The Zombies of Postsocialism

If zombies are such a powerful locus for anxieties about subjectivity and selfhood in the mass-culture, consumer-fixated landscape of postmodern late capitalism (itself an apocalyptic term if I ever heard one),  what do we make of the postsocialist zombie?  The zombie metaphor is alive and shambling in Russia as well, though one could argue it comes to the former Soviet Union second- or third-hand.  Third-hand, in that it comes from American movies, which themselves are a transformation of the Voodoo zombie.  Second hand, in that the myth is somewhat more directly refreshed with references to Haitian practices (as in Victor Pelevin’s essay “Zombification.”)  

As we shall see, the postsocialist zombie is harder to pin down with our assorted discursive pitchforks, because the postsocialist zombie does not exist. Obviously, the zombies of contemporary Western entertainment are not real either, but they are fully imagined and imaginable. In the Russian Federation, once can certainly find the occasional zombie story that is not simply a translation or adaptation (my particular favorite example is an anthology entitled “А зомби здесь тихие…” (“The Zombies Are Quiet Here”), also the title of a much-maligned web series produced by regional Russian televion); last year, Sergei Lukyanenko, best known for his hit “Night Watch” series of novels and films, tried his hand at the zombie genre with novel called “ Квази” (“Quasi”), a twist on the "buddy cop” trope pairing up a human police officer with a sentient zombie colleague.  

By and large, however, the postsocialist zombie is less an imaginary creature than it is a state of mind.  This, too, would sound paradoxical, particularly given our earlier distinction between the ghost as self without a body and the zombie as the body without a self.  As it turns out, the zombie metaphor in contemporary Russian discourse is deployed quite differently.  As in the West, zombies are the product of contagion, but along a completely different disease vector.  Russian discourse is less concerned with the zombie as thing than it is with zombie as process:  not zombies, but zombification.  

Western zombies are the threat of the Other (even if one might see oneself reflected in the Other’s empty eye sockets).  These zombies will destroy you.  In Russia, the anxiety is different: the zombie will become you.  Russian zombification is not about the perils of commodity capitalism, even after commodity capitalism becomes imaginable as part of Russian everyday experience.  Rather, Russian zombification is primarily about the relationship between mass media and audience: zombification occurs when the viewer's or consumer’s consciousness becomes colonized or hijacked thanks to media input. 

Zombification (зомбирование) is almost always a a metaphor when deployed in contemporary Russian cultural and political debates, but it is a metaphor that reveals a great deal about the crisis of  selfhood in the post-Soviet space; we might call it the “ undeath of the subject."  To invoke zombification is to posit a particular anthropology, based on largely unspoken but also widely shared conceptions of the boundaries of selfhood and the power of media and propaganda.

Zombification only makes sense even as a shorthand if one is willing to believe in the overwhelming power of media input and the helpless passivity of the media consumer.  In turn, invoking zombification is inevitably a political gesture, a statement about the relationship between the governing and the governed.  A reification of the Russian governmental “power vertical,” zombification dooms the Russian audience to an inner life impoverished by constant manipulation that brooks little resistance.  And, as Russian-language discussions of the events in Ukraine show, the willingness to invoke zombification as an explanation is a sign that nearly all sides in Russia’s political debates are speaking a common language when it comes to politics and subjectivity:  no one has any faith in the population’s ability to evaluate media messages. 

As we shall see, zombification is the culmination of years of pseudoscientific discussion of mind control and conspiratorial manipulation, whose roots go back ironically to the Cold War, and to American anxieties that imported and distorted proclamations of Soviet subjectivity and reforging as a myth of mind control: the brainwashing debate.  

Russia imports the idea of brainwashing in the early nineties, initially as both “зомбирование” and “кодирование” (coding), when activists associated with the Russian Orthodox Church appropriate the scholarship of the Western anti-cult movement in their fight against so-called “totalitarian sects.”  As the culprits behind zombification proliferate, and return to their association with governmental and national actors, the notion that people can be easily brainwashed ultimately renders the concept of free speech moot.  Speak all you want; virtually no one is capable of listening. 


Next: The Zombie Diet Plan