SERGEI MEDVEDEV The semiotics of terror – Russia is at war with reality

Sergei Medvedev
, writer and historian
Opening of the BRICS Games. Kazan, Russia.
Opening of the BRICS Games. Kazan, Russia. Photo: Denis Bushkovsky

The more horrible the bacchanal of destruction and death in Ukraine is, the funnier, more grotesque and pitiful are the news from Russia itself, writer and historian Sergei Medvedev finds in his recent essay. As it is the time of the UEFA European Football Championship, the author brings out moments of absurdity and black humor from Russian sports life.

In recent years, especially after the beginning of the so-called special military operation, Russian life has been dominated by two elements: terror and grotesque, evoking two opposite feelings – fear and laughter. On the one hand, there is a flow of daily physical terror: battles on the front and the shelling of Ukrainian cities, torture and executions, murders of oppositionists, domestic and street violence involving fighters returning from the front. But parallel to it, weirdly intersecting with it, a wave of absurdity is growing: State Duma bills and local initiatives, citizens' complaints, and artifacts of Z-culture. At times it seems that one is inseparable from the other: the more horrible the bacchanal of destruction and death in Ukraine is, the funnier, more grotesque and pitiful are the news from Russia itself.

Like the BRICS Games that just ended in Kazan. Planned as a propaganda festival and «our answer to the Olympic Games» following the example of friendship games and the rest of the universiades, it turned into a huge soap bubble. Barely half of the announced 90 participant countries were represented, and that too with second- and third-rate athletes who failed in the Olympic qualifications. At the opening ceremony, the flags of the United Kingdom and Germany, whose representatives never made it to Kazan, were carried, while the only representative of France, 15-year-old gymnast Victoria Perisic, lives, as it turned out, in Odintsovo near Moscow. At the same time, athletes from unrecognized countries – Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Republika Srpska – were represented at the games. Russian athletes suffering from a lack of competitive practice had to compete with yesterday's amateurs; in many areas, they simply had no rivals: a video of Russian swimmer Aleksandr Maltsev, who competed alone in synchronized swimming competitions and also stood on the podium alone, went viral on social networks.

The apotheosis was the story of the Lithuanian wrestler Andrius Mazeiko, which was as if copied from Yury Tynyanov's novella «Lieutenant Kizhe». The athlete did not participate in any fights, but magically reached the quarterfinals and consolation round due to the absence of any opponents. As it turned out later, he was injured and withdrew before the start of the tournament (it was even confirmed that he was not even in Kazan), but he quickly rose in the records and almost won bronze at the games.

The result of this propaganda show was a caricature victory for Russia together with five hundred medals, more than half of which were gold. The official media presented this as an unprecedented success, devoting the lion's share of sports broadcasts to the BRICS Games – much more than the European Football Championship taking place in Germany at the same time, where Russia was, of course, not allowed.

Dictatorial regimes give birth to entire semiotic universes, closed sign systems, sets of signifiers that have lost contact with the signified.

One can, of course, laugh at this provincial theater, which only emphasized Russia's isolation in global sports, but in reality this farce contains one of the main mechanisms of totalitarian power: the principle of the cancellation of reality. Dictatorial regimes give birth to entire semiotic universes, closed sign systems, sets of signifiers that have lost contact with the signified. Thus, Stalinism gave birth to a world of endless class struggle, an all-encompassing cult of abstract concepts, to which millions of human lives were sacrificed. It was not the terror of individuals like Stalin or Beria, or of power groups like the Bolsheviks or the Chekists (who ultimately ended up between these millstones themselves), but a terror of symbols, which did not cancel out its political opponents or opposing classes — it canceled out reality itself. People were killed without reason, non-existent crimes were invented for random victims, confirmed by their confessions obtained under torture: this was the victory of signs over life.

In this semiotic terror, everyday killings were combined with the display of hyperreality: mass processions, jubilant crowds, festively decorated boulevards, underground subway palaces. On the front side of the terror were the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy, or VDNKh, high-rise buildings, the film «Cossacks of the Kuban» and the representative Gorky Street; on the other side – the darkness of the Gulag, the disappearance of people and the nightly fear of the inhabitants of these same high-rise buildings. They were two sides of the same terror of signs that canceled out reality through murder and celebration. Sometimes murders and celebrations coincided, such as during Stalin's mock trials, in which ecstatic crowds demanded the death of traitors or cheered their execution. «In the beginning, celebrations were planned, then arrests, then it was decided to combine them.»

The same thing is currently happening in Putin's Russia: with one hand, the regime kills Ukrainians under the pretext of fictitious «denazification» and settles accounts with dissidents and sometimes random victims using fake legal definitions of «fake», «discredit», «denial» or «offending of feelings», and with the other hand creates imaginary worlds and space for celebration such as the Patriot Park, the exhibition «Russia» (former VDNKh) and the BRICS Games. The successes of Russian athletes in Kazan are essentially the same simulacrums as the «Nazi regime» of Kyiv, Slovyansk's «crucified boy» or the «justification of terrorism» in the play «Finist, the Brave Falcon», on the basis of which Zhenya Berkovich and Svetlana Petrychuk are being tried. The machine of symbolic terror is working non-stop, producing gold medals for athletes, poems by Z-poets, festive lineups in kindergartens, rocket attacks on Ukrainian cities and criminal cases related to «discrediting» in this continuous triumphalism and «fight against Nazism».

Russia is far from the first in this semiotic game, almost all totalitarian regimes from Nazi Germany to Maoist China have gone down this path, and it has a lot to learn from its older brother, the Kim regime in North Korea (during Putin's last visit to Pyongyang, he was hosted as a younger brother, unlike Chinese guests). For seventy years already, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has lived in a closed sign system called Juche, feeding the population with slogans instead of rice and painting pictures of unprecedented triumphs. During the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, one of the TV channels of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea announced the success of the country's national team. In the report, it was announced that North Korea won all three matches in the group and advanced directly to the final, where they would play Portugal. In the group, the Koreans allegedly beat Japan 7-0, USA 4-0 and China 2-0. The report showed the highlights of the matches, jubilant North Korean fans in Brazil and Kim Jong-un in a stadium in Brazil. It is worth noting that the team of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea did not participate in this World Cup at all, because they did not pass the preliminary round, but what are such small details compared to national celebrations?

Russian propaganda should adopt this move and announce that the Russian national team reached the finals of the European Football Championship – a goodwill gesture by the organizers for the country's contribution to the fight against fascism. A winning match of an old team could be shown by presenting it as a current one (this has already happened during previous championships when Match-TV showed old games to mislead the audience). On the territory of the Russian Federation, the Russian team can be declared the European champion (and such a thing has also already happened, when international arbitration stripped Russian athletes of the Sochi gold medals for doping – a Russian court left them with the title of Olympic champion on the territory of Russia). The possibilities are limitless, the internet can tolerate anything, and even more so the Russian public, which is ready to believe any version of reality that does not harm its psychological well-being. It is only worth remembering that fairytales about Russian medals are the same terror of signs that kills people in Ukraine and destroys human destinies in Russia itself.