IAS Laughter: Was Lenin a Mushroom? Kuryokhin’s Stiob
by Andrei Rogatchevski
4 January 2021
Laurie Raye, Lenin was a Mushroom, 2020. © Laurie Raye. Courtesy of the artist.
What is stiob?
Stiob (from the Russian stebat’, to lash or lash out) is a form of humour that came to prominence in the former Soviet Union in the early to mid-1990s. It entered academic discourse with Viktor Matizen’s 1993 article, which defined the phenomenon as ‘a playful parodic construction of parallel reality from an old cultural material that used to be sacred’.[i] Soon after, Boris Dubin pointed at the role of informal, close, non-mainstream intellectual circles (kruzhki) in the dissemination of stiob to the general public. Such circles habitually use stiob as a mechanism and sign of negative identification, distancing themselves from whatever happens in the world to which, they feel, they do not belong. Yet at a time of major cultural and political shifts, which gives kruzhki members access to mass media, stiobbing practices are shared with much broader audiences and may gain a wide popularity.[ii]
In the mid-2000s, Alexei Yurchak focused on stiob’s formal properties. According to him, stiob requires an ‘overidentification with the object, person, or idea, at which this stiob was directed’ — to the point that is ‘often impossible to tell whether it was a form of sincere support, subtle ridicule, or a peculiar mixture of the two’. Crucially, the ‘practitioners of stiob’ would not be drawn on their positions, ‘producing an incredible combination of seriousness and irony’.[iii] This unusual kind of mockery can be interpreted as a reasonably safe strategy of poking fun at an authoritarian regime (e.g. the USSR) when such a regime is going into decline and is no longer scary enough to laugh at in secret only — but is still scary enough not to laugh at openly.
Among notable stiob practitioners was the influential multimedia artist and countercultural and political activist Sergey Kuryokhin (1954–96), whose 65th birth anniversary was marked at an IAS UCL seminar in December 2018.[iv] Kuryokhin’s arguably most memorable stiob action took place in early 1991, when, in a popular current affairs programme broadcast by Leningrad television,[v] Kuryokhin claimed that ‘the Russian revolution of October 1917 was made by people who for years had been taking [hallucinogenic] mushrooms. In the process of consumption, these mushrooms altered people’s personalities, so that people [effectively] became mushrooms [themselves]. […] Lenin was a mushroom’.[vi]
This claim ridiculed the image of Lenin, the last untouchable figure in the pantheon of Soviet leaders. This pantheon’s credibility and authority had already been undermined by Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, in which much that was previously unknown about the communist regime was made public. Kuryokhin’s broadcast involved a poker-faced pseudoscientific interview, containing randomly collated facts, quotations, and terminology designed to lead the viewer to a logical conclusion based on false premises. The stiob worked: soon after it went to air, a delegation of old Bolsheviks (brought up in the atmosphere of unquestioning trust in Soviet media outlets) visited a regional Communist Party Secretary for Ideology demanding to know the truth.
Kuryokhin and Popular Mechanics
Kuryokhin’s unorthodox approach to authority is also evident in the way he conducted performances of his musical ensemble Popular Mechanics, founded in 1984. Popular Mechanics did not have permanent members but from time to time united some of Kuryokhin’s friends and acquaintances (artists and even politicians) for a specific conceptual performance, different every time, depending on who was available. According to the leading expert on Kuryokhin, Aleksandr Kan, Popular Mechanics’ trademark was ‘piling up layers — a rock band, a jazz band, a classical orchestra, folk musicians, circus performers, a military orchestra, […] ballerinas, animals and much more’.[vii] As Kuryokhin himself put it in the 1986 BBC documentary Comrades: All That Jazz, produced by Olivia Lichtenstein, ‘I’ve gathered first-class musicians together who just feel very constrained by what they do on the professional stage. They want something livelier. That’s why they come to Popular Mechanics’.[viii]
Popular Mechanics’ increasingly complex shows demanded sophisticated musical directing, and Kuryokhin, who studied piano and conducting at the Leningrad Institute of Culture (but was expelled ‘for non-conformity and non-attendance’), assumed the role himself. His personal conducting style was unusual. He often conducted with his legs.
His account of his role as conductor involves another kind of stiob: ‘I have thought up my own way of conducting’, he said in ‘Comrades: All that Jazz’. ‘It seems the most effective. […] I’ve invented a system of gestures that my musicians know well. So they know what to play when. If, for example, I jump with my left foot in the air, they know they should play Shostakovich. When I jump with my right leg up, they must play, say, jazz or bebop’.[ix]
Kuryokhin and the National Bolshevik Party
Kuryokhin’s most controversial acts, however, were still to come. In the final years of his life, Kuryokhin became an ardent and efficient supporter of the notorious National Bolshevik Party (NBP), an epitome of close-knit countercultural kruzhki that Dubin writes about. The NBP was formed in 1993 and banned in 2007 for extremism. Kuryokhin was issued a party membership card (no. 418). The NBP’s co-founder, the author Eduard Limonov, defined the party’s stance in a party newspaper as ‘the leftmost of the right-wing parties and the rightmost of the left-wing parties’.[x] According to the journalist Peter Pomerantsev, the NBP ‘started as an art project, became an anti-oligarch revolutionary party mixing Trotskyism and Fascism, and then transformed again to become a Kremlin ally’.[xi]
The first party flag merged Nazi and Communist visual imagery (a red field with a white circle at its centre, containing a hammer and sickle instead of a swastika). The first NBP programme deliberately evoked the twenty-five point plan announced in the National Socialist manifesto of 1920, adding a twenty-sixth point to symbolize a further step forward.
How did it happen that, faced with the choice of about seventy political parties standing for election to the Russian Duma in 1995, Kuryokhin, who was Jewish, chose a neo-Nazi party that was not even on the ballot paper (another NBP co-founder, the countercultural philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, formally stood as an independent candidate in St Petersburg)? Was it some kind of stiob, reminiscent of the so-called ‘Jewish punk’ of the mid-1970s, when the Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, also Jewish, and Jewish members of the Ramones developed a fascination with Nazi regalia (including Iron Crosses and swastikas)?
For Dugin, Kuryokhin’s move was a development of his artistic practice: ‘In his Popular Mechanics, Kuryokhin collects almost all types of art: ballet, music, melodeclamation, circus, theatricals and puppet theatre, erotic performance, painting, decorative art, cinema, etc. [...] The expansion beyond genre limitations […] leads logically to the political realm, where particularly large quantities (history, social teachings, the masses) are operated with. Naturally, […] the desire to push for artistic limits is transformed into a passion for political radicalism’.[xii]
In contrast, a number of Kuryokhin’s friends and collaborators, as well as experts on his life and art, downplay the seriousness of Kuryokhin’s NBP involvement or explain it away as a symptom of some more acceptable malaise. The saxophonist Sergei Letov, who worked with Kuryokhin, says: ‘It seems to me that Kuryokhin’s passion for [the NBP] was of the same nature as his interest in Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Branca’s guitar and John Zorn’s compositions’ — that is, an academic interest — while Aleksandr Kushnir, author of a 2013 monograph on Kuryokhin, asserts that his ’fascination with National Bolshevik ideas may have been a defensive reaction against Russia’s omnipresent winter and society’s deep slumber’.[xiii]
Can Kuryokhin’s puzzling affair with the NBP be attributed to his fondness for stiob?[xiv] This is entirely possible, given that stiob has been interpreted ‘as a dominant discursive mode in the rhetoric of the early NBP’, whose ‘appropriation and reinvention of a fascist […] aesthetics and ideology […] should be seen at the same time as a politically and morally disengaged act of protest […] and as a return to a romanticized utopian ideal of the revolution’.[xv]
It is hardly surprising that Kuryokhin’s controversial actions, such as siding with the NBP, can be understood in many different, sometimes mutually inconsistent ways. As Mischa Gabowitsch puts it, ‘the risk of seeing one’s intentions misunderstood is implicit in the success of a stiob project’.[xvi] However, the last word, at least for now, shall go to Aleksandr Kan, Kuryokhin’s closest friend since 1978 and the foremost authority on his life and art, who is unlikely to misinterpret anything Kuryokhin had ever said or done.
Kan suggests that what became the final stage in Kuryokhin’s evolution may have emerged as an interplay between his genuine convictions and his irrepressible desire to goad those around him: ’Kuryokhin was a well-known aesthetic, artistic and political provocateur. The liberal idea by that time had become the banner of the intellectual establishment, and provoking the establishment was Kuryokhin’s style. He often believed in his provocative ideas, though’.[xvii] Either way, such an ambivalent mix of seriousness and irony fits Yurchak’s definition of stiob rather well.[xviii] Kuryokhin, stiob’s practitioner, remains an enigma.
[i] Viktor Matizen, ‘Stiob kak fenomen kul’tury’, Iskusstvo kino, 9, 1993, p. 62; my translation.
[ii] Boris Dubin, Slovo – pis’mo – literatura: Ocherki po sotsiologii sovremennoi kul’tury (Moscow: NLO, 2001), pp. 163-74.
[iii] Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 250.
[v] Analysed in minute detail in Yurchak’s article ‘A Parasite from the Outer Space: How Sergei Kurekhin Proved That Lenin Was a Mushroom’, Slavic Review 70, no. 2, 2011, pp. 307-33.
[vii] Aleksandr Kan, Kuryokhin: Shkiper o kapitane (St Petersburg: Amfora, 2012), p. 156.
[ix] ‘Comrades: All That Jazz’ (minute 8:00-8:26).
[x] Eduard Limonov, ‘Pereiti pustyniu’, Limonka, 45 (1996), p. 2.
[xi] Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (London: Faber, 2015), pp. 207–208.
[xiii] Sergei Letov, ‘Pominal’nye zametki o Sergee Kuryokhine’, Yahha (2007) <http://www.yahha.com/article.php?sid=126>; and Aleksandr Kushnir, Sergei Kurekhin: Bezumnaia mekhanika russkogo roka (Moscow: Bertelsmann Media Moscow, 2013), p. 211.
[xiv] In the opinion of Michael Klebanov, ‘stiob as a skilful combination of shock, hidden message, and probably Surrealist attitude as well served Kurechin as a dominant modus operandi’, see Klebanov, ‘Sergej Kurechin: The Performance of Laughter for the Post-Totalitarian Society of spectacle’, Russian Literature (Amsterdam) LXXIV, nos I-II, 2013, p. 243.
[xv] Fabrizio Fenghi, It Will Be Fun and Terrifying, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2020), pp. 59-60.
[xvi] Mischa Gabowitsch, ‘Fascism as Stiob’, Kultura 4, 2009, pp. 6-7
[xvii] Aleksandr Kan, Kuryokhin, p. 261.
[xviii] Yurchak’s explanation of Kuryokhin’s alliance with the NBP is also similar to Kan’s, cf.: ‘by overidentifying with Dugin’s illiberal rhetoric, […] Kuryokhin provoked the moral outrage of the liberal intelligentsia’, Yurchak, ‘A Parasite from Outer Space’, p. 329.
Andrei Rogatchevski is a graduate of the Moscow State University (MGU) and the University of Glasgow. Since 2014, he has been Professor of Russian Literature and Culture at UiT The Arctic University of Norway. In 2018, he was a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at IAS UCL.
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