Resisting and re-existing: “What does it mean to be post-Soviet?: Decolonial Art from the Ruins of the Soviet Empire” by Madina Tlostanova5 min read

 In Baltics, Caucasus, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Review, Reviews, Russia

In her second book, What Does It Mean to Be Post-Soviet?: Decolonial Art from the Ruins of the Soviet Empire, decolonial and feminist researcher Madina Tlostanova investigates the power of art in building a decolonial future within the post-Soviet states. Though published in 2018, it is highly relevant today, directly speaking to the current context post the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Madina Tlostanova is a trans-diasporic (Circassian-Uzbek) researcher who, since 2015, has been a professor of postcolonial feminism at Linköping University in Sweden. She has been involved in numerous projects both inside and outside academia focused on the intersections between politics, art, decolonisation, and feminism. In What Does It Mean to Be Post-Soviet?, Tlostanova argues that contemporary activist art is “the area in which the most effective decolonial models emerge,” and which provides hope for the post-Soviet future. 

Tlostanova spends the first half of her book exploring what she terms as Russia’s “imperial difference,” namely the unique legacy it has left as a colonial power. Throughout this section, she does not shy away from critiquing modern Russia, both as the state itself and those who passively support it: “It is not possible to separate the Russian face from its underside,” she writes. “As a trade commodity, fur was simply replaced for a while by oil; now it is the turn of the population itself to be sacrificed and skinned by the state […] the ugly and scary mask of the imperial Janus, which once was turned in the direction of the non-European colonies, today is turned toward every citizen, whether they are applauding the neo-imperial rhetoric or prefer their refrigerators to television sets.”

Moving on to the topic of art more specifically, Tlostanova argues that there are inherent advantages to the medium, given that it is able to discuss the most vital questions without diving into obvious propaganda and open political engagement, allowing it to sustain under censorship. Tlostanova supports her argument with a brief overview of some of the decolonial art being produced in the post-Soviet regions, from the North Caucasus to Central Asia and beyond. 

To dive more concretely into the production of this art and what it can mean in decolonial projects, Tlostanova includes three long-form interviews, which make up the second half of her book. The first is with Liina Siib, an Estonian visual artist, feminist, curator, and activist who represented Estonia at the 54th Venice Biennale with her photographic project A Woman Takes Little Space. In this chapter, Siib and Tlostanova discuss how the Baltic countries, though theoretically returned to the European bosom, have been put into a “state of dependence,” and left to forever catch up to the neoliberal global modernity. As Siib notes, “Whatever is the system, we are still not perceived by the West as part of it but rather seen as the postsocialist space.” Other topics covered are femininity, space, and identity, with Siib explaining how her video and photo installation A Woman Takes Little Space draws parallels between Soviet and American women, both of whom were left with little personal space at home, though for drastically different reasons. As Siib explains, “contemporary art can deal with these issues critically. It can provide strategies to question conformity and conservative values. Even more—art can help provide resistance to different policies of obedience.”

In her second interview, Tlostanova continues her discussion with the Uzbek artist, philosopher, poet, and cinematographer Vyacheslav Akhunov, who was forbidden from leaving Uzbekistan under Islam Karimov’s repressive regime. Much of their conversation revolves around modernist art, with Akhunov claiming that in a totalitarian state such as Uzbekistan, there is no space for contemporary art and any artistic forums sponsored by the government are simply a strategy of self-deception. He takes a depressing view of any contemporary art coming out of Central Asia, arguing that Western cultural expansion has led to “neocolonial mimicking” of Western art forms and styles, repeating in a sense the colonisation of Central Asia, in a new internal form. 

Lastly, Tlostanova speaks with Afanassy Mamedov, a Russophone writer with Azeri and Jewish roots. Moving away from the visual field, in this interview, the focus is on the nature of fiction and on the post-Soviet writers who linger between both worlds and times. For Mamedov, it is only possible for post-Soviet fiction to become a school and modality after a cumbersome political event or milestone that marks history (One wonders if the war in Ukraine could be such a hallmark). 

In her conclusion, Tlostanova returns to the Russian paradigm of violence and the legacy of victimhood within the post-Soviet states: “The main decolonial task for the former Soviet spaces, then, is precisely to overcome this persistent paradigm of violence, humiliation, and dispensability of human lives, and to find the courage to realise the extent of our bondage and start on the long and hard path away from fear and violence back to ourselves. This would mean learning not only to resist but also, most important, to re-exist.” 

Throughout What Does It Mean to Be Post-Soviet?, Tlostanova puts forward the medium of art as a tool to achieve this. Crucially, she does not try to prescribe what specific art is needed, but rather puts the power in the hands of the artists who understand their own local contexts best. As the world, both in academia and beyond, starts to examine decoloniality more seriously, Tlostanova’s book is sure to stand the test of time, and remain an important resource in all discussions related to the post-Soviet context. 

Book details: Tlostanova, Madina, What Does It Mean to Be Post-Soviet?: Decolonial Art from the Ruins of the Soviet Empire, 2018, Duke University Press. Buy it here.

Recommended Posts