The Russia We Can’t Find

"Russia is no more!"

"Russia is no more!"

All of this begs the question:  what does “destroying Russia” actually mean?  Presumably, we are not talking about reducing it to radioactive dust (as Rossiia Segodnia head Dmitri Kiselyov suggested  could be America’s fate at the hands of Russia in 2014). [1] The narrative of “Russia on the brink of destruction” is less literal than it is rhetorical, and should resonate with readers in Western Europe and the United States, where demagogues routinely announce their country’s near demise in order to rally their supporters to save it (cf. Donald Trump’s constant promises to “take our country back” and “make America great again”). 

Since 1991, Russia itself seems to be undergoing a strange drama of object impermanence:  endless riffs on the sensational perestroika film title, "Россия, которую мы потерали" ("The Russia we have lost”), along with repeated invocations of гибель, крах, и конец России (the demise, downfall, and end of Russia), have played themselves out in headlines, pamphlets, and apocalyptic fiction.  At the same time in the United States, factions in and around the State Department have pointed fingers at each other, trying to resolve the burning question, "Who lost Russia?" It might seem like a cheap shot to take this question literally and respond that the country is still there, taking up prime Eurasian real estate, but the question of this "lost" or nearly-lost Russia sets the scene for the symbolic geography of the Putin era. It is as though the first two decades after the collapse of the USSR have been an elaborate variation on Freud's famous fort-da game.

For it is more than an appeal to patriotism and boosterism that explains the insistent repetitions of the country's name in post-Soviet political movements; among the parties that have come and gone in the last two decades one finds Демократическая партия России (The Democratic Party of Russia), Российская экологическая партия "Зеленые" (The Russian Ecological "Green" Party), Социалистическая единая партия России (The United Socialist Part of Russia), Российская партия пенсионеров (The Russian Party of Retirees), Российская партия жизни (The Russian Party of Life), Аграрная партия России (The Agrarian Party of Russia), Наш дом—Россия (Our Home Is Russia), Отечество—Вся Россия (The Fatherland/All Russia), and of course Единая Россия (United Russia).  In the case of the Greens and the Democrats, one can concede the need to distinguish Russia's homegrown version from the many parties throughout the globe that bear the same name, although the chances that anyone would have thought they were voting for German Greens or American Democrats in Russian elections must be slim.  Chernomyrdin's defunct "Our Home is Russia" party has the distinction of being more than a name: it's an entire sentence, and a declaration of the patently obvious (any plans to pick up stakes and move the population to, say, Spain would have been impractical).

But "Our Home is Russia" proves to be the deep structure to nearly all these party titles, precisely because of its ambiguous status as a speech act.  On the surface, it is an entirely constative statement, the patriotic equivalent of that favorite example of English-speaking linguists, "the cat it is on the mat":  it is either true or false.  But the very banality of this phrase (“Our home is Russia") as a truth statement suggests that its greater locutionary value is as a performative utterance.  But what does it perform? It performs the circular function of (re)affirming the country's existence and the population's residency in it.  It does what nearly all these Russia-affirming parties' names do: provide an opportunity to say the country's name and thereby, once again, confirm its existence.  More than merely patriotic, these party names are phatic.  And in some cases, they are also deliberately proleptic, as if they are trying to call into existence a desired state of affairs, as in an incantation or magic spell.  Nearly all the parties I have listed merged with each other or swallowed each other up, becoming the ruling party whose name is the antithesis (and perhaps antidote) to the post-Soviet anxieties over a lost or fractured Russia:  Единая Россия (United Russia).

It is here that any considerations of post-Soviet symbolic geography threaten to collapse, due to a conflict of terms from overlapping traditions.  "Symbolic geography" suggests the ways in which geographical notions and conventions create a discourse about the country that is eventually unmoored from actual physical geography.  In the Russian case, for example, Anne Lounsbery has been doing impressive work on the provinces as a symbolic geographical category that defines everything out of the capitals as absence or void.  But when we look at the names of these Russian parties, in the context of a decades-long discourse of Russian loss, they appear in Lacanian terms to be an Imaginary solution to a Symbolic problem.  These are Russias whose primary function is the assertion of an identity, rather than a framework for understanding what that identity might signify.  It doesn't matter what Russia is, but whatever it is, it is whole, integral, and extant. These are Russias that are not up for discussion, only for affirmation.

These imaginary Russias both facilitate and result from an equally imaginary model of sovereignty.  Sovereignty (and its close cousin, statehood (государственность) is the lens through which the Putin regime looks at Russia, a framework that suggests a particular set of solutions. "Sovereignty" is something of a curse word in contemporary cultural studies, uttered with a venom surpassed only by that accompanying the word "neoliberal."  Sovereignty and statehood are an imaginary, rather than a symbolic, geography: they confuse the social constructs of borders and citizenship with the pre-discursive world on which they are built.  For example, Peter Nyers, in his intriguing study Rethinking Refugees: Beyond States of Emergency, argues that the refugee exists only as a function of state sovereignty:  in the absence of a border/citizenship regime, refugee status is irrelevant and unthinkable.  The modern nation state assumes sovereignty as a matter of course, but Russia (which, you may recall, we had lost), would make sovereignty something of a fetish object. 

It is, of course, an accident of history that Putin's turn to sovereignty as a substitute for an idea should coincide with the Western academic Left's rediscovery of sovereignty as a bete noire.  Scholars in cultural studies have had their attention turned to sovereignty largely by the work of Giorgio Agamben, whose books Homo Sacer and The State of Exception build on Foucault's ideas of biopolitics as a way to define precisely how the sovereign state operates. Central to his critique is his use of Carl Schmitt's definition of sovereignty as the power to declare the state of exception (that is, to suspend the rules that supposedly constitute power), and also to distinguish between "civic" or "qualified" life (the Greek zoe, here the political life of the citizen) and bios ("bare" life, the human being as nothing but a living body).  The modern state has become particularly preoccupied with the deployment of bodies (from the Nazi concentration camps at one extreme to the seemingly innocuous collection of biometric data on the other), thus making "bare life" a central component of the state's operations.  While there is no doubt that the sovereign state under Putin exerts its biopower in multiple fashions (army conscription being an obvious one), Putin's notion of sovereignty was curiously divorced from sovereign operations on the population.  Instead, we have a kind of "bare sovereignty," but might just as well be termed "phatic sovereignty,"  "autochthonous sovereignty," or even "performative sovereignty":  sovereignty whose entire purpose is sovereignty itself. Instead of a state ideology (as in the USSR), there is an ideology of statehood.   Again, this approach to sovereignty belongs, in Lacanian terms, to the Imaginary Order.  This is not a cultural space to be discussed, articulated, or contested: for Putin, it is the country's Ego Ideal.


Next:  Bare Sovereignty: Ideology's Event Horizon


[1] See my article "Dystopias and Catastrophe Tales after Chernobyl" in Evgeny Dobrenko and Mark Lipovetsky (eds.).  Russian Literature since 1991. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 86-103.