Monthly Archives: January 2015

Russia and Greece -initial thoughts & an article by Stas Markelov ‘Two Worlds, Two Deaths’.

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A small group of demonstrators in St Petersburg ready to defy the reigning thanatocratic atmosphere in Russia and remember one of Russia’s genuine national heroes.

Reading about the victory of Syriza from Russia rather than from Western Europe seems to come in a different context. Just watching my Facebook feed I am sure that the readings will confound normal expectations. Putin state media is reportedly playing to the Syriza win as a victory even though United Russian neo-liberal deputies like Ilya Haffner are telling Russians to eat less and remember the stoicism of the war years (while themselves owning multiple properties). Russian liberals often veer way to the right of many Europeans (when Europe is discussed) and few are likely to be sensitive to the social realities of many Europeans. This sense of disconnect is, alas, all too present in many of the European Left when discussing Russia. So surely this is an opportune moment to republish the last article by murdered anti-fascist lawyer Stanislav Markelov. An article that compared two deaths: one of a Greek teenager Alexandros Grigoropoulos murdered by a Greek police officer and the other of Patriarch Alexy in December and how these deaths reflected different aspects of two Orthodox societies. Little more than a month after this article was published on Markelov’s site, he himself (along with the anti-fascist journalist Nastya Baburova) would be gunned down in the centre of Moscow by a Neo-Nazi killer. Each January 19th a small group of demonstrators meet to commemorate Markelov’s death and to resist the encompassing threat of a patriarchal and ultra-conservative nationalist thanatocracy that Markelov so accurately describes in this piece. The Syriza victory in Greece and the growing war frenzy over Ukraine that is being felt in Russia calls for a renewed attention on this. There may be little hope that Greece’s new government will take a fundamentally innovative position on Russia but at the very least the international Left owes it to the Russian Left to remind Tsipras and his team that many Leftist political prisoners languishing in Russian jails (such as Alexey Gaskarov) deserve open solidarity from Europe’s first openly Leftist government.

Alexandros Grigoropoulos whose murder by police lead to rioting and resistance and which coincided with a general strike in December 2008

TWO WORLDS, TWO DEATHS.

In Russia and Europe, not only do people live differently, they also die differently. At least, entirely different deaths are accorded public significance, and the consequences of these tragedies also are opposing. So as not to speak in riddles, I suggest that you simply turn on the TV and compare the top stories in news broadcasts here in Russia and on any of the European channels.

When you glance at what’s on TV, you get the impression that Russia is unable to pull itself out of a deep and endless mourning. Recalling Soviet times, you keep expecting to see Swan Lake, which would invariably hop on to our screens to honour the latest departed General Secretary. When you catch yourself making these kind of comparisons, you can’t avoid asking yourself the question—has the Patriarch become the General Secretary or the head of state in Russia? The church is a voluntary social organization. Why must the entire country plunge into mourning over the death of the head of a social organization? According to official statistics, only 4% of our citizens are active church members. For the rest of the faithful, the church is more a nod to tradition. But if you turn on the TV, you get the sense that we live in an despotic theocracy, and that, apart from the shipments of icons and holy relics from one worship site to another, nothing much else happens in our country. So everyone is as though obliged to consider it a matter of personal grief when Partriarch Alexy dies. At least there’s some relief that the throngs of mourners don’t crush each other, as happened when Stalin died.

Of course, the death of the head of the country’s dominant religious confession is an important public event, and one would very much hope that it occasioned a discussion of serious questions. For example, could Alexy have attained such dizzy ecclesiastical heights in Soviet times (for example becoming head of the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union’s most problematic region, Estonia) without having closely collaborated with the competent organs? Particularly cynical citizens are already quietly humming to themselves Alla Puchageva’s song: “Oh, what a man he was, a genuine colonel!” Or one could ask oneself what do the absence of excise surcharges of alcohol and cigarettes, which helped the Church get rich off in the nineties, have to do with Christian values? We could also discuss whether all of the money collected from the whole country through an effective state racket was used for the reconstruction of the Church of Christ the Savior, in which the funeral of the departed Alexy is being held with such pomp and circumstance. Or was there really enough money to build a whole town’s worth of Christ the Saviors? But instead of answers to these and many other questions, we are presented with a reality show that practically turns the intimate matter of a man’s death and the personal grief of his family and friends into a serial of the title Big Brother Burial.

Against the backdrop of the hasty desire to canonise Alexy, Russian commentaries on the events in Greece triggered by the tragic death of a teenager struck down by a police bullet are telling. The entire analysis offered by state-controlled journalism boils down to two messages: “They’re too fussy there” and “They’ve gone mad, making such a ruckus over the death of some young kid.”

Only these commentaries wouldn’t work even as captions below the pictures from the Greek revolution. Can you be “too fussy” while also putting yourself in the path of police water cannons and tear gas? If Greek youth are too fussy, then why did the entire country support their demands by declaring a general strike? Maybe the country itself went mad and collectively decided to be too fussy?

Even the contrast between Russian spirituality and western dissolution that has become our official dogma doesn’t work in this case. Greece is also an Orthodox country, and it is so imbued with the principles of this very Orthodox Christianity that it could serve as an example even for Russian zealots.

Since we don’t have an official version, let’s try ourselves to explain why there are such different attitudes in Russia and Europe not only to life, but also to death.

In Russia, it is a person’s official status that matters. The higher he ascends the ranks, the more respected he becomes and, as we now see, the more intensely he is seen as a candidate for sainthood. In Russia, one becomes a saint by virtue of one’s office, and the wait for the new patriarch resembles the yearning for the appearance of a new saint. The newspapers are overflowing with headlines such as “In Expectation of a New Spiritual Father.” Moreover, these aren’t church-controlled or even religious newspapers, but the most secular of newspapers and even tabloids. When people are forced to become parents, it’s a bad sign. For some reason, I think that each person can decide for himself, if nothing else, who his fathers are, spiritual and otherwise.

According to state doctrine, power is infallible and framed with a halo of absolute and intrinsic value. Those who have attained the highest rank in the power system immediately become fathers of the nation and saints by virtue of their status alone. We follow the very principles of Byzantium, where each new emperor automatically became a saint. This doctrine cannot possibly account for the fact that the death of an ordinary teenager would become a national event, that five thousand people would come to his funeral without being prompted by any publicity whatsoever or round-the-clock reports on TV. In Russia, personal initiative must be sanctioned: it must have state support and be comprehensively covered in the mass media. Only then shall we end up with the “well-disciplined spontaneous outpouring of grief on the part of every Russian.” During Alexty’s funeral, central Moscow was blocked off; even the kiosks were closed. Walking the empty streets, unable to buy even a bottle of water, I wondered why I was obliged to be tormented by to the death of a man with whom I had nothing to do. In Greece, people suffer inconveniences so that reforms which hurt the majority are repealed. Greeks will even endure rioting on the streets to achieve this goal. But why torment oneself over a reality show entitled Death of the Patriarch? No, it is better to quickly switch the TV to any non-Russian channel (if, of course, you have access to one) or throw away your TV set altogether.

The corpse of Patriarch kissed by then Prime Minister in December 2008, a funeral reminiscent of the Soviet public mourning over the death of a Party General Secretary.

Pathos, reading instructions for staying sane in 2015 and the symbolic pencil as the death of satire.

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Bellic hysteria and slapstick pathos

I’ve been absent for some time from this blog. Some of my ‘Russia/Soviet’ posts I aim to add to what was my Russian film blog and now has become a blog on both film and other areas of visual culture in Russia and the former Soviet space. I’ve been tempted to write posts reflecting on 2014- but the grotesque bellic drama that overshadowed my thoughts in Moscow where I spent half the year (as well as ten days in Odessa) with national hysteria dimming reason at lightning speed was strangely shadowed by pathos-ridden hysteria in the UK symbolised by the poppy sculpture at the Tower of London- fake,trite and inward-looking as only one national commentator dared to call them. Reason was dimming in the UK too- the slapstick farce of UKIP capturing many people’s small minds with a steady line of nutters going consistently off-message rather than the swivelling madness of Russian TV presenters like pirouetting-star Dmitry Kiselev with his prime-time threats to turn the United States into radioactive ash or to incinerate the hearts of gays after their death.

Texts to keep sane in 2015

Maybe there is a need to compile a list of texts ‘to keep sane in 2015’.That was my first thought in the New Year. The first name which came into my head was Danilo Kiš- to my mind one of the sanest writers that Europe possessed in the 20th century. I remember a Croatian friend telling me how she rescued the collective works of Danilo Kis (pronounced Kish) from destruction in a Zagreb library because they were printed in cyrillic (ie Serbian) rather than in the latin alphabet (ie Croatian) and therefore suspicious literature. I can’t find a link to the full text of Kis’s On Nationalism but it is one of those texts like Stanislav Markelov’s Patriotism as Diagnosis which deserves to be read again and again. Almost everything written by Kis is of immense value- I think his unfinished piece ‘Debt’ is just as memorable as many of his perfected works. From Kis to a re-reading of Karlo Stajner’s ‘Seven Thousand Days in Siberia’ which Kis wrote an introduction to. Stajner’s account should have been the first major account of an experience of the Gulag but it remained unpublished for 14 years. The world discovered Solzhenitsyn (who revealed himself too much of an ideologically-driven character himself) instead of Stajner or Varlam Shalamov. Shalamov’s works should be on such a reading list.

A contemporary writer in Russian who helps to keep us sane is Mykahil Ryklin. One of the most powerful books I read in 2014 was his ‘The Quay of Dionysus’ in which he wrote about the story of his wife’s (Anna Alchuk) suicide after a long campaign of hatred and denigration by religious fanatics due to her part in the ‘Beware Religion’ exhibition- a campaign marking the start of a massive onslaught on culture lasting over decade in which conservative religious nationalism has done its very utmost to destroy everything that was original and valuable in Russian culture. Ryklin’s account brings us back to grasping the present nightmare from which we are still trying to escape.

Mikhail Ryklin, author of an important book out in 2014 The Quay of Dionysus on the persecution and suicide of his wife Anna Alchuk.

I’d probably add a whole list of other writers- Juan Rodolfo Wilcock because of his ability to reach the heart of contemporary grostesquerie. I started to think of Wilcock after watching Putin’s New Year address on Russian television. Only Wilcock could have described Putin’s essence in one of his great portraits of monstrous beings- a kind of resentful, threatening slug like presence seem to have overtaken the television screen I caught myself ignoring the words and watching his slimy, reptilian body movements. But no, let’s not try to continue… only Wilock would get any description correct.

Charlie Hebdo as the first major event in 2015

Wilcock a kind of satirist would have been a good commentator on Charlie Hebdo but their styles were not quite the same. Wilcock? Demential yes but far more cerebral and versatile than CH. Nevertheless, after having got my head around many of the debates I still find it difficult to utter coherent thoughts. So many articles so that the task of rehashing all the main arguments is rather thankless. I’m no longer so interested in the polemics thrown up – racist or in the old French tradition of anti-clericalism, the questions of free speech, responsibility and limitations, censoring of free speech. Is a quote from Susan Sontag of any use? “by all means let us mourn together; but let’s not be stupid together“. Well, yes and no.

Russia is an interesting place to observe the debate. Well up to a point: the official discourse veers between suggesting that the cartoonists had it coming to them for being so blasphemous and arguing that what France needs is Marine le Pen to do away with European tolerance of Muslim immigrants. As one Izvestia journalist (who tried to square the two central ideas of Russian discourse on CH) was to put it “tolerance kills” Even parts of the intelligentsia have joined in with crazy ideas of destroying the homes of ‘terrorists’- this included even the respected writer Liudmila Ulitskaya.

Dmitry Zhvaniya who argued that the cartoonists and journalists at Charlie Hebdo would have laughed at their deaths and so should we.

Yet there were a few things written in Russia which stood out. Ilya Varlamov told Russians not to lie to themselves as they weren’t Charlie. “You’re not Charlie. I’m not Charlie. No one is Charlie, we are all just a forgotten East European ‘petrocratria’ where a two year prison sentence is given out for dancing in a church, and for the French cartoons they would have cut your head off accompanied by jubilant wails of the defenders of traditional values in accordance with the decisions of some council of five centuries ago”.

Ilya Varlamov- who told Russians that they were not Charlie.

Otherwise it was Dmitry Zhvaniya in Sensus Novus who may have had the only original thing to say. Arguing that he was using the same right of blasphemy that the caricaturists had used he suggested that society had taken their deaths too seriously and it was necessary to find a comic side to the events. After all the caricaturists would have done so. In a way Zhvaniya is right- that’s how the cartoonists did work: nothing was sacred so neither would their deaths have been. After the killings I remembered a cartoon just after the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985 where 39 football fans (mainly Italian) lost their lives after pressure on a wall due to fighting between rival fans. The Italian satirical magazine Frigidaire had a small cartoon of some Bangladeshi’s (at least this is what the caption suggested) reading a headline about Heysel (Heysel Disaster: 39 Dead). Their comment was a simple, curt “Lucky them” I’m sure some similar Iraqi, Syrian characters could have been drawn reading a similar headline “Charlie Hebdo – 12 dead” – with the very same caption. It may have been more in the spirit of the tradition of Charlie Hebdo than what has been served up so far. And may have saved some from this pathos ridden atmosphere in Europe in early 2015. Instead cartoonists everywhere mourned their dead with self piety rather than ferocious self irony and so arguably what was termed the spirit of Charlie was destroyed by those very pencils elevated as the symbol of their profession just as the bodies of the cartoonists had fallen victim to bullets. One may be sceptical of Zhvaniya’s conclusion that “it’s funny when society reacts too seriously about the death of jesters” but at least he’s not offering yet another conspiracy theory about the killings.

Frigidaire and Male covers- close to the style and ethos of the soixante-huirtard Charlie Hebdo.

One feels almost comforted that someone is not taking things too seriously. After all, the polemics in recent days seem to have been rather too full of sound and fury signifying very little indeed. Maybe though Zhvaniya’s call for blasphemous laughter over Charlie Hebdo can’t quite knock off a sense of doom about the intellectual debates. It’s too close to tragedy in the world today not to have the thoughts of a pessimist firmly wrapped up in one’s mind. W.H.Auden may have had something to say which we can still listen to and feel that it is being written about our own time:

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.