The “Soviet Unconscious”: A Case Study in Russian Postmodernist Writing

Gerald McCausland, University of Pittsburgh

Boris Groys and Aleksandr Genis are the two best known among the many writers who have used the notion of the unconscious to describe and account for aspects of contemporary Russian culture. Whether discussion revolves around a certain “post-Soviet unconscious” (Genis) or addresses Russia itself as the “unconscious of the West” (Groys), the notion presents itself as an irresistible tool with which to explain those processes most often subsumed under the rubric of Russian postmodernist culture. It is a particularly tempting tool with which to analyze sots-art. While it is a commonplace to describe the ways in which sots-art reprocesses Soviet culture, it is much more difficult to describe how sots-art acts upon the contemporary reader or viewer. Models of a “Soviet,” or “post-Soviet” unconscious provide the scholars with an apparatus to help explain how sots-art or postmodernism in general “deconstruct” Soviet culture and prepare the way for an as yet undefined new Russian culture.

The notion of a cultural unconscious is rhetorically powerful and elastic enough to be applied to almost any cultural phenomenon. However, it presents the rigorous scholar with a serious methodological problem. It is not enough to observe that Freud himself analyzed literature to justify the use of a psychological concept in the analysis of texts. The literary scholar must demonstrate that the tools developed by psychoanalysis are appropriate to the task of literary analysis.

This paper will attempt just such a demonstration by discussing the presence and the function of a “Soviet unconscious” in representative texts of Vladimir Sorokin and Viktor Pelevin, two of the most widely discussed contemporary writers in today’s Russia. I will show that it is possible to engage the discourses of these two authors on their own terms while also posing the same questions to each of them. To whom are these texts addressed? With whose language do they speak? Can we account for the function of desire in the texts? While much of Lacanian theory is arcane and inaccessible, I will show that a Lacanian analysis of these literary discourses opens them up and allows them to speak in unexpected ways. The results of this analysis will allow me to assert that, contrary to general opinion, it is not the young Pelevin but rather the older Sorokin who most effectively confronts and overcomes the trauma of Soviet culture.