#2 Introducing Poshlost’


In Tuesday’s class, Zosha will give us a good introduction to bad taste of the specifically Russian variety known as “poshlost,” or “poshlust,” per Vladimir Nabokov’s pointed transliteration of this untranslatable term. After you’ve read the excerpt from his book on Nikolai Gogol, the essay on “Philistines and Philistinism,” and the historical survey of poshlost’ by Gennady Obatnin, please review and respond to Zosha’s post to the blog.


Here’s Zosha’s post:

A Primer in Poshlost’

Poshlost’, in the words of Svetlana Boym, is the a uniquely Russian word for bad taste. “Poshlost is described as one of those untranslatable Russian words meaning ‘cheap, sham, common, smutty, pink-and-blue.’ Poshlost is an obvious sham that deceives not only aesthetically but also morally.” (Boym p. 279).

However,  Poshlost is not just the identifiable cultural trash consumed in moments of weakness, it is also people who use the word existentialist in daily conversation, name-droppers, and dinners Instagram’d out of smug self-satisfaction, and religion. Anyone who believes themself to be “advanced”, classy, or on-trend is, in reality, just the same as the people they make fun of for reading tabloids and eating Twinkies- they just exhibit a higher level of cultural abuse and are equally impressed with themselves because of it.

Seemingly, religion is the outlier in the idea of Poshlost. But religion is its own cultural authority that just comes with the added bonus of morals! Any collection of individuals that thinks that have moral rightness to judge others yet announce “Jesus loves ME” has the same self-congraulatory nature as that selfie or aforementioned Instagram’d meal. Being religious also satisfies Nabokov’s dualistic description of the nature of a Poshlost devotee (note: can never declare oneself as a devotee of Poshlost because that is inherently Poshly!): 

“The philistine in his passionate urge to conform, to belong, to join, is torn between two longings: to act as everybody does, to admire, to use this or that thing because millions of people do; or else he craves to belong to an exclusive set, to an organization, to a club, to a hotel patronage or an ocean liner community (with the captain in white and wonderful food), and to delight in the knowledge that there is the head of a corporation or a European count sitting right next to him.” (Nabokov p. 311) 

The Poshly person can join any religious group and know that he is conforming to something global, but also gives an exclusivity of moral value (e.g. I am a good person) and rituals, like communion, baptism, and maybe some human/animal sacrifice. And while there are 260 million Orthodox Christians in the world, that won’t matter to the Poshly person who is delighted that they are lucky enough to have the same religion as their favorite celebrity or leader.

Poshlost is also slightly cannibalistic. For example, anything of high aesthetic is considered Poshly because of how it sees itself-  Obatnin gives the example of theatre. But if an amateur group was to spoof the performance, that is also Poshly, as they are considering themselves cultural critics with something to say. Those who consider themselves arbiters and critics of taste are an considered Poshlosty by Nabokov because of their sense that they are at the higher levels of culture and aesthetics. In the spirit of Poshlost, we can barely criticize and discuss it without being eaten by the same cycle. After all, what gives lowly bumbling pseudo-intellectuals the right to criticize culture? Unfortunately and delightfully, we are also experiencing Poshlost.

In closing, here are some questions to consider:

Kitsch, tack, camp, tawdry, cheesy, cheap, trashy, and Poshlost all belong to the same genre. Is there a single unifier, aesthetic or otherwise?

Is Poshlost really untranslatable?
How do we experience the Russian concept of Poshlost in our perception and depiction of Russia?
Is religion truly Poshly?




3 thoughts on “#2 Introducing Poshlost’

  1. In considering your closing questions, the idea of the funeral home seems to encompass a lot of what you are getting at. Although the word “poshlost'” may not have an English equivalent, modern Western traditions around death embody the idea especially well. Parlors in funeral homes are furnished to resemble rooms in an upper-middle class house, lights are dimmed, weird angel statues watch you from the garden, and none of it is real. No one lives in the house, the cabinets are empty, and the fireplace doesn’t work. The funeral home puts on all the airs of tastefulness, but only to mask its own pedestrian griminess. Zosha touches on the connection between the poshly and the religious, which comes into play here as well. Although linguistically poshlost’ belongs to Russia, I can’t think of a better label to attach to our own twisted mortuary culture.

  2. Good post Zosha! I think you raise an interesting question about whether there is a single unifier, aesthetic or otherwise. As Obabnin explains near the end of his historical analysis of poshlost, the concept of poshlost has changed significantly over time and is evolving still. I’m having a hard time pinpointing a unifier since poshlost seems to “change with the times.” However, like you mention, poshlost’ seems to be a concept rooted in the false display of good taste — there seems to be something conspicuous about poshly things too!

  3. Zosha, your question about religion as “poshly” made me think of late-night religious television programming. Occasionally, when I am bored and channel surfing in the wee hours of the morning, I come across a preacher reassuring the television audience that they can personally be saved (usually by means of donation to the ministry). Despite my own atheism, I sometimes watch these shows, if only because I am intrigued by their unabashed ridiculousness. I believe they are a good example of an American form of Poshlost. The televangelists appear on a stage that is decorated in a way that is not unlike the aforementioned example of a funeral home: a cheap attempt at tastefulness and spirituality in a cold, harsh environment (a television studio). There are fake-looking plants and tacky statues, ostensibly to provide a comforting aesthetic to the religious masses. The preachers often speak in extremely broad terms, using reassuring tones to ultimately convince the television audience to donate their money in exchange for good fortune at the will of God. I believe that this kind of commercial religious culture, in which spirituality is manufactured and packaged for mass consumption, is an example of Poshlost in America. Although it may be meaningful to those who readily consume it, mass-produced religion is ultimately empty and meaningless.

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