Mikhail Epstein

The Origins and Meaning of Russian Postmodernism


In the book: Mikhail Epstein. After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture, Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1995, pp. 188-210.



The concept of postmodernism in non-Western cultures has been fiercely debated in recent times. Specifically, can there be such a thing as postmodernism beyond Western culture at all, and if so, is there one postmodernism, common to the United States, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, Japan, and so on? Or are there as many different postmodernisms as national cultures?

Over the past two or three years, this discussion has evolved in Russia as well. As recently as the late 1980s, "postmodernism" was still a rather exotic term which served highbrow intellectuals as a kind of shibboleth. However, it very quickly became a cliche to be repeated in nearly every critical article. Judging by the frequency of its proclamation, one might think that postmodernism has become the most widespread and active movement in contemporary Russian literature. To cite one influential young critic,

. . . today, postmodern consciousness, while still continuing its successful and smiling expansion, remains probably the only live aesthetic fact in all of the "literary process." Today, the postmodern is not just a fashion, it constitutes the atmosphere; one may like it or not, but it alone is now truly relevant. . . /it/ is the most vital, the most aesthetically relevant part of contemporary culture, and among its best examples, there is quite simply some excellent literature.

Moreover, several conferences in Moscow have now been devoted exclusively to postmodernism, and many of Russia's most progressive critics and writers now swear by this sacred concept.

Only one other instance of such unanimous public enthusiasm inspired by a literary concept readily comes to mind: the official proclaimation and establishment of "socialist realism" in 1934, as the single, comprehensive method for all of Soviet literary practice. I will attempt to show that this parallel is not arbitrary: what is called postmodernism in contemporary Russia is not only a response to its Western counterpart but also represents a new developmental stage of the same artistic mentality that generated socialist realism. Further, both of these movements, socialist realism and postmodernism, are actually components of a single ideological paradigm deeply rooted in the Russian cultural tradition.

I trust that my proposals will be understood not as strict theories, but rather as loose hypotheses which may prove especially relevant in understanding the turbulent state of contemporary post-Soviet culture, which itself is in a very hypothetical period of transition.


I have deliberately entitled this article after Nikolai Berdiaev's famous work, The Origins and Meaning of Russian Communism (Istoki i smysl russkogo kommunizma, Paris, 1955). Communist teachings arrived in Russia from Western Europe and seemed at first completely alien to this backward, semi-Asiatic country; however, Russia turned out to be the first nation to attempt an enactment of these teachings on a world-wide scale. Berdiaev has shown convincingly that communism was intimately linked to the entire "communal" spirit of Russian history, going back to times long before Marxism could have been known anywhere in the country.

In my view, the same paradox pertains to the problem of Russian postmodernism. As phenomenon which seems to be purely Western, in the final analysis exposes its lasting affinity with some principal aspects of Russian national traditions.

Among the diverse definitions of postmodernism, I would single out as most important the production of reality as a series of plausible copies, or what the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard calls "simulation." Other features of postmodernism, such as the waning of comprehensive theoretical metanarratives or the abolishment of oppositions between high and low, elitist and mass culture, seem to be derived from this phenomenon of hyperreality. Models of reality replace reality itself, which then becomes irrecoverable.

Indeed, earlier predominant movements in twentieth-century Western culture, such as avant-gardism and modernism, tended to be elitist, in that they pitted themselves against the reality of mass society, either because of their alienation from it (in the case of modernism) or because they aspired to transform it to revolutionary ends (in the case of avant-gardism). As for metanarratives such as Marxism and Freudianism, their main aim was to unmask the illusions, or ideological perversions, of consciousness, in order to disclose the genuine reality of material production, in the case of the former, or libidinal energy, for the latter. Yet once the very concept of reality ceased to operate, these metanarratives, which appealed to reality, as well as the elitist arts, which opposed it, began to wane.

The authority of a reality principle serves as the foundation of great traditions in Western philosophy, science, and technology and thus may be considered the cornerstone of all Western civilization. According to this principle, reality must be distinguished from all products of human imagination, and practical means may be used to establish truth as a form of correspondence between cultural concepts and reality. Science, technology, and even the arts strove to break through various subjective illusions and mythological prejudices in order to reach the substance of reality with the help of objective cognition, practical utilization, and realistic imitation, respectively. The last great metanarratives of Western civilization, those of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, are still pervaded by this obsession with capturing reality, as they relentlessly attempt to demystify all illusory products of culture and ideology.

During the twentieth century, however, an unexpected twist transformed these highly realistic and even materialistic theories into their own opposites. While Marxism, Freudianism, and Nietzscheanism all appealed to reality as such, they simultaneously produced their own ideologized and aestheticized versions of reality, along with new, sophisticated tools of political and psychological manipulation. Reality itself disappeared, yielding to these refined and provocative theories of reality and, moreover, to practical modes of producing reality. Now, in the late twentieth century, we produce objectivity itself, not merely separate objects.

In other words, what we now see as reality is nothing more than a system of secondary stimuli intended to produce a sense of reality, precisely what Baudrillard calls "simulation." In spite of any apparent resemblances, simulation is the opposite of what was understood as "imitation" during the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. Imitation was an attempt to represent reality as such, without subjective distortions. Simulation is an attempt to substitute for reality those images which appear more real than does reality itself.

The production of reality seems new for Western civilization, but it has been routinely accomplished throughout all of Russian history. Here, ideas have always tended to substitute for reality, beginning, perhaps, with Prince Vladimir, who adopted the idea of Christianity in 988 A.D., and proceded to implant it in a vast country where it had, until that time, been virtually unknown.

Peter the Great ordered Russia to be educated and vigorously introduced such innovations as newspapers, universities and academies. These institutions appeared in artificial forms, incapable of concealing their deliberateness, the forced nature of their origins. In essence, we are dealing with the simulative, or nominative, character of a civilization composed of plausible labels: this is a "newspaper," this--an "academy," this--a "constitution," none of which grew naturally from the national soil, but was implanted from above in the form of smoothly whittled twigs in hopes they might take root and germinate. Too much in this culture came from ideas, schemes, and conceptions, to which reality was subjugated.

In his book Russia in 1839, the Marquis de Custine described the simulative character of Russian civilization in which the plan, the preceding concept, is more real than the production brought forth by that plan.

Russians have only names for everything, but nothing in reality. Russia is a country of facades. Read the labels--they have 'society,' 'civilization,' 'literature,' 'art,' 'sciences'--but as a matter of fact, they don't even have doctors. If you happen to call a Russian doctor from your neighborhood, you can consider yourself a corpse in advance. . . Russia is an Empire of catalogues: if one runs through the titles, everything seems beautiful. But. . . open the book and you discover that there is nothing in it . . How many cities and roads exist only as projects. Well, the entire nation,in essence, is nothing but a placard stuck over Europe. . .

One can ascribe this negative reaction to a foreigner's prejudice, but Alexander Herzen, for one, believed that de Custine had produced a fascinating and intelligent book about Russia. Moreover, no less a devotee of Russia's national roots than Ivan Aksakov, one of the most sincere and ardent Slavophiles of the 19th century, held a similar view on the "Empire of catalogues." He recognized the concepts of "intentionality" and "counterfeit" as fundamental to his native civilization:

Everything in our country exists "as if," nothing seems to be serious, authentic; instead, everything has the appearance of something temporary, false, designed for show--from petty to large-scale phenomena. "As if" we have laws and even 15 volumes of the code of laws. . . whereas half of these institutions do not exist in reality and the laws are not respected.

Even the syntactical constructions of de Custine and Aksakov's comments seem to coincide: the former states that, "they have society. . . but as a matter of fact," while the latter remarks, "we have laws. . . whereas in reality. . ." Both of these authors, from diametrically opposite standpoints, indicate the "halved" and chimerical character of Russian civilization. For de Custine it is insufficiently European; for Aksakov, insufficiently Russian. But the result is the same: the ostentatious, fraudulent nature of the civilization begets external, superficial forms, devoid of both genuine European and intrinsic Russian contents, and remains a tsardom of names and outward appearances.

This civilization, composed entirely of names, reveals its nature in postmodern Russian art, which shows us a label removed from utter emptiness. Conceptualism, for example, the prevailing trend in Russian art of the 1980s and early nineties, is a set of such labels, a collection of facades lacking the other three sides.



The most grandiose simulacrum, or "concept" that expressed the simulative nature of Russian civilization was, of course, Saint Petersburg: the city erected on a "Finnish swamp." "St. Petersburg, the most abstract and premeditated /umyshlennyi/ city in the whole world," according to Dostoevsky, who sensed that the reality of the city was composed entirely of fabrications, designs, ravings and visions, lifted up like a shadow above rotten soil, unfit for construction.

Instability was laid into the very foundation of the imperial capital, which subsequently became the cradle of three revolutions. The realization of the city's intentionality and "ideality," the lack of firm soil to stand on, gave rise to one of the first, and most ingenious, literary simulacrums. In Dostoevsky's words:

A hundred times, amidst this fog, I've been struck with a strange but importunate reverie: 'And what if this fog were to scatter and leave for above, wouldn't this entire rotten, slimy city take off with it, wouldn't it rise up with the fog and disappear like smoke, and the prior Finnish swamp would remain, and, in the middle of it, for beauty, I think, the bronze horseman on his hotly breathing, exhausted horse?' /Emphasis added./

This vision might well have just come off the canvas of a conceptual artist, a postmodern master, such as Eric Bulatov, or Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. Contemporary Russian conceptualism emerged, not from the imitation of Western postmodernism, but rather from the very same rotten Petersburg fog of Dostoevsky's "importunate reverie." For conceptualism, it is not enough to show that the "winter city," splendidly and proudly erected on the marsh, is a shadow and a phantom, concealing the authentic reality of the marsh itself: its densely congealed evaporation. Many contemporary Russian realists--not "Socialist realists," but those of a strictly critical vein, such as Solzhenitsyn--limit themselves to this very task: to depict the swamp in which we all live, and to prove that it inexorably draws all of us into its abyss, only to burst open again--here in natural disasters, there in social catastrophes. Conceptualists, on the other hand, are more eccentric; they not only show us the quagmire beneath the evaporated city, but they also drive into it a sacred fragment of this city, the figure of the founder, upon whose forehead the monumental, state-creating thought is forever frozen.

What justifies such conceptual liberty, such disrespectful humor? Why, for beauty, I think! Such is the aim of the conceptual aesthetic: to demonstrate the complete reality of ideological signs in a world of spectral and annulled realities. There is an irresolvable paradox in the fact that a monument to the founder abides in a swamp which preceded the city and will survive it. Is this not the archetypal phenomenon of Soviet civilization, which has celebrated itself in the most grandiose projects and Utopias in mankind's history? These plans and ideas emerged from the heads of their creators only to return there cast in iron, bronze, or plaster, hardened into a heavy "thought on the forehead." And reality rushed past them, frenzied, like the unfrozen Neva, insane, like Evgeny, the hero of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman. "Such a thought is on his forehead! Such strength he hids within!" These remarkable lines from Pushkin's narrative poem, describing the famous monument to Peter the Great, underscore a paradox: the inanimate monument can think, whereas the living hero looses his mind under its influence. An idea embodied in metal overwhelms and dissolves reality. The raving of rationality, the orgy of continuous organizational fever, like a little organ (organchik) in the head of the city-builder (recalling the supernatural personage of "Ugrium-Burcheev" in Saltykov-Shchedrin’s History of a Town)--such is the self-perpetuating mechanism of conceptual creation.

It is not surprising then, that the specter wandering through Europe, as Marx and Engels characterized communism in the first lines of The Communist Manifesto, settled down and acquired reality in Russia. This country proved to be especially susceptible to mistaking phantasms for real creatures.

After the Bolshevik revolution, the simulative nature of reality became even more pronounced in Russia. All social and private life was subordinated to ideology, which became the only real force of historical development. Signs of a new reality, of which Soviet citizens were so proud in the thirties and fifties, from Stalin's massive hydroelectric plant on the Dnieper River to Khrushchev's decision to raise corn and Brezhnev's numerous autobiographies, were actually pure ideological simulations of reality. This artificial reality was intended to demonstrate the superiority of ideas over simple facts.

Communist subbotniks in the Soviet Union were examples of hyper-events, simulating "the celebration of labor" precisely in order to stimulate real labor. No labor was recognized in the Soviet Union except this artificial communist enthusiasm, which supposedly justified Lenin's ideas about "free labor." (Both meanings are relevant in this Soviet idiom: "free" from exploitation and also "free" in terms of not being paid.) Simulation is not a lie because the latter presupposes the existence of some external reality that may be distorted or verified. In the case of Soviet society, reality was made to coincide with those ideas by which it was described; it thus effectively became nothing other than the creation of these ideas. Even Solzhenitsyn did not uncover any radically new realities, because everyone in the Soviet Union was perfectly aware of the existence of "the people's enemies" and "socially alien elements" who were confined in Stalin's labor camps. Ideology did not lie, but simply recreated the world in its own image and likeness. Therefore, the ideological image of this world could not be anything but relevant and truthful. Ideology did not lie; it was the real world itself that tended to disappear and to dissolve in ideological signs.

Such is the conceptual bias of Soviet reality itself: in comparison with a name which "ideally" signifies a certain quality of an object, the object itself turns out to be warped and on the decline. The presence of the idea of a sausage confronts the absence of real meat therein. The presence of a plan for manufacturing confronts the absence of actual production. Cheese or sausage in Russia, far from being material facts, turned into Platonic ideas. Conceptual art plays upon this material devastation of concepts. Dmitri Prigov, a leader of contemporary Russian conceptualism, wrote in his poem about the American president, Ronald Reagan:

Reagan doesn't want to feed us

Well, OK, it's really his mistake

It's only over there that they believe

You've got to eat to live

But we don't need his bread

We'll live on our idea. . .

And indeed for quite some time, the idea of bread was more nourishing in Russia than bread itself. A mystical shortage of some material elements disguised within an effective presentation of their ideal counterparts: this is the Russian enigma manifesting itself at all levels, from the everyday-existential to the socio-governmental. Even if the presence of bread allows one to define the "idea" of a given store as a "confectionery," there still is no sugar in it. In the economic system there are producers and consumers, but the intermediary elements between them, which constitute a market, are absent. The "minus-system" in which Russians have lived emerged as if from the canvas of a conceptualist artist, where names and labels demonstrate their own emptiness and lack of meaning. Roads lead to villages which have disappeared; villages are located where there are no roads; construction sites do not become buildings; house-builders have nowhere to live. A civilization of this type can be defined as a system with a meaningful absence of essential elements, "a society of deficit." Specters are more real here than reality, which itself becomes spectral.

In Baudrillard's definition of hyperreality,

. . . the territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory--PRECESSION OF SIMULACRA--it is the map that engenders the territory, and if we were to revive /Borges'/ fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.

Today we can address this phrase "the desert of the real itself" directly to what remains of the Soviet Union. This country is originally poor not in commodities, comfort, hard currency, but in reality itself. All its shortcomings and deficiencies are only symbols of this fading reality; and symbols themselves comprise the only genuine reality that survives.

Recalling the Potemkin villages of Russia's more distant past, one cannot help but think of their contemporary, post-Soviet adaptation: a phenomenon known as "presentations" (prezentatsii). This word was assimilated into Russian from English in, approximately, 1990-1991 to denote the ceremony of an official opening of some public institution. In spite of the fact that Russia grows poorer and continues to crumble from day to day, such festive "presentations" are now widely fashionable. A stock-exchange or joint venture, a political party or new magazine formally presents itself (prezentiruetsia) to a select audience. For seventy years all of these institutions of Western civilization were banned from our society, but now it greedily absorbs them into the social vacuum. The necessity for such formal openings indicates the intrinsic limitations of these enterprises: they do not proceed organically from the national cultural soil. The overwhelming majority of these businesses and associations collapses within several weeks or months, leaving no memory of themselves other than their dazzling presentation. None of the cheerful participants at such lavish events, marked by long speeches, caviar, brandy, and oysters, would attest that the object of their presentation will survive even until the following morning, but most are fully satisfied by their inclusion in today's presentation and by the anticipation of more in the days to come. The entire life of society becomes an empty self-presentation. Neither political parties nor enterprises are really created, but rather concepts of parties and enterprises. Incidentally, the most real sphere, economics, is simulated even more than all others. Yet the only area in which this process of simulation might be truly beneficial is culture, since by its nature it is inclined to "present," to create images.

Prince Potemkin's villages of the late eighteenth century may still be considered a deliberate deception, but no one would identify our late twentieth-century "presentations" as either truth or lie. They are typical simulacra, which do not claim to be veritable and thus cannot be reproached as deceptive. Such is the progression from "imitation" to "simulation" as revealed through major periods of Russian history. Even the Soviet regime was careful to maintain some presumptions of truth behind its evidently simulative ideological activities, but now that the communists are no longer in power, no one monitors events, and the simulative nature of the civilization is laid bare. Another difference is that under communism the category of plan prevailed, whereas post-communist society celebrates presentation, implying that it is the present, not the future, that is simulated most of all. "Presentation" in the post-Soviet period means a paradoxical lack of presence, the most genuine and tangible part of reality, which finally dissolves in a world of unabashed simulacra.

To sum up: throughout the course of Russian history, reality has been subjected to a gradual process of disappearance. The entire reality of pagan Rus disappeared when Prince Vladimir ordered the introduction of Christianity and briskly baptized the whole nation. Similarly, all reality of Moscovite Rus vanished when Peter the Great ordered his citizens "to become civilized" and shave their beards. All reality of "tsarist" Russia dissolved when Lenin and the Bolsheviks transformed it into the launching pad for a communist experiment. Finally, all Soviet reality collapsed in a few years of Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin's rule, yielding to a new, still unknown system of ideas. Probably, the ideas of capitalist economy and free enterprise now have a good chance to prevail in Russia, though they remain, once again, pure conceptions against the background of a hungry and devastated society. Personally, I am confident that in the long run Yeltsin or another leader will manage to create a simulated market economy in Russia. Realities have always been produced in Russia from the minds of the ruling elite, but once produced, they were imposed with such force and determination that these ideological constructions became hyperrealities.



It should be emphasized that conceptualism is tightly linked not only with the system of Soviet ideology, but also with the deep contradictions of the Russian religious identity in its role as a middle or intermediary point between the West and the East. Russia cleared a path in the middle of two great spiritual systems, one of which originates from empirical reality and explains all apparent illusions as its own handiwork, while the other asserts that all reality is illusory, a product interwoven of the many-colored veil of Maya, which must be cast off to reveal Absolute Nothingness. It was necessary to combine these two extremes, even at the cost of an absurdity--the paradox of the Russian religious calling. The West realizes its calling in the forms of cult and culture developed by Catholicism and Protestantism, in their positive sense of the presence of God and in the totality of earthly entities, such as society, state, family, production, art. It stands to reason that all subversive, oppositional movements, from Romanticism to Existentialism, were directed against this positivity, but nonetheless, they only underscore the fundamental fact of the positive religiosity of the West. The East, on the other hand, developed the most precise religious intuition of Emptiness, through its identification of life's highest meaning in the rejection of any and all positivities and in drawing near to Nothingness, to its freedom and timelessness.

Russia still has not made a choice between these global systems or world views, but has, instead, combined their contradictions both in "orthodoxy," with its alienation from worldly culture, and in "communism," with its struggle against the "other world." Orthodoxy claimed to set aside all mundane activities in order to aspire to the Heavenly Kingdom, but in practice, it merged with Russian statehood to become a virtual synomym for political loyalty. On the other hand, the utopian practice of "communist construction," affirmed materialism as its highest principle, yet wreaked destruction on matter in practice, while lapsing time and again into the very idealism it so savagely rejected in theory. This closed system of self-negation is played out, entirely consciously, in conceptualism, which thus illuminates, at least in part, the mystery of Russia's religious calling.

I will cite Ilya Kabakov, a leading artist and theoretician of contemporary Russian conceptualism, whose vision depicts his native country as a huge reservoir of emptiness which swallows and dissolves all tangible constituents of reality:

Every person who lives here lives, whether consciously or not, on two planes: 1. on the plane of his relations with other people and nature, and 2. on the plane of his relations with the void. These two planes are in opposition, as I have already said. The first is the "constructive" side. The second consumes and destroys the first. On the level of daily life this split, this bifurcation, this fatal non-contiguousness of the 1st and 2nd planes is experienced as a feeling of general destruction, uselessness, dislocation and hopelessness in everything; no matter what a person does, whether he is building or undertaking some other task, he senses in everything a feeling of impermanence, absurdity, and fragility. This life on two planes causes a particular neurosis and psychosis in every inhabitant of the void, without exception."

Though Kabakov emphasizes the opposition between "constructive" and "destructive" impulses in Russian culture, it is clear from his description that they are basically one. Any object is deconstructed in the very process of its construction. In Russia, "nothingness" comes to light, not in its primordial and pure, "Eastern" emptiness, but as the self-erasure of a positive form, often one which has been borrowed from the West. The futility of positivity itself, which must nonetheless remain positive so as to demonstrate its futility again and again, forms the core of the Russian religious experience. Visible assertions conceal a lack of content while displaying an intrinsically illusory quality. Civilization is neither maintained nor annihilated, but abides as evidence of what civilization may be when there is none: a large-scale, very plausible and impressive simulacrum of civilization.

Potemkin villages appeared in Russia, not simply as a political trick, but as a metaphysical expose of the fraudulence of any positive cultural activity. This is a kind of outward appearance which scarcely conceals its deceptiveness, but also does not destroy it in any purposeful way, as Maya must be destroyed in Eastern traditions. Rather, it is anxious to preserve a semblance which it in no way intends to ground or fill in. The intermediary stratum between "is" and "is not" forms an edge along which the "enchanted pilgrimage" of the Russian spirit slides.

The intermediary location of this religious experience, between East and West, creates semi-spectral constructions of the positive world, which stand eternally in scaffolding, with wind blowing through them unimpeded, like the ubiquitous new suburbs (novostroiki) of Moscow, which impress foreigners with the feverish scope of constructive activity. These semi-constructions indicate by their entire appearance that they will never be finished, that they were not even undertaken so as to come to completion, but so as to dwell in this blessed interval between "yes" and "no," existence and non-existence, in the reign of a frozen moment. This is neither the emptiness of an already devastated place, like a desert or a wasteland, nor the completeness of creative endeavors such as towers or spires, but precisely an eternal would-be and not-yet construction, a "building long in-progress" (dolgostroi). Its walls and ceilings are every bit as significant and cherished as are the deficiencies and voids that can be seen between them. This is not only a typically "half-ruined" Russian landscape, but the duality of a people’s character. The implicit motto of such activity is, "it is necessary to begin, but it is impossible to finish": such is the intermediate stance of the free Russian spirit, which is as alien to the Eastern contemplative practice of world-negation as it is to the energetic Western ethos of world-organization.

Indeed, even our cities and buildings, those that manage to arise from the heaps of garbage, from the muddy grave prepared for them in advance, appear to be dilapidated and decrepit. Brand-new structures can scarcely survive: in a matter of days, they will be broken down, plastered with leaflets, and splashed with slops, they willy-nilly return to a state of being under construction.

Of course, it is quite risky to put the disposition of a whole people into the narrow framework of a "national identity." Nonetheless, Russia demonstrates a consistent inclination to generate positive, tangible forms in order to feed the continuous process of their annihilation. This same process, however, may be defined in a different way: as a need to materially secure the very traces of this annihilation so that emptiness should not simply hang in the air as nothingness, but rather should appear as the significant absence of certain elements indispensable to a civilization.

Ilya Kabakov distinguishes Russian conceptualism from its Western counterpart by pointing to emptiness as the ultimate signified of all signifiers. In the West, conceptualism substitutes "one thing for another"--a real object for its verbal description. But in Russia the object that should be replaced is simply absent.

In contrast with the West, the principle of 'one thing instead of another' does not exist and is not in force, most of all because in this binomial the definitive, clear second element, this "another" does not exist. It is as if in our country it has been taken out of the equation, it is simply not there. /. . ./ What we get is a striking paradox, nonsense: things, ideas, facts inevitably with great exertion enter into direct contact with the unclear, the undefined, in essence with emptiness. This contiguity, closeness, touchingness, contact with nothing, emptiness makes up, we feel, the basic peculiarity of 'Russian conceptualism'. . . ./I/t is like something that hangs in the air, a self-reliant thing, like a fantastic construction, connected to nothing, with its roots in nothing. . . . So, then, we can say that our own local thinking, from the very beginning in fact, could have been called 'conceptualism'.



Almost all investigators of postmodernism cite America as a wonderland in which fantasies become more real than reality itself. America is not alone in this, however. Russia, in contrast to the rest of Europe, also developed as a dream realized in actuality. It is curious that when Nikita Khrushchev came to the United States in 1959, one of the first things he wanted to see was Disneyland. My guess is that he wanted to learn whether Americans had succeeded in creating as perfect a simulation of reality as the Soviet model, in which Khrushchev himself and all his predecessors, both tsars and general secretaries, were such skilled masters.

There are a variety of modes for the production of reality. One is the Soviet-style ideocracy that flourished on Marxist foundations and denounced all other ideologies as mystifications. Another is the American-style psychosynthesis, which includes a comprehensive system of mass media and advertising that flourish on the pragmatic principles of organizational psychology, while claiming to denounce all types of delusional consciousness.

In this way, Soviet phenomena may be estimated as no less postmodern than American ones. It is true that the postmodern self-awareness of Soviet reality emerged later than parallel philosophical developments in the West. Nevertheless, as early as the mid-seventies, conceptual art and literature, with their comprehensive reconsideration of the entire phenomenon of Soviet civilization, were becoming increasingly popular in the Soviet Union. In contrast to realistic literature of the type produced by Solzhenitsyn, conceptualism does not attempt to denounce the lie of Soviet ideology (moving from false ideas to a genuine reality), and in contrast to metaphysical poetry of the type produced by Brodsky, it does not turn away from Soviet reality in search of higher and purer worlds (moving from false reality to genuine ideas). Conceptual painting and writing, as represented by the work of Ilya Kabakov, Erick Bulatov, Dmitry Prigov, Vsevolod Nekrasov, Lev Rubinshtein, and Vladimir Sorokin, convey ideas as the only true substance of the Soviet way of life. Paradoxically, false ideas comprise the essence of this genuine reality.

What is Soviet conceptual art, and why is it so named? First of all, one philosophical parallel, although remote in chronological terms, may be illuminating. As a school of medieval philosophy, contrary to realism, conceptualism assumed that concepts are self-sufficient mental entities, which must be distinguished from external reality. Throughout the new Middle Ages of the twentieth century, conceptualism took a similar critical stance, denouncing the basic realistic illusions of Soviet scholasticism, its identification of ideas with material reality. From the conceptual point of view, concepts have their own realm of existence in the ideological mind, which differs substantially from the reality postulated by realist philosophy, or, in the case of the Soviet Union, by materialist ideology.

Turning directly to conceptualism in Russian art and literature, we find that, traditionally, any work may be simplistically reduced to some general ethical or political concept. For example, Anna Karenina could be reduced to a moral, such as: "A woman should never be unfaithful to her husband: she got what she deserved." Of course, everyone is indignant at such crude simplifications of great works of literature, but in the Soviet era, literature increasingly became nothing more than the fictional illustration of such simple ideas. Hence one of Prigov's "concepts" presents the following psychological scheme which could represent the conceptual framework of both Anna Karenina and, for example, Fedor Gladkov's construction novel in classical socialist realist style, Cement (1925), as well as a great number of other narratives.

. . . And married a general. He, returning from his foreign travels, meets her, now mature and wise, and his cold heart grows warm, but her heart is now like a piece of marble, impassive. He races around and around, throws himself into an ice-filled bathtub, but too late! too late! his heart is all surrounded by hellfire, all! and it burns the ice and his own flesh to ashes! if only he had the power to ignite her cold heart! DEATH! DEATH! All that remains to him is DEATH!

Narrative is reduced to the most simplified scheme and becomes a mere concept of narrative, the demonstration of an ideological code or a dictionary of literary motifs. Conceptualists readily elaborate such general themes as "the communist conquers his inner hesitations and boldly leads his comrades to increased labor productivity." Since no self-respecting Soviet writer would limit himself or herself to such truisms, he or she would try very hard to describe this communist and his comrades as real people, with many plausible details, including their foibles and personal weaknesses. Nevertheless, this character essentially remains only a vehicle for some predetermined idea or ideological tenet. Conceptualists grasped and unmasked the artificial nature, not only of Soviet literature, but of Soviet reality itself. Their works cannot be reduced to concepts, only because they are willfully and fundamentally deduced from them. The intention of an artistic work is advanced prior to the work and even instead of it. Conceptualists do not try to provide plausible illustrations of their ideas, but rather strive to convey them in a deliberately schematic manner, using the most ordinary and simplistic language. They create excellent works of bad art which purposely and often masterfully imitate the typical Soviet range of ideas. Classical Russian literature, with its emphasis on ideological, moral, and psychological matters, also provides an inexaustible source for conceptual games. Artistic poverty becomes a distinguishing feature of conceptualism as a deliberate presentation of ideas denuded of their material referent.

Thus, conceptualists proved to be the first Russian postmodernists to stop opposing reality and ideas: whether it be opposing veritable reality to misleading ideas, as did Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov and Grossman, or high ideas to low reality, as did our metaphysical and mythological writers. Conceptualists have overcome both realistic traditions and romantic aspirations: they understand that in this country, no reality is more primary than that of ideas, and thus pastiche and parody of these ideas became their main artistic forms.

In conceptualist writings, all punctuation marks tend to be omitted, but if punctuation were to be used, the most frequently encountered form would be quotation marks. Since they refrain from proclaiming anything on their own behalf, conceptualists simply "repeat" what has already been said by others: by Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Mayakovsky, or what has been overheard from the neighbors in their communal apartment. Postmodernism is the world of quotations, but it is also a typically Soviet world, where all statements are pronounced either on behalf of the beloved leaders or the arch-enemies, but never as a form of self-expression. Under "real socialism," all people are supposed to think in impersonal, general ways, as if one's "own" thoughts were actually the articulations of someone else''s ideas. Even in one's own mind thoughts emerge in the form of quotations.

Dmitry Prigov writes:

The heroes of my poems have become the different linguistic layers (quotidian, state, high cultural, low cultural, religious and philosophical), representing within the limits of the poetic texts corresponding mentalities and ideologies which reveal in this space mutual ambitions and pretensions. . . In our times postmodernist consciousness is superseded by a strictly conceptual virtual distance of the author from the text (when inside the text there is no language for resolving the author's personal pretensions, ambitions, or his personal ideology, but he, the author, detaches himself and is formed on the metatextual level). . . .The result is some kind of quasi-lyrical poem written by me under a feminine name, when I am of course not concerned with mystification but only show the sign of the lyrical poem's position, which is mainly associated with feminine poetry.

Certainly, when Prigov composes verses on behalf of a woman, femininity also becomes a concept.

The most representative genre of the Soviet epoch is not the novel or poetry, but metatextual discourse descriptive of cultural codes, such as the encyclopedia or textbook, in which an author remains anonymous in the midst of generally accepted opinions. The flow of time stops and categories of space become primary. The cessation of time is a common feature of both Soviet and postmodern reality, insofar as they become self-sufficient systems incorporating the exemplary, classical fragments of previous cultures and eras. Soviet culture was not thought to be a transitory phenomenon, but an accumulation and treasury of all human achievements, where Shakespeare and Cervantes, Marx and Tolstoi, and Gorky and Mayakovsky are equally valuable participants at the feast of great humanistic ideas. The encyclopedia, or textbook, collections of quotations or of unquoted, but highly authoritative and compelling judgments--these were the most lawful and comprehensive forms of "collaborative" thinking, as it flourished in Stalin’s time.

The erasure of metanarratives is another important feature of postmodernism that is worthy of explanation. In case of the Soviet experience, we had an indisputably Marxist metanarrative. There is a common, though fallacious belief that Marxist teachings began dissolving into a variety of ideological positions only during and after perestroika. In truth, this dissolution began at the very moment Marxism was brought to Russia and progressed further as it was transformed into so-called "Marxism-Leninism," or "Soviet Marxism."

Perhaps more than any other metanarrative, Marxism relies on reality and materiality as the determinant of all ideological phenomena. When this teaching came to a culture in which reality had always been a function of the powerful State imagination, a strange combination emerged: materialism as a form and tool of ideology. Paradoxically, Marxism was a catalyst for the transformation of Russia into an enormous Disneyland, though one less amusing than terrifying. Before the Bolshevik revolution, not all aspects of material life were simulated, so that space remained for genuine economic enterprises. But once Russian ideology had assimilated materialism, all material life became a product of ideology.

Marxist teachings themselves also suffered a paradoxical transformation. On the one hand, Marxism became the only theoretical viewpoint to be officially sanctioned by the Soviet regime. Ironically, for this very reason, it expanded to incorporate all other types of discourse. Internationalists and patriots, liberals and conservatives, existentialists and structuralists, technocrats and ecologists all pretended to be genuine Marxists and pragmatically adapted the "proven teaching" to all varieties of changing circumstances. In the West, Marxism preserved its identity as a metanarrative, giving its own specific interpretation of all historical phenomena, because it was freely challenged by other metanarratives (such as Christianity and Freudianism). In the Soviet Union, however, Marxism became what postmodernists call pastiche, an eclectic mixture of all possible interpretations and outlooks. As an all-encompassing doctrine, penetrating even physics and theater, military affairs and children's play, Soviet Marxism was the ultimate postmodern achievement.

As for the rapprochement and integration of popular and elitist cultures, this tendency was stimulated by a Soviet cultural politics of universal literacy and ideological persecution. On the one hand, the masses were persistently and vigorously trained to perceive the value of high classical traditions, while base forms of mass entertainment were banned, such as pulp fiction, comics, the cabaret strip tease, and so on. On the other hand, so-called elitist movements in the arts and philosophy, such as avant-gardism and modernism, surrealism and Freudianism were also strictly banned.

These attempts to homogenize Soviet society created a new culture of mediocrity, which was equally far from both the upper and lower levels of a highly stratified Western culture. In the Soviet Union, this middling level was established even earlier than in the West, and the levelling process provided the ground for postmodern development.



One can readily anticipate a counter-argument: how can we refer to Soviet postmodernism without a clear identification of Soviet modernism? In the West, postmodernism comes after modernism, but where is the corresponding progression in Soviet culture?

It is obvious that Russian culture of the pre-revolutionary period was predominantly modernist, as indicated by such trends as symbolism and futurism. The Bolshevik movement and the October revolution it fomented may also be seen as modernist phenomena, in that they are expressions of a thoroughly utopian vision. Rigidly consistent styles of modernist aesthetics were still dominant in the 1920s, as Mayakovsky's and Pilnyak's writings, for example, amply demonstrate.

In this sense, socialist realism, officially proclaimed in 1934, may be regarded as an essentially postmodern trend destined to balance all opposites and create a new space for the interaction of all possible stylistic devices, including romantic, realist, and classicist models. Andrei Siniavsky was one of the first theoreticians to be struck by this unbelievable and eclectic combination of varied modes of writing in "socialist realism," where, in his view, the first term of this expression contradicts the second:

It seems that the very term 'socialist realism' contains an insoluble contradiction. A socialist, i.e., a purposeful, a religious, art cannot be produced with the literary method of the nineteenth century called realism. And a really faithful representation of life cannot be achieved in a language based on teleological concepts. . . They [socialist realists] lie, they maneuver, and they try to combine the uncombinable: the positive hero (who logically tends toward the pattern, the allegory) and the psychological analysis of character; elevated style and declamation and prosaic descriptions of ordinary life; a high ideal with truthful representation of life. The result is a loathsome literary salad. /. . ./ This is neither classicism nor realism. It is a half-classicist half-art, which is none too socialist and not at all realist.

Socialist realism was not a specific artistic movement in any traditional or modernist sense. It can be adequately understood only as a postmodern phenomenon, as an eclectic mixture of all previous classical styles, or as an encyclopedia of literary cliches. We should trust socialist realism’s own self-definition, as the unity of a method attained through a diversity of styles: ". . .[S]ocialist realism is regarded as a new type of artistic consciousness which is not limited by the framework of one or even of several modes of representation. . ." Socialist realism successfully simulated all literary styles beginning with ancient epic songs and ending with Tolstoy’s refined psychologism and the futuristic poetics of placards and slogans.

In the Soviet Union, the thirties through the fifties clearly present postmodern tendencies, even though the prevailing term at the time was "antimodernism," as Stalinist aesthetics mounted a furious struggle against "rotten bourgeois modernism." Antimodernism in relation to the West, however, was in fact postmodernism in relation to the native, pre- and post-revolutionary modernist culture.

As a minimum, we can generalize the following postmodern features of socialist realism:

1. The creation of a hyperreality which is neither truthful nor false but consists of ideas which become reality for millions of people.

2. The struggle against modernism as an "obsolete" mode of aesthetic individualism and linguistic purism.

3. The erasure of specifically Marxist discourse which then

degenerates into a pastiche of many ideologies and philosophies,

even combining materialism and idealism.

4. The erasure of any specific artistic style and ascension to a new "meta-discursive" level of socialist realism which combined classicistic, romantic, realist and futurist models.

5. The rejection of "subjectivist" and "naive" discursive strategies and the transition to "quotation marks" as a mode of hyper-authorship and hyper-personality.

6. The erasure of the opposition between elitist and mass culture.

7. An attempt to construct a post-historical space where all great discourses of the past should find their ultimate resolution.

Certainly, socialist realism lacks the playful dimension and ironic self-consciousness so typical of mature postmodernism. But socialist realism is only the first stage in the transition from modernism to postmodernism. Socialist realism is postmodernism with a modernist face which continues to wear an expression of absolute seriousness. In other words, Russian postmodernism cannot be fully identified with socialist realism, but also cannot be divorced from it.

In the sixties and seventies, a second wave of modernism emerged in Soviet literature: futurist, surrealist, abstractionist and expressionist trends were revived in literature, painting, and music. The era of the 1920s became the nostalgic model for this neo-modernist phenomenon, as seen in the work of writers Andrei Voznesensky and Vasily Aksyonov.

It is all the more significant that later, in the seventies and eighties, a second wave of postmodernism arose in opposition to the "neo-modernist" generation of the sixties. For such postmodernists as Ilya Kabakov, Boris Groys, or Dmitri Prigov there are no figures more adversarial than Malevich, Khlebnikov, and other modernists of the beginning of the century, not even to mention the latter's successors in the sixties, such as Voznesensky. Consequently, this explicitly postmodern generation feels a sort of nostalgia precisely for the typical Soviet lifestyle and the art of socialist realism which provides them with congenial ideological material for their conceptual works. Socialist realism is close to conceptualism in its antimodernist stance: both forms share highly conventional semiotic devices, sets of cliches and idioms that are devoid of any personal emphasis or intentional self-expression. This is why the well-known postmodern visual artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid (both of whom emigrated to the United States in the mid-1970s) have called their method "soc-art": it is entirely oriented toward socialist realism and reproduces its models in the exaggerated "mystic" and simultaneously ironic manner that was envisioned by Siniavsky in his essay on socialist realism. For example, Stalin appears in their paintings surrounded either by Muses or monsters.

The postmodern paradigm, whose components appeared more or less simultaneously in the West, were much slower to mature in Soviet culture. The first wave of Soviet postmodernism--namely, socialist realism--accomplished the erasure of semantic differences between idea and reality, between the signifier and the signified, while the syntactic interplay of these signs was aesthetically adopted only by the second wave--conceptualism. Although it might seem that these two processes should naturally coincide, it took several decades for Soviet culture to pass from one stage to the next.

One important factor is that Western cultures have great respect for the reality that lies beyond signs themselves. As soon as signs proved to be self-sufficient, they immediately acquired a playful dimension. The Russian cultural tradition is much more inclined to view signs as an independent reality deserving of great esteem in and of itself. Therefore it was extremely difficult to accept the notion that signs, which substitute for another reality, might become objects of irony and aesthetic play.

There are two essential aspects to Western postmodernism: the actual substance of postmodernism, and the interpretation of this substance in postmodern terms. In the Soviet Union, these two aspects developed separately. The period from the thirties to the fifties witnessed the emergence of postmodernism as a specific cultural "substance,' including the ideological and semiotic dissolution of reality, the merging of elitist and mass culture into mediocrity, and the elimination of modernist stylistic purity and refinement. Only in the late fifties, in the works of such poets as Kholin, Kropivnitsky, Vsevolod Nekrasov, Vilen Barsky, and then in the seventies, in the works of Ilya Kabakov, Eric Bulatov, Dmitri Prigov, and Lev Rubinshtein, was the "substantial" postmodernism of Soviet culture interpreted precisely in postmodernist terms. Signs of heroic labor, collectivism, the striving for a communist future and so on, which were previously taken seriously as the signified reality itself, now were perceived to be valid or real only at the level of the sign, making them susceptible to all sorts of linguistic games. Soviet postmodernism finally discovered the second aspect and blossomed into a full cultural phenomenon, comparable to its Western counterpart.

Certainly, such postmodern phenomena as Jorge Luis Borge’s stories, Vladimir Nabokov’s and Umberto Eco's novels or Jacques Derrida's models of deconstruction have had a considerable influence on some contemporary schools of Soviet writing, including conceptualism and metarealism. What is much more striking, however, is that the earlier post- or antimodernist phase of Soviet literature still influences the contemporary American literary scene. For example, Tom Wolfe's recent manifesto "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast" gained much attention with its attacks on modernism and calls for a social novel which would combine fiction with reportage. Wolfe unconsciously duplicates the very patterns that Stalin's ideologists used in their relentless political tirades against Russian pre-revolutionary and Western bourgeois modernism.

While he criticizes the modernist and minimalist schools of writing, Wolfe recognizes the literary accomplishment of their members: "Many of these writers were brilliant. They were virtuosos." Are these qualities not enough for a writer to accomplish his literary destiny? Not at all, since Wolfe discloses the glaring disparity between the artists’ talents and the mistaken directions of their creative endeavors: "But what was the lonely island they had moved to?" It is curious how closely the targets of Wolfe's manifesto and Soviet canonic aesthetics coincide: he condemns "avant-garde positions beyond realism. . ., Absurdist novels, Magical Realist novels," and a variety of other methods. It was in this very manner that Stalin's chief ideologue, Andrei Zhdanov, justified his attack in 1946 on two of the few remaining independent writers in the Soviet Union, Anna Akhmatova and Mikhail Zoshchenko:

These works can only sow the sadness, depression, pessimism, and attempts to escape the important issues of social life, deviate from the wide path of social life and activity into a narrow world of personal experience. . . wretched private feelings and digging within their petty persons.

One can easily amplify this severe accusation with the words Tom Wolfe addresses to contemporary neo-romanticists, or, as he says, "neo-fabulists": "The action, if any, took place at no specific location . . . The characters had no background. They came from nowhere. They didn't use realistic speech. Nothing they said, did, or possessed indicated any class or ethnic origin."

Wolfe probably has never heard of, let alone read, Andrei Zhdanov's infamous denunciation of Akhmatova and Zoshchenko. Nevertheless, his main points and even his choice of metaphors are the same as Zhdanov's: both compare writing to engineering, for example. Wolfe also proposes that writers form brigades to pool their talents for an investigation of the amazing social reality of the contemporary United States, as was done in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.

I do not go so far as to suggest that the aesthetic code of Stalinism directly influenced a postmodern writer like Tom Wolfe. Still, the terms of the postmodern debate apply equally well in such radically different conditions as the Soviet Union of the late 1940s and the United States of the late eighties. The fact that Soviet and Western contemporary cultures mirror each other's past requires a new theoretical framework for interpreting these overlapping dependencies. The quest for a postmodern worldview must inevitably bring about opposition to the abstractness and individualism of modernist writing; it also causes a turn towards consciously trivial, even stereotypical forms of language, as imposed by the dominant social order.

Thus, postmodernism may be seen as a cultural orientation that has developed differently in both the West and the Soviet Union. The Western version came later chronologically, but was more self-aware from a theoretical standpoint. To isolate and identify a Western-style postmodernism in twentieth-century Russian culture proved difficult because the formation of a specifically Russian postmodernism is divided into two periods, as I have suggested.

The development of Russian modernism was artificially halted in the thirties, while in the West it continued smoothly up to the sixties. This accounts for the existence of a single postmodernism in the West, while two separate postmodernisms arose in Soviet culture, one in the thirties and another in the seventies. This obliges us not only to compare Russian postmodernism with its Western counterpart, but also to examine the two separate phases of Russian postmodernism: socialist realism and conceptualism. Perhaps, it is the split between them which has made both versions so highly charged ideologically, although with opposing valences. The first postmodernism is explicitly heroic, the second--implicitly ironic. Nevertheless, if we identify them as two aspects and two periods of one historical phenomenon, these opposing tendencies quickly neutralize each other, comprising an utterly "blank pastiche," to use Frederic Jameson’s term. The tendency to perceive socialist realism and conceptualism as mutually s/t/imulating aspects of one and the same cultural paradigm will undoubtedly find further support in the course of future reinterpretations of Soviet history as a whole. The two Russian postmodernisms complement each other and present a more complicated and self-contradictory phenomenon than Western postmodernism, which is concentrated in a single historical period.




Portions of this chapter were first presented at the Modern Language Association Conference, San Francisco, Dec. 1991.

Viacheslav Kuritsyn, "Postmodernizm: novaia pervobytnaia kul'tura," [Postmodernism: new primitive culture] Novyi mir [New world], 1992, No.2: 227, 232.

A conference on literary postmodernism was held at the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow) in April 1991; a round table on philosophical postmodernism was organized by Voprosy filosofii, the leading Moscow journal in the field (the proceedings are published in 1993, no. 3: 8-16).

Marquis de Custine, Nikolaevskaia Rossiia (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1990), 94, 155-156.

Editor: Alexander Ivanovich Herzen (1812-1870) was a prominent writer and publicist who founded and edited the liberal socio-literary journal, The Pole Star and its affiliated newspaper, The Bell. The latter was a leading organ in the debate over serfdom and land reform; it was printed abroad to avoid the tsarist censors and smuggled into Russia between 1857-67.

K. Skal'kovsky, ed., Materialy dlia fiziologii russkogo obshchestva. Malen'kaia khrestomatiia dlia vzroslykh. Mneniia russkikh o samikh sebe (Saint Petersburg: A.S. Suvorin's Press, 1904), 106.

Is it not this "nominativity," this pure concern with names, that gives rise to the sinister power of the nomenklatura, that is those people selected by no one and by no means meriting their stature, but who are named "secretary," "director," or "instructor" and have received power by virtue of these names?

On contemporary Russian conceptualism see Chapter 1, "New Trends in Russian Poetry.

Fedor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, quoted from the translation by Michael Katz for the Norton Critical Edition (Norton: New York and London, 1989), 5..

Fedor Dostoevsky, A Raw Youth, Part I, Chapter 8. Dostoevsky has several variations on the theme of this vision, which effected him deeply, for example, in A Weak Heart (1848), in Petersburg Dreams in Verse and in Prose (1861), and in the sketches for The Diary of a Writer (1873).

Voluntary unpaid work on days off, originally on Saturdays.

Dmitri Prigov. "Reagan's Image in Soviet Literature," quoted from the translation by Andrew Wachtel, in Kent Johnson and Stephen Ashby, eds., Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 105

Jean Baudrillard, "The Precession of Simulacra," Semiotexte (New York, 1983), 2.

Dummy villages erected, according to foreigners, by the order of Prince Potemkin along the route he was to take with Catherine II after the annexation of the Crimea, 1783. This expression is used allusively of something done for show, an ostentatious display designed to disguise an unsatisfactory state of affairs, a pretence that all is well, etc. See Russian-English Dictionary of Winged Words (Moscow: Russkii iazyk, 1988), 162.

A key term in the Hindu traditions of India, roughly denoting the world of sensuous phenomena, or cosmic illusion preventing one from attaining the perception of the Absolute.

Of course, this opposition of East and West rarely appears in a pure form, being supplemented by an internal opposition in the form of non-orthodox, "heretical" movements. But the tendency is of just this type. Albert Schweitzer concludes: "Both in Indian and European thought the affirmation and negation of the world and of life coexist side by side; however, in the Indian thought, the latter predominates, in European thought, the former." Quoted from Vostok-Zapad [East-west], (Moscow: Nauka, 1988), 214.

Ilya Kabakov, "On the Subject of 'the Void,'" Zhizn' mukh. Das Leben der Fliegen Kolnischer Kunstverein (Edition Cantz, 1992), 233.

I do not attribute any evaluative meaning to the terms "simulacrum" and "simulation." A "simulacrum" is neither better nor worse than what it simulates; its nature is simply different.

Ilya Kabakov, "Kontseptualizm v Rossii" [Conceptualism in Russia], Zhizn' mukh, 247, 249.

Dmitri Prigov, "Forty-ninth Alphabet Poem," in Third Wave. The New Russian Poetry, 107.

Dmitri Prigov, "What more is there to say?" in Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry, 102. We find a similar assumption on the part of the youngest of this generation of conceptualists, Pavel Peppershtein (born 1966): "The problem of self-expression through poetry never particularly concerned me; I was more interested in exposing certain "poses" of culture and the methods of its self-reading." In Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry, 192.

It is curious that Prigov managed to transform his own name into a literary concept. The usage of a patronymic in Russian is required in official situations or in addressing elder people, but Prigov always introduced himself as "Dmitry Aleksandrovich" and addressed others in the same "official" manner. What would sound natural in the mouth of an official or a polite academician, acquired an additional "parodic" intonation in relation to such an "underground" figure as Prigov was. Prigov's self-representation as "Dmitry Aleksandrovich" is an example of how everyday communication can be conceptualized and transferred to the level of metalanguage.

Abram Tertz (Andrei Siniavsky), On Socialist Realism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1960), 90-91. For Siniavsky himself, the self-contradiction of socialist realism was something to be resolved by moving in the direction of conscious and deliberate classicism, which is not far from the conceptualists' intentional exploitation of socialist-realist technique. On the one hand, Siniavsky still believed at that time (the late 1950's) in the fruitfulness of a "pure" artistic direction and identified himself as a modernist and as a representative of phantasmagoric art. On the other hand, while insisting on the self-conscious development of Soviet classicism and proposing that Stalin's death would be surrounded with religious miracles and that his relics would cure men possessed by demons (p.92), Siniavsky was the first critic to anticipate Soviet conceptualism, i.e. the second stage of postmodernism.

Literaturnyi entsiklopedicheskii slovar’ [Encyclopedic dictionary of literature] (Moscow: Sovetskaia entsiklopediia, 1987), 416.

Socialist realism was inclined to oppose itself very sharply and vehemently to avant-gardism. A recent treatment of their interrelationship, found in Boris Groys' valuable and provocative book, The Total Art of Stalinism, argues a contrary position, presenting the art of Stalin's epoch as the triumph of the avant-gardist project. Socialist realism is, from this point of view, "both reflected and consummated avant-garde demiurgism" (The Total Art of Stalinism. Avant-garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, trans. by Charles Rougle. Princeton University Press,1992, 72). On the other hand, Groys identifies socialist realism with postmodernism, claiming that, "...[B]eginning with the Stalin years, at least, official Soviet culture, Soviet art, and Soviet ideology become eclectic, citational, 'postmodern.'"(Ibid., 108). Groys is absolutely right to point to the affinity of socialist realism with both utopian avant-gardism and postmodernism, but it's important not to conflate these two aspects as in the following statement: "The utopianism of Soviet ideology consists, as it were, in its postmodernity..."(Ibid.108).

I would suggest that socialist realism is neither avant-gardist nor postmodernist but represents a lengthy transition between the two epochs. By the fact of its realization in Stalin's time, the utopian project of the avant-garde ceases to be utopian and avant-gardist and gradually enters a post-utopian--hence postmodernist--dimension. The messianic and transcendental ideas that the avant-garde opposes to existing reality, socialist realism presents as inherent to an already transformed, "new" reality, which postmodernism comes to interpret as ideological simulation and "hyperreality." In this context, the entire phenomenon of totalitarianism can be viewed as one mode of transition from avant-gardist purity of style to postmodernist playful eclecticism. Early modernism's emphasis on the experimental sterility of aesthetic form is as serious as postmodernism's emphasis on eclecticism is playful. But why can't omnivorous eclecticism be combined with an imperative of seriousness in one cultural paradigm? This is where totalitarianism locates itself: as the intermediate link between modernism and postmodernism, attempting to embrace the diversity of styles and forms and to subject them to one unifying and compulsory design. Serious purity - serious eclecticism - playful eclecticism: these three stages may be identified as avant-gardism, socialist realism, and postmodernism, respectively.

In the West, a similarly transitional status can be ascribed to so-called "high modernism," which also attempts to supercede the experimental reductiveness of early modernism (the avant-garde) by bringing together a diversity of styles, but with a sense of their tragic incommensurability. Both high modernism and socialist realism may be qualified as two synchronically developing (1930's-50's) forms of "serious eclecticism," with their principal divergence occuring in the realm of pathos. That is to say that seriousness can have two aesthetical modes: heroic/optimistic or tragic/pessimistic. The first is based on the value of comprehensive and aggressive collectivism, the second on the value of individuality, which strives in vain to embrace the universal while remaining aware of the inevitability of existential alienation. There is a certain affinity between such major figures of Soviet and Western literature of the 1930's as Sholokhov and Faulkner, Platonov and Hemingway, Gorky and Thomas Mann. It is worthy to note that representatives of high modernism were much better received by Soviet critics than were the early modernists (avant-gardists). What united Soviet writers with high modernists, in spite of their principal ideological distinctions, was the aesthetics of eclecticism, treated in the most serious and ethically responsible manner. For Soviet critics, the typical term used to assimilate high modernists into the ranks of "progressive" literature was "humanism," presupposing that all of these writers, Soviet and Western, were concerned not with the purity of stylistic devices--like the avant-gardists--but with the fate of humanity and its spiritual survival in the age of alienation. Certainly this hypothesis of "serious eclecticism" as a common quality of socialist realism and high modernism, and as a transitional stage between the serious purity of the avant-garde and the playful pastiche of postmodernism, requires a detailed elaboration that would lead us beyond the scope of this book.

Editor: Poet Andrei Voznesensky (1933-) and prose writer Vasily Aksyonov (1932-) were leaders of the 60s generation and were associated with the youth theme in post-Stalinist literature. They had affinities with the futurist and abstractionist trends of the early avant-garde. They have been compared with writers of the American beat generation.

Tom Wolfe, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A literary manifesto for the new social novel," Harper's Magazine. November 1989. p. 50.

Wolfe, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," 49.

Editor: Andrei Alexandrovich Zhdanov was a powerful Communist Party functionary from 1934 through 1948. His post-war denunciation of poet Anna Akhmatova and satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko for the alleged lack of social values in their works signaled a return to pervasive Party control of the cultural sphere, after the comparative freedom of the war years.

Doklad t. Zhdanova o zhurnalakh "Zvezda" i "Leningrad." Sokrashchennaia i obobshchennaia stenogramma dokladov t. Zhdanova na sobranii partiinogo aktiva i na sobranii pisatelei v Leningrade, OGIZ: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel'stvo politicheskoi literatury [Comrad Zhdanov's report on the journals Star and Leningrad, a shortened and summarized stenogram of the report presented at the meeting of party activists and at the meeting of writers in Leningrad, State Publishing House of political literature] (Moscow, 1946), 12, 16-17.

Wolfe, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," 49.

These issues are discussed at length in my article "Tom Wolfe and Social(ist) Realism," Common Knowledge (Oxford University Press), vol. 1 (1992), no. 2, 147-160.


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