Monday, August 16, 2021

Kitsch Plays an Important Role Both for Rural Russians and for Incompletely Urbanized Ones, HSE Scholars Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 11 – Kitsch, the typically excessive and populist manifestation of a culture that is no longer tied to its roots but is making an appeal to others on the basis of what both those who produce it and those who consume it believe the past to have been, has been on the rise in Russia for more than half a century, scholars at the Higher School of Economics say.

            In a new book, A Delightful Place: Media Use, Media Literacy, and the Historical Memory of Rural Residents (in Russian; Moscow: HSE, 2021), Anna Kachkayeva and Anna Novikova argue that after Stalin destroyed traditional rural Russia, people outside the cities reinvented the past in what can only be described as kitsch (

            They did so by hyping features that people in the cities associated with rural life, often piling them on in ways so excessive that no one who actually remembered the past would see as genuine but that those ignorant of that past both in the cities and in rural areas have accepted as a true version rather than the distorted one it is.

            “Until the middle of the 20th century,” Kachkayeva and Novikova write, “popular folklore made possible the preservation and reproduction of important elements of rural culture;” but with attacks on the rural communities and rapid urbanization, that folklore in many cases became less influential than newly emerged urban and rural popular notions.

            And the rise of kitsch, they suggest, reflects as well a survival strategy both by those who have never left the villages and by those who have gone to the cities but have not become completely urbanized and turn to the overstated forms of kitsch as a defense against a modern culture they haven’t yet accepted.

            Because of urbanization, the researchers say, “rural folklore has been replaced by urban,” a shift that has meant not the disappearance of the rural variety but its transformation in the face of the rise of urban culture. That development, they say, arose in the latter decades of Soviet times and meant that many turned to rural kitsch to provide themselves with a sense of stability.

            Kitsch is something universal, Kachkayeva and Novikova say; but “in the Soviet Union, it had a specific nature, one that allowed for the integration of the principles of socialist realism, folkloric narratives, and the presentation of society on the movie screen into a single whole” that almost everyone could accept.

            Thus, kitsch arose “as a response to the culture of modernity with its unpredictability” and represented and represents and seeking after of a way to present life as predictable and recognizable.” But with time, one kind of kitsch replaced another, and so the rural and urban have come closer together in this way as well.

             Kitsch has another function as well, the two HSE scholars say. It represents an assertion of rural values without requiring any active measures like protests, a valuable thing for many in rural areas whose experiences have taught them that open protests not only seldom achieve their goals but often entail serious costs.

            But Kachkayeva and Novikova conclude that increasingly the real consumers of rural kitsch are not the rural residents but the incompletely urbanized strata in Russian cities. The overstated and oversimplified forms kitsch provides gives them the chance to continue to identify with their roots but in ways that doesn’t directly challenge anyone.

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