Our final week in the soviet union was spent looking at raves after the fall and the Ukranian music festival that precipitated it. It seemed as though the Stilyagi of the 50’s, Magnitizdat of the 60’s, and Stiob of the 80’s came together in the creation of the underground and subsequently above ground raves of the 90’s. We discussed these raves and their existence as Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ) and windows into a futuristic and utopian soviet world. We also discussed the concept of inverted Stiob, as deemed by Yurchak, and the embrace of soviet history in the face of an onslaught of criticism. The separation of the soviet accomplishments of Gagarin from “Soviet ideological myth and its incessant public derision of late perestroika period…”(Yurchak 94) providing the promoters and attendees with a way to unite under a shared history.
This same idea of shared history was brought up again in the Wanner article about the Chevrona Ruta music festival. The concept of Ukranian nationalism and the difficulties that arise when a large portion of the population attending, especially in 1991, is russified and may not even speak the language. However the pulling upon historical figures occurs in a completely un-ironic way, the cossack horsemen being used as a rallying cry for a united and sovereign Ukraine.
I found that the Yurchak reading for this week was particularly interesting in relation to the theme for the week: “All that is solid melts into air” and while we discussed this term in relation to its initial use in the Communist Manifesto I also thought it was productive to bring the term into the readings for the week. Once again the concept of authenticity resurfaced in the discussion of the underground raves in contrast with the mafia and even state supported events. Part of the definition of the TAZ is stated as “ As soon as the TAZ is named (represented, mediated), it must vanish, it will vanish, leaving behind it an empty husk, only to spring up again somewhere else, once again invisible because undefinable in terms of the Spectacle.” (Yurchak 88) Meaning that the dissolution of the space at the exact moment that it is discovered is imperative in order for the space to retain its freedom. As unexpected as these spaces popped up in abandoned buildings and warehouses they should have to be equally surprising in their disappearance, however the events proceeded to get larger and thus, as one of the original attendees put it “There is less interesting stuff going on than when it was at the peak of sharp sensations…”(Yurchak 101). The TAZ is that which is solid, but must melt into air, emphasizing its fragile nature but also its definite impact during the time of its existence.
As we leave the Soviet Union and move on to other socialist countries I think it will be interesting to see not only how state policies mirror each other in these countries but also how the methods of subversion and resistance develop in comparison with the examples in the soviet case.
The “friendship of the people” policy and similar policies under Stalin’s regime either fragmented the various ethnic and national groups of the USSR or served to exacerbate previous tensions as evidenced by the nationalism of the Chervona Ruta Music festival, for instance. I was struck by the similarities between pro-Ukrainian nationalism and the nationalism that was generated by the USSR. That is not to say that pro-Ukrainian nationalism is artificially generated, like the state-dictated policies of Stalin’s totalitarian regime. It is only to indicate that the societies of many former Soviet states seem to lack natural cultural unity, or at least this wasn’t translated into cohesive political stability. And this vacuum fed the rise of extreme nationalism of various kinds- both in support of Ukrainian independence and in opposition to it.
Regarding the article on post-Soviet nightlife, I think it is a testament to the ever-evolving state of ideology as reinterpreted by human society. The energetic youth recreated culture through these gatherings, as they collectively developed attitudes towards past Soviet ideologies. Their creation of a new historical narrative was important to the continual adaptation of society as a whole.
During the Soviet Era, there were stiob attacks on Soviet images and there was much criticism. However, after the Soviet Union dissolved, there was an attack on the (stiob) attacks. People were re-humanizing Soviet power, emphasizing the good aspects of the Soviet Union, and preserving its symbols.
The mafia’s involvement in daily life filled the institutional void and provided a measure of stability.
The idea that “all that is solid melts into air” addresses capitalism modernity – more specifically, Marxist modernity. Old things become obsolete and thus lead to that which is new. Everything that is solid ultimately becomes an abstraction of money.
Musical culture allows citizens to reclaim time and space. The Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ) created a space for that experience. However, once something is named or commodified, something is lost – it loses its magic, the mystery, etc. Once these zones were recognized, they must disappear, only to be appear someone else again.
This question was raised in class, but not fully discussed and I am still wondering: What is it about certain types of music that allow them to be cross-cultural?
This seems to be in the same realm of asking whether or not music is a universal language. What it is that makes some music cross-cultural? Is it connected to language? Maybe not necessarily… Maybe the point is that these connections made across cultures do not need language in order to interact because the similarities/differences in culture communicate for themselves.
Like others, I’m thinking about this phrase “all that is solid melts into air,” and the way it ties together a lot of the themes of soviet culture we’ve looked at in the last few weeks. In particular, and perhaps obviously, it’s deeply related to the nightclub and rave culture that we read about in the Yurchak paper. More specifically, the notion of the “temporary autonomous zone” is necessarily temporary – it’s power and significance is directly related to its ephemerality. The goal of these spaces seems to have been to stay ahead of the government, not completely evade it, which would have been impossible (an interesting side note: various DIY music and performance spaces around Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens are a great contemporary, local example of this sort of space – they frequently get shut down but reappear in different forms in another locations).
Stiob also bears some relation to the idea of “all that is solid melts into air,” precisely because stiob isn’t what it appears to be from an outside perspective – in fact it’s the opposite. It’s a powerful form of radicalism and expression of disavowal that’s disguised as overt, sensationalist support, which introduces absurdity and humor into what is otherwise a pretty serious struggle for freedom. In its subtle way, stiob is process of radicalism “melting into air” without losing its internal message.
“All that is solid melts into air” would seem like a beautiful, romantic phrase but it really refers to capitalism; the social classes will be brought down and people will be equals. The old social structure or some being above others is ending and it leads the people into a new chapter.
The raves had the challenge of staying one step ahead of the government in order to hold raves in abandoned buildings. When a rave was shut down they sprung up again in a different place. The Soviet Union fell apart so these buildings still had electricity and had people living inside them for free. The fall of the Soviet Union completely contradicts Marx’s statement above, the Soviet Union did fall and the social classes did not level out and become equal because of it’s state corruption.
The other article on the Ukrainian “Chervona Ruta” festival was my favorite reading from this unit. I was fascinated by the mixture of “folk” performers followed by Ukrainian rock bands. I would love to know more about the local Ukrainian’s feelings about inviting Americans to perform on their traditional instruments because of their absence from the Ukraine. Are those instruments considered a symbol of Ukrainian culture or are they beginning to become a part of the “traditional” musical revival in modern Ukraine?
In this closing discussion of the unit on the soviet union, it seems only fitting that we are left again with a concept that is somewhat intangible, an ephemeral saying seeking to encapsulate the broad and complicated existence of the soviet union, and the art that came out of it. It also seems fitting that this final discussion did give some closure on the unit, we ended with the amalgam of resistance and the ambiguous state policing policies as well as a revival of specific musical forms in the rave culture, and the Chevorna Ruta festival, which gave the last definition to this multi-dimensional term. The article on rave culture spoke to the culmination of forms of resistance yet with a whole new twist, and illuminated the true nature of the state and their inconsistent policies of controlling opposition, which we talked about mostly with Yurchak and what these inconsistencies produce in artists and consumers (like the politics of the shortwave radio). They illuminated this by existing largely because of their ability to occupy abandoned warehouses, never even suspected by the police because this activity had never occurred before. Wanner’s article showed a set of politics connected to Ukrainian nationalism and commented on nationalism within the Soviet sphere more broadly too, politics that were previously only touched upon in the discussions of nationalism and the results of the nation-making and indigenization that we read for the very first class.
But this phrase we are left with, “all that is solid melts into air,” seems to fit the mood of our discourse from the past few weeks, our conversations even seemed to touch on complicated and dense themes and then lead us to conclusions that often floated away from us as we moved onto the next reading. We often touched on these larger and more complex, maybe even unanswerable questions of what the function of art is in society, how music can flourish under constraint, what it means to live in a place where music is a vessel for the state, yet an oppositional (though in varying degrees) voice of the people. I think that these beginnings have set us up in an interesting place to continue discussions of socialist musical realms.
Within Yurchak’s chapter on “Gagarin and the Rave Kids: Transforming Power, Identity, and Aesthetics in Post-Soviet Nightlight,” I was particularly struck by his thoughts on the term “counterculture,” and that what this term is used to reference was, in fact, an element of Soviet culture that arose organically out of the Soviet state, indivisible from the everyday culture. In his analysis of Thomas Cushman’s description of the dichotomy between the “normal” culture of Soviet industrial society and the “counterculture” that opposed it, Yurchak states: “I argue that the logic of nonofficial discourses and practices in late socialism was based most of all on attempts to have a meaningful life in spite of the state’s oppression. Hence, the nonofficial (or “countercultural”) practices involved not so much countering, resisting, or opposing state power as simply avoiding it and carving out symbolically meaningful spaces and identities away from it.” (80) I found this particularly relevant in its relation to Yurchak’s essays on the “Imaginary West” and his emphasis on the fact that many Soviet citizens did not see the connection between their appropriations of Western material culture and politics.
The subcultures of the stilyagi, the bards, the punks, the post-soviet ravers, all grew out of the culture of the authoritarian Soviet system, as is exemplified in Yurchak’s earlier discussion of the tension between the promotion of “good” internationalism and the denunciation of “bad” cosmopolitanism during the 1970s and 1980s. Many of these subcultures, particularly the musical genres of avtorskaia pesnia and Siberian punk, were dependent on their subversiveness for success, losing momentum after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Though the Marxist notion that “all that is solid melts into the air” refers to the fact that within capitalist/bourgeois society, all things become obsolete when they are abstracted by money and the capitalist market, I initially perceived this statement as a reflection on the fall of the Soviet union and the desecration and re-appropriation of its socialist ideological and cultural symbols, such as the post-Soviet practice of inverted stiob, as defined by Yurchak.
An interesting point that was brought up in the reading, was the appropriation of traditional Soviet symbols into rave culture. The raves began in Temporary Anonymous Zones, but after the trend caught on, some became state sponsored – like the party in the Planetarium. This rave culture did not seem to outwardly oppose the state, however, because it became such a phenomenon in Russia, western and cosmopolitan culture infiltrated the country. So even if the raves was not blatantly and outwardly against the State, they served the same purpose as the other musical forms that criticized it.
Yurchak writes about Rock on Bones, Stiob, Rock and Punk, magnitizdat, and the previous forms of music and music circulation that were either accepted, rejected, or overlooked by the state. All of these forms showed different types of resistance, whether that was outward or subtle (as in Stiob). However, when looking back on the previous censorship of the “elite music” of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Mayakovski, Khachaturian, and other composers of the time, we can see a huge shift. It seems to me as though the state realized that it could not stop all international and cosmopolitan influences. And with the influx of new forms, ways of circulation, and new attitudes, the state’s censorship powers lessened.
“All that is solid melts into the air”–or the concrete meanings of official symbols are transformed, through the working of nonofficial cultural agents in places such a Temporary Autonomous Zones, changing from images with a set ideological meaning into a more fluid type of cultural object. Just as Yuri Gagarin’s image was adopted for the Gagarin parties, militaristic statements were taken on for other rave parties, and the Soviet Estrada song “Chervona Ruta” was reappropriated as a Ukrainian protest song (and festival), countless symbols became not what the Soviet institution intended, but objects of ordinary people’s symbolic creativity. This action, paired with stiob, gets at the mutability of symbols and ideas–which is even more powerful under a totalitarian system of censorship than in a free market. The main metaphor works so well because it captures the idea of the sublimation of symbols: what was once solid in meaning and confined to its place becomes airborne, dispersed into a multitude of molecules, which permeate throughout the cultural consciousness and can be further transformed by anyone.
On the other hand, I’d like to assert a converse idea that occurs simultaneously: “all that is in the air becomes solid,” or, in a word, all the cultural movements that spontaneously emerge either to counter the dominant trends or to provide a space in which to ignore official ideology (and its cultural manifestations) begin as free-form explorations of creativity and possibility, but soon themselves turn into the more solid, pinned-down genres and forms that the institution appropriates and accepts. This process occurs in many of the examples we have seen: avtoskaia pesnia become accepted by the institution, permitted, and canonized after the fact. The stiob that skewers the old institution becomes widespread and common, and thus a new stiob rises to mock the original stiob. Rave parties begin as TAZ-based social events on society’s margins, but soon enough are the dominant cultural mode of musical expression and enjoyment, having lost its original revolutionary and creative edge. I do not mean that in every case, the musical forms become horrible, dishonest, or inauthentic after breaking into the mainstream or being accepted by the instution; I just mean that the freedom of form and content is made solid, is made into more distinct genres and social rituals, as a result of its increasing acceptance and social permeation.
One notion that struck me while reading the Wanner was the comparison she made between the Chervona Ruta festival and Benjamin’s Angel of History. She says that “at Chervona Ruta the Soviet past was represented as an undesirable other, much like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, who moves away from, yet faces, an ever-growing pile of senseless human tragedy” (150). For Wanner, the key notion is in the representation of history and how it can be used and misused. The Benjamin comparison seems to arise out of the fact that the Soviet’s have imposed a historical interpretation of Ukraine that is inconsistent with the way Ukraine sees itself. Wanner notes that “selective historical amnesia becomes political capital”(149) and that historiography itself “becomes the critical battleground for national identity”(149). The first quote notes the deep political value found in the way citizens understand their past and the second is a comment on how this understanding (the method by which we identify with a country) serves as the canvas to construct a national identity. This elucidates an interesting, but unsurprising point: the mode by which the Soviet’s thought to push Ukraine’s national identity nearer to a Communist ideal was through the selective representation of their history. What is interesting about the Angel of History versus the Chervona Ruta festival is that the Angel has no choice to ‘change the past’ (the ‘storm from Paradise’ has “got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them”), whereas ‘changing the past’, or at least reawakening it from the Soviet “historical amnesia”, is precisely the goal of Chervona Ruta. Indeed Wanner states that “instances of victimizations and betrayal are selected to represent the Ukrainian-Russain historical experience, so as to argue more cogently for an independent Ukrainian state”. Chervona Ruta takes on the form of an argument for political freedom.
I am struck by the instance in the Wanner article when she discusses that while Ukranian rock musicians were taking on the “style” of Western musicians, it didn’t come across as imitation. Instead, it became the kind of symbolic creativity discussed by Yurchak and served as part of a need Ukranian nationalist idea of art and aesthetics (Wanner 140). The Western aspects were used as a framework for real and dangerous social and political complaints. For example the Snake Brothers were communicating content that initially could make audience members uncomfortable. To join in would be to undeniably oppose the Soviet government. However, cushioned in the idea of a Western rock concert, the festivity allowed for more active participation. People began to raise their hands and wave, “suspending the taboo against political criticism” in in a public forum.
Yurchak would perhaps argue that the joining in has nothing to do with actual protest. He might argue that the symbolic creativity had more to do with the desire to create interesting, new art out of available materials than to provide meaningful political and social commentary.
I think that the two largest themes of this unit were the ambiguity of the Soviet government in communicating its cultural standards and the division between the official and unofficial spheres of Soviet life. Almost all of the readings of this unit highlight the ambivalence of the government in promoting and criticizing different cultural forms. I am interested to see whether or not this same inconsistency is seen in the case of China, especially how the censorship of China’s cultural practices differ than that of the USSR. Outside of the realm of the official sphere, I was especially interested in learning about some of the unofficial practices that were done in the everyday life of citizens. I think that reading the final article of this unit, “Gagarin and the Rave Kids,” brings up ideas that can be applied to future units. In this article, Yurchak undermines the frequency that true “counterculture” occurs. He suggests that the participants in Soviet Rave culture were not attempting to subvert the Soviet government, but instead, were struggling with a way to simply “ignore” it. I think that this perspective will be helpful when analyzing the case of other socialist systems and helps us as readers to realize that a break from expected social norms cannot necessarily be identified as dissident in nature.
One passage I found really interesting in the Yurchak reading was the quote from the youth magazine, Ptiuch. It reads, “some people, including very clever and sophisticated people, do not seem to understand that they cannot push the following generations into a classroom and instruct them in the wisdom of life that they have learned…We have only one chance to live our own life as we want to…And the only thing that we really need…is to be left alone by them” (101). The magazine is, of course, referencing the older intelligentsia from the generation before. I see here the common scenario of an older generation scolding the younger and the younger rejecting the older. But it’s especially interesting from our perspective because we were just reading about that older generation. Whether it was the overtly resistant songs of Galich or the spirited adventure songs of Dulach there was a sense of longing for a something new from this avtorskaya pesnia. Maybe that ‘something new’ took root in the 90s with the rave culture. The last soviet generation did seem to find a comfortable space for their secret activities. They showed a sense of arrival rather than a sense of longing.
The ending of the Chervona Ruta festival to some degree encapsulates the phrase “all that is solid melts into air.” Its intention to promote Ukrainian nationalist spirit (in doing so alienating many “Russified” Ukrainians) and anti-Soviet sentiment came to a close as the festival was shut down with the fall of the Soviet Union. Even this seemingly tangible expression of Nationalism and independence evaporated in response to the chaos of the fall (in regards to the festival). Although Ukraine gained independence ultimately, it could not entirely disassociate itself from Soviet history.
From this unit I learned how to analyze the difference between “official” v. “lived” realities. Ten years from now I think I will remember the various methods of music making/disseminating in the Soviet Union – especially rock on bones, shortwave radio, magnitizdat.
It’s hard for me to imagine the shock of the collapse of Soviet Union for it’s citizens. I wonder what it was like for the dissident artists living under Soviet Union to suddenly find themselves free of the governmental system they had grown up resisting. Was there a fundamental change in the way that Russian dissidents saw themselves and their art? Did it feel like a victory? Did the Rave kids party extra hard that night?
The bigger question is what happens to a form of dissident art after the fall of the oppressor. How do the artists transform their art to match contemporary circumstances. This is very relevant to Russia today as the country has fallen under yet another oppressive regime.
That phrase “All That is Solid Melts Into Air” always brings me back to the point I brought up in class about how things such as Temporary Autonomous Zones is analogous to that of various music genres, especially those of the Western variety. There is a beginning, much like that of Yurchak’s article with the House party origins in abandoned buildings following the Soviet Union fall. But just like with genres of music as it reaches a point of fame and gets studied through institutions, it starts to decrease in popularity. Whenever those Zones would start to gain popularity, they had to move as well.
Ultimately, the rave article ultimately gave a good glimpse into how modernity was accomplished in the post-Soviet era. For example, the re-appropriation of old Soviet symbols during its heyday and using them for flyers.
People will do what they want. This is probably the biggest lesson that I’ve taken away from this exploration of the Soviet Union. From DIY musical contraband in the form of rock on bones, to creating intimate spaces and telling sly jokes through music, the Soviet people seemed to achieve instances of free expression even under tight state control of culture production. We see this spirit of freedom presented very clearly in Yurchak’s piece on the Rave kids. Yurchak walks us through through the development and early stages of the raves, and then the shift to post-soviet early mob control, which is later overtaken by a more organized Krysha mob control. But even through all the shifts of power these Raves continued to grow in size and popularity.
My interests in magnitizdat and stiob revolve around the concept of resistance and illegibility and the ways in which individuals create meaning in their lives through these acts is fascinating. In hindsight, what is particularly interesting now is the various ways in which societies come to adapt to socialist cultural policies, how culturally situated the ways in which they navigate these tensions in their lives truly are.
I was really interested in the Yurchak article and the concept of stiob as it relates to the later soviet history. This week was interesting as a closing to the section on the Soviet Union. I think the contrast between the rave culture and the Ukrainian music festival is interesting. They are two very different parts of the same culture that both served to be revolutionary in their own ways.
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