Julie A. Buckler, Julie A. Cassidy and Boris Wolfson (eds.): Russian Performances: Word, Object, Action

Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2018, ISBN 978-0-299-31830-7, 338 p.

Iva Glisic
Russian Empire; Soviet Union; Russia; Russian studies; performance studies; music; theatre; poetry; visual arts; popular culture; public sphere.

The written word has long enjoyed a privileged status in Russia, with the country’s creative tradition having often been defined by the central role of literature in its cultural and social life. With Russian Performances: Word, Object, Action, editors Julie A. Buckler, Julie A. Cassidy and Boris Wolfson set out to redress the “dominant textualism in Russian studies” and re-think Russian cultural production from a performance-centred perspective (Buckler, Cassidy, Wolfson 2018: 235). Bringing together 27 essays that span the Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet eras, the collection juxtaposes the fields of Russian studies and performance studies to reveal the rich theoretical potential that performance holds as an interpretative tool in the study of various cultural phenomena. In covering Constructivist theatre productions, Soviet-era family photo albums, and even viral online videos, this set of short, original, and insightful contributions successfully showcases Russia’s rich tradition of artistic performance and experimentation.

Along with a forward by renowned performance studies scholar W. B. Worthen, an introductory essay co-written by the editors outlines the productive tension that underpins the volume, which brings together the “two dissonant, capacious concepts” – of Russian culture and performance – and works across two zones of interdisciplinary enquiry (ibid.: xiii). This dynamic is further complicated by Anglo-American academic politics: while Russian studies emerged in the 1950s and 1960s against the background of the Cold War, performance studies developed from “disciplinary and institutional culture wars” of the late 1960s and 1970s, seceding from English departments and shifting focus from text to body in an effort to expand the study of drama and theatre. In explaining their approach, the editors mount a persuasive argument for placing these two scholarly fields and their politics into conversation: by introducing performance as an analytical method, they expand the range of Russian studies to include vision, sound, touch, and affect along with the verbal expression. This shift in turn permits a move away from notions of Russian exceptionalism (augmented by the Cold War rhetoric), and positions Russian cultural experimentation within a broader intellectual and geographic framework. Simultaneously, engagement with the Russian production challenges some of the common beliefs inherent to the performance studies discipline. Drawing on the experiences from liberal societies, performance came to be perceived as an intrinsically emancipatory activity – an act of “questioning authority, subverting established practices, and enlightening its proponents” (ibid.: 5). Expanding performance studies into Russian territory provides an opportunity to examine how performance operates within illiberal societies, and to question “performance studies’ teleology of liberation” (ibid.). While individual contributions capture this cross-disciplinary exchange to different degrees, the volume overall reveals great potential for a “performative turn” within Russian studies (ibid.: 4).

Russian Performances is divided into three equal parts, each of which is assembled from contributions that cut across a range of disciplines, from anthropology, art history, dance studies, and film studies, to cultural and social history, literary studies, musicology, political science, theatre studies, and sociology. Each section comprises a set of nine essays that collectively explore one of the following critical terms: Predstavlenie (representation), Vystuplenie (appearing), Ispolnenie (fulfilment). In Russian, predstavlenie is used to introduce people or describe “the presentation of things both concrete and abstract” (ibid.: 18). It denotes a type of performance in which emphasis is placed on the audience – in other words, instances where “spectatorship shapes a given performance” (ibid.). Vystuplenie often refers to “public performances like conference presentation, speeches, recitals,” and indeed the second set of contributions emphasises those responsible for initiating performative actions, including individuals, texts, and even objects (ibid.: 18-19). Finally, with the concept of ispolnenie the emphasis shifts away from spectators and performers onto the process of performance itself. These three terms provide the structural framework for a diverse assemblage of cultural phenomena – from Fabergé Eggs to the guerrilla interventions of Pussy Riot and Petr Pavlenskii – that span the period from the 18th century to today. While this choice of terms may present a challenge for those unfamiliar with the theoretical foundation of performance studies, the individual contributions within each section are both engaging and accessible to a wide range of audiences.

The first section – Predstavlenie (Representation) includes a pair of contributions that focus on 18th-century Russian painting, with authors Molly Brunson and Rosalind P. Blakesley both examining its two-dimensional plane as a space within which social and cultural order is simultaneously reinforced and challenged. Essays by Serguei Alex. Oushakine, Tatiana Smorodinska and S. I. Salamensky provide terrific insight into how traditional cultural artefacts are today being re-cast to represent the new Russian national idea. These essays respectively trace the repurposing of the ribbon of Saint George (originally introduced by Catherine the Great to recognise military and civic achievements), the traditional folk dance lezginka from the Caucasus region, and cultural artefacts from the Jewish Autonomous Republic in Russia’s Far East to provide insight into contemporary efforts to project an impressive (if not always coherent) national identity. Essays by John Randolph on coachmen-culture in Imperial Russia and Anna Muza’s piece on celebration of jubilees at the turn of the 20th century both consider ways in which individuals articulate and reinforce their social position through the public performance of their civic duties. Historians working on memories of the Soviet era will find tremendous value in an essay by Oksana Sarkisova and Olga Shevchenko. Their engagement with a family photo album of Elvira Semenova – a former Soviet secret services officer – explores the dynamic between biographical and collective memory and, through an interview with Elvira, considers the role that familial artefacts play in representations of history. By contrast, Yelena Kalinsky’s discussion of the art group Collective Actions and its production from the 1970s and 1980s introduces performance as an aesthetic event that – instead of reinforcing a linear quotidian narrative (as in Elvira’s case) – breaks away from conventional temporality, and opens a new space of existence independent from daily pressures.

The ensuing suite of essays collectively explores the notion of Vystuplenie (Appearing) and focuses on the agency of performers. Like the first section, the range of essays here spans a wide array of phenomena, from traditional performances, such as theatre production, to artistic-cum-political intervention in public space. A subset of three essays examines Russian modern poetic tradition, from the staging of Velimir Khlebnikov’s “supersaga” Zangezi in 1923 by Constructivist artist Vladimir Tatlin (Michael Kunichika), to the postmodernist performances of Soviet poet Dmitrii Pigrov (Mark Lipovetsky and Ilya Kukulin) and an online project LivePoetry in which contemporary Russian poets are recorded reciting two poems – first one of their own, and then one by a fellow poet of their choice (Stephanie Sandler). Unfolding across these three essays is a powerful and intimate history of making, unmaking, and remaking poetic performance across the century in which poets played the role of both heroes and martyrs. The concept of artistic performance as a political act takes on special significance in Lilya Kaganovsky’s essay on protest art in Putin’s Russia, which successfully engages with the growing literature on the new artistic practice captured in the works of Voina, Pussy Riot, and Petr Pavlenskii. Kaganovsky positions contemporary protest art within a long Russian tradition of politically-motivated performance art, and expands current discussion on this phenomenon with her analysis of the role of gender in these interventions. Placed against this discussion of subversive performance art are two essays that examine the performance of patriotism in contemporary Russia. Julie Hemment’s contribution focuses on the 2010 Maxim cover page featuring Anna Chapman – a New York-based real estate entrepreneur arrested in 2010 on suspicion of working for Russia’s intelligence agencies – in lingerie. Hemment engages with the traditional Soviet aesthetic of parody, originally aimed at the internal absurdities of the country’s own political system, to demonstrate how this aesthetic strategy is now aimed against the West, which is depicted as still holding onto a Cold War worldview, and easily seduced by the “sexy spy” narrative. Pairing well with this essay is Julie A. Buckler’s fascinating piece on the history of Fabergé Imperial Eggs, in which she considers the performative power of these bejewelled objects that, like Anna Chapman, are at once cosmopolitan and patriotically Russian. Finally, a trio of essays examining letters to journal editors written during the reign of Alexander I (Bella Grigoryan), various performances of Tchaikovsky’s most popular songs (Philip Ross Bullock), and Russian viral videos (Eliot Borenstein) together provide an intellectually stimulating platform to consider the power of objects such as letters, musical scores, and dashboard cameras to create a public sphere.

The final set of nine essays examines the concept of Ispolnenie (Fulfilment), and focuses primarily on theatre, ballet, and film and television production. Three essays on theatre together form an interesting subset within this section. Together they move between an exploration of early Soviet theatre (Caryl Emerson), an ethnographic study of contemporary actor training in Russian theatres (Alaina Lemon), and an analysis of the postdramatic plays of New Russian Drama (Susanna Weygandt). Emily D. Johnson’s contribution shifts focus from the stage to a private drama, as she describes holiday celebrations within Stalin-era labour camps. In perhaps the most captivating piece in this section, Johnson examines a series of holiday letters written by Russo-Latvian GULAG prisoner Aresnii Formakov between 1944 and 1947. In these letters to his family, Formakov scripts the action of family celebrations enacted by him in the camp, and then by his family members once they receive his letters, with these asynchronous performances representing an act of defiance against imposed family separation. A trio of contributions that engage with a seemingly diverse array of topics – the actor’s voice in early Soviet films (Oksana Bulgakowa), late Soviet animated films (Anna Fishzon), and Anna Pavlova’s famous performance of the ballet miniature Dying Swan (Daria Khitrova) – expand the horizon of Russian cultural history in a surprising and innovative manner. The closing pair of essays, which focus on the politics of classical music competitions in contemporary Russia (Boris Wolfson) and the evolution of Russian drag culture (Julie A. Cassidy), link back to the examination of the contemporary performance of patriotism from the previous section, and demonstrate how the contemporary turn to traditional values has been enacted through both conventional and ostensibly subversive forms of performance. Cassidy’s piece captures particularly well what performance might look like within an illiberal context, as a phenomenon that seeks to reinforce rather than subvert existing social hierarchies.

A rich and diverse collection of works, Russian Performances will be an inspiring read for a wide range of specialists interested in topics from the formation of the new national idea in contemporary Russia, to patriotism and protest art, the contemporary aesthetic of parody, and memory culture. In some instances the contributions are aimed squarely at a specialist audience, with essays on contemporary theatre in particular being tightly confined by disciplinary boundaries. It is also the case that the selected trio of critical terms as a structural tool is at times more confusing than helpful. Ultimately, however, the value of this work is undoubtedly in its range. By opening up a series of unexpected avenues, this collection affirms the editors’ proposition that the conversation between Russian studies and performance studies harbours great potential for future research.

Iva Glisic
Australian National University


Iva Glisic is a historian of modern Russia, Italy, and the Balkans. She is the author of The Futurist Files: Avant-Garde, Politics, and Ideology in Russia, 19051930 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2018). Iva is a researcher at the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and a Lecturer within the School of History at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Suggested Citation

Glisic, Iva. 2020. Review: “Julie A. Buckler, Julie A. Cassidy and Boris Wolfson (eds.): Russian Performances: Word, Object, Action. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 10. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2020.00010.213

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

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