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  • IntroductionBeyond the Sayable: Informal Economic Precursors of the Post-Soviet Semiotic Crisis
  • Yulian Konstantinov (bio) and Kirill V. Istomin (bio)

In the third decade since the demise of the Soviet Union, the meaning the Soviet way of life had for millions of people in the Union itself and its satellite countries remains a far from fully answered question. This sense of inscrutability keeps being enhanced rather than dismissed as the years roll on. A strong factor for the tenacity of this state of peering through a glass, darkly, has been the often noted and documented nostalgia for Soviet times. As is well known, much of the explanation for longing for the times "before" revolves around perceptions of security, experienced as forever lost.

The aim of this special issue is to advance understanding of how this perception of social security formed, was sustained for a rather long time, and left an imprint, which is likely to grow rather than recede as the years roll by. It is already certain that distance from the actually lived state socialisms1 will selectively filter out of the past the details of the daily grinding of the wheels of the socialist machinery and privilege an increasingly imagined world of superior ethical values and practices.

The distance from such a past is, luckily, still sufficiently small in historical terms. Moreover, in many regions of the former Soviet Union, it lingers on, albeit in a necessarily reinterpreted form. Since 2017, the editors have been involved in a project2 whose specific aim is to document and study these reinterpretations in different regions of Russia. This project, from which the idea of this special issue originated, was based on a claim, well supported by our own research and substantiated in the articles in this issue, that such reinterpretations can be better observed in agricultural rural settings, and, further, that [End Page 1] they attain next to laboratory clarity in Arctic and other pastoralisms. This is why a good number of the following articles are studies of reindeer husbandry in various parts of the Russian Far North and Siberia.

Before we turn to the topics discussed in the issue, a few more words about our approach will be said. We label it sovkhoism—a view of the world according to which the Soviet state farm as a "total social institution"3 represents the best of possible worlds.

The concept of sovkhoism is thus strongly indebted to the seminal analysis of the all-organizing role of the Soviet state farm in Caroline Humphrey's classic study of a Siberian sovkhoz.4 It also leans upon scholarship of a much earlier day.

That scholarship never found itself a name and was represented by a very diverse circle of writers. Its contributions ranged from criticism of Stalin's collectivization policy by contemporary politicians and scholars in exile,5 to that of political historians, focussing on Stalin's "Revolution from above."6 The common theme was the acute perception of the existence of a compromise between political power and grassroots actors behind the traumatically visible front of the violence and atrocities of mass collectivization and the Great Terror. From this vantage point, it is to Vera Dunham that we are indebted for the most precise conceptualization of the paradoxical nexus between compromise and terror: "Stalin's Big Deal."7

The compromise nature of the "deal" highlights the participation of state authorities and grassroots actors as partners in day-to-day local interactions.8 The sovkhoist model thus departs from classic dual economic analysis9 in the sense that sharp distinctions between public and private spheres of economic activities are obliterated by the interconnectedness and mutual dependences [End Page 2] of private-in-the-collective economies.10 In the same way, distinctions between "formal" and "informal" economic activities11 tend to significantly lose their explanatory power in a sovkhoist reality.

Where signs of inner divisions would be discernible is on a plane of culturally intimate discourse12 in which all activities experienced by participating actors as "informal" or "illegal" would be kept from the sight of outsiders. It is from this perspective that we may consider various aspects of the culturally intimate life...


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