The Eye of the Whirlwind
Russian Identity and Soviet Nation-Building. Quests for Meaning in a Soviet Metropolis

The Eye of the Whirlwind: Russian Identity and Soviet Nation-Building. Quests for Meaning in a Soviet Metropolis [Abstract] [Index] Nielsen, Finn Sivert ENG 1580 K
(incl. images)

This monograph-length study is based on 15 months of fieldwork in the Soviet Union in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Most of the fieldwork was carried out in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), but short-term research also took place in Moscow and Dagestan. It is the only field-based study to have been conducted by a Western anthropologist in a Soviet city.

The book discusses Russian identity and Soviet nation-building in a broad perspective, taking as its point of departure a metaphor of Soviet reality derived from Andrey Tarkovsky's film Stalker, which the author develops into a general theory of Soviet economics, political power and culture: The book thus argues that the Soviet state was weakly integrated, that Soviet economy was poorly controlled, and that society was fragmented into semi-autonomous institutions of a quasi-feudal character. Though controversial at the time of writing, this theory has later received extensive support in the anthropological literature on the (post)socialist societies.

After a general introduction to Soviet society, the author proceeds to analyze the rules and conventions of daily life in the Soviet metropolis, by contrasting behavior in private and public contexts. A primary contrast - between "warmth" in family and friendship contexts, and "coldness" in public - is developed into a general theory of the preconditions for communication and interaction in the Soviet intermediary sphere ("civil society"). The Soviet and Russian concept of kul'tura (culture) is extensively discussed, as is the behavior of the anonymous tolpa (mob). Throughout this analysis, extensive use is made of the author's field data (informal interviews, observations etc.).

These conclusions are then, in a series of increasingly wide-ranging and speculative chapters, contextualized in terms of Soviet and Russian history. Extensive use is made of work by political scientists, historians, etc., but primary field data play a central role throughout in the analysis. Among the most important points discussed in these chapters are the traditional Russian values of freedom and authority, late Soviet attempts to establish new forms of public communication, the preconditions for Soviet state legitimacy, the patron-clientage-based organization of the Stalinist state, and evolving patterns of socialization and family life in Soviet society. The ultimate goal of the analysis is to arrive at a formulation of a "paradigm of Russian identity".

Three full-length portraits of life-projects realized by informants are included: one of an actor in the Soviet informal economy, one of a Russian Orthodox priest, and one of a mother and the cultural-religious circle surrounding her.

The text provides a comprehensive, lively and controversial image of Soviet society and the people who inhabited it.

Publication history

The book was originally written as a Mag.Art. thesis in social anthropology at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo, Norway, and remained unpublished for many years due to the sensitive nature of much of the material it contained. It has nevertheless circulated in a limited informal edition in academic circles since the early 1990's. In 2003-04, a revised version was published in Russian (St. Petersburg: Aletheia).

The present, AnthroBase edition is based on the Russian text, from which it has its extensive Preface (which relates the book's conclusions to contemporary anthropological and sociological debates on postsocialism) and a short Epilogue (which contextualizes the mid-1980's analysis from the point of view of postsocialist Russia). The AnthroBase edition also includes materials that were not included in the Russian version: two appendices from 2003 (which discuss i.a. methodological and ethical issues in connection with the original fieldwork); extensive tabular data on Soviet socio-economic conditions (from the original version, partly updated); and survey data on informants (from the orginal version). A number of footnotes were added to the Russian version (and additional notes have been added to the present edition) in order to bring the text up to date; some changes to the main text have been made (mostly to correct errors); and the theoretical sections (particularly in Chapter One) have been simplified and shortened. With these exceptions, the text is published more or less in the form in which it was originally completed, in December 1986.