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 Stajner’s account should have been the first major account of an experience of the Gulag but it remained unpublished for 14 years.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.

Some Russian books that need translating.

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Last October I published a post on 10 books or authors shamefully ignored by publishing houses in the UK and elsewhere. Three of the titles/authors were Russian : Ilia Ehrenburg’s ‘Julio Jurenito‘ (to give it its short title), some hitherto unpublished books by the Polish author Bruno Jasienski (whose final novels were written in Russian) and Artem Vesyoly’s great civil war novel Russia cleansed with blood. But many other more contemporary names and titles could be added to these three authors (who wrote decades ago) . Here are ten that I have chosen and which include both fiction and non-fiction books.

1. Red Light by Maksim Kantor (as well as ‘The Drawing Textbook‘):

The cover of Maksim Kantor’s “Red Light”

The fact that nothing yet has been published in English by Maksim Kantor is a complete mystery to me. I had read somewhere that a translation was in the pipeline but that article was published a number of years ago and nothing seems to have come to fruition. I know nothing of the plans of publishing houses for the near future but to ignore one of Russia’s most significant writers seems rather reckless and lacks foresight. Kantor often writes large discursive novels as well as being an accomplished artist whose works are exhibited in some of the most important galleries throughout the world. His earlier rather monumental novel “The Drawing Textbook” is Tolstoyan in scale as is his more recent novel “Red Light” (apparently, the first part of an intended trilogy). Apart from this he has written plays and the occasional detective novel but the ambition of his two major works tower beyond most other writers in Russia both in the writing and in the much larger historical canvas on which he draws his story.

2.

The front cover of Mikhail Trofimenkov’s “Film Theatre of War”

I’ve written about Mikhail Trofimenkov’s book The Film Theatre of War for another blog. It is the kind of book that rarely gets written in other countries. It is a passionate account of a period in world cinema through another optic- that which recounts the lives and fates of people associated with engaged cinema in a political way. Beginning with a detailed account of cinema and the Algerian War of Independence (as well as other anti-colonial wars involving France and the US), it stretches out towards other parts of the world. Trofimenkov manages to write with an encyclopaedic passion in a much more convincing way than many other historians who straddle the popular/academic divide, in Britain for example. He is clear in interviews how this history is very much a counter-hegemonic project where the heroes and protagonists are mainly revolutionaries (the very title he had chosen for the book had already been chosen by Che Guevara and had to be abandoned). Trofimenkov is too accomplished a writer about film and film history for his partisan and passionate stance to be any kind of obstacle.

3.

Sex of the Exploited cover

Since I’ve already devoted a post to reviewing this book I won’t repeat what I said in my previous post. Once again, though, I’d argue that it is the kind of book that would introduce new ideas to what seems to be a field of discourse that desperately needs more imagination, a quality present in abundance in this work (both in terms of form and content).

4.

A book collecting the essays of murdered anti-fascist lawyer Stas Markelov and reminiscences by people who knew him.

If there is one figure from Russia in the post decades who needs to be remembered and celebrated for authentic courage it is Stanislav Markelov. I have dedicated a few posts to both Markelov and Anastasia Baburova (murdered by Markelov’s side by neo-Nazis in January 2009) in this blog. Markelov’s voice is, still five years after his murder, remarkably and unjustifiably absent and forgotten: a conspiracy of silence seems to hang over his figure. A collection of his writings shows that his political thought is still fresh and presciently significant. His record in defending literally hundreds of people and groups caught up in repression from 1993 onwards was second to none. Markelov was never part of the intelligentsia misled and misleading people into supporting the anti-communist repression of the 1990s nor was he ever to express any false nostalgia for the Soviet past. He was one of the great leftist anti-fascists in recent history and merits the kind of global recognition where both his words and his deeds be etched in the memory of many. Whether a straight translation of the book published by Memorial (pictured above) is required or a related book more specifically directed at those unaware of the context in which Markelov lived, there can be no doubt that a volume on this remarkable figure (as well as remembering the young anti-fascist journalist, Anastasia Baburova, who died with him) is sorely needed.

5.

The Russian Left website Otkritaya Levaya or Open Left

The next is not so much a book but articles from a website (Open Left) which have brought about debate in the Russian Left to new levels. It is not the only ‘Left’ site in Russia but has produced a number of articles of high quality and interventions (especially cultural interventions) that are well worth following. Of course there are other sites, some of them with a ‘left orientation’, and it may well be worth choosing an anthology of writings from Leftists of various strands. Of course, some have called into question the independence of some other ‘left’ sites- even the once popular rabkor.ru has recently received a significant injection of government funding. Closely associated with Boris Kagarlitsky, there is some argument about whether Kagarlitsky has taken a ‘social imperialist’ position over the Ukraine question. All the same the amount of good-quality articles written in various forums of the Russian Left surely merits a volume of translations.

6.

A recent volume of Gennady Shpalikov’s scripts, poems, letters, diaries and plays

Returning to Russian cinema there’s a figure who needs to be celebrated even though his output is seemingly negligible. He was a scriptwriter rather than film director (though he did direct one film – Long and Happy Life). Shpalikov who I am have written about here was, surely, the Soviet Vigo (and, perhaps a kind of Soviet Rimbaud, too). Desperately unlucky in terms of the fate of many of his scripts, he became an alcoholic and ended in his own life on November 1974. It was only in later years that his output has been fully appreciated and forty years later, it would be good time to introduce him to people outside of Russia.

7.

Alexei Tsvetkov’s Pop Marxism

Aleksei Tsvetkov is the author of the article that I translated for this site on Evald Ilyenkov and one of the most interesting radical leftist thinkers in Russia. Having only taken a cursory look at Tsvetkov’s book I have been intrigued by some of the arguments. He ranges from Monty Python (noting their British imperialist message even while admitting that Monty Python’s Life of Brian is his favourite film. Tsvetkov denounces the Left’s sense of sacrifice and, as the blurb puts it, “reflects on why monkeys should be invited to join the Party and why pop music is necessary for the anti-capitalist revolution”. The bulk of the book is an A-Z that mentions everything from Cocaine and Freud to the Night Watch film, from Picasso to the Strugatsky Brothers and from the Red Army Faction to Aelita (Protazanov versus Tolstoy). Watch this space for a more in-depth review. Tsvetkov is surely a writer to watch, especially having outraged Liberals for his lack of awe when the former oligarch, Khodorkovsky, was released from prison.

Other books to translate will be announced in further blogs. I have not even mentioned poetry and there are a bunch of literary classics from Soviet times unjustifiably forgotten. For the moment these are my initial seven choices (along with the Ehrenburg’s, Vesyoly’s, Jasienky’s) that I mentioned before.

No Potemkin please- we prefer our Harry Potter or On the decline of the British film journalist.

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Three Guardian critics sit round discussing English-language films.


Not too long ago Britain’s foremost liberal newspaper could boast of a critic like Derek Malcolm who in his top 100 films would place a considerable number of non-anglophone films. Even though about a third of them are American films and plenty of British films can be found there too, the time when a film critic for a national newspaper in the British Isles could afford to enthuse over ‘world cinema’ are gone. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Derek Malcolm’s old newspaper The Guardian. Irritated at the fact that every time I open the Guardian film page, I will only too rarely find a single non-anglophone film being reviewed or barely a single item of news that doesn’t either relate to British or American actors or directors in some way I decided to make this point in a below the article discussion. The occasion was the Ten Best Films (so far) of 2014 article in which readers (admittedly rather than film critics) chose the best films of the year so far. Of course, one can check exactly which films the critics review and see that the situation is not that different. Sure the Guardian does occasionally cover film festivals such as Venice and Berlin but if one reads their coverage of these festivals one soon learns that the Guardian journalists are there to search for the English-speaking actors and directors and find ‘news stories’ that rarely have much relation to film criticism (or film journalism at its best). Apparently The Guardian has decided that the Rome Film festival is no longer to be covered because, in the words of Guardian columnist, Catherine Shoard “sadly there wasn’t enough there for us to continue to make that investment“. Given that the Rome Film Festival is headed by the widely-respected Marco Mueller and that during last year’s festival the world premiere of Alexei German’s Hard to be a God took place, one can only read this decision as double-speak for it didn’t have enough English-language films at the festival.

The Russian film journalist Andrei Plakhov. One of a number of Russian film writers whose tastes are genuinely universal.

One may like to compare the English-language film journalist with a Russian film journalist. Yes, there are a number of film journalists in Russia mainly interested in Russian-language titles but let’s take the newspaper Kommersant as an appropriate comparison to the Guardian. Its film pages boast the names of Andrei Plakhov, Lidia Maslova and Mikhail Trofimenkov. Both Plakhov and Trofimenkov have written various books on world cinema and their knowledge of other cinema’s is truly impressive. I’d guess that at least 50% of their reviews are related to non-Russian titles. It’s not as though Russia lacks own isolationist and even xenophobic tendencies. Indeed its Minister of Culture is well-known for his belief that European Culture is alien to Russia. Yet, thankfully, in Russia film journalists are not lackeys of their authoritarian and isolationist government. Here many film journalists are still people with an culture open to other worlds, nations and tongues (Trofimenkov, for example, was to teach in a French university). Not something you could imagine in the CV of a Guardian film journalist.

Mikhail Trofimenkov, a colleague of Plakhov’s at Kommersant newspaper. His knowledge of world cinema would put to shame any British journalist

Today I decided to look once more at the Guardian film page. Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Daniel Ratcliffe bowing out of the Harry Potter films, Emma Watson as goodwill UN ambassador, Disney and Dumbo and the most-highly rated film of the page is about, wait for it, the Beatles. I can find a French comedy and a Scandinavian film being reviewed but not much else in the tens of recent titles. No wonder readers ‘choose’ as their top ten only anglophone film- they literally have nothing else to choose from if they follow the national press and established film journalists.

It seems that this hermetic splendid isolation is a theme rarely commented on in Britain. It is taken for granted. Film clubs which have the temerity of offering a good selection of world cinema soon get their slots withdrawn from nominally ‘independent cinemas’. (I remember only too well how the local Duke of Yorks management in Brighton caused the collapse of one of the most promising new film clubs in the UK). This kind and degree of marginalization of foreign influence in Russia would be denounced by liberal critics (and often is) as a return to Stalinism (even though repression and Hollywood sit hand-in-glove in Russia too). In Britain it is the norm and to give a political reading of this fact would appear to go against common sense. It is so much the norm that even well-established film-makers from abroad are often refused British visas (or made to wait for them so long that it amounts to the same thing).

Mark Kermode, Guardian and BBC journalist. Probably less than 10% of films reviewed by this critic are foreign-language films.

So the ‘voice of British liberalism’ still has a cultural worldview just as restricted as the Tory little Englander
insisting on the promotion of British values and British culture. In that soggy island called Britain there is barely anything else that ever gets talked about but mentalities and cultural objects which fit in with this cosy isolationism. The likes of Peter Bradshaw, Mark Kermode, Xan Brooks and Catherine Shoard (and journalists such as Jonathon Jones in other ‘culture’ sections) often act as the guardians at the gate making sure that nothing foreign with the exception of the token Von Trier or the latest Cannes award winner ever get past their watch.

During the next week a film festival will be taking place in the city of Odessa. In spite of the fact that the city is now in one of Europe’s conflict zones and the organizers received support from many foreign film-makers and launched its own crowd-funding scheme to help it run this year. In spite of the fact that it even often holds retrospectives of British film-makers (this year it is Stephen Frears turn). In spite of the fact that it has one of the most spectacular events in the form of a live film showing at the Potemkin Steps which attracts thousands of spectators every year. The symbolism a few years ago of tens of thousands watching Battleship Potemkin on the very steps where its most famous scene took place was only too clear for words. In spite of all this and so much more no British film journalist is likely to write of this event at least for the national press (even though a number of British film journalists have visited as guests, one who did two years ago was asked to name a Russian-language film that impressed her. She, to her shame, could think of not a single title or director.

Long live Splendid Isolation!

The dark epiphanies of Odessa (thoughts from Liguria)

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I wrote some reflections in early May as a response to the tragic events in Odessa. I did not know the facts surrounding the event and my inability to access the internet meant that the context of everything which had happened in Odessa that awful day were not well known to me. But the sense of my ignorance only deepened my sense of distraction and loss that death should come on such a scale to the city of Odessa.

Very little internet access in recent weeks meant a kind of abstraction from the present as well as a loss of concentrated view of present events. After over a year in Russia my trip to Italy (and more recently to the UK) meant that I have found it was also hard to adjust to the European distance and indifference to what was happening in Ukraine. Each country, each reality is prey to its own obsessions and its own realities but the situation over the Ukraine had occupied my thoughts so intensely in Moscow. In Italy these thoughts were somehow distracted. Tragic forebodings about Odessa in a Ligurian resort.

Genova – Odessa’s twin city – yet living such different realities. Forebodings of a civil war while relaxing at the fountain in Piazza de Ferrari – thinking of the day when Arkady Babchenko came to the elegant surroundings of the Palazzo Ducale (four years ago) and told his Genoese audience: ‘There is no way I can get across to you the reality that in five maybe ten years civil war will come to Russia and you will be walking down the streets with an ice cream in your hands’. Babchenko’s words came back to me. The civil war was emerging in neighbouring Ukraine but the indifference of Europe was just as grossly sad as Babchenko had foreseen.

I am writing this from a small Italian village. A village, almost isolated for centuries, but which two generations back, would ‘generate’ a large amount of merchant sailors. Many of these merchant sailors would sail to the port city of Odessa. My grandfather was one of these (and my great grandfather had sailed there too) : I remember an advertisement placed on the panel board of the local Communist Party in his village in the early eighties about a cruise to Odessa and the Crimea. My grandfather then about eighty was so excited about the idea of returning to Odessa and wanted to take me along. Our trip never materialised. But I remember his love for the city of Odessa which he once visited as a merchant sailor (I’ve never been able to ascertain exactly when- maybe in the 1930s or maybe after the Second World War, my great grandfather may have travelled there in the first decade of the 20th century, or the last decade of the 19th). The links between Genoa (the city from which the merchant sailors of my village sailed from) and Odessa have always been strong. If my memory serves me there is, I believe, still a Genoa street in Odessa. Genoa and Odessa are twinned cities.

Predrag Matvejevic

For me the most moving thing I have read is Predrag Matvejevic’s description of how he went to meet his relatives in the city of Odessa in July 1972. In Italian it’s available in a volume of his scattered writings entitled “An accursed Europe” . It takes up five pages in his account of a trip to the Soviet Union. From his relatives he learned of how the tragic twentieth century had taken its toll on their lives. Relatives who had been to the gulags- one who had returned and others who hadn’t. Another relative living in dire poverty when Predrag Matvejevic visits – who Predrag’s father had always referred to as the beautiful Tusja. Family memories are confronted with the traces of the terror and poverty that people lived through. Wars took their toll too. An unbearably tragic family history which goes on for four pages and which Predrag learns about in one visit. At the end of Predrag’s visits he walks through the streets of Odessa and then sits down by a railing and starts to cry. He then talks about his walk through the city of Odessa and his return to the Writers’ Union hoping that noone has seen what had happened on his face-he remarks that they didn’t even look at him. He concludes that nothing was important about the rest of of his trip to Moscow and return to Yugoslavia. “I no longer saw anything and I have remembered nothing. I stopped writing.”

The arson at the Trades Union Building causing the loss of over 40 lives.

I read Predrag’s piece some years ago – and I read it again after I heard about the fire that claimed the lives of over forty people in the trade union building in Odessa. My two readings were so different. After my first reading although I had visited Odessa I had not lived there for any period of time. My second reading was suffused with many new memories of my own. While I live in the suburbs of Moscow, Odessa was always the city where I most wanted to be. In 2001 when I first came to Moscow to study Russian I told myself four months in Moscow and then off to Odessa. Things kept separating me from a life in Odessa. All I could do was to travel to the summer film festival and then stay there six weeks one recent summer. The links have been mainly nostalgic and immaginary or let’s say symbolic rather than real links. But real enough, perhaps, to have walked the streets, made friendships there and have done something which approaches grasping the everydayness of the place such as searching for an apartment (even though an attempt to work in Odessa didn’t bear any fruit).

An art work by Stefania Galegati in the city of Genoa which says ‘To tell this story one must start from Odessa’

Scores of people lost their lives in Odessa (in early May) and I trudge through the streets of another city in another country. I am separated from this reality- firstly from the physical streets of Odessa and secondly even from the comments of people in Odessa whom I know. I have only the books of my small library here in Italy – and I have only found the words of Predrag Matvejevic any consolation (Matvejevic is one of the greatest moral voices in Europe today partly because of the personal sincerity of his voice and his persona). His words have an extraordinary quality and his books on the Mediterranean and Bread are works which have few equals. Matvejevic escapes all the traps of writing falsehoods because his gaze is fixed otherwise and it feels as though his archaeology of knowledge is different from others. Moreover, not only has he seen his own former country (Yugoslavia) being torn apart by wars of secession but his fathers birthplace (Odessa) now too is threatened by massive strife (I don’t know if the term civil war is the one to use here- this idea is too terrible to contemplate).

Yesterday (May 3rd) I was in Genoa – another city which I dearly love and it almost mirrors my love for Odessa. Or maybe Genoa was my first experience of this southern Europe- it has childhood memories of a particular intensity. And yet these days I remember something that Arkady Babchenko said when he came to present the Italian edition of his book on his experiences in Chechnya at a kind of week long public university which takes place in Genoa’s Palazzo Ducale each year. There was a kind of unease in Babchenko about talking about Chechnya in the luxurious setting of Genoa’s most central Palace. How could he speak of Russia and Chechnya here? After many questions he stated how in these surroundings it wasn’t really possible to grasp realities. While the Genoese would be walking down eating their ice creams through the beautiful, elegant streets of the centre one day in the future, Russia would be in themidst of a civil war. How could one explain the death and destruction of Chechnya in a spring evening to a middle class Genoese audience who would then after the talk strut off to have a nice meal in a restaurant down the road. I thought of Babchenko’s words that day in Genoa yesterday when, as I walked with my partner and my child through the streets of the city, Odessa seemed to be contemplating the prospect of civil war. Near Palazzo Ducale a group of riot police were blocking the entrances and preparing to clash with a small group of protestors denouncing the racism of Lega Nord who had come to hold a meeting there. Genoa wasn’t exactly calm and the massive police violence, the assassination of Carlo Giuliani and their use of torture in July 2001 means that this is a city with its own wounds. Some Genoese even in recent history have experienced the reality of violence and repression but it seems that cognitive and other dissonances don’t always join up the experiences of violence and repression and the continuing need for a kind of ignorance. Genoa and Odessa march to different rhythms and their wounds seem to have different narratives. The fountain at Piazza de Ferrari spurts out a green dyed water while Odessa is bracing itself for a possible descent into strife that it hasn’t known for decades.

Genoa’s Piazza de Ferrari