Voices of Russians, Unsorted into Boxes

DSCN0457
Two Russians walking down a sunny street in central Petersburg, 17 September 2017. Do we know what they’re thinking? Unless we talk to them and get to know a good deal about them and their lives, of course we won’t know what they’re thinking. And there are 144 million other Russians like them. Each an individual, not a statistic, they are complete mysteries, like people anywhere else in the world, unless we spend a lot of time in their company, talking to some of them, and living lives much like they live. Photograph by the Russian Reader

Contrary to what Samuel Greene wonders in his recent blog post, namely, “Can we learn to listen to the voices of Russians without first sorting them into boxes that reflect our own insecurities more than their complex realities?”, most “Russia experts” are only interested in listening to other “Russian experts” (especially the ones they agree with) and otherwise promoting themselves as “Russia experts,” a term I define broadly, because it includes, I think, not only the usual suspects, but the relatively small cliques of activists, journalists, writers, scholars, and artists who try very hard to control the discourse about Russia to their own advantage.

I think the best thing I’ve ever done on a blog is this long piece. I won’t say anything more about it here. You can either read it or not read it. But you might notice, if you do read it, that it is chockablock with raw Russian voices, unsorted into any boxes, although I don’t hide my own views in the piece in any way.

But when the group of activist artists whose name the blog on which the piece was first published bore had the chance to do a big show at a super famous contemporary art institution in London, my request to include this piece in a journal of texts by the art group’s authors (which, supposedly, included me at the time) that would accompany the show, I was flatly turned down by the group’s leader, who explained this text didn’t “fit the format” of the publication they were planning.

Not only that but I was later disinvited from attending the show with the group by this same leader.

After you’ve had several dozen experiences like that, you realize that the vast majority of “Russian experts” are in the business for their own professional advancement, not in order to give anyone a clearer picture of the real Russia, which, I’ve discovered over the years, interests almost no one, least of all the tiny cliques of “Russia experts” in academia, art, and journalism.

People like the ones depicted and heard in the my blog post from nine years ago actually frighten most “Russia experts.”

And yet there they are, real Russians, willing to fight the regime tooth and nail, and perfectly clear about the regime’s true nature.

At least half of the world’s “Russia experts” don’t understand even a tenth of what these “simple” Russians do.

So what do we need “Russia experts” for? TRR

One Solution: Demolition

4561128
Sculptor Salavat Shcherbakov putting the final touches on his monument to weapons designer Mikhail Kalashnikov. Photo courtesy of Valery Sharifulin/TASS

Sergey Abashin
Facebook
September 19, 2017

Everything about the new monument in Moscow is disgusting. Once again, it is huge, and it shows us a non-military man holding a rifle. As an obvious symbol of militarism, it looks savage in the downtown of a major city. And then there is the very man the monument commemorates, who besides giving his surname to a lucrative arms brands apparently did nothing else for his country, let alone for a city in which he never lived.

Debates are underway about what to do with monuments when the context in which we view them has changed. Should we demolish them? We are not obliged to destroy them: we could move them to places where their symbolic baggage vanishes. Or would it be better to recode monuments where they stand by building something around them and thus imparting a new meaning to them? In my opinion, we have no choice in this case. There is no way to remedy this abomination. It can only be demolished.

Sergey Abashin is British Petroleum Professor of Migration Studies at the European University in St. Petersburg. His most recent book is Sovetskii kishlak: Mezhdu kolonializmom i modernizatsiei [The Soviet Central Asian village: between colonialism and modernization], Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2015. Translated by the Russian Reader

___________________

Moscow To Unveil Statue Of AK-47 Inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov
Tom Balmforth
RFE/RL
September 18, 2017

75AC53AB-0E8F-47DE-BC13-452E78BD5FBF_w1023_r1_sThe 7.5-meter tall statue to Mikhail Kalashnikov, which stands on a northern intersection of the Garden Ring around central Moscow.

MOSCOW — After several false starts and some grumbling from locals, a prominent statue of a gun-toting Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of one of the world’s most ubiquitous weapons of war, is set to be unveiled in an official ceremony in the Russian capital on September 19.

The 7.5-meter metal likeness — still covered in plastic — features Kalashnikov cradling his eponymous AK-47 assault rifle and looking west down the Garden Ring that loops around central Moscow.

The statue was hoisted onto its plinth over the weekend beside a new business center.

A second metalwork sculpture, of St. George slaying a dragon with a spear tipped with a rifle sight with AK-47 written on it, stands nearby.

The Kalashnikov statues’ sculptor, Salavat Shcherbakov, is also the artist behind a towering 17-meter statue of Prince Vladimir the Great that was erected — amid controversy — outside the Kremlin in November at a ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin.

A4E87823-7F31-405E-A58C-7FE440CBDC33_w650_r0_sRussian sculptor Salavat Shcherbakov presents a model for a monument to Mikhail Kalashnikov, Russian designer of the AK-47 assault rifle, at his workshop in Moscow on November 10, 2016.

Shcherbakov told TASS news agency that the rifle was added to his original plan for the Kalashnikov statue because people might not recognize him without his signature contribution to the Soviet Army.

“So we dared to include the rifle after all,” Shcherbakov said.

Other prominent statues in the vicinity include statues to poets Alexander Pushkin and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky presented plans to Putin for the Kalashnikov statue in September 2016 during a tour of the Kalashnikov arms manufacturer, headquartered in Izhevsk, the capital of the republic of Udmurtia.

The project was backed by the Russian Military-Historic Society, which is chaired by Medinsky and Rostec, the state weapons and technology conglomerate run by powerful Putin ally Sergei Chemezov.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, Medinsky, Chemezov, and Kalashnikov’s daughter, Yelena Kalashnikova, were expected to attend the unveiling ceremony on September 19.

The statue was originally meant to be unveiled on January 21, marking the day in 1948 when Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov signed a decree ordering the construction of an experimental batch of Kalashnikov rifles.

But the ceremony was moved because of inclement weather to May 8, ahead of Victory Day, and then to September 19, Gunmaker Day.

Not everyone is on board with the project.

7926FEAF-D770-479A-84A0-0FB57CC87D96_w650_r0_sMikhail Kalashnikov with one of his fabled assault rifles in 2006.

Veronika Dolina, a local resident, posted a photograph of an apparent protester at the still-shrouded Kalashnikov statue holding a sign that said, “No to weapons, no to war.” She wrote: “Man at Kalashnikov pedestal. Humble hero, no posing.”

21731069_1536832173044144_5241152260190270688_n
“No to weapons, no to war.” Photo courtesy of Veronika Dolina/Facebook

Resident Natalya Seina told 360, a local media outlet, “This is not artistic, to put it mildly. This is trash. It’s loathsome.” She also noted how Kalashnikov had lived his life in Izhevsk, not Moscow, unlike playwright Anton Chekhov and poet Aleksandr Pleshchev. “These are probably more worthy people than the creator of a rifle.”

There are estimated to be as many as 200 million Kalashnikov rifles around the world —prompting one expert to label it “the Coca-Cola of small arms” — and they are manufactured in dozens of countries.

Mikhail Kalashnikov died in 2013 at the age of 94.

Who Makes the Nazis?

P8220016.JPG
Scuplture on the Albert Speer-inspired Galeriya shopping center in downtown Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

“In 2015, for instance, St. Petersburg hosted one of the most outspoken gatherings of far-right ideologues Europe has seen in years. With speakers rotating across the dais, a pair of Americans—Jared Taylor and Sam Dickson—railed against Washington’s turn toward civil rights and racial equality. Taylor, a man Spencer himself has cited as inspiration for his political baptism into white nationalism, and a man who recorded robocalls on behalf of Trump during the campaign, joined Dickson, erstwhile lawyer for the Ku Klux Klan, as the latter praised Putin for encouraging high birthrates among white Russians. The organization pulling the Americans to the conference was itself an outgrowth of a Russian party founded by Dmitry Rogozin, Moscow’s deputy prime minister.”

—Casey Michel, “America’s neo-Nazis don’t look to Germany for inspiration. They look to Russia,” August 22, 2017, Washington Post

All We Have to Look Forward to Are Past Wars and Future Wars, but God Help Us from Revolutions

When my charge Abubakar and I emerged from the courtyard of our building earlier today for our afternoon constitutional, we were abruptly confronted by a moving van, almost blocking the exit to the street. The van, which was quite filthy, had two “patriotic” (nationalist) bumper stickers tattooed on its back bumper.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Thank you that we don’t know what war is like!” You can say what you like about the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin’s Treptower Park, but the Great Fatherland War was definitely not the “war to end all wars” almost anywhere, much less the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia, which happily intervened militarily in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan after the war, as well as enthusiastically engaging in lesser Cold War shenanigans all over the globe with and without its sparring partner the US. Since its convenient self-collapse, it has twice reduced Chechnya to rubble, occupied Crimea, set Donbass on fire, and razed East Aleppo to the ground. So much for not knowing what war is like. The experience has merely been severely localized to keep the ruling and chattering classes of Moscow and Petersburg from knowing what it’s like.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Our armor is strong and our tanks are swift!” This particular (modern) tank is emblazoned with the St. George’s Ribbon that has become a de rigueur accessory for “patriots” (nationalists) on holidays such as Victory Day (May 9). Some particular fervent patriots (nationalists) manage to wear the ribbon all year round, like an amulet against the evil eye.

Here we see the historical semantic switch that is always flicked by Russian nationalists, played out, in this case, on a single, dust-encrusted moving van bumper. Since the Soviet Union made the “ultimate sacrifice” in the Second World War, it now gets a free pass in all present and future conflicts, which are somehow, usually vaguely, provoked by the “raw deal” the Soviet Union and, especially, ethnic Russians supposedly got in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Cold War.

The second bumper sticker should thus be seen as a serious “humorous” threat to invade Europe in the very near future. The really funny thing is it is addressed to a purely domestic, i.e., Russian audience. Perpetually “collapsing” Europe, brought to its knees, allegedly, by Muslim fundamentalists, gays, and political correctness (in the Russian popular imagination), and thus deserving of invasion (salvation) by Putinist Russia, literally cannot see this message, ostensibly addressed to it, not to other Russians, who have it drilled into their heads on a hourly basis, unless they avoid the Russian state media altogether, which many of them have done to keep their heads from exploding.

20840926_1698810056830620_6808640191179048680_n
Bolshaya Zelenina Street, Petersburg, August 17, 2017. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Kasatkina

An acquaintance came home today to find a once blank or otherwise adorned firewall, as depicted above, painted over with an alarming, menacing war scene. There was a brief period between the collapse of the Soviet Union and Putin 2.0 or Putin 3.0, when the city’s numerous, achingly beautiful firewalls were freed of portraits of Politburo members and exemplary socialist laborers and allowed to be themselves, which was something like the visual equivalent of one hand clapping. But when money and politics poured back into the city in the noughties, the firewalls were an easy means for district council officials to show residents and city hall they were engaged in “improvements” and not just pocketing the budget money entrusted to them. (They were doing that, too, whatever else they were pretending to do.) Hiring a crew of hacks to paint the firewall in an otherwise dreary courtyard and arranging a few benches or a little garden or playground below the mural was just the ticket.

Those days of mostly harmless kitsch are now long past. Firewalls should now say something big and important, if the city is going to bother to put up the hard cash to paint them, and that message has to be aggressive and “patriotic.” As one commentator wrote, upon seeing the image of the Soviet warplanes, above, the impression they make is that Russia must start a war immediately.

Or, as in a series of five murals painted on different walls in five Russian cities on the occasion of Putin’s birthday in October 2014, “monumental propaganda” is made to short circuit all of Russian/Soviet history, especially the country’s triumphs, to the current regime and its ruler for life.

IMG_5964Memory (P = Pamiat’), one of a series of graffiti-like murals produced by the pro-Kremlin youth group Set (“Network”) to celebrate the president’s birthday in October 2014. This mural was painted on the firewall of an apartment block on the Obvodny Canal in Petersburg. Fortunately, it has since been painted over. Photograph by the Russian Reader

Thankfully, there are times when the public meta-historical messages are either unreadable or deeply ambiguous, as in this advertisement and accompanying promotion for the Uberesque taxi company Taksovichkof. (In the interests of full disclosure, I use their services very occasionally.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“A first!” claims the ad. “A taxi tour of 1917 Petrograd”!

It transpires the route includes St. Isaac’s Cathedral; the barracks of the Volyhnia Regiment, who decisively came down on the side of the Provisional Government during the February 1917 Revolution; the Smolny Institute, where the Bolsheviks were temporarily headquartered in October 1917; the Finland Station; the nearby Crosses Prison, where many revolutionaries of all stripes, not just the Bolsheviks, did hard time; the revolutionary battleship Aurora, which fired the shot heard round the world, returned to its moorings recently after extensive repairs; the mansion of ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska (currently, the Museum of Political History), where Lenin read out his so-called April Theses (“The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution”) after returning from exile in Switzerland; the Peter and Paul Fortress, which housed many political prisoners and revolutionaries during the tsarist period; and, finally, the Winter Palace, stormed by a unit of Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries on October 25, 1917, as a means of asserting the hard left’s symbolic victory in the second revolution.

takso-tour 2.PNG
The route of Taksovichkof’s Excursion through Revolutionary Petrograd from 1917 to 2017 [sic]. Image courtesy of Taksovichkof

Unfortunately, knowing a little bit about the political views of the local TV celebrity and historian who recorded the tour’s audio guide, I can anticipate the tenor of the tour will be fairly counterrevolutionary and reactionary (i.e., “liberal”). But it’s better than declaring war on Finland again, I guess. TRR

P.S. The taxi tour costs 1,500 rubles (approx. 22 euros at current exchange rates). It lasts at least an hour and a half depending on traffic conditions, which are usually brutal from morning to night in downtown Petersburg. You can go on the tour from five in the morning (ideal, I would think) to twelve midnight (when the downtown is crawling with merrymakers).

Another News Item about Russia That Will Brighten Your Day and Make You Smile

russian-smile-features-1
Vasya Lozhkin, “No Time for Smiling!” Pilfered by crypto-nationalist website russiatrek.org and not credited to the artist

I’ve had complaints in recent days that my Facebook news feed and Word Press-powered blog (the very blog you’re reading now) felt “tired” and lacked humor.

This news item, however, is sure to energize you positively while tickling your funny bone.

Russia’s Federation Council has approved a bill that would prohibit the use of Internet proxy services—including virtual private networks, or VPNs.

The bill approved on July 25 would also ban the anonymous use of mobile messaging services.

The bill was adopted in its final reading by the lower house of the parliament, the State Duma, on July 21.

It now goes to President Vladimir Putin to be signed into the law.

If signed by the president, the legislation would take effect on January 1, 2018. That is less than three months before a presidential election in which Putin is widely expected to seek and win a new six-year term.

Under the bill, Internet providers would be ordered to block websites that offer VPNs and other proxy services. Russians frequently use such websites to access blocked content by routing connections through servers abroad.

The legislation also would require messenger apps to verify users through their phone numbers and to send out compulsory text messages from government agencies on request.

Lawmakers who promoted the bill said it is needed to prevent the spread of extremist material and ideas.

Critics say Putin’s government often uses that justification to suppress political dissent.

Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

It will also have the added effect, I’m sure, of making large numbers of professionals give up their lives in the perpetually decadent west and move to Russia.

Because in Russia it’s all about laughter and spiritual uplift.©

NB. This post is a paid advertisement for Re-Elect Putin 2018, a nonpartisan group of cash-hungry foreign turncoats working to keep the world’s largest country a dictatorship, because in an increasingly complex world only outright tyranny is capable of getting things done

Vadim F. Lurie, “White Night”

vadim f. lurie-girl smoking in windowsill (01.07.17)
Vadim F. Lurie, White Night, 2017

At night, the young women in Petersburg often sit in the windows, gaze at the street, and smoke. On a white night, they are visible from the ground even if the light in their flats has been turned off. I have several similar shots. All of them were takenfrom a distance, with a hidden camera, you might say. I don’t see it as unethical, because I’m not peering into windows and trying to see what’s inside. It is the young women who are showing themselves to the city. Moreover, this particular girl (I took the picture on June 17, 2017, on the Petrograd Side) has become an image, a symbol, which, in fact, makes the shot quite good.
—Vadim F. Lurie, July 2, 2017

My thanks to Mr. Lurie for his kind permission to reproduce his photograph here and his agreeing to respond to my questions about it in writing. TRR

Sergey Yermakov: Protest Duckies and the Actionism of Fact

a21474785_0
Inflated rubber duckie at June 12, 2017, anti-corruption protest rally in Petersburg. The duckie was later detained by police. Photo courtesy of The Poke

Sergey Yermakov
Protest Duckies and the Actionism of Fact

The final performances by Voina’s so-called Petersburg faction could be termed “actionism of fact” by analogy with “literature of fact,” a project the LEF mob tried and failed to realize in the 1920s.

Voina took ordinary actions from the repertoire of protest and resistance, actions requiring no special skills—turning over a police car, torching a paddy wagon, dousing policemen with urine—and simply did them in their performances.

What happened to the performances due to their actions?

First, the performances simply were carried out, like ordinary actions, bereft of aesthetic and symbolic depth. (We will bracket the question of Alexei Plutser-Sarno’s defamiliarizing press releases.) “They really did it.”

Second, the actions were glorified by the very fact they were performed by the actionists. They were bathed in an aura of glory, but note that this aura was totally colorless. It had no density whatsoever, and it produced no distortions in the albedo. This was because the actions were as commonplace as could be, actions available to everyone, actions to which nothing was added except their execution. (Well, yes, and the group’s signature.)

The actionist readymade (or “readydone”) and actionism of fact, unlike the classic artistic readymade, have no need of a special aesthetic space, such as a museum. Unlike literature of fact (if this literary project had actually been implemented in the twenties), actionism may well avoid the traps of language and representation.

Voina thus directly took on the issue of politically effective action. There is a certain actionist Platonism to it, but if we bypass Plato (no matter how we regard the violence of his gesture) we cannot ask ourselves about art’s attitude and access to politics.

In the Republic, Plato does not suggest banishing all poets for fobbing off the phantom of excellence (εἰδώλων ἀρετῆς) on citizens instead of virtue (i.e., the thought of action). He would let the non-mimetic poets, who glorify the gods and sing the praises of good men (ἐγκώμια τοῖς ἀγαθοῖς), stay in the city. Voina’s Petersburg faction non-mimetically sang the praises not of citizens themselves, but certain actions as such, simply by performing them. Their implicit message was something like: Look, this is up for grabs for everyone, and yet if you carry out this glorious deed, you will not be unoriginal and overshadowed by us, because this is basically something anyone could do. This is a kind of democratic and non-hierarchical political Platonism.

Voina did these performances before the May 6, 2012, clashes between protesters and police on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow. They seemingly had offered the demos who took to the streets a possible repertoire of elementary actions. (Of course, the total number of such actions is much greater, and not all of them are either criminal or so primitive. What matters in this case is only the dimension itself.) But the demos did not heed their call, preferring to play at making witty posters, from the December 2011 rally on Sakharov Avenue to this day, and exchanging anti-regime memes in the social networks. (That is, the circumstances are in some way symmetrical to the exile of the poets. In this case, however, the demos itself has turned its back on genuinely political artists, immersing itself in the carnivalesque mimesis of the meme.) By rejecting the dimension of the glorious deed, however, the demos has refused to be itself, because it is eventful, rather than substantial, in contrast to the phantasm of the ethnos.

It took Pyotr Pavlensky half a dozen performances to get close to the place where Voina had arrived in the spring of 2011, that is, in order to torch the front door at FSB headquarters in Moscow. In many ways, the performance was a step backwards, for example, when it came to the question of withdrawal. The guerillas of Voina insisted on retreating in a well-conceived way and unexpectedly returning to strike again. (This is the only worthwhile “We’ll be back!” It is a far cry from Navalny and Co.) But Pavlensky, in many respects by way of accommodating an aesthetic impulse, stood his ground to the bitter end. He has thus proven to be a more direct follower of the National Bolsheviks than Voina when it comes to this issue.

So Voina is still waiting for its demos and valiant citizens back in the spring of 2011, scornfully gazing at rubber duckies, meme politics, and witty anti-Kremlin t-shirts.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Sergey Yermakov is a professional translator who was involved in several of Pyotr Pavlensky’s performances. My thanks to Mr. Yermakov for his kind permission to publish this essay here.