Apocalyptic Overkill


By Victoria Azzi

On Monday April 7, 2014, Eliot Borenstein, Professor of Slavic Languages and noted cultural scholar at NYU was the fourth to deliver a lecture in a series, hosted by Miami University’s Havighurst center, which is aimed at addressing the state of the Russian and Eurasian field. Borenstein was the second of the lecturers to approach the topic with a focus on the post-Soviet era, as well as, the only lecturer coming from a non-historical background. Through his presentation, sharing the name and topic of his next book, “Catastrophe of the Week: Entertaining the Apocalypse in Post-Socialist Russia,” Borenstein articulated the particularities of the catastrophe phenomenon that at least in rhetoric and imagining encapsulated part of 1990s and early 2000s Russian culture. Most aptly put in Borenstein’s own words; “Public discourse and mass entertainment in the 1990s [was] marked by a logic of cultural pessimism, an ongoing fixation on cultural collapse, an expectation of apocalyptic disaster mixing eschatology with the everyday.”[1]

Before articulating the nuanced aspects of his assertion, Borenstein began his lecture by framing its conception. It was through his own lived experience in 1990s Russia, when composing his dissertation on an entirely different topic, that Borenstein arrived upon what he would later term “overkill” culture and the catastrophe narrative. Bornstein discovered both these phenomena to be permeating the majority of Russian popular culture and saw the need for further exploration. Thanks to the suggestion of a particularly wise editor, Borenstein decided to address the topics in two separate works, making it much more tangible and palatable for his audience.

In the already published Overkill: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Culture, Borenstein, true to title, focuses on the causes, dissemination, and effects of overkill culture in Russia’s 1990s, particularly its manifestation in regards to sex and violence. Although fueling the catastrophe narrative, overkill culture does not in its own right explain the phenomenon.  In fact, Borenstein connects the catastrophe narrative to a much longer lineage.

In the farthest reaches, catastrophe anxieties can be seen as developing from the Russian Empire’s first encounter with Christianity. The eschatology of Christianity, particularly in the climax of Revelations, sets up the dominant narrative of catastrophe as a necessary ends in the achievement of Salvation. Borenstein argues that even within the atheist Soviet Union a similar eschatological narrative is preserved. Yet in this iteration of the story, the citizens of the Soviet Union do not need the occurrence of a catastrophe in order to achieve communism. This alteration to the narrative would prove detrimental in the final years of the Soviet Union.

In the years of Perestroika, Glasnost, and Uskorenie (or restructuring, openness, and acceleration), Borenstein argues that the Soviet eschatology becomes shaken. The reserve of previous eras is removed and a dialogue is opened that reveals many of the atrocities of daily life. These atrocities, however, are not provided a purpose in the progression of culture and therefore the logic is developed that the only progression is towards catastrophe. Popular culture through overkill and catastrophic storylines reinforces these anxieties and they become further ingrained in the societal fabric. Borenstein justifies this further through numerous examples, but it is the larger conclusions about this phenomenon that are most beneficial.

Borenstein concludes that the catastrophe complex that is proliferating throughout Russian popular culture demonstrates a historical continuity. This continuity at once implicates through eschatology studies that the Soviet Union was not the microcosm that it is often imagined to be and in fact there are useful external, both chronological and geographical, comparisons that are beneficial to make. As well as, this continuity argues for the continued use and benefits of the term “post-Soviet” in describing and analyzing contemporary Russia. Overall, Borenstein’s lecture was both dense and dynamic, suggesting Catastrophe of the Week: Entertaining the Apocalypse in Post-Socialist Russia will be just as fascinating and comprehensive of a read as its predecessor.

[1] Eliot Borenstein, Overkill: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Culture (London: Cornell University Press, 2008) 5.

Victoria Azzi is a senior art history major at Miami.

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