The Sorokin Affair Five Years Later On Cultural Policy in Today’s Russia
Five years ago, a campaign and criminal case against the writer Vladimir Sorokin attracted considerable public and media attention in Russia. In this essay, we begin by reviewing the events of the Sorokin affair and then attempt to understand it in the context of the Putin regime’s discursive practices.
One day in mid-January 2002 a large group of clean-cut young people gathered in the center of Moscow. They came out to protest what they claimed to be the obscene and unwholesome character of certain recent works of Russian literature. At the rally, they announced the beginning of a massive campaign aimed at cleansing post-Soviet literature: during the next month, they would exchange the books of contemporary authors deemed offensive for the two-volume edition of collected works by Boris Vasil’iev, a respected senior writer known for having explored in his fiction the heroism of Soviet youth during the Great Patriotic War. Among the writers whose works the activists branded “harmful” and accepted for trade-in were three leading “postmodernist” authors: Viktor Pelevin, Viktor Erofeev, and Vladimir Sorokin, as well as, for some reason, Karl Marx. The activists promised that the Russian books collected in such a way would be mailed to their respective authors and Marx’s to the German city of Karl-Marx-Stadt, the birthplace of the German philosopher, as they mistakenly claimed.
The young people’s campaign had all traces of a political hack job: the city of Karl-Marx-Stadt could not even be found on the map: it had regained its historical name of Chemnitz in 1990; the exemplary war-fiction writer Boris Vasil’ev quickly went to radio to denounce the book exchange project; he requested that his works not be used to dictate to Russians citizens what they should read. Moreover, the authors accused of obscenity reacted with some glee to the publicity they were receiving: their books were now selling like never before, said Viktor Erofeev. Even Russia’s liberal minister of culture Mikhail Shvydkoi joined the chorus of opprobrium:
[The organizers of this action] are summoning the return of censorship, are speaking out against the constitutional right to freedom of expression. They propose that it is precisely they who have some higher knowledge of what is “healthy” literature and what is not… We still remember that system of requisitioning of “harmful” books that existed in the Soviet Union. And we remember how such things end. These are not simply mistakes of the young, but rather a conscious provocation against the constitutional order of Russia, prepared, it appears, not without the participation of “grown-ups.”http://www.newsru.com/russia/21Jan2002/knigi.html.
The reason that this misguided publicity stunt received such wide coverage was obvious: the rally and trade-in were staged by the recently organized political youth movement Idushchie Vmeste (Walking Together), widely seen as a creation of the Administration of the President.
Until their Books About Nothing rally, Iduschchie Vmeste were known as a generously funded political project in search of an agenda that would go beyond the enthusiastic support of the current president.http://lenta.ru/articles/2005/02/23/young/. (The group’s admiration for Vladimir Putin and his policies was so boundless that its opponents called it, in a pun, Sosushchie Vmeste [Sucking Up Together] or Putin-Jugend). That the Kremlin-supported group chose for its debut a project smacking of aesthetic censorship gave many a commentator pause.
Several days later the group’s leader, Vasilii Iakemenko, announced that the trade-in was temporarily discontinued: Boris Vasil’ev’s books were to be replaced by a new tome of exemplary fiction: this time it was a collection of Russian realist writers, printed especially for the purpose of this book exchange. This edition would include the works of Leskov, Bunin, Kuprin and Chekhov. In mid-February, Idushchie Vmeste reported the results of their campaign: they claimed to have collected 6,700 volumes of “harmful” books, although the books by the authors whom the campaign initially targeted made up a very small proportion of this harvest: 148 copies of Pelevin’s books were handed in, and 102 volumes written by Sorokin. The largest share of traded-in books was taken by the popular crime fiction writer Aleksandra Marinina: 1,636 copies in all.http://www.newsru.com/russia/14Feb2002/knigi.html.
Those authors who were deemed “harmful” by the Putinist youth group perceived their new status and sudden media attention rather lightheartedly. In March 2002, Sorokin declared in the interview:
I would not overestimate the ideological meaning of Idushchie Vmeste’s action. It looks like they have a great shortage of brainpower; they do everything spontaneously, without any strategy. The failed first stage [of their book exchange project] says just that. Their selection of the four [classical] authors is random; one can see the Komsomol kind of hack job [pofigistika] in it.http://www.srkn.ru/interview/rakhaeva.shtml.
In another interview, Sorokin provided a more serious, although still optimistic interpretation of the recent campaign, interpreting it as being directly sponsored by the Kremlin:
It was simply foolishness, but it was also a ballon d’essai thrown to find out to what extent the society is prepared for a purge. It turned out that it was not quite prepared yet.http://www.srkn.ru/interview/neverov.shtml.
In late spring 2002, news agencies reported that the writer Vladimir Sorokin and the composer Leonid Desyatnikov had signed a contract with the Bolshoi, the famed state-run musical theater in Moscow, to write a new opera for the company. Since Stalin’s times, the Bolshoi had served as a symbol of Russia’s official musical culture, highly professional but staid. The theater had been in decline since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Desyatnikov-Sorokin project, entitled “Rosenthal’s Children” was the first new work commissioned by the theater in a long time. In response to the news, Idushchie Vmeste revived their fading campaign against harmful literature. They also retuned and upgraded it: Vladmir Sorokin was now the main object of their protest.
In late June, Iduschie Vmeste members carried out several rallies against Sorokin near the Ministry of Culture and outside the Bolshoi Theatre. Protestors at the Ministry of Culture picketed the building with signs displaying quotes from Sorokin’s 1999 novel Blue Lard, as well as statements made by the minister Shvydkoi in regard to Sorokin’s work. At the demonstration near the Bolshoi Theatre protesters, all the while wearing latex surgical gloves so as not to “be dirtied by Sorokin (zapachkatsia o Sorokina),” they erected a gigantic papier-mâché toilet, into which they tossed flowers and copies of the author’s work, calling it “an improvised monument to Sorokin.” This performance was followed by a march to the monument to Chekhov, where demonstrators cast flowers at the base of the statue and asked “forgiveness of the great writer for the state of today’s literature.”http://www.temadnya.ru/spravka/27jun2002/1457.html. Many Russian media sources noted, as had Shvydkoi previously, the advanced level of organization and apparently ample funding which the group’s appearance evidenced. The radio station Ekho Moskvy reported that
Many wore specially-made t-shirts displaying a portrait of Putin and the inscription “Putin Things Right! (Vse Putem!)” One sensed a definite hierarchy within [the demonstration]; here is the leader, here the youthful, at-the-ready subordinates. The young people and people somewhat older were excited and overflowing with outrage, but didn’t know at whom to direct it precisely. As it turned out, the majority was not familiar with the work of the author, and many confused his profession as well, having decided that Sorokin was in fact the Minister of Culture. People became acquainted with Sorokin’s work on the spot from a brochure with excerpts from Sorokin’s text, published specially for the occasion by Idushchie. On the basis of this study they took sides and began to tear up books and throw them, first into the entryway of the Ministry, and then into the giant toilet.http://www.temadnya.ru/spravka/27jun2002/1457.html.
Interviewed on the same day by the BBC, Sorokin minimized the perceived threat, stating that he was “too occupied by the work on the opera commissioned by the Bolshoi Theater” to be interested in “the actions of various moronic young men.” He declared: “I am not a pornographer. I am a writer. There exists a big difference between pornographers and writers. The tasks we have are fundamentally different. The pornographer’s goal is to help the reader to achieve an erection; the writer’s goal is to provide the reader with aesthetic pleasure from the reading.” Yes, he was aware that Idushchie Vmeste had filed a complaint asking the legal authorities to prosecute him for pornography, citing his novel Blue Lard. Should the prosecution take place, he was prepared to go to court.http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/russian/entertainment/newsid_2069000/2069589.stm.
Two weeks later, the state prosecutor made public his intention to charge Sorokin and his publisher, Ad Marginem, with the production and distribution of pornography, a crime punishable by a fine or a prison sentence of up to two years. Though not directly involved, Idushchie Vmeste was seen as having been responsible for bringing the accusations. According to the state prosecutor’s office, concerns about Sorokin’s novel were first brought to its attention by a complaint from a 49-year-old Moscow resident (who later admitted to being a member of Idushchie Vmeste) who read Blue Lard on the metro and, after having “gone into shock” at reading the description of a sex scene between Stalin and Khrushchev, lodged a complaint with the local police on June 3rd. By request of the police, several so-called “independent experts” studied the book and found that it contained “elements of pornography.” On these grounds, the state prosecutor then brought the criminal suit against Sorokin. Vasily Iakemenko, the leader of the movement, applauded the action, saying in a statement to the press that Idushchie Vmeste considered the investigation “a sign of the beginning moral recuperation of our society.”http://www.newsru.com/crime/11Jul2002/sorokin.html. Sorokin dismissed the accusations raised against him as “completely absurd”:
Some time ago, when Lolita was forbidden in Russia, and I myself hadn’t read it, I asked a friend what the book was about. And he only answered that it was a pornographic work in which a teacher has sex with a schoolgirl. The accusations of pornography in relation to Blue Lard are as stupid as the comments of my acquaintance. But I think that pornography as such isn’t what really interests Idushchie Vmeste. They want to make a career for themselves out of this. It’s another thing entirely that the state prosecutor has opened a criminal case… and most frightening, that this is no joke and no farce. Without the support of the Kremlin, Idushchie Vmeste wouldn’t be acting so aggressively or freely.http://www.srkn.ru/interview/bonet.shtml.
True to Sorokin’s analysis, the scandal had, it seemed, taken on a more serious political edge. In addition to legal pressures, there were attempts made by anonymous parties at personal intimidation: on one occasion, several young people appeared at Sorokin’s door with an “order” for prison bars to be mounted on his windows and doors. While he had no concrete evidence, Sorokin claimed that the perpetrators were likely connected with Idushchie.http://www.newsru.com/russia/15Jul2002/sorokin.html.
Politicians could be found taking sides. Duma Security Committee Chairman A.I. Gurov wrote a letter of support to Idushchie Vmeste, which was displayed proudly on their website.http://www.idushie.ru/rus/document/misc/gurov/index.php. Others, such as Minister of Culture Mikhail Shvydkoi, voiced incredulity at the fact that such a trial was even considered. In general, comments made by public figures expressed a pervasive ambivalence, riddled with telltale signs of the state’s past role as censor as well as concerns about the place of censorship in post-Soviet Russia. Commissioner of human rights Oleg Mironov expressed perhaps the most tellingly this uncertainty: “Censorship in Russia is forbidden – this is fixed in the Constitution. This does not mean, however, that producers of art and mass media may write about whatever they please. They must have an internal censor, determined by their values, morals, and so on.”http://www.newsru.com/crime/11Jul2002/sorokin.html.
The controversy over the ongoing criminal case dominated the Russian media for weeks and was reported worldwide. As Sorokin and Iakemenko were becoming household names in Russia, leading human rights organizations issued statements expressing concern for the freedom of artistic expression in Russia. Sergei Iastrzhembsky, a senior assistant to President Putin, weighed in, characterizing the criminal prosecution of Sorokin as counterproductive and as having put the authorities on the spot: “It builds a certain historical parallel [with the repressed authors]: Mandelshtam, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky. What do we need it for?”http://lenta.ru/culture/2002/07/16/yastrzhembsky/. On July 24, 2002, the U.S. Department of State also expressed its concern over Sorokin’s case.http://www.newsru.com/world/24jul2002/sorokin.html.
Feeling much public support behind him, Sorokin countersued Idushchie Vmeste, claiming the violation of his copyright: Idushchie used extensive quotations from his work in the brochure thatthey handed out at their rallies. (The passages they selected were indeed shockingly explicit). The legal cases would drag on for months, but with the Justice Minister Chaika himself criticizing the Moscow prosecutor for rushing to open the pornography case, it was obvious that the wind was taken out of the sails of Idushchie and their allies. The case against Sorokin was finally dismissed in April 2003.http://lenta.ru/culture/2003/04/24/sorokin/. Idushchie Vmeste, although never formally dissolved, gradually exited the political stage (their leader Iakemenko moved on to establish a larger and still better funded organization of Putunist youth, named Nashi [Ours]). They did however made their way into the headlines at least once more: that took place in connection with “Rosenthal’s Children,” Leonid Desyatnikov’s opera, for which Sorokin was writing the libretto commissioned by the Bolshoi.
This was not the first time that the Bolshoi Theater had been the site of controversy. In 1936, the Communist party undertook a campaign of condemnation around the theater’s staging of composer Dmitry Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. First premiered on 22 January, 1934 in Leningrad, the opera was at the height of its critical and popular acclaim when Stalin attended its Bolshoi production in Moscow on 26 January, 1936. Reportedly, Stalin so disliked the opera that he and his entourage left before the production’s conclusion.On Shostakovich and the Stalinist terror, see Laurel Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 67-107. Two days later an editorial entitled “Muddle Instead of Music” (Sumbur vmesto muzyki), was published in the main party newspaper, Pravda. The editorial denounced Shostakovich’s opera as “formalist,” a general Soviet gloss term for any work deemed to be outside of the standard ideological scope and position of the Party. In addition, Pravda criticized the opera’s music as lewd and vulgar. A massive anti-Shostakovich campaign ensued: in the midst of the Great Terror, the composer had great reason to fear for his life. Alive in the minds of post-Soviet intellectuals, this historical precedent was repeatedly brought up by the defenders of the Desyatnikov-Sorokin project.
In Sorokin’s case, the Bolshoi theater did not heed the early demands by Idushchie Vmeste that it cancel the contract with “the pornographer.” By early 2005, Leonid Desyatnikov’s new opera was in rehearsals, and Idushchie Vmeste, in tandem with some Duma deputies, renewed their calls for the cancellation of the production based on the “pornographer’s” libretto. In early March, the Duma deputy Sergei Neverov suggested that the Duma Committee on Culture look into the production, arguing that “it is impossible to allow that Sorokin’s vulgar play be produced on the stage that is considered the pride of Russia’s culture, that this pornography be shown and then discussed by the whole country.” The resolution calling on the Duma to investigate the Bolshoi production was put to a vote and passed by a decisive majority.http://lenta.ru/news/2005/03/02/sorokin/. The press noted that
just days after Neverov issued his denunciation, the Bolshoi made public what appear to be the final plans for its long-awaited reconstruction, with a price tag in the neighborhood of $1 billion. Various observers, both inside and outside the theater, have speculated that Neverov’s action was a possible means of pressuring certain parties – the Bolshoi’s management, the Culture and Press Ministry or even the Kremlin – into ensuring that at least part of that tempting sum flows into certain well-connected hands.http://www.sptimes.ru/index.php?action_id=2&story_id=3057.
Furthermore, almost none of the Duma officials had read Sorokin’s work. This called to mind proverbial statements made by outraged Soviet citizens during the Party campaign against Boris Pasternak in 1958 in connection with his novel Doctor Zhivago: “We haven’t read it, but we condemn it [Ne chitali, no osuzhdaem].”
Unexpectedly, the management of the Bolshoi put up firm resistance to the outside pressure. It provided the Duma deputies with Sorokin’s libretto that was, indeed, uncharacteristically devoid of obscene language or sexual scenes. It also invited them to the final rehearsal that, along with the opening night, turned into an enormous media event. While several dozen members of Idushchie Vmeste protested outside the theater with signs that read “Let’s defend the Bolshoi from the pornographer!” and “Sorokin is a feces eater! (Sorokin-kaloed!),” the country’s political and media beau monde were evaluating the production inside. One could not think of a single theater or music performance in the last decades in Russia that had attracted as much media attention and publicity as “Rosenthal’s Children.” The opera turned out to be a moderate success with critics, but several prominent deputies from Putin’s party United Russia found it boring, unpatriotic, and “a challenge to the society.”http://www.svoboda.org/ll/cult/0305/ll.032305-2.asp.
The opening night was also marked by a false bomb threat, which delayed the performance by twenty minutes. And with that, the Sorokin affair was concluded. It fell onto the writer, by then a national celebrity, to provide the political and cultural interpretation of the past events in his many interviews to the world media.
The Conceptualist Rule?
Sorokin’s reading of these events can be summarizedin the following way: in today’s Russia, Putin’s administration has established its control over the electronic media and much of the press. Yet literature as well as film have remained completely free. The campaign and criminal case against him were an experiment (probnyi shar, ballon d’essai): the authorities made an attempt to censor literature but failed due to the strongly negative reaction of the public (from the recent interview in Russian Newsweek).http://www.srkn.ru/interview/parfenov.shtml. In other words, Sorokin reads the happy conclusion of his case as a victory of liberal democratic elements in Russia’s society over the forces of tyranny and totalitarianism represented by the Kremlin. Though somewhat self-serving, Sorokin’s interpretation of his recent difficulties with the Russian officialdom is both commonsensical and widely accepted. However, we find it incomplete and not entirely convincing. Below we will discuss the cultural context in which the Sorokin affair took place and suggest a different interpretation of these events.
First of all, let us note that in both parts of the campaign against Sorokin, the authorities never spoke with one voice. The center of political power in today’s Russia lies in the Administration of the President – a large bureaucracy consisting of several groups with often-conflicting business and political interests. The scarce statements in regard to the Sorokin affair that came out of this organ were actually in his support. It is also worth noticing that Sorokin’s most recent novel Day of the Oprichnik (Den’ oprichnika )– a satirical dystopia depicting the oil-supported tyranny of the Russian future – bloody, corrupt, and xenophobic – was publicized by the newspaper Izvestia, owned by Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled corporate giant. The newspaper, normally the mouthpiece of the Putinist establishment and security services, filled a whole page with excerpts from the novel.http://www.izvestia.ru/reading/article3096020/.
In many negative commentaries on the campaign against Sorokin, one repeatedly finds the horrified mention of the Putinist youth burning books in the center of Moscow. Obviously, these images trigger parallels with Germany on the verge on the Nazi takeover or thereafter. Yet as far as we know, there was in reality no burning of Sorokin’s books. As a matter of fact, the aesthetics of the Idushchie Vmeste rallies was dramatically different from the ceremonial book-destruction by Nazi troopers. True, the young people who were brought to these protests tore Sorokin’s books on occasion. But to express a rejection of Sorokin’s art, they were handed a very different, postmodern instrument – that of ironic performance. Think of their enormous papier–mâché toilet, huge garbage bags for harmful books, janitors’ uniforms (“It is time to clean Russia”), and such slogans as “Sorokin is a feces eater!” These protests could be annoying, but they hardly scared anyone. Nor were they intended to terrify.
One could even argue that the criminal investigation of Sorokin had the same simulated nature as the Books About Nothing rallies: both aimed at generating media coverage, publicity, the attention of superiors, and, most importantly, increased funding, rather than any kind physical or legal action against individuals. Putinism is not Stalinism: it is a fundamentally non-ideological form of government. While the Kremlin administration is focused on the preservation of its power and the enormous cash flows that come with it, it has a pragmatic attitude to political ideologies: it does not see them as containing absolute truths but rather as being useful political tools.
Let us consider the following striking example: Fighting Sorokin’s obscenity, Idushchie Vmeste published a brochure containing those passages from his works which they deemed the most offensive. Then they handed out these brochures to people in the street. That action obviously did not lead to containment and/or restriction of what they considered to be “pornography.” On the contrary, it led to the proliferation of the offensive speech. However, as far as it had the brand name of Idushchie attached to it, the proliferation of such speech only served their interests: it increased the visibility of their protest. One can guess that the prosecutor’s office was guided by the same considerations: its task was to show administrative zeal and generate the media coverage thereof; the success of the prosecution, or even its materialization was irrelevant to their project.
What was the use of Idushchie Vmeste for the Kremlin? Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s assistant and ideologue who helped create Idushchie Vmeste as well as Nashi, argued programmatically that Russia needs to build a “sovereign [that is, idiosyncratically Russian] democracy,” in which “the production of meanings and images that interpret European values and name Russia’s own goals” should be an important priority. It “will serve to reunite mentally the formerly broken nation that has been collected for now only conditionally and administratively in a quick, even if forceful way.”Vladislav Surkov, Natsionalizatsiia budushchego. http://surkov.info/publ/4-1-0-37.
Surkov, the second most influential politician in Russian Federation,http://www.expert.ru/printissues/expert/2007/12/rating_politicheskoy_vliyatelnosti/. is a weak stylist. Yet behind his vague postmodern lingo one detects a commission for political discourses that would both reinforce the current model of Russian state and distinguish it from traditional democracies. In their anti-Sorokin campaign, Idushchie Vmeste attempted to fulfill this order by producing the discursive glue that, theoretically, could help keep the nation together. The program for producing useful, instrumental discourses that would shape reality strikes one as indebted to philosophical and literary postmodernism. Just as Sorokin claimed, Idushchie Vmeste and their campaign clearly were an experiment. But they were not an experiment in advancing premodern models of despotic government, as Sorokin satirized them in Day of the Oprichnik. The anti-pornographic pathos of the activists who reproduce and distribute samplers of what they call pornography cannot be seen as truthful or even simply straight-faced. Idushchie Vmeste’s anti-pornography campaign is better explained as an experiment in the production and deployment of expedient discourses. And – here comes our second argument – this playful deployment of manufactured discourses brings them quite close to the aesthetic and philosophical models employed in Russian postmodernist fiction in general and Vladmir Sorokin’s fiction in particular.
Vladimir Sorokin’s work originated in the late Soviet artistic movement known as Moscow Conceptualism that included several unofficial avant-garde artists led by Erik Bulatov, Ilya Kabakov, and the duo of Vitalii Komar and Alexandr Melamid. These artists focused on the visual clichés of Soviet propaganda, turning them into an object of ironic rearrangement and aesthetic contemplation. Similarly, Sorokin’s intensely stylized and intertextual prosaic texts were based on play with official Soviet discourses: in deconstructing the conventions of the Soviet literary canon, conceptualist writers saw themselves as undermining the totalizing Soviet model of the world. Fundamental to artistic and literary Conceptualism was a rejection of what it perceived as a totalitarian impulse present within any institutionally supported discourse. In the Soviet years, this aesthetic position had strong subversive overtones: turning the officially sanctioned artistic idiom into the object of their exploration, Conceptualists showed how art was manipulated to advance the Soviet ideological agenda; in doing so, they distanced themselves from this agenda.
After the fall of the Soviet regime, the Conceptualists not only found themselves at the center of the new artistic establishment, but also expanded the scope of their work to explore Russian and Western classics, as well international popular taste. Meanwhile, the wide popularity of Conceptualist artwork led to the active application of its basic techniques: the ironic use of Soviet visual patterns became common in self-consciously cool and sophisticated post-Soviet graphic and interior design. The Putin epoch has been marked by an officially promoted nostalgia for the Soviet past, and the fragments of Soviet cultural heritage have been energetically assimilated into the new post-Soviet styles. From the TV music shows that rehash old patriotic songs, to the new Moscow architecture, which imitates the grand style of High Stalinism, the use of Soviet clichés becomes increasingly un-ironic.
Besides many novels, plays, and shorter texts, Sorokin brought his Conceptualist aesthetics to the films he wrote (Moscow, Kopeck, and 4, among others). He has also collaborated with the musicians who transplanted the principles of Conceptualism from the visual arts and literature into contemporary classical music (Leonid Desyatnikov) and pop-music (Sergei Shnurov and his band Leningrad). The narrative device that Sorokin employs in his fiction is somewhat akin to collage. He has an amazing gift for stylization, and in his texts he commonly collides two or more carefully reproduced literary discourses, marking the moment of their clash by scenes of extreme, grotesque and carefully described violence. His famous and famously shocking short story “A Month in Dachau” (Mesiats v Dakhau, 1992) exemplifies this method: it is a diary of the humane and civic-minded Russian man of letters who takes a pleasure trip to the Nazi death camp where he delights in extreme masochistic experiences; the humanistic and self-sacrificial idiom of the nineteenth-century Russian novel gradually blends with the rhetoric of German National Socialism and explicit descriptions of torture, cannibalism, and sexual violence. The effect achieved by this technique is both comical and terrifying.
The criminal case involving Blue Lard cited the carefully and hilariously depicted scene of sodomy between Stalin and Krushchev. However, the novel as a whole is devoted to undermining of the grand literary discourses of the twentieth-century Russian literature, as grotesque and scandalous fantasies are depicted in the styles of Pasternak, Platonov, Akhmatova, and other saints of Russian letters. The “blue lard” of the novel’s title stands for the grand literary styles that entertained pretensions to absolute truth.
For someone who has spent his career fighting the logocentricity of Russian culture, Sorokin’s reading of the attack against him is surprisingly logocentric.On the end of logocentricity in post-Soviet culture see: Katerina Clark, “The End of Socialist Realism” in The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual. Third edition, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 2000), 265-285. It seems quite obvious by now that in today’s Russia the social and political influence of literature is finally quite limited. Builders of the new Russian state are not really concerned with the satirical or obscene book a novelist produces. That they see national discourses as manufactured by television is evidenced by how urgently they moved to establish tight government control over TV networks. Accordingly, the task of Idushchie Vmeste was not to stop Sorokin from producing his conceptualist fiction, violent and explicit as it was. Sorokin was but a vehicle. Idushchie’s task was to enter the realm of electronic media on the strength of the “eternal” moral values presented through postmodern performance. In many respects, this performance was almost conceptualist, and thus not terribly alien to the writerly performances of the “feces-eater” Sorokin.
Five years after the resolution of the Sorokin affair, one observes the ever–increasing use of ironic performance in the stunts of Kremlin-sponsored political groups (Nashi is the most prominent of them). Speaking more generally, the Putin regime’s ability to deploy discourses while preserving an ironic distance from them is truly remarkable, and it brings to memory the philosopher Boris Groys’s genealogy of Stalinist art (Groys argued that Soviet Socialist Realism was born from the spirit of the avant–garde).Boris Groys, Total Art of Stalinism, trans. Charles Rougle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992). Borrowing from Groys, one could easily describe the aesthetics of Putinism as heavily indebted to Conceptualism. Of course, Groys embraced Moscow Conceptualism as an artistic method that helped liberate the collective political subconscious from totalitarianism. However, looking at the aesthetic and political practices encouraged by Russia’s current political regime, one comes to the conclusion that a Conceptualist impulse has also fertilized certain distinctly illiberal political and cultural tendencies.
The work on this essay has been funded by the Ruby grant for faculty-student collaborative research in the humanities.