Fardwor, Russia! by Oleg Kashin

Fardwor Russia!
by
Oleg Kashin (Translated by Will Evans)
Restless Books (Simon Schuster UK):220pp.:£10.99rrp

The title of Oleg Kashin’s new book is based on the moment when Dmitry Medvedev, President of Russia, made a typo when he signed up him and his country to Twitter; and so instead of the account being called @KremlinRussia, he instead titled it @Kermlin Russia. Ironically, the cognitive mechanism of you still being able to read the word even when it is incorrect, occurs, and it can still be read as Kremlin. This does not happen with ‘Fardwor’ because the first and last letters are changed; these two errors provide an interesting framework for what Kashin is trying to do with Fardwor Russia!

Prior to the novel, Oleg Kashin has received international coverage for the attack that happened to him, rumoured to have been instigated by Russian government heavies as a result of his journalism. It shows signs and evidence of autocratic ways in Russia, coverage of which has sharpened in recent years. Here in the West, we’ve witnessed Russia’s increasingly belligerent foreign policy in the Crimea and Syria; whether or not this transfers to domestic living or not, we don’t know. We can only understand through accounts like Kashin’s. These are books within borders.

The way Putin appears is important for him and for outside interpreters. He can only appear to people not in Russia, and appearance to him seems a very important property. Internally he seems to have orchestrated a new conservative Russian image alongside a brutally, domineering, global one, predicated in his foreign policy. Andrea Merkel said that he “lives in another world” and he certainly is nowhere near the cosy, neoliberal mechanism of the European Union. No, this is a more belligerent, masochistic kind where if corruption is exposed, he doesn’t care. He is as Forbes said, “so powerful he does what he wants and gets away with it”. Athletes were banned from this year’s Olympic Games after it was revealed that state-sponsored doping has been conducted; Russia’s military campaigns have been, as we’ve mentioned, brutal in Ukraine and Syria, and the way that Russia appears to be engineering its way into the global game has been a individualistic and belligerent one. The incumbent American President Donald Trump is reportedly close to Putin; one can see him wanting to adopt a similar approach.

There are more than the glorifying reasons Donald Trump would want to pursue this Putinist path though. Indeed people like Trump and Putin seem to thrive on fear and crucially, this appears to be some of their own fear. Trump certainly in his first few appearances since winning the American Presidential election looks the polar opposite to his brash persona he orchestrated in his campaign, so it’s no wonder that he’s claiming to be so close to Putin, because he’s probably very afraid of him. In fact, he’s probably seen the images of Putin, riding topless on horseback, which is frightening in more ways than apparently obviousn, because the selfie-lover on social media will probably not be the vain, over-confident person you believe them to be and they are probably racked with self-consciousness, constantly seeking affirmation from others.

So where Putin has been bullish in diplomatic/governmental/military ie. Real terms, he has also been in image as well. We’ve already mentioned his renowned, slightly homoerotic photoshoots, but there are reports that propaganda has been an important medium of communicating domestically and abroad. The use of propaganda in the Soviet Union has almost taken on hipster quality, but in Putin’s occupation of the Crimea he has apparently re-used the power of propaganda to aid a physical occupation with a psychological one. Propaganda at its most effective, adds to and channels fear away from the nation state and helps build the fiction of nationalism.

Kashin’s work oozes this sense of dominance. Although Fardwor Russia! is told in a satirical and ironic way, there is a latent sense of physicality and brutality in the work. Let’s look at the central premise of the book – a scientist, Karpov, invents a growth serum. People can grow beyond normal proportions. Vasya, a circus midget, who rides a horse and plays a violin for public entertainment is first subjected to the serum. People and his audiences do not realise at first that he is no longer a midget and the narrator likens it to a pregnant woman who you suddenly realise is pregnant. The message is overt, the message is constantly overt, only guised by fiction, but this sometimes you don’t see it happening, like the pregnant woman..like propaganda?

Vasya is booed off of the stage and fired and Karpov worries that Vasya does not understand the implications of ‘growing’:

“His [Karpov] only concern was whether or not Vasya understood that if clown (midget) was written on his professional resume, then he needed to remain a midget, and if he didn’t want to remain a midget, then why the hell was he still working in a circus?…Of course the news wasn’t front page material (or as they say “a cover story”), and no one had claimed that it would be; it was just a funny little blurb: midget sues circus that fired him for growing taller”.

It’s a snowball effect. He is, as it is later remarked, an adult midget. It’s a formulation akin to Orwell’s “two-plus-two-is-five” from 1984, an illusion that you are forced to believe in but the anger and fear needs catharsis and direction. As the midget grows so do the reverberations through the Russian Government and as Karpov works his way into the circles of the government, it really does become a case of if you can’t beat them, join them.

Before you’ve even divulged into the narrative though, the book comes with an introduction by Max Seddon which would appear to be included to help readers less knowledgeable of the context of Oleg Kashin’s work both in the novel and as a journalist. Seddon isn’t convalescing and even is admissary for Kashin’s writing style (indeed, fast, furious, angry as you’d expect). It helps identify who Kashin’s absurd caricatures and Seddon states:

“By changing the setting but leaving the essential details of the plot untouched, Kashin turns a didactic Soviet warning of the evils of capitalism into a comic indictment of Russian culture – where the Soviet Union itself was the greatest science fiction project of all – and the rapacious greed undercutting it. Medvedev’s concept of “modernising” Russia in top down- Soviet-style fashion without touching the country’s entrenched, retrograde bureaucracy is mocked through the concept of a “modernizational majority”, a play on “Putin’s majority”.”

We need not repeat the principles of communism to show how ‘wrong’ and far this is from Marxism’s original tenets – which would be an incredibly fashionable and liberal thing to do – but two words stand out from that passage – “top down”. Kashin’s world in Fardwor…effectively shows the merciless nature of living and working in a society as an individual against a brutal state. The unbreakable bureaucracy led by Mevedev and the untouchable Putin figure above it all? Sounds more like Roman Catholicism than any form of ‘communism’, and indeed, whatever the Cold War represented, it at least allowed a feasible excuse for the West to say that this is what happens when you try and do Communism; remember Vladimir Sharov’s statement that “the history of Russia is just commentary on the bible”? Well Before and During’s message is pertaining here. Truth: ‘true’ communism preaches from the bottom-up, and Kashin is not preaching any kind of communism, but he is turning the world in his fiction bottom-up to reveal a truth, and attempting to redirect the message:

“the girls could draw pretty well for their age – to design a poster for the dining room: a flag with the slogan, “Forward Russia!” They drew it, and the poster was like a grown-up had done it, but the slogan came out as, “Fardwor Russia!”

The clue is in the title, it only takes a few letters to change the meaning. If Putin is spreading fear through message and language, then Kashin is showing how it can easily be ruptured and become comic. Yet Kashin’s work encloses much more than this. Orwell’s 1984, I don’t believe, in terms of political depictions, has been surpassed, because it manages to invoke a fear that is not simply one of image and atmosphere, but it is one of transcendent truth; something lived and experienced and not just fictionalised. It generates a fear both justified and frightening. Kashin, I believe, like Orwell, has experienced his own and both Putin’s abstracted fear that we see in images of Putin but exerted in places like the Crimea, but he has experienced it individually and physically.

As old political systems become harder to maintain, and the friendly face of neoliberalism is stripped away to show the mercantile system it is, we’re left with leaders like Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, people who share, like you and me, human emotions such as fear. When you’re at the top though, this runnels down, so Vladimir Sharov’s statement becomes more pertinent still – Putin’s image is one built of image and remove and endless power. If there is a message in all of Kashin’s work it might be this: although the forces may promote themselves as demigods, and statesmanlike leaders of men, they’re never a block too far away to remind you of their physical power as well.

Thanks to Restless Books for the review copy

#5. Ahead of the Game

You have to be a somewhat closeted person to get to this day without knowing some of the great ‘twists’ in famous films. I watched Se7en vaguely aware of what happened at the end, and of the person who would be starring in that crucial moment.

Do not read any more if you do not want to know what happened, nor if you want to know who is involved at the end. 

There are spoilers ahead…

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I’m not doing this to persuade you to read on, but I think it was important for me that I ‘knew’ what happened, as I could appreciate everything else so brilliant about the film. Films with twists sometimes are asking to be spoiled, and Se7en is perhaps one of those. Once you ‘know’ what happens, the notion of a twist takes on an ulterior tone, and elevates this noir about good cops trying to do good in a corrupt world, to a higher level.

Let’s start with thinking about the information the film gives us. It is a film replete with references to culture, both and high and low, references to other images and other films. The film, like any great film, is aware of its own image in the context of others. The film focuses on these murders which are representations of the seven deadly sins; the killer clearly views these as art, but  the way Fincher represents them is after they have happened – we only see what there is left to see and as a result, have to do the work of reconstructing it ourselves.

And so the work is like a piece of pop art, a postmodern visual piece that blends high and low references to turn things into potential art. That’s a twist in itself. What’s high is low and what’s low becomes high, or we don’t know what constitutes what. The world becomes unsettlingly unreal but overwhelmingly real seeming. Don’t you think the sauce cans used in the gluttony murder resemble Campbell’s soup cans, already subjected to the attention of art? The murders could be elevated to high art, and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is comfortable to accept that as he searches the library for motions and vindications, empirical support for the murders. These are his clues. Mills (Brad Pitt) however can see no logic, it’s banal and the man is a lunatic. This is not art.

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Library scene from Se7en

There is no answer, Fincher is making no judgement. This sense however of us, the viewer, making a judgement has never been poised so awfully. One of the ways that Se7en is exceptional is in the sense that it directly asks the viewer, how can you watch this and ultimately how can you take part in this. How can you not make a judgement? But you must make a judgement, these are murders. How can you just sit there and watch it all happen?

The twisting continues. Not just are your guts twisting, so is your perception of the world and your position as the viewer and participant in it. Fincher sets it in an unnamed city that feels incredibly real but isn’t. It feels like something from Blade Runner (1981), the way that the rain persistently falls, and how that world (when I say world, I mean the filmic world) was also full of referents to a past, but present world in the future. Fincher also came from sci-fi beginnings, with his first film the continuation of Ridley Scott’s famous franchise, regardless of how much he wanted to be associated with it. But it’s also Lumet’s Serpico (1973); Mill’s wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) references it at the start, and the film’s constant rain is also reminiscent of its opening. This is oozing noir.

When a news report in the nineties set out to find out who Thomas Pynchon was, the reporter located his home town and decided to leave it there, and reasoned that Pynchon in a sense was ‘everywhere and nowhere’ and perhaps that’s how it should be. Like Pynchon, I get this sense with Fincher, two great postmodernists; his films are everything and nothing. The world of Se7en is a world made from film. We’ve already had Serpico and its similar attempts of somebody trying to do right in an inherently corrupt world (look how often the law gets in the way rather than serves, notably demonstrated in the scene with the killer’s lawyer; this is the sense of twisting again, the world turned upside down). I’ve mentioned Blade Runner but you go back further than this, as it could be the city that held so much wonder and fear in Lang’s (1927) Metropolis and Murnau’s (1927) Sunrise: The Story of Two People, or have we merely run down the plug hole after the shower scene in Psycho (1960: Alfred Hitchcock)?

Isn’t film everything and nothing? Look at the killer. He is called John Doe; in the UK, this might be somebody known as ‘Joe Bloggs’, the everyman. Meet John Doe (1941:Capra) however focuses on a news reporter reluctantly agreeing to cover one last job before being laid off, but suspects and begins to uncover corruption, way beyond the seven days will allow her to report on. This sounds familiar to the situation Somerset finds himself in – his last seven days are tied up in the investigation of this murderer. When we first see the killer though and the brilliantly choreographed chase scene between him and Mills, we see him in a bowler/trilby hat and a long overcoat. He resembles one of Magritte’s men (or Magritte himself) which Magritte said of: “The bowler poses no surprises. It is a head dress that is not original. The man with the bowler is just bourgeois man in his anonymity. And I wear it. I am not eager to singularise myself.” The nineties however, in which Se7en was filmed, and Fincher also directed The Game (1997) and Fight Club (1999) during this time, there were a spate of films that played on this idea of the man who’s presence is not really known but is certainly felt. Perhaps The Silence of the Lamb(1981) pioneered this, and Se7en does a similar thing making the criminal in control of the proceedings and us rarely seeing him. In Se7en this is not obviously known until the end, but it becomes increasingly clear that John Doe has planned every step, right until its tragic denouement. Spacey even has a similar appearance to Hopkins, shaven head, pale face and a down turned, glowering look. And Spacey had effectively played the same role in The Usual Suspects (1995: is this Keyzer himself?)

Spacey might as well be wearing a mask, and he arguably is, as he’s hidden throughout the film. It wasn’t a necessarily commercial reason that they chose to keep Spacey out of the credits I don’t think though, but instead because it emphasises that blankness of the character. With all due respect to Spacey his round face is ‘unremarkable’ in the age of photogenic celebrity, and again, perhaps why Fincher thought of removing his credit. That blankness, that white mask, serves us in being able to project onto it our fears, our personal fears that have come from our minds, but more importantly, positioning him as that bourgoise everyman, the fears about ourselves. Because the thing is, you, the viewer are accessory to the killings in Se7en. Here is the twist; without you the film proposes these killings would not have happened. How can you sit there and watch? There is a term in psychoanalysis – Projection Identification – which means effectively ‘putting’ something in another person so that the person can relate to these projections, and that person who has been projected onto can potentially unconsciously enact this. This is of course what the killer does; he hates gluttony, sloth, so he effectively gets people to embody these things that he hates (the killings are meticulously planned, they are self-fulfilling prophecies, and so they kill themselves in a way). But isn’that what also happens to us? What do we see at the end? Do we see in the box? Do we see the bloody visceral image of the final murder? Depending who you are, this may you surprise you or not, but we don’t. You inagined it, you created the image of it. The history of cinema is the history of the image, but just because it’s there in front of us, it doesn’t mean we don’t do some of the work ourselves. How much do you think you see behind the curtain in Psycho? If you saw it, why didn’t you do anything about it?

 

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The Pilgrim (1966) by Rene Magritte