From my Facebook page I understand that the raging debate in the Anglo-Saxon Left at the moment is intersectionality and a certain controversy over the ‘racist chair’ which led to expulsions from some movement. The Trotskyist party line on BDSM seems to be so important that expulsions and schisms are the order of the day. I’m sure it’s a little more complicated than that but to be honest the fate of Ukraine and the need for international solidarity for the Bolotnaya prsioners such as Aleksei Gaskarov facing years in jail seems a little more important from where I am.
The ‘racist chair’ argument, though, has omitted what is, potentially a vital fact out of the picture. Who sits on this chair in the photograph? None other than Dasha Zhukova the wife of the richest Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich. Her IRIS Foundation as well as one of Moscow’s most important art venues the Garage Gallery of Contemporary Art has been funded by Abramovich and so have the various Francis Bacon’s and Lucien Freud’s of her art collection.
So as well as the racist chair argument – is it racist or not racist or the suggestion of inventing a flipped image to call attention to Russia’s homophobic laws, maybe one should, at least, add another essential side to the story.
Instead of simply race and gender issues being raised maybe it would useful to travel over three and a half thousand kilometres from Moscow to the Kuzbass and look a little deeper into an event in May 2010.
The missing R-word from all the debate over BDSM and the correct Trot Party line is Raspadskaya. The bondage in Mezhdurechensk is rather more real and rather more dramatic. Profit bondage that entails risking one’s life for a working wage. This is what happened in Raspadskaya in May 2010, a mining disaster which killed 91 miners. Unsurprisingly, the cause of this was a neglect of safety procedures for the increase of profit.
The Moscow-based Trud (“Labour”) reports that most residents of the mining town Mezhdurechensk believe the disaster was caused by “massive violations of safety at the local mines”. According to its mine worker interviews, the newspaper says: “[the Raspadskaya mine] design capacity is well below the level of coal production…However, the ventilation of underground tunnels, built to the design capacity, was inadequate [to the production level]. This could lead to a gradual increase in the concentration of methane in the mine. The miner Fyodor shared his opinion with our correspondent: ‘Yes, the ventilation unit at Raspadskaya was modern. But it could not provide adequate ventilation communications. Everyone knew it.’ For none of the miners is it a secret that the methane analyzers are often taped over by workers, so that they do not trigger [a shutdown when] there is an increase in the concentration of gas. Underground electrician Alexei T. said: ‘Last year, during a fire at one of the mines two safety systems did not work. And no-one said anything about it. Everything at Raspadskaya is aimed at coal production rather than creation of working conditions.’
“Miner Alexander L. Miner shared with Trud this version: ‘The truth is not told. I am working at the mine for two years, and during this time, seven or eight explosions have happened. Of course, not so destructive. The last one, in January. Blame the human factor. We have a leadership that looks at us like cattle. They pay a dime. Eighteen months ago, we tried to strike, so they replied: “Say thank you for your wages. If you react, we’ll bring in the Chinese.” [Management] is almost ready for a free-of-charge coalmine. ‘Everybody needs a plan: the management and the workers. And to be honest, the sensors do not pay attention – if it complains, give it a rag, and continue working’.”
Disasters have happened, too, at other mines owned by Abramovich’s Evraz Group in the Kuzbass. So the next time you hear of contemporary art in Russia, don’t forget this:
The chair which Zhukova sat on would more appropriately have been made from the bones of dead miners reflecting a much more honest and truer picture of the world of contemporary art in Russia.
By the way, if you want to read about the true story of perestroika and any limited democratization that Russia had in the early 1990s, don’t google Gorbachev, google Mezhdurechensk and the miners strike of the summer of 1989. As Theodore Friedgut put it in a long forgotten article:
the miners’ strike may prove to be among the most significant influences on the course of perestroika, redefining both its direction and its limits.
Of course, the short carnival of glasnost was soon over and events in October 1993 finally marked the return of authoritarian governments in Russia. All the same as a language school director once told me taking me to teach my first class in Mezhdurechensk, this was the town which brought democracy to Russia. Since then the bearers of democracy have been slowly dying year after year in mines like Ulyanovsk, Zarechnaya, Yubileinaya and so on. Just a week ago this happened.
One of the scenes about Svetlana Baskova’s fine film For Marx is about the desire of the factory owner to squeeze more profits out of his workers in order to buy a Rodchenko to impress his European visitors. A kind of narrative line pregnant with significance in a film which, alas, won’t be watched by the comrades of the ISN (as no-one in the UK is likely to distribute the film) but who would imagine how symbolically important this minor detail is for unraveling the bigger picture behind the story of Zhukova and the racist chair.