Ethnofuturism in Udmurtia
Udmurtia is an average dependency of Russia and a center
of the armament industry. It lies just to the west of the Ural Mountains,
and its capital city is Izhevsk. Though it has a population of over
1.6 million people, less than a third of them are Udmurts. During the
Soviet period a lot of factories, especially those producing armaments
and metals, were concentrated in Udmurtia, and crowds of skilled Russian
personnel were transferred there to work. The biggest employer in the
capital city is the Kalashnikov machine gun factory, called Izhmash,
which manufactures those rifles and submachine guns often favored by
the world's guerrillas. Because most people who live in Udmurtia are
Russians, the Udmurtian culture used to and still does represent itself
mostly as a "shadow" of the Russian one.
In this article I describe one fast-growing cultural
phenomenon in today's Udmurtian literature. Estonian scholars and Finnish
professor Kari Sallamaa call it ethnofuturism. A group-essay
which appeared in the journal Synfeesi has this to say about
the phenomenon: "The idea of ethnofuturism is to combine two different
sides of culture. Some particular culture is partly its people's ancient,
stratified, independent tradition; at the same time it reveals features
of a newer, modem world-class culture. Within this connection between
these two elements hides naturally the vitality of culture. Ethnofuturism
asks the question, Does a smaller population group have any future in
culture?" (Pärl-Lõhmus et al. 1994). Thus, ethnofuturism
is characterized by oppositions such as past / future, village / city,
ancient culture / modernism (postmodernism), and the like.
Literary ethnofuturism of present-day Udmurtian appears
in works such as Sergey Matveyev's novel. The Fool (1995), and
in Lidia Nankina's short story, "Au-au! or Curved Lines in Heaven" (1993).
It is also present in the poetry of Erik Batuyev, Rafit Minekuzin, Mikhail
Fedotov, and Pyotr Zakharov, and in the prose of Oleg Tshetkaryov, Nikolai
Samsonov, and Ar-Sergi. For these writers, the future of culture, or
ethnofuturism, means most of all returning to their national past. Without
doing so, it would be impossible for them to reform their lost identity.
In the 1920s, Udmurtian culture and literature gathered
momentum and national tendencies arose. Then came Stalinism (1930-1950)
and post-Stalinism (1950-1970), which rendered the situation of Udmurtian
writers difficult and did
away with all forms of national literature. By 1937 the
national writers of Udmurtia had been captured and most of them executed.
This meant victory for so-called socialist realism. At this point, any
nationalist tendencies either had to be masked or channel themselves
into the forms of socialist realism. At that time some prevalent symbols
in literary texts were the Communist Party, its employers and ideological
goals, sunrises and flourishing gardens (cf. Schibanov
1996). Only Flor Vasiljev (1934-1978) in his poetry and Gennadi
Krasilnikov (1928-1975) in his prose elevated the style and use of symbols
to a new level.
Ethnofuturism is the strategy and set of shared goals
that guides Udmurtian writers of today to create their own unique works.
Every new tendency or "movement", including ethnofuturism, lies dormant
within its predecessor; it therefore breaks its ties to tradition from
the inside. It separates itself from the one that gave birth to it and
begins to live an independent life of its own. After perestroika,
ethnofuturism in literature arose in Udmurtia. You will find affinities
with postmodernist ideas in some of its distinguishing features: (1)
Ethnofuturists see today's world as absurd and chaotic, and the former,
socialist world as a kind of preposterousness. (2) Both the subject
and his/her ways of thinking are considered fractious and "de-centred".
(3) Traditional ancient myths are borrowed, fragmented, and mixed with
other types of discourse. In what follows I consider each of these features.
Today's world as preposterousness and
According to Lévi-Strauss, the world of myth consists
of nature (or chaos) and culture (or universe). To say that socialist
realism was analogous to ancient myths meant that, within its own world,
socialist realism had its own senseless chaos and organised universe.
After perestroika, the situation was reversed: the former chaos
became universe, and the former universe became chaos (see Leiderman
and Lipovetskij 1991). People who were once classified as positive -
such as civil servants, militia, communists, doctors, etc. - are now
considered negative. And vice versa: those who were earlier understood
as undesirables - schizophrenics, prostitutes, vagrants, alcoholics,
etc. - have now become positive figures.
In new Udmurtian literature the action takes place in
a world that could be defined as chaotic. Preposterousness reigns in
both the city and the countryside. The philosophy of preposterousness
was well represented in Albert Camus' 1942 work, Le mythe de Sisyphe:
Essai sur I'absurde. The hero, Sisyphus, pushes a gigantic piece
of rock up a mountainside, then the rock rolls back down. Sisyphus pushes
it up again, and once again it comes down. This process repeats itself
endlessly, demonstrating Sisyphus' faith. According to Camus, this story
has a particularly important meaning in today's absurd world, in which
every human being has the same destiny as Sisyphus. One finds variants
of this story constantly repeated in Udmurtian ethnofuturist literature.
Among many other texts, this situation is described in Pyotr Zakharov's
poem, "Metamorphoses", and in Nikolai Samsonov's short story, "Destiny".
In Zakharov's "Metamorphoses", the hero takes a nail
and hammers it into the wall of his sauna. Then he hangs his ladle on
it. He drives a second nail into the wall and hangs his sponge on it.
He takes a third nail, a fourth, a fifth, sixth, and so on. All of a
sudden his neighbour shows up. The curious neighbour observes the other
man's actions, then goes home and starts to hammer nails in the wall
of his own sauna, upon which he hangs his ladle, sponge, etc. Viewing
our lives as both funny and ridiculous, Zakharov repeats in his poem
Camus' idea of the absurd Sisyphus.
Nikolai Samsonov's short story, "Destiny", tells about
a fellow named Oberjan who in the 1930s, in order to save his own life,
served as an informer for the NKVD (KGB) by giving that agency information
on persons considered "dangerous". Working in a small village all his
life, Oberjan has performed his duties well, including his job as a
KGB informer. When the story begins Oberjan is already 80 years old,
and he is ready to die. He tries to commit suicide but fails:
death won't take him to the other side because Oberjan
has committed so many sins. Oberjan even builds himself a coffin, but
when he lies down in it he realizes that the coffin is too small for
him. After couple of days he makes another coffin that is bigger and
longer than the first one. But again, it does not fit him. He makes
a third coffin and a fourth one, a fifth, a sixth, and so on (again
the Sisyphus motif.). But all in vain: each new coffin is too short
for his body. The problem is that, in order for Oberjan to die, he must
first make up for his sins by seeking absolution from those victims
on whom he has informed. A central figure in the story is one special
birch tree, which hums and rustles even though no wind is blowing. In
the course of the story, the Devil, the "evil one" from mythology, keeps
showing himself, peering from behind the branches of the birch.
In Oleg Tshetkaryov's stories "The Blue Dove" and "The
Noose", as in his new novel, the action takes place in a city of today,
located at the center of the armament industry. Abiding chaos shows
up in the miserable life of youths who live in the dormitories: the
suicides, fears, and threats that armament factories spark among the
common folk - these are the main themes in Tshetkaryov's stories. An
interesting example of the ethnofuturist view of the fragmented subject
(discussed below) is Tshetkaryov's comparison of men with knitting.
One hero of the short stories says, "after work I walk down the road
and see that all around there is knitted work, seams, knitted work,
Fragmented subject and fragmented
The consciousness of today's human being is like a shattered
mirror. One cannot reconnect those splinters and fragments, and each
shard reflects images of different worlds. Similarly, a piece of art
is structured by many parallel elements. These can come from every possible
level of reality or textuality, from different literary styles and traditions,
from different forms of discourse (cf. Smirnov 1994).
The loneliness of man is the starting point of Sergey
Matveyev's poetry. This theme most shockingly appears in the poem, "On
a birthday". Around a table sit three persons who are looking back on
their lives. Who are they? A modernist might identify the first person
as the ego, the "I", and the other person as his "shadow" (a kind of
Doppelgänger). The third might be "an empty seat", possibly another
"I". In "On a birthday" the hero of the poem talks about himself in
all of these forms.
The preposterousness of today's life also shows up in
Matveyev's prose works. It is seen, for example, in the disparate segments
of his novel, The Fool. The book consists of three parts. The
first part is highly erotic, featuring seven girls who manage the hero's
life for him (Valentina, Galina, Vera, Tatyana, Oksana, Natalja, and
Anna). Delirium and babble form the other two parts. Yet despite the
powerful contrast between the parts of the book, it is dominated by
the consistency of postmodern logic.
Alia Kuznetsova is another poet whose work exemplifies
the "multiple" nature of today's subject. Here is one other most well-known
poems, called "I'm like a horse":
I'm like a horse.
There's a heavy load on my back -
I'm a fly who gets stuck in a spider's web
I don't know how to get clear of the strong web.
Here I am, I suppose, a spider.
I bite into myself and I am eating myself away.
Also of note is the work of Lidia Nankina, especially
her story called "Au-au! or Curved Lines in Heaven". The main character
is a 33 year old prostitute named Elena, an unmarried writer who lives
in her own apartment. The story takes place at the beginning of 1990s
and mostly in Udmurtia in a city of today. But the chronotope
of the story also includes Afghanistan, where a war is going on and
where Elena's husband was killed; a beach by the southern sea, where
the American singer Madonna performs; an imaginary erotic restaurant
in which a three-eyed creature is serving customers as a waiter; etc.
(on the "chronotope", or time-space segment, see Bahtin
1986:121-123, 284-290). The main thread of the story begins when
Elena meets a young female cab driver who seems very familiar to her.
The girl, whose name is Lyalya, knows everything about Elena's secret
night life and about her writing. "Is this
girl an assistant of the KGB?" Elena wonders. Her suspicion grows stronger
when Lyalya breaks into Elena's apartment and takes a shower, acting
as though it were her own home. Suddenly Elena senses that this strange
girl is in fact her own daughter, who has come back from the dead. Elena
had gotten an abortion after her husband had died in Afghanistan, so
Lyalya did not have the chance to be born into the real world. But the
ghost of Elena's unborn child goes on living. Interestingly, time, for
Lyalya (the ghost), moves backwards, going from future to past (there
are from 3 to 4 different cycles of time moving in parallel in the story).
So instead of growing, Lyalya gets younger all the time. At first she
transforms into a small child, and finally she disappears (!), closing
one of the several time-cycles in the story.
From the above examples,
it is clear that the works of today's young Udmurtian writers display
"preposterousness" and "multi-stylistic discourse" (in Russian science:
polistilistika). To close, let us consider briefly the
ethnofuturists' construction of myth in their writings.
The preposterous and absurd
world has long been a subject of European literature. But in the ethnofuturism
of Udmurtia, "indigenous" Udmurtian mythological subjects and themes
are also beginning to grow and develop. Even though the consciousness
and thought processes of today's subject might be fragmented, and even
though today's world can be construed as chaos, we can draw positive
strength from the ancient myths. (That is why we must not yet think
about Udmurtian "postmodernism", but rather ethnofuturism). Mythological
symbols abound in new Udmurtian literature. As examples, one can mention
Ar Sergi's black raven (in the story, "Kristya and the raven"); Oleg
Tshetkaryov's tree of the world (in the short story, "The noose"), Lidia
Nankina's child of the world, which instead of growing keeps on setting
younger (as mentioned above, in the story "Au-au! or Curved Lines in
Heaven"); Mikhail Fedotov's devils and water trolls (in a collection
entitled Pain), and so on.
Though space prevents me
from analyzing those symbols in detail, scholars such as Juri Lotman
(1994). Aleksey Losev (1991),
and Igor Smirnov (1994) agree that many of today's
ways of thinking are based on ancient myths. The philosophy of life
based on Udmurtian tradition and mythology survived even in the form
of socialist realism, existing in the subconscious and appearing only
on the semiotic level (cf. Vasiljev and Shibanov
1997). In the 1990s, after perestroika, new Udmurtian writers
consciously combined mythological ways of thought with (post)modem ways
of thinking. Together they form a new and original literary whole -
by Seppo Koskinen)
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