2Lecture14 min

Sergey Kuznetsov: “We really wanted to be above the fray”

Postmodernism in Russia, internet and its influence on Russian culture

Experts: Sergey Kuznetsov

Text expansion for the Lecture

Sergey Kuznetsov: “We really wanted to be above the fray”

Postmodernism in Russia, internet and its influence on Russian culture

The word “steb” (bantering) was a real 1980s word. It was important, and also style-forming. Some were of an older generation but aware of irony. They understood everything. I know people born in the 1940s, my parent’s generation, who enjoyed “Lenin is a Mushroom”, though they weren’t at all alternative sorts. They didn’t know who Kuryokhin was but seemed to totally get him. They didn’t get the bit about mushrooms, hallucinogens, but they found it all funny. They got what was going on.

In this sense, the postmodernist onslaught’s victims were mainly people with a strong ideological identity: either ideologically anti-Soviet, or people so pro-Communism. Postmodernism triumphed in early ’90s Russia, because everyone with a strict ideological perspective lost it. Believers in Communism found their world shattered in 1991. They completely dropped out of polemics.

On the other side, those who fought the Soviet regime for years were also at a loss, because the Soviet regime was no more, but no one even thanked them. This is where the popularity of two quotations lies. Today still we look at these quotations with a certain horror. They are both from the same source, from Dovlatov. The first Dovlatov attributed to Brodsky: “If Yevtushenko is against collective farms, then I’m for”. Of the second, a man once said: “Soviet, anti-Soviet, what’s the difference?”

These two Dovlatov quotes that any fixed ideology is harmful. Anyone who has rigid ideas, Soviet or anti-Soviet, is unpleasant. People like Yevtushenko are for collective farms today, later against them, and our task is not to agree with their position.

02:36 — 06:02 How did 1990s television change how we view reality?

Indeed, around 1993 one more thing appeared that the late 1980s didn’t have. Back then the word simulacre was used. Umberto Eco called it “hyperreality”. This view of reality we get through TV. Naturally, this couldn’t have happened in the USSR. In the USSR we all knew TV lied, so we didn’t see it as describing reality. When we got TV closer to real life we were finally in the same situation Westerners long were. When we heard the news from TV, often it was learning it in real time. A key moment were the October 1993 events quite tragic in Russian history.

I must say for the slightly older generation and my generation, 1993 was when we made our first mistake. We could have done no differently, because of what I already said. Again, we were people who thought that Soviet or anti-Soviet were maybe not completely the same... Of course, we knew they weren’t the same, but we despised everything Soviet. Of course we wanted to be neutral. In 1991 we could not allow ourselves that, because most of us understood... that Yazov, Pugo, etc. were all impossible…

When they left, we thought we had won. Now we let ourselves relax and feel this was a new culture. We’d stick to it, and not descend into politics.

When the ’93 events happened and the anti-Soviets supported Yeltsin, there were also some who supported parliament. People from the old guard were on one side. On the other side were people who were slightly younger than me, for whom Letov was an important figure. They did not like what was happening in ’92 and early 1993. They were ready to support the people sitting in the White House. I think that people born in 1960–68 felt a fated hour had come, when they could be above the squabbles. It was the position we fought for in the ’80s. And we were ready to stick to it in this case too.

I remember well my impressions from 1993. It was a key event culturally: the first important historical event we saw broadcast live.

Today, we know, the most important event of 1993 was that Russia, Moscow’s population realized that the authorities would shoot those who disagree with it. Everything that has happened since is the effect of that message. Again, I publicly repent: in 1993 I didn’t notice this, I didn't get the message. I regret that now. Back then we just thought: “Wow, so interesting!”.

I remember reflecting on it: a new generation sits seeing reality through the TV, but the older generation was going to the riverbank to see it themselves. But on TV you would get a better view of things, and not get shot. For me, it was a story of this.

06:02 — 09:31 What caused the Tarantino cult in Russia?

There was a success and blessing that the film gods sent my generation people of a certain age. In America Tarantino’s generation arose, raised on video salons.

By word of mouth these people got access to all of world cinema around the same time as us. So, when they got cameras and began to shoot, and Tarantino first of all, they made a cinema of allusion, which quoted all the others films they had seen.

Another important factor is that Soviet people, especially cinephiles of my generation, heard of Western films through the Soviet press. There were great “Mify i Realnost” volumes, about how people had gone to Western festivals or America and had seen something, and they described these films. Since these were Soviet propaganda, they dwelt on the violence in Western films, or how they were so horrible, cruel. Literaturnaya Gazeta loved to talk about this. For people living in the dull 1980s, there was a real movement. Yes, a magical Western cinema with extreme sex and violence existed.

When we got ahold of real Western films, we saw that Western mainstream cinema didn’t have so much violence or sex.

When we saw Pulp Fiction, we felt acutely it was the same cinema that, 10–15 years before, Soviet film experts had told of: outrageous criminals, black humor, blood, wow. This was an important story. It was all taken together: that the whole movie quotes others, even if we didn’t know what is obviously being quoted. The violence within it is shown ironically. That it is all about stories, jokes. That it endlessly tells funny stories in a very Russian spirit. The anecdote of one guy massaging Marsellus Wallace’s wife’s feet, and Marsellus Wallace threw him out the window — that was a typical tale of the early 1990s. “Remember the guy we went to school with? He’s this tough gangster now. You know how tough? Well, once someone massaged his wife’s feet, and he had the guy thrown out of a window.” Everyone would react like the Pulp Fiction characters. No one said, “That’s horrible!” or “I’m not inviting him to my birthday party.” Everyone said “Wow, what a crazy story!”. This is really what happened in the early 1990s. In this sense Pulp Fiction became the manifesto for a generation. Suddenly Tarantino brought everyone together: artists, bohemians, clubgoers, ordinary neighborhood boys. It was a great feeling that the hippest director in the world had become Russia’s main director. Funny as it may sound, for us this meant that Russia became part of global culture.

09:31 — 11:36 Why were 1990s intellectuals attracted to Dugin?

I think there’s a reason for Dugin’s huge popularity among Russian intellectuals, bohemians, the media, etc. in the mid 1990s. There were disparate trends, as I said the Soviet fashion, a Nazi fad, big style, playing with ideology and nostalgia, etc. Dugin synthesized that, and one must credit him for doing it early on.

When he suddenly appeared, everyone saw him as a postmodernist joke. Postmodernism says “All ideologies are trifles, we can play around with them.” Dugin said, “No! Now I’ll show you a new, better ideology.” He said: “The Far Left and Far Right should be brothers, for they fight the system together.” Our mid 90s experience was that no one could propose any new ideology. Not the conditional reformers or anyone else. Liberalism failed not because it was bad for the country, but because it couldn’t be formulated to meet the demands of the people.

What was said on TV what they stirred everyone up about. This especially became clear in 1996, i.e. the Yeltsin elections. The tradition of opposing official lies was strong for all. Then, at least some paradigm was proposed, one contrary to the existing particularly by Dugin: all that idea of conservative revolution and so the leftists and the rightists joining, it suddenly proved to be extremely in demand.

11:36 — 13:50 Why did the internet not make russian society freer?

There were a certain number of things we believed in. Some of them turned out true, others not. Actually, the only right thing was that the internet was the future. We were sure that everyone would have it in 5–10 years. Alright, it was actually 15. But it was clear that it would be the main space for spreading ideas, information, etc. That is how things turned out. In all the rest, we were wrong. We thought that thanks to free information dissemination on the internet we could oppose any propaganda. How can propaganda survive when there is no information monopoly, when any truthseeker can easily find it? Things just don’t work that way, we see today. It doesn’t work. We could spend a long time on the reasons why: from guerrilla trolling and fake news to harsh restrictions from above, when sites are directly blocked, not just in Russia but around the world.

There’s another thing we didn’t take into account. It’s not only that state propaganda can block or falsify. The average person also doesn’t have energy for fact-checking, especially in the muddy waters it all quickly turns into. So, all the same, whoever controls the most popular sites, can transmit whatever ideas they think necessary. People are conservative beings. They like a story that has a beginning and end, where the author takes them by the hand. He doesn’t like want to be asked if he wants to go left or right. Because people are conservative beings, they like everything neat and arranged. If we have been told stories for millennia, from the beginning until the end, we can allow ourselves a lot of flashbacks, like Tarantino, but we will still have the impression there’s a demiurge leading us by the hand, e.g. Tarantino, and for viewers and readers this is important.