“What is the purpose of your visit?”
“Ethnographic expedition.”
“I see. Looking for oil are you?”
“Not exactly. I’m looking for folklore.”

So goes a scene in Leonid Gaiday’s 1966 Soviet comedy Prisoner of the Caucasus. It unfolds between the manager of a provincial hotel and the film’s hapless hero Shurik, a student who has travelled from Moscow to do some fieldwork in an unspecified region in the Caucasus. What we see here, in a comedic frame, is the classic model of the imperialist relationship between the metropolitan centre and the regional periphery. Not only is the centre the locus of political power, but it also determines how the periphery is known and understood; outlying regions, in contrast, are presented as a source of the natural resources needed by the centre. But what interests me here is not a post-colonial studies angle, but rather the amusing semantic rhyme between oil and folklore.

On 22 April 2013 President Putin signed a decree announcing 2014 as an official “Year of Culture” in the Russian Federation. As a consequence, the government is now required to deliver to parliament an annual report presenting "objective, systematic and analytical information about the condition of culture in Russia and trends in its development”, as if culture can be quantified like pig iron or grain harvests.

There is a new official discourse of patriotic Russian identity in which cultural values are increasingly thoughht of as if they were a fossil fuel waiting to be dug out of the ground. 

This metaphorical equivalence between natural and cultural resources is not merely a rhetorical device, but also a reflection of the way the state shapes the principles that underlie the manufacturing of cultural values and the representation of Russian history. Thus, the production of culture is becoming subject to the same logic that dictates the government’s control over the acquisition and distribution of natural resources.

Shurik and the hotel manager in Leonid Gaiday's Prisoner of the Caucasus (1966)

It’s like a giant multinational holding in which the parent company hands out licences for resources to different firms; in the case of culture these subdivisions include the media, the education system and  other public organisations like the Academy of Sciences and the Geographic Society. In turn, these companies purchase the right to access these resources and to distribute commodities licensed by the state using political loyalty and a tailored ideological identity.

"Cultural values are increasingly understood as if they were a fossil fuel waiting to be dug out of the ground"

The expansion of the capitalist economy into the realm of culture has long been remarked on by the likes of Theodor Adorno: the rate of production of intangible goods is growing unchecked, pushing industrial labour to the periphery. But in the case of the Russian production of historical knowledge and the Russian culture industry, we shouldn’t talk about an expansion of the sphere of production so much as an expansion in the resource base. Russian culture is not so much the product of a knowledge economy — in which culture is produced — as of a resource economy in which the history and cultural legacy of Russia (understood in the most patriotic terms) is a sort of mineral deposit, accumulating over the years, which can be mined by the ruling elite. But the goal of their exploitation of this cultural resource is not financial profit, but the invention of a normative cultural identity of political loyalty. 

Here’s an example of how culture and history are presented as a resource to be fought over for the national good. In autumn 2012, Russian business newspaper Vzglyad published an article called Global Disgrace written by Olga Tukhanina, who described herself as a “provincial housewife”. The text is written in a tone that makes it hard to know whether it’s a parody written by a liberal mocking the paranoia of so-called patriots, or the very opposite.

But what matters more is that the text insistently reproduces this understanding of the past as a resource, and does so with a marked degree of alarmism: “The world owes us. Owes us so badly that it would take several centuries to pay it off. Because in the 20th century the USA and Europe stole all Russia’s victories and anything that was good about life here. Thieves should be punished and justice restored.”

Protestors bury the corpse of Russian science at a rally against top-down reforms of the Academy of Sciences. Photograph: Alexsey Nichukchkin / RIA Novosti

The author then moves on to establish how this historical injustice can be corrected: “History is now, however you want to put it, a bit like a mineral. And we are now surrounded by more than just mineral deposits, by more than just oil and gas somewhere deep in the bowels of the earth. There is a whole ocean under our feet: that is, our thousand-year history.”

"The USA and Europe stole all Russia’s victories and anything that was good about life here. Thieves should be punished and justice restored"

But having made the historical past a mineral, the author runs up against the question of who this wealth belongs to and who gets to profit from it: “And so while we are involved in various amateur battles, and while our historians are slowly constructing various theories, sneaky bullies have already erected drilling rigs and are pumping our wealth out of our ground, trading it wholesale and retail. It’s not as profitable as hawking oil, but if you look at in the long run … then there’s billions there. … It’s time we took a proper look at this economy.”

"We might not have too long to wait for the creation of a new state company — RosCulture — which can stop “coordinated attacks” on Russia’s past"

This example of the “naive” discourse, which is all over the internet, is an example of how Russia’s past is being turned into black gold. The author unravels the whole chain of metaphors at the heart of contemporary cultural policy in Russia, the author doesn’t look to problematise the conceptual links from which it is made, but only extends the chain still further. All you can do is console this desperate housewife with the fact that interested parties have long since taken “a proper look at this [cultural] economy” and made it the object of constant governmental care and attention.

Two days after this publication of Tukhanina’s text, Vladimir Putin held a meeting with “representatives of society about the patriotic education of young people”. The coincidences between his speech at this event and the housewife’s cri de coeur are suspiciously striking — both in the use of metaphors and in the paranoid-obsessive certainty that there is some external threat to Russian culture: “As our own historical experience shows, cultural identity, spiritual and moral values and codes of values are an area of bitter competition, and at times even subject to  … well coordinated propaganda attacks. And these are not phobias, I’m not making anything up here, this is how it really is. These things are absolutely real, just as real as the fight for mineral resources that many countries are coming up against, including our own.”

Government hydrocarbon concern Rosneft did manage to put a stop to the “sly bullies” “hawking” Russian oil when it swallowed what remained of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s company Yukos after his arrest and conviction. We might not have too long to wait for the creation of a new state company — RosCulture — which can stop “coordinated attacks” on Russia’s past and, finally, establish control over a resource of vital importance to the modernisation of Russia — Russian culture.

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