THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Scenic Depictions of Slavic Life

Building a language of irony in Latvian counter-culture

by Alan Emory Dean

Illustration by Rémy Poisson

published March 8, 2019


 

“The Slav Squat is not just about squatting down—no, no. It is about technique. About showing your Slav levels,” explains YouTube star Life of Boris in his May 2016 video “How to squat like Slav,” a viral success which has since reached over 7 million views. While in this video Boris attempts to sketch out just what the ‘Slav Squat’ is actually all about, this trend extends far beyond one YouTuber, having become a cultural symbol recognizable worldwide in its own right, if not the dominant contemporary representation of Eastern Europe in Western mass culture. While the stereotypical image of the ‘Slav Squat’ originated in the economic crises and social upheaval of the Soviet Union during the late 1980s and early ’90s, its Western explosion in popularity is much more recent, with Google metrics showing searches for the term rapidly rising from almost zero prior to 2013, until a peak in late 2017 and a slow decline since.

As can be seen in the picture above, the term ‘Slav Squat’ suggests several key elements that, together, form an instantly recognizable visual scene: young men, tracksuits, alcohol, sunflower seeds, and dilapidated stores, block housing, or train stations in the background—in other words, a stylized and aestheticized Eastern European poverty. While exploitation, reproduction, and consumption of working-class imagery in Western culture and media is hardly unique, the degree to which such depictions of Eastern Europe are consumed almost entirely uncritically is shocking, and reflects the extent of the region’s political and cultural marginality.

While the West’s paternalistic relationship with the former Communist Bloc deserves much critique, what is perhaps more interesting in this case is the move towards self-representation within Eastern European youth culture, with the ‘Slav Squat’ serving as a useful example. Life of Boris demonstrates this well through his social media presence, as an Estonian-based creator of Russian origin riffing off of stereotypes of Eastern Europeans for comedic effect, with his content primarily marketed towards Western audiences. These aesthetics, however, also exist internally, independent of such audiences, having become a significant cultural object within Eastern Europe itself. This suggests that a sense of internalized otherness has taken an increasingly important role within post-Soviet culture as the process of integration with Western Europe moves forward, since the collapse of the Communist Bloc and the expansion of NATO and the EU.

The key to understanding this otherness and Eastern European culture’s reaction to it (as well as its reproduction and reclamation of it), lies in how the stereotypes exemplified by ‘Slav Squat’ reveal the mentality with which the cultural symbol is treated. Unlike Western consumption of these images, the Eastern European mode of engagement fundamentally relies upon an ironic, tongue-in-cheek approach to the subject at hand: themselves and their material conditions.

This method of interacting with culture extends far beyond the ‘Slav Squat,’ with an ironic affect being used to make sense of the world, and then incorporate a variety of cultural objects in the construction of identity. In my own experience, such objects can range from hip-hop to anime, to 4chan memes and fascism, creating a bizarre kind of life-theater of 16, 17, or 18-year-olds building a youth culture in (what they consider to be) an apolitical vacuum, putting on a sarcastic, absurdist show. In so doing, they seem to immerse themselves in irony almost as a means of defense or insulation from reality—a troubling phenomenon in light of the growing power of far-right movements in the region (and around the world) and the increasingly common intersections of ironic and real uses of hate language.

The Eastern European youth culture that I know firsthand is that of the shared space of the center city kids, Instagram stylists, SoundCloud rappers, artists, writers, and centra bērni (grunge kids); the youth culture of the strange and wonderful city where I spent my high school years: Riga, Latvia. The alternative culture of Latvia is one that is hard to imagine developing in any other historical moment than our current one; it is also, like Eastern Europe as a whole, deeply dependent on irony as a mode of relation. While the adoption of ironic distance allows for the repurposing and redirecting of stereotypes and creative adaption of global culture, it carries with it limits and consequences of its own, most critically the difficulty in maintaining the dangerously thin line between ironic representation and reality.

 

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To further investigate irony’s function in the defining of the identities of young Latvians, it is crucial to understand the context in which Latvia finds itself today. As a small Baltic nation that is both a former Soviet Republic and a member of NATO and the EU, it sits, in many ways, right on the fault line of what is generally considered to be our modern East/West divide. A 200-year history of Russian rule—both Imperial and Soviet—has left the country with a significant ethnic Russian minority. Because of this, the current Westernizing impulse is often seen in direct conflict with the long arc of Russian imperialism and Russian culture’s role in Latvia today. Because of this positioning, Latvia finds itself at the intersection of several different marginalities, whether they be economic, cultural, or political. Like much of the former Soviet Union, is today struggling to define an identity for itself when so much has and is being imposed upon it from the outside.

Latvia, like much of the former Soviet Union, has witnessed a strong revival of previously repressed ethno-nationalism, largely as a backlash to Soviet Russification policies. That it is happening alongside and together with Westernization creates a paradox of sorts, at least on the surface. How can a nation ethnically define itself at the expense of minorities (Russian or non-European) and simultaneously emulate the modern, cosmopolitan model of Western liberal democracy? Of course, a discerning reader would note that Western states themselves seem to maintain this contradiction quite well, and are by no means above the racist nationalism allegedly characteristic of Eastern Europe, and never have been. Nonetheless, the belief that Westernization means a move towards cosmopolitanism rather than nationalism is critical to understanding the position in which Latvia and Eastern Europe as a whole find themselves.

In some sense, these states have escaped their long historical position of subjugation in the Russian sphere of influence, only to become similarly marginal players in the Eurosphere. To many of those who dominate the political alliances and shared culture they’ve now gained entry to, they remain backward, undeveloped and tied to all the connotations of their past. The raw nationalism that was and is the basis of the modern liberal state now serves as proof of their not quite equal status. As often happens due to cultural imbalances of power, much of this rhetoric is internalized and adopted by its targets, both politically and in cultural depictions, as demonstrated in the case of the ‘Slav Squat.’ Non-Russian Eastern Europe seems to suffer from this phenomenon doubly so, for Russia at least has found the outlet of embracing their ‘outsideness’ as  militant, renegade power disrupting today’s imperial order (though this is hardly a positive, sustainable course of action). This is not an option for the weaker states, however, who very much depend on being let into the club. While both the European Union and the states themselves have undertaken an effort to geographically redefine the Baltic States as belonging to Northern Europe, rather than Eastern Europe, cultural associations require much more than a change to the map to break down. This national anxiety over self-perception and agency, rooted in a history of domination, seems to be the primary instigator behind Latvian and Eastern European youth culture’s reliance on irony, insofar as it is coupled together with, and fed by, the role of the internet.

 

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A crucial aspect of these shifts is the significantly more dispersed cultural landscape created by digital forms of communication and social media, which have both increased access to Western culture in places like Latvia and allowed their own penetration into their fringes. It is these structural changes that enabled the development of memes like the ‘Slav Squat’ into a wider ‘Eastern European Aesthetic,’ which has since shown itself capable of morphing into a variety of new forms. One example of this is the world of high fashion, where a variety of designers and brands, most famoulsy Gosha Rubchinskiy, Vetements, and Adidas have quickly capitalized on the popularity of post-Soviet styles. The widespread consumption and visibility of these styles in the fashion world reveal the degree to which the imagery of Eastern Europe has been able to proliferate.

Nonetheless, they are also, to some degree, fundamentally exploitative; in many ways these aesthetics are still those of poverty, both Soviet and post-Soviet, and serve to further typify Eastern Europe as  lagging behind modernity. In the case of designers who are themselves Eastern European, such as Gosha Rubchinskiy, the situation is less clear cut, but the function of the capital investment of Western European brands remains the same. The ‘cool’ parts of Eastern European style are extracted and made profitable, with the profits largely staying in the West. At the same time, the notion of Eastern Europe as a backwards place unable to keep up with modernity persists, further entrenching the unequal distribution of economic and political power.

Of course, this process is complicated by the fact that oftentimes the very same derogatory content is made by its subjects themselves. A specifically Latvian example of this style of humor is the Facebook meme page “Riga Trash,” which creates its content out of explicitly classist mockery of Riga’s least presentable. Several undercurrents run beneath such images; the connotations of “trash” are much the same as in the West, but are also inextricably linked to a kind of ‘Soviet-ness’ or inability to adapt to the new society post-1991. Even the seemingly straightforward (and quite upsetting) pictures of disheveled old men passed out drunk on the street, presented as a joke, all on their own carry this history, as a continuation of the trope of the бомж (bum), a demeaning Russian term for homeless alcoholics. These memes are not, however, all just mean-spirited mockery (though many are, at least on this particular meme page); there is also a kind of sardonic embrace of all things Soviet and dilapidated, as the ironic withdrawal holds it all together. This can be clearly seen in the image above, sourced from the same page.

Thus, it can be seen that irony functions in this context as a sort of shield, a way to safely engage with a world in which your identity and wider sense of community have become fundamentally unmoored by the processes of globalization and modernization. With this defense measure one truly can embrace their status and position, however degraded it may appear or have been made to seem.

 

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This use of irony as a safe way to engage with a fragmentary world, while indicative of the contemporary moment faced by Eastern Europe, has an older history within Soviet culture. Стёб (pronounced st-yo-b) is a Russian term for a style of humor that, while primarily drawing upon irony, sarcasm, and absurdity, cannot exactly be translated by any of those words. The origin of стёб dates back to the economic stagnation and slow fracturing of institutions characteristic of the Late Soviet Period. As an increasingly weak Soviet leadership attempted to double down on hardline positions, particularly during Leonid Brezhnev’s administration, a sharp divide between official and unofficial culture began to take root. The ruling powers were considered to be so clearly intellectually bankrupt that mockery via imitation became the outlet of choice for dissent, creating стёб. To practice стёб, then and now, one adopts the language and style of the chosen subject and exaggeratedly plays it out to demonstrate the absurdity inherent in it.

Of course, one of the most important parts of the practice of стёб is the consistently blurred line between mockery and sincerity. To see this phenomenon and its potential dangers, one only needs to look to Eduard Limonov and the Nationalist Bolshevik Party (NBP), an arts and protest group that, in the 1990s, adopted the aesthetics of fascism for its taboo shock value. The NBP initially sought to unite the far-left and far-right, along with other punk and countercultural scenes, as a means of resisting Russia’s transition into capitalism. The group, however—banned in Russia since 2007—has in many ways morphed into a genuine fascist organization. They seek an end to the current oligarchy in Russia through a language coded with racism, misogyny and ethno-nationalism that speaks to the мужик (mu-zh-ik), or common Russian man (emphasis on man), explicitly at the expense of ethnic minorities and women. Notably, Limonov’s rhetoric on Vladimir Putin since the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass has shifted from hostile to endorsing; to the former NBP, a crony capitalist mafia state may be bad, but Russian neo-imperialism, even if practiced by the very same state, is undoubtedly good.

While the concept of стёб is a very Russian one and does not necessarily translate perfectly to the Latvian or wider Eastern European context, it is nonetheless a useful framework to keep in mind when considering the state of Eastern European alternative cultures today. Despite the political reasons for its denial, the shared history of the Soviet Union has had a deep impact on all its former members’ cultures and identities, and the cultural challenges they face have far more in common than not. The example of the NBP in particular can serve as a direct analogy, or as a warning. Images, rhetoric, and symbols have power of their own, and it would be deeply naïve to believe that irony is always going to be able to seal them off from application and consequence.

 

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Where, then, does Latvia and the rest of the former Soviet bloc go from here? A friend of mine currently working in Riga’s arts and fashion scene told the College Hill Independent that both the ironic embrace of fascism and the romanticizing of post-Soviet aesthetics have outstayed their welcome and are receding, no longer capturing young people’s interest the way they were able to a year or two ago. While this seems to be a clearly positive shift, it also troubling in what it reveals about how these ideas were engaged with initially. Nazism, as the most extreme case, is seen not as a real ideological object with real historical consequences, which included the extermination of over 95 percent of Latvia’s prewar Jewish population, but a ridiculous cultural object, floating in a vacuum. This is exemplified by another individual running in similar circles who, several years ago, had a swastika tattooed on himself, not as a genuine political statement but as an extreme joke, inspired more by American 4chan culture and shock humor than Latvia’s actual history of fascism.

Latvian cultures of oppositions, emblematic of the entire region, thus seem to be at present trapped in an uncomfortable growth period, as wider geopolitical changes send powerful ripples through their own culture. Irony as a prevailing mode of expression can only go so far, and has proven to be far more effective at sabotaging the old than it is at constructing the new. This is not to say by any means, however, that what is currently happening in Riga’s alternative scenes is lacking in energy or creativity, in fact it is exactly the opposite. What we see today is a part of the world that has long been a cultural crossroads, often via political domination, attempting to grow into its own.

The contemporary crisis of identity, however, is far from unique to the region. The current state of youth and alternative cultures in Eastern Europe, one of the frontlines of globalization (and the closest to its source), can be seen as an exaggerated example of the state of such cultures everywhere. While perhaps less acute and obvious elsewhere, the vacuum of identity that forces us to develop methods of self-construction, ranging from ironic absurdism to ethno-nationalist fascism (or both!), permeates the entire world today as we are all brought closer and closer together through new technologies. Looking at it from this perspective reveals not only a good deal about Eastern Europe itself, but also allows us to use it as a mirror to the Western world that is assisting, developing, appropriating, and exploiting it, all in the same historical moment.

While the ironic affect adopted by Eastern European alternative culture has inherent flaws, some of which carry truly dangerous possibilities, it would be both ignorant and wrong to moralize and judge. Irony as a way of interacting with the wider world is very much a defense mechanism, coming from a place that has experienced immense historical trauma, and in its process of reconstruction is being told it must abandon itself, to become itself. Culture in the former Soviet Union is truly trapped between a rock and a hard place, youth culture most of all. All of us around the world, the West included, may be feeling the contemporary moment’s identity crisis, but not all of us have the same stakes in this game.

 

ALAN EMORY DEAN B’21 is tired of squatting.