- It Will Be Fun and Terrifying: Nationalism and Protest in Post-Soviet Russia by Fabrizio Fenghi
Scholars of the post-Soviet world have generally accepted that the public sphere in Russia could be characterized by a mixture of political passivity, apathy, and disengagement. Nancy Ries's well-known study of everyday and media discourses in the perestroika period argues that "litanies" and "lamentations" were the order of the day.1 Serguei Oushakine later developed the concept of "post-Soviet aphasia" – a kind of fundamental "lack" in language or conceptual metaphor to describe the lawlessness of the post-Soviet period in Russia.2 More recently, Russian film studies has developed a vocabulary of "lack" to describe the often politically ambiguous "quiet" wave of auteur films since the turn of the century.
Fabrizio Fenghi's book focuses on the National Bolshevik Party (NBP), surely one of the most fascinating political experiments of the post-Soviet period. In contrast to characterizations of the public sphere in terms of passivity, the National Bolsheviks (Nazbols or Natsbols in the book) retained a remarkably politically active following. Never shy of causing a stir, they frequently incorporated radical aesthetic experiments into their protests and demonstrations. By the early 2000s, what had started as a countercultural movement in the pages of the magazine Limonka had grown into a substantial political force: in 2001, a number of Natsbols were jailed on charges of terrorism and the illegal purchase of weapons; the government accused the NBP cofounder, Eduard Limonov, of planning an armed insurgency in Kazakhstan.
Fenghi's study looks at the social practices and cultural networks of the NBP. His book traces the divergent trajectories of the Natsbol project, emphasizing at once how it helped lay the foundations for what would become post-Soviet protest culture and how a group that "had been among the most vocal opponents of Putin's government" (P. 54) came to publicly support the Russian authorities following the beginning of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. In doing so, Fenghi toes a fine line [End Page 470] between his two main protagonists; the recently (2020) deceased writer Eduard Limonov and his onetime coagitator in chief Alexander Dugin. The acrimonious split between the two founding members of the NBP is manifested at the theoretical level in Fenghi's book, with his dissection of the political pronouncements and aesthetic innovations of the NBP the starting point for a broader discussion of nationalist and protest cultures.
The book is split into five evenly sized chapters, with the first two dedicated to the NBP's literary roots and the aesthetic developments born of its countercultural magazine Limonka. Here, Fenghi demonstrates how, despite the scholarly characterization of an "apathetic" post-Soviet public sphere, the NBP maintained quite a program of political protests and demonstrations to accompany its radical literary and artistic gestures. The middle chapter, and perhaps the most interesting from a general reader's standpoint, focuses on the NBP as a social practice. Fenghi draws on fascinating ethnographic field research, interviews, and personal anecdotes that not only make the book a better read, but ground it in the field of cultural anthropology. This chapter, which serves as the suture point for the surrounding discussions of Limonov and Dugin, also shows an admirable engagement with the sphere of visual arts. This is indeed a realm that scholars of Russian and Slavic Studies seem reticent to deal with: although scholars in film studies, art history, and so on work with a range of visual materials, visual studies in Russia has yet to come together as a discipline. Fenghi's delicate manipulation of this material demonstrates that there is surely further room for maneuver.
The final two chapters deal with Dugin's "conservative postmodernism" and the development of what Fenghi terms "conservative bohemia." Here, Fenghi gives a generously clear view on an often-esoteric set of ideas. There is further engagement with artistic projects from the likes of the...