- From Poets to Padonki: Linguistic Authority and Norm Negotiation in Modern Russian Culture eds. by Ingunn Lunde and Martin Paulsen
The book under review, part of a larger project at Norway’s Bergen University, is both timely and untimely. Despite this collection’s relative age, it has a useful perspective on transformations in language practices in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, the elimination and eventual reassertion of censorship on the media, and the expansion of digital communication technology. Given the strained relationship between North America, Europe, and Russia since Russia’s shocking invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, the care and detail with which the contributors treat their subjects is welcome. American media’s understandable revulsion at a November 26, 2016, Holocaust-themed “Ice Age” routine, inspired by 1997’s equally controversial Holocaust comedy Life Is Beautiful, underscores the vast cultural gulf separating these geopolitical entities: the histories of their twentieth century experiences are still mutually unintelligible despite alliances, confrontations, détentes, and accommodation.1 As the figureskating incident illustrates, Russia and the world outside struggle with the legacy of the Stalin era, whose culture and political institutions were inherited by the Russian Federation. The critical understanding on display in this collection suggests ways to bridge that gulf.
The collection focuses on two postrevolutionary moments in Russian history when “linguistic norms become the subject of public debate” among “sub-communities” within the larger Russian “linguistic community” (P. 9). Following Alexei Yurchak’s study of the way Soviet citizens talked about their experience of late Soviet socialism as paradoxically bleak and full of promise, the editors begin with the imposition of the “hypernormative” cultural policies of the Stalinist 1930s.2 They end with “the return of history” around 1987, when revelations about the Soviet state’s orchestration of the Katyn massacre during glasnost’ raised a fundamental question: what did the construction of Soviet socialism and the Soviet state through collectivization, repression, [End Page 434] and war under Stalin mean for the present state’s political, economic, and cultural viability?3 The contributors aim to explore these efforts from the official “high” linguistic culture of poets, critics, and professional linguists to the so-called dregs (padonki) of the 1990s and early 2000s, the countercultural heirs of the 1980s Mit’ki whose sardonic language and way of life deliberately distinguished them from respectable modes of Soviet consumption, leisure, and social intercourse.4 The contributions provide detailed case studies of the disparate attempts to address these issues, but they leave some patterns in Russia’s politics of culture implicit because of their conceptualization of history and power.
In terms of history, the editors’ choice to organize the articles around Roman Jakobson’s characterization of Russian linguistic transformations in the 1920s as a “landslide of the norm” raises broader issues beyond language (P. 7). Jakobson’s metaphor provides a helpful analytical lens through which to interpret debates about language in periods of political transformation. Drawing on the work of Eugenio Coseriu, Henning Andersen (Pp. 18–33), and Martin Paulsen (Pp. 34–48), the editors narrow the scope of this metaphor by characterizing these debates merely as “norm negotiations,” which may be an apt way to describe the tone and significance of debates about language etiquette in post-Soviet Russia (P. 9). But Jakobson viewed the 1920s as “an age of the revolutionary landslide of the norm” that could trace its origins to prerevolutionary Symbolist and Futurist poetic movements. That world was coming to an end in the 1930s with the imposition of Soviet nationalities policies as Francine Hirsch has shown.5
Interrogating the timing of Jakobson’s essay, its apparent accommodation of Stalin, and its relationship to the Eurasian movement at this time would bring into greater focus some patterns that appear in the contributors’ subjects. Heinrich Kirschbaum’s fascinating Begriffsgeschichte of the “landslide” metaphor in Russian Formalist writing before Jakobson shows that the term was an artifact of transnational debates about the...