A few months ago, to my great surprise, I saw a book by a Kazakh poet Abai among the bestsellers in a bookshop in Moscow. As a native of Kazakhstan I was really taken aback: until May 2012 I had rarely met anyone who had heard of Abai in post-Soviet Russia. Yet there it was, the newly re-published collection of Abai’s poetry, popular reading for the young in Russia. Moreover, Abai’s collection contained a foreword by a young Russian writer Sergei Shargunov.
What could possibly bring together Abai and Sergei Shargunov – a nineteenth-century Kazakh poet and a thirty-two year-old highly politicized Russian writer, who is all about contemporaneity? Perhaps unexpectedly, it is the new mass political opposition and grass-root activism in Russia, something this country hasn’t seen since 1991; something that brought together what since 1991 had seemed incompatible – literature and politics.
That the year of 2011 was the year of Russia’s political awakening is a well-known fact. The overwhelming majority of Russia’s youth had until then remained resolutely politically passive: a Public Opinion Foundation survey run in 2010 found that 82% of young people trusted Vladimir Putin. A mere 5 years ago, when I myself was doing my BA in Moscow, the majority of my friends and their friends had no interest in politics at all. And suddenly in 2011 they all go to demonstrations, vote, blog about politics, sign up to be political observers, and the whole of Russian internet carries screaming headlines of ‘New Russian revolution’.
Politically engaged literature
While this change has been well documented, there is another aspect which is less widely known: that the protests in Russia have been supported by intelligentsia and artistic circles, and that literature has played a marked role in the development of grass-roots activism. One may say this is not surprising at all: do we not think of social responsibility when we think of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy or Gorky? Indeed, Russian literature has always been known for what Isaiah Berlin described in his 1970 Romanes lecture Fathers and Children as the ‘well-known Russian tendency to preach’. Since the eighteenth century literature has been assigned the role of enlightener, educator and promoter of high civic values. Coined into the formula poet and citizen in the nineteenth century, this view of literature grew even stronger during the Soviet era, when it was regarded as the Party mouthpiece.
However, with the break-up of the Soviet Union, the tendency changed radically: in the period after 1991 Russian cultural circles deliberately avoided being ‘political’ in any sense. In post-Soviet Russia, even postmodernism, which for the rest of the world has always been associated with political engagement, became an escapist artistic movement promoting the play for the sake of the play. So how is it that Russian literature has returned to its original role of promoting high public values and spirit?
We should perhaps start with another important change that 1991 brought into Russian literature, and that is the ‘location’ of literature. In 1991 it migrated from books and magazines on to the internet.
After the collapse of the USSR, publishing became barely affordable: the influential ‘thick’ literary journals (a term alluding to their usually 200-plus pages per issue), which for more than two hundred years had played the role of social and cultural trendsetters, had to reduce their circulation from nearly millions to mere two or three thousand, and most publishing houses turned to issuing series of detective stories and romantic novels. Thus, the internet became the primary arena for both high-culture literature and aspiring authors. An internet portal called Journals Reading Room, where ‘thick’ journals monthly publish their recent issues, was established and most literary newspapers are also available online.
Writers, poets and critics are active on the social media platform LiveJournal, using their blogs to announce new texts. Facebook is equally important with multiple discussions, cross-posting the announcements from Journals Reading Room, various online editions, and so on. Publishing houses and editions update their facebook pages daily, and being invited to a conference, readings or a presentation via facebook is a commonplace. Twitter at the moment is less cultivated, but more and more interesting twitter feeds keep appearing. The language itself speaks for the importance of internet: the term 'blogosphere' is a term which is now widely used by the Russian literati.
No one could have possibly predicted that the ‘migration’ of literature from hardcover editions online would, in the end, stimulate the politicisation of literature. However, when the protests broke out in 2011, official information channels remained mute about the demonstrations taking place in Moscow and all over Russia, so the only way to spread the word about the protest actions was the internet. And again, facebook, livejournal and twitter became the ‘three pillars’ of the new Russian revolution: facebook became the headquarters of the protest movement, livejournal - its rostrum, and twitter – the chronicler, running commentaries from strike hotspots, prisoner transport vehicles and even from prison cells. The 2011-2012 protests became arguably the best-documented event in Russian history.
The active use of internet services played a very unexpected role in the development of grass-root activism. Pointing this out, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s Press Secretary, described the protestors as suffering from ‘information overload’. On the one hand, it proved to be the most effective means of spreading information and facilitating communication. On the other, the very idea of revolution was revolutionised: the protest now unfolded not only in the streets and actions, but, first and foremost, online, where it acquired textual form. Blog entries, tweets, hashtags, facebook messages and mini-blogs, have largely verbalised the revolution. With the help of the internet, the revolution was immediately transformed into narrative. The fact that all the new information about protest actions was available to read as soon as it was written, facilitated the shaping of the marchers’ consciousness and their inclusion in the protest narrative: now everybody’s word could be heard.
It was the ‘narrativised’ nature of the protests which stimulated the intellectuals, particularly the literati, to engage actively with political developments. Already involved in social media because of its role in the modern Russian publishing business, they were naturally inclined to continue writing and contributing to the narrative of the revolution, as they were comfortable with the online tools for doing so. It was, therefore, essentially the blockage of the official media that resulted in the involvement of politically marginal Russian artistic circles in the revolutionary processes, modifying the very nature of the protest actions and giving rise to a curious modern form of interaction between literature and politics.
Images of the 2011-12 protests. Clockwise from top left: 'hamsters for fair elections'; 'a boa constrictor only knows how to deal with banderlogs, not people', OccupyAbai, 'The boa constrictor has had enough to eat' photos (cc) Vadim Lurye (http://24december.visantrop.ru)
But the protest did not limit itself to online and verbal forms: there were stories, articles, poems, blogs, comments and tweets as well as demonstrations, rallies, hunger strikes and pickets. The influence of the two parts of the narrative was reciprocal. While the real, physical part provided reasons and an incentive for writing, the protesters’ consciousness was shaped by fictional and non-fictional texts; images, metaphors and expressions consolidated into an opposition jargon, which informed demonstration posters, slogans and the media. In this way the protest movement, developing between the textual and real axes, turned into a metanarrative in its own right.
Jargon and images
A great example of the interaction between literature and reality could be the trajectory of the word banderlogs in the protest culture. A word invented by Ridyard Kipling in ‘The Jungle Book’ first entered the discourse of modern Russian politics on December 15, 2011, when it was used by V. Putin to refer to the demonstrators in his live broadcast at Conversation with Vladimir Putin, part 2. The expression was taken up by a prominent poet Dmitry Bykov, who played it up four days later in the next issue of his extremely popular project Citizen Poet (the episode was entitled ‘The New Law of the Jungle’).‘But there are the banderlogs, replied the snake with a hiss,
Blogging their banderblogs and giving jungle laws a miss.
They don’t obey the law or use their heads to think,
And I’m no icon for them, but just a worm in the sink.’
From Bykov's poetry, loaded with new connotations, the expression returned to politics: the image of Vladimir Putin as a boa constrictor, and the opposition as banderlogs very soon became a fixture. Not only did it completely flood the internet, repeating thousands of times – it also penetrated newspaper titles!
Another curious expression, setevye homyachki (internet hamsters), has actually been known from around the 00s – it was used to describe the mass of users of various social networks. On 5 December 2011 it acquired instant notoriety, when the influential Russian blogger and politician Alexey Navalny said at the first of the rallies on Chistye Prudy:
‘They can call us microbloggers or internet hamsters. I’m an internet hamster and I’ll be at the throats of those beasts.’
Later, on 24 December, he declared at the meeting on Prospekt akademika Sakharova:
‘Greetings to all banderlogs from the internet hamsters!’
The expression was also used in the press and was repeated numerous times in opposition posters and slogans such as ‘Homyak raspravil plechi’ [Rn. The hamster shrugged, a parody on the Russian name for Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas shrugged – Atlant raspravil plechi in Russian], and so on.
My favourite story, however, is that of the word ‘OccupyAbai’. This story started in early May 2012 as Vladimir Putin was being inaugurated. The protesters set up a makeshift camp in Chistye Prudy in central Moscow, right next to the monument to Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbayev. Following the worldwide ‘Occupy’ movement, the Russian protesters called their camp ‘OccupyAbai’. As the information was being disseminated via Twitter, a hashtag #оккупайабай appeared spontaneously. Within a week from the start of the action this hashtag had been used thousands of times. And although the camp itself was soon dispersed, multiple actions under the same tag continued in many other cities. The name of Abai became one of the symbols of the new revolution. The number of jokes demonstrates that the image of Abai, now inevitably associated with grass-root activism, had become firmly entrenched in the mind and language of the marchers.
The popularity of Abai and his poetry increased in step with the popularity of OccupyAbai. On the 167th anniversary of Abai’s birthday, the protesters ‘made an attempt to resurrect the spirit of Occupyabai.’ The event included a recital of Abai’s poetry in Kazakh. The protesters also founded an online magazine called ‘OccupyAbai as a symbol of revolution.’ Finally, following high demand among the protesters, a collection of Abai’s poetry was re-issued, readings of Abai were organized by the activists, and, as Sergei Shargunov wrote, the very name of ‘Abai’ turned into a call for actions.
Far from mere jokes, these images – internet hamsters, banderlogs, Abai as a symbol of protest – served as a link between actual political events and their reflection in literature. Their role was that of an instant photograph: the creation of a quintessential image that would summarize all the developments up-to-date, conclude and synthesize them.
The very fact that these seemingly funny, even ridiculous, images came to mean so much in this process, shows that the very idea of revolution is changing. It is no longer solely associated with rallies and pickets, but growing into different dimensions and turning into a metanarrative composed both of actual and literary realities. This is what is so fascinating about everything that is happening in Russia: the contrast between the seriousness of the official political discourse, the ironic, baroque nature of the protest, and the simultaneous conventionality of a clear border between the two. The situation in Russia today is like a big carnival which has suddenly turned real, being taken as serious, rather than funny, or weird, or eccentric - because in the context in which they have been placed, they actually are serious.
There are parallels with the low-brow culture of the lower classes in the Middle Ages, described by Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin as the ‘carnivalesque culture of laughter’. This low-brow carnivalesque culture seems suddenly to have acquired a voice in Russia today, and yet it has the same purpose as described by Bakhtin: it is trying to subvert the otherwise impenetrable official discourse of Putin’s politics, or, in other words, is looking out for unconventional ways to fight it – through interaction with literature, in particular.