Book review: Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia by Svetlana Boym

Svetlana Boym was born in Leningrad, and studied Spanish at the Herzen Pedagogical Institute. After emigrating to the United States, she earned her MA from Boston University in 1983 and her PhD from Harvard in 1988, where she currently teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature. She is also a media artist, and published a novel, Ninochka, in 2003. Common Places is Boym’s second (of four) scholarly books, and was written in the immediate aftermath of the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Published in 1994, the work is perhaps best described as cultural anthropology—Boym refers to herself at one point as a “cultural mythologist”—and aims “to put at the center what is marginal to certain heroic or apocalyptic self-definitions of Russian culture: the attitudes toward ordinary life, home, material objects and art, as well as expressions of emotion and ways of communication” (2). There are many arguments and themes pursued in this book, but one principal overarching argument is that in order to describe Russian culture, rather than merely perpetuate its cultural mythology (30), we must investigate the mythology of the everyday with all its eclecticism, banality, and beauty.

Using a broad source base that includes literary classics, song lyrics, art installations, household decor, and samizdat, Boym analyzes and historicizes Russian cultural myths, and particularly those which swirled around in such abundance during the heady months surrounding the August 1991 coup. She structures her book around several “untranslatable” Russian concepts that “reflect common places of everyday life” (4).  Boym distinguishes between “commonplaces”—worn-out clichés—and “common places,” a term she uses to refer to cultural myths. By referring to these myths and untranslatable concepts as common places, Boym seeks to “preserve all the multiple historical significations and poetic allusion of the word [or myth, or concept], from public architecture to topography of memory” (4). In her investigation of “the unwritten laws of everyday existence,” common places are touchstones of collective understanding, islands in the ever-changing stream of cultural discourse.

After an introduction that surveys cultural and literary theories concerning the everyday, the remainder of the book consists of four long chapters. Rather than presenting a unified argument, each chapter is a compendium of short, loosely connected essays. In chapter 1, “Mythologies of Everyday Life,” Boym reflects on a number of cultural “untranslatables.” The first of these is byt, which Boym translates as the daily grind, everyday routine, existence, and/or stagnation. Two respected Russian theorists, Iurii Lotman and Boris Uspenskii, have attributed the binary opposition between byt and bytie (spiritual being) to the centuries-old influence of Russian Orthodox Christianity. Boym critiques Lotman and Uspenskii for reifying Russian cultural mythology, rather than describing Russian culture, and reflects on the “Russian dream” of spiritual purity and messianic mission.

Next, she investigates the concept of poshlost′, which is “the Russian version of banality,” an idea that combines spiritual impoverishment with sexual degradation (41). Boym examines the prevalence of poshlost′, and invective against it, in Russian literature and culture, finally noting how even the war against poshlost′ can begin to appear banal. Then she moves on to meshchanstvo, meaning middle class or middlebrow. Meshchanstvo is the “other” against which the Russian intelligentsia defines itself; the clash between the two, for Boym, “informs all of modern Russian intellectual history” (67). After cogitating on the “nationalization” of the Russian soul in the late nineteenth century, the primacy of inner life over private life in Russia, and the Stalinist kul′turnost′ (literally, “cultureness”) of hand-painted lacquer boxes, Boym ends this chapter by musing on what song lyrics can tell us about late Soviet citizens’ attitudes toward their own country and the West.

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Chapter 2, “Living in Common Places: The Communal Apartment,” is somewhat more focused. Arguing that “[t]he communal apartment was the cornerstone of the...Soviet civilization,” Boym proposes that “[i]f there had been such a thing as a Soviet cultural unconscious, it would have been structured like a communal apartment: with flimsy partitions between public and private, between control and intoxication” (123). This chapter consists of a “thick description” of life in the communal apartment, complete with physical descriptions of residents’ personal possessions, stories about people urinating where they weren’t supposed to, and reflections on the “alternative” kitchen culture that emerged in the 1960s. Boym herself was raised in a communal apartment in Leningrad, and here and elsewhere she shares her own memories and experiences. She concludes that “the effect of imposed communality was often contradictory and paradoxical; people professed to hate any form of communal interaction yet they internalized the communal structures and later recall them with nostalgia” (149).

In Chapter 3, entitled “Writing Common Places: Graphomania,” Boym looks at the history of graphomania, or writing mania, which is characterized by “handling literary commonplaces clumsily and inappropriately, and about excess: writing too much, plagiarizing too much, behaving too much like a writer” (169). This curious “cultural disease” (this reader is unsure whether Boym also believes it to be a serious psychological disorder) is worth investigating because it “poses the problem of the boundaries of literature, of the relationship between writing and the making of the self” (169). This chapter introduces the reader to a galaxy of second-rate literary stars, including both real writers and fictional characters, who make up an alternative history of Russian literature from the early nineteenth century to the “electronic age” of the late twentieth. Most relevant to the study of the late Soviet Union is Boym’s inquiry into the explosion of graphomania during glasnost′, a time when “[i]t became possible to write without thinking of the censor as one’s first reader.” She asks, “Can Russian literature survive double-speak?”, leaving her readers to draw their own conclusions (205).

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“Postcommunism, Postmodernism” is the title of the fourth chapter, in which the 1991 coup takes center stage. One feature that post-communism and postmodernism share is the loss of the master narrative, which “could be both liberating and frightening” (224). In this world of newly minted “posts” (post-Soviet, post-glasnost′, etc.), new art forms arose: Boym sees the fall of monuments, the rise of political figures painted on nesting dolls, the sale of kitsch on the streets, and the co-opting of the banal by higher art as episodes in the “history of kitsch” that parodied and sometimes embodied Soviet history. Boym thoughtfully considers the work of several women artists such as Larisa Zvezdochetova, who incorporated forgotten quotidian objects (matchboxes, chocolate wrappers) into their art, confronting the avant-garde insistence on originality as they did so; “poshlost′, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder” (265). Finally, she chronicles the entrance of Western-style advertising into the fray, documenting the “at once pseudo-Russian and pseudo-Western” language of post-Soviet culture (282).

Scholarly reception of this book has been somewhat mixed: it certainly contributes a great deal to our understanding of Russian mythologies of everyday life, but could have been more carefully organized and argued. Readers unfamiliar with Russian culture will not understand the unexplained references to cultural artifacts and concepts. The book is also full of errors, large and small. Unfortunately, the complexity of this book, which borders on convolution, renders this rich and sophisticated study unsuitable for undergraduates. Despite these problems, Boym certainly attains her goal of presenting and reflecting on the changing cultural mythology of everyday life in Russia, and she does so with verve and wit. Common Places deserves a prominent place in the growing literature produced by Russian émigrés trying to make sense of the Soviet Union’s demise. As she confesses in the conclusion, Boym has also succeeded in historicizing her own nostalgia. Whether this qualifies as a scholarly project, or an artistic one, or both, is open to debate.