And a hazy, strange conversation began,After the Second World War, it was common in the West to speak of a putative “end of ideology” and its replacement by a technocratic, valueless rationality derived directly from Weber. Yet this thesis was always pursued with reference to capitalist society: the socialist East was not a counterpart but rather an ideological enemy that had ceased to matter. In fact, however, postwar Russia was on a popular level just as anti-ideological as the West; as the CPSU’s propaganda apparatus pumped out ever more schematized slogans, the unbelieving populace turned to increasingly desperate ways of finding meaning. The Cold War was obsolete before it started.
Someone moaned out a song and tore on his guitar,
And an epileptic kid--an idiot and a thief--
Showed me a knife from under the table.
"Who will answer me--
What house is this,
Why is it so dark
Like a plague-ridden barracks?
The oil-lamps extinguished,
The air has leaked out...
Or is it that you all
Have forgotten how to live?
Your doors are wide-open, but your souls are locked up.
Who's the master here? Wish he'd give me some wine."
And in response to me: "Looks like you've been traveling
Too long, you've forgotten men--we've always lived like this.
We eat grass,
On sorrel for an age,
Our souls have soured,
And then wine
We fooled around with too,-
Ruined the house,
Fought, hanged ourselves."
- Vladimir Vysotsky
The music of Vladimir Vysotsky, among the best-known Russian singer/songwriters of those decades, probably represents the clearest expression of this trend. Marxist theory spoke of capitalism having “grown out” within feudalism, in the form of free trading cities; Lenin spoke of his socialist society growing out within a capitalist one; Vysotsky is an individualist growing out within the hollowed-out hulk of state socialism. (Hence it is a fitting irony that a release of his hitherto banned songs was ceremoniously authorized by Gorbachev himself in the late ‘80s).
In fact, his songs celebrate individualism to a degree long taboo in the West. Society (the collective) is either a Heideggerian Das Man or simply an opportunity to demonstrate one’s prowess. Any means is fitting to this end: sport, long-distance trucking, war, death. “Gorizont” (“Horizon”) takes this theme to its fullest extent: the protagonist makes a bet that he will be the first to reach the horizon. Obviously, he is unsuccessful—but the attempt is validated by the overcoming of societal boundaries and, ultimately, the expansion of the limits of the horizon itself.
When Vysotsky celebrates individualism—without even bringing liberal capitalist ideological weapons to bear—he exposes Marxism-Leninism as a system of beliefs that does not even need to be refuted. For the Bolsheviks, who relied on the constant forward thrust of history to legitimize their Leninist project, this blow was even more severe than 1989. Socialism is simply less equipped to deal with a crisis of meaning than capitalism is; in some ways, capitalism depends on presenting itself as a lack of meaning.
Vysotsky’s song “Troya” (“Troy”) is an extended and furious disquisition, linking the figure of Cassandra to the treatment of dissenters in the Soviet Union. But it is also a reference, I think (even an unconscious one), to Mandelstam’s “To Cassandra.” The latter, written in December 1917, was a pre-emptive epitaph for the Revolution—evoking the failure of the Decembrist revolt, Mandelstam appeals to Cassandra as an impossibly authoritative source of justification for his classicizing intellectual posture. The Horatian resignation of Mandelstam’s verse thus links up to the Stirnerian individualism of Vysotsky’s, the eternal cycle of the always defeated Russian intellectual.