Solovyovo: The story of Memory in a Russian Village is an ethnography written by Margaret Paxson, who spent seventeen months in the rural Russian village of Solovyovo in the early 1990s, post Glasnost and Perestroika. She lived with an elderly farming couple for the majority of her time, so her views are well-informed by the spectrum of the couples’ experiences from the many years from which they drew experience. Paxson states that her central theme is social memory. The memory aspect of this means that she devotes most of her writing to events and customs that were more prevalent in years past- also likely a product of her studying mainly those of advanced age. As Paxson focuses on memory, she writes more about what people think and perceive as reality rather than strictly empirical, objective observations of customs and occurrences. She uses translations and transliterations of interviews in Russian of what she feels are the most integral examples to her conclusions. She places particular importance on the formation and concepts behind words, transliterating many Russian words which she feels are in themselves filled with specific and powerful meaning. A particular set of connotative terms which she often comes back to are the concepts ‘svoi’ versus ‘chuzvoi’; possessive words meaning the familiar and inclusive- “one’s own” – versus the unfamiliar and foreign –“someone else’s” (Paxson 78). In addition to these, the directionality of verbs and the meanings of words connected to svoi and chuznoi are called into usage, specifically those concerning other forms of commonplace but Slavic-specific social hierarchy. Paxson argues that verbs have directionality and metaphoric and literal meanings other than those commonly understood, denoted often by their perfective prefixes.
The social structure and hierarchy of the village of Solovyovo are integral to Paxsons’s concern with social memory, as memories of events and customs are more coloured, justified, and defined by peoples’ perceptions and senses of social hierarchies. Paxson, focusing on the memories of villagers, deals mainly with the intangible. She writes often of the spiritual and other-worldly forces from the point of view of memory, her writing reflecting the villagers’ implacable belief in the supernatural and utterly impalpable. In addition to such spiritual beliefs, Paxson introduces the essential ideals and value systems used by the villagers of Solovyovo.
Margaret Paxson delivers a great deal of information over the three-hundred some pages of Solovyovo. The village she describes is not one of this age, but of all ages, the collective memories of her subjects providing an image of the supernatural yet ordinary, the tragic yet commonplace. Her ethnography could be more precise- she herself is certainly wrapped up more in the details of village life and villagers’ memories than the conclusions she wishes to draw from observing them. What she does best is to provide a native’s conception of normalcy in Solovyovo. Paxson does a great job of immersing her readers into the intensive complexity of a culture utterly different from the traditional west, subtly stressing such differences, so that her readers pick up on them but do not fixate on them as, at least in the context she writes from, unusual. Though in particular what stands out is the importance placed on equality over individual success, Paxson explains the value system in quite enough depth for her readers to understand that though Solovyovo villagers may strive for different ideals, they are still human, scores are still kept, humans are still goal-oriented beings. It is only that the goals are culturally different in the Slavic world of rural Russia.
Tied into the value systems, social hierarchies, and even other-worldly forces that Paxson describes, is how the time of socialism in expressed in Solovyovo’s collective memory. As she of course writes about not the real effects, but the remembered presence and effects of socialism, Paxson describes it with nostalgia. She writes that the “radiant past” contained a “radiant future”, that of promise of eventual communism, and that part of the radiance of the past was that there existed a promised golden future towards which everyone worked. In addition to the hope for the future that no longer exists, the villagers of Solovyovo also mourned the loss of the ‘koziain’- the authority figure of Stalin. Paxson writes of the plethora of accounts she heard of the day Stalin died, how the villagers wept, and felt suddenly lost and hopeless. The equality aspect of socialism was already very alive in rural Russia, simply due to the reliance on community necessary in conjunction with the hardship of eking out a life with agriculture as the means of survival.
The depth of the view provided is very beneficial from a reader’s perspective while trying to understand a culture so different from those of western origin, likely the intended audience of the book, considering it is written in English, not Russian. The sheer number of words Paxson devotes to every topic she covers, especially in her chapters regarding healing and other-worldly forces. Though the depth is appreciated, and her writing flows well and is entertaining, she seems to use many examples to make the same point, and with her plethora of examples, her conclusions seem a long time in coming. This phenomenon is especially demonstrated in the chapter Radiance. What damages her arguments most is their lack of timeliness and their dependence on her reader to accept that the notions held by several elderly villagers are held just as strongly by the rest of the population.
The translations and transliterations Paxson uses are essential to her points concerning the connotations of specific words. Margaret Paxson, however, is a fluent speaker of Russian. Unfortunately, words, especially the connotation-laden words that Paxson deals with, are not easily translated into another language, so the book at times turns into a discussion of linguistics and language theory more than a collection of observations and conclusions. In addition to this issue, Paxson often translates directly the stories which some of her interviewees tell her. Because of Russian’s different grammar structure and colloquialisms, such direct translations are almost always unclear and confusing. Though it is easy to see that Paxson finds the exact language used as extremely important and tied to the meanings of such stories, it also makes it very difficult for non-Russian speakers to quite understand the notion many stories are meant to convey. In conflict with this issue is the obvious importance of linguistic connotation to Paxson’s points. She does a good job of familiarizing her readers with the concepts of ‘svoi’ (one’s own), ‘chuznoi’ (someone else’s), ‘kolkhoz’ (home area), and ‘koziain’ (authority figure), all of which she argues are keystones in the mental image of Solovyovo’s Russian social structure. Though the language barrier was one of the most problematic parts of Solovyovo, Paxson dealt with it well, though not perfectly.
Solovyovo was most comparable to Where the World Ended by Daphne Berdahl, though Margaret Paxson came off as more immersed and a part of village life, and less of an observer, than did Berdahl. Paxson has a much more detailed account of her village, which has very different values than those of the assumed readership, so thus requires more explanation than the East German village of Kella. Berdahl also focuses on change, on events affecting the happenings within Kella, whereas Paxson focuses on the memories of people, and while she touches on how change affected them, her primary focus is on memory, which is often practically impervious to change, adapting any new influences to fit the old, established molds of times long past. However, the nostalgic, positive light under which Paxson presents socialism is resembles more of the impression one gets from Privatizing Poland by Elizabeth C. Dunn. Overall, Solovyovo presents quite a different view on socialism. With such rural, secluded subjects to study, Paxson provides more a submersion into culture and how socialism may or may not affect it, than a view of socialism and its very tangible effects on life and culture.
Many of Paxson’s points involve her analysis of Russian language. Such dependence is a flaw, when you consider that it is unlikely that any but those who learn Russian anything but a first language are likely the only people who pick apart meanings of words according to prefixes. Though word structure is certainly indicative of word origin, Paxson argues not for origin, but for subconscious meanings that such words have in everyday usage within villages such as Solovyovo- “grammatical categories . . . create metaphoric templates” (Paxson 78). It is hard to accept that Paxson is correct in her views that such common-use words such as ‘svoi’ and ‘chuznoi’ have such meanings within the consciousness of the common villager.
Despite this specific weakness, Paxson does provide an image of memory and life, especially in her Radiance chapter, of extremely believable quality. She manages to capture enough detail for the reality of village life, foreign though it might be, to seem utterly human, culturally complex, and thus relatable.
Solovyovo I would recommend to anyone wishing to gain a full understanding of Russian culture, especially rural Russian culture. It would be helpful for any inclined to study in the field of anthropology however, being a thorough and well-written ethnography. My one caution in recommending it would be that a minor understanding of the Russian language would be helpful in truly understanding especially Paxson’s points to do with language, terms, and their connotations.
Berdahl, Daphne. Where the World Ended: Re-Unification and Identity in the German Borderland. University of California Press, 1999.
Dunn, Elizabeth C. Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labor. Cornell University Press, 2004.
Paxson, Margaret. Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village. Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Centre Press, 2005.