Tag Archives: byt

What do we mean when we talk about studying ‘the everyday’ in Russia?

Market scene in Russia

contested use of public-space, forms of consumption, strengthening weak-ties – a lot happens in ‘everyday life’.

I have an admission to make. Even though my book was called Everyday Postsocialism, while I was writing it I did not reflect much on the term ‘everyday’.

Part of this is perhaps forgivable. The logic of the book was pretty clear – to understand today’s Russia we should for a moment look away from the ‘big politics’ that dominate research agendas and the media, and turn instead to how ordinary people go about their lives. Fundamentally, my project was, and continues to be: how do we avoid making Russians into passive victims of change?  At the same time, their responses should not be reduced to defensive strategies of survival. That’s why I entitled my first article on the topic ‘beyond coping’ [authors version here].

A useful guiding idea came from Michael Burawoy’s complaint here [pdf opens automatically]:  “Whereas in their earlier writings they focused on the ingenuity of the subaltern classes in coping with socialism, the way workers and peasants challenged and transformed state socialism in the microprocesses of everyday life, Szelenyi and Stark now turn to the elites engineering embryonic capitalisms. Their analyses exclude subordinate classes, which in effect become the bewildered—silent and silenced—spectators of transformations that engulf them”. This was part of a review on Making Capitalism without Capitalists.

Recently, I was forced to confront the ‘everyday life’ usage a bit more explicitly because I decided to focus in some teaching on ‘everyday life’ with a group of undergraduates preparing for fieldwork and language study in Russia. Preparing for this made the genealogy of my own thinking about the everyday clearer.

Of course, when it comes to informing undergraduates, I thought that it was important to start with a reading of the term byt – a term in Russian for ‘everyday existence’ that has a long and troublesome genealogy. The word helps explain the longstanding Russian intellectual interest in contrasting ‘everyday life’ (as frustratingly meaningless or mundane routines) with more ‘essential’ modes of being and action

Svetlana Boym traced the binary opposition of byt and podvig (‘feat’) in the nineteenth century. This includes the binaries action/sacred/spiritual as opposed to private life/practical achievement. Thus byt as a negative, maps on to (self-orientalising) notions of Russia’s civilizational ‘difference’ (think of the opposition of ‘spirituality’ to Western individualism/rationality). This was easily adapted to the USSR context – ‘feats of labour’, ideologization of everyday life to be always about something ‘bigger’, mobilisation and militarisation of social action, ‘struggle’, ‘storming’, the ideological disapproval of privacy, ‘bourgeois’ personal interest, etc.

As a key reading I asked to students to read in parallel Catriona Kelly’s ‘Byt: identity and everyday life’  in National Identity in Russian Culture, and Olga Shevchenko’s ‘Building Autonomy in Everyday Life’ in her Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow. I will come back to these texts in a further post. But for now I want to return to my own pathway towards seeing the everyday as worthy of research.

It starts with my literary studies on a writer, Evgeny Popov, using ‘naturalistic’ depiction of everyday life in the late Soviet Union to work against the grain of ideologically correct meanings of art and literature. At times his focus on the mundane and humdrum, as well as ‘lay existentialism’, for want of a better phrase, borders on the absurd. In some ways there is a debt to Chekhov, and I found both Cathy Popkin’s book, The Pragmatics of Insignificance and Stephen Hutchings’ Russian Modernism: The Transfiguration of the Everyday, really useful in understanding this. Key characteristics in Popov are inconsequential detail (‘incidentality’), natural, earthy speech (a taboo in Soviet literary fiction), the ‘grimy’ and gritty underside of urban life, something like raznochintsy of the late Soviet period (people of indeterminate social standing who struggle to articulate themselves).

It’s perhaps no surprise that my subsequent ethnographic work owes a debt to the dialogue between Chekhov and Popov. A snippet from my book on Popov proves surprisingly predictive of the tension in my ethnographic materials: Chekhov switches attention from ‘the major to the minor in order to bring out the hidden significance of the trivial incident; its rhetoric is still part and parcel of a modernist search for meaning, opting for the possible revelation of truth within the ‘prosaic’. In Popov, the revelatory mode is entirely absent. […] the shift itself from significant to insignificant fails to yield up a narrative perspective that would illuminate the prosaic.’

It’s kind of funny reading that now. The ‘failure to yield a perspective’ chimes with some critical responses I got to my first ethnographic book published 12 years after my literary PhD. Certain ‘big picture’ expectations of ethnographic studies of contemporary Russia proved a problem for the publisher I wanted to go with for Everyday Postsocialism. One MS reader really, really didn’t like my approach, writing rather brutally:

 ‘The author avers, almost proudly, a lack of a scientific approach for this work, by rejecting the need to work from an hypothesis. That’s ok. Interpretation is still de rigeur in many anthropological circles and his commitment to recounting lived experience in holistic manner is quite reasonable. However, despite this claim, the ms makes frequent and broad theoretical generalizations…. there are no data here.’  

The Reader expanded, saying that fundamentally my framing of everyday life in the Russian town as ‘habitability’ added little or nothing new to the literature – essentially it was a mundane observation that was self-evident – people make do in their difficult circumstance. However, I would argue that that was precisely the aim of the book – to bring out and give voice to ordinariness – even the mundaneness but also deeper meaning of quite extreme things like alcoholism, family conflicts, the black economy, and fragile infrastructure (blackouts/heating failures). I hope to come back to other postsocialist treatments of ‘the everyday’ soon and talk about how they uneasily sit with the literature on ‘resistance’ – something Olga Shevchenko writes about.

I chose ‘habitability’ as my master concept precisely because it was the one term that was ‘emic’ – i.e. that ordinary Russian people continuously used themselves via comments like feeling secure and safe in their ‘среда обитания’ or saying ‘нам хватает’. In the book I talked about it as “a hotchpotch of practices made ‘on the fly’, but which are informed by long-standing class-based values and allegiances”.  Stressing mundane practices as making life more than bearable was part of a “propertizing of marginal spaces in a way that allows the maintenance and expansion of the horizontal social network”; Habitability was also connected to “expectation of minimal social insurance indirectly though social wages and its post-socialist echo.” My first MS reader really didn’t like all the heavy lifting this term was doing. We could have a long conversation here about the communication difficulties between anthropologists and sociologists! Certainly I was guilty of overuse and under-explanation of various theories.

However, I think ‘habitability’ does work in bringing out what I mean when I use the term ‘everyday’ too. It links the economic to the moral to the social to the ordinary logics of how people go about their everyday business. It also then helps reveal aspects of political culture and how they might change over time. We’re back to the question of passivity. Everyday life in my fieldwork was partly about a kind of ‘always on’, networked class-based sociality – it was a lot of partially unprompted ‘dropping in’ on others and also calling up, and ‘nudge’ social media use.  This in turn was strongly linked to developing opportunities in the informal economy to reduce reliance on waged work. The nature of both waged work and the forced informal scrabbling for a dime was linked to ideas about dignity, injustice, state-society relations, governance, taxation, corruption, and so on in melting pot of ordinary thinking through of the nature of Russia’s political economy. And everyday practices were both a response to that, but also examples of agency.

The most enlightening new thing I read in preparing for teaching ‘the everyday’ was by David Ransel. He suggests that to avoid a narrowly reactive ‘tactics of resistance’ approach (something criticised by Olga Shevchenko in the same volume), it might be more useful to think, via the work on Yuri Lotman, of the everyday as not only practices but of the building of a local language to describe reality – a kind of domestication and re-shaping of hegemonic meanings. Ransel ends that section with a useful piece of advice: “everyday life studies must be more than good local history. They have to show how local action modifies our understanding of macrohistorical processes”.