A Belief In Jest: The ‘Old, Weird’ Russia Of Olga Florensky And The Mitki

My road to writing The Mitki and the Art of Postmodern Protest in Russia was a circuitous one. I first found out about the Mitki from buying a pirated recording of their first collection of 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 how can they regard alcoholism as a productive catalyst for artistic creation, while also acknowledging it as a social ill? In his 1953 novel Junkie, William Burroughs famously stated that he “never regretted” his experience with heroin. The graphic and literary work of key members of the Mitki—among them, Vladimir Shinkarev, Dmitri Shagin, and Olga and Aleksandr Florensky—would seem to assess addiction in a way that is no less indulgent than Burroughs, at least in the recognition of the sporadic creative dividends that substance abuse may yield.

 

In partial response to the questions, I would like to turn to a specific work by a member of the group. 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 “The Tale of Crossed-Eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN3PEszeRiA&) In A Story About the Miracle of Miracles, a mechanical leg designed by the ingenious (and real-life) Russian engineer Ivan Kulibin takes on a life of its own, separating from its owner the officer ‘Major Propoitsyn’. With the help of his artificial leg, which “became more kith and kin to him than his own real one,” Propoitsyn scores a series of decisive victories against the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–74.

 

Olga Florensky wrote the first version of this story in July 1986, in the grim double shadow of Mikhail Gorbachev’s ill-conceived ‘dry law’ or near-prohibition of alcoholic beverages and the failing Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan. With its ornately Leskovian title of “A Story Told by an Eyewitness, about the Miracle of Miracles—a Mechanical Artificial Leg of Major Gavril Propoitsyn (of the Life Guards of the Cuirass Detachment), who Lost his Natural Leg in the Battle of Ochakov,” Florensky’s samizdat-era text (which follows this essay) exudes a strong flavor of geeky countercultural hipsterism. In its archaic and merchant-class era strangeness, her story reeks of what the American rock critic Greil Marcus dubbed the “old, weird” and all but forgotten folkways: hidden and subterranean to the present day, yet for all that foundational to so much of what we experience.  Florensky wants to bring Russian suppressed folkways to the surface, and to show us how an imperial culture’s knowledge of itself may come about most easily on its physical periphery, as well as during its decline. Can there be any other reason for our lack of surprise at the sudden time jump at the end of her story, to another year of cataclysmic events? “This history was transcribed from someone else’s words, in the [Estonian] border town of Narva during the summer of 1986.” An important conceit of the story is that the scribe finds herself struggling to filter out the aftershocks of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as she tries to transcribe a tale about earlier attempted conquests.

 

Florensky also points to the ways in which the machines of war may contain sub-routines for renouncing their bellicose owners. The facts that the name of the Major, Propoitsyn, contains the word ‘drunkard’ (propoitsa), and that the leg in the film is drolly represented as a modified wine bottle opener, also suggest that imperial ambitions are expressions of unhealthy political passions, and the cumulative results of intoxicating violent disinhibitions. As she put it in the program essay for her 1999 exhibit Taxidermy “[t]he 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!” Certainly, the subversive gender indeterminacy of the leg in the film—as a fearless battlefield buddy, alluring temptress, traumatized veteran, grammatically feminine body part, and steadfast helpmate all in one—evokes Heinrich von Kleist’s famous 1810 essay “On the Marionette Theatre,” about the consummate versatility and perfection of puppets. Kleist notes that “[g]race appears purest in that human form which has either no consciousness or an infinite one—that is, in a puppet or in a god.” Like Florensky, Kleist wrote in the aftermath of multiple military campaigns, and was intent upon exploring artistic creation as a bulwark against the collective and personal traumas of war.

 

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 Olga 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.

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Alexandar Mihailovic is Visiting Professor of Literature at Bennington College. He is the author of Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse, and the editor of the volume Tchaikovsky and His Contemporaries. He co-edited, with Helga Druxes and Karolin Machtans, Navid Kermani, a volume of articles about the contemporary Iranian-German essayist and novelist. His most recent book, The Mitki and the Art of Postmodern Protest in Russia (University of Wisconsin Press, 2018), will be also be published in a Russian translation in Fall 2019, by the New Literary Review (Novoe Literatrunoe Obozrenie) in Moscow. He has contributed reviews to the online journal Kinokultura: New Russian Cinema, and has published articles on religious studies, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian and Ukrainian literature, cultural relations during the Cold War, and LGBTQ identities in Russia. He is currently working on a book about whiteness, gender, and race in contemporary far-right movements in the Russian Federation and the United States.

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