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Public Culture 15.3 (2003) 427-451

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Crimes of Substitution:
Detection in Late Soviet Society

Serguei Alex. Oushakine


In order to appear "accidental," an element in a work of art must belong to at least two systems and must be located at their intersection. That aspect of the element which is systemic from the point of view of one structure will appear "accidental" when viewed from the vantage of the other.
Yurii Lotman, The Structure of the Artistic Text
There is no deed, in whatever unusual form you may imagine it, which is really criminal, none which may be really called virtuous. All is relative to our manners and the climate we inhabit.
Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom

In his recent memoirs, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a popular poet of the post-Stalin generation, tells a story about the early 1960s. Trying to "win over" prominent members of the Soviet intellectual elite, Nikita Khrushchev held several meetings with the intelligentsia in the Kremlin. During one such meeting, in which Khrushchev's speech was steadily punctuated by applause, Dmitry Shostakovich—who [End Page 427] sat next to Yevtushenko—was continuously writing in his notebook. When the applause resumed, the composer whispered to the poet: "I have my own method of avoiding applause. I try to produce an impression that I'm writing down all these great thoughts. Thank God, everyone can see that my hands are busy." 1

This anecdote nicely depicts the major problem I want to discuss in this essay: In a society where the circulation of symbolic forms—including forms of public self-presentation—is heavily controlled and predetermined, how does one effectively detach oneself from the dominant symbolic order? What are the tools that allowed the Soviet subject to simultaneously produce an impression of being loyal to the regime while at least partially abstaining from its practices?

I argue that the answer lies in the mechanism of transgressive imitation so vividly demonstrated by Shostakovich. This crime of substitution, as I call it, helped maintain the apparent integrity of the (Soviet) symbolic field, yet constantly revealed a profound discordance between performance and intention. The various crimes of substitution I will examine in this essay did not attempt to counter the dominant framework of signification with an alternative, but rather unfolded within the range of already existing possibilities. Instead of challenging the symbolic order by introducing new symbolic forms, crimes of substitution focused on codes and interpretations that could be associated with these original forms. As Shostakovich's method for dealing with the regime demonstrates, crimes of substitution have very little in common with an art of deception, impersonation, and imposture aimed to produce an expected yet misleading reaction. 2 Responding to Khrushchev's speech with his own writing, Shostakovich built his tactic on a fundamental flaw that any hegemonic system of interpellation tries, if not to mask, then at least to displace: while constituting the subject in the process of hailing, interpellation fails to determine the nature of the subject's response. 3 As Michel de Certeau observes, signifying tactics that allow for this indeterminacy are rooted in the subject's inability to assume "proper" spatial or institutional localization in relation to a clear-cut "borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality." 4 It is this "improper" localization or, conversely, the failure of [End Page 428] the symbolic order to fully "absorb" the subject that enables tactical interventions within "vocabularies of established languages" and "prescribed syntactical forms" to articulate "the ruses of other interests and desires that are neither determined nor captured by the system in which they develop." 5

To explore these issues, I want to look at several sources that deal with the notion of crime in late Soviet society. 6 I will primarily focus on Ol'ga and Aleksandr Lavrov's The Experts Conduct an Investigation, a collection of short detective stories written from the 1970s through the 1990s. 7 Over a twenty-year period, the Lavrovs produced thirty-five screenplays for the TV film series with the same title. First broadcast in 1971...


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