Proposed Circumstances

This article investigates the point made my Maya Turovskaya in her article “The Soviet Middle Class”. Frumkina argues that while culture was a central concern, cultural status could not necessarily be conversted into commodities and services.

A few years ago, Andrei Zorin wrote about how he was nonplussed by one of his students, who was surprised to learn that before Perestroika, Brodsky was not studied at university. There is only one possible conclusion from this, I believe: the witnesses of the past must not remain silent. They must witness, and it will be up to later generations to tell creative imagination from documentary evidence, and fantasy from myth as a structural component of life and culture.

In NZ No. 1(21) /2002, Maya Turovskaya published an article about the “Soviet middle class”. Readers expecting analysis were deceived: Turovskaya wrote a memoir – no more but, I should note, no less. We are faced with a testimony.

The very footnote that laconically presents Turovskaya as “a movie critic” merits attention1 . When I remarked on it, a friend of mine (who is of the same age as Zorin2 asked: “Why, isn’t it true?” The point is that for her time, Maya Turovskaya was not a movie critic, but the movie critic – not in the eyes of the leadership, but in the eyes of her readers and of all film buffs.

Russian doesn’t have articles, which is a pity. Maya Turovskaya is the cinema historian and film critic whose articles were published in Novy Mir3
in the Thaw years and read by everyone, not just specialist colleagues. Turovskaya was the one who was “trusted” (or allowed?) to write the script for “Ordinary fascism”, a film that was a remarkable achievement for its time. This list of definite articles could go on indefinitely, and here I am the one who can act as a witness, for Maya Turovskaya and I are almost of the same age.

The grateful readers didn’t blame Turovskaya for the fact that she had access to films that we couldn’t even dream of watching: life was such then that her articles were partially a substitute for these films, while at the same time making us want to watch them at any cost. I still remember her essay about Tom Jones (based on Fielding’s novel); when, decades later, I finally saw this movie, I had the impression that the text had been more interesting than the film was.

So what is her article about?
In the genre of a memoir, it describes the Soviet mechanisms of trading status for any scarce goods. The author’s point of view is that of a subject of such exchanges, and of someone who possessed the status of an agent of high culture. This makes it all the more interesting to see how the topic is presented: those who are in the process of becoming the most active social agents today are a generation who know only from books that in Soviet society, high culture was as scarce as good meat (in Moscow) or any meat (in the provinces).

This is what I, too, claim witness’s rights to. As for the middle class, I am convinced that until very recently, we simply didn’t have one: how could there be a middle class in a society where relations are regulated by exchanges of status rather than money?

And here it’s about time to say that in the period described in Turovskaya’s article (the 1960s-70s), she was not just someone connected to cinema and literature. Hers was the status of one of the ten or twenty people most influential in these circles. Thirty years ago, the great Mikhail Ul’yanov really was Misha to Maya; and the doctors that she has such fond memories of, and others, too, knew very well who they were dealing with.

Everybody wanted to watch good movies, but they were shown to few, and certainly not in ordinary cinemas. Consequently, Turovskaya’s personal status wasn’t just objectively high, it was highly convertible. And this is precisely what is interesting: not every objectively high cultural status could be converted into hairdressers’ or electricians’ services.

Although I lived in a co-operative cinema workers’ building for 14 years (apparently, Turovskaya and I were neighbours) and got to know many of its inhabitants, including famous ones, I wasn’t so much as invited to the ground floor of our block of flats, to the editorial office of Iskusstvo kino [The Art of Cinema] journal. I didn’t find this strange: having written several books and obtained a doctorate in literary studies (though it could just as well have been in biology or mathematics) gave me a kind of status that wasn’t convertible at all, except perhaps when a twist of fate propelled a theoretician into the defence industry.

Young people love my story about a conversation with the elderly woman who was helping me out at home in those years. Raissa Petrovna had recently come to Moscow from a village and still didn’t know where the statue of Pushkin was. She was working as a cook in the kindergarten of a highly privileged research institute. Once she asked what one could “get” at my workplace (in a respectable, but non-secret institute of the Academy of Sciences). When I answered “no” to each point on her list of traditional food “orders”, boots, fridges, hats and even books, she asked me in amazement: “So what is it you work for, then?”

I was taken aback and answered timidly: “For the money, I guess…”
“You call this money!…”, she exclaimed with compassion.
But our family wasn’t poor! Though it’s true that we didn’t have any of the usual symbolic markers of high status, which at the time included a car, a large TV set, a wall unit and high-quality clothes. And Raissa Petrovna wasn’t an expert in such enigmatic things as the Gallé museum vase that I inherited (she assured me that she had bought one just like it for six twenty not that long ago…)

A butler-like nanny like the one Turovskaya describes had by 1967 become as much of a rarity in Moscow as in her Munich colleagues’ family, and the point is not the low cost of labour “over here” and its high cost “over there”, but a concatenation of Soviet demographic, social and political factors (the war, the system of compulsory passports and registration etc) which had nothing to do with the status of the potential employer. A nanny who had come from a village back in 1924 stayed with my husband’s perfectly ordinary family all her life. But in general, in the 1960s-80s, nannies or domestic helpers coming in once a week were harder to find in Moscow than in Paris, London or Stockholm, not to mention the United States, where teenagers and students traditionally earn pocket money by working as gardeners, cleaners or babysitters.

Generally, the market for the most basic services was scanty. Still, to get the eight large windows in our flat cleaned and insulated, one didn’t have to be Maya Turovskaya. It was enough to call the Zarya company and pay a sum that was quite affordable given average salaries at that time. In any big town, anyone who so desired could get his sheets starched at a laundry for a modest amount of money.

Cars, then.
Even if Sergei Averintsev, winner of a Communist Youth Union prize (!), had had a car in the summer of 1972, then unlike M. T., who just then was willingly served in the right place after a car breakdown, he would have had absolutely nowhere to go in case of an accident: the “craftsmen” and “benefactors” who were filling the Cinema House and the House of the Actor, would hardly have heard of Plutarch.

It was the appearance of a car among my acquaintances that caused such an upsurge of “need” that, alas, “Russian friendship” took second place. I remember how my husband and I visited his old friends. The other person invited was someone who was there for the first time. But he was the one the hosts spent the whole evening talking to, trying to find out how to get hold of “rubber” and how to replace the front window. Situations like this became menacingly frequent.

The next split in the same circle (university teachers, researchers and editorial workers) was between those allowed and those forbidden to travel abroad. Those who couldn’t go abroad were evidently severed from their foreign colleagues. What was less frequently noticed, though, was that those who were allowed to travel quickly became alienated from “their own people”, too, including colleagues at their institute or laboratory. Back home, their status was converted into indisputable symbolic capital: books and off-prints brought back from “over there” and not available “over here”, as well as invitations to speak at another symposium “over there”.

An important part of the resources of someone allowed to travel abroad consisted in a tiny economic liberty that yet carried great weight at the time: the tapes or batteries brought back from “over there” might last until the next trip. (Now it is hard to imagine that as late as 1990, one couldn’t buy either quality AA batteries or a charger in the Soviet Union.)

Turovskaya’s text suggests that virtually everyone had some form of blat. Looking from a “bird’s eye view”, this may be true, but sometimes it’s useful to get back on the ground. It is the quality and volume of one’s blat that was the snag. Semi-officially obtaining a van once a year to move to one’s dacha was one thing; having a social status that could be converted into scarce goods and services at any time was quite another.

As an example of the beginning of social and status shifts, Turovskaya mentions Vladimir Arro’s play Look Who’s There. An author of memoirs, as opposed to a historian, has the right not to remember everything; still, it’s revealing that, to Turovskaya’s mind, this play came out “a bit earlier or a bit later” than the year when the forests were burning around Moscow, which was 1972. In fact, Arro’s play was first shown in the early 1980s and was published in Sovremennaya dramaturgiya [Contemporary Drama] in 1982. This is of no mean importance: before then not only the play would not have been allowed on stage, but its very language would not have been possible. I venture to believe that it could hardly even have been written.

According to M. T., the play’s storyline is the following: “a fashionable hairdresser wants to buy a dacha from a professor, who is offended by this”. But in fact, the play is not just about how a self-assured, boorish asserts his right to buy a contemporary “cherry orchard”. It is about the end of the era of the “junior researchers”: blat or not, their status, and consequently their knowledge and culture, turned out to be of no value compared to the status that is conferred by money! It is no accident that at the end of the play, it is an overstrained 34 year old “junior researcher” (a latter-day Varya) who dies, not the old war veteran (the equivalent of Ranevskaya) who is tied to the dacha by his entire way of life4.

Turovskaya remarks bitterly about the impossibility for a member of the Soviet intelligentsia to survive on his own in both every day life and the spiritual domain. I grant that for Turovskaya, these two difficulties were nearly equivalent, given her special personal and corporative status – as a member of two unions of “cultural workers”, she could get into Novy Mir and any film festivals without special efforts; but without the friendship with Mikhail Ulyanov, her flat exchange may have failed.

My own experience of “survival” yields somewhat different conclusions. At the end of the Thaw, for educated owners of non-convertible statuses, high culture more and more became not just a refuge, but a condition for preserving one’s own personality5. Respectable citizens, often enough professionally well-established, no Bohemians, would gather for home seminars; go to some House of Culture on the outskirts of town where 50 people could watch Kira Muratova’s Long Goodbye (and talk to the director, too); argue about The Glass Bead Game; and discover the composers mentioned in Hesse’s text.

This novel, published in Moscow in 1969 with a print run of 75.000, wasn’t to be bought anywhere, although Hesse is not Kafka and even among our literary scholars, only specialists knew of him. Of course, I immediately borrowed a copy, but it was only a year later that I could buy one for myself, and I am still grateful for this to Yura Freidin, now a well-known specialist on Mandelshtam.

Concerning every day life, however (if and as long as you were healthy), one could survive on one’s own, at least in Moscow and St Petersburg. In the times M. T. describes, even a Muscovite teacher could afford to have something simple sewn or knitted to order, to have her hair cut by “her own” hairdresser, though not by a very fashionable one, and to have an (inexpensive) dentist “of her own”: labour was cheap. But since any private economic initiative was forbidden, one wouldn’t look for a tailor, a painter or a notary in Extra6 (unimaginable then), but find them with the help of one’s friends.

We had a friend, a qualified engineer with a postgraduate diploma, who filled the “N” page in his address book with the names not just of doctors and electricians, but also of those who could help establish the right contacts: their friends, neighbours or distant relations worked (or went out for beer or to the banya) with the right people. He was the one who taught me these very expressions. He himself was also a contacts champion – in fact, this was his main tool in the struggle for success in life. Amusingly enough, he was at the same time a meticulously honest person.

I confess that even today, when, it would seem, there is complete economic freedom, I often prefer services obtained by the “money-and-blat” principle. This no longer has anything to do with blat in its former sense, since services can now be bought, i.e. exchange itself has acquired a monetary form. Rather, I’m talking about advice and/or information from friends who are experts in the field concerned. Advice to the “consumer”, confirming that Mr such-and-such is worth his money. Information (also a form of advice) to the “seller” of the service, confirming the buyer’s trustworthiness: the private tutor wants to know that he won’t be taken for a servant, the doctor wants to be assured that his patients won’t expect the impossible, the cleaning lady wants a guarantee that she will get her money on time.

So, like any normal person, I trust individuals more than institutions.
But I guess life in Munich is boring…

See Revekka Frumkina, Ne skryvaya pristrastiy [Not Hiding One's Partiality],

I.e. in his forties. [Translator's note]

"New World", the leading liberal literary journal in the 1950s and '60s. [Translator's note]

Ranevskaya and her adopted daughter Varya are characters from Anton Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard. [Translator's note]

Revekka Frumkina, I nashi vechera - proshchan'ya [And Our Evenings Are Farewells], ; Alla Yarkho,Zanesti v krasnuyu knigu, ili Pokhvala dukhovnosti [On the List of Endangered Species, or In Praise of Spirituality,

A classified ads newspaper distributed free of charge in many Russian towns nowadays. [Translator's note]

Published 30 August 2002
Original in Russian
Translated by Mischa Gabowitsch

Contributed by Neprikosnovennij Zapas (NZ) © Revekka Frumkina / Neprikosnovennij Zapas (NZ) / Eurozine


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