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The Dark Tower of Postmodernity: Notes on the Late Putinism Epistemology

Alexander A.

    In 2021 I was a head curator of a big exhibition titled Alterglobalism that took place in Belyaevo gallery in Moscow. About 40 young artists from Russia, South America, Western Europe and Asia participated in the show, which focused on the left-wing understanding of identity politics and decentralization, built on the values of Foucault, Bourdieu, Deleuze and Spivak (Kryshevich, 2021). Quite unexpectedly, however, it was interpreted by some right-wing critics associated with the official propaganda as a call to struggle against the Western imperialism and Western values (Dugina, 2021). It was not a misunderstanding, but rather a seizure and a willful appropriation. 

    Contemporary art addresses many of society's anxieties. Many migration waves, environmental damage and nuclear threat come from the confrontation between nations. However, contemporary wars are not so much wars of weapons but culture wars as well. If we want our exhibitions to be not just entertainment, but tools in reducing these threats, we need to explore how authoritarianism works with identity politics in their cultural strategies and public rhetoric. How does authoritarian propaganda appropriate and use concepts from modern Western philosophy and how does this affect art? Since many social world crises today are caused by culture wars, it is important to understand not only the cultural values of those seeking the ideals of humanism, but also of those on the other side.

    I intend to analyze two texts of Russian propaganda. One is a commentary by the Russian Minister of Culture on his doctoral dissertation. This little-known text, addressing the concepts of truth and knowledge, reveals the very basis of Putin's propaganda. It is also worth noting that the Minister of Culture is a person who has a very strong influence on all cultural processes in Russia. The second text is Putin's speech at the Valdai Discussion Club in 2022. It is important as probably his first large public speech addressing cultural issues since the beginning of the military invasion of Ukraine. Propagandists and heads of cultural institutions in a totalitarian country listen carefully to such speeches in order to understand what is deemed the ‘right’ approach to current events.

    In 2012-2020 Vladimir Medinsky served as the Minister of Culture. A scandal broke out when a group of famous scholars accused his doctoral dissertation of nonsense and plagiarism. This attempt had little success, as the scholars who protested came under administrative pressure and Medinsky kept his position. A little later, Mr. Medinsky published a response to his critics.

    His public response included the following passages: “Ideas and myths are facts, too”, “There are no truly scientific historical concepts”, “There is no reliable past”. Perhaps his most interesting idea was “any scholar in the humanities [...] constructs the object of his research based on the ideologemes characteristic of his time” (Medinsky, 2017). Far from being stupid, Mr Medinsky’s narrative is firmly rooted in the relativistic concept of knowledge.

    We can compare it with some statements, for example, by Paul Feyerabend: “There is no coherent knowledge, i. e. no uniform comprehensive account of the world and the events in it” (Feyerabend, 1987: 98) and “No single theory ever agrees with all the facts in its domain“ (Feyerabend, 2010: 33) and also “The material which a scientist actually has at his disposal [...] is indeterminate in many ways, ambiguous, and never fully separated from the historical background“ (Feyerabend, 2010: 66). The similarities seem obvious. However, while Paul Feyerabend's theory is a hymn to the freedom to explore the world in different ways, in the mouth of an autocratic official it takes on a very different undertone, claiming that it is power which defines truth. I would venture an opinion that at the very heart of contemporary Russian ideology lies a militant version of epistemological anarchism. 

    Let's go back to the year 2022 and turn to Putin's Valdai Speech. In it he talks about Western imperialism: “The West has been blinded by its superiority […] since colonial times: they consider everyone as second-class people, and themselves as exceptional. This has been going on for centuries up to this day”; on the West's intention to rule humanity: “The West is not able to single-handedly manage humanity, but is desperately trying to do so, but most of the peoples of the world no longer want to put up with it”; on the West's desire to preserve itself as an entity “Multipolarity is a real and, in fact, the only chance for Europe to survive as a political and economic Subject” etc. (Russian Government, 2022).

    We can compare these with excerpts from famous texts on postcolonialism: “Indeed it can be argued that the major component in European culture is precisely what made that culture hegemonic both in and outside Europe: the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures” (Said, 1978: 13), “This narrative both gives us a critique of capitalist imperialism and affords elusive but necessarily energizing glimpses of the Enlightenment promise of an abstract, universal but never-to-be-realized humanity” (Chakrabarty, 2008: 524), “Some of the most radical criticism coming out of the West today is the result of an interested desire to conserve the subject of the West, or the West as Subject” (Spivak, 2015: 66).

    With this comparison I want to show how Russian propaganda has appropriated postcolonial theory. I am not the first one to have noticed this. For example, Cerwyn Moore in his article Russia's post-colonial war(s)? (2008) gave an analysis of relationships between different groups in the anti-Russian movement in the North Caucasus, and Nikolay Smirnov in his article Left-Wing Eurasianism and Postcolonial Theory (2019) gave an remarkable analysis of the roots of contemporary official Russian ideology. 

    The official culture of Russian propaganda is based on postmodernism and the appropriation of postcolonial studies. I would like to recall the exhibition in the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019 (Vilchuk, 2019). The pavilion was curated by the Hermitage museum instead of an individual artist as is customary. The pavilion contained a large-scale installation of various copies of masterpieces and videos related to the Hermitage collection. Part of the installation was devoted to Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son, which was presented as a replica. I found this curatorial choice odd as Rembrandt is neither Russian, nor a contemporary painter. Also presented was a copy of the Atlas, a famous architectural detail of the Hermitage building, and a video based on the painting Christ in the Desert, that for some reason, included soldiers and fire. Quotes, an eclectic mix of different concepts, pre-war anxiety and solemn speeches about traditional values. Critics asked questions: who were the authors of these works, why should we consider this Russian art, why should we consider this contemporary art? And the faceless Hermitage replied (not verbatim, but roughly the following): “Nobody knows the truth; there are so many points of view; you can't say that contemporary art is something different from what you see” (Piotrovsky, 2019). This is an example of how dark-side postmodernity transcends rhetoric and affects the realm of the art.

    The problem with postmodernism is the rejection of the concept of universal truth. Russian propaganda has taken this idea to an extreme, building its own parallel world with its own concepts of good and evil. Putinism has mixed the ideas of opposition to Western colonialism with criticism of the concept of human rights and put it all on the theoretical foundation of epistemological anarchism.

    The renowned art critic Boris Groys, a specialist in Russian art, published an article with the telling title “Russia as the subconscious of the West” in 1989. Building on the article’s Freudian symbolism, I would extend it with a Jungian metaphor: currently Russia is not only the subconscious, but the Shadow of the West, a space in which the concepts of Western philosophy turn into their perverted doppelgängers. We must remember how Putin's propaganda absorbed and distorted the concept of post-colonialism. It is necessary to find out what stylistic and conceptual language that may be used by the artists who have left Russia and may not be appropriated by Putin's propaganda.



Chakrabarty, D. (2008). Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Dugina, D. [platonova | z]. (2021 Jun. 17). Gramschism on the Right: The Experience of New Right Anti-Globalism. Telegram. Available at: (accessed 17 Dec 2022). 

Feyerabend, P. (1987). Farewell to reason. Verso Books.

Feyerabend, P. (2010). Against method: Outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge. Verso Books.

Kryshevich, J. (2021 Jun. 27). About the world in a new way: “Alterglobalism” in the gallery “Belyayevo”. ArtUzel. Available at: (accessed 17 Dec 2022). 

Medinsky, V. (2017 Apr. 4). Vladimir Medinsky answers the critics of his dissertation for the first time. Rossiyskaya Gazeta. Available at: (accessed 17 Dec 2022). 

Moore, C. (2008). Russia's post-colonial war(s)? Europe-Asia Studies, 60(5).

Piotrovsky, M. (2019 Jun. 5). Provocation in Venice. Saint-Petersburg Vedomosti. Available at: (accessed 17 Dec 2022). 

Russian Government. (2022 Oct. 27). Transcript of the meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club. Presidential Executive Office. Available at: (accessed 17 Dec 2022). 

Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. Kegan Paul Ltd.

Smirnov, N. (2019). Left-Wing Eurasianism and Postcolonial Theory. E-flux journal, 97(2).

Spivak, G. C. (2015). Can the Subaltern Speak? Colonial discourse and post-colonial theory. Routledge.

Vilchuk M. (2019 May 15). Why you must see at least 3 Russian exhibitions during the Venice Biennale. Russia Beyond. Available at: (accessed 17 Dec 2022).

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