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"In the heat of the boiler room": the subculture of the Russian Navy in St. Petersburg's Mit'ki Group.

THE MIT'KI are perhaps the strangest group of artists and writers working in Russia today. In their salad days, the mit'ki's untutored style of painting was a provocation, running firmly against the naturalist principles of Soviet art. Mit'ki is the plural form of mityok, a droll and somewhat childish variant of Mitya, the most common nickname of Dmitri. The painter Dmitri Shagin emerged as something of a figurehead for the movement, while Shagin's friend, the samizdat absurdist writer Vladimir Shinkarev, became its satiric literary voice, tracing the mythology of the movement in the book Mit'ki. In St. Petersburg: A Cultural History, Solomon Volkov offers an incisive summary of the movement's peculiarities. Sensing that the program of the mit'ki represents first and foremost a particular ethic of personal behavior, Volkov writes that "the mit'ki embodied a stylized, local variant of Western hippie culture with a strong Russian accent. The main artistic achievement of the group was its ritualized lifestyle.... [They] dressed like outcasts: striped sailor shirts, ... old quilted jackets, Russian felt boots, and mangy fur hats with earflaps." Translating and paraphrasing Shinkarev's book about the movement, Volkov emphasizes the centrality of alcohol consumption.
 Mit'ki drank from morning to night, but only the
 cheapest vodka and rotgut wine, and snacked on
 pasteurized cheese. When the members drank with
 outsiders, they used three main strategies for dividing
 up alcohol: "share equally" meant each got the same
 amount; "share like brothers" meant mit'ki got the bigger
 portion; and "share like Christians" meant mit'ki
 got it all. (1)

The movement was rooted in the highly personal, self-referential subcultures of Brezhnev-era dissident groups with their heated political discussions over kitchen tables. The dissident as a "loafer," always on the verge of arrest for what the Soviet criminal code termed "parasitism" (tuneiadstvo) is clearly evident in the self-image of the mit'ki.

But the mit'ki's insistence on gentlemanly passivity disguises a complex political and aesthetic agenda. The mit'ki adopt a deliberately ambiguous stance before emblems of authority that would seem incompatible with their Soviet dissident provenance. One of Shagin's poems from 1993, titled "1983," about the year immediately preceding the Gorbachev era, consists of the questionable assertion "Oh, how good everything was!" repeated twice as if for self-assurance. (2) The mit'ki searched for a democratic legacy in Russian history, ultimately cobbling one together from an unlikely source: the Battle of Tsushima, the Russian navy's humiliating defeat during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). The quixotic nature of the group's undertaking, and the reaction it typically provokes, is central to what may be called the mit'ki's aesthetics of failure. The mit'ki take pride in their search for eccentric individual agency within the model of a military organization, displaying their seemingly paradoxical influences and goals with the exhibitionism of a Russian World War II veteran who flaunts the clashing medals on his lapel in a Victory Day parade.

The mit'ki use the relatively egalitarian ideals of the pre-revolutionary Russian naval officer corps as a touchstone for their anti-hierarchical social principles, taking on the behavior of a company of sailors whose members devote themselves wholeheartedly to the ethical sustenance of the group. The "Code of the Officer of the Navy," drafted in 1863, asserts the symbolic primacy of the sailors over the officers. It leaves disciplinary matters concerning individual sailors to the group, excluding the adjudication of officers and prohibiting sailors from informing on one another to their superiors. (3) During the Soviet period, the ideals of the Russian navy fascinated many Russian intellectuals. In his memoiristic essay "In a Room and a Half," Joseph Brodsky, for instance, notes: "It is my profound conviction that apart from the literature of the last two centuries and, perhaps, the architecture of the former Russian capital, the only other thing Russia can be proud of is its Navy's history. Not because of its spectacular victories, of which there have been rather few, but because of the nobility of spirit that informed its enterprise." With perhaps deliberate naivete, Brodsky goes on to characterize the image of the Russian navy as "less functional than decorative, informed more by a spirit of discovery than by that of expansion, prone rather to heroic gesture and self-sacrifice than to survival at all costs." (4) In his poetry, Shagin speaks of the navy in similarly positive terms, describing it as a refuge, an island of freedom in Russian culture: "The quiet clip of the steamship, / Anchors aweigh! / Farewell, oh Freedom, / Hello, my Motherland ..." (5) Here, enthusiasm for life at sea contrasts with an unexpectedly lukewarm attitude toward returning to Russia. The maritime motif in the work of the mit'ki tends to dampen rather than amplify traditional Russian patriotism.

This carefully cultivated expression of unease stems from the central dilemma of the mit'ki's work: the movement's stated ethic of decency and gentleness (krotost') to others inevitably conflicts with the military (and masculinist) ideal of Russian history that the mit'ki also value highly and which they pointedly, and somewhat eccentrically, associate primarily with St. Petersburg and Leningrad. The recorded music of the mit'ki is an idiosyncratic mix of Soviet patriotic classics from World War II, such pre-revolutionary naval anthems as "On the High Seas," and various criminal songs from the more recent musical genre known as Russkii shanson, which is roughly equivalent in content to gangsta rap. Such well-known rock musicians from St. Petersburg as Yuri Shevchuk of DDT, Boris Grebenshchikov of Akvarium, Chizh, and Aleksandr Skliar participated in many of the sessions. The modulated roughness of Shagin's singing, suggestive of a cross between Tom Waits and Jacques Brel, emerges as a Brechtian alienation device that compels the listener to reexamine the songs' occasionally formulaic sentiments. In one song that may be regarded as the mit'ki anthem--a poem by Shagin titled the "The Mit'ki March" set to the music of the World War I patriotic song "The Slavic Woman's Farewell"--Shagin sings about the joys of fellowship and mutual assistance, asserting that the mit'ki can defend themselves in spite of their peaceful nature. (6) The mit'ki's ironic interpretations of martial music reflect their aversion to violence and coercion, also evident in the deliberately childlike and fauvist artwork of Shagin and in their oddly self-nullifying motto--"the mit'ki do not want to defeat anyone!"--which to the Russian ear sounds like a negated version of a Soviet slogan from World War II.

Such contradictions force us to ask why a dissident circle of artists from the former Soviet Union, harassed by the police, would harbor an affection for such patriotic music. Instances of "mitkovian" heroism foreground the profound ambivalence of the group toward conventional notions of valor and patriotism. The mit'ki fixate on failure, or portray a heroism that is shot through with irony and subjected to parodic treatment. An anecdote from Shinkarev's book on the mit'ki provides the clearest example of such subversion. The scene is the high seas. A woman falls from a ship into the water. "Woman overboard!" cries the captain. An American dives into the water in an attempt to save her. Even though he is an international breaststroke champion, he drowns before swimming even ten meters. A Frenchman dives in. Even though he is an international diving champion, he drowns before swimming even five meters. Then a Russian comes up from the boiler room of the ship. Even though he is afraid of water and can't swim at all, he jumps overboard anyway ... and drowns immediately. (7) By ending in tragedy rather than an amusing reversal, the joke itself is a failure, like a limerick without a rhyme in its last couplet. (8) The Russian's instinct for heroism is, it seems, stronger than his sense of self-preservation. The causal link between chivalry and the Russian sailor's de facto suicide--the most absolute form of self-mortification--is telling: in order to save a woman, the mityok must risk ceasing to be a man.

Failure, in its various forms--the failed selfless gesture, failure of masculinity, of humor in a world scarred by tragedy, and perhaps even of heroism in general--is central to the mit'ki's enterprise of demystifying ideological pieties. Fascination with failure is evident in a wide range of the mit'ki's writings and paintings. In a series of paintings titled "The Heroes of Russian Aviation," Olga Florenskaya focuses as much on fatalities as she does on the achievements of famous Russian pilots. Her highly elegiac representation of the pre-revolutionary aviator Lev Matsievich foregrounds the hero's tragic plummet against a nearly cloudless sky (fig. 1). The aquatic suggestiveness of the sky's vivid blue is brought to the fore by the phrase "celebration of aeronautics" next to Matsievich's tilting airplane. In Russian, as in English, aeronautics literally means "swimming in air," although more palpably so to the Russian ear, which immediately hears the everyday noun swimming as the second half of the word (vozdukhoplavanie). As if to underscore the maritime subtext in her representation of Matsievich's death, Florenskaya sets off the latter segment of the word with a dash.


The mit'ki consistently use the sea as the stage for the unfolding of failed Russian enterprises. Their fascination with failure and defeat is part of an extended contemplation of Russian military history and the Russo-Japanese War in particular. As Shagin himself stated in one interview for this project, "the image of the disastrous 1905 battle of Tsushima," where the Russians lost to the Japanese, is a "symbol of Russian history," containing "many riddles" and arguably representing the catalyst of the tragic line of events that followed, as well as the marginalization of the Russian navy as a military institution with distinctive values. (9) Shagin's perception of the significance of the Russo-Japanese War--as an expression of czarist incompetence and obtuseness and as the fuse that lit the flame of the 1905 Revolution and subsequent agitations--is certainly a common one. Numerous memoirs of officers and sailors from that conflict note the complacence and strategic unpreparedness of the superior officers and generals, who ignored reports about the technological superiority of weapons on the Japanese ships. (10)

The work of the mit'ki that explicitly treats the Russo-Japanese War is distinctive for facing up to the enormity of Russia's defeat while avoiding the bitterness and anger evident in much of the writing and music about the war. Two songs popular at the end of the war appear on their 1994 compilation CD, Mit'ki Songs. Several mit'ki perform a spirited version of "Variag." The song has the bluff assertion that "our proud [battle cruiser] Variag will not surrender to the enemy, [and] no one is inclined to mercy." The rock musician Anatoly Krupnov sings "The Cold Waves Splash," a song that more openly acknowledges the self-inflicted failure of the Russian fleet fighting against Japan, with one verse noting that the Variag fights "with uneven strength" and a later one acknowledging "we ourselves exploded the Koreets; the Variag was sunk by us." Krupnov's almost affectless baritone, modulated only by a gradual rise in volume, undercuts the potential mawkishness of the song's text and suggests a requiem's disengagement in commemorating a tragedy rather than a wake's immediacy in traumatically reliving it." "In the Hills of Manchuria," a song by dissident poet Aleksei Khvostenko in the next mit'ki collection, also harks back to the war. Like "The Cold Waves Splashed," the song is notable for a patriotism that does not gloss over the sobering Russian losses during the 1904-5 campaign, as had many contemporary accounts. In the song, a Russian contemplates graves of the war dead, bitterly stating that "even now we can't forget the war, and burning tears still flow" and adding the defiant prophecy, "we will avenge you, / And arrange a bloody funeral feast." (12) Khvostenko sings an abbreviated version of the pre-revolutionary text of the song, but without any of the pathos of its earliest recording by Ivan Koslovsky or any of its subsequent Soviet-era renditions. By singing in a tightly controlled and gravelly monotone and leaving out the final and self-lacerating verse about the unjustness of Fate and the weeping of a victimized Mother Russia, Khvostenko refuses to impart poignancy or righteous anger to even the most sanguine and melancholy moments of the text and manifests an odd detachment from the song's patriotic content that would probably seem highly inappropriate to some listeners. (13) The borderline irreverence evident in Khvostenko's performance, inspired by Shagin's own deceptively amateurish style of singing, reflects the mit'ki's indebtedness to the Russian counterculture notion of stiob, the knowingly ironic attitude toward authority that stops short of open rebellion. One would expect the term stiob to represent a more openly subversive attitude, given its rhyming with a pithy Russian obscenity. Yet as anthropologist Alexei Yurchak recently wrote, the high degree of "overidentification with the object, person, or idea" being critiqued renders stiob almost indistinguishable from "a form of sincere support, subtle ridicule, or a peculiar mixture of the two." (14)

The fascination of Shagin and Shinkarev with models of Japanese culture have the same effect of dulling the edge of a jingoistic response to the legacy of the Russo-Japanese War but go further in drawing unexpected parallels between both sides of that conflict as embodied in the worldview of the mit'ki. Shinkarev's anecdote about the drowning Russian hero's de facto suicide recalls not just Brodsky's comment that the Russian navy is "prone rather to heroic gesture and self-sacrifice than to survival at all costs" but also the Buddhist-influenced kamikaze strategy of the Japanese during World War II, most famously practiced at sea. The modulated repetition of Shagin's two-line poem "1983" is quite likely imitative of haiku structure. The mit'ki's references to Japanese culture serve to point up the difficulties of the genuinely heroic gesture and the often delusional aspects of it. In his absurdist novella Maksim and Fyodor, which predates the movement of the mit'ki as a movement by a few years, Shinkarev makes numerous references to Japanese places and literary forms. The attempts of the two socially dysfunctional main characters--who are clear ancestors of the mit'ki--to take on the spiritual values of the East are no less misguided and preposterous than the mit'ki's efforts to portray themselves as military heroes. When Fyodor takes a gulp from a bottle of kerosene, thinking it to be water, he continues to drink because "such was his mastery of Zen Buddhism that he discovered within himself the courage not to rectify his error and calmly finished the entire bottle." (15) In his liner notes for the 1996 mit'ki CD, Shagin presents a very different solution to Shinkarev's anecdote about the rush to save a drowning woman, engaging the Russo-Japanese thematic in a way that is incompatible with binary distinctions and cultural typologies. This version, even with its upbeat ending, is no less subversive than Shinkarev's of a context that involves military valor. A woman on a boat piloted by the mit'ki falls into the sea. "Who will save [her]?" On the deck is David Bowie, who flings himself into a boat equipped with all the latest Western nautical technology. He starts the motor but ... it sputters and stops. All that newfangled technology gone to waste! Suddenly, out of the boiler room and dressed in grease-stained clothing, comes the mityok. "Where's our sister [sestrionka]?" he asks. With a yell of the mit'ki slang exclamation "Oppan'ki!" he throws himself into the water. But we know that the mityok can't swim! What will happen to him? Miraculously, he runs on the surface of the water and saves both the woman and Bowie. How was he able to walk on water? The captain wipes a tear from his face, and Bowie throws his electronic devices into the sea. As the mityok miraculously saves both the woman and Bowie from drowning, Shagin affectionately refers to the pop star (with quasifeminine suffixes) as "Devidushka Bauyushka." (16)

The association of Bowie--at one point in his mercurial career the premier figure of androgynous glamrock--with the West reflects an ambivalence toward precisely that gender indeterminacy which would be impossible in any military organization during the Soviet period. Bowie's sophisticated technology (shmudaki, a mit'ki slang term for electronic devices manufactured outside of Russia) emerges as an oblique reference to the better-equipped Japanese ships at the battle of Tsushima, and Shagin makes the association more explicit in one of his doggerel verses for a song that presents a potpourri of mit'ki thematics, referring to Bowie as having fallen "overboard" and floating in the water like a "Japanese god." (17) Shagin attempts to rewrite not just Shinkarev's anecdote about the drowning woman but Russian history as well. He tries to take away the tragic sting of the Russo-Japanese War, reconfiguring it as a parable about the confrontation between Russia and Other, masculine and feminine, that is mediated by the figure of the woman in peril and which results in a reconciliation of apparent opposites or opponents, both of whom are presented as being either highly vulnerable to water or stubbornly buoyant. (18) History has been changed, with a new outcome in which no one is victimized and everybody is saved. The fantasy of revisiting the memory of the battle of Tsushima in a "bloody funeral feast"--as the fulfillment of revenge--has been pointedly abandoned.

The declared affinity of the mit'ki with the Japanese, one of Russia's most formidable historical enemies on the high seas, exists even on the subterranean level of their aesthetics and group mythologizing. Shinkarev whimsically devotes an entire chapter in his book on the mit'ki to the boiler rooms of buildings in Leningrad, basing his comments on his and Shagin's impressions while working in them. Shinkarev writes that such work requires Zen-like powers of concentration and the attainment of a spiritual "center of gravity," and, indeed, elsewhere in his book he hints at the countercultural influence of Buddhism on the mit'ki, particularly in its Japanese form. (19) Both Shagin and Shinkarev, neither of whom served in the Soviet navy, would fantasize that their boilers were located not in the basements of apartment blocks but in the engine room of a ship. The boiler-room attendant is a liminal or intermediate figure; he occupies an underground and possibly oppositional space, unseen by conventional eyes. In the anecdote about David Bowie, the mit'ki attempt to find a space to rearticulate their own transgressive desires, a space between the effeminate and "Japanese" David Bowie and their own hypermasculine socialist heroes, neither of whom they can totally reject or admire.

For the mit'ki, the Russian navy represents both the sacred vessel of forgotten history and what Japanese Buddhists have called a floating world, a mobile yet internally stable space. Such an imaginatively reconfigured world of mobility makes it possible for them to explore possible conflicts both within themselves and modern Russian culture as a whole. By portraying themselves as improbable heroes--sailors afflicted with hydrophobia, at least as likely to fail as to succeed--they poignantly bring to our attention the difficulties and risks of such an undertaking.

Hoftra University

In Praise of the Boiler Room


WHAT DOES A MAN EXPERIENCE, emigrating to the world of boiler rooms?

To be honest, the first look evokes vertigo and fear, the atmosphere of a movie thriller--it is no accident that the gripping conclusions of many American films take place in boiler rooms, as in the film Commando. A chock-full three-story building, where time does not advance ... the twenty-four-hour shift is too long for you to look forward to it ending. Beautiful suprematist crisscrossing of pipes and knobs of radiators; the cubes of the boilers, and the colorful flags of threatening posters. "Check the level of water in the boiler!" "Check gas pressure in the system!" "In the event of a gas odor, apply cleaning solvent to valves and pipe joints and find the location of the leak!" (All these warnings, incidentally, are far from idle....) The patent animism of the space frightens you: the jumble and dance of the spirals of steam and hot and frigid air, the variety of sounds, a few coming from incomprehensible sources, from evident poltergeists.

More than half the lightbulbs in this fortress have been taken out by service personnel for their own use, and the illumination is spotty, as blinding tongues of steam give way to pitch darkness, and specks of fire dance farther off. The automated safety device glows, and the ripple on the water inside the accumulator tank sparkles....

A man who has no center of gravity within himself, who has a need for a constant stream of external impressions, finds it hard to be in a boiler room. Schopenhauer had special contempt for such people, who incessantly have to entertain themselves during times of compulsory waiting by drumming on the table with their fingers, rocking their leg, or whistling a tune.

The boiler room gives its attendant a priceless trait: the ability to sit still. In general, I would advise any person not to flee solitude, even when it is compulsory. In all likelihood, creative abilities develop from solitude. A person is required to interact all the time with other people and with God; when he does not have the opportunity to socialize in the usual way, he develops within himself the possibility of interaction on a higher level, through art.

But that is not the only boon of the boiler room. The atmosphere of healthy anxiety and a certain danger sharpen all emotions and potentials. This atmosphere is closer to a monastery than to a production line. Yet "monastery" is too strong: here there is no vow of celibacy, and women can be invited.

In Soldier of Fortune, the American magazine for mercenaries, a veteran of the Vietnam War shares an observation that surprised even him. Nowhere do you experience the sex act as keenly and rapturously as in wartime, in an atmosphere of anxiety and danger. Better yet--right on the field of battle. Do I need to explain why I mention this?

But this is all rather secondary in comparison with the most important fact that I can confirm: the boiler room is the promised land of creative activity, the paradise of the literary artist. While I can't vow that every line I wrote was written in a boiler room, it seems to me that way.

First publication

Translation from the Russian By Alexandar Mihailovic

From Vladimir Shinkarev, Sobstvenno literatura. Proza, stikhi, basni i pesni (St. Petersburg: "Grand," 2000), 326-27, 329-30.


Brodsky, Joseph. Less Than One: Selected Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986.

Kravchenko, B. S. "Cherez tri okeana (Fragment)." In Sindrom Tsusimy: Sbornik statei. St. Petersburg: Almanakh "Tsitatel'," 1997. 24-39.

Masyagin, V. P., and S. A. Yakimov. Ofitsery baltiiskogo flota. St. Petersburg: "Izmailovskii," 2003.

Mit'ki: Pro zaek. Moscow: "Vagrius," 2000.

Mit'kovkie pesni. [CD] Moscow: "Soiuz," 1996.

Mit'kivskie pesni: Na more tanki grokhotali. [CD] Moscow: Soiuz, 1997.

Mit'kovskaya tishina. Moscow: CD Land, 1996.

Pleshakov, Constantine. The Tsar's Last Armada: The Epic Voyage to the Battle of Tsushima. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Shagin, Dmitrii. Dyk! ... St. Petersburg: "Krasnyi matros," 2002.

--. Mit'kovskie pesni s kartinkami. St. Petersburg: "Kompozitor Sankt Peterburg," 2005.

Shinkarev, Vladimir. Maxim and Fyodor: Young Russians Search for the Meaning of Life. Tr. Andrew Bromfield. London: Seagull Publishing House, 2002.

--. Mit'ki. Risunki Aleksandra Olegovicha Florenskogo. Moscow: IMA-Press, 1990.

--. Sobstvenno literatura: Proza, stikhi, basni i pesni. St. Petersburg: "Grand," 2000.

Volkov, Solomon. St. Petersburg: A Cultural History. Tr. Antonina Bouis. New York: Free Press, 1995.

Yurchak, Alexei. Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006.

(1) Volkov, St. Petersburg, 530.

(2) Shagin, Dyk!, 18.

(3) Masyagin and Yakimov, Ofitsery baltiiskogo flota, 21-22, 164-65.

(4) Brodsky, Less Than One, 466.

(5) Shagin, "Daite khodu parokhodu," Dyk!, 32. The translation is mine.

(6) "Mit'kovskii marsh," track 1 from Mit'kovskaia tishina. The poem was also published in Shagin's collections Dyk! (6-7) and Mit'kovskie pesni s kartinkami (4-5).

(7) Shinkarev, Sobstvenno literatura, 244, 245.

(8) As Yurchak points out in his excellent sociological analysis of this anecdote, "The unexpectedness is a part of the mit'ki aesthetics.... [The Russian] fails to win not because he is not good enough but because the very discourse of winning and losing is alien to his discourse" (240). Yurchak makes the overall point in his discussion of the mit'ki that the mityok represents classically Russian traits as defined in folklore, especially as embodied by the figure of "Ivan-Durachok" (Ivan the Fool).

(9) Interview in St. Petersburg, 14 April 2005.

(10) Kravchenko, "Cherez tri okeana (Fragment)," 38. See also Pleshakov about the divide between the sailors and the lower-ranking officers and the admiralty on the eve of the campaign in the Pacific.

(11) "Variag" (track 5), "Pleshchut kholodnye volny" (track 4), Mit'kivskie pesni (2996).

(12) The translation is mine.

(13) The "Anthology of Famous Songs" website documents the various versions of the song. It mistakenly credits the mit'ki CD as its source for the words of the pre-revolutionary version of "In the Hills of Manchuria." Khvostenko only sings a few strophes from that version (http://retro.

(14) Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, 250.

(15) Shinkarev, Maksim and Fyodor, 24. The Russian text can be found in Shinkarev, Sobstvenno literature, 21.

(16) Liner notes, Mit'kovskie pesni (1996). Also published as "Spasenie sestrionki" (The rescue of a little sister) in Mit'ki: Pro zaek (99-100).

(17) Shagin, Mit'kovskie pesni s kartinkami, 14.

(18) See Florensky's illustration The Fundamental Work "The Mit'ki and David Bowie" Has Yet to Be Written (fig. 2) for a visual representation of the dichotomy between the dowdy mitek and the hip David Bowie (Shinkarev, Mit'ki: Risunki Aleksandra Florenskogo, 54).


(19) Shinkarev, Sobstvenno literatura, 329.

ALEXANDAR MIHAILOVIC is Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Hofstra University and the author of Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin's Theology of Discourse (Northwestern University Press, 1997). He has written articles on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian and Ukrainian literatures and on cultural relations during the Cold War. He is the editor of Tchaikovsky and His Contemporaries (1999), has translated Russian literature and literary criticism, and is currently writing a book-length study on the St. Petersburg mit'ki.
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Title Annotation:currents
Author:Mihailovic, Alexandar
Publication:World Literature Today
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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