Allegories of Re-Reading

The search for a single, legible history as Russia’s master narrative links back to the Russian Idea (or rather, the idea of the Russian Idea), employing itself in that most paranoid of classical forms, allegory.  Explaining this will take some time.

At issue are the interpretive strategies deployed in order to make sense of Russian history and culture.  Mikhail Epstein, eschewing the simplicity of the Russia Idea, establishes the metaphysics underlying twentieth-century Russian politics and thought by categorizing Russian Marxism as a form “ideocracy” (a term Jaroslaw Piekalkiewicz had previously applied to a wide variety of “totalitarian” regimes).  Epstein is most interested in the Platonic roots of Soviet ideocracy; he implicitly follows the Russian dystopian tradition inaugurated by Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, in which the totalitarian future is tantamount to Plato’s Republic run by a mad philosopher king.  Where he is most exercized over such a state’s antipathy to true philosophy and intellectual inquiry, I am intrigued by the links between ideocracy and the habit of reasoning Plato’s Republic encourages most obviously in its most famous chapter: the Allegory of the Cave. 

Plato’s Allegory is doubly allegorical: it instructs readers to see earthly reality as manifestations of a higher essence (the Theory of Forms), while also encouraging them to see stories as the encoding of an esoteric (if readily comprehensible) truth.   Stories, it seems, are not just stories.  Granted, the Allegory is labeled as such, thereby distinguishing it from other stories that might not lend themselves to allegorical interpretation, but the entire conceit of The Republic is based on the same analogical reasoning as the Allegory of the Cave (we spend hundred of pages talking about justice in a city in order to understand justice in the individual soul).  Ideocracy encourages a similar habit of interpretive displacement, transforming the mundane into the visible signs of the Idea and its master narrative.  In the Soviet case, this transformed allegorical reading into something of a reflexive response.  To see this, we need only follow the example of the perestroika era and look back to the 1920s. 

The first decade of Soviet power had long been a site of nostalgia for Russian intellectuals, since it constituted a brief interval of creative freedom bracketed by Tsarist censorship on one side and Stalinism on the other.  Cultural historians focus on the ideological battles that characterizes the 1920s, between hard-liners who wanted to create a purely socialist culture and “fellow travelers”, who, while sympathetic to the Soviet project, wanted art and culture to remain relatively autonomous.  These debates, however, are a strange phenomenon, and focusing on their actual content (“the new man”, “the new world,”, etc) ultimately distracts us from their substance.  Throughout the 1920s, the emerging Soviet subject was learning the key intellectual habit of ascribing political or ideological significance to everyday phenomena (food, housing, sex, shopping).  Stephen Kotkin famously argues that, under Stalin, Soviet citizens learned to internalize the vocabulary and tropes of the Soviet project:  “the ways of speaking about oneself became refracted through the lens of Bolshevism” (221) My point is that the  far less disciplined 1920s paved the way for this linguistic mastery by inculcating the deep structure of Bolshevism: ideocracy and allegorical thinking.  

In his proclamation of the primacy of Socialist Realism, Andrei Zhdanov identified идейность as one of the movement’s pillars.  Translated roughly as “ideological commitment,” the word is literally “idea-ness,” suggesting less ideology per se than the commitment to the simple fact of an idea.  Ideinost’ is Epstein’s ideocracy, not as a top-down oppressive structure, but as a hegemonic discourse in which the crucial role of the idea is accepted as a given.  As I have discussed at length elsewhere, the best expression of the pitfalls of ideinost’is found in Yuri Olesha’s 1927 short novel, Envy (Зависть).  [1] In Envy, the resentment felt by a young loser, Nikolai Kavalerov, and his recently-adopted mentor, the failed inventor and inveterate romantic Ivan Babichev, is directed at Ivan’s brother, Andrei, the successful director of the city’s public cafeterias and creator of a new variety of super-sausage, as well as Andrei’s disciple, the soccer star and future engineer named Volodya Makarov.  For decades, readers and critics have responded to this book in essentially allegorical terms, seeing this rivalry as the prosaic manifestation of the higher struggle between the forces of the Old World and the builders of the New.  It turns out, however, that this allegorical reading comes to us pre-packaged by the characters themselves, who complicate (and in some cases, ruin) their interpersonal relationships precisely by treating them in terms of this Manichean conflict.  If the book does offer an example of the “new man,” it is not just Volodya: it is nearly every character we encounter.  Even Kavalerov, who sees no place for himself in the new Soviet society, is a disciplined subject of emerging Bolshevism, in that he has accepted its ideological premises

Envy exposes the dangers of allegorical thinking, of the interpretive hypertrophy that refuses to leave the everyday alone.  Certainly, there is comfort in living in a world in which everything is endowed with meaning.  But that meaning always points away from the world.  Epstein is not alone in faulting the Soviet utopian project for its emphasis on the future at the expense of the present; not only is the present important only to the extent that it creates the future, but all present misery is justified in the name of an unrealized, and probably unrealizable, future.  Andrei Platonov dramatized this problem brilliantly in The Foundation Pit (1930):  the workers spend the entire book digging the pit for a grandiose building to be constructed at a later date, but instead prove to be simply digging their own vast, communal grave (the replacement of the proposed gargantuan Palace of Soviets with an outdoor public swimming pool is a real-life analog to Platonov’s tale).  This dynamic (sacrificing the present for the future) is a displacement in time, but it is conditioned by a prior displacement in signification—the meaning of an experience is shunted further down the semiotic chain from signifier to signified.  Were I more inclined to find charts and graphs impressive,  I could map the temporal and semiotic displacements on the same grid, with the “real experience” as point of origin for  two rays forming a 90-degree angle (one for time, the other for meaning). 

Allegorical thinking is a structure that requires neither sincerity nor credibility; it does not matter whether or not wearing a zoot suit in the 1950s or listening to jazz is in any way indicative of a desire to betray the Motherland, nor does desultory participation in a Komsomol meeting entail a belief that the group’s activity is advancing the cause of socialist construction.  But it is a way of thinking that assumes meaning, while intrinsic to the daily world,  points to something external. In this light, we can see the repeated refrain of the late 1980s and 1990s,  about wanting to live in a “normal” country, as, among other things, a rejection of the allegorical imperative.  The 1990s are commonly treated in terms of the absence of ideology (the idea of the idea), of a time of moral incoherence, but all of these are also a breakdown of allegorical thought.  A breakdown that would prove temporary. 

The 1990s are the first of three phases of ideological restructuring in the post-Soviet era: here, ideology recedes while conspiracy theories multiply on the margins.  Next comes the era of “Sovereign Democracy”, roughly coextensive with Putin’s first two presidential terms.  Now conspiratorial structures of thought come to greater prominence, but in a context that minimizes ideology.  Finally comes Putin’s third term, when the conspiratorial structures of Sovereign Democracy are filled with explicit, allegorically-inflected ideological content.   In each of these phases, the place of conspiracy and allegorical thinking shifts significantly, as does the place where one can most easily find the expression of conspiratorial thought.  


Next: Praying for Reign


[1] See Borenstein, Eliot.  "Defying Interpretation:  Allegory and Ideology in Jurij Olesa's Zavist'. " Russian Literature XLIX (2001): 25-42