Both sides now.
Arkady Ostrovsky, The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev's Freedom to Putins War. 400 pp. London: Atlantic Books, 2015. ISBN-13 978-0857891587. 20.00 [pounds sterling].
Anya von Bremzen, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. 368 pp. London: Doubleday, 2013. Reprinted New York: Broadway Books, 2014. ISBN-13 978-0307886828. $16.00 (paper).
I've looked at life from both sides now, from win and lose, and still somehow it's life's illusions I recall. I really don't know life at all.
--Joni Mitchell, "Both Sides Now," 1969
These three books, written by Soviet-born individuals, are about the same thing: what it meant to be Soviet and the radical, wrenching adjustments that perestroika and the end of the Soviet Union required. Other authors--political scientists, anthropologists, and historians--have tried their hand before at analyzing late Soviet socialism and the transition(s) to the Russia of the 21st century. Among them, Alexei Yurchak's account of komsomol'tsy unconsciously practicing post-Soviet behavior before 1991, Stephen Kotkin's structuralist approach to why Mikhail Gorbachev's renovationist efforts were doomed, and Serguei Oushakine's exploration of psychic trauma in Barnaul have nearly owned the territory, ceding some slight ground to biographies such as Archie Brown's sympathetic handling of an embattled Gorbachev, Tim Colton's apologia for Boris Yeltsin, and Leon Arons more fawning treatment. (1) We also have the memoirs of key players in the rollicking game of regime change and some excellent accounts by journalists. (2)
The three books under review here differ from previous works and from one another in several obvious and fundamental ways. Svetlana Alexievich's Secondhand Time evokes the "vanished way of life" of Soviet civilization by weaving together hundreds of conversations with ordinary people recorded between 1991 and 2012. Their recollections, though prompted by the events of the near present, manage to evoke the broad sweep of Soviet history. Anya von Bremzen's Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking uses celebratory meals and their preparation as a mnemonic device to reconstruct the Soviet era as she and her mother experienced it before their emigration as "refugees" in 1974. She structures the book by decades, beginning with a sumptuous feast from late imperial Russia, proceeding through the meager fare available during the early Soviet years, and so on, up to and including the bounteousness of Putin's Russia. Arkady Ostrovsky's The Invention of Russia is a more conventional history, and the only one of the three under review to bother with the scholarly apparatus of notes and an index. Ostrovsky, who left Moscow in 1992 to pursue a doctorate at Cambridge in comparative literature, dwells in the world of the media and its moguls. Relying on memoirs by, and interviews he conducted with, a few dozen dramatis personae, he takes the reader on an excursion through the ups and downs of Soviet print journalism as practiced from the Thaw years through zastoi and perestroika, before shifting in the second part of the book to what one of his heroes, Aleksandr Iakovlev (Alexander Yakovlev), called "the television whirlpool" of the post-Soviet decades (176).
An oral history, a family memoir, and an analysis of politics and the media, the three books also differ significantly in terms of perspective. Alexievich, recipient of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, considers herself "an accomplice." Her aim, as she states in the opening lines, is "paying our respects to the Soviet era" by "trying to honestly hear out all the participants of the socialist drama" (3-4). The books subjectivity is overwhelmingly that of her interlocutors. They sigh, get angry, cry, break into song, and go silent in mid-sentence. Alexievich is very sparing with her own comments. Ostrovsky, by contrast, positions himself as an omniscient outsider, one with sharply critical views of "pro-Western liberals who [in the 1990s] ... used the media to enrich themselves" but "now act as demiurges ... to perpetuate the power and wealth of [Vladimir] Putin and his elite" (7-8). Otherwise, his stance is one of ironic detachment. "Little did x know that in y years" is a phrase that crops up at several points in his narrative. Von Bremzen, who was only ten when she left the Soviet Union but has had recurring dreams--or rather, nightmares--about the country ever since, is not sure what she thinks of her native land. With a nod to Proust, she conceives of her memoir as a "poisoned madeleine," symbolizing the "unruly collision of collectivist myths and personal antimyths" (5). Perhaps the contradictoriness of her family background explains this ambivalent stance: whereas her maternal grandfather was a member of the nomenklatura and remained loyal to the USSR to his (and beyond its) dying day, her mother "likes to portray herself as Dissident-Born ... instinctively at odds with the land of happy children of Stalin" (65).
But precisely because of their differences, reading these books in tandem provides deeper insight into each. Take the role of television. When I first read Secondhand Time, I hardly noticed it. This could have been because so much else was happening in the book. Alexievich's informants recall spending those fateful last years of the USSR knitting; reading newspapers, novels, thick journals, and previously unobtainable or samizdat literature; writing poetry; marching in parades and demonstrations; fleeing their homes suddenly made unsafe by ethnic violence; falling into and out of love; bargaining and bartering; sitting in kitchens cracking jokes about the Soviet government and the absurdities it had piled on them; and myriad other experiences. The impression they convey is of people connected to one another. As the friend of a 14-year-old suicide victim tells Alexievich, "In reality, none of us lived in the USSR, we each lived in our own social circle" (156). Yet to a degree that Alexievich surely wants to emphasize, they all were marked by and felt emotionally attached to the Soviet project, the self-identified Communists filled with bitterness at its failure and the triumph of commerce.
It was only after being exposed to Ostrovsky's observation that TV was a game changer--"when reality burst through ... in the form of live television broadcasts ... the Soviet Union crumbled" (6)--that I discovered it hidden in plain sight all over Alexievich's text. An elderly Belorussian woman says she never missed the news; a district party committee secretary from somewhere in the Russian interior recalls that "at home, our TV was always on" and that she "watched the news every hour" (80, 62). According to his widow, Gleb "listened to the radio and watched TV nonstop" (221), while Alisa Z. describes "the first commercial on TV, for Turkish tea," as introducing the 1990s, when "you could have it all! You could be anything you liked" (341). Von Bremzen, who arrived back in Moscow in 1987 after a 13-year absence, is characteristically sardonic about the TV she watched on Granddad Naums Avantgard model: "It was all porn all the time. Porn in three flavors: 1) Tits and asses; 2) gruesome close-ups of dead bodies from war and crimes; 3) Stalin. Wave upon wave of previously unseen documentary footage of the Generalissimo. Of all the porn, number three was the most lurid. The erotics of power" (224).
At the heart of Ostrovsky's book is the argument that rather than reflecting or distorting post-Soviet reality, television created it. Figures like Aleksandr Nevzorov, Evgenii Kiselev, Oleg Dobrodeev, and Igor' Malashenko succeeded the defunct Ideology and Propaganda Section of the Communist Party's Central Committee by offering the baubles of capitalist consumerism that lay just beyond the screen. MMM, the most notorious of the pyramid schemes to sucker naive Russians, was a synecdoche for the entire economy of the 1990s, at least until the meltdown in 1998. Alexievich's subjects provide a counterpoint to the Gordon Gekko-like frenzy of bare-knuckle takeovers in the media. "Turn on the TV," a Communist tells her. "Everyone's speaking in prison camp slang: the politicians, the businessmen, even the president; kickbacks, bribes, siphoning ... Human life--you can just spit and rub someone out" (32). "I couldn't understand what was going on," another recalls. "I remember seeing [Egor] Gaidar on TV saying, 'Learn how to sell ... The market will save us ...' [...] The people listened, bewildered. I would come home, lock the door, and weep" (36). "There's a commercial on TV for copper bathtubs that cost as much as a two-bedroom apartment," says still another. "Could you explain to me exactly who they're for? Gilded doorknobs ... Is this freedom?" (51).
Such people also represent the other Russia in a geographic sense. As the above-mentioned district committee secretary observes, "Walk around Moscow, you might get the impression that we're a European country ... But listen to what the people talk about in the provinces ... Russia isn't Moscow, Russia is Samara, Tolyatti, Chelyabinsk--some Bumblepinsk" (SA 42). Like Ostrovsky, von Bremzen is Moscow-centric, although the end of the Soviet Union found her in the rebellious Georgian suhrepublic of Abkhazia engaged in research for a book on "the imploding Imperium" (250). Part of what that empire accomplished, as Erik R. Scott points out, was the spicing up of Muscovites' palates. Mastering the Art duly includes among its recipes the Georgian lamb stew chanakhi, along with palov (pilaf, plov), the Central Asian rice-based dish mixed with lamb and a generous amount of cumin seeds. (3)
The most fundamental difference among these books is that whereas Alexievich's is about the losers and von Bremzen's exhibits a fine appreciation of how "food and longing" connected herself and her mother with their motherland, Ostrovsky's is ultimately about the winners. Their victory brought them immense, unimagined wealth and power. It also ushered in a new middle class who "wore the same clothes, bought the same iPads, ate the same food, saw the same films, worked in the same open-plan offices and hung out in the same stylish bars as their counterparts in the West." Ostrovsky underscores, however, that, as in the Joni Mitchell song epigraphically cited above, the victory was illusory: "something was missing: a sense of security and justice, respect for one's achievements, the rule of law, property rights and healthcare" (333). Whereas Ostrovsky contrasts this situation with "the West," one wonders whether it doesn't portend the future of other middle classes, even in what used to be called the "advanced capitalist world." Meanwhile, in Russia the resentments of the losers, so well documented by Alexievich, have served as grist for Vladimir Putin's mill. "Russian television," Ostrovsky laments, commenting on the war in Ukraine, "worked like a psychoactive agent, a hallucinogen ... Russia's 'hybrid' war lifted [the jobless and disenfranchised] from their miserable, anonymous and hopeless existence onto the television screen, told them they were victims and heroes, provided them with weapons and pointed to an enemy" (344). Here too Russia may be not so much an outlier as a vanguard.
Ultimately, each book goes some way toward compensating for the limitations of the other two. Ostrovsky's is the weakest on Soviet history. Its fathers-sons framework doesn't work very well, mainly because the "generations" are too short. Even (or especially) its coverage of television suffers from its obliviousness to recent studies by Kristen Roth-Ey and Christine Evans. (4) The grandfather-mother-daughter structure employed by Von Bremzen works better, because it more closely corresponds to the book's Stalin--post-Stalin--late Soviet periodization. As for Secondhand Time, one is hard-pressed not to shed tears along with Alexievich's informants (and at one point, the author herself), whereas chuckles accompany the reading of Mastering the Art.
"Here we have mishmash for our memory," a Muscovite tells von Bremzen upon her return visit in 2011 (286). The remark might well serve as a criticism of Alexievich's book, which often lacks chronological specificity and fails to correct or modify a lot of its subjects' categorical statements. Secondhand Time exhibits these qualities, however, to put the reader in touch with what it meant to be Soviet when the two terms designating such people--Homo sovieticus and sovok (dustpan)--were both highly derogatory In Soviet times, it could be argued, there were only two tenses that mattered: the past, which sometimes was dark and sometimes glorious, depending on whether one referred to tsarist times, the crimes of the Stalin era, or the Great Patriotic War; and the future, which, by definition, would be better because of the sacrifices made in the past. But, as Alexievich notes, "the future is ... not where it ought to be." This is why, she observes, "our time comes to us secondhand" (11). If these people are truly on the losing side of history, then perhaps we will forgive them their illusions. For who knows how long it will be before we experience both sides now?
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(1) Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); Stephen Kotkin, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, rev. ed. 2004); Serguei Oushakine, The Patriotism of Despair: Nation, War, and Loss in Russia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009); Archie Brown, The Gorbachev Factor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Timothy Colton, Yeltsin: A Life (New York: Basic Books, 2008); Leon Aron, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life (New York: St. Martin's, 2000).
(2) See, inter alia, Mikhail Gorbachev, Zhizn'i reform, 2 vols. (Moscow: Novosti, 1995); E. T. Gaidar, Gibel'imperii: Uroki dlia sovremennoi Rossii (Moscow: Rosspen, 2007); A. N. Iakovlev, Ornut pamiati, 2 vols. (Moscow: Vagrius, 2001); Chrystia Freeland, Sale of the Century: Russia's Wild Ride from Communism (New York: Crown Books, 2000); Paul Klebnikov, Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia (New York: Harcourt, 2000); and David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (New York: Random House, 1993).
(3) Erik R. Scott, Familiar Strangers: The Georgian Diaspora and the Evolution of Soviet Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
(4) Kristen Roth-Ey, Moscow Prime Time: How the Soviet Union Built the Media Empire That Lost the Cultural Cold War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011); Christine Evans, Between Truth and Time: A History of Soviet Central Television (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
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|Title Annotation:||"Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets: An Oral History"; "The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev's Freedom to Putins War"; "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing"|
|Author:||Siegelbaum, Lewis H.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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