In addition to this, the totalitarianism of the state becomes internalized in individuals through the material culture they have been surrounded by, resulting in compliance and auto-totalitarianism. This has led to most cultural critics regarding Soviet kitsch as more dangerous and more potent than its Western versions. Where, according to Kundera (1991), kitsch supports socialist ideologies as it becomes part of a repetitive system geared towards mass production. … in the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of feelings reigns supreme.
The feelings included by kitsch are the kind multitudes can share. Kitsch derives from the basic images engraved in people’s memories… (Kundera, 1991: 250) Kitsch ; Memory in Soviet Russia When kitsch is used in a state policy as an approved way of understanding reality, as was witnessed in Russia, it becomes ‘totalitarian kitsch’. As such, everything that infringes on it must be banished, and the result is: communist kitsch symbols mass-produced to create sentimentality that reinforces the regime.
This is further explored by Friedlander (1990), who states that: … such kitsch has a clear mobilizing function, probably for the following general reasons: first, what it expresses is easily understood and accessible to the great majority of people; secondly, it calls for an unreflective emotional response; thirdly it handles the core values of a political regime or ideological system as a closed, harmonious entity which has to be endowed with ‘beauty’ to be made more effective… (Friedlander, 1990: quoted from Sabonis-Chafee, 1999: 365)
This semiotic aspect of kitsch, signalling socialist realism, collectively aids the spirit of communism, and therefore kitsch objects can be said to possess agency (Gell, 1998). This agency was effectively used throughout Russia during the Soviet period in strategically constructed propaganda, and is still used today in modern day advertising. In Russian, the word propaganda bears no negative connotations, and can be likened to the capitalist term marketing. If then, we consider soviet propaganda as a marketing of communist ideals; kitsch can be understood as a type of marketing strategy.
Through slogans, sculptures, and exhortations, sentiment was packaged and offered with an associated kitsch image which was met by wide appeal. These images of manufactured sentimentality make up the essence of what is recognised as ‘totalitarian kitsch’. In an environment where suddenly unfathomable technology was questioning their ability to understand the materiality of the world, kitsch gave security and comfort, as the mass of unoriginal and sentimental artefacts acted as an anchor for their consumers.
By supplying reassurance that what is to come will resemble what has gone before, and that the hazards of innovation and uncertainty are far away, security was promoted. Lindquist (2002) explains that due to the manufacturing of sentimentality by kitsch, no one is totally immune to it, not even the most sophisticated, as Kundera and Friedlander also admit: most people are, at least at some points of their lives, sensitive to the allure of, say, romantic love, or the beauty of the sunset.
In other words, the mode of representation with which kitsch operates, is iconic and indexical: it presents, rather than represents, the widely shared images of happiness, nostalgia, and beauty. When discussing kitsch and memory, nostalgia is an important area of discussion, where differences between ‘high’ culture and ‘popular’ culture and between ideology and everyday life, become blurred. This can be explained by using the example of food culture, where relatively cheap copies of formerly expensive luxury products came to play an ever important role.
These items soon became essential to the many official and personal celebrations, which were typical of Soviet everyday life, with the best known examples being, Soviet champagne, cognac, caviar and chocolate. The message that these goods carried was clear: everyone could now enjoy the standard of living earlier restricted to members of Russian nobility or the rich bourgeoisie. (Gronow, 2003: 33) One could say that the Stalinist Soviets systematically suppressed formal culture and centralized Socialist Realism in the form of kitsch.
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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