But what as the Eye of Sauron kerfuffle really about? If we take the Svechenie art group’s spokesman at his word, the last thing they had in mind was politics. If that is the case, then Svechenie is displaying a shocking geopolitical naiveté. Nothing says “Evil Empire” like the Eye of Sauron.
True, other upstart Dark Lords have made a name for themselves since Tolkien first wrote The Lord of the Rings. Presumably, Darth Vader’s genocidal home base would have been an equally powerful symbol, but Death Stars, like old Soviet color televisions, have an unfortunate tendency to explode. And as for Voldemort, even He Who Must Not Be Named trembles before the might of J.K. Rowling’s legal team.
Nor can this be patronizingly chalked up to a local culture’s misunderstanding of an imported work of art. If anything, The Lord of the Rings is one of those foreign classics that has so permeated the culture as to have become all but Russian. As someone who long ago found himself reading John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga and Astrid Lindgren’s Karlsson-on-the Roof to remedy embarrassing gaps in his knowledge of Russian culture, I truly believe this is not an overstatement.
Indeed, I find it difficult not to view the entire Eye of Sauron affair as a postmodernist prank. A tale of the forces of Light fighting the armies of Darkness, The Lord of the Rings easily lends itself to allegorical readings. Tolkien created the better part of his secondary fantasy world during World War II, allowing simple connections to be drawn between Mordor and fascism. But, as Michael Moorcock shows in his classic takedown of British pastoral fantasy “Epic Pooh,” the implications of the triumph over evil, dark-skinned hordes by pasty-faced hobbits and porcelain-skinned Elves are disturbing.
So projecting the All-Seeing Eye of Sauron over the capital of a country that is developing a reputation for xenophobia and excessive media surveillance could seem like a rather pointed political statement. But if we throw Gogol into the mix of our wandering body parts, perhaps the Eye of Sauron is a bit too “on the nose”? Especially since the most active venue for deconstructing The Lord of the Rings’ political implications is none other than Russia itself.
Though an official, complete Russian translation of The Lord of the Rings would only appear in 1992, numerous Russian-language manuscripts of the trilogy had been circulating in samizdat since the 1960s. While the danger of being caught with an an unauthorized edition of The Two Towers could not reasonably be compared with the possession of, say, The Gulag Archipelago, Tolkien’s unofficial circulation certainly added to his work’s subcultural mystique. And if The Lord of the Rings had become the model for epic fantasy in the West, its centrality would only be greater in a literary environment that was largely inhospitable to elves.