Cultural networks and mediating elites
A very unfinished model of the informal circulation of cultural values in the Soviet Union, with some questions about the post-Soviet situation

Finn Sivert Nielsen

Institute of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Paper presented at the Fourth Nordic Conference on the Anthropology of Post-Socialism, April 2002
Thanks to Yngvar Steinholdt for corrections and comments.

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Seven theses


My interest in networks and elites stems from certain observations I made, or seemed to make, while doing fieldwork in Leningrad in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Below, I shall give some examples of the kind of observations I am thinking of, and share some of my reflections on these examples. This will lead me to formulate some hypotheses about informal networks in general, and, more specifically, about the informal cultural networks of a very peculiar Soviet elite - the intelligentsia. Toward the end of the paper, I will pose some very open questions about the present situation in Russia, based on my discussion so far. These questions form part of a research project, which I hope to be able to realize within the next few years, in which some of the continuing effects of the Soviet intelligentsia's networks may be traced into post-Soviet times. The project is motivated by a long-standing interest in continuity and change between the Soviet and the post-Soviet eras.

Seven theses


A friend of mine in Leningrad told me the story of how she first read Doktor Zhivago. She was a young student in the city in the early 1970's. She had discretely spread the word that she wanted to read Pasternak's novel, and when a friend of a friend passed through the city carrying the book with him, she was allowed to borrow it for 12 hours, during which time she read the 600 pages in one sitting.

This story evokes several significant aspects of life in the Soviet Union: the chance meeting, the strict time limit, the intense engrossment, the passionate desire for love, truth and beauty - which are so movingly evoked in films such as Vokzal dlja dvoikh ("A train-station for two"). But it also opens a window onto a significant, though understudied, aspect of Soviet life: the cultural network.

A lot has been written about various shades of black, grey and brown economic networks in the Soviet Union. But the circulation of cultural values, often at a minimal, or even negative profit, and sometimes at considerable risk to the parties involved, was perhaps an equally important aspect of Soviet cultural life. Indeed, I shall suggest below that the spread of ideas and images through informal cultural networks contributed to the formation of an "imagined community" (Anderson 1983) of non-conformist Soviet citizens. I will furthermore posit that it was this informal imagined community that ultimately found a public voice in the period of glasnost and perestroika.

One of the more striking points in the above story is the trust it implies. The owner of the book did not know my friend. He had no idea of her trustworthiness. She might be a blabber-mouth or an informer - Doktor Zhivago was a banned book, and you could get in trouble for possessing a copy. Moreover, my friend might lose or even steal the nearly unobtainable volume. Why did he lend her the book in spite of all this?

I would like to suggest that he did so because he regarded the book as a carrier of intrinsic cultural value, which it was his duty to make accessible to whoever showed an interest. The reason why he lent my friend the book had little to do with the nature of his relationship to my friend, and much to do with the contents of the book itself. Indeed, one might even go so far as to say that the mere fact that my friend seriously wanted to read Doktor Zhivago was a guarantee of her trustworthiness.


Since Marcel Mauss's The Gift, anthropologists have tended to assume that social relations and networks are based on processes analogous to exchange. When I give you something, you "owe me one". The stuff and substance of social relations - and social networks - are the unresolved debts between actors. The story above suggests, however, that in cultural networks we may expect a significant proportion of social relationships to be based not on the mutual obligations and commitments between the actors, but on the intrinsic cultural content of the objects circulating among them. The relationship between my friend and the book's owner was in a very real sense based, not on mutual trust, but on trust in the book itself. He lent the book because he liked the book, not because he liked her.

The most famous example of cultural value circulation in the Soviet Union was the distribution of banned literature published as samizdat or imported from the West. However, the networks within which such publications circulated had rather limited capabilities. Distribution might take place either by lending, or by photocopying or retyping manuscripts. Both methods had inherent limitations. The number of people who could borrow a book was by nature limited; and photocopying (even of official Soviet publications) was illegal without special permission. Few people had access to the necessary equipment, and fewer still were able and willing to make use it for such purposes.

The situation was very different with the circulation of music. Not only was the music less explicit and therefore less politically offensive - the technical process of copying music was based on simple, accessible and legal technologies.

"Igor" was the lead singer of a Leningrad underground rock-group. Their first officially published record appeared on Melodiya only in 1986. Nevertheless, they were famous all over the Soviet Union. The band would record their music on cassettes,(1) which they sold to friends and aquaintances at a nominal price, but with the implicit understanding that the buyer would continue to spread the music by distributing second-generation copies of the tape to his friends, who would be similary diffusely obligated to spread third-generation copies etc. The effectiveness of this method is striking. In theory, in a frictionless network, if 30 first-generation copies were distributed to 30 people; each of whom distributed 30 second-generation copies, etc., it would take only five generations to generate 24 million copies. In practice, of course, networks are never frictionless. But in Igor's case, something rather close to the ideal may have been realized. Cassette decks were common and copying cassettes was legal, since there was no profit involved. And since Igor's band acquired semi-official standing in the early 80's, there was little to be afraid of on that count either. So the music spread far and wide. It is likely that millions of copies of the band's music were in circulation. I heard recordings of their newest album in Dagestan in 1983, just months after it was "released" in Leningrad. The band - Akvarium - is famous even today.


Igor belonged to an elite - not in the sense that he had privileges or wielded formal authority (he lived in a kommunalka in the city center), but in the sense that he was a shaper of public opinion and taste.

He himself was quite conscious of this status. One of his statements brought this home to me clearly. I had remarked that his music seemed to change styles very often, going through the gamut of rock, blues, soul, reggae etc. He said yes - that was true. He was consciously trying to educate the Soviet people in the various styles of modern Western music. He saw it as his mission to "communicate 35 years of Western musical development to the Soviet audience in 3-4 years".

The phrase is striking. After all, Stalin had - in a famous statement, warned that "we are lagging 50-100 years behind [the West], we must cover this distance in ten years" (Kerblay 1977: 175).

I find it hard to believe that Igor was not on some level conscious of the fact that he was quoting Stalin (who in his turn, was quoting countless Russian "westernizers" before him). By making this statement, Igor was displaying himself in the archetypical position of the classical Russian cultural intelligentsia - between East and West, People and State, tradition and modernity. His position and Stalin's were structurally similar. They were intermediaries between the past and the future. They were - in anthropological parlance - successful brokers, not of economic, but of symbolic value. They were mediums, through which the values of the past could be exchanged for the values of the future, and the values of the future for those of the past.

We might very tentatively conclude that this mediating function is typical the elites that base their position on manipulation or mastery of informal cultural networks. Hence the title of this paper: Cultural networks and mediating elites.


The mediation theme is also seen in the following example: In 1982 I met the director of one of the largest governmental business conglomerates in Leningrad. He was an elegant and cultured man, who argued the merits of the Party's rule in rational and pragmatic terms. He lived in a large, modern appartment with his healthy wife and two children; the third and eldest child was already studying abroad. The director was a progressive apparatchik - and true enough, he had Solzhenicyn's Arkhipelag GULag on his shelves. I asked if he had read it. Certainly, he said. It was a very important book. But common people weren't ready for it yet. We would have to wait at least a hundred years before it could safely be made public.

The director located himself in a similar intermediary position as Igor, though he saw himself as mediating, not only between Western and Soviet culture, but between the state and the people. He also differed from Igor in that his mediation was far more selective. As a broker, a middleman, he chose to close, rather than to open relationships. He defended the system, but he admired Solzhenicyn for speaking out against it. He seemed to regard himself as part of a select elite that could assimilate Solzhenicyn into the canon of Soviet history without having to wait "at least a hundred years".

In contrast to Igor, however, the director's mediation takes place within a closed circle of privilege. When I told my friends about our meeting, they would mostly dissociate themselves from him. His interest in Solzhenicyn was fake, they claimed. The books were merely a sign of the privileged access the director enjoyed.

Though there was obviously some truth in this assessment, it seems to me that there was more to the story of the director than this. He did not identify simply or uncritically with the ruling elite, indeed, his criticism of the stagnant incompetence of Brezhnev's and Chernenko's reign was probably sharper and definitely better informed, than that of other of my acquaintances, who defined themselves as oppositional. The director did not see himself as part as the ruling clique. He emphasized his love of Russian literature, and told me about the regular poetry readings he organized with a close circle of intellectual friends. He had read Lotman and Freud and Dostoevski and Kafka. He undoubtedly shared Igor's ambition to educate the public to appreciate the cultural values that these authors expressed - although his timetable was much slower.

The example leaves us with two (once again tentative) conclusions. On the one hand, the circulation of cultural values in informal networks created the basis of an imagined community, to which people as different as Igor and the director might both be said to belong.(2) On the other hand, the two men would hardly have accepted each other as members of this community. To Igor, the director would seem dishonest and hypocritical. To the director, Igor would seem an irresponsible hooligan. Nevertheless, they identified with the same, imagined mediating elite.


Nevertheless, the gap between the two was very real. And indeed, the Soviet Union was striking, not only for its extensive informal networks, but for its fragmented social landscape. Katherine Verdery, Caroline Humphrey, Janine Wedel and others have described this fragmentation on an institutional level in semi-feudal terms, as a dissolution of society into autonomous "domains" or "icebergs". In my own work, based on my Leningrad fieldwork, I have argued that this institutional fragmentation (often referred to in the Soviet media as vedomstvennost) was replicated on a personal level, where families and close friends formed tight, closed circles (uzkie krugi) that were intensely suspicious of each other.

I now want to consider another example - an event and its hypothetical causes. I must emphasize that the causes are hypothetical, and that I do not know what really caused the event in question.

I once introduced two of my friends to each other. One was a once-famous artist, who had quarreled with the authorities and had been forbidden to exhibit his work - but who continued to work and develop his art. The other was an elementary school teacher, a woman from the provinces, who had never made herself remarkable in any way, but was deeply in love with culture and with anything that broke with the daily routine. She loved words and humor; he was a brilliant and amusing talker. They were interested in many of the same things. So I brought them together. They were both wary to start with, but they soon came to like each other, and for six months or so, they met regularly. But then something happened - I was never told what - and after that they broke contact completely.

To be honest, I was not surprised at the break. They had been so skeptical to start with that it would have been a real surprise if they had kept contact. Besides, I had seen many similar breaks before. So, even though I do not know what caused the break in this particular instance, I can list a number of possible causes, which had in other, similar instances, previously caused breaks.

First, there is the obvious possibility that the two started doubting each other's political trustworthiness. Such accusations were common among people I knew. I heard repeatedly from friends that other people I knew (whom my friends did not know) were suspect - either because they were potential informers, or because they could not be trusted to keep their heads cool in an emergency. Put differently, my friends doubted my ability to assess the trustworthiness of other Russians. My presumed naivety indicates that they viewed such assessments as difficult, and demanding a level of expertise that a foreigner could not possibly muster. It is quite possible that the painter and the school teacher broke with each other for such reasons. I once heard her mutter something about being unable to trust him.

Secondly, we might consider gender. In my experience, the Soviet gender line was not easily negotiated, and the kind of platonic, one-to-one relationship that I was used to from Scandinavia, was often quite untenable. Though marital infidelity was common, this is not necessarily what I am talking about. I believe, though my data are scanty, that shame played an important role in Soviet gender relations, and I have encountered situations where trust was broken because one of the parties felt shamed by the other. If even very minor physical intimacy - or even the suggestion of it - intruded on the relationship between the two, it might have been enough to erect an insurmountable barrier between them.

Thirdly, there was the issue of class. The existence of class divisions in the Soviet Union was by no means obvious to an uninitiated outsider like myself. Leningrad was a city that was outwardly very homogeneous. There were no "bad areas" - everywhere was equally bad - or if you were lucky (like the director), equally good. Social classes were not concentrated in specific neighborhoods, but spread out thin through a seemingly classless landscape. In the kommunalki, an old professor might live next door to a young working-class couple with two kids, a violent alcoholic war veteran with one leg amputated, a smug-looking Georgian trader, and a middle-aged, single, waitress-cum-prostitute.(3) And although the kommunalki were gradually disappearing from Leningrad, the same "gray uniformity", which was in fact just diversity spread out more thinly than I was used to, was characteristic of much of Soviet society. An old woman remarked nostalgically that classes had disappeared since the Revolution, and with them all clear and colorful distinctions between people. This seeming uniformity was one of the reasons why it was difficult to understand the role of class in Soviet society. The other reason was that - as an outsider from the West - I myself had easy access to high-class cultural networks, and this led me to underestimate the difficulty it would pose for a Russian to gain access to them.

Regardless of whether the break between my friends was caused by politics, sex or class, it was typical of the many barriers that fragmented Soviet society into enclosed, self-protective, sometimes creative, sometimes claustrophobic Islands. These barriers criss-crossed and constrained the mesh of informal networks that permeated Soviet society. My experience in both intellectual and working-class milieus was that breakdowns in relations between individuals and groups were almost as endemic as the networks themselves.

If breaks were as common as I think they were, we may assume another peculiar characteristic of the networks in question: They are in fact much larger than they seem. When a break is made, the potential relationship still remains, although it is no longer active. We may easily imagine circumstances, however, when the old connection could be reactivated. If I may indulge in a bit of pure functionalism here, perhaps the broken connections function as a reservoir of relations that may be resusciated in cases of emergency.


Let me summarize my argument so far. First, the informal cultural networks we have been discussing have a peculiar characteristic: The relationships they are made up out of are often based on the intrinsic cultural value of the objects circulating in the network, rather than on mutual debt, á la Mauss. Next, networks of this kind produce an elite of mediators - the informal intelligentsia. This elite in one sense transcends boundaries of political persuasion, gender and class, while in another sense it is fragmented by them. The elite transcends boundaries to the extent that it functions as an imagined community, to which everyone who participates in the cultural network belongs, in as much as they all participate in the values that circulate in this network and legitimize it. The elite is fragmented, when viewed as a real (rather than imagined) community. In the world of real social relationships, politics, gender and class are often insurmountable barriers.

Moreover, the imagined elite of cultural networks is deeply egalitarian. First, because the elite sees itself as mediating across boundaries, and therefore as bringing all people together into the same imagined community. Secondly, because the criteria for membership are - at least in one sense - extremely superficial. The director and Igor could both feel equally at home in the same imagined elite - as long as they never met each other in real life.


We now approach the end of this paper. The argument has many loose ends, and most of my conclusions are in fact hypotheses, and rather loosely founded hypotheses at that. My hope was that this discussion would lead to a series of clear-cut questions which we might pose to the post-Soviet world, but I am afraid this ambition will not succeed. Nevertheless, some questions seem unavoidable:

First, if it is true that the Soviet Union's informal cultural networks laid the basis of an imagined community (or more presisely: an imagined elite of mediators) - then where did this imagined community go, after the informal networks were formalized, and the hidden communication (that allowed Igor and the director not to know about each other) was made public?

Secondly, the prime virtue of this imagined elite was its willingness to imagine - and to some extent to practice - relationships as built on the intrinsic cultural value of objects, rather than on mutual debt between actors. It was this willingness we saw, when a complete stranger lent my friend his cherished copy of Doktor Zhivago. What role, if any, does this attitude play today? Is it dying out, as I have heard some Russians say it is? Or is it metamorphosing into new forms?

Thirdly, what happens to the ideal of the mediator today? The willingness to base relationships on valued objects rather than on mutual commitment, entails an openness, in principle, toward any polarity that can be mediated. Perhaps the new social and cultural divisions we see today are not really new. Perhaps what is new is simply that people are tired of mediating. The divisions (or at least some of them) are now accepted.


Anderson, Benedict (1983): Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.

Gubin, Dmitrii; Lev Lur'e and Igor' Poroshin (1999): Real'nyi Peterburg: O gorode s tochki zreniia nedvizhimosti i o nedvizhimosti s tochki zreniia istorii, Sankt-Peterburg: Limbus.

Kerblay, Basile (1977 [1983]): Modern Soviet Society, New York: Pantheon.

Mauss, Marcel (1923-24 [1970]): The Gift. Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies [Essay Sur le Don], London: Cohen and West Ltd.

Nielsen, Finn Sivert (2004): Glaz buri. Russkaia identichnost' i sovetskoe natsional'noe stroitel'stvo. Poiski smysla v sovetskoi metropolii, Sankt-Peterburg: Aletheia.

Steinholt, Yngvar B. (2004): Rock in the Reservation: Songs of the Leningrad Rock Club 1981-86, Bergen: Department of Russian Studies, unpublished Doctoral thesis.


1. Relatively high quality recordings were possible, since bands had semi-official access to professional recording studios, which were utilized systematically. Distribution was eased by the fact that it was not formally illegal to spread recordings. For a detailed description of the milieu in which this music was produced and the AnTrop recording studio at which the music was recorded, see Steinholt 2004. The interviews on which this study is partly based (including an interview with the AnTrop studio's creator) have been published online at:

2.  My contention here is not that Igor and the director belonged to the same network, though there were undoubtedly certain overlaps. Aside from the differences mentioned above, there was the obvious age difference between the two: Igor clearly belonged to the Soviet equivalent of the 60's generation and his interest in popular culture was not shared by the director. Nevertheless, the two had certain shared interests: They both admired popular authors like the Strugatskie brothers (science fiction writers), and semi-oppositional singers such as Vladimir Vysotsky and Bulat Okudzhava. Neither the generational nor the class differences should between the two should therefore be overstated.

3.  Dmitrii Gubin (1999) argues that this non-class urban population distribution goes back to pre-revolutionary times. In fact, it seems to have been common to many pre-modern cities. Before the advent of motorized transportation and electrification, servants would live in the same house as their masters, and the (damp and unhealthy) cellar was left for the poorest existences in the city. With the industrial revolution, it became possible to isolate classes to specific regions in a city. However, due to the Soviet régime's levelling policies, the poor development of transportation technologies, and the scarcity of housing (particularly in Leningrad) this transition was only accomplished to a very limited extent in the Soviet Union.