Pyotr Pavlensky: We live between Fascism and Anarchy.

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With the news that the actionist artist Pyotr Pavlensky has been sent to the notorious Serbskiy Institute of Psychiatry in a clear case of punitive psychiatry (for more on this case and its context read an excellent blog post here: https://peopleandnature.wordpress.com/2016/02/17/russia-punishment-psychiatry-back-in-vogue/), there is clearly a need to highlight and protest this fact. But also a need to listen to the ideas of and concepts of Pavlensky himself. Here is a small extract that was published in a Russian magazine and will be part of a forthcoming book on the artist in the context of Russian actionism. 

The original interview with Anastasia Belyaeva was printed in Snob magazine on the 16th February, 2016 (and is an extract from a forthcoming book).

It’s recently been announced that the organisers of the “Innovation” Art Prize have removed the action “Threat” by Pyotr Pavlensky (in which he set fire to the doors of the FSB building in Moscow). This is an extract from a book about to be printed “Pyotr Pavlensky in Russian Actionism” and which the publisher Ilya Danishevsky allowed the magazine Snob to publish an extract from.

 

Let’s talk about your audience. I am curious about this. In an interview with a Ukrainian television channel you stated that art should articulate because it’s rather difficult for people themselves to articulate why the state is crushing them. Your mission then is one of articulation?

A kind of dispersal is taking place. We all find in ourselves in a similar, political, situation. Basically certain conflicting things are happening with us, fairly unpleasant things. The question lies in what is happening, what and in what way. Everyone senses this in some way or other. But the problem is articulating what the authorities are doing – for they disperse all this. Someone reads the news, goes to a shop, walks along the street or has to go to work and he or she sees that all that is happening around is bad but this ‘badness’ is somehow dispersed.

You articulate this for your audience?

Well yes for those who can see and hear all this.

When you articulate, if you want your message to be heard you need to make some corrections to the stereotypes that people have, to their cultural code which they are not prepared for. It seems to me that as a result that those people who need some kind of explanation are simply not able to read your message and those who are able don’t need any explanation. So there is, perhaps, some senselessness to all this.

Those who are able don’t require explanation and those unable…

The audience of the state TV channels when they see your actions at most feel certain negative emotions- it’s unpleasant, repulsive for them. Then they are told for what reason you have done this. And this ‘displeasure and repulsion’ is somehow all mixed up with the reason for which you did this.  

This is my very raison d’etre for my work. These temporary alienations are intentional. This precedent remains and then something happens and so a person will return to this. One user from a social network wrote to me to tell me that at one point he was against, very much against all this which I do. I wrote to him something in reply. And he wrote to me a letter that in the past he would write a lot against these actions but then he came up against certain situations in life. It seems that  the authorities pressured him in some way. Now he supports such actions and wanted to apologise for his former stance.

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I’ve come up against many situations and I’ve got a rough idea as to how people react to my actions. An excessively emotional response, as a rule, can be found a lot only on the internet. In real life when I meet people as a rule I see that people understand things very well. Only once in the metro was there any clash with someone, not even a clash, but a guy simply started to become hysterical when he recognised me. A rather young guy recognised me in a metro car. He began to check my image with that on the internet and then started to run along the carriage. We are all travelling, the train is moving and he is running through this carriage calling on people to rise up against me, to join forces against me. Not one person supported him. He stuck his iphone to people’s noses and they just brushed him aside as some kind of crazy hysterical citizen. I observed how people reacted. Not gaining any support he began to accuse me of humiliating our country, humiliating him, the square (Red square?) and something else. It become clear from people’s glances that even if they recognised me… I didn’t see amongst these people any kind of incomprehension towards me, or any aggressiveness. People are rather more understanding than not.

About that user of social media who wrote to you- was it pleasant to have such a reaction?

Of course, he supports some of my ideas.

Is this a rather unique case or does it periodically happen- this ‘I’ve finally understood you?’

Yes it does happen now and again. There is a whole range of human responses. Sometimes I feel the force of this whole range of reactions. When one prepares oneself for some kind of action the different public reactions start to float through my mind at moments of greatest pressure. And when you start to remove yourself in some way from this pressure there is a certain understanding at a certain level. Why can’t I even see this reaction in my mind? Because one bases one’s view on one and the same resources – the internet, maybe the television, papers and some other media. We all nourish ourselves with the same sources of information. And I confront this range of responses afterwards, after the action has been realised. And naturally there are both positive and negative responses.

And up to then it remains in some kind of lonely …

It will always stay like that, you began to say that this is an issue that some understand and some don’t. It’s such a thing that if I begin to think in this way and with these categories so as to make these actions more understandable, and that I need to do it like that elsewhere, then this will end up as a kind of populism. I’ll end up trying to please someone. This is not my goal.

It’s not a task. The task is to reduce things to some minimum and then in the process develop some clear symbols.

A body wound up in barbed wire, what could be clearer? You understand that here there is no way that one could be even clearer than this.

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It seems to me that there is a kind of clear reaction when people see a man nailing his scrotum on Red Square and the first unfounded response is that people will name you an exhibitionist or homosexual. That is the initial Russian response- something is not right with him in the head. And in Russia abnormality is associated with homosexuality and if you’re a homosexual the thinking goes you’re a pervert. Regarding such reactions don’t you think, don’t you feel that the essential point is somehow being washed away?

If you’re talking about how the media tries to influence the response, then of course they are constantly attempting to make the pendulum of reactions swing between picturing it as a criminal act and that of an insane act and so one can always expect a certain incomprehension. But it’s another question as to whether this has an influence on people who actually see the action. During the ‘Fixation’ action one woman was constantly asking “What’s wrong with him, is he sick?” Of course this is rather sad that such a cult of psychiatry has such power over public consciousness. However, if some kind of genuine conversation about the psychiatric norm does start then that’s just great. That’s my first point. Second. About this gesture …. I’m trying not so much to invent some new gesture, not to concoct some original act. The gesture of nailing one’s scrotum is basically quite culturally entrenched. It is a gesture which prisoners sometimes use.

In relation to what do they make this gesture?

It’s related to many different situations.

As a protest?

Yes. To carry to an extreme their lack of freedom. The impossibility of movement. Often there are wooden floors. And they peg themselves in. And where can you shift him to? A person is already imprisoned, and here he has fastened himself in. This is fixation. And you know when I speak in my text about the way the country is turned into a prison camp, about a police state, I’m not talking about this lightly. 10 November was Police Day.  Each year banners are hanging everywhere in the city – 10 November, long live our beloved police! All these signs on the surface. I work with these signs because they are a part of culture. It’s important to mark where all this comes from if one is to talk about the work with contexts. Without this the gesture of prisoners would remain behind these fences, doors and yet more fences. With these large number of barriers information just doesn’t get to us, one can’t even find photographs of this because no one in the prisons will be prepared to document this in such a way. Everyone knows that this is happening somewhere behind a large number of doors. And here this is happening at the very centre. However, if truth be told, a very conditional border was removed. 10 November, banners, books with the memoirs of dissidents and prisoners – these are markers which link everything in a single statement. If this doesn’t exist then a passerby will start to think: Red square, naked, I don’t know…  I would dispute this notion of the naked exhibitionist, why naked, a person is naked because he is deprived of everything, even his clothes. The level of impoverishment is an indicator of absence.

Vulnerability?

No, not vulnerability. There was no attempt to talk about this. Naked is an expression of a condition, stripped, denuded, deprived of everything. It is, on the other hand, the body in general that which can be found under any clothes. In any case clothes mark you, are some form of mask. Building up some kind of identity. Whereas the body is simply body. All bodies in some way or other are similar.

To what extent are the police a part of your actions?

Basically a very important part. To a large extent they do it all, they arrange this all. There everyone changes places.

In the sense that they arrest you?

No, in the sense of how they react to it. It is not my body which turns out to be a victim. Everything is constructed so that the figure of authority is, in fact, a victim of the situation because they find themselves in a subordinate situation. They need to obey regulations. This is a work on Subject-Object relations. The law-enforcement officials are afraid in the first instance but they are obliged to exercise their authority.

They are obliged to free you.

To do something – or to free me…

The fact that they are the authority and are obliged to free you, does this fact become a revolutionary reversal of roles or something else?

They become the objects of this situation. That is they… I think that this is an important moment: the state objectifies people, compels them to subordinate themselves to regulations, somehow to move within a range of permitted and non-permitted actions, to find themselves in such a corridor.  A man who submits is an object. When he realizes an action, he becomes an object, brought to a certain level perhaps. Beside while initially they are objects performing certain functions they then also become art objects. They want to neutralise and so they have a certain authority. They have a task to neutralise events, eliminate, cleanse the streets or squares. But this compels them to serve opposing goals. They begin to construct events. They become actors in these events. Everything is built through them. My own action is kept to a minimum. I simply sit there and do nothing. Or just stand there.

And if they hadn’t come, would you have still sat in Red Square?

Yes. It’s unclear how an event develops until it actually takes place. It is enough to denote a certain reticence. And the situation is then constructed around that reticence. Because the police, ‘ambulance’ or simply people who would attack me or do something else are simply a part of the social body. Something happens, some kind of rejection (or stigmatisation)- this, too, is a kind of interaction. A senselessly hermetic situation- I came, I left. Another important fact is that I speak with everyone in the same way. I communicate with journalists, with psychiatrists, with investigating officers in the same way. There exists definite rules as to how all this is drawn out. If one keeps to the rules of reticence and doesn’t react to signals from the authorities then there need not be any cooperation with it. I remain stationary and at that moment when the action comes to a concluding stage, when the doors have been closed then I begin to talk and to talk with everyone in the same way. I make no difference between journalists with whom I will tell all and, for example, an investigating officer. I could, of course, as it were, mock the investigating officer but it is not mockery as such. It is I who draws him into an artistic event. What did these dialogues lead to? Who attained their goals in this situation – art or the bureaucratic apparatus? And I with my work…

And if everything in the country was fine, what would you have done?

I don’t know.

So one could say that the worse the situation is in the country, the more work you’ll have?

I get it. What kind of situation. It’s an unrealizable utopia. There will never be such an ideal society and state. It seems to me that there are certain things in the nature of people- subject-object relations, an understanding of power, these things subordinate all others.

You don’t particularly like the concept of power? I take it that, roughly speaking, you believe that it can’t be a good thing, something reasonable? Can power be a good thing?

I believe not, because the task of power is to create a fully predictable individual. Because an unpredictable individual is a dangerous indvidual. The closer a person gets to the condition of Subject then the more he leaves some barriers, looking for something new and this is dangerous for people because he becomes ungovernable in this case.

Would you have protested in any country in the world?

Not in the same way. You must understand that there are different contexts. I’m not a professional protestor.

Protest art?

Political art. I’m not a professional of protest art. Political art and protest art are far from being one and the same thing. Protest art comes from poster art. There is a “NO” there and here there is a “YES”. This would be an over generalisation. I take as a premise that political art is work with control mechanisms.

Fine. Political art. Would you have exercised political art everywhere?

I don’t know. If I were to live in another country maybe I wouldn’t have exercised political art. Proceeding from how I now think I would probably have found some way in which to work. But maybe it would something close in form because different countries, different control systems give birth to different ways of suppressing the human imagination.

And is there a model or a regime of government which would be ideal for you? Anarchy perhaps?

Probably anarchy is an ideal model. I realise that its ideal is held in place by its unrealisability. It’s unlikely that humankind will decide to sacrifice the advantages of scientific and technological progress to a utopian vacuum of power (anarchy). Anarchy is a liberation from some kind of paradigms, it is resistance, a rejection of some or other enforcement of rules. Anarchy is precisely a work on the elaboration of the concept of power.

Anarchy is the closest idea for you? Or maybe something else too?

Yes it’s possibly close to me in some way. There is an insurgent anarchism and then there is another form of anarchism. Anarcho-communism is some kind of delirious contradiction. The dictatorship of equality against the dictatorship of freedom. Or there is one or there is another. It’s difficult to imagine the advent of punk culture in a dictatorial regime of general equality.

Would you like to live in a state where anarchy ruled?

There can be no state where anarchy rules.

A city.  Where everything like this is created. There is anarchy. And there in any case something is built up.

Undoubtedly. That’s why I answered anarchy. The life of a person is spent in permanent struggle for his subjectivisation, for his self-assertion becase all possible resources, forces, interests and, in the final resort, other people or someone else, groups of people work towards that objectivisation, towards that subordination. Even if a pseudo-anarchic structure were to be built… then in any case there would arise groups or structures who will begin to turn all that…

To systematise it.

Yes, to turn it into a hard bone-like content mass. And it is easier to reject these dogmas because they have not managed to become a political disenchantment. History persuades us that the lesson of the 20th Century didn’t prevent Kibbutzim fit a secular idea of the commonwealth of property along with a defence of the growing and sacred borders of the state of Israel. All this needs to be rejected. This constant self- assertion. This is like an endless trial.

Is there some kind of ideal model for the existence of a person? Is this possible? So see it for yourself: so that nobody could usurp you, you don’t intersect with anybody? 

It’s difficult for me to say. It all depends on a the human being. It all depends on the person. A person must overcome that which was imposed on him …

Globally.

Globally – there’s a movement towards an anarchic model.

After which everything will once again run around in circles?

Without a doubt. There’s a certain range or continuum, of course. Like in the song: “Everything which is not anarchy is fascism” We find ourselves between these two poles. Fascism, clearly, not in terms of the Italian model or some other but as a kind of generic term. Fascism as absolute dictate, absolute and total control. And then there’s the other pole: anarchy as some kind of absolute freedom. In fact between them everything oscillates.

And in the middle is everything normal between these two extremes?

I’ve never thought about what can be found in between. I don’t know what’s in between. In between there is a dull liberalism with its shoddy political correctness.

I’m trying to understand what aim you have in that essentially closed circle. You understand that which would be wonderful will never in fact be realised.

In actual fact what is it that changes society and in general gives us some kind of transformation. Certainly not any political templates or schemes, because it is precsiely our work on cultural codes which is the most significant thing here. Conceptual precedents influence how people relate to that which happens around them, it is one’s reflexes produced by one’s relationship to different situations. Which associative models are activated there and how the individual gives a situational response. The person may give a quick response or may, reflecting, make a decision. And it is this field where the struggle takes place. Of course regimes change. There was a Soviet regime (tr.n here Pavlensky uses the pejorative word formed from the word Soviet which is hard to translate into English), before that there was the monarchy, the Russian Empire and now there is this regime. In any regime the military and security services are those with power. In 1917 there was a revolution, there were changes and there were significant changes in the cultural sphere. In art and in terms of how people related to each other. There was a movement for 15 years and then a reaction, the Bolsheviks smothered everything and things were forcefully rolled back.

Do you have some kind of “Super-idea” regarding what you are doing? Where are you taking all this? What point between fascism and anarchy seems to you the most appropriate?

One undoubtedly needs to push everything in the direction of anarchy because…

So that something moves at least a little bit?

Even for things to remain as they are one already needs a certain effort. If one makes a great effort one can move things a little further. There is a very strong force moving us towards the other side, towards fascism and absolute subordination. Working towards this are the strong resources of state apparatuses, an entire system of authorities. This is a constant collision. It will not cease. For me it is on this field where the head on clash takes place. It’s ridiculous to dream that those forces which are an obstacle will eventually dissolve, disappear somewhere and then we will suddenly find ourselves in anarchy and live under a different model. I think there is a more realistic perspective on things. But if we are to discuss things theoretically then, of course, when you loosen certain frameworks, move some borders further away then you will help others, those who come after you.

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

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

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

The writer Aleksei Tsvetkov at Tsiolkovsky bookshop.

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

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

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

The logo for Kirill Medvedev’s Free Marxist Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes Towards a Manifesto of Kibalchich Cosmism

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Nikolai Kibalchich, regicide and pioneer of space travel.

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

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

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

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

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

What can Kibalchich Cosmism be?

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

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

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

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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 coorodinates. Marching in memory of a politician who was essentially a Neo-Liberal figure may seem odd for any western Leftist but in Russia this had some sense even for groups of Trotskyist Leftists and for anarchists and other strands of the anti-authoritarian Left. All political co-ordinates that western Leftists may try to use about thinking of Russia often seem ultimately to make little sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the assassination of Nemtsov and historical coordinates.

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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.