No One to Call Them on the Carpet

karlshorst tankA WWII-era Soviet tank, its muzzle pointed toward downtown Berlin, in the yard of the so-called German Russian Museum in the city’s Karlshorst neighborhood. Until 1994, it was known as the Capitulation Museum, since German high command formally surrendered to the Soviet high command in the building that houses the museum. Photo by the Russian Reader

At this point in their downward spiral towards worldwide moral and intellectual superiority, it is sometimes as hard to compliment Russians as it to make common cause with them or, on the contrary, argue with them.

I was thinking about this in a different connection when my attention was drawn to this column by Masha Gessen, published two days ago by the New Yorker.

The column is an odd beast.

First, Ms. Gessen makes a sound argument, based on hard, easily verifiable facts, but then she does an about-face and acts as her argument’s own resentful, miserably uninformed whataboutist, drawing false parallels between commemorations of the Second World War in Russia and the US, and the roles played by Putin and Trump in tarnishing these memorial events with their own sinister political agendas.

She is thus able to set readers up for the column’s takeaway message: “[T]he Trumpian spin on [the Second World War] is all maga, which makes it essentially the same as Putin’s.”

Ms. Gessen once was one of my favorite reporters, especially back in the days when she wrote for the weekly Russian news magazine Itogi.  Later, I adored her poignant, richly rendered dual portrait of her grandmothers and the turbulent times of their younger years. I would still urge anyone curious about what the Soviet Union was really like under Stalin and after his death to put the book, Ester and Ruzya, at the top of their reading lists.

Nowadays, however, Ms. Gessen finds herself in what should be the unenviable position of having no one willing to call her on the carpet . Whatever she writes and says is regarded as the gospel truth, apparently, by her editors, readers, and listeners. In any case, I have never come upon any criticism of her work, at least in Anglophonia.

Her editor at the New Yorker, David Remnick, himself a Russia expert of sorts, has gone missing in action when it comes to editing critically what she writes about the country of her birth, and so has everyone else who could be bothered to notice the sleights of hand and sophistry in which she now indulges all too often.

In this case, it is simple. In the United States, there has been nothing like the overbearing politicization of victory in the Second World War as there has been in Russia since Putin took power twenty years ago.

The US does not even have a public holiday commemorating victory in the war, whether on the European front or the Pacific front. I think this says something. Maybe what it says is bad, but the importance of the “victory” for US society, especially now that nearly seventy-five years have passed since the victory was declared, has been waning with every passing day.

More to the point, whatever deplorable uses Trump may have made of the war, he has had a mere two years in office to do his damage, while “decisive victory” in the Great Fatherland War (as the war is called in Russian) has long played a central role in Putin’s eclectic, opportunist but extraordinarily reactionary ideology.

It is an rather odd stance, since the Kremlin regularly speaks and acts almost as if the Putin regime and the current Russian Armed Forces achieved victory over the Nazis in 1945, rather than the Stalin regime and the Red Army.

Victory in the war has been used as much to bludgeon the regime’s “traitors” and “enemies” into submission as it has been used to brainwash the Russian people into a false sense of national unity and international moral superiority.

Of course, there have been periods since 1945 when victory in the war was politicized by the US establishment, too. We need only think of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation” and, years before that last gasp, the ways movies and TV shows about the war functioned as surrogates for reinforcing western capitalist ideology during the Cold War.

As should naturally be the case, however, since the war ended a long time ago, and most of the people who witnessed it and fought in it have died, it has meant less to the rising generations in the US than it did to the generations of my grandparents (who fought in the war, if only on the home front) and my parents (who were born just before or during the war), and even to my own generation (who grew up in a vernacular culture still permeated by memories of the war, sometimes embodied in our own grandparents and their age mates, and a popular culture still awash in books, comic books, TV serials, movies, toys, and other consumerist junk inspired by the war).

A gradual waning of interest in the war should have happened in Russia as well,  albeit in a manner that acknowledged and honored the war’s much greater impact on the country and all the other former Soviet republics.

In the nineties, under the “villainous” Yeltsin, this was on the verge of happening.

I remember going to the Victory Day parade on Nevsky Prospect in Petersburg in 1995. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s end in Europe, but the main event consisted only of columns of real war veterans, some in uniform, some in civilian dress, all of them wearing their medals, marching down the Nevsky accompanied by a few marching bands and a military honor guard, if memory serves me.

Tens of thousands of Petersburgers lined the pavements, cheering the veterans, crying, and occasionally running out into the parade to hand them flowers, kiss their cheeks, and thank them personally for their courage.

It was simple, dignified, and moving.

But then a new mob took over Russia. The new mob wanted to rob the country blind and install themselves in power for as long as they could, so they had to convince their victims, the Russian people, of a number of contradictory things.

One, the highway robbery, as committed by the new mob, was for their own good. Two, the highway robbery was making them better and their country great again; it would bring “stability.” Three, the highway robbery was spiritually underwritten by the former country’s former greatness, as demonstrated, in part, by its victory over the Nazis in the Great Fatherland War.

It is not true that all or even most Russians have swallowed all or even most of this dangerous nonsense.

Putinism, however, has destroyed politics in Russia not only by demolishing all democratic institutions and persecuting grassroots activists and opposition politicians in ever-increasing numbers.

It has also disappeared most real political issues and replaced them with non-issues, such as nonexistent “threats” to the glory of Russia’s victory in WWII, as posed by “traitors” and hostile foreign powers, the completely astroturfed “upsurge” in “love for Stalin,” and several other fake zeitgeist events that have been designed purposely to set the country’s dubious troika of official pollsters polling like never before and take up oodles of space in the real media, the social media, and ordinary people’s minds and their bar-stool and dinner-table conversations with strangers, friends, relatives, and coworkers.

I am much too fond of French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s distinction between “politics”—what happens in the public space around real sources of political and social conflict in democratic societies or societies striving towards freedom and equity) and “police”—the opposite of “politics,” the utter control of public space and a monopoly on decision-making by a tiny anti-democratic elite.

“Police” as a concept, however, encompasses not only real policemen kicking down the doors of “extremists” and “terrorists,” and casing and tailing everyone suspicious and “unreliable” every which way they can.

In Russia under Putin, it has also involved tarring and feathering all real political discourse and political thinking, while promoting sophistry, scuttlebutt, moral panics, two minutes hate, and intense nationwide “debates” about non-issues such as “the people’s love of Stalin” and “victory in the war.”

The point of substituting artificial “police” discourses for wide-open political debate has been to prevent Russia from talking about bread-and-butter issues like pensions, the economy, healthcare, housing, the environment, war and peace, and increasingly violent crackdowns against political dissenters, businessmen, migrant workers, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities.

Russians are capable of talking about these things and do talk about them, of course, but a steady diet of nothing, that is, immersion in a topsy-turvy world in which the state, mainstream media, and many of your own friend will try, often and persistently, to engage you in “serious” conversations about chimeras and phantoms, has had an innervating effect on serious political discourse generally.

Try and talk to Russians about politics and, often as not, you will soon find yourself talking “police” instead.

If Ms. Gessen had decided to write a substantive article about the Putin regime’s use and abuse of the “victory,” popular acquiescence to its campaign, and grassroots pushbacks against, it would have familiarized Ms. Gessen’s readers with a story about which they know either nothing or almost nothing.

I cannot imagine anyone better qualified to tell the story than Ms. Gessen herself.

But, as is the case with many other Russians, the straight talk in Ms. Gessen’s recent printed work and media appearances about what has been happening in Russia under Putin has been veering off, sooner or later, into whataboutism and a series of well-worn memes whose hysterical repetition passes for political argument these days.

There is a different but curiously overlapping set for every political tribe in Putinist Russia, from nominal nationalists to nominal liberals and leftists.

What is my own takeaway message?

There can be no politics in Russia in the Rancierean sense or any other sense until the Russian liberal intelligentsia (with whom Ms. Gessen has explicitly identified herself on several occasions, obviously considering them vastly superior intellectually and morally to the American mooks with whom she has been condemned to spend too much time, Russiansplaining everything under the sun to them as best she can, mostly to no avail) and all the other intelligentsias and political tribes in Russia give up their pet sets of non-issues and non-solutions and revive the deadly serious politics and political discourses of the pre-Revolutionary period, if only in spirit.

However, the efficacy of “police” under Putin has been borne out by the way in which nearly everyone has united, time and again, around the very non-issues the regime and state media has encouraged them to discuss.

On the contrary, several painfully real issues, for example, Russia’s ruinous, murderous military involvement in Syria, have never been vetted by “police” for public hand-wringing of any kind.

As if obeying an unwritten rule or a tape reeling in their heads, nobody ever talks about them, not even the great Masha Gessen. {TRR}

Thanks to Comrade GF for bring Ms. Gessen’s column to my attention.

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Historical Amnesia in Chelyabinsk

AKG1423992Exhumation of a mass grave in the area of Pit No. 5 aka Zolotaya Gorka (Golden Hill), which was supposed to be transformed into a memorial cemetery for victims of Stalinism in the 1930s. The mass graves are located in Shershni, a suburb of Chelyabinsk. The photo was taken in 1990. Courtesy of the Elizaveta Becker Collection, Gulag Museum, International Memorial Society

The Security Services Don’t Like Plaques: Chelyabinsk Officials Say Plaque Commemorating Executions Would Discredit Police
Yulia Garipova
Kommersant
August 31, 2018

Chelyabinsk city hall has refused to assist community activists who have been trying to mount a plaque, commemorating the victims of political terror, on the walls of the city’s Interior Ministry [i.e., police] building. The site used to be the home of a building in which executions were carried out in the 1930s. According to officials, the inscription on the plaque could cause people to have “unwarranted associations about the work of the police” and undermine its authority in the eyes of the populace.

In 1932, a building was erected from the bricks of the demolished Christ’s Nativity Cathedral on Vasenko Street in Chelyabinsk. It was handed over to the OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate), later known as the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). Historians claim that, during the Great Terror, the building contained an execution room.  In 1937–1938, nine Chelyabinsk priests were murdered in the room. In 1995, a memorial plaque was mounted in the courtyard of the building at 39 Vasenko Street.

The inscription on the plaque read, “During the period of mass repressions in the 1930s and 1940s, innocent people convicted of political crimes were executed in this building.”

In the early 2000s, however, the plaque vanished.

This year, Yuri Latyshev, coordinator of the local history group Arkhistrazh, launched a campaign to restore the memorial plaque. He asked Yevgeny Golitsyn, deputy governor of Chelyabinsk Region and chair of the regional commission for restoring the rights of victims of political repression, for help. Chelyabinsk city hall’s culture department sent him a reply.

Mr. Latyshev was informed the building that had once housed the secret police had been completely dismantled due to dilapidation. The land plot was handed over to the Interior Ministry’s Chelyabinsk Regional Office. A new building had been erected on the plot, and a new plaque mounted on the building. It reads, “In memory of the victims of the 30 and 40 years [sic]. Their memory will be preserved as long as we remain human beings.”

Citing the local Interior Ministry office as its source, the Chelyabinsk city culture department explained in its letter to Mr. Latyshev that the whereabouts of the old plaque were unknown. Restoring a commemorative plaque that claimed people were executed in the building during the period of mass repressions in the 1930s and 1940s  would be a distortion of historical reality, the officials argued.

“There have not been any repressive actions of a physical nature [sic] carried out in the buildings used by the [local Interior Ministry office],” they wrote to Mr. Latyshev.

Chelyabinsk culture officials also stressed the inscription on the previous plaque could “provoke unwarranted associations about the work of the police in the minds of people, even as the Russian federal government has made considerable efforts to strengthen the police’s reputation.”

Mr. Latyshev, however, is convinced part of the old building survived the reconstruction.

“The [old] plaque was absolutely fair, correct, and decent, but someone clearly did not like it. It would be fair to hang it on the street side of the building,” says Mr. Latyshev.

He claims he has sent inquiries to the FSB and Interior Ministry, but has only been given the runaround.

“I’m surprised by the wording used by city hall officials—’unwarranted associations’—and how they immediately project these ideas into the minds of the people of Chelyabinsk,” Ivan Slobodenyuk, coordinator for the project Last Address in Chelyabinsk Region, told Kommersant.

Mr. Slobodenyuk stressed that restoring the memorial plaque would be consistent with the state policy for commemorating victims of political repression, as adopted by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in 2015.

“Regional authorities have so far neglected this topic. The memorial on Golden Hill has virtually been abandoned. Part of the area containing mass graves has been redeveloped, and another section has been slated for redevelopment. Now the story with this memorial plaque comes to light,” said Slobodenyuk. “In my opinion, putting up a memorial plaque that begins with the phrase, ‘This was the site of a building in which, during the period,” and so on, in keeping with the wording on the original plaque, would not damage the police’s reputation. On the contrary, it would be a manifestation of courage and would make people respect law enforcement.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

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.

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“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.

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“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.

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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.)

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“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.

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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).

The Immortal Regiment: The Regime’s Human Shield

Crimea Prosecutor General Natalia Poklonskaya leading the Immortal Regiment in Simferopol, Crimea, May 9, 2016. According to TASS, she carried a "wonder-working" icon of Holy Martyr Tsar Nicholas II.
Crimean Prosecutor General Natalia Poklonskaya leading the Immortal Regiment memorial procession in Simferopol, Crimea, May 9, 2016. According to TASS, she carried a “wonder-working” icon of Holy Martyr Tsar Nicholas II that had been sent to Crimea from Moscow for the event.

The Regime’s Moral Defense: The Immortal Regiment as a Shield 
Andrei Kolesnikov
Forbes.ru
May 9, 2016

On December 5, 1966, sitting as his dacha in Pakhra, Alexander Tvardovsky, an agonizingly conscientious and grimly self-reflective poet, recorded in his diary thoughts that nowadays would cause the higher-ups to stop inviting him to receptions at the Kremlin, and hired “patriots” to douse him, as is the custom nowadays, with brilliant green disinfectant.

First, Tvardovsky writes about the essence of Victory Day and its semi-official recension, including the myth of the Panfilov Division’s Twenty-Eight Guardsmen, whose debunking now costs people their jobs.

“Those who perished in the war for the Motherland have a indubitable, sacred right to be remembered and honored. […] However, there is a considerable admixture of ‘educational policy’ in all this as well, considerations on how to manipulate the moods of the ‘masses’ […] such as the tomb of the unknown soldier organized recently (God forbid he should prove to be a known soldier), a lot of needless bother, like the five or six of the twenty-eight [Panfilov Division Guardsmen] who utterly embarrassingly turned up alive.”

Tvardovsky then goes on to write about what is totally and even furiously excluded from the national memory and reflections on the topic nowadays.

“No doubt those who perished on the eve of the war and during the war, not at the front, but in the mad regime’s prisons, camps, and torture chambers, also deserve to be remembered in this way.”

Half a century has passed since Tvardovsky penned this diary entry, but nothing has changed at all or has been reborn in circumstances reminiscent of the Brezhnev period in terms of ideology and political strategy. The regime’s legitimacy was then directly linked to memory of the war, moreover, the official memory of the war, with many of the unpleasant particulars concealed. Today, too, the regime feeds on the juices of the past, powerful evidence of the effects of path dependence in the vast nation’s collective consciousness. Back then, however, there were still a couple of things that brought people together like conquering outer space and romanticizing the 1920s. (Fidel Castro and Cuba reproduced the spirit of that era.)  Our day and age parodies the things that consolidated the Soviet Union. But then again, Nikita Khrushchev would never have deigned to be personally involved in launching rockets from a cosmodrome, as did Vladimir Putin, a man who endeavors to inherit the Soviet Union’s achievements.

The current Russian regime’s final privatization of the Soviet victory in the Second World War and the amazing propagandistic transformation of each new war, including the Syrian campaign, into a direct sequel of the Great Patriotic War has divided the nation instead of consolidating it.

And the minority, who are not at all against remembering the great war, but are opposed to hysteria, official narratives, vulgarization, schematic renderings of the war, marking “friends” with Saint George’s Ribbons, and rejecting critical takes on historical events, have been virtually excluded from the ranks of citizens.

If you did not take a Saint George’s Ribbon foisted on you at a football match, and your kid was not involved in an Immortal Regiment event at school, you are a renegade, not a citizen. Everything the state gets its hands on immediately acquires an imperative and moralistic aftertaste and helps to identify an individual as friend or foe. Strangers have no place in this political system. People who think about the Gulag, for example, have no place. They are attacked, even if they are children, as happened during a Memorial school essay contest, and declared “national traitors.”

In our hybrid political framework, these prescriptions and nearly obligatory moral codes, sometimes reinforced by the Criminal Code, have been rented not even from authoritarian systems but from totalitarian ones.  In this model, morality is immoral, Russia’s heroes are anti-heroes, and vice versa. The nation has repented of the repentance it felt thirty years ago. It turns out that iPhones can peacefully coexist with the most primitive variety of Stalinism, and supermarkets, with archaization of the mind.

The Great Patriotic War is used, including to sell nonexistent threats to the general public. These threats strengthen the authority of the man commanding the besieged fortress and expand the food supply of the military and security services elites.

Today’s Russian society is a society of people who have been insulted a priori and attacked before the fact. We were attacked in 1941, and we are attacked now. We are attacked, so we defend ourselves and conduct just wars. These wars are triumphal and victimless, and ennobled and sterilized by TV. They resemble computer games where the players have a big supply of extra lives.

You cannot die a hero’s death in such wars, although you can go as a tourist. (According to Christopher Coker of the LSE, modern war is often a continuation of tourism by other means.)

In the name of the Soviet victory in the Second World War, you can do anything whatsoever. You can even crack down on the opposition, conduct a wild goose chase for “national traitors,” annex Crimea, invade Syria, and do battle with “Banderites.” Ceremony, rather than real success, has become a ritual means of “consolidating” the nation. Anyone who has avoided being consolidated during collective rituals is an internal enemy.

The victorious official narrative is a set of rote answers in the absence of questions. It is the triumph of simplification, the refusal to understand that history is complicated. It is the refusal to imagine the war as a tragedy. The topic of the unnecessary sacrifices and wastefulness of the Stalin regime, which did not count soldiers and devalued their lives, has disappeared from the discourse. Simplifying complicated things has also ben a means of simultaneously justifying the current regime and Stalin’s regime at a single blow, of dividing the nation into right and wrong, moral and immoral, by tying the “right” folks together with a single Saint George’s Ribbon, by marketizing the war and making it fashionable.

Everything in Russia is hybrid: the wars in Donbass and Syria, the political system itself, and now the celebration of Victory Day. Sacred memory has been placed at the service of solving a single albeit blistering problem: preserving the power of the current leaders and current elites as long as possible. To do this, the regime takes cover behind the Immortal Regiment’s morally impeccable shield, which, however, makes it look even more immoral.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Leokadia Frenkel for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Roman Dobrokhotov and TASS. For more on this topic, see Peter Hobson, “How Russian Authorities Hijacked a WWII Remembrance Movement,” Moscow Times, May 6, 2016.

Ilya Orlov: A Revolutionary Museum after Ideology

A Revolutionary Museum after Ideology
Ilya Orlov
CuMMA Discourse Series #25
May 20, 2015

Descents into the past and appeals to history have been symptomatic of recent Russian politics, which is literally obsessed with re-enactments. It has recreated the “Soviet imperial,” the “pre-Revolutionary imperial,” the “Orthodox,” and the “patriarchal” visual and rhetorical discourses. As has been recently pointed out, President Putin has become a genuine performance artist himself. He has piloted a hang glider, flying alongside rare birds; retrieved an ancient Greek amphora from depths of the Black Sea; and shown off his physically fit body. Moreover, he has transformed reality by means of mass media.[1] This political constructivism resembles an artwork. Costumed characters that should have been relegated to historical museums—Cossacks, Orthodox priests, members of the Black Hundreds, cartoonish Stalinists—have suddenly taken to streets of Russian cities in the twenty-first century.

IMG_7605“Stalin means victory,” Petersburg, June 8, 2015. Photo by The Russian Reader

At the same time, the authorities have been making efforts to erase the historical memory of revolution, which no longer conforms to the official conservative state ideology. Unfortunately, the political opposition has also denounced its historical connection with the tradition of the revolution, once victorious in Russia, and has been losing the battle for both the past and the future. While historical exhibitions dedicated to tsarist dynasties have been drawing crowds, Soviet revolutionary museums—former ideological altars that once legitimized the “violence of the oppressed”—have become non-places, potential lots for redevelopment or real estate properties for sale.

shalash_36The recent transition in post-Soviet society from the political apathy of past years to aggressive intolerance and a nationalist mobilization raises anew the question of the role of artists in society and their engagement in politics.[2] But if the answer to Russian society’s political apathy in the 2000s was radical actionism, such as the art group Voina’s performances, the answer to the current ultra-conservative turn in Russian politics and its uncritical “re-enactments” of the past may be an art that engages with the historical memory of revolution and analytically revises its legacy.

But would the simple presentation of an alternative historical narrative be a sufficient response? What strategies for reflecting history should art have in its arsenal? How can art speak not merely about the political past but also speak about the past politically? While preparing the project A Revolutionary Museum after Ideology, which I produced in collaboration with artist Natasha Kraevskaya in 2014, we faced these questions, too. In this short article, I would like to enlarge on whether we managed to answer these questions and how we elaborated them during the artistic research for the project.

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We did the project A Revolutionary Museum after Ideology in a museum complex located in the Petersburg suburb of Sestroretsk and Razliv. The Manifesta 10 Public Program, as curated by Joanna Warsza, commissioned the work.

Orlov&Kraevskaya_Razliv_Shalash museum_1Two site-specific exhibitions, supplemented by a series of lecture tours and discussions, were held at the Razliv museum complex, which consists of two small Soviet revolutionary memorial museums at two sites, the Shed Museum and the Hut Museum. Both locations were originally ordinary suburban places, and both were turned into memorial museums during Soviet times. They dealt with the episode in the 1917 revolution known as Lenin’s last underground period and the site known as “Lenin’s final hiding place.” Vladimir Lenin and his comrade-in-arms Grigory Zinoviev hid there during the summer of 1917 to avoid arrest and prosecution by the Provisional Government.

credit - Razliv museum 2The Shed Museum (in Russian, Sarai) is a real former shed where Lenin and Zinoviev hid for several days in July 1917. The shed is covered with a glass casing, and today there is still a Soviet-era permanent exhibition that recreates the interior of this shed as it looked in 1917.

The Hut Museum (in Russian, Shalash) is a quite large pavilion built in the mid 1960s at the rural site where Lenin and Zinoviev also lived in July 1917 in a hut fashioned from branches and hay.

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Razliv means “flood” in English. The village of Razliv is part of the suburb of Sestroretsk, and is located on the shores of Razliv Lake. In fact, the lake is artificial. It was an unintended byproduct of Peter the Great’s modernization of Russia. In the 1720s, a large munitions factory was built on the shore of the Sestra River. A levee was also built to supply the plant with mechanical energy, which was generated by a water mill. The river flooded and formed the artificial lake now known as Razliv. So we might say the landscape was shaped by modernization.

MAP1From the late nineteenth century, Sestroretsk, as an industrial center, was also a hotbed of the workers’ movement. It is important to keep in mind that the munitions plant workers were not former peasants, as had often been the case during the pre-Revolutionary period in Russia, but were already second-generation proletarians. Therefore, many Sestroretsk workers had been involved in the first Russian Revolution of 1905; many were anarchists and social democrats. It should come as no surprise that the Bolsheviks found support among such people. At the same time, there was a fashionable bourgeois resort and a popular dacha village located near this industrial settlement. Many members of the Russian intelligentsia—writers, poets, actors, and artists—used to live or summer there.

The February Revolution was the first of two revolutions in Russia in 1917, although some historians consider them parts of a single revolutionary process. After spontaneous bread riots, mass strikes and demonstrations in Petrograd, then the capital of the Russian Empire, soldiers from the city’s garrison sided with the protesters. The revolution forced the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. The Provisional Government came to power. Its members, mostly liberals and conservatives, were drawn from the State Duma, the former monarchy’s parliament. At the same time, local socialists formed an alternative authority, the Petrograd Soviet, which ruled alongside the Provisional Government. There were thus two centers of power, both plagued by problems of legitimacy. It was a very unstable situation, which Lenin defined later as a diarchy (dvoevlastie).

Both the Provisional Government and the socialists from the Petrograd Soviet supported the imperialist war effort. Lenin, who arrived in Petrograd from Zürich in April 1917, immediately began to undermine the situation, issuing his so-called April Theses. He insisted on an anti-war agenda and the slogan “All Power to the Soviets.” In fact, during this period, as the war between the imperialist powers raged on, Lenin was the only political figure that took a strong anti-war stance. Initially, neither Lenin nor his ideas enjoyed widespread support, not even among his fellow Bolsheviks.

By the way, this point was very important for us in terms of last summer’s political context—the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war—and it is still on the agenda today.

The next big event, the so-called July Days, was a failed attempt at a new revolution by anarchists with the involvement of Bolsheviks in early July 1917. It was the first time in 1917 when the military forces of the Provisional Government attacked a demonstration (albeit one that was not entirely peaceable). Consequently, the government pursued Lenin as a German agent and ordered the arrests of other leftist oppositionists, especially Bolsheviks. Lenin and Zinoviev were forced to go underground.

Since the Bolsheviks had well-developed networks among the workers of Sestroretsk and Razliv, Lenin and Zinoviev soon found a place to hide. The person who aided them was a worker at the Sestroretsk armaments plant, Bolshevik Nikolai Emelianov. Lenin and Zinoviev lived in his shed in Razliv for a few days. When it was too dangerous to stay there any longer, Emelianov ferried them to the other side of the lake, and built a hut in a field for them. Lenin and Zinoviev lived there, disguised as Finnish peasants, for three weeks.

Nikolai Emelianov

Nikolai Emelianov. Image courtesy of the World Socialist Web Site

According to the so-called Leniniana—the informal corpus of popular Soviet biographies and myths about Lenin, during his time in hiding—Lenin remained in contact with the Party in Petrograd through networks of liaisons, read newspapers, which were delivered hot from the presses by comrades, and wrote articles.

Moreover, as Soviet legend has it, it was in Razliv where Lenin elaborated his theory of revolution, his doctrine of armed rebellion, and finished one of his most subversive and prominent works, The State and Revolution.

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Lenin hid in Razliv for three weeks, until the end of July 1917. Emelianov then fabricated papers for him, a false passport under the name of worker Konstantin Ivanov. Lenin illegally traveled to Finland, where he continued with his theoretical and coordinating work in preparation for a rebellion in Petrograd. When the rebellion was crowned with success in October 1917, Lenin moved to the Smolny and headed the new Bolshevik government.[3]

After Lenin’s death in 1924, there ensued what American Slavists later defined as the Lenin cult or even the “deification of Lenin.”[4] Memorial sites, museums, and monuments were constructed throughout the Soviet Union in huge numbers.

The Museum in Razliv was among the first. It opened in 1925. Emelianov’s shed was turned into a sightseeing attraction, with its humble cabin interior on permanent display. In 1928, a monument designed by architect Alexander Gegello in the form of the hut, albeit with a touch of constructivism, was built in the field on the other side of the lake, at the site where, as the legend goes, Lenin lived in his branch and hay shelter.

During the Stalinist period, despite the erection of a monumental granite mausoleum for the late Bolshevik leader on Red Square, Stalin overshadowed Lenin’s figure.

The renaissance of the Lenin cult in the 1960s was the partly unintentional aftermath of de-Stalinization. Along the way, the authorities were forced to rename streets that had previously been named in honor of Stalin. And indeed they were renamed—in memory of Lenin, of course. Monuments of Stalin were also replaced—by monuments of Lenin, of course.

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Revolution, in 1967, there was almost nothing left to name after Lenin. Thus, by the mid 1960s, the Lenin cult had gone a little over the top. But there was more to come. In 1970, during the centenary celebration of Lenin’s birth, there was a new wave of renaming and mass commemorations. It was the year that Emelianov’s shed was covered with a glass casing. By this period, the Lenin cult was reduced to the point of absurdity. There were plenty of funny stories about this naming and renaming of all and sundry—factories, mills, workers’ clubs, streets, ships, etc.—in memory of Lenin in the late 1960s, but the facts speak for themselves: it was then that the Leningrad (!) subway was even named after Lenin (!) and awarded the Order of Lenin (!) [5]

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Meanwhile, during this period, memorial sites of the revolutionary movement, and Lenin memorial sites and museums were transformed into ideological altars of sorts. The same was true of the Lenin museums in Razliv. Both sites were visited by hundreds of thousands people annually. The museums were known worldwide and were visited by numerous international delegations. Young people were sworn into the Young Pioneer youth movement there. This was the main ideological ritual for Soviet youth, a mode of political initiation, and a commemoration of Lenin and the Revolution as well. Schoolchildren and university students were also taken to such places on class trips. Guidebooks and postcards featuring the museums were printed in huge quantities.

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In 1964, a new exhibition pavilion was built near the Hut Monument to hold and display the museum’s collection. It is an elegant minimalist building, made of concrete and glass, designed by architect V.D. Kirkhoglani. In the 1960s, most of the museums dedicated to Lenin and his hideouts were decked out in keeping with the latest trends in exhibition design, featuring genuinely modern exhibits created by leading museum curators. The same was true of the Museum in Razliv, whose exhibition and design were excellent. Unfortunately, this permanent exhibition was dismantled and lost in 2006.

After perestroika, the Museum in Razliv shared the same fate as other Lenin and revolution museums. The buildings fell into disrepair, and the permanent exhibitions were on the verge of closing. As for the museums that have survived, their main strategy in the 2000s and beyond has been to try and organize new permanent exhibitions, which have been self-described as “de-ideologized” and have tended to implement the doctrine of the so-called restoration of historical justice.

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The Museum in Razliv is a good example of such de-ideologization. In fact, after the Soviet-era exhibition was dismantled in 2006, with support from a local businessman, the owner of a nearby restaurant, the museum’s curators organized a new permanent exhibition that combined, on the one hand, an attempt to function as a local ethnographic museum, and, on the other, a slightly veiled narrative of the “fatal role” played by the (imagined) conspiracy of Bolsheviks and Germans in the October Revolution of 1917.

Thus, a popular post-Soviet cultural doctrine and the discourse of the “restoration of historical justice” proved to be a euphemism for the counter-revolutionary conservative ideology that, under the Putin regime, has replaced Soviet dogmatism and the deification of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. Such were the conditions in which we worked while doing our project for Manifesta in Razliv.

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The starting point and main inspiration for our artistic research were photos and postcards we had found in the museum’s archive. Primarily, these were photographs of the museum and its visitors from the 1960s and 1970s. On the one hand, we can see in these photos a quite international, advanced, genuinely progressive exhibition design, resembling a European museum exhibition during the same period.

On the other hand, there is the interesting reaction on part of visitors. We discovered that these archival photographs of the museum’s exhibitions from the late 1960s were surprisingly similar to photos taken at European biennales. Soviet tourists examined an old tin teapot and bundle of wood in the Hut Museum or an ordinary tree stump in Lenin’s “outdoor office,” the so-called Green Study, much as European audiences of the 1970s stared in fascination at objects they were equally unaccustomed to seeing in museums.

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Here are some examples: pictures of Harald Szeeman’s curatorial project When Attitudes Become Form, in 1969 at Kunsthalle Bern, contrasted with photos from the Museum in Razliv from the same year.

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Ausstellung - Kunst Experimentelle Kunst in der Kunsthalle in Bern

Another discovery, as well as an important source for further research, was photographs and postcards of so-called Lenin’s places, his secret hideouts or places he was known to have frequented. We were especially interested in postcards printed in the 1960s in large editions. If it were not for the captions on the verso of these postcards, identifying them as Lenin’s places, they could have been taken for ordinary rural views or banal suburban landscapes, pictures of fields, forests or lakeshores. It is remarkable that there is almost nothing picturesque, no intentional “beauty” in these pictures. They seem deliberately discreet and artless.

1 (2) postcard postcard (3)The captions on the verso of these pictures and postcards turn an ordinary forest into Lenin’s forest, an ordinary field into Lenin’s field, a plain hut into a sacred place of memory. In this way, the banality of these views and the artlessness of these photographs lend them the quality of truly conceptual images. Soviet underground art of the 1970s, such as Sots Art or Moscow conceptualism, could probably spoof this manner of depiction vis-à-vis their ironical, mildly iconoclastic subversion of Soviet ideology. But the ideology has been already dethroned, revealed, discredited, and dishonored. So we have applied other methods and have found something out in the process: namely, a parallel with conceptualism itself. The postcards of Lenin’s places bear a strong resemblance to the documentary photographs of performances by the art group Collective Actions,[6] whose underground secret happenings in the Moscow countryside during the 1970s turned run-of-the-mill rural landscapes into special, ritualistic spaces by means of similar mental and discursive operations, which could be defined as conceptual nominalism.

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Thus, during our research in the museum’s archive, we discovered unexpected parallels between the function of ideology in Soviet museum commemorations and contemporary art practices, which gave us a clue about how we should proceed with our own project.

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Given that the contemporary art exhibition is not such an up-to-date concept itself, it always needs elements or approaches that undermine or at least question it from within. A possible method of undermining involves blurring the boundaries of the art exhibition genre, for example, by means of mixing two different exhibition practices: a temporary thematic display in a historical museum and an exhibition of contemporary art.

This was just what we did. For the project, we worked out our own rules. We decided to make an exhibition bereft of any manifestly “authorial” artworks, without resorting to artistic self-expression. Rather, we would re-conceptualize photographs and objects from the museum’s collections, recreate items that had been lost, and restore the Soviet minimalist exhibition design of the 1970s. This naturally implied our employing a strategy of subtle shifts that would supplement the exhibition by rearranging elements and thus provoke viewers to reflect on and question the current status and significance of the revolutionary museum.

Our slide installation at the Shed Museum was based on postcards from the late 1960s, which depict the mass rituals of political commemoration that took place at Razliv during the Soviet period.

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One of Lenin’s favorite songs, “The Workers’ Marseillaise,” provided the soundtrack. But we assembled this recording in a particular way. We removed the consonants from the choir’s vocal performance. By In doing this, we removed an element that supported the form of the song’s words, leaving only the sublime, inspiring, and solemn pathos of the vowels. We did this in order to s achieve the effect of the disappearance of the song’s original sense and also to show the loss of revolutionary ideas in such ideological museum practices, both in Soviet times and nowadays. For us, it was a self-referential metaphor for the function of ideology.

“The Workers’ Marsellaise,” as performed by the Chamber Choir of the N.K. Krupskaya Leningrad State Institute of Culture

At the Hut Museum, we recreated the most famous part of the museum’s classic 1964 Soviet exhibition, dismantled in 2006 but widely known from numerous photos: the minimalist glass cube showcase containing objects from Lenin’s secret hideout in Razliv. We did not simply recreate this showcase; we reproduced three identical versions of the same thing.

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This was not a mere restoration and thus similar to a re-enactment, but rather a conceptual restoration or deconstruction, since this reproduction was supplemented by the strategy of the shift. The shift in question here was repetition, the restoration of an object in three exactly identical versions. In the slides, you can see that we actually reproduced not only the glass showcases of 1964 but also re-enacted in a different way the very situation of visiting the exhibition in the mid 1960s. We thus made it possible to compare Soviet tourists with Manifesta 10 visitors.

2014 and 1969_ 2014 and 1969

The next part of the exhibition dealt with ideological practices of erasing historical memory. On the wall was a photocopy from the museum’s archive of a cutting from an unidentified newspaper, published in the late 1920s, which was censored, presumably in latter years. An unknown museum employee had cut out the name, presumably, of Grigory Zinoviev, with whom Lenin had hid in Razliv in 1917. He had cut out it from the caption underneath the photo, as it was prohibited to mention Zinoviev or his time with Lenin following Zinoviev’s execution in 1936 during the Stalinist purges.[7]

ZinovievThe caption reads, “The forest in which the hut was located where comrades [sic] Lenin [blank] lived.”

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The following section—Soviet postcards and photographs of Lenin’s hideouts on the opposite wall—led visitors to consider the current process by which historical memory is eroded. Devoid of their captions, which are on the reverse side of the postcards, Lenin’s hideouts become ordinary rural landscapes and banal interiors, potential parcels of land or properties for sale.

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A series of lecture tours from the Hermitage Museum to the Lenin museums in Razliv were an intrinsic part of the project. During Manifesta 10, we organized several such tours and discussions.

The first tour opened with a lecture by historian Ilya Budraitskis, “De-Ideologization: Revolutionary Museums and Their Place in the Present.” We also organized a lecture by Alexander Semyonov, a local professor of history, and the co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal Ab Imperio, who provided a very interesting comparison of the crises of 1917 and 2014 in their complex historical combination of imperial background and revolution.

A further tour to Razliv was entitled “Mimesis and Revolution.” The point there was the interesting parallels between the conspiratorial practices of professional revolutionaries and certain artistic strategies. There are ample legends, well known from the extensive Soviet biographies of Lenin, about his fantastic impersonations during the period when he was hiding from the Provisional Government, stories involving wigs, greasepaint, and actors from the Finnish workers’ theater who taught and helped him to impersonate peasants and workers. In connection with this, I discussed not only plasticity as a quality of revolution but also the mimetic nature of revolution itself, the mechanism of repetition at work in revolutions throughout history.

Lenin's wig_internet

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In conclusion, I return to a point I mentioned at the beginning: the question of possible methods of artistic reflection on historical memory and the history of revolution in particular.

It appears that in the project I have described we were guided not only by intuition. I think the methods we have applied, as well as the methods of artistic research on history and memory in general, are not so distant from the methods of the social sciences and historiography. Thus, the tradition of social sciences would be very important to artists who engage with material such as we have. One of its main origins was the French intellectual scene of the 1930s, when historical studies had been given new impetus by the sociology of Émile Durkheim. I am referring primarily to the Annales School, a highly influential tradition and intellectual platform that formulated and proposed modern methods of historical research. Its co-founders historians Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch, when discussing how to work with historical sources, taught their disciples to peruse “the human facts which [sociologists] condemn as the most superficial and capricious of all,”[8] which also means perusing the seemingly trivial and insignificant, perusing the margins. This resonated in a certain way with the methods of psychoanalysis, which was evolving increasingly in the same period and influenced the social sciences as well. Thus, as regards our own project, a well-known text of Soviet ideology and mass culture was given a new reading and conceptualization. It was especially tempting for us, since both intellectual traditions, the sociology of Durkheim and Freudianism, had been almost completely rejected and ignored by Soviet academia.

Febvre and Bloch insisted as well on being critical towards facts, on questioning the equation of facts with truth. Febvre argued that the historian creates facts on his own, by discovering them, and he constructs his own narrative with them. He also emphasized the point that researchers should first develop their own theories, the conceptual frames for their further research.[9]

Another important theoretical background for an artistic reflection on history is certainly the concept of so-called history and memory, or memory studies. In the 1980s, historical studies experienced a crisis and revised their conceptions of scholarly rigor. Therefore, an interest in what had previously not engaged historians—memory and memories—emerged. The Collective Memory (1950), a posthumous book by sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, who had been a disciple of Émile Durkheim, was the key influence. It was republished in the early 1980s, giving a boost to the new methodological turn in historical studies. French historian Pierre Nora elaborated Halbwachs’s ideas and reshaped his approach to history and memory in his own concepts of commemoration and “places of memory.” Historians and researchers now examine not only historical events but also memories of historical events. Memory and commemoration have become key notions.

It is true we could not have avoided these theoretical approaches in our project, either. When dealing with a Lenin museum and Lenin’s underground period of 1917, we paid attention to things that were somewhat peripheral and, at the same time, trivial: postcards featuring exhibition views and commemorations in the museum during the 1960s, and amateur snapshots of the museum made during Soviet times. It was certainly deliberate on our part that, when speaking of Lenin and 1917, we approached, first of all, the history of commemoration, in the way current historians would have done. In all fairness, it is extremely difficult today to reflect such a figure as Lenin in art, since his image has been turned into a mass culture icon and has been subversively used many times in pop art, as well as in its Soviet underground versions, the Sots Arts and Moscow conceptualism of the 1970s and 1980s, and especially in perestroika-era kitsch art. That is why we chose the opposite method and strategies. We used the optics of contemporary conceptualism or, as it were, post-conceptualism, as well as strategies of engaging the audience by means of a series of lecture tours to the museum, talks, and discussions.

Finally, this artistic reflection on history makes a difference only if it is done politically. Lenin’s renewed significance was proven in the spring of 2014. Ukrainians had begun demolishing Soviet monuments to Lenin (for a lack of monuments to Stalin to destroy, as someone aptly remarked), and they are still engaged in this process of wholesale demolition today. But in fact, Lenin was the only major political figure in 1917, in the midst of a full-scale war among the imperial powers, who insisted on a radical, uncompromising anti-war agenda. Lenin’s stance was the immediate cause of his prosecution by the Provisional Government, and the reason he took refuge in Razliv.

We intended our project to shed light on a historical period when this anti-war stance was in the underground, on the periphery of public politics, as it is today. It was important for us not simply to represent an alternative historical narrative but also to approach history in a way opposed to current official cultural policy, to critically revise rather than re-enact, to deconstruct rather than recreate.

Endnotes

[1] Artist and activist Nadezhda Tolokonnikova made this point in a Facebook post, dated August 8, 2014.  Artist Arseny Zhilyaev voiced a similar idea, which he reworked into a concept for an exhibition.

[2] The situation has been exacerbated by new crackdowns on political freedoms and freedom of speech, and by the shrinking of space for public discussion. As artist and activist Victoria Lomasko said in a recent interview, “My work Cannibal State, in support of political prisoners, today could be regarded as insulting state symbols. [The work entitled] Liberate Russia from Putin clearly rocks the boat; it’s a call for rebellion, for revolution, and this is ‘extremism.’ […] It is impossible to know about the new laws and not think about the consequences if you make a work about something that really concerns you. [If] I were to draw something [in a satirical way, about fascists], I could be accused of spreading fascist ideas. And if I put it on the Web, everyone who reposts the picture automatically becomes my accomplice.”

[3] See, for example, V.I. Startsev, Ot Razliva do Smolnogo [From Razliv to Smolny], Moscow, 1977; V.T. Loginov, Neizvestnyi Lenin [The unknown Lenin], Moscow, 2010.

[4] See, for example, Nina Tumarkin, Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia, Cambridge, Mass., 1997.

[5] I.e., the V.I. Lenin Order of Lenin Leningrad Metro. See Tumarkin, op. cit. See also a recent article by anthropologist Alexei Yurchak in which he considers the practice of preserving of Lenin’s body (and the Lenin cult) as an instance of “neotraditional sovereignty” within the Soviet political system. Alexei Yurchak, “Bodies of Lenin: The Hidden Science of Communist Sovereignty,” Representations 129 (Winter 2015): 116–57.

[6] See the website KOLLEKTIVNYE DEYSTVIYA (COLLECTIVE ACTIONS). THE DESCRIPTIONS, PHOTO, VIDEO AND AUDIO OF ALL THE ACTIONS.

[7] Not only Zinoviev but also worker Bolshevik Nikolai Emelianov, who had concealed Lenin and Zinoviev in his shed, was prosecuted in the 1930s as counter-revolutionary. Emelianov was jailed for ten years and then exiled to Kazakhstan. He was released and allowed to come back home to Razliv only in 1954, after Stalin’s death.

[8] Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, Manchester, 2004, p. 17.

[9] Lucien Febvre, A New Kind of History: From the Writings of Febvre, ed. Peter Burke, trans. K. Folca, London, 1973

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Editor’s Note. I would like to express my gratitude to Ilya Orlov for allowing me to reproduce his essay here. He also kindly provided me with all the images for this publication except as otherwise noted.

The essay was edited by The Russian Reader.

Ilya Matveev: Without Stalin, Crimea Is Not Ours!

Without Stalin, Crimea Is Not Ours!
Ilya Matveev
February 14, 2015
OpenLeft.ru

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The unveiling of a monument to Stalin (and Churchill and Roosevelt) in Yalta is an event both outrageous and telling. It is clear why it is outrageous, but it is telling for the following reasons.

On the one hand, the monument displays the state’s current approach to historical memory, an approach that is one-dimensional, instrumental, and mobilizing. The message is clear: “There were times, sonny, when we would shake our fist at everyone. Everyone feared us, and we decided the fate of the world on a par with Europe and America. Yes, and there was order at home, too. Don’t worry, sonny, those times will return. They’re already coming back!”

On the other hand, in a gesture of self-justification and self-defense typical of the current regime, Stalin was returned to the streets not alone but with two other rulers, as part of a well-known grouping, on the principle that “you’re sure not going to toss Stalin out of this spot!” It is embarrassing, of course, and a bit frightening to erect a monument not just to anyone but to Stalin. But these feelings can be suppressed if you strike a defensive posture: this is not just Stalin, but Stalin at the Yalta Conference, the world-famous Stalin.

Characteristically, State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin’s speech at the opening of the monument was defensive rather than offensive. According to Naryshkin, the monument was intended not to convey the right idea but to dispel the wrong one: “The opening of the monument is simultaneously yet another warning to those politicians and historical speculators who have been attempting to brazenly and cynically distort the history of the Second World War and the post-war world order.”

A clear imperial message (“There were times, sonny…”) appears in the form of self-justification: “We won’t let them cynically twist the truth.”

This is approximately how Russia behaved in 2014 and has continued to behave in 2015: offense in the guise of defense, aggression in the guise of self-declared victimhood. The damned west refuses to listen to us, what else can we do but provoke it a bit? How else can we draw attention to ourselves?!

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It is the same with Stalin. We will erect a monument to him, and if push comes to shove, we will say, “That really happened.” Similarly, two lines from the Stalin-era Soviet national anthem—“We were raised by Stalin to be true to the people, / To labor and heroic deeds he inspired us!”—were unexpectedly restored to the renovated lobby of the Kursk subway station in Moscow in 2009. This was justified by the alleged need to restore the station’s “historic look,” although the restorers were somehow ashamed to bring back a statue of Stalin that had also been part of the “historic look.”

Finally, it has to be mentioned how wretched and obtuse the monument is. Only Zurab Tsereteli could have come up with the idea of copying a photograph while also enlarging the subjects to the size of the Hulk. Apparently, as in Egyptian paintings, the bigger a subject’s size, the greater his or her significance. The opening ceremony was a match for the monument, with The Surgeon, leader of the Night Wolves biker gang, in attendance, and all the other signs of our time on display.

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So much for the monument. I want to talk now about alternatives to the current politics of memory. The one-dimensional, one-way nature of what is being done now is stunning. Monuments are supposed to convey a single idea, and that idea must necessarily great-powerist, revisionist, and revanchist. The Obelisk to Revolutionary Thinkers in Alexander Garden in Moscow just had to be turned back into a monument to the Romanovs, again with a direct, literal message. “It’s as if the ages have closed ranks,” as Rossiskaya Gazeta quoted Patriarch Kirill saying at the rededication ceremony. History is no excuse for a conversation and no place for a discussion. In this sense our authorities are in total solidarity with the Ukrainian nationalists who have organized the so-called Leninopad (the mass demolition of Lenin statutes in Ukraine). Tear down something old and/or put up something up new: what matters is to return to an authentic, utopianly consistent past. We must make sure “the ages close ranks.”

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The alternative to the current historical activism should not be substantive (switching one set of monuments for another) but methodological. It is no good simply changing pluses to minuses. It is pointless to turn a blind eye to the imperial milestones in our history, to just dismiss them. In my view, the politics of memory in a mature, pluralistic Russia would involve saying, “That all happened, BUT…” We were a militarized aristocratic empire, BUT more radically than anyone else in the world we rethought its foundations in 1917. So this happened, and so did that. And how to deal with it can only be understood through a broad public dialogue, a dialogue that can be provoked by playing up the monuments of the past (rather than demolishing them), by working with context. Monuments should not go on the attack (much less should they should go on the attack defensively, like the monument to Stalin in Yalta). They should point to the past in its controversial entirety. Only in this way can we better understand the present in collective dialogue about the past. But for this to happen, of course, we need to effect sweeping political change in Russia and, what is perhaps even more difficult, leave Zurab Tsereteli without commissions.

Ilya Matveev is a teacher and researcher.

Images, above, courtesy of OpenLeft and Afoniya’s Blog