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Guest post: Subjunctive Russia: notes on discursive grammar of conservative utopia

Guest post by Ivan Gololobov

Thinking about why did we end up here, in the situation where Russian troops bombard Ukrainian cities and towns and significant part of the population in Russia either support and justify this or deny the fact that it is war following official state version of calling ‘military operation’ I couldn’t stop coming back to the concept of utopia. It seems to me that is a particular type of utopian thinking, born after the fall of the Soviet Union and installed as a mainstream discourse a decade or so ago, which can explain why for so many people in Russia it is difficult to look at the events in Ukraine in any other way than the official propaganda suggests.

What is utopia? It is a belief in a perfect society. Why is it important in politics? Because, as Laclau and Mouffe, for instance, suggest, without utopia, strictly speaking, there is no politics and no society: society as a project which links communication, institutions and practices into a common discourse.

What is particular in this period of history is that Russia seems to have fallen for a particular type of utopian thinking which I can call here ‘conservative utopia’. What is classic utopia? This is important to note to see the difference.

The French, American and October Revolution of 1917, are the typical examples of classic utopias. The perfect society they are looking at is in the future and the transition to this perfect society is seen through a radical, if not complete, break with the past. «Весть мир насилья мы разрушим до основанья, а затем, мы наш мы новый мир построим, кто был никем тот станет всем».

What is conservative utopia based upon? The perfect society here is in the past. In Russia this utopia started to grow straight after the fall of the Soviet Union. ‘The Russia We Lost’ by Stanislav Govorukhin, released in 1992 is a clear example. We, the society, need to move to re-build something which we already had but which we somehow lost. But this gaze in the past has a very interesting nuance. Mikhail Elizarov pointed it our in his ‘Librarian’. The past which is in the centre of Soviet nostalgia is not about the grief for country which was, it is a grief for the country we could have had. This utopia is a subjunctive utopia.

Why this particular nuance is interesting. Because this subjunctive mood is inherent in all conservative utopias in Russia of the last few decades. From monarchists a-la Nikita Mikhalkov, through Stalinists of USSR 2.0 project to neo-imperialism of expanding Russia recently articulated by Surkov. The perfect Russia is the Russia which we could have had if there would be no perestroika, no greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the fall of the USSR, no Washington obkom, no gay-ropa around the corner etc. This subjunctive mood sets a clear discursive grammar which is then followed by the participants of political communication.

Let me introduce few key elements of this grammar.

Boris Uspensky writes about how different perception of historical type organises discourse around it. According to him, the mode when the present is seen as the beginning of the future, which is what classic utopias are about, constitutes what he calls ‘historical’ or ‘scientific’ time.  The mode where the present is seen as first and foremost the consequence of the past is ‘cosmological’ or ‘religious’ time. Interesting here is when this time is projected to the future it is not projected historically or scientifically, not rationally, but as Uspensky puts it – ‘symbolically’ where the image of the past is transferred to represent the future passing by the present. One can clearly see the subjunctive move here.

Then, how do these modes of thinking claim their discursive validity? In theoretical tradition of Moscow-Tartu semiotic school, where Uspensky comes from symbol is isomorphic, i.e. it is not transparent, its logic is not open. It holds because of discursive authority of the speaking subject. In direct contrast with the scientific mode which holds because of its argument, logic which is open, tendentially non-hierarchical discussion.

Now think how the Russian oppositional  discourse is constructed: argument, transparency, discussion. Look what is the role of the present: the present is the beginning of the future. Russian invasion in Ukraine is looked through its consequences.

How the official governmental discourse is built. The present is not important. The future, which is a subjunctive imprint of the past which has not been, but which needs to be realised, is. What makes these claims valid? The authority of the speaking subject. This is where the laws criminalising ‘insulting the feelings of …’ become normal. That is why, in its extreme, public debate is reduced in extorted apologies from your critics.

And this is where the tacit consent, or the absence of vocal criticism and active stand against what Russia is doing in Ukraine can be found. For those who operate in ‘cosmological’ or ‘religious’ discourse (the exact names are not that important here, what is important is claims of validity and particular role of the  present) what is going on right now, the present, is numb, it is unimportant, while the subjunctive future and the past, especially the past, however illusionary and constructed it is, is what they fix their picture of the world around. Therefore anything, which hits their present, and even more – anything which may hit their future, the one that may be derived from the present, the rational one – is a foreign language. What is not foreign – who won WWII? Was Soviet Union the best country in the world? Was Russia a civilising power in 19th century? Was it a saviour in Donbass  after 2014?

In the light of these observations, it might be wrong to expect that sanctions, economic hardship, lower life standards are going to play significant role in shifting the attitudes. Or, in fact, any rational and causal argument. What would, however, is the loss of the discursive authority of those who hold symbols of subjunctive utopia together. And to shake this authority is a more difficult task. Especially, since the supreme guarantor of Russian conservative utopia seems well aware of the danger to lose it. 

Ivan Gololobov is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath.