A socialist and a capitalist, already a little soused after a long lunch, enter the Lenin Bar on the eastern side of Circular Quay in Sydney. They order vodka cocktails. They slowly become aware that the interior design is Soviet-inspired. Blown-up pixelated revolutionaries leer from the bathroom doors. There is cyrillic script on a sign above the bar. The booths are lush with oriental gold finery. The vodka cocktails are very cold.
C: What’s wrong? You look ill.
S: It’s this bar. It’s sickening that while the unimaginable atrocities of Stalin’s regime continue to be exposed, old Soviet imagery is suddenly hip in the capitalist West. Anything goes for the postmoderns in their profitable appropriations from the world history databank. It’s all so cool and tongue-in-cheek. Bugger it, let’s leave.
C: That’s a drastic, humourless interpretation of the contemporary mood.
S: Let me give you another example. I was at the cinema recently and saw an advertisement for Stolichnaya Vodka. It’s a huge international campaign. It was masterminded by Pernod Ricard in collaboration with the Parisian advertising agency Marcel Republique [Click for the official press release]. The whole campaign has been derived from Stalin-era Constructivist propaganda art. Look here on my laptop. [He passes it across the table.] Here is the new commercial:
S: I think it’s safe to say that the ideological war of the twentieth century is over.
C: Let’s drink to that. [The Socialist refuses to raise his glass.] The ad is very slick, though. Actually, the audacity of the appropriation is kind of thrilling.
S: I’m not thrilled.
C: It’s hard not to be lured in by the exoticism of imagery that has been buried for so many decades. And I like the parodic tone of blunt iron-fisted nationalism.
S: And yet that is precisely what disarms consumer scepticism. Look at the viewer comments on You Tube. Consistently awestruck: “Wow, this is the first time I’ve been inspired to buy something based entirely on marketing”. “Lol, awesome commercial. Any old soviet union clips are awesome.” Christ. [He downs his vodka in one gulp.]
C: Steady on, old boy.
S: Are people buying into the slogan “choose authenticity”? Or maybe “authenticity” is simply accepted as just another pose in postmodern culture? I mean, check out the staggeringly authentic timeline of 20th century Russian history (Transiberian Express, Sputnik, Pepsi-Stoli exchange deal, etc) on the the Stolichnaya website.
C: Well, they’ve left out Stalin. The Kulaks. Hungary and Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. Chernobyl.
S: Correct. And corniness reaches a new extreme at Stolichnaya’s other website, the offensively-titled Rise up and join the Party, which shows us scenes from a 2007 promotional event in London. Just try to make sense of a Red Army choir and band performing Neil Young’s anti-Reaganomics anthem ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’. What the hell does that mean? Just tell me. Please. I’m bewildered. My mind cannot grasp the meaning. I feel like I’ve landed on a foreign planet. What world is this?
C: It’s simple. The cold war is over. People are at a party having a good time.
S: Maybe a better question is does anything mean anything anymore?
C: You better keep your voice down. We’ll be thrown out.
S: On the same subject, are you aware of the plagiarism controversy regarding the graphic artist Shepard Fairey? A testament to capitalism’s ability to commodify any idea. Check out the sites here and here while I spend a penny.
The socialist slides off his chair and waddles to the bathroom. The capitalist orders two more vodka cocktails.
[Update 9 February 2009: See The enduring legacy of Soviet Constructivism at the International Herald Tribune.]