Fifty shades of Russian fetishism

Anyone trespassing on any kind of sacred territory in Russia today must reckon with “millions of believers” taking offence and earnest calls to protect “traditional values”. This, writes Dmitry Uzlaner, is the stuff of political fetishism. And the stronger the fetish, the weaker the responsible citizen.

On 26 January 2015, Archbishop of Novosibirsk and Berdsk Tikhon sent an official letter to the prosecutor of the Novosibirsk region of the Russian Federation. In this letter, the archbishop expressed his indignation at a performance in the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre, where theatre director Timofey Kulyabin staged a provocative interpretation of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, featuring Christ indulging in carnal pleasures in Venera’s grotto.

Photo: Andrey_Kuzmin. Source: Shutterstock

The content of this letter is interesting as a kind of catalogue of certain entities that have recently flooded Russian public debates: “believers” with their “hurt feelings”, “all conscientious citizens of Russia”, “Orthodox”, “80 per cent of Russia’s citizens”, “traditional morality”, “the majority of citizens of the state” and “tax-payers”, among others.1 The archbishop listed several of these entities as having come under attack in the provocative performance. It is the responsibility of the state, he continued, to defend these entities against such attacks. We are interested not in this case as such, but in the entities themselves.

Continuous exposure to magic

The presence of these entities is so overwhelming as to attest to a highly specific model of public debate: a model that does not involve the deliberation of conscious human beings exchanging rational arguments in accordance with certain rules applicable to the “public use of reason”, but resembles instead a séance with accredited spiritists transmitting the messages of mysterious entities – “millions”, “majorities”, “believers”, “tax-payers”, etc. And, as we all have reason to suspect, séances tend to involve hidden tricks and underlying mechanisms. Our séances are no exception in this regard…

What is interesting about these entities is the fact that they are, in the first place, impersonal – we are confronted neither with real people nor with their personal opinions, but rather with something very abstract, vague and impersonal. We are confronted with certain impersonal others who “truly believe” or “feel deeply offended”, etc. Real people here perform the function of mere mediums of these impersonal entities – in the case of Tannhäuser, the archbishop speaks not for himself, but on behalf of “millions of believers”. British sociologist Grace Davie calls this phenomenon “vicariousness”:2 a small minority (in similar Russian cases, usually just a dozen people) claims to have been offended or performs some other act on behalf of an always absent majority, which, as this minority claims, approves of this kind of activity.
The fact of this constant absence brings us to the second feature of these entities – they are virtual or imaginary. When we say “imaginary” or “virtual”, we do not mean to say that they do not exist. Something or someone definitely exists behind these entities, but that which exists no longer belongs to the order of representation. It is not possible to represent these entities and speak on their behalf, because it is not possible to represent those who don’t express themselves. It is not possible to represent those, who don’t reflect upon themselves. Instead of representation, we are dealing, to use Jean Baudrillard’s words, with simulation.3 These entities are simulated, they are imagined, invoked as socio-political spirits of sorts.

In the Tannhäuser case, this virtuality became obvious when the archbishop tried to organize a meeting “in defence of the feelings of believers”. In his address to “80 per cent of the citizens of Russia” (which coincides with the number of Orthodox believers, according to archbishop’s letter), Tikhon claimed in no uncertain terms that those who don’t want to participate are those who “don’t want to stand near the cross of a humiliated and aggrieved Christ, those who want to show that they are on the side of the crucifiers, the blasphemers, the Christ-betrayers, that they don’t need Christ, that they need peace and serenity in their lives”.4 The result of such a bold statement is a good test concerning the real or virtual nature of “millions”, “majorities” and similar entities.

The above-mentioned meeting took place on 29 March 2015, in central Novosibirsk. In attendance were such stars as former boxer champion and current member of parliament Nikolai Valuev. But it gathered less than 3000 people (out of the 1,5 millions citizens of Novosibirsk).5

It seems that these entities will continue to haunt Russian society, and scare an already intimidated “minority”. The persistence of these impersonal virtual entities points to a mechanism that brings them to life, despite all the evidence that speaks against their existence. So where do these entities come from? Why do they become so important? What mechanism triggers their constant production?

“I know very well, but still…”; or, a few words about fetishistic disavowal

In searching for a key to this mystery, we will have to plunge into certain aspects of psychoanalytic theory, as some social psychopathology is definitely at play here. In his famous essay published in 1927, Freud offered an explanation of the phenomenon of fetishism: when a boy faces the fact that his mother doesn’t possess a penis, he perceives in this discovery a threat, as it could mean “that his own possession of a penis was in danger” (for example, just as his father castrated his mother, his father could castrate him).6 As a result of this traumatic discovery, a mechanism of disavowal may be triggered. Disavowal (Verleugnung) is a defence mechanism through which the subject can simultaneously support two contradictory perspectives: the perception/knowledge of a threat on the one hand, and an illusion or belief that clearly contradicts this perception/knowledge on the other. The boy manages on the one hand to see clearly that the woman lacks a penis and, on the other, to maintain the illusion that she still has it in spite of everything. This illusion, embodied in a particular object, becomes the boy’s fetish and a “token of triumph over the threat of castration and a protection against it”.7

Later scholars elaborated this idea – Octave Mannoni argued that fetishistic disavowal is a common cultural phenomenon witnessed in a wide variety of spheres (and not limited to sexual perversions). Belief in the presence of the maternal phallus “is the first belief that one disavows and the paradigm for all other acts of disavowal”.8 This disavowal does not leave the human ego intact but leads to the “splitting of the ego”: the subject is split into a centred part (the conscious one, with knowledge of the threat) and a decentred part (attributed to some naive and credulous others who become the carriers of fetishistic beliefs or illusions). Slavoj Zizek calls these others “subjects supposed to believe” – they are “virtual observers”,9 for the sake of whom we maintain “the order of pure semblance”.10

This fetishistic split manifests itself in a very specific verbal construction: “I know very well, but still…” The “I know very well” part corresponds to the perception of a traumatic reality and the “but still…” part corresponds to the fetish-illusion that is supposed to defend against the perceived threat. Of course, the subject remains unconscious of this split – he is neither aware of the disavowed nature of the illusion nor, for that matter, of the fact that he is the author of this illusion. Neither, moreover, is he aware of the imaginary or virtual status of these others, who are carriers of this illusion.

Disavowal could be schematically presented as a cyclical, repeating mechanism that consists of several consequent stages: threatdisavowaldefence fetishneutralization of the threat.

Fifty shades of Russian fetishism

Now it is time to return from abstract theory to the ground. The threat in the Russian case is definitely perceived as being performed by the so-called “West”, which becomes the aggregative notion of all possible sins and threats (“immoral” liberalism, blasphemous contemporary art, LGBT-issues, etc. – all these come from the West). It is claimed – by the President and by the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church – that western civilization lost its moral and religious foundations, that it legalizes sin and transforms into a kind of apocalyptic image of “the kingdom of Sodom and Gomorra”.11

“West” here is an ideological construction, which is rather easy to decipher. We are dealing with the transfer of internal problems to an external site: an internal Russian conflict is presented as an external conflict between a moral “us” and an immoral “them”. (“They” – represented by e.g. liberals or other “enemies of the people” – could, of course, live in Russia but they definitely act as agents of western influence.) The “West” symbolizes late-modern society with its wide range of new challenges – new standards of human rights and freedoms, new technologies, new transparency in political and economic affairs, new forms of communications, new situations of pluralism and religious freedom and so on. This reality seems threatening, as it poses serious challenges that demand serious and sometimes uneasy responses. The “West” (i.e. these challenges) can deprive Russia of its most precious possessions – its sovereignty, its identity and finally, as the propaganda often claims, its nuclear rockets (i.e. penis). This triggers the mechanism of disavowal – the perception of these new challenges and a simultaneous attempt to escape them through disavowal and the fetishes that this disavowal produces.

One can even present a kind of classification of these defence fetishes:

Quantitative fetishes include “the majority of Russians”, “millions of Orthodox or Muslim believers” or just “Russians” or “believers” (in the sense of a large group of people). I started this article with an example of the use of such fetishes. The idea here is simple – to screen oneself from a threatening reality through the introduction of numbers so huge as to be overwhelming. It is hard to object when you are facing “millions”. What can one do, if “millions of Russians” object?

Naive and credulous observers include “children” (or the “under-aged”), “believers”, “simple people” (in the sense of unsophisticated hard-working men and women). It is assumed that there are some extremely naive fragile pure figures in whose presence (or possible presence) we should behave decently and maintain the order of pure semblances (behave properly), even if we see no reason to do so. If the fetish “simple people” remains a rhetorical one, the fetishes “believers” and “children” have already entered into Russian law: laws against offending the religious feelings of believers (2013),12 laws against propaganda that promotes non-traditional family values and non-traditional sexual relations among children and the under-aged (2013)13 and so on. These laws are utterly fuzzy in the sense that one can never know whether he or she violates them or not – in order to comply with them one has to behave as if some credulous child or no less credulous believer watches him or her closely all the time.
The fetish “children” plays a key role in defending against LGBT activities (all public activities of this kind in Russia are de facto banned). When a hypothetical LGBT encounter is discussed, the key – and usually sole – argument against it is the following: “children and the under aged could easily witness these activities” (Vsevolod Chaplin).14 Or, as the vice-head of department of regional safety in Moscow once said, “the reason for its prohibition is that children and the under-aged could become involuntary witnesses to this activity”.15

Abstract fetishes include “traditional values”, “traditional morality” and “tradition”. No one can definitively explain what these traditional values are about (for example, in the case of traditional sexual relations, just what exactly are non-traditional sexual relations?!). No one knows where to look for the “golden age” of these values, but as a defence against the threatening challenges of late-modern society, these invocations work rather well.

Fetish-identities include “I as a patriot”, “I as a Russian”, “I as a believer” and so on. These are among the most subtle, but for all that no less important, types of fetishes. The thing is that in order to express his or herself, one has to redouble him or herself in the symbolic order, one has to find the words (or signifiers) that would represent him or herself – Zizek calls this process “symbolic redoublings”.16 These redoublings are one’s identities (such as “man” or “woman”, “believer” or “atheist”, “priest”, “Russian”). One can say that the real human being and his or her identities are one and the same, that one can’t differentiate between them. But there are extreme cases when the individual has to step back from his identity. At this moment one can detect distance between the real human being and his “symbolic redoublings”.

Just one personal example: I had a conversation with a priest not so long ago and somehow we touched upon the issue of Pentecostals (and other religious minorities). At that moment, my interlocutor’s eyes became bloodshot, he said that these people are heretics, that we have to fight them. I was a bit surprised at such an emotional outburst and said something in defence of these people. When he noticed that I was not happy with his reaction, he immediately calmed down and uttered a very strange phrase: “Well, at least this is my official position as a priest…” (implying, I suppose, that when not being a priest, he is not so radical). The distance between the real human being and his identity (“I as a priest”) became evident. His fetish-identity served as a shield against the threatening issue of religious pluralism.

Fetishes are used as a shield against a perceived threat. First, one faces new challenges that one doesn’t know how to deal with (gay-rights / new forms of contemporary art / religious pluralism, etc.); then there is disavowal (for example, “I know very well that people can do anything they want if it doesn’t contradict the constitution, but nonetheless a) what if children were involved as a result? b) millions of Orthodox believers would be offended; c) this contradicts our traditional morality”); and disavowal produces a defence fetish (such as “children”, “millions of believers”, “traditional morality”), which is in turn the carrier or holder of a cherished illusion; this fetish neutralizes threat: one knows very well that there are gay rights, contemporary art, religious pluralism and other phenomena in modern society, one can even be sympathetic towards them and say some personal words in their defence, as they are no longer a threat thanks to defence fetishes.

In extreme cases, one can even enjoy all these realities, he or she can know them “all too well” (and may end up spending all of his or her free time in the West, support a family in the West, deposit money in the West). However, this “all too well” in no way dispatches with the second part – “but still…” One enjoys all these threatening things and “knows them very well”, but still believes that Russia (the “majority”, “millions of believers”) is not ready for them or that “children” (“believers”, “simple people”) would be shocked / offended / humiliated by them, and so on.

Desubjectification and evading responsibility

Fetishistic disavowal is a very comfortable mechanism – some impersonal others do the work for you: they believe for you, they carry illusions for you, they feel offended for you (or they relieve you of any necessity to explain your own offence or your objection). There is no need to argue – just get out your fetish and the threat will be blocked. And you are free to enjoy and do whatever you want, you are even free to mock these impersonal simpletons for their backwardness. To a certain degree, this is even quite reasonable: society requires conservative mechanisms able to defend it against excessively bold ideas or strange forms of behaviour. We don’t know what to do with certain challenges, so we neutralize them with the help of defence fetishes. If, on the other hand, everyone has his own position and is ready to face every last complicated issue directly, this may ruin society and turn it into a sum-total of discrete, highly original individuals. As Slavoj Zizek points out, there are some beliefs, the most fundamental ones, which are from the very outset “decentred” and attributed to some backward simpletons.17

But we should never forget that fetishistic disavowal, as well as other forms of social perversions, is still a psychopathological mechanism. It is a sign of the process of development having failed. Instead of facing challenges, you escape them, you hide behind “children”, “believers”, “traditional morality”. The price one pays for this kind of cowardice, for this escape from responsibility is alienation.

You are alienated from the very kernel of your being, because what the fetishist truly believes is the very part that he attributes to others. The child who sees that his mother lacks a penis, and who knows this very well, really believes that she has one. His desire-based illusion charged with libidinal energy is that she has one, contrary to all his knowledge of the opposite. But this is a secret to him, as this desire-based illusion is displaced and attributed to someone or something else. As a result, you are deprived of the knowledge of the way “things really are” for you, you are alienated from a very important truth about yourself, that you are not ready to face. All of Russia’s biases, prejudices, phobias that people attribute to others (“believers”, “majorities”), are their owns biases, prejudices, phobias that they are not ready to face. The stronger these fetishes are, the weaker the responsible citizen.

The political fetishist never exists as himself but always as someone who acts on behalf of others. Fetishes hang over everything that he says or thinks. He tries to do everything that he can for the sake of others. The hidden trick is that these cherished others are not real people but alienated parts of the fetishist himself. No one doubts that we should care about children and guard them against abuse, but it’s another thing altogether to imagine yourself as being inside some crazy dream in which you are an actor standing on a stage before a hall crowded with credulous, naive and extremely fragile “children” – any wrong move or action and they will be psychically wounded for the rest of their lives (or become “homosexuals” / “immoral blasphemers”). The obscene secret here is that you don’t defend children against actual threats, you exploit the figure of a child in order to defend yourself from a challenge that you are not ready to face.

Russian political fetishism, which in recent years has exceeded some very dangerous limits, threatens to erase subjectivity as such, so that decentred parts suppress centred parts completely. One more step in this direction and we will be dealing with a social world inhabited entirely by impersonal virtual entities. Real human beings in this world would turn into obedient fantoccini of “millions of believers”, constituting “the majority of Russians” with their “sacred values” and “traditional moralities”. This is the price the human being pays for refusing to face new challenges. But it is not possible to elude them forever – one day Russia will have to get rid of defence fetishes and directly face new political, economic and cultural realities.


Davie, G. (2006), "Vicarious Religion", in Ammerman, N. T. (ed.), Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, Oxford University Press

Baudrillard, Jean (1983), In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities... or the End of the Social and the Other Essays, Semiotext(e), 20-21

Freud, Sigmund (1927), "Fetishism", in The Standard edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XXI, ed. James Strachey, Hogarth, 153

Ibid., 154

Mannoni, Octave (2003), "I know well, but all the same...", in Rothenberg, Molly Anne, Foster, Dennis and Zizek, Slavoj (eds.), Perversion and the Social Relation, Duke University Press, 76

Robert Pfaller's notion: Pfaller, Robert (2014), On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions Without Owners, Verso

Zizek, Slavoj (2009), The Plague of Fantasies, Verso, 135-6

For Patriarch Kirill's words see:, For President Putin's words see: On "Sodom and Gomorra", see Kirill's sermon: Propoved' v nedeliu chetvertuiu Velikogo posta, prepodobnogo Ioanna Lestvichnika, po sovershenii Bozhestvennoi liturgii v Bogoroditse-Rozhdestvenskom stavropigial'nom zhenskom monastyre g. Moskvy. 14 aprelia 2013 goda // SLOVO K MONAShESTVUIuShchIM. Propovedi Sviateishego Patriarkha Moskovskogo i vseia Rusi Kirilla v monastyriakh (2013-2014 gg.). -- M.: Sinodal'nyi otdel po monastyriam i monashestvu Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi, Danilov muzhskoi monastyr'. 2014.

Zizek, The Plague, 143

Ibid., 139

Published 28 May 2015
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

Contributed by Transit © Dmitry Uzlaner / Transit / Eurozine



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