Anna Tereshkina has always epitomized, for me, the radical core of the Petersburg underground. Especially since she comes from Omsk, in Siberia. If Chernyshevsky were writing the novel of our times, Tereshkina would be Vera Pavlovna and Rakhmetov all at once.
Tereshkina is an incredibly prolific artist, curator, musician, and poet. She is dedicated to universal justice and solidarity and is particularly attuned to the aesthetic and political performative discourses of queer-feminism. Her work and, most importantly, her life as a work (of art and politics) have been among the most formative for me in terms of opening up to my own queer body and writing.
relaxation as the result of many days of effort. many years of effort. I come here, into the world of feminine bodies to erase my sex, to look at them carefully, so calm, escaping for a couple hours children, husbands, grandsons, debts, poverty and bosses, patience and despair. into the kingdom of heat and silence. everyone is silent, they just breathe like stoves.* and I need to breathe this way, too. today I showed a new woman the ladle and mitt, so she could give us more steam. she said: “toss more,” and I didn’t understand.** then I thought about the division of language and feelings: you can pick over them like grains or you can share them with someone. or eat your kasha with black dots, if you like dots, in particular black ones.*** there’s a strong woman washing her old mother, after the steam room she tells her: sit here a bit. will I ever wash my mother? mine never goes to the banya alone. and then I hear, hear, hear everything breath and motion, breath and motion the electric current pulls the water pumps and the water runs off into the drain. I want to be huge like a stove, so no one can put me in their pocket.
* The poem describes a scene in a Russian public bathhouse or banya on a women’s day. The banya is heated by a large brick stove or pech.
** These lines contrast two infinitives, describing the act of throwing water on the stones in the stove to produce steam. On the one hand, poddavat (to add or increase the steam, with the root meaning “to give”), and on the other hand, podkinut (to toss or throw the steam). Tereshkina told me she had never heard this usage of the second verb before the scene described.
*** The reference is to the black grains that can often be found in a bag of buckwheat kasha. They can be separated out before cooking or simply eaten along with the rest.
Anna Tereshkina, Self-Portrait. Courtesy of the artist
Mama, I want a tattoo, Mama, I’m embarrassed before you Like usual, because I was born, And forced to steal your youth. It was so scary in the 1990s, no scarier than now, lying down looking back, looking forward, We don’t know which of us Lies the most to the other We don’t know which of us Lies the most to themselves.
I like being a girl, but it’s better to be a zemleroika, Anyone born in perestroika, Remains forever there. I like being a girl, who has such little air underwater, everything squeezing me, and no one waiting up above It’s already too late.
Mama, I want to get my nose pierced, so everyone can see I’m grown up and I can pierce everything I want, if I want. Mama, can I come back into your matrix, peek in with one eye, so I can rest, so I don’t have to breathe, so I can run away. Is it shameful to dream of such things?
I like being a girl, but it’s better to be a zemleroika, Whoever was born in perestroika, Remains forever there. I like being a girl who has such little air underwater, everything squeezing me, and no one waiting up above It’s already too late.
* The Russian for “shrew” is zemleroika, which literally means “earth digger,” recalling Hegel’s appropriation of Hamlet’s “old mole” to name the spirit of history. Since “shrew” has such misogynistic connotations in English (and none in Russian), I have left the original word in the translation. Please learn this word (rhymes with perestroika!) and use it in English to replace the dead word “shrew” if you are speaking of a tough, assertive woman.
Translation and commentary by JoanBrooks. If you would like to support the author’s work, please consider donating. Any amount helps. Please include “Tereshkina” in the memo line of your contribution.
This fascinating documentary, made by Disney in 1987, gives its putative US television audience a glimpse into the daily life of a Leningrad schoolboy, Alyosha Trusov. Alyosha attends Leningrad School No. 185, an English-language magnet school that my boon companion had graduated only a few years before this film was made.
Thanks to Yelena Yoffe for the heads-up.
Everything Is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid, a recent memoir by the narrator and protagonist’s older half-brother Sergey Grechishkin, also gets my seal of approval. I would especially recommend it to university lecturers teaching courses about everyday life in the late-Soviet period and anyone else who wants to know what childhood was really like for what anthropologist Alexei Yurchak has rightly called “the last Soviet generation.”
Don’t be scared off by Grechiskin’s explicitly pro-capitalist, pro-western stance: he is too good a writer to let that get in the way of the story he has to tell, which he tells much more honestly than most of his compatriots and, certainly, nearly all westerners who have written about the period.
Thanks (again) to Yelena Yoffe for the heads-up. Grechishkin’s book turned several long bus trips in December into supremely pleasant journeys.
I met Jehovah’s Witnesses in the mid 1990s in the former Soviet Central Asian republics. I was researching the region’s religious life. When I arrived at each regional capital, I would survey all the prominent communities in turn. The Witnesses were different in one respect from other western-inspired Christian communities. There were lots of them and they were everywhere.
Like now, many were certain back then the Witnesses were a product of the perestroika era’s freedoms. This, however, was not the case. The Witnesses were a legacy of the Soviet Union.
An American Salesman’s Religion
The Witnesses are a typical American eschatological religious group. Put crudely, they believe the world will end soon, during their lifetimes. They believe in one God, Jehovah, a name used during Christianity’s first century. On Judgment Day, Jehovah will destroy sinners and save the elect. The Witnesses reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit). They do not consider Christ God, but they revere him. The day of his death is the only holiday they celebrate.
A completely and regularly revised theology has produced a set of permissions and prohibitions aimed at maintaining the way of life and behavior of a decent traveling salesman from the lower middle classes.
The Witnesses are allowed the moderate use of alcohol (immoderate use is cause for expulsion) and the use of contraceptives. Premarital sex and smoking are forbidden. The Witnesses must not “rend to Caesar what is Caesar’s”: they are forbidden from being involved in elections, engaging in politics, honoring state symbols, and serving in the army. They are most roundly criticized by outsiders for forbidding blood transfusions and organ transplants. The Witnesses suddenly had something to say when the AIDS epidemic kicked off. They support blood substitutes.
Something like family monasteries—”administrative centers”—have been organized for the most ardent followers. The schedule in the centers is strict, but the conditions are relatively comfortable. The Witnesses can live and work in them, practically for free, for as little as a year or as along as their entire lives.
Waiting for the world’s imminent end is an occupation common to many religious groups, from Russian Old Believers to the Mayan Indians. Such groups isolate themselves from a sinful world, some by retreating into the wilderness, others, by restricting their contact with outsiders.
The Witnesses differ from similar movements in terms of how they disseminate and maintain their doctrine. The method is based on the commercial practice of distributing magazines in the nineteenth century. Essentially, the entire organization meets twice weekly to read its main journal, The Watchtower, which is produced by church elders in Brooklyn and then translated and disseminated in dozens of languages. Members pay a nominal fee for subscribing to and reading the journal, fees that are scrupulously collected and sent along the chain: from local groups to the regional office, then to the national headquarter and, finally, to the head office in Brooklyn. Free distribution of the magazine and going door to door asking people whether they want to talk about God are aimed at the same thing: increasing the audience who subscribes to and collectively reads the magazine.
Ninety-five percent of today’s public find these religious activities strange and ridiculous, although from a sociological viewpoint they barely differ from going to political party meetings, networked sales of cosmetics, visiting sports clubs, getting a tattoo, the Russian Healthy Lifestyle Movement (ZOZh) or stamp collecting.
If you believe the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own figures, they operate in 240 countries, which is more than belong to the UN. At the same time, the organization is numerically quite compact, albeit growing rapidly. It has a total of 8.3 million members.
The Soviet authorities did not tolerate large groups who maintained constant links with foreign countries, so it decided to send the core group of Witnesses, five thousand people, to Siberia. A considerable number were sent to the camps, while the rest were exiled. The crackdown was a misfortune for the victims, but it was a godsend for the exotic doctrine.
As early as the 1950s, the largest communities of Witnesses had emerged in the main place of exile, Irkutsk Region. In the 2000s, the official websites of Irkutsk Region and the neighboring Republic of Buryatia claimed the Jehovah’s Witnesses were a traditional religious community in the region. Irkipediaprovides the following figures for 2011: “Around 5,500 people in Irkutsk Region are members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization. Around 50 of their assemblies operate in Irkutsk Region, each of them featuring 80 to 150 members. The assemblies are united into three districts: Usolye-Sibirskoye, Irkutsk, and Bratsk.”
The camps proved a suitable place for proselytizing, the radically minded youth, especially Ukrainian speakers, eager listeners, and the half-baked amnesty of political prisoners, an excellent means of disseminating the doctrine nationwide. As early as the late 1950s, all over northern Kazakhstan, former members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), who were banned from returning home, and former Russian criminals, who had taken jobs as farm machinery operators and welders, were digging dugouts in the steppes to hide DIY printing presses for printing The Watchtower.
Why did peasants, traders, brawny lads from the working classes, graduates of provincial technical schools, mothers of large families, and pensioners need to become Jehovah’s Witnesses? I have the same explanation as the preachers do: to radically change their selves and their lifestyles. The everyday frustrations of ordinary people, their perpetually predetermined lives, and their uselessness to anyone outside their narrow family circle (in which there is so often so little happiness) are things that torment many people. Prescriptions for effectively transfiguring oneself are always popular. However, they usually don’t work, because it is hard to stick to the program.
Like other religious groups, the Witnesses offer their members a disciplinary model for joint action. You can sit at home, chewing through your miserly pension, and watching TV, or you can feel like a “pioneer” again (the title given to missionaries who proselytize on the streets and door to door), do the right thing, hang out with other enthusiastic people like yourself, and make friends with young people. You are a young bricklayer. You are facing a lifetime of laying bricks, but your soul yearns for change and career growth. After spending six months in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, our bricklayer might be leading a grassroots group, and two years later he might have made a decent career in the organization. His wife is satisfied. Her husband doesn’t drink, their circle of friends has expanded, and during holidays the whole family can go visit other Witnesses in other parts of Russia. The children grown up in a circle of fellow believers with a sense of their own uniqueness. Free evenings are spent on the work of the organization, but that is better than drunken quarrels, and better than what most “ordinary” Soviet and post-Soviet folks are up to in the evenings.
In 2006, I interviewed Vladimir Saprykin, a former employee of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee’s Propaganda Department. His career had kicked off with a vigorous campaign against the Witnesses in Karaganda Region. I was able to get a glimpse into a period when the Party was on the warpath against the Witnesses. In the early 1960s, literally hundreds of people were sent to the camps as part of the campaign against religion per se.
Saprykin had campaigned against the Witnesses wholeheartedly and passionately, and that passion still burned in him fifty years after the events in question. He had dreamed of making them “completely free,” of “returning them to their essence.” He was backed up then by a whole group of provincial demiurges from among the local intelligentsia. They had collectively tried to re-educate the local group of Witnesses through debate, and then they had intimated them and pressured their relatives. Subsequently, they had tried to buy them off before finally sending the group’s core to prison with the KGB’s backing.
Their rhetoric is surprisingly similar to the declarations made by the Witnesses’ current antagonists.
“We stand for individual freedom of choice in all domains, including religion. […] So read, compare, think, disagree, and argue! Critical thinking is in inalienable sign of a person’s freedom. Let’s not abandon our freedom so easily.”
This is not an excerpt from a statement by a libertarian group, but an excerpt from a declaration published by a group of Russian Orthodox clergymen attached to the Holy Martyr Irenaeus of Lyons Center for Religious Studies. It was these clergymen who have now got the Jehovah’s Witnesses banned.
In the early 1960s, the KGB and such local enthusiasts managed to deliver several serious blows to the infrastructure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Soviet Union. Successive leaders of the organization and hundreds of grassroots leaders and activists were arrested and convicted, and archives, correspondence, and printing presses were seized.
This, however, did not lead to the eradication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Besides the three regions where they had constantly been active—Western Ukraine, Moldova, and Irkutsk Region—groups and organizations emerged in the sixties and seventies throughout nearly the entire Soviet Union from Arkhangelsk Region to the Maritime Territory, and from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan.
The movement was spread by ex-camp convicts, labor migrants from regions where the doctrine was strongly espoused, and missionaries.
Soviet construction sites, new cities, and workers’ dorms were propitious environments for the spread of new religious doctrines. The young people who arrived to work there were cut off from their usual lifestyles, family ties, and interests. They wanted something new, including self-education and self-transfiguration—to gad about in suits and have their heads in the clouds. Most of these cadres were promoted through the ranks by the Communist Youth League and other authorities, but there were plenty of pickings for the religious organizations.
By the way, in 1962, Saprykin campaigned to get not just anyone to leave the Witnesses, but Maria Dosukova, a chevalier of the Order of Lenin, a longtime Party member, a plasterer, and an ethnic Kazakh. During an assembly at her construction company, Dosukova had refused to support a resolution condemning the religious organization in which several people in her work team were members.
After Krushchev’s resignation, the systematic arrests of the Witnesses stopped, although some were sent to prison as a warning to the others. Everyone else was subject to the decree, issued by the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, on March 18, 1966, “On Administrative Responsibility for Violating the Legislation on Religious Cults.” You could be fined fifty rubles—a week’s pay for a skilled worker—for holding a religious circle meeting in your home. In his book About People Who Never Part with the Bible, religious studies scholar Sergei Ivanenko records that, during the seventies and eighties, attempts to combat the Witnesses by fining them and tongue-lashing them at assemblies were just as useless.
Perestroika legalized the Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the post-Soviet space. This freedom did not last for long, however. The new states of Central Asia and the Transcaucasia followed the Soviet Union’s path in their treatment of the Witnesses, achieving similar outcomes.
In Russia, the Witnesses were officially registered in March 1991 and had no serious problems for a long time. They built their central headquarters, Bethel, in the village of Solnechnoye near St. Petersburg, as well as several dozen buildings for prayer meetings. Of course, due to their activity, relative openness, and American connections, the Witnesses (along with the Hare Krishna, the Mormons, the Scientologists, and the Pentecostals) were targeted by the various hate organizations that emerged in Russia in the late 1990s, including the Cossacks, neo-Nazis, and professional anticultists.
Anticultism was imported to Russia by the ex-Moscow hippie Alexander Dvorkin, who emigrated to the US in the 1970s and got mixed up in Orthodox émigré circles there. In the early 1990s, he left his job at Radio Liberty and returned to Russia, where he made a successful career at the point where the interests of the Moscow Patriarchate and Russian law enforcement agencies intersect. The above-mentioned Irenaeus of Lyons Center is, basically, Dvorkin himself.
Professor Dvorkin has worked for several years at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of the Humanities. Until 2012, he was head of the department of sectology. In 2009, he headed the council for religious studies forensic expertise at the Russian Federal Justice Ministry. (He now holds the post of deputy chair). It is curious that Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov is also a St. Tikhon’s alumnus and is quite proud of that fact.
By supporting the Justice Ministry’s campaign to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Russian Supreme Court has not only put the “sectarians” in a difficult position but also the Russian authorities. In Russia, the Witnesses have over 400 local organizations and around 168,000 registered members. Only full-fledged members are counted during registration, but a fair number of sympathizers are also usually involved in Bible readings, The Watchtower, and other religious events. We can confidently say the ban will affect at least 300,000 to 400,000 Russian citizens. Labeling them “extremists” does not simply insult them and provoke conflicts with their relatives, loved ones, and acquaintances. In fact, this means abruptly increasing the workload of the entire “anti-extremism” system the Russian authorities have been setting up the past twenty years. The soldiers of the Russian National Guard will find it easy to raid prayer meetings and spread-eagle these “extremists” on the floor. However, given the scale of the organization, they will have to do this a lot and often. And, as experience shows, there won’t be much point to what they are doing.
Not a single country in the world has forcibly dissolved the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it is hard to imagine that these 400,000 people will all emigrate or otherwise disappear. Even now, as news of the ban has spread, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have received completely unexpected support from all manner media and numerous public figures, including Russian Orthodox priests. Given these circumstances, the successful state campaign to discredit, dissolve, and brush a major religious community under the rug is doomed to failure.
The authorities will have to decide. Either they will sanction the mass arrests of the organizations leaders and activists and send hundreds and thousands of people to the camps, which ultimately will facilitate the growth of the movement’s reputation and dissemination, as in Soviet times, or they will pinpoint those who, according to the Interior Ministry and the FSB, are “especially dangerous” while turning a blind eye to the actual continuation of the organization’s work.
I would like the country’s leadership to have second thoughts and find a legal way to rescind the Supreme Court’s decision. There is little hope of that, however.
Yesterday morning, I stopped by a completely new restaurant for breakfast. They had opened just recently, and the place was all polished and shiny.
There were three people in the place: the cook, the girl behind the counter, and, apparently, the manager. They were all very friendly and were glad to see me. They jumped up to greet me, telling me I should have breakfast at their place.
While I was picking out a sandwich, it transpired they did not take cards.
They were upset. Don’t just leave, they said to me. Buy at least something to support us.
I spent my last hundred rubles on a cup of coffee. They were glad and came out of the restaurant to see me off.
As I went home, I remembered coming home from Tartu in the early nineties. When I exited the Primorskaya subway station early in the morning, people were already lined up there selling things.
An old woman approached me.
“Buy some matches, sonny, and support commerce. It’s a good cause!”
There was an amazing feeling of novelty about it back then. Now I am not so sure. New places are no cause for joy, although I honestly support commerce and other good causes. It is probably a sign of old age.
P.S. I hear the rain starting up again. This is my punishment for not having bought a poached egg with pesto for breakfast for 140 rubles.
P.P.S. That box of matches is still in the cupboard in my mother’s kitchen. It is amazing how long they have lasted.
If you ran away when you were fifteen,
It’s hard to understand the guy who went to a good school.
And if you’ve got a firm plan for your life,
Then you’re unlikely to think about anything else.
We drink tea in old apartments.
We wait for summer in old apartments,
In old apartments where there is light,
Gas, telephone, hot water,
Radio, parquet floor,
Separate toilet, brick walls.
One family, two families, three families.
Lots of closet space,
Not interested in first or last floors,
Close to the subway, downtown, downtown.
Everyone says we’re together.
Everyone says it, but few people know where.
A strange smoke comes from our pipes.
Stop! Danger zone! Brain at work!
Boshetunmai, boshetunmai, boshetunmai . . .
Thanks to Comrade Igor R. for the heads-up on the video.
It is difficult to write about Putin’s Russia, something one does reluctantly. One hesitates to use the word Putin because by this act alone you intrude into the political arena, where your least utterance cannot remain mere hot air but can also turn on you and make you regret what you have said. Such regret does not arise because you were wrong or unfair or because you were misinterpreted, but because your words are always addressed not to those who listen, but rather to those who eavesdrop. Some might be inclined to detect paranoia in this last phrase, to interpret it in the light of conspiracy theory, the “rise of the secret services” or something of the sort. I have in mind something else, however: the specific shift in Russian political sensibility that has taken place before our eyes. An oversupply of mutually repetitive utterances has now been stockpiled, and their lack of content underwrites their existence in the mediaverse. It is simply impossible to listen to them any longer, just as listening itself has become a chore.
It is not so much the political situation (in which power, capital, and the mass media are concentrated in one and the same hands) that I would like to discuss, as it is the “nonpolitical” situation. When we examine the zone of the nonpolitical, the lifeworld of the ordinary man, however, politics is, all the same, one of the conditions that shape it. Politics has long since ceased being something in which people take part; instead, it has become something that shapes people. It has ceased being a clash of parties, social groups, views, and convictions; it has ceased being a concern only of the state and its institutions. Politics courses through our bodies—bodies that vote, work, watch TV, sit in cafés, smoke cigarettes, sleep, die, etc. Politics has long ago become biopolitics. This is not news. It is always the time you live in that is the news.
It is this that makes us speak out today: this strange time that we did not anticipate and in which we find ourselves now. One struggles to find a precise description of this time or even an imprecise description, one that would nevertheless capture the current conjuncture. In our case, defining even a few of the situation’s peculiarities means giving a chance to the absolutely mute, feeble forces of the nonpolitical. It means revealing the possibility of another politics—not a politics devised by political scientists and political operatives, but one that grows out of the life of society itself. In our time, it is extremely hard to imagine such a thing. For a start, however, it would be good to describe this strange time in some way. When does it begin? In what sense is it strange?
We would be mistaken in thinking the time of this new political sensibility begins with the rise to power of the new politicians. Their rise is a symptom, rather. Many still remember (although the mass media have done everything they can to make us forget) Gorbachev’s perestroika and the first years of the Yeltsin administration. It was a romantic period when the experience of democracy became part of our lives. And it was because this experience was new that the very idea of democracy itself was perceived romantically. Ours was an anarchic democracy, one without the institutions on which democracy depends. In this sense, it was a popular democracy, independently of the fact that a significant part of the population might not have supported it. In turn, the spontaneity and popular character of democracy in the late eighties and early nineties might not have manifested themselves had revolt not become a vital necessity in Soviet times, especially during the Brezhnev years.
I consciously use the word revolt here, rather than “resistance” or “social change,” because the latter was the bailiwick only of society’s politically active members. Revolt, on the contrary, is always nonpolitical in nature: it springs from life itself, not from its political realities. Revolt is born of hunger and fear, of humiliation and injustice that exceed the individual and thus become social phenomena. Revolt is a resistance of bodies that marks the limits of biopolitics.
At the end of the Soviet era, the word democracy was the symbol of this revolt. We began building democracy then, and its shortcomings, aporias, and weak points were revealed. This is all more or less obvious to critics of the western model of democracy. Institutionalized democracy, of course, is a rather refined control mechanism premised on the clear equation of the ordinary man with the socially active individual. Your identity as an individual has everything to do with your having a “point of view,” the “right to vote,” the “franchise.” The main thing, though, is that you are endowed with power albeit paltry and imaginary power. This reduction of politics to the individual is the constant in democracy’s rhetoric and its ruse. Even our current political elite has not rejected this rhetoric, although the word democracy has ubiquitously become a term of abuse, and invectives against the western social order, commonplace. Here, of course, we discover a certain resemblance between our time and the Soviet period, when there was also a constitution, a system of elections, courts and lawyers, and the notorious of “grassroots criticism.” Then as well, however, there was a general albeit unspoken understanding that this entire system was fictitious and deceitful, and this was a source of the perestroika era’s consensus on revolt.
The situation today is different. First, it is “democracy” and “democrats” that have been officially blamed for all the woes of the Yeltsin years. Second and more important, this puppet democracy has acquired a service class that far outnumbers the standing political bureaucracy. This is mainly a new generation of people, most often young people, who do not remember even the early post-perestroika years, much less Soviet times.
It would be unfair, however, to limit this segment of society only to “new” people, most of whom are successful or hope to be successful. As opposed to many members of the older generation whose service to the current political authorities is wholly cynical and who have happily forgotten what they said a decade ago and what they believed in (perhaps sincerely) two decades ago, the “new” people have already been formed as political bodies per se. If we can understand what makes them tick we will go some way towards shedding light on the situation.
Television regularly treats us to political talk show hosts (Vladimir Solovyov and Maxim Shevchenko, for example) who have at the ready an amazingly cynical set phrase when anyone mentions the absence of free speech in Russia and the state’s control of the mass media: “You are saying this on national television.” We are constantly confronted by the fact that critical views on the current state of affairs are voiced by figures (Novodvorskaya, Zhirinovsky, Borovoi, Nemtsov, et al.) who have long ago become TV clowns. If new faces turn up by accident among this pack, then the hosts, feigning surprise that our democracy gives even such “nutcases” the chance to speak out, will find the right (prescripted) words to demonstrate to the home audience just how marginal their stance is.
Russia’s imitation “democracy” is in no way a social system with all its attendant shortcomings. It has long since been turned into a reliable instrument of the political hacks. It would not be worth mentioning it at all if not for the fact that our “democracy” incarnates the ambivalence that characterizes the current situation in general. Just like Health Minister Mikhail Zurabov, democracy is to blame for everything but it cannot be sent packing. It is “effective” after its own fashion, that is. It has to go on living because it is guilty and thus will continue indefinitely to swell the ranks of its detractors, the ranks of the current order’s zealous defenders.
Thus, a certain young writer, Anastasia Chekhovskaya, gives a rapturous account in Izvestia of her meeting with Putin. She relates how glad she is that the state has commissioned her to educate the populace, to teach them “good feelings.” Then, without batting an eye, she calls these same people lumpen who have been mutated by mass culture and almost openly declares that it is “young people” like her who are the new elite.
Or take our contemporary artists. Their state commissions have not come through yet, but they are already looking for the right people to serve.
And then there are other “young people,” the members of the Nashi (Ours) movement. Dressed in identical team jackets (it is clear who footed that bill), they are bused in an organized fashion to pro-Putin rallies.
Here they are on Pushkin Square, guarded by the police. They are singing songs and yelling patriotic slogans right at the moment when, on the other side of Tverskaya, the OMON is beating the March of the Dissenters with billy clubs.
Here are some other “young people.” They attend the Marches of the Dissenters not because they are dissenters but because they are provocateurs.
Finally, there are the Live Journal users. They are not members of any party, and they do not go to demonstrations. They are, however, incredibly active when it comes to voicing their support for practically any government campaign. They curse Georgians and Estonians and pensioners who refuse to sell off their garden plots in the countryside outside of Moscow.
These are not simply examples of “grassroots political activism.” There is nowhere from which such activism could emerge: the time is not disposed towards it. This is a new social space that has taken shape precisely in the last several years: we might describe it as an open call for a place in the sun. Only there is no search committee and no list of qualifications for the jobseekers. It is probably not even a job competition but a show in which only the most cynical end up in power or on the tube. All the other applicants master the art of “natural cynicism” (the ability not to see pain, humiliation or the trampling of liberty), expecting a summons to serve in the most miserable “bureaucratic” (in the broadest sense of the word) postings, where these mid-level satraps will employ their skills with the right amount of zeal.
A graduate of the school of political perceptivity, the new-model individual has been hatched in record time. This is the type of people Gleb Pavlovsky has dubbed “the victors.” They are instantly recognizable: they are the ones who talk about the “horrors of Yeltsin-era democracy,” who criticize the Dissenters for their lack of a “positive” program, who rejoice over the country’s growing budget and the size of the Stabilization Fund, who condemn businessmen who cheat on their taxes, who calculate how much doctors, teachers, and pensioners do not get as a result (while of course forgetting that tax revenues go to the state, which despite its enormous budget does not pay the needy anything). We could go on. While it would be wrong to say that all these folks are well off, they are already “others.” Even if their grip on power and money is still slight, power and money figure virtually in their way of thinking, in their sensibility. The state needs such people. They are the new (dependent) “power” elite. A semi-powerful elite whose power extends to the moment when they are reminded who made them what they are and how. Semi-victors.
But what is to be done with the losers? What is to be done with those whom we still call ordinary people? With people who keep their counsel and watch TV? (Whether they condemn or support Putin while doing so is unimportant.) With those who, with the best will in the world and even in their wildest fantasies, are unable to appreciate the Stabilization Fund’s significance? With those who protest when driven to their wit’s end, only to be told that they do not have permits to demonstrate and that the principles of democracy dictate that they should pursue their rights only through the courts?
The watershed that has happened today cannot be reduced to a divide between rich and poor. The media find it convenient to represent the state of affairs in this way, thus directing the energy of protest against the oligarchs. In today’s Russia, the demarcation line runs between “victors” and “losers.” It is not a line, even, but an abyss. Leaping from one camp to another is no simple matter. Strange as it may seem, it is much easier to become a “victor” (a lot is done to smooth the road to victory). It is much harder to side with the “losers,” to share with the injured their experience of humiliation.
No one needs the losers. They are not simply forgotten: systematically, for years on end, they have been the victims of real genocide. Everything points to the fact that it is not only the Anastasia Chekhovskayas of the world but also the central authorities themselves who are waiting for entire segments of the population to become extinct naturally. The lumpen will be the first to go. Then the pensioners. Then the people who for some odd reason continue to give them medical treatment. Then the people who continue to work in small towns and villages for a pauper’s wage. (In this sense, apparently, they expose their “passive” natures.) Then the people who remember something. Those who do not want to join the jubilant ranks of the victors will be the last to go.
Politics in Putin’s Russia is almost wholly constructed around the principle of exclusion. If you are not loyal to state power, then sooner or later you will end up a loser. Ordinary work that is even minimally connected to politics has taken on a completely different character. Whereas it was once possible to speak of “convictions” or “temporary alliances,” nowadays the line between cooperation and strikebreaking has become precariously thin and is disappearing by the day.
During Soviet times, people joined the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) because it was a condition for enrolling in university. They joined the Communist Party only because it was, once again, concomitant with professional advancement. Everyone understood the ambiguity of the situation: during the Brezhnev years, the number of sincere communists could have been counted on the fingers of one hand. Moreover, although there were frightfully few dissidents and human rights activists in those days, an enormous number of people (the majority, perhaps) were, if not exactly nonconformist, then “in disagreement” with the regime. Perestroika showed that such “dissenters” were numerous even within the country’s communist leadership.
Nowadays, there is no obligation to join the party, but one has to be a “consenter”: to be statist in one’s thinking; or, to be more precise, to have a body malleable to the state’s line. Otherwise, you are excluded, even if you are just a human being, not a dissident. Exclusion has become the principle of state policy. This exclusion is both economic and political. One has to be in the business of servicing the authorities or the natural resources extraction industries; if you are not, you will be forgotten. When the excluded are remembered, it is via the latest talk show (most often, during an election campaign), which usually leads to nothing. One has to go to the polls and vote for one of the party lists, any of which has long consisted of nothing but “victors” who are barely distinguishable from one another. If you are apolitical or a “protester,” then nowadays you do not exist: the minimal turnout threshold has been abolished, and so has the “against all” option on the ballot. Thus, the legal space for protest has been disappearing. So when you head to the polls to engage in the most democratic of democratic acts, you unwillingly become obedient to the general line and even a bit of a strikebreaker.
Isn’t this word too harsh? I don’t think so. You might ask: Where is the “strike,” the protest, the political movement (finally) that this great mass of people is, suddenly, breaking? Do you really think it is only the comments of television talking heads and the provocateurs planted in the crowd of protestors that lead me to such conclusions? After all, the former will foam at the mouth as they prove to you that they really are voicing their own beliefs, while the latter will claim they are merely engaged in run-of-the-mill “effective” politics. It is true: there is something awkward about the word, but in its harshness, it is quite accurate. There really is, as it were, nothing much to break (all protest actions are local and turn out few protestors), while the self-image of these people is just the opposite—that of positive builders. If we ask what it is they are building, however, then it will be clear what it is they are breaking.
Each and every one of them is building a “strong state.” They are volunteers. In the best (and extremely rare) case, they are sincere enthusiasts, but in principle, they are calculating pragmatists. The rationale of the strong state requires a triumph of victors over the vanquished on both the foreign and the domestic fronts. While it is easy to find foreign enemies (and even easier to find weak foreign enemies), on the home front the hunt for “enemies of the people” (aka enemies of the state) has already begun. And it is the people who protest—pensioners, the impoverished intelligentsia, part of the student body—who turn out be the enemies. It is of little importance who is “left-wing” and who is “right-wing” because their protest is not mere protest. It is a revolt, albeit for the time being a rather mild revolt. Although it is nonpolitical in character, it is occasioned by the political situation.
Revolt is a lawless thing. So-called democratic rights—the right to vote, the right of assembly and peaceful protest, the right to strike, the right to have one’s grievances redressed in the courts—are intended to limit the possibilities of revolt. They are mechanisms for regulating social discontent. That is why it is so hard to reject “democracy.” At the end of the day, it is an advantageous form of governance for states, especially those inextricably bound up with big capital. Tyrannies have the habit of crushing revolts, while democracies create mechanisms for controlling them. Any revolt can instantly be interpreted in political terms and used by politicians of all stripes for their own purposes.
The Kasyanovs and Khakamadas will always try and set up their soapboxes in the midst of a politically formless protest. Nor it is an accident that members of the absolutely servile Public Chamber appear amongst the outraged residents of the Moscow suburb of Butovo, rather than somewhere in the sticks, where the violence directed against its citizens by the state is no milder.
Aside from protest, however, revolt has another aspect: the stoppage of work. Not just any specific kind of work, but the work of the state itself. Hence, those who relate negatively to all forms of revolt are either bureaucrats or strikebreakers. The former are fond of repeating ad infinitum that protestors should use only legal means to exercise their rights. They are hostage to the notion that democracy is a form of the state. In practice, this transforms democracy into a means of manipulation. The latter group (and nowadays the numbers of such people are growing) consists of bodies. They are bodies that have become elements in the state machine (a “powerful” and “successful” machine), whose smooth functioning requires the elimination of all obstacles. The main obstacle is the class of unwanted, superfluous people. It is telling that the bodies servicing the state system constantly regale us with the rhetoric of “positiveness” and “hard effort.” While we are working, they are protesting. We draft new legislation, but all they do is hold demos. We are building the state up, but they are trying to tear it down.
In fact, revolts have become an important factor in our attempt to make sense of the present situation. From a political point of view, they do not exist. There are only random excesses committed by marginalized groups, and these excesses are described in a purely negative key. There is, however, a principally positive element in revolts that is not visible to political analysts. This positive element has to do with the fact that any revolt falsifies politics. To put it another way, life itself uses revolt to falsify politics, to point out the falsity of its claims.
It is no longer different species of politics at odds in this case, but different ethics. The first ethic is the corporate ethic, which has lately become ubiquitous—the ethic of doing what needs to be done, of usefulness and reliability. The second ethic is the ethic of community. It means standing with those people whose tastes, views, and ideals you cannot share, with people who are sometimes completely different from you. But you stand with them only because you are willing to join them in a community based on the experience of injustice, which everyone knows to one degree or another. Not recorded on any scrolls, the community ethic is the continually repressed source that nourishes the idea of democracy. It cannot be eliminated completely, although politics has developed a multitude of instruments for making us forget it. Once you do forget, however, you shall forever be deaf to the violence that is perpetrated right outside your door—sometimes by your own hand.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Updated on August 30, 2019. Images courtesy of Jane the Virgin and Ororo