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Kathleen Fitzgerald

December 15, 2006

Soviet Union-Eren

Response paper 4: Russian Talk

There was much talk in section about the limitations of Nancy Ries’s

ethnographic study, and how those historical “failures” in some way negate her

generalized findings; however, Ries’s techniques must be analyzed through an

anthropological or ethnographical lens rather than a strictly historical one. By doing so, it

will not seem so odd that Ries was attempting to use a “small set of cultural snapshots

taken at a particular historical moment [that] focused on certain kinds of expressions” and

expand those snapshots to be representative of all the citizens who had grown up living

together under the same societal conditions.1 In fact, Ries herself admits that her primary

informants were members of the urban “middle class” and that she “spoke with relatively

few manual laborers or rural workers … and had only two acquaintances among the

“highest” Moscow elites.”2 It must be noted that this is not a failure or a limitation in so

much as it is a purposeful investigative technique whereby Ries sought to understand

Russian culture from the majority or “everyman’s” perspective. Much study had already

been conducted on the Moscow elites when leaders such as Brezhnev or Gorbachev were

studied, and similarly, the rural workers had been analyzed extensively for books which

sought to express their plight. The dearth of information on the silent masses of Russia—

the middle class (although this term should be used loosely, according to Ries herself),

that was trying to vie for economic power and status like the elite class but that could also

understand the complaints of the struggling rural working class—needed to be addressed,

Nancy Ries, Russian Talk (Cornell University Press, 19970, p. 5.
and the only way to study this amorphous group of people who did not necessarily

identify themselves collectively or meet weekly was to interview case studies and then

identify similarities in attitude and phrasing that appeared repeatedly. When Ries

discusses meeting Dusia, the elderly traveler who was visiting the gravesite of her

mother, the reader understands the reticence of the elder Russians. After all, none of Ries

and Dusia’s chatter dealt with any real issues of the former Soviet Union; rather, “most of

[their] talk about the Soviet Union centered around manifestations of weather in


Similarly, the discussions Ries held that are noted in the Epilogue reveal as much

about the individuals with whom Ries was dealing as they do about the Russian

atmosphere and collective attitudes in general. When two drunk workers pass by Ries as

she is photographing a casino and shout, “At the next corner, they’re waiting to arrest

you,” the pervasive paranoia about the Russian government cannot be denied.4 This

paranoia (albeit humorous in this instance) can validly be extended to the entire Russian

atmospheric community because everyone dealt with reactionary state policing at one

point in their lives. Ries is also validated in extending the persecutory and suffering

complexes of those whom she interviews to the idea of the typical Russian citizen.

Regardless of race, creed, or language, the majority of citizens of the former Soviet

Union would have suffered greatly from famine, censorship, or state violence.

Consequently, it is not absurd that Ries would notice a pattern of statements that

highlighted the Russian trope of “the more one suffered, the better a person” and

Ibid., p. 2.
Ibid., p. 197.
understand that this idea was not contained within just a small pocket of Russian


Furthermore, whether all Russian citizens verbalized these ideas or were simply

privy to the “Russian talk” during the time of perestroika, the chatter would have

nonetheless inculcated ideas of meaningful suffering for both. Since the types of jokes,

stories, litanies, and chatter that Ries encountered during her travels were “typical of

prevalent types of Russian expression in the later years of perestroika,” it can safely be

said that the majority of the Russian population would have encountered such ideas and

been challenged to mentally accommodate space for them within their overall

understandings of Russian rule. Therefore, Nancy Ries was not careless in using the

methodology she did; rather, it was the only true means by which she could have

successfully studied the atmosphere and general emotions of such an amorphous class

during such a residually latent period.

Ibid., p. 140.