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<nettime> Akos Szilagyi: Comradely Kisses - A Cogitation
Diana McCarty on Mon, 31 Aug 1998 13:35:33 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> Akos Szilagyi: Comradely Kisses - A Cogitation


{The Media Research Foundation is pleased to present this text as a sample
of classic Hungarian Media Theory in part of an ongoing effort to reverse
the flow of texts from West to East, and English/German to Hungarian.
While the article first appeared in 1992, it is still of interest,
especially with regards to the current situation in Russia.}


Comradely Kisses
A Cogitation

by Akos Szilagyi

One anomaly missed by all of the countless post mortems on the erstwhile
Soviet Block is what we might term "official osculation" or, more simply,
"the comradely kiss". And yet, the osculum secretanii generalis, a
political gesture smacking - literally - of Byzantine Orthodox ritual is,
I contend, the key to much that continues to baffle Kremlin watchers to
this day. 

There was a time, of course, when comrades did not kiss. The early
Bolsheviks did not need Pravoslav symbolism to demonstrate their unity,
and shunned using the Russian Orthodox form of greeting and farewell:
three kisses-in effect, the Orthodox sign of the cross, and of the oneness
of the Trinity. The young Bolshevik revolutionaries, committed to doing
away with the illusions attached to ecclesiastical ceremony, hierarchy and
power once and for all, had no use for the Pravoslav ritual kiss: a
brotherly hug, or a firm handshake was much more their style. Repudiating
kissing and kisses was, clearly, a political stand against czarist
autocracy, a separation of kiss and state, so to speak, that followed
logically from their ultra-rationalism and modernity. No doubt about it:
the kiss is where the Bolshevik and the liberal lines irrevocably meet.
For kisses to make a public comeback from the private sphere to which they
were banished, the new post-revolutionary generation of Bolsheviks had to
renounce barren rationalism, and reinterpret the new ideology in religious
terms. Moscow had again to become the "Third Rome", a pseudo-medieval
theocracy of sorts, with communism taking the place of Christianity as the
state religion, the Party taking the Church's place, apparatchiks taking
the priests' and the Leader_the State_taking God's. The medievalesque
trappings of the Stalinist state ranged from "people's banquets" held in
the Kremlin, the new imperial court, to Stalin reorganizing the Party
along the lines of a latter-day order of knighthood, heraldry and all.
Stalin's apotheosis and state appropriation of Christian symbolism
notwithstanding, however, we shall find no trace of ritual kissing in the
public forums of the sacral Stalinist state. Stalin would no sooner kiss
the most loyal of his supporters than he would have thought of kissing
Lenin. The ritual Party-Statist Kiss came into vogue only after his
passing, in the twilight decades of the Soviet quasi-theocracy, with the
kisses exchanged by the Party leaders becoming the more smacking and the
more frequent the closer the system came to breathing its last. The
comradely kiss was introduced by Khrushchev, and it is tempting -though
patently simplistic- to account for the innovation in terms of his
anti-Stalinism: since Stalin had not been the kissing kind, he,
Khrushchev, would be, and would launch a kiss-of-peace offensive against
Stalinists within the Party and against cold warriors in the West. But why
had Stalin been loath to kiss? 

A number of answers come to mind. In the first place, there is a point of
self adulation at which there is only one set of lips worthy of touching
one: one's own. Naturally, we have no way of knowing whether Stalin ever
thought of giving himself a kiss - an image captured by the Hungarian poet
Endre Ady: "The kisses I give are like a God kissing. It is myself I
kiss". We do know, however, that for a god, no lesser kiss will do. Then,
of course, there is the matter of Stalin's origin: a son of the Caucasus,
his was a world of rough and remote he-men. He had nothing but contempt
for what he saw as Slavic sentimentalism and the intimacies of sycophants,
to say nothing of the revulsion he felt for all physical contact as his
paranoia progressed. Stalin, the State-God who provided for and punished,
was omniscient and omnipotent, could not afford the luxury of tender
moments. (Even Lenin had been careful to steer clear of these. Listen to
Beethoven's Appassionata at a time when the task at hand was to "hit
people over the head, again and again ? No way!) Stalin, for his part,
took pride in the roughness of his nature, in his "Bolshevik harshness",
defiantly mocking the characterization Lenin gave of him in his last will
and testament. "Yes, comrades, I am rough on those comrades who brutally
and treacherously rend and destroy the Party. I make no secret of this,
and never have." As time went on, he became more and more the angry
avenging and victorious State-God cultivating attributes that invariably
bring Christ and Pantocrator icons to mind. The final point about Stalin
and kisses is that their very juxtaposition is a category mistake. The
fact is that every kiss assumes the existence of at least a two-member
set. For a kiss to take place, you need two entities located some distance
from one another in real space. God and His creation, however, are all
one. By analogy, all of Stalin's political following, the entire Soviet
people, were comprehended in Stalin qua State-God. Consequently, the prime
condition of a kiss simply did not obtain. 

It might make matters clearer to think of a dragon: it will not set to
smooching with itself despite having a dozen heads. Inaccessible as Stalin
was to kisses in his person, he would have been available for kissing as
an icon. But though Stalin icons - more precisely, retouched photos of him
- were to be found in every home and every Party building, there is no
indication that they were ever kissed, at least not publicly. Pray one
could to them, as to the Pravoslav icons, but kissing them was not
encouraged. Nor do we know of the boot of any Stalin statue being worn
away under reverent kisses, like the right toe of the statue of St. Peter
in St. Peter's in Rome. There is a conspicuous lack of erotic kisses in
the movies made in the Stalin years, and of state-religious kisses as
well. There were, however, alternate acceptable ways of expressing much
the same sentiment. At the conclusion of The Fall of Berlin. for instance,
the heroine approaches Stalin the Savior just come down from the sky, and
asks if she might kiss him. Permission granted, the girl lets go of the
hand of her Worker-Soldier-Boy sweetheart, and, acting for all the
assembled throng, touches her face to Stalin's shoulder - in keeping with
ancient Georgian custom, as the cognoscenti will know. In the last scene
of The Pledge. However, it is Stalin himself who kisses the hand of the
Russian Mother, thanking her, with this chivalrous gesture, for the
sacrifice she has made on the altar of Victory. Not even Stalinist film
makers could violate the golden rule of movie making: All's well that ends
with a kiss. And better a statist kiss than no kiss at all. It was a real
kiss, however, that movie goers saw Stalin bestow on the sword Churchill
gave him for his birthday towards the end of the war. And newsreel after
newsreel showed soldiers kissing the flag on their way to the front. The
new vogue of kisses clearly had a lot to do with the mobilization of the
Pravoslav Church as part of the war effort, and the campaign of
Russianization that was to peak just after the war. 

Not even the Stalinist state, as we have seen, could do without kisses.
But I would go further than that. If we consider that enunciating the name
of God is a kind of spiritual kiss, one representing an even more intimate
form of contact for the faithful than kissing an icon, we shall see that
kisses-in this broader sense-formed the very cornerstone of the Stalinist
state religion. As enunciating God's name is at the heart of the
Christian's call for a strength that transcends his own, so in Stalin's
days his name was a name above all names, a source of strength and of
legitimacy, and one pronounced millions of times a day. Kisses in this
metaphorical sense were part of what sustained the Stalinist
quasi-theocracy. The advent of concrete, physical kissing in the political
sphere marked the end of the theocracy. It was a human face that socialism
resented for a kiss - a human face called Khrushchev. Kisses symbolized
the spirit of reconciliation that followed the Twentieth Party Congress.
They were shorthand for "new humanism", "accessibility", "collective
leadership", and "simplicity". Khrushchev took pleasure in appearing on
the stage of world politics as a highly visible human being, even so far
as to pound his desk at the UN with his shoe. It was his kisses that gave
the world to understand that the leader of the Soviet Union was human, and
would treat others as a man to man. And let us not forget: the first of
Khrushchev's kisses were kisses of defiance, plonked on the face of Tito
and of comrades just back from the Gulag. They were the kisses of sons
embracing, with sighs of relief, after the vengeful Father's death: "We're
safe!". They were the kisses of a longing for life. "At last we too can
enjoy life." No need to fear now that brother would unmask brother and
show him for the class enemy that he never was, with every kiss that he
had ever exchanged serving to indict those who had received them.
Khrushchev's kisses had not so much an Orthodox-Byzantine as a
populist-peasant smack: "We're brothers, one and all". Rites such as
"fraternal assistance" and the "fraternal kiss" were the fruits of this
populist graft upon the Orthodox tree. The fraternal kiss stood for the
quasi-religious and quasi-kinship ties of a Party brotherhood that was
internationalist by definition, and came easily to symbolize the family of
nations. 

The kisses Khrushchev gave Janos Kadar after 1956, kisses of
reconciliation and forgiveness ("We loved you as brothers, and could not
just stand by and watch you dig your own graves"), were meant for the
collective face of the Hungarian people, even if some individuals wiped it
off in disgust, while others refused as much as to acknowledge this
symbolic kiss. In extreme situations, Khrushchev's motto, "Let's all be
friends", could easily read, "I'll stay your friend even if it kills you".
In Eastern Europe the ways of the religious community of souls and of the
hierarchy had parted earlier. The same man who, in the Easter night gave
his neighbor the kiss of peace, kow-towed in the political hierarchy,
kissing his feet or the hem of his garment. Khrushchev's kiss with a human
face symbolized fraternity within the family of states and nations, and
also an opening of historical importance: the subservience and servile
humiliation manifest on the political and power level was not given
symbolic expression. Indeed, we will best understand the import of
Khrushchev's kisses in terms of the graphic reconciliation scene between
the two feuding aristocratic brothers in Tarkovsky's Rublev: as they kiss
and make up in church, the camera focuses on their united lips and then
zooms in on the elder brother's stamping on the younger's foot with all
his might. This image is as symbolic of Khrushchev's kisses as of
Brezhnev's: both were without question the "trodding underfoot" type of
fraternal kiss. Still, there is no denying that Khrushchev's kisses were
indeed those of a friendly, unsophisticated man, kisses, to boot, reserved
only for his political family. Those adopted into the family, Nasser and
Fidel, would, of course, be kissed, but he had no kisses for outsiders.
Khrushchev was very fastidious on this score. 

Brezhnev, on the other hand, was an indiscriminate kisser. Well and fine
that he tried to lure Dubcek back into the family in 1968 with his kisses
(only to find foot treading to be more effective). But there can be no
excuse for his kissing the unsuspecting Jimmy Carter full on the lips at
the Vienna signing of the First SALT Agreement. This gauche violation of
his private space very likely came as more of a shock to the American
President than the invasion of Afghanistan. In Auden's words, "Some thirty
inches from my nose / The frontier of my Person goes". And yet Brezhnev,
it goes without saying, had not had the slightest intention of encroaching
on Carter's personal compass. It was simply yet another case of his being
carried away by his emotions - emotions which, as a rule, culminated in a
kiss. Joy, gratitude, affection and a sense of the greatness of the moment
all went into the making of that kiss, for Brezhnev's kisses were of the
sentimental Slavic kind, thence their abundance and boundlessness. Kissing
was the somewhat infantile First Secretary's way of actualizing an old
Soviet joke: "How far does the Soviet Union stretch?" "As far as it wants
to". Brezhnev, as is known, died of an overdose of kisses, and this in
itself would have served his successors as warning. Andropov's reluctant
kisses on the cheek, followed by Chernienko's enervated, puckerless kisses
(someone else could lift his arms for him, but when it came to puckering,
he was on his own) marked the transition to Gorbachev's perestroika, that
great assault on the comradely kiss in the cheerless, prosaic, last phase
of Soviet history. Politics, it seemed, had run out of kisses.
Modernization has so far been effective on the level of symbols. The
modernity and western nature of the new Soviet leadership is therefore
also expressed by their doing without kisses. Their heroic public career
behind them, kisses have slunk back to whence they came: the world of
Orthodox churches, and ties of kinship and friendship. Though anointed by
the Patriarch, Russia's first democratically elected President had no
kisses to give him, or anyone else. Indeed, Yeltsin has never been seen
even to pucker; what he shows the world is a fine set of teeth, exposed in
anger, derision, suspicion, or a boyish grin. He has no time to be
sentimental. His is the grin of the ex-Communist self-made man, the
post-Soviet version of "Keep smiling": gritting one's teeth and making the
best of a world so bad it boggles the mind. 

 ----------------

The only illustration of this text is that (in)famous press photo which
shows a mouth to mouth wet kiss of the soviet party secretary general
Brezhnev and the East-German party secretary general Honecker. Szilagyi's
title for the picture: "Honecker on the receiving end". (Ed.)

---------------- Akos Szilagyi (b.1950) in Budapest and in 1974 received
his diploma in Hungarian-Russian studies from Lorand Eotvos University
(ELTE) and his Ph.D. in 1976. He currently teaches literary aesthetics,
media theory and Russian cultural history in the ELTE Department of
Aesthetics and Institute of Russistics. Szilagyi is also Founder and
co-Director of the Hungarian Institute of Russistics at ELTE and the
Founding Editor of the sociological and literary periodical 2000. He has
written books and essays on the Russian avant-garde, Totalitarian culture
of the Stalin era, and negative Utopias. His essay "The 'Raw' and the
'Cooked': Russia's Mediatization" was published in Nettime in November 97.
This essay was published in: The New Hungarian Quarterly, #127, 1992, vol.
XXXIII.







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