants of Tormans, who are also described as physically unprepossessing. The accent on the eyes in this scene is no accident: the protagonists’ gaze shapes the space of this world in the novel, because the descriptions of it are conveyed either directly through the eyes of the earthling heroes or through their interaction with Tormansian society. In the poetics of Hour of the Bull, a person from Earth is first and foremost an observer (which is underscored in the narrative logic by the prohibition on earthlings interfering in the planet’s internal affairs), whereas the world of Tormans is the object of the gaze.
The story of Hour of the Bull is well known to historians of Soviet culture and literature. The novel, which was serialized in the magazine Molodaia gvardiia in 1969 and published in book form in 1970, was negatively received at the highest levels of the Soviet Party leadership. In September 1970, Iurii Andropov, who was KGB chairman at the time, submitted to the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] Central Committee a memorandum claiming that Efremov’s Hour of the Bull, “posing as a critique of the social structure on a fantastic planet … defames Soviet reality ..” Consequently the novel, despite its popularity, was never reissued in Efremov’s lifetime. After his death in 1972, published copies were removed from libraries and the book remained under a de facto ban until 1988.
In this article, I am most interested in the disruption [sboi] that Hour of the Bull caused in the self-identification of the novel’s readership. On the one hand, both the official reaction and an array of later memoirs indicate that part of Efremov’s readership recognized itself not in the harmonious, vivid, bright communist society of Earth but in the dark, gray, aesthetically unattractive society of Tormans. But, on the other hand, the text is peppered with hints, direct and indirect, that the civilization of Tormans is actually a critique of the Western (capitalist) and Chinese (“fake-socialist” in Efremov’s own terminology) models of development. A direct reading of the novel that takes into account both these indications and Efremov’s historiosophical reasoning therefore left readers who had never associated Soviet society with the novel’s imaginary world confused as to why the book had been banned. It may be stated with a good deal of certainty that an “anti-Soviet” reading of Hour of the Bull had also not been among the authorial intentions of Efremov himself, who had, rather, been out to show “a future communist society in contrast with a society engendered by capitalism.”
To my way of thinking, a possible reason for that disruption in Efremov readers’ ability to recognize themselves was that in the novel’s poetics, the heroes of communist Earth occupied a position that was structure-forming in the Soviet symbolic order—the position of the outside observer. In Soviet cultural production, that position is firmly associated not with Soviet citizens but with the figure of the Western observer, whose gaze created specific forms of Soviet subjectivity [sub”ektivnost”]—forms that Efremov’s novel related to “the social structure on [the] fantastic planet” of Tormans and were consequently recognized by certain readers (including Andropov) as “the defamation of Soviet reality.” The disruption that caused readers of Hour of the Bull to misidentify themselves thus supplies the groundwork for a discussion of the extent to which the Soviet “I” was derived from the specific cultural regimes and contexts in which the Soviet person existed, because, at least to part of Efremov’s readership, “the Soviet” (the author’s intentions notwithstanding) was associated with those situations and contexts that were used in the novel to describe Tormans. This is precisely the approach to a historical description of Soviet subjectivity that I intend to propose in this article. My approach will consist not in the reconstruction of an abstract [uslovnyi] Soviet subject [sub”ekt] endowed with a selection of stable markers but in the description of recurrent, culturally conditioned situations in which the awareness [osoznanie] of the self as a Soviet individual came about. Paraphrasing this in Michel Foucault’s terminology, the understanding of Soviet subjectivity that I wish to propose in this article consists in describing concrete historical regimes of subjectification.
I don’t believe that the problem can be solved by historicizing the subject as posited by the phenomenologists, fabricating a subject that evolves through the course of history. One has to dispense with the constituent subject, to get rid of the subject itself, that’s to say, to arrive at an analysis that can account for the constitution of the subject within a historical framework. And this is what I would call genealogy; that is, a form of history that can account for the constitution of knowledges, discourses, domains of objects, etc., without having to make reference to a subject that is either transcendental in relation to the field of events or runs in its empty sameness throughout the course of history.
This article represents an attempt to describe one of numerous situations through which the Soviet “I” was shaped and came to be known, a situation in which the Soviet person was in the position of being observed under the Western gaze, real or imagined. That regime of subjectification took shape, as I wish to show in this article, in concrete historical conditions as an effect of Soviet interaction with the surrounding world. The nature of that interaction was distinctly visual and performative [instsenirovochnyi], a fact to which scholars working on the cultural history of Soviet contacts with the West have already directed their readers’ attention.
These studies emphasize the spectacularity [zrelishchnost’] and theatricality of Soviet interaction with the West through the labels they use and in their basic concepts. In monographs by Paul Hollander and Michael David-Fox, Soviet cultural policy of the 1920s and 1930s is interpreted as “a spectacle” [“zrelishche“], “a performance” [“predstavlenie“], and “Potemkin villages.” François Furet operates with the term “illusion,” and that same visual aspect is emphasized in works by G.B. Kulikova, A.V. Golubev, and Martin Malia. Anne Gorsuch, A.D. Popov, and V.A. Khripun describe trips made by Soviet tourists to other countries and foreign tourism in the USSR after the war through the prism of spectacularity and performativity—Gorsuch writing about Soviet tourists “performing on the international stage,” Khripun describing Leningrad as the USSR’s “window on Europe,” and Popov introducing the concept of “demonstrational location” [demonstratsionnoe mesto] to characterize the service sector in Moscow during the 1980 Olympics. Stephen Bittner and Pia Koivunen also turn their readers’ attention to that latter aspect—the planning of the Soviet social and urban space around signature occasions in which a large number of foreigners would participate—using the Moscow Youth Festival of 1957 as their example. Research into the Cold War’s cultural aspects also underscores the presentational functions of Soviet culture and sport as the “face” of the Soviet Union for a Western public.
These studies share in common their interest in Soviet history in an international context, in what Michael David-Fox has called “transnational entanglements.” At the same time, interest in the political, cultural, and scientific/scholarly interaction between the Western world and the USSR has eclipsed the fact that the forms of Soviet self-representation to the outside world exerted far more influence on Soviet society than they did on the world for which they had been devised. In this article’s first section, I will show that an important effect of Soviet cultural diplomacy in the 1920s and 1930s, and one that ties in with its visuality and performativity, was the appearance in Soviet culture of the figure of the Western observer whose imagined gaze became a part of the Soviet disciplinary system.
The emergence of the Western observer in prewar Soviet culture supplies the culturohistorical background for the main body of this article proper, where I describe Soviet subjectification practices relating to the post-Stalin period. My conceptual apparatus is based on ideas regarding the culture-making and subject-forming potential of the gaze, which hark back to the works of Jacques Lacan and were developed by Foucault and additionally in feminist and LGBT theories. They are underpinned by the notion of the subject as dialogic, decentralized, lacking an autonomous nucleus but shaped by the sociohistorical context. The key aspects for my work are the interpretation of identity [identichnost’] as the result of an ideological hailing (interpellation) and, consequently, the notion of the subject as the effect of specific symbolic regimes and social situations. As I shall strive to demonstrate in this article, the work of the Western gaze on the shaping of the Soviet subject produced a visual regime in which the Soviet subject arose in the position of the observed. This position assumed a correspondence between certain qualities of sovietness and the ability to play those qualities up for an abstract Western public. It is important here to underline that this visual regime was not hegemonic: as Galina Orlova shows in her work, Soviet culture was characterized by a diversity and complex interaction of optics and the positions of observer and observed generated by those optics.
The Western gaze functioned comparably to an ideological interpellation that summoned the Soviet subject into social reality in certain culturally stipulated situations. It acquired that power, however, not directly but through the affects of pride and shame that it elicited. Of importance to me in this context are works on the theory of affect that view affect as a social phenomenon capable of interpellating the Soviet subject and thereby shaping him, summoning him into social reality. As a result, the Western gaze as a cultural phenomenon was high on the power structure’s preferred micropraxes, although it passed itself off as the external [storonnii] gaze of the Other. Its vehicles were not required to be physically present, because both the Western gaze and the Western observer were cultural abstractions, part of the Soviet symbolic order, that were produced and reproduced as an “internal” product of Soviet discursive space.
The Genealogy of the Western Gaze in Soviet Culture, or the Western Observer in Service to the Land of Soviets
Genealogically speaking, the Western observer and the Western gaze, as a cultural phenomenon in their Soviet reincarnation, date back to Soviet cultural diplomacy of 1917 to the 1930s, when the RSFSR [Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic] (and, from 1922, the USSR) became a destination for numerous worker delegations and representatives of the left-wing intelligentsia, as well as for major influxes of immigrants. The Soviet leadership was aware of the importance of these visitors’ visual experience in the USSR as a resource for the internal and external legitimization of the Soviet order. This may be traced by way of the first edition of John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, which was published in 1923 with forewords by Lenin and Krupskaia, who both underscored the importance of Reed’s book as an unmediated account of the revolutionary events of October and November 1917 through the eyes of an outside observer. This is especially noticeable in Krupskaia’s foreword, where she writes directly about Reed’s “sharp insight,” which enabled him to acquire true knowledge of the Revolution and lay it out in his book:
John Reed was not an indifferent observer but a passionate revolutionary, a Communist who understood the meaning of the events, the meaning of the great struggle. This understanding gave him that sharp insight without which such a book could never have been written.
Russians… write about the Revolution in a different manner: they either evaluate it as a whole or describe the episodes in which they took part. Reed’s book gives a broad picture of a truly popular mass revolution, and it will therefore have particular importance for young people, for future generations …
In a similar manner, Maxim Gorky appealed to his own position of an outside observer capable, by virtue of his detachment, of comprehending all of Soviet reality with his gaze, comparing it with Western realia, and confirming the superiority of the Land of Soviets. Gorky had returned to the USSR in 1929 after living for many years in Italy: “You need to have before you some kind of mirror, you need to have before you something to look into in order to better see what you have done, what you are doing, and what you ought to be doing.”
Both Krupskaia and Gorky discuss the importance of the outside observer not so much for the Western world as for inner symbolic consumption: to them, that observer plays the role of Lacan’s mirror, gathering the disjointed experience of Soviet reality into a single picture. In that regard, both authors characteristically underscore the fragmentation of the internal experience of Soviet reality and contrast it with the integrity of the external perception. Krupskaia points out that, on the strength of his inherently “sharp insight,” Reed “gives a broad picture” of revolutionary events, one of which Soviet authors were incapable. Rooted as they were in Soviet reality, the wide gaze was not available to them, which left them only “episodes” to describe. Meanwhile, Gorky addresses the Soviet audience on its “limited range” and his own wider “field of vision,” and directly declares the need for the outside observer as a “mirror,” in order for Soviet people to understand the grandeur of their achievements and thereby become aware of their own Soviet “I.”
The practice of inviting Western intellectuals has, in point of fact, always combined two contexts (foreign and domestic policy) and two audiences (the Western intellectuals themselves and Soviet society). The trips of prominent European and American cultural celebrities to the USSR had the entirely pragmatic hidden agenda of shaping a positive image of the Soviet state and its leadership abroad; hence the functionalist explanation of Soviet cultural diplomacy as “Potemkin villages.” But the domestic policy aspect of that process is no less important. N.Ia. Edel’man mentioned this briefly in his article “Guests of Stalin,” although there he narrowed it down to a way of reinforcing Stalin’s personal authority among the Soviet intelligentsia. Yet the effect may be presumed to have been far broader.
The visits of foreign headliners to the USSR generated discursive waves that began with Pravda, as was the case with Gorky, and ended with articles in regional newspapers that regularly described what guests of the Land of Soviets saw in the USSR and the impression made on them by what they had seen. In one such regional paper, for example, a Finnish immigrant “saw with her own eyes that a woman in the Soviet Union is not a slave to her family and the family kitchen but is endowed with equal rights as the builder of a new life.” And in another, two French intellectuals, André Gide and Henri Barbusse, described their experience of Soviet reality in ways that matched virtually word for word: “I would like to live long enough to have the opportunity of seeing with my own eyes … the triumph of the USSR,” and “I burn with the desire … to see with my own eyes the enormous work on the building of socialism that the workers and the collective farmers of the USSR have performed under the leadership of the Communist Party.” At that same time, Soviet newspapers began rendering the Western gaze visible, by running photographs of foreign citizens staring enchanted at some of communism’s awe-inspiring construction sites.
The numerous comparable stories and features in Soviet local newspapers whose circulation was restricted to their own plant or factory, raion, or oblast could hardly have had any significance whatsoever in shaping the Soviet image abroad. Addressed exclusively to a Soviet readership, they produced and reproduced the logic of the external gaze, which was supposed to be enraptured with Soviet realia. That cultural logic, however, had an opposite side, in that it also expected Soviet people to help the foreign guests’ viewing pleasure along. This was reflected in Lev Kuleshov’s movie The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (Goskino, 1924), which is compositionally aligned on the creation of a negative illusion of Soviet reality for a visiting American guest. As the movie ends, that illusion is handily dispelled through the diligent efforts of the security agencies, and the Cheka man who has delivered Mr. West from the clutches of a gang of seedy extortionists promises, “Now you will see thousands of true Bolsheviks.” After this, Mr. West mounts a viewing platform and, following the Chekist’s pointing finger, sees serried columns of Soviet people on the march. The intentional emotional intensity [pafos] of this scene undoubtedly resides in the radiogram that Mr. West sends to his wife, which reads: “Burn those New York magazines and hang up a portrait of Lenin in the study. Long live the Bolsheviks!” But a by-product of Mr. West’s conversion into a supporter of Soviet Russia is the transformation of Moscow into a spectacle for his gaze. The marching columns of “true Bolsheviks,” the enthusiasm of the workers that Mr. West observes on his way to send the radiogram, the majestic beauty of old Moscow and the constructivist innovation of the new order, as exemplified by the Shukhov Radio Tower—in other words, the urban landscape and the Soviet social body, the imperial past and the communist future are all marshalled into a single Soviet order of things under the gaze of Mr. West.
In the Soviet order’s first fifteen years, therefore, a cultural logic came into being in which the Western observer and his gaze, an abstraction created through innumerable published pieces on foreign visitors and immigrants to the USSR, acquired the ability to gather the fragmentary Soviet experience into a single whole—to summon to life, that is, a collective Soviet “I,” affiliation with which also defined the individual Soviet subject. The figure of the outside observer was not the only cultural mechanism whereby cultural activists of the early Soviet period strove to present an integral, composite picture of the Soviet land, however. Dziga Vertov had begun writing about the cinematic eye [kinoglaz] as a mechanism to decode and simultaneously organize reality in the early 1920s. The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West and Gorky’s rhetoric are structurally akin to such Vertov movies as A Sixth Part of the World and Stride on, Soviet! that documented a similar logic, involving the search for an extraterritorial position, for an external point of view that would create an integral picture of the building of socialism in the USSR.
The mid-1930s marked a paradigm shift from a keen interest in the search for an externalized position to the production of the normative narratives of socialist realism, a situation that rendered the position of the outside observer unproductive. From the latter half of the 1930s, the tempo of cultural production of the Western observer figure slackened, and Vertov’s ethnographic films also disappeared. Regarding this period, Michael David-Fox speaks of the birth of the “Stalinist superiority complex,” given that the ruling regime no longer had any need to have its power externally legitimized. Sergei Vladimirovich Zhuravlev argued along comparable lines when he wrote that the slogan of the 1920s and 1930s about the need to learn from foreigners was supplanted by its inverse—”What foreigners should learn in the USSR.” To my way of thinking, this tendency fits right into the same cultural logic of the observer and the observed, although here it reaches a degree of narcissism that rendered the external observer redundant.
In the mid-1950s, the political and cultural changes occasioned by Stalin’s death brought the figure of the Western observer back into the category of the meaningful other [znachimyi drugoi] in the Soviet symbolic order. This was when that figure’s historical depth, which dates back to the early years of Soviet power, became really important. Analyzing the reasons for people’s vulnerability to ideological interpellation in her Excitable Speech, Judith Butler laid special emphasis on the historical nature of that vulnerability: the expectation of an interpellation from the Other is that it will be a cultural commonplace and possess a certain historical depth: when the subject is interpellated he thereby enters into a specific regime of subjectivity (because he becomes a subject at the moment of interpellation) but only if there is a primordial inner readiness to be interpellated. The outcome of the Western observer and the Western gaze’s rootedness in the Soviet symbolic order was that, beginning in the mid-1950s, that observer again acquired the power to summon the Soviet subject into social being. The key juncture here is the affectivity of the Western gaze, whose subjectification of the Soviet person is accomplished through a summons of the emotions of pride and shame.
The Pride of the Observed: The Soviet Body and Soviet Objects on the International Stage
Scholarship on the Sixth World Festival of Youth and Students, which took place in Moscow in the summer of 1957, brought attention firmly to bear on the propagandist and performative nature of that event, by viewing the festival as a showcase of socialism renewed (after the Twentieth CPSU Congress) and as evidence of the socialist leadership’s readiness to compete openly with the West. The festival is therefore usually interpreted in the conceptual framework of transnational history. Far less attention has been given to the fact that the festival was not confined to Moscow but encompassed the entire Soviet space and was in that respect an important event, even for those who had never so much as seen a guest from abroad.
Regarding the 1957 Moscow Youth Festival comprehensively, we see that its two-week duration was only the tip of an iceberg of preliminary events that ran through 1956 and the first half of 1957. The grand opening in Moscow was preceded by festivals of youth and students throughout the USSR and they, in turn, by various selection events at the grass roots (hosted by houses of culture, primary Komsomol cells in enterprises, and raion Komsomol organizations). In the Karelian ASSR [Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic], for example, it all began in 1956, when the Karelian Komsomol oblast committee sent out several circulars to local Komsomol cells and organizations, instructing them to put on expositions at people’s places of work and raion festivals. During the winter and spring of 1956 to 1957, school, plant, and raion events were held, to select collectives to participate in the republican festival. All of this was accompanied by a campaign in the raion and republican press whose rhetoric ran along the lines that only the very best and most worthy would represent Karelia at the pre-festival competition in Leningrad, which would select those who would be going on to the Moscow Festival. For a while, the “festival” epithet was even employed to encourage shock workers to produce even more and even faster. Travel and accommodation vouchers for the Moscow Festival were also used to incentivize the introduction of new production technologies and work methods.
Not only people but also things were meticulously selected, first for the republican festival in Petrozavodsk and then for the Moscow Festival. On April 13, 1957, for instance, Karelia’s principal republican newspaper reported that the schoolchildren of Petrozavodsk were making their own gifts for participants of the republican festival but that only the best presents would be given to festival delegates. A little earlier, in February, the Karelian oblast Komsomol committee had distributed to raion Komsomol committees instructions on centralizing the preparation of gifts for guests of the Moscow Festival. After itemizing the possible gifts, the oblast committee recommended “a competition for, and exhibition of, the best festival gifts.” During the republican festival, the Komsomol leadership put on an exhibition of visual and applied art and artistic photography whose declared aim was “to reflect the culture of the people of Karelia.” Like all of the other festival events, the exhibition was organized as a competition: the best pieces were rewarded with cash, pictures of them were featured in the newspaper Komsomolets, and they were then sent on to the Moscow Festival.
This entire monumental movement of people and things took place in 1956 and 1957 all across the Soviet Union. Production plans were fulfilled and overfulfilled under festival slogans. Schools and industrial enterprises held competitive expositions, and towns and villages put up decorations for their local festivals, many of them naming a street “Festival.” Young men and women formed up in their rows and columns, Party and Komsomol functionaries dispensed guidelines, and journalists produced edifying texts. And all of this had one goal—to present to the foreign guests of the Moscow Festival the ideal Soviet collective body: healthy, cultured, able, emancipated, and a thing of beauty. This was, in other words, a collective body capable of rousing admiration in the guests of the USSR and pride in Soviet society. Both people and things, furthermore, were ranked depending on their correspondence to the Soviet ideal, this being the competitive logic that inhabited all these preparations. And the benchmark of that logic was the prospective foretaste of the pleasurable affect derived from having been transformed into an object of scrutiny—that is, from assuming the position of the observed.
For most Soviet people drawn into the festival movement, the foreign guest-cum-observer was still an abstract, imagined figure. Nevertheless, his gaze was the reason why Soviet society and Soviet space turned into a festival spectacle for the better part of a year. The festival plunged its participants into the Soviet order of things, which included both a new regime of subjectification, defined as the ability to put on a worthy performance before the Western gaze, and the new function and position of the power structure, as an expert impresario who determines the possible ways of performing before a foreign public and the very best way to do that.
The definition of the various gradations of sovietness through their ability to rouse the admiration of the Western public (by being transformed into the object of the gaze) and of the power structure as the expert orchestrator—knowledgeable, that is, as to what the Western observer should be seeing—are also discernible in another phenomenon launched in 1956 and 1957, that being Soviet foreign tourism. Performativity was the cornerstone of Anne Gorsuch’s conceptual apparatus in her study of Soviet foreign tourism “after Stalin”: as the official discourse interpreted it, citizens of the USSR were traveling as tourists through a chink in the iron curtain in order to “perform on the international stage.” And in his article for this book [published in this issue—Ed.], Ilya Kukulin shows that the lyrical heroes in Evtushenko’s and Voznesenskii’s travelogue poems perceive and represent themselves in exactly these terms, as the envoys of Soviet society who are now participants in a global aesthetic and political revolution. In other words, Soviet tour groups and each individual Soviet tourist were to present themselves as a spectacle for the Western gaze. Unsurprisingly, choosing Soviet people to be tourists, although nowhere near as complex as selecting participants for the Moscow Youth Festival, still involved several stages, including a physical examination by medical personnel and a KGB-supervised screening.
It would be overly simplistic to interpret that process only from the functionalist viewpoint, as the framing of the Soviet social body for its big reveal abroad. Foreign tourism was a social phenomenon through which Soviet society’s differentiation was expressed, and the way in which the ideal Soviet collective body was imagined just happened to be among the differentiating factors. Such “uncontemporary” Soviet subjects as collective farmers, the disabled, and members of religious minorities were, as a rule, denied access to foreign tourism, and in order to receive a foreign passport, “contemporary” Soviet subjects (workers, school and college teachers, engineers, technical and cultural personnel) had not only to demonstrate their skills in “speaking Bolshevik” and in conducting themselves “as befits a Soviet person,” but also to pass supplementary courses that reinforced those skills. Finally, membership in the Soviet administrative elite [nomenklatura] gave privileged access to foreign tourism.
But foreign tourism, despite often being used as a privilege by the elite and in the 1970s and 1980s, furthermore, increasingly transforming into a valuable material resource (in which a tourist trip’s success was gauged by the price tags on the items that were brought home), the performative aspect of foreign tourism was always there. In the 1968 comedy The Diamond Arm, directed by Leonid Gaidai, Soviet tourists walk around a city on the Mediterranean in the height of summer wearing three-piece suits. Moreover, the rules for a stay abroad adopted by the CPSU Central Committee in 1979 reiterate that “during time spent abroad, Soviet people should keep an attentive and constant watch on their outward appearance, be always neat and tidy.” In this cultural logic, Soviet tourists were imagined as a synecdoche: every Soviet person abroad was part of the whole (Soviet society and the state) and should conduct him or herself accordingly, in such a way that in the panoptical space of a trip abroad for business or pleasure, their bodies and their performance would elicit a feeling of pride rather than shame.
As was the case for the Moscow Youth Festival, not only people but also items were supposed to elicit pride under the scrutiny of the Western public. The most spectacular Soviet objects in the latter half of the 1950s were, of course, Earth’s first manmade satellite and the Soviet space vehicles that followed. After the launch of the first sputnik on October 4, 1957, the Soviet mass media began retailing innumerable illustrations and documentary clips that centered on the Western public observing Soviet-made space objects with delight, surprise, and envy. In essence, Sputnik 1 and the other Soviet objects sent into space were the ideal symbols to reinforce the relations of observer and observed between the imagined West and Soviet society, because these devices’ orbital motion made them physically visible from anywhere on Earth. Those graphic representations underscored “the work of vision” [“rabota zreniia“] undertaken by Western observers who were portrayed watching Soviet space objects through binoculars and telescopes, and their poses and the expressions on their faces were emphasized as the very embodiment of rapt attention.
Yuri Gagarin’s space flight in 1961 gave added momentum to the development of the Soviet cultural logic of the Western observer watching Soviet progress affably and admiringly, or with hostility, envy, and alarm (his emotions, whatever they may be, always confirming the Soviet system’s superiority). Whereas in 1957 the Western observer was still an important yet secondary figure in Soviet representations of Western reactions to the launch of the first sputnik, four years later the Soviet media referred to the Western gaze as one of the main effects of Gagarin’s flight. Soviet newsreels released immediately after April 12, 1961, included foreign footage that showed, in particular, the French public staring rapturously at Gagarin’s portraits on the streets of Paris, and citizens of Eastern European countries attending mass rallies to celebrate the Soviet success in the space race. After his flight, Gagarin made several European trips in his new status of Soviet A-lister, which were covered in detail in the Soviet press and news segments. The Soviet media interspersed Gagarin’s image with numerous shots of Westerners, thus transforming the first Soviet cosmonaut into a spectacle for the Western public and transferring the spectacle into Soviet cultural space. This created a specific media-generated system of knowledge, and once immersed in that system, Soviet people were not only aware that Gagarin was the first man in space but also knew and took pride in the sensation he had caused in the capitalist world.
In this period, the Soviet Union was the manifest front-runner in space exploration. It is therefore no coincidence that the first manmade Earth satellite and Gagarin were the embodiment and personification of Soviet pride. Being visible to all by following a circular motion (Sputnik 1 stayed in orbit for three weeks) or by owning the status of the first man in space, they defined “the Soviet way” as occupation of the leading edge in science and technology. Their representation in Soviet cultural production as objects of the Western public’s rapturous observation bolstered national pride in those parts of the Soviet whole that were worthy of performing on the international stage.
The historical phenomena on the cusp of the 1960s analyzed above—the preparation for the Moscow Youth Festival of 1957, the opening up of foreign tourism for Soviet citizens, and the Soviet space program—were important factors in the current rehabilitation of the Western gaze as a structuring element of the Soviet symbolic order. (Another that may be added is the transformation of the USSR into one of the world’s leading sporting nations.) It is also important to emphasize here that the Western observer was always portrayed as showing emotion: the Western gaze could express delight or antagonism but never indifference. And in every instance, the Western observer’s emotions were elicited by a new awareness that the Soviet reality now open to his/her eyes had proved more contemporary than how the Western stereotypes, according to Soviet discourse, imagined the USSR. In this respect, the Soviet cultural logic was circular: first it created in its audience the knowledge that in the West the USSR was perceived as a backward state, and then it refuted that knowledge through the emotional reaction of the Western observer astounded by the spectacle of contemporary Soviet space, technology, or people. In particular, Moscow’s massive makeover in the run-up to the 1957 Youth Festival created numerous opportunities for literary and visual representations of flabbergasted foreigners, who arrived in Moscow to see a backward Russia but, just like Mr. West in Lev Kuleshov’s 1924 movie, instead beheld modernity, made manifest in Soviet progress. A citable example is a 1957 essay in the magazine Krokodil, in which a Western guest of the Moscow Festival travels around Moscow hoping to find “rotting wooden hovels, barracks, and pits,” “swamps and puddles,” “wastelands,” and “grime.” When instead of that “before our eyes the familiar Moscow panorama opened out: multistory blocks of new residential buildings, tapering off into infinity,” the hapless critic of the Soviet order is transfixed with surprise. This same tendency may be discerned in numerous Soviet cartoons in Krokodil that wax ironic on the subject of observers ill-disposed toward the USSR, who have to conceal their illusions about archaic Soviet reality (or openly concoct new ones), because the real Soviet reality that opens up to them is that of a contemporary state with a powerful industrial sector and modern housing, transportation, and consumer goods.
On summarizing the cultural logic that stood behind representations of the Western observer in Soviet culture and the press in the post-Stalin period, its most important juncture is found to be the ability of the Western gaze to animate. The Western observer was, as a rule, portrayed as passive, but his gaze set Soviet reality into motion by giving rise to a need to perform before a foreign public, imagined or real. The Western observer was empowered by discursive and performative practices that trace their genealogical origins to the early decades of Soviet history. In other words, this power was a product of the historical depth of the cultural figure of the Western observer with his ability to summon the Soviet subject into being, to render Soviet things affective, and to transform Soviet space. The Western observer and the Western gaze were reproduced in countless visual and textual representations; they were implied when Soviet space was ranked into areas that were recommended for foreign tourists or closed to them, and were played up at the raion and regional festivals of 1957. But neither the Western observer nor his gaze was a single or monolithic phenomenon: they arose as an effect of the countless multiplicity of events taking place throughout the USSR in a variety of contexts, but all tending toward one and the same result, that being the engendering of a normative Soviet subject through that subject’s having occupied the position of the observed, and through Soviet power having been defined as an expert impresario.
The power of the Western gaze was by its very nature affective, the motive force for the Soviet person that defined how one must perform on “the international stage” being the requirement to make an impression on the outside observer (eliciting delight, veneration and approval from abstract friends, and envy, impotent range, and disappointment from abstract enemies). In the Soviet cultural logic, the Western gaze thereby gave rise to an ontological requirement for pride in the Soviet body, the Soviet thing, or the Soviet space. But the Western gaze’s symbolic power also had a downside. A brush with real Western observers who refused to go into raptures or devout horror at the sight of Soviet people, things, or landscapes resulted in the affective economy of the Western gaze becoming by its very nature dialectical: in it, pride rubbed shoulders with shame.
Shame before the Western Public and the Effects of That Shame
It would be simplistic to say that the process wherein the figure of the Western observer in Soviet culture was rehabilitated and put back into production “after Stalin” had been launched “from above,” to achieve an abstract legitimization of Soviet power. The Western gaze was already deeply rooted in Soviet culture by the mid-1950s—in the symbolic positions that it engendered, in the ranking of Soviet bodies as contemporary and uncontemporary, and in the classification of Soviet space and Soviet objects as what may be shown and what must be hidden. The discursive and performative nature of the Western gaze and its rootedness in Soviet culture ensured that it would be replicated irrespective of the “higher echelons” and the “lower reaches.” It may be supposed that those who participated in the preliminary expositions and interim festivals of 1956 and 1957 had signed up as volunteers with the intention of showing themselves in the very best light to the foreign guests at the Moscow Youth Festival, and that Soviet tourists traveling abroad were, in identical style, sincerely trying hard to make a positive impression on foreign citizens. The reasons behind this eagerness to volunteer and these sincere efforts were that a malfunction in a performance before a foreign audience was fraught with another affect more poignant than that of pride—the affect of shame.
The experience of feeling shamed before the Western gaze has been described in many Soviet sources of personal provenance, beginning in the mid-1950s. So, for instance, the memoirs of Tat’iana Pavlovna Kaptereva-Shambinago, who was on the second European cruise in the history of postwar Soviet tourism (in 1957), contain a curious story involving a visit to Helsinki’s famous amusement park.
[We] were led into a dark room where the floor, which was made up of cylinders, was going every which way. We held out our hands trustfully to be grabbed by the pleasant-looking young local men who promptly put us in a place where streams of air were blowing up from the floor, so strong that even narrow skirts slid upward. … Another reason why it was shameful and humiliating was that Soviet ladies’ underwear was not the most beautiful thing ever seen. The glass maze was funnier. There, lost Russian guys in their straw hats and canvas outfits, with absolutely miserable expressions on their faces, were wandering endlessly from one dead end to another.
This excerpt describes the experience of feeling shamed for having one’s homely underwear laid bare to the gaze of those “pleasant-looking” young Finnish men and for having their male traveling companions exposed to the glass maze’s equally universal visibility in their clumsy suits, of which, just a little earlier, Kaptereva-Shambinago had written: “In the eyes of foreigners at that time we looked bizarre. While the women came across as put together and run-of-the-mill, the men presented an unforgettable spectacle.” In both instances, the moment of experiencing shame represented for the author the moment when the Soviet collective “I” was actualized, as is evident in the use of the phrases “Soviet ladies” and “Russian guys.” The malfunction in the show that the Soviet people were putting on for a Western audience led not to a forfeiture but to an exacerbation of self-identification.
Both the literature of the emigration and the perestroika period and post-Soviet memoirs have documented many examples in which disruption in Soviet performativity under the Western gaze led to a heightened sense of belonging to the collective Soviet “I,” all social and cultural boundaries within it notwithstanding. In Natal’ia Georgievna Medvedeva’s novel Mama, I’m in Love with a Grifter!, the shame felt when the doorman at a Leningrad restaurant behaves like a bumpkin in the presence of a band of Italians is for the protagonist—herself far from the “norm” of Soviet womanhood—a moment of national identification, a sense of commonality with “the Russians, Soviet citizens.”
With a smile, the doorman flings the doors open for a bunch of Eyeties. … All they had to do was wiggle their brand-name-clad butts and their Italian passports at him—they didn’t give him anything! Aleksandr gives the doorman a tenner for us, and still he’s not happy. … And I’m ashamed in front of the foreigners. For my own, for the Russians, for Soviet citizens!
The protagonist’s entire “non-Soviet” way of life, her ostentatious refusal to follow everyday Soviet rituals, her involvement in the Soviet shadow economy, her innumerable sexual encounters—everything that was antonymous in the official discourse to the qualities of the Soviet person—becomes unimportant in this moment of shame over a disruption in the spectacle of Soviet reality, of shame “in front of the foreigners.” At that moment, she becomes a Soviet woman.
The protagonist of the Vainer brothers’ The Gospel of the Executioner (written for the desk drawer [v stol] in the late 1970s, published in 1991) is similarly “ashamed in front of the foreigners” for the queues that not only inject a dissonance into the Soviet urban landscape but even redefine historical time. Because if Soviet citizens are incapable of behaving with dignity in front of the (imagined) foreign gaze, they also have no grandeur before the face of history.
The pitiful little queuelet for ground corn, the routine queue for potatoes, the estimable file for “icefish,” the impressive line for meat, the majestic procession for booze. I’m shamed for you, my fellow-citizens. It’s wrong to love groceries so much; it’s disgraceful to pamper the flesh so. … I’m ashamed for you in front of the foreigners.”
Georgii Daneliia’s moment of shame came during a failed performance before the Western gaze while purchasing pantyhose for his friend’s wife on a trip to Italy. In his memoirs, Daneliia titled the episode “Our Folks Abroad,” even though the “our folks” were limited to Daneliia himself and his friend Vladimir Baskakov, the screenwriter and Goskino bureaucrat. The episode is funny because Daneliia and Baskakov have to this point never seen or bought a pair of pantyhose (Daneliia learns of the concept only at the moment of purchase) and are forced to explain what they need with gestures alone, as they don’t speak Italian.
Baskakov paid. When we opened the packet (which really did contain pantyhose), I held them up against myself, and they were too short. I showed the sales clerk, with a gesture, how small they were. He (also with a gesture) explained that they would stretch out. I held them at my belly button, Baskakov tugged them down to the floor. … And the sales clerk and the signora and her husband watched this scene with disgust.
Another curious thing about all of these examples is that there were no social or cultural boundaries to the shame affect in Soviet symbolic space. The effect it produced—a painful self-identification of oneself as part of the Soviet whole—was identical for members of the Soviet creative intelligentsia (Kaptereva-Shambinago and Daneliia) and for Medvedeva’s free-spirited heroine and for state security officer Boris Nikolaevich Grigor’ev, who was posted to the Soviet Embassy in Copenhagen in the early 1970s as resident for the KGB’s First Main Directorate.
We all … ran from store to store, ordering goods at the diplomatic discount; stuffed our acquisitions into boxes, packed them up the day before we left, and shipped them home. … I remember sorrowfully all those preparations and send-offs, getting onto the train, the crowds seeing us off bending over backward to get a care package into the hands of someone who was leaving, the scornful gazes of the Danes observing a Civil-War-vintage scene of mass migration. … How sordid!
In this excerpt, the author’s voice resonates from two positions. On the one hand, Grigor’ev defines himself as a full-fledged participant in the process of self-enrichment and pursuing Western goods (“We all”)—that is, as a subject with consumerist desires. The second position emerges when he is evaluating the actions of his Soviet Embassy coworkers as a “scene”—that is, as a visual array that arises by virtue of the presence of a Western public under whose gaze (“the scornful gazes of the Danes”) comes the awareness that the Soviet bodies and things are not conforming to the performative acts that are expected of them. Shame thereby does double duty here: it causes a disruption in the self-identification of “oneself” as a subject of desire and then promptly summons into being a subject painfully aware of his own sovietness. The American philosopher Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick drew attention to that twofold interaction between shame and self-identification. On the one hand, shame for Sedgwick is the moment in which the communication process that constitutes identity is disrupted: “Shame floods into being as a moment, a disruptive moment, in a circuit of identity-constituting identificatory communication.” But at the very moment when it breaks the familiar identificatory circuit, shame imposes another identity. For Sedgwick, the double movement of shame is a movement “toward painful individuation, toward uncontrollable relationality.”
Yet the “scornful” gazes of foreign observers discussed in the preceding passages, necessary to the emergence of the shame affect, are of course imagined. Grigor’ev first had to become aware of himself and his colleagues from the Soviet Embassy in Copenhagen as a spectacle (a “scene”) if he was to immediately follow that up by sensing how inappropriate that spectacle was and, looking around at the Danish passengers in the Copenhagen station, to interpret their entire spectrum of possible reactions as “scorn.” This is exactly when “spectacle prefaces sight”—in other words, when the awareness of oneself as the object of the Western gaze precedes the opportunity to see (or, in point of fact, to imagine) that gaze. Whether or not the Danish witnesses to the departure of the Soviet diplomatic railroad cars were in reality feeling scorn is not important in the given context: the shame comes as a consequence of the inner, internalized Western gaze. And it is equally unimportant whether the Italian “signora and her husband” watched Daneliia and his friend stretching out those pantyhose “with disgust” or felt some other emotions. What is important is that Daneliia’s awareness that his actions do not conform to how a Soviet person is expected to behave abroad—that is, his occupying the symbolic position of the viewed—”precedes the sight” and sets the boundaries of how what has been seen is to be interpreted.
The effect of all these instances—the affective interpellation of the Soviet subject—is to redefine in hindsight his previous existence as, for example, Grigor’ev’s subject of consumerist desires: the prior identification ceases to be important when he becomes aware of himself as the object of “the scornful gazes of the Danes” and redefines his consumerist experience by exclaiming “How sordid!” The social, behavioral, and gender distinctions between Medvedeva’s heroine and the Soviet doorman are unimportant because the shame for the way he behaves in front of the “Eyeties” underscores their commonality as two components of the Soviet collective body.
In Soviet cultural space, therefore, the playacting for the Western public was accompanied not only by a foretaste of pride in the individual or collective performance but also by a fear of failure. It was this Soviet fear to be recognized in the prewar barracks and shortage of goods, rather than in Moscow’s beautiful urban landscapes and the unfaltering growth of industrial production, that became expressed in the abovementioned cartoons of malevolent capitalists who seek to hide the ‘true’ Soviet reality behind illusions and deceit. Any disruption in a performance of sovietness put on for the Western public was therefore cast as a defamation of Soviet reality. This fear was reflected both in the phenomenon of “grandstanding” [“pokazukha“] for foreigners and in reports written by Soviet tourist officials, who started to panic when foreign tourists in the USSR looked at something that was not prescribed for them to be shown, or when Soviet tourists abroad stepped outside of the framework of “proper” behavior. The fear was also presumably what had elicited the Soviet leadership’s negative reaction to the disruption in the way the readership of Efremov’s Hour of the Bull recognized/failed to recognize itself (in the episode I used to begin this chapter). The novel’s main targets of observation are, after all, not the inhabitants of communist Earth but the citizens of benighted, aesthetically unattractive Tormans, who again and again failed to perform properly on the interplanetary stage. In her study of the shame affect, Sedgwick drew her readers’ attention to the fact that the affect elicits self-identification not with the person witnessing the shameful act but with the person committing it—a factor that probably strengthened the correlation drawn by readers of Hour of the Bull between Soviet society and Efremov’s fictitious world.
As seen in these examples, to be successful in the subjectification of the Soviet person, the Western gaze required him/her to possess certain cultural competencies, including not only the skills needed to perform on the international stage but also the ability to measure himself/herself against the reaction of the Western audience, to occupy its position—in other words, to replicate from below, on the level of one’s own body and in relation to one’s own self, the power structure’s expert directorial functions. The possession of these competencies, however, would unavoidably lead to social and cultural conflicts associated with Soviet citizens’ attempts to change their position (the position of the observed) in the symbolic space shaped by the Western gaze, relocating either to the position of the expert (i.e., the position occupied by the power structure) or to that of the Western observer himself.
The Manipulation of Positions as a Practice of Subjectification
In that same year of 1956, when preparations for the Moscow Youth Festival were beginning in the Soviet regions and European capitals were receiving the first Soviet cruise ships, Konstantin Georgievich Paustovskii was attending a discussion of Vladimir Dmitrievich Dudintsev’s Not by Bread Alone at the Moscow House of Writers, and delivering a speech there that would become one of the earliest documents of samizdat. In that speech, Paustovskii critiqued the “new caste” of the Soviet administrative elite, personified in Dudintsev’s novel in the character of Drozdov, accusing it of destroying the Soviet intelligentsia “in the name of its own … well-being.” A few months earlier, Paustovskii had been a passenger on the steamer Pobeda on the first postwar European cruise from the Soviet Union, during which he witnessed members of the Soviet elite perpetrating an epic fiasco on the international stage. Not surprisingly, one of the main points in his attack on the Soviet elite involved an appeal to the Western gaze.
Relatively recently, I had occasion to spend a fairly long time among the Drozdovs and to cross paths with them a whole lot. They were astounding in their bizarre ignorance. Letting such people outside our motherland is, in my opinion, a crime because they—the Drozdovs—evidently have completely different concepts of the prestige of the country and of the Soviet person.
In this speech, Paustovskii appropriates the power structure’s position, the same expert position from which what can be and what must not be shown to the Western gaze is assessed (“Letting such people outside of our motherland is, in my opinion, a crime”). Furthermore, the shame affect that forced Paustovskii to feel a painful identification with the Drozdovs, as expressed in his reference to “the prestige of the country and of the Soviet person,” inevitably led him to politicize his statement, inasmuch as, in it, he claims the right to define the boundaries and gradations of sovietness. The Drozdovs, in Paustovskii’s opinion, have “nothing in common with the Revolution or with our country or with socialism,” not only because they were responsible for 1937 but also because of their blatant failure to conform to the ideals of the Soviet person—a failure that could not be laid bare more poignantly than under the Western gaze.
Serguei Oushakine proposed employing the term “mimetic resistance” in conceptualizing the Soviet dissident movement, deriving his interpretation of this movement’s idiosyncrasies from the dissidents’ use of “this particular type of language, these particular forms of arguments that … were not so different from the discourse of the communist authorities themselves,” as a result of which they “were able to assume a certain symbolic and discursive position in the society and thus to represent themselves as political subjects.” An analysis of statements like those in Paustovskii’s speech invites the proposal of a corollary to Oushakine’s idea, which is that the occupation of a symbolic position associated with a given function of the power structure (in this particular instance, the position of expert) preceded the awareness of oneself as a critically disposed subject. Another example comes from Iurii Markovich Nagibin’s diary, whose most critical episodes—a background against which Paustovskii’s speech sounds positively low-key—are tied to the shame affect felt by Nagibin relative to fellow-countrymen who were unable to behave “with dignity” in the presence of foreigners, but were still dispatched abroad or were invited to receptions hosted by foreign consulates as one of the privileges accruing to the administrative elite.
The reception was mortifying. … A disgraceful scene in the spirit of Russia’s old-world feudal hierarchy played out around the table reserved for the bigwigs. “Come here, damn you!” Sizov roared at his wife and, grabbing her by the hand, literally flung her onto a chair next to him.
In this and similar episodes, Nagibin transforms into a critic of the power structure at the point at which his shame for his fellow-countrymen’s behavior or his personal umbrage nudged him into the position of expert, from which he proffered a negative assessment of how they had performed for an international public. And a critical political position was the by-product of that assessment. Galina Vishnevskaia adopted the exact same position when describing the gradual buildup of her critical attitude toward Soviet cultural policy, which ultimately spilled over into her leaving the country: this was the shame she felt over decisions taken by Soviet cultural bureaucrats that prevented her from giving a worthy performance on the international stage:
My heart was breaking with shame for our great-power boorishness. I could not understand how the Soviet government could refuse the honor of a great English composer, inspired by the singing of a Russian songstress, writing a part for her in a work of genius. … It was, after all, an honor not only for me but also for my people.
This statement showcases the very same exacerbated identification with the Soviet collective “I” elicited by the shame affect, which ends up as the political gesture that is the description of Soviet cultural policy as “great-power boorishness.” In this episode, Vishnevskaia assesses the situation not as a mere performer begrudging the loss of a role. Rather, the assessment is being made from the position of expert, which suggests a concern for national interests (“It was, after all, an honor … for my people”). In Vishnevskaia’s mind, shame in a specific situation acquires a national framework and prefaces a political assessment of the situation. And, characteristically, the shame affect had an analogous outcome—the emergence of a critical subject—in the case of KGB officer Boris Grigor’ev, who uses similar words in his memoir to describe a situation during his posting to Copenhagen, when he felt shame for two high-ranking bureaucrats from Old Square, whom he was accompanying on a flight to Moscow.
[T]he two of them oozed [out of the Soviet Embassy] and squeezed into the back seat of the Ford that I had had the foresight to drive into the courtyard, to spare passers-by the shameful spectacle. … [At the airport] I looked around and saw both of the old guys—the horror!—at the other end of the concourse. They might just as well have been playing tag, the way they were bolting from the Aeroflot representative who was chasing them, and mocking him all the way. … The passengers and airport employees in the vicinity were perplexed observers of this unusual piece of performance art [kheppening]. … Unfortunately, this was not the only example of boorish, arrogantly supercilious behavior, contemptuous of the country’s dignity, on the part of the high and mighty. My faith in the Party had been definitively shaken.
As in the preceding instances, Grigor’ev’s affective experience—the suffering of shame for the tipsy CPSU Central Committee functionaries—results from his having occupied an “expert” position (i.e., the position normally reserved for the power structure). Along with the Danish passengers and the Kastrup Airport staff, he observes their behavior from the sidelines, assessing it. Unlike the Danes, though, Grigor’ev has a painful sense of his unity with the Soviet functionaries, which he tries to hide at the beginning of the trip from the embassy to the airport (“to spare passers-by the shameful spectacle”). In the final analysis, the shame he has suffered through leads him to make a political statement that he in hindsight named as a loss of faith in the CPSU. Yet this experience did not bring out the dissident in him. Grigor’ev continued serving in the KGB and, in a piece published in 2009, positioned himself as a supporter of strong state power in Russia and an opponent of Western influences.
It may thus be documented that shame suffered in the symbolic space created by the Western gaze had a fairly universal and predictable effect, forcing the Soviet subject from the position of the observed to the position of expert. And once there, he began producing political statements in which he criticized the current political and social order. In other words, the subject’s movement within the affective economy of the Western gaze (from the expected pride to the suffering of shame) led to the Soviet person’s negative politicization.
None of these gradations, though, suggested any way to escape the reigning symbolic order. Statements critical of the Soviet administrative elite or official policy in the instances I have analyzed arose from people occupying an identical symbolic position and were a genus-specific, not species-specific, feature of very different Soviet subjects—a sign of their commonality, not of their dissimilarity. Having arisen in the symbolic space of playacting for a Western audience, these statements paradoxically strengthened the Soviet identity of those making them and reproduced the power structure’s discursive structures. The political problem they formulated consisted not in whether or not to perform on the international stage but in how to improve that performance so as not to be shamed before a foreign public.
The generation of critical statements did not, however, exhaust the potentials of the Western gaze in this kind of affective management of Soviet subjectivity. Shame, suffered as the inability of the Soviet collective “I” to mount a worthy performance on the international stage, proposed another kind of mimicry by way of solution, that being displacement to the position of the actual Western observer for whose sake the Soviet performances were being put on. Late socialist society offered countless such displacements, which materialized in a taste for Western things and Western culture. Symptomatic among them is the account that follows, in which the writer remembers her trip to the German Democratic Republic at the dawn of perestroika.
My very first trip was to the GDR [German Democratic Republic] … [where] I bought white jeans and a black jacket and Gabor shoes, green suede on black crocodile leather. … I paraded in those white pants and that black crocodile around my nasty city, and it seemed to me that a fine figure such as myself improved the landscape just a tad. There were fleece tops and pearlescent lipstick all over the place, and it was better not to look at the guys at all, and in that mess I had the air of a tourist who was scheduled to take off for home in three days, back to the land of white pants. Nothing could be done with that landscape, not a thing. No matter how much traveling I did later, how much stuff I got my hands on and dragged after me in boxes, whole caravans of them, how much I dolled up all my folks, how many sophisticated, handy things I hauled home from parts unknown, that landscape never changed, with not a breath of wind, not a ripple on the water. That bottomless pit swallowed everything up, leaving not a trace behind.
The white pants—an explicit allusion to Ostap Bender—and the crocodile shoes in this text wield a power that radically displaces the author in Soviet symbolic space. They transform her from observed to observer, one to whose view both the Soviet collective body and urban space open up. This displacement elicits an almost Skhlovskian defamiliarization [ostranenie] that results in Soviet women being conveyed, in her perception, through a single detail of dress and makeup, and Leningrad being transformed from “my city” into “that landscape” and “that bottomless pit.” The defamiliarization of the Soviet landscape and collective body enables an avoidance of shame and the Soviet self-identification that is associated with it. The allusion to Ostap Bender is not accidental; her Western things essentially endow the author with the trickster’s ability to transition from one symbolic position to another. But in Soviet cultural production, the tactic of abandoning identification of oneself with the Soviet person became a target of fierce criticism: Krokodil published numerous cartoons mocking the fixation of individual Soviet people on looking “foreign,” and a love of imported things became a stable characteristic of antiheroic, “non-Soviet” characters both in Soviet cinema and in literature.
But something else is important too: when Soviet people slid out of the symbolic position of observed and into that of the Western observer, this did not lead the Soviet subject out of the framework of Soviet symbolic space but was, in Lacanian terms, a cultural fantasy—a disruption in the symbolic order’s structure caused by the Soviet collective body’s and the Soviet landscape’s lack of conformity to the ideal of sovietness. Like the tactics of everyday life described by Michel de Certeau in L’invention du quotidien, the transition to the position of the Western observer allowed Soviet people caught in the disciplinary nets of the Soviet symbolic order to reconceptualize and redefine their own personal place in the Soviet social space. But unlike de Certeau’s everyday heroes, who operate “before text” and are therefore able to employ their own tactics in redefining social space, the transition to the position of outside observer through a taste for all things Western did not destabilize the Soviet person, but instead followed the observed-expert-observer trajectory prescribed by the Soviet cultural logic, beginning with its early cultural representations of Soviet society marching in serried columns before the gaze of “Mr. West.”
This transition was also generally possible only for those Soviet people who had such a good handle on Soviet cultural competencies as to be able to demonstrate the top-flight level of sovietness embodied in the cultural fantasy of exiting Soviet symbolic space. Because unlike real Western observers, the Soviet people imitating them, from the stiliagi onward, had to stage their “non-sovietness” mindfully for a Soviet audience, which was quite costly in time and money. Yet this performative act only reinforced the visual regime shaped by the imagined Western gaze, because it suggested no way of exiting it. After no end of displacements among the positions shaped by that visual regime, in the final analysis, as the author of the last-quoted passage sorrowfully concluded, the “bottomless pit” of the Soviet symbolic order would still be there to “swallow everything up, leaving not a trace behind.”