One of the motivations for writing this book is to question certain problematic assumptions about Soviet socialism, which are implicitly and explicitly reproduced in much academic and journalistic writing today. These common assumptions include the following: socialism was "bad" and "immoral" or had been experienced as such by Soviet people before the changes of perestroika, and further, the collapse of Soviet socialism was predicated on this badness and immorality. These assumptions are manifest today in the terminology used to describe that system—for example, in the widespread use of phrases such as "the Soviet regume," with the myriad assumptions often packed into it—and in the use of binary categories to describe Soviet reality such as oppression and resistance, repression and freedom, the state and the people, official economy and second economy, official culture and counterculture, totalitatian language and counterlanguage, public self and private self, truth and lie, reality and dissimulation, morality and corruption, and so on. These terminologies have occupied a dominant position in the accounts of Soviet socialism produced in the West and, since the end of socialism, in the former Soviet Union as well ...
Furthermore, the term stagnation (zastoi), which figures prominently as a tag for the period of Brezhnev's rule, also emerged only in retrospect, during the time of Gorbachev's reforms, after Brezhnev's period had ended and the socialist system was undergoing its rapid transformation. In fact, the very conceptualization of the late 1960s and 1970s, when Brezhnev was the party's general secretary, as a certain "period" with concrete historical features, also emerged retrospectively during perestroika ... The perestroika critixal discourse which exposed many unknown facts about the Soviet past and critically articulated many realities that had been implicity known but unarticulated until then, also contributed to the creation of certain myths about it that were colored by the newly emergent revoutionary ideas and political agendas of the late 1980s. Many binary categories in the accounts of the vanishing system gained their prominence within that revolutionary context.
- Alexei Yurchak, Everything was Forever, Until It Was No More
Alexei Yurchak's Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More is one of the few truly great contemporary books on the post-Stalin era. It's true that the author frequently descends into pomo namedropping, which perhaps bespeaks an excessive devotion to coursework in his '90s anthropology graduate-school days; it's also true that from a historian's point of view the 1970s and '80s as presented by Yurchak look curiously emptied of events and context. At the same time, the interviews and personal materials that provide much of the meat of the book are incredibly interesting, and even if some good historian had gotten around to discussing the Brezhnev period, she would have been unlikely to find a better source of data kicking around in the much-vaunted Party archives.
One of Yurchak's main objectives as a chronicler of the period is getting around the binary distinctions that unfortunately still dominate most discussions of Soviet history: oppression/resistance, state/society, reformism/conservatism, and so on. His success in that regard is incomplete, but he does better at it than most people. Western observers are generally so obsessed with Aksenov and Amalrik that they lack the ability to appreciate official or mass culture at all. Russians, meanwhile, are engaged in a massive collective attempt to drive late socialism into oblivion; they're no fans of most of the dissidents, but they're just as fixated on Vysotsky and the perennially suffering cultural intelligentsia.
This last problem is the most serious from a scholarly point of view, because it means that our most valuable sources for the late socialist period are now largely corrupt. Practically everyone who survived it has now retrospectively reclassified himself as an opponent of Soviet power or at least as a profound cynic about it. (This is a common phenomenon. Most Americans who were asked about their opinion of the Iraq war in 2003 were in support; several years later, asked what their position had been at the time, many more of them turned out to have been against the war all along. Humans don't like to be wrong.) That means we can't rely on interviews or memoirs to give us an accurate picture of the mental climate of a Brezhnev-era Homo sovieticus (and of course things are even worse with cold hard facts). Since contemporary sources were obviously not much more reliable, we're left on very shaky historiographical ground.
Yurchak is quite aware of the problem and makes every possible attempt to compensate for the distortion. There still turn out to have been a lot more cynics than one would normally expect, although Yurchak's conclusion—-that large swathes of the Soviet population had basically checked out of public life entirely by taking advantage of state-promoted venues for pursuing private interests—-is not especially congenial to them. I remain unconvinced that this kind of compensation is a really effective strategy from a methodological point of view. What's needed is a way of reading sources, not, as in the standard formulation, "against the grain" (since that only turns us into the banal demystifiers of a mystification everyone has long since abandoned), but rather with it.
I would certainly be the last person to suggest that this can lead us down to the hard kernel of inarguable historical facts about the Brezhnev period. I do, however, think it would give us more of a sense of its variety and richness. Despite Yurchak's constant insistence on interpreting it in its own terms, there's still a certain monotony about it, as if the only people living in Russia at the time were apolitical artists, rock 'n' roll fans in the Komsomol, and legal scholars working in furnace-rooms. To a large extent I suspect this is produced by the corrective lens he applies to his material. If we don't follow suit, we might be able to tell the stories of soldiers in the Far North, collective farmers in the Urals, and cotton barons in Uzbekistan, all of which could be much more interesting.