A trip to Moscow Tsiolkovsky’s bookshop(1) On Aleksei Tsvetkov’s ‘Column Left, Marx!’ (or Fifty Shades of Red)


A copy of Alexei Tsvetkov’s latest book published by the radical Russian publisher ‘Free Marxist Press’.

Back in Russia – and that means one of my first trips will be to the two bookshops where you can be sure that all the necessary books are to be found. Since Moscow is a city with a decreasing number of bookshops- according to a report by the Moscow Times in late July there are now only 226 bookstores for a population of 12 million and few of these bookstores will stock radical publishers my first trips are to Falanster and Tsiolkovsky. Tsiolkovsky, indeed, is associated with the writer Alexei Tsvetkov whose latest book is the first book I rushed out to buy.

The writer Aleksei Tsvetkov at Tsiolkovsky bookshop.

Tsvetkov, the writer and activist (not to be confounded with an older generation Alexei Tsvetkov – also a writer but more a poet and essayist rather than an essayist, novelist and activist that would describe the younger Tsvetkov) was recently awarded the prestigious literary award, the Andrey Bely prize for his book novel ‘The King of the Drowned’ and has written a fine book entitled ‘Pop Marxism’ that surely deserves some consideration from foreign publishers regarding having it translated.  The new book by Tsvetkov is a pun on a military command and could be rendered something like ‘Column Left Marx’. In a Facebook remark a few months ago Tsvetkov joked about writing a book entitled ‘Fifty Shades of Red’ and this surely would be a fine title. It moves from Tsvetkov’s superlative essay on the Last Soviet Marxist Evald Ilyenkov (which I translated here) to another similar piece on Lenin’s rival Bolshevik philosopher and sci-fi author Alexander Bogdanov . Considerations on the Russian revolution and the figure of Lenin are then followed by a piece on What Is Contemporary Marxism? And then finally we move to the German Red Army Faction (RAF- Three Red Letters).

From the Rote Armee Fraktion to Fassbinder marks the barrier from politics and theory to the cultural front with Tsvetkov attempting to answer the question ‘what makes Fasbinder a comrade?’ Tsvetkov stays with film trying to explain how we can understand the apparent ‘Hollywood Marxism’ of films such as Hunger Games, Elysium etc. After a piece on Besson’s Lucy, Tsvetkov takes us into the realm of poetry where he gives us a political map of Russian poets: liberal stoics, rightist national pessimists and leftists awaiting Mayakovsky finally find a classifier who can write with some nuance on their political stances. Political music is the next subject. Finally in the cultural section Tsvetkov explores the magazine Bolshoy Gorod and dissects their cultural politics with the suggestive subheading of ‘An attempt at a Class Reading of Liberal Propaganda’. Then Tsvetkov subsection number three is entitled ‘Personal’ but here, of course, the personal is political. Chapter titles are ‘My First Meeting’, ‘My First of May’ and then a short piece answering the question ‘what were my first inner revolutions?’ Noting that the artist Anatoly Osmolovsky once stated that he became a leftist after viewing Godard’s ‘Pierrot le Fou’, Tsvetkov’s also undertakes an analysis of those moments of inner revolutions that turned him to the left. Further pieces describe the short-lived Russian Occupy moment – the ‘Occupy Abai’ experiment in May 2012 in Chistiye Prudi. A curious week or so in the life of Putin’s Moscow: a time when Central Moscow was occupied even by a grazing cow. A trip to London (entitled ‘London Calling or Chupa Chups with Marijuana’) and a piece on Tsvetkov’s intriguing ‘eurodroog’ (I’m not sure if this Burgess neologism exactly fits but neither does ‘Euro friend’ quite capture this character) and their conversations about Russia.  The final section is devoted to childhood- though, mainly Tsvetkov’s daughter appears at the main interlocutor and dramatis personae in this section. I remember Toni Negri’s first translator into English once telling me how he sent a letter to him (probably before emails) asking him how Negri would explain the Marxist theory of time to his seven year-old daughter. Negri, apparently, never replied. Emery surely had the wrong interlocutor, for Tsvetkov shows us how in both this book and in his earlier ‘Pop Marxism’ there is a leftist thinker prepared to explain Marxism as much to his young daughter as to political activists and university students but then, as Tsvetkov suggests with his first piece here entitled ‘The Child as Teacher’, it is as much his daughter who explained Marxism to him as vice versa. The pieces here entitled ‘Children’s Politics’, ‘Children’s Mysticism’ and discussions of Soviet children’s literature such as ‘Neznaika on the Moon’ are promising leads to a new genre in which Marxist thought can be formulated.

By the way Tsvetkov’s book has just been nominated for the Nose Literary Award. The award is based on the number of votes from the public and Tsvetkov has promised to sing the Internationale from the stage if awarded main prize. So get voting! Tsvetkov’s book is published by Kirill Medvedev’s excellent and undersung Free Marxist Press. I’ve already written about their excellent volume entitled ‘Sex of the Exploited’ and in my next post I hope to mention a few more books by this publisher – including Medvedev’s own translations of the poetry of Victor Serge and Kirill Adibekov’s fine translations of Kenneth Rexroth (Abdibekov’s is one of Russia’s most interesting, but lesser known, film curators) and has worked on some fine film programmes for one of Russia’s best film festivals 2morrow/Завтра Another book discovered at Tsiolkovsky yesterday was Ilya Falkovsky’s ‘Book of the Living’ -a kind of veiled autobiography by another extraordinarily important figure in Russia’s underground culture who needs to be discovered soon. But all this is for a future post.

The logo for Kirill Medvedev’s Free Marxist Press


Hypocrite politique – mon semblable – mon frere (the equal logic of Putin and Bildt versus the logic of social protest).


That events in Greece and the astounding victory of No in the referendum over the troika’s austerity diktat’s will have consequences far beyond Greece is obvious. Much too early days to tell what all these consequences will be- I think that much depends on the mobilization of forces in Greece and Europe. But there is a certain angle to this story that few are talking about. Few commentators are turning their memories or attention to another revolt which happened not too long ago- notably,the Maidan along with what were the anti-Maidan’s. It’s obvious that Greek’s Syntagma revolt is not a replication of the swell of popular activity in various parts of Ukraine in 2014 but Paul Mason’s use of the term ‘People’s Power’ is surely an accurate one in so far one can call both Syntagma and Maidan popular earthquakes against ‘unbearable situations’ and stifling political realities.

Daniel Trilling was one of the few on twitter to mention Maidan and ‘Syntagma’ in a tweet after the referendum result with this observation: Suspect the overlap between those who praised Maidan protests and those who are praising Greece’s “No” is quite small.  Indeed. For months now pro-Maidan liberals have been highlighting what they saw as the European left’s hypocrisy over Maidan. Now the boot is surely on the other foot. Now it is those Euro-liberals who fully deserve their full share of being charged with hypocrisy. Not only that but their tools and their language are slowly and surely becoming more Putin-like as time goes on.

What have been the reactions of the Carl Bildt’s and Martin Schulz’s and the Euro-establishment to the Syntagma revolt? Threats of regime change, massive use of TV propaganda, use of fear tactics, hissy fits all point to a certain symmetry to Russia’s establishment vis-a-vis. Carl Bildt’s tweet stating that Greece has refused the help that other Euro countries have offered them and that this is tragic carries that unmistakable whiff of the undertones of Putin-speak and the same mafia-like logic of spitefully punishing the renegade (even if that ‘renegade’ is an entire people). The fact that 61% of the Greek people have said ‘no’ to all the television channels, the Euro-establishment, and ‘everyone who is anyone in Greece’ and Europe suggests that it is not just Putin who has lost touch with reality but Merkel and her minions too.

It is surely time to forge new transnational forces in the two different parts of Europe (East and West) before these become impossible. Indeed the logic of a Second Cold War suits both the Bildts (who immediately tried to ratchet up this Cold War and opposing block logic in a tweet today stating that Greece doesn’t want to reform. Ukraine is doing it. Greece got massive help. Ukraine got very little by comparison) as well as the Russian establishment. Corporate logic (of the Gazproms and western banks) demands this.

Their logic will demand a new momentum in the new Cold War just as the logic of the nay-sayers from Greece to Armenia in their common resistance to austerity will require its own momentum and internationalist thrust. Especially now that there will be a growing common logic to protests from Ukraine (as long as national logic subsides) to Russia and Armenia. A logic of primarily social demands- whether it be the work to rule by doctors in Russia, Electric Yerevan’s response to hikes in electricity prices along with Greece’s defiant resistance to austerity should find a common thread running through Maidan, Bolotnaya, Syntagma and Liberty Square. A logic that would threaten the Putin’s and the Gazprom’s, the Ukrainian oligarchs and the Carl Bildt’s, Angela Merkel’s and troikas of the world who not only speak with the same language of power but are even beginning to share the same intonation and tone of voice.

Notes Towards a Manifesto of Kibalchich Cosmism


Nikolai Kibalchich, regicide and pioneer of space travel.

In line both with the fact that I have been feeling for some time that individual texts are no longer adequate to the situation in which one finds oneself in locally, nationally, globally and cosmically and in line with a certain despair at the ways in which nationalist (or exclusivist or partial) hysteria is gaining ground I want to propose a kind of collective manifesto (or a group of collective manifestos) that can be written in various ways to be determined. All I have is the title of the Manifesto: ‘Towards Kibalchich Cosmism’ and a list (to be published gradually) of quotes, texts and examples of human resistance and liberation.

A mention of Kibalchich on facebook a few weeks ago and a quote from the 1920 Cosmist Manifesto restoring that memory through association today led me towards the idea that Kibalchism has great potential as an idea responding to the present human stage of our imprisonment in national and nationalist or geopolitical logics. Cosmism, space travel and the expropriation of cosmism by Eurasianists, or rather the God, Tsar and Fatherland version of cosmism should surely be countered by a new form of cosmism. If Nikolai Fedorov’s ideas are expropriated by a variety of Huntingdon-inspired nationalists then why not formulate a Kibalchichesque Cosmism as alternative. Kibalchichesque Cosmism can become a universal alternative precisely because it is inimical to national and hierarchical ideologies and there is no chance that Kibalchich can be appropriated by establishments anywhere. A regicide who used his scientific theories both to dynamite tsars and to clear the path to space exploration, Kibalchich is surely the ultimate cosmist who can speak up for universal liberation. Interestingly the fact that he was the paternal uncle of Victor Serge (or Victor Kibalchich) may indicate another key reason for developing a form of Kibalchichism.

Nikolai, arrested and jailed for lending a prohibited book to a peasant, was also a pioneer in rocket propulsion and was the explosives expert for Narodnaya Volya who eventually assassinated Alexander II.  Arrested and imprisoned soon after he still worked on his scientific ideas even at death’s door before his execution:

“When his men came to see Kibalchich as his appointed counsel for the defense,” said V.N Gerard in his statement to the special committee of the senate, “I was surprised above all by the fact that his mind was occupied with completely different things with no bearing on the present trial. He seems to be immersed in research on some aeronautic missile; he thirsted for a possibility to write down his mathematical calculations involved in the discovery.”

The idea that space exploration was first discovered by a regicide surely indicates one thing: real progress will be achieved through liberation and liberation through revolt. So if the global investment banking class wish to expropriate Nikolai Fedorov (by some accounts a control freak and eugenicist), migrants, proletarians and other marginalised groups still have their Kibalchich at hand

What can Kibalchich Cosmism be?

Kilbachich didn’t have time to develop a fully thought out theory having been locked in prison cells and dying at the hands of the tsarist hangmen at the age of 27 or 28. Yet surely just like Luther Blissett, Nikolai Kibalchich needs some form of collective identity re-appropriation. In the figure of Kibalchich universal revolt can surely be reconnected to the idea of universal liberation and scientific progress. So why not turn his name and his example into a collective theory.

The aim of my next post is to list texts and historical figures which and who (to my mind) could be the inspiration for this Kibalchichesque Cosmism.

On Russia and our political co-ordinates: morbid symptoms and the reign of absurdity.


After attempting to explain the historical co-ordinates of the Nemtsov murder in my previous post I came across this citation in my Facebook feed on how a Russian leftist, Ivan Ovsyannikov, would attempt to explain to a western leftist what exactly has been happening politically in Russia. Here is this comment:

How can one explain political reality in Russia to the western left? Something like this: someone like Le Pen’s National Front is in power and the servile parliament is divided between the “left” and the “right” fascists. The most radical opposition are the right-wing liberals, akin to the US Republican Party. They are persecuted by the State which considers them extremists. Public morality is moving towards to sharia law. Racism is at Alabama 1950s levels and sexism and homophobia recall those of Victorian England. The trade unions are similar to those in the Stalin era“.

Just as it’s frustratingly hard trying to find some historical co-ordinates to explain what is happening in Russia today, it is also difficult to find any political coordinates. Marching in memory of a politician who was essentially a Neo-Liberal figure may seem odd for any western Leftist but in Russia this had some sense even for groups of Trotskyist Leftists and for anarchists and other strands of the anti-authoritarian Left. All political co-ordinates that western Leftists may try to use about thinking of Russia often seem ultimately to make little sense.

In a discussion that followed this comment, Michael Dorfman compared Russia to exhibiting a Victorianism which had made a sudden jump into post-modernism. There is something constant about these paradoxical co-ordinates. For it is not that Russia can be described as historically backward but there is a kind of disconnect and this disconnect feels like it is getting more uncontrollable. Adam Curtis has made some interesting points about how Russia’s methods of political control could be a precursor to a future model in the UK (one could talk of a Surkov-based Osborne model):

However, the kinds of disconnect and misunderstandings that exist seem to be destined to get ever greater. It is, after all, a time when demonisation has been reaching disproportionate levels on both sides. Kiselev and co’s two minutes hate slots on ‘gayropa’ are reflected in a distorted way by some western journalist and commentators who find themselves repeating time and again the Hitler and Stalin metaphors without any real attempt at analysis.

Timofey Kulyabin who faces time in jail for his ‘blasphemous’ production of Tannhauser in Novosibirsk.

Maybe one of the ways of thinking about what is happening is talking about Russia is thinking of the country as (in a recent title on Russian cinema by Andrey Plakhov) being on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The kind of initiatives that come from Russia’s politicians and elite surely show definite signs of congenital dementia. In the cultural sphere a campaign is initiated against a production in Novosibirsk of Tannhauser by church authorities in which the theatre director and producer Boris Mezdrich and Timofey Kulyabin are threatened with a year in prison. Not to be outdone it appears that another attempt is made to censor Kirill Serebrennikov’s theatrical adaptation of a novel by the socially conservative left patriotic writer Zakhar Prilepin for extremism and (wait for it) homosexual propaganda. This time it is a United Russia deputy of the State Duma and co-ordinator of a ‘National Liberation Movement’, Yevgeni Fyodorov, demanding this exemplary censorship. Large doses of black humour are surely required to get through the present moment in Russia in March 2015. In the meantime it appears that a new reign of the absurd has been established. A two-word phrase might be of use in making sense of the present interregnum in Russia: Маразм крепчает (the idiocy is gaining strength).

Perhaps one needs to remember one’s Gramsci these days when thinking about Russia:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

Morbid symptoms certainly abound at the moment but it’s uncertain how long this will all last. In any case for the time being it seems that once more Putin (like Brezhnev) will be foreover, until he’s no more.

On the assassination of Nemtsov and historical coordinates.


Boris Nemtsov visiting the Occupy Abai camp in May 2012 just after it was set up

Boris Nemtsov visiting the Occupy Abai camp in May 2012 just after it was set up

Living in Russia for a large part of the early part of the twenty first century (I’d say about I’ve spent at least six or seven years since 2000) I’ve been here during a large number of the shocks that have affected this country. So while back in Britain during the Beslan massacre or in Italy during the Anna Politkovskaya murder, I recall a number of the bombings (the metro bombing at Lubyanka metro station or the bombing at Domodedovo airport), I was in Siberia during the Nord Ost hostage crisis at the Dubrovka Theatre. The early years of 2000 saw a number of political assassinations which I was vaguely aware of. Perhaps the assassination that most affected me was the assassination of Stanislav Markelov and Nastya Baburova on January 19th 2009. I had just come back to Russia a few days before. Though I knew little of Markelov previously afterwards I realised how important a figure he had been for the Russian anti-authoritarian Left. His death attracted little notice in Russian society – demonstrations in his memory held every January 19th barely exceed 1,000 people. I doubt if I can forget the first gathering in his memory just after his death. Standing in a small crowd near the Griboyedov monument in Chistye Prudi in a temperature of minus twenty there was a sense of being amongst a small group of mourners at a historical watershed. Maybe it wasn’t the watershed it felt at the time- the relatively benign reign of Dmitry Medvedev meant that this was a crime whose truth would eventually be uncovered in a court of law. I remember the speech of Markelov’s friend Yaroslav Leontiev speaking of similar moments after political assassinations.

Boris Nemtsov’s death has equally been a shock. A right of centre liberal who had served in government while it would be hard for me to identify as much with Nemtsov as it was with Markelov, the dismissal of empathy from parts of the radical Russian left have seemed short-sighted. Nemtsov had proven from the early 2000s (and even before) to have exhibited a form of anti-authoritarian (and yes anti-fascist) politics from the right of centre. While his political career in the 1990s may deserve even harsh criticism from the Left it is necessary to be clear that the Nemtsov of the Putin years was not the Nemtsov of the 1990s. He was one of the first to distance himself from Putin (from the early years of Putin’s ascendancy) and would associate himself more deeply with the non-systemic opposition than most of the other SPS colleagues would ever dare. But even in 1996 he had been associated with a million signature petition calling for a halt to the war in Chechnya. So while the liberal martyrological approach needs to be adjusted leftists should also remember that Nemtsov was one of the few to occasionally turn up to the January 19th March in memory of Markelov and Baburova or was the most active opponent of the Crimean annexation and Putin’s Ukrainian adventure. He was also one of the few to show a modicum of solidarity with a quickly-stifled revolt in 2010 in Mezhdurechensk after tens of miners were killed in an explosion that happened due to the negligence of safety measures.

An image from March 1st march in memory of Boris Nemtsov.

An image from March 1st march in memory of Boris Nemtsov.

As with many other events in recent Russian recent Nemtsov’s murder, too, has thrown up many historical associations. Russia’s post-Soviet period has been rather full of political assassinations (or assassinations of others in the public sphere) though many of them happened during the Yeltsin era or in the early Putin years. Starovoitova, Listev, Yushenkov. The Putin era has seen at least one assassination taking place outside of Russia – that of Litvinenko. The murder of journalists and human rights activists has also continued (Politkovskaya, Estemirova) along with the assassination of political opponents by ultra nationalist groups (Markelov and Baburova and a whole number of anti-fa and other anti-fascist figures along with the murder of unnamed immigrants by Russian Neo-Nazis). So Nemtsov’s murder can not be seen as the only one. Yet it seems even more resonant in some symbolic way.

There was a feeling just after the assassination would have more resonant consequences. Perhaps because Nemtsov was once closer to power than most of the other figures though anyone with any sense would have to acknowledge his political marginality in Russia in the past decade or so. At the night of the assassination all kinds of historical precedents were going through in my mind. Yes in the forefront of my thoughts was the Kirov assassination in 1934 which paved the way for Stalin’s Great Terror. Then for some reason I started to remember my reading about the political assassinations which took place in the run up to the Spanish Civil War – but no, this seemed wrong. The victims of assassinations in today’s Russia may not have similar political positions but they nearly always be seen as opponents or enemies (in some significant way) of the ruling political elites (at least at the time of their assassinations). Then there was the Matteotti assassination- like Nemtsov, Matteotti too would collect proof of fraud and the violence of his political opponent/enemy in power and publicise them as much as was humanly possible. Historians don’t seem to have proved Mussolini’s direct involvement in the assassination of Matteotti (nor his clear guilt of being the organiser of it) but one can surely speak of his responsibility (just as Putin’s accusations against fifth columnists and national traitors have been seen as a sign of his indirect responsibility). Yet the assassination of Matteotti belonged to the early days of the fascist regime when there was still an opposition in parliament and in the country. This assassination in the mid-term of Putin’s third term with Putin in or circling power for almost two decades with no authentic parliamentary opposition remaining today which could even dream of retiring to some Aventine Mount.

What about the assassination of Nikolay Bauman in late 1905? Yet that was in the midst of the revolutionary year of 1905 (2015 doesn’t feel revolutionary at the moment). Probably no one will swear public vengeance against Putin at Nemtsov’s funeral today. So are there any other historical coordinates one can think of? The Italian 1970s were full of assassinations and bombings. Even Italy’s Prime Minister Aldo Moro was assassinated in 1978 but again the strife between the red and the black is absent.

Putin has been compared with Stalin, Hitler and many others but may be Richard Nixon could be a more accurate model of Putin and the present juncture in Russian society.

The latest analogy occurred to me today reading another article by Mark Ames (a piece he wrote last year on Ukraine). If Putin isn’t Stalin could he be a kind of turbo-charged and vicious Richard Nixon? The campus revolts or the Black Panthers that existed in the late sixties and early seventies are not much in evidence (a few feminist or LGBT groups suggest that some of late sixties radicalism is not altogether non-existent in Russia though). Nonetheless, the Silent Majority certainly seems to be present: 80% side with Putin just as the US silent majority cheered on the massacre of campus students and 80% sided with Lt William Calley, the officer in charge at My Lai. Probably another mistaken historical analogy but one I hadn’t thought of until today.

Other historical models come and go: a hint of Pinochet (but no massive repression in the centre like after Chile’s September 11th) and another hint of Thatcher- her moral conservatism is more similar than many think of the conservative backlash underway today in Russia. Her willingness to let hunger strikers die in 1981 may find an echo soon in the next watershed moment of Putin’s leadership with Nadezhda Savchenko presently on her 80th day on hunger strike. Yet the present moment in Russia nonetheless feels somewhat more dramatic still. Ukraine is closer than Vietnam (and far more tied up to Russia’s sense of self), the trouble in the Caucasuses never seems to be far away, there seems little respite from a deepening economic crisis and everywhere there is a sense that doors to the outside world seem to be slowly closing (though whether this is true of links to the west alone or is more general is a question needs to be looked at).

Whatever the historical conjuncture is in Russia there is little doubt that it feels rather ominous, rather scary. A little more than it usually does.

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


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


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.


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.