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Anything goes: how the Russian news became a postmodern game without rules

Anything goes: how the Russian news became a postmodern game without rules

In Russia in the last year, stunts and spectacles of power have replaced politics. The best analogy for this special kind of fiction? Steampunk, of course, argues Mark Lipovetsky

10 March 2015
Text Mark Lipovetsky

At some point last year, I found myself unable to distinguish real Russian news from fake. Consider, for example, three random headlines from the Russian news ribbon:

—The Russian State Duma will discuss a law intended to guard citizens from the consequences of garlic consumption

—A conference in Moscow will be dedicated to a financial system based on Russian Orthodox values

—The Petersburg Cossacks demand the return of Alaska and California to Russia

Which one of these titles refers to fact, and which is fictitious? Perhaps it’s not surprising that the first is a fiction — a prank published by respected news outlet RBK on April Fools’ Day in 2013.

More staggering is the realisation that the two other stories are true.

One cannot help noticing that the joke about the garlic law from 2013 looks quite natural among the real news from 2014 — no wonder the former reappears now and then on people’s Facebook feeds. At the same time, numerous news items similar to those about the Russian Orthodox financial system or the return of Alaska and California, including everything pertaining to the so-called “New Russia” (Novorossia) in south-eastern Ukraine — would have struck anyone as a blatant fake even a year ago.

Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in the “Flight of Hope” to preserve a rare species of crane on 5 September 2012 (Photo: RIA Novosti)

This process has been building up for quite a while. In December 2012, Rachel Polonsky aptly wrote about Putin’s flight with a flock of cranes: “His microlight flight of summer 2012, tutoring white cranes in the art of migration, was a ‘fantastic’ stunt combining shamanist and folkloric symbolism.” However, stunts that initially seemed to be a distraction from actual political problems eventually transformed into a kernel of the new political discourse. Postmodernist spectacles of power replaced politics, or rather became Russian politics, in 2014.

One may detect the most illuminating examples for this logic in a smooth transition from the spectacle of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sochi Winter Olympics to the spectacle of the Crimea referendum followed by the peninsula’s “return” to Mother Russia, to the bloody spectacles of Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” as the enactment of the “Novorossia” project. No wonder so many political analysts have noticed staggering similarities between last year’s political transformations and the novel Day of the Oprichnik (2006) by Russian postmodernist writer Vladimir Sorokin, which depicts the future of Russia as a monarchy, isolated from the west by a wall and policed by death squads modelled on Ivan the Terrible’s oprichniks.

Igor Strelkov (r), defence minister of the “Donetsk People's Republic“ and the republic's prime minister Alexander Boroday with an icon donated by the Russian Orthodox Church to the Donetsk militia (Photo: RIA Novosti)

The blurred boundaries between fact and fiction, and spectacles of power instead of pragmatic politics, indicate a much greater problem. Perhaps these are symptoms of a new worldview that excludes any predictability, negates any rationality, and downplays as irrelevant any attempts to judge the present from the standpoint of historical experience accumulated since the collapse of communism. In short, if there are no criteria for distinguishing between a fact and fake, then, in principle, anything is possible. Anything goes: no limits, no breaks, full weightlessness. At least, in the minds of the immediate participants in Russian contemporaneity.

Such an effect typically emerges in revolutionary times. Those, who like me, vividly remember the perestroika period, would have no trouble recalling this euphoric sensation. But Russian political and cultural developments since 2012 are reminiscent not so much of a revolution as its negative version. A neo-imperialist turn in Russia’s international politics was prepared for by a massive freezing of the country’s social and cultural life. The logic of this process originates not in the fear of a revolution, but also in something that might be associated with postmodernism. The arrest and trial of Pussy Riot in 2012 unambiguously indicated the combination of these two vectors. The resultant neo-conservative discourse of “spiritual bonds” (to use Putin’s catchphrase) presents itself as a foe to moral and cultural relativism and promotes “eternal” and “unshakeable”, blood and soil, “true” European values (as opposed those shared by “Gayrope”). Which is why it enjoys such support even among the Russian intelligentsia, who don’t want to lose the economic advantages of the stable 2000s (which seem to start evaporating now with the rapid decline in the value of oil and the rouble).

The Night Wolves, a pro-Putin biker club, take part in the 2014 International Bike Show in Sevastopol, Crimea (Photo: RIA Novosti)

So, how did it happen that these “stabilising trends” have generated the “anything goes” effect? How did ideological freezing lead to a slide without brakes?

Naturally, it’s all postmodernism’s fault! This is the same postmodernism whose alleged death was trumpeted with excitement by some literary critics and “New Realist” writers (like Zakhar Prilepin or Sergei Shargunov) in the early 2000s, and especially after 9/11. And I am not kidding. At least, not entirely.

The “negative revolution” of 2012-13 appears as the first systematic engagement (since perestroika) of the Russian state in the realm of the symbolic — a sphere typically controlled by culture and its institutions. This engagement, however, has revealed that in the sphere of contemporary Russian culture a postmodernist logic dominates over any alternative. This is the same logic that Jean-Francois Lyotard described in his seminal The Postmodern Condition (1979), according to which postmodern knowledge legitimises itself by paradoxes, catastrophes, and performances rather than by rationality or force. Of course, when such methods of legitimisation migrate from culture to politics, one cannot expect any good to come out of it. Thus “spiritual bonds”, against the intentions of their promoters, can function only as a postmodernist spectacle, which instead of further stabilisation, produces the opposite effect — that of a game without rules.

Sochi Winter Olympics 2014 Opening Ceremony (Photo: Republic of Korea under a CC licence)

It is well known that postmodernism, much like the avant-garde before it, emerges as a critical discourse. The critical component of postmodernism necessarily includes, on the one hand, the undermining of cultural hegemonies, and on the other, the legitimisation of the Other — racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, etc. It would be unfair to say that the interest in cultural/sexual/religious Others has been suppressed in Russian postmodernist literature and culture, yet, admittedly, it has been overshadowed by the deconstruction of various cultural hegemonies (Soviet ones, when postmodernism developed in the late Soviet underground, and capitalist ones during the post-Soviet years). Possibly, this weakness of Russian postmodernism is responsible — albeit only partially — for the insufficient resistance of Russian society to conservative and imperialist ideologies.

Yet, one may ask, what happens with postmodernism when its critical side is completely suppressed? When it becomes a weapon in the hands of authorities and in this capacity is insulated from any outside criticism? When the postmodernist legitimisation of the Other is replaced by its demonisation, and when this process of enemy-production follows the scripts prepared by Socialist Realism? Such “postmodernism” degrades into unrestrained and, most importantly, demonstrative cynicism. The spectacular and performative character of postmodernism-cum-cynicism of Russian power constitutes another factor responsible for blurring the borders between fact and fiction, truth and blatant fabrication… To a degree, this process is similar to the mutations of the avant-garde in the 1930s, when, according to Boris Groys, its methods were appropriated by the Soviet ideological machine. Groys defined this new state-controlled avant-gardist life-creation as Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, arguing that Socialist Realism had become the realisation of Wagner’s dream about the total work of art, the dream shared both by Russian Symbolist and Soviet avant-gardists.

Sochi Winter Olympics 2014 Opening Ceremony (Photo: Republic of Korea under a CC licence)

Certainly, Putin is no Stalin, just as postmodernism is quite different from the avant-garde. Contemporary, i.e. postmodern culture, cannot be subjugated to a single centre of power — it’s invariably multi-centred. This is why, when attempting to characterise what, with a solid dose of mockery, one might label Gesamtkunstwerk Putin, an ironic modality appears to be more fitting than an heroic imperial tune. Many analysts have noted that Russia’s recent politics imitate the 19th century empires, before the Holocaust, Hitler and Stalin (quite telling is Putin’s reference to the US-Mexico war for Texas as a precedent for the annexation of Crimea). When transposed to the cultural sphere, yet treated as politics, this imitation inevitably turns into something grotesque, most of reminiscent of the postmodernist genre of steampunk. In William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s seminal steampunk novel, The Difference Engine (1990), the world’s destiny changes drastically due to the invention of a mechanical computer in Victorian England. In Putin’s Russia, on the contrary, a country with computers and the internet is suddenly re-imagined and re-constituted as a Victorian empire.

However, the general genre convention of steampunk remains intact: much like a computer in Dickens’ England, Russia’s “spiritual bonds” and recent political escapades function as quotations from a different epoch, and in this capacity generate disturbances of time and produce multiple zones of instability and unpredictability. Literary scholars have found in steampunk the manifestation of a postmodernist conceptualisation of history as a constructed narrative, a special kind of fiction. In Russia’s “political steampunk”, the same worldview has been transposed from the pages of a novel to newspaper headlines and TV screens. Indeed, present Russian politics is constructed as a postmodernist fiction. However, the bloodshed resulting from such a transposition is not fictional, but very, very real.

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