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The indiscreet charm of the Russian cynic

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Russia’s foremost historian of culture reflects on the cultural functions of cynicism in Soviet and post-Soviet society. He ruefully concludes that Russia has yet to escape the Soviet paradigm: the Pussy Rioters, in their demonstrations against official cynicism, were merely the latest incarnation of a familiar character – the Soviet trickster. 

Mark Lipovetsky
24 October 2013

The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia (internet versions of which keep on being blithely republished) defined cynicism thus:

‘from the point of view of society, cynicism stems from two sources.  Firstly, the cynicism of power, characterised by exploitative ruling groups wielding power and achieving their selfish aims in ways that are openly amoral e.g. fascism, the cult of personality etc. Secondly, there are the rebellious ideas and actions (like vandalism) of groups and individuals, who have to endure the yoke of injustice and powerlessness, who suffer from the ideological and moral hypocrisy of the exploiter class, but with no hope of changing the situation and, thus, mired in a spiritual void.

There was an additional sentence to the effect that communist morality is against cynicism in any form.

There are plenty of examples of the ‘cynicism of power’ in the current political situation in Russia. I fear that today’s ‘liberal morality’ will also come down against cynicism in any form.  As a cultural historian, I should like to reflect on the cultural functions of cynicism, which paradoxically both link and divide late- and post-Soviet culture, thus enabling us to see a connection between the cynicism of the authorities and cynical protest.

The outsider

In his book Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More: the last Soviet generation (2006), Alexei Yurchak gives a typical example of the contradictions of late Soviet culture: you could at the same time be sitting at a Komsomol meeting, reading Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago under the desk, and voting for any barbarous motion proposed. This, Yurchak suggested, was the essence of the ‘performative shift’ in late socialist culture. By the end of the 70s rhetoric had become completely formalised, and political loyalty reduced to purely ritual gestures, like voting. Meanwhile the intelligentsia carried on their real social and cultural life elsewhere.

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In late Soviet Russia political loyalty had been reduced to ritual gestures such as joining the Komsomol. Despite their image as good Soviet citizens, many harboured a deep cynicism of political power. Picture Commons:RIA Novosti/Boris Kaufman

Yurchak coins the term ‘’living vnye’  [outside, beyond] to describe a wide range of social and cultural phenomena, from Leningrad’s ‘Saigon’ intellectual circle [based on the name of a Leningrad café in the 70s], various rock clubs and studios, and a group of theoretical physicists, to such representatives of the artistic underground as ‘Mitki’, the necrorealists, and Moscow conceptualists. Such ways of being an outsider were equally opposed to the authorities and the dissident movement. Their non-conformism was non-political. If anything united these social and cultural forms, then it was styob. This term describes the comic adoption of an official or authoritarian symbol or ritual, the act of hyperidentifying with an authoritarian rhetorical construction in such a way as to undermine it by decontextualising it. Styob was the stock in trade of journalists during perestroika, and in the post-Soviet years it became a convenient kind of conformism. But it was in the huddled kitchens and smoke-filled dens of the 70s and 80s that this style – a sort of populist post-modernism – was actually born.

This is why the ‘last Soviet generation’ (born in the early 60s) managed the transition to post-Soviet capitalism so smoothly. Why the Komsomol [Rn. communist youth movement] leaders appeared to have been well prepared for the role of oligarch. Why the collapse of the Soviet system, previously unimaginable, came as no great surprise to their contemporaries (only producing nostalgia after the event). In short, Yurchak sees styob and the outsider phenomenon as having prepared for the implosion of the Soviet system and its sudden collapse.

String pulling and the grey economy

Yurchak is mainly concerned with culture.  The analogy to ‘living vnye’ in the economy is blat [Rn. old boy network] or the grey economy. The social stratum this produced was extremely active; it enjoyed the protection (and tacit approbation) of official bureaucracy, which was given to issuing tirades against the masters of the grey economy and the string pullers, but contented itself with only occasionally clamping down on them.

Alyona Ledeneva has studied these phenomena extensively.  She demonstrates that blat and other similar forms of social interaction existed throughout the Soviet period rather than appearing at the time of its decline, as our ‘new left’ friends seem to think.  And, moreover, her analysis shows that the very existence of the Soviet social and economic system was in many ways dependent on these elements, which are outside the system (even subversive!).  It wasn’t only that they gave rank and file citizens access to theoretically ‘guaranteed’, though actually inaccessible, perks and food. They underpinned the functioning of the planned economy.  The 'tolkachi' [Rn. literally pushers, who used their connections to help fulfil the quotas at e.g. factories] and the 'special services' in big shops etc. exemplified this system. 

Cynicism as survival mechanism

As I see it, cynicism is what unites all these phenomena. Not ethically i.e., as a 'truculent frankness, lack of shame, disregard for morality, decency, for anything generally recognised and respected', as defined in the Dictionary of Ethics  (Oleg Drobnitsky and Igor Kon, 1975), but in the specifically philosophical sense, as proposed by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk in his well-known intellectual bestseller Critique of Cynical Reason (1987). According to this philosopher, the main way in which mass culture made the Enlightenment project its own in the 20th century was through 'universal diffuse cynicism'. Rejecting Marx's definition of ideology, Sloterdijk describes cynicism as 'enlightened false consciousness'. In other words, it is only pretending to be ideologised. Cynicism offers modern man a pseudo-rationalist strategy of socialisation, a means of reconciling personal interests and those of the society (or ideology) by breaking subjectivity down into social masks (or personae), which are unstable andauthentic or false in equal measure.  It is through the constant play of these masks that the cynical self finds its realisation:

 ‘… the present-day servant of the system can very well do with the right hand what the left hand never allowed. By day, colonizer, at night, colonized; by occupation, valorizer and administrator, during leisure time, valorized and administered; officially a cynical functionary, privately a sensitive soul; at office a giver of orders, ideologically a discussant; outwardly a follower of the reality principle, inwardly a subject oriented towards pleasure; functionally an agent of capital, intentionally a democrat; with respect to the system a functionary of reification, with respect toLebenswelt  (lifeworld), someone who achieves self-realization; objectively a strategist of destruction, subjectively a pacifist; basically someone who triggers catastrophes, in one’s own view, innocence personified <…> This mixture is our moral status quo.’ (Sloterdijk P, Critique of Critical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred, University of Minnesota Press, 1987)

Sloterdijk has little to say about the Soviet experience, because he examines cynicism as a product of modern bourgeois society. He is, however, not as naïve as Bertrand Russell, who wrote:  ‘Young men in Russia are not cynical because they accept, on the whole, the Communist philosophy, and they have a great country full of natural resources, ready to be exploited by the help of intelligence. The young have therefore a career before them, which they feel to be worthwhile. You do not have to consider the ends of life when in the course of creating Utopia you are laying a pipeline, building a railway, or teaching peasants to use Ford tractors simultaneously on a four-mile front. Consequently the Russian youth are vigorous and filled with ardent beliefs.’ (On Youthful Cynicism, 1929)

I think that Slavoj Žižek was the first to apply the Sloterdijk model to the Soviet experience, though he only analysed the logic of power.  In his book The Plague of Fantasies (1997) he compares Stalinism with Fascism, saying ‘The paranoiac Nazis really believed in the Jewish conspiracy, while the perverted Stalinists actively devised “counterrevolutionary conspiracies” as a pre-emptive strike. The greatest surprise for the Stalinist investigator was to discover that the subject accused of being a German or American spy really was a spy: in Stalinism proper, confessions counted only in so far as they were false and extorted …’.  And in the book Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? (2001) he describes in even more detail ‘a cynical attitude towards the official ideology was what the regime really wanted – the greatest catastrophe for the regime would have been its own ideology to be taken seriously, and realized by its subjects.’

Some of Žižek’s conclusions chime exactly with historical research into the Soviet experience. Oleg Kharkhordin in his The Collective and the Individual in Russia: A Study of Practices (1999), which deals with the Soviet purges and the origins of the idea of personality in the USSR, writes about the results of this process: ‘Their double-faced life is not a painful split forced upon their heretofore unitary self; on the contrary, this split is normal for them because they originate as individuals by the means of split. […] One of the steps in this long development was individual perfection of the mechanism for constant switching between the intimate and the official, a curious kind of unofficial self-training, a process that comes later that the initial stage of dissimilation conceived as “closing off” (pritvorstvo) and one that we may more aptly call dissimilation as “changing faces” (litsemerie) – and, we might add, as its summation – cynicism.’ 

In her book Tear off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in Twentieth Century Russia (2005), the well-known social historian of Stalinism Sheila Fitzpatrick makes no reference to Sloterdijk, but uses many documents from the 1920s and 1930s to demonstrate the constantly shifting logic of class discrimination and how it compelled the man in the Soviet street to manipulate his own identity, Sloterdijk-style, rewriting his autobiography and seeking his place in the official and unofficial systems of social relations.  Operating in the two systems would appear to be an impossibility, their aims and principles being incompatible. But this was the unwritten norm of social survival.

 Soviet tricksters

Soviet con men, as virtuosos of self-invention, had their place in the great revolutionary and Stalinist project of reforging the self and society.

One of Fitzpatrick’s chapters, called ‘The World of Ostap Bender’ [hero of 1920s and 1930s novels by Il’f and Petrov], deals with the many Soviet imposters and swindlers.  She concludes ‘Soviet con men, as virtuosos of self-invention, had their place in the great revolutionary and Stalinist project of reforging the self and society. In a prescriptive sense, to be sure, Bender was scarcely a New Soviet Man—but in a society of Old Pre-Soviet People struggling to reinvent themselves, who was? Bored by the construction of socialism, Bender and his fellow con men were exemplars of self-construction. This makes us look more closely at the building metaphor (stroitel’stvo sotsializma) that was at the heart of the prewar Stalinism. Was impersonation, the tricksters’ specialty, its flip side?'  In other words, it was cynicism, the artistic image of which is Ostap Bender, that embodied the most widespread and, moreover, the most viable model of how to adapt to conditions of Soviet modernity. I am in no way suggesting that all Soviet people were cynics, but I will nevertheless risk the assertion that cynicism was the most popular and attractive model for modern Soviet man.

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Writer, poet, artist and dissident Dmitry Prigov: the archetypal Soviet trickster. Photo: prigov.ru

Fitzpatrick's interest in tricksters and Ostap Bender, as examples of New Soviet Man, is not fortuitous, but completely logical. The pantheon of brilliant Soviet tricksters was unfailingly popular in official and unofficial, adult and children's, literature of the Soviet period.  Ostap Bender, Benya Krik [Russian/Jewish gangster in stories by Isaak Babel], Korovyov and Begemot [from Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita], Vasily Tyorkin [peasant soldier created by Alexander Tvardovsky] and a host of names from the cinema. And who, if not tricksters, were the heroes of favourite Soviet jokes, including Chapayev [Vasily, celebrated Red army commander and butt of many jokes] and his batman Petka?  Tricksters (disguised, of course) become the model for many underground phenomena: from Venichka [Moskva – Petushki, novel by V. Yerofeyev] to authors who turned their lives into an unending performance such as 'Abram Tertz' [pseudonym of writer Andrei Sinyavsky 1925-97], D.A. Prigov [un underground poet and artist, 1940-2007], and the 'Mitki'].

The trickster played a dual role in Soviet culture. On the one hand, he provided cultural legitimacy to Soviet cynicism, even lending it a symbolic aura. The cynical split- or multi-personality may have been essential to survive and endure enforced participation in the grey economy and society. But, as a rule, this was accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame, compounded by the official Soviet rhetoric which demonised bourgeois conformism and interest in material comforts. The charming and versatile Soviet tricksters removed the feelings of guilt that Soviet readers and spectators might experience, turning the battle for survival into a jolly game with contradictions between Soviet speak and real life. The best example of this is one of the most important Soviet novels, The Master and Margarita, where a gang of tricksters led by the moralist-trickster, Woland confronts and dismantles the hierarchy of Soviet cynics, headed by Pontius Pilate, the 'eternal' cynic from the gospels.

The Soviet trickster is the only possible alternative to cynicism.

This is not by chance – the Soviet trickster is the only possible alternative to cynicism. Sloterdijk maintains that cynicism cannot be attacked by any rational or emotional criticism; next to it idealism or morality look simply stupid.  For this reason and to counterbalance cynicism, he puts forward the category 'kynicism' (originating, according to him, withDiogenes of Sinope). 'Cynicism can only be stemmed by kynicism, not by morality. Only a joyful kynicism of ends is never tempted to forget that life has nothing to lose except itself.'

Kynicism can be regarded as a joyful and non-pragmatic aspect of cynicism, displayed with magnificent artistry by the best loved Soviet tricksters. Their roguery and tricks are not aimed at achieving any of life's obvious goals (on the contrary – Ostap's life loses any meaning when he gets his million) but a way of being free in circumstances which do not offer freedom.  This jolly, I would even say life-enhancing, cynicism could also explain the legendary charms of such cultural figures as Faina Ranyevskaya [actress 1896-1984, famous for her aphorisms] and Nikita Bogoslovsky [composer 1913-2004], Mikhail Svetlov [Soviet/Russian poet 1903-64] and Nikolai Erdman [dramatist and screenwriter 1900-70], Viktor Shklovsky [one of the fathers of Formalism in literary criticism 1893-1984] and Valentin Katayev [Soviet writer 1897-1986].

If we permit ourselves to extrapolate, then – developing this logic – it is not so difficult to surmise that the real alternative to systemic Soviet cynicism (the cynicism of power) is to be found in blat, the grey economy and in those late-Soviet phenomena described by Yurchak – styob, the culture of the outsider and indifference to politics in any of its manifestations, be they Soviet or anti-Soviet.

Post-Soviet cynicism

Post-Soviet developments would appear to have wrought considerable changes in these ideas.  For a start, the phenomenon of Soviet cynicism described above became the cultural and social mainstream in the 90s, so the gap between societal moralistic rhetoric and the realities of life finally closed. But this didn’t make things any easier. The move into the social and cultural foreground of ostentatious, but by no means altruistic, cynics such as the late [oligarch] Boris Berezovsky and the immortal Vladimir Zhirinovsky spoilt the charm of the Soviet cynic. Which is why the various attempts at remaking Soviet trickster classics in the 90s and 00s were total flops: Vladimir Bortko’s massively pretentious The Master and Margarita TV series and Oleg Menshikov’s monumentally narcissistic performance as Ostap Bender in Yuliana Shilkina’sadaptation of The Golden Calf.

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Ostentatious figures such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Boris Berezovsky tainted the image of the Soviet cynic in the 1990s. 

If one accepts this, it becomes clear why post-Soviet capitalism is as little like modern-day capitalism as it is like socialism.  A sort of negative convergence has taken place. Blat should disappear when ‘anything can be bought’, but, as Ledeneva has shown, post-Soviet, quasi-capitalist relations reproduce the Soviet blat matrix – and not just in the ‘wild 90s’. It reached its peak in Putin’s Russia. Her research shows that what we might call ‘Soviet blat capitalism’ has devoured the whole social and economic system.

In the light of this evolution of Soviet cynicism, Putin’s ‘neo-traditionalist twist’, described in such detail by Vladimir Dubin and Lev Gudkov, acquires special meaning, though presented as an alternative to cynicism. This political discourse is itself openly cynical. The conservative mythologies on offer are primitivising and reductionist. They appear to represent a liberation from ambiguity and ambivalence (the ‘single history textbook’). But they are formalised and empty (i.e. cynical) displays of the monolith that is ‘unity with the people’. The enforced introduction of ‘moral values’ by means of prohibitions, court verdicts and plain and simple pogroms…all this is familiar to historians. In the context of the Weimar Republic, Sloterdijk sees projects like these as having played their part in the establishment of Hitler’s political regime. This brings us back to the late Soviet performative shift described by Yurchak.

I do not share the popular view that we are once again entering a period of totalitarianism.  I think it’s the other way round: we are dealing with the cynicism peculiar to a government, which is presenting itself as ‘fighting cynicism’ in order to conceal its own (though actually it’s not that bothered).  But the very cynicism of those ‘doing battle with cynicism’ is the direct descendant of Soviet cynicism. It is significant that the super-spy Stirlitz, so hugely popular in the 1960s and after, has become the main symbol of Putinist social morality.  He’s the epitome of late Soviet cynicism: although he manages to conceal his knavery (he’s a spy, after all), it comes out in the jokes about him.

And (probably) the most important…

It was the open, unconcealed cynicism of the government that provoked the protests of autumn 2011 – spring 2012.

As you will remember, it was the open, unconcealed cynicism of the government that provoked the protests of autumn 2011 – spring 2012. Until that moment the post-Soviet chatterati had resigned themselves to the level of cynicism which had become the cultural and political norm. They put up with it as best they could (cf. Sloterdijk) ‘though it left an aftertaste of elegant regret’. However, after the past and future president made that memorable statement about the job swap, people’s revulsion for such cynicism overrode their instinct for self-preservation. Interestingly and unexpectedly, the humour characterising that protest reverted to the old tradition of kynicism, which had fallen into disuse. Its lack of respect for authority and its power translated the ‘cynicism of power’ into the earthy language of everyday.

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Pussy Riot are but a new, vamped-up version of the Soviet trickster. However, the fact that the members are female - a rarity amongst tricksters – sent shock waves throughout society. 

This process came to a head with the performative protest of Pussy Riot and their ensuing trial, which not only brought back the political power of the trickster image, but endowed it with new features. Female tricksters are extremely rare in Russian culture – Marilyn Jurich calls them ‘trickstars’ – which is what produced the split in the chattering classes.  This also served as a powerful demonstration that the main political problems are to be found in the cultural sphere: issues of gender and gender repression, religion and its relationship to the state and to society, cultural dissidence and the overall understanding of culture, both as a canon and a system of prohibitions or as a contradictory process and expansion of the limits of liberty. Nor can it be said of the Pussy Rioters, as it could of Soviet tricksters, that they reconcile us to the generally accepted cynicism, while endowing it with a sheen of artistic brilliance. On the contrary, they deprived cynicism of its glamour, which is why the reaction to them was so violent and so cruel.

The Pussy Riot protest was the act of a trickster (kynicism), resisting state cynicism. 

The Pussy Riot protest was the act of a trickster (kynicism), resisting state cynicism. The fact that it had such a powerful effect shows that ‘large-scale aggressive demonstrations of cynical audacity’ (Sloterdijk) can serve to enlighten, as well as shock. But, for all its difference from Soviet times, the current situation still represents a stand-off between cynics and tricksters (kynics). This can only be bad news. If the Pussy Riot balaclavas are made from the same material as Ostap Bender’s naval cap, this means we are still living in the same –Soviet – paradigm.  This paradigm is upheld by an invisible foundation of cynicism as a philosophy. This is the philosophy which unites the government and most of society; the gamekeepers and the poachers, the underground and the elite. 

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