The Cynical Reason of Late Socialism: Power, Pretense, and the Anekdot

Alexei Yurchak

What is the difference between a Soviet pessimist and a Soviet optimist? A Soviet pessimist thinks that things can’t possibly get any worse, but a Soviet optimist thinks that they will.


estern and Soviet political analysts, journalists and historians have often stressed the social stability of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and early 1980s. In the former Soviet Union itself, that period is referred to today as “the period of stagnation” (period zastoia). It now clearly appears that the reason for the perception of stability and an impossibility of change from below was more complicated than had been suggested by various models of “Soviet totalitarianism,”which posited that totalitarian power was based on oppression and/or belief (Breslauer 1978; Hill 1985; Medding 1981; Burton 1984). Consequently, these models frequently equated awareness of the falsity of the ruling ideology with resistance to it. In recent years, a large number of works in social theory have complicated the view of the relationship between power and resistance, and have focused on the diversity of the experience of power by “the powerless” (Scott 1990; Comaroff and Comaroff 1991; Mbembe 1992). In this essay I interpret how state power and ideology operated in “late socialism” (between the late 1960s and
A version of this paper was first presented at the 1994 American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies annual meeting.

Public Culture 1997, 9: 161-188 Q 1997 by The University o f Chicago. All rights reserved. 0899-2363/97/0902-0002%01 .oO


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mid-1980s)’ and propose a reading of the role that political ridicule by the powerless played in expressing their relation to and view of power. I argue that the late socialist subject experienced official ideological representation of social reality as largely false and at the same time as immutable and omnipresent. In such conditions it became irrelevant for subjects whether they believed official ideological messages or not. Instead, the relation to the official representation became based on intricate strategies of simulated support and on “nonofficial” practices behind the official scenes. This relation between subject and power gradually brought about a major crisis of the system and provided the inner logics of change in the mid-1980s.
The Realm of Ridicule and the Parallel Sphere

It is well-known that political humor played a prominent role in daily practice in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries. I begin by comparing the social conditions of political ridicule in a type of postcolony (Mbembe 1992) and in late socialism. The regimes of power in these two systems may seem comparableboth are based on one-party “authoritarian”power, and yet in both there exists “the potential for play, improvisation, and amusement within the very limits of officialdom” (Mbembe 1992:ll). However, the relation of “the powerless” to state power in these regimes is different, and so is the role of political ridicule. In the postcolony, political ridicule neutralizes the experience of oppressive power by “domesticating”it, by creating its discursive “fetish” located in the realm of ridicule where it can be tamed and rendered powerless (p. 12). Such ridicule occurs precisely when official signifiers (men of power, slogans, and rituals) perform their ideological work of summoning people’s unanimous support (at mass rallies and meetings). By sticking out one’s tongue behind the back of authority, the postcolonial subject shows to oneself and others that state power is never ultimately victorious in controlling him or her. In late socialism as in the postcolony, people did not take most official symbols at face value. And, like in the postcolony, they simulated that they did. However, unlike the postcolony, ridicule of these symbols during state-orchestrated exhibitions of popular support did not occur. The easiest way to minimize the symbol’s “oppression”and lead a “normal”life behind its back was not to simulate
1. I am using the term “late socialism” as an analogy with the now popular term “late capitalism” to stress that the Soviet social order at that time differed in certain important respects from the socialism in previous historic periods.

As a citywide event. the same metaphor could take on several meanings. but with lack of interest in it -it involved one’s obliviousness of what was “supported.”“parallel meaning.” and “parallel culture’’ to stress their grounding in personal noninvolvement in the official sphere. * The apotheosis of such parades in Leningrad was the walk across the central Palace Square in front of the city’s party leaders. In late socialism. To explicate this logic I will contrast mass public rallies in late socialism with those discussed by Mbembe: “[Wlhen Togolese were called upon to shout the party slogans. but elsewhere. The realm of ridicule in the case of late socialism was located not immediately behind the official back. I use the terms “parallel event . under the cover of official slogans. With a simple change in intonation. and of its contacts with ‘vaginal fluids”’ (1992:7). but rather to simulate one’s adherence to it while suppressing recognition of the very act of simulation. The parallel event was carved out within the official’s adherence to the symbol while laughing at it. state-controlled public events became structured as two simultaneous events: an official event. People shouted hoorays as official slogans blared from the loudspeakers. This simulation was laden not with ridicule of power. I63 Cynical Reason of Late Socialism . and the thundering roar of hundreds of thousands of cheers sounded impressive and unanimous. Compare this public behavior with that during massive May 1 (Labor Day) or November 7 (Revolution Day) parades (dernonstratsiia) in late socialism. people sang about the sudden erection of the ‘enormous’and ‘rigid‘presidential phallus. and thus an involvement in their official logic. such a parade was difficult to avoid even by not attending. Thus. and I argue that this humor was akin to what Sloterdijk has called “humor that has ceased to struggle” (1987:305). at which many people were engaged in parallel practices and adhered to parallel meanings without needing either to support or to ridicule the official ones. According to the official dis2. and a parallel event. both of which imply resistance to or subversion of official ideology and culture. of how it remains in this position.” It was not uncommon to hold official signs or banners with slogans during parades without reading them and to carry a portrait of a Politburo member without knowing exactly who it was. many would travesty the metaphors meant to glorify state power. it is more accurate to speak of parallel culture than of counterculture or the underground. In this respect. at which shouting of the official slogans and voting in favor of an official resolution were unavoidable and unanimous. and people were simultaneously involved in both. who stood on a high platform and waved back at the marching masses.

1981.they minded their own business and we minded ours].I64 Public Culture course.e. provided he/she took no active interest in it. while practices in the nonofficial sphere 3. who frequently took part in the parades in the early 1980s. . being perceived as an unavoidable official event. . 4. be drunk in public. “the parade of the toilers .” As I have argued. recollect: “Someone always brought wine and we drank right there. became also an easygoing.” “We approached the Palace Square already a little tipsy. . I needed to make sure that everyone came on time and arrange who would carry what. . and immutable one in the system’s official sphere. That was not important. i. .3On a closer look. however. November 8. 2). Those on the platforms [the Party leadership] had ‘their own wedding’ while we had our own [u nix byla svoia svad’ba. . Former students (now in their mid-thirties). and exchange playful remarks with complete strangers. . the relation of a “ n ~ m a l subject ”~ to the symbols of power was based just as little on their ridicule as on their genuine support or contestation. the parade’s display of “unanimous support” broke down into a multitude of parallel events. and happy celebration during which many norms of public behavior were suspended: one could scream loudly. enjoyable-away from the official sphere. By “normal”subject I mean a person who had learned from experience that he or she could lead a “normal” enough as long as one carried and shouted official slogans. an idiom. but for me that was one day of hard work.. Everyone was having fun in their own groups. unavoidable. convincingly demonstrated the unbreakable union of the Party and the people” (Pravda. Translations of all Russian quotes and idioms are by the author except where stated otherwise. official symbols turned into nothing else but signifiers of the unavoidability and immutability of the official event.” Even for many organizers of the parade. exciting. did not get too involved in it either as a supporter or a critic. For most people the parade was just fun. A former Komsomol Secretary of a research institute explained: “No one even read the slogans. but rather its transformation into a trivial backdrop of a seemingly more meaningful parallel event. at the front of the column where we stood with our flags. . The parade itself. . The “domestication”of power by this subject entailed not its humorous subversion. a u m s svoia. The ideological messages of the official discourse had started to mediate only one experience-that the current system of representation was the only possible. self-manageable. I distinguish between official and nonofficial (parallel) spheres by the type of practices which can take place in each: practices in the official sphere are both observed and controlled by the state. Every time a column started moving there would be a clinking sound of falling bottles which were standing on the ground between people.

usually are not. I will argue that in Soviet late socialism people recognized much ideological falsity and thus the principal reason for the perception of stability of the Soviet order was that certain conditions of everyday life were experienced by the majority of Soviet citizens as immutable. they see ideology as the space of the recognized and discussed. values. books. such as a Leningrad cafe known in slang as Saigon. to an empowerment of the oppressed or to their resistance against the official representation of the social world. . as “an articulated system of meanings.). which is why in this discussion it is more useful to talk of official and nonofficial spheres instead of public and private spaces. . Both types of practice may occur in the same space. During my fieldwork in St. that come to be taken for granted as the natural and received shape of the world (1991:23). The nonofficial sphere included various developed parallel cultures (such as the omnipresent black market of clothes. tapes. This view of a relationship between ideology and hegemony may be too clearcut. but are in a more complex dialectical relationship. and records of Western and nonofficial Soviet rock bands. either public or private. voting at a meeting is an official sphere practice (official event). Hegemony of Representation I65 Cynical Reason of Late Socialism Jean and John Comaroff suggest seeing hegemony as the space of the misrecognized. For example. the hippie movement known as sistema. images and epistemologies . . while carefully reading a book on one’s lap at the same meeting is a nonofficial sphere practice (parallel event). I distinguish these spheres by the types of practices and strategies of behavior of an individual. they are not simply ends of a continuum as the Comaroffs propose (p. as “that order of signs and practices. Conversely. and not by the types of spatial location. 29). etc. which cannot be debated about. and at the same time. perhaps. This was. relations and distinction. a departure from the ideology in pre-Brezhnev times. uncontrolled youth hangouts. and beliefs of a kind that can be abstracted as [the] ‘world view”’ of a social group (Raymond Williams quoted in Comaroff and Comaroff 1991:24). Peters5. The most important consequence of the transformation of Soviet ideology to merely an immutable and omnipresent system of representation in the official sphere was that it had lost its role of providing a “believable” representation of reality5 and turned into what I shall call a hegemony o f representation. which constantly coincided and crossed with the official sphere. A subjective recognition of ideology does not have to lead to its contestation.

values. This experience was especially pronounced in the nonofficial discourses of what can be called “the last Soviet generation. unlike these. The perception of the social world‘s immutability was based on the personal experiences of the Soviet citizen that nearly all mechanisms of representation in the official sphere were centrally controlled. calling it the hegemony of representation. visual images (posters. and practices are always-already produced and manipulated from the center as one unique disc~urse. These were verbal formulas (structural elements of the politicized discourse of the official sphere. the hegemony of representation is not simply a collection of diverse and manifold institutions. However. I collected diaries and private letters in which the prevailing perception of the immutability of the social world is evident.I66 Public Culture burg (1994-1995). By the “last Soviet generation. monuments). but is a system in which all official institutions. To describe a social order experienced in this way. . or because people were afraid to contest it. Because of this view the changes of perestroika in its first years were continuously received with utter astonishment and disbelief by the Soviet people. elections. and behaviors originate in my firsthand knowledge of life in Leningrad in the 1970s and 1980s.”6I belong to that generation. beliefs. and practices united under one dominant ideology. This is a unified symbolic structure akin to Gramsci’s “apparatus of the political and cultural hegemony of the ruling classes” (1971:258) and Althusser’s “ideological state apparatuses” (1994:llO. pictures. discourses. such as names of Soviet institutions and public organizations and formulaic phraseology of official speeches). because it was apparent that no other public representation of reality within the official sphere could occur. the official reality was uncontested not because its representation was taken for granted as truthful. first and foremost. Under these conditions. but. 6.111). I will apply the concept of hegemony to a particular system of representation of social reality. and much of my insight into its perceptions. placards. 7. “The hegemony of representation” should not be understood as a totalitarian system because it formed representations of reality only in the official sphere and always necessarily coexisted with other representations in the nonofficial sphere that were neither produced nor successfully controlled from one totalizing center.~ In the case of late socialism the hegemony of representation can be visualized as a symbolic order of tightly interconnected signifiers that were exclusively statecontrolled and permeated most aspects of everyday life in the official sphere. discourses.” I mean people born between 1955 and 1970 and educated in Soviet schools and colleges either in the last decade before perestroika or during its first years. mass rituals (Party and Komsomol meetings.

What is forgotten in this argument. catchphrases. study in a Soviet school with centrally adopted curriculum. badges. but also with the whole symbolic order of interconnected signifiers. and is even greater in the United States. is that the great variety of forms and types of ideological signifiersin the United States is possible precisely because they are not united under one overarching (hegemonic) system of ideological representation in the public sphere. booklets. This system is too broad. which I saw recently on two cars waiting at the same traffic light in North Carolina: “Helms equals hate” and “I support Jesse Helms. this meant that everyone knew the texts of most of the likely slogans and the chance of being surprised by such messages was close to zero. It suffices to give an example of two bumper stickers. when traveling to an unfamiliar city. Kristeva 1986: 37) and even “interdiscursive”(Fairclough 1992:117. under the hegemony of representation most of these signifiers were cross-referentially linked in an “intertextual” (Bakhtin 1981:291. “Workers of Leningrad/Tambov/Ukraine pledge to fulfill the decisions of the XXV Party Congress!”* The hegemony of representation produced the feeling that one’s experience was shared by all. multidiscursiveand quickly changing. and shopping in a Soviet store with unified centrally controlled prices and choices). In practice. and tightly structured events of daily public life (the use of public transport. even signifiers from different discourses were meaningfully interconnected with each other. theme-color decorations) than was ever the case in the Soviet Union. She concludes that totalitarian representation was not unique to the Soviet world. which were reproduced over and over again in varying forms and contexts. There is an important difference between this type of representation and the one in late capitalism.e. Each slogan which appeared on a facade or a poster was semantically connected not only with most other slogans. and by the fact that it was based on a very limited number of master signifiers. unlike late socialism. one saw predictably familiar slogans with occasional regional variations. I67 Cynical Reason of Late Socialism . one cannot always predict what type of statement one will encounter in an unfamiliar public space. For example. literature. i. flags. the topics in the media. It is useful to recollect Anderson’s concept of “imagined cornmunitie~’~ (1983). They emerge when a cer8. however. For every new political campaign or television commercial there are new verbal formulas. are even more inundated with ideological signifiers (slogans. popular culture (all of which were controlled by centralized bodies and ministries). new references often contradicting other messages with which they coexist in time and space. banners. which is sometimes overlooked.. and most people behaved accordingly. for example. stickers. Moreover. due to their hefty sponsorship.” The important point here is that in late capitalism.118) way. work at a Soviet enterprise where wages were centrally fixed.and November and May parades). The tightness of this symbolic structure was secured by its omnipresence in the official sphere. new puns. flyers. Thus. the Russian film critic Maya Turovskaya (1994) noticed that in the United States public events such as mass meetings during election campaigns.

turning into “small component[s] in that huge backdrop to daily life” (1989:49-51). Often they were not aware of its presence on a certain building at all. but cease being noticed at all. Most people did not read this slogan. even if they lived nearby. all Soviet citizens could assume that millions of others. such as the rise of newspapers in Europe. “Workers of the world unite!” in the window. signs. This type of “panorama of everyday life” (p. but are oblivious to the slogan. in offices. Let us consider an example of how the hegemony of representation was tightly woven out of independent signifiers from different discourses into an interdiscursive fabric. taking part in the identical social events and hearing the same speeches on a similarly regular basis. pedestrians and shoppers see carrots and potatoes. In Havel’s example a manager of a fruit and vegetable shop places a sign with the slogan. The interdiscursive fabric of public signifiers made this slogan work in a particular way-its literal message was lost. But everyone knew from daily experience that there was no way to introduce a contesting slogan in the official sphere. through the unique ability of hegemonic state power to control the official sphere. and instead it became a signifier of . let alone understand it literally. Attempts at such counterintroduction.I68 Public Culture tain time-space transformation takes place. Looking at the window. Similarly. Hence. the now-famous small 1968 demonstration on Red Square against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia). when a newspaper reader could imagine that thousands of others read the same article at practically the same time. were easily isolated and kept unknown to the overwhelming majority of people. 41) is the visual part of the hegemony of representation. as is required by his local supervising party committee (p. suppress their recognition of it. whom they did not know personally. along with the produce. Whether or not one consciously believed in the officially proclaimed goals was less important than the act of participating in routine official practices. contesting slogans are not found anywhere. Similar slogans are also found in the streets. Vaclav Have1 describes how official ideological slogans and messages become omnipresent and predictable. the reproduction of the hegemony of representation was based on everyone’s involvement in the official order of signification. and posters all over the Soviet Union. Conversely. This becomes possible not only because the slogans are ubiquitous and incontestable. if ever made (for example. but also because most people perceive involvement in their reproduction as unavoidable. were seeing the same slogans. they not only cease being taken at face value. perceived as inevitable. and in public places everywhere. A simple slogan. “The Party and the People Are United” appeared on thousands of buildings. 41).

The dissident and the aktivist were usually. He looks up and says in indignation: “They (the Party) always do just what they want!” The next day when the dissident walks out. . the sun is shining brightly.9 The dissident called upon fellow citizens to expose “the official Lie” at every opportunity. “to live not by lie” (1974). Activist. whose relation to the official representation of reality was not based on pretense. This would put one in a state analogous to that of Lacan’s “psychotic” subject (1993). but not necessarily. . . they had the choice of either openly contesting it or pretending that he or she believed it (which usually amounted to simply ignoring it). older than the last Soviet generation. 10. Lacan’s illustration of the psychotic’s unanchored relation to the symbolic order is strikingly similar t o this joke: “Everything has become a sign for him. . Taking such a position in daily life was almost an impossible act from the point of view of a “normal” subject. If he encounters a red car in the street-a car is not a natural object-it’s not for nothing. It is starting to rain. as one who is deprived of subjectivity and fails to recognize the signifying logic of the surrounding symbolic order. a marker of the hegemony of representation. Have1 appealed to “live in truth” (1989. This attitude of a normal subject towards dissidents can be illustrated by two popular jokes of the 1970s: A dissident walks out of his house. For a normal Soviet subject. He looks up and says in indignation: “Of course! For this they find the money!”1° A big crowd of people is quietly standing in a lake of sewage coming up to their chins. there were alternatives to being a normal subject-one could act as a dissident or as an aktivist. Suddenly a newcomer falls in it and starts shouting and waving his hands in disgust: “Yuk! I cannot stand this! How can you people live under these horrible conditions?!” To 9. and who therefore was perceived by the normal subject as falling outside of the symbolic order. written in the 1970s) and Solzhenitsyn. e.immutability. it appeared that one had to be insane to challenge the immutable. thus contesting the whole symbolic order of representation.. that it went past at that very moment” (1993:9). If someone disagreed with that slogan’s literal meaning. Contesting a slogan meant that one simultaneously contested all other hegemonic signifiers with which it was interdiscursively linked. he will say. Dissident. and Normal Subject I69 Cynical Reason of l a t e Socialism However.g.

. He turns down the first two because of the chilling screams coming from within.” the second Soviet joke is about the impotence of power. However. who. Thus the first Soviet joke is equally “about ourselves” and a “crazy dissident. For example. 11. they may have different versions. an announcer on the World Service of Radio Moscow was put in a psychiatric hospital after having denounced the Soviet war in Afghanistan in English on the radio. which are funny in diverse and even contrasting social contexts. replying to the questions of Western journalists about the punishment of Danchev.”I2 Recently Joseph Brodsky repudiated the claim of a former dissident.”the dissidents were simply “written off by most people. This is why cycles of jokes recur in history (Dundes 1987) and why the Soviet jokes quoted in this paper sound funny even to people with little knowledge of Soviet life. who worked in the early 1980s at a research institute in Leningrad. 12. in the early 1980s Vladimir Danchev. When he opens the door he falls into sewage up to his chin beside the crowd of other sinners. remembered a popular attitude towards an engineer who was caught distributing a copy of a dissident article protesting the war in Afghanistan: “many of us said in private conversations that the guy had a screw loose. There was even a rumor that he also distributed pornography. Since the 1960s. They tended to regard a dissident as a pariah or inconsequential. The chief devil offers the high-ranking guest to choose his own type of torture.I70 Public Culture which the people reply in a quiet indignation: “Shut up! You are making waves!”l1 One of my interviewees. the Soviet system itself treated dissidents as mentally ill. the way the sick are for the healthy majority. Vaclev Havel. the way people position themselves and others in different versions of a joke points to particular social. and chooses the third one because of what sounds like a quiet and beautiful Gregorian chant. cultural.S. and historic conditions in which the joke becomes most relevant for them. Brezhnev shouts: ‘I want this! I want Lenin’s torture!’ To which the chief devil replies: ‘You fool. which I’m sure was untrue. Barbara Hernstein-Smith remembered another version of this joke which she heard in her U. that dissidents were avoided by most people because of either “fear of ‘potential persecution. are murmuring in hundreds of voices: ‘don’t make waves. because sick people cannot be punished” (Chomsky 1986:276). Brodsky argued that one of the main reasons was that “given the seeming stability of the system. while the American joke is simply about a foolish mistake. and “a convenient example of the wrong deportment and thus a source of considerable moral comfort. . said: “He was not punished. often replacing imprisonment with psychiatric treatment. trying not to move. this is torture for Marilyn Monroe!”’ The obvious connection between all three jokes emphasizes another point about formulaic jokes. . Brezhnev declines the first two choices and goes on to the third chamber where he sees Lenin making passionate love to Marilyn Monroe. A Soviet official.”’ This American joke is in turn related to another Soviet one: ‘After death Brezhnev goes to hell. He should pick one by listening through closed doors of torture chambers.” (Brodsky and Havel 1994:28).school in the 1940s (personal communication): ‘A man goes to hell after death and is given a choice of three tortures. .”’ or the embarrassment caused by feeling this fear (Havel 1993:8).

Others were seen as either ideinye (believing the official “idea”) or as pure careerists. in the early 1980s practically everyone routinely went to Komsomol and other meetings and. person. to the effect that she took the new job only to make useful contacts and receive Komsomol perks-even though until then she had been known as an honest. especially if they did not occupy high-rankingpositions (e.” wanted to expose a Party secretary who took bribes. routinely paid little or no attention to what was going on there. many of her former colleagues sneered and made sarcastic remarks. komsorgs who interacted more with rank-in-file members than with chiefs). just like the dissident. often while reading a book and oblivious to what the vote concerned.. In fact. The aktivist tended to misrecognize the falsity of the symbolic order. which translated into a sincere drive to take part in the system’s ideological initiatives and be excited by its ideological goals. For example. I will call this type of relation to the symbolic order in late socialism pretense misrecognition. which most ordinary people had little chance of undertaking.g. in 1987 at the age of twenty-three. e.” The normal subject perceived the aktivist. or to get recognition in the West.l 3 For the normal subject the only sensible behavior in the public sphere was the pretense that one did not see the falsity of the official claims. a few people thought that she wanted to use her new position to go on tours abroad. especially in the case of the last Soviet generation. but to get personal bonuses.g. A former secretary at a Komsomol District Committee in Leningrad remembered that when. tried to raise their “enthusiasm” and “zeal for work. taking much of it at face value. for example. in order to be promoted by the system. or wrote letters to the administration and press about “cases of breaching of the socialist lawfulness. of having an active relation to ideology (oppositional or supportive) because of ulterior motives. if somewhat idealistic. Often it was difficult to tell the difference. The aktivist. The invitation from the Komsomol Committeemade her immediately suspect. Of course. did not have to pretend to believe the official representation of social reality because he or she in fact really did believe many of its claims. Some were considered more normal (like us). unlike the normal subject. in the case of dissident writers. Practically everyone voted in favor of the resolutions. to be a nuisance who could make the life of a normal subject harder. Most people recognized the inevitability of the meetings and 13. she agreed to leave her work as a librarian at the public library to start working as a Komsomol secretary. appealed to people to be more conscientious. in the case of the aktivist. who actively supported the ideology not because they really misrecognized its falsity. the normal subject often suspected both dissidents and aktivists of dishonesty. in reality various types of aktivists existed.Another type of person was the aktivist who.. For example. 171 Cynical Reason of late Socialism .

The chairman. remembers all-institute Komsomol meetings with a few hundred students in the institute’s assembly hall: It was better if the light was dim. As for voting. And everyone in the audience understood that sentiment. Very far.” They’d also ask. if someone simply felt like voting against. . A former student. . Maybe he was in the mood to vote against. But when it was necessary to make some decision. as a rule we would raise our hands without turning away from cards. and the activists in the first rows communicated between themselves. Maybe have a chat with friends. and precisely for these reasons preferred to feign misrecognition. if more than half of the votes were ‘in favor’ would just say “accepted unanimously. Therefore it was optimal to read a book. and everyone started to read. say. If this was a big meeting with more than. Nikolai (now forty-two) himself frequently conducted Komsomol meetings in . You had to sit through it and leave. Then you could have a nap. . Everyone read. why not go and sit there? Why make his life harder? You would sit at the back with friends. . Oleg (now thirty-five). If the person who organized the meeting was a good guy.I72 Public Culture the falsity of the decisions taken at them. at the presidium they would be discussing some issue. Again people participated in two events simultaneously in the official event (which they pretend to misrecognize) and in the parallel event. everyone’s head turned down. Someone could doze off. Some would chat. while people at the back did their own things. Andrei (now thirty-six) worked from 1983 to 1986 as an engineer at a Leningrad research institute: It’s hard to tell what made me go to Komsomol meetings. or if the light was bright you could read a book. As soon as the meeting would start. and took it with irony. some played cards. “Who’s against?” But as a rule no one voted against. Probably herd instinct. . Only on rare occasions. And the person who counted votes. because they could reprimand you in front of everyone. But you could not really talk much there. Or some people would not even raise their hands at all. . Below are typical accounts of the atmosphere at such meetings. Of course you tried not to be seen from the presidium. a hundred people then I read some book. a certain sensor would click in the head-“Who is voting in favor?” and you raised your hand automatically.

This shows the level of cynical reason of some uktivisty. Some women knitted. . or who the candidate was. . AY Did you see that? N: Of course. How long can a normal person listen to nonsense? Maybe five minutes. and put it in the voting box.the late 1970s and early 1980s. did it make anyone cold or warm?]. Everyone knew it was just as a formality (dlia proformy). and to listen. take the ballot with the candidate’s name (there was always only one candidate).I4 Alexei Yurchak (AY): What did people do in the audience? Nikolai (N): Various things.” And naturally everyone would willingly agree. I would just go to the local election center. without actually having the discussion? I understand that everyone has things to attend to at home. as if nothing unusual was taking place. newspapers. . . one of the students] would often suggest: “maybe we should just write down that we had a discussion and voted in favor of the resolution. The presidium was a bit higher. This was the whole procedure for me. and you could see the audience well. . I73 Cynical Reason of Late Socialism . maybe ten. . . Some would listen. sitting in the presidium as the Secretary of the Komsomol Organization of a research institute. . and would look serious. Who needed that report? [the report of the Komsomol Secretary about the work done by the organization in the past term]. At the Party meetings it was the same. Some people would have a nap. . I would forget 14. . Did it matter? [literally. to chat with pals. Anna (now thirty-six) described her experience at the much smaller and more regular Komsomol meetings of her student group (usually twenty to twenty-five people) : the komsorg [an elected Komsomol organizer. . . Sergei (now thirty-five) relates: I remember going to vote in various elections. Types of pretense misrecognition behavior can be also illustrated by the experience during various state elections of district or city deputies. In the forty-five minutes while it was read a person had time to sleep a little. some read books. Usually I was not quite sure what type of elections these were. to read a book.

they are doing it” (p. and the parallel cultural production were strategies of behavior in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense (1990:62). in private we sometimes joked about “our elections.I74 Public Culture the name of the candidate a few minutes later. Usually they did not discuss this falsity during official events.” which is that “they do not know it. this repression. 274). moreover.. which revealed that he or she realized that the ideological representation was false and that much of its support by most people was based on intricate strategies of simulation. 29). and does so increasingly well (p. People learned how to repress (in a psychological sense) their recognition of this falsity on an everyday basis when in the official sphere.e. Jameson also argues that in contemporary capitalist society the traditional ideological function of articulating the dimensions of “scientific knowledge” with the dimension of “everyday experience” is simply no longer possible (1992:53).” These examples illustrate how experience in the official sphere induced people to act (always publicly and often privately) as if they misrecognized the falsity of official ideological claims. Basically. i . We must also consider “cynical reason” when analyzing the case of late social- . but still. Of course. the pretense. To understand when and why it was possible and. However. occasionally the subject could afford a surreptitious wink of recognition. . even though that was not necessarily the case. and did not think about their twofold behavior of simulated support and indifference. Under the postmodern capitalist market the omnipresent consumer culture overrides any ideological theorization. not necessarily rationally calculated strategies. but they are doing it” (Zizek 1991:29). but . which allowed one to live a “normal” life and be “left alone” by the system. the successful functioning of ideology does not have to be based on Marx’s classic formula of ‘‘hlse consciousness.Today ideology produces a so-called “cynical subject. necessary to make such winks of recognition.” The formula of “cynical consciousness” is: “they know very well what they are doing. Simultaneously they were involved in the cultural production of parallel events and meanings within the official sphere and in spite of it. I don’t remember ever worrying that I was not more interested or that the elections were fake. nonetheless still insists upon the mask.” who “is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and social reality. we should first analyze this wink. . Cynical Reason and Reeling Out Soviet Anekdoty Both Sloterdijk (1987) and Zizek (1991) have argued that in the contemporary world.

in late capitalism repression does not accompany this cynical reason. Dundes believes that “the more repressive the regime. The misrecognition of ideological arbitrariness in late capitalism and in late socialism have different “logics. humiliation. known in slang as travit’anekdoty(to ease out or reel out jokes. and there were various discourses that provided a voice for such commenting. when the regime was far less “repressive” than under Stalin. vii). What was the role of that peculiar type of humor? From the aforementioned Sovietological model of totalitarian power and from the model of hegemonic power proposed by the Comaroffs.I5 Cynical reason governed what I call the subject’s pretense misrecognition. Indeed in Stalin’s time political anekdoty about various aspects of Soviet life circulated throughout society (Thurston 1991). for instance. and fright” (1990:49). and there is no need for anecdoty’s wink of recognition.” Therefore. Indeed. that the number of anekdoty increased dramatically and they became a ubiquitous feature of daily life. the procedure of telling endless rounds of anekdoty. For example. but remained strictly outside of the official sphere and could not become a public form of discourse. being an example of collective awareness. In fact. e.. I75 Cynical Reason of Late Socialism . Petrov15. one constantly acknowledges this cynicism in public to the point that the cynicism itself becomes a commodity-in the form of bumperstickers. a way of resisting the ideology.g. when all other forms of resistance were too dangerous. when practically any idea. it would follow.” In the first case it is a function of consumer culture. however sacred. But it was in the Brezhnev period. can be subverted by the market to be best commodified. people pretend to misrecognize the official ideological representation because they perceive the centrally controlled hegemonic representation as unavoidable and unchangeable. while Dundes (1987) argues that they were a way of saying what was “really” on one’s mind. In the case of late socialism. sarcastic remarks in private correspondence. it is the logic of the market that can be perceived as unavoidable and unchangeable. It is well known that in late socialism people made comments showing that they recognized the falsity of the official representation of reality. and MTV’s “Beavis and Butthead. were a symbolic act of empowerment and of resistance to ideology. and private humor. In the 1960s. slang. T-shirt slogans. However cynical reason in late capitalism is not based on pretense misrecognition. the more numerous the political jokes” (p. The most obvious of such discourses were the ubiquitous political jokes -anekdoty-which were told by most people and laughed at by everyone. Moreover. Petrovskii suggests that they were a way to “compensate the misfortune. Soviet anekdoty are often seen as a way to subvert dogmatic truths and to achieve an ironic distance from dogma.ism. however. In this case. that Soviet political anekdoty. In both cases it is the perceived logic of the system that shapes the cynical relation to it. as if they were mounted on a spool of rope) became an omnipresent social ritual (Belousov 1994.

At first most jokes were not political. or citizens of any other nationality of Soviet.k. . Petrovskii even called the Soviet unofficial culture after the late 1950s “anekdot-centrist” (1990:47). noted that perhaps the largest and most popular series of Soviet anekdoty. students in the corridors occasionally told anekdoty. the growing importance of anekdoty in and after the 1960s was caused by a much lower likelihood of punishment for them than under Stalin. . It was then that the Lenin jokes emerged as a series known as Zeniniana. The Brezhnev period has been referred to as “the Golden age of Soviet anecdote” (Zand 1982).a. or Czech. while Fagner and Cohen remarked that anekdoty became “perhaps the most significant new art form produced by Soviet culture” (1988:170). and. Soon I moved to Tartu University to study in graduate school. when endless formulas of the official discourse celebrated the “great event” (1981:175). In the late 1960s it became a custom to reel out anekdoty during smoking breaks at the University. (personal communication) Terz (a. We are so used to telling anekdoty like the latest news when we get together in our crammed room. i. . contrary to what was suggested by Dundes. Terz describes it thus: As soon as two Russians or three Jews get together. We may understand the logic of political humor in late socialism only if we analyze . every time I went back to Leningrad or Moscow my colleagues asked me to bring fresh jokes. and in Russia it is sometimes called the era of anekdoty. emerged in 1967 at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution. . The Russian philologist Belousov remembers that when he entered Leningrad University in 1965. socialist. ?” And to hear back-“Of course! But let me tell you another one. Siniavskii). upbringing-they start reeling out anekdoty interrupting each other. the main character of which was the Civil War hero Commander Chapaev. Terz 1981).” . .e. But the number of political jokes increased all the time. this alone does not explain why the ritual of reeling out became so incessant and widespread. but the permanent habit of reeling out anekdoty came later and gradually grew in degree throughout the 1960s. in which Chapaev . . or Polish.. It is pleasant to ask the question: “Do you remember an anekdot. or at least to finding . .I76 Public Culture skii addition to the narrative structure of the anekdoty and the topics discussed in them-the actual ritual of reeling out as a particular communicative practice. Even if. To interpret this phenomenon in terms of popular resistance is to oversimplify it.

out who remembers which ones. (1981:167) In the introduction to Zand‘s collection Political Jokesfrom Leningrad (1982). the first jokes emerge after several rounds of drinking. Kynics “take the liberty of confronting prevailing lies. jokes about camels!” In the late 1960s this practice became so incessant that there even emerged metajokes about it: I77 Cynical Reason of Late Socialism To be able to reel out more anekdoty per evening a group of friends had them numbered. Another person added “number 74” and everyone laughed again. By the time tea is served. let go affectively-precisely under the onslaught of the critical affront by kynics.” . he rose. . that we [folklorists] overlook our own luck-we live in the epoque of popular oral art. the jokes start to flow. the attitude of the fool or the clown to the ruler. one started: “number 15.” This in turn provokes “a climate of satirical loosening up in which the powerful. Brezhnev jokes. like little secrets. emigration jokes and jokes about Georgians (a local treat). together with their ideologists of domination. swaying. and flow. 305). Kynicism is the cheeky side of cynicism. During one drunken evening. in the ritual of reeling out it was just as important to repeat the jokes others might have heard before. At three in the morning. . to announce a new round of anekdoty: ‘And now . Most anekdoty were heard by a person more than once or twice-people took part in reeling out not only to hear new jokes. When in the evening they got together. Humor That Has Ceased to Struggle Sloterdijk distinguishes two types of political humor: “kynicism” (1987:lOl) and “humor that has ceased to struggle” (p. I remember our Armenian host had guided us through several broad categories of jokes: Stalin jokes. But when the third one said: “number 108” there was a long silent pause. but also to participate in the enjoyable procedure regardless of whether or how many jokes would be new.”and everyone laughed. and then one man said in embarrassment: “how could you tell that one in front of the ladies?” Although telling and hearing new jokes was important (and prestigious for the teller). and flow. Beam described his experience of this ritual: In company. of prosperity of a huge folkloric genre.

Recognizing the arbitrariness of the official ideology the kynic subverts it by breaking even the most basic norms which it imposes (as does Diogenes. As I have argued. but was instead directed at the subjects themselves. Sloterdijk calls this type of humor. while another part simultaneously subverted it. This situation produced a particular type of humorous procedure. Their hidden message was: “we recognize the official lie but find enough reasons to act as if we do not and to avoid even thinking about it. as Zizek remarked.” which was funny because it exposed the model of one’s own contradictory behavior and form of consciousness. That model was contained in an antithesis within the Soviet anekdot itself: a part of an anekdot usually expressed a version of a cliched formula of the official ideological discourse. whose rule was secured not by misrecognition (the relation of false consciousness to ideology). This humor was different from both the cheeky remarks of the kynic directed at rulers and from the “hidden” ridicule of state power by the postcolonial subject (Mbembe 1992). ridiculing and showing contempt for the norms and morals of the society. This was “cynical” ideology. the formulaic structure of an anekdot allowed one to avoid analyzing the official claim which was exposed that way. nor the masses subjected to their rule. shits.I78 Public Culture In ancient Greece “[tlhe kynic farts. who saw the truth behind the mask. the “humor that has ceased to struggle” (1987:305). but also one’s inability to struggle against one’s own simulated support of this ideology. in which one admitted not only one’s inability to struggle against the official ideology. which was repeated with a straight face (as if taken for granted). These jokes simultaneously exposed two incongruous elements of everyone’s behavior -one’s awareness of the ideological lie and one’s concurrent pretense misrecognition of that lie. did not even pretend any longer to be taken seriously either by its producers or its subjects. needed to take official ideology at face value. This ideology. had no other choice but to pretend that the mask was the actual true face. pisses. however. This attracted listeners’ attention to the discrepancy . the King’s wise fool or a punk). Sloterdijk calls this “kynic procedure. before the eyes of the Athenian market” (p. It never exposed something about official power which was so far unknown or unthought of. but rather by what I am referring to as pretense misrecognition (the relation of Sloterdijk’s “enlightened false consciousness” to ideology). Zizek calls it “totalitarian laughter” (1991:27). the late socialist hegemonic power had all the means of maintaining its claims on the scale and to the degree that a normal subject.” The irony is. since neither the rulers. 103). that in the case of such hegemonic power as existed in late socialism the kynic procedure would be harmless. masturbates on the street. At the same time.

e. What is the difference between capitalism and socialism? “In capitalism man exploits man. Importantly. anekdoty were told outside of the official sphere. acquaintances. In the following examples these claims are “communism will be a society of plenty” and “life in communism will be happy and unproblematic. Consider several such anekdoty (official ideological cliches are in quotation marks) : What is the most constant element of the Soviet system? “Temporary problems. anekdoty would be inappropriate at a Komsomol meeting. which made jokes hilarious. where we hung out during . For example. and even people you had just met. trying to see what we are doing there. under the stairs. Masha (now twenty-six) recalls: “In school [in the mid-1980~1 we had a place.” I79 Cynical Reason of Late Socialism How will the problem of lines in shops be solved in communism? There’ll be nothing left to line up for. A cliched formula could also be invoked by a simple reference to an official claim. At that time the hierarchy of the official sphere became suspended: the head of a laboratory could engage in reeling out with employees and a Komsomol Secretary could laugh with rank-and-file Komsomol members. What would happen if they started building communism in the Sahara Desert? There would soon be a shortage of sand. if you see on the TV that milk is sold in Sverdlovsk. Reeling out could happen with friends. colleagues. But after the meeting or between classes they were reeled out freely..” but in socialism it’s the other way around.between their own understanding and their behavior. What will life in Communism be like? Everyone will have a personal TV-set and a personal helicopter. What does the phrase “capitalism is at the edge of the abyss” mean? It means that capitalism is standing at the edge looking down.g. you will jump in your helicopter and fly to Sverdlovsk to get milk. when simulating adherence to official meanings was not required. however.” In what aspects is socialism better than other systems? In that “it successfully overcomes difficulties” which do not exist in other systems.

the joke work (production of an immediate humorous effect) was performed by the "inner incongruous" (the antithesis) in the anekdot's structure." Usually the ritual of reeling out happened neither as part of the official event (simulating adherence to official meanings). and the subject's simultaneous participation in both. . 137). chatted.I80 Public Culture the breaks between classes. one's incongruous behavior and structure of consciousness. and after its meetings we often stayed a little longer in the Committeeoffice and often told anekdoty. . sexual. . Curco demonstrates that the perception of the incongruous is essential in the experience of verbal humor. they also "produce new pleasure by lifting suppressions and repressions" (p. This was an excellent way to involve everyone hst. . it happened in a certain communicative space.. to continue. On the first inner level of the narrative. . which produced repressions.e. especially formulaic jokes (1995:37). which cannot be openly told in public. or political jokes. and reeled out anekdoty. but also by a momentary view from that space of a twofold structure of social reality and of one's twofold relation to it. which was withdrawn from both events. I was a member of the school's Komsomol Committee. The Joke Work of Anekdoty The importance of anekdoty lay in the crucial "joke work"I6 they performed. In an analysis of the pragmatics of humorous interpretation. Freud suggests that these jokes not only produce the pleasure of laughter. the recognition of which was usually repressed. Instead. . official and parallel. while the secondary "new pleasure" was provided by the exposure of the social incongruous. such as racist. It exposed the coexistence of two incongruous spheres. where the anekdot exposed the "social incongruous. nor as part of the simultaneousparallel event." This second level of joke work can be better understood by applying Freud's analysis of "tendentiousjokes" (1960). " . sexist. I argue that the humorous effect was produced not only by the inner structure of the anekdot's narrative. The primary pleasure of laughter in the Soviet anekdot was provided by "[tlhe enjoyment of the incongruous" (Curco 1995:47) contained in the structure of the joke. thus allowing the social situation. When my schoolmates got together at someone's place they usually did that too. i. Mbembe's realm of ridicule. However joke work was also performed on a second level-that of social commentary. The social incongruous in late socialism was constantly reproduced as a CN16. I am using this term in analogy w i t h Freud's "dream w o r k .

” [Quotation marks appear in the original and mark two direct quotes from the official discourse. in the inevitable daily cultural production of parallel events and meanings. Thus. and thus preserved a way of having a normal life within and in spite of the inescapable officialdom. This process involved continuous psychologicalrepression as previously discussed. besides anekdoty there were also occasional knowing remarks in private and. If made incessantly and pub17.? Such letters sent through regular Soviet mail in the 1970s and 1980s show that many people not only recognized official claims as laughable.officially claimed t o be based on voluntary enthusiasm of the masses. a biologist in Leningrad: 181 Cynical Rtason of l a t e Socialism D e a r Marusia! Congratulations! After such unpleasant events as my hospitalization. ”am ready to fulfill any task of the Motherland. more personal text. but as a side remark within other. Unpaid Saturday working day. which are here sarcastically subverted with the phrase. However. and did not fbrm a widely shared discourse.cial part of everyday practice. Of course. isolated. the incongruous was simultaneously produced as a cultural surplus pretended to be misrecognized. for example. a period of relative peace and quiet has begun. .g. Yet another idiocy [ucherdmia blazh’]. such remarks were relatively rare. unlike anekdoty. e. in correspondence. but also were not too nervous that their degrading remarks and ironic quoting of the official phraseology might be discovered. “another idiocy.So tomorrow we are going to a meeting and will be “supporting the initiative of Muscovites.. allowing the normal subject to release repression anxiety associated with its pretense misrecognition. they were not usually made in the form of a whole critical letter. Every parallel event involved a cultural practice of creating nonofficial parallel meanings (recollect the student’s behavior during parades and meetings). while also producing a psychologicalpractice of pretense misrecognition (repressionof one’s recognition) of the incongruity between parallel and official meanings in both of which one was concurrently engaged. and as the cosmonauts say. This in turn secured further cultural production of parallel events and meanings.Here is an example of such a remark in a letter written in November 1981 by an engineer from outside Kalinin to his friend. The cultural space created by constant reeling out of anekdoty temporarily exposed the incongruous. and spontaneous.” And the Motherland calls us to participate in the subbo~nik*~ on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the victory of Moscow. I am well.

Unlike the spontaneous remarks.g. We may draw a parallel between the joke work of Soviet anekdoty and Freud’s “dream work’’-dreams reduce tension in order to protect sleep. This experience in turn reinforced the inner logic of the immutable hegemony of representation. humor has not disappeared altogether. Petrovskii 1990:49 and Belousov 1994) and in other East European countries (e. exposing.. Of course. Practically everyone. and. and reeling out disappeared from everyday life. like anekdoty. These discursive. This feature of anekdoty made them uniquely appropriate for the production of a spontaneous cultural community of reeling out subjects. During and after the changes of perestroika (late 1980s to early 1990s) hardly any new political jokes were invented. in turn jeopardizing the ability to have a normal life. which one had heard previously. cultural. in anekdoty no creative improvisation is required. and the Westernized discourse of advertising). However.g. today one may lead an active social life without coming across reeling out. or ridiculing the officially imposed representation of reality. could belong to such an imagined community (Anderson 1983). There still remain “jokes for the occasion” which illustrate a point or comment on a situation and usually spring from personal wit. these critical remarks about the system -like the dissident’s exposure of the official lie -would challenge one’s ability to simulate support and to repress recognition of this simulation. anekdoty had a rigid and formulaic structure.. and preserving one’s ability to pretend and to lead a normal life. and psychological features of the reeling out ritual demonstrate its unique ability to perform the joke work of exposing the social incongruous while limiting one’s spontaneous analysis. by avoiding the problems associated with the life of a dissident or an aktivist. Such jokes are common everywhere. While in spontaneous sarcastic comments the narrator’s wit and ability to analyze reality are crucial. Verdery 1996:96). Moreover. with minimal spontaneous improvisation. Through the constant experience of reeling out. while reeling out anekdoty preserved normal life within and in spite of the official sphere. in order for such formulaicjokes to remain funny only minute structural changes in them are possible. had the same position towards the official sphere and one’s pretense misrecognition of it. every normal subject knew that practically everyone else constantly participated in and enjoyed the same activity and the same jokes. familiar or a stranger. but . This fact has been noticed in the former Soviet Union (e. Thus. the mafia. Telling anekdoty meant repeating a whole narrative.I82 Public Culture licly. the logic of the late socialist realm of ridicule was not in resisting. but rather in adapting to it while suspending belief. New anekdoty have recently began to emerge (especially at the expense of the postSoviet newly rich. hence.

cultural.Snickers. a librarian from the department of Russian literature at the St. they were cherished and savoured for a conversation like dessert. and more importantly. Mars. Petersburg Public Library explained: “Today a great number of collections of anekdoty are being published. they have totally disappeared from the everyday” (Erokhin 199543). a few about the new rich and the new Western products . 1994. As a discursive ritual. In the late 1980s. their disappearance is explained by the fact that today Russia is a less oppressed country than the Soviet Union was. This exposure was much more explicit and public. there was no joke work left to perform. official ideology ceased to be a believable representation of reality. including the jokes. But there are no new anekdoty-these are old Soviet jokes. Even the October [1993] events in Moscow were not reflected in anekdoty. There are no jokes about today or. And today. and psychological significance. perhaps. thus helping to sustain pretense misrecognition of the incongruous and to maintain concurrent official and parallel spheres. and. This discourse destroyed the experience of the immutability of the officially represented reality. has subsided (Belousov 1989. In the past an event of such scale was bound to produce thousands of them!” (personal communication. We acquire them for the library. Petrovskii 1990). However. multiplied in lousy booklets and fat tomes. and not a way of resisting it. Elena Loria. Inner Crisis of Noninvolvement I83 Cynical Reason of Late Socialism I have argued that for most Soviet people in late socialism. if. 1995). Tampax. as I have argued. and instead became perceived . fewer jokes of Gorbachev’s time and the Yeltsin theme [late 1980s to early 1990~1. the resistance to oppression. By the end of the 1980s this once rampant ritual became virtually extinct. As for the political anekdoty-they are treated today like documents of a past epoch and are published in endless collections: “When in the past they were spread by word of mouth. The joke work of releasing repression anxieties. the reason for their disappearance is different. reeling out anekdoty lost its social. When the phenomenon of anekdoty is seen as a form of resistance. simply lost its importance as a result of perestroika. and as a result the Soviet hegemony of representation underwent discursive deconstruction. the analytical discourse of glasnost replaced the realm of ridicule as the prime discursive space for the exposure of the social incongruous. hence. the jokes in late socialism were an element written into the system itself.on a modest scale. the ritual of reeling out has not been revived.

On first glance. and won’t be back. even if largely false. 32). Ideology had transformed into hegemony of representation. and.” “for repairs. We may call this “symbolic free time. who were permanently away from their desk and were known to be constantly “gone to the warehouse. people’s actual involvement in its official sphere. cognitive structures” (Bourdieu 1990:131). Although the social system was not actively contested. In fact. secured the achievement of what Victor Turner called “a concrete teleological goal” of maintaining “the unity and continuity of social groups” (1991:29. It should be understood in a broad sense as a time of mental noninvolvement in the official sphere.” . Soviet people by that time had learned how to take part in ideological practices “without really being there. it became common to expect money or a bonus day-off in exchange for participating in ideological functions such as subbotnik or parades. The adaptive behavior of pretense misrecognition and the cultural and psychological ritual of reeling out anekdoty helped preserve the possibility of having a normal life within the hegemonic system. in a structuralfunctionalist mode of explanation. and were ”unspokenly” (neglusno) initiated by some local bosses responsible for a big turnout. However.” A bureaucrat. it was losing the grounds of its very existence. even the time wasted at work by doing nothing became perceived as free time. Thus.I84 Public Culture to be omnipresent and immutable. A great number of shops and services on any given day were closed “for technical reasons. and a secretary became legendary figures of urban folklore.” and “for inventory. such a conclusion is wrong since the experience of the Soviet social order as immutable did not mean that it was static during this period. Free time became one of the most valuable commodities in late socialism. that is. As the examples above have shown. .” “for sanitation day. but also tried to arrange as much free time for themselves as possible within the official sphere. An epitaph on a tombstone of a bureaucrat reads (in the familiar formula of a note on a door): “I’mnot in. Anekdoty did not fail to grasp this social shift.” In the 1970s and the early 1980s. . pretense-basedbehaviors and forms of consciousness were symptoms of the opposite-the system was suffering a deep inner crisis at the “lower level” of human practice. These bonuses were not officially sanctioned from above.” This crisis of social noninvolvement led to a new type of practice: people not only arranged parallel events at ideological functions. an administrator. of “socially structured .”18 At that time many young people and members of the intelligentsia sought out 18. it may appear that this relation between the subject and power served to preserve the system’s stability and immutability.

lyrics by Boris Grebenshikov. 20. And the first of Gorbachev’s reforms of perestroika. This employment.Mitiok was not supposed to know anything about the events in the Soviet world. a grotesquebut a grotesque of a real situation. which started with an anti-alcohol campaign. and to do shopping only when absolutely necessary. earns not more than seventy rubles a month [then the lowest wage in the USSR] in his boiler room. everyone’s heading for home.” who checked why they were not at work. Andropov tried to fight this growing popular noninvolvement: during working hours. and in shops were routinely accosted by “controllers. because he is unpretentious” (Shinkarev 1990:18). Heavy drinking increased and was a way of withdrawing from the official sphere. . of course. while satisfying the official demand that one should be employed. where he works one 24-hour shift a week doing absolutely nothing. “The Generation of Yard-Sweepers and Night-Watchers” (late 1980s). The growing importance of such strategies of behavior was one of the major subjective elements in the crisis of late socialism. heating plant technicians. This was. in cinemas.. and freight-train loaders.*O I85 Cynical Reason of Late Socialism +++ Traditional Soviet ideology during late socialism ceased being a system of ideas and concepts representing reality in a believable way. of course. For example. were a reaction to this crisis of noninvolvement. one’s involvement in the parallel sphere with its parallel meanings and as warehouse watchmen. The famous Leningrad nonofficial rock band Akvarium sang about their contemporaries: “The generation of yard-sweepers and night-watchers lost each other . kept them busy for only two to three night-shifts a week. nor go to any official ceremonies. which was o the latest well-expressed by the anekdot: “Why haven’t we built communism yet? Because according t discoveries in the theory of Marxism-Leninism we must go through one more social formation on the way from developed socialism t o communism-it is developed alcoholism. Leningrad’s parallelculture communities in the 1970s venerated symbolic free time in their writings. people on the streets. Ideological messages became elements of a wider system of the hegemonic representation of reality which were not read literally. street sweepers. .” . The relation of a normal Soviet subject to ideology became based on a (not necessarily conscious) pretense-people behaved in the official sphere as if they took ideo19.e. but were experienced as immutable and omnipresent. i. nor read newspapers.”*9 These are extreme examples of a common tendency during that period to minimize one’s involvement in the official sphere and to maximize symbolic free time. though often paid less than their professional careers. members of the nonofficial artistic group Mit’ki thus described themselves in their manifesto: “Mitiok. translation by John Baylin (personal communication).

not so much because they believed or were frightened. London: Verso. which ultimately led to its inner “silent” crisis and erosion. L. Petersburg. ‘N Guide to a Post-Soviet City: The ‘Parallel Culture’ of Late Socialism and Post-Soviet Space. (Notes Towards an Investigation). Rounds of anekdoty performed the cultural and psychological joke work of preserving one’s pretense in the official sphere. Dobrenko. we can say that the crucial thing takes place. His current research concerns language. Zizek. with its own parallel cultures. S. Naiman and E. 1994. The majority of Soviet people in late socialism. and practices. ed. Alexei Yurchak is a Ph.” In Mapping Ideology.’’ is forthcoming in Another Landscape: Shaping of the Stalinist Space (E. that the mole does his work. They developed sophisticated strategies for producing parallel culture right inside and in spite of the official order without needing to worry too much about the latter. without needing to believe or disbelieve them. candidate in the Department of Cultural Anthropology. especially the last Soviet generation. parallel sphere. meanings. His essay.’ for the underground disintegration of the spiritual substance of a community which precedes and prepares the way for its spectacular public collapse.D. and thus of helping one adapt to the immutable symbolic order without needing to take it for granted. Duke University. They constituted the “cynical reason” of late socialism and were based on intricate strategies of simulating one’s support for official ideological messages and repressing one’s recognition of their falsity. In a way. and the emerging nightlife culture of St. which could momentarily expose the social incongruous between the two spheres. but because such behavior provided them with the only possible way of having a normal and full life under these conditions.I86 Public Culture logical messages at face value. Literature Cited Althusser. Bloomington: Indiana University Press). behaved in the official sphere in a “pretense” way. before ‘anything happens”’ (1993 :285). I call this behavior and the form of consciousness governing it. This dynamic of hidden social change has been eloquently expressed by Zizek: “Geopolitical analysts are as a rule blind to what Hegel called the ‘silent weaving of a spirit. eds. At the same time people produced a complex nonofficial. . “Ideological State Apparatuses. The incessant ritual of reeling out anekdoty allowed people to create a unique communicative space away from both the official and nonofficial. ideology and identity of the last Soviet generation. parallel spheres. and between one’s behaviors in both. pretense misrecognition.

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