How a broken Internet fuels satire in Putin’s Russia

Valeriy Pecheykin is no stranger to the absurd.

Feb 29, 2020, 1:22 pm*

Internet Culture

2015 was a series of contradictions as far as Russia was concerned. January began with a new offensive in Ukraine; by February, a shaky ceasefire was announced. Russian trolls formed networks of scattered but coordinated disinformation, only to scramble and regroup as their activities became better documented.

It was a year of traditionalism and decadence; of totalitarianism, but maybe also… theatrics? Just a few weeks ago, Vladimir Putin heaped praise on Donald Trump with words that could have been lifted from the Donald’s own Twitter account, calling him “the absolute leader of the presidential race.”

Valeriy Pecheykin, a Moscow-based comic writer, dramaturge, and screenwriter, understands the bizarre and the banal in contemporary Russia better than any. His work explores the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people in the former Soviet Union. His plays, including Net and Crematorium (staged last year in New York) incorporate many of the tropes of Russian Internet culture: its trolls, spammers, and sincere Facebook posts. Despite their dark twists and turns, he assures me, “these are comedies!!’”

The Daily Dot caught up with Valeriy over video chat to ask him about Internet culture, how his sense of humor is holding up, and the mundane things in life. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hey Valeriy, how’s it going?

Ugh, I was just watching Putin’s annual press conference here a minute ago. Meanwhile, the ruble fell to new lows. So lately I’ve been answering the question “how’s it going” with “around 70.” That’s about the value of the ruble against the dollar today.

Tell me about your 2015—how was it, what’s new for you?

Well, this year I started writing for the Russian edition of GQ, which has been pretty big for me. And my play Bozhenka [rough translation: “Godbaby”] was produced in Moscow.

It’s strange writing a column—you learn how quickly you can run out of new things to say. Like, the last prompt for one of my essays was “irony.” It suddenly occurred to me that bit by bit I might be losing my sense of humor. I’m surrounded by too many “serious things.”

Anything in particular?

Well, money, for one. These days the ruble resembles some kind of radioactive substance. I’m afraid to open my wallet and see what it’s turned into.

That’s… not good. How about your career though, somewhere I read you started out at Tashkent Pravda?!

Yeah! So, I worked for “Pravda of the East,” the official newspaper of the Cabinet of Ministers of Uzbekistan. The main thing I learned there was how to lie. It’s a really important skill for someone professionally interested in playwriting and comedy.

When I arrived in Russia, actually, I was rather taken with Putin. I felt I had returned to my national homeland, and he was its president.

The newspaper was totally Soviet, and its main purpose was to create the illusion that everything in Uzbekistan was going really well! Unfortunately, Russia has gotten a lot more like Uzbekistan since I left there. I was telling someone else this—as I listened to our president’s speech it occurred to me that he sounds like a character in a play. Because in a play the hero should never talk about what he’s really talking about, and even talk about the weather should really be about something else, some subtext…

And now, all across the country we are all struggling to figure out what this guy is talking about.

So, you grew up in Uzbekistan. What was that like, and when did you leave?

Well, the history of the U.S.S.R. was such that my parents ended up in Tashkent, and I was born there. It wasn’t the best time to be born either, with the Soviet Union on the verge of collapse. At such-and-such a moment I wound up in Uzbekistan, one of its colonies, and I ended up leaving due to the poor economy and treatment of ethnic Russians there. It was about 2007 if I remember correctly.

When I arrived in Russia, actually, I was rather taken with Putin. I felt I had returned to my national homeland, and he was its president.

Well, I guess I admired George W. Bush when I was about 12?

Sure! But you know, in America not so much depends on the president as over here. Take Stalin, for example—the day after he died, the mass arrests stopped. Over here, so much depends on one person. In essence, he alone steers the ship of state, and the whole country sees the same dreams as this one person…

How about the Internet though? I imagine information was sort of hard to come by in Uzbekistan. Do you remember when you first started using the Web?

I’m happy to report that it was a long time before I started using the Internet, so as I child I still read print books. And then, around the time I was in high school, dial-up came around. I can remember my first search. I was using AltaVista, an early search engine, and I looked up “Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin.” My parents were sitting right there. Once they went away, it wasn’t long before I discovered porn. So the Internet was, for me, both a literary and pornographic discovery.

But in all seriousness! That was how I found out about some of my favorite authors, like Vladimir Sorokin. Without the Internet it would have been impossible to read them in Tashkent. I remember once meeting a friend, a lesbian from Kokand, and she told me about how she read Sorokin’s books in an Internet café. It’s really unbelievable. A gray room full of cubicles. All around, people playing online games, and she was just sitting there reading Sorokin. In Kokand! You couldn’t even imagine the place.

For context’s sake, how would you describe Sorokin’s work to an international audience?

Well, roughly speaking, he’s like a Russian Brett Easton Ellis. But Sorokin doesn’t necessarily play with plot devices so much as with speech and language. He plays with Soviet and post-Soviet linguistic conventions. They’re wondrous and terrifying stories, which begin in the typical conservative, Soviet manner, and by the end everything breaks down into something awful.

Here’s a curveball: what’s the deal with the Russian Internet’s love for conspiracy theories?

I’d say it comes from our country’s religiosity. People really hope and believe that someone, somewhere, is “behind it all,” that Europe and America have a plan, and that all day long they are thinking about us. It comes from the belief that god and the devil are locked in eternal struggle for the world. The average Russian watches a 3D movie in his own image, 24 hours a day. We believe in signs, symbols, superstitions, and fortune-telling.

I wanted to read this thread from the comments on one of Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov’s Instagram posts with you, it sort of reminded me of something you might find in one of your plays:

COMMENTER 1: Hello!! The 21st century is here!! People are burrning [sic] and dying in hospitals and treatment centers. But there are lots of deputies in this country. Where are the governors, mayors, and public servants???? The governors and mayors of Russia must answer for each life. Awful. Why aren’t they being investigated? Or do the sick and chronically ill mean nothing to these mayors and governors?
COMMENTER 2: (in English) “a hospital/treatment center caught fire”
COMMENTER 1: And nobody gives a f**k.

You know, this thread reminds me of the expressive monologue you might put at the end of a play. When the hero finally resolves to tell all before the Tsar himself.

The idea of writing to the country’s elite to complain about one’s problems is pretty old in Russia—you can even find complaints addressed to Ivan the Terrible. Did this style in particular influence you?

It was a big influence for me. In Russia we really love this genre—complaining to the president. It’s an important part of our literary heritage. Take Bulgakov, he personally appealed to Stalin with his problems. Or look at the millions of anonymous tips Soviet citizens would send on one another back in the U.S.S.R.!

It’s not impossible to imagine that within a certain amount of time the whole Russian internet will be one big 404 page.

What we call “the little people” in Russia have this going for them. They know how to complain. After all, the complaint offers a kind of social mobility, when for a second you directly address the Tsar or the president. It’s rather important for such a hierarchical society.

How would you define your plays? Are they comedies? Or dramas? Dramedies? Tragicomidies?

Comedies! It’s really important to me to underline that. I mean, since on the one hand they’re rather dark, it’s critical to me that people see the other side—humor.

Let’s talk about a couple of them for a bit, because I think there’s a lot of interesting ways you’ve incorporated Internet culture into your work. Like, in Crematorium (called A Little Hero in Russian), the authorities discover something called “treatment 404” to cure homosexuality.

On the social network Bktontake there was a group called “Children 404,” where gay teens could share their stories. But after a complaint about “gay propaganda” it was closed. The government agency Roskomnadzor is very proactive in blocking such resources, and it’s often done in the name of “information security.” It’s not impossible to imagine that within a certain amount of time the whole Russian internet will be one big 404 page.

The Internet has brought us to an age where you can find anything, or almost anything on it. For that reason, any lack of information is a kind of catastrophe. Not long ago I read on my Facebook feed an interesting idea: that the next Nobel Prize for Literature should go to an author who could recreate the feeling you have when you’ve received a notification that someone has read your message several hours ago, but they still haven’t responded.

Or in the play Net, you have a character called Sysadmin, Mailer Daemon, who receives all these unanswered messages sent to various celebrities, including Putin.

I still imagine that the Mailer Daemon is some kind of real being, somewhere out there, listening to our prayers…

I guess I read it as a metaphor for how everyone is searching for this person, some Being or Idea that can fill the absences in life, or reveal the Truth or purpose behind life, and how we channel this online?

I know what you’re getting at—it’s an important question as far as the Internet is concerned. Many search queries begin with the word “how.” A lot of people think of the Internet as a magic wand, or the supercomputer from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. People ask it the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. And every day they Google “how to get smarter,” “how to get rich,” or “how to find love.”

I still imagine that the Mailer Daemon is some kind of real being, somewhere out there, listening to our prayers…

At the same time, you, me, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber all have an Instagram, and the possibility of “connecting” there produces this almost-sacred moment where it seems as though we can communicate with them directly. If we used to believe in the theory of  “six degrees of Kevin Bacon,” today we believe in the illusion that we are all connected. And it really is an illusion, because nothing really connects us to Lady Gaga, or even to each other. In that sense the Internet has heightened our isolation.

And that might be the most mystical theme in my plays, the idea that a person can still find love, that a person can find happiness.

How is your love life, by the way?

It’s good, it exists, I’m glad to say! My boyfriend’s studying to be a director. We had to get through some pretty complicated stuff together—his parents were not pleased. They promised to kill me. They haven’t, yet.

You tend to include a lot of references to current events in your plays. The time Putin lifted up the shirt of a little boy and kissed him on the belly is a major part of Crematorium, for example. Isn’t it frightening to joke around about that sort of thing?

I’d be afraid if our president read plays or went to the theater. But, fortunately or unfortunately, he doesn’t. Ever since his divorce he’s tried to become like some kind of god: without a wife, without a family. He has daughters, but he doesn’t want anyone to know about them “for their safety.” He really doesn’t like talking about his personal life or his own sexuality.

Just today I saw the absurd headline “Putin: I’m proud of my mysterious daughters.”

It’s like how we used to think of Lenin as though he never went to the toilet. I’m not the first one to say it, but Putin is a lack of characteristics, right down to the “incognito,” bland look of a KGB agent. Putin is emptiness and subtraction.

How do you feel as an artist in this political environment?

I’ve always thought that you can only speak about “the eternal” if you’re speaking about what’s happening right now. Because only right now do you have the chance to be brave, noble, generous or whatever. Like in Hamlet’s monologue: “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?” I only care about what I see around me, and I think the same goes for the viewer.

I found this quote in an old interview you did and was wondering—what did you mean?

“Russia needs a revolution that takes after a grand clearance sale: with nickel coffee pots, lacquered pianos, and iPhones for everyone—to each his own. We’ll sit and reflect on ourselves in them. Anything is better than golden cupolas.”

Roughly speaking, what I meant was that IKEA is better than the church. I’m pretty convinced that history has shown that you can’t trust religion to make the rules. We all see how many people continue to die in the name of some god or another.

Of course, it’s awful to have to choose between flesh and spirit. It wasn’t accidental how Nabokov tried to bring the word poshlost into the English language, because there isn’t anything like it as far as I know. It’s a very Russian term, referring to the adoration of the material and everyday. A kind of cult of the teacup, spoon, kettle, and coffeepot.

Personally, I find in literature a lot more “spirituality” than in holy books. A priest cannot live life or judge freely, his arguments work towards a foregone conclusion. A writer has to engage in a dialogue with the world without knowing what conclusions he will reach.

Still, I sense you’re a person with strong moral convictions—how might you define them?

Simple. It’s wrong to pick on those weaker than yourself. I’ll never forget the shocking experience of reading Aleksandr Kuprin’s The Duel as a child. It’s about violence in the army during Tsarist times. Unfortunately, even today—in both our army and civilian lives—not much has changed. I’m afraid that violence against the weak is even more widespread today.

How about your relationship with yourself? Much of the drama in Crematorium revolves around self-hatred and internalized homophobia. How do you overcome it?

We have in Russian a saying: “Beat your own, so that others might fear you.” Or as one of the jokes making the rounds on social media went, “Russia will respond to Western sanctions by bombing Voronezh.” It really is like that: Self-harm is quite serious and prevalent here. Personally that’s why I think so many Russians support our country’s foreign policy, because finally the government is focusing its attention on someone else.

Let’s imagine Donald Trump were to win the American presidency for a second—any advice for Americans?

Well, if Trump becomes president you might understand what we go through every day.

Anyway, for now, the billionaire can make his empty statements and blabber along with the rest of the candidates without having to shoulder any responsibility. Like a true performer.

Photo via Global Panorama/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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*First Published: Jan 11, 2016, 11:00 am