A Letter to Russia
Nadia Plungian writes to Russia from Russia
The more horrifying the images from the news, the more clearly do I realize that there is a profound significance to the fact that I stayed in Russia and repeatedly turned down opportunities to leave up until now. I am also thinking about friends and colleagues from Belarus, who are in a similar situation. Our countries have completely shut down, we have no illusions of a future whatsoever. There are no outside forces responsible for making a new era dawn. It is time to say something from within this space.
Many people are writing about political suicide. But which political reality is killing itself right now? Without a doubt, it’s the Soviet Union and its successor—Soviet post-Soviet statehood. We all saw the Soviet-era apartment buildings blowing up in Kyiv and Kharkiv. In the terrible light cast by these fires, it becomes especially obvious how closely the 2000s and the 2010s followed the Soviet epoch.
This is not just about “peacekeeping missions” but about a specific type of hybrid censorship, of visible and invisible pressure. The possibility for major changes in cultural, academic, and public life has been suspended for many years now. This happened with the nearly unanimous tacit support of the older generation, who seemed to have gotten stuck in the late 1980s and demanded that we, their children, not go beyond these historical confines under any circumstances.
People my age who wanted to change something have over the past fifteen years gone through a series of political and existential conflicts which can be summed up by the phrase “do not live.” There is no sphere in which we have not had to listen to rebukes about our lack of qualifications or threats to throw us out of the profession. Science, culture, technology, art, politics, the family. New methodologies? Irrelevant. Questions of domestic violence, violence toward women and children, generational conflicts? Laughable, those problems don’t exist. National, postcolonial, gender, religious identities? Prohibited, irrelevant, incomprehensible, nonexistent. You want to prevent historical monuments from being demolished, or, say, entire historical neighborhoods? Who do you think you are? We’re bringing out the bulldozers! You want to work at a school or hospital? Go on, we’ll see how you like living hand to mouth. And the respectable people who held respectable positions in society back in the 90s have been broadly supported when they call attempts to talk about all this “a revival of Party committees,” “leveling,” and “hysterics.”
The focus on suppressing the new, on ignoring progress—generally, the focus on a defeatist rhetoric laced with threats—is hardly a new phenomenon. For fifteen years we’ve been hearing from absolutely every corner that we have no prospects. That if you’ve got a head on your shoulders you should leave for Europe right away. That only morons and idealists would want to live in “this country,” would want to deal with the dynamics of Russian society, to write textbooks here, to reform museums, schools, or universities here, to open functional academic institutions, to form some kind of decent societal platform capable of describing the past and projecting a future.
The stance taken by the older generation was formally divided into two parts, which were fueled by two late-Soviet ideologemes. Substantively, however, they were entirely united, and they were taught to us at university. One part of society declared: you are nobody because you didn’t live in the USSR; we will take away your pensions, social security, and place in society; we will force you to pay insane mortgages, we will send you to jail for comments on social media, shame you for your personal life, and not give you even the slightest access to political life. The other part of society insisted: don’t flatter yourself, take your modest little spot—after all, you will never have money and possibilities anywhere near what they have in the West; nothing you do can ever be compared to what happens in enormous Western museums or with famous Western curators; you must memorize Western philosophers and theorists by heart because you are not philosophers or theorists, you have to imitate Western artists because you are not artists; holding out hope for anything bigger is deluding yourself; and remember, if you don’t want to play by the rules of the twentieth century, the nineteenth century will come.
I don’t know why my generation was so methodically deprived of opportunities, but I think that now the final act of this show has commenced. Because there’s nothing left to trample us with. Will all the leading thirty- and forty-something specialists in our countries be fired and deprived of income, sent to prison? And what fuel will you use to move forward then? This is not the Brezhnev era. The Soviet ideology has been destroyed; postmodernism is grown over with mold. You don’t have any writers, poets, politicians, or scientists. Who will force us to re-integrate into this meaningless, self-devouring loop, and how will they do it? Most importantly, how will you fill the empty cultural centers that you’ve been building all these years in all Russian cities? How exactly will the twenty- and fourteen-year-olds, under orders from the old folks, conceptualize and glorify military strikes against neighboring countries and the choice of complete cultural isolation? By what methods? On what terms? To what end?
I’ll add one more thing. Only now am I realizing the significance of my professional choices as a historian and art historian. Back in 2002, I rejected the possibility of working with “neutral themes,” choosing instead to deal with Stalin-era Soviet art—that is, pretty much the most depressing and censored material around. It is a field in which there are no reliable answers and no readymade narratives, and in which the big methodological steps have only been taken halfway.
My work is connected with what exists here in Russia. It is based on private archives and personal testimonies that come together to form an unwritten history of the country. It brings back the cultural and intellectual presence of people who, like us, found themselves here and stayed here at a most difficult time of transition, without any hope or any right to be heard.
The path that many of my friends and have chosen brought us face to face with a hard fact: the desire to work professionally in Russia and come up with something new in the civic, academic, and cultural sense meant operating under double pressure: without support from the older generation or from Western researchers. But we had faith in other thirty-somethings. We formed our own intellectual networks in various directions within Russia and in the territories known as post-Soviet space. We went deep into our countries and studied museums, archives, architecture, and the cities themselves, to see with our own eyes and independently analyze our history without having recourse to cliches and stereotypes.
I would not have become what I am if I had not maintained contact for the past fifteen years with independent millennials from Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan; with the scholars, human rights activists, artists, and philosophers who lived in these countries and with those who were forced to leave them, along with many like-minded people in Russia. We all encountered censorship and stigmatization and taught each other how to remain thoughtful people under these conditions. We welcomed each other into our homes, using the last of our money to put together conferences, roundtables, and exhibitions, taking every opportunity to see one another and exchange know-how. Because besides us there was no one to create the foundations for a future for our free countries. There is no one now either. There is no West offering us a readymade scenario. There is not a single Soviet institution that might have solutions.
We are alone.
This war is being waged without our consent and against us, physically destroying the fruits and prospects of friendship, cooperation, and solidarity for our generation.
Nuclear threats, attacks on neighbors, closed borders—this is the crazed twentieth century, screaming at us to heel.
But history will not grant it this authority. There is no such thing as the past dictating the rules for the future, or the past dragging the future into its old coffin.
Twentieth century, you tossed us out of your cubicles and deprived us of places in politics a long time ago. But this has had only one result—we are now free to choose our own places in politics and culture.
Nadia Plungian is a Moscow-based art historian, curator, and feminist activist. Source: Colta.ru, 1 March 2022. Translated by the Fabulous AM