Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has inspired much equivocation between the current Russian Federation and the Soviet Union. Indeed, both states subordinated their peripheries to the will of Moscow, making such a connection seem natural. Yet, this straightforward parallelism ignores the deep ideological rift between them: the gap between nationalism and communism. The Soviet ideology, particularly in its early years, sought to replace the concept of the modern “nation” with the international proletariat; the new ideology has reconstructed the concept of the “nation” on a scale so large that it is being used to justify the forced incorporation of another nation within itself. Rather than a return to Soviet ideology, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine signifies a return to the ideology of the pre-Soviet Russian Empire. Now, as then, Russia encompasses a great diversity of peoples with varied occupations and histories, shares an economic system with the West while lagging behind and envying it, and attempts to remedy both issues through state-constructed nationalism. Of course, there are significant differences between the Russian Empire and the Russian Federation (the latter technically has no Emperor), but the two share enough in common that artistic critiques of the old Russia can easily be applied to the new Russia. The revolutionary and early Soviet artists might have failed to construct an alternative political system, but their critiques of the old system are once again ringing true.
To understand Imperial Russian nationalism, one must begin with the conditions which made it necessary. The arrival of modernity to Europe was a seismic shift, uprooting millions of peasant laborers from their ancestral homes and bringing them to cities as wage laborers. To ease the pain of this transition and encourage continuing urbanization, European states cultivated their individual nationalisms, which convinced citizens that they belonged to a greater national community even as they left their families and home. Art and culture, typically passed down through centralized educational institutions, were instrumental in cultivating national pride. In his 2004 book, The Jewish Century, Russian historian Yuri Slezkine describes the striking similarities between each supposedly unique and superior national identity: folkloric origins, a Golden Age of cultural flourishing, a legendary bard, and a number of geniuses who emulated him. Yet Slezkine states that Eastern European nations lagged behind the West, evidenced by Russian philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev’s statement in 1829 that “We are not a part of any of the great families of the human race; we are neither of the West nor of the East, and we have not the traditions of either. We stand, as it were, outside of time, the universal education of mankind has not touched us.” Chaadaev’s lament served as a battle-cry, and inspired realist artists, as well as institutions like the Tretyakov Gallery, to make a concerted effort to depict Russian subjects and exhibit Russian art. Whether these new artworks glorified the nation or critiqued it, they rapidly constructed and developed Russia’s modern national identity.
When modernity revealed itself to be painful and alienating, however, it was those peripheral countries which had modernized belatedly and rapidly that ventured most bravely into alternate routes of artmaking. Perhaps these peripheral countries were less attached to their recently birthed nationalisms, or perhaps, because of the breakneck speed with which they modernized, they suffered more acutely from wage labor, urban squalor, and the severe physical and mental pressure of capitalist society (one needs only to read a little Dostoevsky as proof). In any case, the artists of Holland, Germany, Austria, and Russia militantly rejected Romantic nationalist aesthetics and embraced the radically internationalist aesthetics of abstraction. Suspicious of mimesis’ nation-building tendencies, they moved away from art as a tool to depict life and instead brought color, shape, and texture into focus. By stripping away the national specificity of Romantic art and emphasizing the universal elements of visual language, abstraction became the “lingua franca” of visual arts, a means of anti-nationalist communication, stemming from the same internationalist longing that birthed Esperanto in 1887. After all, how would one represent national objects if they could not represent objects at all?
In Russia, abstract styles replaced one another in rapid succession. Yet Russia’s artistic sphere also birthed the movement which arguably brought abstraction to its most extreme form, definitively cleaving art from mimesis. This movement was Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism, and its most famous artwork, which remains the essential achievement of non-objective representation, is Malevich’s Black Square. This painting discarded the goal of representing reality and instead made painting an end in itself; it purged all traces of objects and, in their absence, found the substance of the canvas and the paint itself. Malevich’s accompanying manifesto, From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism (1915), declared that traditional art pursued the pointless aim of depicting reality as closely as possible, while contemporary artists, such as cubists, primitivists, and futurists, were on the right track in “[destroying] objects together with their meaning, essence, and purpose.” Still, he argued, they remained bound by a “love for nature’s little nooks” (133) which continued to restrict their abstraction. By contrast, Malevich and his black square were the “zero of form,” rejecting the “realism of mountains, sky, water” and took “painterly, colored units” (133) as its material. Though arrogant, Malevich’s statement contains a degree of truth. Former abstract movements, such as futurism and cubism, widened the distance between art and meaning, but did not entirely cleave the two, as evidenced by the persistence of nationally specific objects in abstract art—the Scythian Stone Women drawn upon in Goncharova’s paintings, the persistence of Russian folk art influence in Larionov’s set design for the Ballets Russes—making their work amenable to potential nationalist interpretations. Suprematism broke entirely with meaning, morality, and the notion of the object; consequently, it cleansed itself entirely of nationalism.
In 2015, Russian Patriarch Kirill, asked to give his thoughts on Malevich’s black square, said the piece had earned its place in contemporary Russian art because it reflected a depressing, dismal trend in people’s souls during the twentieth century. He was presumably referring to the shift away from Russian Orthodoxy and toward decadent cosmopolitanism. Kirill’s statement indicates that the tension between nationalism and internationalism remains pertinent in modern Russia— so pertinent that a piece of art intended to criticize nineteenth-century Russia stands in opposition to the cultural politics of twenty first-century Russia as well. Realizing this parallel is certainly depressing, but it also offers a potential path forward. After all, if non-objective art brought the old regime down, could today’s artists rebelling against Putin find success in rediscovering abstraction? Could the white, blue, and red tricolor once again be defeated by the black square?