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Is culture the new politics in Russia?

By Blog Admin, on 17 April 2013

How far has culture become a frontline in Russian politics? And how does it compare to earlier periods in the country’s history? Artemy Troitsky,  Peter Pomeranstev and Oliver Carroll discuss the nature of art, protest and the absurd in contemporary Russia.

Pussy Riot - Denis Bochkarev 6

Photo: Denis Bochkarev via Wikimedia Commons

Oliver Carroll:  From Voina to Bykov, Pussy Riot to Moscow hipsterism, culture seems to be playing a very political game in Russia. How can we explain this? Is this something that Russia has seen before? Are we witnessing this Russia’s ‘1968’ moment? And if so, is accompanied by the same kind of generational and political splits that we saw in Europe’s rebellion? Or is it something completely different?

Artemy: If this really is a cultural revolution, then I’m afraid it happening on a very small scale. Compared to the first decade of the 21st century, which was absolutely lethargic and comatose, Russia’s cultural life and political community has started to show some life. But compared to the kind of cultural euphoria Russia experienced in other times — during the so-called shestidesiatniki movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, or in late 80s during Perestroika and Glasnost — it’s on a much smaller scale.

The saddest thing of all is that today’s cultural developments are much more elitist, touching a much finer layer of Russian people than either of the earlier cultural thaws (ottepel). The cultural movement back then was simply massive, supported and followed by millions of so-called ordinary Russians. What is happening right now is more a minority movement, largely ignored by the majority of the Russian population. And there is also a strong counter-reaction too. Sure, Glasnost had some some reactionary things like Nina Andreeva writing her letter in Sovetskaia Rossiia, or the Stalinist writers who urged people not to give up on their principals. But they were the tiny minority. Right now it’s us that feel as if we are pushed in the corner.

OC: Peter, you lived in Russia throughout the 2000s, the least political moment of modern Russian history. You were also in Moscow at the end of that decade, which was when the political returned with some vengeance. Do you agree with Artemy that such change is pretty much insignificant, at least when compared to the 1960s and 1980s?

Peter: Everything in Russia is insignificant compared to the 60s and 80s. Everything in Russia seems to have shrunk and become an echo of when it was truly important. I think Artemy is completely right here, but it’s very interesting to look at the detail of what’s happening, because it’s a slightly different type of battle.

 In Soviet times there was a Soviet culture and a dissident culture. Today, things are less distinct. Over the last few days I’ve been meeting some people from Nashi, for example. I was quite surprised to find out their aesthetic is hipster. They love manga movies, they like modern arts, they have actually co-opted a sort of Western style into their language and then completely twisted it and married it to patriotism and quasi-fascism. In the past, the Kremlin was also sponsoring the most radical art projects, like Kirill Serebrennikov’s Territoriya festival. They went out of their way to make sure that there could be no cultural rebellion by co-opting that language and making it part of the system. Making it pointless as well in the process.

What I’ve been seeing the last eighteen months in terms of culture and in terms of language is an attempt by the opposition to create a mini world for itself, a place where it is not contaminated by the meddling of the Kremlin. And I think that’s incredible and quite inspiring. It’s not a battle of us against them, it’s a battle between manipulation and integrity, and a search for a new language. So it is a much more subtle war then it was in the 1960s and 1980s, when it was almost a Napoleonic war. This is more like the Cold War, with some skirmishes around the edges, spies meeting each other in the culture wars. It doesn’t mean it’s not important, just much more subtle and playful.

A: I think some of the things Peter is saying refer to the previous decade, not necessarily today. During the 2000s there was an obvious and quite successful pact with the regime: ‘We guarantee you a certain degree of stability and prosperity; you can buy your Korean car and go on holiday to Egypt’. In the business community it was, as Mr Putin himself put it, ‘pizdit’, no ne pizdet’’ (‘steal as much as you want, but keep your mouth shut‘). And a similar kind of pact was signed with the cultural elite: do whatever you want, any kind of artistic experiment, sex, drugs, violence… You want to make movies that make Quentin Tarantino look like the Muppet Show? Go for it… And again the cultural elite said ‘Yeah that’s fine, that’s fantastic’.

The machine is out of control

OC: So what happened with Pussy Riot, what changed?

A: It’s another era, because the whole pact has broken down. It started to crumble after the financial crisis of 2008. Now it has just collapsed, because the authorities can no longer deliver their part of the deal anymore, and because there is a whole new generation of people who just don’t want to live like this. This whole movement has nothing to do with the material issues that the authorities wanted to tame the people with.  It’s all about morality and ethics, these things …

P: …that we forgot about …

A: … that for many years we thought never existed

P:  I actually think the hardest thing for the protest movement has been to find a language for this new morality,  the search for language to communicate this sense of disgust, since the Kremlin has to a certain extent got a monopoly on language. I think there have been very different language streams going on. We’ve seen a return of the dissident language of the 70s. I certainly heard the word dostoiny, ‘decency’. I heard the words nerukopozhatny, ‘you can’t shake hands with somebody because they’re too dirty‘ — this word never went away but I hear it a lot. Nezapachkatsya, too, ‘I don’t want to get dirty’,

Pussy Riot are using some of that, certainly, but are also, very interestingly, using the language of situationism in 1960s French critical theory. In that sense it literally feels like 1968 here. There has been a whole language around architecture, around urban policy, protecting historical parts of Moscow, fighting for public space.  You have the phenomenon of architectural schools becoming hotbeds of revolution, because architecture and urban planning has become one of the ways people express their desire to revolt.

‘What’s happening now — the kind of new laws they’re adopting, and the kind of PR moves that they are committing —  all looks and feels like a theatre of the absurd’ Artemy Troitsky

I think you can trace a lot of this new energy back to Artyom Loskutov, a situationist-absurdist artist hailing from Novosibirsk. I met his friends in St Petersburg and Moscow, and they would come out on the streets with absurdist placards saying ‘the sky is pink today’. How can you respond to that? You can almost co-opt dissidence, but you cannot co-opt absurdism. This is why Voina and Pussy Riot were such a breath of fresh air, and I think why they were considered such a threat. In another culture they might have been too flippant. If this was happening in England, people would say ‘yeah, shut up’.  But in Russia it was simply vital. Suddenly they were sending sort of like rays of weirdness into the play the Kremlin had set up and it was truly shocking. It was the only response to the Kremlin’s language of absurdism. And it freaked them out.

A: And the Kremlin have responded by getting more absurd themselves. What’s happening now — the kind of new laws they’re adopting, and the kind of PR moves that they are committing —  all looks and feels like a theatre of the absurd.

P: I agree completely. We’ve just spent three days being lectured by Russian politicians about how are stereotypes of Russian are wrong. We had Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and some of the ugliest people in Russian politics wheeled out to try and convince us. It was almost like this moment at the end of Hamlet: “You think we’re mad? We’re really mad!” It’s like the moment at the end of the party when everyone is drunk and says: ‘Let’s do one last dance everyone’. Zhirinovsky, as usual, captured the Zeitgeist very well: ‘I hate you so much the translators aren’t going to be able to translate my hate. Everywhere there’s corruption, everywhere there’s dirt. We live in a world of evil’.  It was a performance, but he was kind of telling the truth in a way only a buffoon can tell the truth.

At the same time, you do have this sense of a machine running a little out of control. The puppet masters Surkov and Pavlovsky have gone and the puppets are still dangling about trying to do movements. You have this situation where, to borrow the words of [Matvey] Ganapolsky, ‘they’re printing laws faster than the printer can work’. The machine is hurtling downhill, and the breaks aren’t working…

A: It looks a bit like the movie The Shining.

P: Yeah, ‘Jack’s back’ or whatever. The biggest play in Russia isn’t the opposition movement, the biggest play has been the Kremlin. That’s where the real theatre is.

A: The opposition just catches those little pieces from the Kremlin party.

Claiming the bolshinstvo

O: But now the opposition is playing its play its part in the absurdity, with all its pranks and games. They’ve moved away from the language we were talking about just a minute ago — morality, legality, honesty — that was what people were talking about in December, and I don’t think they are any more …

A: No, no. When we ask the perennial Russian question — ‘What is to be done?’ — the agenda is the same. It’s the same agenda but under slightly different circumstances. One year ago we felt we had the energy, the brains and also the numbers. Some of those demonstrations were a hundred thousand people strong.

Right now, the political atmosphere has changed. Most opposition leaders now understand that it’s will be very difficult to overthrow this regime without winning at least a degree of sympathy from the so-called ordinary people. So there is a certain shift from slogans about morality, decency, honesty, to a more socially oriented agenda. We talk about economic issues, about social issues, like pensions and unemployment, and also national and nationalistic issues which are indeed a very hot topic here in Russia.

Since Pussy Riot, we realised that we are not a majority. This came as quite a shock to some people, myself included. I did not realise just how much conservatism and reactionary sentiment the dominant feeling within society. I still don’t really understand it. I see the Pussy Riot girls as brave, funny, nice, sexy, freedom loving girls who have done a bold and convincing action at a church that many people don’t even perceive as a church. The Church of Christ the Saviour is less than ten years old, and looks more like a shopping mall or a business centre …

O: With underground parking…

A: Yes, and a car wash…

The thing is I don’t believe that Russians are really stubborn or inspired Orthodox Christians. Just forget it! People might make noises like ‘This is blasphemy, I want to lynch these girls’. But when you ask a Russian when he was last in church, if he’s honest he will tell you he’s never been there, or that he was last there five years ago on a day trip to Vladimir with his family.

‘The drama in Russia isn’t between liberal and conservative, between left and right, between Asia and Europe. It is between overarching, triumphant cynicism, hateful cynicism …  and an attempt at some sort of integrity’ Peter Pomerantsev

What has infuriated them so strongly with the Pussy Riot case? Partly it is a matter of male chauvinism and their hatred of feminism. Partly it’s a generation thing: they’re punks, they’re young. It’s the same thing that made elderly Russian communists and workers beat up hippies in the street in the 1960s and 1970s. But this is not the whole answer. In truth, I don’t really understand how my people can be so cruel, so stupid, so conservative and so unresponsive to people who are working for them, I mean for their freedom.

P: I’ll attempt an answer, maybe not a whole one. I think the drama in Russia isn’t between liberal and conservative, between left and right, between Asia and Europe and all this sort of rhetoric that you hear. The drama in Russia, if you boil it down, is between overarching, triumphant cynicism, hateful cynicism which glories in its own cynicism and thinks everything is for sale and there’s no values, and an attempt at some sort of integrity.

This is an old battle. It is a battle that’s been played out in Russia since the Brezhnev period. I think the hatred towards Pussy Riot is because they can’t believe them, can’t believe that they’re honest, doing it honestly. The thing that you hear about them all the time, it’s not actually that they’re women, but that they’re working for the Americans. The whole charge against the opposition from the majority of Russians is that it’s meaningless, they’re all for sale. They are all doing it for Marat Gelman or George Soros or someone else. Once you’ve been broken yourself you say everyone is for sale. I think that’s the great drama in Russia and that’s why they hate them. In another culture they wouldn’t be a threat; In Russia it’s a threat because they are doing something outside the cynical paradigm.

O: I suppose the question is whether cynical is still in fashion? Around 2007, 2008, Facebook and social media was just taking off in Russia — and I think it is important to emphasise just how important the Internet has become in Russia — then, many young Russians were using the like button to project their own identities. It became a civil position to “like” one of Kirill Rogov’s or Andrei Loshak’s essays. People wanted to identify with this new…

P: Earnestness?

O: Exactly. And again that I think has changed…

P: In a sense that fashion is dictated by the cultural elites, no, cynicism is not in fashion. It has definitely gone out of fashion there. But is it still the overarching Russian disease? Yes.

A:  You know even among those people who made an attempt to break free from the conspiracy of cynicism, there are some who have become cynics again. They’re new-born cynics. I think they were idealistic a year ago, right now they are either very angry or very desperate. The angry ones try to do something and the desperate ones , the majority, they just want to emigrate and forget what’s going on here. If you could perform a magic trick of letting Russians go without any obstacles I think that about five million of the youngest and smartest and professional and generally speaking most decent Russian people would disappear from this country in the blink of an eye.

P: In London, it’s not even millionaires, it’s young, middle class.

O: Artemy, you mentioned that the opposition is now focused on the interests of the ordinary Russian, the majority, the bolshinstvo. This is, in fact now the prevalent discourse of the elites, of Putin’s men. It is the word you are hearing from the ruling elite with ever greater regularity. They are working for the many, the bolshinstvo, not the few. Has the opposition got any chance of winning on this agenda? How are they going about it?

A: The agenda of the bolshinstvo?  I think the only opposition leader who desperately wants to do something serious about it is Navalny. He has invented or created a couple of tricks to put all this into reality. One is the dobraya mashina pravdy, the Goodhearted Truth Machine, which is basically an enlightening unit which tells the so-called majority the truth about what’s going on in the country. Then of course there is all the Navalny related internet projects, rospil and so on.  I’m all for that, what else can I say?

I’m not sure it’s realistic though, because people in Russia actually know what’s going on in the country. They don’t have to be enlightened, they don’t have to be informed. They know what’s happening with the ruling party. They know they are just a bunch of career-minded blood suckers. They know what the Russian police is about, they know about everything and they hate the life they live. Even those who voted for Putin. Peter is right about this overwhelming burden of cynicism and apathy and just ‘fuck it all’ attitude that the majority of Russians subscribe to. So the opposition’s task is not to demonstrate how the party and Putin are no guiding light. People understand this already. They have to do something else. And I don’t know what this something else is.

The Russian, the state and the war

P: I approach it from a political science point of view as opposed to a cultural one: there is a systemic problem in a sense that a Russian can be, and usually is, very very decent in his private life. The typical Russian loves his kids, loves his wife, but the minute he interacts with the state, all rules are off and it’s a territory of amorality. That’s an old systemic problem I think actually going back to Tatar Mongol times of the idea in Russia of the state as a coloniser, as something inherently aggressive. That makes that any kind of public discourse or the emergence of it is impossible. Russians are decent at home, they’re decent in their private lives, you’d have to be loyal to your friends. The word svoloch (‘bastard’) is still a strong word, people don’t want to be a bastard in their private lives, but the minute they enter the Kremlin they become arseholes. Simply because that space is a space with no morality and nobody looks at anything but that. So I don’t actually see how Russia can progress without this very old idea of the state as an aggressor changing. It’s something deeply systemic.

A: Yes, but this is exactly what’s happening to all those millions of desperate Russians. They are against Putin and they want to escape from the country as soon as they can, not because of their political beliefs or whatever. It’s simply because they are tired of not being able to live a very normal life outside of their apartments.

P: I know a lot of mid level chinovniki (bureaucrats), and they’re all very decent. And yet they sign laws which are horrific. They just have different faces. The minute any Russian goes abroad and emigrate they flourish. They’re the richest immigrants in New York, they live in London, they go to Germany, everywhere they go they flourish the minute you have different rules. There is nothing inherently cynical about Russians, it’s through this relationship with the state. They’ve become excellent entrepreneurs and Westerners the minute this status appears. But I don’t see how you can… does that mean one should break up Russia? Is that how it changes?

‘It’s an up and down process. The great thing about the protest rally last winter was really that the people started to laugh at the authorities. People had no fear. But right now, as far as I understand, fear has made a major comeback. People are really afraid’ Artemy Troitsky

O: Might I suggest that something is already changing in the mentality of Russians? Just looking the differences between say 2007 and 2013, you can see that a certain burden has been lifted… I think culture has played a role in delivering the change, creating new ways of relating to power, ridicule even. Is it not a question of tooth paste and tooth paste tubes: once it’s out, it’s out?

A: Well, when the tooth paste is out of the tube it can go in different ways. It can be used for cleaning teeth or it can just be spat out.

I think it’s an up and down process. The great thing about the protest rally last winter was really that the people started to laugh at the authorities. People had no fear. But right now, as far as I understand, fear has made a major comeback. People are really afraid. With all those new laws, with all those arrests and the Pussy Riot case and so on they just feel that anyone is under threat now. I talked to some of my friends who used to go to demonstrations last year they now say they’re not going anymore. I asked them what has changed and of course they find all sorts of reasons not to go like ‘well, nothing is happening, nothing is changing, it’s not worthwhile’ and so on, but I’m pretty sure that the bottom line is ‘we are afraid to do it’.

O: Sure, but last year when you spoke in Westminster you were arguing that the system was close to breaking down. That same underbelly is there: a nation which is extremely well-educated — including, by the way, in the presidential administration and elsewhere in government — a nation that is travelling and working abroad, a nation with a sense of pride… How can they live in this theatre of absurdity? Can it really continue?

P: Where do you get the proud bit from? The great drama or story of Russia is that it is a broken nation, it’s colonised. That great painting of the people dragging along the thing is not proud, it’s a slave culture. It’s only a tiny bit who are proud, and they hate those who are proud. Pussy Riot are proud,  and they hate that, they find it sickening.  So the paradox is they’re very well-educated, see everything, know everything, and keep on doing it. That’s the tragedy, not that they’re proud. It one of the great illusions that Russians are proud.

A: I think I agree with Peter. As for smart people in the government, this is also changing. The smart people, like Surkov and Pavlovsky and so on, however monstrously cynical they were, they have all now been wiped out. And in their place are real idiots, fanatics and freaks.

I still think change is going to come. I’m just afraid that it will come from the other side, as a result as some kind of coup d’état. Putin only really has the support of a very small group of his very best friends. You can see the bulldogs fighting under the carpet. Yeltsin’s so-called ‘family’, the people who brought Putin to power, are unhappy. This is not because they are freedom loving people. They are very unhappy because they are losing a lot of money. They hate the image of Russia as an Orthodox Christian Taliban. They hate the fact that Russia is no longer an attractive country to invest into, that it is seen as a cancer ward internationally. Even oil companies are now thinking twice before putting any money into the Russian economy.

P: I think there’s another risk. If you see the Russian drama as one between cynicism and integrity there is a lot of dangers in that as well. Because on the one hand you have Pussy Riot or liberals who want to live in a different country, and on the other hand there is always the fear that a sort of genuine nationalist/fascist will emerge from the bottom up. I don’t think Putin can ever have an ideology, because he’s from a generation that can’t even fake an ideology.  They don’t have the belief-gene. But there is certainly room for a Roizman type figure to come up from the bottom…

Russia’s nationalism will be pagan

O: I sometimes wonder how much of this nationalism is part of the political theatre. How much of it is actually real? There’s one school of argument that is also part of the political game: you think we’re bad, you haven’t seen the others…

A: It’s hard to say. I always say that the problem of orthodox fundamentalism is not really a big issue. I don’t believe it can be important. But when it comes to nationalism, well, it does smell of danger, and it does smell of danger for the reason that they don’t really depend on anyone. Simply because there is this process called globalisation or global migration which is also happening everywhere. In this respect Russia is part of this global problem. In Russia it’s multiplied by the fact that the Russians themselves are so weak and demoralised and drink so much. So I don’t really know what to expect here but it can be quite serious.

P: I think, I hear a word… I think it’ll be very Russian, it will not be a Hitler-nationalism, much weirder than that. It will be much stranger, much more eclectic, much more bizarre, with bits of orthodoxy and shamanism probably in there as well… (laughs) But I’m hearing one word a lot…

A: Paganism! (laughs)

P: Yes, as well! It’s going to be something weirder, it’s going to be Russian. It will probably start in Siberia and suddenly it will just come. It will have certain ingredients. Another word we’re hearing a lot, apart from bolshinstvo, is chistota, purity. If the key word for the Kremlin the last ten years was stability, now it is chistota, purity. It brings together a whole bunch of stuff, it brings together corruption — let’s make it pure and clean — but also obviously brings an ethnic thing.

A: Purity means no homosexuals …

P: It can mean anything. There is a desire for purity…

A: … law and order, morality, and back to basics approach. And of course it’s a mixed bag. I personally would support part of this agenda. The other part of this agenda scares the shit out of me. It’s a very controversial discourse.

P: Oliver and I were talking to a girl who has graduated through the Nashi school. She was very interesting, because she is somebody who wants to believe in something. She really admires Limonov, because he believes in something. Her problem with Pussy Riot, she says, is that they don’t really believe in anything. She wants to believe, she is disgusted by the corruption, and thinks Nashi types will clean up the corruption. They’ll get into the Presidential Administration, they’ll clean it up. She’s for democracy in some sort of weird way, she’s using a lot of what would almost be opposition language. But you also have this thought lurking in the back of your mind that wouldn’t have thought twice about taking a gun and shooting you in 1937. They want purity, they want to clean up the system, but they also want to get rid of all the enemies. And that’s kind of frightening, that narrative.

A: I wouldn’t really draw the comparisons between 1937 and now too much, because the main thing is that Russia is not an isolated country anymore. Mr Putin would in his wet dreams love to see everyone around him executed, but he can’t really commit to that because then his billions of dollars in his offshore funds will disappear.

P: Indeed. And while we have talked a lot about how awful Russian cynicism is, maybe it is precisely this cynicism that will save Russia, because it will never take a fascist movement too seriously. So it’s a real double edged thing there.

Outside Moscow

O: So far we have been talking mostly about Moscow, perhaps St Petersburg. Artemy, you travel a lot around the country. Are you seeing any difference in the regions? Obviously, Russia is a very varied country, number of countries maybe. Is there anything happening in the regions which is of interest, different to what we see in the capitals?

A: Well, I would say that the regions are not that different when it comes to people. People are the same everywhere. I wouldn’t say that people in the regions are less smart or even lass informed than those who live in Moscow. Because the internet is levelling all if this. The bog difference is that in the provinces there are no outlets where creative people can do something.  There is only the internet. This is why anyone with talent from the Volga, Siberia, from everywhere, they all go to Moscow, sometimes to St Petersburg. It’s very sad, but it simply is very boring in these big eastern cities.

P: I think Russia is several countries at the same time, which makes it very confusing. I did the Trans-Siberian recently. Yekaterinburg is booming, rich, much more independent than Moscow. It has excellent theatre, excellent playwrights, everything. It feels freer than Moscow, much more liberal. Going out in Siberia, there are some towns that are actually more advanced than Moscow. When you go to Vladivostok, they are already globalised. They’re talking about Japan, they deal with Australia, Moscow is just an irritant for them. They are basically free already. Occasionally the central authorities come, they bow for ten minutes and think ‘go away’! There is another very bad journalistic cliché, that Moscow is not Russia. It’s completely the opposite. Moscow is the essence of Russia, but there are no Muscovites, that’s what doesn’t exist. It’s the best from everywhere. It’s not like New York in America, it’s like Los Angeles in America. It’s that relationship.

O: I disagree, or rather I don’t think it’s just a cliché. If we were to talk about freedoms, and specifically press freedoms, for example, the difference is very clear. It varies across regions, but at the moment the Moscow press is much freer and much more sophisticated than anywhere else. You have to be reasonably lazy not to get some independent news in Moscow. Obviously, there are university towns like Tomsk and so on which have a good press. But you mentioned Yekaterinburg as being a free space, didn’t you? Yekaterinburg certainly had some plurality of media, some independent agencies which were until recently considered free. And I can’t dispute what you say about theatre. But the big story there is now about Aksana Panova [and the URA.ru news agency, considered independent and oppositionist, and now at serious loggerheads with the local administration. If you look a bit deeper than the headline, you’ll see that, as all the other news outlets in the city, URA.ru was actually operating with contracts with the local administration for informatsionnoye obecnechenie, for good PR…

P: OK, there are obvious differences. What I mean is that Muscovites are different from the rest of the country, Moscow is actually the collection of the most driven and the most talented people from across the country. The people I saw at the protests weren’t actually Muscovites. Muscovites are the laziest Russians, because they do have a micro-climate where they do feel free, go to cafés and whatever. The ones who were on the street were actually form the provinces who had come to Moscow, face the corruption, can’t get up the ladder, and they’re fucked up. It looks like Moscow is protesting and the rest is docile, Moscow just has everyone who is active. In that sense everything that happens in Moscow is a reflection of what happens in the rest of the country.

A: I could add a couple of things here. One is that the provinces largely depend on local governors. I remember being in Samara in the mid to late 90s, when Samara really was a booming city — very cultural, very independent, very rich. I visited the place three or four years ago, and I simply couldn’t recognise the place. Rundown buildings, sad people and so on. I asked my friends if I had false memories. And they said ‘no, it was completely different, because we had a great governor, and a great mayor, and it was fantastic here. Now we have the usual pricks from United Russia and everything goes down the drain’. Media-wise, though, it is true the provinces are far, far behind Moscow. Even St Petersburg’s media is far behind Moscow…

P: Yet as you said, the internet is everywhere. I think one of the great paradoxes when we look at Russia is that the real public space is virtual. It’s completely faked, full of simulacra, while the virtual world, the internet is actually honest and free and real. So to find reality in Russia, you don’t go into the real world where everything is fake, you have to go to the virtual world. That’s where the reality is.

Cultural frontlines

O: Isn’t the cultural world also rapidly becoming that place where you can be honest, free and real?

P: Well, we are also witnessing a cultural shift no doubt, a different way of looking at the world. And yes, it’s more of a 1968 moment than a 1917 moment. The next few years are going to be the time of the film makers, the writers. There’s already stuff bubbling through. Teatr.doc has a generation of young playwrights, not always that good, but with a completely new post-Soviet voice. These kids aren’t doing postmodernist games, and it is fascinating too see them one after the other — from Tolyatti or other godforsaken town — doing those bleak, bleak, bleak, grungy plays about the awfulness of provincial life and being a teenager in Putin’s Russia. I’ve been waiting for them to start making great films. For some reason they haven’t converted their theatrical talent into a new Russian cinema, or it hasn’t emerged. So I’m still waiting for that.

A: I think in any case what’s happening now in Russian culture I personally perceive it in a very positive way. I am also expecting a real explosion in independent film making. I really don’t know why this is not yet happening yet, because it’s so easy now. You can shoot beautifully on tiny cameras and you don’t have to worry about the box office – you can simply channel it to the internet. You can become famous overnight.

‘Pussy Riot were fascinating because they were using a language the West understood. The grew up on a sort of situationism and on Riot Girl, both very Western schools. So it is a very interesting moment where suddenly Russian discourse and international discourse coincided.’ Peter Pomerantsev

Moreover, if we are searching for international solidarity, solidarity will most likely come through the cultural channels than anything else. Pussy Riot is of course a perfect example of that.

P: You know why Pussy Riot were important? In England, people keep asking me ‘what happened to Russian literature? It was brilliant all the way up to the 1930s and then suddenly: boom, nothing!’ In fact, it continued to be brilliant despite the repressions, it just became increasingly self-referential. Sorokin doesn’t make any sense for an English reader — they don’t know what the hell he is talking about. Russia became a bubble which had its own self-referential language, meaningless for the rest of the world. Which is a tragedy, because the world lost out. When Russia was connected to Europe, in the 19th century, this was a literary party.

Pussy Riot were fascinating because they were using a language the West understood. The grew up on a sort of situationism and on Riot Girl, both very Western schools. So it is a very interesting moment where suddenly Russian discourse and international discourse coincided. With Pussy Riot, suddenly someone from Russia made sense to us. We got them, we understood them. We don’t understand Limonov. For Christ’s sake, no Westerner can understand Limonov. I think there are brilliant writers in Russia, there are brilliant playwrights. It will be very interesting whether Russia’s cultural players can continue developing a language which chimes with the West. I think that could be very important.

A: I couldn’t agree more.

Oliver Carroll is editor of oD Russia which forms part of the Open Democracy site. Oliver was a founder editor of Russian Esquire and has worked for a number of other print and online publications in Russia and the UK. He has a first degree in Modern Languages from Cambridge University and a Masters in Politics from UCL-SSEES.

Peter Pomerantsev is a British TV producer. For many years, he sold British programmes to the Russian TV industry. He now lives in London.

Artemy Troitsky is a celebrated Russian activist, cultural critic, university lecturer and journalist. In the eighties, Troitsky played a significant role in the anti-Soviet cultural revolution of the Soviet youth. Troitsky is author of Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia (British edition 1987) and Tusovka: Who’s Who in New Soviet Rock Culture (British edition 1990).

This conversation was first published by oD Russia to introduce its CEELBAS Debate Frontlines series on politics and culture in the post-Soviet space.  It is reproduced here under the terms of a Creative Commons license [CC-BY-NC].  

The Centre for East European Language-Based Area Studies (CEELBAS) is a partnership between the universities of Bath, Birmingham, Cambridge, Kent, Manchester, Oxford, Sheffield, Warwick, the School of Oriental and African Studies and UCL, which is based at UCL-SSEES.

 Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.