- Viktor Pelevin and Literary Postmodernism in Post-Soviet Russia
Back to the USSR?
Postmodernism rose to prominence on the ruins of utopia, the utopia in question being the Soviet one. Of course, the disintegration of the USSR occurred later than the formation of postmodernism as a cultural dominant (variously dated to the 60s, the 70s, or even the early 80s). But there is no doubt that disillusionment with the Soviet experiment contributed to what Fredric Jameson called the “incapacity to imagine Utopia” as a significant feature of Western postmodernism (Archaeologies 293). In his 1994 book, The Seeds of Time, Jameson laments “what has vanished from the post-modern scene,” which is the distinct “Second World culture” whose distance from “commodity fetishism” made it into a viable alternative to global capitalism (Seeds xvi–xvii). According to him, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, this alternative has been foreclosed and postmodernism now reigns supreme over the increasingly homogenous cultural landscape. From this point of view, Russian postmodernism is a Western import, an imposition of the “cultural logic of global capitalism” upon the erstwhile socialist country.
It is true that the rise of postmodernism in Russia coincided with the end of Communism. In the spring of 1991 a conference on postmodernism took place in [End Page 309] the Literary Institute in St. Petersburg and after that, with Soviet censorship removed, the trend became the cultural dominant almost overnight. Acknowledging this coincidence, Russian literary scholar Mikhail Epstein has an explanation for it that is radically at odds with Jameson’s. He argues that rather than being a Western alternative to the “Second World culture,” postmodernism is a direct continuation of it: “I believe that the similarity between postmodernism and Communism is not accidental; the two represent two phases of the same ideological and aesthetic project in Russia” (68).1
This striking claim implies that Russian postmodernism, despite superficial similarity to its Western counterpart, is in fact an expression of a different social, political, and cultural dynamic. Perhaps the homogenizing capacity of global capitalism has been exaggerated; perhaps the “cultural logic” of post-Soviet Russia depends as much on the unresolved issues of its national history and identity as it does on the more familiar processes of market economy and technological development. If indeed utopian disillusionment has been foundational to postmodernism, the country whose attempt to build a utopia resulted in a national catastrophe has experienced this disillusionment in a different way than those watching from the outside.
In this paper I will argue that what Foucault calls “the epistemological figures” of Soviet civilization are central to Russian postmodernism (Order x).2 The carryover of these figures into a different socio-cultural reality is a symptom of historical trauma, or rather, the trauma of the re-entrance into history.
Russia underwent a series of violent upheavals throughout the twentieth century, but for the duration of the USSR, these upheavals were subsumed into the teleological master narrative of building a utopia. The collapse of the Soviet system was, as Russian scholar Vladimir Loskutov argues, “not only our return to history but our acquisition of history” (18). The sensibility that has resulted from this “return to history” is different from the timelessness and anomie of Western postmodernism; it is characterized by a need to process the lessons of the failed utopia and to integrate them into a new national narrative. It is not the “inability to imagine utopia” but rather the ability to remember it too well that has shaped Russian postmodernism.
Despite its capitalist economy, Russia is still living in a particular kind of “post,” which is not reducible to the general malaise of postmodernity: “A strange aspect of the post-Soviet situation in Russia and other former republics of the USSR is that, almost two decades after the disintegration of the old state, they still remain and identify themselves as post-Soviet” (Kagarlitsky 1). What Jameson calls “the rudiments and nascent forms of a new socialist culture” did not disappear overnight simply because the political structure changed (Seeds 77). These forms have persisted in Russian postmodernism as ghosts of an undead utopian narrative haunting new stories and histories. But it is...