Monthly Archives: February 2014

Demonstration in Moscow awaiting Bolotnaya verdict. Feb 21, 2014.

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Today 213 people were detained outside the court where the judgement was being read out for the Bolotnaya case. In a way it seemed strange after following the news in Ukraine to be in a Russian demonstration. This was clearly no Maidan, the situation in Russia seems extremely distant from any Maidan proportions. The Bolotnaya case is, however, a strange moment in post-Soviet history which has been deleted from the consciousness of people both inside and outside Russia. Extremely rarely covered in the international media and of the tens of thousands at the actual march in May 2012, little more than a thousand turned up today. Of that thousand or so over 200 were detained. In many ways watching these detentions had something quite surreal about it. Here were my immediate impressions:

The ‘avtozak’ (a Russian police van) where you often fell freer in the inside than on the outside.


Got back from the demonstration: hard to gauge exactly how many demonstrators there were because they stood in separate areas divided from each other. But maybe not that many more than a thousand. It’s rather hard to explain how a demonstration in Russia actually feels like because it is nothing like one in Europe. If anyone has seen Kossakovsky’s film ‘Demonstration’ -one could say that the choreography of a demonstration in Russia is completely different. Ironically there is not even any kettling procedures carried out by the police as in the UK. It is the riot police who enter inside large groups of people and drag a completely random person often from the back of the crowd. They do this again and again. Choosing their next detainee every minute or so. The crowd usually shouts ‘Shame’ or something of that order. If they detain a woman they may get called ‘fascists’. But the crowd which could easily just surround the police officers and refuse to let them grab their next victim only rarely do so. Perhaps this is understandable given that the Bolotnaya case has shown even showing a very minimum of resistance could get you a long jail sentence.

Today the detentions were happening thick and fast. One moment people were standing near a wall (and it was strange that many of the detentions happened to people at a further distance from everything) the next moment they were being dragged to a prison van (the avtozak). Some came walking and others were dragged or carried by about four or five police. Sometimes the OMON (riot police) decided to aggressively drag someone from the crowd with a fair amount of violence and other times they just marched them away. Hardly any of this was based on how the demonstrator behaved – it was just completely random.

At the beginning there seemed to be the ‘rationale’ of being dragged away if you had a placard. They then dragged off Vladimir Akimenkov for shouting out the names of the prisoners and calling for their release. It soon became more and more random as though the riot police had a strategy of inculcating a certain kind of random fear in those their simply willing to register their presence. In fact it was easy to feel that one would be next and I imagine the police strategy to create this kind of doubt (and some fear) in the demonstrators due to the randomness of their detentions. On the other hand, one felt a kind of will to be dragged off to an avtozak, the atmosphere would have been merrier inside than out. Not being arrested caused a kind of weariness too.

It’s also rather strange that some ‘out of the ordinary’ events tend to happen in an improvised Russian demonstration. So, for example, a very elderly woman, bent over, with a kind of dilapidated trolley bag trundled up to the riot police and started giving them a piece of her mind. Or a woman turned up with her two young children (they probably weren’t more than 4 or 5) with a bunch of red carnations in her hands. With her two children in tow she attempted to give the riot police a carnation each. But they wouldn’t accept them even though she seemed quite insistent. She returned back a few meters and she and her two young children looked at the spectacle of riot police wading in the crowd again detaining a couple more demonstrators.

awaiting the Bolotnaya verdict

There was another moment where someone brought along a Russian flag with two ribbons fixed to it: one a white ribbon, symbolizing the protest movement of 2011/2012 and the other an orange and black ribbon commemorating the dead in World War Two. The riot police seemed to be in some difficulty for some time. To arrest someone with a Russian flag and the patriotic ribbon of memory to WW2 victims seemed too much for a while. He stood there sometime waving the flag (and then a small ribbon with the colours of the Ukrainian flag were also affixed). Eventually the riot police grabbed him too to the shouts of ‘shame’ and ‘fascists’.

One of those detained Feb 21 2014

A banner reading ‘Freedom to the 6th May’ prisoners with a large number of balloons was let off but got stuck by a pylon. Then a bulldozer turned up to remove the banner. White doves were then released to a huge cheer. Afterwards I learnt that a well-known liberal radio commentator, Sergei Parkhomenko, had been arrested and apparently has been accused of biting a policeman’s ear. They never seem to go in for reasonable accusations, Yuz Aleshkovsky’s tales have something of the eternal about them: the Russian state authorities seems to have a penchant for upping the ante when it comes to accusing their opponents so one could almost imagine how the Mamontov’s and Kiselev’s are waiting in the wings hoping their chance will come when they can start accusing Sergei Udaltsov of raping a giraffe. The game of absurdity needs to be fed in ever greater doses.

The strangeness and rather absurd choreography of the demonstration, though, doesn’t extinguish the bitter truth that 8 people (indistinguishable from the people in the crowd outside) look likely to be given large jail sentences of anything up to 6 years for being accused of little more than throwing lemons or pouring kvass over police officers in May 2012. The unreality of this trial and the sickening melange of the grotesque and farcical elements of repression during Putin’s third term is reproduced in these rather strangled and atomized attempts of political resistance. Just as the first arrest of an elderly bearded man was watched by the crowd with a murmur of disapproval, this looks like how Russian society will greet the prison sentences. Weary acceptance. For all the shouts of ‘If you don’t free them, we’ll stage our own Maidan’, there was one slogan missing during this meeting ‘One for all and all for one’. Alas, it would have been too much of a blatant lie in the circumstances. Repression is on the offensive with a vengeance and there still seems little that will stop it for the time being.

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Towards a politics of grief

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The Costa Coffin

I’ve been thinking about mourning recently. In a way it was the Costa Coffin episode that crystallized things. Yet underneath that story lies a whole host of others. Mourning seems to be everywhere in the news these days. At least sitting here in Russia it does. Though it is hard to characterize why and how this has come about. Of course, capitalism in general has appeared to warm up to death in new ways in the past five years with their Death Bond schemes. This seems to have put death on the political agenda in new ways. Of course, September 11, 2001 caused some strange global transmutations of the political role of mourning. As far as I know, though, there is no Global Political Economy theory of Mourning which would help us to think systematically of this question. I have been thinking of some questions. September 11,2001 as Judith Butler put it led to the use of mourning for “the muting of critical discourse” on a massive scale. Of course, this is also the point argued by Norman Finkelstein in his ‘The Holocaust Industry’. Yet there is, perhaps, another side to this question: the public right to mourning over other events. Who has the ‘right to mourn’ and who does not is arguably an undeclared realm of potential significance. Who we mourn and who we don’t has always been with us. In many ways Thatcher’s early years in office had a very close relationship to this issue. From the early period of her tenure as Prime Minister her struggle against mercy was symbolized by the figure of Bobby Sands and other hunger strikers in Northern Ireland. Less than a year later, unacknowledged deaths became a public reason for rejoicing . Not that the journalists surroundings would even have dared to ask Thatcher about Argentine deaths, but was that the question she refused to contemplate? Obviously, these were hardly new facts in history but surely they represented a shift in the political economy of mourning and the political presence of death in those times. Much could also be said about the political economy of mourning under Blair- after all, his early tenure was marked by the death of Princess Diana and his role in suffocating what seemed a potentially dangerous mourning process for the establishment was (arguably) an early indication of his refusal to break with Thatcherite political economy.

A memorial to Bobby Sands

It was Michael Rosen who commented on the links between the present stage of Thatcherism and the steady withdrawal of the right to mourning in his piece on the Bedroom tax. He noted that:

Though we talk of death as the great leveller, in many ways it’s the opposite. Death is shot through with the details and colours of the lives that were lived. Visit a country house and you are invited into a reverence for the sequence of deaths on display in the paintings and statues. It seems to say: we’re the kind of people who can defeat death, we pass life down a chain, and when we pass life to each other we pass this glorious place to each other too.

The history of the poor is a history of not being able to do this. Under government plans, a bereaved family will become eligible for the bedroom tax after three months – an incentive to clear out the room, to get rid of the kinds of things I was able to keep. It’s more of the same: with poverty there often comes a disruption of place. Migration, war and developers do a lot of disrupting. You leave your home, or your home is destroyed…

With the proposal about the bedrooms of those who’ve died, they are cutting quality of life. Rich people are using the power they have to force poor people to do things that they, the rich, never would or could force on themselves. …They are working to the rule that death is the great unleveller.

Nevertheless, mourning appears to be back on the agenda. As news, and maybe even as some indication of changes in global political economy. How precisely this may be so is difficult to say. I thought that I’d bring up a few examples, however, from Russia. In the run-up to the new “anti-gay laws” in Russia, the now famous clip in which Dmitry Kiselev (since honoured with a state award) made his speech about burning the hearts and organs of gays.Of course, the commentary at the time was about the biopolitical aspects. But there is also the element less commented about implying an attempt to exorcise the right to mourn. Mourning at the Olympics is also seen as a political issue by the IOC. Who knows who will remember this cowardly refusal of the right to mourn given the horror of the unfolding events in Ukraine these days but to me there was something remarkably sinister about the IOC decision, although maybe completely within the logic of the pusillanimity that it has shown.

Another aspect of the debate in Russia is how death and mourning have been expropriated and used for political ends (but this also has its equivalents elsewhere). Whether it is cenotaphs or Leningrad blockades, mourning will be instrumentalized for political and media crackdowns.

At a recent showing at the Media Impact festival here in Moscow, Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard showed their excellent United in Anger film– a history of political action at the time of the AIDS epidemic and the lack of access of medicine highlighted by the ACT UP campaign. One of the most moving and memorable scenes was the scattering of ashes as political protest. The collective use of mourning as an act of political solidarity is not, perhaps, new but this action was it seemed was innovatively radical.

ACT-UPprotestors in the US

Yet the impossibility of mourning as a political act in Russia was, perhaps, sensed by Svetlana Baskova in her film За Маркса (For Marx) during the chaos of the funeral scene which broke out in scuffles. A finely drawn scene that should leave us reflecting. A scene that, perhaps, reproduced that rupturing of the right to mourn and to rage at the unjust deaths of miners in Mezhdurechensk, for example.

The chaos at the ‘For Marx’ funeral for murdered activists

Anataloy Osmolovsky, who worked on the film with his wife Svetlana Baskova, recently contributed to a debate on the new coming anti-communism with the interesting observation that Russsia’s exit from its present state will be inextricably linked with happenings regarding Lenin’s Mausoleum. There is no likelihood in sight that it will be dismantled by the state. Yet during political disorder this could indeed be another question.

In the meantime, I am trying to picture a new moment in the hidden class struggle over mourning. How are the Ukranian care and domestic workers in Italy feeling now – while their host families are stuck to the televisions watching the cheesy San Remo festival on their TV sets, their ability to mourn the descent of their home country into civil war must be particularly limited and filled with an silenced emotion of insult. I can picture the scene as well as the struggle with emotions as grief is taxed cruelly by cheap entertainment. Death and migration was already an issue , these days though may indeed have made it a greater one. The list goes on. I also believe that the acts of Pussy Riot were a kind of hidden struggle over the politics of mourning (and not in the way that they have been presented). But that is another story.

Review of ‘Sex of the Exploited’ (Секс Угнетенных) by N. Oleynnikov, O. Timofeeva, K. Chukhrov, Seroe Fioletovoe and K. Medvedev.

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Cover of ‘Sex of the Exploited’ – published by the Free Marxist Press of Kirill Medvedev

Kirill Medvedev’s Free Marxist Press is one of those fascinating untold stories that rarely get mentioned in the glossy bankrolled sites dedicated to ‘Russian culture’, even though Medvedev himself is perhaps the most noticeable civic poet to emerge in post-Soviet times. For the past six/seven years, the FMP have been publishing translations of Mandel, Pasolini and Deutscher as well as a fascinating work entitled Pop Marxism by Aleksei Tsvetkov (whose essay on Evald Ilyenkov has been translated in these pages and Alek Epstein’s “10 years of the Anti-Extremist Campaign in Russia: Defending the Authorities from Society”. Relevant texts which are beginning to revive and redevelop a Left discourse in Russia that was in disarray at the end of the Soviet period. (Though it is surprising how significant Left dissident thought in the Soviet period actually was). A Left discourse attempting to recover the anti-bureaucratic ethos of the early years of the Revolution inspired by figures such as Victor Serge and those until this summer cast in stone listed in the Obelisk of Revolutionary Thinkers until reactionary vandalism ‘restored’ its inglorious monarchical imprint.

Kirill Medvedev

In any case at this year’s Media Impact festival, the latest volume of this Press was printed. The theme this time was sex. Oleinnikov was to write (paradoxically?) that “very few concern themselves with this subject today in Russia, and the most interesting of those that do come from the left” (of course, this needs a context because it sometimes appears that the re-traditionalists are concerned about little else).

In any case the book is a hodgepodge of different styles and genres: dialogues, mock police interrogations, the epistolary section as well as illustrations give this book a formalist, an almost Shklovskian feel to it. And this, in many ways, gives it a liberty and lack of dogmatic and fixed argument which should be a godsend for western Leftists (if a translation can be organised).

In many ways this review aims to be little more than a listing of its arguments. This in, itself, is probably enough for an indication of why this 150 page booklet deserves an international readership.

Nikolai Oleinikov


A preface is followed by a dialogue between Nikolai Oleinnikov and Keti Chukhrov. Before the dialogue we have a helpful list of the different subjects that are discussed in the conversation.

Keti Chukhrov

These subjects are the following:

Foucault, Zizek, masturbation, Sanja Iveković, Lacan, Pasolini, Von Trier, Paolo Virno, sex labour, the Arkady Kots ensemble (of which both Oleinikov and Medvedev are members), Godard, the USSR, the perestroika film Interdevochka, Maria Chekhonadckykh, Lucille Bogan, fucking, Gender check, Valery Podoroga, Ekaterina Degot, “the memory of the body”, conceptualism, semiotics, Monroe, Elena Kovylina,Boris Mikhailov, Nikolay Bakharev, John Berger, the Radek Community, Judith Butler, erection, homoerotics, the family, the Chto Delat’ group, Freud, Deleuze, Oedipus and so on.

The next section is an epistolary exchange between Oleinikov and Oxana Timofeeva, entitled “Six letters on wool and fur, secrets and protests, the female orgasm and Slavoj Zizek, Margerita,Budulaiand the black swan.” Of course, there is much more to these tender exchanges and Timofeeva’s lyricism as always reaches new heights of depths of understanding. Kafka, Bataille, Benjamin, mistaken interpretations of Kollontai, Aleksandr Brener’s sperm and solitary walks in Berlin’s Tiergarten become the occasion for dizzy philosophical flights.

Oxana Timofeeva

Another section and another genre. Here the genre is in the form of a police interrogation between Oleinikov and Seroe Fioletovoe. It starts off with Oleinikov questioning Seroe Fioletovoe about his biography; his political awakening, his part in the art actionist group Voina (as well as the other members), the phenomenon of Pussy Riot and portraits of the trio put on trial and imprisoned. It then gives some details of the ‘Ashan’ incident and Alek Epstein – the main chronicler of alternative art actionism and art activism. Detailing the gay pride question in Russia and the LGBT movement.

The final section is another dialogue between Kirill Medvedev and Nikolai Oleinikov entitled “Revolutionary aspects of radical tenderness” -two male heterosexuals who try to come to terms with the feminist movement inventing their notion of “macho feminism”. Kirill Medvedev’s long association with the American writer Charles Bukowski as translator (and perhaps interpreter) comes in handy when reflecting on this notion.

In between the texts are various series of drawings by Nikolai Oleinikov.

The collection of these dialogues, interrogations and epistolary confessions-in its preoccupation with forms, genres of communication and the eclecticism of its content has something (as I’ve stated above) Shklovskian about it. By reprocessing in a certain haphazard way- a discourse on sex and gender frees the Post-Soviet Left from the dogmas and conformisms that have accrued in the Western Left on this topic. It seems as though they have discovered anew the kind of playfulness and unlocked the liberatory, anarchic logic that characterized the Movement of ’77 in Italy, for example. One could almost draw personal parallels-is not Seroe Fioletovoe something of a Mario Mieli?
Do not the drawings of Oleinikov resemble the style of Frigidaire?

All in all the texts of Chukhrov, Timofeeva,Seroe Fioletovoe, Medvedev and Oleinikov should spark interest internationally providing some kind of new orientation to the debates in the western (or Anglo-Saxon) Left overshadowed by the intersectionality debate..

Hipsters and investment banksters: reflections on the limits of the Calvert experience.

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In little over a month the Calvert Journal will be celebrating its first birthday. It’s worth exploring whether the journal has achieved its task of exploring other sides of Russia and Russian culture (rarely reported on in the mainstream media) or whether it has been trapped in certain discourses unable to completely extricate itself from the kind of external influence that has been all too obvious within the Russian art world itself.

One would do well to look back at the initial run of articles devoted to the journal in the British press. Re-reading the articles that Editor-in-Chief, Ekow Eshun, was to write for the British press you would find an enthusiastic description of a Russian cultural renaissance with a certain overuse of hyperbolic praise for the chic end of Russian cultural life. It was something between a glossy advert for the cool side of Moscow, St Petersburg and other regional capitals and links to recently built cultural venues – ‘cultural hubs’ or ‘creative clusters’ were the buzzwords used- that attracted the creative classes. A much talked-about category in 2012 representing those who appeared and disappeared in the street demonstrations between December 2011 and May 2012 and then retired to other activities when the going got tough and repression became a reality. The fairweather hipsters who played with politics and then retreated into the Strelka’s, and Garazh’s so rapturously described by Eshun in his FT article or to the Supper and Ping Pong Club’s and coffee bars described by him in his article for The Guardian. All this may have been a welcome relief from the British fondness for lapping up cold war style rhetoric in their dailies and weeklies but, in retrospect, it was no more the real Russia (and tells us little about Russian culture) than that written by many Anglo-Saxon foreign correspondents

Nonna Materkova with Ekow Eshun

There is, of course, a simple explanation for this. If you look on the About page of the journal you will find that the founders of the journal are Nonna Materkova and Alexei Kudrin. Shortly after the site of the Calvert Journal was operational, the sister Calvert 22 Foundation agreed a strategic partnership with VTB Capital– an investment bank. A brief summary of VTB Capital’s operations is given by its website. Kudrin himself is someone who has worked with President Putin since St. Petersburg days but was to fall from grace in 2011 leading him to flirt with the opposition movement. Representing pure economic neo-liberalism he was deemed as being a kind of counter-balance to the siloviki at the time. He has since become Dean of a faculty of St Petersburg University and has made the kind of timorous, meek criticisms of Putin’s latest ‘authoritarian turn’, one might expect from someone wedded to Putinism more or less from Day One.

Alexei Kudrin with President Putin

The site Chto Delat had an article on the VTB Capital/Calvert strategic partnership as well as a very interesting quote from one of the Board Members of VTB Capital (Olga Podoinitsyna) and their interest in these links:

“Throughout the nearly 3 years of partnership between VTB Capital and Calvert 22 Foundation, we have made a considerable contribution to the showcasing of Russian art in London, and also promoting the understanding of Russia as part of the global community. We support Calvert 22 as a unique vehicle for bringing contemporary Russian culture to Britain, putting people in touch with the actual trends in the country and offering them a new perspective on Russia. Our company plays an important role in strengthening ties between the Russian and British business communities and the partnership with Calvert 22 is a key part of VTB Capital’s soft power approach to changing perceptions of Russia.

The VTB Capital Logo


This ‘strategic partnership’ did not, however, prevent Calvert 22 from relying on precarious labour. It seems that in spite of investment banking links, unwaged labour was a fundamental reality in the cultural sphere based around the ‘Calvert experiment’ until September last year. So for all the glitzy presentations where the Kudrin’s and the Masterkova’s milled with the ‘elite’ of the creative class, those waiting on them hand and foot found their own work unrewarded.

Knowledge of the institutional context may well explain why the journal (a very fine idea in and of itself) has only fulfilled part of the task of bringing Russian life and culture to an English-language readership. There are inspirational writers included in the team- to name but two Owen Hatherley, and Agata Pyzik– who do lend the journal some much needed gravitas and independence from the prevailing cool, hipster-like ethos . The occasional photo article with a sharp social theme rarely turns up, Max Adveev’s recent photos of migrant workers in Sochi being one of the very few exceptions. Yet it still feels like it is the ethos of the hipsters, the ‘creative class’ and ensuing cool fashion and coffee bar themes that tend to dominate.

So in spite of the occasional exceptional writer who provides genuine insight, Calvert provides a severely limited service of reporting on the genuine debates and phenomena that move Russian culture at its core. When it gets too large to be ignored Pavlensky’s scandalous act in Red Square does get a mention but before that or even since there had and has been no real attempt to explore actionist or activist art , or report on the kind of exhibitions that find themselves closed or curtailed by administrative fiat because of the sharpness of their theme. Even if feminist art does get discussed, certain uncomfortable facts and voices do not seem to receive equal right of redress.

So as yet Calvert doesn’t seem to have justified the early hopes of providing as rounded a view of Russian culture as one hoped it was going to. It has also failed to tread on as many toes as one would have liked. Hipsters and oligarchs, creative classes and financial might remain the ultimate name of the game and there is little real exploration of Russian culture that moves beyond these ideological, social and economic ‘tramlines’. The criticism rarely expands beyond the surface while playing to the few emphatic themes that the Anglo-Saxon press will report on (LGBT and Pussy Riot are mentioned occasionally in Calvert, but inequality or social themes are completely marginalized). It is not as though the journal is a mouthpiece (of course it isn’t). Simply put, its courage is ever so slight and the broadness of its range of topics rather too determined. It appears that we can be sure that it will never dare to really upset its benefactors such as Kudrin and VTB Capital, and only rarely will it begin to inform the English-language readership of issues beyond the hip and fashionable ones. Russian culture needs more ambitious and more courageous champions than Calvert.

(In the interests of full disclosure the writer of this article has been published by the Calvert Journal . In terms of proposed material suggested by the author articles on Cine Fantom, Svetlana Baskova’s film For Marx,, an article on the multi-media artist Tatiana Daniliyants and the proposal for an article on artistic life in the Kuzbass city of Novkuznetsk never got beyond discussion phase. Since late May 2013 the author has not been in discussion regarding other proposals for articles to be published in the Calvert Journal )

CORRECTION: Regarding my earlier assertion that voluntary, unpaid work was still being used I received the following message from a Calvert editor which I am happy to add:

“In light of the coverage of our internship and volunteering programme, the foundation took the decision over the summer to no longer offer unpaid internships or a volunteering programme across all the projects, including the gallery and journal. This came into effect with the Dear Art exhibition which opened in September.”