Last Address (Moscow): Natalia Totskaya

A photograph of the young Natalia Totskaya, taken at a photo studio in Irkutsk. On January 2, 1938, Totskaya was executed for “counterrevolutionary terrorist propaganda” and “espionage.” Courtesy of Oksana Matiyevskaya

Oksana Matiyevskaya
Facebook
August 28, 2021

Here’s what’s new.

I was just writing an announcement for tomorrow’s Last Address ceremony for a neighborhood group.

Suddenly, I realized that five years ago, when I started doing this, the charges of espionage and terrorist propaganda [made against many victims of the Great Terror] seemed to be the distant past, a clear marker of Stalin’s hysterical spy mania. It seemed, well, unreal, hard to believe. What must have it been like to live in such darkness, huh?

The years have gone by, but, people have asked, does it still seem unreal?

This is Natalia Totskaya, a graduate of an Institute for Noble Maidens. She was a teacher of foreign languages and translator. She corresponded with her sister, who had emigrated.

A plaque bearing her name and four dates — of her birth, arrest, execution and exoneration — will be installed and dedicated tomorrow, Sunday, 3:00 p.m, at 1/2 Solyanka Street, bldg. 1 [in Moscow].

Please come and join us!

Thanks to Marina Bobrik for the link. Translated by the Russian Reader

The Real Rusha

The success of Putin’s Russia has been determined by a correct-minded approach to solving problems of the development of Russia. Putin’s domestic, socio-economic and international policy ensured great support for him from the majority of Russian citizens. He was supported by the nation not only as a politician, but first of all as a national statesman, responsible for the country and its development.

—Ivan S. Kuznetsov, Elena V. Katyshevtseva (Nikulina), and James Douglas Stuber, Modern Russian History: A Textbook, trans. Liudmila I. Katyshevtseva (Gwangju: Chonnam National University Press, 2012), p. 188

Since the beginning of the year, the number of political prisoners in Russia has increased from 349 to 410. According to the Memorial Human Rights Center (included in the register of foreign agents), the vast majority of them were deprived of their liberty due to their religious affiliation. The list also includes people who were deprived of their liberty after participating in protests in support of Alexey Navalny in January of this year.

—Alina Pinchuk, “‘The growing repressiveness of the regime’: there are more political prisoners,” Radio Svoboda, August 17, 2021

Photo and translation of second quotation by the Russian Reader

Doing the Right Thing (Victory Day)

Yan Shenkman
Facebook
May 9, 2021

Here is what I’ve been thinking about on this day. I seem to understand why every year on May 9, everyone engages in such jealous and painful arguments about whose victory it was and whether it was a victory at all. Everyone wants to prove that the good guys, that is, people like them, won the war. The bad guys —Hitler and Stalin — lost. The bad guys from the other side and the bad guys from our side lost.

But that’s not how it was. The soldiers who won the war at the cost of enormous bloodshed saved everyone, both good and bad. The victory in 1945 was a victory of life over death. Not of a good life (this is the answer to the question “Why do we live so badly if we won?”), but mere life, life as such. People stopped dying. Wasn’t that enough?

I have seen many times how good deeds were done by the wrong people. A person who does not love the motherland can put out a fire. A man who beats his wife will save someone else’s child. And so on. On the one hand, he saved the child, and on the other hand he has beaten his wife again. What conclusions should we draw from this?

None. It doesn’t change anything. Saving children is still the right thing to do, but beating your wife is not. One does not negate the other.

And the child, by the way, can grow up to be a criminal. And so what? Should it not be saved now?

People are different. What matters is not what they are, but what they do. Seventy-six years ago, they saved the world. And what happened to them afterwards is up to the people they saved, it is our choice.

I remember the grief, the huge amount of blood shed, and the losses. But still, today is a holiday, because we were saved: it’s a joyful occasion. And today is also a time to think about whether we have saved anyone.

George Losev
Facebook
May 8, 2021

There are two main reasons for all the pomp around May 9.

First, the more magnificent the holiday, the more money you can allocate from the state coffers [and embezzle]. Officials are just plain greedy.

The second is that the Russian Federation is an imperialist country. Like any imperialist, the Russian Federation tries to expand and prepares for war, generating the appropriate ideology in the process. The construction is quite simple: either a major historical military victory or a major defeat is taken, and the sense of pride or desire for revenge [occasioned by the victory or defeat] is stoked. A typical example is Germany and France before the First World War. Both sides fanned the flames of the Franco-Prussian War as a subject. On the eve of the First World War in the Russian Empire, the subject of 1812 [i.e., Russia’s victory over Napoleon in the so-called Fatherland War] was also hyped.

The Olympics, big construction projects, and so on serve the same purpose, but it is past wars that best fit the bill.

The Russian Federation now simply has no other choice but the Second World War. First, because of the scale. Secondly, after it, the USSR and the Russian Federation engaged in seven wars (the USSR fought in Afghanistan, while the Russian Federation has two Chechen wars, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, and Libya to its credit), all of which ended with the emergence of “gray” zones, sites of constantly smoldering conflict. Creating such zones is the goal of the current imperialist countries, but they cannot be cited as [positive] examples. They cannot serve as a justification of the regime’s actions, because they themselves are in need of justification. Why should Russians be glad to remember the actions of Russian mercenaries in Libya? Or the [Russian] bombing of Syrian cities?

Hence the Second World War.

But as it makes this choice, the Russian Federation has one problem.

Putin’s regime represents, rather, the side that the USSR fought against during World War Two rather than acting as the successor to the Soviet Union. It is the side of monopolistic capital, militarism, and institutionalized racism.

The Soviet Union built schools and hospitals, while the Putin regime has been closing them down. The USSR nationalized property in the territories it liberated, while the Russian Federation has privatized it.

Therefore, the ideological construction becomes more complicated.

The very fact of victory is magnified, and everything else is either hushed up or slimed.

This is the root of the apparent schizophrenia in which the ideological elite of Putin’s Russia has been dwelling for many years, all those TV presenters, priests, Mikhalkovs and writer-directors of endless series about the war, in which Soviet soldiers and commanders are shown as complete degenerates, cowards and traitors.

All these “cultural figures” realize that they are forced to exalt those who essentially fought against them. So there is a huge difference between my annoyance at the hype and the pathos on the eve of May 9, and the fierce hatred that Putin’s ideological minions radiate.

I don’t like marches by kindergarten children in Red Army forage caps: they would be more appropriate in Nazi Germany.

The Putinists do not like the mass heroism of the Soviet people. They hate the Communists, who accounted for one-third to one-half of all Soviet combat losses.

Vyacheslav Dolinin
Facebook
May 9, 2021

I remember a story, funny and sad at the same time, which was told to me many years ago by the musician Mark Lvovich Rubanenko. He was a young man in the pre-war years, and back then he played in Leningrad in an orchestra with other young musicians like him. All of them were fun-loving: they liked to drink, make jokes, and pull pranks. Once, during a friendly gathering, they were flipping through the phone book and found a surname that seemed funny to them – Kurochkin [“Hen-kin”]. One of the musicians dialed the number of the man with the funny last name.

“Comrade Kurochkin?”

“Yes,” said a voice on the other end of the phone.

“Greetings from Petushkov [“Rooster-ov”],” the caller said and hung up.

After that, the musicians began phoning Kurochkin from different places and at different times of the day, even at night. They usually asked the question”Comrade Kurochkin?” and when he responded, they would say, “Greetings from Petushkov.”

Then the war broke out, and all the band members went to the front. Rubanenko made it all the way to Berlin. After the war, the musicians gathered again in Leningrad. Not everyone had come back alive. They drank vodka and remembered their dead friends. And then someone remembered: “And how is our Kurochkin?” Excited, they picked up the phone and dialed the familiar number.

“Comrade Kurochkin?”

“Yes.”

“Greetings from Petushkov.”

The voice on the other end of the phone was silent for a while. Then it yelled: “You bastard! You’re still alive! So many good people have died, but you’re alive!”

The musicians hung up. They never called Kurochkin again.

Ivan Ovsyannikov
Facebook
May 9, 2021

Recently, my mother told me about her stepfather, a front-line soldier. He was wounded, captured, and sent to a Nazi prison camp, and after the war he was sent to a Soviet labor camp in Kolyma. There he met my grandmother, who was also a victim of political repression. The man was, according to my mother, cheerful (which is not surprising), only he frightened her as a child when he would began raving in German in his sleep. He had dreams about the German prison camp while in exile in the Soviet Union. He was also involved in Komsomol weddings.*

[The inscription on the invitation, pictured above, reads: “Dear Comrade V.D. Nigdeyev! We invite you and your spouse to a Komsomol wedding. The wedding will take place at the Tatyana Malandina Club at 19:30 on August 22, 1964.”]

Vladimir Golbraikh
Facebook
May 9, 2021

[Soviet WWII veterans, gathering on] May 9, 1975, on the Field of Mars in Leningrad. Photos by I. Koltsov

Yan Shenkman reports on political trials and popular culture for the independent liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta. George Losev is a housing authority electrician and socialist activist in Petersburg. Vyacheslav Dolinin is a well-known Leningrad-Petersburg Soviet dissident, former Gulag inmate and samizdat researcher. Ivan Ovsyannikov is a journalist and socialist activist in Petersburg. Vladimir Golbraikh, a Petersburg-based sociologist, focuses on his immensely popular Facebook page on unearthing and publishing archival photos of Leningrad-Petersburg during the Soviet era. Translated by the Russian Reader

* ‘Among the events that Komsomol organs planned were Komsomol weddings, a novel ritual for youth that used cultural activities to inculcate not only officially prescribed cultural tastes but also gender norms, part of a broader post-Stalin drive to ascribe civic meaning to ceremonies and ritual. First mentioned in 1954, these wed- dings began to appear across the Soviet Union with the enactment of the 1957 aesthetic upbringing initiative. Official discourse, as expressed by Komsomol’skaia pravda, touted state-sponsored weddings in clubs as a way to undermine religious wedding traditions, in keeping with Khrushchev’s anti-religion campaign, and to minimize the drunkenness and untoward behavior prevalent at private wedding feasts. The authorities also intended Komsomol weddings to ensure the stability of the family. As noted by Shelepin in 1957, private marriages often ended in divorce, but “when someone gets married openly, in front of the people, his friends and comrades—it is another matter altogether.” Such rituals aimed to place relationships between young men and women within the boundaries of government-monitored official collectives, in effect reframing the norms of courting and family life from private to more public settings and ensuring the performance of officially preferred gendered behavior.’ (Gleb Tsipursky, Socialist Fun: Youth, Consumption, and State-Sponsored Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1945–1970, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016, p. 149)

My Motherland

Yuri Korolev, My Motherland, 1972. Smalt mosaic. Photo: Vadim F. Lurie. Used with his permission

Vadim F. Lurie
Facebook
April 26, 2021

It’s a little strange to write about something positive these days, but I saw that, as part of the complete reconstruction of the Central Bus Station in Moscow, they preserved its old mosaic, which is now behind glass. Buses start from the 6th floor of the station, which is located under the same roof as the Shchelkovsky Shopping Center. On the other hand, I wasn’t able to find in my collection photos of the historic Toksovo station, which was demolished, and from which I departed for the dacha half my life.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Vasily Kaluzhnin: There Lived an Artist on Liteiny

Vasily Kaluzhin: There Lived an Artist on Liteiny. Poster for the exhibition at the Anna Akhmatova Museum in Fountain House (St. Petersburg), 19 March-18 April 2021

Svetlana Smaznova
Facebook
March 19, 2021

The honor of discovering Vasily Kaluzhnin belongs to the Petersburg writer Semyon Laskin (1930-2005). His novel The Hostage of Eternity recounts the tragic life of the Leningrad artist Vasily Kaluzhnin, a friend of Yesenin, Akhmatova, and Klyuev.

Vasily Kaluzhnin, Palace Square in the Siege, 1941. Tempera on canvas. Photo by Svetlana Smaznova
Vasily Kaluzhnin, Nevsky Prospekt in the Siege, 1941. Tempera on canvas. Photo by Svetlana Smaznova
Vasily Kaluzhnin, Portrait of a Woman, 1920s-1930s. Charcoal on paper. Photo by Svetlana Smaznova

________________

“Damn it, old man! Well, why aren’t you painting?” reads the handwritten inscription on one of Vasily Kaluzhnin’s self-portraits. Addressed to himself, Kaluzhnin’s words sound like a confession of faith. Painting was his only god, and this deity’s temple was a room in a communal apartment on Liteiny Prospect, chockablock with paintings.

The word “miracle” suits best what we know about the artist Vasily Kaluzhnin (1890-1967). He miraculously survived the Siege of Leningrad and the Stalinist crackdowns, and his body of works has been miraculously preserved. Most important is the miracle of his paintings and drawings. Black charcoal “lace,” sanguine drawings, now thick and almost brick-colored, now delicate and transparent. The besieged city, a pearly fog on the Nevsky, emptiness and grandeur. Post-war landscapes of Leningrad and Murmansk, portraits, and genre scenes, painted freely, without fear of being accused of “formalism.”

Vasily Kluzhnin, Murmansk, 1950s-1960s. Tempera on cardboard. Courtesy of Mikhail Ankundinova. Image courtesy of the Akhmatova Museum at Fountain House

The work of the artist Vasily Kaluzhnin is presented in the museum of the poet Anna Akhmatova for a reason: Akhmatova and Kaluzhnin were neighbors. And not so much geographically (the artist lived most of his life at Liteiny, 16, across the street from Akhmatova), as in the sense that they inhabited the same cultural and historical space. Their destinies were connected by invisible threads, and their lives were lived in close proximity to each other. They were born and died within a year of each other. Both of them lived long lives, sharing with their generation the full fate of the twentieth century. Both felt a sense of belonging to world culture, in whose space the paths of the poet and the artist so often intersected.

A photo from the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Mikhail Kuzmin’s literary career (1925) is the only document that records the fact that Akhmatova and Kaluzhnin were acquainted, along with a small dark drawing, made with thick charcoal, depicting either Akhmatova or Dante in profile. For Kaluzhnin, the poet who lived across the street from him was of the same magnitude as the great Dante Alighieri. The drawing was probably produced in the 1920s.

Vasily Kluzhnin, Sunbathing, 1930s. Charcoal and sauce on paper. Courtesy of Mikhail Ankundinov. Image courtesy of the Anna Akhmatova Museum at Fountain House

The exhibition represents only a small part of Kaluzhnin’s artistic legacy: ballet and theater sketches, nudes, landscapes, and portraits from the 1920s to the 1960s. One of the important themes is the besieged city and the evacuation of paintings from the Hermitage, made in different versions and media, from colored pencil to paints. The exhibition also includes rare photographs and documents from private collections.

Source: Akhmatova Museum at Fountain House

Thanks to the Five Corners community Facebook page for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Kronstadt as Revolutionary Utopia: 1921-2021 and Beyond

Kronstadt as Revolutionary Utopia: 1921-2021 and Beyond

March 20-21, 2021

Conference to be streamed on Twitch, including discussion/questions and answers

Saturday, March 20, 2021
1) Welcome and opening event – 9:30am Pacific/12:30am Eastern/4:30pm GMT/7:30pm Moscow

2) Historians’ panel – 10:00am Pacific/1:00pm Eastern/5:00pm GMT/8:00pm Moscow

  • Konstantin Tarasov, “Kronstadt self-government in 1917”
  • Simon Pirani, “Kronstadt and the workers’ movements in Moscow and Petrograd, 1921”
  • Dmitriy Ivanov, “Kronstadt 1921 uprising, political identities, and information flows”
  • Alexei Gusev, “Kronstadt Uprising of 1921 as a part of the Great Russian Revolution”

Lara Green moderating

3) Panel: “Disinformation and Counter-Revolution, 1921-2021” – 11:30am Pacific/2:30pm Eastern/6:30pm GMT/9:30pm Moscow

  • Ramah Kudaimi, “The People Want: Syria’s Uprising”
  • Lara el-Kateb, “Disinformation in the age of social media: The case for the Syrian revolution”
  • Omar Sabbour, “On the continuities between imperialism and vacuous anti-imperialism”
  • Javier Sethness, “Marx/Plekhanov vs. Bakunin; from Kronstadt to Neo-Stalinism”

Shon Meckfessel moderating

4) Film screening: The Russian Revolution in Color (2005) – 1:00pm Pacific/4:00pm Eastern/8:00pm GMT/11:00pm Moscow

Sunday, March 21
1) Welcome and opening event: recap of day 1, and agenda for day 2 – 9:30am Pacific/4:30pm GMT/7:30pm Moscow

2) Panel: “The After-Lives of Kronstadt” – 9:45am Pacific/12:45pm Eastern/4:45pm GMT/7:45pm Moscow

  • Mike Harris, “In the Spirit of Kronstadt”
  • Danny Evans, “A Spanish Kronstadt? The Barcelona May Days of 1937”
  • George Katsiaficas, “Enduring Problems of Communist Parties’ Suppression of Popular Movements”
  • Dmitriy Buchenkow, “The problem of power in the anarchist worldview”

Laurence Davis moderating; Irina Sisseikina interpreting

6) Film screening: Maggots and Men (2013) – 11:30am Pacific/2:30pm Eastern/6:30pm GMT/9:30pm Moscow

  • Q&A with Cary Cronenwett, Ilona Berger, and Zeph Fishlyn afterward

7) Kronstadt 1921 and the Social Crises of 2021 – 1:00pm Pacific/4:00pm Eastern/8:00pm GMT/11:00pm Moscow

  • Lynne Thorndycraft, “Kronstadt: Why It Matters”
  • Tom Wetzel, “Worker Congresses as a Form of Working Class Political Power”
  • Bill Weinberg, “Syria: Lessons from Kronstadt 1921”

Javier Sethness moderating

8) Closing event with words from cosponsors – 2:30pm Pacific/5:30pm Eastern/9:30pm GMT/12:30am Moscow

Leila Al Shami: The Case of Syria’s Communes

Building alternative futures in the present: the case of Syria’s communes
Leila Al Shami
March 18, 2021

Originally published at The Funambulist

“We are no less than the Paris commune workers: they resisted for 70 days and we are still going on for a year and a half.” Omar Aziz, 2012

On 18 March 2021 people around the globe will be commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. On this date, ordinary men and women claimed power for themselves, took control of their city and ran their own affairs independently from the state for over two months before being crushed in a Bloody Week by the French government in Versailles. The Communards’ experiment in autonomous, democratic self-organisation, as a means to both resist state tyranny and to create a radical alternative to it, holds an important place in the collective imaginary and has provided inspiration for generations of revolutionaries.

On 18 March another anniversary will pass, but surely to much less acclaim worldwide. On this date a decade ago, large scale protests were held in the southern Syrian city of Dera’a in response to the arrest and torture of a group of school children who had painted anti-government graffiti on a wall. Security forces opened fire on the protesters, killing at least four, provoking wide-spread public anger. Over the next few days protests spread across the country, transforming into a revolutionary movement demanding freedom from the four-decade dictatorship of the Assad regime. In the following years, as people took up arms and forced the state to retreat from their communities, Syrians engaged in remarkable experiments in autonomous self-organisation despite the brutality of the counter-revolution unleashed upon them. As early as 2012, Omar Aziz a Syrian economist, public intellectual and anarchist dissident, compared the first of these experiments to the Paris Commune.

Omar Aziz was not a mere bystander to the events underway in Syria. Living and working in exile, he returned to his native Damascus in 2011, at the age of 63, to participate in the insurrection against the regime. He became involved in revolutionary organizing and providing assistance to families displaced from the Damascus suburbs under regime assault. Aziz was inspired by the movement’s level of self-organisation in its resistance to the regime. In towns and neighbourhoods across the country, revolutionaries had formed local coordinating committees. These were horizontally organised forums through which they would plan protests and share information regarding both the accomplishments of the revolution and the brutal repression the movement faced. They promoted non-violent civil disobedience and were inclusive to women and men from all social, religious and ethnic groups. Revolutionaries were also organising the provision of food baskets to those in need and setting up medical centres to tend to injured protesters who feared going to hospitals due to risk of arrest.

Aziz believed that whilst such activities were an important means to resist the regime and had indeed challenged its authority, they did not go far enough. Through their organisation, revolutionaries were developing new relationships independently of the state based on solidarity, cooperation and mutual aid, yet were still dependent on the state for most of their needs, including employment, food, education, and healthcare. This reality enabled the regime to maintain its legitimacy and perpetuate its power despite people’s wide-spread opposition to it. In two papers published in October 2011 and February 2012, when the revolution was still largely peaceful and most of the Syrian territory remained under regime-control, Aziz began advocating for the establishment of Local Councils. He saw these as grass-roots forums through which people could collaborate collectively to address their needs, gain full autonomy from the state, and achieve individual and community freedom from structures of domination. He believed that building autonomous, self-governing communes, linked regionally and nationally through a network of cooperation and mutual aid, was the path towards social revolution. According to Aziz, “the more self-organizing is able to spread … the more the revolution will have laid the groundwork for victory.”

Aziz was not concerned with seizing state power and did not advocate for a vanguard party to lead the revolution. Like the Communards, he believed in the innate ability of people to govern themselves without the need for coercive authority. In his view the new self-organised social formations that were emerging would “allow people to take autonomous control over their own lives, to demonstrate that this autonomy is what freedom is made of.” Aziz envisaged that the role of the Local Councils would be to support and deepen this process of independence from state institutions. Their priority would be working together with other popular initiatives to ensure the fulfilment of basic needs such as access to housing, education and healthcare; collecting information on the fate of detainees and providing support to their families; coordinating with humanitarian organisations; defending land from expropriation by the state; supporting and developing economic and social activities; and coordinating with recently formed Free Army militias to ensure security and community defence. For Aziz, the most powerful form of resistance to the state was a refusal to collaborate with it through building alternatives in the present that prefigured an emancipatory future.

In November 2012, much like so many of Syria’s revolutionaries, Omar Aziz was arrested and died in prison a short while later. Yet, before his arrest, he helped found four local councils in the working class suburbs of Damascus. The first was in Zabadani, an agricultural and touristic town surrounded by mountains, some 50 kilometres from the capital. The town was quick to join the uprising in March 2011, holding regular demonstrations calling for freedom and the release of detainees. By June, young men and women had formed a local coordination committee to organize demonstrations and carry out media work to communicate what was happening in the town to the outside world. Like the female Communards of Paris, the women of Zabadani also created their own forums. In mid-2011 the Collective of Zabadani Female Revolutionaries was formed. They participated in demonstrations in huge numbers and called for peaceful civil disobedience. They played a leading role in the Dignity Strike in December 2011, a nation-wide general strike that attempted to place economic pressure on the regime. In January 2012 they established Oxygen Magazine, a bi-monthly printed magazine providing analysis of the revolution and promoting peaceful resistance. The group later evolved into the Damma women’s network, which continues to work to support women to build resilience and alleviate the impact of violence in conflict affected communities, as well as providing education and psychological support for children.

Zabadani was liberated by local Free Army militias in January 2012. Barricades were set up and the town was brought under the control of its residents. A local council was established to fill the vacuum created by the regime’s departure. The town’s Sunni and Christian residents came together to elect the council’s 28 members from respected individuals within the community and to choose a president. This was Syria’s first experience of democracy in decades. The council established a number of departments to administer daily civil life, including for health care and humanitarian assistance, as well as a political committee involved in negotiating with the regime, and a court to resolve local conflicts. A military committee supervised the Free Army battalions to ensure security. Whilst the council representatives were all men, the Collective of Zabadani Female Revolutionaries played an important role in supporting the Council’s activities. Like the Communards of Paris, the people of Zabadani, who dreamt of a free and just society, managed to creatively self-organise their community independently from centralized state control.

Local autonomy and grass roots democracy was seen by the regime as its greatest threat. As the government of Versailles, which had refused to fight against the Prussians, turned their weapons on the Communards, so the Syrian regime directed all of its might against the people of Zabadani. The town was subjected to a siege, enforced by the regime and its ally the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and daily bombing led to a dramatic worsening of humanitarian conditions. Inside the town, revolutionaries also faced challenges from extremist Islamist battalions which gained in prominence over time and finally wrested control from the local council in 2014. After a number of failed cease-fire agreements the regime regained control of Zabadani in April 2017, after which many of its residents were forcibly evacuated.

The experience of Zabadani was remarkable, but not unique. Over the course of the Syrian revolution, land was liberated to such an extent that, by 2013, the regime had lost control of around four-fifths of the national territory. In the absence of the state, it was people’s self organisation which kept communities functioning and allowed them to resist the regime, in some cases for years. Hundreds of local councils were established in the newly created autonomous zones providing essential public services such as water and electricity supplies, rubbish collection, and supporting schools and hospitals to keep operating. In some areas they grew and distributed food. People also worked together to set up humanitarian organisations, human rights monitoring centres, and independent media associations. Women’s centres were founded to encourage women to be politically and economically active and to challenge patriarchal mores. One example is the Mazaya centre in Kafranbel, Idlib, which taught vocational skills to women, held discussions on women’s rights issues, and challenged the threats posed by extremist Islamist groups. Unions were established for students, journalists and health workers. In the northern city of Manbij, revolutionaries established Syria’s first free trade union, which campaigned for better wages. Cultural activities flourished, including independent film collectives, art galleries and theatre groups. In the liberated town of Daraya, close to Damascus, revolutionaries built an underground library from books they salvaged from people’s destroyed homes.

After 2011, before the counter-revolution ground them down, communities across Syria lived in freedom from the tyranny of the regime. Power was brought down to the local level and people worked together for their mutual benefit, often in extremely challenging circumstances, to build a pluralistic, diverse, inclusive and democratic society that was the very antithesis of the state’s totalitarianism. They were not motivated by any grand ideologies, nor led by any one faction or party. They were driven by necessity. Their very existence challenged the myth propagated by the state that its survival was necessary to ensure the fulfillment of basic needs and stability. Syrians showed that they were more than capable of organising their communities in the absence of centralised, coercive authority by building egalitarian social structures and recreating social bonds of solidarity, cooperation and mutual respect. There was no one model or blueprint. Each community organised in accordance with its own needs, unique local circumstances and values – the very essence of self-determination – essential in a country which is as socially and culturally diverse as Syria. What they shared was a desire for autonomy from the regime and a commitment to decentralized, self-managed forms of organisation.

Whilst the experience of the Paris commune is well known and celebrated in the West, we must ask why similar experiments happening in our own time in Syria are not – why they have usually failed to attract even the most basic forms of solidarity. Whilst much radical theory holds pretentions to universalism, it often pays little attention to other, non-Western contexts or cultures. When leftists in the West think of Syria they often think of foreign state intervention, extremist Islamist groups, and numerous armed brigades jostling and competing for power and territory. Little attention is given to ordinary men and women and their courageous acts of defiance against a tyrannical, genocidal regime. These people formed the backbone of Syria’s civil resistance. They not only resisted the regime but built a viable, beautiful alternative to it. Their struggle became multi-faceted. They defended their hard-won autonomy from the regime and later numerous foreign forces and extremist groups that saw their existence as the greatest threat. They were shunned and often slandered by the international community, including by people who consider themselves part of the anti-imperialist left. Their existence became an inconvenience to the grand narratives people wanted to indulge in regarding Syria’s revolution and counter-revolutionary war. Epistemological imperialism left little room for Syrian’s lived realities.

As with the Paris Commune, there is much to be learnt from Syria’s revolutionary experience. In times of insurrection or at times of crisis, new ways of organising often emerge which provide alternatives to the hierarchical, coercive and exploitative systems practiced by both capitalism and the state. Through decentralised self-organisation, without the need for leaders or bosses, but through voluntary association, cooperation and the sharing of resources, people can transform social relations and effect radical social change. They show us that emancipatory futures can be built in the here and now, even in the shadow of the state.

*****

All quotes are taken from the English translation of Omar Aziz’s two papers on The Formation of Local Councils by Bordered by Silence, except for the introductory quote which came from Twitter, now deleted.

Thanks to Michael Karadjis for the heads-up. || TRR

Night over Chile

Poster for the 1977 Soviet film Night Over Chile

George Losev
Facebook
March 13, 2021

I watched the old Soviet movie Night over Chile on the TV at work. Despite a certain theatricality that was slightly inappropriate for a Soviet mockumentary (yes, yes), it does a very good job of conveying the atmosphere of fear and hopelessness that we are experiencing now, when faced with the Russian state.

And perhaps that was why the film didn’t cause the average Soviet person to feel anything. They knew what it was about, but they didn’t feel it.

Night over Chile is a film by Chilean film director Sebastián Alarcón and Soviet film director Alexander Kosarev, shot at Mosfilm Studios (USSR) in 1977. The historical drama recounts realistic accuracy the 1973 military coup in Chile and the subsequent crackdown, as seen through the eyes of the young architect Manuel, who is at the center of the events. The 10th Moscow Film Festival celebrated the work of the directors by awarding them a special prize for their directorial debut.

Young architect Manuel’s (Grigore Grigoriu) life purpose is to construct new beautiful houses. He is not interested in politics, showing everyone around him complete neutrality. However the events of 11 September 1973 shatter his perfect little world. The murder of lawful President Allende, arrests without charges and court decisions fundamentally change Manuel’s outlook on what is happening. Because a leftist activist escaped from a raid through his apartment, the architect gets thrown into jail, goes through torture and abuse, and witnesses mass executions (at the infamous National Stadium). Manuel understands that the only way for an honest man is the path of the political struggle, the national resistance.

The film was shot on location in Baku, but the recreation of the events at the National Stadium was filmed at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

Cast:
Grigore Gregoriu — Manuel Valdiva
Baadur Tsuladze — Maria’s Husband
Giuli Chokhonelidze — Juan Gonzalez
Islam Kaziyev – Junta Officer
Sadykh Huseynov — Rolando Machuc
Vytautas Kancleris — Don Carlos
Roman Khomyatov — Junta Officer
Victor Soțchi-Voinicescu — Domingo
Mircea Soțchi-Voinicescu — Roberto
Vsevolod Gavrilov — Padre
Nartai Begalin — Soldier
Maria Sagaidak — Esperanza
Bakhrom Akramov
Leon Kukulyan — Orlando
Oleg Fedorov — Reporter
Sebastián Alarcón
Mayak Kerimov
Nina Pushkova — Pamela

Source: articles on the film published in the Russian and English versions of Wikipedia. Translated by the Russian Reader

Montage of Attractions

Kirill Rein
Facebook
March 5, 2021

I finally came across this photo. I practically grew up next to this monstrosity, a talking map of the October Revolution, located in the Smolny Garden between Smolny Prospect, 6, and School No. 157. Every hour, I think, it turned on and loudly, in a well-modulated voice, read out the chronology of the October uprising. Lights flashed on, clearly marking the places captured by the Bolsheviks, and at the end it played something rousing that was audible throughout the garden, something like “Hostile Whirlwinds” or the Internationale. From the side, you could sneak up top on iron stairs designed for maintenance work: smoking there was an unalloyed, incomparable pleasure in the fourth grade. I remember that when I couldn’t find the thing there, I was totally surprised.

Thanks to the Five Corners community page for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Kirill Rein, photographer unknown. Translated by the Russian Reader

Love Conquers All

The saw “Love conquers all” makes us disavow a violence that has always already conquered love.
—Frank B. Wilderson III, Afropessimism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2020), p. 325

Elena Vilenskaya
Facebook
December 31, 2020

Many people won’t like this, probably, but I cannot help but write it for the sake of many people’s memory. On December 31, 1994, I stopped enjoying the New Year. On New Year’s Eve, [Russian] federal troops bombed Grozny. That night, a lot of people of different ethnicities who had remained in Grozny died, and the conscripts who were sent there by the [Russian] authorities died senseless deaths. Forgiving and forgetting this would be impossible and wicked. That night, our family was unable to celebrate the New Year. I haven’t celebrated it since.

Still from The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933). Translated by the Russian Reader