Contextualizing Zhvaneckij

Seth Graham, University of Pittsburgh

After spending the first several years of his career writing monologues and sketches to be performed on the variety stage by others (most notably the legendary comedian Arkadij Rajkin), Mixail Zhvaneckij developed an immense following in the 1970s for his solo readings of his own satirical miniatures (and bootleg recordings thereof). As an "author-performer" (avtor-ispolnitel') Zhvaneckij was the source of bons mots that quickly entered the vernacular and the creator of a performance style that became one of the iconic images of late Soviet popular culture: the cherubic author standing alone at the microphone pulling wrinkled, marked-up pages out of a worn leather briefcase (an accessory as indispensable to his image, he says, as "Churchill's cigar") and reading them aloud in his fast-paced Odessa accent.

As literary texts Zhvaneckij's writings range generically from fictional monologues in the tradition of Zoshchenko's skaz, to lyrical self-portraits in which author and narrator are all but indistinguishable, to essayistic commentaries on current events. As cultural objects, however, all of his texts are subsumed under a generic umbrella of a different order: the performance genre that Zhvaneckij virtually invented (and which is sometimes rendered in English--inadequately--as "stand-up comedy").

Apart from mostly panegyric appreciations of his virtuoso blending of socio-political astuteness and wit, analyses of Zhvaneckij's work and cultural significance have been sparse, even in Russo-Soviet scholarship (an important exception being Briker and Vishevskii's 1989 article on the popular culture of the Soviet intelligentsia). Certainly one reason for this is the fact that his creative work and his persona straddle the worlds of the writer and the popular artist (in the Russian sense of the word), and therefore conflate the oft-opposed realms of literary (high) and popular (low) culture. A less obvious reason is that Zhvaneckij's output over 40+ years is much more variegated than his stable, iconic image might suggest on cursory glance.

In my paper I examine texts by Zhvaneckij from various points in his long career, as well as his on-stage performance style (illustrated with video clips), en route to a series of observations about his evolving cultural significance and, more broadly, about the nature of cultural performance and satire in Russia in the 1970s and 1980s. In taking a diachronic view of Zhvaneckij's (verbal and performative) poetics I will discuss his works in three main contexts: (1) the Russian tradition of comic skaz; (2) the phenomenon of post-Stalinist Ėstrada satire; (3) the generic landscape of popular urban culture in the 1970s and 1980s, including the bard song, the anekdot, and perestrojka-era publicistika. I shall conclude with a brief discussion of the polymorphous cultural environment of the post-Soviet period: what is the place of satire (and of Zhvaneckij himself) in the Russia of El'cin and Putin? In this regard Zhvaneckij's most recent public "performance"--a vitriolic article attacking liberal TV journalists (and defending Putin) in the newspaper Moskovskie novosti (19-25 Sep. 2000)--is an intriguing new contribution to his formidable cultural legacy.