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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The Olympics and... new imperialism

Russian neototalitarianism has entered a new, more mature phase of its development. How it threatens Ukraine?
11 February, 2014 - 11:53

The Sochi Olympics’ opening ceremony has shaken the world. This is no exaggeration. It has shaken the global Russian community to even greater extent. Doctor Boris Gordon, now living in Canada and oft-quoted by me, described accurately the current developments in Russia and in the Russian diaspora, as well as their significance for Vladimir Putin:

“By the way, it seems that the Sochi Games and their coverage were also very good at splitting society, producing hysterical seizures and fits of anger. Almost simultaneously, Izvestia published two openly provocative texts, contributed by Mikhail Shakhnazarov and Maksim Kantor which could be summarized thus: ‘Hooray, we have had the most spectacular ceremony ever, Konstantin Ernst has trounced you all, Putin wins, liberals are in deep shit.’ Both texts swept through social networks, and prompted a natural response: ‘It is bloody Olympics, district hospitals are cold and in disrepair, your Nikita Mikhalkov is an asshole, your Alina Kabaeva is a monster, and we do not believe what your TV is showing us. This caused a reciprocal wave of anger: ‘I always knew you to be a Smerdyakov [Fyodor Dostoevsky’s amoral character. – Ed.], but I love my country, and will not allow it to be offended. It has been getting worse as it goes on. Friends quarrel, unfriendings on social networks turned to real-life total alienations.

Agitprop can drink champagne to its success, because when people are putting all their strength into hitting each other and are convulsing in anger, there is no need for riot police. Public has been neutralized, it is not capable of an attempt to comprehend anything, much less a meaningful action.”

In fact, critical assessment of the ceremony is limited to statements that the usual cliches – Russian bath, vodka, accordion and salmon – were discarded. It was entirely dominated by Russian Modernism and avant-garde. Progressive community states it with restrained joy or hissing, that they again offered an import version of Russia, with Kasimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky reserved for the West, while Russians had to make do with Ivan Shishkin and Ivan Aivazovsky. We can extend that opposition, comparing Igor Stravinsky to Georgy Sviridov, and Yuriy Norshteyn to Nikita Mikhalkov. It would get us to nowhere, though, because studying hissing is a poor reason to even switch one’s computer on. Trying to understand objects of admiration looks like a much more productive path.


Let us start with statements of those who were delighted with it all. For example, Olga Soldatova, a known art figure, posted on Facebook (I reprint it here without editing and proofreading):

“Besides Ernst, my thanks go to two Russians and a brilliant team of foreigners who have created the opening ceremony:

Andrei Boltenko – chief director of the First TV Channel and director of the ceremony;

James Lee – technical director, known for his work in London in 2012, specializes in suspension designs;

Georgy Tsypin – chief scenery artist who worked in the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, the Bolshoi Theater;

Sylvia Hayes – director, known for staging major items at Circus Shangai;

Phil Hayes – aerial gymnastics choreographer, director of air show in London in 2012;

Nathan Rai – choreographer, director of items in musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Mamma Mia;

Shana Carroll – choreographer, director at Cirque du Soleil;

Natalie Simrad – chief makeup artist at Cirque du Soleil

Kim Barrett – costume and show designer at Cirque du Soleil, known also for his work in Spider-Man, Three Kings, and Cloud Atlas.”

When one wants to produce something exportable, one imports specialists from abroad. Putinist agitprop achieved yet another success, because it was adequate to the nature of the socio-political system it promotes.

Yes, again and again we come back to the present regime’s abandonment of articulated ideology and staking its approval and promotion on its success in the mass culture field. One cannot help but see the connection between the Sochi show and the ongoing assault on science and culture in Russia. It is definitely an assault, nothing less would be an appropriate description. Popular culture cannot replace an ideology, but it can debase to its level everything that is made under conditions of ideological pluralism. The content is not important, one may say whatever one wants. What is important is quality of presentation.

At the beginning of Putin’s rule, I described the situation thus: “Popular culture, as we know, does not produce values. It replicates them. Ideologeme normally comes before mythologeme, but post-Soviet mass culture mythologemes come from themselves. Clear and distinct ideologies that would articulate consciously adopted and hierarchically structured system of social values are absent.”

This very substitution was the basis for the positioning of Putin’s Russia in the world, which was shown at the ceremony in Sochi the mythologeme having nothing behind it. But it does not matter. World famous masters of mass culture brought tears of delight from billion-strong audience, and nullified the efforts of a handful of intellectuals in Russia and the world, who want to understand what is happening in Russia.

The opening ceremony marked a new step in overcoming logocentrism of previous years. Now it came to the global level. Inside Russia, it has already happened. Russian neototalitarianism has entered a new, more mature phase of development. Now we can talk about a fundamental, qualitative difference from the classical totalitarianism which was logocentric, a departure from logocentrism which became evident when it became clear that the verbal criticism draws much less attention than participation in mass protests. To be more precise, we are talking about acceptable behavior in a particular niche, with a certain status. What is legitimate for Jove, is not legitimate for the ox: the criticism of government allowed for journalists, but unthinkable for officials. That is, it is not word, meaning and content of statements which means most, but one’s behavior, correlated with status.

The current Russian neototalitarianism is more serious, dangerous and deeper than the logocentric one was. It resembles barbarism more than in Soviet time, when people involved in verbal production were either made courtiers or declared enemies of the regime, sometimes changing the status between these two extremes. Courtiers and political strategists Gleb Pavlovsky and Vladislav Surkov were building classical totalitarianism of the earlier kind, but suddenly found themselves simply not needed. New, higher grade of neototalitarianism devalues work of loyal and opposition intellectuals alike.

Russian neototalitarianism has not defeated the logos, as this is not possible, the Judeo-Christian civilization is not to be defeated so easily. It overcame the logos in one country. Consequences for this country are almost clear. One of them is that it is now a danger to world civilization. And this danger will only grow.

The Sochi ceremony had two major features. These were its special kind of historicism and what can be called the new Russian imperialism. There is not enough space here to cover both themes. New imperialism is worthy of a special discussion, but I will cover here and now the special historical consciousness at its base.

One of the components of ongoing abolition of education is creation of a new concept of the history of Russia. Connection between this assault and the Sochi ceremony has already been noted. Continuing this argument, I will say that we have seen the classic pagan mythologemes of creation of the world, the golden age, the culture hero (Peter the Great), troubles and misfortunes, epic wars. And all this is only the beginning of the great reign we are living under and a new “Russian world.” It is the starting step of the new imperialism, stated at the outset of the new Russian alphabet.

Now to continue on the new historicism. Cyclicity of Russian history is obvious, the absence of progressive historical development of Russia has been mentioned more than once. However, this is the view of neutral researcher. In Sochi, we have been demonstrated the barbaric historical consciousness, in which there are no history as such. Whatever significant historical event one mentions, it is perceived as happening here and now. This is best seen regarding the history of World War II, as Russian politicians still live in this epic and live these myths.

And that is why any national movement in Ukraine will be treated as Nazi-Banderites. The same applies to the Baltic countries.

One of the most important consequences of the ceremony is mobilization of a significant part of the Russian diaspora, with Putin and his policies now very popular in this milieu. But here we come again to the new imperialism, with its countdown arguably starting at the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics.