Ellen Rutten: Sincerity after Communism. A Cultural History

Yale University Press: New Haven and London 2017, ISBN: 978-0-300-21398-0, 289 pp.

Raoul Eshelman
Vladimir Sorokin; Dmitrii Prigov; Mikhail Epshtein; Russia; Soviet Union; New Sincerity; perestroika; postmodernism; Conceptualism; post-postmodernism; sincerity; authenticity; irony; discourse analysis.

In her study Sincerity after Communism, Dutch Slavist Ellen Rutten presents a well-researched, wide-ranging analysis of the discourse that has sprung up around the notion of sincerity, which has experienced a notable cultural revival in the last twenty years or so and is often viewed as the dominant cultural mode displacing postmodern irony. Although her specific focus is on the perestroika era and on post-Communist Russian culture, Rutten also touches on the concept’s antique and 18th century roots and treats its use in romanticism and modernism in some depth. Also, her perspective is not confined solely to Russia: she includes Western scholarship and trends in her study, and shows how these interrelate with Russian ones. In these regards Rutten’s study provides an invaluable overview of sincerity discourse in general and a detailed, up-to-date study of Russian discourse on iskrennost’ (sincerity) in particular.

Rutten’s methodological point of departure is that of literary sociology and discourse analysis – her study contains virtually no textual analysis (a point I will return to a bit later). Rutten begins by suggesting that issues of sincerity (Rus.: iskrennost’) have played a traditionally strong role in Russian culture (going as far back as the 17th-century Protopope Avvakum but starting primarily with late 18th-century sentimentalism). Here as elsewhere, she avoids speculative statements and refers to both linguistic and cultural studies (Zalizniak 2005 and Boym 1994, respectively) confirming the importance of the term in Russian culture (Rutten 2017: 41f.). Another interesting general point she makes is that authenticity tends to dominate Anglophone discussions, whereas sincerity is at the center of Russian ones. Her major concern, though, is to examine the specifics of Russian sincerity discourse from the period extending roughly from perestroika to the present day. Rutten provides a knowledgeable, nuanced discussion of sincerity discourse in this time frame, her focus ranging from perestroika-era underground artists and critics like the Mukhomor rock group, the poets Timur Kibirov and Lev Rubinstein to the critic Mikhail Epstein and to such contemporary proponents of sincerity as Dmitrii Vodennikov or Vladimir Sorokin. Also, she devotes entire chapters to cultural developments in Russia after the millennium and to the role played by new media in contemporary Russian culture.

Particular attention is paid to the Conceptualist poet Dmitrii Prigov. Although most of Prigov’s work and public persona was steeped in postmodern irony (he appropriated a stereotypical Soviet persona that reproduced Soviet ideology in a slightly skewed way), Prigov came out as early as 1985 with a manifesto titled New Sincerity that attempted to reconcile his ironic style of self-fashioning with sincere commitment. Rutten accords a similar in-depth treatment to the former Conceptualist writer Vladimir Sorokin, who abruptly switched from an ironic postmodern style to a presumably sincere one in his “Bro” trilogy (2002-2005).1

As Rutten’s discussion shows, the closer one looks at sincerity on a discursive level, the more diffuse it becomes. Thus there is right-wing sincerity and left-wing sincerity, sincerity arising as a forthright response to “celebrity culture, consumerism, and the financial crisis” (ibid.: 123), sincerity that is strategically designed to position artists in the marketplace or sell products, sincerity arising as a revolt against the new media, sincerity resulting precisely because of the new media and so on and so forth. Rutten herself notes the “near-grotesque heterogeneity of the set of social and cultural practices on which social-media users superimpose the term” (ibid.:172). This undecidability about the core meaning of the term is equally evident in the case of Prigov and Sorokin, who characterise their early, manifestly ironic works as “sincere” – who is to say, ultimately, whether they are being sincere or insincere about their own sincerity, which seems saturated with irony to begin with? Rather than drop the term “sincerity” entirely (as many cultural critics would prefer to do), Rutten suggests several overarching explanations for its sweeping success. While it is not possible here to go into these explanations in greater detail, Rutten suggests that the Russian preoccupation with sincerity can be traced to a) a “curative” response to the presumed trauma caused by perestroika and the end of the Soviet Union; b) the rapid mediatisation of culture that tends to bring forth calls for simplicity and directness; and c) the rise of capitalism and the need among artists and others in the post-Soviet world to engage in self-fashioning and commodification. These theses, which seem to me eminently plausible, are backed up by detailed case studies and nuanced, circumspect arguments that avoid easy answers or speculative solutions. These insights as well as the empirical background work on which they are based make Rutten’s book a “must-read” for anyone interested in the workings of contemporary Russian culture and media.

There is, however, one problem with Rutten’s otherwise admirable study. Rutten remains firmly obligated to what she calls “postbinary thinking” (ibid.: 155). In her own words, this means that “binary oppositions are too schematic to help us truly understand the world and its makings” (ibid.: 154); similarly, she says she is interested exclusively in discourse and not in “establishing what the new sincerity […] ‘really’ is” (ibid.: 2). In effect, Rutten is adopting an ironic, postmodern or poststructuralist view of the world. This irony results because binary oppositions like sincerity/falsity (and all others, of course) are thought to mutually condition one another on a discursive level rather than present clear-cut alternatives rooted in direct human experience. In classic deconstructive thinking – which Rutten implicitly follows here – this does not mean that sincerity is a sham, it simply means that sincerity is evanescent, that it “shimmers” (to use a phrase of Dmitrii Prigov’s (ibid.: 95)), that it is dispersed in heterogeneous traces throughout the discourse she analyses, and that is from the very beginning inextricably entwined with the irony that it tries to overcome. This approach would not present any hermeneutic difficulties if Rutten were dealing with, say, 19th century discursive practices on sincerity that do not compete with her own discourse directly. The problem is that the massive turn towards the new sincerity that has taken place over the last twenty years or so is based on assumptions about the world that in their discursive disposition are entirely at odds with the kind of ironic, distanced, postbinary methodology with which Rutten operates. To put this slightly differently: to be engaged affectively by sincerity you have to believe in some way that it can be experienced directly, that it can have lasting effects and that it can move other human beings in a positive way. In short, you will commit yourself in some way to the idea that sincerity is rooted in real human experience, as opposed to the ironically detached notion that people are simply “doing sincerity” in discourse, which is Rutten’s stated position (ibid.: 27).

Rutten’s entirely plausible tripartite sociological treatment of contemporary sincerity discourse (as a curative measure applied to national traumas, as a reaction to mediatic and technological overload, and as a result of capitalist self-fashioning) partially takes into account anthropological factors like “sincerity anxiety” or trauma, which appear to have deeper human, albeit negative dimensions. However, her study does not address in detail the question of how sincerity is actually transmitted and experienced in terms of literature, art, fashion, and the like. In defense of Rutten it must be said that to include textual analyses would have doubled the length of the study and probably made it conceptually unmanageable. However, it cannot be stressed enough that a purely sociological and/or discursive approach cannot explain the specific workings of individual texts or works of art, which are themselves crucial to transmitting the dominant cultural trend that she is studying. This does not render the results of her socio-literary study void, but it is important to keep in mind that applying her postbinary, deconstructive mode of analysis to the textual level would probably cause sincerity as many now understand it to dissipate completely in postmodern irony. It makes an enormous difference, for example, whether you think that David Foster Wallace or Vladimir Sorokin are “doing sincerity” within the heterogeneous, endlessly receding field of postmodern irony or whether you think they are successfully conveying sincerity to their readers in a serious, non-ironic mode by providing them with unified core positions with which they can identify. The first position suggests that such works are a form of late postmodernism that is repeating well-known ironic strategies while belatedly “doing sincerity” for therapeutic or ethical reasons; the second suggests that we are in a stage of development that is offering a positive alternative to postmodern irony using a new and different set of aesthetic devices. It is not quite clear to me where Rutten stands on this issue (the irony-steeped, postbinary logic of her methodology suggests that she tends to the former position), but it seems to be that it will be a defining one for future critics trying to come to terms with the massive shifts in aesthetic and cultural norms coming after postmodernism.

Raoul Eshelman

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich



Raoul Eshelman is Professor of Slavic Literature at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. He received his dissertation from Konstanz University in 1988 and his habilitation from the University of Hamburg in 1996. He is the author of Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism (2008) as well as numerous articles dealing with the development of literature, film, and culture after postmodernism. His most recent work is Die Rückkehr des Glaubens. Zur performatistischen Wende in der Kultur (Hamburg 2016).


Boym, Svetlana. 1994. Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia. Cambridge, US.

Zalizniak, Anna, Irina Levontina and Aleksei Schmelev (eds.). 2005. Kliuchevye idei russkoi iazykovoi kartiny mira. Moscow.

Suggested Citation

Eshelman, Raoul. 2017. Review: “Ellen Rutten: Sincerity after Communism. A Cultural History.Mise en geste. Studies of Gesture in Cinema and Art (ed. by Ana Hedberg Olenina and Irina Schulzki). Special issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 5. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2017.0005.89


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