Russia as the last refuge of "normal"

February 6, 2023
Mark Lipovetsky
Professor, Department of Slavic Languages, Columbia University

Mark Lipovetsky writes about a new series of comedic shorts titled Out Loud, modeled on a Soviet-era satirical film anthology. The plots are tinged with a fear of anything new, with the ghost of the dangerous Other looming in the backdrop.

It took the Soviet government almost 20 years to establish the monopoly of socialist realism. Not to mention the seas of blood spilled. However, just as the magazines of the proletarian writers of the 1920s can retroactively be read as a program for the future, so can today’s “Z” cultural products tell us something about the state of Russian society, or at least reveal the logic of the prevailing ideology.

Modeled on a late socialist short film series

Out Loud (Vslukh) is a new comedy series on the RuNet. Its first season kicked off in June 2022 and consisted of 24 professionally filmed 15-20-minute episodes. It is a project of Artos Film, with Alexander Nazarov (better known as an actor) and Vadim Getz (director of several shorts and one full-length film) directing, and Yevgeny Popov (the producer of such hits as Life and Fate, Liquidation and Isaev) and Konstantin Charalampidis (aside from devout Orthodoxy, no major contributions can be attributed to him) producing. The creators compare Out Loud with the Soviet Fuse (Fitil), a television anthology series that exposed ideological enemies and petty social shortcomings. Fuse originated in the early 1960s and was edited by Sergei Mikhalkov, who is also famous for writing three different national anthems for the USSR and then Russia.

Each Out Loud program consists of three sketches on “socially significant” topics. Out Loud is a project of the Internet Development Institute (iri.rf), a state organization that gives out “subsidies for the creation and promotion of socially significant internet content” (the institute’s director, Alexei Goreslavsky, was previously the deputy head of the Presidential Administration for public projects). In other words, the organization is similar to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s troll factory, the difference being that it works in the cultural rather than the information sphere.

In search of screenplays, the film company posted a call to potential creators on VK: “We are looking for ready-made screenplays for high-profile patriotic, acutely social miniatures of a short film series that is currently in the production process. The genre is satirical, ideological, social novellas in the style of a modern rethink of Fuse. The audience is as wide as possible, with a separate focus on youth, so we need bright, modern, creative, yet understandable, folk stories that are accessible to most viewers.”

The following list of topics was provided:
1. The war and Western propaganda
2. Lies in the Western media and dark political manipulation
3. Breaking down liberal dogmas about “freedom,” “Western values,” etc.
4. Attempts to revive Nazism
5. Boosting the morale of Russian soldiers
6. The authority of the Russian state
7. Russia and the global west
8. Sanctions
9. Youth: patriotism, love for the motherland, drugs, charity and volunteering, higher and special education in the country
10. Domestic political and social issues and problems
11. LGBT
12. Russian children: school, parenting, orphans and disabled children, people with special needs
13. Cancellation of Russian culture
14. CIS countries: nationalism
15. Eternal human vices: their modern reading

The list brings together almost all the narratives of modern Russian ideology – the very ones used to justify the attack on Ukraine and the entire chain of crimes and tragedies that the war gave rise to. Meanwhile, the absence of any mention of Ukraine in the list is telling (though the first point mentions the war). The shyness of the contractor is no accident:
“Their task is to portray Russia as the embodiment of the universal 'normal,' and the West, along with 'CIS countries,' drug addicts and LGBT, as a deviation from the norm."
Ukraine, heroically resisting the aggression of the “Russian world,” does not fit into this pathos of the universal normal, though the values claimed by the shorts to be “ours” – which of course are “normal” – lie at the heart of the war and its ideology.

The “global west,” “liberal values,” “attempts to revive Nazism,” “nationalism” (of course, not Russian nationalism!), drug addicts, LGBT and “eternal human vices” are listed as topics for satire. If we replace drug addicts and LGBT with stilyagi, then we have many of the topics that so-called Soviet satire took aim at. Yevgeny Dobrenko and Natalia Jonsson-Skradol wrote about this in their book State Laughter: Stalinism, Populism, and Origins of Soviet Culture: “... Soviet satire was engaged in creating a controlled image of the Other... Control over the production of the Other and its interpretation was considered by the authorities no less important than the production of the image of the People as the highest legitimating authority.” This is exactly what the new Fuse is doing – its creators are outlining the image of the Other so the People emerge from what remains. That is why the creators of Out Loud need “folk stories that are accessible to most viewers.”

“The Tolerant Flight”

Out Loud sketches try to be funny, though the creators completely fail at it, despite the involvement of such actors as Dmitri Pevtsov, Sergei Nikonenko, Lyubov Shpitsa, Nikita Efremov, Gosha Kutsenko and others. To date, the channel has only 227 subscribers; however, one of the sketches, “The Tolerant Flight,” went, as they say, viral, thanks to its promotion by star TV propagandist Vladimir Solovyov.

The sketch depicts a family – husband, wife and teenage son – emigrating from Russia to America. The action takes place in a plane, which is supposed to represent America. The newly minted emigrants are subjected to “minority terror.” First, a fellow (female) passenger who is talking up America introduces them to her husband, who turns out to be a surly Emilia. Then, the father of the family is deprived of the lunch that was handed out because the sight of meat irritates a vegetarian couple, and in America, as the stewardess says, you must respect democracy. Then, the dad and mom are forced to get on their knees before an African-American who wants to skip the line to the restroom. Finally, the family is asked to move to another part of the plane so that their son is not seen by a childfree couple. In the end, the family jumps out of the plane with the dad shouting: “Forgive me, Mother Russia! The devil made me do it! We’re going back!”

There is nothing particularly new in this novella. The horrors of political correctness have long been a part of Russian folklore, with many having made contributions, from the writer Tatyana Tolstaya to the director Konstantin Bogomolov. What is new is that the plots relate to the theme of emigration. Russians – even those fleeing Russia – are portrayed as bearers of the “norm.” And the West, and especially America, is portrayed as a place where “normal people” are constantly persecuted and marginalized, while “minorities,” thanks to the support of the authorities, are terrorizing everyone.

In this fantasy, one can see, for example, a reflection of Soviet anti-Semitism in its “folk” form – as hatred for a minority that has supposedly seized power over the majority. It can also be interpreted as faux democracy: the propagandistic discourse identifies with the “majority” and rejects the excessive “demands” of minorities.

For modern Russia, this plot primarily reflects the idea of the inseparability of authority and coercion. To the creators of Out Loud, authority is protecting the rights of minorities. In other words,
“Viewers are being assured that 'normal' people in the West are treated how those who deviate from the 'norm' in Russia are treated."
In essence, xenophobia is presented as the only possible form of social relations: if LGBT people are not subjected to homophobia and African Americans racism, then they will inevitably subject those who are different from them to similar abuse. A different type of relations is simply unimaginable and viewed as a manifestation of hypocrisy and lies. Thus, ultimately, the “terror of minorities” depicted in the “The Tolerant Flight” is an expression of cynicism as the underlying ideology of Russian society.

The sketch shows how this cynical worldview is instrumentalized by modern political rhetoric. Here, the world of “Mother Russia” is opposed to America; the world of the healthy normal versus a cluster of aggressive anomalies. The father of the family who jumps out of the plane recalls the devil for a reason: a world upside down is precisely how medieval culture imagined not only foreign lands, but everything opposed to “the former glory of Rus, its power, its prosperity and glory,” as Dmitri Likhachev wrote in his book Laughter in Ancient Rus. This medieval worldview is updated to reinforce the same idea – it should become clear to the viewer that Russia is the last island of “normal,” waging war against the global devil. The “norm,” in turn, acquires a sacred meaning: it is not for nothing that it is affirmed by the contrast of heaven and hell.

Interestingly, this pathos of “normal” fades and loses its meaning when the Out Loud plots deal with stupid Americans, the protection of Soviet monuments, feminism, psychotherapists, contemporary art and inaccurate productions of Russian classics. Dull characters, generic plots, unfunny jokes – everything indicates that the creators and actors do not have the slightest interest in the depicted and are only working to get a paycheck.
“Sexuality is the only area where any semblance of real feeling can be observed."
Screenshot from the sketch “The Rope” from Out Loud
Gender rhetoric and sexual violence

In the sketch titled “The Rope,” young characters dressed in plastic overalls (apparently this is how the future is imagined) complain that they are not like the others, as they are attracted to the opposite sex, and they – the poor things – do not know how to behave – after all, they have never read “Romeo and Juliet,” only “Wilde and Proust” (the creators, of course, are unaware of the love between the Proustian Swann and Odette; they only know that Proust was a homosexual). This is typical “liberpunk” – a satirical vision of the future in which the dictatorship of liberal ideas is brought to the point of absurdity. It is a genre that Victor Pelevin focused on (other writers did too, but Pelevin did so with the greatest talent): his S.N.U.F.F.and IPhuck 10 are perfect examples of this branch of the dystopian tree. Today, however, these fantasies are becoming a justification for the war. This link is explicitly made in a sketch titled “We’re Staying.”

Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s early film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), the sketch depicts a hero who is being “assigned” a gender, with there being something like over a hundred genders. His wife, already assigned to be polygender, now has a female husband. The hero’s parents are exempted from “reassignment” because of their age, though they utter an ardent monologue that all this is because the hero and others like him “did not defend the country from Nazism,” with the result being “gay parades on Sundays.” (Of course, the “folk” viewer is not supposed to know that the Nazis persecuted gays along with Jews.)

In the end, the hero learns that a husband has already been assigned to him and that he is right there, next to him, in the cell. In horror, the hero wakes up. Next to him is not the cellmate/husband, but rather his wife, packing her suitcase, while a courier has already delivered tickets to Kazakhstan, where the hero is going to sit out the mobilization. However, after his prophetic dream, he changes his mind: “We’re staying... If they call me up, I’ll go. I won’t run.” His main argument is: “I don’t want to sleep with a man!”

So, the main justification for the war – and thus the massacres, missile attacks on residential buildings, hospitals and schools, cities reduced to rubble, thousands of dead and wounded, millions of refugees – is nothing more than gender panic? Is that possible? Is it not too petty? Apparently not. It is not for nothing that Putin, in almost every wartime speech, has mentioned “parent one and parent two,” which have supposedly everywhere (except Russia, of course!) replaced dad and mom.

The gender theme becomes the most important justification for the war, as it is precisely where the fear of the Other – different from our healthy and allegedly unshakable “normal” – is concentrated. Here is where modernity (before they would have said postmodernity) intersects with the individual and familial, which arouses resistance similar to that against Covid vaccinations. I would like to object – no one is forcing you to become gay or transgender. Yet this is what a “normal” Russian would never believe. For him or her, as discussed above, everything with symbolic authority is necessarily accompanied by coercion. It is no coincidence that the sketch “We’re Staying” takes place in a prison cell, while the hero talks to his (ex) wife through bars. The very surroundings associate LGBT only and exclusively with the sexual violence practiced in prison.

But do Russian authorities not widely use sexual violence to demonstrate their own impunity (suffice it to recall the monstrous story of how the poet Artyom Kamardin was arrested)? Is it not in the army and at police stations that sexual violence is the main instrument of terror? Is it not on this fear – in relation to “our” “normal” Russian authorities – that gender panic is based? Is this not the source of the subconscious horror that surrounds everything beyond heteronormativity? And if so, what does Ukraine or the “global west” have to do with it?
The demonization of LGBT people, begun in 2013 and wrapped up with the tightening of repressive laws in 2022, is the flip side of the use of sexual violence as an instrument of terror."
Together, they form the most tangible ideology for the war, which fits perfectly with the homophobic clichés inherited from late Soviet culture.

The new “Z” culture is artistically inept. Nevertheless, it serves to feed these and similar stereotypes with fresh material while surrounding them with an aura of quasi-relevance. Its lack of anything new – or rather the intense fear of anything new – with the ghost of the dangerous Other looming in the backdrop, is its most important principle and simultaneously dooms it to mediocrity. Regardless of the intent of the creators, the “norm” indeed comes to the fore: along with homophobia and nationalism, there is the obligatory daily ritual of eating excrement, like Vladimir Sorokin wrote in his book Norm (Norma) at the end of the Soviet era.
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