“Come down and see our shows — we’re premiering some new pieces,” the voice chirps cheerfully down the phone. A theatre’s press office touting a show no one needs or wants — a fairly standard story for a journalist, but something has changed. It wasn’t long ago that they were touting space fantasies jam-packed with hi-tech gizmos and spider-men. “The first show,” he says, “explores our great history, our traditions, our faith…”
“And the second,” I chime in, “the second show’s about war?”
Got it in one. No need to be a clairvoyant to work that one out.
These days, all of Russia’s theatres are sure to have something “about war” in their repertoire. Up until very recently, you’d normally find the word “war” being used in a figurative sense. “War of the sexes”, for example, or “war on clothes moths”. But 2015 marked 70 years since the end of the Second World War, with a plethora of events dedicated to the anniversary. Suddenly, the word was everywhere. “There’s a national war on”, “war and us”, “war in the destiny of the poet”, “the unknown war”, the war in photographs”, on placards, in documents. Birds in wartime, wartime steam-trains. The phrases melt away, a single word reverberating in your mind — war. You get the sense that its use is now mandatory in official culture. It’s a word that resonates powerfully, especially for Russians: the millions of victims, the colossal tragedy of it all, the victory that came at such a heavy price — everything still lingers in national memory.
On the eve of Victory Day, the largest bookshop in Moscow sports a huge stand piled with books written by the current minister of culture; these are surrounded by military paraphernalia such as helmets, mess tins, garrison caps, binoculars, Second World War-era greatcoats, and flanked by vases of wildflowers. It’s reminiscent of an ancient sarcophagus brimming with the pharaoh’s prized earthly possessions.
We shouldn’t assume that the people who thought up this stand had simply gone mad and succumbed to TV propaganda. On the contrary, their motives are perfectly rational. They’ve been taught by the Soviet era that the need to prove your loyalty to the boss always trumps professionalism. “War,” the boss has said. Which means that the word will be parroted until the boss says something new. The game can be dubbed postmodern, but people play it seriously. Those who work in public cultural institutions (90 per cent of museums, libraries and cultural centres are state-subsidised) understand only too well that the word “war” is now a mandatory dress code of sorts. Managers of private shops and institutions prop up the game as well.
The more primitive the ritual of loyalty, the more likely it’ll be correctly interpreted. And so the word “war” booms from every TV set and every bookshelf. Mind you, they deliberately neglect to specify that it’s the Second World War they’re talking about. It’s no longer a question of a specific historical event, but “war in general” as a condition of the soul. “Questions posed by war” was one of the five essay topics for 2014’s School State Exam, a nationwide examination for final-year school students: “Some particular war, or war in general?” journalists asked a Culture Ministry official. “In general,” he replied. “War as such. The impact of war on people’s destinies, war as a means of making moral choices.”
The Nashetsvie rock festival has featured military-sporting events for several years now. This year, however, they virtually overshadowed the festival itself. Many rock musicians don’t seem to feel the incongruity of it all, singing songs of freedom while surrounded by armoured vehicles, their performances punctuated by the roar of fighter jets. “This is our Woodstock,” wrote well-known journalist Oleg Kashin, his words laced with bitter irony.
This psychosis culminated in an announcement on a certain TV channel last summer: “On 4am on June 22, the all-Russian rally ‘Arise, Great Country’ will be held live on air. [...] We’ll be screening war reports from 1941, and at 04:00, the start of the Great Patriotic War will be announced. The uneasy atmosphere of the war’s early days will be recreated in the streets, which will be filled with military equipment, radio repeaters announcing the start of the war, and soldiers heading to the front. We invite all non-indifferent individuals to join us. Victory will be ours!”
This isn’t hysteria, it’s pragmatism. Everyone in Russia understands and complies with the code of loyalty
Not surprisingly, this year has witnessed the rise of a fashion for t-shirts emblazoned with the image of a uniformed, sunglassed Putin and bearing the caption “The Politest of Men”. They’re sold at airports and major shopping centres. Given Putin’s popularity in Russia, you could get seriously rich selling these souvenirs. No crowds of people throng around them, however. Paradoxically enough, it’s Putin himself we must thank for the lack of demand for such items. He doesn’t want a cult of personality — he’s said as much on numerous occasions. The regime strives to keep even manifestations of emotion on a tight rein. It’s genuinely not a cult of personality, and it’s not a business thing. It’s a ritual used by businesspeople to protect themselves. Which is exactly what motivates the actions of a private souvenir dealer in the small town of Ples on the Volga: a Putin t-shirt is displayed in a prominent spot in his stall, the better to protect it, for a limited time at least, from inspections, rivals and police. This isn’t hysteria, it’s pragmatism. Everyone in Russia understands and complies with the code of loyalty.
There is, however, another side to the story. Russian cultural figures prefer to seek the absolute – some magic ring of omnipotence that will endow them with power. And they’ve found it. The cult of power. The cult of war. The cult of the Father, incarnated in the figure of the head of state. By recognising these as absolutes, and drawing strength from them, you become more powerful yourself. The famous rapper Timati recently released a song referencing “my best friend President Putin”. This is no forced show of loyalty to the leader, as would have been the case in the 1930s, when all artists were obliged to write paeans to their “beloved Stalin”. What we have here is a pop artist voluntarily undertaking to write a song about the president because the world in which he has found himself is too complex, too multifarious. He finds the complexity frightening and seeks protection from it. And it’s President Putin who will protect him from every danger, every difficulty. The singer hails Putin as both friend and master — a perception shared by the majority of Russians.
The result of this is paradoxical: the use of powerful words such as “war” in official propaganda, as well as the manipulation of powerful notions, does not by any means render people morally stronger. Quite the contrary: people become desensitised to them. This leads, paradoxically enough, to the devaluation of all words, and to a disappointment in all values.
It’s a kind of moral sabotage. People grow accustomed to the fact that all meanings and emotions can be imposed on them by the state, and that tomorrow’s meanings and emotions won’t be the same as today’s; the bitterest enemies of yesterday (the “Kiev junta”) might simply vanish from screens and airwaves, to be replaced by others tomorrow. And these are enemies that people simultaneously believe and disbelieve in – that’s a complexity inherent in the current situation, and one that sets it apart from a potential totalitarian scenario. People play this game for the immediate benefits, their behaviour motivated by the need to conform and stemming from their lack of self-confidence. What could happen in Russia tomorrow? Anything at all. Whatever the TV, or the boss, says will happen. The ultimate upshot of the propaganda onslaught is the void it’s begetting in the human heart, coupled with a willingness to fill that void with whatever’s at hand.