The Significance of Insignificance: Un-Socialist Realism in "Avtorskaja pesnja"

Rachel S. Platonov, Harvard University

The definition of Socialist Realism put forth at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, with its demand that the artist give "truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development," is well-known. Aside from the "disaster of middlebrow taste" that Socialist Realism produced (Dobrenko), one of the effects of its vague theoretical formulation was to make artistic representation of the mundane and the personal highly suspect. The former could be represented not in its existing, imperfect state, but only in its idealized future state; the latter could be represented only in its typical (and therefore highly impersonal) aspects. As Svetlana Boym and Katerina Clark have noted variously, domestic space and personal issues (like the search for love) were not motivating forces in the culture of Socialist Realism, and further, generally contradicted the Socialist Realist worldview.

While some practitioners of avtorskaja pesnja clearly earned the label bardy protesta through openly anti-Soviet lyrics, others--in fact the majority of the bards--simply wrote songs that rather failed to fill the official Soviet prescription for "healthy themes which serve the educational goals of Communist ideology" (Gene Sosin); in other words, such bardy wrote songs that did not live up to the mandates of Socialist Realism. Some songs were composed on the minutiae of Soviet life, ranging from the ever-present "apartment question" to morning calisthenics, while others avoided specifically Soviet life altogether, focusing instead on personal and even intimate themes. The present paper analyzes several avtorskie pesni that lack the "broad civic motif" characteristic of official Soviet literature and music (Sosin), focusing on the "significance of insignificance" in these songs--on ways in which simple expression of "the most everyday reality," denuded of "the most heroic prospects," became a means for and a vehicle of resistance. This approach is given credence by the characterization of avtorskaja pesnja as "alternative art" formed in reaction to the pesennyj officioz of the Soviet èstrada, a view which acknowledges the particular importance of the elegiac and intensely personal qualities of avtorskaja pesnja (Ogarkova). This approach is similarly supported by Aleksandr Gorodnickij's statement, made apropos of Bulat Okudzhava, that in an unfree society, any free expression of feeling is an act of protest.

In this paper, the theoretical perspective of "the pragmatics of insignificance" (Cathy Popkin) will be applied to avtorskaja pesnja. Analyzing the works of Mixail Zoshchenko, Popkin contends that his "ingenious poetics of 'noticing'" asserts the importance of things deemed "too trivial to merit attention" and, consequently, trivializes the "larger-than-life icons of Soviet power"; Popkin sees in this aspect of Zoshchenko's work an "act of insurrection on every count." In similar fashion, the songs of bardy who persistently engaged "trivial issues" may be said to flout authority by rejecting the regime's determination of importance and thereby to engage in a kind of rebellion through the politics of insignificance. The analogy between the narrative strategy of Zoshchenko (in well-known stories as "Kalosha" and "Kocherga," for example) and avtorskie pesni that deliberately engage the trivial or the personal is therefore thought to be useful in defining and further illuminating the particular kind of resistance represented by avtorskie pesni that place special significance on the insignificant.