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  • Post-Soviet Subjectivity in Arkadii Dragomoshchenko and Ilya Kabakov
  • Barrett Watten

While it has often been said that since the purported “fall of communism” the Soviet Union has become in reality a collection of Third World countries with nuclear weapons and a subway system, this is an untruth. It is the “Second World”—and what is that?

(Watten, in Davidson, 23)

Subjectivity is not the basis for being a Russian person. . . . “Protestants,” said Arkadii, “go to church to mail a letter to God, the church, it’s like a post office. The Orthodox church—the building is not symbolic—it is considered to be the real body of God, and Orthodox people too are God because they are together here, not alone, and speaking, by the way, has nothing to do with it.”

(Hejinian, in ibid., 34–35)

The break-up of official culture, even the “official/unofficial” dialectic that was a part of it, in the Soviet Union led to aesthetic developments characterized by an intense, utopian, and metaphysically speculative subjectivity that I am going to call “post-Soviet” even if it had its origins in earlier periods. Beginning in the 1960s with the optimistic horizons prior to the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, extending through the Brezhnev “era of stagnation” of the 1970s with its fully articulated counterculture, through the opening to the West and the influence of emigration in the 1980s, a series of these developments anticipate their reception as “postmodern culture” in the West. Identifying these “post-Soviet” developments with postmodernism would be to misunderstand them, however; as poet Dmitrii Prigov has said of the Moscow conceptual art of the 1970s, “When [Western conceptualism] entered our part of the world, [it] discovered the total absence of any idea of the object and its inherent qualities or of any hint whatsoever of fetishism” (12). The subsequent valorization of Andy Warhol would have has yet-to-be-determined (though not unimaginable) consequences; so the “Women Admirers of Jeff Koons Club” I encountered in Leningrad in 1989 would be the sign of an emerging feminism as much as an acceptance of the Reagan-era consumerism of Koons’s work. Even the culture of Russian modernism, refracted through Western connoisseurship, has been reinter- preted in the new post-Soviet context in a way discontinuous with its historical origins. In order to understand these developments as not simply the colonization of Western postmodernism, it will be necessary to develop models for Second World discourses of subjectivity. A prospective conclusion is that contemporary post-Soviet culture, once it has expanded to integrate both unofficial and international influences, does not simply mean an uncritical embrace of Western postmodernism but reveals a post-Soviet “subjectivity” that is not simply reducible to the various national identities now contesting the ground of the former Soviet state. I see aspects of this subjectivity in Moscow conceptual art, originating in the 1970s and producing internationally recognized figures such as Komar and Melamid, Erik Bulatov, and Ilya Kabakov, and in the 1980s “meta” literature from Moscow and Leningrad, now being translated in the West, exemplified by poets Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Ivan Zhdanov, Alexei Parshchikov, Ilya Kutik, and Nadezhda Kondakova.

A Metapoetics of Memory

Arkadii Dragomoshchenko’s poetry, it was said, “is unlike anything else being written in the Soviet Union today” (Molnar, 7), and direct observation bears this out. At the Leningrad “Summer School” of 1989, Dragomoshchenko was unique in abandoning the (often complex) metrical forms and performative theatricality that, however inflected by skewed and difficult sound patterns and semantics, look back to a precedent “classical tradition . . . as in the Acmeism of Akhmatova or early Mandelstam, [which] stood for heroically distanced emotion and a European cultural intertext” but which often led to poetic norms reduced to “ruthless metricality and relentless rhyming” (Molnar, 10). Dragomoshchenko read his poems as if they were written texts rather than oral presentations of cultural memory embodied in the poet as much as in the poet’s rhymes—unlike Ivan Zhdanov, who declaimed the highly wrought language of his richly textured and difficult lyrics as if ab eterno, directly from memory, to great effect. One listener afterward complained to Dragomoshchenko, “What you are doing isn’t...

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