A belief in jest: anarchic arts in postmodern Russia

Our guest blogger today is Alexandar Mihailovic, whose book The Mitki and the Art of Postmodern Protest in Russia is published this week. The art collective known as the Mitki emerged in Leningrad during the late Soviet period.

My road to writing The Mitki and the Art of Postmodern Protest in Russia was a circuitous one. I first discovered the Mitki by buying a pirated recording of their music at the Kiev train station in Moscow. Who were these satirical dabblers in paint, print, and sound? Like Yeats’s jester, the Mitki tossed up the gaudy “cap and bells” of their collective disinhibition to a public struggling to understand its sudden citizenship in a new country. Very quickly, other questions jostled for attention. How can artists categorize themselves as “non-conformist” while belonging to a movement?  And why do they occasionally regard alcoholism as a productive catalyst for artistic creation, while also acknowledging it as a social ill?

One of the artistic productions by the Mitki that first caught my eye was Olga Florensky’s remarkable 1994 claymation film A Story About the Miracle of Miracles (Rasskaz o chude iz chudes), a quasi-steampunk narrative of pre-Emancipation Russian military history that is also a reworking of Nikolai Leskov’s 1881 story “Lefty” [Levsha]. In Florensky’s film, a mechanical leg takes on a life of its own, separating from its owner, the military officer Major Propoitsyn. (Watch the short film on YouTube.)

Florensky wrote her first version of this story in July 1986, during Mikhail Gorbachev’s dry law and at the height of the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan. She points to the ways in which the machines of war may contain sub-routines for renouncing their bellicose owners. The fact that the name of the Major, Propoitsyn, contains the word ‘drunkard’ (propoitsa) also suggests that imperial ambitions are expressions of unhealthy political passion.  As Florensky put it in the program essay for her 1999 exhibit Taxidermy, “the more I think about the role of effigies in the life of man, the more I find myself leaning toward the following idea: can it be that he doesn’t have to kill, in satisfying his despotic creative urges? Or, as one friend put it—a Russian born in Germany, with an uncertain grasp of the language of his ancestors—that he does not have to enmortify [primertvliat’] animals? Let the ARTIFICIAL ANIMAL be utterly artificial—may it go with God, in all its violations of anatomy and truth!”

Several nineteenth-century Russian writers—most notably Tolstoy and Saltykov-Shchedrin—famously regarded literature as a criticism of everyday life. In the work of the Mitki, we encounter the group practice of documenting dialectical shifts, of showing us just how states of servitude and conformity can give way to sunburst recognitions of freedom, how jingoism engenders pacifism, and how inebriation may be countered by a sobriety that is no less heady than the intoxication that preceded it. No wonder that Florensky’s original name for “Major Drunkard” (Propoitsyn) was Nepeitsyn (non-drinker).

The Mitki’s body of work speaks in a dizzying range of tones and moves along descending scales of affect—from punchy instruction to the sotto voce of a political unconscious begging to be heard.

Alexandar Mihailovic is a professor emeritus of comparative literature and Russian at Hofstra University and visiting professor of Slavic studies at Brown University. His books include Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse; an edited volume, Tchaikovsky and His Contemporaries; and a coedited book, Navid Kermani: Contemporary German Writers.


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