TRANSCRIPT: Standing in Line

Transcript of the podcast "Standing in Line" with Jillian Porter

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Intro 1: This is the Eurasian Enigma from the Davis Center.

Intro 2: The Davis Center.

Intro 3: The Davis Center.

Intro 4: For Russian and Eurasian studies.

Intro 5: At Harvard University.

Cris Martin: Hello and welcome to the Eurasian Enigma, the podcast from the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian studies at Harvard University. I'm Cris Martin, Outreach Director and today I'm chatting with Dr. Jillian Porter, assistant professor of Russian literature at the University of Oklahoma. Jillian spent the 2015/2016 academic year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Davis Center where she worked on a new book entitled the Art of the Queue. The project explores standing in line as a paradigmatic experience of Soviet everyday life and the generator of aesthetic forms. Jillian, thanks for talking with me today.

Jillian Porter: Thank you. It's great to be here.

Cris Martin: I think I can easily say that even people who are largely unfamiliar with Soviet or Russian history, they understand that waiting in line was a large part of everyday life for many people. You yourself have written that standing in queue was a defining experience of Soviet everyday life. I'm just curious, what made you interested in exploring the queue and in particular, its representation in various media?

Jillian Porter: Thank you. I think I first was intrigued by the idea of the Soviet queue when I started studying Russian language and there was a section of our textbook on queue language, right, as though you couldn't even begin to start speaking Russian without knowing kind of the key phrases that you would need in order to occupy a line. But I also read Vladimir Sorokin's novel, The Queue, and I was really struck by the idea that the queue is such a pervasive feature of Soviet everyday life that it really merits book-length study.

Jillian Porter: So working sort of backwards from Sorokin's novel and then forwards. I've been looking for other representations of the queue and there are a number of queue centric works we might call them. For instance, Anna Akhmatova's anti-Stalinist poem, requiem is really a queue-centric work that emerges out of Akhmatova's experience of standing in the lines outside of prisons in Leningrad during the terror. So it's a line for information and a line that also stands as a representation of people who are present in opposition to state violence. But this is just one example of the many types of queues that form part of the cultural mythology of the Soviet Union.

Cris Martin: Right. So you sort of presaged my next question, which was there are different underlying causes for queues as well. It's not just always signifying a lack of an available resource that people are looking to buy. Would you suggest that the bread lines that were present during the late Imperial period, which helped to trigger the February Revolution, were sort of the start of this queue culture or even the start of Russian writers and filmmakers looking about how to represent this culture of the queue?

Jillian Porter: Yes. I mean, clearly queues have been present in a variety of forms for centuries and all over the world. But in the Soviet case, what we have is something fairly distinct in that these bread lines that you mentioned, which were a pervasive feature really of World War I Europe, in Russia, took on a special significance as the beginning of a particular discursive legacy because these queues were cited initially by the Bolsheviks themselves, as what triggered the February Revolution. So we have this idea of the queue as a site of potential unrest and revolt. Now, as the Bolsheviks went on to shape the narrative of the revolution in subsequent years, we see that image of the bread lines drop out of focus because they chose instead to highlight the party's own role in organizing the revolution as opposed to this idea of the unruly masses, particularly feminine masses rising up and starting the revolution themselves.

Cris Martin: Now the question about queuing as being sort of women's work. So the bread lines in particular, and then I think things when you see commercial queues later on the Soviet period, those are largely, and Akhmatova, it's largely women's work. And so I was hoping you can comment a little bit more about that, but maybe first start by answering the question of, do you think that part of why that the Bolsheviks sort of took this element out of their curated history, was because it was the work of women, it was women in line and the Bolsheviks themselves were so... Although claiming that they were all about equality, were mostly men making revolution.

Jillian Porter: Right. Well, the subject of these women's bread lines in 1917 is a really thorny one. And the question of why the Bolsheviks initially highlighted those bread lines is itself not so easy to answer. It does seem based on secret police reports on the eve of the February Revolution and memoirs of people who participated in it, that these bread lines did play an important role. At the same time, the Bolsheviks' decision to highlight those lines, in particular in their first accounts of the February Revolution also seems calculated to actually claim the rising energies of the Women's Movement in Petrograd at that time and to suggest that their cause was the women's cause.

Jillian Porter: So it may not be the case that the lines were as important as the Bolsheviks initially said that they were. And similarly, historians of the Russian Women's Movement have pointed out that actually the emphasis on the women's queues, as opposed to the women's strikes and the women's organizing that took place on International Women's Day, was calculated to represent women as sort of these instinctual irrational creatures who, yes, they were important agents that day, but they were responding to hunger and to their own maternal instincts and they were rising up in bread riots as opposed to organizing and working together both for the cause of socialism and for the cause of women's rights, specific political rights like suffrage.

Cris Martin: It sort of put them back into the position of being the homemaker, making sure that there's food at home for the children, that put them in their place there, as reactive individuals as opposed to proactive who were trying to go out and make a difference or make a change.

Jillian Porter: Well, it's really interesting because to pursue the discursive history of the Soviet queue is to see women's work, women's time, women's lives, sort of flicker in and out of focus. So there is definitely dominant strain of discourse that assigns the cues to women. So Lydia Ginsburg, for example, in her blockade diary, she talks about this perception that standing in line is women's work, [foreign language 00:07:42]. The queue was feminized discursively, much like the crowd has been feminized discursively. But what I think is really interesting is the way that in the late Soviet period, what had been seen as women's experience does become universalized as Soviet experience more broadly. And this is interesting because usually it's male experience that gets universalized and treated us human experience, right, or national experience.

Cris Martin: Yeah. I was hoping you could take a few minutes to talk specifically about the queues around Lenin's Memorial, which I think are really, really interesting and really go to something you've already mentioned about how the Bolsheviks crafted their history and used this to sort of figure out where they're going to go next after Lenin had died, and to memorialize his role in legitimizing the next ruler of the USSR. So could you talk about what those lines meant? Not only attending his actual Memorial and being by his side, but also throughout the Soviet history because people would queue to visit his shrine on red square.

Jillian Porter: Right. Absolutely. And this is an example where we see the queue not being represented as women's domain, right? And so I'm really interested in that transition in the early Soviet period between discussions of the women's bread lines that triggered the February Revolution, to the funerary cues that cropped up after Lenin's death as the new site of revolutionary collectivity. And in this new queue, there is no emphasis on the gender of the people standing there. But of course we have a male figure who is... Everyone is lining up to see you.

Jillian Porter: So we have kind of the bracketing of that idea of the women's queue and of the unruly queue and the replacement of that with an image of an organized memorial to the fallen male leader as this new and powerful image of revolutionary collectivity. And I'm really interested in the way that these funerary cues are reported in the Bolshevik press and then get aesthetisized in the films of Zigaverta, for instance, or in the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky, where the queue becomes precisely this image of the people coming together in one account experiencing the revolution as though for a second time.

Jillian Porter: And these reports and the proceedings after Lenin's death have been wonderfully documented and Nina Tumarkin's book Lenin Lives! And something that I think is really intriguing to consider is the way that that permanent queue to Lenin's tomb on red square, which is different then those initial funerary cues, nevertheless continues their legacy.

Cris Martin: I'm curious about the Stalin years and about how the depiction, how actual cues change, and how the depiction of those cues to change during this time. Because so often the cues did result from commercial or the lack of material goods being available to people. It would not have benefited the government to have lines in the first place. And I learned from reading your article that the Moscow and Leningrad authorities had banned the practice of waiting near shops outside of working hours. But it also wouldn't benefit them to have these queues depicted in works of fiction. So I'm curious if you can give a little information about how the queue was or was depicted during the Stalinist years.

Jillian Porter: Absolutely. And I mean this is one of the fascinating challenges about this project is that for so much of the Soviet period, the queue was a censored taboo subject, right? So what we're dealing with is something that was present, visibly present. You couldn't ignore it in everyday life and yet you couldn't write about it openly. This place has limitations on the kinds of sources we have to study it. So certainly in official literature, in the Stalin period, queues for goods and services, right, scarcely appeared. Meanwhile, the queue to Lenin's tomb was always celebrated on anniversaries, right, in the newspapers.

Jillian Porter: But as you mentioned, for example, in the late thirties, the queues due to the famines had grown to such colossal proportions in St. Petersburg and Moscow, that the authorities banned the practice, as you said, of waiting outside of shops when the shops were closed because people were coming from far away from the cities, to the cities, to stand in line and they would stand in line all night, right?

Jillian Porter: So you have queues of thousands of people sort of as this glut in the city posing problems of sanitation and also just providing a visible reminder of the failures of the state's central distribution system. And this is something that has been documented in Elena Osokina's book, Our Daily Bread. And it's really fascinating. She reads secret police reports where there were agents posted in the queues reporting on complaints, but then also party resolutions that specifically banned the queues.

Jillian Porter: And then as a result of these bans on the cues, a whole complicated system of standing in line without actually standing in line arose, where people would queue without queuing, right? So they would show up at a shop and there would be no queue because the shop was closed and that was illegal. But there would be some old woman posted in a doorstep and people would talk to her and find out that, okay, they had a place in the queue now, but they needed to go and secure that with someone around the corner and then wait somewhere else and come back when the shop opened. So in this period, Osokina writes, "The cue took on a diffuse character," right? So it didn't appear that there was a queue there for that shop, but as soon as the shop opened, suddenly people would appear and they-

Cris Martin: And it had an order, an understanding.

Jillian Porter: They had an order. They had an order that someone was keeping in some doorway or in some apartment around the block. So this is a really interesting phenomenon of the Soviet queue as something that is both seen and not seen, that is there and not there, that is known and not known, right?

Cris Martin: Right. The official and then unofficial way to get around-

Jillian Porter: Absolutely.

Cris Martin: ...what the officials ways are.

Jillian Porter: Right. So I'm really interested in the way that Requiem, which was written in the very years when this dynamic of the banned queue that was producing these diffused queues was in effect because Akhmatova mostly wrote the poem in the late thirties, there's a way in which that poem mimics the diffuse character of those queues because it was written in pieces. Some parts were published at different times, some were not.

Jillian Porter: Some were only memorized by friends of Akhmatova's, so there's kind of a fragmentary and diffuse character of this unofficial and unpublished poem that was ultimately reassembled as a whole, right? Much like the cue that would reassemble when the shop opened, right? These parts of her poem came back together when she first published it in 1963 abroad. And this is where I think the experience of the queues really did produce a particular type of aesthetic structure.

Cris Martin: I'm curious about how you think the work itself, the writing, the film, how that contributes to the collective experience. It's one thing to stand in line. I think it's clear that even with what you started with, as having a shared language of queuing, that speaks to the communality of it, the collectivity. What did the actual production of the work, these people... What the mythmakers created. How did that contribute to the collectivity things? A shared understanding or even if it was the way the government was creating an understanding that was not necessarily reality.

Jillian Porter: Yes, and I think that it's different in each case as you're mentioning. I mean on the one hand, we have things like Dziga Vertov's film, Kino-pravda 21, which incorporates footage from Lenin's funeral or his longer film, Three Songs of Lenin, which incorporates that same footage, as well as footage of the queue to the tomb on Red Square in later years. So we have here in so far as we are just looking at the propagandistic intentions of these films.

Jillian Porter: The purpose is to help to shape a sense of collectivity through the image of the queue and to I think provide a rationale for people who are standing in a wide range of lines to shape their understanding of that experience as one that is collective and in the spirit of the revolution, that is based in fairness and equality. On the other hand, we have a poem like Requiem that uses the image of the queue precisely to foster a sense of collectivity that is opposed to the state and there is a very real way in which poems like Requiem helped to shape a certain dissident collectivity.

Cris Martin: I think of my last question. Let's leap forward to sort of modern Russia, so today's Russia. Not only post-Soviet, but really Putin's Russia. What is the legacy of the queue today, that can be both the queue itself as an actual line, and also the depiction of the queue, the understanding of that collectivity. Are there modern authors who are incorporating this idea into their work? I mean, Sorokin's book was published in the early 1980s. There is the book by Olga Grushin, English Language, The Line which was published in 2010, but it's still based and obviously on Soviet experiences. How has the representation changed from previous authors and mythmakers?

Jillian Porter: Yes. Well absolutely. And there really are a number of authors and cultural commentators who have continued to invoke the queue. You mentioned Olga Grushin's novel, the Line from 2010, and that's a great example, where instead of a consumer queue or some symbolic queues such as the one to Lenin's tomb, the queue becomes a site of nostalgia because the object of the queue in her novel is for concert tickets. And so we have these people who are waiting for a year for concert tickets. And here the queue comes to represent some kind of yearning for culture as what it meant to be a Soviet citizen, was to be cultured, to want culture, to want to participate in culture.

Jillian Porter: So this is not about shortages or about some kind of deadening, oppressive belonging to a collective that is foisted upon you. But rather a kind of a collectivity born of interest in culture. And we've seen a number of interesting through queue phenomena in recent months in Russia, where we had the sensational queue for the pre-revolutionary painter, Valentin Serov, crop up outside the Tretyakov Gallery after Putin visited this exhibition and state media reported on his visit. Thousands of people showed up to see this exhibition, which had been popular previously but suddenly became...

Cris Martin: Stamp of approval, right?

Jillian Porter: Right. So these people, it was as if they were lining up right behind Putin to see this image of pre-revolutionary Russia because of course, Serov painted portraits and famously portraits of the Imperial family. So there's this way in which the queue became suddenly a site of pride, a place to go and celebrate pre-revolutionary Russian culture. Again, the queue is a site of culture, right? And something I thought was really fascinating in the reporting and in the internet buzz surrounding that queue was the way in which some of the language and imagery of Soviet queue discourse pops up in this reporting.

Jillian Porter: So, for instance, one journalist in her article about going to in line for Serov, she mentions that someone offers her the chance to jump the queue for 1000 rubles. He's going to give her the ticket, but she doesn't want to do it. In her explanation, she uses sort of adapted version of some lines from Akhmatova's Requiem. She says that she wants to be with her people there where her people fortunately stand, and this is clearly a kind of repurposing of the famous epigraph to Requiem where Akhmatova is talking about the fact that she did not emigrate. Instead, she stayed there where her people, unfortunately were.

Cris Martin: Well, thank you so much.

Jillian Porter: Thank you.

Cris Martin: This is really interesting. I really look forward to seeing your book and I appreciate you taking the time for the conversation.

Jillian Porter: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.