Guest Post 3: The Past is Beautiful; the Present is Horrible—Cancel the Future

Out of nowhere, Russia’s president gave an award to a decorated Soviet general who died in 1942, symbolically endowing himself with Stalin’s bygone powers. A villager extorts money out of a bureaucrat by accusing them of treason, pretending to be a SMERSH (Soviet WWII counterintelligence) agent involved in a secret operation to restore the Soviet Union. A historical re-enactor goes from fighting in Transnistria, bedecked in a Tsarist Russia uniform and carrying an 1891 vintage rifle, to stirring up war in Donbas, introducing martial law in the first city captured on the grounds of an order given by the Supreme Soviet in 1941. These tragicomic stories from today’s Russia, all of which could just as easily serve as the basis for a novel, shed light on the unprocessed traumas left over from past historical cataclysms. The constant rewriting and falsification of history in the name of political expediency, the absence of a tradition of open historical debate, inaccessible archives, and a fear of airing dirty laundry or admitting to mistakes and crimes leads to a situation where history is swept away in scattered fragments to the distant corners of the collective unconscious, until its return in the form of vengeful, revanchist fantasies and myths. It cannot become anything resembling historical fact. Novels about time travelers—more often than not, military commandos—are printed in colossal quantities,1 whose heroes wind up in the past, armed with contemporary technology, and try to intervene in the course of history, be it by averting the fall of the USSR, the Horde Raids, and the Bolshevik Revolution; helping Tsars and Soviet leaders rule the world, or warning about the forks ahead in the road to progress. If Soviet science fiction, like the whole Soviet political project, were nevertheless targeted toward the future and partially constructed it—even in the era of decay, then today—and this is the principal distinction of the post-Soviet era—almost all “speculative” energy is devoted to the “time traveler” subgenre of alternative history. As it turns out, the ruling party was the main futurologist for Soviet people, who wrote the images of the future, however quackish they might have been, right into their planning documents. When it left the stage, it took the futurology with it. Instead of it, a fear appeared at all levels of society. The desire to stop time, replay history, and return to 1991, 1945, or 1814 are often and justifiably ascribed to Putin and his hawkish cronies as the ideological and psychological basis for their foreign policy. Political theorist and former Kremlin political strategist Gleb Pavlovsky compares the ruling group with the Soviet joke about the resistance fighter who continues to derail enemy trains, even though the war has long since ended. Essayist Alexander Baunov doesn’t see so much a trauma from the fall of the USSR or nostalgia for it as much as the fear of the elites in the face of the future, or rather before its Western version in which they already have no role: “The future is accompanied by a new inequality: some are able to get their bearings, while others aren’t. When the economy, technology, politics, and culture begin to overtake social structures, the revolutionaries come, and in response to the public’s fears, they promise to put the brakes on the rogue future on behalf of the people, and bring everyone back into a comfortable state of justice and equality”.2  

This is a guest post from Infrastructures. Infrastructures is a research-based photo project and photobook about the Russian and post-Soviet political economy, created in 2016-2019 by Sergey Novikov and Max Sher. Using documentary and staged photography, as well as writing, they look at and reflect on the political and cultural significance of both the physical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, pipelines, etc., and ‘infrastructure’ of thinking and discourse that historically underpin the functioning of the State and power.

1 On a website dedicated to the genre, there is a list of 2,585 such titles: (in Russian)

2 Александр Баунов. Страна-диссидент. Что не так с глобальным бунтом России. 20.06.17

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