19 OKTЯБPЯ 1982 г.,



Alexander  ZHOLKOVSKY (USC, Los Angeles)

Роняет лec 6aгряный cвой y6op < … >
Я пью один, и на брегах Невы
Meня дpyзья ceгoдня именуют < … >
Чужих небес любовник беспокойный?
Иль снова ты проходишь тропик знойный <…>
Кyдa 6ы нac нu 6рocuлa cyдь6ина
И cчастие куда б ни повело,
Bce me жe мы: нaм целый мир чужбина;
Отечество нам Царское Село.
                Пушкин, “19 октября [1825 г.]” (II:424)1

1. Квебекистан, тов. Meльчуку И.A.

Dear Igor’,

My reasons for writing this open letter to you in English are the following:

(i)    as you have so often insisted, no such thing as Russian exists for academic purposes;

(ii)    my (and the world’s) command of your stepmother tongue laisse désirer (why don’t you take one more step – or are you happy as le grand linguiste québecois?);

(iii)     I am writing this not for you (half of what follows you know and the other half, about semiotics, culture, tropes etc. you will never believe anyway), but rather, by way of something known as a “pragmatic trope” (which substitutes for an explicitly mentioned addressee another, implicit one, see Kerbrat-Orecchioni 1980), for whom it may concern.

I start, as you taught me, with

2. The Title, the Topic and the Goal of the Paper

The full meaning of the title and, in fact, of any word in a text, can only be made clear by the text in its totality. Here I will have to confine myself to a rough approximation.

Why the date? Because, of course, it is your 50th birthday (the local theme) and at the same time a ready-made type of title in Russian literature (an intertextual theme).

Why “semiotics”? As you know, I am not really a specialist, but then who is? One popular etymology derives the word from the latin semi-‘half’ + otium ‘leisure’; hence ‘half-leisure’ or ‘part-time job’, depending on whether you see a glass as half-empty or half-full. Another definition says that “semiotics is a chain of meetings, symposia, conferences, etc. on the agenda of which there is always one and the same item: miscellanea (see Zholkovsky 1970: 171). But then what can you expect of a Festschrift essay?

Why a “cookie wrapper”? Because semiotics is interested in all signs (a noble motive), and because ever since I read Roland Barthes’s (1964) analysis of an advertisement for “Pasta Panzani” in the historic Communications, 4, I have wanted to emulate it — to saynothing of The Raw and the Cooked (an ignoble, зато intertextual motive). One of Barthes’s most interesting insights was that the color scheme of the ad (red, green, whitish) brings in implicitly the Italian flag, while ‘l’italianite’ itself connotes ‘freshness, abundance, etc.’ (Barthes 1964: 41, 49).

As you will see, my cookie wrapper is both similar and different in interesting ways. Also my example, even more so than a poster, an advertisement, or commercial, illustrates the closeness and yet separateness of the referent (cookie) and the signifier (wrapper).

Why Soviet? First of all, because homo sovieticus sum et nihil sovieticum a me alienum puto (a nice, nostalgic motive); second, because this is an untrodden ground where one can hope to be original (a base, self-assertive motive).

My interest is, as usual, in the artistic expressiveness of the analysed structure, its rhetorical figure/s and strategies.

3. Advertising in poetry, poetry in advertising

As a typically capitalist genre, advertising has flourished in the West, especially in the U.S.; and it has attracted the scholarly attention of psychologists, sociologists, and semioticians. Vance Packard’s (1957) The Hidden Persuaders (itself a best-seller) focused on the rhetoric of advertisements which sell you the product by selling you on the idea that underlies it.

Leo Spitzer, in a sympathetic outsider’s view of Americana and a tour de force of “an explication de texts of a good sample of modern advertising” (1962: 249), analysed an ad for Sunkist oranges as an instance of Gebrauchskunst, i.e. of прикладное искусство, a notion which, curiously, he had to paraphrase in English as “‘applied practical art’: that art which has become a part of the daily routine and which adorns the practical and the utilitarian with beauty” (1962: 248).

One of Spitzer’s major points is about the ‘disinterestedness’ of this art, or to translate this into the Slavic dialect of Structuralese, its “set towards expression” (yстановка на выражение). I, for one, remember many ads and commercials, but hardly ever what they are supposed to sell me. For instance, on a train from New York to Boston, I saw a poster for some Irish cream liqueur which read:

The richest freshest
Creamiest Irishest
in all the world.

This text, written by a Shelley (or at least a Shelley major), conveys its theme, ‘Irish = exceptionally good and healthy’, with admirable artistic skill. The pivotal word that combines ‘Irishness’ with ‘exceptionality’ is, of course, the ungrammatical, i.e. neologistic, superlative degree Irishest. It is supported by the entire linguistic structure of the two first lines, which prepares it in several ways:

(i)    Phonetically (and graphically), Irishest is an anagram of richest and freshest;

(ii)    Prosodically and metrically, it is foreshadowed by creamiest, a dactylic foot beginning with a long and stressed vowel

(iii)     Morphologically, the unlikely superlative creamiest paves the way from the perfectly normal richest and freshest to the impossible Irishest.

As a result, Irishest is iconically “proven” to be a ‘superb combination of richness, freshness and creaminess’, something that is plus lait que le lait même, especially if the latter is advertised à la Sovietique: Moлоко это изумительный продукт, созданный самой природой. И. Павлов[a standard plaque in the windows of Moscow dairy stores].

On American TV there is an unforgettable commercial for some shampoo. It features a succession of beautiful girls with masses of rich, “bouncey” hair repeatedly penetrated by one (sic!), long, masculine, arm, now on the left, now on the right side of the head, to the refrain of the girls’ words “Come on, touch it!” The unmistakable connotations are ‘beauty,’ ‘coyness,’ ‘invitation,’ ‘intimacy,’ and ‘phallic penetration’, subliminally2 impressing on the viewer the equation ‘shampoo = sex’.

My next example is again a shampoo advertisement, this time a French one (analysed in Žolkovskij and Ščeglov 1980: 37). It displays, in four black-and-white photos, four different girls, interviewed by a pollster about the pragmatic meaning of the word fourchicotter; in the right bottom corner a modest yellowish bottle of L’Oréal is offered as a panacea.

The overall formal structure of this ad is the familiar one of ‘lack [= split ends]– liquidation of lack [= L’Oréal]’, cf. Propp 1969. The specific rhetorical emphasis is on the theme of ‘objectiveness,’ which is conveyed as follows:

(i)    On the level of plot the ad uses the ready-made motif (= Riffaterre’s, 1978, hypogram, or descriptive system) of a ‘poll’, with its connotations of ‘random statistic evidence, documentariness’;

(ii)     In the composition, ‘statistics’ is expressed iconically, through the expressive device of VARIATION (four pictures and girls, instead of one);

(iii)    Compositionally, again, the emphasis is, unobtrusively, on the ‘lack’, not on the advertised product (cf. Фирма “Дженерaл Моторс” в рекламе не нуждается; Volkswagen Bug: Ugly as ever; etc.);

(iv)     The color scheme provides an iconic representation for ‘documentariness’: ‘black-and-white’ movies and photos nowadays connote ‘non-fictionality’;

(v)    The dialogue implements ‘objectiveness’ as ‘scholarly, not practical, pursuits’ (note the disinterested search for an accurate lexicographic definition of the word in question).

Playing with ‘objectiveness’ isof course, one of the favorite gimmicks of advertising. From time to time I get, in junk mail, invitations to participate in sweepstakes, a sort of mass lottery. In bold capital typographic letters, visible through the envelope’s window, a typical ad “certifies” in a perfectly objective and trustworthy third person, indicative mood, that “MR. A. ZHOLKOVSKY WILL RECEIVE $500.000 EVERY MONTH FOR LIFE,” and then adds a shy disclaimer (“… if one of his numbers …”) in small print somewhere off-center.

4. “Back in the USSR”

To turn to the all too familiar Soviet turf, there seems to belittle room for advertising in a country where the customer is always wrong and the government the sole monopolist seller with nobody to compete with, and not much to sell anyway. Accordingly, the advertising scene is dominated by texts like: Покупайте мороженое Мосхладокомбината имени А. И. Микояна. “Buy the ice-cream of Mosfrozfactory named after A. I. Mikoyan” appearing in neon letters over the rooftops.

Not much of a rhetoric: a peremptory imperative (Buy…), a bureaucratic-technological abbreviation (Мосхладокомбинат), a total lack of semantic focus (mentioned, if my memory does not fail me, in one of Padu6eva’s articles on focus). Is the emphasis on ‘buy,’ on ‘ice-cream’ or on the products of the particular factory (which is the only one on the market)?3

Under these grim conditions it took a man of genius, a survivor of the Futurist era and someone well-travelled and well-versed in the West to start wondering about the techniques of persuasion common to art and advertising. Several decades before the advent of semiotics, Sergey Eisenstein was prepared to stoop to analysing cartoons, nursery rhymes, games (e.g. “Who’ll be the first to say 100?”, see Eisenstein 4: 695-7), or the rhetoric of door-to-door peddling. As early as 1945 (see 5: 498ff.) he quotes H. Overstreet’s Influencing Human Behavior, the chapter on “Yes-Response Technique”:

The canvasser rings the doorbell. The door is opened by a suspicious lady-of-the-house. The canvasser lifts his hat. “Would you like to buy an illustrated History of the World?”, he asks. “No!” And the door slams …

Hence it is of the very greatest importance that westart a person in the affirmative direction. A wiser canvasser rings the doorbell. An equally suspicious lady-of-the-house opens. The canvasser lifts his hat.

“This is Mrs. Armstrong?” — Scowlingly -“Yes.” — “I understand, Mrs. Armstrong, that you have several children in school.” — Suspiciously -“Yes.” — “And of course they have much home work to do?” — Almost with a sigh -“Yes.” — “That always requires a good deal of work with reference books, doesn’t it — hunting things up, and so on? And of course we don’t want our children running out to the library every night … better for them to have all these materials at home.” Etc., etc.

Wedo not guarantee the sale. But that second canvasser is destined to go far! He has captured the secret of getting, at the outset, a number of “yes-responses.” (Overstreet 1925: 16-17).

Such simple examples from low-brow genres were used by Eisenstein to illustrate the laws of “merciless,” “unrelenting,” “inexorable,” etc. (his favorite words) composition, whose task it is to hammer home to the audience the central theme the work of art is devised to sell him on.

5. Cracking the Code of the “October” Cracker

Now for the pièce de résistance of my essay. Thanksto the reproduction (see picture), I can skip the literal description and proceed directly to its poetic interpretation. Leaving aside for the moment the potential multiplicity of readings dependent on the readers’ codes, I will first concentrate on a historically specific Soviet reading and the underlying rhetorical structure.

When some 15 years ago I bought the cookies, my “native consumer” response was: aha, the usual thing. But something kept nagging me, just the way it is with an interesting paraphrase or poem. So I saved the wrap (and later smuggled it out) and started analysing my reaction.

You understand that when I say “the usual thing,” I mean something very different from what a “normal” American or European audience sees in this wrapper when confronted with it at a lecture. They perceive it as a nice, if traditional, variation on the theme of ‘autumn’, along the familiar Breughel-Vivaldi lines. If there is anything that surprises them it is the lack of connection with the cookie.

There is none. In the USSR you do not sell crackers, you sell ideas. The wrapper design is thus ultimately disinterested and ultimately engagé at the same time, its engagement being highly politicized. And it is here that an unexpected subtlety lurks.

I had assumed I saw the usual “Red October” stuff, the umpteenth reproduction of a stable motif (October revolution cum red flags, etc.) which, in fact, provides the name of the biggest and most popular candy factory (ф-ка “Kpacный Октябпрь”). On closer inspection it turned out, however, to be ‘red’ and ‘October’ but not a ‘Red October’ (just like that French guy who was roux et sot, mais pas un Rousseau)4.

The whole point was that, in a feat of ambivalent “yes-and-no-technique,” it both evoked the cliche and evaded it. It let you — and the censor5 — read it as a ‘yes’, but pointedly avoided stating so. The avoidance is quite marked if seen in the context of innumerable “Red Octobers,” or even subtler, but quite explicit structures, like the painting entitled “The October Wind,” with Lenin walking along the Neva embankment, the hems of his overcoat floating in the wind, presumably around 10/25, Old Calendar.

In our case “the usual thing” could have resulted in red flags or at least red splotches all over the wrapper. Instead, there are red leaves: it is they, and not October, that are red, and thus the obligatory political motif is replaced by an apolitical, eternal, natural, “abstractly humanistic” one. How is this effect achieved?

The color scheme is so devised that it covers practically all four seasons: the green oak leaves and the light yellow background stand for the spring-and-summer sunlight and verdure; the red maple leaves for autumn; the white unspecified (birch?) leaves, for winter.

The felicitous find is, of course, the maple leaves, which in nature are of a reddish-brown color when they fall in October. The central role of these leaves and of autumn in general is stressed by:

(i)    the intensity of the leaves’ color (they also outnumber the second brightest oak leaves);

(ii)     the fact that they carry the word ‘cookie’, in both Russian and Latvian;

(iii)     their direct connection with the title (‘October’);

(iv)     the upward windswept flight of all the leaves, which, via the motif of ‘falling leaves’, identifies the season as ‘(revolutionary) October’.

The red maple leaves play the double role of ‘falling leaves’ and ‘red flags’. Indeed, their blood-red color is exactly that of revolutionary flags, and rather unlike that of reddish-brown falling leaves of maple. Thus, in this combinationthe natural motif (‘the month of falling leaves’) is represented by the shape of the ‘leaves’, while the political motif (‘the month of Revolution’) is represented by their color. Of the two, the former is by far more explicit, so that the combinationas a whole follows the overall pattern of downplaying the official ‘Red October’ theme and squeezing it down into the subtext.

What is the point of such tightrope balancing on the brink of an official cliche without falling into it completely? I think it is a fine gebrauchskünstlerische implementation of the attitude, quite widespread among the semi-dissident Soviet intelligentsia and knownin Russian as a кукиш в кармане (which can be translated into English roughly as “giving them the finger from one’s pocket”). This is the position of “decent” people in the USSR who accept collaboration with the regime as inevitable, but insist on avoiding personal involvement and commitment whenever possible. “You want an “October” wrapper designed? Here you are: it is ‘October’ and ‘red’, but you won’t get me to spell it out as ‘October 25, 1917’”. This mild but firm resistance is probably to be expected, since the actual wrapper is made in one of the Baltic republics, Latvia, where the Soviet regime is a relatively recent and most flagrantly lawless innovation.

In fact, the Latvian part of the text provides a direct reference to the date of the annexation, alias “voluntary reunification”, of Latvia, June 17, 1940. In very small letters it appears as the name of the Riga factory that manufactured the cookie. This seems to add a final comment on the central ambivalence — the absence of a similar explicit statement on the level of the design’s major components: October remains un-red and undated.

6. The Lessons of “October”

The descriptive interest of such an analysis involves a wide range of subjects: “disinterestedness” of artistic advertising on either side of the iron curtain; differences in the social context of advertising; respective favorite messages sold to consumers (‘sex’, ‘objectiveness’ ‘freshness’ vs.’politics’, ‘eternal nature’, ‘non-conformism’); various ideological attitudes characteristic of the Soviet scene and their reflection in “applied art.”

This latter subject leads to another group of conclusions, the theoretical ones. The rhetorical figure that underlies our wrapper (one might call it “Covert Substitution”, in this case, of ‘apolitical nature’ for ‘official politics’)should find its place alongside other figures (various tropes; making strange “oстранение”; etc.). Detailed description of these figures is both of theoretical interest and can shed more light on ideological patterns and strategies.

Incidentally, one such figure is involved in Eisenstein’s reference to the art of canvasssing. I might have created the impression that he quoted Overstreet as a rhetorician from whom to learn and borrow. In light of Eisenstein’s persistent interest in persuasion techniques, there is little doubt that this was his real meaning, but the overt purport was quite different. Advertising tricks served as examples of the barrenly materialistic American mentality, against which a loveable “Charlie the Kid” (the title of Eisenstein’s Russian article) is pitted in a losing battle. Eisenstein had thus resorted to a device familiar to intellectuals in totalitarian societies: ostensibly denouncing the “ideologically alien” source, he in fact introduced it to his starved readers, предоставил трибуну врагу.

This deconstruction of Eisenstein’s own duplicitous rhetoric reminds us of the essential non-uniqueness of the actual interpretation I offered for the wrapper. Reading depends on the code. Some differences would be of a, so to speak, polysemous kind. If the delicate balance that ensures the ambivalence discussed above were to be toppled, this would result either in a naive apolitical reading (‘falling leaves’), or in a chicheed official interpretation (‘Red October’). The latter may lead to the canonization of a non-conformist (fellow-traveller, dissident,…) artist, deliberately overlooking his subtle noncommittance and integrating him into the official culture.

Farther away from the socially and historically most probable interpretation will be readings based on what we may call the homonymy of signs in different codes. Imagine someone trying to interpret the same design in terms of national symbols, with birch leaves symbolizing Russia, oak leaves symbolizing Germany, red maple leaves symbolizing Canada, red, white and green, the national colours of Italy (cf. above), yellow, green and white — those of Lithuania, and so on and so forth. A potential multiplicity, even infinity, of readings becomes, at least theoretically, plausible.

7. Envoi

For semiosis is an expanding universe. “Any attempt to codify context can always be grafted onto the context it sought to describe, yielding a new context which escapes the previous formulation. Wittgenstein’s suggestion that one cannot say “bububu” and mean “if it does not rain I shall go out for a walk,” has, paradoxically, made it possible to do just that” (Culler 1981: 25).

When all is said and deconstructed, I can confess that one goal of all my “blablabla” wasto inscribe indelibly on this wrapper a reference to a red-haired October-born citizen of a maple country. Another was, of course, to bring to your schriftliches feast a modest Platonic cookie, which I hope kindly veuille agréer with your mind’s palate. (A нет, так нет, as the joke goes, de gustibus ...). For best results, when serving,

Завари же в преддверие тьмы,

Полувечером, мнимозимой
Пседокофий, что ложнокумой
Квазимодною даден взаймы.
Саша Соколов. “Записка XVI.
Стих о прекрасной бобылке” (1980:82)



BARTHES, Roland. 1964. Rhétorique de 1’image. Communications, 4, 40-51.

CULLER, Jonathan. 1981. Convention and Meaning: Derrida and Austin. New Literary History, XIII, 15-


EISENSTEIN, Sergey. 1964-1970. Izbrannye proizvedenija v sesti tomax , vv. 4, 5. Moscow: Iskusstvo.

KERBRAT-ORECCHIONI, Catherine. 1980. Comprendre l’implicite. Documents de Travail et

Prépublications. Urbino: Centre International de Sémiotique (forthcoming).

LÉVI-STRAUSS, Claude. 1964. Le Cru et le Cuit. Paris: Plon.

PACKARD, Vance. 1957. The Hidden Persuaders. New York: D. McKay Co.

PROPP, Vladimir. 1969. Morphology of the Folktale. Austin and London: University of Texas Press.

PUSHKIN, A. S. 1937-1949. Polnoe sobranie socinenij, vv.I – XVI Moscow: AN SSSR.

RIFFATERRE, Michael. 1978. The Semiotics of Poetry. Bloomington and London: Indiana UP.

SOKOLOV, Sasha. 1980. Mezdu sobakoj i volkom. Ann Arbor: Ardis.

SPITZER, Leo. 1962. Essays on English and American Literature. Ed. by Anna Hatcher. Princeton, N.J.:

Princeton UP.

ŽOLKOVSKIJ, A. K. 1970. “Otsutstvujusdaja struktura” Umberto Eco. Voprosy filosofii, 1970, 1, 171-177.

ŽOLKOVSKIJ, A.K. and Ju. K. ŠČEGLOV. 1980. Poetika vyrazitel’nosti. Sbornik statej. Wien. (Wiener Slawistischer Almanach, Sonderband 2)


Translations of Russian Fragments

The title and the epigraph:


The forest is shedding its purple attire <…>
I drink alone, and on the banks of the Neva
My friends call my name today <…>
Of the alien skies a restless lover?
Or maybe you are again crossing the sultry tropic <…>
Wherever fate might throw usAnd wherever luck might lead us,
We are still the same: for us the entire world is an alien land:
Our fatherland is Carskoe Selo. 

Pushkin, “The 19th of October (1825)”

Section 1:
Quebecistan, Comrade I. A. Mel’čuk
Section 2:
in compensation
Section 3:
“Milk is an amazing product,created by Nature itself.” I. Pavlov.
Metrostroevskaja Street
Explanatory-Combinatorial Dictionary
The cart is still there (a proverbialized line from an Ivan Krylov fable)
GM does not need to be advertized
Section 5:
the “Red October” factory
Section 6:
ceded the floor to the enemy
Section 7:
lit.If no, then no (the punch-line of a Soviet Jewish joke)
So make, at the threshold of darkness,
On a half-evening, in a mock-winter,
Some pseudo-coffee that from the quasi-modish
Phony-godmother is gotten on loan.
Sasha Sokolov. “Note XVI. A Verse about a Beautiful Widow.”
The Wrapper (from top down):

“October” cookie (in Latvijan)
(Abbreviations for) Latvijan Soviet Socialist Republic, Ministry of Food Industries, the “June 17th” Factory, Riga.
“October” cookie (in Russian)
Ingredients: high-quality flour, sugar, fat, eggs, milk
200 gramsPrice 30 kopecks
The product’s identification number 


1. For translations of Russian fragments and the reproduction of the cookie wrapper see Appendix.

2. Talking of the subliminal, I wonder whether the words “come on” involve additional orgasmic connotations. But, of course, to establish this I would need that Americanest of research tools, a grant, to do a statistical survey of native speakers’ reactions. As you remember, even the greatest of Americans, Lincoln, needed a Grant to achieve his goal (I refer you to an informal discussion on Метростроевская circa March 1975 with Len Babby, of the prospects of the Толков-Комбинаторный Словарь in American universities; воз и ныне там).

3. My latest guess is that the focus is on Mikoyan, the leader responsible for the food industry, who had travelled to USA and along with some advanced technology may have imported the very idea of advertising: after all, the most interesting thing about this ad is its being there. And, of course, to advertise a leader, rather than a product, is much more in the spirit of Soviet murals.

4. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is, of course, purely coincidental.

5. Because every scrap of printed matter is subject to censorship (Igor’, you could do without this piece of information, but they cannot).