Milton produced Paradise Lost for the same reason that a silk worm produces silk. It was an activity of his nature. Later he sold the product for five pounds.

Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value (1861–63)

In this citation from Theories of Surplus Value, Marx tries by his very punctuation to keep cultural production separate from the marketplace. footnote One hundred years later, his Soviet misinterpreters were still doggedly maintaining that separation. One hundred and thirty years later, Marx’s organicist notion of creative work reads like a utopian tract from an ancient—that is to say, pre-Marxist—civilization. It makes more sense that Milton, the poet, might write these lines about Marx than that Marx, the debunked political economist of Communism, could write these lines about Milton.footnote1

To reduce perestroika (1985–90) to its economic manifestations—that is, to its failures—is, of course, to conflate its eventual consequences with the manysided historical process itself, including its cultural successes. At the same time, to lament the (inaccurate) redefinition of perestroika in predominantly economic terms—cooperatives, joint ventures, privatization and so forth—is to deflect attention from something more important, namely, the ways in which culture has been transformed by those same economic considerations. This reality can, in fact, best be acknowledged by those (each for different reasons) who either specifically are not in culture or specifically are in economics. Thus, it is not that perestroika came to be concerned with economics rather than with culture, but rather that culture, passing through the historical period of perestroika, came at last, for better or worse, to be defined and restricted by economic realities.

It is an oft-repeated joke among Soviet citizens and Sovietologists that many countries have an unpredictable future, but only the Soviet Union has an unpredictable past. The disappearances of Trotsky under Stalin, of Stalin under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, and of Krushchev under Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko, are a set of cultural enactments that prefigure the political matreshki of the perestroika period. Perestroika’s transformation of the traditional matreshki—Russian stacking dolls that consist of identical but diminishing wooden figurines representing maidens in native costume—into governmental patreshki marks an inevitable and natural evolution, a harmless and parodic (note this unusual combination) diminishment of a traumatic historical past.

This compulsion to render the past unpredictable, to ‘undocument’ Soviet reality—in airbrushed photographs, warehoused statues, buried monuments, recut films, re-edited manuscripts—was most articulately expressed in the errata slip to the 1954 edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, advising its readers to use scissors or a razor blade to remove ‘Beria’ and insert an expanded entry on ‘Bering Sea’. This slip, a kind of ode to Conceptualism before its time, was supplied to all encyclopedia subscribers.

What has intrigued Western observers about this decanonization process is not the fact of decanonization itself (for, after all, the West, too, has its fashions, its market demands, its internal mechanisms for change). More striking has been the insistent official denial that an earlier text ever existed and that, as a result, very little can afford to be New—one of the most valuable words in capital’s advertising vocabulary—since to be New is to expose historical disjuncture.

Accordingly, in the sixty years between Lenin and Gorbachev, to cease to be holy has not meant to become profane, or even to be forgotten and disappear. Instead, it has meant the erasure of existence, except within a morally precarious netherworld known only to a small segment of the urban intelligentsia and described only by unofficial oral discourse (a conversation, an unpublished interview, a moment of improvisation in a theatre performance) rather than by recorded texts (literature, television, film, radio). Unofficial culture, therefore—whether we are speaking of Beria or Sakharov—became like sounds that could perhaps be uttered aloud, but did not figure in the orthography of official culture.