The Encyclopedia of “Sweet N”: James Manteith’s presentation from the 50th International Scholarly Conference of the V.I. Startsev International Association of Historical Psychology — Historical and Psychological Aspects of the Fall of the Soviet Union: Historical Parallels and Attempts at Interpretation. Dec. 13, 2021


Among the goals of culture is to help people survive such changes of eras as the collapse of the Soviet Union. From this point of view, I’d like to talk about the perception of one song as a bearer of the healing power of cultural continuity.


The song “Sweet N” was written by the Leningrad musician Mikhail “Mike” Naumenko, one of the first authors of artistically powerful blues and rock music in the USSR. Naumenko belonged to the Soviet Union’s unofficial so-called “second culture”. His songs initially had to circulate by amateur means, but quickly gained popularity and recognition, which have only grown since then.


One of Naumenko’s most famous songs — “Sweet N”, which appeared in 1980, was notably embraced by contemporaries as an “encyclopedia of life” in the author’s hometown and country. This definition implies a reference to Belinsky, who called Eugene Onegin an “encyclopedia of Russian life.” With this, the critic gave Russian literature an important symbolic yardstick, which remains in place to this day.


Such representatives of the second culture as Alexander Startsev, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya and Boris Grebenshchikov called “Sweet N” an encyclopedia of Russian, Soviet or St. Petersburg life, as different variants of recognition. That is, they agreed about the quality of encyclopedicity, which we can trace in the song at many levels, and about the song containing life as such. We might say the song has both facts and a sense of life, a characteristic search. In addition, these observers seem to have found it valid to compare this short, modest song from the late 20th century with the classic “novel in verse” of the golden age of Russian culture. And we can also surmise their feelings that in the song’s psychological space, Russian, Soviet and St. Petersburg life remains unified, and Leningrad’s life remains St. Petersburg’s.


Written in the style of a precise material and human document, the song forms at least a “short story in verse.” Naumenko made sure that the paths and perspectives of this story’s characters accommodate thoughtfully selected details which entrancingly convey typical second-culture realities: its settings, moods, habits, personalities, layers, manners of communication and relationships, its food and drinks, its economic life, and so on.


The song narrates a simple sequence of events. The main character, who tells its story, casually wakes up and goes outside, where he meets a second character, previously a stranger, on a bridge. They buy wine together, and the new acquaintance take the main character to visit a loft, where cursorily described bohemians are having a party. And at the end the hero returns home, where he claims he finds a sleeping woman, Sweet N, the character who occupied his imagination during the song. The way each of these scenes is described conveys a lively, direct notion of an alternative internal code for how people of the Soviet era — and of any era — might partition themselves from the official world’s categories and aspirations. This attitude has as much resonance with the legacy of classic contrarian thinking of earlier ages of Russian culture as with the Soviet equivalent.


Like the cultural movement it represents, the song focuses on observations about its own world, on the natural actions, feelings and dreams of its circle. A personal world becomes an environment for spontaneous artistic transformation. The song’s hero sets out without specific plans, but still winds up in an adventure. On the surface, he doesn’t spend his day constructively, but he guilelessly and observantly engages in making sense of his environment. And the song reveals his experience and orientation as containing a whole universe, into which listeners are invited, and to which they can relate.


Listeners’ attitude to the song shows that for many, literally every detail has an inspired resonance with their everyday lives. The sung testimony that exactly four rubles were spent on three bottles of apparently cheap wine in the Soviet Union during the stagnation period has remained poignant against the general backdrop of later financial vicissitudes. It’s also nice to learn that in the loft people are listening to Bach and discussing Zen Buddhism and flying saucers — an ironic, truthful eclectism not likely accounted for in the official reference books of that time.


Music helps to show the metaphysical scale that lies behind this dailiness, against whose background the hero remains preoccupied with his life’s meaning, embodied by the image of his muse, Sweet N. This harmonious dedication helps to give the song’s compressed encyclopedicity the expansiveness of a ballad or saga.


As with the cosmogony of Onegin and other classics of Russian literature, the dynamics and development of a life as diminutive and intuitive as described in “Sweet N” can easily affect a listener’s imagination even now. A thorough recollection of the norms of such a life in Soviet times provides an example for the present. The historical and current perception of the song tells us that the task of a person of the past, present and future is to find meaning and happiness where he is, and, if possible, to share his findings with the utmost encyclopedicity — that is, with artistic orientation on a reality independent of change.

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