Monthly Archives: October 2013

If only there were another Feltrinelli… (ten books/authors shamefully ignored by publishing houses).

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This post is probably one that will steadily expand over the comings weeks and months. It is simply a kind of fantasy post imagining those books which should be available in print but are no longer/ have never been/ are never likely to be published by a English-language publisher because let’s face it, the English are one of the most insular nation on earth whenit comes to foreign cultures. The hope that there would be someone like Feltrinelli intelligent enough to discover the genuine classics of world literature and engaged enough to publish radical texts of philosophy, history, sociology as well as directly political texts is a forlorn one. So one can only seek to imagine a virtual Feltrinelli and hope that someone one day will rob a bank or two to finance a real one.

Giancarlo Feltrinelli

1. Roberto Arlt – The Flamethrowers – this is a particularly personal gripe that I have with Serpents Tail publishers. Years ago in the early/mid 1990s I decided to single-handedly and rather pointlessly translate Arlt’s Los Siete Locos The Seven Madmen. Pointlessly because I didn’t know much Spanish at the time, I had a rather useless Spanish-English dictionary as well as a copy of the Italian translation of the novel long out of print but photocopied in Rome’s national Library. Spending three months slowly correcting my own weird transcribed translation and many more months correcting and re-correcting the text, I sent letters to various publishers but usually got no reply. I was sent back a badly scribbled note by someone from Serpents’ Tail to send on a sample chapter or two. The reply to my chapter too was pretty illegible. Half a year or so later Roberto Arlt’s novel came out in a translation by Nick Caistor. My following letters asking them at least to publish Arlt’s sequel novel Las Lanzallamas (The Flamethrowers) never came to pass. So basically readers never know what happened to Erdosain simply because Serpents’ Tail can’t be arsed to publish it. Anyone who knows Arlt’s work, knows that one of the greatest things that he ever wrote was in Las Lanzallamas (the chapter entitled The Agony of the Melancholic Pimp) but maybe it will take Anglo-Saxon decades to find this out. Apart from this Arlt wrote a number of plays, a series of feuilleton’s called Aguafuertes both of Buenos Aires and about travels abroad. Arlt in Argentina is seen as a kind of alternative to Borges and even preferred by many Argentinians.

Roberto Arlt’s sequel to his Los Siete Locos (The Seven Madmen) entitled Los Lanzallamas (The Flamethrowers)

2. The fact that Juan Rodolfo Wilcock has barely been translated into English is truly scandalous. Close to Borges, Silvina Ocampo and Bioy Casares when in Argentina he set off to Europe to avoid the stifling atmosphere of Peronist Argentina, only to find life in London at the BBC equally detestable. Returning to Argentina and then back to Europe, this time to Italy, he changed his language as well as his country. Even many books by Rodolfo Wilcock are out of print in Italian (it is truly unforgivable that Wilcock’s ‘Il Libro dei Mostri‘ has almost entirely disappeared. I’ve been translating some of his short pieces from The Stereoscope of Solitary Beings. The hope that the publishing world will ever world will ever wake up to this great 20th century writer in their midst is flimsy, to say the least.

Rodolfo Wilcock’s The Stereoscope of Solitary Beings

3. Borges was to state once that he had met few geniuses in his life but that Rafael Cansinos-Assens was surely one of them and called him his master. As well as a very prolific translator into Spanish, Cansinos Assens was an essayist, a poet and a novelist. But then why would a publisher publish the master of Borges when it can publish … (to be filled in with the latest trashy fashionable novel). Of course, while Borges worshipped Cansinos-Assens, he was treated even by Spain as a minor writer.

Rafael Cansinos-Assens

4. Nick Caistor as well as the translator of Arlt’s The Seven Madmen is also the translator of Los Pichiciegos (translated as The Malvinas Requiem). But the author Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill is the author of so much else that to allow only one of his works to be translated is a literary crime of the highest order.

muchacha-punk-fogwill

5. I’ve written about Bobi Bazlen in these pages. A writer of footnotes but what fine ‘footnotes’ they are and, of course, no one is preparing it seems to publish these footnotes.

A Spanish language edition of Bazlen’s letters to Eugenio Montale


6. Nanni Balestrini has had some luck a few years ago when Verso published a translation of his The Unseen (Gli Invisibili). But will any publisher do something about publishing his great novel on the Italian Hot Autumn Vogliamo Tutto (We want everything). I doubt it. Or his novel on Giancarlo feltrinelli L’editore (The Editor) or on football ultras I furiosi (The Furies) or… or… or? Utopian desires, alas.

balestrini-1971-vogliamo-tutto

7. When will a publisher decide to honour the labour of Ed Emery (a very fine translator in his own right) and publish The Red Notes Archive. Listening to a talk on Samizdat at Moscow’s Media Impact festival of Alternative Art Actionism, I realised that there was a fine tradition tradition of samizdat in Britain and elsewhere too. The works of Italian autonomist Toni Negri and other workerist autonomists were being translated decades ago by the likes of Ed Emery long before they became well known to hipsters and university students. Who is going to reprint these archives? The admirable lib.com site does a fine job in putting much of this on the internet but somehow one would like a publisher to republish selections of this (at least) to commemorate the work that people like Ed Emery made in heroically salvaging this material. I would add to this Dear Comrades, the selected letters of Lotta Continua published at one time by Plato Press has been long out of print. Time for a reprint. I remember taking them to a school in Brighton at the age of fifteen, reading them with a Franco-Indian classmate. I physically miss holding that book in my hand and, here in Russia in 2013, how relevant these letters seem.

Ed Emery and Red Notes samizdat booklet on Italian revolutionary movements.

8. It was a facebook comment by Benjamin Noys which brought my attention to Bruno Jasienski but what a find this proved to be. Black Sparrow Press are to be welcomed for translating his novel Paris is Burning but which publisher will risk the translating of his other novels and poetry. A trilingual writer (Polish, French and then Russian) the two volume works published in the Soviet Union in the early days of the Thaw seem to have much promising stuff including an anti-Nazi rewriting of Gogol’s story The Nose and a great anti-fascist novel entitled The Conspiracy of the Indifferent. Benjamin Noys has written about ‘Paris is Burning’ here:

The Soviet thaw two volume edition of Bruno Jasienski’s selected works.

9. I have little to add to this piece I wrote some time ago about how the lack of a translation of Ilya Ehrenburg’s Julio Jurenito is truly scandalous. Yet this is not the only work sorely missing for Anglo-Saxons (and Europeans as a whole). I’d say that he has at least five novels as well as his autobiography that an intelligent publisher would be sorely looking around for a translator to translate any time now.

Spanish language translation of Ehrenburg’s Julio Jurenito.

10. Artem Vesely’s great Civil War novel Россия, кровью умытая (Russia cleansed by blood), is one of those Russian novels forgotten by many Russians themselves but which should never be left out of the list of urgent translations for that new and elusive Feltrinelli.

A portrait of Artem Vesely made in 1930 by Konstantin Yuon

These are merely ten of the titles/authors. I’d could add many more. These will have to wait for another post…In the meantime, here is Rodolfo Wilcock’s excellent portrait of literary consultants at publishing houses:

A large hen occupies the apartment: she is so large that she has already demolished several doors in order to pass from one room to another. It is not as though she’s edgy. Nonetheless she is an intellectual hen and spends nearly all of her time reading. In actual fact, she is a consultant of the publishing house A. The publisher sends her all the novels that appear abroad and the hen reads them patiently with her right eye since she she can’t read them with both of her eyes at the same time: her left eye stays closed under her beautiful grey velvety eyelids. From time to time the hen mumbles something inaudible because the print is too small for her, or else she makes a clo-clo sound and flaps her wings, but no one can work out whether she is doing it out of joy or out of boredom. However, when she doesn’t like a book, the intellectual hen will eat it. Later, the publishing house sends an inspector to gather up the remaining titles that the hen has left strewn all over the house – and publishes them. This in the past gave rise to certain complications: some books had been found inside a wardrobe after they had already been published by another publishing house with a most regrettable success. In spite of these facts she is the most influential hen of the book trade.

We don’t how to do with her: apart from knocking down all the doors, she dirties all the rooms and the maid has threatened to leave if the hen doesn’t go. Yet she is such an intelligent animal, her judgements are so exact, her daily habits are so routine. At six in the evening she mounts the sofa and perches on it, shuts her eyes and falls asleep no longer disturbing anyone else. She doesn’t even move to exercise her bodily needs. In the morning we get up and find her in the dining room intent on reading the latest Russian writer from Siberia or the upcoming Latin American star. And she has never once laid an egg.

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Media Impact: A Festival of Art Activism in Moscow.

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Media Udar

In many ways, it is rather hard to categorize the second festival of art activism: one is sometimes left wavering between deciding whether it is a funeral wake for the idea of popular leftist art or one of the last free spaces in Moscow for art activists almost driven underground by the current wave of repression of political activists and whose collective creative potential could be enormous? Is it a ghetto of a marginalized and marginalizing leftist artists steadily splitting into fragmented sectorial groupuscles or a genuine attempt to build a horizontal rather than vertical structure within the art world?

The problem is that the art world in Moscow is, in itself, not a particularly large phenomenon. According to a survey undertaken by the magazine Art Khronika exhibitions in Moscow are usually attended by little more than 250 people. The number of those active art goers who may be politically-engaged is far smaller so the idea that this festival could be a mass one would have been utopian as such. In a sense, the ghetto of art activism has arisen also because of the high levels of state repression as well as the organization of small groups of Orthodox radicals as well as less identifiable provocateurs or trolls who turn up to meetings that have anything to do with themes such as LGBT politics, feminism or anti-clericalism. So the atmosphere is, at times, tense the say the least. Ghettoisation is, probably, both a reaction to external realities and a self-engendering process.

Having said that, at Media Impact themes and discussions have emerged which put paid to the idea that it is a mere exercise in self-promotion or navel gazing and although one can understand some of the polemics aimed at it one feels that the ideas and art which are exhibited will leave some trace in history that have not been noticed by some of their critics . The concerts held at the very least have a chance to unite a larger number of people

In terms of the permanent exhibits of the festival there is an exhibition talking of the Dutch protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s. An attempt to tell the story of the Provos, the feminist movement Dolle Mina, the squatters movement. Including filmed footage of the Dutch happenings, the festival was also visited by one of the leaders of the Provo’s who would become a mayor of Amsterdam, Roel Van Duijn. He attempted to give a talk in Russian explaining the history (the genesis and development) of the Provo and later Kabouter movement. And also how his anarchism (inspired by the writings of Kropotkin) then became gradually reformist. When asked whether this reformist anarchism was not especially co-opted by capitalist structures, he suggested that an insistence on generic anti-capitalism didn’t necessarily lead anywhere. It seemed almost that, to a Russian audience, he was proposing unlikely things to fight for: the right to see your FSB file seemed pretty utopian, whereas others seemed hardly to make much difference to the life of the Moscovite. The dissonance and sense of disconnect between Europeans and Russian reality seemed too wide. However, Van Duijn did hand out a curious photocopy of an appeal to Russian Provotarians written back in the late 1960s – an historical document of sorts, even if there is no way of knowing whether any Russians actually read this call from western European anarchists to revolt back in those times.

Roel Van Duijn

Earlier in the evening, the award ceremony of which I wrote in my previous blog post had taken place. As Alek Epstein noted the alternative art world is in danger of losing (and perhaps already has lost) contact with the outside world, living through one of its most bleaker periods since the Bulldozer Exhibition of the mid 1970s.

On other days new projects and themes discussed with a variety of books being presented. In terms of the permanent exhibitions during the festival, perhaps the most interesting was the “Feminist Pencil” exhibition of works by 35 artists from all over Russia and abroad. This included everything from graffiti on the walls of the Art Play building to comics and stencil works. With a feminist theme but with a very broad canvas in terms of those stories recounted through the art: from prostitution, migration as well as violence and madness. It includes works by Victoria Lomasko, Yana Smetanina, Polina Petrushina and others. It is the second time such an exhibition and a third exhibition is already being prepared for next time. More details about this exhibition in Russian can be found here.

Ilmira Bolotyan ‘Metrorealism’ – one of the works in the Feminist Pencil exhibition at Media Impact

In terms of authors and books presented at this festival there are some projects that seem to have special significance. Ilya Falkovsky’s projects seem to have special urgency in the present moment. One book, written along with journalist Alexander Litiy and already published under the title “Strike Force against Putin” tries to trace the individual biographies of the various Islamic and nationalist terrorists that have sprung up in recent years. He finds differences in their practices, confessing that Islamic terrorists were easier to understand and somehow more personable than Russia’s band of nationalist terrorists. He read out two chapters from the book- one of which was devoted to the strange story of the murderer of Stas Markelov, Nikita Tikhonov. However, his present project deserves just as much, and probably more, public resonance. His is an attempt to retell the lives and deaths of those murdered migrants that come up in the news as “an individual of Caucasian appearance”, or a “caretaker” (a common job for migrants from Central Asia). Falkovsky wants to give them back an individuality and explain the circumstances of their death. He explains that the public aren’t always as indifferent as portrayed by many while the police when the victim is brought to them have been know to sadistically leave an immigrant to die without calling for medical help. As yet, Falkovski is yet decide on the format of his work.

Ilya Falkovsky

Another book with some interest is the collection of pieces on sex entitled Секс Угнетенных (The Sex of the Exploited). This small book has been published by Kirill Medvedev and includes different forms: a dialogue, an exchange of letters, an interrogation and a conversation in the kitchen. As well as Medvedev, Olga Timofeeva, Seroe Fioletevoe (an ex member of Voina and one of whose pieces has been translated here in Afoniya Keti Chukhrov and Nikolai Oleinikov have written here. I hope to review it here later at some point.

The book ‘The sex of the exploited’

Other talks have included Vlad Tupikin’s historical-based talk on samizdat (alongside a small exhibition in the building) and Nikolai Oleinikov’s talk on Ska music as well as the poet and performer Alexander Delphinov on narcophobia. Future events will include a talk by Artur Aristakisyan on the transgression of Anatoly Moskvin, workshops on social comics, as well as Matvei Krylov’s ‘Gay Welcome’ and discussions about social exclusion. Film showings are also included as well as a strong feminist component to the festival.

The Art of a Failed Revolution.

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Yesterday at an awards ceremony for the Alternative Prize of the “Russian Activist Art” at the Media Udar (an International Festival of Actionist Art) held in Moscow’s Artplay, Alek Epstein began his talk recalling three people whose lives were linked to art actionism in some way or another and who have recently died. The award was dedicated to Grigory Dorokhov, a musician of extraordinary talent who didn’t neglect to dedicate his experimental music to actionist themes and participated in all manners of protests (being arrested 8 times in 2012 alone). The LGBT activist Alexei Davydov who died at 36 was another victim of police repression being hospitalised after a violent beating by police. He took part in an action entitled “The Mizullina Law In Action” (one of the most vivid art activist protests against the law against so-called ‘homosexual propaganda’).

The Mizullina Law in Action


Three days ago another activist Sergei Mozzhgerov also died at the age of 25 (according to one blog report he wrote a dissertation on the practice of coming out and wasdescribed as a human specialist (Человековед).

If Allen Ginsberg saw the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness, many contemporary Russians fail to even realize that the best minds of their generation are being carted off one by one to its prisons, locked in preventive custody for months on end, physically beaten and assaulted by police or Orthodox radicals and nationalists and even, in the case of one demonstrator, Mikhail Kosenko, sent away for forced psychiatric treatment in appalling conditions. If one looks back further one sees that others like Stas Markelov, Anna Alchuk, Nastya Baburova, Mikhail Beketov, Natalia Estemirova and a whole host of activists, truly independent journalists and anti-fascists have been murdered or suicided. And this is not taking into account the nameless migrants murdered, the gays beaten and marginalized (sometimes tortured by fascists in small towns in the Urals or murdered in Volgograd).

The current moment seems to be one of the darkest for decades with a return of pogroms against migrants and a rather unrelenting campaign of homophobia. That few journalists turned up to yesterday’s awards is pretty indicative of the demise of that moment last May when the Occupy Abay camp was set up allowing a brief moment when the art actvists could come up for air. If occasional recognition was given internationally to Russian art activism due to Pussy Riot, this year Russian art actionism has been forgotten even internationally. One of the only chroniclers of this movement, Alek D. Epstein, is finding it harder to print the valuable accounts of this movement. But this is a movement which, in any case, will surely pass into history.

That much of the art work is ending up in the headquarters of the Russian FSB is, in itself, a source of great concern. At the present moment all one can hope for is that enough documentation of these works can be kept in the public domain. Alek Epstein, himself, calls this the fourth wave of Russian Non-Conformist Art. Previous waves included the first wave of Malevich, Kandinsky, Filonov, Khlebnikov and Kharms (a wave suffocated in the 1930s), the second wave emerged in the 60s with the Oscar Rabin’s, Gennadi Aigi’s, Genrikh Sapgir’s and the Schnitzke’s and Denisov’s of the musical world whereas the Brezhnev times would reveal the names of Monastirsky, the sots art of the Komar and Melamid as well as names such as Timur Novikov. If one were to name the candidates of this fourth generation of non-conformist artists there is a small universe that exists and whose names will surely be studied by future art historians.

However, at the present moment, they are being ignored and even those few curators who were deemed to have some independent views are steadily being replaced or sacked (like, for example, Marat Gelman who was sacked from his post in Perm). In fact this squeezing out of artistic independence although having been a constant has only accelerated in the past year or so since the jailing of Pussy Riot. One of the most dramatic moments was the arrival of cossacks and radical Orthodox activists last year at Vinzavod where they finally managed to close down an exhibition on a religious theme entitled Духовная Брань (Spiritual Feud). The intention of the religious fanatics was to burn images that were by no means outrageous.

Scuffles outside Vinzavod September 2012

One of the typical paintings in an exhibition said to blaspheme against religious sensibilities.

Here are some of the art works and actions belonging to activist art:

Losine’s Dzhanian’s ‘A Cartoon riot policeman arrests a cartoon protester’ (taken from http://alek-epstein.livejournal.com/96230.html)

Action of the group ZIP “Booth of the single picket”

Pyotr Pavlensky ‘Carcass’

Just today (25.10.13) it was reported that the Media Udar festival was attacked by a group of homophobes whose access was prevented by a wall of art activists. Here is a video of the event

Three Days in October: An Account of an Exhibition Curtailed.

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Having written about some of the circumstances surrounding the exhibition on October 1993 curated by Ilya Budraitskis, Vladimir Potapov and Ilya Bezrukov, I managed to visit the exhibition in one of its final days. An exhibition cut short by the museum management one begins to reflecton the strange fact that the smallest exhibitions already marginalized in terms of location still cause the maximum amount of bureaucratic difficulty and scandal. Yet there are things of which one can not speak, at least not in major venues. An attempt to reflect deeply on the significance of October 1993 is, it appears, one of these. At that time Moscow experienced what was, in effect, a mini civil war. The official death toll was 150 but many suggest that it was much higher than this. Even after twenty years an attempt to remember this, to reflect upon it, was confined to one small room of a local history museum that usually attracts few visitors. Still typically Soviet in style, the museum has in the past year or so with Ilya Budraitskis working as one of its scientific advisors started to flower in its role as one of the more autonomous spaces of Moscovite culture. Michael Löwy, the great Brazilian-French Marxist was invited to give a speech on Walter Benjamin here and there has been an emphasis on some more innovative uses for a museum as an open site for collective discussion, including inspirational film showings such as the Italian film of Werner Schroeter Nel Regno di Napoli. This was a location that began to have some life breathed into it. Now, alas, this experiment seems to have been cut short like so many others before it.

There was a triadic concept to this exhibitions reflection on October 1993. A selection of leaflets and official announcements of the time gave some indication of the rhetoric of the opposing sides. However, as the exhibition noted- one side had (often) badly printed leaflets and the other side television.

Then there was a film of an hour and twenty minutes taken from amateur footage and given to the curators by the Memorial society. It was an extraordinary experience to watch the images of those days. An almost festive atmosphere that turned into terrible bloodshed. For me the most extraordinary moment was of a woman with the flag of the Italian Communist Party in her arm almost dancing through the streets singing Bandiera Rossa and laughing. In my mind, I couldn’t help asking which day was this? was it the same day that the tanks were to shell the parliament? What happened to her? The images are still haunting. Also those strange meetings between opposing sides (at time jocular) and the riot scenes. Yet it still seemed difficult to feel any presentiment of great bloodshed,of a whole-scale massacre on the faces of the demonstrators. The film images- rather badly conserved and transmitted on a small PC- were all the more extraordinary for the wretched way they were transmitted. The more you watched this footage, the more the images evoked ambivalently those continued processes and ruptures of contemporary history in the past twenty years. For all the amateur footage and stylistic distance of the times, for someone who participated in the meetings of 2012 October 1993 seems like the beginning of a great freeze that lasted two decades.

Moving to the art work this was surely the most astounding section. A minimal number of works but works which provided a glimpse as to how young thirty-something artists conceived of the events of October 1993 happening when they were around ten years old. They ranged from Diana Machulina’s Это не Мороженое (It’s Not Ice Cream) based on the childhood recollection of a certain Koli who insistently pleading his grandmother to be given ice cream is given cheese spread on a stick instead. Discovering that it isn’t tasty it puts him off ice cream for life. A kind of tale about democracy in which the Russian people are also offered a completely false substitution of democracy and naively believing that this was what democracy was rejected it out of hand.

It’s Not Ice Cream Diana Machulina

Another art piece of interest was the piece by Andrei Blazhov entitled Плоды (Benefits/Fruits) which depicts a pregnant woman sitting on a red banner, eating an ice cream and looking out to sea. Here he different ideas of the fruits and benefits of the past, present and future interact.

Benefits

Vladimir Potapov use of screen shots from youtube footage of October 1993 is highly interesting too.

Vladimir Potapov “Wind Effect”

In Potapov’s works the faces are not possible to make out. There is a further irony in the strange cuts into the artwork. A pop up incision appears throughout the picture – the indecipherable faces and actions give the chosen scenes (from the youtube videos) a strangely odd atmosphere of a broken billboard – although the advert is highlighting civil war and police oppression.

The industrial landscapes of Valentin Kach give us a certain luxuriant joy looking at the. Kasсh’s two works are extraordinary pieces of art and show an industrial dark black and red merging to tell us of the strange smoke, fire and death in an unusual hazy fog of those distant October days.

Koshelev’s Window ’93 is a series of windows through which scenes are painted evoking a childhood memory of watching the events as they unfolded from the windows of his apartment.

Egor Koshelev Window 1993

Pavel Grishin’s 04.10.93 is a simple enamel blind in the centre of the room which named those 150 people who were officially recorded as dead in those days and etched on to to the blind.

Perhaps the most extraordinary work s that of Mikhail Most which stores in a room a pile of Lenin busts and old papers etc. A curtain sets off at from the room and overall this installation ‘Stocktaking’ is really what it is about. A text intones The end of times, The end of an era, the end of the old slogans. The sets change. The stocktaking of ideas etc. The installation partly recalls “The Man Who Flew into Space” by Kabakov but instead of a broken roof the Lenin busts have a more telluric pull.

All in all a powerful rendering of the legacy and the reflection on this silent moment in which the democratic dream of perestroika and glasnost was crushed and the regime of silence would gradually cover Russia once more. I fear this was a final attempt to breathe life into this museum space in its attempt to intervene in the collective consciousness of the district and the city. An end to the curating team around Ilya Budraitskis here in Krasnopresneskaya Historical Museum which brought a short period of cultural significance to this venue. There is a ray of light in that Budraitskis will now be working at the State Centre of Contemporary Art.

The Last Soviet Marxist – (translation of an article by Alexei Tsvetkov on Evald Ilyenkov)

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The original Russian article can be found here : http://primerussia.ru/article_materials/291
In an article for The Prime Russian Magazine (in its issue based on the theme of Marxism), the poet Alexei Tsvetkov wrote this portrait of Evald Ilyenkov, the last Soviet Marxist and one of the greatest and most original thinkers to work in the Soviet Union. Tsvetkov gives us a portrait of a truly unique figure whose works deserve to be re-read and translated as well as an unusual portrait of the atmosphere and times he lived in.

ON THE LAST SOVIET MARXIST
At the start of the armed conflict between China and Vietnam he howled at the radio refusing to talk with anybody. Sartre could well have written a novel about this man and Godard shot a film about him. Alexei Tsvetkov writes about the last Soviet Marxist, Evald Ilyenkov.

1940s: Dialectics of the Artillery

The son of a famous Soviet writer, a friend of Zabolotsky’s, Ilyenkov went to Berlin as an artillery officer and at the first opportunity set off to pay his regards at the tomb of Hegel. He earned two orders and many medals at the front but more often than not would show to guests a file with the German eagle entitled “For the Fuhrer only” which he kept as a trophied souvenir.

Between battles the artilleryman read “The Phenomenology of the Spirit” in the original German. For him the Second World War was an armed conflict between Left and Right Hegelianism and at Hegel’s gravestone he thanked the philosopher for the fact that Soviet Hegelianism was the more reliable one raising its own flag over the German capital rather than vice versa.
Ilyenkov remained a teutophile all his life: he translated Kant and Lukacs, typed his books on a German typewriter that he had kept as a war trophy, drew his own decorations to Das Rheingold and was personally acquainted with all the living performers of Wagner, the scores of whom he would read before going to sleep so as to keep his mind in order.

1950s: Thermonuclear conflagration in the university

After Stalin’s death, Ilyenkov taught at the Moscow State University and would write his own Cosmology. From his frontline greatcoat (shinel’) which he for so long he would refuse to exchange for an overcoat a whole ”family” of the best Soviet intellectual of the 1960s were to emerge, as well as many future dissidents and emigres.

What did he teach them? That inner contradictions were the prime mover of any development. The borders move within things and phenomena and the great rule of living, the conditions of existence were a clash between any phenomenon with itself.
Nothing was the more general form of something. Space and time are essentially only means by which quality becomes quantity.
To correctly and profoundly understand an infinitesimal part of the world signifies the ability to understand all our entire reality.

But Ilyenkov’s favourite idea was the delegation of his thought as the condition of every phenomenon. Everyone becomes ‘themselves’ only when leaving those limits and borders assigned to him, like when an actor in a theatre becomes himself only by portraying another. A person becomes a human being only as a result of his activity.
In its most common form such logic leads the philosopher to the alarming idea (which he didn’t articulate in front of his students but which is expounded in his Cosmology) the final meaning of a reasonable life in the cosmos is realised only after the self-identification of this life and this very cosmos. The meaning of material existence is displayed under during the thermonuclear conflagration. The hundred per cent atheist Ilyenkov wrote a Marxist Apocalypse, his own programme for the end of the world.

Cooling, deceleration, extinction, entropy, loss of power- that is the main law of the cosmos. Reason appears in the universe as the inverse process to entropy, as a challenge to doom able to return reality to the condition of its original plasma explosion and “reset” all the comsic energy, not leaving a single atom in its former place. To give the world another “fiery youth”. Humankind is a unique instrument of the self knowledge, self destruction and self-expression of the Universe. The exploitation of atomic energy is merely the first hint of our great mission: a great sacrifice for the sake of which we are here.

Few were those who, with such dauntless precision expressed the phallic revolutionary pathos of the modern, erasing the border between the dead and the living in an act of demiurgic destruction. Ilyenkov’s cosmologyreturns us to the pathos of the Vedic Hymns : Shiva dancing with fire with her multitude of arms, creating and setting the world aflame a countless number of times. But in Shiva’s place, a person from the classless future, free of illusions about spiritual redemption and the fear of death replaces her. The human being as the most paradoxical figure of atomic construction, scattering it all for the sake of a return of energy in the world.

Students of the Thaw period, absorbed in Roerich and yoga, circulated typewritten copies of the “Cosmology” among themselves. It was Ilyenkov’s own logic which allowed the dissident mathematician Shafarevich to unmask communism as a secret cult of nothingness and as denial of life’s foundations.

The thermonuclear conflagration of the final revolution could not possibly be looked upon favourably by the Soviet censor.
In Italy it was Feltrinelli, known to us as the publisher of “Doctor Zhivago” who intended to publish his book. In Europe Feltrinelli is remembered as the “red millionnaire” who hated capitalism and dreamt of a world revolution. The red millionnaire was attracted by the Hamletic-style existential emotions of Ilyenkov’s texts.


1960s: Communism in Twenty Years.

He is finally allowed into Europe. But even there he will smoke only strong Cuban cigarettes supporting as he does tropical socialism rather than western tobacco corporations. In the jiving, rebellous world of the sixties Marxism experienced a second birth. Marcuse, Fromm, Adorno, Habermas … Ilyenkov was almost the only Marxist on the Soviet side who could discuss with them on the same level.

It was so easy to be seduced by their bohemian radicalism. Surrealists and rock stars were amongst their acolytes. They were cited by the rebelling students in meetings. They would juggle feminist, structuralist and psychoanalytic catchphrases, sitting in fashionable cafes discussing commodity fetishism which organises our inner worlds along the principles of a supermarket with its hierarchy of goods. Or they would talk about the culture industry which would co-opt any form of protest but do not function as protest in themselves. The Soviet Union for them was “a deformed bureaucratic workers’ state” or even “state capitalist” which didn’t reach socialism and was constrained every day to pass off the wish for the reality training all its citizens to accept the accustomed ritual lies. In any case the USSR would abidingly take its place in the market ‘world system’, ceding its revolutionary role to Maoist China.

But Ilyenkov is not even secretly tempted and disputes in earnest, hunting out the vague areas of their elegant disquisitions. He sees one of the fatal errors of the new generation of Western leftists as their contraposition of the two Marx’s: the young romantic Humanist and the late strict economist.

The late Marx researched the main source of alienation – the contradiction between the collective nature of labour and the private character of the appropriation of that labour. As a result a person goes to a job which he hates in order to buy things which he does not need and brings profits to people who he does not know. It was this feeling that it is not your own life that you are living that in the transmuted forms of mass culture gives rise to the cult of zombies from whom life has been pumped out as though they were the living dead, as well as the vampires and the sinister creatures from outer space who use us for unexplained reasons. Ilyenkov was disturbed by the fact that the New Left would ever more rarely talk about the politico-economic solutions to the problems of alienation and often just set it against the alienation of artistic “estrangement” in new art, directing backwards the automatism of behaviour and perception. In the playful forms of the new art and counter culture the leftist bohemia discovered that which was not permitted to be constituted in reality and could not be realised politically, all the deferred possibilities and futile dreams. So the event of the Revolution is substituted by the Gallery.

He was expelled in any case from Moscow State University for his “perversion of Marxism”. But this didn’t prevent him from writing articles for the thick Soviet encyclopaedias and practice “the science of reflection”. This also didn’t prevent the most faithful students of the Ilyenkov school from having a hand in writing the new Party programme.

And now to the vision of the future. The growth of consumption + the rearing of the new man + the automatization of labour would give us the possibility of reaching communism. They added a few words that this would be possible within a period of 20 years. That which was publicly and generally accessible would be so extensive that the sphere of the commodity would disappear, allowing for a scientifically organised distribution of everything and the whole world would be built like one large library. Soviet fantasy would finally become a reality. An anthropological revolution would take place and all relationships would shift from being competitive to being symbiotic. Talent would become the norm and lack of talent a mere aberration. Life expectancy, as Ilyenkov saw it, would reach 130 years.

The Strugatsky brothers of the period Difficult to be a God read him attentively. Although the full influence of Ilyenkov’s Cosmology will come through later in their A Million Years Before the End of the Earth when the scientists understand that their science is inevitably leading to an apocalypse, that the old world is resisting and there is no correct way out of this problem.

The pedagogical innovators who called themselves the “communards” discussed with Ilyenkov how to remake the school programme so as to foster new people within 20 years. Far before that, though, the “Communards” were disbanded and new books by the Strugatsky’s were no longer being published and people like Ilyenkov were no longer allowed to travel back to Europe.

1970s: Seeing Through the Eyes of Others.

After the Thaw in the vacuous Brezhnevian years the general mood of the maturing and aging dreamers was that of retiring into private and professional worlds: to get ahead in their careers, collect something, learn languages and bring up their children to become decent and cultured people, and as regards communism, well we’ll play it by ear.

Ilyenkov has his own way of dealing with this ‘small deeds’ subject. A former student friend suggests that he verify his own theory of consciousness in a practical setting at the Zagorsky Institute for deaf and blind children.

Where does one’s personality come from? How is it assembled? When people would deceitfully pop the question to Ilyenkov as to what percentage a person is social and what percentage biological, the Soviet philosopher would reply “101% social”. Consequently a person is born several years after his physical appearance in the world and usually dies a little before his physical death.

The consciousness of a person can be ‘soldered’ together just like a radio set if one has a scheme in front of one and can understand the principles of action. Ilyenkov loved to gather his own models of tape recorders and television sets, for hours tinkering with the soldering iron and confessed that it was at these times the most precise and original thoughts would come to him. And if they fed him the iron parts, he would take up bookbinding. A damaged person could be bound up once again just like a book.

The main difference between a person and an animal was the ability to use language but language is possible only when a person learns to look at himself through the eyes of other people and ultimately through the eyes of the whole of humanity.

In the Zagorsky experiment this was literally embodied – to teach children to “see” with the eyes of others, and in the most complex of cases to perceive all the external data through people around one.

Hundreds of times he will take their hands in his before they could make an elementary and meaningful gesture. So as to teach them how to think with their fingers so that they could assimilate and learn to read Braille and then to slowly to develop oral language.

Day after day Ilyenkov practices with his boy so as to develop in him a musical ear.
They remembered him as a magician coming through the silence and darkness so as to teach them to transform action in to a gesture, a gesture into a sign and a sign into a word. A magician opening the window of knowledge into their slammed shut universes. He was more proud of this work than anything else.

Four of his deaf and blind foster pupils thanks to Ilyenkov’s “sensory motor schemes” learned to speak, write verse and received higher education even defending their scientific papers in Psychology and Mathematics. Similar results have not been obtained anywhere else in the world.

The kitchen of Ilyenkov in Kamergersky Pereulok (a side street in the Centre of Moscow, off what is now Tverskaya Street and near the Kremlin end Trans. Note) was one of the most interesting intellectual clubs of the Stagnation years. With all the available bards, actors from the Taganka theatre (the most avant-garde theatre of its time trans. note), cybernetic experts, methodologists, writers of science fiction and fantasy works, provincial boffins and foreign guests from the Partisan movements of the Third World. Ilyenkov in that kitchen was usually a listener, however, rather than speaking himself and he would wink at the emerald mantids, living there, in the flowers. The philosopher believed that the Mantis was the most gracious of those animals that one could bring home.

When everyone had grown tired of the conversation, they would listen to Galich or Jesus Christ Superstar on Ilyenkov’s home made tape recorders.

As far as the “duff originality” of Western counter-culture was concerned, the master of the kitchen remained severe in his judgement and passionately and diligently explained that American hippies were a question of social entropy, deceleration, an agreement with withdrawal from Big History in favour of personal illusions. The meaning of originality consists not in making a mad show of one’s difference from others but in expressing the General in better ways than others. Whereas in Pop Art and Conceptualism Ilyenkov saw the joyful contempt of the bourgeois for himself.

A Bookbinders knife.

Unlike most of his interlocutors (Zinoviev, Shchedrovitsky, Mamardashvili, Pyatigorsky) he never attempted to play the dandy, rather he always conserved a kind of outward appearance of a noctambulist, completely indifferent to his appearance. And his rather ‘longish’ hairstyle was explicable only by the fact that he rarely remembered to visit the hairdressers.

A Wagnerian dramaticism and contrast which he so valued in his existence would show through his facial expressiveness. He had almost reached the stage of being a pensioner. But Ilyenkov was waiting for communism not his pension. And he did everything that he could deliver for the realisation of the party programme.

The New Man did not appear. Alienation and objectification became more and not less common. Commodity relations weren’t disappearing and Soviet state property still have not become authentically owned by the people. Value doesn’t eliminate prices but rather on the contrary they yield to them. The official explanation is that in socialism the prices of goods are ‘fair’ prices while in capitalism they are not, was for Ilyenkov crass Eastern barren fantasy and not Marxism. The following step after Revolution to change society had not been carried out.

The philosopher felt that he was no longer able to produce meaning, no longer fit for the continuation of his cosmic war against the decadence of the universe and the diffusion of elementary light. He fell into a black alcoholic melancholy and instead of replying to any philosophical question he would more often than not he would recite his favourite rhyme ‘And then there were none’.

His maturing university students were buying jeans and suede jackets “like the ones Serge Gainsbourg wears” and becoming interested in Eastern mysticism and the possibility of emigration and, of course, sniggered at the retrograde Leninism of their teacher and his touching love for “Sophia Vlasevna’ (a common and ironic nickname for Soviet power).

The twenty years of waiting for communism went by and Ilyenkov, it seems, was the last person who remembered this and suffered its absence as a personal defeat. But the prescribed Soviet anti-depressants were hidden under the pillow unnoticed by his family.

The philosopher knew anatomy very well and cutting the artery on his neck was not an action of any great effort for him. He did so with a bookbinders knife which he had sharpened with a saw. By the laws of dialectics any tool could be transformed into a weapon just as a worker could be transformed into a soldier.
Drowning in blood he left of his flat to collapse on the staircase, in his small way accomplishing that which he saw as his final aim of all his rational life. The triumph of dialectics of existence is the moment of restitution to the Big Bang- the plasmatic suicide of reality. A thinking person in his rational activity aims to reproduce all existing nature in its entirety.

His biography alone would be enough for me to explain anyone what the Soviet century was and what is the Modernist project of remaking the world and Mankind itself.

In this Tatlin Tower the red flag is spinning over the Reichstag , his “vision” of the blind children, the intolerable atomic conflagration, inundating the horizon, the portraits of Mao on the walls of student occupied Sorbonne, thermonuclear overkill in a world through the image of final cosmic sacrifice.

As Ilyenkov’s favourite paradox goes, the full meaning of the “Soviet” can only be revealed now after its work has ended and grown faint in the eyes of the viewer.

We do not remember and can’t make use in any way at all of what had been here not so very long ago. And this means that we deserve everything that is happening here with us: everything that happened and is about to happen.

Algorithms: A film on Blind Chess.

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This review was printed this spring in Desist film magazine but I have re-edited it a little and decided to reprint it here for this blog. It has, since the article was published, been shown at a number of film festivals throughout the world. It has won both jury and viewers prizes and hopefully will continue on its path to getting a wider and wider audience. For another blog I have mentioned the influence of Russian cinema on the work of the husband and wife, director and producer duo Ian McDonald and Geetha J., and it is to be hoped that it will also have a Russian premiere sometime not too far ahead in the future given the prevalence of blind chess champions from Russia and the history of blind chess in the Soviet Union. It’s next screening will be in Rome at the Asiatica Film Mediale: Incontri con il cinema asiatico on the 18th and 19th November.

A shot from the film of Darpan one of the four main protagonists of the film.

Shot over a period of three years, Ian McDonald’s film on the world of blind chess forges a genuine breakthrough and offers a new vision for the sports documentary: a genre all too-often succumbing to tried and tested formulae. Not only is McDonald keen to show us the world of the sporting outsider (as in previous films on the first gay footballer to come out publicly and who later committed suicide Justin Fashanu) but also sport films related to unexpected locales (as in his lyrical portrait Inside the Kalari on the Keralan martial art of kalarippayattu practised inside a traditional kalari). He has now made a film that goes far beyond his previous oeuvre by experimenting with form and excising all excess messages, and making a film which manages to explore both sport and cinema in new ways.

Stepping outside of the formulaic standard sports doc and entering into a new cinematic territory, McDonald brings into question even the very concept of the primacy of vision. The subject of lack of vision is paralleled here cinematically by the film-maker ‘imposing’ a certain disorientation on the viewer with his refusal to narrate – and this is only one of the film’s many achievements. Sitting through a sports film festival in Moscow in April convinced me that this film is one of those rare examples where the staid gestures of heroic overcoming that one has come to expect from a contemporary sports doc is discarded for a far more honest portrayal of sport. The pitfalls that most documentary film-makers in this field tend to make – from the intrusive voice over of the narrated documentary through the emotion grabbing story that ends in overcoming the inevitable obstacles and hurdles were consummately avoided.

Simply told, the film follows three young blind chess players- Darpan, Sai Krishna, Anant, and their inspiring and indefatigable mentor Charudatta, around India and then internationally in the search for recognition and victory measuring their final goal to become champions in sighted as well as blind chess championships. Exploring both the personal and family worlds of the trio (and hinting at the class differences that cut across the social fact of blindness), exploring the spectrum of blindness (and blind chess) and how it impacts on the game, McDonald doesn’t neglect to chronicle what one could call the dead moments with an accomplished poetic eye. A scene where one of the heroes discusses his iron-clad routine listing his daily timetable to the exact minute is superlative and here one recognises the need for the film to concentrate on the everyday over the spectacular, as a more than welcome step. There will be no cathartic victory during the finale but an almost Sisyphean declaration of defeat and a return to the chessboard. Defeats and disappointments may outweigh the victories but like Camus’s Sisyphus, one can only imagine Charudatta as a happy man. Following the heroes through a labyrinth of situations and tournaments, the film manages to both recount and yet to astound with some extraordinarily intriguing and poetic frames.

As a film made by a westerner centering on India, it is also original in its adamant refusal to exoticise the country. As a sociologist, McDonald is a very reflexive film-maker: the danger of orientalism and of objectifying his protagonists is avoided. His long association with India makes his insider-outsider position quite unique. His first film came from India and the fact that his producer (and wife) Geetha J. herself a filmmaker is as much his creative collaborator as producer, seems to have produced a sensibility that is as Indian as western or European.

Ian McDonald and Geetha J. – the director and producer of the film Algorithms.

Algorithms’ film-maker is also an academic in his field and this explains his superb grasp of the heights and depths of the sports doc genre as well as a clear imagination and historical grasp as to how these films have managed to transcend the narrow nature of the field. Algorithms is a film that is willing to risk a lot: choosing black and white over colour, willing to forgo all narrative and voice over for pure observational methods, but also intent on demonstrating the cinematic possibilities of one of the most cerebral and least spectacular of sports. The strategy of the film is one of nudging the viewer into this world of blind chess testing the spectator to find his own way through the themes of sight and foresight that are brought into play by this film. The directorial strategy of ‘disorienting’ the viewer, allowing him or her to feel themselves into the film could be accused by an inattentive critic of being almost suicidal. Yet here lay a central wager whereby the film deserves the highest plaudits.

The film-maker has stated that while his starting point- an intrigued curiosity about this sport with a difference developed into a strong relationship of mutual respect with the characters, especially with Charudatta with his vision of developing chess for the blind. His drive springs from a belief that chess is the only game where the blind can play on a par with the sighted. And this has immense significance for the blind in their day- to-day life. Immersing himself in this world, McDonald became less curious about blindness as a theme and more engrossed in ways in which the nature (and limitations) of sight may be revealed. Foresight is contrasted here with eyesight and through the film we begin to acknowledge a certain materiality of the world in which touch comes to the fore instead of sight. So instead of highlighting the lack and loss of blindness, it in fact becomes a means in which one can critique the sighted world. In doing so, McDonald returns film to the realm of the haptic, at times reminding one of those experiments in this direction by Soviet film directors of the early 1920s like Sergei Yutkevich and Abram Room. From the very first scene the haptic sensuality of chess is foregrounded (and the shot of fingers caressing chess pieces is a masterpiece of cinematographic beauty). Celebrating touch over vision and, by doing so, portraying loss (or lack) of vision in a new light while plunging the viewer into both a visual and conceptual uncertainty (with the film’s lack of narrative voice), McDonald finds new ways of moving the film forward.

One of the most felicitous ways he does this is through the music (and here again he chose to go against the grain in how exactly to do this). As an Indian documentary it set itself apart from others in not only foregoing the choice of North Indian Hindustani Classical music and choosing Carnatic (South Indian traditional music) music instead. However, the atypical choice of guitar shocked the classicists. Nonetheless, the choice of Carnatic music and its use of a raga system indicated structural affinities between the thinking behind the music and the cerebral game of chess. The music also serves to bolster the rhythm of the film- at 100 minutes this is a longer documentary than most yet because of the measured way in which the film proceeds this doesn’t feel excessive.

The figure of Charudatta who is constantly trying to carve out new spaces for his protagonists in the game of chess seems to echo Whitman’s ‘foiled revolutionaire’. He and his chess players search for purpose and victories even while constantly foiled by defeats. Surely these words can be made their own:
Did we think victory great?
So it is–but now it seems to me, when it cannot be helped, that
defeat is great.

Precisely the absence of an ‘overcoming all obstacles’ moment and the absence of catharsis through victory are what give this film a more truthful feel than many sport documentaries. The films cerebral theme and structural manner help defeat these illusions while offering new departures in the genre revealing a radically special world that helps to call into question many of our preconceptions about sport as well as preconceptions and prejudices about the cinematic subject and the theme of blindness itself.

Another still from the film


Director, Cinematographer, Editor: Ian McDonald
Producer: Geeta J.
Editor: Ajithkumar B.

Russian Digest: Remembering October 1993

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This column aims to be a regular one and to try to answer the question “What is being written and talked about in Russia but which doesn’t get reported in the foreign press?”. It doesn’t intend to shy away from the main subjects but will try to give a flavour of the more interesting articles – week by week – that are available in Russian. Rather than translating them word for word (but some articles may indeed be worth translating in full) – I’ll try to give summaries or quotes and so in this way will be able to deal with a wider range of subjects than is normally possible. They may be of literary, cultural, historical, political or social interest.

DIGEST NO.1

Moscow, October 1993

Historical-Political News.
REMEMBERING OCTOBER 1993.

Early October marked the twentieth anniversary of what was a mini civil war in Moscow. The political crisis between the Russian parliament and the then Russian President turned violent in early October 1993 and Yeltsin’s decision to use tanks against his opponents in the streets and bomb the Parliament was to leave hundreds of dead. It was a turning point in recent Russian history that seems to have been subject to a kind of willful amnesia. An unofficial shrine to the victims can be found in the vicinity of the bloodletting. However the subject, judging from the premature closure of an exhibition to those events, is still raw and any radically new way of exploring these times can lead to a certain censorship as the curators of an exhibition at the Museum of the Krasno-Presnensky District found to their cost.

In an article for Colta.ru, Gleb Napreenko wrote that reading the leaflets and brochures of those days in the exhibitions and comparing them to those of last May he had the sensation that someone had pressed the freeze frame button to 1993 and then had let it run again in 2012. Though Napreenko sees the difference in that there was a real, authentic politics in 1993 unlike that of today. In his interview with one of the curators Ilya Budraitskis, this viewpoint is slightly modified. For Budraitskis this was the end of a tragedy, in which popular democracy was finally betrayed. The interview with Budraitskis is surely worth reading in full given the fascinating viewpoint he gives on the events of 1993 (and of 1996: he points out that the real political choice then was between a Yeltsin Jekyll and Yeltsin Hyde and not between Yeltsin and Ziuganov, and that in many ways we still live with the consequences of those times). Few liberals would be happy to see the origins of the present Russia under Putin in those years of the mid 1990s, yet it was surely the bloodshed of 1993 which finally destroyed those hopes of any democratic reconstruction. This small exhibition which attempted to look deeper has been cut short and is to be closed more than a month early.

Much of the art work in the exhibition deals with the events through the eyes of a generation that were too young to be involved (those in their 30s nowadays) but in many ways they have attempted to build that missing monument which, as this article from Around Art on the exhibition puts it (looking at it in a specifically artistic way)- a monument (and the art work in this exhibition) attempted to be a method of struggle against the trauma of twenty years ago.

For those without Russian there is a fine account of the events of October 1993 from protagonists of the events who took no side but attempted to save as many lives as possible in the bloodhed. Yaroslav Leontyev and Peter Ryabov describe the tale of the Voloshin Medical Brigade here: http://www.savanne.ch/tusovka/en/will-firth/medbrig.html

Mikhail Gefter’s conversations with Gleb Pavlovsky

Another item of interest regarding 1993 is the publication of the conversations between Mikhail Gefter and Gleb Pavlovsky some of which also regard the year 1993. Gefter was a historian in the Soviet period who because of his unorthodox views was no longer allowed to continue in his profession as a historian. He worked with the Gorbachev and Yeltsin administrations but resigned in protest at the decision by Yeltsin to use force against his opponents. The book is an attempt to look at the Soviet experience as a whole but the chapter regarding the events of October 1993 deserve to be read as one person who was close to the events at the time and who had a greater moral courage than many others.