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  • Eleanor Seed

The Political Capabilities of Camp in Contemporary Russian Culture: Aleksandr Gudkov’s Pink Flamingo

Eleanor Seed is a Master's student in Translation and Interpreting Studies at The University of Manchester.

 

According to Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’, ‘Camp’ refers to anything that is exaggerated, tasteless, unserious and/or marked by artifice, it means choosing style over content - anything displaying ‘instant character’ is Camp. [1] Mark Booth defines it more strictly as ‘to present oneself as being committed to the marginal with a commitment greater than the marginal merits’ and ‘to be[ing] perversely committed to the trash aesthetic.’ [2] The etymology of ‘Camp’ is unclear: the English term ‘dates back a century or so’ [3] and may be derived from the French ‘se camper’ meaning ‘to present oneself in an expansive but flimsy manner’. [4] Booth suggests that the French term was first used in a 1671 play, where the lines ‘stick your hat on at an angle and look disreputable,’ ‘camp about on one leg,’ and ‘strut like a comedy king,’ demonstrate Camp’s theatrical connotations. [5]

One claim made by Sontag that has consistently been met with criticism is the idea that Camp is apolitical. Camp has long been associated with distinctly political, queer subcultures - Sontag herself stated that homosexuals are the ‘vanguards’ of Camp. At the 2019 Met Gala, fundraising co-chair Lena Waithe, referring to the Harlem Ballroom scene of the sixties, wore a suit emblazoned with the phrase, ‘Black Drag Queens Invented Camp.’ Described by Stabbe as a scene of ‘expensive frocks and wigs’, deemed ‘illegal and immoral by mainstream society’, and pioneered by marginalised communities, Ballroom culture embodied not only Camp but also its political capabilities. At its core, Camp’s ‘visual trickery’ makes it a valuable political tool: Camp does not operate within the ‘familiar split level construction’ [6] of symbolism, but within a ‘complex system of inclusion and exclusion’ that allows people to subvert dominant social discourse and form communities. [7] Camp is undeniably political.

Russia may not spring to mind when one thinks of Camp, perhaps because the country became a ‘worldwide symbol of the political repression of homosexuality’ [8] in 2013 after Putin implemented the anti-LGBT ‘gay propaganda law’. Additionally, the word ‘camp’ is not native to Russia: the Russian terms ‘poshlost’ (‘the falsely beautiful, important, clever, or attractive’ [9]), ‘glamur(‘a paradoxical mixture of aloofness and commonality’ [10]), and ‘stëb’ (a type of Russian humour; ‘advanced irony’ [11]) may describe similar cultural phenomena but are not fully coextensive. Despite these semantic challenges, contemporary Russian musical artists have been exploring the political capabilities of Camp (or what Sontag would define as ‘Camp’) in subverting official Russian State narratives in recent years. Actor and writer Aleksandr Gudkov is little known outside of Russia, but he has written and appeared in numerous music videos that demonstrate the political capabilities of Camp in the Russian context. Recently, he has collaborated with Russian electronic music group Cream Soda on a number of projects that could be said to promote pro-queer rhetoric in the face of ever-expanding censorship and anti-LGBT legislation in Russia.


[...] contemporary Russian musical artists have been exploring the political capabilities of Camp (or what Sontag would define as ‘Camp’) in subverting official Russian State narratives in recent years.

In July 2021, Cream Soda and nineties pop star Alëna Sviridova released a music video for their remake of Sviridova’s 1994 song ‘Rozovyy flamingo’ (‘Pink flamingo’) described by critic Ivan Beletskiy as, ‘a landmark song for domestic pop of the nineties.’ The video, set in imperial Russia on a country estate, is marked by a merging of new and old: a villainous army general (portrayed by Gudkov, who wrote the script for the video) leads the hunt for a pink flamingo whilst repetitive electronic music, a modern remake of the nineties hit, plays out. The flamingo (portrayed by actor Nikita Kukushin) leaves clues around the estate so as to be found by the hunters. The image of Kukushkin, who is clad in paint and neon feathers and sporting a large moustache, frolicking in the forest is undeniably exaggerated and Camp: part of the outfit resembles a ballet tutu, and large pink eyebrows hang low enough to touch the beak stuck to Kukushkin’s face. The band members have previously stated that the flamingo is a ‘symbol of self-expression,’ and that while being ‘incomprehensible’ is not scary, keeping yourself ‘in a makeshift cage is’. At the end of the video, the flamingo, which has been captured and roasted, lies on the table, smiling at the general. A potato rolls from the flamingo’s body onto the general’s plate, demonstrating that, even in captivity, the creature continues to display a subversive frivolity. Here, the general, a symbol of power and masculinity, is the one who is mocked and whose perceived authority is challenged. A queer reading of the video is certainly compounded by Kukushkin’s image of Camp, the flamingo’s role as a symbol of self-expression and liberation, and the subversion of an authority figure.

The choice of song here also subverts the anti-queer rhetoric in Russia. For many, the nineties in Russia are linked to the ‘formation of a new sexual culture’ that sought to ‘release a person from the captivity’ of ‘sanctimonious Soviet morality’. However, in recent years the country has experienced a revival of post-Soviet aesthetics, owing to the rise of Putin’s conservatism. In 1934, the Soviet State implemented harsh punishment for anyone found guilty of male homosexuality, while females engaging in ‘alternative relationships’ were subject to ‘medical and psychiatric interventions’ since same-sex relations between women were never formally criminalised. [12] Public discussion of gay rights in Russia began between 1987 and 1990 [13]: the first ‘Sexual Minorities Association’ was established in Moscow in 1989 with an aim to improve human rights for gays and lesbians in Russia. [14] In the nineties, queer Russians began staging events and protests to fight the nationalist propaganda relating homosexuality [15] to paedophilia, necrophilia, and bestiality, and above all a lack of public understanding and tolerance of homosexuality. Homosexuality was decriminalised in Russia in 1993 and, while violent backlash was still common, queer subjects began to claim more public space. By 1994, there were four gay clubs in Moscow and two in Saint Petersburg. [16] It is worth noting that the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Russia was a ‘precondition for Russia’s membership to the council of Europe’, meaning that actual political support for LGBT+ rights was still essentially ‘non-existent’. [17] However, queer liberation was materialising in post-Soviet Russia, and Laurie Essig even describes the seminars, press events (such as a ‘kiss-in’), and film festivals that happened in the country in 1991 as ‘Soviet Stonewall’: one Siberian activist told Essig that these events had ‘changed her life’ and that a ‘movement’ had been unleashed. [18] Ultimately, this ‘movement’ lost momentum when in the early 2000s a ‘political request to search for an internal enemy took shape’ in reaction to the social and financial turmoil of the post-Soviet years. This conservative turn was also inextricably linked to Russia’s worsening relationship with the West. During the 2012 elections, Putin positioned himself as ‘the saviour of the moral foundations of the Western civilization,’ and positioned Russia as a ‘global guardian of traditional values.’ [19] Between 2012 and 2018, the Russian government adopted 50 ‘anti-democracy’ laws, including the ‘Foreign Agents Law’, amendments to existing anti-protest legislation, and restrictions on foreign participation in mass media. Cream Soda’s choice to re-record a song from the 90s could be viewed as a reaction to Putin’s increasingly authoritarian administration and a subversion of Russia’s state-sanctioned homophobia. Artists revisit the post-Soviet era in protest as Russians face Soviet-style repression under Putin.


Cream Soda’s choice to re-record a song from the 90s could be viewed as a reaction to Putin’s increasingly authoritarian administration and a subversion of Russia’s state-sanctioned homophobia.

Beletskiy, who has described Sviridova’s original track as ‘one of the explicitly utopian songs of that time’, claims that Cream Soda’s video is an ‘exemplary reaction anthem’ that displays an objectless humour, and employs destruction of ties with the past. He argues that the images presented here are not truly nostalgic because they ignore the historical truth of the nineties and the 19th century, and that Gudkov’s ‘retro-utopian’ images mark the video as revisionist and ‘congenial to the reactionary political order.’ It is worth noting that Gudkov’s choice to focus on aesthetic quality over accurate historical content reinforces Camp imagery in the video. The lack of clarity that Beletskiy describes does play a role in rewriting histories, but it may not always serve as revisionist: appealing to a completely fictional time period, by combining images of farfetched events on a noble estate and a nineties hit, may actually interrupt the ‘vicious cycle of reproduction of the past’. Whilst Gudkov does use elements that are superficially nostalgic, the video itself does not promote the conservative patriotic ideologies typically related to Boym’s concept of ‘restorative nostalgia’. It is possible that Cream Soda and Gudkov simply revisit fragmented parts of the past in order to examine the current search for a queer utopia and to subvert contemporary Russian State narratives.

Gudkov’s choice to employ ‘ironic’ or ‘reflective’ nostalgia and use a fractured image of the nineties and the 19th century may be a good representation of post-Soviet Russia in the queer context. There exists a sentimentality for this era of relative freedom, but queer subjects here do not desire, and in general rarely desire, an actual return to the past. The histories of queer subjects are fractured and blurred because they are not always well documented, and young queer people in Russia largely receive information about previous decades that has been fragmented and revised. Gudkov’s ‘rewriting’ of history here could represent the queer histories that are commonly and necessarily rewritten. The rewriting of history is an often-exploited political tool but, for queer subjects, it is sometimes a necessary tool used to create more nuanced connections with the past and to positively influence change within minority communities. Gudkov both subverts and infiltrates the mainstream in an attempt to rewrite the future of queer subjects in Russia, rejecting the utopian nostalgia often employed by nationalists and the State. He uses ironic nostalgia for an imagined past and an imagined future as an ‘antidote to politics’.


The rewriting of history is an often-exploited political tool but, for queer subjects, it is sometimes a necessary tool used to create more nuanced connections with the past and to positively influence change within minority communities.

Gudkov has been described by Engström as marginalising ‘existent queer protest in Russia’ through the ‘mass production of queer visuality’ that, for many Russians, is inextricably linked with ‘permissive sexual mores, declining moral values, and Western influence.’ [20] However, any promotion of queer visibility in Russia could provoke nationalistic anti-queer rhetoric on the basis that legitimised queer presence itself is often perceived as a Western import. It is important to note that Camp aesthetics themselves are not necessarily marked as foreign in a Russian cultural context: Russian bands Little Big (who have also collaborated with Gudkov) and Leningrad use Camp aesthetics to provide overt criticism of Western consumerism and foreign perceptions of Russia. It is perhaps also unfair to reprimand Gudkov for reshaping oppressive discourse in a way that is ‘un-radical’ in the face of extreme censorship and disproportionate punishment in Russia. In 2020, the SOVA Centre released a report showing that anti-LGBT hate crimes in Russia were increasing. The same report in 2022 showed a decrease in anti-LGBT hate crimes, however this is explained by the fact that no protests were staged in 2022 and that many activists had left Russia. In recent years, leading members of the world-famous punk protest group Pussy Riot have also been forced to flee the country. Whilst their past protests may have been less ‘mainstream’ and more able to draw the attention of Western audiences to Russian politics, they weren’t sustainable or successful in influencing the Russian political system. Pussy Riot’s actions were used by Putin as a precedent to sign a new bill imposing jail terms and fines for those who insult ‘religious feelings’, and only a very small percentage of Russians sympathised with Pussy Riot’s efforts or even understood their motivations.

Ultimately, it remains extremely hard to stand in direct opposition to the Kremlin and its various propaganda machines for a prolonged period. In the face of these difficulties, Russian musical artists have been forced to demonstrate in more subtle ways the political capabilities of visual culture. Regulating the dissemination of music or music videos, in comparison to regulating physical protest, theatre, or television, remains a challenge for the government due to the widespread use of VPNs in Russia. This means that artists are able to reach Russian audiences from abroad, while those who remain in Russia are able to explore subversion and protest through artifice and upload their videos to foreign-owned platforms (although, the presence of these in Russia is threatened). Creators such as Gudkov demonstrate that Camp is an extremely flexible cultural and political tool and that Russians can and will continue to demand space for self-expression in the face of an increasingly undemocratic and repressive regime.


Notes


1. Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp” in Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader, ed. by Fabio Cleto (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 53-65.

2. Mark Booth, “Campe-Toi!: On the Origins and Definitions of Camp” in Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader, ed. by Fabio Cleto (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 78.

3. David Galef and Harold Galef, “What Was Camp”, Studies in Popular Culture 13, no. 2 (1991): 19.

4. Mark Booth, “Campe-Toi!: On the Origins and Definitions of Camp” in Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader, ed. by Fabio Cleto (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 75.

5. Molière as cited in Mark Booth, “Campe-Toi!: On the Origins and Definitions of Camp” in Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader, ed. by Fabio Cleto (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 75.

6. Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp” in Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader, ed. by Fabio Cleto (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 5.

7. Yevropeyskiy universitet v Sankt-Peterburge, “charisma, camp, or kitsch? gender performativity in putin’s russia”, Julie Cassiday, 1 August 2018, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9maAwy6jO4.

8. Alexander Kondakov, ‘Teaching Queer Theory in Russia’, QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 3, no. 2, (2016): 107.

9. Robert Vlach, “Gogol and Hasek - Two Masters of Poshlost”, Slavic and East-European Studies 7, no. 3 (1962): 239.

10. Yevropeyskiy universitet v Sankt-Peterburge, “charisma, camp, or kitsch? gender performativity in putin’s russia”, Julie Cassiday, 1 August 2018, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9maAwy6jO4.

11. Alexei Yurchak, “Dead Irony: Necroaesthetics, “Stiob”, and the Anekdot’” in Everything was forever, until it was no more: the last Soviet generation (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005), 252.

12. Richard C. M. Mole, “Introduction to “Soviet and Post-Soviet Sexualities””, Slavic Review 77, no. 1 (2018): 2.

13. Igor S. Kon, “Coming out into Chaos” in The Sexual Revolution in Russia: From the Age of the Czars to Today (New York: The Free Press, 1995), 242.

14. ibid, 252.

15. ibid, 252-255.

16. ibid, 260-261.

17. Francesca Stella, Lesbian lives in soviet and post-soviet russia: post/socialism and gendered sexualities (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015): 39.

18. Laurie Essig, Queer in Russia: A Story of Sex, Self, and The Other (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 135.

19. Gulnaz Sharafutdionva, "The Pussy Riot affair and Putin’s démarche from sovereign democracy to sovereign morality”, Nationalities Papers, 42, no. 4 (2014): 616.

20. Francesca Stella, “Queer Space, Pride, and Shame in Moscow”, Slavic Review 72, no. 3 (2013): 458-480.


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