Methods of Constructing Identity (According to L. Lagin’s “Old Man Kottabych”)

Tamar Namgladze


Research of identity politics is an important topic. Meaning of such research increases when identity politics is controlled by specific ideologies – Soviet Ideology in this case. Identity politics of the Soviet Union was aimed at forming and shaping a new type of person – Homo Sovieticus. The most important group for manipulations were children. Literature was one of the effective ways of such influence; therefore, the information given to a child was carefully controlled and defined by ideology. In this paper are compared two editions of the L. Lagin’s “Old Man Khottabych” to distinguish the methods of influence. Differences between the original and the edited versions of the text are also underlined. L. Lagin’s “Old Man Khottabych” tells us a story of a Soviet boy, Volka Kostilkov and a genie – Khottabych. The story was published in the newspaper in 1938, and then as a book in 1940. It was reviewed and edited for the first time in 1953, and then in 1955 for the second. This time, the story was significantly modified – chapters were added, some of the characters were changed, and the story itself was deeply ideologised. In the research we compare the first (1938) and the third (1955) editions. We use narrative analysis as a method of research and structuralism as a framework. The importance of the study is defined by the essence of identity politics – forming and shaping identity is a crucial part of any society.Thus,studying the methods of influence keeps its significance nowadays.
The research indicates several techniques of influences used to construct Soviet identity. Some are explicit, like: 1) deepening emotional background of the story, 2) using past as a reason of negative situation or a feature of a character. There are also implicit, “hidden” methods: 1) forming positive or negative associations, 2) leaving phrases with certain messages throughout the story. All these methods can be used individually or in combination, quite often explicit and implicit methods are connected, like deepening emotional background and forming positive/negative associations etc., increasing influence of these methods.
Manipulation with sentiments and deepening emotional background is the most effective and repeated method. Obviously, categorizing into “good” and ”bad”, and giving them certain emotional context plays a major role in shaping minds of children. For example, to show his love and gratitude, the genie turns Volka into a rich man. Volka refuses his gift (ideological reasons). Surprised Khottabych suggests lending money at any rate. In 1938 version of the text Volka protests - Usurer?! Pioneer and usurer?! Do you know that there are no usurers in our country!
But in the edited text (1955) Volka doesn’t just protest, he makes a speech about terrible usurers, parasites who had drunk their blood at the times of capitalism. But there are no usurers in the Soviet Union, and even if they were, no Soviet citizen would ask them for a loan, etc. This speech is full of emotional, negative outbursts. It is followed by an explanation of how the real Soviet citizen should behave and will behave. Generally, the edited version of the book aims to emphasize feelings and is rich in emotional descriptions or characteristics.
The second, regularly used, method isshowing past as a reason of negative feature or inappropriate behaviour. The old man Khottabych mostly is the one who makes such “mistakes”. However, he has an excuse – he is more than a thousand years old, not to mention that he is a genie. Thus, all his mistakes illustrate how a pioneer and a Soviet citizen should not think or behave. For example, to highlight the idea that there is no poverty in the Soviet Union, Khottabych makes several mistakes. At first, the genie kneels in front of a man he thinks is his master, but people misconceive him as a beggar and shame him for asking for money. Then, the genie gets ill and decides to give money to the poor. Volka and his friend(s) stop him by saying there is no poverty and beggars in the Soviet Union. Though there is a difference between the editions – in the 1938 version boys say “crooks will take your money”, but this sentence is not in the edited version any more. Obviously, 1955 edition accentuates more correct, “moral” image of the Soviet Union, thus no more crooks, beggars or thieves in the story.
The method of associations is often connected with another, “deepening emotional background”, technique. However, it can be used without other methods too. For instance, when Volka and his friend(s) are in Italy, left without Khottabych, they ask fishermen for help – they are workers and workers would not refuse to help, boys say. In other words, workers can trust each other and one can trust a worker. This is an example of positive association. But the same method is used to distinguish the “image of an enemy” – connecting the English language with the “enemy” in this case. English is always linked with negative situations, such as discovering a shell and escaping death only because Volka read the line on the shell – “Made in the U.S.A”. English is also mentioned in the negative context, when Zhenia is lost in India. This implicit technique of connecting a positive/negative context with a certain feature or situation is one of the popular methods used in the book.
The last technique distinguished in the book is leaving phrases with certain messages, but without obvious connection with the context of the sentences. The method is illustrated in this situation: a doctorexamines Goga (classmate and rival of Volka), who is punished by Khottabych and barks whenever he wants to say something bad. To diagnose, the doctor asks Goga to recite a poem and certain sentences. Among others, Goga should say phrases about capitalism and about being a conscientious Soviet pupil. Using phrases containing certain messages is a very effective method of influence and is regularly employed in the book.
To conclude, studying the children’s books of the Soviet period may give us valuable information about the methods and techniques of influence used for forming and shaping Soviet Identity. Comparing the different editions of the same book gives us interesting results.

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