Eliot Borenstein: "Nuance never gets anyone's attention"
Eliot Borenstein — Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University — has been enlightening and shocking both academic and non-academic audiences since the 1990s with his insights into the post-Soviet popular culture. Often humorous, and always poignant, his observations come out of the first-hand grasp of Russia’s inside truths — from memes and mores of its furthest backwoods to rituals and rules of the snobbiest bohemia — but always based on encyclopedic knowledge of Russian history and tradition.
Acclaim among fellow scholars, Russia watchers, journalists, as well as ordinary readers made modern classics out of Borenstein’s books Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917-1929 and Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism. His blog has a cult following — both a compilation of unique views and a resource, but also a place where you simply go to get a laugh at the expense of "the other," who, as you soon end up finding out, is not so vastly different from ourselves.
And so it was with great excitement that I spoke to Professor Borenstein earlier this month — touching upon topics ranging from the Soviet dissidents, to Winnie-the-Pooh, to the upheaval in modern-day Russia studies, and general transformations of post-Soviet war-time absurdism.
Alissa Ordabai: Eliot, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. I have been a fan of your blog and your work for many years. And I have spent a lot of time thinking and laughing over your latest book — Soviet Self-Hatred. At times it felt like being back on my shrink's couch.
Eliot Borenstein: [Laughs]. Well, I'm glad I didn't charge you more than the price of the book.
A.O.: It's a fantastic, marvelous read. And while reading this book it occurred to me that perhaps there are two ways in which post-Soviet societies cope with shame: one is aggression and the other one is self-irony.
E.B.: Yes, I think you got it. And we see which one is prominent now.
A.O.: This leads me to my first question. Have we passed beyond the point of humor and self-irony? Because it seems like humor has kind of ceased now. I remember just about two years ago there was this YouTube meme where Masyanya sang, "Это не пипец, это не пипец, поживём ещё малец." ("This is not the end, we still have a bit more time to live.") Now it seems like this is the "пипец", i.e. "the end" — there's no more humor.
E.B.: I think they redid it. She now sings, "Это пипец" ("Тhis is the end”). She's like, "This is it."
The transformation of Masyanya in and of itself is really fascinating because I think that the creator, Oleg Kuvaev, saw himself implicated in this kind of "We are not about politics, we are apolitical” attitude, and now it has gotten so intensely political and self-reflective, and it's really amazing.
But I do wonder about the place of irony and humor. What does seem to be happening is it's still there. But it's existing in its own self-contained world that I think is trying to break through.
One of the things that always amazes me — even to this day — is when you see the pictures of the people sitting in their little aquarium — you know, the little fishbowl [for defendants] in the courts — and they're giving their speeches. They're smiling. They look... I think it's a deliberate thing. They are trying to project a happiness, a normalcy, a sense of self that is immune to all this. Look at Navalny — he’s really, really good at that. And they use humor. The protest is using humor.
The problem is that the regime is just having none of it. But still, I think in resistance — the forms of resistance — people are still using that irony. I'm just not sure how effective it could be.
A.O.: If you read dissident biographies from the 1970s and 1980s about their awful experiences in jails, they vary so much. Someone like [Eduard] Kuznetsov would sound angry and bitter, and [Natan] Sharansky and [Vladimir] Bukovsky would very often sound humorous. Sharansky would describe being force-fed through the rectal tube and still find a way to be ironic in the way he describes it.
E.B.: The Soviet dissidents always struck me differently. They were angry — for good reason — and a bit aggressive. They were very, very Soviet in their anti-Soviet ways. They were so Soviet. So sure that they were right. So ready to lecture at you. And that's so different from the protest movement from 2011 on, where it's just this kind of laid-back, ironic vibe. It's refreshing, if not necessarily regime-changing.
A.O.: Would you say there's a kind of infantile quality to the post-Soviet humor? We all know that humor can be a coping mechanism, but in my experience, I’d be talking to a Russian banker who is pushing 50, and he would be quoting Soviet cartoons from his childhood — Soviet Winnie-the-Pooh, or Leopold the Cat, or Zhil-byl Pyos. Vladimir Bukovsky once famously said that the Soviet system treated children like adults and adults like children, but where do you think this infantile quality comes from?
E.B.: That’s interesting. I wonder if it really is infantile. Because I think you see something similar here. We all — I, certainly — often refer to things in terms of pop culture. I think one of the reasons it stands out over there is that there's so much serious shit going on. And people are talking about Winnie-the-Pooh, right? It looks escapist, it looks infantile, and then it’s also — in that example — retro. It’s not Masyanya, it’s not something happening now. The humor goes back 40 years, and it’s just regressive. Because it's not just that there is no room for a future, but there is barely room for a present. So the past, these references to the past, become comforting in a way that references often do. But there's so little else, right? I mean, what do you have besides that? That's the real problem. You have Z. You have the Z-kultura.
A.O.: On par with sweet Soviet cartoons such as Winnie the Pooh and Hedgehog in the Fog, when I was growing up in the 1980s in Almaty (a city in Kazakhstan) the school culture, and the out-of-doors culture was rife with sadistic children’s rhymes. "Дети играли в подвале в Гестапо, зверски замучен сантехник Потапов". ("Children reenacted Gestapo in a cellar, plumber Potapov got tortured to death").
E.B.: "Маленький мальчик нашёл пулемёт, больше в деревне никто не живёт". ("A little boy found a machine gun, no one lives in his village anymore” - Ed.) Strashilki, yes.
A.O.: And these are the mildest examples. But there were also some truly horrible rhymes. I can't think of any other culture — European or Asian — which would have anything similar. Or maybe it’s just my ignorance.
E.B.: We had it. When I was growing up, we told… this is terrible… We told Helen Keller jokes.
A.O.: I have no idea what that is.
E.B.: You know who Helen Keller was?
E.B.: She was blind and deaf, and she was an activist. She was an amazing person. This wonderful, wonderful person. And she died in the 1960s. Or there were the dead baby jokes.
A.O.: Oh, I see. So it is kind of universal.
E.B.: But I think what's interesting is when it happens. I can't say why it happens. I don't know why it happened when it happened in the United States, but certainly there's room for wanting something so violent and nasty in a culture that made no room for it officially.
A.O.: And then when you grow up a bit more, and you get things like Marilyn Manson, I suppose, right?
E.B.: Goth culture, of course. What teenager doesn’t like dark stuff? That, I think, is pretty common. What changes is the extent to which adults freak out about it.
A.O.: Would you say that nowadays it's more frowned upon?
E.B.: There are just different things adults freak out about. Right now in the United States it's very polarized. There are people in Florida who just think that anything queer is about grooming and they’re these total nut jobs. And then most of the country being much more relaxed.
What you have in America is that the right wing really is trying hard to create a moral panic that is not kind of happening on its own. And it's very much like Russia. I mean, the rhetoric of the gay propaganda law and all of that, that really has come to America in a very profound way. The way that people are talking about that stuff here really reminds me of the past decade or so in Russia.
A.O.: Well, the far right in this country has been praising Putin for years for his stance on LGBT+.
E.B.: Yes. But I don't know what the polls are in the UK. The polls here show that the overall majority, even of Republicans, are relaxed about gay rights. They're less relaxed about trans people. But they're fine with gay marriage, they're fine with gays in the military. It's all really changed. And there's a segment of the population that just can't stand it.
A.O.: I think it's milder in the UK. The queer Englishman has always been a universal cultural staple.
E.B.: Right, but the transphobia always struck me as worse in the UK.
E.B.: Well, because you have these anti-trans feminist activists.
A.O.: Oh, that's true. Now come to think of it, that's true. You get Joanne Rowling and other prominent writers such as Julie Burchill, and other people you wouldn't expect to take this stance, which is strange.
E.B.: Whereas I think in the US on the left there's just less room for it.
A.O.: Would you say that perhaps humor can be a way to avoid talking about serious subjects, or even to avoid responsibility? You know, when you're laughing instead of taking responsibility for your country it's like a child who giggles out of embarrassment and does not do anything?
E.B.: I think I'm really fascinated, for instance, with this widespread discussion of decolonizing Russian culture. For instance, the decades of complete acceptance of racist humor that is finally being challenged. And racist humor — certainly racist humor — is about something very serious. But you were never allowed to take it seriously. In my encounters with people in the Soviet Union and in Russia, it was like, "Oh, you guys are so uptight, and we're relaxed, it doesn't really mean anything."
And now I feel like there's a reckoning — it always did mean something. And you better listen to those of us who said it meant something. As they say in Russian, "В каждой шутке есть доля шутки" ("There is a grain of joke in every joke"), and I think it's all very, very serious.
But avoiding responsibility, which you brought up, I think is really key. But I also think that this kind of humor is different from irony. It's different. Granted, I know that in Russia people use ironiya differently sometimes. Like they call [Dariya] Dontsova’s novels "иронические детективы" ("ironic detective stories” - Ed.) But there's no irony there — they’re just funny. Or supposed to be funny.
But the kind of irony you see of the kind that Navalny uses, and which people in the protest movement use, that the anti-Putinist left, or progressives use, is... it's not joke telling, not the sort of old-fashioned joke telling. It's not portable the way joke telling is, but it’s an attitude. And that attitude, I think, doesn't shy away from responsibility in the same way and actually points more directly to the politics that are really involved.
But refusing to engage with the politics on the same level of self-seriousness, is not avoiding being serious, it's puncturing the seriousness of the person you are fighting against. And that's something I don’t think Soviet dissidents did very well. They were very serious.
A.O.: I also think back to the years when [Valeriya] Novodvorskaya was still alive and she was such a punchbag — the laughing stock of seemingly the entire country. I remember myself not being able to refrain from laughing at times.
E.B.: Yes, but how much of it was just what she looked like?
A.O. For me, none. It was just, you know, when you were looking at it from within the dissident movement, you saw that a lot of it was myth — the way she talked about spending all this time in psychiatric jails, which was not entirely true, because in reality she spent little time in confinement. But it was also just the absolute lack of self-irony on her part.
E.B.: Absolutely. And that’s not something that I associate with the Soviet and late-Soviet dissident self-irony. Yes, she was a character.
A.O.: She would get prank calls where they would talk to her about seemingly serious things, such as human rights, and then would say something obscene, and she would react with such seriousness. She would say, "Shame on you! You're calling a member of the human rights movement!"
E.B.: She was utterly humorless, right?
E.B.: And that's the problem. Anyone who's utterly humorless, whether you agree with them or not, they're just a target. They are just so easy to make fun of. Even the people doing it may have agreed with her on a lot of stuff, but she was… yeah… And that way she was almost like some stereotype, some училка ("stuffy teacher" - Ed.) somewhere, right? You know, who just berated you for your bad behavior.
A.O.: That’s right. And then [Viktor] Pelevin too would poke fun at people like [Sergei] Mokhnatkin — in a really obscene way, which made you think: “Is he blurring the distinctions between right and wrong, and is this a way he is protecting himself?” Because he is not doing what Mokhnatkin was able to do. And it took courage to do what Mokhnatkin did. And here is Pelevin poking fun at him.
E.B.: My attitude to Pelevin has changed so much over the years. But I think also Pelevin has changed so much over the years. You know, when he was initially poking fun at everybody, it was really refreshing. You know, I think his stuff in the 90s was just so clever and so refreshing.
A.O.: It was.
E.B. And it's always that thing though… Over time you begin wondering: What is behind it? And what seems to be behind it is a bit of that kind of irresponsible, that "everybody's an asshole" thing, but also more and more picking a lane which is much more right-wing, frankly. That the enemy is liberalism and political correctness. I feel like he's really gone into that category over all these years. And, unfortunately I also just find him kind of unreadable lately. I've started the last five novels and have not finished.
A.O.: Same here. I just couldn't. But you talk in your book about shame, so, say, if you are a 15-year-old Russian trying to be a decent human being, where do you derive a sense of self-respect from these days?
E.B.: Oh, that's a good question. For one thing, I have no idea what it would be like to be a 15-year-old Russian. Or a 15-year-old anything, at this particular moment.
I don’t know what’s open for them. I think if you're not completely identifying yourself with the state propaganda — and I assume most of them are not — and if you're not crusading against the war, — and again, most of them are not, and I'm not blaming them — there's no space for it. I think all you have left is cynicism and apathy. So I don't know.
There are a lot of people in Russia who are talking about how important it is to be proud of being Russian, just like people in America thought they'd be proud of being American. But it's never about anything. There's nothing specific to be proud of in this rhetoric. It's just like you've got to be proud of it. Because if you start investigating it, it starts to fall apart.
So you could have the reflex that "I'm proud of my country, I love my country, blah, blah, blah," or you could just be completely, completely checked out. I have not run into any 15-year-old Russians in quite a while, and I think it'll be a long time before I do. So I don't know. I really couldn't say. I don't see much possibility for them. If they haven't been completely enculturated in the Z-kultura stuff, then I'm not sure what's left for them.
A.O.: I know some — children of friends. And it's complete escapism. Some of them want to be rock stars, and they listen to Led Zeppelin, all this retro kind of British rock… It's weird. It’s pure escapism, in my view.
E.B.: But what else do they have? What else are they supposed to do besides escapism? Unless they are going to rise up, which no one is doing.
A.O.: It's strange how back in 1956 in Hungary they were all 15 - 16 year old. That was incredible. But the times were different.
E.B.: It helps to feel like there is a foreign occupier. And then you are the good people, fighting the foreign occupier. In Russia's
Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917-1927.
by Eliot Borenstein.
Duke University Press, 2001.
Plots Against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy After Socialism.
by Eliot Borenstein.
Cornell University Press, 2019.
Soviet Self-Hatred: The Secret Identities of Postsocialism in Contemporary Russia.
by Eliot Borenstein.
Cornell University Press, 2023.
Masyanya (Russian: Масяня) is a popular Russian animatrd series created by Oleg Kuvaev offering humorous commentary on life in contemporary Russia.
Russian opposition personality Alexei Navalny during his 2021 court trial, Moscow.
"Жуткий детский фольклор" (English: Children's horror folklore) by Andrei Usachev and Eduard Uspensky.
Rossman-Press Moscow,, 1998.
Pussy Riot: Speaking Punk to Power (Russian shorts series) by Eliot Borenstein.
Bloomsbury Academic, 2023
Meanwhile , in Russia...: Russian Internet Memes and Viral Video (Russia Shorts series) by Eliot Borenstein.
Bloomsbury Academic, 2022.
Overkill: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Culture
by Eliot Borenstein.
Corenll University Press, 2007.
Marvel Comics in the 1970s: The World Inside Your Head by Eliot Borenstein.
Cornell University Press, 2023.
Russian Postmodernist Fiction: Dialogue with Chaos by Mark Lipovetsky and Eliot Borenstein.
Valeriya Novodvorskaya (Russian: Валерия Новодворская) was a Russian human rights activist. She was first imprisoned in 1969, at the age of 19, for distributing leaflets criticizing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Novodvorskaya strongly opposed the Second Chechen War and Vladimir Putin's domestic and foreign policies.
Sergei Mokhnatkin (Russian: Сергей Мохнаткин) was a Russian human rights activist. A political prisoner, Mokhnatkin defended his rights and the rights of other prisoners in the camp, for which he was repeatedly subjected to punishments. In 2016 officers of the Federal Penitentiary Service broke his spine. He died in 2020 of complications after surgery.
Viktor Pelevin (Russian: Виктор Пелевин) is a Russian fiction writer whose post-modernist novels and short storie combine elements of esoteric psychology, popular chulture, sarcastic mockery of contemporary societies, and political commentary.
Street Fashion Moscow by Elena Siemens, foreword by Eliot Borenstein.
Revealuation Books, Exeter, UK, 2003.
Anti-communist Hungarian revolutionaries in the streets of Budapest, November 1956.
case, who is the foreign occupier? If you are right-wing enough, then maybe it's the Jews and the Americans, but for the most part it's just this pretense that there are fascists on the border trying to attack you. And I think the extent to which people believe that, it doesn't go that deep. So there's not much room for heroism.
A.O.: No. I've spoken to Ian Garner recently, the author of a book on youth fascism in Russia. He is adamant that propaganda works. And I'm saying, "No, it doesn’t." Just like under Stalin it did not work. Everyone knew that the neighbor who got shot the other day did not commit any terrible crimes. It's just convenient to pretend that you believe. But he is certain that propaganda really works. What do you think?
E.B.: You know, in all of these years of finding myself shocked at how many people in Russia seem to believe what they're hearing on television, after decades of Soviet television viewers being so much more sophisticated than Western ones (because they're used to being lied to), and thinking about what's happening, I think Russian propaganda is so much more sophisticated than Soviet propaganda.
Because Soviet propaganda was trying to make you believe that what you're seeing right in front of you is not happening. You know, the shelves are full, right? No, it's not true.
But Russian propaganda isn't trying to make you believe that what you're seeing in front of you is not true. It's trying to do a couple of things: make you believe that what you can't see directly is happening the way they're saying it, but also pushing you further. It's kind of like what Fox News does. It has a sense of what kind of things you're already willing to believe in and reinforces them and pushes you further.
So it's not starting at… It would be one thing if you had people who were kind of ordinary consumers, Western-oriented, and telling them, "The Ukrainian fascists are going to come get you," and they tell you this in 2007. It would be insane. But if you slowly work your way to that, maybe not intentionally, then it becomes thinkable. I mean, it's like this whole idea of the Overton window, right? [The Overton window is an approach to finding out which ideas are within the spectrum of acceptability of governmental policies - Ed.]
The Overton window of what is permitted to be discussed, what is considered a topic for polite, sophisticated, or normal conversation, shifts and shifts and shifts. And that's what Russian propaganda has done so much over the years that I think a lot of people who might spout some of this rhetoric — if their selves from 2010 could hear them — they would be shocked. But it's a slow process.
A.O.: John Lenczowski, Reagan’s advisor on the USSR at the National Security Council, told me once in an interview how much money the administration spent on Radio Liberty and Voice of America to counter Soviet propaganda, which they thought was very important. Why do you think the same kind of push is not happening right now within the American foreign policy establishment?
E.B.: I think because they probably correctly assess that it won't do that much good. Because I think, you know, what you can see for the past several years — even now, if you get can a VPN — people who want to find different sources of information about conflicting areas can find them, but they have to want it. Just like people in a Fox News bubble, if they don't want to go outside that bubble, they'll stay within it.
And so, even today, if you just get a VPN — which I believe is still pretty easy to do in the Russian Federation — you can have access to all sorts of sources that are going to counter Russian propaganda. But I think most people aren't interested.
And so, that is the big challenge. That’s the big media challenge which is so different in the 21st century from the 1980s, where it's not just a matter of getting information out there. You're fighting for people's attention. And people don't want to give their attention. So how you get attention? Unfortunately, one of the things that far-right propagandists do really well is come up with sensationalist things to get attention. Nuance never gets anyone's attention. That's an old story. But now, we could come up with 10 Voices of America, and if no one wants to listen, they're just talking to no one.
A.O.: That’s true. But what is happening in the field of Russia studies or Russian studies these days? Is there a great upheaval? What is happening?
E.B.: It's a real moment of crisis. On top of the whole decline of the humanities in the university that's been happening for many years, and on top of what had been not a huge interest in Russia before all this (before the second invasion) now what you have is a lot of soul-searching among academics themselves: "How much is my work complicit in this?"
And for one thing, you have a real split. So you have all of these Russianists — whether they're Russian or not — who are in a very uncomfortable position with Ukrainians, because you assume that most of us — everybody I know — supports Ukraine in the war, but we're not going to stop studying Russia. That puts us in a position which tacitly assumes an engagement with Russian culture. And that is not a position that a lot of Ukrainians I know are particularly tolerant of right now, for reasons that I completely understand.
There is a war of destruction going on against their country and they don't want to hear any discussions about how, well, this part of Russian culture might be good and so on and so forth, and that there are good Russians and bad Russians. This isn't the time to make that argument to people whose country is being constantly attacked.
But that means a few things. That means events where sometimes Ukrainians will not want to be present where Russians are present, no matter what the point of view, and that's a whole can of worms. But then there is also — where is Ukrainian Studies? Why are we not studying Ukraine? And that's an excellent point.
But sometimes what happens, I'd get this question, "Why are you Russianists keeping Ukrainian Studies down?" And my response would be, "You know, we're barely keeping Russian Studies up."
My department is called Russian and Slavic Studies, which is a misnomer because we used to have Czech, but now we basically only have Russian and occasional courses in other literatures. And the reason we don't have other languages is that we've never been able to get enough students to take them. The students simply will not sign up for them today — they are not sustainable.
Now we are going to be offering Ukrainian next year — that’s a one-year thing — and hoping to get more. There is interest in Ukraine, and that is wonderful. But we're still dealing with the baseline of American academia when our students are much more pre-professional, a lot of students don't want to take a language, and then they're not likely to take a language that they just don't know much about, which would include Russian, but then, of course, all of the other Slavic languages.
So there is a sense in which yes, Russian has taken up way too much space — realistically, and also in the culture and how we approach it.
But then there's the flip side: How do we get people to want to engage with Ukrainian culture, with Belarusian culture, with Czech culture, with Tajik culture, when they don't even know what it is? So getting it in the news means that there's an opportunity. But I understand why administrators are turning around from saying, yes, hire a bunch of Ukrainians, hire a bunch of people to do Tajikistan because they're not convinced the number is going to be there. But when I say this, I feel like I'm an apologist for a terrible situation.
The decolonization of Russian Studies has been a big one in the humanities for decades. But in Slavic Studies things do tend to come late, and a lot of Russians weren’t… it was happening in Russian Studies, but not to the extent that people wanted. And now all of a sudden, with the war in Ukraine, there's this big push: We have to decolonize, which is great, but it's not always clear what that's going to mean and how we're supposed to do it.
And I think the franticness with which you respond to it doesn't help. I guess part of the problem is, the funny thing is, that the people I know who feel most implicated in this are not people like me who study contemporary Russia, because I feel like this is the stuff I've been talking about for years. It's people who study Tolstoy, and people who study Dostoevsky, people who study, "the great Russian culture," you know, the stuff that Russian imperialism uses to justify its importance.
These people I know who feel very implicated and are rethinking their work. I don't think their work has been doing that. I don't think their work has been specifically propping up Russian imperialism, but it's a moment when they're starting to think, "What does my work mean in the context of a war where this aggressive, horrible regime uses, instrumentalizes Russian culture as a weapon?"
So that's what I think is the real irony. The people whose work is so much less obviously political than mine, are the ones who are feeling most vulnerable. Whereas I feel like everything that's going on is horrible, but I can keep doing what I'm doing because it's all sort of adjacent to it anyway.
A.O.: There are voices in Ukraine who indeed blame the golden age of Russian literature for what is happening now. But it always makes me think of the foreword that Alain Besançon wrote to [Andrei] Amalrik's Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984? where he says an average Soviet citizen has no clue what Crime and Punishment is about and has no clue what The Idiot is about. The whole corpus has been perverted by the Soviet education system. It makes me think that perhaps people who do blame Tolstoy really don't know what Tolstoy really wrote about and what his message was. Equally, they don't know what Dostoevsky’s message was when he wrote Crime and Punishment. Dostoyevsky’s says, "You have free will and therefore you will bear responsibility for your actions." In The Idiot the message is that you cannot rely on any other person but yourself to save you. Besançon, "This is the key message Aglaya has to comprehend." I think that, and a lot of similar messages were completely obliterated from the Soviet curricula.
E.B.: Sure. Of all the individual writers Tolstoy is the one that I feel worst about being associated with Russian imperialism because, of course, of what he wrote about.
But I think the argument is not about what individual Russians think of the classics or even what the classics themselves say. I think the most compelling argument about great Russian culture and its role in imperialism is how it has been used by the state in its various iterations to prop up a sense of Russian cultural superiority.
So on the one hand, you ask yourself, "Why should you take down a monument to Pushkin in Kyiv?" But the next question is, "What is a monument to Pushkin doing in Kyiv in the first place?"
And so that's where, in a sense, the great writers of the Russian culture, however wonderful or terrible they were, I mean Dostoevsky is really implicated, I think, — he hated Poles and Jews.
A.O.: He did, yes.
E.B.: He was horrible with that.
A.O.: He was.
E.B.: But I still love Dostoevsky. But I think in a way, the great Russian writers were used. Their function for the empire is kind of like the function of Christian missionaries. They're the soft cultural good part, right? My colleague Bruce Grant in the Department of Anthropology has interesting things to say about how the great Russian culture is framed: "The great Russian culture is this gift we're giving you whether you want it or not. And whatever you guys have is just not as good as our stuff. And we know that without even asking, because we can't read the stuff in your language, but you know, it's all worse. And aren't you lucky that we give you Dostoevsky and Tolstoy?"
A.O.: Oh, yes.
E.B.: "And you should be grateful." So, I mean, I chose Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I sought them out. No one pushed them on me. So that's a completely different thing. But if you're from a country that has been colonized by some iteration of Russian statehood, and you're being told, "Here's this great Russian literature that's somehow yours," then yes, I can understand why they want none of it. Even if this individual author or this individual text is in some way innocent.
A.O.: I remember vividly a Facebook discussion some years ago where a Russian was arguing with a Kazakh, and his main argument was, "I am still waiting for your culture [i.e. the Kazakh culture] to produce something at the level of Bulgakov. When you finally do produce something on that level, please get back to me." And the other guy was just lost for words.
E.B.: Right. And has he read anything from the Kazakh literature?
There was similar theme here in the 1980s, during the culture wars here, where I believe it was Saul Bellow who said, "Show me the Zulu Shakespeare." And that's just the wrong question to ask in absolutely every way.
But the set-up, the presumption is that, "The cultural values that I'm speaking from are the most important ones, and if you don't have a representative that works in that way, well, that's your problem."
Ironically, Russia in the 1990s was speaking the same way about itself. Again and again I heard Russian intellectuals say in the 1990s, "Where is our contemporary Tolstoy? Where is our contemporary Dostoevsky? All the writers are shit." And I'm thinking, why would you expect Tolstoy or Dostoevsky in any given decade? You're asking an awful lot.
But in post-collapse Russia, sometimes there was a sense of not even living up to Russia's own legacy. But posing that legacy and using it as a yardstick — which is one of the problems with that Facebook commentator's post — is that he gets to determine what is the measure of all things. And that's already a problem.
A.O.: We are getting back to the subject of post-Soviet shame. I used to write for music magazines in the UK, in the US, and in Russia — mostly guitar magazines — and the level of shame among Russian rock musicians and jazz musicians was unbelievable. "Where is our Jimi Hendrix, where are our Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd?"
E.B.: Of course. That is one of the things I was getting at in the late Soviet era. It’s kind of unavoidable if you are trying to catch up to a mass culture that you really love: you are always going to feel like you're playing catch-up. And also, if you get to be the Russian Jimi Hendrix, that's good, but you're still the Russian Jimi Hendrix, right? We are not asking who the American [Vladimir] Vystosky is.
And I'm not saying we should, but there is no way of winning that. That's where the shame comes in. You are never going to — at least in the initial years — be able to feel like you can compete and win. And then, of course, also the real embarrassment is that as long as you're singing all this stuff in Russian, no matter how good it is, no one outside the Russian-speaking world is going to know you're alive.
A.O.: The same went for Russian writers, I think. There's Stephen King and there's Pelevin. Who wants Pelevin outside of Russia, you know? Everyone wants Stephen King.
E.B.: But at least they can get translated, right? I mean, you can translate the lyrics of a Russian rock song but it just doesn't work the same way. But yeah, trying to challenge the American superculture and the broader global cultures after decades of being isolated, you're never going to feel good about yourself as long as you're looking over your shoulder at the people who are your models.
A.O.: What are you working on right now?
E.B.: Right now I am revising a few things. I have three books that might be coming out. I have a book coming out at the end of the year, and I think three more coming out next year.
E.B.: I am revising a book about an HBO's drama series, The Leftovers, which I'm obsessed with. And then, possibly next year, I'll have a short book out called Russian Culture under Putin, a slightly longer book about Harry Potter and Russian culture, and the follow-up to Soviet Self-Hatred, Unstuck in Time, which is largely about time travel narratives, popadanstsy [accidental travelers — characters in fictional literary works who find themselves outside of their space and time - Ed.] and theme park stories about reviving the Soviet Union and this weird sense of time and timelessness in the post-Soviet culture.
A.O.: This is incredible.
E.B.: That stuff was on my blog actually. So that's what's coming out. And I'm doing some more work on comics that I'm writing about. So that's been fun too.
A.O.: So what is Russian culture under Putin? Was there Russian culture under Putin? Is it culture? What is it?
E.B.: Well, I think everything is culture. So I should step back. There's a series of books you may have seen by Bloomsbury called Russian Shorts. They're 40,000 words on a subject.
A.O.: Oh, yes.
E.B.: I did one on Pussy Riot and one on the internet memes. And when I proposed the Harry Potter book as one of those, they said, "That's a little too niche. Do that for something else. (Which I did, also for Bloomsbury). But why don't you do a 40,000 word book about Russian culture under Putin?" And I said okay. And it's the hardest thing I've ever written because it's very synthetic. It's like the sense I have to cover stuff. I just feel like no matter what I'm doing, I'm doing a bad job because there's 20 some years of stuff here and it's very hard to pull together.
But the idea is a book you would give to an undergraduate and say, "Here, this is what's going on in Russian culture. These are the debates that are happening." "Culture" here includes things like the gay propaganda law, the increasing repression of freedom of expression, the protest movements, but also internet culture, and so on and so forth. So a little bit of everything.
A.O.: This is awesome.
E.B.: I’m not enjoying it.
A.O.: This is such a huge topic.
E.B.: I know, it's crazy. There's no way for it to be satisfying. That is my advertising for this book: "There's no way this book could possibly satisfy." [Laughs].
A.O.: So what is going to happen to Russian culture, to artists, writers, and musicians? Will they be able to function in exile?
E.B.: I think what might actually happen — ironically — there was this whole thing about "Global Russians," this middle class, about 15 years ago. (I’ve been writing about that, and it really seemed to kind fizzle). But I think that in a sense this Rusophone diaspora that we now have, it's so much bigger than it was, and it might actually be a kind of global Russian culture, where — unlike the immigration, unlike the early Soviet immigration, where you were just completely cut off — because of the contemporary conditions, and the internet, and so on and so forth, I think a lot of this stuff is going to live in a diaspora that is so much better-connected than the diaspora before it.
I mean, look at Kuvaev doing Masyanya, how long has he been living in Israel? And for most people, it didn't matter where he was doing this from, because they would just go on YouTube and watch Masyanya. And that’s the sort of thing that gives me hope. And I'm still amazed they haven't blocked YouTube in Russia. So that means people can watch this stuff, right?
A.O.: But Russian culture has been so robust. Look at Nabokov and how had he managed to not only survive, but to flourish, and grow, and be incredible.
E.O.: Right, but imagine that when Nabokov was writing, his works would immediately be circulated throughout the Soviet Union fairly freely? And if you want it, you can find it now. So that's a difference.
Natan Sharansky (Hebrew: נתן שרנסקי; Russian: Натан Щаранский; Ukrainian: Натан Щаранський) is a Soviet dissident and later Israeli politician, human rights activist and author who spent nine years in Soviet prisons as a refusenik during the 1970s and 1980s.
Dariya Dontsova (Russian: Дарья Донцова) is a Russian writer of the "ironic detective story" genre. For many years Dontsova topped the Russian book sales lists.
Public Offerings: MMM and the Marketing of Melodrama by Eliot Borenstein in Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex, and Society since Gorbachev.
Duke University Press, 1999.