The Post-Soviet is Over: On Reading the Ruins

The Post-Soviet is Over: On Reading the Ruins

The Post-Soviet is Over: On Reading the Ruins

В общем, жили мы неплохо.
Но закончилась эпоха.
Шышел-мышел, вышел вон!
Наступил иной эон.
В предвкушении конца
Ламца-дрица гоп цаца!

We lived OK, we got along.
Then came the end of the eon.
Out, they say, goes Y-O-U!
And here’s another day’s debut.
The end, you know, is coming soon.
Wop-bob-a-loo-bop a wop-bam-boom!

—Timur Kibirov, 1998[1]

Крушение Советского Союза было крупнейшей геополитической катастрофой века. Для российского же народа оно стало настоящей драмой. Десятки миллионов наших сограждан и соотечественников оказались за пределами российской территории. Эпидемия распада к тому же перекинулась на саму Россию. […] Накопления граждан были обесценены, старые идеалы разрушены.

The destruction of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. For the Russian people this was a true drama. Tens of millions of our com­patriots and fellow citizens found them­selves beyond the borders of Russian territory. And the epidemic of collapse afflicted Russia itself. […] The savings of citizens were rendered worthless and old ideals were destroyed.

—Vladimir Putin, Address to the Federal Assembly, April 25, 2005[2]

Идеалы убежали […]

The ideals have run away […]

—Timur Kibirov, 2006[3]

Ей же Богу,
Я готов смириться
Со многим.
Почти со всем.
Но только не с тем,
Что Владимир Владимирович Путин
Это Николай Павлович Первый.
И что ШендеровичИртеньев
Это Чаадаев сегодня!

By God,
I am prepared to swallow
A lot.
Almost anything.
Just not:
That Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin
Is Tsar Nikolai Pavlovich the First.
And that Shenderovich-Irten’ev
Is the Chaadaev of today!

—Timur Kibirov, 2006[4]

In the wake of the Russo-Georgian conflict of the summer of 2008, during which the profound differences between Russian and Western views of world affairs became abundantly clear, not to mention the autumn financial meltdowns and the more recent efforts to “reset” international relations, there is at least one thing on which pundits and politicians inside and outside of Russia seem to agree: the post-Soviet era, such as it was, is now emphatically over. This common wisdom would appear simply to recognize the obvious: over the past decade Russia has reemerged as an economic and military hegemon and Russians have been reborn as the self-confident representatives of an estab­lished social and political order. Yet this commonplace announcement of epochal turnover leads to the more obscure question that I am concerned with in this essay: what next? To be more precise, what are the politi­cal, theo­retical and aesthetic implica­tions of the end of the epoch initiated by the breakup of the Soviet Union? My discussion is con­cerned pri­mar­ily with the Russian case, al­though I offer some com­mentary on the larger region as well, and while my ap­proach is primarily that of discursive and poetic analysis, my con­clusions relate to the structure of the politi­co-historical field as a whole. However, I will begin with a neces­sary pre­lude to discus­sion of the “post-post-Soviet” present—a reconsideration of what appears now (in retrospect) as a somewhat confused field of inquiry: the nature of the post-Soviet era itself.

The Post-Soviet

First of all, think back from the vantage point of our present sense of epochal change to the “historical consciousness” of a prior threshold moment—the inception of the post-Soviet era. If there was one instantly recog­nizable image of the revolutions of 1989-1991 and the breakup of the Soviet Union, it was the cast-down statues of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, etc. In the years around the collapse of one-party rule, first of Eastern-European communist regimes and then of the USSR, a number of monu­ments throughout the region were either toppled through mass actions (maximal iconicity, but really only a few cases), or re­moved from their pedestals by the de­cisions of governing bodies. In Russia itself this was in actuality a statistically marginal phenom­enon, primar­ily relevant in Mos­cow and in other political centers—many more Soviet monuments remained standing than came down, especially in the outlying regions of cityscapes and the Russian hinter­lands. I will return to the fictive or mythic quality of images of falling and fallen Soviet statuary be­low. First, however, consider the “(de)face value” of such images in the early to middle 1990s, when they were a potent icon of the times—fre­quently used, for instance, as cover art for books on post-Soviet affairs such as London Financial Times cor­res­pon­dent Chrystia Freeland’s Sale of the Century.[5] Nothing, it seemed, could illustrate more force­fully the commonly accepted contours of that his­tor­ical moment.[6] An era had come to a clear-cut conclusion in 1991, leaving in its wake ruins that bespoke the ob­so­lescence of the ideological, social, and political norms that had supported Soviet civili­za­tion in the USSR and the Eastern Bloc for gen­erations. By the standard accounts of the day, attested in an endless series of books, ar­ticles, and pro­nounce­ments of politi­cians and talking heads, this epoch­al thresh­old, with its falling monuments, had inaugurated a “period of transition” that was to last for some un­pre­dictable number of years, ushering in a new era of global inte­gra­tion and “free-market democracy” and returning Russia to a “common Euro­pean home”—to recall a much cited catch-phrase of Andranik Migranian, one of the most prominent of­fi­cial theorists of the final spasms of the Bolshevik regime.[7]

In subsequent years, this prognosis was in some ways realized in a number of the new and reinvented Balkan and Eastern European states, albeit in an uneven, hetero­gen­eous and unpredictable manner. In contrast, by the late 1990s Russia itself was witnessing a fad­ing of opti­mism concerning any clearly defined, near-at-hand goals for social trans­for­ma­tion. With regard to the global arena, earlier visions of complete reconciliation with West­ern states and adaptation to their social and economic norms and geopolitical prior­ities had faded in the face of opportunistic incursions of Western firms in Russia, NATO expansion and diplomatic conflicts over Kosovo, and other matters. Regarding social experience within Russia, Serguei Oushakine has proposed (on the basis of inter­views he conducted in Siberia in 1997) that economic stagnation and the failure of any quick trans­formation of Soviet institutions in Russia led by the second half of the 1990s to a “post-Soviet aphasia,” characterized by a “loss of a metalan­guage and thus the loss of the ability to ‘dissect’ the metaphor of the ‘post-Soviet.’”[8] Perhaps surprisingly, given these sig­nificant local var­iations, conceptions of present social exper­ience and subjectivity as characterized by a “post-socialist” or “post-Soviet” moment or con­dition remain­ed through­out Eastern Europe and the former Soviet region up to the end of the 1990s as a shared historical horizon—even if this hor­izon was hazier in some places than in others.

Now, in order to inject a degree of analytic clarity into this picture, it is essential to recognize that the revolution­ary termina­tion of the Sov­iet epoch and inau­gura­tion of a new era—whether by means of a momen­tary leap into the future, an ex­tended pas­sage through a period of “hybridity,” or overlap of incom­men­surate social worlds, or even through a less definite period of incoherent post-Soviet civilizational “hang­over” as in Oushakine’s proposal—was always as much of an ideo­logical fic­tion as is any pro­claimed revolu­tion in human history. Beyond the strictly political-institutional sphere, revolu­tion, tran­sition, or trans­formation (in the sense of an over­throw of the exist­ing social order and re­place­­ment of it by some­thing qualitatively dif­fer­ent) can only be metaphors that mask inev­itable continuities of social or­gan­ization, practical life, and everyday exper­ience—basal link­ages that persist through even the most radical mo­ments of social change. To consider the other side of this coin, “stability” in historical epochs is also nothing more than a metaphor, masking the ways in which human societies are always shot through, at every moment, by change and discontinuity. In this connection, attempts like Oushakine’s to define the post-Soviet or post-Socialist era as characterized by an “aphasia” resulting from the “hybridity” or overlap of the incommensurate norms, lan­guages, identities, or ideo­logies of the Soviet past and those of a qualitatively different, impend­ing future will always come up short in their attempts to differentiate in any ab­solute manner this state of affairs from any other moment in mo­dern history. Modern societies and sub­jec­tivities are always to some extent adulterated and in­coher­ent, bal­anced between multiple norms, languages and ideologies, divergent yet inter­con­nected pasts and futures. Note that Oushakine’s informants in his study were stu­dents—indi­vidu­als who, poised on the edge of adult­hood, have a special sense of ver­tigo before the challenge and, for some, imposs­ibility of mastering the many different codes and social identities that they must learn to inhabit simult­aneously.

This is not to deny the useful­ness of such theoretical models as “aphasia,” “hybridity,” or “liminality” for the com­prehension of some aspects of the post-Soviet or post-socialist con­­di­tion. Yet the implication in such terms that this condition is an abnormal one that consists primarily in a widespread subjective experience of symbolic impotence tends to mask the persistence of semiotic complexity in modern social life as a normal state of affairs, as well as the possibility that historically specific configurations of such social complexity can present symbolic advantages and opportunities to certain subjects, while disadvantaging others, depending on social and economic posi­tion­ing—on class, age, gender, etc. The uneven field of compe­tition over the symbolic and real fruits of the post-Soviet becomes visible, for instance, in Alexei Yurchak’s nuanced analysis of the naming of Russian businesses during the 1990s.[9] It may well be that the com­plexity char­acteristic of modern subject­ivity is height­ened during periods of rapid, politically en­gin­eer­ed social change. However, at a more theoretic­ally co­herent level the specificity of the post-socialist condition relates not only, or not in an unmediated fashion, to this exag­gerated social complexity, but more directly to the characteristic hope, common­ly shared but real­ized only with varying success, that a particular, interrelated set of his­torical categories for social experience and subject­ivity such as “revo­lution,” “trans­ition,” “post-socialist,” “Soviet,” “post-Soviet,” “New Rus­sian,” “stability,” “inco­herence,” and so on (up to “hybrid­ity” and “aphasia” themselves), provide instru­ments by which to master such complexity. These are all, equally, meta­phorical pathways towards a cog­ni­tive re­duc­­tion of socially embed­ded semiotic complex­ity, steeped in diverse ideo­logical implications, which all fall short of capturing to the fullest any given social situa­tion or subject­hood. These historico-meta­phorical constructs were typical markers of the social and political meaning-producing strategies of the post-socialist territories of the 1990s, wielded by some with great suc­cess to generate cognitive coherence as well as political and econo­mic profit, and by others with less success. The “post-socialist,” in this sense, was a shared discursive mech­an­­ism that allowed, in its structured metaphorics of history, a special apprehension of funda­men­tal con­ditions that are always to some de­gree pertinent in modern social life, offering, for some, a high degree of cognitive mastery of social complexity and, for others, an exag­gerated and historically identified experience of acute loss and anomie.

Furthermore, the phantasmatic nature of the painful social re­birth ima­gined under the rubrics “post-socialist” and “post-Soviet” was never a secret: this was an ideological repres­sed that frequently returned. From the very incep­tion of the post-Soviet era, the standard story of the al­chem­ical transmuta­tion of the social past into a different and definite future was subject to critique and inter­rogation across the relevant territories. On one hand, post-Soviet nos­talgia in its various local instantiations (yugo­nos­talgia, ostalgie) has been seen by some as an expres­sion or symp­tom of the actual affec­tive, social, and cul­tural legacies of the Sov­iet era, and by others as a mode of cri­tique of the economic and social inequi­ties perpe­trated by the “shock” of social trans­formation.[10] On the other hand, a significant number of literary and artistic works of the early post-Soviet period offered meditations on the social and political actuality of a mo­ment when the future was sup­posed to supercede the past in an ex­plos­ion of social trans­for­mation, yet which was plagued by the continu­ities and resistances of human social ex­perience (in this, they continued a tradition of critique of earlier moments of “revolutionary” transfor­ma­tion in Russia). One com­mon technique of the literature and other cultural production of this era was the splicing together of supposedly antithetical elements of the “Soviet” and “post-Soviet” worlds into shocking, mon­strous formations that allowed a reexami­nation of their sub­terranean points of con­tact—a strate­gy that I dubbed the “revo­lutionary grotesque” at the time. As Timur Kibirov, a master of this strategy, presented the era of Soviet collapse in his 1990 epistle to Sergei Gandlevskii “About Cer­tain Aspects of the Current Socio­cultural Situation” (“О неко­тор­ых аспек­тах нынешней социокультурной ситу­ации”):

Там, где сияло раньше «Слава
КПСС», там «КокаКола»
Горит над хмурою державой,
Над дискотекой развеселой.

There, where once glowed “Glory
To the CPSU,” “Coca-Cola”
Now glitters above the sullen state,
Above a merry discotheque.[11]

Here, Kibirov’s stitched-together, Frankensteinian image of a historical moment delivers both shock at radical ideological trans­formation and a recognition of social and economic power’s curious persistence in the structure of the cityscape. The myth of radical revo­lu­tion faces off with the countervailing actuality of continuity. Both of these modes, nostal­gia and grotesque, were means of pro­cessing ostensibly “impos­sible” (yet quite real) con­junc­tions and con­fusions of what was thought to be an out­worn past and a dawning future, proclaimed as incompa­tible and ir­rec­on­cil­able poles of exper­ience and history, and of inves­tigating the ideological func­tion of the myth of social rebirth—what it concealed and licensed.

The Post-Post-Soviet

Let me turn now to the question with which I began this essay: what are the implications of the end of the post-Soviet era? First of all, let us recognize that this new epoch, like the post-Soviet before it, is a metaphorical construct. Which is not to dispute the fact that “a new era has begun,” but to recast the meaning of such a pro­nounce­ment. The end of the post-Soviet era does not mean that the social or institutional remains of the USSR or the decade that followed its breakup have some­how disap­peared, that “transition” is in fact over, or that the clock has been turned back and a “new cold war” is upon us. Rather, the common apprehension of a new epoch means simply that the typical post-Soviet discur­sive mech­an­isms describ­ed above have lost their dom­­inance in the social con­struction of historical process and social iden­tity, yielding their place to other visions of present sit­u­ated­ness. Whereas authoritative vis­ions of history and identity during the 1990s were predicated on the notion that 1991 marked a moment of radical social transformation, erasing geo­pol­itical divis­ions between Russia and the west, the “end of the post-Soviet” is the cul­mina­tion of a gradual reemergence over the last decade or so of a vision of political history and social identity based in continu­ities, at various historical depths, linking the Russian present with the Soviet and pre-Soviet eras, coupled with the re­appearance of par­ticularist ideo­logies that set Russia in explicit op­posi­­tion to Western states, social norms, and geo­po­l­itical inter­ests. These are the new discursive mech­an­isms—to be sure, no less ideologically compromised than the ones they have largely replaced in their projection of absolute temporal and geopolitical distinctions in a world that knows no absolutes—offered by dominant political rhetoric and public dis­course for the reduction of social complexity and the con­struction of present identity in Russia. Their present dominance of the social discursive field, rather than any of the political or historical realities that they ostensibly refer to, is the par­ticularity of the present new era in Russia.

I’d like to stress that my redefinition of epochal markers based on a self-reflexive, dis­cursive principle (the meaning of terms such as “post-soviet” and “new era” is at base the social consensus concerning their meaning) refers to the dominance and social author­ity of specific standard stories of social experience, rather than to any conception of their all-pervasiveness. As I suggest above, construction of identity and action in terms of a per­ception of con­tinuity with the Soviet era was always one of the possible set­tings on the politico-historical dial of the 1990s, but in those days only as a mode of resistance to the concep­tions of ascendant re­form­ers and New Russians, who were invested both poli­ti­­cally and eco­nom­ically in the dominant meta­phor of the post-Soviet. Indeed, appre­hen­sions of the political significance and social reality of historical continuity under­lay both the rhetoric of the commu­nist opposition of the 1990s and the critique of the idea of revo­lutionary trans­formation in­her­ent in works of the revolutionary grotesque, such as the poem by Kibirov that I cite above, although such apprehensions held opposed political values for those rather distinct actors. In present-day Russia, however, the pen­du­lum has swung violently to the other extreme, rendering visions of political and insti­tutional con­tinuity the dominant discursive tool in constructions of recent history and social identity. The current leadership’s efforts to inculcate a new view of history have been most obvious in its policies towards education, which brought a new generation of patriotic and apologetic textbooks to Russian children in recent years. As Putin ex­plained at a meeting with history edu­cators in 2003: “Contem­porary textbooks for schools and institu­tions of higher education must not become a stage for new political and ideological battles. The facts of history should be related in these textbooks. They should foster a sense of pride in one’s history, in one’s coun­try.”[12] As commen­tators have noted over recent years, the reinvigorated conception among Russia’s current leadership of the ties between present and past is evident in a variety of policy measures, ranging from the re­national­iza­tion of major in­dus­tries, the de-facto nor­maliza­tion of a political system remi­nis­cent of demo­cratic central­ism (a “one-and-a-half-party state” of “sov­ereign demo­cracy”), the hob­bling of NGOs seeking to develop civil society cut to a Western pattern, and a host of other measures culminating in the reasser­tion of Russian military domi­nance over its sphere of in­flu­ence last sum­mer.[13] The discursive cornerstone of all of these policies has been Russian distinc­tive­ness and histor­ical continuity with the Soviet era. As Putin ex­pres­sed his views of the politico-historical scene in his 2007 Memo­­ran­dum to the Federal Assem­­bly (the Russian equiv­alent of the US State of the Union speech), “I am convinced that our so­ciety is cap­able of undertaking and resolv­ing grand national tasks when it possesses a common system of moral landmarks—when we pro­mote respect for our native lan­guage, for dis­tinctive cultural values, for the mem­ory of our ancestors, and for every page of the history of the fatherland.”[14]

The rehabilitation in present day Russia of this seamless vision of political and social history grew from the seeds of play with images of the Imperial era by “reformist” elites in the 1990s, who turned quickly from the thought that earlier Russian episodes of political pluralism such as the Imperial State Duma might serve as precedents for political life in the new Russia to toy with the grandiloquent monikers (“Boris the First”) and pageant­ry of the tsars—the fuss over the re­bur­ial of Nicholas II in 1998 is a telling example.[15] The Soviet victory in WWII, of course, never lost its significance as a positive source of national pride, no matter the condition of Russian society at the time of that triumph. But by the new century, the game with history and memory had blossomed into a vision of the past, broadly shared among Russian elites, that is best described as an aestheti­ciza­tion of the genealogy of power.[16] From Putin’s official renova­tion of a mix of Soviet and Imperial symbols of state to the many memorial­ization and recon­struc­­­tion projects of con­tem­po­rary Moscow (stretching from the grand and tasteless: the Cath­e­dral of Christ the Savior, the Resur­rection Gates to Red Square, the Victory Park WWII memorial[17]—to the absurd and tasty: Petrovich Restaurant, the Pushkin Cafe), the his­tor­ical pro­jects of Russia’s present privileged class in general re­flect, in the words of Andreas Schönle, “a desire to repress the ruin value of history,” which is ob­scur­ed under “a san­itized pseudo-history, a glossy remake that sug­gests the present’s association with unchanging mythical gran­deur”[18] and that often carries out a cynical commodification of the past. Matching this com­placent pride and profit in the gilded pomp of past Russian aristocracies, no matter what ideo­logy or pro­gram they ser­ved, no matter what mayhem they wrought on the Russian masses, the masses themselves have been drawn more and more in recent years to figures of political authority and national greatness. In this regard, the recent internet and television project “The Name of Russia”, in which Russians were able to vote for the “most significant, notable and symbolic personalities of Russian history”, is telling: the five most popular figures in the final rating were (in order): medieval prince Alek­sandr Nevskii, late Imperial prime minister P. A. Stolypin, Joseph Stalin, national poet A. S. Pushkin, and Peter the Great.[19]

Yet the dom­inance in the “new era,” of dis­cursive con­structions of present exper­ience based on historical continuity with the Russian and Soviet past and political and cul­tural distinction from the West, and of policies and social identities derived from them, is evi­dent as well in their reso­nance across the range of pol­itical orientations today. Although less remarked upon in Western commentary on Russia, ardent critics of the present politi­cal leadership in Russia have begun at times to adopt similar discursive mechanisms, de­mand­ing a re­turn to innately Rus­sian spir­itual values and the political legacy of the Soviet years as the proper path to the achieve­ment of uni­ver­­sal just­ice—a turn of events that has pro­duced a remark­able recon­fig­ura­tion of the politi­cal map, in which the fear of a decade past among “liberal reformers” of the “red-brown” coalition of nation­alists and commu­nists has given way to the demand for (and fear of) a red-lib­eral coalition that might gen­erate some kind of via­ble opposition to the current national-authoritarian party of pow­er.[20] In addition to telling ex­amples of this emergent political align­ment such as Garry Kaspar­ov and Eduard Lim­onov’s unified opposition organ­iza­tion Other Russia, as well as the energetic out­reach of the only truly viable op­positional party, that of the commu­nists, towards disillusioned liberals, this new pos­ition has perhaps most lucidly and force­fully been enun­ciated by none other than the former oli­garch and now “private citizen” Mikhail Khodorkovskii.[21] (Note that the red-brown rapprochement of the 1990s was a typical “hybrid” phen­­omenon of the transi­tional per­iod, link­ing the ex­treme ends of the political spectrum to the right and left, in a pecu­liar alliance made pos­sible by the 1989-1991 historical divide that rendered far left pol­itics para­dox­ically reaction­ary; in dis­tinc­tion, today’s potential liberal-left alliance would be a far more “natural” coalition of progressive neigh­bors on a conven­tional pol­itical spec­trum.)

In the new politics of history, the 1990s have widely come to be seen as a period of disturbing and anomalous chaos that is now past, yet the results of which neces­si­tate con­certed efforts at damage control in the present. In ef­fect, while the 1990s were concerned with the amelioration of the Soviet legacy, the Putin admini­stration was from its incep­tion oriented on the amelioration of the legacy of the 1990s—by means of the recen­tral­iza­tion of power, the bankrupting and criminal prosecution of Khodor­kovskii, the reasser­tion of state control over the mass media, etc. In Putin’s words: “We have worked tire­lessly to overcome the difficult consequences of the transitional per­iod, in order to man­age the costs of a pro­found and by no means unequiv­ocal trans­formation.”[22] Perhaps the most common historical analogy coming to be applied to the 1990s is that of the “Time of Troubles”—the cata­strophic inter­-dynastic period of the early seven­teenth century that preceded the foun­dation of the Romanov dyn­asty. As used in public dis­course of the past several years, this analogy acts to recode Soviet ruins, which in the 1990s signi­fied a wholesale civilizational turn­over, into the markers of a temporal island of atypical disorder, an island that is now reced­ing into the safe dis­tance. (Of course, it is yet to be seen if the destabilizing effects of the current economic crisis will deprive this most recent historical revision of its potency by transforming the Putin years into an atypical island of order sandwiched between two periods of social chaos.) The implications of the historical analogy extend to foreign relations as well: the Time of Troubles was punctuated by attempts to subject Russia to foreign rule, and concluded with a legendary national mobilization and election of the first Romanov tsar Mikhail Fedorovich. In this new historical optic, the fallen monu­ments that signaled civilizational turnover during the 1990s have been recast as a regret­table mess that con­tem­porary society must overcome or “look past” in order to reconnect with the course of Russian history, the origins of col­lective identity and Russia’s tendency towards potent serial autocracies.[23] In sum, then, the hallmarks of the end of the post-Soviet era in Russia are the reap­propriation of Soviet history as Rus­sian history, the rein­scription of Russian ter­ri­tory as non-Western space and the revision of the 1990s from a period of transition to one of anomalous social disorder, enabling a realign­ment of pol­iti­cal affilia­tions in a contin­u­um that no longer stacks up all pro­grams and causes against the epochal threshold of the Soviet col­lapse and that often substitutes for this sem­iotic distinction the geograph­ical border with the west. In effect, the absolute epochal border of 1991 has been effaced.

Now, despite the fact that Russia appears largely unique in its realignment of the politics of history and memory, related conclusions concerning the end of the post-Soviet era are relevant for much of the rest of the for­mer territory of the USSR, the Warsaw Pact, and the Balkans. For all of these regions, post-socialist “transition,” “hybridity,” and so on are increasingly perceived as belonging to the past—although a corollary of this ob­ser­va­tion is that the di­ver­gence of the historical experience of the various socie­ties and pol­ities that oc­cupy the region has pro­gressed to the point that no one discursive lens, such as that of the “post-social­ist,” can be applied in an even man­ner to their very different pres­ent realities and constructions of the politico-historical landscape. In what used to be “the former Yugo­slavia”—now simply Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Serbia, etc.—the metaphorical divid­ing line of the “beginning of now” is the ces­sa­tion of armed con­flict, while in much of Eastern and Central Europe—regions quickly or slowly be­com­ing (unmark­ed elements of) Europe—the sense of a new his­tor­ical hor­izon of ex­pec­ta­tions is linked to the successive waves of acces­sion to EU mem­ber­ship or to the settled orienta­tion towards it. The broadly shared conceptions of historical hybridity characteristic of the post-socialist era are being replaced by other discursive tools across the region, but in a local manner. In Ukraine, the once opera­tive metaphor of historical transition is com­ing to be replaced by a geographical trope that positions Ukraine in a middle space between Western Europe and a resurgent Russia. In the Baltic States, as I imagine is the case throughout much of Central and East­ern Europe, the sense of hybridity of place and in­stitutions, past and future, that marked the 1990s is fading as a result of the progressive successes of efforts to am­el­­iorate Soviet institutions and inte­grate markets and social real­ities into those of Europe. Even given the heightened tensions between old and new Europe brought on by the financial crises, the fundamental European identity of these regions has acquired a feeling of finality and incontrovertibility. One gets the sense that while the socialist period will always be a part of the history of these places, it is coming to be seen as a truly closed book—and a book that by vir­tue of its associa­tion with an increas­ingly belligerent Russian neigh­bor is strangely alien or anomalous with regard to pres­ent col­lec­tive iden­tity. While that era certainly shaped these states and societies, it belongs not to the present, but to the past. Perhaps we should put it (as many do in these ter­ri­tories): the socialist era belongs not to these societies, but rather to a Russian occu­pier or col­on­izer. If there is a common denominator of historical discourse in the region, it is that, in distinction from the Russian case, epoch­al discon­tinuity has remained the dominant trope, although “transition” is ending—not as an actu­ality, of course, but as a key discursive mech­anism of social and political iden­tity.

Of course, the continued rejection of the socialist past and of imperial Soviet occu­piers as alien impositions in these spaces falls as short of accounting for actualities of investment, complicity, and social and political continuity in these territories as did rejection of the Soviet past during the 1990s in Russia itself. Adding complexity to the discursive policing of clean epochal borders in places like Latvia is the elision in this social and political vision of the sizable populations of ethnic Russians “stranded” in Europe when the Soviet bor­ders collapsed, many of whom continue to view the Soviet past and geo­political inte­gra­tion with Moscow as objects of desire. The fuzzy temporal and geographical bor­ders represented by these populations and their alternate construc­tions of history are the re­pres­sed of the sharp historical distinctions dominating public discourse in the societies of the new Europe. As a result of the absolute and in­creas­ing­ly settled distancing of the soc­ialist past, coupled with the bad consciousness of the fictive qualities of this construction of history, these societies are witness to con­tin­uing efforts to expose and deraci­nate the remains of Soviet-era social institutions (most recently hitting front pages with the revelations concerning the com­plicity of priests with security ser­vices in Poland or the furor over the removal of the Soviet era WWII monu­ment in Estonia). Yet while one may anticipate that such scan­dalous public scenes of exhumation and reburial of socialist skeletons will continue at least until the last socialist generation fades from public life, they will take place against a background of increasing normaliza­tion of a common European quotidian order. One may foresee a near future in which the traces of the socialist era in Riga or Tallinn, for instance, will largely be a mean­ing­less white noise (more and more occas­ionally punctuated by “shocking” reminders of “stub­born leg­a­cies”), in a society that is felt to be and aspires to be no different from any other part of the post-industrial West.       

Timur Kibirov and Critique of the New

The politico-historical discursive situation in Russia stands in stark contrast to this com­mon Eastern European incre­mental normalization of epochal rupture, and critique must therefore con­centrate on a different set of ideological blind spots and ellipses. In order to plumb the criti­cal possibilities presented by this new situation, let’s turn now to analysis of a spe­cific recent text dealing with history and memory—a more recent work of the Moscow poet Timur Kibirov. As noted with the example above, during the early 1990s Kibirov was a master both of the grotesque and of a calculated nostalgia—mech­anisms that pre­sented a contrarian view of basal historical and social continuities as an in­stru­ment for the critique of that era’s standard story of post-Soviet trans­formation. Yet his more recent writ­ing has enun­ciated what I propose to view as sym­pto­m­­atic of the break­down of those aes­thetic pos­sibilities and the rise of a new mode of contestation. In a moment in which public discourse is emphasizing historical continuity as the basis for a renovated political and social order, Kibirov, perhaps surprisingly, has not simply over­turned his earlier for­mula of resistance in order to dwell on historical rupture instead. Rather, he has ar­ticulated an alternative conception of social continuity that offers a more profound critical purchase on Russian politico-historical discourse in toto. Kibirov’s latest writing should be seen in the context of a movement among Russian artists that has come to be known as “the new sincer­i­ty”—a rejection of irony as the only appropriate stance towards shared social val­ues for contemporary artists and audiences.[24] Yet the work of this older poet con­sti­tutes a self-conscious (and perhaps ironic) meditation on this rejection of the ironic mode, which has been so central to his poetics.

In the title poem of his 2006 book, “Kara-Baras! An Experiment in Interpretation of a Classic Text” (“Карабарас! Опыт интерпретации классического текста”), Kibirov offers up a hymn to eternal Russian spirit­ual values, traced back to Alex­ander Pushkin in his iden­tity as founding prophet of the Rus­sian cultural tradition (with an ironic­ally in­flected nation­alist tinge), re­frac­ted start­lingly through the Soviet era chil­dren’s verse of Kornei Chu­kov­skii. Like most of his best work, Kibir­ov’s poem is too long to cite in full here. It is a hilar­ious riff on Chu­kov­skii’s fa­mous “hygien­ic” poem, which tells the tale of an unwashed child so dirty that clothing and household ob­jects run away from him. In the course of the poem the young­ster is con­vinced to clean up his act, brought to the wisdom of washing and to a recon­ciliation with his alien­ated belong­ings through an en­coun­ter with the animated, and rather preachy, wash­basin “Scrub­itragged” (“Мой­до­дыр”)—this last is the title of Chukovskii’s work. Kibirov replaces the initial lines of the classic text, “the blanket has run away” (“Одеяло убе­жа­ло”), with “the ideals have run away” (“Идеалы убежали”) and relates the story of an en­counter with the sacred Logos that leads the author back to the wisdom of spiritual and cultural piety. Kibirov’s poem tells the story of recon­ciliation not with boots, can­dles, and sandwiches, but with the objects of past history and the national canon. In the work’s climactic epi­sode, the author encoun­ters the “six-winged Seraph” of Pushkin’s poem “Prophet” (“Пророк,” 1826)—a foun­da­tional text for Russia’s cultural myth of the poet-as-saint, in which a scene of the pro­phet’s divine elec­tion (Isaiah 6: 1-10) is revised to tell of the poet’s sacred inspiration. In Kibirov’s ver­sion, the Seraph, shadowed by a mocking and contemptuous Pushkin, re­minds the con­tem­porary author of his sacred calling with a much-cited phrase from the Romantic poet’s “Prophet,” “Look on and attend!” (“виждь и внемли!”), initiating the return to him of poetic sound and meaning. Be­low, on the left, is a translation of this pass­age, leading into the final lines of “Kara-Baras!” Printed in par­allel on the right are the analogous lines of Chu­kov­skii’s “Scrub­itragged” (the Crocodile, Totosha and Kokosha are references to the charac­ters of another of Chukovskii’s child­ren’s poems):

Then my dear, my very own
Six-winged Seraph came up near.
Beside him, sniffing with derision,
Alexander Pushkin sneered.
“Step lively—look on and attend!”
Pronounced the Seraph.
And he roared and gnashed his teeth
                At me,
How he clomped his wings
                At me:
“Now look, you, no more pranks,”
                He said,
“And say ‘please’ and ‘thanks,’”
                He said,
“Or else I’ll fly away,”
                He said,
“And not come back this way!”
                He said.
How I set off down the street
                Yes I ran.
And sped back to my father’s hearth
                Once again.
                Meaning, meaning
                Meaning, meaning—
I begged for it, beseeched and prayed.
                Washed off the soot
                Cleaned up the essence
And scraped the hardened wax away.
And right away the colors, sounds
Resounded in the quiet air:
“Go on, grasp us, stupid oaf—
Just more gently, with more care!”
And then a little sonnet:
“Compose me, man, doggonit!”
Then Eros came back at a run.
(Let’s ignore the rhyme with “tongue.”)
Then my book returned,
And my textbook too,
And poetics started prancing
With metaphysics all a-dancing.
And now the primeval Logos,
By which the world itself was made
Leader of the ancient chorus,
Commander of all words and sense
Ran up to me a-dancing
And with a kiss declaimed:
“Now I really love you,
Now I really praise you,
At last, my little sonny,
You’ve done your logopedist proud!”
One must, one must give thanks to God.
In the mornings and at night, the same,
And to all those impure nihilists
(Var.: And to all shitbag Voltaireans)
Disgrace and shame!
Disgrace and shame!
Hurrah for the purest Truth!
And for radiant beauty,
For goodness unto men,
And our immortal pen!
So let us, o brothers, strive,
Not to quarrel, not to give in,
In anguish, disorder and darkness,
In barracks, diseased and endless—
For ever and ever,
Everywhere and forever—
Glory eternal,
Memory unfading,
Glory eternal
To life!
Raise the tin tub up at last!
God is with us! Kara-baras!

—Timur Kibirov, 2006

Then my dear, my very own
Crocodile came right up near.
He, Totosha and Kokosha
Were walking down the alley here.
And my washcloth, like a birdie
That croc, he gulped it, gulped it whole.
And he roared and gnashed his teeth
                At me,
How he clomped his feet
                At me:
“You go straight home now, bub,”
                He said,
“And give your face a scrub,”
                He said,
“Or else I’ll fly at you,”
                He said,
“And stomp on you and eat you up!”
                He said.
How I set out down the street
                Yes I ran.
And sped back to the washstand
                Once again.
                Soap, soap
                Soap, soap
I washed and washed and didn’t cease
                Washed off the shoe-black
                And the ink
From my grimy, filthy cheeks.
And right away my pants, my pants
They went and jumped into my hands.
And after them a small meat-pie
“Go on, buddy, go on and eat me,
And then a sandwich, at a run
Ran right up—right up my tongue!
Then my book returned,
And textbook too,
And grammar started prancing
With arithmetic a-dancing.
And now the great washbasin,
That most famous Scrubitragged
Leader of all sinks,
Commander of all sponges
Ran up to me a-dancing
And with a kiss declaimed:
“Now I really love you,
Now I really praise you,
At last, my little pigpen,
You’ve done Scrubitragged proud!”
One must, one must bathe every day.
In the mornings and at night, the same,
And to all those dirty chimney-sweeps
Disgrace and shame!
Disgrace and shame!
Hurrah for fragrant soap!
And for the fluffy towel,
For toothpaste and for toothbrushes,
And for combs and brushes!
So let us bathe and splash,
Cavort, and dive and wash
In tubs, in buckets and in barrels,
In oceans, rivers and in streams,
And in baths and saunas
Everywhere and forever—
Glory eternal,
To water!

—Kornei Chukovskii, 1923

Вдруг навстречу мой хороший
Шестикрылый Серафим.
И презрительные рожи
Корчит Пушкин рядом с ним.
"Ну-ка живовиждь и внемли!"—
Возглашает Серафим.
А потом как зарычит
На меня,
Как крылами застучит
На меня:
"Ну-ка, братец, не дури,
И спасибо говори,
А не то как улечу,
И назад не ворочусь!"—
Как пустился я по улице
Прибежал к Порогу Отчему
Смысла, смысла,
Смысла, смысла
Домогался и молил,
Копоть смыл
И суть отчистил,
Воск застывший отскоблил.
И сейчас же краски, звуки,
Зазвучали в тишине:
"Восприми нас, глупый злюка,
Осторожней и нежней!"
А за ними и стишок:
"Сочини меня, дружок!"
А за ними и Эрот.
(Оставляем рифму "в рот"!)
Вот и книжка воротилась,
Воротилася тетрадь,
И поэтика пустилась
С метафизикой плясать.
Тут уж Логос изначальный,
Коим созидался мир,
Хора древнего Начальник,
Слов и смыслов Командир,
Подбежал ко мне танцуя
И, целуя, говорил:
"Вот теперь тебя люблю я,
Вот теперь тебя хвалю я!
Наконец-то ты, сынуля,
Логопеду угодил!"
Надо, надо Бога славить
По утрам и вечерам,
А нечистым Нигилистам
(варианта засранцамвольтерьянцам)
Стыд и срам!
Стыд и срам!
Да здравствует Истина чистая
И Красотища лучистая,
Истое наше Добро,
Вечное наше перо!
Давайте же, братцы, стараться,
Не злобиться, не поддаваться
В тоске, в бардаке и во мраке,
В чумном бесконечном бараке
И паки, и паки,
И ныне и присно
Вечная слава
Вечная память
Вечная слава
Подымайте Медный таз!
С нами Бог! Кара-барас!

—Timur Kibirov, 2006[25]

Вдруг навстречу мой хороший,
Мой любимый Крокодил.
Он с Тотошей и Кокошей
По аллее проходил
И мочалку, словно галку,
Словно галку, проглотил.
А потом как зарычит
На меня,
Как ногами застучит
На меня:
"Уходи-ка ты домой,
Да лицо своё умой,
А не то как налечу,
Растопчу и проглочу!"
Как пустился я по улице
Прибежал я к умывальнику
Мылом, мылом
Мылом, мылом
Умывался без конца,
Смыл и ваксу
И чернила
С неумытого лица.
И сейчас же брюки, брюки
Так и прыгнули мне в руки.
А за ними пирожок:
"Ну-ка, съешь меня, дружок!"
А за ним и бутерброд:
Подскочили прямо в рот!
Вот и книжка воротилась,
Воротилася тетрадь,
И грамматика пустилась
С арифметикой плясать.
Тут великий Умывальник,
Знаменитый Мойдодыр
Умывальников Начальник
И мочалок Командир,
Подбежал ко мне танцуя
И, целуя, говорил:
"Вот теперь тебя люблю я,
Вот теперь тебя хвалю я!
Наконец-то ты, грязнуля,
Мойдодыру угодил!"
Надо, надо умываться
По утрам и вечерам,
А нечистым трубочистам -
Стыд и срам!
Стыд и срам!
Да здравствует мыло душистое,
И полотенце пушистое,
И зубной порошок,
И густой гребешок!
Давайте же мыться, плескаться,
Купаться, нырять, кувыркаться
В ушате, в корыте, в лохани,
В реке, в ручейке, в океане,
И в ванне, и в бане,
    Всегда и везде
    Вечная слава

      —Kornei Chukovskii, 1923

In order to grasp how this parodic treatment of a classic Soviet children’s poem manages to articulate an earnest piety towards the Soviet and Russian literary tradition and the spiritual values that Kibirov treats so cavalierly, one must first appreciate the special cultural status of Chukovskii, who belongs to a distinctive class of Soviet figures who enjoyed successful careers as members of the cul­tural establishment yet retained reputa­tions for moral sensibility and indepen­dent thought. (Better-known examples of this type, who are frequently and reductively cast in retro­spect as “closet dissi­dents,” in­clude Boris Pasternak, Sergei Eisenstein, and Dmitrii Shosta­kovich.) In Chukov­skii’s case, this mediating position is magnified by the nature of his primary readership: Soviet children’s verse often operated as a special sub-territory of the literary, where authors whose works might be unacceptable in adult literature could still publish. The works of this distinctive realm, insulated from official culture so as to bear a less obvious or less suspect socializing intent, and endowed by childhood memory with the sheen of licensed nostalgia, are especially well equip­ped to combine a secure place in the Soviet canon with persistent appeal to post-Soviet, anti-Soviet and now post-post-Soviet sensi­bilities.

Yet perhaps the most important mechanism enabling Ki­bi­rov’s com­bination of absurd irony and ear­nestness in this poem is the poet’s stance towards offi­cial Soviet public dis­course—a stance character­istic of the last gener­ation of the Soviet in­telligentsia. Men and women who reached maturity during the late 1970s and early 1980s exper­ienced Soviet society as a ubiquitous system of institu­tions, linguistic norms, and values that was para­doxically both unques­tioned and universally discred­it­ed—in the trenchant formulae of Alexei Yurchak, this system was “ever­lasting and steadily de­clining, full of vigor and bleakness, dedicated to high ideals and devoid of them.”[26] Shared experience of these mutually con­stitutive yet mutually inconsistent realms of meaning allowed for the prolif­eration of every­day engagements of common-place Soviet discourses that reproduced them as the unavoidable scaffolding of social meaning, yet which rein­vest­ed them with addi­tional, alternative meanings and values. One common strategy in this game of inven­tive reuse of authoritative language was the ironic citation not merely of official clichés, but of a complete spectrum of Soviet cultural and social markers, from the names of stan­dard Soviet restaurant dishes and perfumes to dialogue from well-known film com­edies. As Yurchak has explained, this form of irony, referred to as stiob, charac­ter­istically car­ried out a dis­place­­ment of “normal” or “author­itative” social practice in order to open out a zone of sincerity, heartfelt affection, and common tastes and desires in the inter­stices of a ubiquitous and vacuous public space and lan­guage.[27]

At the heart of much of Kibirov’s poetry from the 1980s and continuing in the 1990s was a strategy, related to stiob, of ironic citation of authoritative public discourse. Yet one must note that while the quo­tidian irony of late-Soviet stiob was not pri­mar­ily sub­versive or anti-official, Kibirov’s early work, like the Soviet under­ground move­ment of Sots-Art that it was modeled on, consistently turns this in­stru­­ment towards the outright deflation and ridicule of author­itative Soviet lan­guage.[28] One may recall what is perhaps Kibirov’s most well-known poem of the late 1980s, “When Lenin was a Little Boy” (“Когда был Ленин маленьким”), which, like “Kara-Baras!,” cites and plays off of a “classic” of Soviet children’s literature. Yet in this earlier work Kibirov targets not a universally beloved text like Chukovskii’s “Scrubit­rag­ged,” but rather a bald ex­ample of propa­­ganda for pre-teens: an inspirational storybook about Lenin’s boyhood. Kibirov’s “When Lenin was a Little Boy” sup­ple­ments that ori­ginal text with absurd lyrical musings on such matters as the revolutionary leader’s mo­ment of conception, as experienced by his parents:

[…] “Мария!—
от нежности охрипшим басом начал
инспектор,— Поздно! Спать пора, Мария!”
И было что-то в голосе его,
Что Марья Александровна зарделась.

[…] “Maria!”—
The inspector began in his hoarse basso,
“It’s late! It’s time to go to bed!”
And there was something in his voice
That made Mar’ia Aleksandrova blush.

Typically, in anti-Soviet works like this, all that remains of the non-subversive ambi­va­lence of stiob is the communal pleasure of the shared joke (Kibirov’s works are pretty much lacking in anything like “dissident outrage”), or in some instances a hint of heart­felt nostalgia for simple (perhaps illu­sory) beliefs and simple (perhaps illusory) material pleasures. One might suggest that Kibirov’s works of the 1980s and early 1990s period combined a withering ironic dismissal of authori­tative Soviet language with a stance of nostalgia for stiob itself: that shared, ironic, yet homely, position that was made possible by universal, and universally discredited Soviet dis­course.[29] Yet surprisingly, in contrast to his earlier prac­tices, “Kara-Baras!” perfectly exemplifies stiob in the more precise sense described by Yurchak, hilariously shifting markers to carve out a zone of earnest, heart­­felt meaning, yet accomplishing this without dismissing or degrad­ing the ironically targeted original. Rather, there is a self-infantilizing humility to this poem, which reduces Kibirov to child or clown while allowing Chukovskii, Pushkin, and the Logos to remain, despite the poet’s antics, as true authorities. Or perhaps it would be more just to say that the poem projects the spiritual authority of a Russian anti-tradition of poets clowning around at the carnival margins of worldly authority—Pushkin, Chu­kov­skii, and now Kibirov. In the end, the content of the poem mirrors its par­odic form, which acts out the need to reproduce these cultural and spiritual authorities as the bases for common experience or meaning, yet resists the reduction of tradition to dull-witted and oppressive political authority.

As a route towards contextualizing and rendering more apparent this shift in the implications of Kibirov’s poetic strategies, compare “Kara-Baras!” with a contrasting phenomenon of recent years in Russia from a different realm of cultural life: the rehabili­ta­tion of the Sov­iet Hymn. In early 2001, resolving a decade-long crisis of hymn­­­lessness in the Russian Fed­er­ation, newly elec­ted Pres­ident Putin reinstated the Soviet National Anthem as that of the Russian Federa­tion, with lyrics rejiggered, startlingly, by the same long-lived Sergei Mikhalkov who not only had writ­ten the original words in the Stalinist era but who had authored the post-Stalinist re­write of the Hymn to boot.[30] In ob­vious man­ner, the old-new Hymn is a tool for asser­tion of his­torical continuity link­ing the pres­ent with the Soviet past—a past that the new lyrics fur­ther­more describe as continuous with Rus­sian nat­ion­al history before it:

Россиясвященная наша держава,
Россиялюбимая наша страна.
Могучая воля, великая слава
Твое достоянье на все времена!
Славься, Отечество наше свободное,
Братских народов союз вековой,
Предками данная мудрость народная!
Славься, страна! Мы гордимся тобой!

Russia—our blessed state,
Russia—our beloved land.
Mighty will and great glory
In all times are your fate!
Be glorious, our free fatherland,
Immortal union of brotherly peoples,
National wisdom, bequeathed by our forebears!
Be glorious, nation! We have pride in you!

State Hymn of the Russian Federation, lyrics by S. N. Mikhalkov, 2001

Before discussing the stark differences between the Hymn and Kibirov’s “Kara-Baras!,” let’s first consider their commonalities. On the most abstract level of compositional stra­te­gy, expressing what I take to be hall­­­­­­mark features of the current political and aesthetic moment, both offer reassertions of timeless values and cultural con­tinuity, articulated through the lens of a revision of a classic Soviet cultural document. Note that neither of these texts can be seen as expressions of nostalgia, if what we mean by this term is the long­ing for what is dead and past—for each establishes its referent as a bearer of present cultural and political value. Both Kibirov’s poem and the Hymn, as well, may be read not only as reaf­fir­ma­tions of the continuity and integrity of the Russian tradition, but also as rejec­tions of alien and, in par­ticular, “Western” impositions. The re­vised an­them re­covers, among other things, the con­text and resonance of its first adop­tion in 1944, when it rang out as a war­time expres­sion of the unity and might of the Soviet Union in opposi­tion to the encroach­ments of the corrupt West: “We have raised up our army in battle. / We shall sweep all vile occupiers from our path!” (“Мы армию нашу растили в сраженьях. / Захватчиков подлых с дороги сметём!,” from the Hymn of the Soviet Union, 1944 version)—as commentators have noted, one key advantage to a state Hymn with multiple variant lyrics is that a frag­mented polity can experience affec­tive unity by singing dif­ferent words in one “polylogic” chorus.[31] Like­wise, “Kara-Baras!” in­cludes not only the ritualistic dismis­sal, cited above, of stock-figure villains of “Western corruption,” Voltaireans and Nihil­ists—standard whip­ping boys of ideological in­fec­tion for Rus­sian Imperial Official Nationalists and for Slavophiles and their successors during the nine­teenth-century—but also a dethroning of their con­tem­porary equiva­lents in the cul­tural sphere—the very villains, apparently, responsible for the blasphemy against mean­ing descried by the poet:

Боже, боже,
Что случилось?
Отчего же
Всё кругом
И помчалось колесом?
(в смысле ницшеанского вечного возвращения или буддийского кармического ужаса, дурной бесконечностивообще всякой безысходности)
За солипсизмом,
За атеизмом,
За гностицизмом,
За М. Фуко.
(Деррида здесь помещен более для шутки, М. Фукоболее для рифмы)[32]

Lordy, lordy,
What’s gone on here?
Why on earth,
Head over heels,
Has everything
Tipped over, spun,
Then left, with cartwheels, at a run?
(in the sense of Nietzschean eternal recurrence or Buddhist karmic horror and bad infinity—in general, any sort of hopelessness)
Flies after a solecism,
A solecism,
Then atheism,
After Gnosticism,
Then M. Foucault.
(Derrida is included here more for the joke; M. Foucault—more for the rhyme)

Note that both for this poet and for Russian political life such an overt elision of the os­ten­­sible historical rupture (dividing Soviet from post-Soviet) and replacement of it by a resurgent geographical/civilizational divide (dividing Russia from the West) would have been im­pos­sible five or ten years ago. The mark of the new is the reassertion of the old. In Kibirov’s case, one may note that even the choice of Chukovskii’s poem as a tar­get for civilizational salvage emphasizes a continuity-based model of Russian cul­tural history. As Boris Gasparov brilliantly explained in a classic essay, in 1923 “Scrub­it­rag­ged” con­sti­tuted a final salvo in Chukovskii’s long polemic with anti-tradi­tionalist Futur­ists—a text that brought Futurist iconoclasm to heel by domes­ti­cating avant-garde poetics for “family consumption” in an amelioration of the historical, aesthe­tic and political rupture that poets like Maiakovskii had sought to assert in a corollary to the revolutionary historical break of that era.[33]

Yet the dis­tinctions be­tween the two examples I offer here are great, far beyond the mere fact that one is funny and one … isn’t. Mikhalkov’s Hymn effects a re­clama­tion of polit­ical affect through seizure of political sym­bols that are still warm not only with an un­mark­ed Soviet sen­si­bility, but with the excess heat of the Stalin­ist cult of personality. In contrast, as we have seen, the poet’s recovery project aims to sal­vage the affectively load­ed mat­erial of the Soviet quo­tidian and the ageless spiritual values of the intelligent­sia—culture and spirit. To make this distinction more precise, while the Hymn projects, in authori­ta­tive language, the continuity of the political tradition and the collec­tive iden­tity it sanc­tions, Kibirov’s use of stiob recovers a shared realm of cultural mean­ing that persists at the expense of precisely this sort of authoritative public language (although, admittedly, this alternative realm of meaning is also parasit­ically dependent on such language). In a fur­ther reflection of these diver­gences, the works present two dis­tinct possibilities for assess­ment of the more recent past. The Hymn is of a piece with the displacement in pres­ent-day political rhetoric of the 1990s as a legitimate element of the genealogy of Russian statehood and social identity—the foundation of Russia’s current democratic institu­tions, such as they are, finds no reflection in the new lyrics. Kibirov’s work, in contrast, not only constructs a seamless cultural anti-tradition, but also maps out a con­tinuous history of corruption that implicitly ties the profanity excor­iated by Push­kin’s prophet to the “dirt” of the Soviet era to the chaos of the 1990s and the cyni­cism of the Putin era that has followed it, linking them together in a single scene of “bar­racks, dis­eased and end­less” (“чумной бесконеч­ный барак”). So while Kibirov and the revised Hymn are, in some sense, on the same page, they are on different sides of it—pursuing rather different pro­grams. One might even venture that, in some sense, the proper object of Kibirov’s parody in “Kara-Baras!” is none other than the Hymn itself—or the political discourse of the new Russia that it epitomizes. This is to say, Kibirov’s “The ideals have run away” parodies not Chukovskii’s “The blanket has run away,” but rather Putin’s “old ideals were destroyed” (see the second epigraph above).

To sum up this analysis, consider again the view back along the poetic trajectory that has brought Kibirov to “Kara-Baras!,” which lucidly reveals the evolution of the aesthetic and critical possibilities dependent on the politico-historical myths of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. From his late Soviet debut onwards, Kibirov danced across the divide be­tween author­itative Soviet pub­lic discourse and its various opponents (or partners): the anti-Soviet, the post-Soviet. Works of the 1980s such as “When Lenin was a Little Boy” (“Когда был Ленин малень­ким”) out­rageous­ly deflated Soviet public lan­guage through ironic ridi­cule. Later, at the crux of Soviet col­lapse, Kibirov was offer­ing parodic treat­ments of the holdovers of the Soviet past in the post-Soviet moment such as, for instance, the 1990 epistle to Sergei Gandlev­skii cited above, which passed through a grotesque catalogue of post-Sov­iet social heterogeneity only to arrive at the conclusion: “There is nothing new under the moon” (“Ничто не ново под луною”).[34] This was а rather start­ling asser­tion, given the general con­sensus uniting both the eu­phor­ic and the fearful dur­ing 1990, when the poem was com­posed, concerning the novelty of the “socio­cultural sit­uation.” Yet this was exactly the point of the rev­olu­tion­ary gro­tesque: to pre­sent, by means of a monstrous mating of purportedly antithetical histor­ical epochs, a critique of the subterranean, concealed and ille­gitimate continuities that belied the myth of historical rupture and social transformation. In a sense, in “Kara-Baras!” the poet is up to his old tricks again—still pursuing the alchemical com­bination of the Soviet and its oppo­sites. Yet now, the poet offers an earnest affirmation of historical continuity with the Soviet and pre-Soviet pasts in the key of stiob and its dis­placement of authorita­tive dis­course. What has happened? In the Putin years, the stakes of Kibirov’s habitual tropes changed: as the myth of the revolu­tionary transforma­tion of the Soviet order into some new social reality collapsed, the aesthetic mech­anisms that were once balanced against that myth lost force. Little remains now of the aesthetic shock and critical im­port of bridg­ing the historical divide in a political-rhetor­ical situation where the his­torical and stylistic combinatorics that once signaled ironic deflation have them­selves been co-opted by phenomena like the revised Hymn. A reinvigorated poetics of stiob, in this novel con­text, is the path by which the poet recovers critical edge, en­abling him to confront stand­ard ver­sions of historical continu­ity, known to all, with an alternative, non-authoritarian, vision of the intercon­nec­tions of present and past.

Let’s consider one additional, contrasting example of this shift in aesthetic possibili­ties in present-day Russia. In 2002, Russian artists Farid Bogdalov and Sergei Kalinin embarked on an ambitious new pro­ject: an up­dated version of a work by the canonical pre-revolutionary Russian artist Ilya E. Repin, “Official Ses­sion of the State Council on May 7, 1901, the Centen­nial Anniver­sary of the Founding of the Council” (“Торжественное заседание Государственного совета 7 мая в день столетнего юбилея со дня его учреждения”). In Bog­dalov’s and Kalinin’s version, “Session of the Federal Assem­bly” (“Заседание Феде­рального со­брания”; the govern­ing body of the new work’s title is a fictitious one) the tens of assem­bled per­sonages of the original painting are replaced by a panoply of por­traits of contem­porary notables, including Vladimir Putin and other leading political figures.[35] As com­mentators noted in reception of the painting, the work (like Kibirov’s texts) derives its pedi­gree from the late-Soviet underground art move­ment of Sots-Art that pioneered the strategy of ironic permutations of official and alterna­tive images and stylistic registers.[36] Per­haps recog­nizing the track record of this technique and its potential for anti-authoritarian effects, when Bog­dalov and Kalinin contacted the indi­viduals chosen for representation in the new paint­ing, all but two of them refused to sit for the artists. Yet an odd thing happened in the process of work on the painting: that same class of Russian elites who had instinc­tively mis­trusted the work when it was in the planning stage came to openly embrace it, praising it as an appropriate and flattering re­affirmation of Russian political and social his­tory, and eventually snapping up studies for the work at auction to decorate their drawing rooms.

In effect, the ironic implications of a technique that depended on the shock of a forced overcoming of historical dis­tance had dissolved, re­ducing what would have appeared as a grotesque only a short while to the status of a clever vanity piece. Of course, in distinction from Kibirov, who renovates by other means his aesthetic arsenal’s potential for critique, Bogdalov and Kalinin have instead capitalized on the broadened appeal of these tech­niques among Russia’s moneyed classes—truly, their painting represents a commod­i­fied version of Mikhalkov’s Hymn. One should remark as well that the primary ref­erent of Bog­dalov and Kalinin’s creative anachronism is the pre-revolu­tionary, rather than the Soviet, era. Yet both Repin and the realist school of paint­ing that he represents, the Itinerants, were canonized in the Soviet period as represen­ta­tive of the well­springs of Socialist Realist art. In this light, the contemporary update of the painting may be seen, like Kibirov’s poem and the rewritten Hymn, as articulations of a shared sense of politi­cal and cultural continuity, linking the present not merely with a discrete moment in the past, but with a long, nation­alist-tinged prehistory. (This, I would add, relates to an im­portant factor, often overlooked, underwriting the contemporary es­tab­lishment’s renova­tions of Russian national historical and cultural myths: the last such rehabilitation project took place in the 1930s in the service of Stalinist propaganda. In this sense, the Russian Imperial and the quintessentially Soviet are not so far distant; the proper inflection of the former aptly evokes the latter.[37]) Here, then, is a rough dat­ing of the tipping point when historical continuity, rather than rupture, began to dominate the horizon of social exper­ience and historical imagination in Russia: from about 2002 onwards. As with Kibirov’s poem, Bogdalov and Kal­inin’s case demon­strates how the reemer­gence of what was once ima­gined as a closed and finished Soviet past as a constitutive element of contem­porary subjectivity and social experience has pre­ci­pitated the obsolescence or transformation of key ele­ments of the aesthet­ic ar­senal of the 1990s, that were predicated on revo­lutionary rupture and the rad­ical opposition of successive epochs, pre-revolutionary, Soviet and post-Soviet.

What Next?

In conclusion, I want to consider again the larger implications of the end of the post-Soviet. Authoritative political dis­course in Moscow projected the Putin years as a return to the firm ground of social and cultural stability from the chaos and crises of the 1990s. As the Hymn has it:

Широкий простор для мечты и для жизни
Грядущие нам открывают года.
Нам силу даёт наша верность Отчизне.
Так было, так есть и так будет всегда!

A grand expanse for dreams and for life
Is opened out by future years.
Faith in the Fatherland gives us strength.
So it was, so it is, and so it will always be!

In the Medvedev years, which are shaping up in Russia (like the Obama years are in the West) as the era of financial crisis, efforts so far seem to be directed at hanging on to this same historical vision as long as it can be made to stick. Yet despite the optimism of the new version of the collective past, something rather different is going on. At base, one dominant historical metaphor—that of historical rupture and social rebirth—has been replaced by another—that of civilizational continuity—as the author­itative tool for the construction of social identity. Neither of these public discursive for­ma­tions accounts well for the actualities of social experience and a political history that exceed both in their complexity. Yet Kibirov’s “Kara-Baras!,” I would propose, is symptomatic of other possibilities inherent in present-day Russia that give cause for a modest optimism that, as current crises progress and the vacuity of both of these discursive tools becomes readily apparent to all, a more (dare I say it) authentic conception of recent history and present identity may be emerg­ent. For it is only now, perhaps, that Russians are be­ginning to see the stakes of change (rather than of “revolution” or “transition”) a bit more clearly.

Let’s try to sepa­rate myth from reality. As I explain above, the organiz­ing idea of Rus­sian social and political ex­per­ience in the 1990s (and of Western interpretations of it as well) was the Manichean concept of a glo­bal transforma­tion of the “tota­li­tarian” Soviet Russia into its opposite, the demo­cratic, free-market Russia of the future. Yet the reality of the 1990s, sometimes difficult to see and hear beneath the triumphant cele­bra­tion and then mourning of the “New World Or­der,” was a multifarious poli­tical and cultural con­tinuity with a Soviet past that was itself no less hybrid, complex and unevenly ground­ed in its own historical precedents than what followed it. Furthermore, as many now agree, the seeds of the recent re­asser­tion of historical and in­stitutional continuity with the past on the part of Putin’s Kremlin and of the policies which that reassertion legitimated were sown precisely in the political and social environ­ment of the 1990s, under the sha­dow of the myth of rev­olutionary trans­formation. For in those years, in service to the chimera of a clean break with the past, progress towards the crea­tion of a pluralistic poli­tical sys­tem or the incre­mental improve­ment of social justice in Russia was repeat­ed­ly sac­rificed to the ritual exorcism of the communist past—the wild fear of a red power-grab serving as the ration­ale for the shelling of the Khasbulatov par­lia­ment in 1993, the rig­ging of the elections in 1995-96 under the slogan “victory at all costs,” etc. In short, dur­ing the post-Soviet 1990s, Russia was plagued by mutual interference of the ideological con­tent of the myth of post-Soviet social transfor­mation and the program­matic and prag­matic requirements of effective amelioration of the Soviet social and poli­ti­cal legacy. In this light, perhaps the most important novel phen­om­enon of the pres­ent is the fading of the myth of revolutionary historical rupture itself. Which is not to say that the ideological illusions of current historical myths are any less pernicious, but that an open­ing for a dif­fer­ent model of social and political action may have appeared where there was none before. Kara-Baras!

The optic that renders this opening visible is Kibirov’s vision of Russian and Soviet history—a long story of recovery at the margins of durable, sacred truths in the face of the persistence of “anguish, disorder and darkness,/ In barracks, diseased and endless.” And it is this optic that brings into sharper focus the current state of Russian society, crisis and all, as well as the absurd ideological sleight-of-hand of Russia’s new Hymn and of the discur­sive mechanisms it depends upon. For as any visitor to Moscow must immediately notice, the past eight years in Russia have accomplished not only renovation and recon­struction, but also the production of … new ruins. This debris of more recent vintage is none other than the wreck­age of the post-Soviet era—the ruins of “free-market democracy,” of “trans­ition,” or of “the liminal” (which­ever you prefer). These signs of the aftermath, or per­haps we should term it the end of the after­math (or the after-after­math), are every­where, struc­tur­ally and ideolo­gi­cally. Per­haps the most obvious such “new ruin” is the steel and glass office building on Moscow’s Pavel­etskaia Square that once served as the head­quarters of Mikhail Kho­dor­kovskii’s now defunct oil mega-cor­poration Yukos. Once a glittering symbol of the impending future, the trophy building stood for much of 2006 vacant and de­crepit, and was in 2007 sold off with the last re­main­ing Yukos assets in a rigged auction favoring Kremlin insiders. And despite the fact that the victimization of Khodorkovskii was rather popular among the Russian public, his fate also epitomizes the sense of vulnerability of Russia’s new social elites, pace the revised Hymn’s promise that “A grand expanse for dreams and for life/ Is opened out to us by future years.” For quite apart from the sense that Russia has, once again, eco­nom­ically and politically “arrived,” a survey of members of the young urban mid­dle class even before the economic crisis demonstrated that these most prosperous beneficiaries of the new Russian social order live with an extra­ordinarily heightened sense of the fragility of their gains and the uncertainty of their position.[38] What they are thinking in the midst of the crisis is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps the best illustration of the complexities of the present moment is to be found in the story of Moscow’s fallen Soviet-era statuary. This is a story that has been told be­fore—but here I want to give it a slightly dif­ferent emphasis, and a different conclu­sion. One of the major tourist photo-ops of the early 1990s in Moscow was the site in the Gorky Park of Cul­ture, where a number of monuments had been deposited unceremon­iously in a heap following their fall from grace. Yet this was just the beginning of their post-Soviet afterlife. By the mid 1990s the statues had been reinstal­led on pedestals in a park across the street next to the Central House of Artists that came to be known as “Sculp­ture Park” (a rhym­ing pun on the “Cul­ture Park” where the objects had lain). Soon thereafter they were graced with plaques that, rather than explain the iden­tity and ideo­logical signifi­cance of the rep­resent­ed lead­ers, instead narrated the his­tory of the monu­ments themselves—created by whom, where and when erected and dis­mounted, by whose decision. As com­mentators have noted, both the re-erection of the monu­ments and the plaques framed the works in a largely neutral manner, al­low­ing both for both critical distancing and for nostalgic recollection and re­flection, according to the taste of the spec­tator.[39] At this stage, the effect was similar to that of Buda­­pest’s more deliberately executed Statue Park Museum: the Soviet era was exhibited as past, yet still relevant, as a com­pleted epoch that still retained signi­ficance in a variety of interpretive modes.[40] Yet curiously, by the dawn of the new mil­len­ni­um, the neutral frame was mod­ified by the appearance of a large number of additional sculptural ob­jects in the same park—old unsuccessful competition entries, busts of world cultural figures, abstrac­tions, new works by contem­porary artists—interspersed in no particular order with such politi­cally charged objects as the monument to Felix Dzerzhin­sky, found­er of the Soviet state’s first secret police, that once stood before the KGB head­quar­ters.[41] No longer ser­ving as a dis­pas­sionate frame for objects that represent a completed yet still relevant past (whether long­ed for or despised), the new additions to the park worked to efface the boun­dary between past and pres­ent, obscur­ing the ruins of the Soviet past beneath a clut­ter of more recent pasts and pres­ents, themselves busily crumbling under the onslaught of Moscow’s savage smog and weather. The effect mirrors the overall state of contemporary Moscow and Russia as a whole: the ruins of the Soviet era every­where stand side by side with the unfinished pro­­jects and the un­processed messes of the “tran­si­tional” period of the 1990s. It is per­haps even fair to spec­u­late that the dis­parate, inter­larded strata of rub­ble in Mos­cow are well on their way to becom­ing indistin­guish­able from one another to the locals, especially to those who came of age in the last decade and a half. While one might have imagined in the late 1990s that the profusion of styles and eras in Moscow’s built envi­ron­ment was symptomatic of the complexities of a liminal period, the fall not only of the “Sov­iet” but of the “post-Soviet” as well into interspersed ruins now signals the decay of the fan­tasies both of blue skies at the end of transition and of the exceptional (struc­tur­ed and opportunity-filled or inco­herent and agonizing) “hybridity” of the present into a hum­drum of unstructured com­plexity, or of complexity structured in other ways (economic stratification, geographical divergence, professional advantage, generational distance). I would propose that it is this new palpability of long-term social and historical complexity that may offer the best hope for a path forward in present-day Russia.

Now, the prospects for the development of political pluralism and eco­nomic equity do not look very promising at present in Russia. It is tempting to follow the example of more sensational commentators and political leaders in both Russia and the West and to view the present as a moment of resurgent “cold war” oppositions in the light of a Russian return to its “imperialistic” and “authoritarian” political roots, or to adopt a brand of his­torical de­ter­­min­ism, viewing the present through the lens of prev­ious revo­lutionary mom­ents as a sort of Thermidor. The readiness of both Western and Russian media empha­tic­ally to adopt such positions from their polar opposite political standpoints in the wake of the war in the Caucasus last summer was not encouraging. How­ever, I hope that there is room for less pessimism, just as there is room in Russian public discourse for far more variation than such visions of the present might suggest. If there is any benefit in distin­guishing between ideologically suspect discursive constructions of social and political reality and the actuality of social conditions, it is in the possibility of critique and resis­tance—the possibility of pointing to the mess in the Caucasus and seeing not the phan­tasmatic contours of resurgent geopolitical myths, but the rampant vanity and disregard for human life of the leadership on all sides of the conflict. Yet in mishandling what could have been an inter­national standoff over South Ossetia into an international crisis, the current Russian administration undoubtedly over­played its diplomatic and mil­itary hand. Time will tell whether it overplayed its domestic political capital as well—in that case and in the larger matter of recent anti-Western posturing—by demonstratively acting out a scenario of Russia’s particular interests to the point that they become a reality of international isolation, and by placing those purported national in­ter­ests at odds with the economic wellbeing of stake­holders large and small, who have seen their opportunities for international economic contact diminish just when such contact is most needed for a Russian economic recovery.

In short, the Russian administration has demonstrated both its devotion to its new politico-historical myths, and their perniciousness. One must hope that the weak insti­tu­tions of civil society that sprang up in the 1990s will allow Russians themselves to grasp the ruinous failure of this administration and these policies, and to move away from them towards less extreme positions offered by other voices. Kibirov, one may note, who was recently awarded a prestigious Rus­sian national prize for poetry and is perhaps the most wide­ly read poet of his genera­tion, himself wields no little social authority.[42] In an inter­view re­garding the poem I have taken as the last epigraph to this essay, the poet com­ment­ed: “One of the most common and danger­ous diseases of the Russian intelligen­tsia is the insistent articu­lation of historical analo­gies. Of course, it makes life easier, but it also prevents you from see­ing the truth. […] We are dealing here with a new reality, and there is no need to make sense out of things by employing instru­ments that have in fact outlived their use­ful­ness.”[43] Indeed, historical analogies mask the novel elements of any given historical con­juncture, and have the poten­tial to work as self-fulfilling prophesies. For what is quite distinct about the present in Russia is the recognition among many out­side the halls of power that the “revolu­tion” of the 1990s should be seen as something less than one—that Russia’s re­cent his­tory has been and should be seen as an effort to effect social progress in the face of problematic or produc­tive long-term con­tin­uities, and that revolution, in its ironic ten­dency to reinstitute what it sets out to destroy, is a poor instrument by which to achieve social or political change.[44]              

This marks a truly innova­tive, epoch­al trans­formation in Russian pol­i­tical culture. For the first time, Russian political life is open towards the past, which signals its potential for openness towards the future as well. For what Russia needs more than anything is a more via­ble rela­tionship to the past than either the post-Soviet myth of revolutionary tran­scendence or the post-post-Soviet myth of civilizational return. Rather, Russians must discover a vision of the past as the scene of both colossal crimes and violence as well of great as­pir­a­tions and achievements, holding out the possi­bility to found the fu­ture on the latter rather than the former. For what Russia, like any society, requires in order to pro­cess an agonizing historical experience and take meaningful action for social and poli­ti­cal justice is an under­standing of both the past and the present as scenes of problema­tically complex historical experience that demands future reso­lut­ion, rather than as the bases for the illus­ory, already achieved transcendence of revo­lu­tion­ary rebirth. Such an understand­ing could serve as the foundation for actual, rather than ideo­logically impact­ed, efforts to ameliorate the injustices not only of the Soviet era but of the 1990s and 2000s as well—a foundation not for “transformation,” but simply for “change.” This, I believe, is the con­tent of Kibirov’s “Kara-Baras!,” which models a vision of the past that could finally see not only fallen Soviet monu­ments, but also the countless Lenins left standing in Russian prov­inces, as what they are—not transparent symbols of pol­itical triumph or threatening resur­gence, but as part of a long chain of ruins.[45]


This article is a revised version of a paper presented at the 2006 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. The author wishes to thank the par­ti­cipants of that panel—Andreas Schönle, Jochen Hellbeck, and Gregory Stroud—as well as Barbara Fuchs, Serguei Oushakine, Paul Saint-Amour, Ilya Vinitskii, Maxim Walstein, Alexei Yurchak, Andrey Zorin, and the two anony­mous reviewers for Republics of Letters for valuable feedback and criticism.

[1] Timur Kibirov, V obshchem, zhili my neplokho… [We Lived OK, We Got Along], in Kto kuda, a ia v Rossiiu [Everyone’s Going Somewhere, but I’m Heading for Russia] (Moscow: Vremia, 2001), 367. Unless otherwise noted, translations are my own.

[2] “Poslanie Federalnomu Sobraniyu Rossiiskoi Federatsii” [Memorandum to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation], April 25, 2005, available online on the official website of the Russian President, (accessed May 18, 2007).

[3] Timur Kibirov, Kara-baras! (Moscow: Vremia, 2006), 48.

[4] Ibid., 34. I. M. Irten’ev is a highly successful contemporary poet, who has built his career around careful deployment of the ironic tropes of postmodern and conceptualist writing in commentary on public affairs. V. A. Shenderovich, his frequent collaborator, is a comic and political humorist, formerly a writer for the highly successful television political satire Kukl [Puppets] (the now-banned Russian version of the puppet-based English political satire Spitting Image).

[5] Chrystia Freeland, Sale of the Century: Russia’s Wild Ride from Communism to Capitalism (New York: Crown Business, 2000).

[6] As anthro­pologist Maya Nad­karni has written, “images of toppled monu­ments and headless statues of Lenin dom­inated the imaginations of both the former Soviet bloc states and their Western ob­ser­­vers, as materializing the historical break represented by the political transfor­ma­tions.” Maya Nadkarni, “The Death of Socialism and the Afterlife of Its Monuments: Making and Marketing the Past in Budapest’s Statue Park Museum,” in Contested Pasts: The Politics of Memory, ed. Katharine Hodgkin and Susannah Radstone (London: Routledge, 2003), 196.

[7] Peter J. Stavrakis, “Gorbachev’s ‘Common European Home’ and the Politics of Reform,” in The USSR and the World Economy: Challenges for the Global Integration of Soviet Markets under Perestroika, ed. Deborah Anne Palmieri (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992), 74-104.

[8] Serguei Oushakine, “In the State of Post-Soviet Aphasia: Symbolic Development in Contemporary Russia,” Europe-Asia Studies 52, no. 6 (2000): 991-1016.

[9] Alexei Yurchak, “Privatize Your Name: Symbolic Work in a Post-Soviet Linguistic Market,” Journal of Sociolinguistics 4, no. 3 (2000): 406-34.

[10] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 49-55; Serguei Oushakine, “‘We’re Nostalgic But We’re Not Crazy’: Retrofitting the Past in Russia,” Russian Review 66, no. 3 (2007): 451-82

[11] Timur Kibirov, Serezhe Gandlevskomu. O nekotorykh aspektakh nyneshnei sotsiokul’turnoj situatsii [To Serezhe Gandlevskii: About Certain Aspects of the Present Sociocultural Situation]. This lengthy poem was first published in Sintaksis 29 (1990): 183-89. I reproduce here the translation published with my more extensive analysis of the work in Kevin M. F. Platt, History in a Grotesque Key: Russian Literature and the Idea of Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 171-86.

[12] “Putin: shkol’nye uchebniki—ne ploshchadka dlia politicheskoi bor’by, s istorii ‘nada sniat’ vse shelukhu i penu’” [“Putin: School Textbooks Are Not a Platform for Political Battles; ‘We Must Remove All the Husks and Froth’ from History”], November 27, 2003, (accessed August 24, 2007). See also press concerning a new handbook for history teachers published with Putin’s explicit approval in 2007: A. V. Filip­pov, Novei­shaia istoriia Rossii, 1945-2006 (Modern Russian History, 1945-2006) (Moscow: Prosveshchenie, 2007). The book adopts a largely apologetic approach to the history of Stalinism. On the involvement of the Putin admin­istration in this work’s composition, see Anna Kachurovskaia, “Istoricheskii pripadok” [A Historical Paroxysm], Vlast’ 27 (July 2007), (accessed August 24, 2007).

[13] Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, “Russia: Authoritarianism Without Authority,” Journal of Democracy 17, no. 1 (2006): 104-18; Sarah Elizabeth Mendelson and Theodore P. Gerber, “Soviet Nostalgia: An Impediment to Russian Democratization,” Washington Quarterly 29, no. 1 (2005-6): 83-96.

[14] “Poslanie Federal’nomu sobraniiu Rossiiskoi federatsii” [Memorandum to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation], April 26, 2007, Official Website of the Russian President, (accessed April 4, 2009).

[15] On Russian political counter-traditions of pragmatism and pluralism, see Boris M. Ponomarev, “Historical Culture,” in Russian Culture at the Crossroads: Paradoxes of Postcommunist Consciousness, ed. Dimitri N. Shalin (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996): 11-40.

[16] Boym, Future of Nostalgia, 83-119.

[17] Nurit Schleifman, “Moscow’s Victory Park: A Monumental Change,” History and Memory 13, no. 2 (2001): 5-34.

[18] Andreas Schönle, “Ruins and History: Observations on Russian Approaches to Destruction and Decay,” Slavic Review 65, no. 4 (2006): 668.

[19] See the results of the project at “Imia Rossii” [The Name of Russia], (accessed March 26, 2009). For the description of the project cited in my text, see “O proekte,” (accessed March 24, 2009).

[20] Thomas F. Remington, “Prospects for a Democratic Left in Postcommunist Russia,” Journal of Policy History 15, no. 1 (2003): 130-48.

[21] Mikhail Khodorkovskii, “Levyi povorot” [A Turn to the Left], Vedomosti, August 1, 2005, (accessed May 18, 2007); Mikhail Khodorkovskii, “Levyi povorot-2” [A Turn to the Left, Number 2], Kommersant, November 11, 2005, (accessed May 16, 2007). Available in translation at (accessed May 16, 2007).

[22] “Poslanie Federal’nomu sobraniiu Rossiiskoi federatsii” [Memorandum to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation], April 26, 2007, Official Website of the Russian President, (accessed April 4, 2009).

[23] Irina Davydova, “Smutnoe desiatiletie” [A Decade of Troubles], Neprikosnovennyi zapas 20, no. 6 (2001): (accessed April 4, 2009); Galina Zvereva, “‘1990-e kak katastrofa’: diskursnyi analiz tekstov sovremennoi rossiiskoi publitsistiki i istoriografii” [The 1990s as a Catastrophe: A Discourse Analysis of Texts of Contemporary Russian Publicistics and Historiography] (paper presented at the XV Bannye chteniia [Bathhouse Readings], Moscow, March 2007).

[24] Alexei Yurchak, “Post-Post-Communist Sincerity: Pioneers, Cosmonauts and Other Soviet Heroes Born Today,” in What Is Soviet Now? Identities, Legacies, Memories, ed. Thomas Lahusen and Peter Solomon (Berlin: LIT Verlag, forthcoming).

[25] Kibirov, Kara-Baras!, 48-56.

[26] Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 282.

[27] Ibid., 238-81.

[28] Ibid., 243, 250-51.

[29] Gregory Freidin, “Transfiguration of Kitsch—Timur Kibirov’s Sentiments: A Farewell Elegy for Soviet Civilization,” in Endquote: Sots-Art Literature and Soviet Grand Style, ed. Marina Balina, Nancy Condee, and Evgeny Dobrenko (Evanston, IL: North­Western University Press, 2000), 123-45; Sofya Khagi, “Art as Aping: The Uses of Dialogism in Timur Kibirov’s ‘To Igor’ Pomerantsev. Summer Reflections on the Fate of Belles Lettres,” Russian Review 61, no. 4 (2002): 579-98.

[30] Oushakine, “Post-Soviet Aphasia,” 997-98; Kathleen E. Smith, Mythmaking in the New Russia: Politics and Memory during the Yeltsin Era (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 160-61, 181-84; J. Martin Daughtry, “Russia’s New Anthem and the Negotiation of National Identity,” Ethnomusicology 47, no. 1 (2003): 42-67.

[31] Daughtry, “Russia’s New Anthem,” 60-62.

[32] Kibirov, Kara-Baras!, 48-56.

[33] B. M. Gasparov, “Moi do dyr” [Scrub It Ragged], Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie 1, no. 1 (1992): 304-19.

[34] Platt, History in a Grotesque Key, 171-86.

[35] Tat’iana Markina, “Auktsion na federal’nom urovne” [An Auction at the Federal Level], Kommersant, November 18, 2005, (accessed May 18, 2007); Oushakine, “We’re Nostalgic.”

[36] Irina Kulik, “Rossiiskie politiki plokho prodaiutsia” [Russian Politicians Not Selling Well], Kommersant, November 18, 2005, (accessed May 18, 2007).

[37] David Brandenberger and Kevin M. F. Platt, “Introduction: Tsarist-Era Heroes in Stalinist Mass Culture and Propaganda,” in Epic Revisionism: Russian History and Literature as Stalinist Propaganda, ed. Kevin M. F. Platt and David Brandenberger (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 3-14.

[38] In July 2008, the Levada Center public opinion research organization published its report, much commented on in the press, concerning the attitudes of the Russian middle class regarding economic and political conditions in Russia. See “Russkij srednii klass: ego vgliad na svoiu stranu i Evropu” [The Russian Middle Class: Views about Russia and Europe], Levada-tsentr, (accessed August 11, 2008).

[39] Boym, Future of Nostalgia, 83-91.

[40] Nadkarni, “Death of Socialism.”

[41] One summer in the late 1990s I visited the Sculpture Park and discovered a major art hap­pening: sculptors working in a variety of media were set up in a row of tents in the park, busily producing new works. Perhaps they were supposed to be inspired by the master­pieces around them. Or by the historical rubble.

[42] So far, despite the fact that he is himself an ethnic Ossetian, Kibirov has made no public pronouncement that I can locate regarding the conflict in Georgia—which perhaps reveals his sense that the situation is far more complex than presented in any public discussion, Russian or Western.

[43] Natal’ia Kochhetkova, “Poet Timur Kibirov: ‘Molodye ne zhaiut, chto pomimo Petrosiana est’ Zoshchenko” [interview, “Poet Timur Kibirov: ‘The Young Do Not Know that Besides Petrosian There Is Also Zoshchenko’”], Izvestiia, November 10, 2006, (accessed May 11, 2006).

[44] In a 2008 interview, Kibirov was questioned about “how he relates to Putin.” He answered: “How do I relate to Putin?... I don’t relate to him at all. More to the point, any sort of special relationship—lovingly pious or hysterically hateful—is completely incompre­hensible to me. Because the problem is not Putin. […] In my view, the failure of both the cult of Putin and the hatred of some part of the freedom-loving intelligentsia for it is that they both represent betrayals, illustrating the nostalgia on both sides of the equa­tion for Soviet times, when everything was comfortable. […] And I fear that we have the same thing today: ‘What can we do? This monster is sitting with his Krem­lin administration and gives us no options!’ That is simply not so, and it’s very damaging.” Irina Permaikova, “Interv’iu s Timurom Kibirovym” [Interview with Timur Kibirov], Novoe literaturnoe karta Rossii, May 1, 2008, (accessed September 1, 2008).

[45] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 257-58; Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, trans. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 1-22.