Buzz, buzz, go the brass electrodes as the flesh begins to peel…
May 5, 2011
The Putin Style
Once, as I was walking along the Arbat after a discussion of Lacan’s ideas on the inevitable splitting of the human subject, I looked up and saw an enormous banner. In counterpoint to my own thoughts, the characters represented on the banner were marked by a perfect wholeness — and an equally perfect deadness.
A young man and young woman, both of them blond and beautiful, stand against a backdrop of neoclassical architecture. The girl is a figure skater, the boy, a snowboarder, and behind each of them is a snow-white sculpture of the appropriate sex, engaged in the corresponding sport. These statues as it were complete the mission of transforming man into cold, sterile perfection. Snow-capped mountain peaks are visible on the horizon.
There are many of these banners in Moscow now. They are part of the advertising campaign for Gorki Gorod, a resort town under construction in Krasnaya Polyana for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The project is a public-private partnership: Sberbank has a 25% stake in the project, and its partners include the cities of Krasnodar and Sochi. The advertisement was executed by Doping-Pong, a Petersburg “art group” (this is how they identify themselves). Doping-Pong is primarily a group of designers who work on commission, but they see themselves as major artists and adherents of Petersburg neoacademism. As Dmitry Mishenin, the group’s leader, told me, “Doping-Pong are in fact neoclassicists, the genuine heirs of beauty in Russian art.” Neoacademism’s fatal seriousness almost reaches the level of the grotesque in this conceit. However, as Mishenin himself admits, Timur Novikov, the leader of neoacademism, “cursed [him, Mishenin] before his death [in 2002].”
As everyone knows, the entourage of the president and prime minister are from Petersburg. Judging by new construction in Strelna [a suburb of Petersburg whose pompously restored Constantine Palace was the site of the 2006 G8 Summit] and other projects, we can surmise that this adherence to the “traditions of beauty” (to pluck an expression from the arsenal of the neoacademists) is to the liking of these folks who hail from the capital of Russian classicism. Like the design of its advertisements, the architectural commission for Gorki Gorod has been entrusted to two Petersburgers who are likewise neoclassicists — Mikhail Filippov and Maxim Atayants. Gorki Gorod is, at present, the largest of Filippov’s projects that will, apparently, be implemented.
However, beauty comes in different shapes, and even neoclassical beauty can have various ideological shades. Exactly what kind of beauty do the designers of the advertisement imagine themselves to be heirs of? Doping-Pong’s current creations are reminiscent of Nazi posters for the 1936 Olympics, official painting in the Third Reich, the sculptures of Arno Breker, and scenes from Leni Riefensthal’s films: the upward-turned gaze detached from the lower world, the Aryan statuesque beauty, the warrior-like bearing. Perhaps it is no accident that the project’s architects have themselves equated Krasnaya Polyana with an Alpine village.
However, in terms of architecture, Gorki Gorod is more likely to trigger memories of Stalinist ensembles in the minds of Russians, and in the video clip for the project we seen an enormous reproduction of an Alexander Deyneka painting placed on one of the walls of the town. But these are Stalinist ensembles that simultaneously imitate an old European mountain town: here, [faux-]historical stratifications are even reproduced in the juxtapositions of the buildings. All of this generates the scenery for a kind of averaged totalitarian style. The ubiquitous classical orders, the symmetrical plazas, and the axial street plan (one of whose compositional centers is an Orthodox church) reinforce the notion of a normalized beautiful life. The architecture only hints at all this, whereas the advertisement is maximally frank: it shows that preference has been given to the style of German (and, partly, Italian) fascism as something more European, more modernistically pure and attractive in comparison with the Asiatic, clumsily outdated, native Stalinist style.
All this might seem like conjecture were it not for the revelations made by the designers and architects. Here is a quotation from an interview with Atayants: “If everything works out, then in ten or fifteen years, when the trees grow a little, you’ll find old-timers who will say that this town has always been here. They’ll say that Krasnaya Polyana sprang up right here, and that Stalin visited the place. Such people will turn up, and that will be highest compliment for me and for all of us.” In a questionnaire published on the Italian web site Pigmag.com, when asked the question, “Who is Stalin?” Mishenin replied, with obvious sympathy, “The Fuehrer and Russian Il Duce.” Among other things, Doping-Pong’s web site is adorned with images of swastikas, and one of the group’s latest project is a series of erotic photographs in which the heroine, Fa (a young woman wearing a swastika-emblazoned t-shirt) wrestles with Antifa (another young woman) in a boxing ring (they’re naked, of course). In the end, Fa wins the bout and wraps herself in the Nazi flag. Another person who collaborates with the web site is commercial illustrator Katya Zashtopik — a pretty young thing who, from the looks of it, has publicly confessed her love for Hitler and Nazism, and whom the national-socialist community awarded a swastika-emblazoned ring for “propaganda of Nazi ideas.”
The designers of Doping-Pong assert on their web site that they “have been working for a long time, [work] very expensively, and are always right because they are the best.” This means that they are confident that the Nazi style sells well. Moreover, the patina of the totalitarian style makes a product more sellable. On the banner in question, there are two statues depicted in the background, but they are different: whereas the young woman on skates is a direct quotation from the world of Stalinist aesthetics, the snowboarder is a reference from a completely different context — contemporary mass media and advertising photos (such statues don’t exist in reality). But thanks to the marble (albeit illustrated marble), this advertising for winter sports is ennobled and raised to the level of high culture. And prices rise along with it.
This appeal to purchase real estate is primarily addressed to the younger generation, the children of the current elite. The choice of European fascism over Russian Stalinism thus has a purely commercial significance: the former is more attractive to the target audience. The associations with the Alps are likewise obligatory: they make the old Sochi-area resort capable of competing with Switzerland.
But there is also a more complex line of thinking behind all this: Stalinist (“Caucasian”) totalitarianism must become genuinely colonialist, colonialist in the western (and not Soviet) sense. In the quasi-historic development that Filippov has designed for the site and in Atayants’s dream of “old-timers” who perceive its architecture as native, dreams of reformatting history and re-educating the population with architecture shine through. Although Atayants does mention Stalin, the approach here is not at all Stalinist (that is, “national in form, socialist in content” — OpenSpace), and the advertisement is, once again, much more frank about this: the fact that this is being built in the Caucasus — not in some abstract mountains, and not in the Alps — is ignored. In the illustrations and video clips for the project we see the white-skinned proprietors of this world, the colonizers; we do not see any Circassian girls with vases on their heads dancing on command, as in Stalinist friezes. In its standardized classicism, the architecture also reminds us of a city of colonizers. It is worth noting that, in another interview, Atayants says, “Petersburg is a purely colonial European city on Russian soil.” He goes on to complain that its population has the same attitude to architecture as the inhabitants of Algeria and Libya have displayed since the countries were liberated from colonialism: they do not understand the virtues of the French- or Mussolini-era buildings and ruin them with their own utilitarian modifications. Atayants also quotes [Moscow architecture critic] Grigory Revzin, who said that “the Russian powers that be are always engaged in colonizing their own territory.” Atayants apparently believes that they should continue this colonization.
I was being ironic, of course, when I titled this article “The Putin Style”: the powers that be do not have the moxie to produce a major style that would be analogous to what Boris Groys has dubbed “the Stalin style.” The Stalinist period was utterly theatricalized: it was presented as a spectacle in which the entire nation were participants. Nowadays, such a synthesis is also taking shape, but on a minor stage. This stage is not secured by political power and certainly not by the myth of complicity in a great cause, but rather by money and the pleasure it brings. Gorki Gorod is a project for the elites, and as if in affirmation of its elitism, the project has been situated amidst mountain tops. The name itself, Gorki, also refers to the president’s official suburban residence and the [eponymous] village on the Rublevskoye Highway [outside of Moscow].
The choice of an elite stage, as opposed to Stalin’s nationwide stage, is manifested in its banishment of the theme of labor, which was central for the Stalinist age. In the world of Gorki Gorod, there is no such thing as exertion. Labor goes on somewhere in the lower world: here there is only the delectation of idleness. Hence, as Atayants puts it, there is something “facile and even amusing” in the development’s architecture. And as the ad campaign demonstrates, the town’s new inhabitants and new athletes do not strain themselves: for them, sports are a pleasant pastime. None of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century treated this subject so hedonistically. The Putin regime has here hit upon its own proper note.
The new, improved “popular front,” Putin-style:
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has proposed creating a “broad popular front” ahead of Russia’s parliamentary election, in an apparent attempt to counter growing public discontent with his political party and solidify support.
Putin’s United Russia has a majority in Russia’s parliament and is the dominant party in regional legislatures and governor’s offices across the country. Polls, however, show its support declining as Russians increasingly associate the party with a corrupt bureaucracy.
Russia holds a parliamentary election in December that will set the scene for a presidential vote three months later in 2012. Putin, who stepped down as president in 2008 after serving two terms, has not said whether he will run, but his actions increasingly signal that he intends to reclaim the presidency.
Speaking Friday before hundreds of party members in the southern city of Volgograd, Putin said the new front should include not only United Russia but also other political parties, trade unions, women’s organizations, youth groups and veterans’ associations.
“It is important that everyone should have the possibility and the right not only to formulate their ideas and proposals for how best to develop Russia, but should be able to suggest their candidates, who would be able remain as independents but would be able to enter parliament on the United Russia ticket,” he said in the televised address. Party members responded with raucous applause.
The ultimate goal, as his spokesman later made clear, is to solidify support for Putin across all segments of the Russian population.
The popular front will be formed “not on the basis of the party but more likely around Putin, the author of this idea,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian reporters traveling with the prime minister.