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2014 Winter Issue 4 (February 7, 2014)

Russian Culture and the End of the World

February 7, 2014
By Jacob Hoerger

Red Square isn’t red. Moscow’s Chinatown doesn’t have Chinese restaurants. The anniversary of October Revolution is celebrated in November. The word for “suffering” and “torment” also means “oatmeal.”

Russia is a bizarre place to say the least. In the 19th century, philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev commented that his country existed only as an example to the world of what not to do. The Tsar had him declared insane.

Besides the country’s seemingly endless capacity for confusion and ineptitude, what makes Russia so fascinating to study is its unmatched obsession with ideas. Russia’s political history is inseparable from developments in philosophy and art. Of course, these two facts are connected. Dostoevsky remarked that a conjecture in Europe becomes an axiom in Russia. No position is so extreme that a Russian hasn’t argued for it, and consequently no country has been so intoxicated with remaking itself after such disparate worldviews.

This complicated struggle for national identity can be seen plainly in the architectural ensemble of Red Square in the heart of the country. Built alongside each other are Lenin’s Mausoleum, the Tsarist-now-Putinist Kremlin, a high-end Italian-style shopping mall and the iconic Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Communism and commerce, atheism and orthodoxy, asceticism and autocracy, materialism and spirituality, all standing in silent defiance of one another.

The buildings of our National Mall suggest no such cognitive dissonance. There is no discord over fundamental principles in American democracy. Our debates are narrow; we basically agree our founding documents are amazing and Republians and Democrats merely squabble over how to best interpret them. There’s little demand or need for new thinkers and writers and leaders to open up new possibilities in civic life. Our government, communities, and families demand so little of us, and consequently we spend most of our lives absorbed in our shallow attempts at self-actualization. It could be for the better that our politics aren’t very ideological – we’ve avoided revolution and mass bloodshed. We have, Tocqueville writes, more vices but commit fewer crimes. We trade greatness and nobility for security and freedom.

Until very recently, freedom could not be taken for granted in Russia. There’s no doubt that the greatness of Russian writers was a result in part of the despotic socio-political situation of the country. The lack of freedom of expression in political life meant that literature became the only tribunal for ambitious young minds.
In the mid-19th century, a new class arose, the intelligentsia, composed of neither nobility nor serfs that made its work  producing and disseminating culture. English thinker Isaiah Berlin called the concept of the intelligentsia Russia’s greatest gift to the world.

Amongst the intelligentsia, the literary journals were read cover-to-cover and then debated furiously at parties, discussion groups and secret meetings. Conversation revolved around but a few grand questions: “What is to be done?” “Who is guilty?” “Does life have meaning?” “Does God exist or not?” (Turgenev tells a story about the critic Vissarion Belinksy, who wouldn’t let his guests drink tea until the group had settled the last question in that list).

The artistic groups and revolutionary movements that emerged from the intelligentsia were a chronic annoyance to the autocracy, and so naturally there was censorship, spying and so forth. Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet, had the privilege of having the Tsar as his personal censor. Almost anyone who was anyone in Russian intellectual life of the past two centuries spent time in prison or in Siberia for their ideas and writings. Merely reading aloud a letter written by Belinksy landed Dostoevsky on the gallows to be executed (before he was pardoned by the Tsar at the last minute and sent to Siberia for four years of hard labor).

A member of the intelligentsia, an intelligent, is much different from what we’d refer to now in the West as an “intellectual.” An intellectual spends his day writing his next book, worried about getting tenure, applying for a fellowship or grant. He is at the top of his field, but his field is narrow and he doesn’t feel qualified to comment on other matters. Or, if he does achieve wide popularity, he’s one of those nauseating  “public intellectuals,” a Gladwell who makes it by uttering banal reassurances or a Zizek who gets off by making provocations.

An intelligent, on the other hand, could care less about his productivity, popularity or output; on his mind is the future of his nation’s soul. He or she carries the weight of the world and understands its complexity and, of course, is willing to risk everything for one’s convictions. Philosopher Alexander Herzen, upon graduation from Moscow State University, pledged with a friend to devote their lives to fighting for freedom and resisting the government. Such precocious oaths were common amongst the intelligentsia.

An intelligent is an intellectual with a conscience, a complete person. Someone like Anton Chekhov, known in the West primarily as a playwright but in Russia is cherished also as a physician, ecologist and champion of prison reform. Or physicist Andrei Sakharov, awarded the Lenin and Stalin prizes for developing the H-Bomb and a Nobel Prize for championing human rights. During the nightmare of the Stalin years there was Shostakovich debuting the 7th Sympthany as German bombs went off overhead, or Anna Akhmatova, who memorized thousands of lines of poetry because they were too dangerous to write.

This was the Russia that captured my pretentious adolescent imagination: a place where these sort of courageous, expansive, heroic individuals were possible; a place that had experienced every sort of anguish, that cherished beauty, that lived each day on the edge of madness – the antithesis of the spectacle of boorish nihilism offered by American pop “culture” (incidentally, “going to America” became a euphemism in Russian lit for committing suicide).

Sophomore year, I finally went to Moscow on Carleton’s study abroad program and was severely disappointed. Russia was not at all like I had imagined. Not because the Carleton Russian Department had ill prepared me for understanding Russian culture. On the contrary – the problem is that now the Russian culture we learned about scarcely exists! My friends and I strolled down the Arbat expecting to hear the strums of bard-poets and heard instead Frank Sinatra blasting out of a Dunkin’ Donuts. We stumbled into a basement bar and rather than meeting some Dostoevskyan dreamer we chatted up a programmer working on recoding American video games for Russians. Greeting us when we walked for the first time on to the famed campus of Moscow State University was not an image Chekhov, Pasternak or any of its other famous alumni but rather a statue of Walt Whitman. The monument, inscribed with Whitman’s words “You Russians, and we, Americans! ... so far apart from each other, so seemingly different, and yet... in ways that are most important, our countries are so alike,” was paid for jointly by the PepsiCo and Coca-Cola Foundations.

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The “Audience Choice” at last years Golden Schillers, “The Unwearable Lightness of Noon: An Annakareninism” by Michael Mandelkorn ’13, Aditya Menon ’13 and Hannah White ’14, consisted of famous moments from Russian literature morphed into ads for American products. In one scene. Raskolnikov nervously walks to pawnbroker’s apartment but instead of pulling out an axe to murder her as he does in Crime in Punishment he sprays himself with Axe Body Spray. Instantly, Russian women swoon over him. In another, Anna Karenina’s suicide serves merely as the backdrop for a Prada promo.

The students’ Golden Schillers submission takes a page straight out of the 1999 novel Generation P by Russian post-modern poster-boy Viktor Pelevin.
Generation “P” chronicles the changes to the country after the fall of communism and American products begin to flow freely into liberated Russian markets.

The main character of Generation “P,” Babylen Tatarsky, is a would-be intelligent. Like many of his generation, he had a life-changing experience reading Pasternak and Tsvetaeva in his youth and decided he wanted to become a poet himself. Unfortunately, he’s only mediocre and so turns his attention instead to translating. However, there was suddenly no demand for translations of poetry, so he had to find a job elsewhere. Tatarsky gets talked in to joining an ad agency, where his main task becomes repositioning now-ubiquitous Western brands appropriately for a Russian cultural context.

Simply translating the advertisements word-for-word from English to Russia won’t suffice, his boss tells him, because the “cultural references” are different. So, a la “The Unwearable Lightness,” Tatarsky finds a niche by riffing off of well-known elements of Russian cultural idioms to push American products.

In one of his first spots, he changes a famous Russian poem to “Deep in the spring-time forest/ I drank my birch-bright Sprite” and later, the poet Tyutchev’s lines become “Russia – There Is No Way To Understand Her/ No Way To Render Her Secret Soul/ Smirnoff.” A nearly-naked Chekhov appears in another advertisement for Gap.

Eventually, however, the ideas, quotations and even images from regulars of the Russian canon no longer connect with consumers. Tatarsky is instructed to remove an image of Pushkin from an ad and replace it simply with a “new Russian.” What used to be considered culture has lost all hold. The text for the aforementioned Chekhov ad reads: “RUSSIA WAS ALWAYS NOTORIOUS FOR THE GAP BETWEEN CULTURE AND CIVILIZATION. NOW THERE IS NO MORE CULTURE. NO MORE CIVILIZATION. THE ONLY THING THAT REMAINS IS THE GAP. THE WAY THEY SEE YOU.

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The sociological event that precipitated this cultural cataclysm, Pelevin writes, is that “something happened to eternity.”

That is, everything that once seemed inescapable or permanent or decisive proved to be otherwise: first, in Russia, there was God. Then God understood as incarnated in the history of a people. Then the people’s destiny was incarnated in a political project, until the dream of the Soviet Union that was to extend a thousand years into the future suddenly dissolved at the beginning of the 1990s.

Now, all national narratives lie in the dustbin of history, and Russia finds itself in the midst of a profound spiritual crisis: Russia has never before been free and has no idea what to do now that “everything is permitted” has become not a philosophical argument but a political reality. The Soviet collectivization effort, in aiming to create a communal Eden, produced the greatest mass suffering and individual achievement in perhaps the history of the world. Now, the intelligentsia, the group that held out hope through everything – the Tsar, the KGB, Gulags ... – has been obliterated by the unbearable lightness of freedom.

Tatarsky’s progression from aspiring writer to shameless capitalist is typical of the trajectory of the whole generation that came of age in Post-soviet time that is jettisoning any connections of the past.

The intelligentsia historically had two functions – resist authority and champion the people. It was a middle, a mediator, a gap between the masters and the slaves. Now, the gap has disappeared.

“The ‘willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal’ gives way to “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands” writes Francis Fukuyama in The End of the History and the Last Man.

In Generation “P,” Tatarsky succeeds merely because he realizes more quickly than others that culture has lost all hold. and so the only thing left for him to do is to sell it off as quickly as possible before it’s completely worthless.

The gap between subject and object has also been obliterated entirely. So on one hand we are autonomous self-creators, trained to express ourselves, but with no essential subjectivity what we create is merely a product of the images we’ve digested. First Tatarsky created advertisements to meet the demands of the Russian public. But what the public’s demands are are buried under the overburden of images. And so he’s forced to create the demand itself.

We’ve are liberated from eternity to prevent man and woman from being slaves to accidents of birth, gender, sex, class, etc… But no eternity means no distinctions of any kind. No barrier between art and not art, the vulgar and the profane. No Heroism, no Nobility, no God, no Good, no to any system that might organize a person’s life.

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At the end of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, Pechorin says: “We can no longer make great sacrifices for the good of mankind, or even for our own happiness, because we know it is unattainable; and as our ancestors plunged on from illusion to illusion, so we drift indifferently from doubt to doubt. Only unlike them, we have no hope, nor even that indefinable but real sense of pleasure that is felt in any struggle, be it with men or with destiny.”

Those lines were written 175 years ago. Probably every intelligent read them. Found a way, somehow, to keep on keeping on.

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