Monthly Archives: November 2012

Some words on the current repression in Russia.

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After an orgy of Western press reports on the Pussy Riot affair (playing mainly to stereotypes and ignoring the genuine radicalism of the group), any reports about further repression in Russia in the Western press have since been few and far between. Perhaps because it started to get sick of its own voice or that the Pussy Riot affair was the story that sold and those lingering in jail after the May 6th repression is a story that won’t sell. It is hard to fathom how sickening and grotesque the Pussy Riot story has developed- while two members still languish in jail well-known multi millionaire singers find ways of profiting not just to boost their image but also materially from their predicament Madonna grabs the money while Pussy Riot languish. After the court sentence, it became clear that something had changed in the country and the steady persecution of a number of the demonstrators present at the May 6th march as well as the kidnapping of one oppositionist and television show trials of others as well as the petty and irritating actions of the Investigation Committee with regard to one of Russia’s most respected Marxist scholars, Boris Kagarlitsky, has led some to posit strange parallels with Stalin’s Great Terror. This, of course, seems rather too far-fetched as Kagarlitsky himself pointed out: it is in own way insulting to the memory of those who perished in the mid and late 1930s and at other particularly repressive periods of Stalin’s rule.

Yet more recent events at Kopeisk prison near Chelyabinsk seem to demonstrate that repression in Russia is still much more a serious and unpleasant fact than many would like to admit. This time around after Pussy Riot further international solidarity is thin in the ground  apart from a few Marxist and radical thinkers and figures such as Ken Ken Loach who have shown some of the generous solidarity that others are failing to show this time round. If, it seemed, that there was some case for talking about a certain apology of Putin’s Russia on the Left at some point in the recent past (due to understandable but miscontured concerns about Western imperialism), it is now clear that this is no longer the case. The setting up of the unpleasantly and vicious right wing Conservative Friends of Russia (with some links to fascist figures the truth about CFoR) clearly gives one a clear idea of where any apologia is coming from now.

In many ways the case of Kopeisk is rather indicative of how things develop in Russia- it is quite clear that some terrible things have been happening there but then there are a number of discourses which cover this up- the state discourse (broadcast on television) denying everything and then the ‘realist’ discourses of many kinds – either justifying, minimizing or putting things into perspective. These discourses crowd out the facts that can be established and crowd out the public resonance of these immense human rights violations. Many people know the facts – this video of torture in a prison camp had over 100,000 views and yet somehow people re-dimension even these facts.

Yet Kopeisk gathered little interest among the foreign correspondents – Masha Gessen wrote a small blog in the New York Times stating that “All anyone can be sure of is that near the city of Chelyabinsk, by the southern Urals, something horrible is going on.” Masha Gessen on Kopeisk but for others this is not news at all. The Guardian Russia correspondent went the furthest tweeting after news of beatings of relatives was reported that the “big news of the day was the break up of Russian pop group Via Gra” (although, to be fair, she has since published one article on prison brutality). Otherwise it was left to today’s Moscow Times to print an article which was, at the very least, more authoritative Jonathan Earle on Kopeisk   The growing repression after May 6th seems to be a no-go area for many correspondents. The slow drip of trials, of small protest actions and the inevitable arrests of activists, the individuals picked off one by one at other times- accused of various spurious crimes, the interrogations and persecutions by detectives from Centre E – the new political police- all this continues day after day without much of a squeak from the international media (but then this follows a certain pattern – the horrendous police repression in parts of Southern Europe to the November 14th general strike also got little coverage).

In Moscow there is no repeat of 1937 but the show trials are now organized on television with Arkady Mamontov a consummate substitute for Andrei Vishinsky. The accusations are as yet a little different – Mamontov’s febrile imagination is more inane and ridiculous (yet there are some takers for the idea that dances in cathedrals were organized from abroad). Nonetheless, the internet while generating irony, mobilizing scepticism and cynicism as well as parody, it only rarely mobilizes a certain amount of indignation and still not enough active resistance. Denouncing repression and saying that 1937 is at our doors may indeed be a favourite pastime for liberals, but the numbers of those who are really willing to turn up to unauthorized protests (and even many authorized protests) are still very small.

Regarding the large demonstrations of last winter, perhaps in retrospect, the writer Maksim Kantor got it most correct. Many went to the demonstrations for just about the same reason that people bought indulgences in the Middle Ages- a kind of absolution for being part and parcel of the Putin system for many years- having bartered their previous silence and consent, they now believed that, in some way, they could purchase some kind of moral distance from the system that only few had ever fought. After 6th May when the demonstration turned violent – through police disorganization- many of those who participated have now returned to their previous silence. Only the few, the minority, continue. The solitary pickets make their presence felt at the shameful court cases in which the repressed of May 6th are tried. The conformist liberals and systemic oppositionists will continue to find ways of making further indulgences while the small leftist and more active radical, liberal groups are among the only ones to actually organize (bearing as they do the brunt of the current repression), foreign correspondents will most probably continue to ignore this story (in favour of pop group break ups and the bureaucratic evils of dry cleaning), independent trade unionists in the provinces will continue to be beaten or jailed on spurious charges and new extractive capitalist gulags like Kopeisk will continue to spring up and operate until the system eventually collapses (perhaps due to some absurd scandal). Then, in the worst case scenario, the system won’t be rebuilt from below but from above by the Prokhorov’s of this world.

In any case at present the prisoners of this repression are slowly being forgotten- whether it be the Pussy Riot three victims both of millionnaire pop stars who have extracted profits from their name while feigning support and of their current jailor- the Russian state- or those like Vladimir Akimenkov (an activist arrested at the May 6th demonstration for very little indeed and who is now slowly going blind in a Russian prison- the judge sadistically stating that until he confesses he won’t get any medical attention). It may not be 1937 but the obscene repression visited on the (so far) few is sickening indeed. The very least they deserve is true international solidarity. Fortunately over the next few days this campaign will start with demonstrations at various Russian embassies in Europe. Yet there is more to be done and what needs to be done is to understand that repression in any country (whether it be the police repression in Genoa in 2001, or the repressive measures taken after the riots in the UK, or the present repression of participants of the May 6th demonstration in Bolotnaya Square should be met internationally. Each state has its own peculiarities (Russia’s riot police probably acted slightly less violently than the Italian riot police in Genoa but the vindictiveness and absolute corruption of its courts and prison system leaves no doubt that Russia has one of the most repressive regimes today which according to present trends is getting steadily more repressive). It is time that those fighting for international social justice realized that the Russian state is a threat to its own population precisely because it is building a ruthless and vicious capitalism that the George Osbourne’s and David Cameron’s of this world dream of.

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The Soviet Union – Neither paradise lost, nor hell overcome.

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The Soviet Union continues to haunt the imagination two decades after its demise – not just in Russia (and the former Soviet states itself) but throughout the world. Yet there have rarely been genuine attempts to explain what the Soviet system really meant in terms of a social system, a lived system and, in spite of Sovietology being a boom industry for many academics in the Cold War years there have been few accounts of Soviet society that did that much justice. Now two decades after the end of the Soviet system, the Soviet system is just as hard for contemporary Russians to mentally grasp as it once was for foreigners. An attempt to get to grasps with the Soviet as social system took place last December at a scientific conference initiated by the Institute of Globalisation and Social Movements (IGSO) and, in the past month, a book has come out with the title “USSR: Life after Death” published by the Higher School of Economics in Russia and edited by Irina Glushchenko, Boris Kagarlitsky and Vitaly Kurennoi. The book was presented at the Moscow bookshop ‘Falanster’ and authors of the various articles tried to give their short accounts of different fields (from an illustration of the ideological world of the children’s ABC school textbook, through to sport, from labour relations to sex in the Soviet Union). A truly fascinating peak at what living in the Soviet world actually felt like.

Instead of looking at the Soviet system through a prism of totalitarian theories, the authors of the book took a look at different fields of social experience and tried to reconstruct a more sociological view of what the Soviet Union felt like. From looking at the relations of production through to discovering how ‘socialist collectivism’ worked in practice as well as seeing the USSR as ‘a machine for the prodution of nations’ as one essay by Oleg Kil’diushov puts it. Some of the more curious information is in the sections devoted to social and cultural practices as well as those describing the formation of a consumer society as well as how the USSR is seen or remembered today. Other essays on Video Culture in the 1980s and 1990s as well as the specifically Soviet relationship to the car are equally revelational. Yet it is perhaps the ones related to consumerism that have the greatest interest. Gilyana Basangova describes the psychology of a Soviet consumer of the 1960s through the aid of a reading of a story by Anatoly Rybakov called The Adventures of Krosha – it describes how after receiving their first paypacket a couple of friends spend their earnings on a set of less than useful things as well as describing the psychology of the Soviet consumer in the face of the queue.

Regarding the Soviet Union as seen or remembered today there is a fascinating essay on how Soviet branding has become the reply of the noughties to the wave of western mania of the 1980s and the 1990s. Studies have shown, as Elizabeta Podshivalova argues in her essay, that even wrapping up identical products in different wrappers (one Soviet-style, the other not) people will immediately choose as tastier the Soviet brand. This is often associated with the view that in the Soviet period no (or few) preservatives were used in foods compared to nowadays. But even so it is a total reversal of the belief previously that anything western was necessarily better. Even western companies such as Nestle’ have been forced by circumstance to rebrand their products according to Soviet models.

Yet the idea that the Soviet model was altogether different from other ‘bourgeois’ models of society is hard to argue- all essential elements of a bourgeois society existed in Soviet society too: forms of private property, market based exchange, consumer culture, even religiosity and similar forms of education and leisure (competitive sport). Therefore, the Soviet society, especially in its late period, had many of the features that post Soviet society has in spite of the tremendous transformations that appear to have separated the two periods.

Michael Löwy in Moscow

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The visit of the French Marxist sociologist and philosopher Michael Löwy to Moscow may not have had the resonance of Slavoj Zizek’s visit to Moscow a few months ago but, in many ways, his two talks were of no less interest than Zizek’s. In many ways they gave an insight into problems affecting Russian leftists and Marxists which could be seen as deeper than those insights offered by Zizek. It is a shame, therefore, that his visit was so low key- even though at yesterday’s (Sunday’s) talk at the bookshop Falanster there was a very full house. Zizek’s irony and showmanship was replaced by Löwy’s more mild-mannered approach. Yet Löwy’s  Marxism is also of a very specific and radical mould opening up to quasi anarchic and messianic versions and visions and focusing on the ways  in which religion and messianism have interacted with Marxism. It is a very strange time to be thinking of Marxism and religious as possible bedfellows in the Russia of 2012 and his lecture on Christian Socialism and Liberation Theology in Latin American yesterday seemed to have been met with some confusion among the audience yesterday. That someone talking of things so distant from the present mindset of Russian left activists, however, is not, potentially, altogether an unproductive thing.  Löwy’s contribution could only open up new vistas where previously there had been certainties.

The possibility of Liberation Theology in Russia is a curious one –the idea that there could emerge within Orthodoxy some form of revolutionary messianism seems rare and hardly possible and yet the big unspoken  question is still about the unforeseen future consequences of Pussy Riot. With all the furore and confusion surrounding Pussy Riot (whether it be amidst the furious denunciations and persecution from both the Orthodox hierarchy and the Russian state or the rather pietistic and media-saturated global campaign for their release) few questions were ever asked about the influences and the ideology of Pussy Riot. To be fair it seemed to be an incredibly fluid one- taking in radical feminism, situationalism, LGBT as well as actionism – but one of the strange features that few seemed to notice was how in Russia some of the most active defenders of Pussy Riot were religious critics of Orthodoxy. Apart from a number of Orthodox priests (some since excluded from the church) there were also a number of commentators who had hitherto been linked to Orthodoxy such as the culturologist Elena Volkova who became their most strident advocates. At least one member of Pussy Riot, Maria Alyekhina, had also been linked to Orthodox charity organisations. She also appeared as the most radical member of the trio on trial challenging from the very beginning the legitimacy of the kangaroo court and citing not the rather conservative figure of Solzhenitysn (as Tolokonnikova had) but Guy Debord.  Merging Situationalism with Orthodoxy may indeed produce in years to come some fascinating new cocktails of Liberation Messianism  in Russia itself. After all, some of the most original European thinkers from Pier Paolo Pasolini to Simone Weil as well as the French Marxist Henri Lefebvre have managed to bring together seemingly conflicting ideas within revolutionary new perspectives on liberation.

Löwy’s attention to these movements as well as to the figure of Walter Benjamin makes him quite an unusual (but very productive) Marxist which can only benefit Marxism itself. Marxism gives his thought a new originality of perspective as much as his thought renews the breadth of Marxist though (linking Marxism to movements –whether those of LGBT, feminism, surrealism- which have, hitherto, been considered outside of the realm of Marxism). Nevertheless, he works within an extremely open and productive field of Marxism whose predecessors are many from Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Antonio Gramsci as well as a certain side of Engels. His fascination with the relationship between Messianism and Marxism from an historicist perspective helps us to answer many more questions than we would normally ask and can only bring new perspectives. Not only does a reading of Löwy bring up a widening of perspectives but he also brings an intelligent discourse to some of the most pressing questions for the Russian Left today.  His presence and talks in Moscow may have brought forth some radical new questions, angles and ideas that have hitherto been far too neglected.