Brand the East, or How to (not) Deal with the Cultural Legacy of Contemporary Eastern Europe5 min read
It is legitimate to ask whether the adjective post-Soviet should still be used to refer to the culture of Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia. Despite countless attempts to find new terminology to replace the politicized term post-Soviet, no consensus has been reached yet. Almost 30 years after the fall of the USSR, theorizations of post-Soviet culture as a hybrid culture caught between Communist revival and Western cultural paradigm unveil the limits of any all-encompassing terminology.
On the evening of 25 December 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev jittered his final words as the last leader of the Soviet Union. What came next was a decade of catching up with the West in which the sick patients of both Eastern Europe and Western Asia were cured with neoliberal shock therapy and high dosage injections of globalization. The term post-Soviet has become an encompassing, and cumbersome, label used to indicate the aesthetic principles informing cultural production which, although specific from a temporal point of view, has remained rather vague in its essence.
It is not by chance that the last decade has witnessed an upsurge of scholarly interest in researching post-Soviet nostalgia: although entirely speculative, such a tendency reveals that the process of progressive distancing from Socialist Realism failed to produce a brand new aesthetic canon. The reception of post-Soviet culture in the West, on the other hand, has long remained linked to the totalitarian past rather than being perceived as a real aesthetic movement. Does it still make sense, then, to speak of a post-Soviet cultural space?
Enough of hammers and sickles: towards a post-post-Soviet aesthetic
In his essay “Post-Soviet: Otherness and the Aesthetic of Disappearance”, Haris Giannouras invites the reader to think about the archaic and overly-saturated Western canon which desires to ‘discover’ an almost exotic East, wearing colonial glasses to gaze down an aestheticized version of the communist East.
To some extent, the popularity of dystopian narratives such as Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange or Stanislaw Lem’s Congress of Futurology combined with Cold War propaganda has resulted in a disregard for cultural productions that originate from failed utopias. That is, at least until recently, when Western media attention on contemporary Eastern culture began to grow rapidly.
A jump from post to post-post-Soviet not only coincides with the entry into adulthood of the first generation of citizens born after the fall of the USSR but also with a growing interaction between international subcultures thanks to the internet and the opening of national borders. In an effort to move beyond mere modernist architecture and Soviet nostalgia, internationally renowned London-based projects like The Calvert Journal, New East Cinema and New East Photo Prize were conceived with the aim to map out an aesthetic consciousness that could unite former socialist countries.
By leaving behind the East-West dichotomy in exchange for a depoliticized platform where emerging photographers, musicians, directors and stylists who grew up during the transition period have the chance to reconfigure a rotten signifier through artistic means. The Anglophone cultural landscape has been experiencing an upsurge in artistic productions dealing with conceptualizations of identity and belonging, ultimately helping to build a new perception of Eastern aesthetics.
The challenges ahead: towards a ‘commodification’ of Eastern aesthetics?
Despite efforts to dismantle prejudices about the former Eastern bloc and allow years of neglected cultural production to reach vast audiences across the world, the Calvert Journal was criticized for concentrating the focus on “trending themes and hipster-like ethos”, thus resulting in “the limited service of reporting on the genuine debates and phenomena that move Russian culture at its core.”
By defining itself as “a guide to the new East”, the Calvert Journal takes on the myth of the failed Soviet experiment and exploits young generations’ fascination for the inconnu with the purpose of creating clickbait fashionable themes, spanning from iconic Soviet-era tower blocks to mysterious Spomeniki across the former Yugoslavia.
In his article for the online media outlet Russia Beyond, Daniel Chalyan argues against this loosely-formulated concept of the new East, pointing to the risk of moving from one stereotype to another. As it evolves in the direction of a brand that can be used as a marketing tool in the neoliberal West, the new Eastern cultural turn discussed by Chalyan appears to be a repackaging of the post-Soviet concept which has been exclusively designed to sound appealing, especially to millennials.
Therefore, even if most of the projects dealing with the New East are transnational and interdisciplinary in their form, colonially-charged motifs will intrinsically permeate the collective unconscious. By hyping a new-Eastern dynamic culture through captivating titles like “Beauty and the east: is it time to kick our addiction to ruin porn?” the Calvert Journal is an excellent soft power instrument that is able to turn anonymous urban landscapes of Eastern Europe into exotic destinations, which deserve to be visited, photographed and shared on social media.
When thinking of what better describes new East photography, music, or cinema, the point is not to focus on the notion itself, but to assume that a common aesthetic exists. Similarly, the entrance of post-Soviet avant-garde into the Western fashion scene was immediately picked up by fast fashion brands such as H&M and Urban Outfitters, which made a great deal out of Cyrillic letters placed all over sweaters and T-shirts.
Instead of exploring complex cultural themes like actionist or activist art, the Calvert Journal prefers to carry out a selective showcase of popular activists like Pyotr Pavlensky and Pussy Riots merely because of Western coverage of their viral performances. This purposeful commodification of eccentric personalities without digging into the deep meaning of their actions contributes to the selective retelling of what this new East should be made of, only for the sake of securing the attention of an international audience.
In the long run, the carefully constructed nature of a new East aesthetic will inevitably struggle to find a definition of what the post-post-Soviet culture stands for. Although the made in East artistic productions have found fertile ground for diffusion, their fortunes are determined by a cultural industry that is in turn moved by political interests. Maybe, it is time to ask ourselves whether this enthusiasm for the new East could be somehow in direct opposition with reality, thus prevailing over complex cultural elements which are not so easily sold.