Lena Jonson. Korolev, Kirill. Poiski natsional'noi identichnosti

Lena Jonson. Korolev, Kirill. Poiski natsional'noi identichnosti v sovetskoi i russkoi massovoi kul'ture: Slavianskii metasiuzhet v otechestvennom kul'turnom prostranstve // The Russian Review. An American Quarterly Devoted to Russia Past and Present. VOLUME 80/NUMBER 4 OCTOBER 2021, pp. 717-718.


Korolev, Kirill. Poiski natsional'noi identichnosti v sovetskoi i russkoi massovoi kul'ture: Slavianskii metasiuzhet v otechestvennom kul'turnom prostranstve. St. Petersburg: Nestor-Istoriia, 2020. 376 pp. R600.00. ISBN 978-5-4469-1656-6.

This study of Russian Slavic Fantasy is presented in the context of today’s developing Russian cultural nationalism. Fantasy literature as well as other literature of the Slavic meta-theme (whether fiction or pseudo-science non-fiction) have been enormously popular, as reflected in publishing statistics. 

Their success is explained by Russian society’s search for a national identity after the Soviet identity evaporated with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Literature of the Slavic metatheme offers answers to such haunting questions as “Who are we?”

Many understood Russian Fantasy as something completely new when it appeared in the mid-1990s, and they believed it was the result of a deliberate policy by the authorities. This is partly true. Fantasy as a concept did not exist in the Soviet Union. It was introduced as a genre with translations of Western fantasy from the late 1980s. Translated fiction dominated the independent Russian book market in the early 1990s but was overtaken in 1995 by a wave of domestically
produced Russian Fantasy literature that was adapted to Russian history and mythology.

Kirill Korolev disagrees with the thesis that the appearance of Russian Fantasy was due to a deliberate policy of the authorities. Rather, he argues that this literature fell into existing ideologems and patterns of the Slavic meta-theme that had been formed much earlier. The Slavic theme did exist in Soviet times, but with restrictions, since a political Russian nationalism was not allowed in the multiethnic union. Ye, Russian cultural nationalism was accepted and even encouraged by the authorities, although secretly, during the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1996, Yeltsin initiated the designing of a Russian Idea that was later realized by Putin.

However, Korolev does not consider the Putin regime’s policy to be nationalist. He believes that official russkost' (Russianness) is instead a kind of conservative-authoritarian pochvennost' (pochva, or soil) that nurtures a strong patriarchal state and great power, exemplifying the manifold interpretations of the Slavic meta-theme. Korolev claims that Slavic meta-theme literature has had a compensatory function. Much in line with Serguei Oushakine’s concept of a “patriotism of despair,”
he analyses how the reader enjoys the heroes of Fantasy novels because they “make Russia great again” when the reader cannot visualize his own actual country in these terms. 

Due to its popularity and capacity to reinterpret and reconstruct the understanding of Russian history, the Slavic theme has played a crucial role in forming today’s Russian national identity. This literature builds on clichés and stereotypes but nonetheless provides the signs and symbols of a national identity. Korolev distinguishes three directions of Russian Fantasy in the Slavic meta-theme based on different formulas. First, there is the heroic-epic. Like the 1995 trend-setting “Volkodav” by Maria Semenova, these novels often deal with Kievan Rus’ from when Christianity was adopted to when Prince Iaroslav took power in Kiev. 

This was a time of internal power struggles and struggles with
the peoples of the Steppe. A subsection of this direction is oriented rather on the near past of the Second World War. These novels have a direct compensatory function as they are contrafactual, oriented on crucial moments in the history of the war. They describe an alternative development where Russia goes from victory to victory. One example is V. V. Kopushevskii’s “Popytka vozvrata” from 2008–9. This literature is extremely popular.

Second is the pagan formula. These novels describe life in an imagined world with many similarities to old Rus'. The stories are told against the background of detailed descriptions of daily life, habits, rituals, and the gods of pagan life. Some novels include hilarious ideas about Russians as successors to the Scythes or to the imagined  Hyberboreans of the Arctic. This formula rejects Christianity as alien to Russians. A third formula is de-constructivist, which reinterprets the Slavic meta-theme in a humoristic and carnevalesque way.

According to Korolev, the Golden Age of Slavic Fantasy was 1995–2006/2007. Today the field is somewhat stagnating. Old titles are being republished and new works have been added, but in general the field is open for a kind of new and fresh repackaging of old stories and myths.

Korolev’s book is a treasure for everyone interested in the development of Russian cultural nationalism and its representations in mass culture. The author has more than thirty years of publishing
experience. He has a remarkably broad knowledge of the Slavic theme not only in literature but also in cinema and rock music during both Soviet and post-Soviet times. This book was released in Russian with a print-run of only three hundred copies. It deserves a wider audience, including an English-speaking one.

Lena Jonson, Swedish Institute of International Affairs

Book Reviews 03 September 2021