A Strange Hybrid
Puzzled by the recent halt of Russian economic reform? A close look at post-Soviet
commercial advertising reveals that market norms never really took hold -- even
Svetlana BoymIN THE 1920s, Russian avant-garde artists dreamed of a total
redesign of new communist culture and everyday life. The most progressive
means of Soviet transportation, the tram, would carry the slogan "Long
Live the World Revolution!" surrounded by red and white geometrical shapes,
the embodiments of revolutionary non-representation.
In the 1990s, a shabby post-Soviet tram made in the People's Republic of Hungary
during the Brezhnev era carries a different slogan: "The New Generation
Chooses Pepsi," supported by a larger-than-life -- but realistic -- representation
of the western drink.
Post-Soviet Moscow is full of such images. A plastic, second-hand Mickey Mouse
faces a full-sized cartoon of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, with the Pushkin monument
in the background. The Pushkin monument, already turned around in Stalin's times
(to face new Gorky Street and not the old monastery), now faces a two-hour line
at McDonald's. The "great genius of Russian letters" and symbol of
Russian national culture contemplates a huge "M" -- which does not
stand for nearby Marx Avenue. The McDonald's in Moscow is a monument to the
western world in miniature -- here you can see a model Big Ben and Eiffel Tower
and Japanese pagoda under a brightly painted California sky, with wind surfers
disappearing on the horizon.
It might appear that the spread of markets is generating a commercial culture
that knows no country, supplanting earlier revolutionary internationalist dreams.
Yet closer examination of the post-Soviet marketplace shows that the "western"
language of advertisement is hardly becoming a new commercial esperanto. In
fact, advertising can become untranslatable when it moves to the other side
of the former iron curtain. To understand commercial communication, Russian
style, one has to remember the old practices of reading between the lines, using
Aesopian language, speaking with "half-words," and perpetuating exclusive
imaginary communities through language. Russian commercial communication has
its own esoteric side that does not easily translate into western commercial
language. New advertisements are strange hybrids of western and Russian styles
that reflect a state of cultural confusion and the crisis of unified culture.
Commercials reveal an uncomfortable post-communist menage à trois
-- a cautious romance with the mythical West and a perpetual love affair
with no less mythical "old Russia," unfolding in that "pseudo-Russian
style" of the late 19th century, the style of Byzantine Revival. New advertisements
in Russia often physically displace Soviet slogans, as those "images of
the visual propaganda" replaced commercial advertisement in the late 1920s
when commercial culture was prohibited. Where the banner in Red Square once
read: "Strengthen the unbreakable friendship of the peoples of the Soviet
Union," a new advertisement celebrates a different kind of international
friendship, urging people to "Visit the Canary Islands." The "Canary
Islands," in this case, stand for a different style of earthly paradise
-- as inaccessible for the average Russian citizen as the Soviet ideological
one. The advertisement offers escape, and nowhere in the world would the invitation
to visit the Canary Islands have produced such an outburst of negative emotion;
it was a major object of attack during a May 1992 demonstration of communists
and nationalistStalinists, who carried portraits of Lenin and Stalin. Sometimes
the ex-Soviet slogan and the new advertisement more or less peacefully coexist
in one place. Right under the mosaic slogan "We built communism" inlayed
on the side of the building in Moscow during Khruschev's times, there is a new
announcement in the red and blue colors of the Russian flag: "We build
(Figure 1). Structurally, the two statements have a lot in common. The "we"
in both of them has no real referent; it is not about communication at all but
about incantation, about the magical attractions offerred by promises of future
But in the summer of 1992 the best-known slogan was not about building Russia,
but about "MMM -- No Problem!" ("MMM -- net problem!").
Moscow was full of problems that summer, and nobody could tell me exactly what
MMM was. But everyone joyfully recited the optimistic punch line. MMM appeared
as another cheerful abbreviation like RSFSR or CPSU, only better sounding. The
very expression "net problem" is quite un-Russian; in fact,
it is a direct translation from English. So, whatever else it meant, MMM celebrated
the presumed western ease in dealing with the world. But Moscow celebrated "Western
Ease" in a Russian style of incomprehensible communication. My desire to
find out what MMM actually sells -- and my belief that knowledge of sheer facts
might contribute to my understanding -- appeared "western" and naive
to my Russian friends. Eventually I discovered that MMM sold computer appliances,
stocks, and semi-mythical "broker's seats" -- the traditional Russian
trade in "dead souls." Advertisements always sell more than they promise
to sell and reveal more about the culture than they wish to reveal. There is
always a certain excess, a residue of cultural myth. Take the popular American
TV ad for Encore Pizza. The central character is a middle-aged Italian (or generally
"ethnic-looking") man. Exuding cordiality, he offers us more of
a pizza and more than a pizza. In a series of completely improbable scenes
shot in a mildly comic realistic style, different people -- a "confirmed
bachelor," an elderly woman, and various desperate singles -- come to the
shop to complain that they've gotten "too much pizza." The jovial
pizza-man explains that this is a family-sized pizza and if they don't have
a family, he would happily bring his own for dinner. It is a chat between "common
people" in some imaginary friendly neighborhood. And like many American
commercials, it uses humor and playful self-reflexivity, without ever making
fun of or disrupting the main communication -- the sale of the product. In this
case, family values are served along with the pizza. They come as little extras
at the multi-ethnic family dinner. "Encore," the anglicized French
word that serves as a marker of cordial "Italian spirit," aids commercial
-- and cultural -- communication. The advertisement has a particularly American
history of televisual evolution. In 1992, four years after the pizza ad was
originally aired, the same jovial TV cook reappeared, this time promoting "On-Core
Steaks." Replacing the desperate singles from the previous ad, well-known
TV characters come in search of an ideal TV dinner. The TV ad becomes more self-referential,
with "encore" turned into an even more anglicized "On-Core"
that goes to the very core of the American dream. The commercial crystallizes
the popular history of Americanization, the diffusion of ethnicity in the big
friendly American melting pot.
Now try to put this simple, direct, human appeal into Russian. It is completely
untranslatable. Nothing could be more disturbing than the prospect of an unknown
"ethnic-looking" man dropping by for dinner with his whole family.
Solitude is not a major Russian problem; overcrowding is. Door locks and iron
doors are now the most profitable business in the country. As for the steaks:
even those that are not "family-sized" do not need elaborate promotion.
Moreover, the populist appeal of the TV ad, its comic realism, would not play
well with a Russian audience. Very few "real people" appear in Russian
(except a few heavily-made-up-model/
hard-currency-prostitute looking women). The well known TV anchorman Sergei
Sholokhov explained to me that no one wants to see "common people"
on television because their image was so compromised by the Soviet promise that
the "kitchen cook will rule the country." "Common people"
and "kitchen cooks" are now associated with food lines. This is why
there are virtually no Oprah- or Donahue-style talk shows in Russia, and why
the only collective events are ESP sessions, Russian Orthodox services, yoga,
rock, or aerobics. The Russian viewer turns on the TV to see something spectacular;
familiar, old-fashioned, mild humor will not do.
A new beer ad on Russian television dramatizes the characteristic commercial
excess. We see a rather overweight but very Russian-looking popular comedian
taking a beer bath (literally in a bathtub full of bubbling beer) and laughing
uncontrollably. He tells us that the beer is so cheap that it is simply unprofitable
for him to sell it. He would rather bathe in it. Shaking with laughter, he repeats
the commercial refrain: "Oh, these prices are just so funny!" ("Ochen'
smeshnye ceny!") Here the excess of humor is explicitly exaggerated.
And in a perverse way, the viewers share the sado-masochistic joke. They, too,
think that prices in the context of current Russian hyperinflation are very
funny -- so funny that many people can no longer afford soap for a bath, let
alone foreign beer. American commercials commonly masquerade as authentic depictions
of "sincere communication" -- conversations among groups of "ordinary
people," pretending there is no camera. Russian commercials, on the contrary,
are explicitly unnaturalistic, theatrical, spectacular. Instead of sincerity
and straightforwardness, they appeal to exclusivity and power and promise protection.
They use neither believable "real people" nor "real things."
The communication is esoteric, and seems not to aim at actual sales. Many commercials
use pictorial symbols -- lions, dollar bills, or butterflies. They recover well-established
techniques of the Soviet political poster -- from the Brezhnev era, not the
avant-garde period. And they do not advertise commodities for mass consumption,
but such immaterial goods as "stock market seats" or "patent
protection," or something so carefully disguised by layers of pseudo-foreign
neologisms that nobody is quite sure what it is. Although the content is new,
the structures of address, the ways of communicating "between the lines,"
and the links between language and status are preserved from the previous era.
Business communication is a kind of post-Soviet Aesopian language. Before glasnost',
Soviet intellectuals, journalists, and artists used Aesopian language to
express political subtexts; the new Aesopian language, written in a code of
mysterious business transactions, seduces many but is accessible to only a few.
Take the journal Ogonek. Since the 1930s Ogonek has represented
Soviet mass culture -- the official culture through the mid-1980s, and now glasnost',
of which it has been the most prominent exponent. One of the few remaining
old journals for the general public, it has been printing ads on the cover of
every issue for the past year -- without the revenue from these ads, the journal
could not survive.
A recent issue features a large ad placed by a firm called "Binitec/nol."
It shows a medieval knight in armor with his entire face covered, and is captioned:
"We guard your intellectual property" (Figure 2). The image is a cross
between Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky and a forgotten Estonian adventure
film from the 1970s, like The Last Relic: a heavily armed man, of uncertain
identity, is ready to guard something as immaterial as "intellectual property"
-- doubly immaterial because few Russian laws protect authors' rights and cultural
property. To increase the impact of the image, the company's logo appears as
the knight's armor -- a visual metonymy turned into a metaphor -- further emphasizing
the idea of protection.
Many ads -- directly or indirectly -- sell protection, perhaps because insecurity
is the most crucial source of anxiety in the post-Soviet society. An earlier
ad in Ogonek, placed by the mysterious "SKF KISS," offers
to build roads and mount concrete constructions -- not something the average
journal reader will be in the market for. (The name of this promising enterprise,
"Complex International Symbiosis Service," abbreviated as the English
"KISS," is excessive and tautological; the idea, apparently, is that
everything has to be international, bear the prefix "inter," and offer
service with a foreign accent. Other qualifying adjectives are left to individual
imagination.) The ad features a bright pastel sketch of a perfect anytown and
two portraits. The portrait on the left shows a smiling western-style executive;
on the right there is a broad-shouldered, frowning, scary-looking man in a black
jacket whose intensely Russian demeanor signals "force" or "protection
by force." The reader of the ad should know that the "international
symbiosis service," with all its euphonic foreign words, has the actual
power to protect itself.
When I spoke with the director for the commercial section of Ogonek (who
did not look at all like an American commercial manager, but rather like a young
member of the Russian intelligentsia with a good sense of non-commercial humor),
he said that many of the ads are meant for other businessmen, rather than for
Ogonek readers. Advertising in Ogonek remains a source of prestige.
So the ads aim at establishing status in the networks of post-Soviet entrepreneurs,
not at attracting consumers. Their esoteric language is simply incomprehensible
to the majority of utterly impoverished -- and perplexed -- consumers.
Ogonek ads do occasionally appear for ordinary readers; and readers do
sometimes respond. Several years ago, an ad promised another kind of "international
symbiosis." It asked readers to send $25; in return the ad guaranteed eternal
marital bliss, western style. The ad provoked a huge number of responses --
most complaining that while they had lovable qualities, they did not have $25
or did not know how to send it. There is no checking system in Russia, all hard
currency accounts are under constant threat, and the mail system hardly works.
So sending $25 is much harder than simply having it, which is only virtually
impossible. The readers of Ogonek could not board the foreign love
If Russian styles of communicating with consumers appear quite strange to western
observers, the forms of seduction, by contrast, are obvious, naive, and old-fashioned.
One of the more explicit MMM ads in Ogonek (Figure 3) reads "Give
us a chance to save your time and money!" It shows a young woman in a green
negligée with black lace sitting in a sea of rubles (I want to stress
the patriotic nature of the ad -- rubles!). Apart from the not-very hard
currency surrounding the green negligée, the image is reminiscent of
western ads of the 1970s. If pizza ads, addressed to Americans tired of technological
slickness and seeking down-home warmth, have little appeal for a Russian audience
(beyond the pizza itself), glamorous ads (or trying-hard-to-be-glamorous ads)
with half-dressed girls and technological gadgets seduce Russians as much as
Americans (and the former have fewer troubles with them). The Russian attitude
toward the ads is pure aesthetic escapism --- most of the products (personal
computers in particular) are inaccessible; Russian consumers look for exoticism
and foreign glamour rather than for everyday familiarity and hominess.
The MMM ad is revealing in another way as well. It does not, of course, address
women as potential buyers of the appliances. (Who would wish to conduct her
business on the computer in this outfit?) Instead, it appeals to male entrepreneurs
who can afford a secretary -- as well as her green negligée. This ad,
like the ad for "International symbiosis," indicates something about
Russian business practices. Many female secretaries in the new firms perform
more than their professional duties. The concept of "sexual harassment,"
like that of legal protection, is absent, and the assumption is that women know
what to expect when they take well-paid secretarial jobs in the private sector.
Privacy and bodily integrity are not part of the "intellectual property"
of the codex of new entrepreneurs. Unlike American ads, Russian ads are also
not yet self-referential: "See, that's me in that commercial; it was fun
making it. I still drink the TV cola, and I hope that so do you." Even
the popular newspaper Kommersant, the voice of the "new generation"
that pokes fun at everything (Bush, Clinton, Madonna, Yeltsin, etc.), takes
its commercial ads very seriously. The commercial culture in Russia is still
too young to laugh at itself. This is particularly striking in the occasional
uncritical adoption of what are perceived as western fashions -- a perfectly
all-American boy wearing shorts with an American-flag design, an "I love
NY" T-shirt, a George Bush button, and a McDonald's cap. Of course, he
does not look American; he is too American truly to be one. His affected Americanness
is excessive and in a different context would appear a parody. At the same time
the young man does not appear "Americanized" in his manners; for him
America is the land from the popular Russian rock song: "Bye, bye, Amerika,
the country where I will never go" (Bai, bai, Amerika, gde ia ne budu
nikogda). Perhaps it is the wild extremes of Americana that makes him so
Russian. What are the icons of this new post-Soviet culture? Apart from the
prestige of the advertisers themselves, what are the little "extras,"
the surplus values that it sells? Many ads use old signs of Russian cultural
prestige; many appeal to Russian high culture as well as to western technology,
offering a peculiar marriage of the two. On the first page of an artsy computer
ad, we see an old-fashioned typewriter, pince-nez glasses, an old watch, and
a 19th century file for papers, complete with spirals of whimsical handwriting
(Figures 4a, 4b). It evokes the writing ambiance of the 19th century. (According
to the commercial director some of the items in the ad came from the house of
the poet Afanasii Fet.) On the next page we see the computer and the old watch
with a golden chain lying together with some bright high quality western journals.
The text reads: "Quality and reliable partnership." It is as if there
were a continuity between the "high" cultural scene of writing and
the "high quality" technological scene -- as if the ad proposes simply
to graze from all Soviet periods in a peculiar historical leap of faith. Ads
also frequently use high-quality art photographs that blend with the photographs
on the journal's cover and offer new commercial opportunities to many unemployed
ex-Soviet artists. Yet we will never find here the artistic traces of the Russian
avant-garde that have become (in a tame form, of course) a commonplace of western
design. Revolutionary futuristic art is completely passé and has been
replaced by styles that the avant-gardists themselves considered "passé-ist"
and conservative -- the
so-called "pseudo-Russian style" favored by the merchants and Maecenas
of the turn of the previous century.
An ad from the "international edition" of a journal ambiguously entitled
Voskresenie conveys a similar message. (Voskresenie means both
"Sunday" and "resurrection." So it might translate as "Sunday
Times" or "Resurrection Weekly.") The cover ad
(Figure 5) presents the "auction and material and fund (tovarno-fondovaia)
stock market `Extra.'" "Extra" sells brokers' seats, and the
caption reads: "`Extra' is electronic, communications, telecommunication,
etc." The image -- a tower reminiscent of Star Trek, The Next Generation
-- is bathed in laser fireworks and covered by attractive foreign labels.
But this fairy tale-come-true is not entirely foreign-made. The word "stock
market," and the name "Extra" are written in pseudo-Slavonic
letters. This style was particularly popular with the new class of Russian merchants
and entrepreneurs at the turn of the 19th century. The merchants' mansions changed
Moscow's landscape. Differing sharply in style from the neoclassical estates
of western-oriented nobility, they offered eclectic fantasies on pre-Petrine
architecture, and were often far more sumptuous than the imagined originals.
The nostalgic revival of pre-revolutionary, native Russian capitalism is one
of the major historic revisions of the post-Soviet era. The pseudo-Russian style
has become the style of the new "merchant revival" of post-glasnost'
-- an imitation of the imitation. A blue church bell frames the letters
of the word "stock market," reassuring the client that the market
of "Extra" is not anything foreign, but ours, Russian. At the top
of the ad, though, there is another caption -- this time, in English -- "New
Russia." So perhaps the ad addresses the potential foreign clients who
will be drawn to the "new Russia" by a bit of Russian exoticism.
It is all here: the eclectic language of post-Soviet advertising, at once pseudo-Russian
and pseudo-western; a language that plays hide-and-seek with the viewer, concealing
and revealing the most unexpected things. Perhaps Russian society will be healthier
when legal protections and human rights are ensured and, at the same time, when
people begin to laugh at the commercials, and invent anecdotes about MMM and
its lack of problems. But now "Extra" offers us only another glimpse
at the fusion and confusion of western special effects and pseudo-Russian revivals
that shape the new, complex, and chaotic culture of post-Soviet Russia.
Originally published in the February/March
1994 issue of Boston Review