Thursday, October 12, 2023

Books: Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More

Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More by Alexei Yurchak.

This isn't the sort of book I would normally read. However with Ukraine and Russia in the news, I was finding myself wanting to know about the context of the conflict. So I went to the library and found this on the shelf. I picked it pretty at random from my library's collection of books on the USSR. It seemed to focus on how the collapse of the Soviet Union happened, which interested me - How does Russia go from being a super power to what it is now?

I don't know much about the Soviet Union beyond the high level summary of the cold war you get in high school history class. This book does not seem to be a text book summarizing various views so much as an academic book putting forth a specific view. Without knowing much about the subject, its difficult to judge how critically I should read it, but taking it face value this book nonetheless presents a fascinating point of view on what happened.

This was a challenging book to read. I'll do my best to summarize, although I'll probably do a bad job as I would probably need to do a second read through (at least) to really understand what this book presents.

The general premise seems to be that after the death of Stalin, the words and symbols of the regime became hyper formulaic and purely ritualistic, almost like a religion where everyone prays but nobody actually pays attention to what they are saying. This lead to the system feeling eternal, because it was always the same rituals and referencing the same historic speeches and ideas. However during perestroika where people were suddenly encouraged to improve the status quo in a more bottom up fashion and question old truisms, the system quickly collapsed as it became obvious the old symbols were just empty.

One of the main points of this book is that it is wrong to view the people of the soviet union as either against the soviet system or for the system. The situation is much more complex than such a black and white binary.

For example, the author talks a lot about the local leaders of the komsomol youth group. According to the author, they would often be quite ideologically motivated, believing in communism, but at the same time, not afraid to try and fake the more ideologically motivated busy work in order to do things that actually mattered. They didn't see this as contradictory but as a way to further socialism. Similarly western cultural imports were often not seen as opposing socialism but furthering it (but not always). Everything depended on context, and actions that might seem from the outside as being against soviet communism might seem to people in the system to be perfectly reasonable things to do and in accordance with the precepts of communism.

I found the discussions of how social relations manifested in these groups to be particularly interesting. According to the author, that while being a dissident or overly negative towards the soviet system was certainly frowned upon, so was being obnoxiously pro-soviet. What was more important was to be one of the group - a "normal" person and not someone who caused problems for other people. An antagonistic person causes problems for the group, regardless of which direction they are antagonistic in. People insisting the group follow every precept to the letter is just as annoying and disruptive as the people trying to tear down the system. The people who thrive are the ones who help each other out; attend silly meetings even if they think it is stupid because they know their friend will be judged by how many people show up and keep things running smoothly.

I can't help but feel that the author's description of this mirrors how office politics and cliques work in the workplaces of the capitalist world. Most places I've worked, and especially my experience at the MediaWiki open source project mirrors this. There is usually two power structures, the official one and the more unofficial one. The official hierarchy might give orders, but if you actually want to accomplish anything it pays to know who the right people are, and be on good terms with them so they identify you as one of "them". Being successful means enmeshing yourself inside the local social fabric; helping out other people where you can so that they will in turn. At MediaWiki this is turned up to 11 where some people are volunteer devs and some people are paid, with all sorts of different interest groups with varying, sometimes even contradictory, goals. The coming together of different conflicting groups can really exasperate us vs them dynamics and unofficial power structures. People might wax poetic about us vs them narratives being dangerous. They certainly aren't wrong, but at the same time it is always there to one extent or another. For better or worse, if you want to accomplish something, in any field, you need to get yourself to be an "us" and not a "them.

The author then goes into a discussion of more counter-cultural types (for lack of a better word). According to the author, these people were less opposed to the system, but decided to opt-out of it. The opposite wasn't to oppose the system but to just not care about the system. To just live their life without worrying, talking about or thinking about the system. I suppose its a little like the old saying, the opposite of love is not hate but indifference.

All this really set on its head all my preconceived notions of an authoritarian government that individual citizens were plotting to overthrow. Of course, I'm not sure how critically to read this book, no doubt there were many soviet dissidents in the traditional sense too. However I suppose this makes sense to me, for any given thing, some people will love it, some will hate it, most will just get on with their lives and do the best that they can while still inevitably affecting the system.

All in all this was a fascinating book that gave me a lot to think about. My summary was probably a poor attempt - there is much i don't quite understand.Regardless, this book was like a look into an alien world, where things are both really different but at the same time similarities shine through. In fact, I wish SF authors would make their aliens be a little less carbon copies of western societies. Obviously aliens would not be human at all, but at the very least we can make them not be culturally American.

In conclusion though, the central question this book is supposed to answer is: how did the soviet culture go from being eternal to collapsing almost overnight. I wish the book spelled the answer out a little more for me. I can see how everything in this book builds to and has bearing on that question, but i feel like I am missing a piece of the puzzle to make it all fit. I see how unique cultural practices, rituals, symbols and forms of messaging were very suddenly upended by perestroika, but I still feel I am in the dark on why the soviet system could not survive that or shift to something new. In fairness, perhaps I just need to read this a bit more closely, or be better versed in the context of the soviet system, which i know very little about.

Regardless, a fascinating read and window into another culture.

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