Ten Years That Shook the World

Nearly a generation later, the 1990s are no longer simply a decade.  They are a story, a shorthand explanatory device.

The demonization of the 1990s can be found in the culture almost at random.  Let's take as our example bestselling novelist Polina Dashkova's 2004 novel The Prize ( Приз), a thriller involving talk shows, international espionage,  Russian neo-Nazis, and, of course, cold-blooded murder. In this scene, a former KGB officer-turned CIA agent-turned FSB informant is listening to a slightly stoned, gay ex-East German spy-turned-avant-garde impresario:

With baited breath, Germans followed the spectacular trials of predators and vampires.  The newspapers described the murders in the most horrible detail.  Cruelty became a kind of national narcotic.  Everything strange, perverted, and pathological was hailed, while everything normal and healthy was declared dull and boring.  Doesn't this remind you of something?  Germany after WWI and Russia after the collapse of the USSR are as alike as sisters.

"Немцы, затаив дыхание, следили за громиким судебными процессами над маньяками и вампирами. Газеты печатали самые жуткие подробности убийств.  Жестокость стала чем-то вроде общенационального наркотика.  Все странное, извращенное, патологическое приветствовалось, все нормальное, здоровое объявлялось скучным и серым.  Вам это ничего не напомниает?  Германия после Первой мировой, Россия после развала СССР, похожи как родные сестры."

To which the KGB/CIA/FSB agent replies:

In the early 90s, yes, everything in Russia was bad... but now a kind of stability has taken hold. [...] And anyway, I'm sick of all this talk about Russian nightmares, frankly.  For seventy years of Soviet power, Russians were told about the decay of Western society:  rampant unemployment, drug addiction, prostitution.  People are shooting each other on the streets, and everything is run by the Mafia.  [...] For the past fifteen years the Western media have been saying the same thing about Russia.  And Western society believes it, with a moronic earnestness.” (Dashkova, Chapter 11)

"В начале девяностых—да, в России все было плохо  [.....]но сейчас наступила некоторая стабильность.[.....]И вообще все эти разговоры о российских кошмарах мне, честно говоря, надоели.  Семьдесят лет советской власти русским рассказывали, как загнивает западное общество. Повальная безработица, наркомания, проституция.  На улицах стреляют, всем правит мафии.[.....]  Последние пятнадцать лет западные средства массовой информации то же самое говорят о России.  И западное общество верит, с тупой серьезностью."

Dashkova is exploring the pitfalls of facile historical parallels even as she indulges in them (the novel is held together by connections between Nazi Germany and Russian neo-fascism that are as mystical as they are political).  What I like about this examples is that it suggests a preoccupation with a real-time periodization of Russian history and culture, a periodization on the fly.  Dashkova's character attempts to understand the present moment not only in its immediate context (both past and future), but also in terms of historical parallels that are tantamount to value judgments. 

The Yeltsin Era, both during the 1990s and in the Putin/Medvedev years that followed,  has served as a particularly effective caricature of "Russia-on-the-brink."  Here I have in mind not the real, lived experiences of people who lost their jobs, saw their savings vanish, or became the victims or perpetrators of violent crime and sexual trafficking.  By no means do I wish to minimize their suffering, but, as I find myself saying again and again, this is not their story.  Rather, it is the story of their story, the story of their representation:  note that Dashkova's pot-smoking ex-spy deploys them only within the context of a double story:  first, that of social decay in Germany (itself a set of generalized ills to be invoked rather than a collection of specific examples), second, the equivalent phenomena in "Russia today."  Indeed, historical comparisons and fears of incipient fascism aside, and the assemblage of social ills as a list of usual suspects appears to be a continuation of what Nancy Ries identifies as a fundamental Perestroika-era speech genre:  the litany.

The demonization of an entire decade is the temporal cornerstone of Putinism, and it is one that was so often prefigured during the 90s themselves that the period's rejection looks almost like a foregone conclusion.  Thriller after thriller (most notably S. Norka’s Inquisitor novels) postulates that the only possible solution to criminal lawlessness is government lawlessness: государственный беспредел.   In Overkill, I am at great pains to emphasize that the discourse of lawlessness, criminality, and ultraviolence summed up in the Russian term беспредел, though experienced by many as reality, should not be seen as coterminous with reality. But in the Putin/Medvedev years, it is as though the vast array of horrifying products of the media/culture industry have, in a deliberately naive reading, become the reality of the 1990s now that the decade is no longer with us.  What was discursive is now true: the country was on the verge of total collapse. Just as liberals during Perestroika would repeatedly invoke the specter of Stagnation in response to any challenge to reforms, Putinists parry any critique of their system by reminding the public just how bad things were under Yeltsin, and how the danger of collapse still remains.  In the run-up to the 2012 recent presidential elections, filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov served as Putin's proxy in a televised presidential debate with Irina Prokhorova, the proxy for her brother Mikhail. When Prokhorova tried to make the case for her brother's candidacy and highlight the flaws of Putin's regime, Mikhalkov responded with categorical assertions about the fate of Russia itself:  for Mikhalkov, the choice was between Putin and the collapse of Russia. Weeks later, during his teary-eyed victory speech on election night, Putin himself declared: "We showed that our people can distinguish between the desire for renewal and a political provocation that has only one goal: to destroy Russian statehood and usurp power."

"Putin saving russia"

"Putin saving russia"


Here the demonization of the 1990s becomes a sublime rhetorical achievement.  On the one hand, the decade is still characterized as “bespredel.” Literally meaning "without limits," bespredel as lexical item follows the same trajectory as the phenomenon it purports to describe: initially localized to the criminal world (signifying criminal practices that violate the norms of "lawful" criminality), by the mid-1990s it had taken on political significance.  That is, the term itself recognizes no limits to its possible applicability.  It has become the black hole of Russian symbolic geography, a vision of Russia in which all borders (literal, behavioral, symbolic) are always approaching collapse, but never quite reaching it (ironically, like a logarithm never reaching its limit, that is, its border).

Part of the horror of bespredel is that it is understood to be pure chaos:  bad things happen because no one is in charge. Suffering is, then, all the more horrible because of its meaningless—contrary to centuries of Russian Orthodox tradition, there is nothing remotely redemptive about it. One of the clear sources of conspiracy’s appeal is that it recasts chaos as intent.  If someone is responsible for evil, then there is someone to blame (and perhaps even replace).  

The Putin-Saves-Russia narrative has it both ways: the 1990s were, quite literally, out of control.  At the same time, there are vague hints about those who may have profited from this chaos, and perhaps even had a hand in its creation.  Putinists tend to stop short of the identification of culprits that marks the full-fledged conspiracy theories that emerged from the 1990s, but they are quite happy to combine fear mongering about a return to nineties with the implication that any such return would, in fact, be the result of a plot by Russia’s enemies. 


Next Monday: The Russia We Can't Find