Post-Soviet Singularity and Codes of Cultural Translation Alexei Penzin

Stories, preliminary theses, and variations around one enormous problem


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 took place when she was about to leave Russia and finally wanted to get a dose 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 the children came 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 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 the highest respect. I hope that through the following reflections we can come to understand this story better.


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 understood here not as just the operation of translating from one language on another, but rather what Homi K. Bhabha and other theorists of postcolonial studies call “cultural translation,” generally understood as a 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


Cultural translation of the local situation into an international context is now an enormous problem for post-Soviet Russia, resulting in its dangerous and regressive isolation. The typical position 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 such as Dostoevsky et al. The last time that even the liberal and “pro-Western” intellectual milieu in Russia were discussing the “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.”2

These 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 evoking a concrete and immediate intellectual and political prehistory. 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


Paradoxically, 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. Second, a critical discourse formed around the theory of Thermidor 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 opaque for a “Western” (or any) external observer. Some phrases from a recent interview with left-wing French philosopher Alain Badiou express concisely 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


The question regarding 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—in order to avoid the familiar theoretical traps of global “posts” like the notorious debates on postmodernism that have occupied theorists in previous decades. All of them, to different degrees 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 first glance it is a kind of global mapping in which the contemporary world is divided into three large zones. In the 1960s and 1970s this geographical division 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 turned into a grand transition to the three discourses under discussion here. Their relations are quite difficult. All three appeal to a sort of universality. As we will see, postcolonial researchers aspire to show a postcolonial moment present almost everywhere (even in the USA and Canada, and now—in connection with migration—in Europe). Post-Fordist 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. It is possible to speak here in preliminary terms of a visible crisis of leftist parties and movements, Marxism, etc. This was a precondition for contemporary neoliberal ideological hegemony after a weakening of resistance to its doctrine and practice, which was limited before by the 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 equivocally viewed negatively (industrial Fordism denotes a rigid disciplinary organization of labor, colonial to the oppression and exploitation of nations), the Soviet case seems more ambivalent. A case in point involves early Soviet revolutionary politics and culture with its emancipatory promises, which had 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.


It bears recalling that postcolonial studies as a systematic area of research and as a common terminology emerged in the 1980s and have since developed into an ambitious set of critical devices and accumulated knowledge, especially in the Anglo-American academic world. One of postcolonial studies’ direct predecessors was Edward Saïd, whose groundbreaking book Orientalism (1978) undertook an impressive critique of Western cultural representations of the so-called “East,” considering them to be the effect of a certain power strategy embedded in the history of colonization. Postcolonial studies borrowed various theoretical codes as it developed: Marxism, deconstruction, a Foucauldian genealogy of power-knowledge relationships, and world-systems and “periphery capitalism” theories, etc. Postcolonial studies created a generation of radical and insightful authors like Gayatri Spivak, Homi K. Bhabha, Aijaz Ahmad, and others. At the risk of generalizing their work into some sort of consensus, 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 origins, between resistance and complicity, and between imitation (or mimicry) and originality.”6


In the former Soviet republics, the postcolonial approach discovers certain anomalies related to the notion 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—such consequences are not usually produced when the former colonizers retreat. Postcolonial studies has had an interesting academic reception in some ex-Soviet republics in the last decade. In the Baltic countries, Ukraine, and Belorussia this reception was complicated by questions of national identity politically and ideologically opposed to the state of affairs under the 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 différance.


The collective work Baltic Postcolonialism (2006) is a symptomatic example of the complicated kind of “post-Soviet postcolonial discourse.” The main point of reference is the recent provocative piece by David Chioni Moore titled “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique.” Moore’s basic thesis argues for the potential universalization of postcolonial criticism. He posits that until now only the post-Soviet countries have been excepted from this criticism, putting forward an ambiguous thesis that the post-Soviet territories were excluded from postcolonial studies because many postcolonial theorists were Marxists and were sympathetic toward the USSR and toward Second-World socialism 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. According to Moore, the societies that have arisen in the place of the former Soviet republics show a close similarity to postcolonial ones. Calling himself neutral in relation to these political Marxist attitudes, he concludes that the Soviet Union since the 1920s had only been a mask for a colonial model of power and the suppression of national peripheries inherited from imperial and tsarist Russia. Moore’s interesting and contentious text buttressed the arguments of his Baltic colleagues, who referred to his scholarship as if it were an already established theoretical platform to theorize the recent past of the Baltic republics, employing dubious scientific terms like “colonization of minds,” “cultural genocide,” etc.). But Moore’s language does not justify such risky terminological innovation.


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 authentic roots, myths, and heroic legends that would portray the colonized nation as a mighty past colonizer itself, controlling larger territories than they presently occupy. Such compensatory historical images and figures are widely represented not only in official state propaganda and TV series recalling the “glorious” prerevolutionary past, but also in commercial mass genres, such as the new Russian nationalistic science fiction, which portrays 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 “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 the Russian population provoked by some symbolic “victories” in sports and pop music competitions like Eurovision undoubtedly belong to the same series of compensatory rewarding phenomena. It appears to be 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.


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 also liberate us from the symptoms described above and prevent nationalistic excesses. Clearly, since right after the disintegration of the USSR, and all through the 1990s to the present, a degree of (post)colonialism in the broader cultural and political sense has been actively present in Russia. It was certainly not the result of direct “colonization,” but rather the traumatic effect of the forced implementation of “Western” modes of life, political forms, and global mass culture against the backdrop of the previous social order’s catastrophic disintegration. The formation of collective feelings of “backwardness” and structural “subalterity” in this context has been connected with that invasion, which was played out over the past decade exhibiting the myriad of symptoms described above. Of course this kind of interpretation of the Russian post-Soviet experience may seem analogous with the arguments 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.


At the same time, postcolonial criticism is practically absent in academic and broader intellectual discussions in Russia. One of the rare principal statements addressing postcolonial discourse in relation to ex-Soviet Russia is Ekaterina Degot’s text published in Moscow Art Magazine (1998) under the telling title “How to Obtain the Right to Post-Colonial Discourse.” In particular, Degot notes various paradoxes of cultural colonialism and Orientalistic discourse as applied to post-Soviet and postsocialist 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 from expressing him/herself in theoretical terms and only allow him/her 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 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 Eastern Europe as a margin, basing its identity in reality and not upon myths or desires; [ … ] let’s eliminate the Western monopoly on antihegemonial discourse, its monopoly on criticism of the West; let’s understand our own repressive essence. And finally, let’s realize that the place 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


However, it is necessary to take into account the historicity of such statements and slogans of the 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 has become 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 in this context might be an illuminating paradigm. In what is known as his “Munich speech” in 2007, Putin proclaimed a “refusal” to be subjugated to the cultural and political “standards of the West.” What is interesting is that some of the interpretations of such speeches in the European and American press were 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. Caldwell obviously does not share the radical spirit of the postcolonial studies flourishing in American universities, accusing the discipline for all troubles, claiming that postcolonial studies create scientific legitimization for such populist rhetoric as Putin’s.9 Though such accusations are patently absurd, they do signal a certain political instrumentalization of compensatory postcolonial sentiments. All these new symptoms make the need for critical studies addressing the new Russian realities in postcolonial terms all the more urgent.10


To address very briefly another “post” discourse, post-Fordist theories are rather restricted in their application to ex-Soviet Russia. A post-Fordist economy may be found in Moscow, considered 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 the case of Moscow’s relationship to the rest of the country, fits nicely into post-Fordist theories on the changing functions of the national state. The limited scope of this presentation does not allow me to go into more detail.12


So the “post-” in post-Soviet is not the “post-” in postcolonial and in post-Fordist. The relationship is more complex than just that of identity or difference. In short, the post-Soviet condition is in a kind of displaced postcolonial state 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 to 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 found in the early Soviet modernity of the 1920s with its revolutionary experiments in art, politics, and common life itself. One could say, of course, that such a theory is no longer needed given the enormous homogenization brought on by neoliberal capitalism everywhere. But in trying to find or invent modes of resistance, we cannot avoid the problem of post-Soviet singularity, even with all of its Soviet ruins, as a “path not taken.” Thus, the contemporary uncertainty over the notion of the post-Soviet does not necessarily undermine treating this problem as universal and generally valid. I would like to conclude with Susan Buck-Morss’ recent statement that 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., Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, Routledge, New York 1994. Cf. 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 here Alain Badiou’s schema from his book Being and Event, Continuum, London 2006. Starting from the mathematical theory of sets, Badiou differentiates between membership and inclusion. The term can be included in a set, without being a member of it. 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 metastructure (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’ statement, based on 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 by the USSR. Cf. Boris Groys, Art Power, The MIT Press, Cambridge 2008.

5 / Marusia Klimova, “Abroad No. 16: Alain Badiou,” Topos (October 20, 2005), (in Russian).

6 / David Chioni Moore, “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique,” PMLA, 116/1 (2001), p. 112; special topic on Globalizing Literary Studies.

7 / Ekaterina Degot, “How to Obtain the Right to Post-Colonial Discourse,” Moscow Art Magazine (1998),

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

9 / It is interesting that structurally similar accusations directed at postcolonial studies were made after 9/11.

10 / The Russian-Georgian conflict clearly 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 University Press, Princeton 2001.

12 / For 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), p. 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), p. 5–6, (in Russian and English).

13 / Susan Buck-Morss, “Theorizing Today: The Post-Soviet Condition,” Cornell University (,


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