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Russian Sincerity Today – A Conversation with Professor Ellen Rutten

On May 23, Ellen Rutten, Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at the University of Amsterdam, delivered a lecture at HSE on her new book, ‘Sincerity after Communism’. An expert on Slavonic literature and culture, Professor Rutten is involved in numerous projects, including the Digital Emotions group, Sublime Imperfections, and ‘Russian Literature’, a journal where she serves as editor-in-chief.

During her time in Moscow, she spoke at length with the HSE News Service about her research, her recommendations for how Western readers can gain a better understanding of contemporary Russia, and her favourite places in Moscow after years of traveling to the city.

— Your book Sincerity after Communism was recently published by Yale University Press. What are some of your major findings on post-Soviet social media and art?

— With Sincerity after Communism, I offer a genealogy of russophone discussions about sincerity – the quality of saying what you really think or feel – between the perestroika years and today. These discussions are part of a larger, transnational debate on moving beyond postmodernism, which I outline in some detail in the book. But my main focus is Russia, and Russia’s sincerity rhetoric in particular. I trace calls for a ‘post-postmodern’ sincerity and pleas to revive sincere expression in Russian literature and new media, but also address developments in film, architecture, design, art, music, and fashion.

In my analysis of ‘sincerity talk’ in these fields, I share three core findings. One: the ongoing debates on the Soviet experience – and the question of how to cope with that experience – colour recent Russian visions of a renewed sincerity. When Prigov plead for a New Sincerity in the 1980s, for instance, he claimed to do so because, even after ‘the scorching experience that we have been through’, he believed, ‘we need ideology!’ Two: in the late 1990s and 2000s, Russian artists and critics began interrogating the nexus between sincerity and (commercial) strategy. What does it mean to be a sincere artist in a post-Communist, capitalist world? And should we trust writers, artists, and curators who claimto say what they feel, but who also need to make a living by saying what they feel? This question is pivotal to public thinking about such leading names in post-Soviet art and writing as Vladimir Sorokin, Oleg Kulik, and Dmitrii Vodennikov.

My third finding deals with new media. With time, post-Soviet debates about sincerity often tackle the question of what is honest and real in a hypermediatized world. From the 2000s onwards, a recurring thread within both the Russian and transnational public debate on mediatization is the question of how digital, social, and mobile technologies impact artistic sincerity and authenticity. Critics, journalists, and bloggers offer various answers to this question. Some believe that new media foster an unprecedented sincerity; others believe that it leads to dehumanization, and that we need a ‘new sincerity’ to counter that trend. While they are busy debating sincerity on a meta level, social-media users are simply using their blogs and Vkontakte accounts to talk about a novel, post-postmodern or unprecedented sincerity in everyday life. In recent years, I have found numerous posts in Russian social media saying, ‘look, this new record (or this late-night scooter ride that I had, or this nice summer dress, and so on and so on) is so new sincerity’.

I trace calls for a ‘post-postmodern’ sincerity and pleas to revive sincere expression in Russian literature and new media, but also address developments in film, architecture, design, art, music, and fashion

What I do not do in my book is mould all these different takes on reviving or practising sincerity today into one watertight definition. Neither do I use the book to claim that we either do or do not live in an age of a new sincerity. Those are not the types of question that I want to answer. What I do want to find out – and what I examine in my analyses – is what today’s dreams about sincerity tell us about present-day cultural and social sensitivities.

These sensitivities include political anxieties and concerns, by the way. In a recent blog post on the Yale Press Log and in an upcoming article in the journal Neprikosnovennyi zapas, I examine the Soviet history of sincerity rhetoric and the lessons that this history teaches us about sincerity in a world of post-truth politics, fake news, and alternative realities. But that is another story, upon which I touch relatively briefly in the book itself.

— You have spent considerable time researching Soviet memory. What is it exactly, in your view? What are the trends in this area? 

— I explored Soviet memory in Memory, Conflict and New Media (Routledge 2013), a joint edited volume with Vera Zvereva and Julie Fedor, and in the research project ‘Web Wars’. That last project I conducted in the framework of Alexander Etkind’s research project ‘Memory at War’. 

In ‘Web Wars’ and in the resulting book, what interested us was not Soviet memory at large, but rather the question of what happens when this memory travels to digital spheres. What do discussions about the Soviet past look like when conducted not in books or on TV, but in Vkontakte, on Twitter, or in Wikipedia? Our research indicated that, in these discussions, hate speech and so-called flaming wars (discussions in which two opponents discuss the past for the sake of disagreeing rather than seeking an agreement), played an important role. I used the metaphor of the ‘web war’ for these debates – a term with which I refer to discursive battles over the past that take place online. Similar debates circulate online outside Russia, of course. In my home country, the Netherlands, online talk about our colonial past is not particularly harmonious, to put things mildly. But in russophone social media, my colleagues and I witnessed particularly vivid online cultures of dissent. That is not surprising, of course, when you think of the inflexible official narrative of the past that the Russian authorities currently offer.

We found not only hatred and fights online, by the way: in some cases, online media offered users helpful platforms for joint open inquiries into the past. I remember a wonderful Vkontakte group whose users really tried to understand each other’s varying visions on frictions between Russia and Ukraine in World War II. Rather than throwing offenses at one another, they engaged in a joint search for historical facts.

— What are some of the projects you’ve been involved in lately?

— In recent years, in my own research I have moved away from Eastern European memory studies, but I keep track of the field, and I am particularly interested in the methodological innovations that we see in this field today. My current and former students are now combining cultural-historical tools with sophisticated digital methods to study post-Soviet memory, and digital humanities offer promising venues for this field of inquiry. Most importantly, I keep track of new methods via the Digital Emotions group – a collective that my colleague Niels van Doorn and I coordinate at the University of Amsterdam, and that was inspired by research on digital emotions by our member Adi Kuntsman. With this group, we organize group readings and events in which we examine the nexus between the digital and the affective. Inspired by Kuntsman’s pioneering work in the field, we examine how feelings and emotions circulate in digital cultures. In doing so, the early-career members of the group (which mostly consists of PhDs and art practitioners) actively employ digital research tools.

— I can't help but ask about the journal Russian Literature, where you serve as editor-in-chief. What is this journal aiming to achieve?

 Russian Literature is a leading peer-review periodical on Russian literature, with contributions on related subjects in Croatian, Serbian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, and other Slavic literatures. What we aim at with the journal is to not simply map who wrote what in Central and Eastern Europe, but to refine and broaden the field, by publishing articles that offer methodological or disciplinary innovation when it comes to the study of Slavic literatures; and by uniting Russian- and English-language scholarship from Russia, Central, Eastern, and Western Europe, the US, Asia, and Australia.

We found not only hatred and fights online, by the way: in some cases, online media offered users helpful platforms for joint open inquiries into the past

— Who writes for Russian Literature?

— What I find most exciting about our publication portfolio is that we publish and have published both work by canonical names in, say, Moscow-Tartu semiotics (Iurii Lotman and Boris Uspenskii both published their work in Russian Literature, for instance, and we just published new research by Vyacheslav Ivanov), but also special issues and articles by such leading pioneers in the field today as, say, Catriona Kelly, Mark Lipovetsky, or Serguei Oushakine.

We are also keen on publishing submissions by junior scholars and emerging talents. Next year, for instance, we plan to publish an issue on digital humanities in the study of Slavic literatures, which will feature many new names for our readers – and I very much try to encourage talented PhD students to submit their work for the journal. If you are a PhD student and if you are reading this as a call to submit especially strong recent research, you are reading my answer correctly.

— What would you recommend the international community to read about modern Russian art, design and literature, both for serious research and for fun?

— First of all, such recommendations by Slavic scholars are very important today. Dutch media consumers – and this is true not only for the Netherlands – can read as much as they want about Putin and the Kremlin, but they are offered very scarce information on, say, urban innovation or creative developments in Russia. Tracking geopolitics is important, but the result is a rather one-sided Dutch media take on Russia.

I am keen on using my relatively visible role within the Dutch cultural and academic landscape to simply tell people: please, go to Russia, and see for yourselves how many incredibly inspiring developments are taking place there right now. Garazh and the Gorky park; such lovely little-known literary museum apartments as Mayakovsky’s or, in St. Petersburg, Nekrasov’s (even lesser visited) apartments; the lecture program at Strelka; the excellent exhibitions that the Russian Museum is currently staging; Taiga Space; the many funny hipster cafes that Moscow and Petersburg now boast (or, if you dislike hipster frivolities, the delicious food that a Georgian zabegalovkalike Lagidze used to serve in St. Petersburg); the fantastically large Red Triangle factory terrain (where a friend in St. Petersburg took me last week, and where we walked across industrial premises which seemed empty but where we heard bands rehearse and saw lights in several small-scale photo and art studios). Or, if we travel a bit further east, the exciting ecotourism facilities at Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal. These are all the types of events and sites that I actively recommend to my students, colleagues, news readers, and radio listeners. In doing so I am not expecting herds of Dutch tourists to instantly board flights to Moscow, but I do think that, in the current mediascape, scholars of Slavic studies should not forget to share this type of practical travel knowledge. There is simply too much to be gained in the field of de-stereotyping Russia in ‘the west’.

— Are there any special places in Moscow you plan on visiting this time? 

— Last Saturday, I had a wonderful time at the Museum Night, where I visited the Festival of open lectures at the Hermitage Garden. I visited that site a long time ago, and it was, first of all, a wonderful discovery to see what a lively meeting place for young people and families it has become today. But we were also treated to a consistently high-profile programme of talks, images, and films by leading figures from Moscow’s art and museum scene. I enjoyed all the talks, although the lectures by Alexey Maslyaev on new Russian artists, and by Sasha Senkova, director of the Moscow Design Museum, stood out for me. I took home useful insights about (and images of) new developments in Russian contemporary art, and it was fun to hear how Senkova and others have managed to build a fantastic and much-praised Soviet design exhibition out of more or less nothing.

In between meetings and lectures, I also enjoy combing the shops around Chistye prudy, near the Higher School of Economics. During my last visit, I had a splendid time at a small antiquarian on Myasnitskaya, which sells beautiful vintage Soviet porcelain cups and saucers for reasonable prices. The people are very helpful and knowledgeable

On my list for the coming days are the exhibition on Kholin’s and Sapgir’s manuscripts at Garazh, the Thaw exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery, and I plan to have a stroll at the Red October site, which is relatively near my hotel. Factory sites are a special interest of mine: in my new research project Sublime Imperfections, I examine discussions in which the imperfect or the non-polished is framed as something positive (as a guarantee for authenticity or humanness in a digitized age, for instance); this is precisely what happens in debates about restored post-industrial sites like the Red October cluster. In addition, I was told that there is a good exhibition on Nukus at the Pushkin Museum; in the unlikely case that there is time, I want to go and see it later this week, just like I want to visit the exhibition on Serebryakova at the Tretyakov Gallery. Time is sparse, alas: if I would be here longer, I would visit the GRAUND exhibition space and the avant-garde exhibit at the Jewish Museum, too – I first heard about both at last Saturday’s lectures and was intrigued – but I fear that I simply won’t manage.

In between meetings and lectures, I also enjoy combing the shops around Chistye prudy, near the Higher School of Economics. During my last visit, I had a splendid time at a small antiquarian on Myasnitskaya, which sells beautiful vintage Soviet porcelain cups and saucers for reasonable prices. The people are very helpful and knowledgeable: last time, the lady who helped me looked up all the logos underneath the cups for me, to see in which year they were made by which factory. I plan to return there this week. Other places that I want to revisit are two kommissionnye shops on Chistoprudnyi bulvar, where I very much enjoyed browsing vintage haute couture last May. Most of the items that they sell are so expensive that I cannot afford them, but I enjoy simply perusing the dresses that they offer. Some are so beautiful and subtly designed that they might as well figure in an exhibition on recent fashion history.

— How did you begin working with HSE, and do you have any further plans for joint projects?

— Natalia Samutina, Head of HSE’s Research Centre for Contemporary Culture, and I met in 2015 at ‘Past the Post’, a conference at the University of Amsterdam where specialists met to theorize the post-post-Soviet. This conference was organized by my local colleagues Sudha Rajagopalan and Stephen Amico, an expert in post-Soviet music history who has since transferred to the University of Bergen. They invited Natalia to talk about her research on participatory cultures. Natalia and I had been following one another’s research on social media, but at this conference, Natalia invited me to visit HSE to participate in her conference Challenges of Participatory Culture, and I took up the invitation. That visit to the conference last May – but also to HSE, where we set in motion cooperation between HSE and Amsterdam’s Faculty of Humanities that month – was so inspiring that I promised to return a year later. And here we are. This time, I will not only use my time here to present my new book, but also to discuss my new research on the logic and aesthetics of imperfection with Natalia and her research group. I look forward to both meetings, as last year’s discussions here fundamentally impacted on (and altered, in some places) the central theoretical propositions that underpin my new project.  

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service 

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