A light snack for thought…

Given our current political predicament in the United States, how do we understand the U.S in relation to Russia? The article in the New Yorker points out that much of what Putin uses as justification for his actions is previous action taken by the U.S. in global affairs. It raises questions about just how different the U.S and Russia really are when it comes to global politics. Additionally, I think that the article makes a good point about the leverage Russia has as one of the few possessors of nuclear arms, stating that Russia might be irrelevant to global politics if it did not have them. However, how do we understand this next to the success of Russian cyber attacks? At every corner it seems that Putin has changed the metric of subterfuge and war craft, a fact that supports the notion of Russia resurgent on its own terms. But, here comes another question, can Russia only operate on its own terms when the rest of the world is in, possibly temporary, upheaval? Sorry that there is no real quote here but I just wanted to put these question out.

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Pussy Riot and the Western gaze

I’m very interested in the significance of Pussy Riot both in and outside of Russia. Last class, we discussed the reductive and paternalistic “Western gaze” on Russia. Is effective diplomacy possible when the West continues to hold Russia to its own liberal democratic values? If the U.S. is really concerned with human rights, perhaps it’s time to stop tying them exclusively to Western ideologies.

Pussy Riot became fairly popular in the U.S. for a time, and I can’t help but wonder why that might be. It seems to me that the West so readily embraces Pussy Riot predominantly because it’s thought that Pussy Riot is responding to a problem that the West doesn’t have. Identities are always relational – Westerners portray Russia as a backwards country, as an exaggerated caricature of itself antithetical to all things Western, in order to construct the West as the purveyor of “good” values. There needs to be an “other” in order for there to be a self.

Are Americans fascinated with Pussy Riot because it is thought that they represent Western values, solely because they are against the Putin regime? Below is a link to a correspondence between one of the members of Pussy Riot, who was jailed for a time for her protests, and Žižek. Reading this article, it seems clear to me that what Pussy Riot is advocating for is incompatible with norms in both the U.S. and Russia. I think that Pussy Riot is really important even beyond Russia, and not just as a mode of comparison. Pussy Riot’s thoughts on capitalism and society in general are important for reflecting on our own situation and on the West’s hypocrisy, and make visible the ways in which Russia and the U.S. are actually not all that different.


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Same as it ever was…

Toward the middle of his account of its decline, Jeffrey Taylor offers a brief history of Russia since before it was a nation, country, or empire right up until “Putin the Terrible.” Along the way, he emphasizes Russia’s isolation from ‘Western’ societies, lack of modern development, foundations in Orthodoxy, and tendency toward despotic rulers: “The czars exploited the people to strengthen the state… The concept of an omnipotent state as a divine bulwark against external heathen threats became paramount, and was embodied in the absolutism endorsed by the Orthodox Church” (Taylor, 2001). In the context of the history provided by Taylor, the corruption and economic fragility explored in the rest of the article seem almost like destiny.

Comparing only a handful of Russian rulers from various centuries, Taylor surmises that Russia has been in decline for most of its political existence, and that its days as a Soviet global superpower were but a blip of unusual influence in a grander narrative of exploitation and obscurity. The history in the article jumps between centuries and excludes certain rulers and events, providing a limited context for Russia’s tendency toward revolution and the disastrous 1990s. “Until the last days of czarism the choice before the Russian people was either forehead-banging submission to authority or scythe-swinging revolt. Opposing the czar was tantamount to defying God; faith and political allegiance were one… Against this historical backdrop the Bolsheviks came to power, in 1917. Taking full advantage of Russia’s absolutist traditions, Joseph Stalin followed in the footsteps of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great and set about strengthening the state, enacting programs of industrialization and agricultural collectivization: he enslaved vast segments of his population to build industries, mine the earth, and gather crops” (Taylor, 2001). In the rampant corruption and instability faced in Russia at the turn of the century, Taylor’s version of events provides a linear narrative that explains that this type of strife is nothing new.

How does Taylor create a history that fits his overall argument? Which historical figures or events, if included, might undermine it? Do we agree with his analysis of Russia’s role in the world? Do we agree that Russian society has  been prone to extreme revolutions due to a tradition of overly powerful central government?

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Trends in Russian Nationalism

The theme of nationalism is especially interesting in these two articles. While the currents of Russian nationalism seem sinister when mediated through a Western lens in these articles, what role could an increasing patriotism play in Russia’s future? Tayler’s picture of an apathetic or jaded Russian populace, which has “stopped feeling outrage and resigned [itself],” predicts a potential rise in “Russian nationalist sentiment,” which will “find expression in ever-more-bellicose pronouncements from the Kremlin, especially if the West and NATO” keep encroaching upon its “former spheres of influence” (Tayler). Meanwhile, Ioffe’s portrait of Navalny as a corruption-fighting champion of transparency also sheds light on his “pragmatist”‘s nationalism. Are these trends reconcilable with the progress he and others are trying to effect? Navalny’s “advocating the repatriation of illegals…and the use of pistols against lawless undesirables” (Ioffe, 32) is characteristic of sentiments that often devolve into dangerous ideology (though he maintains that he is “not an ideologue.”)

“‘When we make these questions taboo and don’t discuss them, we hand over this extremely important agenda to the radicals,’ Navalny says” (Ioffe, 32). How could issues of immigration, among others, be addressed more productively? In a culture so “isolated and infused with a messianic sense of its own superiority over the West” (Tayler), xenophobic, and concerned with ethnicity, the repetition and continued normalization of these attitudes remains disturbing.

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Russian Cynicism and a Basket Case Mentality

All of our sources for today come from a western perspective. Yet insofar as there is such a thing as a national character, we see the Russian one very clearly, especially in Tayler’s article. The demise of the hope spot that briefly appeared after the Soviet Union collapsed seemed to be the final straw for a deep-seated sense of resignation among the Russian populace. While Tayler was optimistic about Russia’s prospects of integrating into the West in the early 90s, his Russian acquaintance Lena said “that Russians were, above all, an unpredictable people, given to wild swings and dangerous extremes, lacking the patience and adherence to principle that democracy demanded” (Tayler). Over the next 2 decades, she seemed to have been proven right, as Yeltsin and his “shock therapy” gave way to the tandem of Putin and Medvedev. Capitalism was not working in Russia because of the way Yeltsin’s policies opened the door to corruption: “It is impossible to operate a business successfully in Russia and also observe all the laws, because… twenty different levies on the books would tax a company as much as 105 percent if they were paid; businesses must evade taxes to at least some extent or go bankrupt” (Tayler). Hence, getting around the law seems legitimate and even appealing: in a country with few opportunities for small business, “mafiyozy became role models for many of the young” (Tayler). Those who were not satisfied by the idea of becoming career criminals and could not or would not leave the country turned to groups like Da!, which “set out to engage an emerging generation of Russians who were too young to have experienced the end of Communism and had come of age in a wealthier, more apathetic time… One key component was the hosting of debates… ‘because there are no free debates and no free media… To our surprise, it was a super-popular project’” (Ioffe, 28).

Putin’s image as a strongman did not seem to carry over into domestic policy the way it has with foreign policy, as the mafiya continued to flourish openly under him. Russians thought of their government and the mafiya in the same terms: “’Those government thieves aren’t getting any of my money!’ summarizes the feelings of Russians toward taxes and their state. When Russians talk of politicians, they frequently speak of “thieves”, “bandits” and “swindlers” – and not hyperbolically” (Tayler). However, this type of thinking is by no means recent: “The hostility that Russians feel toward their government comes not from some innate lack of civic duty but from the terror, violence, and deceit that have since the late Middle Ages characterized the way in which their rulers have treated them” (Tayler).

Tayler summarizes Russia’s transition thusly: “During the Cold War… Russians I came to know spoke of the future of their country as if it would be the fate of humanity, and I agreed with them… within a few decades Russia will concern the rest of the world no more than any Third World country with abundant resources, an impoverished people, and a corrupt government. In short, as a Great Power, Russia is finished.” The Soviet Union may have hovered on the verge of economic collapse for decades, but at least it gave its citizens a sense of worldwide significance. Today, westerners look at Russia with fascination, confusion, pity, and a vague sense of fear, but not as the existential threat to our values and lives that it had been for nearly half a century. So we are back to the question we have been dancing around all semester: should the west give up on Russia, and should Russia give up on itself?

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Shared Histories and Populism

In his Address on Crimea, Putin reminds his audience of Crimea’s military and naval relevance in Russian history, and commends the popular vote to leave Ukraine rejoin Russia, rebuilding a shared past and establishing a sense that Crimea’s culture, language, and ethnic groups all have their place in this glorious shared history. “To understand the reason behind such a choice it is enough to know the history of Crimea and what Russia and Crimea have always meant for each other. Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptised. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The graves of Russian soldiers whose bravery brought Crimea into the Russian empire are also in Crimea. This is also Sevastopol – a legendary city with an outstanding history, a fortress that serves as the birthplace of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet” (Putin, 2014).
Throughout the speech, Putin returns to this notion of the peoples of Crimea naturally fitting into the narrative of Russia’s cultural and military accomplishments. How do Putin’s frequent calls to the past unity and shared history of Russia and Crimea create a justification for his political role and endoresement of Crimea’s separation? How does this claim compare to other movements in which present reclamation was based on a particular narrative about a glorious past? How does this conjuring of shared history interact with populist and nationalist rhetoric in Russia and beyond?

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National trauma and the cult of personality

Can we draw a connection between susceptibility to a cult of personality leader and national trauma? Freeze emphasizes the characteristics that made Putin so attractive – the antithesis to Yeltsin, he was intelligent, ideologically committed, and deeply proud of his country. Clearly, all of his portrayed personality traits and strengths were carefully constructed in a way that made him particularly appealing to those living in the historic moment of his election. However, I feel that a larger claim can be made: that after a nation suffers particularly painful conditions, such as famine, oppression, economic recession and so on, it becomes easier to mobilize the public to support the individual. The clearest parallel to Putin’s rapid ascent in popularity is Lenin; following decades of political unrest and poverty, Lenin was practically worshipped. Furthermore, he represented hope, in his emphasis on the utopian communist future and orientation towards a collective work ethic. This, to me, seems like a coping mechanism for what was a very challenging time for Russians.

Freeze notes that “When asked what he loved most, Putin instantly replied: ‘Russia'” (Freeze, 494). Putin reinvigorated a national pride that had been deeply lacking under Yeltsin, just as Lenin has restored faith in the collective. Because of the traumatic situations Russia was arising from, and the unifying rhetoric employed, both Lenin and Putin were able to galvanize massive support.

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Soviet appropriations of Western culture

The USSR’s attitude towards technology and music demonstrates a tension we have encountered before: that between the desire to establish Russia as an advanced, culturally vibrant country, and the proliferation and cementation of communist ideals. This tension ended up creating many grey areas in Soviet society, in which small acts of rebellion against bland, authoritarian culture could become permissible if they were not explicitly outlawed. Yurchak gives the examples of tape recorders and radios as items of technology that the government actively promoted. This gets to another recurring theme: the desire to live up to the West. While communist values were of course antithetical to the majority of Western “bourgeois” values, what appears to be happening is an inversion of what we saw occurring under Catherine and Peter. Soviet leaders seemed to be insecure about their position relative to the West, but instead of mirroring Western culture, they instead sought to out-do it. This manifested itself in an appropriation of Western culture that asserted the relevance and prominence of the USSR in the world as a whole, and simultaneously distinguished Soviet culture as unique and superior.

This phenomenon is also evident in the ways in which Soviet youth adopted Western music to shape it to their own values and aspirations, which were in many ways actually compatible with communism. What was evident in this fascination with Western rock was that on the whole, the Soviet youth didn’t mind that they were ignorant of the actual meanings behind the music they had become fascinated with. Rather, the music took on an entirely new cultural meaning, and became assimilated into a new social context. Yurchak explains that “Western rock and other forms of ‘bourgeois’ culture were neither necessarily opposed nor necessarily divided from the dominant socialist culture but were rather thoroughly integrated into it” (Yurchak 212). Although suspicion arose out of this new trend on the end of the Soviet government, what the Russian youth were doing was not much different from what the government was doing by introducing Western technologies to society – they were simply seeking to carve out new identities out of already existing cultural items that allowed them to better articulate the aspirations of Soviet utopianism.

Were these methods of reinterpretation by the Soviet youth truly acts of rebellion, or were they just small reconfigurations of a culture that had been forced upon them?

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Hypernormalization and the Imaginary West

I am finally reunited with my old friend Yurchak!

Citing Foucault’s concept of ‘discursive formations’, Yurchak describes late Soviet reality as a “particular, deterritorialized space” (Yurchak 2005, 161). It was widely understood that the Soviet socialist system was failing but, simultaneously, an alternative was unimaginable; such was the case that this failing system was normalized – or hypernormalized – and an increasingly unreal Soviet consciousness was accepted as reality. Documentarian Adam Curtis expands on Yurchak’s idea, stating that everyone “was so much a part of the [Soviet] system that no one could see beyond it. The fakeness was hypernormal” (Curtis 2016).

As such, if authority functioned by means of contradiction and the existence of the state itself was based upon an ambiguity of power and success, it makes sense that in the cultural sphere “Western cultural influences were both criticized for bourgeois values and celebrated for internationalism” (162). An Imaginary West emerged. Radios that could pick up international broadcasts were produced en masse yet also contained (175-7) and Western music was widely disseminated in the underground, albeit on x-rays: this music was “simultaneously visible and invisible, real and unreal” (182). Andrei’s imaginary rock band (218) and the spelling of The Beatles by Dmitry Shagin (191) illustrate this phenomenon: almost-real Western culture was translated into a Soviet un-reality.

Did this Imagined West reinforce the state’s power or undermine it? What effect did the imaginings of Western music and culture have on Soviet society? Did popular culture lead to the downfall of the Soviet Union? (And did David Hasselhoff bring down the Berlin Wall?)

Additionally: to what degree is the society that we live in today (late-capitalism, late-liberalism) “hypernormal”?

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The right way to westernize

The Soviet government’s attitude toward how much western influence was allowable seems rather arbitrary. For example, “Even during the years when jazz was under extreme attack Soviet orchestras occasionally played jazz tunes that were arranged in the style of Soviet “light music,” changed their names, inserted them among Soviet compositions, and, in these reinterpreted forms, jazz continued to be heard in restaurants and dance halls, and occasionally even at the concerts of state philhar­monic orchestras” (Yurchak, 167). One Soviet jazz lover put his feet up on his chair while he listened because “‘American music must be listened to in the same way as it is listened to in America'” (Yurchak, 168). Later in the country’s history, “newspaper articles also reminded their readers that any Soviet person who aspired to be “‘cultured … should be fluent in one or several foreign lan­guages’… as long as one learned the right information and did so with a critical eye” (169), and “Nikita Khrushchev publicly ridiculed Picasso’s abstract art displayed in an exhibition at Moscow’s Sokolniki Park for its bourgeois lack of real­ism. In May 1962 however, Picasso was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize for the progressive internationalism of his work as a Communist artist” (165). Due to this, it is little wonder that many Soviet citizens thought of the west as imaginary, like a place you can never truly understand until you go there. By the 1970s, ordinary people were creating their own western-based art without so much fear of the government. Was the regime’s refusal to unequivocally condemn western culture based in a desire to make it less attractive as a forbidden fruit, or the knowledge that the Soviet Union had to stay on some level with the rest of the world?

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