I must admit right off the bat that I didn’t watch a single event of the Winter Olympics. I don’t really have an excuse as to why except that I’m not a particular fan of winter sports. As a cultural entity, though, the Olympic phenomenon is impressive. There is something truly jaw-dropping about an event of this magnitude being built on such flagrant corruption, ecological devastation and outward violation of human rights even as it is designed to inspire feelings of warmth and international cooperation.
Through a western lens it may be easy to say that Russia was exceptional in this regard, and indeed the price-tag for Sochi was astronomical. But every Olympics brings with it both an unacceptable amount of corporate and governmental fuckery and an incredibly fawning and manipulative sense of perceived ownership: the pretense that these are “the world’s games.” In the society of the spectacle, the Olympics are pretty close to a cultural lodestone, bridging the chasm of alienation that can allow the logic of empire and corporate hegemony free reign.
As such, it’s plenty rewarding when the mask slips. On the lighter side of things, the Internet seems to love (in that oh so ironic way that only the Internet is capable of) the police choir performance of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” And there’s no denying that the sheer awkwardness of the video induces a certain morbid delight. Again, there’s a potential to look at the whole thing through west-colored glasses and simply remark on how tone-deaf and lacking in self-awareness it is, as if the Russians had no idea how kitschy it comes off.
The kitsch, of course, is the point. And therein is the tragedy. This, dear readers, is what has become of the Red Army Choir. That’s not an exaggeration. The MVD Ensemble (the official name of this police choir) is one of only two choirs in Russia with the official right to claim the name, and goes back to the late ’30s. There’s undoubtedly something to be said about the fate of Stalinism and Zhdanovism here: an aesthetic that was forged in an incredible self-seriousness, borne of a consolidated roll-back of the gains of the Russian revolution, now itself twisted into doing odd covers of dance songs at the Olympics.
What was the point of including “Get Lucky” in the opening ceremony? An attempt to show that despite the repression the Russian government still knows how to have fun? A way to — much like the Sochi games themselves — that the post-Soviet Russia is just as culturally relevant as ever? God only knows. But the crux about kitsch is that if you put it in the midst of an event like the Olympics, no matter how much you try to bring the crowd “in on the joke,” no matter how much you wink-wink and nudge-nudge, folks still end up a bit weirded out. Perhaps it was the knowledge that even while this police choir was inside showing they know how to have a good time, actual cops were just outside arresting LGBT rights activists.
That’s where this same slip-of-the-mask can become horrifying. Papers and magazines were eager to hop all over the frenzy of (maybe, sort of?) Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina being arrested again. No matter what differences the two may now have with the rest of the group (it’s admittedly difficult to keep one’s anti-capitalist cred when meeting with Samantha Power) there was something quite exciting about seeing footage of the bright dresses and neon balaclavas streaking through the gray gloom of repression. And none of it made the footage of Nadia and Masha being literally whipped by Cossacks less shocking.
At the risk of falling into the kind of Russophilia that can be all too irritating and prevalent among much of the Marxist Left, there’s something between these two incidents — one just plain awkward, the other outrageous in its brazen violence — that seems to illustrate the tragic and turbulent aesthetic history of the country.
On one hand we have a kind of performance art strongly reminiscent of the austere and abrasive art-forms that rose up in the years before the revolution and would briefly flourish in the years following the Bolsheviks’ rise to power. It’s not hard to find the influence of constructivism and suprematism in Pussy Riot’s practices. The image of a Cossack in full dress uniform abusing them with a whip just amplifies the sense of historical deja vu.
On the other hand, the cultural order that the Cossacks are seeking to protect: the calcified, pained ghosts of Zhdanov, now in the employ of a system they may have once feebly tried to shun, trotted out for an official event and hoping to hide behind a cloak of irony that is so thin it may as well be invisible.
I believe these are the kinds of moments, to paraphrase Luxemburg, in which we catch a glimpse of the sand laying underneath these fifty billion dollar complexes.