Can the Other Be Eaten: Live From Moscow or Royal With Cheese?

In order to arrive at the present moment, to bring you “live from Russia,” which I intend to do in the second part of my essay, I will introduce the archeology of Russian historical and geopolitical “identity.” By doing that, the subsequent examples will appear as a part, hopefully, of a more systematic historical, or geopolitical, pattern. So, let’s situate Russia. Two preliminary theses:

1) Russia is after history. I will repeat it. Russia is after history. Which of these statements came first? Which second? I invite you to read in this repetition two regimes that constitute Russian history, its identity, its chronotope, its “place” in time. One marks Russia’s profound temporal lagging: its very being appears “after” history (of Europe[[‘s]], other countries’) has already happened, making it forever “behind” the movements of World History, making it forever, irrevocably, late. Russia is after history, Russia is late, but late irrevocably, since history itself has ceased to exist. It is in that sense a country in which a time “after” modernity, a belated interval of the “post,” dictates all its “historical” modalities.

2) But this statement opens up a possibility that Russia yet has a future. The other regime of this repeated (not same) statement would situate Russia outside history, before history occurred, in the realm where the temporality of World History has not even happened: in the realm of the Messianic promise, that will alone hurl Russia towards the historical, its full teleological fulfillment, “after” it and beyond. In this second (first?) sense, Russia is still too early, forever young, untainted by historical time, since the clock of history measures time for countries, peoples or cultures completely alien to Russia’s immemorial or futural temporality. The repetition itself, rhetorically, models this chronology whereby the iteration, a copy, say, of Europe, precedes the original. Russia’s time, too late, yet to come.

Let us fastforward now to the 20th century, and see some examples which carry the traces of this identificatory unraveling.

I have recently adopted a new book in my Russian language class, titled “Live From Moscow” (Davidson, Gor, Lekic, 1996). The book comes with a video tape on which this “live” broadcast from Russia is staged and taped. The mediatic complication in transferring Russian identity is evident from the start. The textbook, which is a vehicle of grammatical, monolingual identity, called Russian Language, is in need of an audio-visual supplement. That supplement, while it carries the title “live,” is in itself a mnemonic, taped, testimony of Russian authenticity. “Live” from Moscow, authenticity , suffers the first internal contamination. The textbook needs a supplement which needs a supplement. The story of the internal contamination, or alienation from the purported source of “life,” live and authentic Russian culture, is additionally made problematic–completely unconsciously on the part of the textbook’s authors, by publishing, on the first page, and parallel to the Russian alphabet, something that is doubly alien to the Russian monolingual authenticity. The picture opposite the alphabet, shows what we can easily agree upon, the most global figure of globalization, the McDonald’s menu in Russian The McDonald’s restaurant was the first sign of capitalism to enter the Soviet Union (Figures 1-3).(The dictum, if I may remind you, says that “the modern man carries around with him an enormous load of these indigestible stones of historical knowledge, which then, at every opportunity, rattle loudly in his stomach.” He suffers from insomnia and rumination, says Nietzsche. The interview lasted about an hour and a half, and appeared almost without restrictions, under the title, “The Heartburn of History.” In the lead, just below the title, the journalists put a description of myself that I never mentioned to them, and that, I assume, they heard from my friends. The lead, surprisingly, had nothing to do with my interview. It said, I repeat, under the title “The Heartburn of History,” and in order to describe my competence to speak on the topic of Nietzsche and modernity: “Dragan Kujundzic, of south-Slavic origins, has two passports, American and French” (Shul’pliakov, 1998, 1). So, I leave you with this attempt to digest Russian history, before we part, before you yourselves develop a heartburn. The picture closing this essay is Deneika’s mosaic ceiling of the Maiakovsky metro station made in the thirties, a veritably socialist-realist fruits of the Paradise, before the fall of/into history, the apples (figure 80). With the reminder, that the Other, indeed, may be eaten, that it even should be eaten, it is impossible not to do so, and that, as we ponder the millennial closure of history and the arrival of the Other, that dominates Russian history but may well be the model which we all share, just like those scrolls of the law in Ezekiel, that Other, in the disguise of mondilatinization, globalatinization, may yet turn out to be “sweet in your mouth, but bitter in your stomach.”)

The modern history of Russia may be seen, especially in recent years, as a substitution of one claim of universality, globalization, the march towards the global, world revolution, for a globalization of another kind: yet another economic and political self-colonization, that of globalism, or mondialization.. But unlike the previous self-colonial folds, this one cuts much more radically into Russian identity than anything in its history. What is “live,” authentic and unmediated, the access to Russian life, culture, its singularlocality (“live from Moscow”) is doubly subverted. First by the contamination of the Russian language through a vocabulary completely alien to its linguistic purity, such as “Dvoinoi Mak,” “Gamburger” or “Chizburger,” thus tearing apart Russian linguistic identity at the heart of its production (the alphabet), by what Bernard Stiegler calls “macdonaldization,” the American pursuit of extending a universal, visual grammar of globalization and a major rupture “with its properly European episode” (Stiegler, 1998, 100). But combining McDonalds’s with the Russian alphabet signals, here at the very site/sight of what is properly Russian, (the Russian alphabet, grammar as the condition of a political and national education), a symptom of the global effect of the grammaticalization of the audio visual which now serves as the data bank for the future tales of “national” identities (the McDonald’s in Moscow, “your McDonalds,” the American student is admonished, is juxtaposed in this video in the closest proximity to another figure, the major figure of the Russian national narrative, that of Pushkin; see figures 6-10 for the recent Pushkin Moscow iconography, from the statue on Arbat, to the Pushkin phone card or the Pushkin saussage stand). And secondly, authenticity is subverted by printing a menu which does not even require ANY linguistic competence, since you may order simply by pointing to the picture. But that very anecdote points to the absence of language as such in the presence of this icon of “macdo-mondialization.” (See figures 3-4 for the conceptualist subversion of this impuls by Milan Kunc: “The Great American Revolution, ” 1978, and “Coca Cola-Pravda, 1978). (For the critical assessment of the Soviet Conceptual Art and Kunc particularly, see Groys 1992; Groys and Kabakov 1999).

The tension between the global and the local is evident in another modern site at the center of Moscow in the closest proximity to the Kremlin: the largest underground shopping mall in the world. Its mondialist aspirations are clearly visible: at the top of the underground construction stands a globe with a statue of St. George killing the dragon (figures 11-13). The flow of cash, commercialism, and as we shall see technology, is offset or warded off by the sacrificial mark, the locus at which the blood of the dragon defines the ground in its singular locality pierced by the spear, the symbolic wound of Orthodox Christianity which puts Moscow to the top or in the center of the world.(It is this mall that was recently the site of a terrorist bombing attack. The following description of this event, obviously stemming from anxieties we are delineating here, is from the New York Times: “As the police stepped up security at the three-level mall and other major buildings, the Federal Security Service said a leaflet that attacked modern consumer society , attributed to a group called the Union of Revolutionary Writers, has been found at or near the video arcade that was the blast site. ŒConsumers, we do not like your way of life and we are dangerous to you,’ the pamphlet said. ŒThe half-eaten hamburger left by the dead man on the streets is now a revolutionary hamburger.” (Wines, A6).) But the forces that are warded off are equally powerful, and come back, or are telephoned back to this topography, in the shop called “The World of the New Russians” (figures 13-25). In it one can buy the staple folk art of Russia, lacquered boxes, very usually featuring scenes of idealized Russian domesticity, usually village life bliss. They may be seen as the most authentic sign of Russian folkloric, populist identity. But in the “World of the New Russians,” these works of art come with a twist. The scenes of domestic bliss, of what is proper to Russia, the Russian village, are contaminated by body guards, cellular phones, Mercedes cars, or laptop computers which prevent the former communist bosses now newly reincarnated as businessmen, or business males, to perform their conjugal and marital obligations. The man is busy working on the laptop in bed while his wife, naked, waits impatiently. Another lacquered tray features what is the emblem of the un-institutionalized international trade, the essence of capitalism, the drug trade, by having a marihuana leaf where the traditional birch tree or a poppy or field flowers should be. Some other signals of the contaminated Russian identity: the police car with the St.George emblem on a Ford Crown Victoria; Kit-Kat add, Rostik’s and DeliFrance restaurants on the Maiakovsky square, signs of globalization on the Tverskoi Bulevard, as well as a pollution of what is the most proper food (the food that is a nutrition equal to the “mother-tongue”), that is milk, with the Coca Cola sign: Coke, the milk of capitalism. (figures 26-34).

And this rampant capitalist promiscuity takes place close to the newly reinvented socialist or communist iconography, the re-writing of history rapidly taking place under the auspice of Iurii Luzhkov, the ubiquitous mayor of Moscow and most likely the next president of Russia (figures 35-45). In the closest proximity of the newly erected monument to Stalin’s marshal Zhukov, can be seen scenes of Russian folklore fairy tales, the eternal flame next to the Kremlin, or the newly reintegrated monuments of the Soviet leaders, somewhat destroyed and ruined in the anti-soviet populist riots a few years ago, now peacefully relegated to the “Park of Culture.” There you can see a noseless Stalin, (one is reminded of Gogol’s the Nose), the refurbished KGB chief Derzhinsky, the ominous Iron Felix, displaced from his foundation in front of the KGB offices by the angry mob, (no sign of that violent relocation is left on the plaque next to the monument), but now already, by some recent accounts, on his way back, the Iron Felix. Lenin, together with Esenin or Sakharov are also there. I must report, in all honesty, that while the monuments of the communist leaders are polished, that of Sakharov, the leading figure of the Soviet opposition, now standing under a willow tree, is somewhat desecrated and defiled by bird defecation. This is one example of the ways in which history and digestion complement or illuminate/eliminate each other.

This park is also in stark contrast with the Messianic mobility of Lenin’s monument in Theo Angelopoulos’ Ulysses Gaze. In it, a huge, fifty ton statue of Lenin is loaded, in Plovdiv, onto a barge, and sent upstream, on the Danube, passing Belgrade, Novi Sad, Vukovar, Budapest, Regensburg, on the way to Germany. But this Lenin sailing to Germany, is different. A ruin, a dismembered ghost of its own spectrality, an advent of messianism without Messiah, country, national belonging, or anchor. It unsettles both the “original” mummy tied to one place, localized as a center of a national or nationalist solidity of its resting place, this other mummy also a disembodied, virtual, simulation, or a ghost, without teleology. “Altogether other. Staging [for] the end of history. Let us call it hauntology” writes Derrida in the Specters of Marx (1994, 10). And this is, maybe, its emancipatory promise: that, whatever future is opened by its circulation, it will be marked by an unheard-of inventiveness, in which all our certainties about “after,” “Russia,” “communism,” will be unsettled, re-invented and re-imagined. As the barge inches upstream on the Danube, masses run along the riverbanks, kneel, cross themselves, and pray. What do they see in this giant specter of Lenin? A ghost, a Jesus Christ, a Messiah or a demon? Animage? Or simply a ruin? The uncertainty is haunting. So I urge you to embrace this messianism without the Messiah, this re-appearance of the specter, and to embrace it exactly as a return, a re-imagination, as it re-enters/exits the stage of World History. It circles, it is coming. “A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of Communism.”

Another confusing, boundary blurring, disorienting element in the contemporary Moscow landscape is the new funerary rites developed in the last few years. Due to the fact that the government is not paying salaries to the institute that was in charge of preserving Lenin’s mummy, they turned to the new clientele: the Russian Mafia. Russian Mafiosi pay up to $30.000 to be embalmed, displayed in a crystal coffin prior to burial, thus conflating Russian chiliastic Messianism, (in some ways already on display, teleologically embodied in Lenin’s mummy), with a particularly new Russian fascination with techne. The very site that defines what a site is, the mark or trace of death, the most proper of the proper, what constitutes the name, genealogy, national and personal identity and history, is again contaminated by what is most displacing for such identity: by the relentless intrusion of the techne: MBZ keys in the hand of the Mafiosi, in life-size 3-D hologram carved into the marble. (On this topic see the excellent article by Olga Matich, “A Successful Mafioso is a Dead Mafioso: the Culture of the Funerary Rites,” Matich 1998). In Russia, the Messiah will come, not in chariots, but in a Mercedes Benz (figures 46-48). (The riots which I witnessed, between the hungry miners and the police took place on the Karl Marx square: on one side there was the crowd, in between the riot police, and behind some 300 Western journalists, reporting with their cellular phones. On the other side of the scene, there is still a huge monument to Karl Marx, overlooking the square. The little park with a fountain, in front of the Bolshoi Theatre, where the journalists are standing, is a gift to the city of Moscow, for its 850th birthday. The donor is the Mercedes Benz company. The inscription on the plaque is in German and Russian).

A real Messianic fervor‹Moscow as a third Rome‹is made visible in the newly built Church of Christ the Savior (Khram Khrista Spasitelia), the largest Orthodox church in the world, reproduced right on the spot of the previous one, blown up by Stalin in the thirties, and on the spot where he planned the central site of the Third International, the Palace of the Soviets, which was to be the largest building on Earth/in the World. This new church is made only as a vague replica of the old one. Made in ferroconcrete, its foundation holds the Orthodox religious center, with latest communication and information distribution technology, meant as the world center of Orthodox Christianity figures 49-51). Another symptom of this Messianic fervor may be found, quite unexpectedly, in a gesture of defilement of Malevich’s “White Cross on White” by the artist Bruner, in the Amsterdam Ryijk’s Museum (figures 52-57).The gesture consisted of spray-painting a dollar sign over the cross. Thus, a strange alliance of capitalism and Christianity, (in God we trust!) as the experience of the death of God is forged, at the same time hegemonic and finite, that Jacques Derrida calls mondialatinisation (Derrida, 1996) or globalatinization.

In the exhibit to commemorate the sacrilegious gesture, a strange twist or crossing between the Christic and the capitalist: a cross made of industrial beams. These Christic images of male bodies in rigor mortis or Messianic phantomaticity should be taken only as signs of the dominant historical imaginary in contemporary Russia. Russian gender, as I have had the pleasure to discover, can be much more heteronomous that the predictable Corpse-like stifled bodies displayed in situ. From Cross to the Cross-Dressing: I have been to several gay and lesbian clubs in Moscow, and was lucky enough to be present at the invitation only party for theclosing of the Moscow art season. During this festivity, as you can see, there was a parade of famous Moscow transvestites, some of them well known artists like Vadik Monroe, performing to gay anthems such as Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” but also dubbing some famous Russian folk songs, like “Ivushka zelenaia,” to a parodic tune. Vadik Monroe’s very name displays a very eager embracing of the Western other, this time in its most eroticized, hybridized (Bakhtin), ambivalent form (figures 58-62). The destabilizing force of the economico-political transformation in Russia affects rapidly both very tabooed sexual practices and the artistic imaginary (notice the painted shutters, with the portraits of these very same transvestites, hanging on the walls) towards a gender hybridization: this contamination has allowed for some of the most fascinating, and for me at least, most appealing aspects of this libido-politico-economical transformations, an unrestricted, open-ended alterity, to surface. (Notice the graffiti, unimaginable in the Soviet period, “Katia+Tania are lesbians” in figure 63). And a few more images, telegraphically, that reiterate the two contradictory folds of Russian identity: the simulated Lenin in front of the Mausoleum (figure 64).

Milan Kunc’s “Superman With Lenin” (1978) coupling the Western Messianic image with that of the Communist Messiah (figure 65); Dubosarsky-Vinogradov’s “Christ in Moscow” that opened as a one-picture show in the XL Gallery in June of 1998, whereby Christ appears on the Maiakovsky square amidst foreign cars and ecstatic, eroticised New Russian women, ready to take their clothes for him (figure 66-68); the “Misha the Bear and the Barbie Doll” by the same authors represent the desirability of the West for the Russians, and the imaginary dominance a-tergo (figure 69), not far away from the store that indeed is called “The Barbie World” in the same Manezh Mall (figure 70); and the imaginary cross-words by Anton Olshwang, completely devoid of referentiality, asking for solutions such as “Old insects” or “An uneven table” (71-72). (For the critical assessment of contemporary Russian art see excellent book by Dyogot, 1998).

So can the other be eaten? Let me testify instead of answering, by showing you a few recent appropriations of the communist ideology for the globalatinization, those images that pertain to eating and digestion (figures 73-79): the American Sasisk hot-dog stand next to the Lenin Metro station in Moscow; welcome to the party ad for Russian vodka, party approved as we are being reassured; or another gustatory pleasure from my very own Memphis, Tennessee, an ad for the Winston cigarettes: even communists are free to smoke; the add does not say if they do or do not inhale; and finally, two or three more appropriations of the soviet iconography for the contemporary capitalist milieu: the first of May military parade for the Mach 3 Gillette brand that could surely take care of our bearded leaders; the Sovetski catalogue, with its own site, with the soviet paraphernalia for sale; and the Hustler magazine February issue hammer -and-sickle-bunny.commie sign, promising not the new International, but a new InterNETional without borders, driven by unbridled libido and desire . Run rabbit, run. And another testimony: during my recent stay in Moscow I was interviewed for the literary section of Berezovski’s Nezavisimaia gazeta, Ex libris. During the interview, I elaborated in particular on one Nietzsche’s famous dictum from his “History in Service and Disservice of Life” (“Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie fuer das Leben” 1874), and its relation to Russian Modernism of the twenties (Shklovsky, Tynianov, Maiakovsky, Bakhtin).


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——————–. Monolingualism of the Other or the Prosthesis of Origin. Patric Mensah tr. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998

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Wines, Michael. “Moscow Blast Could Be Linked To Group Fightnig Materialism.” The New York Times, September 2, 1999, A6.