Phantoms of Russia [Lacan and Ideology]: Danila Tkachenko Feature

Author ········· Taylor Dorrell
Published ······ May 6, 2020

Ruins of experimental laser system “ZET”. Kazakhstan, Karaganda region, 2015

    The Cold War that defined much of the 20th century is evoked as a fight of ideology and hidden mechanisms. Spies, the arms race, and proxy wars manifested themselves as the physical, but hidden, embodiment of a cold war between Capitalism and Communism. Ideology became tangible not only through these hostile means, but through culture, architecture, design, and propaganda - each fought a war of the symbolic through real forms. The collapse of the Soviet Union and what came next is naturally depicted through media and images of these physical embodiments of ideology, in depictions of the Real.

    Structures from the Soviet Union still haunt Russia. The ideology of the past has not disappeared, but instead continues to haunt the present through the ideology-formed structures and objects. Abandoned military bases, oil fields, submarines, aircraft, secret cities, and monuments are scattered throughout Russia and the former Republics. These real structures act as the signified for the imaginary of the ideology. They carry with them the weight of the imaginary and the symbolic. This division and blending of ideology with the real is the same division the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan divides our psyche into, the triad of the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic. Through examining the ways that the Soviet Union remains in today’s Russia, we will look at the medium that claims the highest acclaim when looking to the past and present, photography. The psychoanalytic application of Lacan’s Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic to ideology and Russia is visualized in the works of the contemporary Russian documentary photographer, Danila Tkachenko. Starting from the Real, physical remains of the Soviet Union, to the Imaginary, how the ideology thought of itself, and the Symbolic, how the ideology became more than itself through the Big Other that is history.

The Real: Restricted Areas

    The first structure for Lacan is the Real, or what exists outside of our internal experience. In nature, Lacan says that there is no distinction or trauma of separation between the external and the internal, there is only a primal need (hunger solved by eating etc.). For humans, “the real is impossible,” we can never fully grasp or describe the Real with language, we are separated from the external. However, the Real, even in its inaccessibility, is nonetheless at the foundation of our experience and fantasies. The Real is what we rely on, how we are reminded of the traumatic materiality of our existence. The Real of the Soviet Union today is what’s left of the physical structures, the structural zombies that Tkachenko documents.

    In his project Restricted Areas, Tkachenko, instead of giving us crystal clear images of structures that can be fully grasped, the images are abstracted by the white haze of snow and the distance from the objects and the lens. There’s little separation between the snow covered land and the sky; it’s as if the objects are floating in a void with little reference to the surroundings, they can hardly be considered representations of the objects, but something more. The images, like language, abstract our ability to fully grasp the Real. Even when we are shown the physical remains of the external, we cannot fully combine this with our internal experience. The objects, the Real, float in a space in between.

From the series, Restricted Areas

The Imaginary: Lost Horizon

   It’s not only the physical structures that haunt Russia. After the 1917 revolution, Constructivists like Tatlin and El Lissitzky built an image of what a communist utopia could look like. A society that embraced modernity, that would surpass skyscrapers with horizontal structures that floated above the cityscape, communal housing structures that challenged the notion of a living space, and buildings that would hardly be recognized as buildings in their sketches. It seemed that this would be the new architecture of the Soviet Union at the conclusion of the civil war, however, Stalin would go on to nudge this trajectory elsewhere with Socialist Realism and an architecture that combined traditional neoclassicalism with socialist realism. The Palace of the Soviets marked this turning point as the building would be the tallest in the world, replacing the largest Orthodox church in the world, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (which was blown up with dynamite). The Palace of the Soviets would be a Pantheon-esque superstructure skyscraper with ceilings lined with socialist realist paintings, a kind of working class Versailles. The tallest building in the world only because of the giant statue of Lenin at the top. Images of what the building would look like became a new form of propoganda, spreading to show the population who were going through a famine. The building construction was haulted when the Nazis invaded and the steel was disasembled to help with infrustructure, leaving a very large hole in Moscow. Construction never resumed, Khrushchev would convert it into the world’s largest open air swimming pool. Right before the fall of the Soviet Union, a plan was set to rebuild the Cathedral of Christ Saviour that would be undertaken in the new Russia. This is famously where Pussy Riot protested the corrupt relationship between Putin’s regime and the Orthodox church. We see this failed hope of essence and theory still present in today’s Russia. The aspiration of a democracy and capitalism met with oligarchs, inequality, and an orthodox plutocracy. The transition from church to palace of the soviets to swimming pool and back to the original aristocratic church. A dialectic of ideology and architecture.

    In his project Lost Horizon Tkachenko shows us objects emerging from a black void that represent, not the needs, but the utopian demands, which cannot be satisfied. The logos and shapes, which look more like digital 3D renderings than real objects, cannot be grasped in their size or context. Whereas the Real is blurred by natural causes - snow and blanketed skies - the Imaginary is thrown even deeper into confusion, into anxiety, unable to connect the way that the subject experiences the world with how the subject physically exists in it. The Imaginary for Lacan is the fantasy image that we use to connect our reality that is impossible to fully understand with our internal experience, which is where the role of the Other becomes important. We look to others to act as a mirror for ourselves, we look to images and monuments to reflect what we want to see - images of a not-yet-built skyscraper, or tv shows that give us a look at a reality we will never experience. A repetition of narcissism, but nonetheless an attempt to reconcile our experience with the Real.
From the series, Lost Horizon

    This is apparent in the soviet era apartment buildings (Khrushchyovkas) that once garned international attention for their quality, speed built, and solution to the housing crisis, currently face demolition in Moscow. Is this a shedding of the past? While this is taking place, on the other hand, Russian Oligarchs use Stalinist architecture for new buildings. In the first instance, there’s both a pride in the buildings that were recognized internationally for their quality and the speed in which they were built (with a cultural connection) and a utility/safety need for new buildings. The cultural nostalgic connection to the buildings is being reignited in new ‘neo-Stalinist postmodernist’ buildings that exploit the aesthetics of the past while detaching all imaginary utopian communist ideology. But instead of housing for the working class, the past is stripped of its intent in favor of the country’s elite. While structures that represented an attempt at a worker’s state with housing, these are destroyed while the authoritarian Stalinist architecture lives for the elites of the country. Russia’s neoliberal capitalism reaches back to the soviet era for aesthetics that can generate a nostalgia for the present. Slavoj Zizek observes:

    “The “class basis” of the neo-Stalinist postmodernism is thus the new wild-capitalist elite which perceives itself as ideologically indifferent, “apolitical,” caring only about money and success, despising all big Causes. The “spontaneous ideology” of this new bourgeoisie is paradoxically what appears as the opposite of their vulgar “passion of the real” (pleasures, money, power), a (no less vulgar) pan-aestheticism: all ideologies are equal, equally ridiculous, they are useful only to provide the spice of aesthetic excitement, so the more problematic they are, the more excitement they generate.” Slavoj Zizek, Architectural Parallax Spandrels and Other Phenomena of Class Struggle

    Lost Horizon is a jump back into the ideology as the ideology saw itself in relation to the external. A time that is today cherry picked and scavenged for aesthetic value, but does this suppression of the ideological gravity result in a seeping through the cracks? The clear ties between Stalinist authoritarianism and Putin’s plutocracy suggest that this is the case.

The Symbolic Order: Motherland

    The Symbolic Order attempts to establish stability in this seemingly ununderstandable human experience. Through language, rules, and narratives we create a structure of desire. With need attached to the Real, demand attached to the Imaginary, the Symbolic Order is fueled by desire. While the three are all interconnected, the Real and Imaginary rely on the Symbolic to act as an attempt to sew them all together, to describe the indescribable. This is the role of photography, to attempt to connect the world outside of ourselves with the complexity of our own subjectivity. This attempt is never fully satisfied, our desire is fueled by our inability to fully capture the Thing. This process, shifting between the Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic is a summary of Lacan’s triad of the psyche. In the case of the Soviet Union, the victors of the Cold War supply the narratives and the language to create the Symbolic Order. Reduced to relics of ideology whose intent is forgotten. All that is left is the shells and costumes of the ideology, which burn like the old buildings in Tkachenko’s Motherland series.

From the series, Motherland

    Instead of a blurring of the foreground and background, the line exposed, literally lit on fire. This Tarkovskian burning of the Russian dacha is represented as a sacrifice in his 1986 film, the Sacrifice. Similar to the act of walking a candle across a pool in Nostalghia, both act as a meaningless act to restore order and normality. In The Sacrifice, the world is ending as WWIII unexpectedly starts. The main character Alexander wants nothing but to return to how things were the day before and prays to God, but Alexander is told the only way to fix the world is through sleeping with their younger housemaid who is allegedly a witch. The main character doesn’t believe in these stories, but is nonetheless convinced by this symbolic sex act to fix the world ruined by nucleur war.
    Is the message of the film to sacrifice everything to return to normality, or is it a more psychoanalytic one, to not give ground relative to your desire? Instead of a story about the world being saved by a sacrifice, is it not an overly complex way of bringing Alexander’s unconscious desire to get with the house maid? Then the burning of the house and being taken to the insane asylum would not be the real sacrifice, but a voluntary punishment for fulfilling his desire would be the sacrifice. The acts are nonetheless neurotic ones, performed in service of the Big Other, or the Symbolic Order. As Slavoj Zizek observes:

    “This motif of a pure, senseless act that restores meaning to our terrestrial life is the focus of Tarkovsky's last two films, shot abroad…. To this gesture of senseless sacrifice, one should give all the weight of an obsessional-neurotic compulsive act: if I accomplish THIS (sacrificial gesture), THE Catastrophy (in Sacrifice, literally the end of the world in an atomic war) will not occur or will be undone - the well-known compulsive gesture of "If I do not do this (jump two times over that stone, cross my hands in this way, etc.) something bad will occur"... this renunciation is functionalized in the service of the big Other, as the redemptive act destined to restore spiritual Meaning to Life.” Slavoj Zizek, The Thing from Inner Space, 1999

    In Tkachenko’s project Motherland, we see houses burning down, but not as a sacrifice. Tkachenko went through all of the necessary steps and permits after finding old abandoned locations, there is no pressing sacrificial act in the burning of these ‘no longer functional structures’ (in the filming of the last scene of The Sacrifice, the scene was filmed and the house was burned, but the camera malfunctioned. Tarkovsky had to seek out more funding to build a second house to burn down and shoot the scene we see today. In this sense, the filming of The Sacrifice was more of a sacrifice than Alexander’s burning of the dacha). What is the burning down of the past nostalgia for the Soviet Union - the structures burned in Motherland, Russian dachas in Tarkovsky films, the Brushnevkis and Kreschnevkis (Soviet apartment buildings) being destroyed, etc. - when Russian oligarchs utilize the Stalinist architecture in their buildings? After being demolished, what comes next? What is left is an anxiety of the mixture of the past and present Russia, creating a nostalgia for the present, loaded with a controversial association. There is no sacrifice, only a recycling of the past to fit the hegemony of the current ruling system.

    The ideology, which our generations born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is only exposed to culture that is stripped of its content in the same way the neo-Stalinist postmodernist architecture is. American films, not only about the US, but about KGB spies and the Cold War all blend together as high grossing action flicks with different costumes. In this sense are we not falling victim to the Fruedian forgetting of intentions?
“An intention is an impulse for an action which has already found approbation, but whose execution is postponed for a suitable occasion. Now, in the interval thus created sufficient change may take place in the motive to prevent the intention from coming to execution. It is not, however, forgotten, it is simply revised and omitted.” Sigmund Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 1901

    For both the West and the Soviet Union, we have fetishized the costumes and forgotten the intent, the ideology, that lies beneath them. This phenomenon is present in Tkachenko’s series Monuments.

Monuments of the Symbolic

From the series Monuments

    This aesthetic fascination stripped of ideological intent is present in Tkachenko’s series Monuments in which Tkachenko adds objects to orthodox churches abandoned in post-Revolutionary Russia. The same kind of attempt to reduce ideology for aesthetic nostalgia takes place in his images that turn these churches into what looks like a branded graphic design opportunity. The churches look like fatigued underpaid models wearing uncomfortable and unwearable clothes. But this hungry depressed look underneath the costume is exactly what’s desired and the seemingly unhealthy model is transformed into a billboard ad. While the model is a symptom of the gig economy and the ad based surveillance economy, even if consumers know this, it doesn’t matter. Ideology is buried and although we can see it, it’s more economic to ignore it (why abandon the comforts we do have).
    “The soldier dares forget nothing that military service demands of him. If he forgets in spite of this, even when he is acquainted with the demands, then it is due to the fact that the motives which urge the fulfilment of the military exactions are opposed by contrary motives. Thus the one year's volunteer who at inspection pleads forgetting as an excuse for not having polished his buttons is sure to be punished. But this punishment is small in comparison to the one he courts if he admits to his superiors that the motive for his negligence is because "this miserable menial service is altogether disgusting to me." Owing to this saving of punishment for economic reasons, as it were, he makes use of forgetting as an excuse, or it comes about as a compromise.” Sigmund Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 1901

    We nonetheless consume the advertisements as scripture. We know the churches, the contemporary Stalinist oligarch architecture, carry a weight to them, but it’s as if we’ve forgotten the intent. As if it’s been suppressed by the Symbolic Order and the ideology that won the Cold War. As our systems fail terribly today, we see our ideology underneath is “The primitive greed of the suckling which wishes to seize every object (in order to put it in its mouth)”, which has up until now “been only imperfectly subdued through culture and training.” (Freud). We have forgotten that this has been the foundation supporting the system, the essence, that started to rot only two weeks into a pandemic. We’re reminded us that our ‘service’ is ‘miserable’ and ‘disgusting’, but today it’s no longer economic to compromise; we can no longer claim to have simply forgotten. We have no choice but to confront it.

See more of Danila Tkachenko’s work on his website.