- Everyday Life in Early Soviet Russia: Taking the Revolution Inside and: Entsiklopediia banal´nostei: Sovetskaia povsednevnost´. Kontury, simvoly, znaki
Readers of the historical magazine Rodina will surely recall Nataliia Lebina's series of essays "A Glossary of Everyday Life." Such readers will already be acquainted with the genre (and, at least partly, with the content) of those brief essays about realities of Soviet life and culture: they are informative, witty, and vividly written. Lebina is a well-known historian who published several successful works on topics related to Soviet urban life, especially in the early decades of Soviet power. Her pioneering work is based on a variety of sources and is the result of both extensive work in archives and careful reading of memoirs, the press and periodicals, and other printed sources. The material that now appears as a book is rich and interesting.
In her Encyclopedia, Lebina offers readers a sort of a guide to the byt of the Soviet age, a true glossary of everyday life. She assigns herself a more ambitious task, however: "to provide a description of verbal symbols and signs" (9) of that time. Rather than engage in a purely philological study of "Sovietisms," Lebina seeks in her work both to establish the moment when a particular word appeared and to depict the "historic-anthropological and social" meaning of the phenomenon denoted by the word. This should contribute, among other things, to an explanation of the mysterious Soviet mentality.
The author regards Soviet everyday life as "a set of things, concepts, signs, and symbols that build up a whole system with its own internal logic," as we can read in the editorial annotation. Happily, deliberations about "the semantic–semiotic system," with reference to the names of Viacheslav V. Ivanov, Vladimir Toporov, Boris Uspenskii, Iurii Lotman, and Dmitrii Likhachev, and the combinations of two difficult words such as "the sign-symbolic connotation" (znakovo-simvolicheskii ottenok) are limited to the [End Page 461] introductory chapter. Happily, I say, because at the beginning of the book the author misleads us about the nature of her own work, stating: "the structures of urban everyday life are reconstructed [in the book] by means of analysis and synthesis of signs and symbols" (16). What she actually does is something different.
A systematic semiotic study of Soviet everyday culture would be, probably, an interesting though somewhat Glassperlenspiel-like enterprise. Those who still experience enthusiasm at employing the conceptual toolkit of semiotics—and, more important, those who are able to achieve any significant result with these tools—constitute a rather small group within today's academic community. Curiously, only today, when semiotics already seems to be part of the history of ideas more than part of an actual scholar's arsenal, has it been introduced as a mandatory part of master's level philology curricula in Russia.
In spite of this pronouncement, the book does not offer us any sort of properly semiotic study: all "semiotic" terminology in it, including synthesis and analysis of signs and symbols, is purely decorative and applied in a surprisingly superficial, not to say naive, manner. Even though the author places such decorations here and there, they could be safely removed. It would only improve the text—perhaps at the cost of robbing it of its "scholarly" appearance. This façade can deceive only the uninitiated, as it is created by means of pseudo-semiotic wording that brings to mind colloquial expressions from contemporary Russian language such as znakovaia figura (or kul´tovyi fil´m)—see, for instance, the passage about short sofas that became signs of the age of Khrushchev's reforms (korotkie divany s vydvizhnymi iaschikami: oni stali znakami epokhi khrushchevskikh reform, 126), or the lines about men's shoes with pointed toes (ostronosye muzhskie tufli—znakovyi priznak povsednevnosti 60-kh, 272), or even...