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

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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.

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On the assassination of Nemtsov and historical coordinates.

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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’.

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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.

A case of parallel convergences in the recent struggle against Lenin’s granite afterlife.

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Lenin Crucified.

This is the first of two blog posts on what one may call a recent ‘Leninophobia’ mania. It seems as though one of the few things that would unite Ukrainian nationalists and conservative or liberal Russian nationalists is their hatred of Lenin. Stanislav Govorukhin, Nikita Mikhalkov, Ukraine’s Right Sector, Vladimir Medinsky, the banderovtsy, Patriarch Kirill, Vsevolod Chaplin, Presidents Putin and Poroshenko, Russian or Ukranian liberals, Ukraine’s hipster community could all, it seems, unite against one figure: Lenin! Only Lenin could unite such seemingly disparate forces and such a rag tag of forces in a chorus of disapproval and as symbol of undying hatred. Not bad for someone dead for 90 years but who seems ‘more alive than all the living’ in the apoplectic imaginations of many in the post-Soviet world!

My thoughts recently have turned to Lenin. Or rather not to Lenin but images of Lenin. Granite images of Lenin. Or objects associated with Lenin. Thoughts about the remaining traces of Lenin. The long drawn-out attempts on Lenin’s granite afterlife that have been taking place recently in the Ukraine and not too long ago in Russia too. If one were to allow for a slight temporal dissonance one could say that Ukrainian nationalists have acted in a strange tandem with their Russian conservative nationalist counterparts. This fact alone should give people pause for thought.

When we see the Kharkov, the Kiev or the Chernigov Lenin being toppled by crowds or mobs (depending on your point of view) we shouldn’t forget the fact that something not altogether distinct (without, it is true, the participation of crowds) had started to happen in Russia too.

The demolition and defacing of Lenin statues in Russia have been a constant in recent years and certainly Lenin has been the subject of a large number of attacks from many of those who number amongst some of the worst Ukrainophobes.

Regarding dismembering Lenin in Russia here to start with is one report from Orenburg. This attack took place in October 2013 but here is a Lenin bombed in Saint Petersburg which happened in 2009:

Saint Petersburg Lenin bombed by Russian nationalists

A year later another Lenin statue was bombed by Russian ultra-nationalists.

There’s little doubt that ultra-nationalists (as well as many liberals) in Russia would love to imitate their Ukrainian counterparts at some point in time. And distaste for Lenin and his predecessors is not confined just to ultra-nationalists.

Vladimir Sorokin- one of the writers opposed by a Putin youth group. They lumped him together with Karl Marx as “post-modernist pornographers”.

Back in 2002 there was a weird campaign by Putin’s youth movement calling itself “Walking Together”. They lead a moralising campaign against “pornographic writers”. Their main targets were ‘post-modernist’ writers. They had a special distaste for one called Vladimir Sorokin. However, they had an extra target. Not Lenin yet– one of the Putin youth members told a western journalist that they would like to include Lenin but didn’t want to upset their grandparents generation. Rather it was Marx who they deemed worthy of cleansing from ‘Russian literature’!. Here is a quote from an article that gave some details about this campaign :

One day in mid-January 2002 a large group of clean-cut young people gathered in the center of Moscow. They came out to protest what they claimed to be the obscene and unwholesome character of certain recent works of Russian literature. At the rally, they announced the beginning of a massive campaign aimed at cleansing post-Soviet literature: during the next month, they would exchange the books of contemporary authors deemed offensive for the two-volume edition of collected works by Boris Vasil’iev, a respected senior writer known for having explored in his fiction the heroism of Soviet youth during the Great Patriotic War. Among the writers whose works the activists branded “harmful” and accepted for trade-in were three leading “postmodernist” authors: Viktor Pelevin, Viktor Erofeev, and Vladimir Sorokin, as well as … Karl Marx. The activists promised that the Russian books collected in such a way would be mailed to their respective authors and Marx’s to the German city of Karl-Marx-Stadt, the birthplace of the German philosopher, as they mistakenly claimed.

While Lenin wasn’t yet on the list of ‘pornographic post-modernists’ (!), Russian society was certainly moving in one clear direction recuperating the reputation of certain leaders and blackening the names of others. Here’s Mikhail Ryklin one of Russia’s greatest contemporary philosophers (more of a Liberal than a Marxist) on the re-evaluation of Stalin and the devaluation of Lenin:

Mikhail Ryklin – a liberal philosopher who noted the parallel process of blackening Lenin’s image and cleansing of Stalin’s taking place in Putin’s Russia.

Lenin has lost any influence on Russian society now. He has been declared an enemy of religion, and that means he is an enemy of Russia, a real atheist, a dangerous person, a terrorist. Stalin, on the other hand, is believed to be somebody who was never really against the Orthodox Church. There is no historical proof for this, just the desire to see Stalin this way. He is widely regarded as the greatest politician in Russian history, instrumental in defeating the Nazis, the most important event in the 20th century for Russians. The pact is forgotten, the mass murders are dismissed as part of the big modernisation project preparing for the war, explained away as something that was necessary. Lenin has been blackened, made a scapegoat. Stalin has been scrubbed clean.

Stanislav Govorukhin – film-maker and Putin presidential campaign manager who managed to combine two reactionary nostalgia’s (pre-revolutionary and Stalinist) while damning Lenin for all the ills of contemporary Russia in his film ‘The Russia that we have lost’

This emphasis on blackening Lenin and cleansing Stalin was something that one film-maker took a special interest in. This film-maker was Stanislav Govorukhin who in his film The Russia We Have Lost seemed to think that Lenin rather than Stalin was ruling in the 1930s. Building up a pre-revolutionary Russia like an ideal Potemkin Village, Govorukhin’s film was part of this dual nostalgia for Stalin and Nikolai the Second which has been such an essential part of the post-Soviet ideological mindset of Russian conservatives. In 2012 Govorukhin turned up as Putin’s campaign manager for his Presidential election campaign.

Not to be outdone by Govorukhin’s anti-Leninist zeal, Russia’s present Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has been keenly promoting the idea of burying Lenin. In many ways a reasonable idea given the surely anti-Leninist aura of any Lenin cult. However Medinsky is not happy to leave it at that. The burial of Lenin would go hand in hand with a corresponding return to a monarchist cult:

(Medinsky) also called for streets to be named after Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna, who was killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and has been canonized as a martyr by the Russian Orthodox Church. He also said that a busy Moscow Metro station named after Pyotr Voikov, who participated in the killing of Czar Nicholas II and his family in 1918, must be renamed.

Vladimir Medinsky who wants rename ‘Bolshevized streets’ with the names of Romanovs.

Two examples of this return to a cult of monarchy were the 400-year Romanov celebrations last year taking place in every city and in many different venues around Moscow along with the removal of the Obelisk to Revolutionary thinkers which would later return as a Romanov Obelisk in full pomp and ceremony for Russia’s ‘National Day’ on 4th November last year (a public holiday to replace the November 7th public holiday previously celebrating Russia’s 1917 Revolution). The religious and political authorities were united in their anti-revolutionary and anti-Leninist front. Russian Orthodox arch-priests and ideologues from Dmitry Smirnov to Vsevolod Chaplin have been in the forefront of an anti-Leninist backlash Smirnov calling Lenin worse than Hitler and suggesting that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ban Lenin’s books for extremism. Chaplin, an immensely influential figure in the Russian Orthodox Church (and chief ideological persecutor of Pussy Riot), regretted that religious followers hadn’t killed Bolsheviks when their religious shrines were under threat in the Civil War. Kravchuk’s cringeworthy but massively promoted film The Admiral was another attempt to celebrate the Whites in the Civil War with the aim of producing an anti-Bolshevik ‘Chapayev’ re-writing history with monarchist undertones.

Church and political authorities ‘re-dedicate’ the Obelisk of Revolutionaries to the Romanov dynasty.

So the call for the protection of Soviet monuments – including those of Lenin – is not an argument steeped in nostalgia. Rather it could be part of the battle against another and more insidious type of reactionary nostalgia hidden under the cloak of often justified popular anger. However, this popular anger in Ukraine is just as likely to wield the dagger in favour of he whom it is nominally attacking. As Agata Pyzik wrote for her piece in the Guardian:

Somehow hatred for former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych became confused with hatred of Lenin, which is strange because Yanukovych’s ally Vladimir Putin has criticised the Soviet leader for including Odessa, Donbass and Kharkiv (so-called Novorossiya) in the Ukrainian borders drawn in early 1920s. During political turmoil, details get lost. In some instances, the unwanted Soviet legacy has been replaced by new monuments to controversial western Ukrainian nationalists, such as Stepan Bandera.

Looking at this purely politically is, of course, not the only thing to be said about contemporary Leninophobia (for want of a better word). Further considerations of a more aesthetic nature need to brought into account (which I will try to do in a subsequent post). Where exactly do politics begin and aesthetics end is surely an extremely complex matter. Take for example the news that an Ukrainian artist (in the guise of the sculptor Alexei Zolotarev) decided to burn books of Lenin as an ‘artistic action’ entitled ‘Warming Ukraine‘. The question needs to be asked: is he not wittingly or unwittingly following in the footsteps not only of the Nazi’s (and here’s what present-day Neo-Nazis think about the toppling of Lenin statues) and figures like Pastor Terry Jones but also, ironically, of members of the Putin youth movement ‘Walking Together’.

The Kiev sculptor, Aleksei Zolotarev, who wishes to turn burning books of Lenin into an artistic action.

Burning books (or throwing ripped out pages of books into a makeshift papier-mache’ toilet as pro-Putin youth had done over a decade ago) is rarely associated with something progressive or innovatory (maybe if one burnt one’s own books it would be another matter). It’s hardly that Zolotarev’s action seems to be ‘going against the grain’ of (or criticising) a current authoritarian mania for burning books and toppling statues (all too often replacing them with crosses). As regards aesthetics: even the Putin youth tried to adorn their own ‘art action’ against Sorokin (mentioned above) with ‘aesthetic considerations’:

At the demonstration near the Bolshoi Theatre protesters, all the while wearing latex surgical gloves so as not to “be dirtied by Sorokin,” they erected a gigantic papier-mâché toilet, into which they tossed flowers and copies of the author’s work, calling it “an improvised monument to Sorokin”.

It can at least be considered there is another link holding together the Sorokin toilet brigade and the Lenin topplers. They most probably have only a hazy idea of who their objects of hatred actually were. The anti-Sorokin demonstrators certainly knew little of who Sorokin was as they ripped out pages from his book throwing them down the papier-mâché toilet:

The majority was not familiar with the work of the author, and many confused his profession as well, having decided that Sorokin was in fact the Minister of Culture. People became acquainted with Sorokin’s work on the spot from a brochure with excerpts from Sorokin’s text, published specially for the occasion by Idushchie. On the basis of this study they took sides and began to tear up books and throw them, first into the entryway of the Ministry, and then into the giant toilet.

One gets the sense that there is a similar disconnect with those demolishing Lenin’s statues and their knowledge of what kind of historical figure Lenin actually was. Boris Kagarlitsky’s experience of teaching about Lenin in a course of political science for future Russian engineers would surely ring more than true in Ukraine too (although the tale would change to meet a typically nationalist discourse):

Several years ago, I taught political science at a technical college. Why future engineers were required to study political science is anybody’s guess, but perhaps it replaced the mandatory Soviet-era course on the history of the Communist Party.
I asked one student to come up to the front of the class to describe what he knew about Vladimir Lenin. We’re not talking here about French philosopher Michel Foucault, or even Aristotle, but a leader who had a very important role in 20th-century history — not only in Russia but all over the globe.
“Lenin lived in the 19th century,” he said.
Technically speaking, the young man was correct. Lenin did live a little more than half of his life in the 19th century.
“Lenin fought against the tsarist regime,” the student managed to pull up out of his memory. Gathering courage, he continued: “He managed to overthrow the tsar, and he was able to do this while living abroad. After the Bolshevik Revolution, he returned to Russia in an armored train car, became friends with Josef Stalin and died.”
And that was the end of his narrative.
I went straight to the administrator and submitted my letter of resignation.

All in all disconnects and dissonances appear ubiquitous in the recent outbreaks of Lenin destruction-mania (present both in Russia {at least prior to recent events in Ukraine} and in Ukraine itself).

In my next post I will try to draw some other considerations together less of an overtly political and more of an aesthetic nature.

Unfree Fall (Ukrainian Left Opposition’s statement on the toppling of Lenin statue in Kharkov)

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I am hoping to return to the subject of Lenin statues and revolutionary monuments, but here is the immediate reaction of the Ukrainian Left Opposition regarding the toppling of Lenin’s statue in Kharkov two days ago

The toppling of the Lenin statue in Kharkov.

The so-called “Peace March” in Kharkov ended with the habitual barbarity- the destruction of the Lenin statue. These acts have nothing to do with the reconciliation of society. There is no doubt that such provocations are of use only for the Russian aggressor which brazenly acts like a parasite on the Soviet past not having any real relation to such a past. With such patriots as ours it can not be excluded that Russian tanks won’t soon be rolling into Kharkov. And so on the liberated pedestal some monument to Putin will arise. By itself the destruction of monuments are not a tragedy. But in today’s situation it can only lead to a further break up of the country. The Kiev Lenin statue was toppled when today’s nationalists were still in opposition. Now they are already in power and are carrying on just as before. It is lamentable that the masses are deceiving themselves in such a way enjoying such a cheap spectacle in the absence of any real achievements from the authorities.

Toppling Lenin to put Putin in his place?

Staunch Russian imperialists from the Donetsk People’s Republic hate Lenin who was a consistent opponent against the enslavement to national myths. For them he was a rabid ‘russophobe’. The oligarchical Ukraine authorities also hate Lenin accusing him of “Ukrainophobia”. Likewise reactionaries in different nations explain everything in simplistic language for their own supporters. Surely is this not the best means to reawaken the interest of thinking peoples to the legacy of an outstanding revolutionary?

Scenes from the meeting where an opponent of the toppling of the Lenin is beaten by right-wing nationalists.

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The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Eclectic.

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One of the phrases that struck me from a very warm (and fine) review by Sukhdev Sandhu of Agata Pyzik’s Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes for the Guardian was her suggestion that a ‘sterner editor would have told Pyzik not to cover so many topics’ . Having read the review before I had time to read the book my first thought was ‘thank god in that case for lax editors’. Now having the read the book, too, my earlier feelings have been confirmed. In many ways I’m doubtful as to whether any British writer would have written such an intoxicating storm of a book confronting the reader with a new plethora of names and ‘unusual’ approaches giving one such an impressive ‘beyond the wall’ perspective. Upsetting all the ‘discourses’ that the Anglo-Saxon reader has been bombarded with from the likes of the Garton Ashes and Appelbaum’s as well an entire host of Eastern European liberals invited to feast at that sanctimonious collective of a generation of post-Soviet would-be sovietologists or slavologists negotiating and guarding the frontiers of a new wall constructed on the ruins of the old one but this time built from the other side. A virtual wall (but in other ways an all too real one) of phobias and immigration laws, visa regimes and moral panics as well as the semi-orientalist cultural constructs and the reinvention of ruritania by the British ‘chattering classes’ (which goes for an intelligentsia in these isles) that have dominated the quotidian existence of many East European immigrants since 1989.

I suppose I should start off with a panegyric to the publishers of this work: Zero Books who seem to have succeeded in creating a new space (indeed new spaces) in the staid and stuffy English world of what goes for informed discussion and has brought another solid author in the guise of Agata Pyzik to include others like Federico Campagna, Mark Fisher and Owen Hatherley already in their catalogue. Hopefully a new group of opinion formers able to detonate the tired old world of ‘English letters’.

Agata Pyzik in her book Poor but Sexy has led a nuanced multi-thronged attack on those many voices that effectively end up serving us one and essentially the same picture of Eastern Europe or the Post-Soviet space. As Sandhu intimates in her Guardian article Pyzik avoids and provides antidotes to the Scylla of painting everything in the Eastern bloc with a sterile and dour brush and the Chabrydis of whitewashing history with ostalgic vulturism. While the most well-known commentators on the eastern bloc from the Garton Ash’s and the Appelbuam’s to the former liberal dissidents from the East made good such as Adam Michnik appear to be stuck needle-like upon a record played long ago, Pyzik reminds us that life in the Soviet bloc (and now in the post Soviet space) was a tad more complicated than the ‘informed public’ have been led to believe. Life may not have fitted the rosy and beatified social realist picture that propagandists tried to paint but neither did it fit in with the black and white canvas with which liberal anti-communists all too often sketched their denunciations of the old as well as their myopic insistence of ignoring the very great shocks and regressions of the neo-liberal new.

Fortunately for the reader of her work, Agata Pyzik is willing to paint on a very broad canvas in a fine eclectic way. As well as her critical and partisan stance, she leads the reader to consider a wide and conflicting variety of realities. All of the following subjects are covered substantially and not merely in passing: rock music, politics, art, fashion, cinema, philosophy, feminism, television shows as well as interspersing all this with a wide variety of historical and personal reflections on her role in the interstices of this ‘new Europe’ (a newly minted term that one can barely utter with a shudder recalling those coining this term). In covering these themes she unearths an extraordinary cast of what Sandhu aptly calls erased histories. They may be the erased history of David Bowie’s travels east or the erased histories of East German, Polish, Roumanian and even Soviet culture beyond the wall. In describing things there is a reflexiveness and ability to fix the traffic both ways that exaggerated histories of how the Beatles rocking the Kremlin never managed. Creatively recycling glimpses from the West, Eastern bloc cultures and subcultures were far more complex, radical and nuanced than any major writer has ever given them credit for. The canny troublemakers (another concise but accurate term borrowed from Sandhu’s review) pop up from one art form to another: such life stories never having come to people’s attention before in the Cold war years (and their aftermath): something kept secret (or not known about) by the stolid and staid old men and women of sovietology. Wicked parody (in the guise of the group Margot Liedertafel Honecker- an electronic rock group named after the wife of Erich Honecker) , irony, improvisation (in the guise of fashion writer Barbara Hoff) and the insanely surreal and even luridly subversive films of Chytilova and Zulawski mean that Pyzik has finally revealed an entire ‘lost Atlantis’ previously drowned in predictable Cold War discourses.

Pyzik’s interventions into many subjects come surrounded by an assuring lack of simple ‘position-taking’. Daniel Trilling gets its precisely right when he calls Pyzik’s book ‘partisan in the best sense of the word’. Partisan certainly but her partisan nature consists in expanding and extending the imagination of ‘our side’ (ie ‘the Left’). Her work doesn’t reek of the defensiveness of the Anglo-Saxon Left harking back to an imaginary 1945 rather than looking forward to an expanded, multi-national socialism of 2045. Yes, Pyzik may attempt to pick up some of the debris left behind in that great storm of history of the late twentieth century but she does so precisely where some of those ‘healthy germs’ lie (those very germs which Victor Serge spoke of when talking about that great and much-maligned experiment that 1917 could have turned out to be).

From a fruitful metaphor she uses at the end of the book (based on an anecdote by Boris Kagarlitsky) there arises a broader conception of the conundrum of Eastern and Western Europe in which tantalizingly it is as much the West that needs to ‘catch up’ with discovering the real East as it is the other way round. As Pyzik remembers Kagarlitsky putting it: Maybe we still can come up with ways to open things that you don’t and didn’t have to know about. And by revealing the healthy resistances and revolts and the uncannily radical utopian dreams that arose in the midst of 1917 and 1945 buried alike (as though in a strange conspiracy) in the accounts of both liberals and orthodox stalinists or neo-stalinists, we can re-insert those ‘healthy germs’ into historical reappraisals that can serve us to open up the twentieth century and, by doing so, hopefully open up the present moment.