Imitations of Life: Two Centuries of Melodrama in Russia

Duke University Press
Free sample

Imitations of Life views Russian melodrama from the eighteenth century to today as an unexpectedly hospitable forum for considering social issues. The contributors follow the evolution of the genre through a variety of cultural practices and changing political scenarios. They argue that Russian audiences have found a particular type of comfort in this mode of entertainment that invites them to respond emotionally rather than politically to social turmoil.
Drawing on a wide variety of sources, including plays, lachrymose novels, popular movies, and even highly publicized funerals and political trials, the essays in Imitations of Life argue that melodrama has consistently offered models of behavior for times of transition, and that contemporary televised versions of melodrama continue to help Russians cope with national events that they understand implicitly but are not yet able to articulate. In contrast to previous studies, this collection argues for a reading that takes into account the subtle but pointed challenges to national politics and to gender and class hierarchies made in melodramatic works from both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Collectively, the contributors shift and cross borders, illustrating how the cultural dismissal of melodrama as fundamentally escapist and targeted primarily at the politically disenfranchised has subverted the drama’s own intrinsically subversive virtues.
Imitations of Life will interest students and scholars of contemporary Russia, and Russian history, literature, and theater.

Contributors. Otto Boele, Julie Buckler, Julie Cassiday, Susan Costanzo, Helena Goscilo, Beth Holmgren, Lars Lih, Louise McReynolds, Joan Neuberger, Alexander Prokhorov, Richard Stites


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About the author

Louise McReynolds is Professor of History at the University of Hawai’i.

Joan Neuberger is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas.

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Additional Information

Publisher
Duke University Press
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Published on
Mar 29, 2002
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Pages
352
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ISBN
9780822380573
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Best For
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Language
English
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Genres
Drama / European / General
History / Russia & the Former Soviet Union
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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Anguish, Anger, and Folkways in Soviet Russia offers original perspectives on the politics of everyday life in the Soviet Union by closely examining the coping mechanisms individuals and leaders alike developed as they grappled with the political, social, and intellectual challenges the system presented before and after World War II. As Gábor T. Rittersporn shows, the “little tactics” people employed in their daily lives not only helped them endure the rigors of life during the Stalin and post-Stalin periods but also strongly influenced the system’s development into the Gorbachev and post-Soviet eras.

For Rittersporn, citizens’ conscious and unreflected actions at all levels of society defined a distinct Soviet universe. Terror, faith, disillusionment, evasion, folk customs, revolt, and confusion about regime goals and the individual’s relation to them were all integral to the development of that universe and the culture it engendered. Through a meticulous reading of primary documents and materials uncovered in numerous archives located in Russia and Germany, Rittersporn identifies three related responses—anguish, anger, and folkways—to the pressures people in all walks of life encountered, and shows how these responses in turn altered the way the system operated.

Rittersporn finds that the leadership generated widespread anguish by its inability to understand and correct the reasons for the system’s persistent political and economic dysfunctions. Rather than locate the sources of these problems in their own presuppositions and administrative methods, leaders attributed them to omnipresent conspiracy and wrecking, which they tried to extirpate through terror.

He shows how the unrelenting pursuit of enemies exacerbated systemic failures and contributed to administrative breakdowns and social dissatisfaction. Anger resulted as the populace reacted to the notable gap between the promise of a self-governing egalitarian society and the actual experience of daily existence under the heavy hand of the party-state. Those who had interiorized systemic values demanded a return to what they took for the original Bolshevik project, while others sought an outlet for their frustrations in destructive or self-destructive behavior.

In reaction to the system's pressure, citizens instinctively developed strategies of noncompliance and accommodation. A detailed examination of these folkways enables Rittersporn to identify and describe the mechanisms and spaces intuitively created by officials and ordinary citizens to evade the regime's dictates or to find a modus vivendi with them. Citizens and officials alike employed folkways to facilitate work, avoid tasks, advance careers, augment their incomes, display loyalty, enjoy life’s pleasures, and simply to survive. Through his research, Rittersporn uncovers a fascinating world consisting of peasant stratagems and subterfuges, underground financial institutions, falsified Supreme Court documents, and associations devoted to peculiar sexual practices.

As Rittersporn shows, popular and elite responses and tactics deepened the regime’s ineffectiveness and set its modernization project off down unintended paths. Trapped in a web of behavioral patterns and social representations that eluded the understanding of both conservatives and reformers, the Soviet system entered a cycle of self-defeat where leaders and led exercised less and less control over the course of events. In the end, a new system emerged that neither the establishment nor the rest of society could foresee.
Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most popular, and most puzzling, play. It follows the form of a “revenge tragedy,” in which the hero, Hamlet, seeks vengeance against his father’s murderer, his uncle Claudius, now the king of Denmark. Much of its fascination, however, lies in its uncertainties.

Among them: What is the Ghost—Hamlet’s father demanding justice, a tempting demon, an angelic messenger? Does Hamlet go mad, or merely pretend to? Once he is sure that Claudius is a murderer, why does he not act? Was his mother, Gertrude, unfaithful to her husband or complicit in his murder?

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How a society defines crimes and prosecutes criminals illuminates its cultural values, social norms, and political expectations. In Murder Most Russian, Louise McReynolds uses a fascinating series of murders and subsequent trials that took place in the wake of the 1864 legal reforms enacted by Tsar Alexander II to understand the impact of these reforms on Russian society before the Revolution of 1917. For the first time in Russian history, the accused were placed in the hands of juries of common citizens in courtrooms that were open to the press. Drawing on a wide array of sources, McReynolds reconstructs murders that gripped Russian society, from the case of Andrei Gilevich, who advertised for a personal secretary and beheaded the respondent as a way of perpetrating insurance fraud, to the beating death of Marianna Time at the hands of two young aristocrats who hoped to steal her diamond earrings.As McReynolds shows, newspapers covered such trials extensively, transforming the courtroom into the most public site in Russia for deliberation about legality and justice. To understand the cultural and social consequences of murder in late imperial Russia, she analyzes the discussions that arose among the emergent professional criminologists, defense attorneys, and expert forensic witnesses about what made a defendant's behavior "criminal." She also deftly connects real criminal trials to the burgeoning literary genre of crime fiction and fruitfully compares the Russian case to examples of crimes both from Western Europe and the United States in this period.Murder Most Russian will appeal not only to readers interested in Russian culture and true crime but also to historians who study criminology, urbanization, the role of the social sciences in forging the modern state, evolving notions of the self and the psyche, the instability of gender norms, and sensationalism in the modern media.
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