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Boris Lanin

Boris Lanin

NIAS Individual Fellow

Project title

States of Exception in Slavic Dystopia

Research question

What leads the evolution of dystopia from a literary genre into a provocative political prognosis?
How “state of exception” — a condition in which authorities manipulate alleged emergency conditions to justify the extra-legal exercise of power - is reflected in dystopia novels?

Project description

In this study, I explore the fascinating linkages between post-Soviet dystopias and life under what Carl Schmitt (and later Giorgio Agamben) called a “state of exception” — a condition in which authorities manipulate alleged emergency conditions to justify the extra-legal exercise of power, which is all predicated on lies. My point of departure is the hypothesis that modern authors use the dystopian genre as a channel to critique lies propagated by states of exception and express visions and scenarios of the future that cannot be expressed in any other way.

I argue that authors of fiction have used fundamental genre elements of dystopian literature, in particular, the individual’s struggle for truth and happiness, both to describe and critique realities of their own society and to posit alternative visions of the future that are themselves predicated on the same states of exception.  The core ideas on which I build my project relate directly to the NIAS Individual fellowship. Since 2001, I have published many articles and book chapters on this topic; a fellowship from the NIAS would allow me to complete this monograph.

Until the collapse of Communist rule, the Soviet state banned the publication of utopian and especially dystopian literature and prohibited scholarship on these genres. Indeed, my 1994 doctoral dissertation was the first monographic treatment of the topic in Russia. The Russians usually call this genre ‘anti-utopia.’  Since then, dystopian novels have become mainstream popular reading in the former Soviet Union and the genre has been included in the national school literature curriculum. In States of Exception in Slavic Dystopia I will analyze more than thirty major works in the Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Czech, and Polish languages.

Dystopia concentrates on the tragedy of the individual forced to live under totalitarian pressures.  It always includes a description of some utopian project but examines this utopia’s promised “happiness for everybody” through the fate of the individual. This fate of the individual subsequently reveals the lie of the utopian project. Dystopia starts at the point where the protagonist rejects the utopian Ministry of Truth and its Orwellian principles: “War is peace,” “Freedom is slavery,” and “Ignorance is strength.”  Dystopian thinking increases in times of rapid technological change and intense social stress, such as during epidemics and/or pandemics. Consequently, our present international predicament with Covid-19 renders this topic particularly relevant, I aver.

In this monograph,  I argue that Slavic dystopian literature has transformed into a sort of psychological Freudian couch, where contemporary intellectuals pour out their fears and neuroses. In the process, authors have transformed dystopia from a literary phenomenon into a method of modeling reality and depicting the near future. I analyze this evolution in the context of the “state of exception,” a strategy of power employed by authoritarians to transform democracies into totalitarian states.  Since the 1990s, authoritarian political elites in the former Soviet sphere have created states of exception that entail utopias of different types, all of which are built on frameworks of lies—from the imagined Islamic utopia of the Republic of Chechnya to the quasi-Soviet patriotic nostalgia of Putin’s Russia. Under Putin, Russian society has regained some sense of power and confidence but remains deeply insecure about truth. Recently,’ the Covid-19 pandemic has foregrounded the dystopian struggle for truth by casting a stark light on ways the state of exception limits access to accurate and truthful information. Even before the outbreak occurred, politicians increasingly could not assuage fears of being confronted by the disjuncture between the truths of lived reality and the claims of “truth” on which the regime has constructed its state of exception. Dystopian fictions give voice to these anxieties by presenting alternative futures that, strikingly, are themselves based on alternative states of exception. This tautological construct now disturbingly can be seen outside of Russia as well.  The invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine brings this topic to a different dimension.

Selected publications

Lanin, ‘Death and Authority in Literary Anti-Utopia,’ in Slavica Wratislaviensia CLXVII. Wroclaw, 2018. AUWr № 3838. DOI: 10.19195/0137-1150.167.21. pp.251-264.

Lanin, ‘Modern Anti-utopia in Search of Genre Identity,’ in Wiener Slawistischer Almanach, Vol. 80, 2017, pp.173-182.

Lanine, “Les traditions classiques et les anti-utopies russes contemporaines,” in La Revue russe, 2014, N° 43, p. 45-61. Aspects des littératures de l’imaginaire post-soviétique, Paris. Institut d’Etudes slaves. (in French)

Lanin, ‘Andrei Tarkovsky’s Anti-Utopia: Solaris and Stalker,’ in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Phenomena in the Intellectual and Artistic Culture, ed. E. Tsymbal, Ivanovo, Presto, 2014, pp. 127-135. ISBN 978-5-90-5908-66-8

Lanin, “Ciało we współczesnej rosyjskiej antyutopii,” in Ciało w futurofantastyce słowiańskiej, Kraków: Collegium Columbinum, 2013, 85-95 (In Polish). ISBN 978-83-7624-027-5