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Politics, Performance, and Protests in Putin’s Russia

June 5, 2014

Fabrizio Fenghi (Slavic Languages & Literatures) was drawn to Russian literature in college because he loved the novels of Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, and Nabokov. He spent a lot of time in Russia and became increasingly interested in Soviet and post-Soviet art, literature, and film.

His undergraduate thesis at the University of Milan was on the postmodernist Russian writer Venedikt Erofeev (1938-1990), and his master’s thesis focused on the aesthetics of violence in post-Soviet Russia. He was in Moscow when political demonstrations erupted in 2011, which influenced his choice of a dissertation topic.

Since my college years, I have been interested in studying literature — not in isolation, but in its larger social, historical, and ideological context, using the approach of what usually goes under the broad definition of ‘Cultural Studies,’” he says.

Fabrizio is now working on an interdisciplinary dissertation on the role of literature, art, and popular culture in the Putin era, from 2000 to the present. He employs the tools of both literary analysis and anthropology to examine how art and the media interact with politics. Tentatively titled “Performing Politics: Contemporary Literature and the Development of the Russian Public Sphere,” the dissertation is advised by Katerina Clark, John MacKay, and Marijeta Bozovic.

Performing Politics” will discuss recent fiction, films, blogs, websites, newspaper and journal articles, political essays, and pamphlets by major contemporary Russian writers, public intellectuals, and political leaders. Fabrizio will also analyze performances and communications of oppositional political groups and art movements, nationalist groups, and pro-government youth organizations. One section will focus on the performance-art group Voina (translation: “War”), which produces provocative and politically charged events. Some of Voina’s members founded Pussy Riot, the feminist musical group whose unauthorized anti-government performances, edited into music videos and posted on the Internet, have inspired violent anti-Putin protests, harsh police retaliation, and the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of several of its participants.

The dissertation will explore how literary works have related to power and political life in Russia over the past 20 years, and the ways these texts “envision and conceptualize the political future of the country. It will shed light on the question of the possibility for artistic and cultural products to constitute a form of political action and to exert an influence on the political and social sphere in today’s Russia,” he explains. He will consider “the emergence of a post-socialist civil society” and the “possible emergence and development of a democratic system in contemporary Russia,” including how the liberal intelligentsia, the so-called “non-systemic opposition,” and the official culture perceive each other, and how they view history, the existing political system, and future socio-political scenarios.

Fabrizio’s work will be fundamental in developing the new canon of contemporary Russian literature and will be of interest to all those trying to understand art and life in Putin’s Russia,” Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages & Literatures Molly Brunson says.

Fabrizio has already interviewed several major figures. He met with the radical writer and activist Eduard Limonov (b. 1943), one of the founders of the National Bolshevik Party (NBP), a political organization now banned in Russia that combines elements of right- and left-wing aesthetics and ideology and opposes Russia’s transition to capitalism and Western liberal values. He also interviewed Aleksandr Averin, the press secretary of NBP, and the writer and NBP activist Zakhar Prilepin. Fabrizio will spend next year in Russia on a Fox International Fellowship, where he plans to do research in private archives and interview more authors, artists, and political leaders, including Dimitry Bykov — poet, journalist, activist, and spokesman for Moscow’s liberal intellectuals; and Vladislav Surkov, widely considered the Kremlin’s main ideologue during the Putin era, and the mastermind behind the pro-Putin youth movements known as Forward Together, Ours, and Young Guard. Surkov also recently authored a dystopian novel that parodies the conventions of postmodernist Russian fiction while depicting the Moscow intelligentsia as ruthless, violent, and corrupt.

All these artists, writers, and movements, in very different ways, are using the literary and artistic spheres as tools for political action. At the same time, these interconnected authors and phenomena prove that politics deeply influence literary and artistic developments in contemporary Russia,” Fabrizio says. Some of his work has been profiled in an article devoted to young Western scholars studying Russia in a major Russian-language on-line publication, Theory and Practices.

In addition to working on his dissertation, this past year Fabrizio was in charge of the Slavic Colloquium, coordinating a series of guest lectures by visiting scholars, workshops at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and at Sterling Memorial Library, and meetings for advanced graduate students to share their work. He also organized a series of three panels for the next Association for Slavic, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies annual convention in San Antonio, in collaboration with Maria Sidorkina (Anthropology). The panel series, titled “Postsocialist Publics and Counterpublics,” will bring together scholars from anthropology, communication, history, and literature to exchange ideas about the shaping of Russian contemporary politics and public life. He served as a Teaching Fellow for the first-year Russian course this year, and for a course on the Russian novel last year.

Fabrizio was born in Calabria, in the south of Italy, and grew up in Milan. He earned BA and MA degrees at the University of Milan and has studied at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow. He and his fiancée Alison Jost, a research assistant at the Yale Child Study Center who recently earned a Master of Social Work degree from Southern Connecticut State University, are getting married at the end of May. They have a cat named Jasper, “a very beautiful and affectionate Russian Blue, whom we adore,” he reports.