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What a game show tells us about the intelligentsia and the shestidesiatniki

May 30, 2020

Yesterday I mentioned an article about the game show What? Where? When? (Что? Где? Когда?). In it Pavel Khazanov argues that the evolution of What? Where? When? from the late 1970s through the 1990s tells us a lot about how the Russian intelligentsia saw itself from the Brezhnev years to perestroika to the Yeltsin era. Here’s how I understand his history of how a typical person who identified as a member of the intelligentsia imagined the intelligentsia:

After Stalin, but before Soviet tanks put down the Prague Spring (the “sixtiers”): During the Thaw, the shestidesiatniki (Khazanov translates this as “sixtiers”) see the intelligentsia as a new narod. The complicated word narod is often translated as “the people,” and in pre-revolutionary Russia the intelligentsia and narod were seen as opposed to each other, with the intelligentsia drawing on the raw and pure cultural traditions of the narod to create their own more self-conscious and cosmopolitan cultural products. But the shestidesiatniki (exemplified by Grigorii Pomerants writing in 1967) argue that the intelligentsia have become the source of folklore, so that, as Khazanov summarizes the argument, “the forging, synthesis, and consumption of culture are taking place within the same social body” (273). This large intelligentsia collective, which holds cultural power and has political influence, will help bring about a better future with the help of “networks of international ‘solidarity’ between East European cultural elites” (274).

The Brezhnev years (“disavowed sixtierism”): After the Prague Spring the “sixtiers” stopped believing in this idea of the intelligentsia. The intelligentsia now conceived of themselves as dissidents who were “permanently in the minority” (275). They were, as Mark Lipovetsky put it, stuck “in double opposition: to the state and the ‘people’ [narod], to the absurdity of the regime, on the one hand, and to the idiocy of the ‘uneducated masses,’ on the other” (275). This view of the intelligentsia was similar to the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia’s conception of itself (275). According to Khazanov, “this paradox of a collective feeling of being a ‘mass elite’” is something that’s typical of modern conservative ideology (275), and it was this mindset that ushered in What? Where? When? when Vladimir Voroshilov created it in the mid-1970s (276).

Perestroika and the 1990s: Gorbachev was “a shestidesiatnik to his core” who had somehow “missed the formative moment of Brezhnev-era collective disillusionment,” and in initiating perestroika, he expected a “rejuvenated intelligentsia” to reinvigorate the Soviet system and sustain it. Instead, however, when the intelligentsia won power, they “used it to support Yeltsin’s dismantlement of the USSR” (279). Voroshilov and the teams of contestants on What? Where? When? had gone through the collective disillusionment, and on the show they “both performed the intelligentsia subjectivity of disavowed sixtierism, and also started to run up against its inherent subjective problems, particularly as the lived practice of capitalism started to make its appearance on the show” (280).

In 1988, prizes for the show—no longer just signed copies of books by Soviet authors—were funded by corporate sponsors who sometimes dictated what the questions would be. In the answers, “American market-driven solutions to Soviet economic problems would regularly appear as self-evident truths” (281). Then, “in 1989, after a season of corporate-friendly questions about Soviet economic liberalization, Voroshilov apparently felt he needed to find a way to balance out his show’s need for money with the sense that the symbolic universe of his intelligentsia audience was at odds with the capitalist transition” (282–83).

Soon after he would accomplish this using Pushkin’s Queen of Spades (Пиковая дама, 1833) and Tchaikovsky’s opera based on it (1890):

Since 1990 the game’s venue had been a small Catherinian-era hunting cabin in Moscow’s historic Neskuchnyi sad. In the winter of 1991–92 the show took another step in its game of Imperial dress-up. It would now start with the logo of an owl under a crown, accompanied by Herman from Peter Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, singing, “What is our life? A game!” Moreover, starting with the summer of 1993 every episode would be opened by a visual prologue—the methodical placement of cash on a roulette table in the darkened, candlelit Catherinian gazebo, with Voroshilov’s disembodied voice directing the croupier, and the French aria of the Countess from The Queen of Spades playing in the background (269).

In May 2020 the game is still being played in that gazebo (with host Boris Kriuk replacing Voroshilov, who died in 2001), though the usual crowd of dressed-up observers (members of teams other than the one playing that night) is absent because of the current pandemic.

Why “The Queen of Spades”? Khazanov notes that it is Tchaikovsky’s version that “has become famous in contemporary Russia” (287). In the opera, Herman (one “n” in Tchaikovsky, two in Pushkin) is “a poor soldier truly in love with Liza” instead of “a fairly well-to-do German bourgeois scion” and “a thoroughly cynical operative, as in Pushkin” (288). In both versions of the story, “Hermann’s fateful outcome enforces normative morality—the devilish force that governs luck at cards appropriately valorizes romantic passion over crass greed” (288), but in Pushkin’s version “the point is to punish Hermann not for being greedy, but for being bourgeois” (288). Also, the typical intelligentsia viewer of What? Where? When? can be imagined to know the continuation of Herman’s aria after “What is our life? A game!”: “good and evil are mere dreams!/ Labor and honor are fairytales for hags” (290).

One team of contestants played on the show in both 1988 and 1991; in 1988 they were introduced with job titles typical of educated Soviet citizens, and in 1991 the same people had become “director of a joint stock company,” “director of an LLC,” and so on (289–90). The references to “The Queen of Spades” and the casino setting of What? Where? When?, combined with the fact that (unlike the contestants) the intelligentsia viewers have mostly not traded their 1980s professional titles for 1990s markers of capitalist success, emphasize that post-Soviet business is a gamble, that “post-Soviet capitalism has elevated some but not others into contemporary elite status for no good moral reason at all” (290).

Khazanov closes with some remarks on today’s intelligentsia. Though regretting their “post-Soviet devil’s gamble” that led to a highly imperfect capitalist world and then to Vladimir Putin, today’s “mass intelligentsia collective subject, often referred to as the Russian liberal, has consistently resisted pursuing politics in a socialist or otherwise left-wing key” (291–92). There is a taboo among this group against saying anything good about the Soviet project. Meanwhile, “the most potent collective movement challenging Putin’s rule—Alexei Navalny’s opposition—is explicitly eschewing the discourse on intelligentsia values, while also increasingly taking up the platforms of the current international progressive left” (292). Khazanov recommends “returning to the late Soviet social scene and partially recovering the socialist shestidesiatnik intelligentsia project” (292).

By the way, Khazanov’s dissertation (“Russia Eternal: Recalling the Imperial Era in Late- and Post-Soviet Literature and Culture,” University of Pennsylvania, 2017) sounds fascinating; it comes up when he discusses the phenomenon of players on the game show dressing up as “Imperial hussars” for New Year’s Eve episodes in the early to mid-1980s (278).

See Pavel Khazanov, “‘What Is Our Life? A Game!’: What? Where? When? and the Capitalist Gamble of the Soviet Intelligentsia,” The Russian Review 79.2 (2020): 269–92.

One Comment leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    May 30, 2020 9:34 am

    That dissertation does sound fascinating (I hope he turns it into a book), as is this entire post — thanks for sharing all this material, mostly new to me!

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