Finn Sivert Nielsen Anthropologist
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Broken bodies – Open minds

Studying the post-European condition

by Finn Sivert Nielsen

 Table of Contents 

Chapter 1. Concentric Contexts


 Introductory note to this chapter


The following text, envisaged as Chapter 1 of my (still) unfinished Dr. Philos. dissertation, is a result of years of reading, discussion and thought about the experiences I had during my fieldwork – first in the Soviet Union, then in the United States. The chapter itself was in formation throughout much of the 1990's, and found approximately its present shape around 1999. Its goal was to supply a context for the rest of my investigation. I decided to try to do this in a highly compressed text, that would zoom in on my fieldwork from a macro-historical level, moving closer and closer in sweeping transitions till the lives of my informants came into view.

     Nota Bene! As in other excerpts from this manuscript, the informants mentioned in the text are not true people. They are composite figures, and my stories about them are composite stories. – (The present edition of this text does not include references or a bibliography.)


1. Concentric Contexts

 Context: The Great Transformation


In the course of history Europe has passed through two revolutionary phases, of such fundamental impact on social organization and cultural form that we may refer to them as paradigmatic transformations. These periods were, first, the Late Classical or Early Medieval age, which saw a violent metamorphosis of the continent's economic orientation (from consumption to production), political units (from empire to vassalage), and dominant ideology (polytheistic state worship to Christianity) inside of 3-400 years. The vast cost of this upheaval, in human, organizational, and cultural terms, was offset in the long run by its results, or so we are told. Out of the ruins rose the civilization known as Europe, and the High Middle Ages, which saw the first blossoming of this culture, were surely a period of great creative potential and grace.

    The Late Medieval or Early Modern age was the second paradigmatic shift in Europe: after two centuries of plague, war, and religious excess, we find ourselves in a world where Capitalism is a dominant power, the Nation State is consolidating, and the first secular religions or grand narratives (among which Scientific Inquiry figures prominently) have made their appearance. Again, the long-term results have a wistful beauty: we recall the flowering of classical European music, the works of literature and art, the ideals of human dignity, the wonders of natural science and technology. But we also remember the socio-economic backdrop against which these movements were played out: the ceaseless wars, the extermination of languages and cultures, the denial of nature, of the majority of human kind, of the body. This was the golden age of the European bourgeoisie, and of its hegemonic narrative myths, which I will refer to collectively as the ideology of classical Europe. It was an age of bureaucratic individualism and patriotic rationality, of sin, progress, freedom, and private property, jails, hospitals, lawyers, symphonies, clocks, newspapers and family dinners; revolution and propriety, common sense and imperialism, democracy, factories, and anomie, – an age, above all, that idealized moral consistency and a linear, cumulative conception of time, and that applied the implicit mathematics of this idealization to technology.

    My contention is that Europe, and with Europe the world, is at present going throgh a third Great Transformation, of similar depth and scope as the Late Classical and Late Medieval ages. The origins of this “Late Capitalist” shift go back to the industrial revolution, an event that seemed devastating enough at the time – though we may argue with the wisdom of hindsight that it was only the prelude to a far more pervasive restructuring of society, which has yet to come to a close at the turn of the twenty-first century.

    Given this assumption, two questions present themselves: What new paradigms (ecological, ideological, technological) are being established here and now before our eyes? And what is the moral and intellectual significance of these changes on an individual and an institutional level?

    Any attempt at answering such questions must be conjectural, all the more so as the speed and unpredictability of social change increase. If, as Alwin Toffler (1970) suggests, the most salient characteristic of our age is change itself, this may contribute to our understanding a necessary blurredness, an emotional and intellectual correlate to the sensory blur of crossties seen from a moving train. Nevertheless, the experiential reality of accelerated motion bears the imprint of the changing sociological conditions from which it springs. Hence it should be possible, at least in principle, to draw certain general conclusions about our age from the nature of contemporary experience itself. Broadly speaking, this is the underlying methodology of most studies of these themes, including the present text. What aspects of experience are singled out for consideration, however, differs greatly: our age is variously described as Post-Industrial Society (Bell), the Age of Transience (Toffler), the Society of Spectacle (Debord), the Information Age (Naisbitt), Therapeutic Society (Foucault), Late Capitalism (Mandel), Re-Feudalization (Habermas), the Capitalist World System (Wallerstein), Globalization (Robertson), Mass Culture (Baydo), the Culture of Narcissism (Lasch), and Post-Modernism (Lyotard). In the midst of this terminological free-for-all, one aspect of the ongoing transformation stands out with particular clarity: the classical European order is changing fundamentally because it is no longer an order limited to Europe alone. I therefore describe our age as post-European. In a global movement, that we refer to as "progress", “evolution”, "development" or “modernization”, the local cultural configuration which through a unique coincidence of historical circumstances gained hegemony in Europe during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, has spread its influence to the entire world, where it is being institutionalized with a consistency and at a speed that have no historical precedent. Classical European science, industry, governmental ideals, esthetic preferences, standards of dress and bodily comportment, concepts of time, space, sex, and identity, have touched and transformed every society on earth.

    But it is also evident that the various non-European cultures upon which "our" frames of reference have been imposed are reacting to the intrusion, and in spite of the fact that they for this very reason have much in common, that their responses to it differ significantly. Obvious examples are the spread of Communism to some areas rather than others, the success of Capitalism in Eastern Asia and its failure in most of Africa, the varying adaptations to modernity of Polynesian, Melanesian, and Australian Aborigines, or the contrasts between Muslim and Buddhist revivalists, Jamaican Rastafarians and Korean Moonies. There are many reasons for these differences; we might mention the influence of various European colonial styles (Spanish, French, English), or the duration and purpose of the colonial project itself (Brazil, Belgian Congo, India, New Zealand, Syria). The two most important sources of diversity, however, are first, the receiving society's cultural and/or geographical proximity to Europe, and still more important, the intrinsic character of native culture itself.

    Thus, two general axes of variation emerge within the post-European world. The first is a center-periphery axis, with groups such as the tribes of New Guinea at one end of the continuum, and the Europeanized cultures of what might (in Wallerstein's phrase) be called the primary periphery – in which nations such as the Soviet Union or the United States figure prominently – at the opposite extreme. The second axis is not really an axis at all, but a catalogue of dimensions of cultural differentiation, which includes such factors as extent and duration of previous cultural experience with statehood; variations in the patterning of consciousness and practice arising from local kinship models or ecological adaptations (cognatic vs. patrilineal; irrigation agriculture vs. nomadism); differences in the surrounding regional environment; and more intangible factors of religion, esthetics, language and morality that may be subsumed under such headings as Apollonian and Dionysian ethos (Benedict) or Hierarchy and Equality (Dumont).

    When I refer to the present-day global order as "post-European", this diversified and volatile scenario must be kept in mind. Ever since European civilization started expanding beyond its native soil, it has encountered a mounting counter-current of protest, reflection, parody, co-option, refinement, aversion, and applause; and in our century this rebounding movement has reached back into the most intimate recesses of classical Europe. Scientific American runs a prominent and sympathetic profile of the Dalai Lama's views on natural science. Western homes are flooded with the most popular high-tech children's entertainment in the world: Japanese Nintendo. Out-of-the-way Norway has colonies of Vietnamese, Pakistanis, Iranians, Tamils. Asian drugs and religion, African beat, Native American visual esthetics, Arab terrorists, starving Sudanese, have entered the competition for the minds and bodies of Europeans. And beyond these familiar and readily distinguishable influences lies the vast potential of the new political and economic powers looming on the horizon, and the rich and controversial creativity breaking forth from them. This is one way our lifetime will be remembered: as the age of Marquez, Mishima, Rushdie, Amado, Okri, Ihimaera, Pamuk. Such writers supply accessible and articulate formulations of vast civilizational complexes, whose voice in world affairs has as yet barely been heard, and the means by which they address us are symptomatic of the post-European age; we recognize the same general pattern in contexts as diverse as feminism and political economy. Through mastery of a classical European medium (in this case, the novel), they project non-European traditions onto the global stage, where they merge with the European influence (and with each other), absorbing, contradicting, and transforming it, while their own ambiguities are sharpened or elaborated, collapsed or realigned. On the one hand therefore, imperialism has destroyed a vast amount of local cultural variation, and supplanted the more or less autonomous equilibria that many pre-contact societies had achieved, with rapid and uncontrollable change. On the other hand, cultural annihilation is rarer than we think; the afflictor is indelibly marked by the afflicted, and the afflicted groups themselves (if they survive) learn to "indigenize modernity", entering drawn-out, tortuous negotiations to "put the world back on its feet", exploring inconsistent, ad hoc, usually short-lived syncretisms, flowing into new syncretisms, new adjustments, new contradictions, – which are the essential constituents of the post-European world. (The evolution of terrorism during the first fifteen years of the 21st century should be seen in this light.)

    It is in this sense that the third Great Transformation of European history may be said not only to change, but to transcend European civilization. The classical European global forms that all cultures are forced to adopt overlie a staggering diversity in local content, that is undergoing continuous recombination and metamorphosis and ultimately affects the shape of the forms themselves.

    For the same processes of fragmentation and synthesis have been unleashed within the European core culture itself, and not only in response to the "rebounding of colonialism" from abroad. Van Gogh's appropriation of a Japanese esthetic confirms and crystallizes a deep reassessment of European standards of morality and beauty from within. Every aspect of existence that classical Europe denied seems to have surfaced in the twentieth century: from the horrors of the gas chambers to the horrors of the unconscious, from the relativity of space in astronomy and physics to the relativity of perception in anthropology and art, from the waste of natural resources in landfills to the waste of human resources in Second, Third and Fourth worlds. Irreparable blows have been dealt to the central institutional bulwarks of classical distinction: the nuclear family, civic loyalty, rational public argument, personal privacy, the prestige of science, the press, the market, and the nation, are all at stake. But still, resistance to change is greater in Europe than elsewhere. Since the emerging paradigms are historically rooted in local, European traditions – since the forms still remain in many respects – what is new in them is all too readily rationalized and explained away in the reassuring terms of classical bourgeois ideology. And this misrepresentation is itself the source of a complex and typically post-European dynamic: an unstable and often violent tension between the world as we think it is and the world as it has become, which puts its stamp on our judgements in every field, from international politics to sexuality.

    We have thus, as the postmodernists point out, left the crystalline and predictable universe of the bourgeoisie behind and entered an age of discontinuity and opaque futures. The cumulative and consistent "grand narratives" of distinction – development, patriotism, freedom, proof, truth, justice, marital fidelity and life eternal – are no longer adequate to legitimize our society, to enable us, who inhabit it, to mistake it for a natural, doxic state of affairs. Where I differ from the postmodernists is not on this point, but on how it should be interpreted. Postmodernism, despite its name, is a direct descendant of a sociological tradition that asserts that "the social bond is linguistic" and that social relations are governed by word-like "rules". The breakdown of the European world view was therefore nowhere but in academia caused by the belated realization "that there is no possibility that language games can be unified or totalized in any metadiscourse". In fact, this rather subtle characterization misses the point entirely. Classical civilization, as Wittgenstein would certainly agree, never even tried to develop metarules that might be valid for many divergent language games, but was content to subsume every game in the world to its own parochial universality, whose "laws" may or may not have been adequate for the local European playground, but are clearly out of place on the global stage. Classical civilization did not collapse because its "rules" were broken. What was broken was not language, but the body: through war and revolution, trade and imperialism, technology and migration, people were brought to act differently. If we lose sight of this, we will never do justice to the terror and tragedy, nor to the overwhelming consequences, of the Great Transformation of the twentieth century.

    A glance back at the last century may serve to convince us of this. In 1880, most people in the world (and most Europeans as well) lived in pre-industrial societies; a small handful of West European nations ruled the globe. Within the Western nations themselves, a bourgeois elite dominated politics, economy, and culture. Its morality was overwhelmingly Christian, its art realistic, its world-view provincial. It believed in the White Man's Burden, the inevitability of progress, the civilizing influence of democracy and science, the woman's role as mother and wife. Neither patriotism nor the gold standard were publicly questioned. This was before mass production, mass transportation, mass media; before the death of six million Jews in Hitler's inferno, and of a hundred million Russians and other Soviet citizens in other infernos; before the nuclear crisis, the ecocrisis and the Third World crisis; before the welfare state and the corporate state; before telephones, cars, commercials, avant garde, beat, impressionism, psychoanalysis, anthropology, and computers. Since 1880, the world's population has more than tripled, total output of its manufacturing industries has increased more than fifty-fold, and the number of people killed by violence approaches half the total population of the world in 1650.

    These changes and countless others are aspects of the same, vast "transformation of Europe" – from a local culture idealizing pure lines and distinction, to the global culture based on inconsistency, relativity, and doubt. Clearly, answering the question of what morality would be appropriate – what would constitute “adequate action” in a post-European world, is more than I can achieve in this text. Nevertheless, a framework within which answers may be sought is simply defined. Bodily experience is no less total, for being broken. What has happened is not – as some postmodernists argue – that society has fallen apart into chaotically drifting islands of partial meaning, which no over-arching narrative can render whole; but that a new species of social order is emerging, that demands an open-ended flexibility of our legitimations, our "grand narratives", our ideologies, moralities, science, that is incompatible with the classical esthetic of distinct, linear consistency. Concomitantly, the primary intellectual and moral challenge of our age (as Gregory Bateson, among anthropologists, always insisted) is not a surrender to eclecticism, but a commitment to increasing the complexity, flexibility, and realism of our ideas about what order is. Within the academic community this challenge is particularly acute for the social sciences, which are themselves a product of the new age, and vitally concerned with its disintegrating realities.

    Now let us briefly consider the type of discrepancies that these hypothetical ideas of order must be designed to bridge. Classical European ideology postulates a consistent world, where the dominant esthetic of "orderly" action may be described as "variation over long-term predictability" – as in Kunst der Fuge and Newtonian physics. In such a world, any plan, deliberation or ideal that is carried through into practice by an actor that adheres consistently to the same set of rules, will be an act of truth and beauty. "It seems clear," Nietzsche states, in an inspired passage, "that the most important thing in heaven and on earth is to obey ceaselessly, and always the same directive. In the long run this will result in something that makes life on earth worth living, such as virtue, art, music, dance, reason, something with power to change, something refined, insane or sublime." This exponential, goal-oriented style of action correlates on a personal, societal, and metaphysical level with ideas of "career", "progress", and "transcendence".

    In a post-European world the "directives" constantly change (as we move unpredictably from one syncretistic vortex to another) and Nietzsche's and Bach's directives no longer apply. Instead of "accumulating through time", we "explore through space". Each of the "bits and pieces" out of which our collage society is assembled, is a fragment torn from a larger whole, with its own partial-but-holistic logic. From the viewpoint of his bodily experience, an actor moving through a collage encounters breaks in personal and public life, sudden displacements of the body-mind, to which an "adequate" response must be a refined flexibility. We might think of this as relativism or detachment or a sense of the absurd. But it is not enough to move eclectically and freely among fragments. Each fragment retains a "logic" of its own, to which its inhabitants commit themselves existentially and practically. But the fragment's logic is truncated: at some point, it leads inevitably to intellectually absurd or morally unacceptable conclusions. Scenes of interethnic violence convince us that this is a volatile scenario. This is the point at which the break is forced on us, and its challenge must be met: to leave the old behind and embrace the new without loss of Self.

    This delicate move from detachment to reattachment is all the more demanding for the actor, since the break implies a blur, a loss of determinacy. His range of options suddenly increases. He finds himself at a cusp, in liminality, where paradigmatic assumptions are suspended and alternative courses of action open up. Even trivial choices may prove fatal at this point, and few if any options are "adequate".

    Nevertheless, there clearly exists something we might think of as an art of decision-making "at cusp", and it seems reasonable to assume that by acquiring proficiency in this art we may avoid drifting (intellectually and emotionally) at random through inconsistency, and learn instead to string together incompatible fragments that complement each other creatively, and perhaps at times combine into a whole as balanced and directionless as a stained glass window or a Javanese shadow-show. And like any art, this one approaches an esthetic ideal, it obeys what I shall call a logic of collage.

    The logic of collage differs from Aristotelian, Hegelian, or Newtonian logic in that it is not cumulative, its grand narratives do not build towards formal, cataclysmic or Utopian resolution. Instead, it builds for a while, but drops off before climax and builds in another direction, starting over again. It is a logic of rhythm, repetition, balance, which utilizes a multitude of available world-views to extend our depth of vision rather than expand its scope (as the brain uses the divergent viewpoints of the left and right eye to produce an interpenetrating dialogue – rather than a bipolar dialectic). This "logic" may seem too complex and esoteric for practical application to human affairs. But cross-culturally, if anything is a departure from the "human norm" it is most likely the classical European hankering for consistency. In this sense, therefore, the post-European transformation may simply return us to that "tolerance for inconsistency", which, as anthropologists have often pointed out, is typical of most premodern cultures.


 Context: Frontier society


Russia and the United States have developed in tight tandem with Europe during the last 300 years. These non-European states have experienced comprehensive and long-term Europeanization and developed unique syncretisms in response to it, as they absorbed the classical value-system and transformed it in accordance with local ecological and sociological conditions. The differences between the resulting syncretisms arise mainly from two sources. While the European influence on America sprang primarily from the Western nucleus and powerhouse of the bourgeois age – from England and France, the dominant factor in Russia was its peripheral location in the less dynamic European East. Put crudely, whereas the United States imported the most radical and modern European ideas, and elements of its most restive, intractable, and innovative population, the main channel of influence on Russia was war. These differing forces were projected into fundamentally contrasting pre-existent social matrices: in America into a defenseless, egalitarian, and virtually "empty" social space; in Russia into a field already apportioned between age-old state societies, which exerted effective and enduring resistance to the expanding empire. As de Tocqueville prophetically phrased it as early as a century and a half ago:

"...the American struggles against the obstacles which nature opposes to him; the adversaries of the Russian are men. The former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter, civilization with all its arms. The conquests of the Americans are therefore gained by the ploughshare; those of the Russians by the sword. The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of the people; the Russian centers all the authority of society in a single arm. The principle instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter, servitude. Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe."

Starting in the eighteenth century, both countries went through a decisive process of political modernization, which set the stage for their later development until today. In Russia, where the sprawling feudal polity had been disintegrating since the late 1500's under the combined pressure of Swedish and Polish military incursions, squabbles among the nobility, and waves of peasant uprisings, Peter the Great's reforms, starting among the nobility, and waves of peasant uprisings, Peter the Great's reforms, starting in the early 1700's, streamlined the state apparatus and laid the basis for Russian imperial power throughout the next 200 years. In North America, towards the end of the century, thirteen disunified British colonies along the Atlantic seaboard (population: 2 million in 1750)(1) organized the first successful anti-imperialist insurrection and established a national government with priorities determined by local conditions rather than by the colonial bond to Europe. The Petrine and American revolutions were perceived by contemporary Europeans as daring innovations, which realized some of the most radical political agendas of their time, and were condemned or lauded according to the persuasions of the observer. Voltaire saw in Catherine the Great's Russia an embodiment of rational, benign absolutism; Montesquieu idealized the free people of the new American democracy. But the decisive long-range impact of the restructuring of the United States and Russia was more pragmatic. Freed from the constraints of European imperialism, both countries could redirect their energies towards imperial policies of their own, which, in the course of the nineteenth century, led to the successful subjugation, by governments modeled on the European nation state, of contiguous territories many times the size of the European continent.

    Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, the stresses inherent in this situation began to have an impact on the new empires themselves. In America, simultaneous inroads into the "empty" lands West of the Mississippi were made by the competing economic systems of the industrializing North and the plantation agriculturalists of the South. The interdependence of these economies, which was primarily premised on the free flow of raw materials from South to North, was incompatible with their continued co-existence as semi-autonomous polities within a loose federation. Along the expanding frontier, the interests of market economy and landed aristocracy clashed in an all-engulfing civil war in which the independence of the South was destroyed, along with the system of agricultural slavery on which it rested. The situation in Russia had a similar outcome (serfdom was supplanted by wage labor), but the process of change was complex and protracted, and found its resolution in civil war only in the second decade of the twentieth century, when (as in the century preceding Peter's reforms) the country was again subjected to extreme pressures from abroad. An important reason for this delay was the high degree of centralization that had been achieved by the Russian imperial government, which allowed it to resist domestic change far longer and more effectively than the loose federative administration of the United States. Here as in America, the underlying source of tension was governmental expansionism. But while resolution was accomplished through a limited and relatively local conflict in America, in Russia it was transposed onto a global arena. By the 1850's, the Russian armies were nearing the historical limits of their expansion and encountering adversaries of a far more formidable stature than the loosely organized tribes of Siberia, or the nomads and feudal lords of Turkmenistan. In the Crimea and later on Sakhalin, major industrial powers were involved in the warfare, and the inadequacy of the outmoded and cumbersome Russian military machine became frighteningly apparent. The sheer cost, in manpower, logistics, and technological development, of maintaining a modern army under circumstances of growing international competition had a crippling effect on the predominantly agricultural economy of the Empire. After Crimea, and again, after the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, sweeping reforms were set in motion: serfdom was abolished, industrialization encouraged, administrative changes introduced. But it was too little, too late. During the First World War, when Russia was caught in the vice between vastly superior European powers, the stagnant imperial structure disintegrated, clearing the way for the radical, neo-Petrine innovations of the Soviet system under Stalin.

    The first decades of the twentieth century thus represent a dramatic discontinuity in Russian history, with no direct American counterpart. But the similarities between the two cases remain significant. At the end of the nineteenth century, both states had reached the limits of their expansive potential. America was settled from coast to coast; Russia extended from Eastern Poland to Alaska, territories which would both, for various reasons, soon be relinquished. This simultaneous "closure of the frontiers", was not merely a result of the fact that both countries accidentally ran out of free land at the same time. Everywhere, signs of the impending Great Transformation were apparent. To imperial fanfares, France and England embarked on a last, frantic "scramble for Africa" (during which the proportion of the Earth's land surface occupied or controlled by Europe increased from 67 to 84 percent), while the population at home languished through the Great Depression of the 1870's and 80's. The fluidity of constant imperial growth was giving way to a need for stable and exclusive spheres of politico-economic dominance; military conquest was supplanted by international economic competition between an increasing number of increasingly sophisticated and mutually dependent industrial powers; and as the external world contracted, society slowly reoriented itself towards domestic concerns.

    Within the context of the accelerating Great Transformation, Russia and America confronted the same necessities as the rest of the European empire. In their administrative structure, their economy, their political legitimations and civil culture, both states were heavily Europeanized. But the vastness of their contiguous territories and the heterogeneity of their populations exceeded anything previously seen in European history, and a series of novel problems, ranging from infrastructural construction on a continental scale to national consensus-building in multiethnic environments, had to be confronted by innovative strategies. The Western European empires faced similar problems, but withdrew before them as politicians became aware of the complexity and cost of continued colonization. For various reasons, this option was never available for Russia or America, and solutions had to be arrived at through cumbersome and conflict-ridden negotiations.


The first half of the twentieth century had seen the gradual emergence of post-European social forms throughout the European culture area, with their orientation towards standardized control and dissemination of information to the masses, popular participation in vast, loosely defined political organizations and gigantic centralized economic units. The active governmental intervention in the citizen's life through propaganda, advertisement, legislation, statistical surveying, investment, education, taxation. These tendencies fused in the semi-stable socio-cultural configurations that emerged in the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1950's. In spite of their obvious differences, consumer capitalism and state socialism both represented radical and explicit departures from the liberal, classical European prototypes from which so much of their terminology and ideology derived, and with which, for this reason, they are often confused. The diversity of interests among these vast populations, and the cross-cultural and geographical mobility of all classes, necessitated less consistent, more open-ended and less exclusive systems of legitimation, which bracketed traditional differences and promoted cultural expressions that are variously described as superficial, repressive or tolerant. The many differences between Russia and America in our century should not blind us to the fact that both societies responded creatively to the post-European transformation at a very early stage. This is why the organizational and cultural models they worked out became paradigmatic for many other nations, which were, often reluctantly, forced to follow in their footsteps. This is also why, after the Second World War, as America and Russia simultaneously enter the global scene as competing superpowers, it again becomes fashionable to compare the two countries, despite their divergent evolutions since the mid-1800's.

    Today, after the collapse of Soviet hegemony, when the United States stands as the lone arbiter of a "New World Order", the historical divergence between the two states seems again to take precedence. But there are indications that the internal crisis in the former Soviet Union may be paralleled by a somewhat staggered development in the U.S.A. In Russia, the disruptive potential of ethnic and cultural heterogeneity made headlines in the wake of the reforms initiated by Gorbachev. Similar problems may be brewing in the United States, although the power of the political system is still such that it can virtually ignore them. But if the vulnerability of the American government led to an early, and therefore relatively successful resolution of the mid-nineteenth century crisis, might not the obverse be true today, when a weak government in Russia is no longer able to control the inner tensions of its society?


Be this as it may, it would seem that the parallels between Russian and American development would be clear enough to merit the attention of historians. But in fact, the parallels discussed above are often ignored in the literature. It is suggestive, for example, when an internationally acclaimed Sovietologist can take for granted that Russian history is dominated by menacing "traditions of expansion" while America has a benignly "moving frontier". The point is not that American history is more positively evaluated than Russia's: this is a legacy of the Cold War, and other times and people have judged the matter differently. It is not the accidental direction of the bias that concerns us, but its intrinsic character.

    To illustrate, I shall contrast two classical approaches to Russian and American history: the theory of modernization from above and the frontier hypothesis. The first, as exemplified in the work of Alexander Gerschenkron, focuses on the causes of economic and political centralization in Russia since the Middle Ages. In Western Europe the economy was the creation of a multitude of small entrepreneurs, with varied specializations, methods of work, and financial backings. In Russia the economy was created by the state, and governmental priorities, demands, and dictates have ruled it since Peter the Great. Gerschenkron relates this to the different timing of modernization in West and East. Modernization started in the West as a gradual social process, brought about by spontaneous changes in individuals' lives in response to changing opportunities, which slowly gained aggregate momentum, until the entrepreneurial class, the bourgeoisie, could finally impose its dictates "from below" on the government itself. In Russia, modernization came late and as a response to the growing power of the West. The need for economic development was here primarily perceived by the state – rather than by any class of the population – as a need for a modern defence industry and its supportive infrastructures. Russian modernization was a consciously formulated, governmentally sponsored policy, imposed on the country "from above" by force and against the resistance of the population at large. Conversely, as soon as governmental objectives were accomplished and no need for continuing change remained, the effort was abandoned: indeed, efforts among groups of the population to emulate Western development were seen as potential threats to the state's power monopoly and actively repressed. In 18th century France, the court's splendor was designed to reconcile the nobility with its loss of power; in Prussia, the Junkers were appeased by increased rights over the peasantry. In Russia, "the problem did not exist at all. The Russian state was poor but strong." This was as true of the pre-Petrine boyars as of the mid-nineteenth century Tsars or the "communist" regime headed by Brezhnev. Russian economic development therefore proceeded in sudden, violent "spurts" of activity – as under Peter the Great or Stalin – followed by long stagnation. During the spurts, development was one-sided and governmental vigilance never relaxed: sectors of the economy with direct or indirect military relevance received exclusive attention at the expense of individual consumption, which was curtailed; vast enterprises were constructed in sparsely populated hinterlands (rendering them susceptible to central control but vulnerable to infrastructural disruption); ideologies proclaiming development at all cost were fed to the masses. As the spurt ended, the exhausted population had neither will nor resources to oppose the juggernaut which had uprooted their lives and gathered all threads of power in its hands, – and the initiative for further modernization, when the need again arose, would therefore again be with the state. No social process could attain the power to change society spontaneously, gradually, from within. Therefore, Gerschenkron argues, "the State was not the State of this or that class. It was the State's State... It was not class power relations that created the State. The obverse was true: it was the State that created the classes: labor, and even the entrepreneurs." Economic "backwardness" produces a vicious circle of violence, that no force can oppose.

    Gerschenkron's analysis, which may be read as a narrative of the self-perpetuation of power, contrasts sharply with Frederick Jackson Turner's treatment of American history, which we might consider the story of a passing moment of freedom. Until the 1890's, when Turner originally formulated his thesis, America was a country in continuous expansion. To the West lay a vast and diffusely bounded area, where settlement was sparse, conditions primitive, and governmental control limited or non-existent, where each individual and his family enjoyed freedom, but had to fend for themselves. It was the conditions in this frontier zone, their wider implications for American political life and identity, and the probable consequences of their disappearance, that interested Turner. The more traditional and heavily Europeanized regions to the East viewed the frontier with mixed feelings. In part, it was a patriotic symbol of national growth; in part, its very vitality seemed a threat to established American society. The frontier drained off major portions of the most enterprising population from the East, undermined their religious convictions and their loyalty to the law, and reduced the government's taxation base. And as the economic importance of the frontier states grew, their representatives went back East to demand a share in political power. But their priorities were now frontier priorities, which differed radically from those of the Eastern establishment. The most important factor in shaping the values of the frontiersmen was the seemingly limitless availability of free land. "The very fact of the wilderness appealed to men as a fair, blank page on which to write a new chapter in the story of man's struggle for a higher type of society... Never again,” writes Turner, in 1894, “can such an opportunity come to the sons of men. It was unique, and the thing is so near us, so much a part of our lives, that we do not even yet comprehend its full significance." Any European, any Easterner, regardless of previous status, class, nationality or religious conviction, could have land for the taking – if they were willing to pit themselves against nature – and the settler was therefore quite literally a "self-made man". He combined an "antipathy to control" and "laxity in regard to governmental affairs", with an "aggressive courage, in domination, in directness of action, in destructiveness", and a "feverish haste to acquire advantages as though he only half believed his dream". He learned to value self-sufficiency and individualism, and a hard-headed, practical attitude, an "exaltation of the common man", a vision of a "new order of society" as a continuous competition between equals. Free land promoted a radically democratic spirit, which was assimilated into mainstream American culture and had greater influence on American politics than the constitutional principles imported from Europe. Free land also encouraged a mingling of ethnicities, which transcended the predominantly British identity of the East, not only by including other European nationalities, but by transcending European ideas of ethnic identity altogether and producing a new "composite nationality" that was distinctively American. The frontier not only changed America, it created it, and with its disappearance the core of American culture seemed lost.


The images evoked by Gerschenkron and Turner, particularly when they are contrasted, are vivid and striking. We contemplate the endless Russian suffering under power, and the "backwardness" and political passivity thereby induced, which in turn strengthens the expression of power in a never-ending cycle: violence becomes a way of life. "As in the West," Gerschenkron observes, while discussing the Petrine reforms, "there was the... choice between immediate war expenditures and involvement outlays to provide the basis for larger military resources after some lapse of time... But it is precisely at this point that something sui generis becomes visible in the Russian experience... For the impression that one receives... is that the answer to the problem was not calculated allocative decision, but the daimonic feeling that development was the function of will power translated into pressure and compulsion." On the other hand, we see the American, "the destroying pioneer... preparing the way by seeking the immediate thing, rejoicing in rude strength and willful achievement," grasping the moment of freedom so eagerly that it slips from his hands. For "the pioneer was hardly conscious that any danger to equality could come from his competition for natural resources. He thought of democracy as in some way the result of our political institutions, and he failed to see that it was primarily the result of the free lands and immense opportunities which surrounded him." "But the very task of dealing with vast resources, over vast areas, under the condition of free competition furnished by the West, has produced the rise of those captains of industry whose success in consolidating economic power now raises the question as to whether democracy under such conditions can survive."

    There are strong mythical undercurrents in these narratives. Russia and America, as here described, are of course historical societies, and the changes they have gone through are in many ways elucidated by the analytical perspectives under discussion. But the accounts also narrate ideological themes. This becomes obvious if we consider their omissions. For while it is true that Russia was a "late modernizer" and America a "culture of the frontier", the obverse is also true. America was a "backward" periphery throughout the nineteenth century; Russia has an unconquered wilderness at its door-step even today. There is a Russian tradition of frontier freedom, and an American tradition of governmental violence, which do not enter these descriptions at all. What the narratives offer, are therefore not merely images of Russia and America, but images of images; a new performance of an old play.

    At this point we encounter a paradox. For although the analyses themselves caricature reality by exaggerating its differences, their ideological subtext seems to erase difference altogether. These cultures, we are told, are both regressing from "culture", and moving towards the simple, unrefined, primitive, "backward" wilderness. They are reverting to "nature". And the "culture" they are reverting from is the civilization of classical Europe. In this respect, they are identical. Gerschenkron puts it succinctly: "While the main purpose of the Russian development was to modernise its economy, and, in fact, much of its social and political framework, that is, to bring it closer to Europe in some of its most significant respects, it was by the force of the selfsame development that Russia was being forced in other, no less significant respects, away from Europe, towards the despotisms of the Orient." And in America, Turner relates that "development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character," and have led to "a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines."

    It is noteworthy that both authors are themselves representatives of the cultures they describe. Nevertheless, their intellectual frame of reference is that of classical Europe: they may see their society's departure from "Europe" as favorable or unfavorable, but classical ideology is still the norm, the point of reference by which they define themselves. Russia has regressed from "culture" by cultivating power at the expense of freedom; in America the obverse has occurred. In Russia the result is stagnant, eternal return; in America brief and self-consuming ecstasy. But in both cases symmetry, order, rationality, taste, decency, common sense, – give way to excess.


 Context: Cities in the mist


If asked why I did fieldwork in Saint Petersburg and San Francisco, rather than in locations more typical of the American and Russian "mainstream", my answer would be a mixed batch of reasons, – partly personal, partly coincidental. In part, however, my reasons are (or have in time become) analytical: the cities form an interesting pair, and the contrasts and similarities between them are, as Lévi-Strauss would put it, "good to think with".

    Both cities were founded in the eighteenth century – Saint Petersburg in 1703, San Francisco in 1776 – as strongholds commanding strategic gateways from the sea to extensive inland waterways. The Golden Gate could be closed to protect the San Francisco Bay, the only large natural harbor on the stormy California coast. Peter the Great's "window towards Europe" controlled the only naval access to Russia North of the Black Sea and South of the Arctic. Of the two, it is clear that Saint Petersburg occupies the most exposed position. True, San Francisco commands access to the Bay, but traffic inland from the Bay – to New York, Washington or Chicago – is overland. Saint Petersburg, in contrast, offers riverine access to the heartland of Russia: Moscow, Novgorod, Kiev. Peter's first fortress, further back from the Baltic, was Schlüsselburg (Fortress of the Key), and the true significance of this term was only seen during the Second World War, when Leningrad remained "locked" against invasion for 900 days while more than a million of its inhabitants died from bombardment, cold, and hunger. In contrast, San Francisco quickly outlived its military usefulness. The main adversaries along the California coast were Russia, whose excursions this far South were brief and unnoteworthy, Mexico, whose northern frontiers were only half-heartedly held, and the United States, whose claim to California would soon be indisputable.


Both cities, when they were founded, were endowed with street plans modelled on the ideal, geometrical grid that was considered "rational" in eighteenth century Europe. But here as elsewhere, Enlightenment architectures were in practice a compromise between the universality of the classical European ideological grid itself and the local socio-eco-geology onto which it was projected. In the old cities of Europe, the main factor constraining eighteenth century planners was the existence of an often extensive mediaeval city center of non-geometrical design. This might be redesigned or tolerated, but in either case it complicated the modern scheme. Cities founded in the eighteenth century faced none of these constraints. Here the classical ideal could be freely expressed, since the city was built "from the bottom up". Still, two constraints on the ideal remained: the local topo-ecology of the site itself, and "bad planning". Both factors played a role in the evolution of Saint Petersburg and San Francisco.

    Saint Petersburg was planned and built to be the Imperial Capital, as a project "from above". When Peter the Great founded it, on territory newly conquered from the Swedes, in the empty marshes of the Nevá river delta, its expressed (and achieved) purpose was to "beat a window through to Europe". This was achieved metaphorically, by modelling the new city on the great European capitals. In accordance with Enlightenment ideals, the urban territory was laid out on a regular, concentric plan – over a number of large, flat islands, bounded by the Great Nevá and its many subsidiary branches. Smaller branches were consolidated into a few regularly spaced concentric canals, even the narrowest of which is straighter and wider than the major canals of Venice. The larger branches crossing these are swift-flowing granite-walled rivers (the Nevá may be short, but it has the third-greatest average rate of discharge of any river in Europe.) The hub of the concentric structure is the original Petrine nucleus, erected as a governmental, commercial, and military center, on Vasílevsky Óstrov, Petrográdskaya storoná, and several smaller islands, at the main branching of the Nevá's widest arms. The size of the river here is impressive, particularly in early winter, when the powerful current has not yet frozen over completely, and great sheets of snow-burdened ice surge downstream, while ribbons of steam rise from the flowing water. Flooding is a constant threat, with major inundations occurring in 1777, 1824, 1890, 1897, 1898, 1924, 1955, 1973, 1975, and 1986. The second (and most serious) of these is immortalized in the most famous poem to this much-sung city, Aleksandr Pushkin's Médny vsádnik (The Bronze Horseman), where the indomitable dream of the Tsar confronts the overflowing river, and the little man perishes in their struggle.(2) If you imagine soldiers in the early 1700's crossing the river in mid-December in small boats, you will realize that this was a city built in defiance of nature, which has not even today succeeded in conquering it. In the early years of our century, only four permanent bridges crossed the Nevá – a fifth, the Palace Bridge, was erected on boats and removed in winter, when roads were laid over the ice at many points. Even today, in summer, a reminder of the river's power over the city that guards it is given every night, when the bridges are raised for several hours, laying inter-island traffic dead for the duration.

    Across the river to the South of the Petrine city lay a large tounge of marshy mainland, around which the Nevá swept, first northwards, then to the West, before branching into its delta. Here Peter built his first shipyard, and here it was planned that the metropolis should stand. On the river-bank itself were erected the Winter Palace and Hermitage, and facing these, away from the river, the vast semi-circle of Palace Square, bounded to the South and East by the curved facade of the General Staff building. Along the outer wall of the General Staff, running just North of West, at an approximate 45-degree angle to the Nevá shore, stretched Névsky Prospékt, which cut South-East for almost five kilometers across the mainland peninsula, till it met the Nevá again further upstream. At this end of Névsky lay the Aleksándr Névsky Lávra monastary, founded few years after the city itself. At its westernmost extreme, after passing the General Staff, Névsky came to an end, just as a view opened up to the right onto Palace Square. Straight ahead lay the Admiralty (Admiral’téystvo), whose golden spikelike spire was visible from along the entire length of Névsky after its one and only bend at Moscow Station.

    Névsky Prospékt was one of three spokes in a wheel-like street pattern with its hub at the Admiralty spire. But this symmetrical plan seems to have been given up at an early stage, since the two other "spokes" were far narrower than Névsky and carried neither its prestige nor its traffic. True, the Voznesénsky prospékt (Prospékt Mayórova, in Soviet times) led South through a rather up-grade area; but the Úlitsa Gorókhovaya (Úlitsa Dzerzhínskogo) lost itself almost immediately in the underclass districts around Sennáya plóshchad' (Plóshchad' míra) that have been immortalized by Dostoevsky.


San Francisco, in contrast, originated and developed as a patchwork project, an unplanned "joint venture" of trading post, military base, and mission. Three independent points of colonization formed the original urban nucleus: (a) the military Presidio (founded in 1776 by the Spaniards, American since 1846) up North at the Golden Gate, which has had relatively little influence on the city's structure (today it's a park); (b) the Spanish Mission, established in 1776, which still stands a ways inland from the Bay side of the penninsula, and which communicated with the Bay by means of a path paralleling today's Mission Street; (c) the (mainly American) trading post and administrative center that developed towards the end of the century further North along the Bay shore, at Yerba Buena, in the area around Portsmouth Square in present-day Chinatown. This multicentric origin is reproduced in the city's later history as well. Thus, attempts at forming a "city center" have consistently failed: the one at Portsmouth Square was overrun by Chinese, another (the Ferry Building) was bypassed by bridges and freeways, a third (the Civic Center) became the campground of San Francisco's homeless, a fourth (the Financial District) has no residential component and is depopulated by night.

    The settlements at the Mission and Portsmouth Square were the original points of reference for two groups of urban planners, who chose different baselines for the street grids they laid out: one, that parallels Market Street, followed the original footpath from the Mission to the shore, the other was aligned with the intersection of Jackson and Montgomery Street, which followed the original shoreline of Yerba Buena bay as it lay before reclamation. The two grids were independent and incompatible, with an angle of about 35 degrees between them, and different width of city blocks: about 275 meters to the South of Market, about 133 meters to the North. After the city's population virtually exploded overnight in the 1849 gold-rush, the gap between the two grids was quickly closed, and a boundary line was drawn at Market Street. Market Street itself made a twenty-degree bend at the foot of Twin Peaks to avoid a (now defunct) marsh, thus further complicating the grid pattern. These anomalies are today the source of headaches to traffic planners, and the complexities of crossing Market Street at various locations are not to be attempted by the novice driver.(3) But even without the conflicting grids, the layout of San Francisco is unusual. During the gold-rush, the city grew in less than a year from a village of two thousands to a town of 34,000, and in the succeeding four decades to a city of 300,000. At this rate of expansion, little thought was given to revising street-plans, and the existing grids were simply extended as the need arose, regardless of the territory into which they spread. Among the results are San Francisco's rollercoaster streets, which by totally ignoring natural features bring them out all the stronger. Again, the result is to impede traffic. These problems were already evident to city authorities at the end of the nineteenth century, when settlement was spreading towards the Northwest beyond Van Ness and to the Southwest into the Mission, and the speed and volume of city traffic was dramatically increasing. Then the 1906 earthquake struck, and fire destroyed virtually every structure East of Van Ness. This provided a welcome opportunity to straighten up the mess, but the complexity of sorting out the claims of individual property-holders in the wake of such a change was judged to be too daunting a task to take on.


Saint Petersburg, and later Leningrad, was built on an imperial scale. The great palaces and cathedrals, the long, wide streets, the bridges leaping across the river, exude magnificence and wealth. By 1850 it was already a city of nearly half a million inhabitants, while today the population approaches 5 million. In the modern suburbs, though the buildings are shabby, the linear theme is worked out again with vast appartment complexes, symmetrically ranged around great squares, and connected by wide, straight prospékty, down which the North wind howls in the winter. Across the river from Palace Square, on Vasílevsky Óstrov (where I lived in 1978 and 1983) and Petrográdskaya storoná, two independent grid systems were established. The first of these, which goes back to Peter himself, is the most consistently planned, with three large prospékty intersected by numbered línii (which were originally canals). The city blocks thus formed are on the same magnificent scale as everything else, but this planned-for effect has unintended consequences. The blocks, which are as large as in New York (while buildings are seldom more than six stories high), are seldom covered by a single structure, rather a number of minor buildings line the streets, and between these run narrow passageways into an interior maze of hidden parks and paths. The clarity of view provided by the wide, open prospékt, which was a major concern for the builders of Enlightenment cities, was here obstructed by the very means that were used to bring it about. As a result, Vasílevsky Óstrov was known in Soviet times to be the perfect hangout for criminals on the run, who could move right across the island through its dusky interior. The same opposition between large-scale plan and small-scale reality is seen in the uniquely Soviet institution, the kommunálka. The classic kommunálka, for which Leningrad was justly infamous, was a large old middle- or upper-class appartment, that had been sectioned out into perhaps six or twelve one-room family dwellings with a communal kitchen and toilet facilities down the hall. The kommunálka housed people of diverse backgrounds, ages, and convictions, often under extreme conditions. As a result, tensions were often strong, and conflicts, ranging from domestic fights to political accusations, were frequent. Since the war, the number of kommunálki in Leningrad has gradually decreased, but there are still people living this way today.


Market Street, San Francisco's nearest equivalent to Névsky, relates simultanously to three historical epochs – the pre-Gold Rush era, when communications between the Bay and the inland settlement at Mission Dolores were of primary concern; the height of the ferry-boat era, when the Ferry Building, at the foot of Market Street, was designed to be the hub of cross-bay traffic; and the era of bridges and automobiles, which eliminated the importance of Market for anything but local traffic. Poor mainland connections had always been a weakness of San Francisco's port, but by the time the problem was solved with the building of the six kilometer long Bay Bridge (during the Depression), San Francisco had lost its dependence on the port and become the financial, administrative, cultural (and counter-cultural) capital of the Bay Area. The city's isolation was its greatest asset and greatest liability.

    Market Street was superceded by the 101 Freeway, which runs parallel to Market several blocks to the South and then puts you onto the Bay Bridge to Oakland. The area South of Market is thus dominated by the slowly deteriorating Port facilities and the Freeway. It is a low priority, low activity, low priced place, which today [i.e. first half of 1990's] attracts studios, avant-garde clubs, small publishing businesses etc. The South of Market area is separated into a northern part (where I spent six months in 1989-90) and a southern part (around Potrero Hill), by the Mission. The Mission is primarily residential, but is not considered a "good location" and draws little money. Its original population was Mexican and Indian, today it is largely immigrant Latino, and although a fair-sized proportion of this group is middle-class, in latter years its underclass component has grown and become increasingly violent.

    North of Market, in the valley around the original Buena Vista Port, business has always clustered, and the hillsides to the North and West formed the original underclass slum, dominated by sailors, brothels, pawnshops, cheap hostels, bars. Today this area extends in a patchy line from Broadway and Columbus in the North to the Tenderloin and Sixth Street in the South. At Sixth it grades into SoMa and the warehouse district. On both sides of Market it is a slum, even today. At Broadway it is mostly a relic, fairly gentrified, though with bawdy nightclubs. The original slum was populated by various immigrant groups, but from the late nineteenth century, a large portion was Chinese. The Chinese formed a compact, autonomous ghetto of their own, and as their fortunes improved, Chinatown has been gentrified, though the movement is slowed by wealthy Chinese moving out to middle-class areas in Richmond. The North of Market area thus consisted of a wealthy center with a poor periphery, surrounded by a growing apron of middle- and upper-class residential neighborhoods. The first of the latter areas were on scenic Nob Hill and Russian Hill, and rich settlements have since arisen in the Marina-Pacific Heights area, and on the fringes of Twin Peaks. In between lies a wide band of middle-class, affluent, semi-suburban settlement, streaching westward along Golden Gate Park to the sea.

    Wedged between the Mission to the South, the hillside luxury of Twin Peaks, and Middle Class Richmond to the North, lies an anomalous wedge-shaped piece of real-estate extending from the Castro in the South, to the Haight in the West and almost to the Tenderloin in the East. The wedge (where I spent about five months in 1990) has been the haunt of Caucasian counterculture since the sixties: hippies in the Haight, gays in the Castro. These groups trace their origins back to the bohemian "Barbary Coast" cafe and bar culture around Broadway, which leap-frogged away from the growing Financial and Tourist districts after the fifties.

    Today, increasing pressure on the Tenderloin slums seems slowly to force its inhabitants out of the district altogether. The result is a slow spread of slum-like areas westward up Hayes Valley. City planners envisioned the area between the Tenderloin and Hayes Valley as the festive and administrative center of the city, with City Hall, Civic Center, The Public Library, Symphony and Opera Halls. But this nucleus lacks the power to expand as the Financial District does, and it remains caught between the warehouses of SoMa and the underclass on all sides. The situation is typified by the occupation by homeless people of the lawns in front of City Hall during most of the 1980's, which was brought to an end during my fieldwork.


In the years 1978 to 1989, Leningrad's neighborhoods were not differentiated by class, ethnicity or subculture as San Francisco's were. The reason for this was not that Leningrad's population was any less heterogeneous: the class difference between, say, a down and out alcoholic rock musician and the president of a large govermental construction company, or the cultural contrast between a Kazakh and an Estonian, were very noticable when seen from inside these peoples' homes. But seen from outside, from the street, status-demarkation was subtle to the point of being unnoticable. This was in part a result of the ideological stigma attached to inequality during the equalizing, charismatic Revolution. In the Soviet Union, even the state leader affected anonymity, when he was seen – always from a distance – in public; flamboyance (which Khrushchev indulged in) and conspicuous consumption were frowned on. This led to extensive speculation about what is going on "behind the scenes". Even the loyal Revolutionary will permit himself to ask (in awe) who is really the leader of his secret society, and in the early 1980's, a well-kept but otherwise anonymous-looking door in downtown Moscow bearing the sign – Bjuró propuskóv (Bureau of Permits) – was in fact, according to rumor, a luxury department store for top party cadres.

    The extreme housing-shortage over the last fifty years, the vast population upheavals during the first and second World Wars, and the restrictive and often corrupt practices of the Leningrad housing authorities, combined with the ideological tendencies described above to erase almost all traces of pre-revolutionary neighborhood differentiation. After the War tens of thousands of people were stuffed wherever they would fit into the nooks and crannies of an already overcrowded city. In the same city block, people of vastly different backgrounds, wealth, and privilege might be lodged together, as in the kommunálki. Here and there, one might find islands of privilege: a reserved apartment complex, populated by the higher nomenklatúra, or by the employees of some large and well-run state enterprise; or an area that retained a trace of a pre-revolutionary slum; or a neighborhood that was known to be vaguely middle-class. But if there were "bad areas" in Leningrad then I never succeeded in locating them. People would tell about dangerous places, but they were vague about where these were to be found. Ten years after perestróika, crime was ubiquitous in Leningrad, but the absence of clear-cut neighborhoods remained a salient characteristic. As in many post-Soviet cities, it was hard to find distinguishable “safe” areas. [In latter years, the crime rate is down in the city and there are signs that a more segregated neighborhood structure is emerging.]


Both Saint Petersburg and San Francisco are regional capitals that have passed into a state of somewhat disputable decline: since 1917, Saint Petersburg is no longer the capital of the Russian Empire, since 1910, San Francisco no longer the "metropolis of California and the Pacific Coast".(4) But both cities polish the luster of former greatness, and still play a considerable role in the nation's economic and political affairs, as well as in popular imagination. The greatest difference between the two lies perhaps in the matter of size. Saint Petersburg, a city of nearly five millions today, was Europe's fifth largest city before the First World War, and as early as in 1864, when San Francisco was still emerging out of the gold-rush days with an unstable population of 108,000, Saint Petersburg was already a thriving metropolitan, military, and industrial center of nearly 0.7 million people. San Francisco's population has continued to rise, and by the time of the 1990 census had reached 724,000. Still, this is a small city when compared to Leningrad. But the sizes are comparable in another sense: San Francisco is an integrated part of the Bay Area economy, in which it plays a key financial and communicational role. As such the city is part of an urban agglomeration of some six million people, streaching from Marin in the North, and South into Silicon Valley.


Both mythologically and geologically, these cities are built on insecure ground: in a quake area, in a flood zone. Mythologically and meterologically, both are intimately linked with fog – as a climatic variable, and as a narrative theme. Dostoevsky, in particular, has immortalized Saint Petersburg as the city of fog – of ambivalence and fantasy: after all the entire place started out as a single man's vision. San Francisco also has its stock of mirages, from the pawnshop to the gold rush to the lure of drugs: and the cool Pacific fog that hurtles down the streets is emblematic of this.


 Text: Extended case


So we have circled inward, from the global toward the local, we have arrived from history's stage in two specific localities at a specific time. We step closer again, and now we are in the midst of real people, which is what fieldwork is about.

    The two scenarios I shall present below are "typical" of my fieldwork – not in the sense that cases of this particular kind epitomize my experiences in either Russia or America, nor in the sense that they have much (if anything) in common: except for the fact that in both cases there was absolutely nothing the watcher, the foreigner, the onlooker, the participant observer, could do. He remained a moral neuter for "his" people. It is true that the anthropologist can partake in the flow of reality and contribute to the human interest of "his" people's lives, but any impact that he or she has is locally unpredictable and probably transitory. This has always been the case, but is overwhelmingly so in a post-European world.

    What is most difficult and essential to convey here, is not a "social", but a physical reality: although the situations I describe are, here as elsewhere in this text, composite images of people and events, the core of each narrative represents a moment of great emotional poignance, a state of social dissociation when the physicality of the world was all the more tangibly felt. The rough smells, the hurt, the always dirty air of Saint Petersburg, the slow winter cold that seeps into your bones from morning till night even if you're moving, the sweet song of spoken Russian running through it all like a golden wire. The smooth, exuberant idealizations of architecture of San Francisco, its luxurious variation and all-accepting calm desirability, the fast, open-ended lilt of the New World, not as dream or ideology or myth, but as music, – and the precipice, and the dark night beyond.

    This is the fieldworker's dilemma. He is morally bound to hate or hold the world he has come to live in. But at the same time, he is its judge, morally neutered. Doubly constrained, he stands on the "cutting edge" of an intercultural break, where the budding branch, the advancing liminal tip of change wavers. History flows through his body: he cannot ignore it; but he ignores it here, in the text, as he writes, he tries to be as light as the foam riding the wave that ruptures the body of power. From this elevated position he may see forward into what is to come, or plunge to a watery (and embarrassing) undoing:


I yanked at the parking brake and sank back in my seat. It was noon, the sky a perfect blue, the day exceptionally hot and calm for San Francisco. I'd parked on Page Street after fifteen minutes cruising the area looking for a free space. The car was packed. I'd hardly slept last night, and when I slipped out of Bonita Street that morning the kids were still asleep and I couldn't shower. Now last night's party was seeping through my skin: I was hot, sweaty, hung-over, and starving hungry.

    Three hours ago, I came to the steps of my new home on Buchanan Street next door to the Hayes Valley projects. I tried in vain to attract the attention of my new room-mates. The inner door swung open; the outer door, one of those grand old wrought-iron Victorian gates you can stick three fingers through, was locked. I shouted up the stair-well, hammered on the bars. I tried the buzzer (it was broken); then I sat on the steps and waited, chain smoking and cursing under my breath.

    I was over with the first load yesterday and everything seemed cool. I paid my rent and asked Frank and Nina to wait around for me next morning: I didn't have a key, and someone would have to let me in. "Now here you are," my mind unhelpfully suggested, "in a very American situation: trapped between homes – in a car".

    I locked up and walked to a small yuppie café on Haight which I hoped might at least have clean tableclothes: the details of that morning are jumbled in my mind, but I'd arrived at the point where this was all I asked for. Nevertheless, I distinctly recall my feelings as I stepped onto the spic-and-span, cheery premises of my conjectural retreat, like an apparition unwillingly conjured up out of some unlikely and inappropriate time-zone. Last night's events were still on my mind: the kids raising hell till Vick sent them off to bed, Vance coming home from work and wordlessly "crashing" with a six-pack in front of the TV, me packing, moving, unpacking, and returning to relative peace and quiet, with Vance and Vick both exhausted, but ready to party regardless. The grey ghost of Dan rose briefly from the cellar, stomach bulging out of creamy gym pants, still with a limp from his latest motorbike crash. I brought some six-packs over from the corner store on my way back, and Vick located the remains of a joint of dust. The strain of the last few weeks lined our faces.

    It seemed like just yesterday that Vance and I had been left alone on the first floor and life at last began returning to "normal" for us both. The fights, the simmering violence, the hard drugs and depressions were over. There were still Dan and Dana – the apartment managers in the cellar who were always ready to rip us off singly or in bunches – but we were wise to their game by now, we thought, and as long as they hardly showed their maggot faces above ground, we disregarded them.

    When I met Vance on the street that day, I could tell by his expression that something was up: "Finn! Man, I'm movin. Fuckin Danny-boy's rented out the middle room to some bitch with three kids he picked up off the street. Three kids! There won't be a minute of peace. I'm fuckin out of here as soon as I find a place."

    A month later Vance still hadn't left, though Vick really did move in that day, with three kids, her girl-friend Ally, and Ally's baby... That's two grown women and four children aged two to seven in one small room. Things rolled at their own speed from then on. Ally sold PCP. Vick (as we discovered the night we baby-sat till she came home, drunk, at four) was a part-time prostitute. Their friends, mostly Latinos and "poo' white trash", were angry, illiterate, heavy drug-users, on their way in or out of prison, and more than ready to take advantage of Vick's hospitality. The kids were constantly underfoot – wide-eyed fatherless pixies of the street, who clung to us and repulsed us on alternate days – lost but not unloved, as Vick, in a rare fit of tears, assured us. By day, high-pitched voices, blaring radios, laughter, and running feet. By night, crack and PCP, cat-fights, sleepless worries, love and fear. There were magical moments, like the night the party tripped on dust and some passing fool set fire to a pile of trash obstructing the sidewalk outside the house next door; we woke the kids and bundled them out of the dry, wooden frame-house onto the street, where we stood around with the neighbors, small-talking, smoking, and calmly watching the fire-department extinguish the flames. Little Angy leaned against my window, watching from inside after the worst was over, and the thin glass, fractured by the quake in '89, fell tinkling to the sidewalk without even scratching her.

    "They were good times, they were bad times – it was fuckin weird," Vance summed it up, months later. Vick, the wayless, rootless, hopeless, streetwise orphan from San Jose, who was a perpetual source of alarm, amusement, and annoyance for us both, had found a hole, and though the world still threatened to sweep her out of it, she was digging in.

    A month later, bleary-eyed and homeless, I entered the café on Haight Street, hoping for nothing but a quiet breakfast, a cup of coffee, and a newspaper. "Finn! Where have you been?" The voice from another solar system shattered my modest dream. "Come and sit with us." I pulled up a chair between Lorraine and some guy, friends of a friend, who were discussing ecology, trips to the High Sierras and Europe, the latest trends in thought and fashion among the clean-shaven, young, semi-progressive semi-bourgeoisie to which they as foreigners had gained tentative access.

    I sat there in a daze, partaking and not partaking in a conversation about – who knows? – clothes-politics-vacations-lovers-concerts-books? But in the back of my mind, across from each other as at a conference table, sat Vick and Vance; an anemic, illiterate, 29-year-old single mother, who grew up on a farm in Oregon with foster parents who didn't send her to the dentist until she was fourteen; and a scarred, wiry, down-and-out musician and former crack-addict from Detroit, who'd spent two years in jail for a trivial offence as a teenager and escaped from money, drugs, and love to the relative calm of San Francisco. Between them, still vague, but getting ready to take a seat and participate in the proceedings, stood Nina and Frank who – as I later determined – were so fucked up on speed last night that nothing could rouse them till 2 PM..., which was when I returned to Buchanan Street to find an unknown black guy crashed out on the mattress between my things in the tiny room that was to be my home. The conference in my mind – periodically interrupted by Lorraine's enthusiastic exclamations about the health-food store at 16th and Mission or her boy-friend's firm opinions on the homeless problem – was presided over by an indistinct memory of my former life in Norway, which reminded me acidly that my career had come to a close in a blind alley – with a parked car on Page Street and a plate of macrobiotic hashbrowns spread out in front of me in the bright midday sunlight of San Francisco, May 1st, 1990.


These shades now commune with others. A couple I left behind in Leningrad in 1983: to step over the worn floors of their small apartment every day, onto the unlit landing, down decaying stairs into the vast and windy housing-projects of Vasílevsky Óstrov – not at its South-Eastern tip, where Peter the Great founded his city and built the famous lighthouses, the bourse, the horror-cabinet qua museum that now houses the collections of the Institute of Ethnography – far from the dim palaces, the sweeping bridges, the wistful gardens still echoing with the voices of poets and archdukes, admirals and noble children with their imported nannies – away from the vast, worn libraries, the concerts and theaters, the sweeping canals, the fading cathedrals; at the Western end of the island, where you bite back your pride and walk behind a wheelchair, circumnavigating the puddles that collect on the broken pavement, the muddy tracks of lorries, the broken glass (always fearing a puncture in those precious inner tubes) – pushing against the wind past rows of featureless, ramshackle nine- and twenty-story buildings, through a vast portal, and across the wide empty courtyard with muffled children playing, on out to the sea, across which, you know – lie Finland, America, Italy, the West, the gracious, civilized lands you will never see.

    I wonder how often he made that trip, Vasya, the small, dark, hunched man, listening to Sergey recite Bunin and Blok, seeing the gulls dive, the sun come out and shine on the forbidden facade of Hotel Pribaltískaya. I imagine him taking a last, abrupt drag off his papirós before dropping it on the granite slabs, and saying roughly: "Time we left..." In the back of his mind he would be preparing for the final stage of their stroll – walking Sergey in from the street, folding the wheelchair; addressing his ex-wife with curt formality (keeping his temper!), and after spooning up the dinner she had prepared for him, retiring to his room.

    I don't know if he realized it, but while he was gone she may have been singing. Vera loved to sing, but Vasya forbade her to do so in his presence. "He thinks a woman ought to be submissive, like a slave," she told me. "But I don't do very well as a slave, do I?" Once she dreamt she was shut in a barrel with Sergey, floating in a dark storm on the ocean.

    She was a dreamer. She dreamt of the mountains of her native Kabardino-Balkaria, to which, had she known it, she would return only once again in her lifetime, to seek out an old love she dared not approach – before she died, a few years later, from untreated breast cancer. She dreamt of a beautiful city of light, built by herself and her friends, with birds and trees and a singing river running through it – a city of pure air and the most wonderful and exquisite silence. She believed that this city really existed.

    And as if in a dream she finally made it across that windy Gulf, to Finland, and beyond, to Norway. I picked her up in a rented VW station-wagon (which I had trashed pretty badly on my way in from Helsinki against a block of concrete lying in the middle of the highway), at five in the morning to beat the traffic on our race back to the border. The sun was out, but it was still nippy. I talked to Sergey for a few minutes; he was subdued and scared. I spoke to Vasya - with formal restraint. He opened the hood of my car and peered into the immaculate German engine, tried in vain to bend the steering shaft back into shape with an old log, and busied himself with such matters till we left. Vera was only semi-conscious, heavily drugged on morphine. Vasya's face was naked with worry and fatigue after sleepless weeks at her bedside – forced back into intimacy with the woman he had once loved, and since lived with for fifteen years. My car stereo had blared British punk-rock in defiance of it all on the way in through Leningrad, and my ears were still ringing.

    Across the border curiosity got the better of Vera, as we stopped to stretch our legs at a gas station deep in the back-country forests of Eastern Finland. The sun was out, the air fresh and warm, the asphalt at our feet a flawless black, sparrows chirped peacefully in the bushes; aside from the distant luxuriant purr of a Volvo there was silence. Did Vera think of her City of Friends then, as she knelt at the road-side and carefully gathered a handful of rocks, or did she see the unfairness of history? She rose carefully and held them out to me: "They're completely clean...!"

    That fall, which Vera spent in an equally spotless Norwegian cancer ward, I would be forced to accept that the tragedy that had struck this woman – whom I had met by chance ten years before to hand her a book I'd heard she wanted; whose friendship I later cultivated in my loneliness while doing fieldwork in her city; whose love, so demurely offered, I failed to notice; and whose slow death I was now witnessing – was not a sickness of the body, but of the soul.

    I was in San Francisco when the call from Norway intercepted me. Vera wanted to go home, immediately. She insisted to the point of tears. She couldn't leave Sergey alone for New Years. No matter that the final treatments at the hospital were due in January. I reasoned with her as calmly as I could, and finally simply told her to stay. "Maybe Sergey needs to be alone too," I told her. "He's a grown man now..."

    That winter Vasya had a love-affair with a young woman, one of Sergey's teachers. They drank wine, talked, and danced slowly to the radio. They held hands in front of Sergey; perhaps, in a stolen moment, they kissed. Then he told her, gently but firmly, that this was madness, it could not continue or they would all pay for it. Later, he had heard, she and her family emigrated to Holland.

    I was not there for Vera's homecoming, for the brief Leningrad spring, when she went for walks, talked to friends, read, wrote, and listened to music. When the pain returned she refused to take painkillers. Vasya was always at her side now, ageing as she died, month by slow month, while Gorbachev's perestroika gathered speed around them – to the point when he would be unable to control it. In her dark room, Vera fretted, demanded fruit she could not eat, juices that could not be obtained, and the constant, loyal presence of her man, her only man, who loved her after all, whom she perhaps loved, perhaps hated, whose life she was slowly dragging off along with her own.

    He lasted until late September. His brother arrived late at night and took him off to a psychiatrist friend, who issued instructions that they find certain medicines, which other friends succeeded in obtaining. He was recuperating, Sergey was living with another family, I was in San Francisco finishing a video-project when she died.

    That winter Vasya took Sergey to Azerbaidzhan. He told me about their trip one evening in May, six months after Vera's death, and a few days after I came to Leningrad to live with them for a month. They had stayed at a distant resort with hot springs a few miles from the Caspian shore. There were wild dogs there. He used to go for long, solitary walks through the desolate landscape and meet old men who remembered life before the great changes. Sergey got better. He had time to help him with his exercises, which they had dropped while Vera was sick.

    We got friendly (I had hardly known him before). He promised to take me to the top of the highest apartment block in the neighborhood to admire the view – the attic doors were smashed, and anyone could walk straight out onto the roof.

    Next evening, when a gang of boys broke in and stole the seats from the battered old car he had kept running for years, he paced the cramped kitchen floor, while Sergey slept in the livingroom. He stopped and peered into the night. He spoke curtly, abruptly: "I can see him. He's going up the stairs to the garret of that house with my seats...." "Who?" I asked him, hesitantly. He strained, as if to hear distant voices. "His name is Volodya... or Vasily... something with a V... He's there. I'm going to confront him tomorrow..."

    Two days passed before his brother brought the medicines. As they left for the metro, Vasya ran off, and in the morning they found his body crumpled on the ground outside the kitchen window, dead from a fall from the roof, nine stories above.




  N o t e s 


(1) By 1860, America's population had grown to 31.4 million, by 1913 to 97.3 million. Russia's population, at about 20 million in 1750, grew to 76 million in 1860 and 175.1 million in 1913 (Kennedy 1987: 99, 178, 199).

(2) “St. Petersburg has experienced floods to some degree almost every year since it was founded, causing rampant structural damage to city buildings. Water saturates the city's low-lying ground, washing away mortar between foundation stones in older structures. Another consequence of annual flooding is basement puddles, which are breeding grounds for the notorious winter mosquito. The city's shoreline districts, particularly those located on Vasiliyevsky Island, are the most vulnerable. ... The city's most catastrophic flood – in which the Neva River rose 4.21 meters above its banks – occurred in 1824. Nearly 300 buildings were demolished, more than 500 people died, and eyewitnesses reported roaring waves breaking against the walls of the Winter Palace.” (Heidi Schreck in: The St. Petersburg Times at:

(3) Similar “breaks” – as they are referred to by Clay (1973: 42ff) – with similar, though always local historical causes, are found in quite a number of U.S. cities (notably Denver, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, New Orleans and Seattle), as well as in rural localities, as seen in the contrast between systematic and unsystematic land subdivision schemes, and between “straight” and “crooked” state and county boundaries.

(4) The 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (vol.24, p.144) still refers to the city in these words, and continues to describe it as “the largest and most important city W[est] of the Missouri river”. In fact, however, the 1910 U.S. Census shows that Los Angeles already had a population of some 504,000 (to San Francisco’s 417,000).