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Hipsteritarianism: Putin’s Postmodern Fiefdom

Hipsteritarianism: Putin's Postmodern Fiefdom

It’s a story that could have been written by Borges.

A powerful man publishes a satirical novel under a playful yet obvious pseudonym. The book’s protagonist is a fiercely intelligent, insecure and amoral intellectual, a “‘vulgar Hamlet’ who can see through the superficiality of his age, but is unable to have any real feelings for anyone or anything”. Inhabiting a dystopian Russia where rival literary gangs orchestrate street shootouts and sell themselves to the secret services, he works as a corrupt publisher who gets poor writers to ghostwrite for powerful figures.

But the (alleged) author himself is the biggest ghostwriter of them all: Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s chief ideologist and eminence gris – inventor of “sovereign democracy” and the nationalist youth league Nashi. He is also the architect of Russia’s new, postmodern authoritarianism, where nothing, except power, is what it seems.

In his provocative, thrillingly told and compellingly analysed tale of Surkov and the country he almost singlehandedly created, Peter Pomerantsev asserts that modern Russia has become a “unique fusion of primitive feudal poses and arch, postmodern irony”. “The world Surkov has created”, argues Pomerantsev, is “a world of masks and poses, colourful but empty, with little at its core but power for power’s sake and the accumulation of vast wealth”.

Pomerantsev, the young, Scottish-educated Londoner son of a Ukrainian dissident turned veteran BBC and Radio Liberty journalist, has worked for several years in the Russian TV business, something that must have given him a great insider-outsider perspective that he puts to great use.

He writes:

The novelist Eduard Limonov describes Surkov himself as having ‘turned Russia into a wonderful postmodernist theatre, where he experiments with old and new political models’…In contemporary Russia, unlike the old USSR or present-day North Korea, the stage is constantly changing: the country is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while, backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away. Surkov is at the centre of the show, sponsoring nationalist skinheads one moment, backing human rights groups the next. It’s a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.

What’s more, Russia’s ruling elite has replaced Marx and Lenin with Lacan and Derrida as modern instruments of control.

“One blogger has noted that ‘the number of references to Derrida in political discourse is growing beyond all reasonable bounds. At a recent conference the Duma deputy Ivanov quoted Derrida three times and Lacan twice.’ In an echo of socialism’s fate in the early 20th century”, argues Pomerantsev, “Russia has adopted a fashionable, supposedly liberational Western intellectual movement and transformed it into an instrument of oppression”.

Pomerantsev illustrates this with a much talked about incident from a few months ago.

“A property ad displayed all over central Moscow earlier this year captured the mood perfectly. Got up in the style of a Nazi poster, it showed two Germanic-looking youths against a glorious alpine mountain over the slogan ‘Life Is Getting Better’. It would be wrong to say the ad is humorous, but it’s not quite serious either. It’s sort of both. It’s saying this is the society we live in (a dictatorship), but we’re just playing at it (we can make jokes about it), but playing in a serious way (we’re making money playing it and won’t let anyone subvert its rules). A few months ago there was a huge ‘Putin party’ at Moscow’s most glamorous club. Strippers writhed around poles chanting: ‘I want you, prime minister.’ It’s the same logic. The sucking-up to the master is completely genuine, but as we’re all liberated 21st-century people who enjoy Coen brothers films, we’ll do our sucking up with an ironic grin”.

I think Pomerantsev has put his finger on modern Russia’s predicament.

But we must be wary of seeing the situation as one of exceptionalism. In fact, if anything, Russia can be said to have finally caught up with the the West. (My dummies guide to Fredric Jameson informs me that postmodernism’s replacement of parody with pastiche and its attendant, capitalistic erosion of cultural autonomy began in 1980s America).

After all, if bankers can attend Occupy Wall St. rallies on their lunch breaks, why can’t “Moscow’s top gallery-owner advise the Kremlin on propaganda at the same time as exhibiting anti-Kremlin work in his gallery”?

(Interestingly, in the very same edition of the London Review of Books, Keith Gessen does a fine job of drawing a parallel between Occupy Wall St. and Russian opposition rallies)

The problem here is not that these people are somehow morally dishonest, or that they are hipsters using the aesthetic of rebellion as a guise against their fundamental conformism/consumerism (both of which may well be true). The bigger problem is the increasingly totalitarian, all-consuming character of modern life, either of capitalism in the US or Putinism in Russia.

In the end, the two feel eerily similar. Just as it has become impossible to live outside of capitalism, even for those who criticise it, it is becoming impossible to be implicated in Putinism, regardless of your politics. Just ask the writers of Snob magazine.

But because Putinism remains an individualised, “manual” regime in contrast to the anonymous, “self-regulating” character of Western capitalism, Russia allows us to see with a greater clarity the dangerous, horrific (if often hilarious) absurdity of this blurring of all possible boundaries.

As is often the case, Russia’s experience can give the West a bracing, starker glimpse of its own predicament than it’s sometimes possible to see on the ground.



Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs