Maxim Kantor's Novel Red Light as a Destroyer of Political Myths

Aleksandr Shchipkov

The circle of independent intellectuals is small. Maxim Kantor has long belonged to this circle, but this fact has only been known to a wide audience since 2006, when he novel Drawing Textbook was published. This novel was about the long-overdue deconstruction of myths of the intelligentsia, and was destined to cause a scandal. In Russia, in contrast to say, the USA, such statements are tantamount to sedition. Furthermore, Kantor, whose first and primary profession is that of an artist, saw the mores of the art scene from the inside, and he had something to say about lackeys of the intelligentsia and artists who have been bought by the new regime.

The picture of the betrayal of the intellectuals was convincing. Textbook was one of the top-five books of the 2000s, and some called it the most important book of the decade. But the infamous pamphlet-like qualities of Textbook are not the point. His task was broader, which was to write something in the tradition of Marx's Das Kapital. But at the same time, as the author emphasized, "the engine of the study will not be surplus value, nor fetishism of commodities, but the artistic avant-garde and aesthetics." As art and politics in the new Russia go hand-in-hand, that is, no less than they did in the era of government orders, Kantor's aesthetic subject made a natural transition to the social and political.

We can say that the author has undertaken the development of the political economy of the new art. But in Russia, in contrast to the West, no one has worked with this subject closely and systematically. The reason is simple. Those who could potentially do so would have had to bear witness against themselves and their circle. This is how the unspoken taboo in Russia is born. Textbook fell into the very center of the ailing consciousness of the Russian intelligentsia. It kicked over the anthill. Therefore, even now, during a period when the author is writing columns, many cannot forgive him for this expose.

The search for Kantor's political roots is continued in the book A Contre-Pied (2009) and in his latest novel, Red Light. Here, the symbiosis of aesthetics and politics are examined from a slightly different angle. The political economy of art is no longer in the foreground, but rather historical analysis, an exposition of political ideas, which are described with the passion of a communist and a pedantic reporter. The average reader, who is under the thrall of stereotypes dictated by the media and school, will find much that is unexpected in Red Light.

For example, Kantor does not view the 20th century as a confrontation with "totalitarian regimes" that fell from the sky, but as the continuation of a large European civil war. He points to a deep conflict in European consciousness-for brevity's sake, it can be described as "the idea of the 1914 versus the idea of 1789-which dates back to the years of the Thirty Years' War. These ideas are common among Western conservatives. Since the end of the era of tolerance and multiculturalism they have gained strength in Europe, but not in Russia. In Russia, such statements still cause a storm of negative emotions among "rukopozahtniye" (those with whom the liberal opposition is willing to shake hands) and the izryando poryadochniye (liberal intellectuals who consider their fellow liberals to be moral and good, no matter what they do) audience. The novel begins with the study of the tragicomic phenomenon of the Russian "rukopozhatniye." The time and place of the action is a banquet at the French ambassador's, vaguely reminiscent of Anna Pavlovna Scherer's famous salon. Here, the same kind of exposure of mores takes place, but they areprimarily of a political nature, and in the place of the "savior" Bonaparte, we have liberal values.

The prototypes for the high society characters-Frumkina, the editor of a fashionable internet magazine; Bimbom, an fashionable journalist; Tushinsky, an elderly politician; Gachev, a young politician; Panchikov, a successful entrepreneur; Yevgeny Chicherin, a lawyer; and Piganov, a democrat and opposition leader-are easy to guess. It to this meeting of the minds that a strange character that no one at the party is acquainted with, the investigator Pyotr Yakolaevich Shcherbatov, finds his way. This "suspicious" subject does not know how to drink Sauterne, and most important, doubts the long-established concept of "big terror" and the idea that Lenin was a German spy. Democracy is in danger!A major scandal is brewing. The collective spirit of the intelligentsia beau-monde boils over and is as visible as if it were under a magnifying glass. The guests are clambering over one another to give tirades. The high society rout turns into a theater of the absurd. But then the space of the novel widens. The reader is submerged into the setting of the Second World War, and into the hazy 1990s. In his new book, Kantor has a decent amount of statements that could cause resentment among refined liberals, such as statements about the artificiality of the conflict between democracy and totalitarianism, or how Nazism is an inevitable consequence of capitalism and representative democracy (if there is no fraud while counting the votes), and Christian statism is much more open and humane.

Kantor describes the breakdown of the Soviet empire, but at the same time, he speaks about the dead end in which the West found itself. With time, the ruling elites and the fattened-up middle class, in spite of the Soviet hegemony, and the associated values of democracy, tolerance and political correctness will all be destroyed. When the war of civilizations breaks out in Europe on the shoulders of millions of refugees. Beggars cannot be choosers. The world, constructed under the dictates of the financial elite, is bursting at the seams. Ahead of us is a reevaluation of values. Incidentally, Helmuth von Moltke, another Kantor character, a conservative socialist, discussed this kind of reevaluation in the distant 1940s from his ancestral castle, not fearing denunciation. "Are you, as I see it, a supporter of democracy? And the fact that democracy always leads to a Hitler or a Stalin to power does not disconcert you?" asks the narrator. "I dare say that it will not always be that way... Now an era is ending that began under Luther, I am counting from the time of the Reformation to the time of Hitler. The Reformation era logically ended with capitalism and Nazism. It is a disgrace and the death for my country," answers the aristocrat von Moltke. His opponent is amazed by his unusual outlook on history. "You think that the era of capitalism and Nazism will pass? You would like to see a German Christian government?" he asks.

This episode clearly correlates to the scene at the French ambassador's, where another promissory bill of ideas was contested. The Russian detective Shcherbatov and the German aristocrat von Moltke are in different time periods, but in a way jointly break stereotypes and reshape history. This is where the axis of the ideas in the novel lies.

A qualified reader would hardly suspect the author of Stalinism or some other kind of mortal sin. He is talking more about a contemporary reading of Plato's The Republic and Hegelian variations on this theme. Kantor keenly captured the moment of crisis in the consciousness of society. That is why his assessments and conclusions hit so hard. They read like it would have been like if the revolutionary democrats, apart from Dobrolyubov, wrote their passionate works after becoming social conservatives. Kantor's book can be compared with A Writer's Diary and with Rozanov's essays. And the precision with which the societal types are derived can be attributed to the Shchedrin school of writing, but with one adjustment. In Kantor's novel, there is practically no head-on sarcasm. His is the subtle blend of pathos and irony, moist eyes and a sad smile.

In 2006 and 2009, unfriendly critics asserted that the author was settling scores with his adversaries for some exceptionally person reasons:"Kantor would like to square his accounts with his dreams and deceitful chimeras from the beginning of the 90s, he would like to square his accounts with the avant-garde of the 20s and with his friends from the 70s... he would like to get even with his life for that fact that he has lived it... This shortcoming makes the novel decidedly incomprehensible to anyone who was not somehow engaged in the same agenda as the author."

Similar quotes looked controversial seven years ago. Today, however, they generally cannot be uttered seriously. With time, Textbook has changed greatly. For example, it has become obvious that liberal discourse in Russian serves as a universal silencer for critical thinking. A set of obvious taboos and fetishes cause a powerful reaction among the thinking part of society, and criticism of the dictionary of political correctness has become nearly routine. Nevertheless, in the words of one contemporary philosopher, liberalism is still living at a depth where the fresh air of open debate does not reach. It has been devalued ideologically, yet it is still politically dominant.

But a paradigm shift is inevitable. That is why the cleansing of the ideological space from outdated political myths is today transforming into an entertaining activity during which any self-respecting intellectual hones his chops, just like any professional violin player is obliged to master Paganini's Caprices. Maxim Kantor has convincingly shown us how this is done.

Aleksandr Shchipkov, Expert magazine #15, April 15th, 2013