Sergey Yermakov: Protest Duckies and the Actionism of Fact

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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.

Don’t Recite “Hamlet” in Public, or, The Moscow Police Always Get Their Man

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Eyewitness photo of incident. Courtesy of Mediazona

Moscow Police Detain Child Reciting Poetry
Takie Dela
May 26, 2017

Police detained a child reading poetry aloud on Moscow’s Vozdvizhenka Street. Takie Dela was informed about the incident by the website OVD Info‘s person on duty.

The child, reportedly ten years old, and his mother were relaxing near Arbatskaya subway station. The mother was sitting on a bench and reading, while the boy recited poetry a little ways away from her. A police patrol stopped near the boy, and police officers forced the boy into their car. They refused to let the mother talk to her son, explaining he would be charged with begging.  In addition, the police pushed the woman, causing her to drop and smash her tablet computer.

The boy was taken to Arbat Police Precinct. He was transported there without his parents. Later, his mother was brought to the same precinct. The child’s father arrived at Arbat Police Precinct later.

According to unconfirmed reports, the father could be charged with the administrative offense of insulting a police officer. He refused to sign a charge sheet accusing the parents of not fulfilling their parental duties, since he did not agree with the charges. The child is currently at the police precinct. As of this writing, Arbat Police Precinct is refusing to answer their telephone.

An eyewitness has posted a video showing the child screaming inside the police car.

Update, 10:10 p.m. The boy’s father, Ilya Skavronski, has told Mediazona that the boy goes to a theater workshop and was reciting Hamlet. The police officers in question conversed with the boy for a time at a distance of twenty to twenty-give meters from his mother, who approached them only when the boy had been forced into their car. According to Skavronski, the policemen cursed and behaved rudely while detaining his son. He added that the precinct’s deputy head had threatened to detain the boy’s mother on charges of resisting law enforcement officers.

Update, 12:00 a.m. The Moscow Police’s Information Response Department explained that the boy had been detained because he was alone and had been going up to “one car after another.” According to OVD Info, he has been released from the police precinct. Skavronski has been charged with violating Article 5.35 of the Administrative Offenses Code (non-fulfillment by parents of their child-raising duties of minors). Earlier, attorneys had arrived at the precinct, as well as Anatoly Kucherena, chair of the Interior Ministry’s Public Council. The lawyers are filing complaints against the actions of the police.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Image courtesy of Mediazona

Oriole

I have a confession to make. I am almost exactly the same age as the wonderful Soviet movie We’ll Live Till Monday (Dozhivem do ponedel’nika, Stanislav Rostotsky, dir., 1968), which was filmed during the fiftieth anniversary year of the 1917 Russian Revolution. It is simply the best movie I have ever seen in any language about the value of and balance between formal education and sentimental education, about the conflicts between teachers and pupils, and misunderstandings among generations. It also has plenty to say, mostly between the lines but fairly boldly, about the Soviet Union in its middle age, the teaching of history, the fading revolutionary legacy, and importance of solidarity and “foolish” resistance. And it does all of it in a way that is not trivial or boring or predictable even for a second, and performed by wonderful ensemble cast of mostly teenage actors led by the beloved Vyacheslav Tikhonov and Irina Pechernikova. Pechernikova never became as famous for a number of reasons, but is as wildly charming here as Audrey Hepburn during the same period. So do yourself a favor and treat yourself to one hundred minutes of heartfelt cinematic magic with lots of real, not made-up, lessons to teach audiences. In Russian, with English subtitles.

At the film’s bleakest moment, Vyacheslav Tikhonov’s character, a middle-aged bachelor history teacher and Second World War veteran who still lives with his mother, sings and plays the following song, “Oriole.”

The song’s lyrics are based on three stanzas (the first, third, and fifth) of a poem by the OBERIU poet Nikolai Zabolotsky, “In This Grove of Birch Trees.” Zabolotsky wrote the poem in 1946, the same year he returned to Moscow after eight years of imprisonment and exile in Siberia as a victim of the Stalinist Great Terror.

The full poem, which is considerably bleaker than the already gut-wrenching song lyrics suggest, reads as follows.

Nikolai Zabolotsky
In This Grove of Birch Trees

In this grove of birch trees so white,
Far from woe and misery,
Where the pink morning light
Unblinkingly shimmers,
Where, like a transparent rush,
Leaves shower down from tall limbs,
Sing to me, oriole, a song of anguish,
The song of my life.

Gliding over the forest glade
And eyeing people from a height,
You have selected a wooden,
Inconspicuous pipe.
So that, in morning’s bloom,
After visiting the dwellings of men,
You can greet my morn
With your chaste and humble matins.

But, after all, in life we are soldiers,
And at the limits of what the mind can stand,
Atoms quake and shudder,
Tossing up houses like a white whirlwind.
Like maddened windmills,
Warriors wave their wings around.
But where are you, forest hermit, oriole?
Why have you gone silent, my friend?

Ringed round by blasts,
Over abysses you fly,
Over the river, where the reeds turn black,
Over the ruins of death you glide.
A silent rover,
You guide me into the fray,
And the lethal cloud unfolds
Above you as you make your way.

Beyond the great rivers,
The sun shall rise, and in morning’s gloom,
My eyelids singed,
I shall fall dead to the ground.
Cawing like rabid ravens,
All trembling, the guns shall fall silent.
And then your voice shall sing
Inside my shattered heart.

And over the grove of birches,
Over my birch grove,
Where, an avalanche of pink,
The leaves shower from tall boughs,
Where, touched by a droplet divine,
Cold grows a bit of blossom,
The morning of solemn victory shall dawn
For centuries to come.

1946

You can find the original Russian text poem here or here, among other places. Petersburg critic, poet, and translator Valery Shubinsky has written an excellent critique of the poem, “The Last Battle,” which I hope to translate and publish under separate cover, when I find the time.

Photos and translation by the Russian Reader

No Poet Is Illegal, No Poem Is Extremist

Poet Alexander Byvshev. Photo courtesy of OVD Info
Poet Alexander Byvshev. Photo courtesy of OVD Info

New Criminal Charges Filed against Ex-Schoolteacher Alexander Byvshev
OVD Info
January 17, 2017

On January 17, 2017, police searched the house of ex-schoolteacher Alexander Byvshev in the village of Kromy, Oryol Region. During the search, law enforcement officers confiscated a computer and other information storage devices. After the search, the suspect was interrogated at the local office of the Russian Investigative Committee.

As Alexander Podrabinek wrote on his Facebook page, Byvshev has again been charged under Criminal Code Article 282 (inciting enmity or hostility, as well as humiliation of human dignity). The charges were filed in connection with Byvshev’s poem “On the Independence of Ukraine,” which was published in February 2015 in several Ukrainian periodicals. As Byvshev himself noted, the poem is a “polemical response” to Joseph Brodsky’s eponymous poem.

On July 13, 2015, the Kromy District Court found Byvshev guilty of inciting ethnic hatred (Criminal Code Article 282.1) and sentenced him to 300 hours of compulsory labor for writing poems supporting Ukraine. He was also forbidden to work as a schoolteacher for two years. In autumn 2014, after one of Byvshev’s poems was declared extremist, Rosfinmonitoring placed Byvshev on its list of terrorists and extremists, and his bank accounts were blocked.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Osip Mandelstam: The Egg

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“Something is always born in the silence.” Graffiti in central Petrograd, May 2016. Photo by Russian Reader

Osip Mandelstam
The Egg

The egg was telling off the hen.
You hatched me crooked and askew,
The way you laid me was wrong.
The days you brooded me were few.
I was still cold, but you up and left.
Why were you utterly shameless?

1924

Translated by the Russian Reader

Original

The End of the World

Czeslaw Milosz
A Song on the End of the World

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.

Warsaw, 1944

Translated, from the Polish, by Anthony Milosz

Source


Photographs by the Russian Reader