A History of Dissensus, Consensus, and Illusions of a New Era Politburo Questions and Discussion Points (for Sputnik - Sara Magee)
1. What was the original role of the ‘intelligentsia’ and has this changed over time?
Originally played an active role in changing society and challenging the status quo, they “played a key role in demanding the liberalization of society” and “represented the resistance by intellectuals against the authoritarian Russian regime” (21). Considered to be a group fighting for the good and advancement of society (21). The prominence of this group was diminished under Stalin’s rule, where many were either forced underground of assimilated into the state’s ideology. Dissent in this form was not tolerated. (21-22). In Putin’s day, there exists a group of dissident artists, however there is another group which is able to produce media that supports the regime. Although not all artists operate under the complete control of the regime, many do to some degree. This appears to have been the case largely throughout history, though at some times largely unnoticed, there has always been some small group of artists/intellectuals that sought to actively or passively challenge the system.
2. What was the impact of the avant-garde’s involvement in politics, and how did the relationship between the art and the party evolve over time?
This early period was very diverse, but used a series of techniques that sought to shock and provoke, challenge the ideological systems of the day (ontological anarchism), and “to integrate art and life” (22). The focus during this period was social and ideological, not political. After the First World War more artists began to be politically active. Certain artists, such as Malevich and Rozanova, did so in opposition to the Bolsheviks, while “most” artists of this period were supportive (23). This shift to politics began their assimilation into the party ideology, and their submission to “party directives” (23). This was institutionalized in the 1930s, with the creation of centralized institutions to monitor artistic outputs (23). Artists works were synthesized into the party’s propaganda machine and used for their political purposes. Years later, artists were again vilified, and a strict distinction between sanctioned “conformist” and dissident “non-conformist” art was drawn (24). The strict distinction was brought to an end in the 80s with the Perestroika, and party controlled ended with the fall of the USSR (26).
3. What were the ways in which Russian artists kept dissident art active during the Soviet regimes? What groups were creative as a challenge to the system?
After the 1930s, dissident art, such as avant-garde and absurdist works, were driven underground and “taken away from public view” (23). This included illegally distributed texts, meetings between friends, covert discussions of ideas, etc. (23-24). Artist once again withdrew from politics, and operated “double lives” (24). The Sots-Arts was a group formed in the 70s to create which “deconstructed the myths of Soviet utopia and its leader, Stalin” (25). The group Collective Actions was also formed in the 70s, a group of members who would gather in different locations and go for walks, allowing themselves to exists in a place where the all encompassing presence of the regime was not felt, in a “zone for contemplation beyond all officially regulated political, social and ideological conceptions” (25-26).
4. What is the ideological conflict between Actionism and Conceptualism? How did this difference influence how they showed their dissent?
Conceptualism is the ideology underlying the dissident movements of the groups Sots-Art and Collective Actions that focused on the ideological consequences of the Soviet era, and explored (passively) their impacts. Largely underground and not prone to aggressive confrontation of the system (27). Actionists wanted an active and aggressive challenge to reality (“the textuality that has completely taken over in Soviet times”), and wanted to provoke and shock people into action (27). Did this by challenging the limits of conformity and what was appropriate by using “naked bodies, aggression, blood” – using physical art and street performances (28). Actionists were, like the early avant-garde movement, not politically oriented, and focused on their art (27). This movement becomes political, and faces a similar crackdown and assimilation as the avant-garde movement (29). It was the fundamental difference between the two (active vs. passive) that lead Actionism into the political sphere and public eye, and resulted in their crackdown.
5. What are the pillars of Putin’s new construction of society? How were these effectively used to reshape Russian society?
1. “State Nationalism”: a focus on the importance of the role of the state and enforcing an ideology that expects conformity in ideas (and therefore art). Promoting pride in the state and painting any form of dissidence as anti-patriotic. Systematic and careful reinventing of history (32). 2. “Russia the Nation”: the patriotism and history set up by the government highlights particular historical dates and victories (1917 Revolution, 1612 military victory against Poles, etc.) set up an ideology that can be used by growing xenophobic attitudes (33). 3. “Russia the Orthodox Nation”: renewed emphasis on religion, and in particular the Orthodox church “as the Putin regime needed its support and moral authority.” Allowing it into public life and institutions, reversing the enforced atheism of the Soviet era, and encouraging unity under this banner (34). 4. “A Unique Russian Path”: emphasis on Russia as a nation and people distinct from the rest of Europe, this strengthens ideas of unity and works in tandem with religion and nationalism (35).
6. How does Putin reinvent aesthetics and class in Russia? And how did he use controlled art and media to promote his message?
He wanted to instill confidence in the people “by presenting a vision of stability, consolidation, and continuity” (31). Focus on glamour and aesthetics in order to avoid political questions (free from controversy), and instead focusing on wealth and consumerism (38). Used specific readings of history, promoting some leaders while not mentioning others, highlighting the economic and political successes of leaders like Stalin while painting over the human stories (32). This was done by promoting historical film, television, shows, etc. and even by putting up song verses that celebrate Stalin in public art in areas like metro stations (33).
7. What are some of the differences and similarities between dissident art in Soviet Russia and in Putin’s Russia?
There are still parallels that may be drawn, such as Pussy Riot members referencing absurdist underground texts of the early Soviet era (23). While “individual scholars, journalists and others” attempted to provide criticism and measured evaluations of Russia’s history, Putin’s regime has its own group of scholars, journalists, and others that provide a state sanctioned set of art, media, and historical facts (33). Attempts to combat Putin’s revised readings of history, by embedding nuanced political commentary in historical interpretations (harkens back to secret meanings embedded in works by the old intelligentsia), e.g. references to the regime of Ivan the Terrible as a warning to Russia’s potential future (39). Modern dissidents may make references and warnings, however, these are often just ignored by the mainstream media. E.g. Antigone (40). Boris Groys draws parallels between the environment for artists (the lack diversity in opinion and forces consensus) of the Stalinist-Soviet era and modern Russia (40). Fewer organized groups are mentioned in the readings in modern Russia, there appears to be organized groups (Sots-Arts etc.) that previously existed to show organized dissent, while now there are more individual actors.