When Jean Baudrillard wrote his book The System of Objects a few decades ago he couldn’t have imagined that his ideas would apply in today’s Russia, where items, particularly toys, are quasi-political actors. Toys are widely used by anti-Putinists. Teddy bears and other funny and peaceful figures appear with slogans demanding free and fair elections. Human-to-human protests are too dangerous. But can these comic effigies substitute for “real” demonstrations?
At a recent conference, “Many Faces of Russia,” at Vilnius University, this topic was under hot debate. The authorities in Russia are clearly disoriented by the playful and creative protest items. This is exemplified by a statement from a local legislator from Barnaul, where toys, satiric items, and related performances were first used. He said, “toys, especially imported ones, not only aren’t citizens of Russia, but they are not even people… Toys can’t participate in meetings.”
Amusing! Yet scholars fall are short in interpreting the Russian political-puppet-theater. Viktor Vachstain from the Presidential Academy of Public Service in Moscow once mentioned that hypothetically almost every object could become political. But are toy-ism protests innocent performances or dark political actions?
This theme has other sides, such as in the Kremlin’s semantics – Amphorae (extracted by Putin from the seabed), yellow Lada-Kalinas (driven by Putin for promotional purposes and then ridiculed by bloggers and other commentators), grain harvester combines (driven for the tandem before the election) – these are some examples of material objects which became symbols of the regime's imagery, and simultaneously targets for public mockery.
In defending itself against different forms of mass-scale protests, the Putin regime chooses to criminalize the opposition and avoid responsibility for playing explicit ideological or political roles. It is very much telling that the court decision on the Pussy Riot case explicitly mentioned the alleged lack of political context of this situation. Instead of accepting the political challenge, the Kremlin prefers to take a function of the resulting vector, a “natural” incarnation of demands coming from the largest social groups.
It is in this context that the incident with Pussy Riot has to be understood. The trial was meant to recreate a pro-Putin majority. Perhaps, this logic was in its most overt form voiced by Russian political scientist Sergey Markov who in one of his public pronouncements pathetically exclaimed: “The ‘silent moral majority’ addresses to Putin are not a political, but an existential demand – to defend the values of the ‘Russian supra-national identity,’ which is ‘not ethnic, but imperial.’
This alleged majority, as imagined by Markov, asks Putin: “Are you Russian? Are you Orthodox? Do you have power?” In this act of interpellation we see a clear demand for identity, a search for authenticity, and, of course, appeal to power that, nevertheless, has to be void of political connotations.
This makes us more closely watch what goes on within Russian society. The picture drawn by Galina Zvereva (Russian State University for Humanities) and Ilya Kukulin (Higher School of Economics) appears gloomy. On a grass-roots level, people are increasingly eager to identify “strangers”, “outsiders”, “aliens”, “not-ours” – thus producing a Russian version of vigilante groups.
The administrative career of Igor Kholmansky, a former worker at a provincial wagon-making factory, started with his on-TV offer to Putin “to come to Moscow with a group of guys and fix the situation [with the anti-Kremlin protests].”
Others fight against drug dealers and drug abusers (the “City without Narcotics” movement). Others rail against migrants (e.g., the Cossacks in Russia’s south) while others seek to challenge those with religious differences. The Kremlin seems to like them all, with nostalgia for the Soviet past adding much to the picture.
Aesthetization of Soviet symbols is certainly a widely spread cultural trend that is not necessarily limited to the pensioner generation. “I want to go back to the Soviet Union,” say endless Internet forums. In a song, pop singer Oleg Gazmanov openly asserts that Kazakhstan and “Pribaltika” are still “my own country.”
Large segments of the Russian population see the demise of the USSR as a geopolitical catastrophe. Those people agree that Stalin’s “achievements.” Many in Russia like authoritarian leaders. They are obsessed with the sheer scale of their country and tend to confuse it with grandeur. And they do see the outside world as inherently dangerous, or at least untrustworthy.
Is Russia unique in this conservatism? Viatcheslav Morozov from Tartu University opines that some parallels between Russia and the USA, Israel and Muslim countries are thinkable.
Yet instead of a conservative bulwark it may be seen as cognitive dissonance, ones that appear typically for the Russian power holders in Russia. A question in Vilnius exposed this: Why was Dmitry Medvedev so explicitly insensitive to Japan’s expectable reaction to his visit to the Kuril Islands? There were more: Why did Russian diplomacy so often distance itself from reality? Are the inward-oriented and parochial discourses meant for domestic consumption at best?
Can political scientists explain any of these phenomena? Only with assistance from those in psychology or cultural anthropology. Yet any conclusion is probably not that Putin is the problem. The real problem is cognitive self-dissonance that immobilizes society itself.
Andrey Makarychev is a Guest Professor at the Free University of Berlin, blogging for PONARS Eurasia on the Russia-EU neighborhood.