Crimea and Gays Be Damned (For the Record)

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This morning, I came across a flat-out lie (or an honest mistake), penned by a professor at one of the most august universities in the United States. But you would only know it was a lie or a mistake if you had been here in Petersburg to see what actually happened at Manifesta 10, and had some basic street smarts when it comes to the art scene and real grassroots politics here.

This partly explains why, for example, there is virtually no anti-war movement in Russia: because too many people whose avowed politics should make them natural leaders and organizers of a Russian anti-war movement (i.e., a movement against Russian imperialist military aggression, not a choir of angels hovering above all frays everywhere and quietly chiding “all parties to the conflict” on social media) have been more concerned to make the right impression on the right people in the big white world.

This is not to mention that virtually no one in the so-called Russian leftist art/activist community, especially in Petersburg, made even so much as a peep when the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly and, later, the State Duma passed the infamous homophobic laws , which are still safely and shamefully on the books in Russia.

I really don’t understand how, thirty or forty years from now, scholars and merely curious people will be able to get to the bottom of anything that happened in our time with so much abject propaganda camouflaged as journalism and “research” lying around everywhere.

“After the annexation of Crimea and the passing of a number of restrictive laws in Russia (not least the banning of so-called ‘homosexual propaganda’), it seemed macabre to many that the avowedly progressive European Biennale should take place in the State Hermitage museum as planned. The collective Chto Delat?, who were slated to participate in the biennale, wrote an open letter to star curator Kasper König, demanding that Manifesta 10 issue a public statement against the recent action of the Russian government. When their calls went unmet (aside from prompting critique of direct politicization in contemporary art) Chto Delat? and a number of Russian and Polish artists withdrew from the show.”

No Russian artists withdrew from the show whatsoever. That is a fact. Some local artists loudly withdrew from one part of Manifesta only to pop up quite prominently in another part of Manifesta. These same people mocked any “Polish artists” (?) who might have actually withdrawn from the show. They definitely attacked anyone outside Russia who called for an international boycott of the show. For literally all the Petersburg artists and curators involved, the show absolutely had to go on, Crimea and gays be damned. {TRR}

Photo by the Russian Reader

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Contemporary Art Killed My Dog

On a number of issues and events you have opposed Putin’s policies, and now you are at the Moscow Biennale [of Contemporary Art] at the VDNKh, a venue where the order of things is supposed to be questioned [sic]. Do you believe that here, in the current political situation, there can be a place for real criticism that is both anti-Putinist and anti-capitalist?

Yanis Varoufakis, anti-anti-Putinist
Yanis Varoufakis, anti-anti-Putinist

[Yanis Varoufakis:] Absolutely. But let me clarify something. I am not an anti-Putinist.  Anti-Putinism is too strong a word. I am very critical of Putin, but his demonization in the West is something I also resist. We should be smarter and think about what it means to be critical. I am extremely critical of what Putin did in Chechnya, and I have not forgiven him for it. But on the other hand, Putin was absolutely right about what happened in Georgia, and the West was absolutely wrong. I think that the West’s position on Crimea has also been inconsistent. Russia was surrounded [sic] by NATO when Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and other countries were included in the alliance. And for Russia it was an insult, as well as something close to violating the agreement between Reagan and Gorbachev [sic]. And Putin has been right about this, too. So I have never supported the policy of demonizing Putin. And I am afraid that Russians will have to suffer the awful consequences of this process, consequences which they do not deserve.

So I believe that spaces like this give us hope for the existence of another, rational, critical approach that does not take one side or the other and allows people from the West and Russia to get together and develop a more sophisticated optics for seeing the world and politics, for being critical without demonizing.

—Excerpted from Sergei Guskov, “Yanis Varoufakis: ‘Being critical without demonizing,’” Colta.Ru, October 2, 2015. Translated, from the Russian, by the Russian Reader

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There are only a few things I would add to Mr. Varoufakis’s remarks, above. First, he presumably made them in English, not Russian. Since he is an extremely persuasive speaker and conversationalist, it is quite possible some nuances in what he said at the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art were flattened or distorted when translated from English (?) into Russian, and these distortions have only been amplified further in my back translation.

But I doubt this is the case. The point of his remarks seems quite plain, so they are either a fabrication on the part of Colta.Ru or what Mr. Varoufakis more or less said in the event, minus the “static” of two consecutive translations.

If this is what he said, then Mr. Varoufakis is only another in a long line of Western leftist thinkers and activists who, seemingly, have found something “anti-hegemonic” or “anti-imperialist” or “productively” anti-American or, God forbid, “anti-capitalist” about Putin’s policies and actions, or have found it possible to hobnob with or shill for Putinists, on the Putinist dime, in the name of some kind of “criticality” or “third position” above the current fray, or just because they were bored and wanted an all-expenses-paid junket to Moscow or Petersburg or Rhodes.

A smarter person than me (and an actual Russian leftist activist to boot) has pointed out that Putin is nothing remotely like an anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist. On the contrary, my smart friend has argued, folks in the west should make an effort to find out about grassroots social and political activism and activists in today’s Russia and look for ways to make common cause with them. Or, at least, not stab them in the back by supporting Putin explicitly or implicitly.

Because Russia, like “the West,” is not a monolith. And that is the second way in which Mr. Varoufakis went wrong in his remarks in Moscow. “The West” is not a single entity, even among its political, intellectual, and media elites. It is not an organism singularly hellbent on “demonizing” Putin, whatever that means. It requires no effort at all to compile a very long league table of Putin’s wholehearted or partial supporters in “the West,” from Stephen Cohen to Donald Trump, from Silvio Berlusconi to Mary Dejevsky, from Nick Griffin to any number of leftist and centrist politicians in Europe. For reasons I haven’t been able to explain, that table has been growing fatter as Putin’s actions have become more aggressive and “demonic,” both at home and abroad.

Neither is Russian society nor the fabled (and utterly imaginary) “Russian people” monolithic, but over the past fifteen years the Russian state apparatus, the Russian mainstream media (especially television), and Russian mainstream political parties have become a monolith, one of whose primary goals, especially in the last two or three years, has been to demonize “the West” and the domestic opposition any way it can, no holds barred.

You would have to have been in the middle of this properly demonic media hysteria, moral panic, and “cold civil war” to appreciate just how thoroughgoing and thoroughly frightening it has been, and since I have been following Mr. Varoufakis’s own adventures over the past year or so, I can imagine he simply has no clue about what has really been happening in Russia since the blocks came off completely post Maidan, because he was very busy with more important matters.

One job this blog has taken on has been to provide little snapshots of that awfulness while also, more importantly, giving non-Russian speakers a chance to hear Russian voices other than Putin’s, however unimpressive or inaudible they might seem to big shots like Putin and Mr. Varoufakis.

Finally, I would like to address the question of why Mr. Varoufakis imagines, apparently, that big hoedowns like the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art are such perfect places for elaborating a “sophisticated optics for seeing the world and politics, for being critical without demonizing.”

Just a year ago, my hometown of Petrograd hosted Manifesta 10, another such prominent venue for “criticality.” In the midst of an occupation and invasion of a neighboring country by the host country, the host country and host city’s continuing legal demonization of LGBT, and a local election campaign, for the city’s governorship and district councils, that involved making sure the non-elected incumbent in the gubernatorial race would face no real opposition in his bid to legitimize his satrapy and, on election day, threatening independent election observers with murder, the Manifestashi did absolutely nothing that would really ruffle anyone’s feathers, least of all their sponsors from city hall and the State Hermitage Museum, and they barely reacted to the maelstrom of neo-imperialist hysteria and officially authorized criminality raging around them. Basically, they partied like it was 1999, while providing their fellow citizens with the welcome illusion that the shipwreck wrought by fifteen years of Putinism in politics, the economy, civil society, culture, education, medicine, science, industry and, most painfully, people’s minds could be conjured away or endured and understood a little better by taking a sip of contemporary art’s renowned and heady “criticality” and pretending Petersburg was Helsinki or Barcelona, if only for a summer.

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What has got better on Russia’s broken social, political, and art scenes since last autumn to make it even more desirable to engage in “criticality” at a biennale in one of Russia’s capitals, this time with the Russian Federal Ministry of Culture footing the bill?

Latterly, a cynical lunatic named Dmitry Enteo has smashed up a bunch of sculptures by the late Soviet sculptor Vadim Sidur and gotten off almost scot-free for his crimes. On the other hand, the list of political prisoners in Russia has continued to grow, and it now includes Crimean activists Oleg Sentsov and Alexander Kolchenko, sentenced to hard time in prison for no particular reason.

And then there is Alexei Gaskarov, who, if he lived in a more democratic country, would be running a party like Syriza or Podemos (minus the “criticality” and verbal cuddling up to other people’s dictators), but instead looks to be facing another two and half years in a penal colony, again, for no particular reason other than his own staunch opposition to Putin’s regime.

In the current dreadful “conjuncture,” a good day is a day that goes by without news of yet another anti-Putinist activist being arrested, an art exhibition’s being trashed by “Orthodox activists” or otherwise shut down because it might offend the sensibilities of someone’s grandmother, or a new law’s speeding down the State Duma assembly line so as to tighten up the screws on dissent and “treason” yet again.

In fact, I had a bit of such good news earlier today, when I learned that Andrei Marchenko, a Khabarovsk blogger whose case I have been following, was only fined 100,000 rubles (approx. 1,350 euros) instead of being sent down for two years to a work-release prison, as the prosecutor had demanded, for the horrible crime of writing one untoward sentence about Putin’s Ukrainian misadventure on his Facebook page in 2014.

Where does Mr. Varoufakis fit into this picture? Probably nowhere, which is probably where he should have stayed instead of playing to Moscow’s art and hipster crowd, always happy to let itself off the hook when it comes to taking responsibility for the ongoing disaster, and to the invisible figure up in the emperor’s box, especially at an opera with the almost deliberately ham-fisted and parodical title of Acting in a Center in a City in the Heart of the Island of Eurasia.

Thanks to Comrade AW for the heads-up. Images courtesy of BBC News and the Manifesta Biennial Facebook page

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.

mestodei-vpole VD-8

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.

Orlov&Kraevskaya_Razliv_Sarai museum_2 Orlov&Kraevskaya_Razliv_Sarai museum_3 Orlov&Kraevskaya_Razliv_Sarai museum_4

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.

Orlov&Kraevskaya_Razliv_Shalash museum_7

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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.”

Orlov&Kraevskaya_Razliv_Shalash museum_15

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

***

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.

Kirill Kalugin: “My Freedom Defends Yours”

On August 2, 2013, Russian Paratroopers Day, Kirill Kalugin, a Petersburg university student, took to the city’s Palace Square alone to protest the country’s new anti-gay laws. He was immediately set upon by reveling paratroopers (or as he himself suggested, by national activists masquerading as paratroopers), an incident captured on video by Petersburg news web site Paper Paper.

Kalugin returned to Palace Square this year on August 2 to protest Russia’s increasing militarism and imperialist misadventures in Ukraine. He was roughly detained by police some fifteen seconds after attempting to unfurl a rainbow flag emblazoned with the slogan, “My freedom defends yours.” Despite the fact that Kalugin held his anniversary protest right next to Manifesta 10’s provocative metallic Xmas tree, his protest has so far gone unremarked by progressive humanity (i.e., the international contemporary arts community) and the foreign press.

The interview below was published in August 2013 on the local Petersburg news web site Rosbalt three weeks after Kalugin’s first protest on Palace Square. Unfortunately, it hasn’t lost any of its timeliness, especially given the total absence of an anti-war movement in Russia and the singularity of Kalugin’s bravery and insight.

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Saint Petersburg State University student Kirill Kalugin is half the age of his eminent opponent, Petersburg Legislative Assembly member Vitaly Milonov, although he is also a redhead. But hair color is not the only thing the outspoken homophobe and outspoken gay have in common. Both claim they love their motherland Russia and will never leave it. 

Rosbalt’s Yevgeny Zubarev met with Kalugin in the city center, on Arts Square. It’s a safe place because it is always chockablock with police. There were also lots of police on Palace Square on August 2, [2013], when Kalugin came there alone and unfurled a rainbow flag, but even a platoon of riot police was not immediately able to wrest him away from an agitated crowd dressed in striped shirts for Russian Paratroopers Day.

 — Why did you do it, Kirill? Weren’t you frightened?

— I was frightened. Actually, there were supposed to be four of us out there, but then I ended up going out alone. If there had been several people, the police could have charged us with holding an unauthorized rally, but this way it was a solo picket, which doesn’t require permission. As soon as I unfurled the rainbow flag, men in [traditional Russian paratrooper] striped shirts grabbed me. But I don’t think they were paratroopers: I had seen many of the assailants earlier at anti-LGBT protests. I think they were nationalist activists masquerading as paratroopers. The police pulled me from the crowd and put me in a car, but we couldn’t leave right away: the crowd blocked the car, demanding that the police give me up. The riot police intervened and cleared a path, and I was taken to the 78th police precinct.

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— What did police charge you with? How were you punished?

— I don’t understand it myself. At first they wouldn’t let me make a phone call. The sergeants behaved rudely, and I couldn’t figure out what my status was, whether I had been detained, arrested or was considered a suspect. Right there at the police station one of the detained paratroopers rushed me: he wanted to beat me up, but the police held him back. Then the brass arrived and everything immediately changed: the police started talking with me politely. It turned out I wasn’t being charged with anything. They even let me file an assault complaint. But how that case has turned out, I don’t know: it has been twenty days, but I have had no word from the police.

— After this incident, Russian Orthodox patriots wrote several petitions to Saint Petersburg State University demanding your expulsion.

— I’m a student in the physics department, specializing in medical physics and bioengineering. It’s a tough department, and there is a lot of studying to do. What matters to the deans is that students take all their exams and tests on time, but they are unconcerned about their private lives. Generally, it is not kosher in the scientific community to tell people how they should behave in the intimate realm. So I’m confident all these petitions are pointless.

— Your family must have seen how you were beaten on Palace Square on the Web or on TV. What was their reaction?

— I was born to an ordinary Russian family in the town of Krasnoturyinsk in the Urals. My father is an officer in the Russian armed forces, my mother, a philologist. After the 2008 crisis, life in our town got really bad and we moved to Petersburg, where I finished high school, enrolled at the university, and began to live separately from my family. It was only then I told my parents I was gay. My parents were upset, especially my father, but they recognized my right to live as I see fit. My brother also said it was my choice. When I went out on Palace Square, they heard about it in the media. They called me and were worried, of course. But I assured them I was not in danger.

— How many times have you been beaten up in Petersburg for being gay?

— Never, except for the incident at Palace Square. My classmates at university and my employers at the restaurant where I work part time as a bartender do not care what I do in bed. Of course, after this incident I could have been recognized on the street and beaten up, but that hasn’t happened yet.

— There are thousands of commentators on the Web who are sure you went out on Palace Square to secure the right to emigrate to the west as a discriminated person.

— I don’t intend to leave Russia. I am sure all these homophobic laws will be repealed sooner or later, and all Russian citizens will be able to live normally regardless of sexual orientation. There were similar laws in Sweden thirty years ago, and gays were persecuted throughout the world the way they now are in Russia. But then the situation changed. I am sure that Russia also has to follow this path, and so I’m not going to leave. But change doesn’t happen by itself—people have to take to the streets and speak out about this problem.

— Why do you act alone? There are lots of public organizations in Russia that support gays. Many of them receive foreign grants. You could get this money to fight for equality and all that, no?

— I don’t want to. I’ve had offers to join various organizations like that, but I don’t want to. I’m not a politician. I just don’t want there to be discrimination against people like me. Besides, it is easier for the state to punish organizations than lone individuals. Organizations are more vulnerable. What are they going to do with an ordinary guy like me?

— When you finish university you’ll find that jobs in your scientific specialty are poorly paid and dead ends. This is another reason, aside from sexual orientation, for going abroad.

— I still won’t leave. I know how things are going with financing for science in Russia, but I don’t want to leave. In the end, there are grants given to scientists for in-demand research. And in fact, Russia is changing for the better; the situation is improving in science, too.

— You have the opportunity to address Rosbalt’s thousands of readers. What would say to all these people?

— I would appeal to people like me. Don’t sit quiet as mice. At least come out. Let your loved ones know that you exist.

 — Why can’t you sit quiet and keep a low profile? Why do you come up with these public protests during which you can be beaten or even killed? After all, there is no practical sense to them.

 — Can I quote Goethe? “He alone deserves liberty and life who daily must win them anew.”

— How old are you?

 — Twenty-one.

Originally published, in Russian, by Rosbalt on August 22, 2013. Photo courtesy of Rosbalt

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Explaining his protest [on August 2, 2014], Kalugin said it was directed against both the lack of civil freedoms and the growing militarism in Russia during the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

“The suppression of any civil freedoms and the growth of imperial chauvinism in Russia are interconnected, and the issue has one and the same root,” he said.

“As long as there remains at least one group that is seen as ‘second-rate people’ in the country, the rest cannot call themselves free. Even if they enjoy some preferences now, this system can hit them, too, sooner or later.

“All this has grown so much that it has already started spreading into the neighboring states. The same people, who cried ‘Death to gays’ and hailed the laws banning ‘gay propaganda’ and restricting public assemblies, ended up shouting ‘Crimea is ours’ and going to Donetsk and Luhansk.”

Airborne Troops Day in St. Petersburg is known for the large number of airborne veterans gathering in the city center, drinking, swimming in fountains and, at times, getting out of control, with the police usually ignoring any misconduct.

Kalugin said that he chose to stage his protest on that day because he sees the festivities as the “climax of militarism and chauvinism.” He said it was also his reaction to homophobic jokes, where LGBT people were mockingly invited to hold their protests on Airborne Troops Day—the underlying notion being that they would be immediately be beaten by homophobic airborne veterans.

“It’s an old joke from the times when LGBT pride events were held in Moscow, [Moscow’s anti-gay ex-mayor Yury] Luzhkov used to say that he would only agree if it was held on Aug. 2,” Kalugin said.

source: St. Petersburg Times

The Shipping Forecast

While Manifesta 10’s “public” program sets all that is left of progressive humanity (i.e., the contemporary art world) on fire with its overly provocative metallic Xmas tree, actual public and political life stubbornly and unattractively creaks on in the city that progress and progressive humanity have forgotten, Saint Petersburg, former capital of All the Russias.

kristina_norman_souvenir_2014

This life is of no interest to almost anyone, practically, even in Petersburg itself, so take what follows the way I and many other radio listeners the world over consume the beloved “Shipping Forecast” on BBC Radio 4: as a series of pleasant but ultimately meaningless vocables that have absolutely nothing to do with the way we self-satisfied landlubbers lead our rich, perfectly dry lives.

Gubernatorial and municipal district council elections are scheduled for September 14 in Saint Petersburg. However, even before the pretenders began formally declaring their candidacies this month, many observers, including liberal journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, argued the fix was in, and the Smolny would never allow any serious opposition to the incumbent (the unelected Kremlin appointee Georgy Poltavchenko) or whatever other candidate the Kremlin might suddenly choose to run for the job.

And indeed that is what has happened. Perhaps the only (mildly) oppositional candidate with the popularity and support to make the race real, Oksana Dmitrieva of A Just Russia party, was nixed before she got to the starting blocks. She did not pass the so-called municipal filter: formal approval of her candidacy by a minimum of 156 district council deputies.

I could not find any report about any of this monkey business in English, but hilariously I did find a badly translated statement from the ruling United Russia party angrily denouncing Dmitrieva for having the temerity to suggest there was something fishy about her failing to get through the filter and demanding an apology from her.

Well, sayonara, fair Oksana. We, the enlightened Petersburg “public,” barely knew who you were anyway, so we won’t miss you.

However, really serious candidates, like Takhir Bikbayev of the “Greens Ecological Party,” a man whose name is synonymous in the minds of Petersburg voters with all things environmental and progressive, (that’s a joke: I really have never heard of him before nor, I gather, has anyone else), easily passed through the dreaded filter.

Meanwhile, opposition candidates are being purged right and left from the district council races or otherwise prevented from registering. One such victim of Putinist vigilance is Fyodor Gorozhanko, a well-known local grassroots housing rights advocate, who was dismissed from the elections after United Russia complained he had “misled” voters who signed a petition supporting his candidacy. A court has upheld the complaint.

How exactly did Gorozhanko “mislead” voters? On the standard-issue petition sheets voters sign to get candidates on the ballot, there is a blank where the candidate has to state whether he or she is “employed” and where. Since Gorozhanko works as a volunteer aide to Petersburg Legislative Assembly deputy Maxim Reznik, he crossed out the word “employed” and pencilled in what he does now in lieu of gainful employment. This is how he “misled” voters. Gorozhanko plans to appeal the court’s decision…

Man, this local politics shit is so, so boring. I am going to switch on the “Shipping Forecast” and wait for a contemporary artist to make another provocative statement in public space about public space and history. Now that will be something to talk about.

P.S. While I was gussying up this post, incumbent Georgy Poltavchenko officially declared his candidacy. He will face stiff competition on September 14 from Irina Ivanova (CPRF), Konstantin Sukhenko (LDPR), Takhir Bikbayev (Greens), and Andrei Petrov (Motherland). I think it’s safe to say the vast majority of Petersburg will have never heard of any of these candidates except for Poltavchenko, of course, although Ivanova and Sukhenko are deputies in the city’s legislative assembly.

Oksana Dmitrieva (A Just Russia) and Anatoly Golov (Yabloko) were refused registration. Dmitrieva has claimed that Poltavchenko pressured municipal deputies into not supporting her candidacy and has filed complaints with the prosecutor general’s office and the central electoral commission. 

“The Shutters Will Close on October 31” (Manifesta 10)

Two absolutely (in)compatible claims from the topsy turvy world of Manifesta 10:

1. Manifesta 10 is the most law-abiding art biennial ever held and ingratiating to a fault with the “conservative part of society” (i.e., drooling fascists).

Local Petersburg TV “culture correspondent” Pavel Nikiforov (in a report viewable here):

Despite all the fears, despite the cautious attitude of the museum сommunity and the conservative part of society, all three programs, all the exhibits in these programs are fully consistent with the laws of the Russian Federation. Moreover, at the opening of the Biennale [State Hermitage director Mikhail] Piotrovsky paid special attention to this point.

Mikhail Piotrovsky (in the same TV report):

We had a legal consultation with our lawyers. And nothing presented at Manifesta violates the laws of the Russian Federation.

(The segment in question starts at the 2:40 mark.)

2. Manifesta 10 is an oasis of total, uncensored political freedom endorsed by the entire Russian LGBT movement.

After her, Hedwig Fijen, who came directly from St Petersburg where she was responsible for Manifesta for which she has been a director for since quite some time. Like we all know, Manifesta has been bombarded with an enormous amount of critique for being situated where it is this year, in Russia, in St. Petersburg and in the Eremitage [sic] . She mentioned how none of the artistic projects had been in any way been object of political pressure and that there had been internal discussions all along the process about staying or leaving Russia and the decision to stay was not taking lightly nor naïvely. She mentioned that the LGBT-movement in Russia had wanted them to stay to avoid further isolation and to keep an open channel, and that in the end, with all the talk about boycott, only three artists decided to withdraw from participating in the biennial. Kaspar [sic] König was in the audience, but never said anything.

source

(Thanks to Comrade CLA for the second part.)

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P.S. The last lines of that TV report are priceless (and cheaply prophetic):

Like Petersburg once upon a time, Manifesta is a window, only now it works both ways. The shutters will close on October 31.

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