The Dictatorship of Culture. Leonid Nikitinsky on propaganda and violence — two sides of the same coin, minted in Russia

20 February 2024

by Leonid Nikitinsky

Source: Novaya gazeta


Let us continue assessing recent events in the sphere of law sort of, but more often touching on the sphere of culture now, in the terms of that culture and philosophy itself: legal logic has already been banished from here and even the “dictatorship of law” promised by Prime Minister Putin back in early 2000 can’t explain anything.

Homogeneous Russia (GR)—the party of power

In a major interview with Boris Kagarlitsky* recorded shortly before—and posted on our YouTube channel “But. Media from Russia”—the very day he was handcuffed after his verdict was changed, the professor spoke of a lecture by Max Weber, “Politics as a Calling and a Profession.”

In this famous appearance, in 1919, Weber proposed distinguishing between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility. The former is what compels us to rush into a bitter argument, if not a fight, without listening to each other. Whereas the ethics of responsibility, which befits a true politician, compels him to look ahead to the day after tomorrow and think about the consequences of his decisions. 

The ethics of responsibility does not eliminate conviction but it does permit compromise.

From 1953 to 1963, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s secretary of state and closest advisor was the jurist Hans Globke, the author and interpreter of the anti-Semitic Nurenberg laws of 1935 who avoided the tribunal by that name only because he had not formally been admitted to the NSDAP [National Socialist German Workers’ Party]. During this period, an unwritten vow of silence was in effect regarding the Nazi past, a vow broken only by the next generation of Germans in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In present-day Russia, the rank-and-file operators of political repressions, as well as the informers (the prankers Vovan and Leksus are also a phenomenon of the culture), act sincerely, more than likely, based on the ethics of conviction. Is this myopic logic applied to President Putin and his innermost circle correct? Worse, I fear. Their actions, which from the rational standpoint seem maladaptive, are in fact quite rational (again according to Weber) and seem to them sensible and even inevitable.

When he pictures Russia’s future, Putin sees it exactly like this: homogeneous and without any need for hesitant people, that is, the humanitarian intelligentsia above all but also the technical intelligentsia, although the latter are “costs.”

The repressions against historians, writers, journalists, and cultural figures, as well as the spy-mania in the defense industries, did not begin yesterday, but after February 2022 they shifted to a fundamentally new level. The question about their meaning, as well as about the purpose of the special military operation itself, should be posed not as “For what purpose?” but as “For what reason?”

Continuing to reason according to Weber’s logic, the Russian regime exhausted the possibility of its legitimation with the help of the law, that is, in a rational manner. The sole means for preserving legitimacy—in the form of acclamation, through which the actual monarch is slated to pass through yet again in a month—remains sacralization, that is, myth.

By no means should the power of a myth that constructs imagined communities (Benedict Anderson) be underestimated.  Unlike faith, though, which does not rule out rational doubt, a myth that addresses the emotions exclusively is just as mighty as it is fragile.

After the movie Panfilov’s 28 Men appeared on screens in 2016 (see the Novaya Gazeta reviewEd.), history scholars pointed out that four of the posthumously decorated heroes turned out to be alive and one had fallen captive to the Germans and served as a Polizei, and this had been established by a Soviet court. Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky called the scholars “washed-up scum”: “Even if the story of Panfilov’s 28 men was made up from start to finish, this is a sacred legend that simply cannot be touched.”

The philosopher Giorgio Agamben analyzes the political procedure of moving certain essences from the sacral sphere to the sphere of the profane and back: that is what the struggle is being waged around. Apart from his rhetoric, which was unusual even for that period, in a certain sense Medinsky was right. A myth functions only as a whole, like a concrete slab.

No one was disputing the deed of Soviet soldiers in winter 1941 outside Moscow; however, any attempt to approach the myth rationally and cast doubt even on its individual details threatens “profanation” and is dangerous for the regime whose legitimacy it undergirds.

In the absence of clear reasons, the special military operation at the beginning was grounded in the long history, beginning with Tsar Gorokh, of relations between Russia and the West, although somewhere along the line both get reinvented. For this, what is most convenient is to turn to historical personages plucked out of the long chronicle litany and pick what they supposedly did and said—they’re not going to be protesting from their graves.

Law enforcement’s frequently described selectivity also functions with respect to historical events and persons. But this shaky myth has to be safe-guarded—above all from historians attempting to refute it. In this way the culture (without quotation marks) created strives to be monolithic, and this requires shutting up opponents. Hence, probably, the case of Yuri Dmitriev, the researcher of the mass burials at Sandarmokh, the elimination of Memorial* and the Moscow Helsinki Group, and much else as well.

The new features of “MTM—machine of totalitarianism modernized” (for more detail, see the 27 January publication on the site) lie in fact in its close link to propaganda, to the point of their merging. MTM’s propaganda component is engaged in creating mythology, its repressive component in a struggle with those who view it critically, and they can no longer exist separately.

On the Vashi Novosti site, they have just published a programmatic column by literary critic Andrei Rudalev, “Literature Needs a Reboot,” which exposes the servility to the West of the most famous contemporary Russian writers and publishers and proposes transferring the entire publishing business to the Ministry of Culture. According to inquiries made, the site was created by friends of the State Duma’s Culture Committee chair, Elena Yampolskaya. The repressive part of the legislative “machine” is already chomping at the bit.

The Effective No One

I think the philosopher, Diana Gasparyan (I may be mistaken, Google doesn’t come up with anything and she herself can’t remember), has looked at the particular role of reflexive verbs in Russian. It’s impossible in English or French to say, “The vase broke itself”. The statement has to have a subject, even if only “someone”. Whereas the subjectless construction “ся/сь[“-sya/s’”] is very deeply rooted in Russian thinking. 

This is how the permanent representative of Russia to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, answered a BBC question in a recent interview: We didn’t start it (***). (***) It started itself/of its own accord “началась” [“nachalas’”]…

For us, violence is subjectless and not only in its diabolical forms but in softer versions too.  For example, who banned libraries from letting readers borrow books by Liudmila Ulitskaya, a writer who is not stigmatised even as a “foreign agent” at least? No one will ever know. No one: to be on the safe side, her books somehow banned themselves “запретились” [“zapretilis’”].

Dousing this same Ulitskaya with brilliant green antiseptic in 2016 in connection to a school history competition (and Мuratov* with paint, and the car and home of Latynina* with a highly-toxic and foul-smelling substance) are actions that lie outside the law but, in the eyes of a majority of their compatriots and, above all, of those who constitute the main body of civil servants and security officials (“siloviki”), they are apparently legitimate (may be approved of). Were it otherwise, “the law-enforcement agencies” would have caught at least one such partisan but they “have found” no one in dozens of high-profile cases. This is not the state ceding its monopoly on legitimate violence (Weber yet again!) but, on the contrary, its expansion via units belonging to paramilitary structures.

At the same time, this is one of two Russian cultures, the one in which violence is elevated to a virtue, at any rate when it is wielded against a representative of the second, less-widely represented culture, perceived as “alien”. When he incites his subjects to bloody vengeance, Ramzan Kadyrov is committing a crime under the laws of the Russian Federation but, in his own republic which is de facto entirely sovereign, he is most likely legitimate – such is the centuries-old custom.

Here once again the key word is “responsibility”. In the Western (Christian) paradigm, only the individual answers to God one on one. He may found collectives with others for the sake of cooperation but there can be no collective subject of responsibility. The Russian Orthodox Church, in guaranteeing soldiers in the Special Military Operation collective admittance “to paradise”, is moving away from Christianity towards Islam or even the adat laws, while human rights  — deriving ultimately from Christian values — naturally prove to be a Western invention running counter to the spirit of collectivism.

One Language — Two Ethics 

Ukraine is historically closer to the West than Russia is, and not only geographically. However, in the Russia re-educated by two and a half centuries of the Mongolian yoke, both cultures have co-existed at least since Peter the Great: one conventionally Western, the other conventionally Eastern in which a collective subject trumps the guilt of separate individuals. We, half-European, half-Asiatic, carry within us both genes of responsibility (and irresponsibility) while which one is activated in the population and when, depends, I think on the details of current history.

The words “conformism” and “comfort” have the same root. The policy in the cultural sphere that found expression in the name of the United Russia party as long ago as 2001 initially merely created the conditions for the formation of a collectivist “people” but gradually morphed into the destruction of that part of the people that is not represented in state agencies, officially at least (while unofficially, it seems, it includes Deep Purple fan and ex-President and United Russia chair Dmitry Medvedev, whose current homespun ultraism is explained by his terror of the “Russian world” of his immediate entourage).

The clash of these two ethics is not a battle between good and evil but a disconnect between two differently understood types of well-being. The difference in world-view is based on the boundary between good and evil being the point at which violence appears. Ivan Ilyin, seen by the Russian world as a most important philosopher and statist, might well have welcomed the Nazis’ coming to power in Germany but could nevertheless not bring himself to declare violence a good thing outright. He extricated himself from the dilemma of two ethics with the aid of the specially-invented artificial term “zastavlenie” [akin to “necessitation”] but this in no way alters the essence of violence. 

For the liberal Westerniser the state is ultimately an evil. And while it may so far be the least of evils and even a necessary one, it does not thereby become a good. And, however paradoxical it might appear, individualism turns out to be more peace-loving than collectivism. It emphasises competition, sometimes even fierce competition, but all the same this is an “agon” not antagonism

The zone of the Special Military Operation is not the only arena in which two ethical paradigms or even civilisations clash. HAMAS and other fundamentalist currents see themselves as a collective subject and the “wild West” does not hang back. Trump’s rhetoric also finds a response among a certain collective “we”. 

It is pointless to say which of the cultures is better or worse. None of the European languages, including Russian, can be compared to Chinese. They are simply organised according to totally different principles. What the West has been able to show over the last four to five centuries is greater economic effectiveness and a capacity for great achievements in the sphere of the arts.  The collective subject is incapable of innovation and original authorship and those individuals who are capable and who also exist of course in the Eastern paradigm countries are not infrequently persecuted there and find themselves in the West.

In the contemporary world which is becoming global, thanks to means of communication and the removal of language barriers, people from the Western paradigm are beginning to construct associations over and above state borders. 

This creates a threat to the sovereignty of states drawn to “traditional values”. For them “the final battle with transgender toilets” is coming although there have already been a good many such final battles in the history of the various countries.

The Death of the Author

The practices of violence in the cultural sphere are brilliantly analyzed in “Neo-Suslovism” (from the name of the chief ideologue of Brezhnevian socialism, Mikhail Suslov) on the Novaya site by Andrei Sapozhnikov, who describes “state terror unleashed against a specific social group—participants in the cultural process who do not belong to the conventional clan of ‘trusted individuals.’”

In the context of hysterical “traditional values” propaganda, the spike of repressions has been aimed at those who create ideas not envisaged for the official discourse, and with unexpected strength. Culture and violence coalesce in ecstasy.

The law is more closely connected to civilization than is usually thought, though. Merab Mamardashvili spoke about law’s institutions as “culture’s muscles.” The abuse of law without the destruction of culture is impossible. Thus, in order to obtain the “knowledge” required for a future sentence against Evgenia Berkovich and Svetlana Petriychuk for “propaganda of terrorism,” they are going to have to bring in the kinds of “experts” who either understand nothing about culture specifically or else, what is more likely, replace true (recognized) culture with an obvious fake.

The “Russian world,” wonderfully described by Father Andrei Kordochnikin, is a way of organizing time and space in the virtual as well as the real sense, and on this backdrop copyright (intellectual property rights)—the most modern and quickly developing of its branches—becomes the arena for the ongoing clash between the modern and the archaic.

Copyright assumes first and foremost the author’s inalienable right to his name. But what name can someone who is unreliable have? (Recall “Yura the musician” in the meeting with the president, who supposedly forgot Shevchuk’s last name in 2010.) Deleting the names of authors and actors from posters is the least offensive, albeit blatantly illegal, of practices. But intellectual property is property, and by law it cannot be simply taken away and appropriated, as was done with the recording of records in the Soviet Union.

Discontinuing royalty payments for the performance of works is a violation of the law and the terms of the contract. Authors who are deprived of revenue on the grounds that they are donating it to charity for the citizens of Ukraine can be fined judicially—but who today is letting their representatives into trials? Then comes the cancellation of performances and concerts on quasi-legitimate pretexts. The “law on confiscation,” which has already been passed and signed by the president, is aimed at seizing property from popular but “unpatriotic” authors.

Questions arise that have long been known in legal theory about a law’s effect in time and space. The removal of published books from stores and libraries signifies the assignment of retroactive force to nonlaw (on nonlaw, see «МТМ» for 27 January). 

The attempt to take the musicians from B-2 out of Thailand and to Russia as an example is an attempt (as it turned out, using unacceptable means, but we will leave the diplomatic aspect in parentheses) to spread Russia’s nonlaw outside its sovereign borders.

The management of the Aleksandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg sent Boris Akunin* a notice saying that the authorship of his play 1881 belongs to the creative group and the director, inasmuch as “the play’s text consists of a compilation of historical materials and dialogs based on archival materials.” Only someone who is consciously locking himself and his theatre inside the boundaries of sovereign Russia could sign such a letter. No civilized (in the sense of copyright) country is going to invite or welcome this theatre in the foreseeable future.

The notice that he is a wanted man and other foolishness could not help but make its critically minded subject, the writer  Dmitry Glukhovsky,* smile, but it’s getting dangerous to make jokes. We have just received notice that a young woman who jokingly (albeit inappropriately) tickled an image of the breast of the “Homeland-Mother” sculpture on her smartphone has been taken into custody in Volgograd. In Krasnoyarsk, the artist Vasily Slonov has been put under house arrest for his stylized tumbler doll decorated with blue tattoos, in which the investigative organs discerned “a demonstration of extremist symbolism” (the “AUE movement,” which is banned in Russia).

If they were more curious, those who are overseeing the repressions, led by the Duma, would do well to read Michel Foucault’s thoughts on “the death of the author.” In his concept, the former author becomes an “empty” function of discourse. By the way, this view does not contradict the usual understanding of authorship but allows us to look at it from the inside, where the small stitches and knots are easier to see.

With respect to Kristina Orbakaita (“the daughter of a foreign agent”—but this is more a case of boorish inattention than a lie), it is better to keep too much vigil than not enough.  However, the view from the inside reveals to us more than family secrets. In his interview with Tucker Carlson, the president, to the general disappointment, said nothing new. He can’t. He is no longer a subject but an “empty function”: the discourse he once started is now governing him, not the other way around.

“The death of the author,” which has become not only an anti-legal but also a cultural paradigm for Russian politics, also stems from the individual person’s preference for the “collective subject.”

Art differs from a fake by a quality that is hard to explain but sharply perceived: “style.” The mass procession to the movies to see Master and Margarita is explained not so much by the search for “anti-Soviet” ideas between the lines, which young people scarcely consider, as it is by the fact that the film simply has style. Ekaterina Mizulina—whose triumphant procession from city to city and town to town along with her exploitation of the “Barbie” image is explained by the compulsory filling of auditoriums by young admirers—cannot slake this thirst for style altogether anymore than a shaman dyed like a “blond beast” and swathed in black leather can.

Released simultaneously with Master (only online, out of embarrassment) is the “youth thriller” Kelipat. Russkaya Gazeta explains: the authors derived the name from the kabbala, where it means an ungodly force, and tell the story of “a group of young people who are arrested on suspicion of extremism, a group that includes an artist, a Stanford graduate, the administrator of an oppositionist Telegram channel, a governor’s daughter, a feminist, and an anarchist.” Need any additional clarifications on this subject?

This is the old Chekist song, kind of like the “Bolotnaya affair,” about “foreign influence.” However, images of those who have fallen under liberals’ ruinous influence are ahistorical and unnatural, and this cannot be looked at even as a joke. Things worked out for Mikhail Lokshin, who has settled in the United States, but not for the patriots at all. Russia has no Leni Riefenstahl, Vitaly Mansky* with his “Artdokfest” has long been a “foreign agent,” and for some reason Besogon’s talent, which charmed us so in his youth, has dried up.

Truth, which we don’t have either, I guess, has no patience for a fake. Great Russian literature, which no one “in the West” is contemplating “canceling,” is spinning in its grave. If it’s been canceled anywhere, then it’s here, in Russia.

Wizards of the Emerald City

Foucault deals predominantly with soft disciplinary practices that are so ubiquitous that they are no longer perceived as violence. To describe them, he introduces the notion of the “dispositif.” Simplifying, a dispositif is what we are allowed and even commanded to know in a certain era on a certain “sovereign” territory. Such knowledge is protected and introduced at school, where history is drilled in using Medinsky’s textbook, at the institute, where students risk failing the exam if they talk about Alexander Nevsky’s groveling before the horde, when they are hired to work in a government job and in the process of doing the work, and, of course, through the television, where Russians listen to ideological jibes at dinner.

In Irkutsk, a mother who asked her kindergarten teacher not to make too much use of military toys has just been fined for discrediting the armed forces.

The kindergarten teacher got her convicted, explaining in court the government policy: to educate children to be ready to defend their homeland. The younger and more trusting the child is, the more strongly the dispositif is formed.

The dispositif is not inside the head, but not quite outside it either – it is green glasses with a lock, which the pseudo-wizard Goodwin made all the inhabitants of the Emerald City wear. In IT terms, it’s not hardware or external information, but “software” that makes something compatible with your head and something else incompatible.

There’s also an interesting conclusion to draw from this fine fairytale, albeit stolen (we’re back to copyright: “Oz” was originally invented by American writer Frank Baum): Goodwin is more afraid of Ellie and her friends than they are of him.

For this reason, apparently, the current Russian regime, while declaring a return to premodernity in the form of the “basic pillars” of the state (among which the chair of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation once bluntly referred to serfdom), at the same time professes postmodern relativism itself, primarily in the cultural sphere.

Culture, as we still understand it (although it is not certain that this understanding will continue to exist), is a phenomenon of modernity, an era in which it is believed that truth, one way or another, exists (even if it is not necessarily knowable). Postmodernity, as a worldview opposing modernity, is characterized, on the contrary, by relativism: truth does not exist, “everyone has their own”.

We cannot avoid reproaches for relying more on Western authors instead of our own popsicle Dugin. But this is just another confirmation of the fact that nothing new grows in a culture built on the priority of “we” – even Ilyin, beloved of the “Russian world,” philosophized not in the USSR but in Weimar Germany. We are not at all obliged to share the relativistic and pessimistic conclusions of the postmodernists, but their unusual approaches allow us to shake up the usual picture of the world, turn it upside down, and then most likely return it to its former position, but with a new understanding. “If we can do nothing, we can at least understand” is my favourite motto from Hannah Arendt.

Meanwhile, even Soviet experience teaches us that we can carry “spare glasses” in our pockets – the main thing is not to confuse when and where to put them on – and thus gently evade coercion. The collapse of the USSR owed its comparative bloodlessness to the well-learned practice of doublethink.

Is it possible to replace the “software” in the heads of our compatriots? Yes, and this has been done in our country many times. But it is a painful operation for any individual, fraught with the failure of their “computer”. And everyone can perform this operation only by themselves, and only if the need (changing reality) makes them do it.

Pity, Especially for Everyone

In a very profound work, Terror and Speech. Theses of 2023 (on the website Koine – google it), Mikhail Nemtsev notes that ‘state terror seeks to deprive us first of all of “speech” (in a broader sense – culture). At the same time, “speech” – addressing others – is not just the use of linguistic ability… If one can give a material definition of the “essence of humankind”, it is in this – in the ability to say something… State terror criminalizes people’s actualization of their essence – the very “humanity of the human being”.’

In Moscow, a young woman went to the doctor with her son and told him, explaining something in the child’s diagnosis, that his father had been killed somewhere ‘in the annexed territories.’ The doctor allegedly replied that such a fighter was a ‘legitimate target’ for the Ukrainians. The son was not in the office, the conversation was one-on-one, the ‘discrediting’, which the investigative authorities immediately attributed to the doctor upon the patient’s complaint, was not public (which is an essential feature of this crime), and there was no discrediting here either.

The doctor was fired and placed under house arrest. In an hour, the TV channels made a star out of the sobbing mother that same night. The problem is, humanly speaking, I feel sorry for both of them. The pediatrician is 67 years old, her apartment was ransacked, even though there was no need for a search. And as for the patient, even if she’s inclined to hysteria, what’s her fault?

Kant defined enlightenment as ‘a person’s emergence from the state of adolescence…in which they have been through their own fault.’ And in does this fault lie? Laziness and unwillingness to use one’s own mind. Why study if “God is with us”?

Let the son of this mother from the clinic decide for himself, twenty years from now, when he grows up, whether he is proud of his father or not. We can’t take that right away from him. What we can do is try to make sure that he grows up to be a thinking and educated man, and let him at least have a free choice here.

And this is the opportunity of which the current Russian regime is trying to deprive us by combining the tools of dumbing down some people and coercing others. Perhaps, they will eliminate us as pests. But then it will no longer be the historical Russia.

I borrowed the subtitle of this section from Zoya Eroshok, a columnist for Novaya and a friend of mine, who died a few years ago of cancer. She didn’t live to see the Special Military Operation – maybe she was “evacuated” in time. But I am sure: if she were alive, she would now be repeating this phrase every day.


* Recognized as a ‘foreign agent’ in the Russian Federation.


Translated by Marian Schwartz, Melanie Moore and Simon Cosgrove

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