ZOiS Spotlight 27/2020 by Renata Gußmann (8 July 2020)
Just as any language has an idiosyncratic collection of words particular to and inextricable from its culture, the term smekalka is one of several Russian words that cannot be fully and accurately translated into English. A search for smekalka in modern dictionaries will suggest the translations ‘native wit’, ‘nous’, and ‘sharpness’. However, such translations are too modest and incomplete for the term’s broad range of incarnations and applications. A more nuanced and deeper understanding is needed to grasp this unusual quality, which so many Russians seem to identify with.
What is smekalka?
The colloquial term smekalka has emerged in a variety of contexts throughout Russian culture and history. Highlighting the many meanings embedded in the term, these contexts include children’s books, household advice guides, folklore, proverbs, and war sagas. In a seemingly helpless situation, smekalka is the ability that enables somebody to help themselves, whatever form this may take. Yet, smekalka can be tied to any context: when a problem occurs and a cleverly improvised solution is found, smekalka is the most likely culprit.
The simplistic translation of cleverness must therefore be extended to include notions such as resourcefulness, ingenuity, shrewdness, savviness, lateral thinking, improvisation, and the ability to quickly grasp a situation. While not necessarily expressed in a material way, the most common examples of smekalka tend to be physical. These implications help provide a more thorough understanding of the term, but at its core, smekalka shares its essence with French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage—making do with whatever is to hand, often resulting in astonishing manifestations of the term.
A need for DIY
Several important aspects of everyday Soviet existence were responsible for the emergence of smekalka as a coping strategy in daily life. Recurrent deficits and shortages of commodities, the particularities of Soviet material culture, and the promotion and popularity of DIY shaped the overall attitude and mindset that gave rise to smekalka. The circumstances of the time forced Soviet people to rely on themselves, find solutions when few possibilities existed, and invent or reinvent the functions of objects to deal with the shortcomings of the system they lived in.
This hands‑on approach was further entrenched by the emergence of DIY media, which not only provided people with the know-how to make things themselves but also conveyed the idea that solutions could be achieved with whatever means were available. An emphasis was put on using tricks and hacks to adapt, regenerate, and transform goods, teaching people a flexible approach to material objects as well as sparking an eagerness to experiment. This emboldened the general public to think outside the box, potter around, and tinker with their material possessions. That paved the way for smekalka to evolve into an essential quality, responsible for the emergence of countless resourceful and ingenious inventions.
There are many concrete examples of smekalka in Russian history. TV antennae made out of forks, X-rays used as music records, the common practice of tapping used batteries to prolong their lives—these are just a few illustrations of the creative world of smekalka improvisations.
To this day, smekalka is an omnipresent yet overlooked trait in Russian society—one which rears its head most visibly on the Russian internet. An image search for ‘smekalka’ will yield a broad variety of memes: hollowed-out banana ends used as shot glasses, cranes refashioned as bathtubs, and drills used as mixers. These examples again provide only a glimpse into the unlimited possibilities of smekalka, which is apparently as present in contemporary Russian life as it was in the Soviet era.
Smekalka is not an inherent part of the Russian character but a nurtured quality, nourished and cherished through times of hardship, when people had to rely on themselves and show ingenuity to get by. At times such as the current Covid-19 pandemic, ideas and practices associated with smekalka become widespread around the world. Without access to gyms, people repurpose household objects as fitness equipment; and with food disappearing from supermarket shelves, substitutes and new recipes are concocted. As limitations arise, people circumvent rules; and as access to resources becomes limited, they seek out new and ingenious ways of making do. In the process, many people find themselves using a style of thinking that a Russian might call smekalka.
More than anything, then, smekalka is a mindset. It means solving problems, tasks, and situations by approaching them from less obvious angles, flexibly and dynamically, without being bound by limitations of mind, conventional rules, or traditional norms. Smekalka is the ability to reshape and use the world around you in pursuit of a goal. Today, this is just as essential as in Soviet times.
Renata Gußmann studied East European studies with a focus on cultural sciences at the Institute of East European Studies of the Freie Universität Berlin. In her master’s thesis, she explored the concept of smekalka.