The Russian ‘keetcheetsys’
Yet the question is, had the suppression never happened and there was free choice, would the masses have chosen the alternative? The counter example is not hard to find. Even in the Golden Age of Russian cinema, before ‘all cinematic experimentation was frowned upon’, Russian masses never crowded into a theatre showing avant-garde directors work, as they did The Mask of Zorro, Robin Hood, and The Thief of Baghdad. They were so fascinated by this kind of foreign, especially Hollywood, kitsch that even opponents of the policy of imports had to admit that on average foreign films produced ten times as much profit as domestic ones.
(Kenez, 1992: 72) This overwhelming predominance directly caused the control on imported films to gradually increase until they were forced to disappear altogether by the end of the first Five-Year Plan. Yet, after that, the masses still preferred domestic directors who ‘wanted to please their audiences and produced romances and adventure stories’, to the more avant-garde directors who ‘alienated the audiences. ‘(Kenez, 1992: 103) It was therefore the foreign and domestic mass entertainment products, with adverse ideological content, from whence the totalitarian project saw real power threat come.
In other words, instead of protecting kitsch from the rivalry of avant-garde, what the regime was doing was protecting kitsch from kitsch, i. e. , centralizing their own preferred type of kitsch and marginalizing or eradicating other types. Kitsch & Memory in Post-Socialist Russia Other central discussion points relate to; what happened after the fall of the Soviet empire, examining the impact of the leftover kitsch debris on the Russian people themselves, and exploring the roles communist kitsch plays in contemporary times?
It is true that several symbols of communism persist in contemporary Russia, with many of these emblems, integral to architectural monuments, inlaid in glorious detail in ceilings of the metro, or welded onto bridges. Many additional symbols are also deeply embedded in the Russian psyche by their deliberate use in advertising, campaigning and contemporary art and music. It can therefore be said that communist kitsch has found a solid niche in Russian popular culture.
However, the fact that communist kitsch still has a keen audience is hardly a surprise, such utopian-nostalgic kitsch taps into the previous mythology and the people’s sense of loss. As Boym explains: … utopian nostalgia… reveals both nostalgia for totalitarianism and the totalitarian nature of nostalgia itself … (Boym 1994: 287) When considering the role of kitsch and memory in contemporary times, an enlightening area of analysis is that of modern day Russian advertising and how this in turn reflects the history of kitsch and the effect it has had on Russian identity.
Sabonis-Chafee’s discussion of kitsch labels such post-Soviet kitsch as ironic-nostalgic kitsch. It is so labelled in the sense that the nostalgic element of the advertising evokes an idiosyncratic and personal reaction, in addition to the sense that it is ironic to see the widespread use of communist symbols by commercial organisations as marketing ploys. A good example Sabonis-Chafee uses is that of an Ariel washing detergent advertisement: where a young navy recruit has spilled something on his uniform which he needs for the annual parade.
Interestingly, it is not set in the present, when military service is seldom a source of pride and parades are rare – neither is it set in the past. Rather, it exists in an imaginary domain where sons are proud to march in the navy parade and mothers have washing machines at home. Where the advertisement represents a juxtaposition of old and new, making the suggestion that the consumer can have the rewards of Western society yet retain traditional Russian values at the same time. (Sabonis-Chafee, 1999: 370)
In addition to kitsch’s role in advertising, kitsch has also become institutionalized through new propaganda in the form of monuments. Post-Soviet public memorials, such as ‘Peter the Great’, nostalgically reconstruct all the grand styles of the past two centuries, helping people to selectively forget the dark moments of Russian and Soviet history. Through kitsch and memory, visual and material culture has become a very profitable area. With nostalgic arts and crafts including items from several different cultural arenas.
Boym (1999) describes these kitsch items: from official propaganda and state television to the unofficial ‘tape recorder culture’, Soviet slogans, busts of Lenin, beloved musicals from Stalin’s time, slow moving TV serials from the 1970s, to nature programs and nostalgic music (Boym, 1999: 384). All such items, become part of everyday life, and help to aid rituals that form collective frameworks of memory inextricably intertwined with individual remembrances.
Conclusion In the post-Soviet context, the relationship between kitsch and memory is that kitsch helps individuals to selectively access parts of their memory, without offering a narrative or reconstruction of the past. Linked with the idea of nostalgia, this allows the individual to long for something that no longer exists, or perhaps never existed turning it into a private or collective memory, which is driven by longing for familiarity and stability.
Kitsch symbolism consequently moves everyday life to the foreground of the Russian cultural imagination, with the post-Soviet recycling of cultural boundaries and kitsch undermining the traditional Russian prestige of high culture. In conclusion then, kitsch is at the core of the definition of Russian identity, both national and cultural. It encompasses attitudes toward material culture and historical change, and it determines ethical values.
Although everyday society has retreated somewhat into the apolitical, symbols of communism still retain power over the imaginations of the citizenry with several generations unable to eradicate the words and symbols from their memory.
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