Sunday, January 24, 2010
In Russian history, linguistic change--or, more precisely, change in the sources and rates of linguistic borrowing--has always been the most reliable barometer of cultural change, from the Mongol era to Peter the Great to the Bolsheviks. Thus it would not be misguided to regard the sudden influx of internet vocabulary (for instance, the verb frendit' "to friend" and its derivates, like rasfrendit' "to unfriend") as a significant cultural milestone. Indeed, nineteenth-century defenders of the concept of the "Russian Soul" would be astonished to discover how readily Russians have embraced internet culture in all its forms. Sites like Livejournal have become serious claimants to the legacy of the nineteenth-century "circle" and "fat journal," in part, of course, because state policy has a much more relaxed attitude to the Internet than to other media. (I hear that this may be in the process of changing--but one of the reasons for the .ru-net's success is the extensive participation of the Russian diaspora in Israel and elsewhere, which will presumably continue as normal.)
But before we get all excited, 1995-style, about the democratizing potential of the online public sphere, it is important to remember what Russian internet culture is not. For one thing, just like English-speaking Internet culture, it is not politically-deliberative in a Habermasian kind of way at all. Political views as expressed on Livejournal tend to be inchoate and visceral, which is demonstrated most clearly by the proliferation of comments along the lines of "this is the work of Western intelligence services!" during any discussion of current events. Less surprisingly, the .ru-net is not very receptive to high-minded, long-form intellectualism (even if short-form intellectualism is common). Just as anywhere else, the "lowbrow" elements of Internet culture remain the most popular.
What is interesting is how this Internet culture has migrated into the cultural mainstream. A case in point is two recent films, Stiliagi and Chernaia Molniia. The former is a glossy "musical" about the jazz-loving hipsters of the Soviet 1950s (but all the songs are old hits from the 1980s); the latter, just released, is a hyper-Hollywood-style action flick about an MGU student who finds a flying black Volga automobile and becomes a superhero. Both films position themselves squarely in the realm of nostalgia. Stiliagi ends with the weighty declaration "There are no stiliagi in America!" and ultimately defends the exhilaration and intimacy of '50s counterculturalism, while Chernaia Molniia pits its Volga, which represents the Soviet-era values of cooperation and justice, against rapacious oligarchic capitalism as represented by the supervillain's white Mercedes. This nostalgia, however, is of a very particular kind: it is effectively just a mode for the self-realization of an aesthetics founded on kitsch. (How else can we explain the coexistence, in Chernaiia Molniia, of sub-Avatar levels of banal anticapitalism with blatant product-placement ads for Mentos and internet service?) In this case, kitsch is created by deliberately ramping up "sincerity" and pathos to the point where the film becomes both deadly serious and hilariously over-the-top--a device clearly originating in Internet culture.
The Internet arrived at a remarkably propitious moment in Russian cultural history. Communism had fallen, taking with it the "punk" aesthetic of perestroika as well as the dissidents and the high-culture snobs of the day. Pelevin, Sorokin, and company (the literary movement referred to in Russia as "postmodernism") reigned almost unchallenged. The Internet, in its way, destroyed postmodernism by taking it further than it was willing to go: for instance, where the early Pelevin had used high irony and the play of cultural signifiers to get at Big Ideas, the contemporary Pelevin treats even the Big Ideas as effectively meaningless artistic devices. The gap between this and Chernaiia Molniia is a narrow one indeed.