Ekaterina Degot Critic and art historian. Author of books and numerous essays on XX century Russian art. Lives in Moscow.
Two typical conversations on Russia between a person living abroad (A) and a person living at home (B):
1. A: "Everything here is like in the West (now).
B is offended.
2. A: "Everything (still) isn't like in the West.
B is offended.
Note that B is offended no matter what A's attitude might be.
In principle, any cultural dialogue on Russia takes place according one of these two models, even if the dead-end they present is more or less masked. What do we have to do to make this dialogue more fruitful? A might say that B should stop taking offense and begin to agree or disagree within the given system of co-ordinates. B says that A should stop comparing us to the West; moreover, he should stop judging in general and simply keep quiet.
Whenever we speak of the "East", we make a fundamental decision before we do anything else: should we understand the East geographically and technologically, or in terms of religion, culture, and politics. (Depending on this decision, we can include absolutely different countries in the dialogue that follows). From the first point of view, the East is the West's periphery and province, so that the East becomes a universal category. The second point of view tries to overcome this universalism through an even greater one and proclaims the East to be something "other", something real, a space where things happen that the West is only dreaming of, a "subconscious" of the West". (B. Groys). This strategy was discovered in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century and was original then. But today, it can be regarded as little more than a banality. Other variants of the same strategy are more flexible in terms of theory and praxis, and thus, have proven more successful. For an example, a similar understanding of black identity was formed in France during the 1930s: the theory of "negritude" constituted the African as the "Other" of Europe in order to prove the necessity of Africa to Europe. To become whole, the world needs to be "creolized", since the emotionality, sexuality or musicality of Africans are qualities that Europe itself has repressed.
Incidentally, when notions such as "black = sexual" were expressed by whites, black people usually qualified them as racist, while any attempt to speak about African culture as something exotic was seen as politically reactionary, culturally imperialistic, and hierarchical. In other words, the speaker's identity actually played the key role in determining what was being said.
These ideas can easily be applied to the identity of Eastern Europe and Russia. We can find many cases in which the West usurps the right to represent the East, subjecting it to discursive exploitation. For an example, it will prohibit a person from the East to express himself in theoretical terms and only allow him to speak about his region. It orders the Russian (or any other) artist to be authentic and exotic, thus placing him beyond the borders of the West; however, when authenticity and independence are proclaimed at the artist's own will, they are usually criticized as nationalism. In this context, any Western expression is understood as violence. Both the request not to be an "other", to conform to the models of the West, and the request to be an "other", to fight against the West's cultural imperialism, are understood as examples of the West's cultural imperialism. The dialogue between the East and the West becomes a fascinating game: the East catches the West at the repressive character of its notions, and the West, taking vengeance, totally ignores the East.
So does the East stand a chance of gaining the right to be included in post-colonial discourse, which is becoming now a guaranteed ticket into life for its subjects? Here, again, it is important that the East exists in and of itself.
It is very easy to explain why the discourse of cultural minorities is hardly applicable to Russia. First of all, the definition of Russia as the "other" for the West is not only external (as, for an instance, was the definition of 'Negroes' supplied by the French during the 19th century, as being motivated by desire alone); instead, the notion of otherness is invented by Russia itself, not only because Russia was the object of various racist statements but because it was not the object of any statements at all. Russia has yet to prove that its rights were injured and that it represents minority in respect to the West (even if the discourse concerning racial difference has been subject to a long-standing, categorical taboo within the white race). Finally, in terms of politics, and more importantly for us, in terms of culture, Russia has consistently ignored its own repressive attitude toward other cultures inside and around itself. So actually, its chances are limited.
All the countries of the former Eastern Block could try to gain the status of victims of Russian cultural imperialism, but this topic hardly interests anyone. Thus, the only possibility left is a consolidation of non-Western identities. For Russia, this would be an enormous step – traveling this path, it becomes possible to discuss Eastern European identity, which has always been ignored in Russia, because it destroys the basis of the discourse of Russia's historical uniqueness. (Incidentally, feminist discourse in Russia has trouble finding its place as a victim because of the same principle, since the place of discursive exploitation in the Russian world-view is already occupied.)
So, attempting to distance itself from the strategies of the modern Russian state and simultaneously trying to find understanding with the leftist intelligentsia of the West, Russian unofficial culture (in our case, "Moscow Art Magazine") suggests that we look for the identity of Russia not among super-powers but among minorities, thus demanding the application of the discursive privileges established for minorities.
The theory of "negritude" was hardly the last stage in the process of African intellectuals' self-identification. Its criticism gave rise to a fundamentalist theory, according to which African discourse is to be liberated of the most minute traces of Western language and Western thinking; by using the Western post-modern critique of universalism, "grand narratives" and rationalism, it would finally be able to deplete and destroy them completely, as the white man's weapons. This, and nothing else, is the only way of establishing non-hierarchical relations between black and white. This theory, in turn, has been criticized for its nationalism and its terrorism over language as well as structure, since it transforms the world into a suspension of atoms which do not relate to one another.
Recent discussions in Europe face an analogous question. How should we build a post-binary model of the world? As a totality (unity) or as atomism (difference)? Nowadays, the latter seems preferable. But hasn't cultural relativism already reached its limits? Where, exactly, is the boundary of eternal decentralization, if each part of the structure has already appropriated the rights of the whole that is its "other"? Can there be a world where everything is an "other"? Can language and meaning exist in a world like this? Can we really imagine a world in which freedom from discursive repression and the repression of external definitions is institutionally guaranteed?
All illusions that concern decentralization and the possibility for destroying repression are really very dangerous. For an example, "ecological" feminism, which tries to rehabilitate "feminine" qualities (claiming that women are more natural, communicative, emotional etc.) from repression by the culture of men, is itself extremely totalitarian, since it forces women follow stereotypes (to make art about women, for an example). Our goal should not be to create an "ecology of the East" but to engage in "criticism of the East": all axiomatic definitions, West like East, need to be challenged and subjected to doubt.
Thus, I would like to offer the following slogan: let's totally refuse the notion of the "other" and learn to live in the world without the "other"; let's come back to the geographical and historical definition of the Eastern Europe as a margin, basing its identity in reality and not upon myths or desires; let's integrate it into the West, not as an "other", but as part of its historic experience (including, first of all, its communist experience); let's eliminate the Western monopoly on anti-hegemonial discourse, its monopoly on criticism of the West; let's understand our own repressive essence. And finally, let's realize that the place that is neither the West's province nor its subconscious is not paradise and holds no guarantees. But let's also realize that this place still exists.