Post-Soviet Mimicry: Grotesque but Empowering
Assoc. Prof. Rasa Baločkaitė, VMU Dept. of Philosophy and Social Critique
(article originally published on the website of New Eastern Europe)
“We live in the ruins of culture” – Professor Vytautas Landsbergis, the then Chairman of the Supreme Council, said in 1990. All that remained after the collapse of the Soviet Union were heavy industries, nuclear power plants, urban agglomerations and millions of modern educated people without any sense of direction, without an orientation and without an identity. How does the new cultural order emerge from the ruins? An imitation of the West turned out to be the chosen way to deal with the challenges of transition and to cope with uncertainty.
Mimicry as a post-Soviet condition was described in my article “Between mimesis and non-existence” in 2006. Ten years later, the idea was brought to life again by Anastasija Piroženko from the Netherlands Film Academy in her film Syndromes of Mimicry. The film is, according to Anastasija, “a case study with a satirical approach on a manifestation of mimicry in a day-to-day life in Lithuania, (illustrating) a dissonance between the state’s politics and its citizens, and (…) the hollowness of Lithuanian Eurocentrism.”
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the newly emerged states and societies in Eastern Europe found themselves in disarray and started adopting the readily available Western models to control chaos and govern uncertainty. Syndromes of Mimicry illuminates the core problem of transition (and of transitology) – the mismatch between Western concepts and Eastern realities. The camera moves slowly and presents several episodes in which individuals cope with different forms of uncertainty, such as exposure to foreign languages, racial diversity, new legal concepts and emotional insecurities resulting from the rapid change. The film illuminates the mismatch between form and content, the incongruity between practice and consciousness, the gap between cultural representations and real life experience as well as the poorly concealed uncertainties.
… Two middle aged people, their appearances typical to the Soviet era, are dancing and singing to the rhythms of popular Western melodies. The man who does not speak a word of English, performs popular English songs without comprehending the lyrics.
… A yoga school is opened in a huge concrete building of the Soviet era, probably the “house of culture”; A yoga teacher instructs on how to deal with anxiety and insecurity (resulting possibly from the high level of uncertainty and the capitalist pace of life); his language, full of Soviet clichés, reveals the Soviet style, totalitarian thinking.
… A black man, dressed in hussar uniform, is working in a delivery service in a flower shop; in a racially homogeneous white society, where people have been isolated from the rest of the world for half of the century, he has turned into an object of collective curiosity; the case evoked public debates about race, racial equality, and different forms of discrimination.
… A special event “The brightest country in Europe” is organised to celebrate Lithuania’s accession to the European Union on April 30th, 2004; a cold voiced radio mouth is inviting citizens to switch on all the possible lights for five minutes, as a photo of Lithuania will be taken from a satellite; at the same time a young man, bored and alone, is watching the greyness of the Soviet era mass housing from his standard apartment, as the pompous celebrations mask the mundane boredom of routine.
The film can be described with the quote by Virginijus Kinčinaitis as, “terrible, and simultaneously lustful, a flirtatious non-existence, excitement for what is absent, an illusion of certainty of the moment in the copying consciousness.” Or, more specifically, with the words of Paul Valery, who said that “God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through.”
What are the causes and effects of post-Soviet mimicry? Many social scientists, while speaking about post-Soviet transitions, focus on economic hardships, such as hyperinflation, large scale unemployment, etc. They ask how one is supposed to live, after losing his life savings. Let us look at the situation from another angle; how one is supposed to live after losing the meaning of life? Alexei Yurchak, one of the leading sovietologists, titled his book about the last Soviet generation: “Everything was forever until it was no more.” What happens when an individual, who was raised and educated in a specific non-democratic society, experiences within a short time span the total and irrevocable collapse of his world? His knowledge, his experience, his values become irrelevant and he is exposed to the new intensely desired, yet barely familiar, realities. Here, the mimicry of the West becomes a mechanism for coping with the challenges of transition and uncertainty.
The unequal relations between Eastern and Western Europe are well represented in post-Soviet Lithuanian literature, including works such as Agnija‘s Magic by Jurga Ivanauskaitė (1995),Pilgrim by Romualdas Lankauskas (1995), Farewell by Tomas Kavaliauskas (2007) and others. In these works, the relations between Eastern and Western Europe are characterised by the metaphor of Plato‘s cave and present Eastern Europe as the world of shadows and Western Europe as the only authentic reality. First encounters with the West are always ecstatic, described either in sexual metaphors (desire to be penetrated, desire to merge with someone or to abandon oneself for someone), or in religious language (experience of death, termination of sufferings and uncertainty, entering place of eternal joy and pleasure).
The fall of the Iron Curtain between Eastern and Western Europe has resulted in a highly ephemeral, hybrid culture, also called as culture of transition. Human consciousness, stomachs, shelves and apartments have been filled with delightful, previously unseen and unavailable things from the West. These were the years of intense imitation and appropriation – the process that might be referred to as voluntary cultural colonisation. Imported things, fashions, concepts, and social practises merged with the post-Soviet disarray and disorder; they have blended into a hybrid, grotesque and peculiar culture of transition, characterised by a move towards something unknown and undefined.
This culture tends to be short lived and ephemeral by nature. Mimesis results from inequality- the one who has less power, imitates in order to recuperate some legitimacy and to appear equal. Mimesis might be dysfunctional and alienating, it might have subversive effects, but it might be also empowering and productive. Once people start to accept Western cultural language as “their own language”, they stop looking over their shoulder to authorities and begin to act as equal partners in a dialogue. Furthermore, they rediscover their own past, mostly as an object of interest, as an attempt to understand the culture they come from and the world of the earlier generations. Syndromes of Mimicry by Anastasija Piroženko is an example of such an interest in the culture of transition which is soon about to disappear.
Recently, my friends and I visited a spa in a small Lithuanian town. The place has attracted huge investment and undergone extreme transformation in recent years. The former Soviet health resort was remodelled according to Western standards and Western fashions. When we were leaving, the receptionist said: “Thank you for visiting us”. Her voice was emotionless, her face was blank, and the body language clearly did not match what she was saying. Obviously, receptionist was following instructions, but she did so without fully comprehending what the point of it was and why she had to do so. It was a subtle, barely visible discrepancy between the form and the content. Behind the well-learned, mechanically repeated phrases was the chasm of absence and non-existence, the blast when “the nothingness shows through”. The moment was both realistic and cinematographic – like an episode from Anastasija’s film.
Rasa Baločkaitė is an associate professor in sociology in the Department of Philosophy and Social Critique, Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania. She was a visiting Fulbright scholar at UC Berkeley in 2011 and a visiting fellow at Potsdam Centre for Contemporary History in 2012 and 2013. Her scholarly interests include the Soviet and post-Soviet societies, Soviet colonialism and societies in transition.
- Rasa Baločkaitė, “Between Mimesis and Non Existence”
- “Syndromes of Mimicry” by Anastasija Piroženko, trailer: https://youtu.be/qhPbfbGqvio
This article was first published on the website of New Eastern Europe, the exclusive bimonthly news magazine dedicated to Central and Eastern European affairs.