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Alekseev, Eduard.  Folklor v kontekste sovremennoj kultury.
Moscow: Sovetskij Kompozitor 1988. 237 pp., 52 photographs.


Anna Czekanowska

Eduard Alekseev’s book, "Folklore in the Context of Contemporary Culture", is an extremely interesting document of the changes occuring in Soviet scholarship.  It concerns not only the situation of Soviet ethnomusicologists, but more generally it depicts the contemporary changes in the consciousness of Soviet scholars and Soviet society.  Even for scholars who visit the Soviet Union relatively frequently, this book opens new horizons and reveals the necessity of re-examining the standard judgements and views elaborated and held by foreigners.  The most fascinating aspect of the book is, of course, the empirical material included and used by the author as documentation of the issues he discusses — although one can still regret that the documentation is not rich enough.

The book consists of eight chapters and is recapitulated in a kind of English language summary, which actually concentrates more on the further development of the author's basic ideas than on summarizing the contents of the book itself.

For everybody who knows Alekseev personally, it is obvious how strongly he is involved in his research and professional activities, and how persistently he tries to overcome the limitations of the reality in which he is living and to work out new approaches to "folkloristic" investigations.  Does he achieve these aims in this book?  Is he on the right track to succeed in this?  These remain open questions.

In the "Introduction" the author divides his book into two parts.  The first part, containing the first four chapters, is presented as fundamentally methodological.  The second part, chapters 5-7, is presented as pragmatic.  In the second part the author describes the working conditions and activities of Soviet ethnomusicologists and the basic problems and difficulties they have to overcome.  The last chapter (8) has the subtitle "Instead of the Conclusions" and is projected as an overview of selected texts treated as quotations.  That overview, if I correctly understand the author's idea, should illustrate the "master" cases and situations of the existence of folklore in the context of contemporary culture.

The first impression this book evokes is its distance from "typical" scholarly publications.  Indeed, it would be almost impossible to review this book in purely scholarly terms and compare it with other books.  The book is to be considered rather as an instrument of an ideological struggle for a better future and a better position of folklore in the society than as evidence of scholarly work.  Its main orientation is evidently socio-political.  The author regards his book as advice for future cultural policy.

For readers unacquainted with the spirit of Soviet ethnomusicology, it might be difficult to understand this atmosphere of enthusiasm and social engagement, as well as this concentration on a concern with folklore preservation.  This atmosphere may only be compared with that of ecology movements fighting for the preservation of natural resources.  It is quite surprising how the situation has changed and how strong the current demand is for the protection of cultural traditions and of natural environments in the Soviet Union.  Indeed, after many years of fighting for "progressive" content and the transformation of traditions, tradition is regarded today as the wellspring of vital forces that can help people survive in the context of contemporary life.

Alekseev's book, although deeply rooted in the atmosphere described above, at the same time presents some differences peculiar to this author and to his individual thinking.  The main focus concentrates on finding a balance between the tendencies to preserve the resources in their most authentic version of "closed" culture and the attempts to transform those traditional strata to adapt them to changed conditions.  It is exactly this "experiment" the author recommends to modern scholars.  According to Alekseev, the tasks of modern scholars should not be limited to the description of material and its analytical procedures alone.  They should also concentrate on the elaboration of new forms of cultural policy that will support the best conditions for the future development of folklore.

The first, methodological, part of the book is divided into four chapters.  In the first part the author declares his basic assumptions;  in the second he explains the relationship of his thinking to sociology;  in the third he presents his understanding of the theory of communication.  In the fourth chapter, regarded as the "climactic point" of the study, Alekseev concentrates on the concept of "bilinguality" in folk culture — i.e. on the co-existence of two types of structure in folkloristic strata — the mythological stratum and that of logical thinking.

To speak frankly, the methodological part of the book is disappointing. The assumptions as they are presented in the first chapter do not coincide with the later text.  Similarly, the table of contents and the division into chapters do not coincide properly with the text either.

An examination of the first three chapters reveals the weakness of the sociological approach.  The author is clearly unfamiliar with the achievements of modern sociology and social anthropology.  This is probably the reason why contemporary culture appears to him to be so complicated and full of contradictions.  It may also be assumed that the author would write that chapter in a different way today.  It must not be forgotten that he wrote this three or four years ago, and that history has changed in the meantime.

The chapter dedicated to the theory of communication (chapter 3) is also surprising for the author's style of presentation, which is more reminiscent of an elementary textbook than the discussion we expect to find.  By contrast, the "climactic" chapter (chapter 4), is probably the most interesting, being illustrated by very well-chosen material that accurately demonstrates the interactions between the mythical and logical structures.  It is only to be regretted that the author has not mentioned the classical literature on the subject and the name of the author of the concept of bilinguality does not appear even in the bibliography.

The pragmatic (second) part of the book introduces the reader to the quite different world and conditions under which Soviet scholars work.  It concerns both some theoretical problems (chapter 6) and questions of technical equipment (chapter 5).  It also addresses problems ranging from the institutionalized organization of research to the forms of financial support at the disposal of Soviet scholars.  Most interesting, however, is the privileged position of folklore among Soviet composers and the large interest and demand for this kind of artistic inspiration.  This part also indicates the demand for amateur movement based on folklore which has achieved immense popularity in Soviet society.

Many of the indicated phenomena, both positive and negative, are quite understandable for Western readers.  This applies to the high prestige of folklore and to the limitation in theoretical thinking of the Soviet scholars at present — or at least in the recent past.  A good example of theoretical trouble is the problem of overcoming arbitrarily imposed formulations and definitions, e.g. that of "folklore," which was formulated for many years as "the art of working people."  This kind of formulation does not satisfy Alekseev.  This is probably also the opinion of many other ethnomusicologists nowadays, but it has changed quite recently, following many "battles" and discussions documented in Alekseev's book.

As far as technical issues are concerned, the situation of Soviet scholars does not differ much from the conditions of other countries.  Presently they are adapting themselves very quickly to the conditions of more individual work and to the use of personal equipment.  But the problems of a new organization of institutional support seems to be more complicated, and they reveal the need to reduce many of the privileges to which soviet ethnomusicologists have become accustomed.

The crucial problem, however, concentrates again on the privileged position the ethnomusicologists would like to preserve for folklore.  There is a strong probability these days that folklore will lose this high status.  It is, however, to be expected that the traditionalism of Soviet society, and its exceptional musical predisposition in particular, will protect the folk music in that country better than in many others.

The panorama of the discussion presented is sketched quite comprehensively, although some points may again surprise.  This applies especially to the questions of ethnic and national identity, which remain untouched by the author.  This is particularly astonishing considering the great significance of these problems in Soviet society today.

Despite my many critical remarks, Eduard Alekseev's book must be regarded as an excellent contribution that documents the situation and atmosphere in Soviet ethnomusicology.  It reveals both the differences and the rapid changes, as well as the adaptability to the conditions of modern culture.  The book is also very instructive for foreigners as it acquaints them with the spirit of Soviet scholarship which, in many points, should be greatly appreciated.  In many cases, Western scholars will be really jealous at not having the opportunity to work on the kind of material and under the kind of privileged conditions the Soviet scholars still have.

The fifty-two photographs in the book best document the richness of the material.  While looking at the photographs one can really believe in the vital forces still preserved in the folkloristic strata.  The documentation presented also reveals Eduard Alekseev's exceptional artistic sensitivity and his talent as a field researcher.  His photographs truly present "folklore in the context of contemporary culture."


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