The Presumed Threat of Digital Culture to Russian Cinema

By David MacFadyen (UCLA)

Introduction: Concerns over Online Media and the Death of Filmmaking

At this year's Moscow International Film Festival, the future of Russian cinema was discussed in portentous tones. Lowbrow television and, worse still, the mores of the runet were both accused of spoiling modern filmmaking. Critics insisted that the proud pedigree of feature-length cinema is now under real threat from the mongrel forms of participatory media. These concerns are not new, though, having reached public debate after a long gestation period in Russia's printed media, for example in Iskusstvo kino. A remarkably naive yet representative article had appeared in this publication a few months prior. It expressed amazement at the huge numbers of people engaging and debating Russian filmmaking online. The article's author—Mariia Razovskaia—tried to define these anonymous groups, huddled somewhere between big cinema and the small screen, between the respectful decorum of Cinema Studies and noisy fandom.

Razovskaia documented her chance discovery of “the public”; she found them in an online forum established by CTC for the TV series If You Weren't Born Pretty (Ne rodis' krasivoi, Aleksandr Nazarov, 2005). As if lifting a big rock, Razovskaia was astonished to see so many little people with many opinions, all engaged in unsystematic debate: “I suddenly realized that I was witnessing a unique event. Thanks to the internet, for the first time in history, the so-called ‘silent majority' have found a voice” (“Nerodis'ka”). These were the massed, maudlin viewers whose tastes had already spoiled the self-satisfied elitism or genre clarity of this summer's film festivals. Pandering to a mass aesthetic, Russian primetime TV had wandered gracelessly into major filmmaking and bought its way into festival line-ups. Banking on the fact that one never loses money by underestimating public taste, TV studios had left this year's festival juries with a bizarre choice between two types of movie: saccharine pap (funded by companies like CTC) or cerebral, emotionless neo-chernukha from Russia's more “detached” directors like Balabanov. [1]

This swarm-like activity surrounding television then continued its subversion of television. CTC, seeking to undermine cinema's proud isolation with unabashed populism, could not control the very processes it had instigated. The station was forced to curtail public participation in the promotion of If You Weren't Born Pretty. Many fans had penned imaginary screenplays involving the series' characters and posted them on the TV station's forum. Since, however, these “fanfics” were often rather racy in nature, CTC was obliged to close its shared universe, to fence off its affinity space. The forum's users were outraged: “That's it. I'm off to hang myself,” said one of them. Another announced the death of the forum, pure and simple. [2] Filmmaking should involve absolutely everyone or no one at all.

In order to avoid these financial and rhetorical smackdowns, Russian film—as in the West—has started to go (and stay) online, at least in the field of smaller, user-authored genres. The site Rutube, after just one year's existence, now enjoys twenty million views per month. Together with the related networks of Video.mail and the recently founded TV-Click , these online filmic communities are broadcasting both regional and web-specific TV signals. Predictions abound that these venues will expand by 1,000% over the next two years (“RuTube”). TV-Click alone expected to have 30 channels running by the end of 2008; at the site's launch, attended by numerous media celebs, primetime TV producers were offered cash to make serialized dramas specifically for the web. Is this further shift downwards the end of Russian feature-filmmaking? Perhaps the end of the movie business at the hands of non-monetary incentives (that is, of myriad whims and desires) and/or gauche profiteering (the populist style of CTC)?

Some Differences between Western and Russian Online Activity

Any discussion of cinema and the runet obliges us first to draw parallels with the West. In a recent blog entry, MIT web-guru Henry Jenkins proposed nine reasons why YouTube deserves considerable credit for enabling new forms of participatory culture. In Jenkins' mind, the videos on YouTube foster civic engagement in “spaces where commercial, amateur, nonprofit, governmental, educational, and activist content co-exist” (“Nine Propositions”). Extending his thoughts by logical analogy with Yochai Benkler's work on non-monetary peer production, [3] Jenkins praises several decades of grass-roots romanticism in developed nations that “paved the way” for YouTube's triumph.

Let's pause for thought here. Those same decades in Eastern Europe were spent most unromantically, crawling from the Soviet wreckage. Russia's experience of second-world modernity challenges Jenkins' idealism, at least across one sixth of the world's surface. I would also suggest that the precedence of handheld devices in Slavdom over desk- or laptops means that Russia's convergence cultures are in fact closer to those of the Third World, where the rapid advancement of phone-based technology has allowed users to bypass several “earlier” and less portable stages of (desktop) evolution (MacFadyen “Can You Hear Me Now?”). This alone is one major dissimilarity.

If we turn our attention to the role of handheld audio and video in Russia, one corporation in particular comes immediately to mind. Finnish company Nokia is the world's largest manufacturer of mobile phones and, having supplied Russia with telecommunication equipment since the 1940s, enjoys a very strong presence in the marketplace of its neighbor. The most famous expression of this socializing enterprise is the company's worldwide slogan: “Nokia: Connecting People.” As Moscow's English-speaking tourists may have noticed, the slogan has long been hijacked by pirate T-shirt makers to read “Vodka: Connecting People.” Similar wags in Poland and Hungary have used the slogan to create a series of pornographic parodies.

These quips, both verbal and visual, have a complex and culturally specific resonance, especially when considered against the backdrop of Russia's national television stations, the biggest “networks” of all, which are now either state-owned or fuelled by Kremlin-friendly corporations. Let us, therefore, consider Jenkins' romanticism once again, this time among the most amateur, furthest-flung inhabitants of the runet. Can the web really challenge Moscow's TV and cinema, especially when its users are so far from Moscow? Idealistic geeks will declare, somewhat desperately, that “the era of [centralized, state-run, and market-hogging] media is coming to an end, just as their allies insist that Putin's media structures have reduced “communicative possibilities to [snail-]mail and rumors” (Kharitonov). But how can bloggers, pod- or mobcasters connect all these little people with Nokias? One solution, perhaps, lies in between these two extremes, in between tiny mp3s or streaming video from the provinces and the stately grandeur of Moscow's TV stations, in the so-called “long tail” of Russian media production. This is the graphic “trailing off” of statistical distribution as high density or popularity diminishes: all the smaller, regional TV and radio stations, the Internet service providers, amateur hosts, and pod- or videocasters. Considered en masse, the tail's constituent elements outnumber those of any intense, centralized peak; this pattern also duplicates Russia's uneven population distribution.

Low-demand entities, like podcasts, amateur songs, and regional video clips (with their free storage and inventory) can often establish market shares or sufficient interest to outpace blockbusters or stately media if they are distributed widely enough. This would be a necessary interface of big and small, so that songwriting sites, for example, might offer licensing agreements and/or mobcast media content worthy of state channels and underwritten by advertising revenue. Ads would improve the broadcast quality. There is occasional reason to hope that, according to a long-tail hypothesis, Russian niche marketing could reduce or erase the synonymy of mere market presence and popularity that we see currently with ORT and the Rossiia channels. Yet, once again, how can regional, amateur video make its way into the marketplace? The degree to which Russian business will allow fair competition along Western lines is far from clear in what has been called the country's “network capitalism.” This is the second difference from Western online practice: lower incomes, lesser access to (free) digital storage space, and greater distances between users mean that the financing of eventually “non-monetary” projects is an unavoidable Catch 22.

Russia's networks are far from the utopias of convergence culture. Post-Soviet business transactions (that is, the means of challenging national media) “are based primarily on personal relationships rather than formal rules.” They are also characterized through what is called “goal-setting by negotiation,” through a tendency to circumvent laws and directives. A 2004 World Bank survey revealed that seventy-five percent of Russian companies are constantly scared of state laws and directives being interpreted “unpredictably” (Puffer and McCarthy 3). This inherent contradiction causes very big problems. Not only is the acquisition of convergence tools prohibitively expensive, but their involvement in long-tail business is both blocked and complicated by the cynical misuses of Russian law.

Last summer in Saint Petersburg, for example, with the need for the G-8 to see fair commercial networking in action, many movie and music stores were raided by the police, allegedly in search of bogus—that is, illegal—product. Clerks later told of policemen robbing the stores themselves and, in one case, hammering a shop-girl in the face when she refused to submit her employer's phone number.[4] This incident in particular speaks to a third, resulting difference between Western and Slavic contexts: the fact that an absence of fair legal or fiscal practice inspires a bizarre and contrary maximalism. Today's post-Soviet rule-bending by lawmakers and the risky (that is, foolish) courage of beaten shop staff are forms of disproportionate energy, masochistic “reactions to [a shared] awareness of missed opportunities,” of another virtual reality or universalizing potential in the Soviet project (Žižek). Something boundlessly wonderful was supposed to happen, but never did. What emerges in its place are other, sometimes self-destructive urges on the same questionable scale. Desire remains caught in looping, often brutal practices that prohibit the boundless, trusting idealism of late capitalism's participatory networks. Jenkins' cheerful romanticism is something different in Russia.

These predicaments are exacerbated by other technical issues, over and above access to hardware. 3G technology will not reach the nationwide Russian market any time soon; it enjoyed its Russian debut only in October 2007.[5] Therefore, despite the radical flourishing of handheld technology in Siberia, for example, any nationwide ability to outpace the communicative potential of Western desk- and laptops (let alone TV sets or DVDs) is actually lessening. Yes, you can talk, but audio- and video transferal is not yet possible with handhelds. Despite greater per capita cell phone usage in Russia than in Japan, seventy-three percent of Slavic citizens have no regular access to the internet (that is, where and/or when they want); that figure has improved only five percent over the last five years (“Rossiia: tri chetverti zhitelei”).

These underdeveloped potentials are again exacerbated by the fact that Russia is one of the few countries worldwide that prefers domestic sites and search engines (“Google kapituliroval v Rossii”). The spoken desire for users to watch each other and, thus, “connect” virtually or universally is intensifying; practice, paradoxically, remains local, rather than any rush outwards to international networks. Despite, for example, Putin's recent and explicit talk of closing down the illegal music site allofmp3.com in order to appease the WTO, a Moscow judge has, conversely, thrown out the case against the site's founder so he can go back to business. Grand, abstract policies and learned, more pragmatic behavior are not coinciding.

Worries about Virtuality in Music Video, Feature Film, and TV Drama

Popular culture embodies these disjunctures. It often needs to adopt an apparently purist distance from filthy lucre in order that it be profitable and yet, conversely, the long-term goal of many artists (the alleged champions of non-commercial labor) is to objectify themselves within the market. Russian experience of online film- and media-making is caught in a similar fissure. This gap between the ideal and the material, between the possibly virtual and the probably bounded is even reflected in the way Russians use the web to buy their movies and music. Ninety-five percent of adult web users have dallied with online shopping, with virtually unlimited choice; three quarters of them, however, will reciprocate and pay only when goods are physically delivered (“Chto pokupaiut rossiane v seti?”).

Popular music videos show this squeamishness in other, uglier forms. Take the aging rock group Piligrim that has resurfaced thanks to lead singer/politician Andrei Kovalev and overt support from Putin's “United Russia” faction. With state subsidies and free concerts they have widely publicized their CD and video entitled “Glory to Russia” (Slava Rossii). Well-funded media have nationally broadcast this inclusive, if not Orthodox Christian paean to “all the peoples of Russia, who'll always be together.” And yet the album's title is a well-known war-cry of radical nationalism; as a result, the band cannot rid its concerts of skinheads.

Were we to seek, in some essentialist fashion, a deep-set reason for this Russian inconsistency, perhaps we need only look out the window, as I have noted elsewhere (MacFadyen “Changing Notions of Realism”). In a recent essay concerning elements of Soviet culture that endure in present-day Russia, Mikhail Epstein begins by stating what it perhaps means to be “Russian” spatiotemporally, to be the product of a given land or legacy. The sheer enormity of Russia, he believes, inspires both a sense of nothingness (of a place too big to see) plus some insistent awareness of a great (if not ridiculous) heroism required to do that magnitude justice. Russians, as a result, frequently do not feel at home in the unbounded, unpeopled place they call home: “This void is terrifying. In Russia, we all seem to suffer from a love-hate complex towards space… Having rushed into the void, people try as quickly as possible to hurl themselves out of its invisible surroundings, to prevail, to reach a firm boundary, a crowded refuge” (280). A series of expanses virtualized by capital, by neo-Orthodox rant, by desperate post-Soviet nostalgia, or by the internet all inspire a reverse domestic response.

Several recent movies reflect these deeply ingrained and contrary assumptions; they reflect the worldview of people who wish to avoid movies by working in minorized formats online. Outward-looking characters with quixotic notions of universal interaction become poor little members of poor little networks… and then start to doubt even themselves. Nowhere are issues of virtual participatory agency shown more clearly than the commercial romantic comedy and its soundtrack, where non-diegetic, constant pop music always “exceeds the [real-world] emotional range” of characters through ironic reference to their failings, through what's called “bisociation” with their botched actions (Garwood 296-7). The best example of late has been Evgenii Bedarev's Waiting for a Miracle (V ozhidanii chuda, 2007).

Here a plump and unsightly heroine (Maiia) has lost all control over her ability to manage a relationship or career. Her social failings are orchestrated to the empathetic, if not defeatist ballads of Iuliia Savicheva and Gorod 312. Maiia does, however, manage to buck tradition (or her cultural subconscious!) and get things together. This social talent was not well-liked by Russian critics. It simply wasn't real. “There's a typically American approach to life here. A western Cinderella won't hope for a miracle, she'll rely on herself. She'll never lose her slippers, running away from the Prince, in fact quite the opposite. She'll be wearing shoes by Prada on her way to a date with the Prince” (Zavarova).

While some Russian forums and fan-fiction sites dismissed Waiting for a Miracle as “incredible nonsense,” others compared it kindly to Vladimir Men'shov's Oscar-winning melodrama, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit). Upon its Soviet release in 1979, the romantic heroines in the film were endlessly called “Cinderella” in the Russian press, albeit in a locally specific manner. The movie's combination of reality and dreaming as two women tried to fashion their destinies had—said viewers—produced a “consoling realism” (uteshitel'nyi realizm). This was born of some undoable surfeit within normality—and consolation—whenever movement towards it was frustrated (“Mozhno li ne verit'?” 17).

This surfeit is both sought and feared; it is the virtual that lies beyond (and, therefore, circumscribes ) revolutionary or romantic rhetoric. It is a received worldview, a very long way from the happy “oceanic feeling” [6] of YouTube and Second Life, as shown perfectly by Nikolai Dostal''s new TV series Lenin's Testament (Zaveshchanie Lenina, 2007). This investigates the life of Varlam Shalamov, victim of incredible repression after his support for Lenin's famous text of 1922, stating that Stalin should not be trusted. Shalamov shunned the Party in favor of Lenin's more eventful, if not Pauline “unbounded” view of revolution as constant epiphany. As we know, Saint Paul has recently been used by Badiou and Žižek to define epiphany as the gap between ostensible and virtual experience, the ability to “subtract truth from [any] communitarian grasp, be it that of a people, [a Party], a city, an empire, a territory, or a social class” (Badiou, Infinite Thought 5).

Shalamov's worldview, therefore, operates on the edge of policy, ironically by enacting its dictates to the full, just like dogma itself, by drawing upon something limitlessly greater than the Kremlin and its residents in order to convey the “oneness” of socialism qua infinite social network. If, however, we stick with the Badiouian notion of eventful, unbounded potential, then we bump up against the fact that “oneness [that is, everything] can only be presented adequately in terms of multiplicity… Multiplicity rules out all relations between concepts and categories, including their non-relations” (Badiou, Manifesto for Philosophy 91, 95, and 103), which ultimately means that everything is synonymous with nothing! In seeming awareness of this daunting potential, Dostal''s film “pulls back” from any virtual matrix and becomes a tale of individuality's survival; of “my” or “his” stoicism, as opposed to any dalliance with countless plural pronouns. As one critic wrote: “The film's creators don't say much about the society's guilt for imprisoning Shalamov for most of his life. They pay much more attention to Shalamov's ability to overcome his fate as an individual” (Maslova). A tale of virtual potential becomes one of stoic endurance and suffering.

Attempts by the series to bridge these incompatibilities (the shamefully actual and the dauntingly potential) led to an inordinate amount of flashbacks and a rather complicated narrative structure—for which it paid with only mediocre audience shares (Borodina). Studio assertions that the film had done justice to Shalamov's brinkmanship were never convincing. Even less so were interviews that Putin's ruling party (again “United Russia”) conducted with Dostal', during which everybody concerned congratulated themselves on their full depiction of “horrible things. Of truth” (“Dostovernost' vymysla”).

Attitudes towards the virtual, towards boundless convergence or the promise of participatory cultures (of the past, even), are, therefore, being shaped by received attitudes. They were fashioned under socialist experience and find expression in a great deal of cinematic storytelling today. The repeated reconsiderations of these troubling gaps (of potential) can certainly lead to repetitious formats—and not only in terms of similar plots, as with Waiting for a Miracle and Lenin's Testament . Profitable parallels can be drawn here with other repeated situations in Russia's cinematic history, too. Take, for example, the troubled potentiality of filmmaking after the collapse of Stalinist dictates. Directors, in “redoing” cinema, themselves redid the biography of many heroes and heroines by focusing upon more youthful characters. Young or childish heroes, often shown in group enterprise, were used to define the limits of a new actuality and thus fashion the “key icons of [a reconsidered, adult] national community” (Prokhorov 119).

This same uneasy discussion of the virtual underlines the most popular TV series of late, in terms of both filmic and musical tendencies. It does so, as with Waiting for a Miracle, by means of melodrama in the literal (musical) meaning of the term. In 19 th century melodrama, paltry or inadequate dialogue was bolstered by musical interludes from outside (from the pit) in order to evoke membership in something ineffable beyond the bounded space of the theater. The tools that plastered the gaps in a spoken story (its presence) were not in it. This device takes on special meaning when we examine any Putinesque filmmaking that addresses the theme of latency (in this case the endless potential of boyhood) through safer, institutionalized prisms. It tries to dovetail the bounded (the screen/the framed visuals) and the unbounded (the sonic/the melodramatic and non-diegetic).

Today's schmaltzy pop songs of illogical potential, of the improbable, bolster a massively popular series called KidsCorps (Kadetstvo; dir. Sergei Arlanov, 2006-8). Its title is a neologism made of the words “cadet” (kadet) and “childhood” (detstvo). The series takes place in one of Russia's Suvorov Military Academies; although the location is unnamed in the screenplay, most of the footage was shot in the town of Tver', where there is indeed a Suvorov school. These institutions were founded under Stalin in 1943 as a way of offering teenage (often orphaned) boys a pragmatic education as future officers.

Once again children will test the limits of a new actuality. The blurb used to modernize this project reads: “A group of fourteen-year old boys find themselves in a Suvorov Military School: some through family tradition, some because of their high ideals. A few of them come against their will! Having entered the school, they don't immediately realize the burden they've chosen or, more importantly, what a new responsibility this is. It'll have a huge influence on their lives. [After all,] for many years, in fact since the 18 th century, Russia's military schools have produced noble officers, the jewel of our nation, defenders of the Fatherland, the pride and very backbone of our society.” The producer, Viacheslav Murugov, told Krasnaia zvezda, the Russian army's newspaper: “The time has come for that worn-out, lifeless term ‘patriotism' to be popular once more” (Pavliutkina). The boys slowly define their world, albeit within the limits of a mannered nationalism.

KidsCorps is remarkable for several reasons. Firstly, for its length. The first season of forty episodes has already been surpassed by two more of even greater duration. This creates a disjuncture between the wandering, potentially open-ended format and the linear narrative of these boys' slow headway towards graduation. Secondly, the young male actors were given license to ad-lib on set, as a result of which the show is blissfully free of dubbed dialog and remains perhaps the best snapshot of modern Russian speech in today's media. This free-wheeling language is balanced against the more limited phrasing of adult officers, played by a number of well-known cinema actors. The need for dramatic tension between them, however, creates another quandary: is this patriotic series tailored to state order? Or does the show's critique of unfairness, bullying, and so forth suggest otherwise? What about the insistent use of music and songs supplied by Moscow label Megaliner, especially the girl-band Ranetki? Hence yet another issue: the use of apolitical, “oceanic” pop music for a narrow political goal. Is this some kind of stately varnish applied to a jingoism “that has nothing to do with real life”? [7]

Ranetki penned a new song for the series, over and above their already-familiar hits that are audible every single time the cadets are seen at a school dance. The new track is called “Guys and Cadets” (Mal'chishki-kadety) and, in a rough prose translation, goes as follows: “The first day of a new life has arrived; for the very first time you're not late. You can't go back to a childhood dream. The main thing is to go on… and believe . You've just figured out you can't lose with your friends. You've just figured out you've grown up. What now?” The problems of real, credible self-definition endure from our romantic comedy even when we are dealing with an overt reworking of adult, Soviet bonds.

The issue of whether the show was blessed and/or supported by the Ministry of Defense was first affirmed and then denied. Eventually it was admitted (again). This admittance made sense in the context of casting choices. The core hero is young Aleksandr Golovin, the blond actor shown above and better known from recent editions of the timeless Soviet children's show, Mish-Mash (Eralash). Here he plays Syrnikov, the spoiled offspring of a local politician. As Murugov put it: “Syrinkov is a ‘daddy's boy,' but no jackass… He's got character. He enters a group and earns its respect” (qtd. Khoroshilova). Syrnikov's efforts to earn membership are termed a “comedy” because, says Murugov, it's “better to laugh than to cry” about things in the army (3,000 recruits die each year from hazing). Tangible actuality takes a back seat to riskless irony, profiteering delusion, and/or the whims of politicized primetime.

Given these eternal vacillations, in fact their interdependence , one might argue that Russian popular culture is stuck not in a binarism of authenticity and artifice (Frith 123)—or authorship and commodification—but that it actually seeks the threshold between them, a “utopian potentiality… [or] the possibility of possibility” (Toynbee 32; emphasis in original). Here the problems of dreaming fatalists are conceivably turned on their head and seen positively. In 1999, by way of further evidence or extended parallel, Giorgio Agamben discerned what he termed Anna Akhmatova's open-ended, enabling or “constituting” vigor versus any grim counterpart, that is, a “constituent” power in the form of sovereignty (“On Potentiality” 177). Constituting power, as opposed to stable sovereignty, is always able “to be” without acquiescing to actuality. In fact, it “maintains itself in actuality precisely through a [latent] ability not to be” (Agamben, Homo Sacer 46; emphasis in original). The implicit example here is that Akhmatova never wrote a conclusive version of her “Poem without a Hero.” The gap between virtuality and logicality thus appears a place of philosophical benefit. Maybe, for culturally specific reasons, Russia's hesitant engagement with universal or financialized networks can, therefore, be viewed positively, albeit through masochistic experiment.

Constituting Power Is Spoiled by Russian Convergence Online

Although any such conclusion may be seen positively, it is hardly happy. It is a rare, if not grim romanticism forced upon its object by external circumstances. So, as a result, dare we speak of any financial or technological changes in the near future that will allow Russians (and their cinematic heroes) to speak of virtuality differently? Is the development of Russia's online affinity spaces indicative of anything other than the deeply entrenched attitudes we see in today's film and TV? One could argue that alternative groupings might begin in ways separate from a strictly-defined patriotism, in groups smaller than sad nations, be they podcasters who have emerged from the groundbreaking site rpod.ru, web-labels with frequent forays into digital TV (such as the dance project Uplifto), or clusters of locally related artists either on MySpace or in independent projects like Moscow's Avant and Figurestatic. Maybe there is hope for some kind of alternative media activism to offer decentralized, collective participation and access, currently denied by curmudgeonly state-run TV and national labels?[8] Is there a model for forecasting how Agamben's celebration of constituting potential might become real-world success?

Putin's and Medvedev's nationalist conservatism is often compared, on good days, to Margaret Thatcher's Victorian nostalgia. If we accept such parallels or that entrenched, conformist policies frequently cultivate alternative networking and/or aesthetics, then the best fiscal and artistic precedent here would be the London label Rough Trade, which, on the wave of post-punk “independents,” pondered the no-man's land between life as tiny, locally relevant co-op and as market-savvy major, that is, beyond geographic constraints. It has been suggested that the eventual inability of Rough Trade to choose between the two was actually a non-issue, since it operated in conditions determined by the majors. This limited room for economic categories of “autonomy” in the networks of a modern marketplace starts to recall the “long-standing orthodoxy in political science that democracy in organizations inevitably gives way to oligarchy” (Hesmondhalgh 267; emphasis added). Oh, dear.

In addition, if we consider the niche activities of Russia's online labels, podcasters, fan groups, and web-TV projects, they may also be unable to offer any escape from an oligopoly that is fashioning their demise. When small “independent” labels or coteries are validated by their own narrow fan-base or form long-tail participatory clusters online, a “much flatter distribution of innovation” takes hold (Toynbee 161). This can be seen in image 14, where the supposedly fluid or rhizomatic workings of online participation often stop short of true, full, or potential interaction. These nodes, as we see are not a Russian phenomenon, but an inevitable element of online aesthetics. They merely take on a locally specific meaning in that part of the world.

By this I mean that when online video directors or musicians perform increasingly for one another, social authorship may increase, but innovation moves in the opposite direction. Entropy sets in, smothering the very reason for group novelty or effort. Web communities may cultivate collective intelligence, but it is often a shared knowledge of a priori processes.[9] Likewise, we might consider ways in which open-source software or the collective, potentially endless authorship of Wikipedia sites often reinforce established and received attitudes, making innovative thought or opinion increasingly less likely. Plus ça change…

And yet, even if we accept such processes as somehow inevitable, the attempted Russian innovation continues with increasing (if not frantic) vigor, which unfortunately returns us to the aforementioned and inescapable issue of “disproportionate” energy. The flattening out of innovation caused by that excessive energy comes close—eventually—to the conservative, collective aesthetic endorsed by the State. The economic practice of that same State and its fiscal deterritorializations, however, produce the endless hope or constituting power of potentially, of an end to conservative stasis. The constitutive power than Agmaben attributes to Akhmatova (to an individual) takes on perverse forms when transferred to collective, participatory activities in Russia's post-socialist (late capitalist!) environment.

This perversity is perhaps exacerbated by an atrophied sense of Russian nationhood, from a hopeful idiom that never truly or clearly intervened between the international and the local.[10] If so, then nationhood itself is bypassed here, leaving local, miniature forms of conservative behavior to mediate nervously between themselves and some supranational universalism. Today's political rhetoric certainly does little to lessen this anxiety. Take, for example, the patriotic billboards around Moscow a few months ago, declaring that “Putin's Plan Is Russia's Victory!” Nobody was entirely sure to what this plan refers. Putin's own press officer admits that the President's patriotic agenda, his “plan,” was an “ideological doctrine that can be described in various forms” (Nabi). Promising national relevance, it overshoots anything national and, thus, refers to potentially everything or actually nothing. The fact that plan is slang for marijuana only underscores the nebulous, virtual issues at hand.

The spoiling of both Agamben's constituting power and Jenkins' romanticism is done by network capitalism (itself a product of socialism), technical underdevelopment, and a culturally entrenched vacillation between hope and real-world fatalism, between a boundless landscape and a grimly-fenced territory. The contexts of online networking and business practice (of capital) in Russia fashion some gloomy attitudes towards the virtual; “Glory to Russia,” Waiting for a Miracle, Lenin's Testament, and KidsCorps all show how participatory activities online are being approached. Old views of “what's possible” are shaping new ones. These looping, recurring outlooks emphasize how Western digital romanticism (its desires) does not mesh with recurrent Russian drives .

The obsessive refusals of video shop staff to hand over phone numbers to the police (knowing they will be punched) define the nature of this drive beyond desire. This is a masochistic pleasure that comes from endless indecision (if choice exists), or endlessly restaged failures (if it does not). Being a traumatic, driven restaging of something that never happened, it's a process that is not supposed to reach any kind of goal in a land where 3,000 boys a year are killed by the army designed to protect it and “life” destroys its average male resident by the age of 57.

When this all began, the New York Times foresaw even in 1918 the insurmountable obstacles facing any country's revolutionary-driven potential if instigated by that same country's unreal dimensions: Russia, said the reporter, “is so big you could drop the United States in the middle of it and not know it was there” (“Propaganda in Russia” 10). That's what network capitalism did a few years ago and now it is Russians' distinctive convergence culture that is “not there.” It is virtually absent, leaving justifiable fear and apprehension in its wake, two emotions that color views of online enterprise. Hence, at least for the foreseeable future, the massive “offline” success of KidsCorps, a story so consoling in its treatment of managed potentiality that its online fan base has spent much time and effort pondering how to deal with the horror of the series' final episode. Some of the suggestions include a hunger strike, heavy drinking, and even suicide (“Chto my budem delat'”). The most popular option? To watch the same DVDs over and over again.

David MacFadyen
UCLA

All images courtesy David MacFadyen


Notes

1] See, for example, Razlogov.

2] Struggles between CTC and the limit of public involvement in the TV series had begun two years prior.

3] For more on these particular issues, see Benkler (60 and 95).

4] Forum entry by “annutka84” at Fontanka.ru (5 September 2006), 15:45.

5] St. Petersburg became Russia's first city to get 3G, thanks to the nation's largest cell provider, Megafon. The company has 34 million subscribers, but across all of Russia there are, as yet, only 3 million 3G-enabled phones (“3G Finally Comes to Russia"]).

6] The term comes from Freud, used to define a sense of “limitless and a bond with the universe” akin to religiosity (Civilization and Its Discontents 15).

7] A female caller (“Svetlana”) on Moscow radio; “Nasledniki velikoi pobedy.”

8] The terms in this section come from Hesmondhalgh's article.

9] For an extended discussion of this matter, see Jenkins, “The Cultural Logic of Media Convergence.”

10]I am grateful to Professor Steven Hutchings of Manchester University for this suggestion.


Works Cited

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David MacFadyen© 2008

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Updated: 13 Jul 08