27 December 2023
by Leonid Nikitinsky
Source: Novaya gazeta
It’s no accident. Before the “almost-naked party” scandal of 21 December at the Mutabor club, there was something missing in the Russian anthropological scene of the SVO [special military operation] era. But with this stroke it is done and dusted.
The majority of Novaya’s readers will scarcely have heard of the blogger Anastasia Ivleeva; we exist in different cultural spheres. Nor was she, like most of the other participants in the sabbath, likely to have been known to SVO soldiers, who nonetheless the next day not only watched the video on the Internet but also responded collectively and with a zeal they scarcely use in carrying out other military orders.
Here is a characteristic reply, which is quoted by journalist Anastasia Kashevarova, an advisor to the Duma speaker, from her correspondence with men who are defending the “Russian world” at its leading edge:
“The Ivleeva party: booze, drugs, music, all kinds of perversions, a diamond on an ass for 23 mil (this is *** loaves [a type of military equipment. — L. N.] that could buy and equip us with armor plates + drone jammers???). . . . With great disrespect for this scum, a soldier on the Dnieper front. I hope they get punished, it’s no party for us here (…).”
Bastrykin was a little slow on the uptake, though, and the state limited itself for the time being to 15 days of jail time for the rapper Vacio from Ekaterinburg, who came wearing a single sock on his private part (I have to wonder how that works technically). Do you know Vacio? Well, now you do. But this punishment, like Vacio’s assurances that he is not LGBT,* is hardly going to satisfy the provoked patriots.
Let’s listen to what Aleksandr Dugin thinks about this. He’s read Heidegger, after all, and doubtless will raise the topic to the appropriate philosophical height:
“Some condemn this ‘chutzpah’—the untethered, impudent, and extremely cynical behavior of a criminal who gets away with everything. . . . This is how liberals and Ukrainian nazis behave. . . . Chutzpah is a model of behavior unknown to Russians, despite all our unpredictability and often astonishing courage. A Russian man is always constrained by his conscience. . . .”
“Some,” the philosopher neglects to clarify, means “Jews.” “Chutzpah” is a Yiddish word, but the omnipresent Jews (who for the most part forgot Yiddish long ago) would never have characterized the criminal this way. In modern Russian translation this is a “lone wolf” but not an “outlaw.”
The rest of the media that rushed to say something mainly limited themselves to the word “vulgarity.” Here is that rare instance when I would agree with the Z-bloggers, although I think “degeneracy” fits even more. But this assessment does not exhaust the most important dimensions of this event.
Speaking for the defense is Ksenia Sobchak. Now she, like the majority of propagandists for the participants trying to justify themselves in front of the cameras, is presenting it all as an “almost-naked party,” an ordinary get-together for their gang, and saying the photos and videos were leaked to social media accidentally. But the scandal’s Bickford fuse was Sobchak’s Telegram channel with its 3.5 million subscribers. That isn’t a leak, it’s a conscious—and powerful, as the reaction indicates—statement. This isn’t private life, which should be protected from totalitarian (total) control, it’s a launch.
Here is how Sobchak commented on the event:
“The world is unfair. It always was, is, and will be. Somewhere people are killing, somewhere children are starving, and somewhere people are drinking champagne at the same time.”
Is this cynical? On the other hand it’s not hypocritical, as with Kashevarova, and it’s not a fairytale with a nationalistic tinge, as with Dugin.
Meanwhile, the Z-propaganda that came out consciously or due to a misunderstanding gives the event a moral as well as a cultural dimension. On the surface, both come with a minus sign. But in the optics we want to view it in, “it’s not all so unambiguous.”
Ksenia Anatolievna has excellent taste, and if she is doing something tasteless, then it’s intentional and derisive. Sobchak is a historical figure. Not in the sense that she is making history (we can never answer the question of who is “making” it), but from time to time she reflects and expresses history as contemporaneity very accurately. In a way she’s creating now an artistic image that can’t be understood in the moment but will be when the time comes for reflection. Not that we know when it will—or to what extent or where.
* * *
The movie Cabaret was made in Hollywood in 1972, forty years after the events that form the basis of the movie: the decline of Weimar Germany. It would not have occurred to me to call “Cabaret” a musical, although Bob Fosse, by then already famous as a choreographer, filmed it in that genre. It turned out to be one of the most profound pictures about what was happening in Germany on the eve of the Nazis coming to power, but also about what followed, although in the movie all this gruesome detail remains behind the scenes.
The autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin was written by the English writer Christopher Isherwood in 1939 and did not become a major cultural event – both because of its unremarkable quality and because the time for reflection had not yet come. In Julia Boyd’s book Travellers in the Third Reich. The Rise of Fascism through the Eyes of Everyday People, published in Russian translation in 2017, almost an entire chapter (‘Sex and Sun’) is devoted to Isherwood – in 1932 an adventurer and pleasure seeker in Berlin. Many tourists, on whose testimonies Boyd relies, also drew attention to the laxity of morals in the Weimar Republic, in particular to the predilection of its inhabitants to appear naked not only on the beaches (which were extremely crowded), but also almost naked in the streets.
Röhm’s fighters were shot to death during an orgy – not much more licentious than the party in the Mutabor club. Worth watching on the subject are Luchino Visconti’s The Damned [titled ‘Downfall of the Gods’ in Russian translation -ed.], István Szabó’s Mephisto and the German TV series Babylon Berlin, and in general the filmography and literature – both fiction and non-fiction, historical and academic – about this time is very extensive. However, Weimar Berlin is not unique: the same moral laxity of a cocaine-fuelled decadence swept St. Petersburg on the eve of World War I and the catastrophe of 1917.
It is not that artistic natures somehow anticipate the future and fascinate the ‘masses’ that imitate them, or that the deficit of meaning in life is simply replaced by such a hysterical – on the verge of suicidal – carnivals.
And Isherwood’s novel is itself quite vulgar, as are the adventures carefully described in it. The movie Cabaret rises above the vulgarity, not only by the brilliant staging and acting of Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey (in the movie they star in a Berlin cabaret), but also the sense of imminent and inexorable disaster that they convey with their acting. We in the audience are given to understand this, not retrospectively, when everyone already knows everything, but through a strange premonition from within the moment itself, which Minnelli and Gray play not via the text, but by the sense of the internal breakdown of an absolutely effervescent, unrestrained circus.
Doctors have told me that the greatest moral laxity in hospitals is shown by cancer patients. Perhaps it’s wrong to brand this as depravity. It’s love, but very short, for a single night, even for five minutes in a toilet that smells of carbolic acid. Not for long, because they just don’t have that ‘long’ anymore – that’s the thing.
No, the blogger Ivleeva & Co. can’t even morally couldn’t manage such a carnival, their party is routine, tired effort. Although forty years from now, who knows? – probably someone will perform it, but we can’t know who or where.
We just have to look at it as if it were a scene from a movie of a cloudless future. We need to see in it a premonition – even if it has not yet been felt or portrayed by the participants themselves, but it is there.
In the final scene, Minnelli’s heroine has an abortion, not knowing whose child it would be, and refuses to leave Berlin. The cabaret is her life. She is lifted above vulgarity by her fate. She is a victim, and it is inescapable. Because such people can commit all sorts of indecencies, but not violence. And it turns out they are the only people with dignity in this tornado of time. Here Cabaret coincides with the thought of Hannah Arendt, who testified that, apart from those who escaped Weimar in time, only those, often marginalized and freaks, who were too disgusted by violence and were simply unable to cross that line, were able to avoid staining themselves with ties to the Nazis – sometimes at the cost of their lives.
Just recently a National Russian Creative Contest was announced – the ‘Cultural Code of the Russian Federation’. This is a ‘national project for creative, enterprising people who love their country and appreciate its rich history and culture.’ It is not excluded that some of those who took part in the ‘naked party’ will take part in this contest and receive some of the millions allocated for it. After all, they are the cultural elite of the nation. Carefully nurtured by its leadership, starting with the reformatting of the real NTV after its seizure in 2001 and ending with the destruction of all meaningful media after 24 February 2022 (and the declaration of Boris Akunin as an extremist).
So the bewildered helplessness of the formidable Investigative Committee is natural. If Vacio from Ekaterinburg had worn an anti-war price tag instead of a sock, like Skochilenko, then it would have been understandable: he would have gotten eight years instead of 15 days.
And the others seem to have had nothing to do with it – just some kids who’ve misbehaved, it happens. And who knows what kind of bribes changed hands? In a word, ‘elite’ …
It’s a continuum. At one pole are those who are killed and kill, and at the other pole are those who try their best to stay out of it. We are somewhere in the middle, which is both risky and somehow confusing. With such a divide between the poles, a lightning strike is inevitable. But if we want to understand where we live and what will happen to us, we need to see them both.
* Recognized as extremist and banned in Russia.