Russia as a Postmodern Society

Russia as a Postmodern Society

The August 1998 financial crash and its aftermath shattered all conventional schemes for explaining Russian postcommunism. The latter can hardly be viewed any longer as an instance of “modernization” or “transition” (however hazardous) from something blameworthy or undeveloped to something laudable or mature. The August crisis revealed that policies and strategies based on the idea of “transition” have not worked. Or, better perhaps, they “worked,” but brought about the results opposite to those they were expected to yield. “What went wrong in Russia?”—this is the popular question these days; it expresses a new awareness of Russia’s “times of trouble.”

But this question does not provide a sufficiently radical departure from the modernization/transition schemes. It still suggests that there is a right course of development, which should be followed, all current deviations from it notwithstanding. To this question and to all it implies politically I want to oppose another question, namely, “What is happening after the disintegration of Soviet modernity?” The latter question switches our attention from the laws of history to actual historical events and from uniformity to diversity—from the anticipation of some single modernity to the analysis of multiple modernities. I want to look at Russian postcommunism as a version of postmodernity—since it was brought about by the collapse of a distinctive version of modernity known as “Soviet Communism.”

The emergence of a postmodern condition should not be understood as “an advance over the modern one” (Zygmunt Bauman). Were it so, the logic of progress would be preserved, thus making impossible the appearance of postmodernity as something genuinely different from modernity. This is important to keep in mind if we are to understand Russian postmodernity, which represents an astonishing regression in comparison with both its Soviet past and all internationally accepted standards of modern life. But this certainly cannot disqualify Russian postcommunism as a postmodern condition.

Postmodernity can be interpreted benevolently as modernity turned reflectively to its own foundations and (presumably) capable of transforming them. Perhaps this mode of (self-) transformation is actually or (some time in the future) may be exemplified in certain contemporary societies. However, Soviet modernity belongs to a different type. It has exhibited little capacity for self-reflection and its conversion into postmodernity occurred in a different way. Soviet modernity slid into its postmodern condition through a series of events that had very little, or nothing at all, to do with those modes of transformation familiar to us from modern history—revolutions from below, reforms from above, wars of national liberation, conquests by foreign powers, and so on. None of these events took place. When something like them seemed to happen—Mikhail Gorbac...