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Friday, 10 January 2014

My Dissertation: Alenka - An Interpretive Study of a Russian Cultural Icon (and the journey of Yelena in a Soviet Wonderland)

by Yelena Sherbakov

“Artists from around the world are invited to send drawings, paintings and collages, inspired by the image of a little Russian girl Alenka” reads the invitation from Russian artist Ivan Zemtsov calling anyone and everyone creative to participate in his international mail art project. The first “Alenka Show”, was exhibited in October 2006 at the Yoshkar-Ola Museum of Fine Arts, featuring the works of 24 artists, each one representing a different country, yet this was only a small portion of the collection Zemtsov had come to gather from individuals across the globe. Not to be mistaken for a national celebrity or royal heiress, Alenka is perhaps much more than that, for her immortal ability and eternal youth has come to both precede and outlive the Socialist experiment, and skip out still smiling. Indeed, Alenka was always present with me at any celebration, never failing to make a grand entrance at any special event or occasion: She came accompanied by other presents not as a surprise but as an eagerly anticipated guest, though nonetheless acting as the embodiment of every child’s yearning for that “something sweet”.  She brought with her love and laughter, as my parents or grandparents bestowed upon me this eagerly awaited prize; at this stage the anticipation builds, but unlike with other presents this is not a wrapper which is hastily torn off and tossed to the side – this is a cherished friend’s smiling face, perhaps even more so to me as an only child, she is the symbol of a missing sibling. Even walking past the “Red October” factory in the heart of Russia, Moscow, is a part of her enchantment: the smell of chocolate proliferating the suburban air is incentive enough to surrender to Alenka’s tempting allure. “So, who is she?” I hear you ask.
The chubby-cheeked little girl in a kerchief is perhaps the most famous product of the Socialist era, and her face continues to adorn the banners of the famous red-brick building of the Red October factory on the banks of river Moscow today (Compton, 2011). And it is this image of the girl from a chocolate wrapper, which since 1966 has become the nation’s favourite brand for satisfying a sweet tooth (Atanasov, 1997), that has come to occupy the hearts and minds of Zemtsov and his multitude of following artists as their muse. Red October’s chocolate occupies eight of the ten top spots in the national brand-recognition rankings, and it comes as no surprise Alenka triumphs as number one above them all. A now post-Soviet state, Russia appears to be fostering a brand based nostalgia for its bygone Soviet goods, or so Alenka’s story leads us to believe. The question of my dissertation was to discover how “Alyonka” has not only become an iconic symbol of national pride, but a dearly beloved (rodnaya) integral member of Russian families. To this date, there has been no study of this iconic legend, despite her unrivalled (though often challenged by her multiple imitators and competitors) status.

Images from Zemstov’s project  
 (Zemtsov, 2012)
And so I embarked on my own version of the journey of Alice in Wonderland: a quest into the depths of Russia’s boreal forest (Taiga) – well known from the surface of the bird’s eye view to the hovering media aircraft that reported on its prominence, mass and greatness, but with so many of its hidden treasures yet to be discovered, to which only those who had touched, lived and breathed the forest, the old forest keepers knew the secrets that held the gemstones of their homeland – the people of the nation, those who had truly kept it alive. I took a deep breath, and dared to be the first to ask, “Alenka, why you”?                                                                   

Chasing a Wild Rabbit

I’m sure you have heard about the importance of picking a dissertation topic that interests you: valuable advice! However the temptation with this is to simultaneously answer a question you have not yet asked, thereby formulating your “question” and safely securing your comfortable seat in the ride towards destination degree. But, who would read a book or watch a film if they already knew the plot and exactly what happens? So my cherry to the advice cake you’ve no doubt been served would be this: inspiration. Pick a topic that makes you excited, gets your blood racing and your heart pumping, and don’t expect that you already have all the answers! As the King in Carroll’s famous novel said: “begin at the beginning, and go on until you come to the end. Then stop”. In research, one thing often leads to another, and as you grow “curiouser and curiouser” you might just discover answers to questions you didn’t know you had. Go on and chase a wild rabbit, and don’t be afraid that you will fall down a hole, you may find great treasures! It is the journey that will bring your dissertation to life, keep you interested and you might even add something new to the field that even scholars have yet to discover.

Perspectives: Growing Big, Shrinking Small and a Mad Tea Party

I had always been fascinated by brands. I loved the study of how brands acquired their value and meanings, and so Alenka was the muse to my canvas. Being Russian, I had grown up with this brand playing a major role in my life as a national identity and treasured gift. So, the central question of my dissertation was to answer how this Soviet brand had both preceded and out-lived the Socialist experiment to become a cultural icon and symbol not only of national pride, but an integral member of every Russian family?

I followed a combined approach: to use the metaphor of the great Russian forest (Taiga), I flew across the treetops to obtain the bird’s eye view, examining Alenka’s iconicity by analysing the brand and her creator, the famous Red October Factory in a historical context through media and literature, to determine how it has become integrated into society and culture to become an “iconic brand” (Holt, 2004). I then used this historical trajectory analysis to determine whether Alenka has become loaded with utopian and modernist values, as advocated by the Constructivists (Kiaer, 2005; Margolin, 1997) and later Socialist movements, using Holt’s (2004) theories of resolving cultural contradictions and Rodchenko’s vision of objects as comrades (Kiaer, 2005) as contextual frames.

I analysed the collectively constructed character of Alenka as a persona in her own right to determine the role the brand has come to play in the lives of ordinary consumers and her status as a dearly beloved (rodnaya) family member, using Miller’s (2010) theories to understand this through a dialectical relationship between people and their objects. As the brand’s values are deeply entrenched in its history, McCracken’s (2005) theories were employed to determine whether this object has become an instrument which operates through channelling nostalgia, thereby contributing to its status as a cultural icon (Holt, 2004).

I then plunged the depths of the forest, parachuting my way into the homes and hearts of its occupants, evoking their memories, capturing their thoughts and channelling their feelings, and thereby bringing Alenka to life for those who had never met her. I challenged the literature using qualitative research in the form of semi-structured, in depth interviews with current and former Russian citizens, young and old, who had experienced the brand. I had created my own mad tea party gathering of willing respondents in an attempt to gain a more objective view. This part really fascinated me, as I was able to not only communicate the experiences of others into my study and give it objectivity, but also came to understand why and how the brand had resonated so deeply in my own sub consciousness.

Brandtopia: A Soviet Never-never land

My historical trajectory analysis suggested that Alenka could be viewed as a Constructivist object or even persona of everyday consumption in her own right, aimed at promoting social change and instilling socialist values. It could have been argued that at the time of her birth and through the Soviet era, she propagandised the communist ideal of making luxury goods, like chocolate, available for all as opposed to just the bourgeoisie (Kravets and Orge, 2010), thereby endorsing collective and utopian values as upheld by the constructivists (Margolin, 1997). But, due to a lack of production capacity, this was not reality and such goods failed in their mission to become stable consumption items of everyday life, falling instead as unfulfilled promises. However, the Soviet government’s efforts to make these luxuries available during holidays and celebrations had the effect of making them associated with good times. And despite the fact that obtaining them, even on special occasions was a challenge in itself, such hardships paved the way to the creation of certain rituals and humorous spectacles which would turn into stories that produced a “folklore of the Soviet times” (Kravets and Orge, 2010).

Interestingly, as my respondents described their idealistic associations with the brand however, I researched this and found that it bore a strong resemblance to a different utopia, More’s concept of a literary utopia (Maclaran et al., 1999), an imaginary world where everything is harmonious (Murtola, 2011). I found that on a micro level, the brand appears to act as a tool for individuals to construct their own personal concepts of utopia based on the context of their environment (Maclaran and Brown, 2001) in the sense of literary fantasy (Maclaran et al., 1999) and Holt’s (2004) mythical worlds. Through the accounts of people I spoke to and literary evidence, I realised that Alenka appears to take on the role of a Soviet version of Peter Pan, allowing any Russian child to construct their own “Never-never land”, and further still that the essence of utopia lies not in being satisfied, but in its function as an element of dreams and desire (Maclaran et al., 1999).

Surprisingly therefore, I found that Alenka’s utopian meanings appeared to be divided: The historical trajectory showed her to emerge as an object loaded with Constructivist hopes and acting as an “object as comrade” (Kiaer, 2005), personifying the values of a collective Soviet utopia. On the other hand, the interviews suggested that the brand had become saturated with literary ideals of utopia (Maclaran et al., 1999), conjuring fantasy realms and fairy-tale worlds of childhood magic which individuals had come to associate with the brand. Indeed, although the nature of this utopia appears to have appropriated a different meaning throughout time, Alenka’s ability to reincarnate and transcend past the time trap many brands fall prey to suggests that her power lies in being a universal tool through which anyone can construct their own personal meanings of utopia (Brown and Maclaran, 2001), and it is this unique ability which makes her timeless, ageless and immortal.

Materiality: Family Member and Friend

At the beginning of this entry, I described Alenka’s presence at celebrations and the tradition of being given as a gift from parents and grandparents (and often as a long-awaited gift under the Yolka (Christmas Tree) from Ded Moroz, the Russian version of Santa Claus known as Grandfather Frost, another aspect reinforcing its utopian and fantasy associations). When observed from an objective standpoint, it becomes evident how this ritual encapsulates Miller’s theory of family bonds forming through material objects: the parents show their love and care for the child through provision of a product which holds not only nutritional value but sentimental significance; the child in turn relishes and cherishes their affection. This practice also correlates with Miller’s idea of “handing down” the generations a family favourite, a product which serves as a link in the chain between the generations.

It was often traditional back when I was growing up for children to collect sweet wrappers, and in this department Alenka was the cream of the crop, a queen presiding over what were pawns in comparison. If there was ever a way to have your cake and eat it, here it was – although the chocolate was gone, Alenka’s smiling face remained to keep you company, whether the respondents’ I spoke to described her as a friend or family member. This bears strong likelihood to Miller’s idea of using external objects as grounding to ascertain one’s own existence, and by doing so quench the thirst for identity by constructing it through commodities (Elliot and Wattanasuwan, 1998).

My analysis showed that  that Alenka is regarded as a persona in her own right, described with the qualities of an individual, leading to the conclusion that she is regarded as a beloved family member or cherished friend, suggesting that she acts as a mediator of familial relationships (Miller, 2008). There also emerged a consensus of Alenka being a traditional family gift, handed down through the generations (Miller, 2008) and thus appropriating the role of a link between the past present. 

Madeleine Object: A Time Travel Machine

For me, this is a brand that does not just bring back childhood memories, but takes me back to a place that evokes deep emotions, creating a sense of nostalgia and acting as a symbol of the relationships with my closest family members. Evidently this is exactly what happens to Nina with Yantar in Kravets and Orge’s article – like Nina, I can almost taste the past, but for me this is the taste of my childhood. Like Druzhba cheese, Alenka hasn’t changed throughout the decades, she is a symbol of the times. As eluded by Kravetz and Orge this is another brand which challenges Holt’s theory that brands live on due to their ability to change, and supports their theory that in the case of the Soviet Brands they changed due to remaining unchanged. Thus the brand acts as society’s foundational compass point, on a macro level an anchor capturing societal erudition and shared sacraments (Holt, 2004), and on a micro level memories of childhood, an essence of innocence and purity which cannot be brought back, but a sense of which nonetheless becomes transcended through this brand (Miller, 2010).

Although there is no such thing as a time machine, the objects we hold dear come close, a concept known as Madeleine Objects (McCracken, 2005); they have the power to throw one back in time and teleport them to another place, seizing the senses and making the present melt away, they act as a chasm through which one can be transported to another place, to another era. Almost a magical experience, these forces can awaken nostalgia or rumination, thus they are not fully understood by scholars (Hackley, 2009). However, their trick is that these are not the hidden secrets of civilisation, but everyday objects just like Alenka. Further still, what an object means to one may not be the same thing it means to another. Indeed, what my study showed is that there is no one way to capture what Alenka represents for everyone, as this is something different for each person, which appears to be the essence of her magic: the ability to not only appeal to everyone in their own way, but to come loaded with deeply entrenched meanings that each individual forms as unique to them, that can only be constructed throughout time, and yet to be entirely untouched by time herself.

Cultural Icon: A National Identity

I used Holt’s theory of iconic brands, that have accumulated their status through a range of cultural, moral and political values, underpinned by the work of Kravets and Orge on Soviet brands in a post-Socialist Russia to determined how such brands become representations of cherished values and social relations within a particular community, acting as the sources of cultural ideals, myths, history, aspirations and achievements to reinforce feelings of unity, belonging and stability, particularly during periods when traditional cultural symbols fail (Holt, 2004).

Alenka’s history serves as her “identity myth” (Holt, 2004): born in 1966, Alenka is one variation of a traditional girl’s name, and is one of a small handful of brands to survive through the pandemonium of the fall of the USSR and yet emerge not as a ghost of her former self like the majority of such goods, but as an unaltered symbol goodwill. The story of her birth adds a further “buttressing” the brand’s identity, when a competition launched to find the face of the child on the now iconic packaging; unable to decide on a winner, the company featured several entries in rotation, until the star with the same name but of a different variation “Elena” was found. In this sense, the company took on the role of the “author” creating a storyline (Holt, 2004). Subsequently after the asceticism of the post-war period and the Brezhnev years (1964-1982) she was welcomed during the beginning of stability and opulence, thus is remembered as a sign of the good times by former generations. Despite often being hard to obtain and remaining a wishful promise, she was worth fighting for. Her immortal ability to not only precede but outlive the Leninist experiment addressed an acute contradiction within society during the Communist era.

Alenka brings back the stories of my grandparents and parents epoch, of how hard she was to obtain back in the days of the Soviet regime; thus she stands as a symbol of the achievement of my predecessors, of the victory of breaking free from the communist regime, a prize which they would have fought for, which was so easy to take for granted yet held so much more meaning than a token of affection; this is a sign of blood, sweat and tears, and gave Alenka every right to the well deserved title of what Holt would proclaim a “cultural icon”.

The Classic Alenka Chocolate
An Image of Lena, the Original Alenka

The Fifth Element: Immortality

I concluded that Alenka works on both a macro and micro level in representing cultural and personal significance. Consequently, although Alenka appears to be a cultural icon (Holt, 2004), each individual attaches their own story to her history, thereby planting her roots within the hearts of the nation’s families for generations, who attach their own traditions and rituals to this persona.

I determined that in unison the four elements discussed give rise to a fifth element: Alenka’s unique ability to embody the desires of those she touches, which guarantees her success. Indeed, this study suggests that the key to a successful national brand lies in creating something which enables people to create their own ideals and memories, thereby acting as a vehicle which individuals can permeate with their own meanings, through which she has acquired her ageless quality and ability to transcend the times.

The analysis showed that although the brand may represent something different for each individual on a micro level, it also works on a macro societal level to encompass national ideals, beliefs and values, through a history of being renowned for addressing the country’s deepest desires and anxieties. Further still, the brand bears the powers of a “Madeleine object” which have enabled it to sustain its power living on throughout the generations, as each individual permeates it with their own interpretation of an ideal “utopia” (Murtola, 2010; Heilbrunn, 2006; Maclaran et al., 1999).  Thus the brand acts as society’s foundational compass point, an anchor capturing societal erudition and shared sacraments (Holt, 2004), and on a micro level memories of childhood, an essence of innocence and purity which cannot be brought back, but a sense of which nonetheless becomes transcended through this brand (Miller, 2010). And so Alenka prevails not only as a token of affection and an ignition of the utopian flame, but as a symbol of the achievements of the country’s predecessors and the Russian state, untarnished by the times.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting subject for your dissertation. Wish to get to know more about this country and their culture as well. Thanks for sharing this. Keep it up!