Russia, breeding ground for cyberpunk

On November 19th, the day when the long-awaited Cyberpunk 2077, developed by the Polish studio CD Projekt RED (finally postponed to December) was to be released, a video titled “Russian Cyberpunk Farm” was posted on Russian Youtube by the Birchpunk account, created 5 days earlier. In a few hours, it went viral and has spread far beyond the country’s borders. Russian-style cyberpunk decryption.

Androids on the farm

The main character, Nikolai, a farmer from the Ryazan region, presents the production of his farm in English.

“They say that Russia is a technically backward country, there are no roads, robotics do not develop, rockets do not fly, and mail goes too long. It’s all bullshit”, the video description reads.

In the first few seconds, we see a drone and a cow with a QR code on the side. Curious viewers scanned the QR code and found that it redirects to the Twitter account of Dmitri Rogozine, general manager of Roscosmos, the state agency for space activities.

Androids from the fictional company “Izhevsk Dynamics” pump milk from “QR-coded” cows, flying cars from “Russian Post” deliver mail by air-dropping it, and drones monitor greenhouses where transgenic pickles grow.

The video calls upon the codes of cybernetic utopia: technological advances have invaded the human environment and electronic gadgets are attentive and friendly collaborators who are taken care of, with whom we work and live in harmony. A cybernetic community where we would live “under the lofty surveillance of machines full of love and grace”, in the words of Fred Turner. Everything here being staged with a layer of satirical derision.

The man / machine difference is not completely overcome, but the relations between the two go beyond the professional framework to enter “robo-love” territory. The short film shows this relationship in a funny way: Nikolai is in love with the “cowgirl” (android) while the latter prefers another machine: Nikolai’s tractor.

The particularity of the cyberpunk movement lies in the dissonant union between this cybernetic utopianism and a “punk” vision of post-modern despair. SF author Lawrence Person writes:

“Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalised, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, a ubiquitous datasphere of computerised information, and invasive modification of the human body”.

The cyberpunk aesthetic is indeed very present on the screen. As in the major works of the underground literary movement that cyberpunk initially was, the video features an anti-hero.

And beyond the caricature of the Russian moujik (a peasant) who speaks with a strong accent and drinks genetically modified kombucha (fermented tea), this sci-fi story highlights the living conditions in a provincial village: bad roads, lack of access to running water, destroyed historical buildings … And treats with humor the resourceful side of its inhabitants who, without government help, are forced to deal with what they have, in in this case inventing flying cars: “They say we have bad roads, that’s bullshit ! We don’t need them”.

The music that envelops this satirical short film perfectly conveys this apparent contrast between traditional countryside and new technologies since it has the feel of a folk tune, but the lyrics sing: “There was a robot sitting on the ground, his head lowered, why is he sad ? Because of the new update ”.

“Do cyber dairy ladies dream of cyber cows ?”

Behind this extremely well-produced four and a half minute video is the Russian screenwriter and director Sergei Vassiliev from the AMG VFX studio which specialises in special effects. In an interview with TJournal, he says the idea of staging robots came to him during the lockdown last spring with a short video of working robots on the streets of Moscow:

The joke of one of his colleagues, “do cyber dairy ladies dream of cyber cows ?” (which refers to the famous “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K.Dick), inspired the final script. 

For Vasiliev, the video of a fake YouTuber was an ideal format to bring together several ideas into a cohesive narrative and give it a comedic effect through the main character.

In total: a team of 25 people and 4 months of work. A group of enthusiasts (the famous birchpunk from the eponymous Youtube account ?) who meet once a year to have fun and make others laugh. Last year they made a fantastic short film called “And Then He Opens His Eyes”.

The video was shot on an eco-responsible farm that isn’t very punk…

Cyberpunk in Russia: Codes That Work

On the day it was posted on YouTube, the video was also shared on Pikabu, a Russian forum similar to Reddit. The next day, it was picked up by bloggers specialising in video games, local media as well as many groups on the VK social network (70+ million active users, half of whom are between 18 and 35 years old), before landing on news platforms like Meduza or Yandex Zen.

Today, Russian Cyberpunk Farm has accumulated more than 3.6 million views (only counting Youtube), and is the source of countless comments and even a few memes on international forums like Reddit and 9gag.

It is unlikely that Sergei Vassiliev’s cyberpunk collective would have imagined such success. What is certain is that the quality of the image associated with the DIY approach is an important factor for acheiving virality.

Despite Nikolai’s rather fluent English, the video mostly plays on the sensitive chords of Russian genZ. Digital tools make it possible to transform an image of a lonely village into a technological terrain for the conquest of Mars (we can see there a reference to the old codes of the Cold War or the successful launch of Elon Musk, as you choose) and a peasant (who could be a part of the Crazy Russians) into a nice YouTuber. Russian Cyberpunk Farm helps create a new Russian identity: creative, cool and fun. Surely one of the reasons for its success, beyond its intrinsic quality and its comedic appeal.

Russian cyberpunk: fringe culture

When you discover Vassiliev’s video, it’s hard not to immediately think of the Russia 2077 project by graphic designer Evgeny Zubkov. Published in 2018 on the Behance website, this series of illustrations depict a post-apocalyptic world in Russian landscapes:

The way Zubkov describes his work could perfectly match the description of Russian Cyberpunk Farm:

“Russia 2077 is a project that presents a parallel reality, where hypertrophied images of modern technologies contrast with ordinary landscapes and everyday reality of provincial Russia, which decorations seem to have stuck in time.”

The mix between Russian reality and cyberpunk aesthetic is also found in many Russian artists who often transpose wacky and futuristic elements into their daily lives:

  • Passionate about 3D effects, Dmitri Kataev shows, on his YouTube channel, technological advances in Samara, where a building entrance turns into an elevator:

Denis Unishkov‘s video games approach turns Keanu Reeves into a flying bus driver:

Here too we find one of the leitmotifs of cyberpunk: the desire to make the margins of hyper-connected society visible.

The cyberpunk movement, which combines science fiction and social criticism, is particularly rich in Russia. In a country which is now experiencing both a major economic disaster and a technical boom, this is not surprising.

3 good links:

Cyberpunk for dummies, at Usbek & Rika

A list of cyberpunk works

A kind of mini-encyclopedia of the cyberpunk genre on the Eklecty-City site

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