From the advent of the Cold War, Western perceptions of the Soviet Union were shaped by dichotomies. The West distinguished dissidents from sympathizers of the regime, victims from oppressors, and anti-Communists from Communists (or, to speak in terms of today’s politics, good from evil). The victims bore labels such as “democrats” and were considered to be “on our side,” while the “Communists” were enemies of the “free world.” The manipulated masses might have been a third category. The Western world treated them as unwitting victims of the regime too.
The Soviet Union is history, but the dichotomous view of its society prevails—all the more so because many Soviet citizens seemed to confirm this dualism. They would talk about “my” and “oni,” “we” and “they.” Usually, they did not define their “my,” or “we,” its nature was understood—and fluid, as was the nature of their “oni,” or “they.” “They” meant “the others,” the Communist Party, the secret police, or, in today’s simplified political lexicon, the bad guys.
Working at a Western newspaper in Moscow during the final period of the Soviet Union, this reviewer initially found the categories of “my” and “oni” highly confusing. “My” was a different group for different people and different at different times. Someone could belong to someone else’s “my” but through a change of subject during a conversation suddenly become part of that person’s “oni.” The categories were fuzzy; the dichotomies depended on the context.
With the end of the Soviet Union, many Russian academics who had been perfectly adapted and loyal to the system (e.g.,, with good professional jobs) tried to portray themselves as lifelong “dissidents.” To this Westerner in Moscow, they seemed insincere. A dissident, according to the Western cliché, was someone who actively opposed the regime. It was difficult to consider someone a dissident for reading forbidden literature, listening to rock music, and telling jokes about the Communist party.
Where within the West’s simplified scheme of black-and-white should one place people who hated the uneducated old bureaucrats in the Kremlin or dreamed of a post-Communist Russia (or, in the republics, of an independent country) but who worked as university professors or at prestigious institutions such as television stations? Obviously, they were part of the system, though they could convince this reviewer of their deep-seated disagreement with the system. What about the younger people who neither conformed to nor opposed the system but reduced their involvement with it to a minimum? Many people managed to straddle both spaces, the [End Page 204] official realm of the regime and the atmosphere of the dissident. Others tried to stay out of any seemingly established space.
Thus, the social categories and prejudices with which the Western media looked at Soviet society did not match the reality on the ground. Alexei Yurchak’s excellent study Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, sheds light on the conflicting interpretations of late-Soviet society. His book will be an indispensable part of any future historiography of everyday Soviet life.
“Everyone was to some extent complicit in the system of patronage, lying, theft, hedging, and duplicity through which the system operated,” Yurchak quotes Susan Gal and Gail Kligman (p. 7). He shows that, as part of this straddling of different worlds, almost everyone was fluent in a range of vernaculars, from the party’s newspeak to the lingo of certain subcultures. The “tusovka” in particular, loose groupings of like-minded young people devoted to a hobby, often a kind of music, developed their own private linguistic codes. Yurchak labels the ability to converse in different sublanguages “Komsomol Heteroglossia” (p. 217). He introduces Andrei, a young geologist, who after graduation from university entered the Komsomol for the sole reason that the Communist youth league was the one place where he would find easy access to the type of rock music in which he was most interested. Rock music was banned by the party, considered immoral and decadent, and as secretary of a...