The Discreet Charm of the Bureaucracy
May 29, 2024
  • Ilya Kalinin

    Humboldt University of Berlin and the Institute for Global Reconstitution
Historian and literary scholar Ilya Kalinin analyzes the most resonant Russian satirical TV series of recent years about corruption. He finds that they are not a threat to the authorities but actually serve to support the status quo.
In 1972, Luis Buñuel released Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), a dramatic comedy that surrealistically exposed the hypocrisy and narcissism of the French upper middle class. Representatives of that class live inside personal, albeit socially mediated, phantasms, which makes their interaction grotesquely pathetic and feckless. Even the final drama fails to restore their connection with the real world, when the entire group becomes a victim of the Marseilles mafia. The tragic meeting with reality turns out to be just a dream of one of the characters.
International recognition, an Oscar and a fairly successful box office also confirmed Buñuel’s diagnosis. The narcissism of the prosperous everyman had made him insensitive to criticism directed at him. The director’s irritated sarcasm was perceived by the viewer as light irony, a completely painless vaccination that only strengthened his immunity to social reproof.

In the half century since the film’s release, its title has become a meme. “Discreet charm” is a formula that combines an admission of guilt and a denial of responsibility; a reproach indicating deviation from moral imperatives and an affirmation of the attractiveness of such deviations. It works as a kind of indulgence, washing away the sins of those who are ready to shamelessly admit them. The degree of frankness is directly proportional to the painlessness of the consequences. Ironic self-denunciation not only softens guilt but seems to completely free from it the one “repenting,” victoriously insisting on his inner rightness.

The ambivalence in this formula is based on the dialectic of cynicism, which makes disregard for norms humanly charming and respect for them aesthetically vulgar and emotionally repulsive moralizing. “Discreet charm” works as a discursive alibi, as a self-reflexive gesture with which one can openly demonstrate what one is forced to hide because of social norms (ethical and even legal). This is a proactive technique that devalues the moral foundations of a potential critic. The mimicking embodiment of this formula is the reassuring grin of a scoundrel, confident in his impunity, that is meant to demoralize his opponent.
The first decades of the still short 21st century gave rise in Russia to their own forms of discreet charm and their own type of bourgeoisie, which increasingly overlaps with the serving bureaucratic class.
"Dead Souls", 2020. Source: Kinopoisk
There were also examples of its satirical reproof, which have managed to masterfully balance a critical attitude and a benevolent intonation of social reconciliation, the result being a loud dud. In recent years, the Russian TV show industry has been able to create a recognizable image of the “discreet charm” of the Russian bureaucracy: an amalgam of a formally reproduced mass demand for justice and substance-removed social contradictions.

At one time, Nikolai Gogol, trying to fix Russia, resorted to comedy with “tears invisible to the world beneath any visible laughter” (Dead Souls). His “successors” want to leave everything as it is, and therefore use laughter as a therapy designed to dry the tears on the faces of the audience, making real social problems funny and therefore harmless – like a monster unexpectedly speaking in falsetto.

It is no longer laughter through tears but laughter to tears. This laughter offers a palliative and effortless way out of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. It allows the latter not to enter into a struggle for power, satisfying the slave with a fictitious and affective superiority over the satirically exposed master and coming to terms with the master’s power in the real world (in fact, this type of social satire makes public that tradition of jokes ridiculing the political leadership of the USSR – from Stalin to Brezhnev – which in Soviet times functioned exclusively in the private sphere).
‘With all the choice available, there is no other alternative’

This advertising slogan of the Russian 90s was remembered not so much for its semantic error (an alternative is always “another”), which few noticed, but because of the Zeitgeist accidentally expressed in it.

In retrospect, the last decade of the 20th century is judged differently by various political forces and experts; however, the socio-psychological landscape at that time seems to be rather accurately described by this simple thesis, used by a Moscow company advertising office equipment.

The variety of forms with which one could identify as voters or consumers was paradoxically combined with a characteristic sense of inevitability/lack of alternatives about the historical course of events. One could disagree with what was happening, one could hate the people who personified it, but the social energy of the majority of the population was invested in tackling previously unknown everyday problems. The mass protest mobilization at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s was replaced by individual tactics of adaptation following the shelling of parliament in October 1993 and the outbreak of the First Chechen War in December 1994.

Essentially the same argument about all the choice available and the lack of alternatives became the credo of the most striking and truly funny satirical TV series of the last pre-Ukraine war years, the heroes of which were Russian bureaucrats. House Arrest (2018, directed by Pyotr Buslov), Year of Culture (season one in 2018, season two in 2022; directed by Tito Kalatozishvili), The Last Minister (season one in 2020, season two in 2021; directed by Roman Volobuev) and Dead Souls (2020, directed by Grigory Konstantinopolsky).

They are more about material wealth than choice, but the affirmation of the lack of alternatives to the existing administrative, social and political orders is, of course, the main message of these shows.
By exposing the ugly lining of the Putin regime, the satirical shows affirm its unity with the familiar and naturally accepted horizon of social existence that is quite comfortably inhabited by the majority of Russians.
"House arrest", episode 1, 2018. Source: VK
In fact, the cultural functionality of these shows is to make this horizon even more natural and comfortable.

The plot twists and turns and recognizable references to familiar political and sociocultural realities demonstrate the impossibility of moving beyond the existing order of things – both at the level of individual behavioral and moral choice, and at that of the general grammar of the socio-political system.

True, this demoralizing message is located deeper than the direct clashes of protagonists, who are marked for judgement and bring to the screen the well-known vices of power (corruption, embezzlement, lawlessness, manipulation of public opinion, contempt for people, hypocrisy and deceit). This is probably why many critics chose to react precisely to this outer layer of satirical narratives, which resonated with their own position. As a result, they perceived these shows as on-point critical statements aimed at the Russian bureaucracy (ministers, governors, mayors).

In such a reading, paradoxically, these satirical series produced an atmosphere of comfort. Thus, many critics mirrored not the unconscious desire of the loyal Russian everyman, who strives to avoid collisions with social reality, but the conscious intention of the progressive, liberal audience, which seeks to criticize it.
"House arrest", episode 4, 2018. Source: VK
Nothing critical, just political business: Producing satire

The optimism of critics was driven by the very creation of series satisfying all the genre requirements of political satire. That was supposed to indicate that, despite the authorities’ desire to eliminate freedom of speech, the possibility to talk about sensitive social issues had not completely disappeared. The release of these shows on then-new online streaming platforms was very tempting to read as political opposition – supposedly covered up by the conventions of the artistic genre – as a sign of freethinking – not drying up, as it might seem, among the creative intelligentsia – and as a symptom of mass discontent – seemingly breaking through media censorship and certified by success with viewers.

It was this comforting temptation that liberal criticism enthusiastically succumbed to.
“I cannot recall other such frank projects about today’s Russia” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta about House Arrest); “the series House Arrest by Semyon Slepakov and Pyotr Buslov is a charming satire on corrupt power” (Meduza); “Dead Souls as a portrait of Putin’s Russia” (Snob); “An useful idiot: How The Last Minister by Roman Volobuev makes fun of Russian officials” (Forbes); Year of Culture with Fedor Bondarchuk: A funny and pressing series – but only for the internet” (Meduza). The emphasis in the title of the last review on the “semi-closed” nature of the show, limited to an online platform, must have further emphasized its seditious potential, which liberal critics of the Russian regime so badly wanted to find. However, the management of the federal TV channel TNT turned out to be bolder than opposition critics expected, releasing each of the two seasons of Year of Culture on television a week after the last episode was posted online. The television premiere of the second season took place on March 21, 2022, exactly one month after the meeting of the Russian Security Council where the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics was recognized. House Arrest was released on TNT a year and a half after premiering on a streaming platform.
In this regard, I would like to pose the question: what exactly are we dealing with? With the unexpected courage of screenwriters, directors, actors, producers and media managers who set an example of resistance? With weak censorship filters, pointing to the ineffectiveness of the system? Or with a type of criticism that does not do any harm to that system, but rather supports it – which all participants of the process, including the regulators, were aware of from the very beginning?

Undoubtedly, streaming services, unlike television, provide authors and producers with more freedom in choosing topics and means of addressing them, from showing erotic scenes and using alcohol/tobacco/psychoactive substances to using obscene language. They platform projects that cannot be imagined on a modern Russian television screen: for example, the series Gold Diggers (Soderzhanki; season one in 2019) by Konstantin Bogomolov or Chicks (2020) by Eduard Oganesyan, both released online.

Yet the relative freedom from officially promoted aesthetic and ethical norms, which manifests itself in shows of this kind, in reality only serves to affirm the existing sociocultural, moral and political status quo, which finds expression in demonstrative linguistic purism and cultural prudishness (a topic that will be the subject of my next essay).

In addition, one should have no illusions about the independence of the Russian TV show industry producing content for online cinemas and streaming services. And the point is not even that this industry did not have time to really break away from television and in recent years has merged with it again (especially after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, when all joint projects with Netflix, being filmed or already filmed, were frozen).

Even content that is made exclusively for online circulation finds itself caught between institutions of productive power, like the Kremlin-linked Institute for Internet Development, which invests financially in the creation of TV series, and those of repressive power, like the Safe Internet League. Meanwhile, the diversity of channels for delivering video content – traditional television, online cinemas, streaming services – is essentially a system of communicating vessels (take the holding Gazprom Media, which includes dozens of TV channels, radio stations, newspapers, online portals and services, as well as content production companies).

This variety of media channels, including social, traditional and digital media, in modern Russia functions like the country’s multi-party parliament system – a multi-channel system for receiving a single message and then retransmitting it as a legislative act. Thus, despite all the choice available, there is no alternative here either. Gazprom Media backed the creation of House Arrest and Year of Culture. Dead Souls was filmed at TNT (Gazprom Media, again) and was exclusively shown through the online cinema IVI, among whose main investors are VK and VTB. Perhaps the only exception is The Last Minister, produced by independent companies, not directly related to the government.

Denying in form, affirming in content

The abovementioned satirical series normalize an inverted social reality, inventively using laughter to neutralize the satirical/critical principle, “naturalizing” politically determined flaws as manifestations of universal human nature and the (albeit comical) embodiment of the “spiritual bonds” traditional to the Russian nation.
The satirical mode employed in these TV series operates in such a way that it both socially critiques the subject being addressed and affirms it as organically rooted in the cultural code.
The social is translated into terms of the natural, specific social problems are transformed into ancestral, human traits, and negative political practices are found to be rooted in the national tradition.

While addressing real-life social, political and moral problems of the Russian state and society, these shows do not even try to question the existing order of things or touch upon the figure who personifies it.

On the contrary, the only point that is not affected by the carnival of ambivalence (changes in social roles, hierarchical castling, ethical cycles) that feeds their plot energy is the president. This “assemblage point” is presented both in absentia and in praesentia – as in Year of Culture, where direct contact with the president gives a modest literature teacher from a provincial university power over federal officials and the local governor (this plot device can be read as a “symmetrical response” to the Ukrainian series Servant of the People, where a school history teacher becomes president by fighting a corrupt system). The second immovable point that sets in motion the surrounding narrative is the FSB, which is the institutional emanation of the figure of the president and appears in all four series, acting as a deus ex machina, resolving all the pent-up contradictions.

The motif of these series is corruption as a systemic feature of the Russian bureaucracy. Note that this topic was not taboo in the official Russian media, so the satirical reference to it did not require special civil courage. The Russian state itself – as if providing the template for the ambivalent modality practiced in political satire – has consistently taken a “dialectical” position in relation to corruption. On the one hand, it punishes bureaucrats and businessmen for actions qualified as corrupt, but on the other, it affirms corruption itself as a generally accepted form of social interaction and way that the bureaucratic apparatus functions.

Moreover, the practice of corruption itself, in addition to its shadow system-forming function (the circulation of informal bonuses, like glue connecting representatives of the administrative apparatus with each other), performs an official system-forming function, which arises in the process of combating it. The existence of corruption and the very recognition of its existence also presuppose the presence of an agent of this recognition that declares a relentless war on corruption. Thus, corruption turns out to be both a factor forming the system (its internal logic, an immanent quality) and a factor forming a structural element located outside the system but representing its wholeness (like the head of Hobbes’ Leviathan).

Paradoxically, this representation of corruption, refracted through the optics of comic situations and characters, turns out to be absolutely safe for a regime that has made this administrative rent-seeking the basis of its own functioning.
The atmosphere of humor and comedic resolution of contradictions neutralizes the critical impulse constitutive of political satire. Humor (from the Latin word humor, meaning moisture) lubricates political friction, softening it with a layer of humanistic tolerance.
"The Last Minister" , 2020. Source: Kinopoisk
The Last Minister, according to its director Roman Volobuev, “was created to find humor and comfort in Russian reality.” The screenwriter of House Arrest, Semyon Slepakov, says in one of his interviews that his goal is not to point fingers, but to come to terms; not to criticize specific social practices, but to recognize the inherent “sinfulness” of human beings; not to draw a line between an ethical norm and its violation, but to assert the oneness of an organic community whose members, with all their strengths and weaknesses, are in the same boat. And, as everyone knows, the boat should not be rocked. “We all live in the same country, and we all must learn to get along with each other. I want everyone to know that we are all human and to find something nice about each other.”

The storyline in House Arrest, Year of Culture and The Last Minister follows the same pattern of a Bildungsroman. It is centered around a corrupt official who for his crimes/neglect of official duties/clinical idiocy is put under house arrest/sent into a kind of exile (as the head of the Russian literature department at a provincial university)/appointed as a minister who is to be the scapegoat in an elite game.

The change of fate – the sharp decline in social and material status – leads to spiritual rebirth. Having gone through various plot twists, with trials of love and betrayal, the corrupted heroes embark on the path of reform. Beneath the veneer of systemic cynicism a core of human goodness emerges. Behind the mask of social status an ordinary human face is revealed. The abominable becomes charming.

Dead Souls offers a different option for resolving the identity crisis. The corruption of the main character (Chichikov) is a deliberate device to reveal the corruption of those around him. It is not his essence but a disguise hiding an FSB major.

Meanwhile, the bureaucrats’ positive counterparts – undergoing conversion, like Saul on the road to Damascus – demonstrate a tendency to reinfection, taking on traits that the main satirical protagonists rid themselves of. This is especially revealing in the depiction of the election process, presented as a comical and self-exposing chain of falsifications (and falsifications of falsifications that have already taken place).

This khorovod of political manipulation, involving all participants in the election campaign, demonstrates the absence of boundaries between verifiable criticism and falsification, dissolving any responsible message in the discursive broth of post-truth and discrediting not only the depicted election campaigns but also the institution of elections as such. The opposition that is supposed to be the alternative turns out to be an absolute double of the regime, just with a charming human face.

Satirical subversion turns into an affirmation of what is being criticized. A cynical grin of the triumphant lack of alternatives, like that of the Cheshire Cat, remains in place of the unchanged order of things, the horror of which is drowned out in the laughter of the simple-minded viewer.
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