Some stories, preliminary theses and variations around one enormous problem.

1. I would like to begin with an anecdote, told to me by an American friend. She spent three years in Moscow carrying out research on Soviet Constructivism. The story happened when she was about to leave Russia and finally wanted to get a portion of some Russian exotica. They decided to visit a circus with trained big cats. The show was fine. At the end a clown with a big red nose said to the public: “Children, come down to me in the arena!” When children went down, the clown told them the following: “Children, I wish to tell you one very important thing about our motherland, about Russia. You should not be ashamed of our country in front of America and Europe. Russia is now a mighty country. We have a lot of oil, gas and minerals!” Of course, there is a huge element of absurdity and black humor in this clown’s propaganda story. But it is not just another crazy anecdote. Everything here has its significance, even starting from the search for “exotica” (in Russia and, moreover, in a circus). The clown-orator urges the rising generation to stop being ashamed of the assumed exoticism of the country they live in. The clown and his adherents think that times have changed and now we live in a “normal country”, worthy of all respect. I hope that through the following reflections we can come to understand this story better.

2. In my talk I wish to draw methodological attention to the question concerning the theoretical and cultural translation of the contemporary post-Soviet context. Translation is here understood not as just the operation of translating from one language on another, but rather what Homi Bhabha and other theorists of postcolonial studies call “cultural translation”, understanding this notion, generally, as critical practice, producing the formation of meanings common for different cultures. Relations of power, domination, hegemony, generating various stereotypes, clichés and ideologemes, should be deactivated by this critical agency.1

3. Cultural translation of the local situation into an international context is now an enormous problem for post-Soviet Russia, causing its dangerous and regressive isolation. The typical position, which is now very popular among conservative intellectuals and spokesmen in Russia, is part of the inexplicable and untranslatable “uniqueness” of the situation, its inherited difference, supported by references to a “special Russian spirituality” and to Russian canonical literature like Dostoevsky, etc. The last time that even the liberal and “pro-western” intellectual milieu in Russia was discussing “differences” discovered in the space between the conventional language of “western” theory and the post-Soviet empirical reality: “…we deal with Western concepts, though we realize that our life is ordered in a different way”.2These ideological statements, which indeed adopt and appropriate all external stereotypical views of Russia or are saturated by the traumatic feeling of a split between global concepts and local reality, must be challenged by the evocation of a concrete and immediate intellectual and political pre-history. We treat this problem dialectically, reformulating it and reserving some theoretical “singularity” for the post-Soviet situation, but in terms of resistance to dominant conformist right-wing politics and ideology.3 On the other hand, this singularity produces a lot of difficulties when people try to inscribe post-Soviet space directly into the discursive field of contemporary theory.4

4. It is a paradoxical that in many respects the situation in the USSR was more easily translated into theoretical and cultural languages. In the Soviet era even the dogmatic and ideologically saturated Marxism that dominated culture and society was clear and recognizable for the global intellectual and political community, just as the various criticisms of the so-called “Soviet experiment” were clear for well-informed late Soviet dissident intellectuals. The language of Marxism was a universal code, a mediator. Criticism of the Soviet project was also conducted in the language of Marxism. First, it was considered as a withdrawal from the principles of Leninist theory and politics. Then, a critical discourse formed around the theory of Termidor and the domination of bureaucracy. This was first formulated in the “heterodox” language of Trotskyism and then became known internationally. Even the liberal criticism of the USSR in terms of “totalitarianism” is grounded in Marxism (or “Western Marxism,” to be precise), at least by the most penetrating theorists such as Hannah Arendt. The delegitimization and destruction of these codes after the disintegration of the USSR was one of many factors that have made the post-Soviet situation in the intellectual and cultural spheres almost opaque for a “Western” (or any) external observer. Some phrases from a recent interview with left-wing French philosopher Alain Badiou express sharply and completely the latest stage of this disposition: “I do not understand contemporary Russia at all. (…) We knew the USSR and understood it, we had time to investigate it, and I’d even say we needed the USSR. Everything that happened there helped Western leftist thinkers even if they were not in agreement with its ideology. Just the fact of the Soviet Union’s existence was extremely important for us. And now that it has collapsed, Russia has turned into an extremely mysterious country.”5

5. The question about the cultural translation of post-Soviet experience is interwoven with the problem of its theoretical interpretation. So then, what theoretical languages can we find or invent for the analysis and expression of the cultural, social, and political experiences that have arisen after the end of the USSR? I propose a preliminary analysis that compares three paradigms: postcolonial, post-Fordist, and post-Soviet, to avoid the familiar theoretical traps of global “posts” like the notorious debates on Postmodernism which prevailed in theory in previous decades. All of them, to a different degree and in different ways, have some Marxist background and genealogy. Post-Fordism usually refers to “western countries”, postcolonial to the East, to Africa, Latin America, the post-Soviet countries formed to replace the former USSR, and partially the “Eastern Bloc”. Thus, at the first glance it is a kind of global mapping in which the contemporary world is divided into three big zones. In the 1960s and 1970s this division, geographically, partly corresponded to the division into the First, Second and Third Worlds. After three key events – decolonization, deindustrialization and the disintegration of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc – it has in theory been turned into a grand transition to the three discourses about which we talk. Their relations are quite difficult. All three appeal to a sort of universality. As we will see, postcolonial researches aspire to show a postcolonial moment present almost everywhere (even in the USA and Canada, and now – in connection with migration – in Europe). Post-Fordism’s theorists like Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt try to demonstrate that the post-Fordist moment is present in any society, addressing, in particular, the growing importance of communications and immaterial work everywhere. But the post-Soviet condition also, undoubtedly, has a global effect, which it is necessary to conceptualize. Preliminarily, it is possible to speak here of a visible crisis of the Leftist parties, movements, Marxism etc. That was a precondition for the contemporary neo-liberal ideological hegemony, after a weakening of resistance to its doctrine and practice, limited before by existence of the USSR and the countries of the Eastern Bloc. So we cannot naively discuss simple geographical mapping with separate discourses corresponding to each zone. But even at this level post-Soviet differs from the postcolonial and post-Fordist: if the colonial and the Fordist are marked equivocally negatively (the rigid disciplinary organization of the industrial Fordist organization of labor, colonial as the oppression and exploitation of nations), the Soviet seems more ambivalent. Just take early Soviet revolutionary politics and culture with its emancipatory promises, which have made a huge impact on intellectuals and politicians worldwide. These questions, of course, demand further extensive analysis. We will focus mostly on the post-Soviet / postcolonial dimension.

6. Let me just remind you briefly that postcolonial studies as systematic area of research and as common terminology appeared in 1980s, and have now developed into an ambitious set of critical devices and accumulated knowledge, especially in the Anglo-American academic world. One of direct predecessors of postcolonial studies was Edward Said with his path-breaking book Orientalism (1978) in which he undertook an impressive critique of representations of the so-called “East” in Western culture, considering them to be the effect of a certain power strategy embedded in history of colonization. In its development postcolonial studies borrowed various theoretical codes: Marxism, deconstruction, Foucauldian genealogy of the power-knowledge relationships and the theory of world-system and “periphery capitalism” etc. Postcolonial studies created a generation of radical and insightful authors like Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Aijaz Ahmad and others. If we take the risk of summarizing some consensuses existing among these scholars, postcolonial cultures and societies may be characterized by “tensions between the desire for autonomy and a history of dependence, between the desire for autochthony and the fact of hybrid, part-colonial origin, between resistance and complicity, and between imitation (or mimicry) and originality”.6

7. In the former Soviet republics, the postcolonial approach comes across certain anomalies referring to our idea of singularity. For example, a kind of “subaltern” position of Russian-speaking minorities in some post-Soviet states does not correspond to the familiar logic of decolonization when the retreat of former colonizers does not usually produce such consequences. In the last decade postcolonial studies had an interesting academic reception in some ex-Soviet republics (the Baltic countries, Ukraine, Belorussia). In these countries this reception was complicated by questions of national identity as politically and ideologically opposed to the state of affairs under Soviet regime. The postcolonial condition was interpreted, perhaps too quickly and directly, as the historical moment following the Soviet “occupation”, which was assumed to be oppressive in relation to these identities. In this context postcolonial discourse was treated rather in identitarian terms. This ideological stance was absent in “original” postcolonial studies, which were mostly inspired by the spirit of poststructuralist differance.

8. The collective work Baltic Postcolonialism (2006) is a symptomatic example of “Post-Soviet postcolonial discourse” of this complicated kind. The main point of reference is the recent text by David Chinoni Moore called Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique. The basic idea of Moore’s provocative piece consists of an argument for the possible universalization of postcolonial criticism. According to Moore, until now only the post-Soviet countries have been excepted from this criticism. In particular, Moore puts forward an ambiguous thesis that the post-Soviet territories were excluded from postcolonial studies because many postcolonial theorists were Marxists and were sympathetic towards the USSR and towards the Socialism of the Second World as an alternative to the colonial and imperialistic capitalism of the First World. It was therefore difficult for them to argue in postcolonial terms about the post-Soviet experience; after all, it assumed a purely negative evaluation of the Soviet experiment itself. Meanwhile, according to Moore, the societies that have arisen in the place of the former Soviet republics show an extreme similarity with postcolonial ones. So for Moore, who presents himself as neutral in relation to these political Marxist attitudes, the Soviet Union has since the 1920s been only a mask for colonial model of power and suppression of the national peripheries, inherited from imperial and tsarist Russia. Moore‘s interesting and disputable text became a good support for his Baltic colleagues. Appealing to Moore’s refined scholarship as to an already recognized theoretical statement, they theorize the recent past of Baltic republics, using terms, which are doubtful enough scientifically (like “colonization of minds”, “cultural genocide”, etc.) But none of Moore’s phrases provides a pretext for such risky terminological innovations.

9. At the same time, the inhabitants of contemporary Russia, the presupposed former “colonial center”, demonstrate the traits of cultural and behavioral strategies described in postcolonial studies. A typical postcolonial syndrome for those who were under colonial control is what is known as “compensatory behavior”. It reveals itself as a search for some authentic roots, myths, heroic legends, which could show that in the past the colonized nation was a mighty colonizer itself, controlling bigger territories than they occupy at present. Such compensatory images and figures are widely represented not only in official state propaganda and TV-series recalling the “glorious” pre-revolutionary past, but also in commercial mass genres, such as the new Russian nationalistic science-fiction, which represent pictures of the lost past, as a phantasm projected in some distant future of mighty Russian spaceships exploring and conquering new worlds. Another well known compensatory strategy is what is known as “mimicry”, when the former colonized people diligently simulate the dominant cultural form (for example, English-speaking Hindus reproducing the habits of English gentlemen). It is possible to recognize these two strategies in contemporary Russian nationalistic conservatives and liberal “Westerners” accordingly.  The recent rather odd excitation of a considerable part of Russian population, which was provoked by some symbolic “victories” in sports and pop music competitions like Eurovision, undoubtedly belong to the same series of compensatory rewarding phenomena. It looks like a kind of theoretical paradox of postcolonial condition without the colonial past, but we should remember that (post)colonial is a discursive, cultural and ideological formation as well.

10. Thus, the postcolonial condition itself seems to be displaced or “singularized” in Post-Soviet space. These preliminary considerations might open a path to more attentive and critical usage of postcolonial criticism. It might have also the emancipatory effect of release from the symptoms described above, and preventing nationalistic excesses. Unquestionably, right after disintegration of the USSR and during 1990s till now, a (post)colonial aspect in broader cultural and political sense was actively present in Russia. It was certainly not the result of direct “colonization”, but rather the traumatic effect of the forced implementation of “western” models of life, political forms and global mass culture against the background of the catastrophic disintegration of the previous social order. The formation of collective feelings of “backwardness” and structural “subalterity” in this context has been connected with that invasion, which was being acted out over the last decade in a multitude of symptoms specified above. Of course that kind of interpretation of Russian post-Soviet experience may seem analogous with the argument of Baltic postcolonialism we criticized above but (1) we clearly recognize that it is a kind of displaced postcoloniality without colonization and (2) we do not presuppose any identity question here.

11. At the same time, postcolonial criticism is practically absent in academic and broad intellectual discussion in Russia. One of the rare principal statements raising the question of postcolonial discourse in relation to ex-Soviet Russia is Ekaterina Degot’s paper on an old issue of Moscow Art Magazine (1998) published under the telling title How to Obtain the Right to Post-Colonial Discourse. In particular, Degot writes on various paradoxes of cultural colonialism and orientalistic discourse applied to post-Soviet and post-socialist countries:

“These ideas can easily be applied to the identity of Eastern Europe and Russia. We can find many cases in which the West usurps the right to represent the East, subjecting it to discursive exploitation. For an example, it will prohibit a person from the East to express oneself in theoretical terms and only allow one to speak about his/her region. It orders the Russian (or any other) artist to be authentic and exotic, thus placing him beyond the borders of the West; however, when authenticity and independence are proclaimed at the artist’s own will, they are usually criticized as nationalism. In this context, any Western expression is understood as violence. Both the request not to be an “other”, to conform to the models of the West, and the request to be an “other”, to fight against the West’s cultural imperialism, are understood as examples of the West’s cultural imperialism. The dialogue between the East and the West becomes a fascinating game: the East catches the West at the repressive character of its notions, and the West, taking vengeance, totally ignores the East”.

As a strategy for resolving these cultural contradictions, Degot proposes the following principles, which in part seem applicable for today as well:

Thus, I would like to offer the following slogan: let’s totally refuse the notion of the “other” and learn to live in the world without the ‘other’; let’s come back to the geographical and historical definition of the Eastern Europe as a margin, basing its identity in reality and not upon myths or desires; … let’s eliminate the Western monopoly on anti-hegemonial discourse, its monopoly on criticism of the West; let’s understand our own repressive essence. And finally, let’s realize that the place that is neither the West’s province nor its subconscious or paradise and holds no guarantees. But let’s also realize that this place still exists”.7

12. However, it is necessary to take into account the historicity of such statements and slogans of late 1990s, in view of contemporary political and economic realities. In the 2000s and especially in the last few years, a compensatory mode of behavior became more visible in connection with the growth of Russian economic power based mainly on the oil and gas economy. The rhetoric of the Russian President on the international stage can be considered here as a bright paradigm. In what is known as his “Munich speech” in 2007 Putin proclaims a “refusal” to be subjugated to cultural and political “standards of the West”. It is very interesting that some of interpretations of such speeches in the European and American press have been made exactly in “postcolonial” terms. So, in an article titled Putin’s colonial exploitation Christopher Caldwell reacted to Putin’s assessment of British calls for the extradition of FSB agent Andrei Lugovoi.8 Putin said that this case “is obviously a vestige of colonial thinking“, meaning Britain’s colonial past. The author of the publication, obviously not sharing the radical spirit of the postcolonial studies flourishing in American universities, accuses this discipline of all troubles.9 After all, thinks Caldwell, postcolonial studies create scientific legitimization for such populist rhetoric as Putin’s. Though such accusations are absurd in this respect, they indeed signal a certain political instrumentalization of compensatory postcolonial sentiments. All these new symptoms make critical studies addressing new Russian realities in postcolonial terms even more urgent.10

13. To address very briefly another “post” discourse, post-Fordist theories are rather restricted in their application in ex-Soviet Russia. A post-Fordist economy may be found in Moscow, considered as a “global city” in terms proposed by Saskia Sassen.11 A “global city” is not localized inside the sovereignty of a national state, but in a global chain of transnational financial centers. This exceptionality, which is obvious in case of the relationship of Moscow to the rest of the country, fits very well into the post-Fordist theorizing of the changing functions of the national state. I cannot go into more details here within the framework of this presentation.12

14. So the post- in post-Soviet is not the post- in postcolonial and in post-Fordist. They are in more complicated relationship than just concerning identity or difference. In short, the post-Soviet condition is in a kind of displaced postcolonial, and partly overlaps with the post-Fordist. A specific and consistent theory of the post-Soviet does not yet exist; it is rather an “object” or a name referring to a certain epoch, which is repeated and propagated; and this term is connected with a particular locality. It is multiple in itself, produced by various types of treatment of the Soviet condition: negation, assimilation, or nostalgic renewal of some codes and symbols. At the same time we should keep addressing the post-Soviet as a universal problem, whose roots are in early Soviet modernity of 1920s with its revolutionary experiments in art, politics and common life itself. Of course, one can say that now we do not need such a theory at all, facing the enormous homogenization brought by neo-liberal capitalism everywhere. But in trying to find or invent modes of resistance, we cannot avoid the problem of post-Soviet singularity, with all of its Soviet ruins, as a “path not taken.” Thus, the contemporary uncertainty of the notion of the post-Soviet does not necessarily undermine treatment of this problem as a universal and generally valid one. I would like to conclude with Susan Buck-Morss’s dictum, which argued recently that in a sense, the entire world is now “post-Soviet”: “the post-Soviet condition does not apply to a curio of specimens who presently inhabit the former Soviet Union or define their situation as unique. This is not about “failed modernity,” or collective cultural difference based on linguistic specificity. Rather: we are all post-Soviet. We are to understand this situation as our own.”13


[1] See, e.g., HomiBhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994). See also Boris Buden, “Cultural Translation: Why it is important and where to start with it”, Translate (project of eipcp), no.6 (2006),

[2] See the summary of the open seminar “Russia and the West: Lost in Translation” (2006), (in Russian).

[3] Theoretically, it is possible to borrow Alain Badiou’s scheme from his book Being and Event (London: Continuum, 2006) here. Badiou, starting from the mathematical theory of sets, differentiates between membership and inclusion. The term can be included in a set, not being its member. Membership means “presentation”, and inclusion means “representation”. The term can be a member of a situation or the term can be included in a situation when it is presented in a meta-structure (in our case, in a theoretical discourse). The term is defined as “normal” when it is simultaneously a member, and included (represented). The term is defined as “singular” when it is a member, but not included in representation.

[4] Cf. Boris Groys’s statement, derived from different premises, that “western cultural studies” do not work in post-Soviet conditions because they stress particularities, while this condition has the ineradicable universalist potential left from USSR. See Boris Groys, Art Power (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008).

[5] Marusia Klimova, “Abroad no. 16: Alain Badiou”, Topos (Octobre 20, 2005), (in Russian).

[6] David Chioni Moore, “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique”, originally published in PMLA116/1 (2001): 112, special topic on Globalizing Literary Studies.

[7] Ekaterina Degot, “How to Obtain the Right to Post-Colonial Discourse”, Moscow Art Magazine (digest 1993 – 2005),

[8] Christopher Caldwell, “Putin’s colonial exploitation”, Financial Times (July 28, 2007),

[9] It is interesting that structurally similar accusations towards postcolonial studies were made after 9/11.

[10] The Russian-Georgian conflict, certainly, takes these postcolonial symptoms to a dangerous level, but these last events deserve a special analysis (bookmark of august 2008).

[11] Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton: PrincetonUniversity Press, 2001).

[12] On the reception of Antonio Negri’s and Paolo Virno’s philosophical thinking on Post-Fordism see my text “New Social Subjects: Version of Paolo Virno”,Prognosis 3 (2006): 145–165. See also my short statement “After the ‘United and Indivisible’: Multitudes in Post-Soviet Space”, What is to be done? 10/II (2006): 5-6, (in Russian and English).

[13] Susan Buck-Morss, Theorizing Today: The Post-Soviet Condition /


Penzin, Alexei. “Post-Soviet Singularity and Codes of Cultural Translation”, The Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art (June 17, 2009),