If I didn’t know it would get me into big trouble with the law, I would devote the rest of my life to physically assaulting Russian fascists until they finally cried, “Uncle!” and let this country breathe again. As it is, they and their supreme leader are quickly suffocating it.
By “Russian fascists” I don’t mean people who celebrate Hitler’s birthday and march around in silly outfits. I mean Putin’s mainly middle-class, fairly well-off, professionally educated supporters, without whom he would never have got anywhere in his ascent to immortality.
A particularly ugly encounter this evening at a shindig persuaded me once again that these people, who live mostly in the two capitals [Petersburg and Moscow], are Putin’s real base, not the mostly poor, disempowered, and utterly disabused people who live in the completely imaginary “Russian heartlands.”
What surprises me is how savvier folk than me haven’t been writing more and more often about this fact of life in Russia, which has been staring at us in the face for years.
Russia doesn’t need a proper bourgeois revolution. It needs a revolution to unseat the reflexively nationalist, increasingly fascistic bourgeoisie generated by the Putinist counterrevolution and, of course, the Putinist elite that manages and cultivates this fairly tiny nationalist bourgeoisie. Otherwise, the richest country on earth is doomed to collapse. ||| TRR, 13 May 2018, Petrograd. Photo by the Russian Reader
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
Memory (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.)
“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.
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).
I spoke recently with a radio journalist from Cologne. A pleasant woman, she was one of those western leftists who try and “understand” Russia. She just could not believe that the Putin regime’s ideology was anti-communist and was based on condemnation of all revolutions, whether the October Revolution or the French Revolution.
“How can that be? We are walking here on Insurrection Square. Monuments to Lenin are not demolished in Russia as they are in Ukraine. And you tell me the regime is anti-communist?” she said.
I hope that after Putin’s remarks that Lenin planted an atomic bomb under Russia and was responsible for the Soviet Union’s collapse, my companion will see the light. I no longer have such hopes for Russian liberals who believe that under Putin we are living through a new edition of the Soviet Union.
In fact, Putin has been very consistent albeit historically ignorant. The 1917 Revolution is as hateful to him as the collapse of the Soviet Union, as hateful as any other subversion of Power with a capital p, which in the eyes of the people should remain sacred if only because it is Power, and all power comes from God. From the viewpoint of legitimists like Putin, the destruction of monuments to Lenin or the renaming of streets is a break with the mystical continuity of Power and thus almost a revolutionary gesture.
In Putin’s eyes, Lenin and the Bolsheviks really were devils incarnate, for they radically asserted the right of the masses to revolt and abolished continuity with the past, thus demolishing the mystique around the notion of the state.
During the Stalinist period, however, the Bolshevik Revolution itself was incorporated into the national myth. It is in this bronzed, mythologized form that attempts have been made to adapt all things Soviet to the needs of the new oligarchy, who have imagined themselves the successors of the Rurikids, the Romanovs, Stalin, Yeltsin, and all manner of saviors of the Fatherland and guardians of stability. Fortunately, this stunt does not work with Lenin and never will.
Ivan Ovsyannikov is an activist with the Interregional Trade Union Workers Association (ITUWA/MPRA) and the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD). Translated by the Russian Reader. See my previous post on this topic, “Crumbling Down.”