Crimes of Substitution: Detection in Late Soviet Society
In order to appear “accidental,” an element in a work of art must belong to at least two systems and must be located at their intersection. That aspect of the element which is systemic from the point of view of one structure will appear “accidental” when viewed from the vantage of the other.
Yurii Lotman, The Structure of the Artistic Text
There is no deed, in whatever unusual form you may imagine it, which is really criminal, none which may be really called virtuous. All is relative to our manners and the climate we inhabit.
Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom
In his recent memoirs, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a popular poet of the post-Stalin generation, tells a story about the early 1960s. Trying to “win over” prominent members of the Soviet intellectual elite, Nikita Khrushchev held several meetings with the intelligentsia in the Kremlin. During one such meeting, in which Khrushchev’s speech was steadily punctuated by applause, Dmitry Shostakovich—who sat next to Yevtushenko—was continuously writing in his notebook. When the applause resumed, the composer whispered to the poet: “I have my own method of avoiding applause. I try to produce an impression that I’m writing down all these great thoughts. Thank God, everyone can see that my hands are busy.”1
This anecdote nicely depicts the major problem I want to discuss in this essay: In a society where the circulation of symbolic forms—including forms of public self-presentation—is heavily controlled and predetermined, how does one effectively detach oneself from the dominant symbolic order? What are the tools that allowed the Soviet subject to simultaneously produce an impression of being loyal to the regime while at least partially abstaining from its practices?
I argue that the answer lies in the mechanism of transgressive imitation so vividly demonstrated by Shostakovich. This crime of substitution, as I call it, helped maintain the apparent integrity of the (Soviet) symbolic field, yet constantly revealed a profound discordance between performance and intention. The various crimes of substitution I will examine in this essay did not attempt to counter the dominant framework of signification with an alternative, but rather unfolded within the range of already existing possibilities. Instead of challenging the symbolic order by introducing new symbolic forms, crimes of substitution focused on codes and interpretations that could be associated with these original forms. As Shostakovich’s method for dealing with the regime demonstrates, crimes of substitution have very little in common with an art of deception, impersonation, and imposture aimed to produce an expected yet misleading reaction.2 Responding to Khrushchev’s speech with his own writing, Shostakovich built his tactic on a fundamental flaw that any hegemonic system of interpellation tries, if not to mask, then at least to displace: while constituting the subject in the process of hailing, interpellation fails to determine the nature of the subject’s response.3 As Michel de Certeau observes, signifying tactics that allow for this indeterminacy are rooted in the subject’s inability to assume “proper” spatial or institutional localization in relation to a clear-cut “borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality.”4 It is this “improper” localization or, conversely, the failure of the symbolic order to fully “absorb” the subject that enables tactical interventions within “vocabularies of established languages” and “prescribed syntactical forms” to articulate “the ruses of other interests and desires that are neither determined nor captured by the system in which they develop.”5
To explore these issues, I want to look at several sources that deal with the notion of crime in late Soviet society.6 I will primarily focus on Ol’ga and Aleksandr Lavrov’s The Experts Conduct an Investigation, a collection of short detective stories written from the 1970s through the 1990s.7 Over a twenty-year period, the Lavrovs produced thirty-five screenplays for the TV film series with the same title. First broadcast in 1971, The Experts was one of the most popular shows ever on Soviet television, surviving the stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev, Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, and even the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. The final episode of the series was shown in 1992.8
By discussing Soviet detective stories in relation to Soviet censorship and semiotics research, I want to investigate a broader crisis of representation in late Soviet society. Though different, each case nonetheless appears to utilize a common substitutive logic of signification: The Experts reveals the failure of metonymic socialist realism to protect the symbolic order from the corrupting influence of metaphorical parallelism; while the history of Soviet censorship shows how a strategy of repression resulted in a paranoid search for hidden analogies. In a similar vein, the analysis of cultural ambivalence led Soviet semioticians to conclude that the polysemic nature of signification itself could generate the discordant modes of representation characteristic of late Soviet culture.
A Crime (Story) of Our Own
Ernest Mandel has characterized the “ideology of the crime novel” in terms of “disorder being brought into order, order falling back into disorder; irrationality upsetting rationality, [and] rationality restored after irrational upheavals.”9 For Mandel, these narratives expose the bourgeoisie’s lack of confidence in the social order: by criminalizing the unwelcome but inescapable conflicts between individuals and society, crime stories reaffirm the symbolic hegemony of the social status quo.10 But what narrative structure and rhetorical strategies would be adequate to detecting and criminalizing “individual revolts” against a symbolically different status quo, namely, the Soviet one? What kind of “individual revolt” could the socialist “society of collectives” even allow? And what sort of anxiety about the fundamental instability of rules and laws did the Soviet crime story try to displace?
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I thank Kim Lane Scheppele, Elena Baraban, Helena Goscilo, Bruce Grant, Marilyn Ivy, Rosalind Carmel Morris, and Dmitry Musolin for their helpful comments and suggestions on the earlier drafts of this essay. I am especially grateful to James Rizzo for his careful and perceptive editing of this article.
- Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Volchii pasport [A wolf’s passport] (Moscow: Vagrius, 1998), 282.
- See, for example, Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Making a Self for the Times: Impersonation and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia,” Kritika 2: 469–87.
- Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997), 153–54; James Siegel, Fetish, Recognition, Revolution (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997), 47–48.
- Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), xix.
- Certeau, Practice of Everyday Life, xviii.
- Following other authors, I will use the term “late Soviet” to describe a distinctive stage in the history of the Soviet Union from the 1960s through the 1980s, when brutal repression was replaced by more subtle relations between the Soviet regime and its subjects. See Thomas Lahusen and Gene Kuperman, eds., Late Soviet Culture: From Perestroika to Novostroika (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993).
- Ol’ga Lavrova and Aleksandr Lavrov, Sledstvie vedut znatoki [The Experts conduct an investigation] (Moscow: Veche, 1994); all references to this book are given in the text.
- Elena Usacheva, “Dzheims Bond po-russki” [James Bond, Russian-style], Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 4 July 1997.
- Ernst Mandel, Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 44.
- Mandel, Delightful Murder, 8–10.