Sunshine Recorder

Link: Slavoj Žižek: Barbarism with a Human Face

Again and again in television reports on the mass protests in Kiev against the Yanukovich government, we saw images of protesters tearing down statues of Lenin. It was an easy way to demonstrate anger: the statues functioned as a symbol of Soviet oppression, and Putin’s Russia is perceived as continuing the Soviet policy of Russian domination of its neighbours. Bear in mind that it was only in 1956 that Lenin’s statues started to proliferate throughout the Soviet Union: until then, statues of Stalin were much more common. But after Krushchev’s ‘secret’ denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, Stalin’s statues were replaced en masse by Lenin’s: Lenin was literally a stand-in for Stalin. This was made equally clear by a change made in 1962 to the masthead of Pravda. Until then, at the top left-hand corner of the front page, there had been a drawing of two profiles, Lenin’s and Stalin’s, side by side. Shortly after the 22nd Congress publicly rejected Stalin, his profile wasn’t merely removed but replaced with a second profile of Lenin: now there were two identical Lenins printed side by side. In a way, this weird repetition made Stalin more present in his absence than ever.

There was nonetheless a historical irony in watching Ukrainians tearing down Lenin’s statues as a sign of their will to break with Soviet domination and assert their national sovereignty. The golden era of Ukrainian national identity was not tsarist Russia – where Ukrainian national self-assertion was thwarted – but the first decade of the Soviet Union, when Soviet policy in a Ukraine exhausted by war and famine was ‘indigenisation’. Ukrainian culture and language were revived, and rights to healthcare, education and social security introduced. Indigenisation followed the principles formulated by Lenin in quite unambiguous terms:

The proletariat cannot but fight against the forcible retention of the oppressed nations within the boundaries of a given state, and this is exactly what the struggle for the right of self-determination means. The proletariat must demand the right of political secession for the colonies and for the nations that ‘its own’ nation oppresses. Unless it does this, proletarian internationalism will remain a meaningless phrase; mutual confidence and class solidarity between the workers of the oppressing and oppressed nations will be impossible.

Lenin remained faithful to this position to the end: immediately after the October Revolution, when Rosa Luxembourg argued that small nations should be given full sovereignty only if progressive forces would predominate in the new state, Lenin was in favour of an unconditional right to secede.

In his last struggle against Stalin’s project for a centralised Soviet Union, Lenin again advocated the unconditional right of small nations to secede (in this case, Georgia was at stake), insisting on the full sovereignty of the national entities that composed the Soviet state – no wonder that, on 27 September 1922, in a letter to the Politburo, Stalin accused Lenin of ‘national liberalism’. The direction in which Stalin was already heading is clear from his proposal that the government of Soviet Russia should also be the government of the other five republics (Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia):

If the present decision is confirmed by the Central Committee of the RCP, it will not be made public, but communicated to the Central Committees of the Republics for circulation among the Soviet organs, the Central Executive Committees or the Congresses of the Soviets of the said Republics before the convocation of the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets, where it will be declared to be the wish of these Republics.

The interaction of the higher authority, the Central Committee, with its base was thus abolished: the higher authority now simply imposed its will. To add insult to injury, the Central Committee decided what the base would ask the higher authority to enact, as if it were its own wish. In the most conspicuous case, in 1939, the three Baltic states asked to join the Soviet Union, which granted their wish. In all this, Stalin was returning to pre-Revolutionary tsarist policy: Russia’s colonisation of Siberia in the 17th century and Muslim Asia in the 19th was no longer condemned as imperialist expansion, but celebrated for setting these traditional societies on the path of progressive modernisation. Putin’s foreign policy is a clear continuation of the tsarist-Stalinist line. After the Russian Revolution, according to Putin, the Bolsheviks did serious damage to Russia’s interests: ‘The Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons – may God judge them – added large sections of the historical south of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population, and today these areas form the south-east of Ukraine.’

No wonder Stalin’s portraits are on show again at military parades and public celebrations, while Lenin has been obliterated. In an opinion poll carried out in 2008 by the Rossiya TV station, Stalin was voted the third greatest Russian of all time, with half a million votes. Lenin came in a distant sixth. Stalin is celebrated not as a Communist but as a restorer of Russian greatness after Lenin’s anti-patriotic ‘deviation’. Putin recently used the term Novorossiya (‘New Russia’) for the seven south-eastern oblasts of Ukraine, resuscitating a term last used in 1917.

But the Leninist undercurrent, though repressed, persisted in the Communist underground opposition to Stalin. Long before Solzhenitsyn, as Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2011, ‘the crucial questions about the Gulag were being asked by left oppositionists, from Boris Souvarine to Victor Serge to C.L.R. James, in real time and at great peril. Those courageous and prescient heretics have been somewhat written out of history (they expected far worse than that, and often received it).’ This internal dissent was a natural part of the Communist movement, in clear contrast to fascism. ‘There were no dissidents in the Nazi Party,’ Hitchens went on, ‘risking their lives on the proposition that the Führer had betrayed the true essence of National Socialism.’ Precisely because of this tension at the heart of the Communist movement, the most dangerous place to be at the time of the 1930s purges was at the top of the nomenklatura: in the space of a couple of years, 80 per cent of the Central Committee and the Red Army leadership were shot. Another sign of dissent could be detected in the last days of ‘really existing socialism’, when protesting crowds sang official songs, including national anthems, to remind the powers of their unfulfilled promises. In the GDR, by contrast, between the early 1970s and 1989, to sing the national anthem in public was a criminal offence: its words (‘Deutschland einig Vaterland’, ‘Germany, the united Fatherland’) didn’t fit with the idea of East Germany as a new socialist nation.

The resurgence of Russian nationalism has caused certain historical events to be rewritten. A recent biopic, Andrei Kravchuk’s Admiral, celebrates the life of Aleksandr Kolchak, the White commander who governed Siberia between 1918 and 1920. But it’s worth remembering the totalitarian potential, as well as the outright brutality, of the White counter-revolutionary forces during this period. Had the Whites won the Civil War, Hitchens writes, ‘the common word for fascism would have been a Russian one, not an Italian one … Major General William Graves, who commanded the American Expeditionary Force during the 1918 invasion of Siberia (an event thoroughly airbrushed from all American textbooks), wrote in his memoirs about the pervasive, lethal anti-Semitism that dominated the Russian right wing and added: “I doubt if history will show any country in the world during the last fifty years where murder could be committed so safely, and with less danger of punishment, than in Siberia during the reign of Admiral Kolchak.”’

The entire European neo-fascist right (in Hungary, France, Italy, Serbia) firmly supports Russia in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, giving the lie to the official Russian presentation of the Crimean referendum as a choice between Russian democracy and Ukrainian fascism. The events in Ukraine – the massive protests that toppled Yanukovich and his gang – should be understood as a defence against the dark legacy resuscitated by Putin. The protests were triggered by the Ukrainian government’s decision to prioritise good relations with Russia over the integration of Ukraine into the European Union. Predictably, many anti-imperialist leftists reacted to the news by patronising the Ukrainians: how deluded they are still to idealise Europe, not to be able to see that joining the EU would just make Ukraine an economic colony of Western Europe, sooner or later to go the same way as Greece. In fact, Ukrainians are far from blind about the reality of the EU. They are fully aware of its troubles and disparities: their message is simply that their own situation is much worse. Europe may have problems, but they are a rich man’s problems.

Should we, then, simply support the Ukrainian side in the conflict? There is a ‘Leninist’ reason to do so. In Lenin’s very last writings, long after he renounced the utopia ofState and Revolution, he explored the idea of a modest, ‘realistic’ project for Bolshevism. Because of the economic underdevelopment and cultural backwardness of the Russian masses, he argues, there is no way for Russia to ‘pass directly to socialism’: all that Soviet power can do is to combine the moderate politics of ‘state capitalism’ with the intense cultural education of the peasant masses – not the brainwashing of propaganda, but a patient, gradual imposition of civilised standards. Facts and figures revealed ‘what a vast amount of urgent spadework we still have to do to reach the standard of an ordinary West European civilised country … We must bear in mind the semi-Asiatic ignorance from which we have not yet extricated ourselves.’ Can we think of the Ukrainian protesters’ reference to Europe as a sign that their goal, too, is ‘to reach the standard of an ordinary Western European civilised country’?

But here things quickly get complicated. What, exactly, does the ‘Europe’ the Ukrainian protesters are referring to stand for? It can’t be reduced to a single idea: it spans nationalist and even fascist elements but extends also to the idea of what Etienne Balibar calls égaliberté, freedom-in-equality, the unique contribution of Europe to the global political imaginary, even if it is in practice today mostly betrayed by European institutions and citizens themselves. Between these two poles, there is also a naive trust in the value of European liberal-democratic capitalism. Europe can see in the Ukrainian protests its own best and worst sides, its emancipatory universalism as well as its dark xenophobia.

Let’s begin with the dark xenophobia. The Ukrainian nationalist right is one instance of what is going on today from the Balkans to Scandinavia, from the US to Israel, from Central Africa to India: ethnic and religious passions are exploding, and Enlightenment values receding. These passions have always been there, lurking; what’s new is the outright shamelessness of their display. Imagine a society which has fully integrated into itself the great modern axioms of freedom, equality, the right to education and healthcare for all its members, and in which racism and sexism have been rendered unacceptable and ridiculous. But then imagine that, step by step, although the society continues to pay lip service to these axioms, they are de facto deprived of their substance. Here is an example from very recent European history: in the summer of 2012, Viktor Orbán, the right-wing Hungarian prime minister, declared that a new economic system was needed in Central Europe. ‘Let us hope,’ he said, ‘that God will help us and we will not have to invent a new type of political system instead of democracy that would need to be introduced for the sake of economic survival … Co-operation is a question of force, not of intention. Perhaps there are countries where things don’t work that way, for example in the Scandinavian countries, but such a half-Asiatic rag-tag people as we are can unite only if there is force.’

The irony of these words wasn’t lost on some old Hungarian dissidents: when the Soviet army moved into Budapest to crush the 1956 uprising, the message repeatedly sent by the beleaguered Hungarian leaders to the West was that they were defending Europe against the Asiatic communists. Now, after the collapse of communism, the Christian-conservative government paints as its main enemy the multicultural consumerist liberal democracy for which today’s Western Europe stands. Orbán has already expressed his sympathy for ‘capitalism with Asian values’; if the European pressure on Orbán continues, we can easily imagine him sending a message to the East: ‘We are defending Asia here!’

Today’s anti-immigrant populism has replaced direct barbarism with a barbarism that has a human face. It enacts a regression from the Christian ethic of ‘love thy neighbour’ back to the pagan privileging of the tribe over the barbarian Other. Even as it represents itself as a defence of Christian values, it is in fact the greatest threat to the Christian legacy. ‘Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity,’ G.K. Chesterton wrote a hundred years ago, ‘end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church … The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them.’ Doesn’t the same hold for the advocates of religion too? Fanatical defenders of religion start out attacking contemporary secular culture; it’s no surprise when they end up forsaking any meaningful religious experience. In a similar way, many liberal warriors are so eager to fight anti-democratic fundamentalism that they end up flinging away freedom and democracy if only they may fight terror. The ‘terrorists’ may be ready to wreck this world for love of another, but the warriors on terror are just as ready to wreck their own democratic world out of hatred for the Muslim other. Some of them love human dignity so much that they are ready to legalise torture to defend it. The defenders of Europe against the immigrant threat are doing much the same. In their zeal to protect the Judeo-Christian legacy, they are ready to forsake what is most important in that legacy. The anti-immigrant defenders of Europe, not the notional crowds of immigrants waiting to invade it, are the true threat to Europe.

One of the signs of this regression is a request often heard on the new European right for a more ‘balanced’ view of the two ‘extremisms’, the right and the left. We are repeatedly told that one should treat the extreme left (communism) the same way that Europe after the Second World War treated the extreme right (the defeated fascists). But in reality there is no balance here: the equation of fascism and communism secretly privileges fascism. Thus the right are heard to argue that fascism copied communism: before becoming a fascist, Mussolini was a socialist; Hitler, too, was a National Socialist; concentration camps and genocidal violence were features of the Soviet Union a decade before Nazis resorted to them; the annihilation of the Jews has a clear precedent in the annihilation of the class enemy, etc. The point of these arguments is to assert that a moderate fascism was a justified response to the communist threat (a point made long ago by Ernst Nolte in his defence of Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism). In Slovenia, the right is advocating the rehabilitation of the anti-communist Home Guard which fought the partisans during the Second World War: they made the difficult choice to collaborate with the Nazis in order to thwart the much greater evil of communism.

Mainstream liberals tell us that when basic democratic values are under threat from ethnic or religious fundamentalists, we should unite behind the liberal-democratic agenda, save what can be saved, and put aside dreams of more radical social transformation. But there is a fatal flaw in this call for solidarity: it ignores the way in which liberalism and fundamentalism are caught in a vicious cycle. It is the aggressive attempt to export liberal permissiveness that causes fundamentalism to fight back vehemently and assert itself. When we hear today’s politicians offering us a choice between liberal freedom and fundamentalist oppression, and triumphantly asking the rhetorical question, ‘Do you want women to be excluded from public life and deprived of their rights? Do you want every critic of religion to be put to death?’, what should make us suspicious is the very self-evidence of the answer: who would want that? The problem is that liberal universalism has long since lost its innocence. What Max Horkheimer said about capitalism and fascism in the 1930s applies in a different context today: those who don’t want to criticise liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.

What of the fate of the liberal-democratic capitalist European dream in Ukraine? It isn’t clear what awaits Ukraine within the EU. I’ve often mentioned a well-known joke from the last decade of the Soviet Union, but it couldn’t be more apposite. Rabinovitch, a Jew, wants to emigrate. The bureaucrat at the emigration office asks him why, and Rabinovitch answers: ‘Two reasons. The first is that I’m afraid the Communists will lose power in the Soviet Union, and the new power will put all the blame for the Communists’ crimes on us, the Jews.’ ‘But this is pure nonsense,’ the bureaucrat interrupts, ‘nothing can change in the Soviet Union, the power of the Communists will last for ever!’ ‘Well,’ Rabinovitch replies, ‘that’s my second reason.’ Imagine the equivalent exchange between a Ukrainian and an EU administrator. The Ukrainian complains: ‘There are two reasons we are panicking here in Ukraine. First, we’re afraid that under Russian pressure the EU will abandon us and let our economy collapse.’ The EU administrator interrupts: ‘But you can trust us, we won’t abandon you. In fact, we’ll make sure we take charge of your country and tell you what to do!’ ‘Well,’ the Ukrainian replies, ‘that’s my second reason.’ The issue isn’t whether Ukraine is worthy of Europe, and good enough to enter the EU, but whether today’s Europe can meet the aspirations of the Ukrainians. If Ukraine ends up with a mixture of ethnic fundamentalism and liberal capitalism, with oligarchs pulling the strings, it will be as European as Russia (or Hungary) is today. (Too little attention is drawn to the role played by the various groups of oligarchs – the ‘pro-Russian’ ones and the ‘pro-Western’ ones – in the events in Ukraine.)

Some political commentators claim that the EU hasn’t given Ukraine enough support in its conflict with Russia, that the EU response to the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea was half-hearted. But there is another kind of support which has been even more conspicuously absent: the proposal of any feasible strategy for breaking the deadlock. Europe will be in no position to offer such a strategy until it renews its pledge to the emancipatory core of its history. Only by leaving behind the decaying corpse of the old Europe can we keep the European legacy of égaliberté alive. It is not the Ukrainians who should learn from Europe: Europe has to learn to live up to the dream that motivated the protesters on the Maidan. The lesson that frightened liberals should learn is that only a more radical left can save what is worth saving in the liberal legacy today.

The Maidan protesters were heroes, but the true fight – the fight for what the new Ukraine will be – begins now, and it will be much tougher than the fight against Putin’s intervention. A new and riskier heroism will be needed. It has been shown already by those Russians who oppose the nationalist passion of their own country and denounce it as a tool of power. It’s time for the basic solidarity of Ukrainians and Russians to be asserted, and the very terms of the conflict rejected. The next step is a public display of fraternity, with organisational networks established between Ukrainian political activists and the Russian opposition to Putin’s regime. This may sound utopian, but it is only such thinking that can confer on the protests a truly emancipatory dimension. Otherwise, we will be left with a conflict of nationalist passions manipulated by oligarchs. Such geopolitical games are of no interest whatever to authentic emancipatory politics.

"Piramida" by Hans Karlsson

Piramida is a formet soviet coal mining operation and settlement on Spitsbergen.

Link: Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine

The students were the first to protest against the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych on the Maidan, the central square in Kiev, last November. These were the Ukrainians with the most to lose, the young people who unreflectively thought of themselves as Europeans and who wished for themselves a life, and a Ukrainian homeland, that were European. Many of them were politically on the left, some of them radically so. After years of negotiation and months of promises, their government, under President Yanukovych, had at the last moment failed to sign a major trade agreement with the European Union.

When the riot police came and beat the students in late November, a new group, the Afghan veterans, came to the Maidan. These men of middle age, former soldiers and officers of the Red Army, many of them bearing the scars of battlefield wounds, came to protect “their children,” as they put it. They didn’t mean their own sons and daughters: they meant the best of the youth, the pride and future of the country. After the Afghan veterans came many others, tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, now not so much in favor of Europe but in defense of decency.

What does it mean to come to the Maidan? The square is located close to some of the major buildings of government, and is now a traditional site of protest. Interestingly, the word maidan exists in Ukrainian but not in Russian, but even people speaking Russian use it because of its special implications. In origin it is just the Arabic word for “square,” a public place. But a maidan now means in Ukrainian what the Greek wordagora means in English: not just a marketplace where people happen to meet, but a place where they deliberately meet, precisely in order to deliberate, to speak, and to create a political society. During the protests the word maidan has come to mean the act of public politics itself, so that for example people who use their cars to organize public actions and protect other protestors are called the automaidan.

On January 16, the Ukrainian government, headed by President Yanukovych, tried to put an end to Ukrainian civil society. A series of laws passed hastily and without following normal procedure did away with freedom of speech and assembly, and removed the few remaining checks on executive authority. This was intended to turn Ukraine into a dictatorship and to make all participants in the Maidan, by then probably numbering in the low millions, into criminals. The result was that the protests, until then entirely peaceful, became violent. Yanukovych lost support, even in his political base in the southeast, near the Russian border.

After weeks of responding peacefully to arrests and beatings by the riot police, many Ukrainians had had enough. A fraction of the protesters, some but by no means all representatives of the political right and far right, decided to take the fight to the police. Among them were members of the far-right party Svoboda and a new conglomeration of nationalists who call themselves the Right Sector (Pravyi Sektor). Young men, some of them from right-wing groups and others not, tried to take by force the public spaces claimed by the riot police. Young Jewish men formed their own combat group, orsotnia, to take the fight to the authorities.

Although Yanukovych rescinded most of the dictatorship laws, lawless violence by the regime, which started in November, continued into February. Members of the opposition were shot and killed, or hosed down in freezing temperatures to die of hypothermia. Others were tortured and left in the woods to die.

During the first two weeks of February, the Yanukovych regime sought to restore some of the dictatorship laws through decrees, bureaucratic shortcuts, and new legislation. On February 18, an announced parliamentary debate on constitutional reform was abruptly canceled. Instead, the government sent thousands of riot police against the protesters of Kiev. Hundreds of people were wounded by rubber bullets, tear gas, and truncheons. Dozens were killed.

The future of this protest movement will be decided by Ukrainians. And yet it began with the hope that Ukraine could one day join the European Union, an aspiration that for many Ukrainians means something like the rule of law, the absence of fear, the end of corruption, the social welfare state, and free markets without intimidation from syndicates controlled by the president.

The course of the protest has very much been influenced by the presence of a rival project, based in Moscow, called the Eurasian Union. This is an international commercial and political union that does not yet exist but that is to come into being in January 2015. The Eurasian Union, unlike the European Union, is not based on the principles of the equality and democracy of member states, the rule of law, or human rights.

On the contrary, it is a hierarchical organization, which by its nature seems unlikely to admit any members that are democracies with the rule of law and human rights. Any democracy within the Eurasian Union would pose a threat to Putin’s rule in Russia. Putin wants Ukraine in his Eurasian Union, which means that Ukraine must be authoritarian, which means that the Maidan must be crushed.

The dictatorship laws of January 16 were obviously based on Russian models, and were proposed by Ukrainian legislators with close ties to Moscow. They seem to have been Russia’s condition for financial support of the Yanukovych regime. Before they were announced, Putin offered Ukraine a large loan and promised reductions in the price of Russian natural gas. But in January the result was not a capitulation to Russia. The people of the Maidan defended themselves, and the protests continue. Where this will lead is anyone’s guess; only the Kremlin expresses certainty about what it all means.

The protests in the Maidan, we are told again and again by Russian propaganda and by the Kremlin’s friends in Ukraine, mean the return of National Socialism to Europe. The Russian foreign minister, in Munich, lectured the Germans about their support of people who salute Hitler. The Russian media continually make the claim that the Ukrainians who protest are Nazis. Naturally, it is important to be attentive to the far right in Ukrainian politics and history. It is still a serious presence today, although less important than the far right in France, Austria, or the Netherlands. Yet it is the Ukrainian regime rather than its opponents that resorts to anti-Semitism, instructing its riot police that the opposition is led by Jews. In other words, the Ukrainian government is telling itself that its opponents are Jews and us that its opponents are Nazis.

The strange thing about the claim from Moscow is the political ideology of those who make it. The Eurasian Union is the enemy of the European Union, not just in strategy but in ideology. The European Union is based on a historical lesson: that the wars of the twentieth century were based on false and dangerous ideas, National Socialism and Stalinism, which must be rejected and indeed overcome in a system guaranteeing free markets, free movement of people, and the welfare state. Eurasianism, by contrast, is presented by its advocates as the opposite of liberal democracy.

The Eurasian ideology draws an entirely different lesson from the twentieth century. Founded around 2001 by the Russian political scientist Aleksandr Dugin, it proposes the realization of National Bolshevism. Rather than rejecting totalitarian ideologies, Eurasianism calls upon politicians of the twenty-first century to draw what is useful from both fascism and Stalinism. Dugin’s major work, The Foundations of Geopolitics, published in 1997, follows closely the ideas of Carl Schmitt, the leading Nazi political theorist. Eurasianism is not only the ideological source of the Eurasian Union, it is also the creed of a number of people in the Putin administration, and the moving force of a rather active far-right Russian youth movement. For years Dugin has openly supported the division and colonization of Ukraine.

The point man for Eurasian and Ukrainian policy in the Kremlin is Sergei Glazyev, an economist who like Dugin tends to combine radical nationalism with nostalgia for Bolshevism. He was a member of the Communist Party and a Communist deputy in the Russian parliament before cofounding a far-right party called Rodina, or Motherland. In 2005 some of its deputies signed a petition to the Russian prosecutor general asking that all Jewish organizations be banned from Russia.

Later that year Motherland was banned from taking part in further elections after complaints that its advertisements incited racial hatred. The most notorious showed dark-skinned people eating watermelon and throwing the rinds to the ground, then called for Russians to clean up their cities. Glazyev’s book Genocide: Russia and the New World Order claims that the sinister forces of the “new world order” conspired against Russia in the 1990s to bring about economic policies that amounted to “genocide.” This book was published in English by Lyndon LaRouche’s magazineExecutive Intelligence Review with a preface by LaRouche. Today Executive Intelligence Review echoes Kremlin propaganda, spreading the word in English that Ukrainian protesters have carried out a Nazi coup and started a civil war.

The populist media campaign for the Eurasian Union is now in the hands of Dmitry Kiselyov, the host of the most important talk show in Russia, and since December also the director of the state-run Russian media conglomerate designed to form national public opinion. Best known for saying that gays who die in car accidents should have their hearts cut from their bodies and incinerated, Kiselyov has taken Putin’s campaign against gay rights and transformed it into a weapon against European integration. Thus when the then German foreign minister, who is gay, visited Kiev in December and met with Vitali Klitschko, the heavyweight champion and opposition politician, Kiselyov dismissed Klitschko as a gay icon. According to the Russian foreign minister, the exploitation of sexual politics is now to be an open weapon in the struggle against the “decadence” of the European Union.

Following the same strategy, Yanukovych’s government claimed, entirely falsely, that the price of closer relations with the European Union was the recognition of gay marriage in Ukraine. Kiselyov is quite open about the Russian media strategy toward the Maidan: to “apply the correct political technology,” then “bring it to the point of overheating” and bring to bear “the magnifying glass of TV and the Internet.”

Why exactly do people with such views think they can call other people fascists? And why does anyone on the Western left take them seriously? One line of reasoning seems to run like this: the Russians won World War II, and therefore can be trusted to spot Nazis. Much is wrong with this. World War II on the eastern front was fought chiefly in what was then Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus, not in Soviet Russia. Five percent of Russia was occupied by the Germans; all of Ukraine was occupied by the Germans. Apart from the Jews, whose suffering was by far the worst, the main victims of Nazi policies were not Russians but Ukrainians and Belarusians. There was no Russian army fighting in World War II, but rather a Soviet Red Army. Its soldiers were disproportionately Ukrainian, since it took so many losses in Ukraine and recruited from the local population. The army group that liberated Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front.

The other source of purported Eurasian moral legitimacy seems to be this: since the representatives of the Putin regime only very selectively distanced themselves from Stalinism, they are therefore reliable inheritors of Soviet history, and should be seen as the automatic opposite of Nazis, and therefore to be trusted to oppose the far right.

Again, much is wrong about this. World War II began with an alliance between Hitler and Stalin in 1939. It ended with the Soviet Union expelling surviving Jews across its own border into Poland. After the founding of the State of Israel, Stalin began associating Soviet Jews with a world capitalist conspiracy, and undertook a campaign of arrests, deportations, and murders of leading Jewish writers. When he died in 1953 he was preparing a larger campaign against Jews.

After Stalin’s death communism took on a more and more ethnic coloration, with people who wished to revive its glories claiming that its problem was that it had been spoiled by Jews. The ethnic purification of the communist legacy is precisely the logic of National Bolshevism, which is the foundational ideology of Eurasianism today. Putin himself is an admirer of the philosopher Ivan Ilin, who wanted Russia to be a nationalist dictatorship.

What does it mean when the wolf cries wolf? Most obviously, propagandists in Moscow and Kiev take us for fools—which by many indications is quite justified.

More subtly, what this campaign does is attempt to reduce the social tensions in a complex country to a battle of symbols about the past. Ukraine is not a theater for the historical propaganda of others or a puzzle from which pieces can be removed. It is a major European country whose citizens have important cultural and economic ties with both the European Union and Russia. To set its own course, Ukraine needs normal public debate, the restoration of parliamentary democracy, and workable relations with all of its neighbors. Ukraine is full of sophisticated and ambitious people. If people in the West become caught up in the question of whether they are largely Nazis or not, then they may miss the central issues in the present crisis.

In fact, Ukrainians are in a struggle against both the concentration of wealth and the concentration of armed force in the hands of Viktor Yanukovych and his close allies. The protesters might be seen as setting an example of courage for Americans of both the left and the right. Ukrainians make real sacrifices for the hope of joining the European Union. Might there be something to be learned from that among Euroskeptics in London or elsewhere? This is a dialogue that is not taking place.

The history of the Holocaust is part of our own public discourse, our agora, or maidan. The current Russian attempt to manipulate the memory of the Holocaust is so blatant and cynical that those who are so foolish to fall for it will one day have to ask themselves just how, and in the service of what, they have been taken in. If fascists take over the mantle of antifascism, the memory of the Holocaust will itself be altered. It will be more difficult in the future to refer to the Holocaust in the service of any good cause, be it the particular one of Jewish history or the general one of human rights.

Link: Reason Displaces All Love

Libidinal economizing in the early Soviet Union.

“She had suffered an acute attack of ‘love’- the name given to a disease of ancient times when sexual energy, which should be rationally distributed over one’s entire  lifetime, is suddenly concentrated into one inflammation lasting a week, leading to absurd and incredible behavior.” —Vladimir Mayakovsky, The Bedbug

In summer 1956, six tons of books were thrown by court order into the public incinerator on 25th Street in New York City. Those smouldering pages were written by Wilhelm Reich, who died in jail shortly thereafter, infamously denounced as the fraudulent peddler of “orgone,” a mystical cosmic life force. As a young communist psychoanalyst in interwar Vienna, Reich had argued that capitalism unhealthily restrains primal sexual instincts, and that a genuine political revolution would shatter the constraints of bourgeois sexual morality, unleashing sexual energies through a kind of wild orgasmic release.

In 1929, Reich visited the Soviet Union, where psychoanalysis would soon be outlawed, and was rather scathing of the psychologists he met there, including one of his hosts, Aron Zalkind, a leading figure in the psychological community in Moscow. Zalkind was the author of the influential treatise “12 Commandments for the Sexual Revolution of the Proletariat,” first published in 1925, which argued that the capitalist free market was incompatible with what he somewhat confusingly called “free love,” given that he meant something like the opposite of what it meant in the 1960s. Unlike Reich, whose prurient embrace of unrestrained lovemaking was to be enthusiastically championed during the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, Zalkind advocated sexual abstinence as the appropriate conduct for the revolutionary proletariat.

During the period of the New Economic Policy (1921–1928), which saw the reintroduction of certain forms of private enterprise into the Soviet economy, sexual relations were being renegotiated for both ideological and practical reasons. As the heroine of Feodor Gladkov’s 1925 novel Cementobserves: “Everything is broken up and changed and become confused. Somehow love will have to be arranged differently.” But how exactly love was to be arranged was unclear. Although the fledgling Soviet government had legalized divorce and abortion, secularized marriage, and decriminalized homosexuality, and although women’s roles in the home and workforce were being concretely transformed, Zalkind’s emphasis on sexual inhibition is characteristic of the ambivalence toward sex during the NEP period.

Zalkind’s commandments were as follows:

  1. Sexuality should not develop too early.
  2. Sex should not occur before marriage.
  3. Sex on the basis of pure physical attraction should be renounced.
  4. Sex should only result from “deep and complex feeling” between comrades.
  5. Sex should be infrequent.
  6. Sexual partners should not be changed too frequently.
  7. Sexual relationships should be monogamous.
  8. Every sex act should be committed with the awareness that it might lead to the birth of a child.
  9. Sexual partners should be selected on the basis of class. (“Sexual attraction to class antagonism, to a morally disgusting, dishonest object, is as perverse as the sexual desire of a human for a crocodile or an orangutan.”)
  10. There should be no jealousy.
  11. There should be no “sexual perversions.”
  12. In the interests of the revolution, it is the duty of the proletariat to intervene in the sex lives of others.

Zalkind relies on an economic, quantitative conception of psychic sexual energy or libido borrowed from Freud. In the interest of self-preservation, the fragile organism must protect itself from both external and internal excitations, and the constant tension between pleasure and unpleasure must be regulated through sublimation, repression, and cathexis. Or in Zalkind’s inelegant phrasing, “The body is stuffed with a certain amount of energy, a certain amount of internal stress and excitement, which erupts on the outside.”

In The Future of an Illusion — the last of Freud’s works to appear in Russian translation in 1930, with a hostile introduction by Zalkind — Freud is dismissive of those who would claim that “a reordering of human relations” might overcome the necessarily repressive character of society, stating that “every civilization must be built up on coercion and renunciation of instinct,” (though he explicitly declares that his conclusions are not intended as a comment on the “great experiment in civilization” occurring in Russia). Unlike Reich, Zalkind does not contradict Freud on this point. He may imagine repression and sublimation as conscious, voluntary, and collective, but he insists that communism cannot be built without forgoing immediate gratification. The oft-repeated Soviet injunction to make sacrifices in the present to reap the eventual benefits of the bright Communist future corresponds to Freud’s reality principle, defined inBeyond the Pleasure Principle as the “temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step on the long indirect road to pleasure.”

Freud argued that giving the instincts free rein would be dangerous. Civilization is a by-product of repressed instincts rather than the result of some immanent tendency toward progress or perfectibility. By assuming that renouncing pleasure will ultimately lead to a superior form of society, Zalkind’s argument is more explicitly value-laden: Sex too much, too soon, too often or with too many people diverts energy that could otherwise be used for building the new Communist society. For Zalkind, sexual desire does not originate in the seething depths of the primitive unconscious. Sex is morally rather than mortally dangerous; it is wasteful and frivolous rather than primal and destructive.

In Freud’s theory, the regulation of psychic energy remains largely metaphorical. But Zalkind insists that Freudian theory has a materialist essence; his more literal conception of energy thus has a closer relation to contemporary discussions of labor efficiency and industrial production. In tune with this infamously Taylor-obsessed period, Zalkind focuses on management, rationality, organization, and discipline.

But if under capitalism, energy expenditure is primarily concerned with maximized productivity and profitability in the workplace, in communism all human activity is up for grabs, including people’s most intimate encounters. Any unnecessary exertion might deviate resources that could otherwise be spent building the new classless society. Zalkind’s quantification of energy allows for the commensurability of action. As historian Anson Rabinbach puts it in The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity, “Energy is the universal equivalent of the natural world, as money is the universal equivalent of the world of exchange.”

Building barricades, constructing dams, designing factories, or fucking your comrades — all activity is reduced to the amount of energy they require to perform. Zalkind imagines a scenario in which a worker is insulted by his boss. Such an event, he claims, produces a fixed volume of anger, which will inevitably “break out”: The worker might erupt and throw a plate at his wife. But instead, the energy could be positively channelled into organizing a demonstration or distributing agitational pamphlets.

Zalkind’s vision recalls Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We, in which controlled copulation can be performed only during the alloted “sex hour,” when people are permitted to lower the curtains in their glass homes, and encounters must be tracked with a pink ration book of signed tokens. But these concerns were not confined to the pages of science fiction: Some married couples in the period actually attempted to organize their domestic chores and sex lives on the basis of the Scientific Organization of Labor.

Despite his likening of the libido to a flowing liquid, Freud’s conception of the unconscious knows no spatial constraints – quantity has no meaningful existence there. In bourgeois Vienna, there is no suggestion that a patient’s libidinal resources might simply run out; their sexual drives are understood in relation to their historical experiences rather than their physical well-being.

But in post-revolutionary Russia there was a genuine fear that people were literally running out of energy. Zalkind’s anxieties about squandering libidinal currency rely on a physiological understanding of energy developed amid acute privation. “Exhaustion” was rife among revolutionaries; Lenin’s death in 1924 from a brain hemorrhage was said to have been provoked by his excessive exertions on behalf of the global revolutionary proletariat. Hunger, often accompanied by energy-sapping cold, gnaws insistently in first-hand accounts of the period. Revolution and Youth, the book in which Zalkind’s proclamations were originally published, includes detailed nutritional charts to ensure revolutionaries retain optimal “brain fuel.” Victor Serge’sMemoirs of a Revolutionary constantly returns to the subject of food (or lack of it), its pages strewn with paltry, unappetizing morsels. Stoic revolutionaries survive on black bread, dried fish, coffee made from raw oats, rotten horsemeat, and the odd spoonful of sugar. This nutritional dearth had sexual implications: As a result of malnutrition, impotence was widespread.

Link: Being Gay in Russia

What the two men in this photograph are doing is now illegal in Russia. Amidst an alarming—and frequently violent— government crackdown, being out, or simply supporting gays and lesbians, can now get you thrown in jail, beaten up, or worse. On the eve of the Sochi Olympics, Jeff Sharlet embeds with the new enemies of the state and reports on life in the Russian underground.

Sunday nights in St. Petersburg are Rainbow Tea Party time. If you’re young and queer and hopeful, it’s the happiest way to end a weekend. An actual tea party. There are also cookies and—at LaSky, the HIV-awareness center that often hosts the event—more brightly colored giant beanbags than chairs, plus a lot of posters of hunky bare-chested men with floppy hair. There are many, many rainbows, on stickers and pins and brochures, and a rainbow curtain covering a strange little door in the corner.

The door leads to a club called Bunker, which is really a maze, twisting through the rest of the building’s vast basement. It’s dark; you have to feel your way through. The men who go to Bunker—many or maybe most of them “straight” men, married men, says the bartender—are looking for bodies, not faces. They don’t want to see or be seen, only to touch and to be touched in a place where nobody knows them.

Those are the choices: light or dark, tea or poppers, a well-lit game of charades or a grope in the dungeon. Sweet or sordid, it doesn’t matter: In Russia now—in the throes of a fever stoked by the Kremlin—both must be hidden. They are not hidden well enough.

One evening in November—the city center like a bowl of pastel candies, Orthodox onion-domes rising above it like spun sugar—two strangers found their way to LaSky. They walked down a long street between a busy road and a canal until they came to an arch in a building. They went through the arch and down a dark alley before they arrived at an unlit empty parking lot, blacktop crumbling. Here they may have stopped to put on their masks. They crossed the lot toward a stand of scrub trees and weeds and took a left down a narrow path, then down an even darker set of uneven stairs to an unmarked steel door. The strangers stood at the threshold.

It was Rainbow Tea Party night. A woman named Anna asked who was there. “We’re looking for our friend!” replied one of the strangers. They shoved past her. In the hall, a man named Dmitry Chizhevsky was looking for his jacket. Behind him was a girl I’ll call Rose, a few weeks shy of her eighteenth birthday. Rose glanced toward the door: two men wearing ski masks. “Then,” she says, “they started shooting.” Chizhevsky: “The first bullet came into my eye. The first, the very first.” Rose: “I had a thought in my head—maybe I should do something, maybe I should scream.” Chizhevsky: “I can remember more closely what was audio.” Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, he recalls hearing. Five, he thinks. He says he remembers the sound of the bullet hitting his eye.

Dmitry went down, and Rose ran, and Dmitry crawled. The men followed, kicking. One of them had a bat, “a baseball bat, yes,” says Dmitry. They were screaming. “Faggot, faggot, faggot.” The bat came down. And then the faggots in the other room charged the men with the gun and the bat and the masks, and the men ran away. Dmitry and Anna, who’d been shot in the back, inspected their wounds. An air gun, they determined. Thank God.

They say you can shoot an eye out with an air gun, but that’s not exactly what happened. The pellet, a round metal ball, lodged behind Dmitry’s eye.

"They tried with a magnet to take it out," says Dmitry. "But, uh, they failed."

What did they try next?

"A hook."

The doctors told him he was lucky; a little farther, it would have entered his brain. All he’d lose would be his vision.


I went to Moscow and St. Petersburg for two weeks in November because the Olympics were coming to Russia, and for a brief moment it seemed possible that the outside world was interested in the unraveling of civil society in one of the most powerful countries on the globe. Books are being banned—Burroughs and Baudelaire and Huxley’s Brave New World—immigrants hunted, journalists killed, a riot-grrrl band, Pussy Riot, imprisoned for almost two years for playing a “Punk Prayer” in a Moscow cathedral; blasphemy is now illegal. Civil society isn’t just coming undone; it’s imploding. I wanted to visit the bottom of the heap. The golubye. The blues, which in Russia is another word for queer—any way of being other than “Russian,” which, under President Vladimir Putin, has become a kind of sexual orientation. I wanted to see what ordinary LGBT life was like in a nation whose leaders have decided that “homosexualism” is a threat to its “sexual sovereignty,” that “genderless tolerance,” in Putin’s words, is a disease of the West that Russia will cure. The medicine is that of “traditional values,” a phrase, ironically, imported from the West, grafted onto a deeply conformist strain of nationalism. In Russia, that means silence and violence, censorship, and in its shadow, much worse.

One of the first men I met was Alex, a gay police officer who’d recently quit his job rather than enforce Russia’s new anti-gay law. He wasn’t always so principled: One of Alex’s early assignments on the force was snooping through a fellow officer’s computer for evidence of homosexuality. “I was just lucky it wasn’t my computer,” Alex said one night at a café on Arbat Street, Moscow’s main thoroughfare of consumer hipsterism.

His boyfriend wasn’t as glib: “It’s Germany in the ’30s,” he declared. “Hush, hush,” Alex said. “Not so loud.” It’s not Germany in the ’30s, he said; it’s Russia now. And that’s a subtler problem.

Yes, there are killings. In May, a 23-year-old man in Volgograd allegedly came out to a group of friends, who raped him with beer bottles and smashed his skull in with a stone; and in June a group of friends in Kamchatka kicked and stabbed to death a 39-year-old gay man, then burned the body. There’s a national network called Occupy Pedophilia, whose members torture gay men and post hugely popular videos of their “interrogations” online. There are countless smaller, bristling movements, with names presumptuous (God’s Will) or absurd (Homophobic Wolf). There are babushkas who throw stones, and priests who bless the stones, and police who arrest their victims.

But such people exist everywhere, said Alex. The difference in Russia now is who’s standing behind them.

The Russian closet has always been deep, but since last June, when the Duma began passing laws designed to shove Russia’s tiny out population back into it, the closet has been getting darker. The first law banned gay “propaganda,” but it was written so as to leave the definition vague. It’s a mechanism of thought control, its target not so much gays as anybody the state declares gay; a virtual resurrection of Article 70 from the old Soviet system, forbidding “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” Then, as now, nobody knew exactly what “propaganda” was. The new law explicitly forbids any suggestion that queer love is equal to that of heterosexuals, but what constitutes such a suggestion? One man was charged for holding up a sign that said being gay is ok. Pride parades are out of the question, a pink triangle enough to get you arrested, if not beaten. A couple holding hands could be accused of propaganda if they do so where a minor might see them; the law, as framed, is all about protecting the children. Yelena Mizulina, chair of the Duma Committee on Family, Women, and Children’s Affairs and the author of the bill, says that it’s too late to save adult “homosexualists,” as they’re called, but Russia still has a chance to raise a pure generation.

Mizulina’s dream isn’t old-fashioned; it is, as one fascist supporter told me, “utopian.” He meant that as praise. And the Russian dream is not alone. Liberal Americans imagine LGBT rights as slowly but surely marching forward. But queer rights don’t advance along a straight line. In Russia and throughout Eastern Europe—and in India and in Australia, in a belt across Central Africa—anti-gay crusaders are developing new laws and sharpening old ones. The ideas, meanwhile, are American: the rhetoric of “family values” churned out by right-wing American think tanks, bizarre statistics to prove that evil is a fact, its face a gay one. This hatred is old venom, but its weaponization by nations as a means with which to fight “globalization”—not the economic kind, the human-rights kind—is a new terror.

In Russia, the process is accelerating. In 2006, a bill similar to the law was laughed out of the Duma, dismissed by the then deputy prime minister as “a row of mistakes.” In June it passed, 436-0. Alex the cop says 2010 was the best year, a new club or café opening every other weekend. New LGBT groups were forming all over. “It was like a party,” one activist told me. What happened between then and now has as much to do with the unstable price of oil and Putin’s eroding popular support as it does with actual queer people. The less prosperity Putin can deliver, the more he speaks of holy Russian empire, language to which the Russian Orthodox Church thrills. Putin, says Patriarch Kirill, the church’s leader, is a living “act of God.” Forget about the price of bread and what you can’t afford. Putin has come to save the Russian soul.

Article 6.21, the law’s official designation, has proven to be the Duma’s most popular social initiative of the year; according to one poll, only 7 percent of Russians firmly oppose it. Another new law requiring nonprofits that receive support outside Russia to register as foreign agents has been used to justify police raids on the country’s leading LGBT organizations. In July, Putin signed a law banning the adoption of Russian children by gay parents abroad.

And in October, the Duma started to take up a law to remove children from LGBT parents in Russia. It’s been put on hold, but it’s expected to return once the Olympics and international scrutiny have passed.

"The problem is bigger than laws," a gay activist named Igor Iasine told me, tracing a line through his beard where neo-Nazis had broken his jaw. "The law is icing on the cake."

For Dmitry Kiselyov, the director of Russia’s massive new state media corporation—created in December to swallow up state media entities that show any hint of autonomy—laws are not enough. He’s concerned about organ donors, the possibility of a queer heart beating in a straight body.

When homosexuals die, he says, “their hearts should be burned.”


"I haven’t heard of these laws, but I think it’s fine,” a kid named Kirill tells me at a hidden gay club called Secrets. “We don’t need gay pride here. Why do we need to show our orientation?” He shrugs. He has heard of the torture videos popular online, the gangs that kidnap gays, the police that arrest gays, the babushkas with their eggs and their stones. But he hasn’t seen them. He prefers not to. “Everybody wants to emigrate, but not me.” He shrugs again; it’s like a tic. “I love Russia. This is their experience, not mine.” He says he does not know what the word closet means.


"Something Is Coming"

In an upper-middle-class neighborhood close to Moscow’s city center, two apartments face each other. Two families, two daughters. They leave the doors open to allow easy access from one to the other.

Pavelmet Irina not long after he moved to Moscow twelve years ago, and almost immediately he knew that someday he’d start a family with her. Irina felt it, too. They agreed on it one night over vodka, after a night of clubbing. The party had moved back to an apartment, where they kept drinking, Irina teasing Pavel, Pavel marveling at Irina’s bold friends. She was a Muscovite; Pavel had come from one of those distant eastern cities, 4,000 miles from Moscow. Irina was six years younger, but she was his teacher, teaching him how to be silly and modern and free. They drank and danced, Pavel discovering his hips, until they both collapsed around a kitchen table and, over more vodka, Pavel tried to be funny and Irina thought he was, so she said, “Someday I would like to have a child with you.” Pavel said, “I feel the same.”

Suddenly they were sober, giddy but clear: They knew it was true. But they had to wait. To have children is a great responsibility, Pavel thought. You have to have a place to live. You have to earn. You have to have a partner you can rely on. In 2010, they were ready. Their best friends, Nik and Zoya, were having a baby, too, and they lived right next door. Their children would grow up together. Two little girls: Nik and Zoya’s Kristina, and then Pavel and Irina’s Emma.

Now they are one big happy family, inseparable. Pavel has always been great with kids. He likes to read the girls Russian fairy tales, and he buys DVDs of old Russian cartoons, the ones he was raised on. They watch them together. The girls toddle between the apartments through the open doors. Pavel thinks little blonde Kristina looks like an angel. Emma’s darker, serious like her father. Both girls call him PapaThe children share a nanny, too, who helps the parents with light cleaning, dishes, and dusting, making sure all the family pictures are in place.

"Nobody would suspect us," Pavel says. Not even the nanny.

Pavel’s secret isn’t that he’s gay. It’s that they all are, the adults: Pavel and Nik and Irina and Zoya. Both girls have two mothers, two fathers; they have beds in both apartments. Their life together was, until recently, the fulfillment of all that Pavel had wanted, an ambition that had come to him at almost the same moment he’d realized he was gay: to be “normal.” If he were normal, he thought, then he could be a father. “That,” he tells me, “has been my precious dream.”


Pavel agrees to talk to me because soon, he fears, the laws that have passed and the laws to come may make it impossible to hide. I’m told to meet him at a metro station. When I arrive—with my translator, Zhenya, a gay activist—no one is there. A phone call from a mutual friend directs us through the empty station, around a corner, and down some stairs to a basement restaurant, Georgian cuisine, a man in a corner with a bottle of white wine. Is this—? Yes. He smiles. We sit down.

"Something is coming," says Pavel. What it will be, he’s not sure. He’s worried about "special departments" in local police stations, dedicated to removing children from gay homes. He’s worried about a co-worker discovering him. He is worried about blackmail. He is worried, and he does not know what else to do. He wishes he could fight, but he doesn’t know how. Sign a petition? March in a parade? Pavel would never do that now. "My children," he murmurs.

"This law," he says, referring to the ban on "propaganda." "If something happens, it touches only me. And I can protect myself." But the next law: "This is about my child. My baby." If the next law passes, they will leave. The two women are doctors and Nik works in higher education, careers that will require new certification. Which means that only Pavel, a manager for the state oil company, will be able to work right away. They will be poor, but they will leave. They might have to separate, Pavel and Irina and Emma to Israel, where Irina can become a citizen, Nik and Zoya and Kristina to any country that will take them. They might have to become the couples they pretend to be. For now, they are staying. "We’re going to teach them," he says of his two little girls, Emma and Kristina. "How to protect themselves. How to keep silence."

This is how the law really works: It’s the little things that break first. Like a child who wants to call her father Papa. “Father can be only one,” Pavel tells Kristina. She can never call him Papa again. If someone overheard her… No, not even at home. She must forget that was ever his name. “I can be anybody but Father,” he tells the girl he used to call daughter.

Link: St. Petersburg 1914: The Door to Another Age

As war approached in 1914, the Russian capital St Petersburg was the scene of imperial splendour and abject poverty, utopian hopes and portents of impending doom.

I have never met anyone who is more proud of her kitchen door than Firuza Seidova. In fact, Firuza is so proud of the door in her St Petersburg kitchen that she has invited me to her flat on Liteiny Prospekt to see it.

I’m here very early in the morning - the night train from Moscow has whisked me to a St Petersburg which is still dark and sleepy and bitterly cold. But at home, Firuza is wide awake and welcoming. She’s made me breakfast - black bread with thick slices of cheese and a cup of piping hot green tea.

We’re sitting at her kitchen table eating our buterbrody - and staring at the door. To be honest, it doesn’t look very special. The old wooden panels have faded. They’re blotchy - and scratched. I can’t help thinking the whole thing could do with a fresh lick of paint.

But when Firuza starts recounting the history of her apartment, I realise this is much more than just a battered old door - it’s a gateway to a golden past, to the St Petersburg of 1914.

"Back then, all sorts came through my kitchen," she says. "The Emperor Nicholas was here, Sergei Prokofiev, too, and some of the most famous names in the history of chess."

Firuza shows me an old black and white photograph of two men engrossed in a game of chess. I instantly recognise the door at the back of the picture - it’s the one in Firuza’s kitchen!

One hundred years ago, Firuza Seidova’s flat was the headquarters of the St Petersburg Chess Society. The kitchen door is all that’s left of the original rooms - the last surviving link to an intriguing story.

It was spring 1914. And to mark its 10th anniversary, the St Petersburg Chess Society organised a tournament for some of the greatest players on the planet. Not everyone could make it. Chess stars from Austria-Hungary had to decline their invitations, because of pre-war tension with Russia.

Nevertheless, the list of competitors was impressive.

The favourite was from Germany: the world champion for the last 20 years, Emanuel Lasker - such an elegant, inspirational player that the St Petersburg press dubbed him “the poet of the chess table”. His main rival was the man soon to be hailed as “the human chess machine”, the flamboyant Cuban diplomat Jose Raul Capablanca.

From England came the heavy-drinking Mancunian Joseph Blackburne (nickname “The Black Death”). From America, top tactician Frank Marshall. Representing Russia, the attacking Alexander Alekhine. And there they all were, fighting it out in Firuza’s flat.

For one glorious month Europe seemed to forget it was on the precipice of war and was transfixed by battles on the chessboards of St Petersburg. Each move, every twist and turn in this grand tournament was transmitted back across the continent by an army of reporters. The venue wasn’t nearly big enough for the crowds that came. One journalist complained that “the stuffiness and the heat were almost tropical”.

And this is how newspaper Novoye Vremya described the atmosphere:

"Spectators were packed in unceremoniously like sardines in a barrel. They craned their necks; they stood on tiptoes, even on chairs so they could see the play… and the room was so thick with tobacco smoke, it was like a mortuary where they’re busy cutting up corpses."

And yet, in this stifling, smoky hell of a chess club, there was a feeling that something very special was being forged from the intellectual tussles taking place here, something which transcended chess, something great that would change the world for the better. The newspaper Kopeika predicted that in St Petersburg “the noble game of chess” would “promote the idea of world peace”.

In the journal Rech, Emanuel Lasker went even further. He seemed to imply that the competitors would be thinking so hard about their chess moves that, somewhere along the way, they would think up a whole “new set of values” for mankind. A very lofty, rather ambitious thought.

But even “chess poets” and “human chess machines” need some down time. So one day the competitors were treated to a tour of St Petersburg. And what they would have seen that day would have made them feel very much at home. For St Petersburg was Russia’s most cosmopolitan city, a capital created with one purpose - to make Russia look like Europe.

The palaces were like those you’d find in France, Italy or Germany; the canals were like Amsterdam or Venice. Even the city’s name, Sankt Peterburg, had been deliberately chosen by Peter the Great to sound more Dutch than Russian. Over the centuries, architects, engineers, shipbuilders and shopkeepers travelled here from across Europe, taking part in this unique project to westernise Russia. Many of the visitors put down roots and foreign communities became part of the fabric of St Petersburg. In 1914 the city boasted German butchers, Austrian bakeries, English sweet shops. At the city’s grandest delicatessen, the Yeliseyev, goods were advertised in Russian, French and German.

And then there were the cinemas, with their exotic, non-Slavic names. St Petersburg’s main street, Nevsky Prospekt, was full of them - the Crystal Palace, the Majestic, Folies Bergere, foreign titles which conjured up images of European grandeur. In 1914 a new cinema opened up on Nevsky, the Parisiana. It was, by all accounts, a remarkable building. The auditorium was built in the style of Louis XVI of France, with stucco walls and a giant marble staircase. Some of the stalls and the balcony lodges even had their own telephones. And the cinema roof could be opened mechanically so you could relax, watch a film and gaze at the stars.

The Parisiana symbolised everything Russia wanted to be in 1914 - a world leader, an innovator, an industrial, technological and cultural powerhouse. I try to find the Parisiana on Nevsky Prospekt. Sadly, it’s no longer there. It’s been replaced by a Swedish clothes store. Still, I suppose that even Swedish sweaters, socks and bras keep up that St Petersburg tradition of embracing Europe.

I get chatting to a security guard in the clothes shop. He tells me about an old cinema that has survived, just down the road. A narrow archway leads me into a back yard and there it is - a hidden jewel of St Petersburg cinema history. Since communist times, this semi-circular structure with classical columns has been known as the Aurora - in honour of the naval cruiser which, legend has it, fired the first shot in the Russian Revolution.

But the cinema’s original name was the Piccadilly. It, too, was new in 1914 and, like the Parisiana, was conceived as a sumptuous palace of film. Inside I discover the most stunning cinema foyer I’ve ever seen, with gigantic Chinese vases and exquisite frescoes.

If the spectacular St Petersburg cinema halls of 1914 projected a brash confidence, a country oozing money and ambition, the films themselves told a different story. That year, Russian silent movies were obsessed with destruction and violence.

In the film Life in Death, a doctor is so keen to preserve his wife’s beauty that he kills her and embalms her body. And in Child of the Big City, director Yevgeny Bauer foretells the disintegration of Russian society. Desperate to escape her sweatshop existence, seamstress Mary seduces a wealthy gentleman called Viktor. She then drains him of all his money and throws him penniless onto the street. Viktor shoots himself. On seeing his lifeless body, the heartless Mary is quoted as saying, “Well, they do say that meeting a dead man brings you good luck.” She steps over his corpse and never looks back.

In many ways, the silver screen reflected the dark reality of St Petersburg 1914. True, this was a city of plenty, where you could buy anything from foreign maple syrup to coats made of kangaroo fur. But it was also a place of abject poverty for many of the workers, of poor housing, appalling sanitation and widespread disease.

The death rate in St Petersburg was higher than in any capital in Europe. Suicide was on the rise, too. And it was a violent city. A sharp increase in street crime pointed to growing hostility between the social classes.

The local press lamented the disturbing new phenomenon of “hooliganism”. Little did they know that in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, female punk bands and Greenpeace activists would be charged with the same crime.

There were strikes at factories, arrests of suspected revolutionaries. More than anything, there was a sense of impending doom. On 19 May, St Petersburg was invaded by dragonflies, a bizarre infestation of biblical proportions - the skies, the streets and the River Neva were teeming with insects. Many people in the city saw it as a terrifying omen.

This was a very different St Petersburg from the city experienced by the stars of the 1914 chess tournament - they were treated to concerts, lavish banquets and presented with gilded wine glasses specially made by Faberge. Locked in their intellectual bubble, the players could think grand thoughts about changing the world. But outside, the world was changing anyway, and it wasn’t the masters of chess who would shape the future.

One week before the dragonflies descended, Lasker was declared chess champion of St Petersburg. That summer, there was another international chess competition, in Mannheim, Germany. It featured 11 players from the Russian empire.

By this time, though, few people believed in the power of chess to change the world. After round 11 of the Mannheim tournament, Germany declared war on Russia. All the Russian players were arrested and imprisoned, including the future world champion, Alekhine. Later he’d be put in solitary confinement for smiling at a guard.

In response to the declaration of war, Tsar Nicholas II renamed his capital. Suddenly “Sankt Peterburg” sounded too German and the city became Petrograd - far more Russian. Of course, Russia’s 20th Century nightmare was only just beginning. World war would lead to revolution and brutal civil war.

But what I find most remarkable about the St Petersburg of 1914 is that it was this moment in history - the eve of cataclysmic change - when Russia reached her creative peak. When artists and composers decided that anything goes, experimenting like never before with words and sound and colour.

Many of Russia’s most creative writers and poets gravitated towards the Stray Dog Cafe in St Petersburg - an artistic salon in a cellar where they could stay up all night reciting their works, and arguing about art and politics. The Russian Revolution would destroy many of them. Mandelstam died in a Soviet prison camp. Tsvetaeva and Mayakovsky committed suicide.

Sitting at her kitchen table, in what was once the St Petersburg Chess Society, Firuza Seidova has a simple explanation for this explosion of creativity, which preceded Russia’s catastrophe.

"It’s the same with my house plants, when I don’t look after them properly," she says, pointing to flowerpots on the windowsill.

"You see, when flowers feel that they’re dying, they try to blossom one last time."

Link: Red Noise

Andrey Smirnov. Sound in Z: Experiments in Sound and Electronic Music in Early 20th Century Russia. Koenig Books, June 2013.

It’s often said that such and such an idea was ahead of its time. The expression calls to mind an image of culture as a progress bar, the zeitgeist loading ultrafast for a lucky few while the rest of us wait buffering.

Less of a commonplace is the notion that time has run ahead of our ideas, that our intellectual and cultural resources are inadequate to think about and feel our present circumstances. Such a situation requires us to revolutionize the artistic field—to produce work that would propel the rest of the culture around us forward. The Russian art world of the late 1910s and early 1920s aimed at just such a definitive break with the past. Though the young Soviet Union suffered from civil war and tremendous economic hardship, famine-level conditions did not seem to dampen artists’ sense of unprecedented political and cultural possibility. 

This was the climate in which influential artists, poets, and engineers came to endorse Russian painter Solomon Nikritin’s philosophy of Projectionism: the doctrine that art could, by prefiguring the ideal culture, push society into the future. For the Projectionists, traditional art had expired. “Sculpture, architecture, music and poetry as art forms are already senseless,” Nikritin wrote, because they “can’t include the postulated image of today and consequently can’t be an art anymore.” The Austrian critic René Fülöp-Miller described a show at Nikritin’s Projection Theater in 1926:

There is no stage at all. The performance takes place in the middle of the hall, and all the appliances used are exclusively gymnastic apparatuses, the piece is accordingly nothing but a three-hour display of gymnastics, jumping, and running backwards and forwards, and as it is allied with the most extraordinary physical distortions, it makes an impression of complete insanity.

For the artistic revolutionaries of Nikritin’s time, this was the theater of the future, a cultural product for a society of socially engineered man-machines—a techno-anarchist utopia. 

As it happens, Nikritin’s theater did prefigure the future, though in less grandiose ways than he intended. His use of film projectors and mobile scenery broke ground for the multimedia stagecraft of the later 20th Century. And without knowing it he obliquely pioneered a major advance in electronic music that would be reinvented by the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis in the 1950s, in total ignorance of the Russian precedent. Projection Theater performances featured unusual vocal accompaniments in which actors collectively uttered short nonsense syllables out of unison, their voices coalescing into a single stream of sound with a timbre that varied continuously as each actor made different noises according to a complicated score. This was a low-tech implementation of what today is known as granular synthesis, a technique in which tiny segments of sound are digitally spliced together and layered on top of one another, enabling musicians to slow down music without changing the pitch, to stretch the sustain of a piano note to infinity, and to create entirely new sounds. 

From roughly the mid-1910s until the end of the 1930s, a handful of Russian engineers and artists took it upon themselves to remake the practice of music in the image of a revolutionary utopia. In contrast to the better-remembered Prokofiev and Shostakovich, these inventors were mostly outsiders to formal musical traditions, and they believed that the future of music lay not in new compositional styles, but in new technologies for the production of sound.

What they created was astonishing, not only in its novelty but in its quantity and scale. Many of their more outlandish ideas never saw fruition: an organ powered by an entire factory, an electro-acoustic orchestra mounted on a fleet of airplanes. But they successfully fashioned a great number of unprecedented devices, from synthesizers to proto-samplers, with technology that predated magnetic tape let alone the integrated circuit. Many of their conceptual developments—methods for synthesizing speech, models of the physics of musical instruments, theoretical descriptions of the idiosyncrasies of live performers—would have been at home in the technological landscape of the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s.

But under Stalin their projects were shut down and denounced as “undemocratic” and “formalist.” Many of them were persecuted, imprisoned, or executed. Most died with disappointed ambitions, their papers and prototypes buried in the “Miscellaneous” files of inaccessible Moscow archives or discarded as trash. Andrey Smirnov has spent much of his life reassembling the history of these inventors and their work, sifting through correspondence and patent certificates, interviewing descendants and pulling strings to access sealed archives. Sound in Z is the first book to come out of that project, and the fact that at 281 pages it still feels like a cursory overview is a testament to the scope of his research. The book was delayed by two and a half years and nearly tripled in size because he kept uncovering more new material than he knew what to do with.

Because of the way so many of the inventions it describes anticipate later developments, Sound in Z, with its biographical sketches, technical diagrams and photographs, reads like a scrapbook inherited from a long-lost branch of the electronic music family. At the same time, Sound in Z’s protagonists seem to refuse assimilation into any musical tradition that exists today. They and their work were products of a particular political climate, which was wildly alien to the conditions of any musician now. Nothing illustrates this fact as dramatically as Arseny Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens, perhaps the largest musical performance ever.

Symphony of Sirens was performed twice, once in Baku in November 1922 as a celebration of the fifth anniversary of the revolution, and again one year later in Moscow with the support of the State Institute for Musical Science. The instrumentation for the Baku production included “a cast of choirs, … two batteries of artillery guns, a number of infantry regiments including a machine-gun division, hydroplanes, and all the town’s factory sirens”—plus the foghorns of the Soviet navy’s entire Caspian Flotilla, moored in the town’s port. It also involved a special sound machine called the “Magistral,” containing fifty steam whistles played by twenty-five musicians. Avraamov conducted the performance with colored flags from the top of a purpose-built tower.

The Moscow production was even larger, with performers spread over such huge distances that coordination became extremely difficult. Avraamov wrote, “Because of the big area of distribution of the factory sirens it is necessary to have at least one heavy gun for signaling purposes with the capacity to shoot with live cartridges (shrapnel is not suitable for this, bursting off in the air is most dangerous and gives a second explosion sound, which can confuse the performers).” 

That Avraamov pulled these performances off is a reflection of his prodigious ambition and ingenuity. But more than that, it speaks to the capabilities of an authoritarian state eager to uproot and re-make its own culture. Imagine what it would take to perform Symphony of Sirens today: to divert an entire city’s industrial works and a whole naval flotilla just to put on a concert, not to mention the perceived menace of bringing a huge military presence to an urban area. A concise expression of both the strengths and weaknesses of liberal society: we cannot make this kind of art.

While Soviet musical inventors did anticipate many later technologies, the diversity, conceptual extremity, and technical sophistication of their creations owed much to the fact that they were working in a very different mode from most music technologists. Though their work now appears to presage technologies that came later, it would be a mistake to see their advances as evidence of some kind of historical necessity.

As an illustrative metaphor for technological change in music, we could say that there are at least two ways to break a piano. Liszt regularly demonstrated one method: he played pianos until they fell apart. His style of playing involved an unprecedented level of violent banging, more than the wooden-framed pianos of that era could take. He would sometimes smash a piano mid-performance, and a new one would have to be brought out from the wings. Because Liszt’s endorsement was a big deal for any piano company, manufacturers competed to win his favor, trying to make a piano that he couldn’t break. They began to produce sturdier pianos, incorporating metal frames, which in turn prompted composers to come up with even more ambitious piano pieces for the new instruments. As a result, the young instrument developed rapidly, through a mutual reinforcement of aesthetic trends and economic pressures.

The Liszt case reveals one way that stylistic change can drive and be driven by technological change. Developments in music technology often fit this pattern, in which stylistic innovations push the capabilities of existing tools, prompting the development of new tools whose boundaries can be pushed even further.

Arseny Avraamov, however, planned to destroy pianos on a much more dramatic scale than Liszt. Avraamov reviled the piano because he thought that the traditional Western musical scale was irrational and even harmful. By restricting themselves to only twelve pitches out of a whole continuum of possible frequencies, Avraamov believed that musicians had dulled the perceptual capabilities of entire populations, preventing them from fulfilling their human potential. After the October Revolution, he made a proposal to Anatoly Lunarcharsky, the Commissar of Public Enlightenment, that all pianos in the country should be gathered up and burned. The proposal was fortunately unsuccessful, but Avraamov did go on to conduct extensive research on novel possibilities for microtonal music, devising his own “Ultrachromatic” tone system and inventing instruments to perform it.

In a similar spirit Leon Theremin, famous as the inventor and namesake of one of the first electronic instruments, undertook pioneering work on live concert visuals as part of a series of experiments aimed at improving viewers’ sensory perception thresholds. In 1923 he created a gesture-controlled multicolored light called the Illumovox, later teaming up with Albert Einstein in what we can only hope was the first ever VJ duo, showing test subjects geometrical figures accompanied by music.

The Projectionists and many contemporaries also shared Avraamov’s view that art had both a power and an obligation to transform society, specifically by using technology to break through old stylistic boundaries. They believed that a freer, more “rational,” more spectacular art could alter perception itself, opening whole new possibilities of experience and demonstrating better ways of life that had been closed off by the old oppressive culture—but that new tools were needed to make this possible.

The most striking elements of Sound in Z can appear paradoxical, as the reader is torn between marveling at the uniqueness of Soviet musical technology and at its resemblance to what came afterward. While reading Sound in Z I had the experience of learning that some of my own ideas were much older than I’d thought. In November 2011, some musician friends and I got together to work on a project. Each of us had recently moved to a different city, and we were all working through the early-stage disorientation of learning to get around a foreign place. We wondered what it would be like to listen to the experience of navigating our new streets if it were possible to hear such a thing: the tight regularity of New York versus Honolulu’s slow curves and wide spaces, London’s crooked alleyways or Maastricht’s nested crescents. And so we came up with a method for translating maps into musical scores. We wrote some software that would take a map, rendered as a network of white streets against a black background, and use it to generate a piece of music, the North-South axis corresponding to pitch and the East-West axis to time.

We prepared ourselves for the results to be completely unlistenable, but they turned out rather interesting. New York becomes a series of densely layered downward and upward glissandos; Honolulu alternates reedy trills and silence; London is mostly noise. The project, by our measure, was reasonably successful. Luckily the novelty of our technique wasn’t really the point, for as it turned out, we were building on a concept that had originated in Petrograd nearly a century before. Our particular image sonification method was already old in 1958 when it became the basis for the graphical score of the ANS synthesizer, named for the composer and occultist Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin. The ANS is best known for its use in Eduard Artemyev’s 1972 soundtrack for Solaris, but it was actually conceived in 1938 by the engineer Evgeny Murzin and the painter-acoustician Boris Yankovsky. Shortly afterwards Murzin was sent to design artillery controls at a secret military research institute and only built the instrument twenty years later.

Murzin’s synthesizer had a unique interface: a sheet of glass covered in black tarry goop, which the composer could scrape off to etch a diagram of polyphonic music – the vertical axis corresponding to pitch and the horizontal axis to time. Propelled by either a hand crank or a motor, the glass sheet passed through a beam of light over a row of photosensors, exposing only the sensors under parts of the sheet where the goop had been scraped off. Each sensor drove one of 720 sine wave oscillators, enough to cover the entire range of human hearing with a resolution of 1/6 of a semitone, the smallest perceptible change in pitch.

This was the first interface to give composers immediate, tangible control over the realization of their music: if they didn’t like what they heard, they could scrape some more goop off, or smear it back on. It opened up a mode of working with music in which composers interact directly with their product as it takes shape. This tight connection between composer and composition is now practically universal in electronic production. In our age of digital audio workstations, it’s difficult to imagine how much of a paradigm shift this must have represented to a generation of composers accustomed to meticulous tape splicing, longhand calculations, and getting their bearings by plunking out approximate renditions on piano.

Soviet inventors’ anticipation of later musical tools holds some lessons about the way that new music technologies emerge. Advances tend to spread in fits and starts, beginning with semi-isolated pockets of practitioners often working outside the mainstream. Without central institutions to disseminate them, ideas follow indirect and obscure paths through the social graphs of musicians and listeners, and the same techniques and tools are often appropriated or reinvented for disparate purposes in different times and places. Thus Karlheinz Stockhausen and Daphne Oram, both of whom had visited Pierre Schaeffer’s studio in Paris, developed similar techniques for generating and manipulating sound in the 50s even though Stockhausen was composing high-brow art music while Oram produced television soundtracks.

But ultimately the sense of deja vu that pervades Sound in Z is misleading. If Schaeffer or Stockhausen had political goals, these were incidental, or ex post facto; even the anarchist piano-rigger John Cage developed his political thoughts well after his most important musical advances. Soviet musicians by contrast intended to have their music united with social change, heightening both their technical and stylistic radicalism. Their ideas have survived, but they are hard to recognize.

The Russian avant-garde ideal of performer-less music, embodied in the fine-grained control of modern production methods, has become something of a problem for today’s music technologists. Now a main goal is to reinsert a performer who has been all too effectively cut out. As usual, economic forces are at play: these days records don’t make much money; live shows do. But live performance options for electronic musicians have historically been restrictive. Painstakingly assembled studio productions are difficult to reproduce on stage, and while performers from Kraftwerk onwards have used synths, samplers and homebrew electronics in successful live acts, many more have stuck to DJ sets.

From the early 2000’s, a small tech industry has sprung up to help electronic musicians up their spectacle game. Companies like Ableton, Novation and Akai sell hardware and software that enables live de- and reconstruction of “studio” (laptop) produced tracks, while a handful of designers have made names for themselves building custom instruments and stage effects for a range of budgets. Daedalus plays in front of a wall of motorized concave mirrors, while Amon Tobin DJs inside a three-story pile of projection-animated cubes.

This technology is impressive to look at and adds a crucial element of dynamism and spontaneity, often making the difference between a concert and an iTunes playlist. New forms of audio hardware and software are also more accessible than earlier studio equipment in terms of both cost and usability, enabling many more people to create their own music. These are welcome developments, but Nikritin would have demanded more. “Prosumer” culture or no, electronic music performance is increasingly dominated by commercial raves and concerts that are rarely ever more than passive entertainment: fans show up, have fun for a few hours, and resume life the next day unchanged, bar an ecstasy comedown.

What’s been lost is the notion of the spectacle as a tool for radical transformation. Left-wing thinkers from Guy Debord onward have condemned spectacular performance as a device for pacification. Earlier avant gardes viewed it as one of their primary means of activation and engagement. Avraamov’s concept for the Symphony of Sirens was to create a performance so large that an entire city would need to participate rather than just look on, fostering a sense of civic involvement and inspiring hope for a bright common future. Whether the Symphony was successful or not, it reflected an awareness of its status as a political act, and it aimed at real goals that had nothing to do with turning a profit.

Link: On Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground

Many people would say that Dostoevsky’s short novel “Notes from Underground” marks the beginning of the modernist movement in literature. (Other candidates: Diderot’s “Rameau’s Nephew,” written in the seventeen-sixties but not widely read until the eighteen-twenties, and, of course, Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” from 1856.) Certainly, Nietzsche’s writings, Freud’s theory of neurosis, Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” Bellow’s “Herzog,” Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” perhaps Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” and half of Woody Allen’s work wouldn’t have been the same without the existence of this ornery, unstable, unmanageable text—the fictional confession of a spiteful modern Hamlet, an inhabitant of St. Petersburg, “that most abstract and pre-meditated city,” and a man unable to act and also unable to stop humiliating himself and embarrassing others. A self-regarding, truculent, miserable, paralyzed man. As I began reading “Notes” again recently (in Andrew R. MacAndrew’s translation for Signet Classics), I wondered if it had been overwhelmed by the books and movies that it has influenced. I wondered if “Notes” would seem like a dim echo, whether it still had the shock value that I remember from long ago.

Dostoevsky worked on the text in 1863 and published it the following year inEpoch, the magazine edited by his brother Mikhail. “Notes from Underground” feels like a warmup for the colossus that came next, “Crime and Punishment,” though, in certain key ways, it’s a more uncompromising book. What the two fictions share is a solitary, restless, irritable hero and a feeling for the feverish, crowded streets and dives of St. Petersburg—an atmosphere of careless improvidence, neglect, self-neglect, cruelty, even sordidness. It is the modern city in extremis. Dostoevsky himself had recently returned from exile, and his St. Petersburg life in this period was furtive and desperate.

The text itself purports to be the writings of a retired mid-level government bureaucrat. A family bequest has allowed him to quit his job, which he hated, and he is now forty, living with a servant whom he despises in what he calls “a mousehole.” In an introductory note, Dostoevsky explains that both the character and his “notes” are fictional, but that he represents a certain Russian type the public needs to know about. The underground man (the title, in Russian, literally means “notes from under the floorboards”) addresses an imaginary audience whom he refers to as “you” or “ladies and gentlemen”—presumably a representative group of educated, Westernized Russians. He alternately teases, insults, and abases himself before them. They are people besotted, he believes, with Western ideas of progress—the ideologies of utilitarianism, socialism, evolution, the greatest good for the greatest number, and so on. They are also enamored of German idealism—”the good and the beautiful” of Schiller’s rhapsodic writing. Is the underground man Dostoevsky himself? No, but he spouts many of Dostoevsky’s ideas and antipathies; the book is certainly an appropriate introduction to Dostoevsky the Slavophile reactionary who emerged in his final years.

But “Notes” is a canny work of literature, not a tract: Dostoevsky may have put his own ideas into the mouth of a brilliant man, but he undermined him as a self-destructive mess at the same time. The text, as academics might say, is multivalent, at odds with itself. It’s not so much that the underground man’s opinions are wrong—surely Dostoevsky thought that many of them were true, however wildly phrased—but that they were inseparable, like all opinion, from personal strengths and weakness, even personal pathology. We are inevitably subjective and self-justifying—that is one of the modern elements in the book. We are also entirely inconsistent. The underground man taunts his listeners, apologizes, criticizes himself, then gets aggressive, then collapses again. On and on. He pulls the rug out from underneath his own feet; he realizes he’s trapped in the prison of his own character. Hell is myself. No one would put up with this guy in his home for more than a half hour. He’s only possible—entertaining, funny, nasty—on the page.

In the first part of the novel, the underground man, after introducing himself, complains, in his ejaculatory, stop-and-start way, about the spectacular Crystal Palace built in London (this was back in 1851). He rails against everything that the building represents—industrial capitalism, scientific rationality, and any sort of predictive, mathematical model of human behavior. Could anything be more contemporary? You can easily imagine what Dostoevsky would make of modern sociology, psychology, advertising techniques, war games, polling of any sort. What’s wrong with such techniques, in both their cynical or ameliorative uses, was simply stated by Sartre, in 1945: “All materialist philosophies create man as an object, a stone.” The underground man says that, on the contrary, human beings are unfathomable, unknowable. Given the opportunity, they may deny, for themselves, the certainty that two and two makes four. Why? Because the mere right to deny the obvious may be more important than the benefit of sheepishly acknowledging it.

Predictors of human behavior, as the underground man says, generally assume we will act in our own best interests. But do we? The same question might be asked today, when “rational-choice theory” is still a predictive model for economists and sociologists and many others. When working-class whites vote for Republican policies that will further reduce their economic power—are they voting in their best interests? What about wealthy liberals in favor of higher taxes on the rich? Do people making terrible life choices—say, poor women having children with unreliable men—act in their best interests? Do they calculate at all? What if our own interest, as we construe it, consists of refusing what others want of us? That motive can’t be measured. It can’t even be known, except by novelists like Dostoevsky. Reason is only one part of our temperament, the underground man says. Individualism as a value includes the right to screw yourself up.

Having given us a rant, the underground man offers experience. He shifts back sixteen years. He is twenty-four. He recounts some strange incidents from his social life. For years, he harbored a grievance against an officer who had casually picked him up and moved him out of the way in a tavern. The moment was nothing, but his resentment knew no bounds. In the same year, he invited himself to a dinner party thrown by old school classmates; they were unworthy, crass young men—he hated them all—but he still longed for their respect. In the event, the dinner party is a disaster for him; he makes a fool of himself, and he winds up at the end of the evening sleeping with a lonely prostitute in a brothel and then talking to her for hours. She is a smart, decent girl, in desperate straits, and he condescends to her, lectures her, fears her. Will she come to him at home, make a man out of him? He needs her a lot more than she needs him.

Bourgeois sentimentalist that I am, I wanted the two of them to save each other, even if only for a few years, but, if I wanted that to happen, I could not have been reading as carefully as I should have been. The modern element in “Notes from Underground” is Dostoevsky’s exultation in human perversity. You can read this book as a meta-fiction about creating a voice, or as a case study, but you can’t escape reading it also as an accusation of human insufficiency rendered without the slightest trace of self-righteousness. If you begin by grieving for its hero, he upsets you with so much truth of our common nature that you wind up grieving for yourself—for your own insufficiency. “Notes” is still a modern book; it still can kick.

Link: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot's prison letters to Slavoj Žižek

Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is currently in a prison hospital in Siberia; here she and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek meet in an extraordinary exchange of letters

2 January 2013

Dear Nadezhda,

I hope you have been able to organise your life in prison around small rituals that make it tolerable, and that you have time to read. Here are my thoughts on your predicament.

John Jay Chapman, an American political essayist, wrote this about radicals in 1900: “They are really always saying the same thing. They don’t change; everybody else changes. They are accused of the most incompatible crimes, of egoism and a mania for power, indifference to the fate of their cause, fanaticism, triviality, lack of humour, buffoonery and irreverence. But they sound a certain note. Hence the great practical power of persistent radicals. To all appearance, nobody follows them, yet everyone believes them. They hold a tuning-fork and sound A, and everybody knows it really is A, though the time-honoured pitch is G flat.” Isn’t this a good description of the effect of Pussy Riot performances? In spite of all accusations, you sound a certain note. It may appear that people do not follow you, but secretly, they believe you, they know you are telling the truth, or, even more, you are standing for truth.

But what is this truth? Why are the reactions to Pussy Riot performances so violent, not only in Russia? All hearts were beating for you as long as you were perceived as just another version of the liberal-democraticprotest against the authoritarian state. The moment it became clear that you rejected global capitalism, reporting on Pussy Riot became much more ambiguous. What is so disturbing about Pussy Riot to the liberal gaze is that you make visible the hidden continuity between Stalinism and contemporary global capitalism.

[Žižek then explores what he sees as a global trend towards limiting democracy.] Since the 2008 crisis, this distrust of democracy, once limited to third-world or post-Communist developing economies, is gaining ground in western countries. But what if this distrust is justified? What if only experts can save us?

But the crisis provided proof that it is these experts who don’t know what they are doing, rather than the people. In western Europe, we are seeing that the ruling elite know less and less how to rule. Look at how Europe is dealing with Greece.

No wonder, then, that Pussy Riot make us all uneasy – you know very well what you don’t know, and you don’t pretend to have any quick or easy answers, but you are telling us that those in power don’t know either. Your message is that in Europe today the blind are leading the blind. This is why it is so important that you persist. In the same way that Hegel, after seeing Napoleon riding through Jena, wrote that it was as if he saw the World Spirit riding on a horse, you are nothing less than the critical awareness of us all, sitting in prison.

Comradely greetings, Slavoj

23 February 2013

Dear Slavoj,

Once, in the autumn of 2012, when I was still in the pre-trial prison in Moscow with other Pussy Riot activists, I visited you. In a dream, of course.

I see your argument about horses, the World Spirit, and about tomfoolery and disrespect, as well as why and how all these elements are so connected to each other.

Pussy Riot did turn out be a part of this force, the purpose of which is criticism, creativity and co-creation, experimentation and constantly provocative events. Borrowing Nietzsche’s definition, we are the children of Dionysus, sailing in a barrel and not recognising any authority.

We are a part of this force that has no final answers or absolute truths, for our mission is to question. There are architects of apollonian statics and there are (punk) singers of dynamics and transformation. One is not better than the other. But it is only together that we can ensure the world functions in the way Heraclitus defined it: “This world has been and will eternally be living on the rhythm of fire, inflaming according to the measure, and dying away according to the measure. This is the functioning of the eternal world breath.”

We are the rebels asking for the storm, and believing that truth is only to be found in an endless search. If the “World Spirit” touches you, do not expect that it will be painless.

Laurie Anderson sang: “Only an expert can deal with the problem.” It would have been nice if Laurie and I could cut these experts down to size and take care of our own problems. Because expert status by no means grants access to the kingdom of absolute truth.

Two years of prison for Pussy Riot is our tribute to a destiny that gave us sharp ears, allowing us to sound the note A when everyone else is used to hearing G flat.

At the right moment, there will always come a miracle in the lives of those who childishly believe in the triumph of truth over lies, of mutual assistance, of those who live according to the economics of the gift.


4 April 2013

Dear Nadezhda,

I was so pleasantly surprised when your letter arrived – the delay made me fear that the authorities would prevent our communication. I was deeply honoured, flattered even, by my appearance in your dream.

You are right to question the idea that the “experts” close to power are competent to make decisions. Experts are, by definition, servants of those in power: they don’t really think, they just apply their knowledge to the problems defined by those in power (how to bring back stability? how to squash protests?). So are today’s capitalists, the so-called financial wizards, really experts? Are they not just stupid babies playing with our money and our fate? I remember a cruel joke from Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not to Be. When asked about the German concentration camps in occupied Poland, the Nazi officer snaps back: “We do the concentrating, and the Poles do the camping.” Does the same not hold for the Enron bankruptcy in 2002? The thousands of employees who lost their jobs were certainly exposed to risk, but with no true choice – for them the risk was like blind fate. But those who did have insight into the risks, and the ability to intervene (the top managers), minimised their risks by cashing in their stocks before the bankruptcy. So it is true that we live in a society of risky choices, but some people (the managers) do the choosing, while others (the common people) do the risking.

For me, the true task of radical emancipatory movements is not just to shake things out of their complacent inertia, but to change the very co-ordinates of social reality so that, when things return to normal, there will be a new, more satisfying, “apollonian statics”. And, even more crucially, how does today’s global capitalism enter this scheme?

The Deleuzian philosopher Brian Massumi tells how capitalism has already overcome the logic of totalising normality and adopted the logic of erratic excess: “The more varied, and even erratic, the better. Normality starts to lose its hold. The regularities start to loosen. This loosening is part of capitalism’s dynamic.”

But I feel guilty writing this: who am I to explode in such narcissistic theoretical outbursts when you are exposed to very real deprivations? So please, if you can and want, do let me know about your situation in prison: about your daily rhythm, about the little private rituals that make it easier to survive, about how much time you have to read and write, about how other prisoners and guards treat you, about your contact with your child … true heroism resides in these seemingly small ways of organising one’s life in order to survive in crazy times without losing dignity.

With love, respect and admiration, my thoughts are with you!


16 April 2013

Dear Slavoj,

Has modern capitalism really overtaken the logic of totalising norms? Or is it willing to make us believe that it has overpassed the logic of hierarchical structures and normalisation?

As a child I wanted to go into advertising. I had a love affair with the advertising industry. And this is why I am in a position to judge its merits. The anti-hierarchical structures and rhizomes of late capitalism are its successful ad campaign. Modern capitalism has to manifest itself as flexible and even eccentric. Everything is geared towards gripping the emotion of the consumer. Modern capitalism seeks to assure us that it operates according to the principles of free creativity, endless development and diversity. It glosses over its other side in order to hide the reality that millions of people are enslaved by an all-powerful and fantastically stable norm of production. We want to reveal this lie.

You should not worry that you are exposing theoretical fabrications while I am supposed to suffer the “real hardship”. I value the strict limits, and the challenge. I am genuinely curious: how will I cope with this? And how can I turn this into a productive experience for me and my comrades? I find sources of inspiration; it contributes to my own development. Not because of, but in spite of the system. And in my struggle, your thoughts, ideas and stories are helpful to me.

I am happy to correspond with you. I await your reply and I wish you good luck in our common cause.


10 June 2013

Dear Nadezhda,

I felt deeply ashamed after reading your reply. You wrote: “You should not worry about the fact that you are exposing theoretical fabrications while I am supposed to suffer the ‘real hardship’.” This simple sentence made me aware that the final sentiment in my last letter was false: my expression of sympathy with your plight basically meant, “I have the privilege of doing real theory and teaching you about it while you are good for reporting on your experience of hardship …” Your last letter demonstrates that you are much more than that, that you are an equal partner in a theoretical dialogue. So my sincere apologies for this proof of how deeply entrenched is male chauvinism, especially when it is masked as sympathy for the other’s suffering, and let me go on with our dialogue.

It is the crazy dynamics of global capitalism that make effective resistance to it so difficult and frustrating. Recall the great wave of protests that spilled all over Europe in 2011, from Greece and Spain to London and Paris. Even if there was no consistent political platform mobilising the protesters, the protests functioned as part of a large-scale educational process: the protesters’ misery and discontent were transformed into a great collective act of mobilisation – hundreds of thousands gathered in public squares, proclaiming that they had enough, that things could not go on like that. However, what these protests add up to is a purely negative gesture of angry rejection and an equally abstract demand for justice, lacking the ability to translate this demand into a concrete political programme.

What can be done in such a situation, where demonstrations and protests are of no use, where democratic elections are of no use? Can we convince the tired and manipulated crowds that we are not only ready to undermine the existing order, to engage in provocative acts of resistance, but also to offer the prospect of a new order?

The Pussy Riot performances cannot be reduced just to subversive provocations. Beneath the dynamics of their acts, there is the inner stability of a firm ethico-political attitude. In some deeper sense, it is today’s society that is caught in a crazy capitalist dynamic with no inner sense and measure, and it is Pussy Riot that de facto provides a stable ethico-political point. The very existence of Pussy Riot tells thousands that opportunist cynicism is not the only option, that we are not totally disoriented, that there still is a common cause worth fighting for.

So I also wish you good luck in our common cause. To be faithful to our common cause means to be brave, especially now, and, as the old saying goes, luck is on the side of the brave!

Yours, Slavoj

13 July 2013

Dear Slavoj,

In my last letter, written in haste as I worked in the sewing shop, I was not as clear as I should have been about the distinction between how “global capitalism” functions in Europe and the US on the one hand, and in Russia on the other. However, recent events in Russia – the trial of Alexei Navalny, the passing of unconstitutional, anti-freedom laws – have infuriated me. I feel compelled to speak about the specific political and economic practices of my country. The last time I felt this angry was in 2011 when Putin declared he was running for the presidency for a third time. My anger and resolve led to the birth of Pussy Riot. What will happen now? Time will tell.

Here in Russia I have a strong sense of the cynicism of so-called first-world countries towards poorer nations. In my humble opinion, “developed” countries display an exaggerated loyalty towards governments that oppress their citizens and violate their rights. The European and US governments freely collaborate with Russia as it imposes laws from the middle ages and throws opposition politicians in jail. They collaborate with China, where oppression is so bad that my hair stands on end just to think about it. What are the limits of tolerance? And when does tolerance become collaboration, conformism and complicity?

To think, cynically, “let them do what they want in their own country”, doesn’t work any longer, because Russia and China and countries like them are now part of the global capitalist system.

Russia under Putin, with its dependence on raw materials, would have been massively weakened if those nations that import Russian oil and gas had shown the courage of their convictions and stopped buying. Even if Europe were to take as modest a step as passing a “Magnitsky law” [the Magnitsky Act in the US allows it to place sanctions on Russian officials believed to have taken part in human-rights violations], morally it would speak volumes. A boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 would be another ethical gesture. But the continued trade in raw materials constitutes a tacit approval of the Russian regime – not through words, but through money. It betrays the desire to protect the political and economic status quo and the division of labour that lies at the heart of the world economic system.

You quote Marx: “A social system that seizes up and rusts … cannot survive.” But here I am, working out my prison sentence in a country where the 10 people who control the biggest sectors of the economy are Vladimir Putin’s oldest friends. He studied or played sports with some, and served in the KGB with others. Isn’t this a social system that has seized up? Isn’t this a feudal system?

I thank you sincerely, Slavoj, for our correspondence and can hardly wait for your reply.

Yours, Nadia

The correspondence was organised by Philosophie magazine in cooperation with New Times. Longer versions can be found in German or in French at Tolokonnikova’s letters were translated from Russian by Galia Ackerman

Link: The Russia Left Behind

Link: Forms of Delirium: The Night Wolves

Peter Pomerantsev circles the Kremlin.

In the Moscow compound of the Night Wolves, the Russian equivalent of the Hells Angels, ships’ conrods have been refashioned as crosses ten feet high. Broken plane parts have been bolted to truck engines to make a giant stage; crushed Harley-Davidsons have been beaten into a bar; boats’ hulls have been moulded into chairs; and train parts into Valhalla-sized tables. The crosses are everywhere, wrenched together out of old bike parts and truck shafts and engines. The Night Wolves, or Nochnye Volki, are bikers who have found a Russian God. In an act of patriotism they have changed all the words on their leathers from Latin lettering to a gothic Cyrillic. One of the Hells Angels symbols, a ‘1 per cent’ inside a diamond, is still etched on a great stone at the entrance to their kingdom. In Hells Angels lore it stands for the 1 per cent who are outlaws. But the Night Wolves have engraved a new text around the diamond, transforming its meaning: ‘In heaven there is more joy at the 1 per cent of sinners who confess than the 99 per cent who have no need of salvation.’

‘We only have a few years to rescue the soul of holy Russia,’ Alexei Weitz said. ‘Just a few years.’ Weitz is a leading member of the Night Wolves. There are five thousand of them in Russia, five thousand Beowulf-like bearded men in leathers riding Harleys. It’s Weitz who has done most to turn them from outlaws into religious patriots. For the past few years, Vladimir Putin has posed for photo-ops with them, dressed in leathers and riding a tri-bike (he can’t quite handle a two-wheeler). They defended the ‘honour of the church’ after the Pussy Riot affair, roaring in a cavalcade through Moscow bearing golden icons of Mary the Mother of Christ on the front of their Harleys. The Kremlin gives them several hundred million rubles a year and they work to inspire loyalty across the country with concerts and bike shows that fuse flying Yamahas, Cirque du Soleil-style trapeze acts, Spielberg-scale battle re-enactments, religious icons, holy ecstasies, speeches from Stalin and dancing girls (there are booths for go-go girls next to the great crosses). At the last concert in Volgograd, 250,000 locals turned up, a world record for a ‘bike show’. Evander Holyfield was meant to come, to introduce a boxing match that went with the patriotic fireworks, but he had to pull out at the last minute – there was a problem with his visa. Everyone sang the anti-communist perestroika anthem ‘We Want Changes’.

‘Why Stalin?’ I asked. ‘Didn’t he murder hundreds of thousands of priests?’

‘We don’t know why he was sent by God. Maybe he had to slaughter them so the faith could be tested. We don’t know. It’s not for us to judge. When you cut out a disease you have to cut out healthy flesh too.’ As we spoke, Weitz – who is of folkloric size, bearded with glasses – was changing from his office clothes into leathers. He took me to a little wooden house on the territory to have something to eat. There were icons everywhere. We drank tea brewed with spicy medicinal herbs picked by shamans in the Russian far east. Weitz dropped six lumps of sugar into his goblet and told me his story. ‘I trained as an actor. I received the classic Stanislavsky method acting training. My teacher used to say I can be both tragic and comic at the same time. It’s a rare gift.’ He broke off to quote a line from a famous Russian movie version of The Cherry Orchard, replicating the original perfectly. He paused, waiting for me to clap. ‘My breakdown came in 1994. I was starring in The Cherry Orchard, we were on tour in London – we were staying in a hotel at Seven Sisters. You know it? Nice area – and I just couldn’t take it any more, there were just too many roles. Too many me-s.’

‘You mean too many theatre roles?’

‘Oh no, that was fine. I’m a professional. Something else. For a while I’d been seeing visions, religious visions. I could see devils and angels on people’s shoulders. I could see serpents wrapping themselves around people as they spoke, their true souls. I could see the things others can’t. People’s auras, the colours round them … You’re looking at me like I’m crazy. I just have gifts. I had been interested in religion for a while. Yoga and shamanism. But I was finding my way to the true faith. I couldn’t be both an actor and a man of God.’

When he came back from London, Weitz gave up acting. He became more devout. But he still needed a job so a friend found him a position at a new political consultancy. Using the Stanislavsky method he started training politicians ‘to manipulate public consciousness’ with ‘verbal and non-verbal forms of influence’. ‘I applied the principles of method acting. First they had to decide where they were headed. What they wanted … Where are you headed, Peter?’ he suddenly asked.

I didn’t know.

‘You’re headed to death. We’re all headed to death. That’s the first thing I would make them realise … That’s the thing about us bikers. We live with death every day. We’re a death cult. We know where we’re going.’ Biking had been Weitz’s passion since his Soviet teens. The biking movement in the USSR had sprung up in the late 1980s, utterly anti-Soviet, pro-freedom, pro-Steppenwolf, and by association pro-American. In the 1990s and 2000s it remained a fringe subculture, though connected to biker gangs in Europe and beyond. The patriotic shift came late. The legend goes that Aleksandr Zaldostanov, the Surgeon, the Night Wolves’ leader, met a priest on the road who told him he needed to change his life, help save Holy Rus. Weitz helped give that impulse form. The Night Wolves are a top-down organisation: if the Surgeon and Weitz say they are now Orthodox, everyone follows suit.

Link: Why I Am Going on Hunger Strike

This is an extensive revision of the translation, by Bela Shayevich, originally published here. The original Russian of Tolokonnikova’s letter can be read here.

On Monday, September 23, I am declaring a hunger strike. This is an extreme method, but I am absolutely convinced it is my only recourse in the current situation.

The prison wardens refuse to hear me. But I will not back down from my demands. I will not remain silent, watching in resignation as my fellow prisoners collapse under slave-like conditions. I demand that human rights be observed at the prison. I demand that the law be obeyed in this Mordovian camp. I demand we be treated like human beings, not slaves.

It has been a year since I arrived at Penal Colony No. 14 [henceforth, PC-14 — Trans.] in the Mordovian village of Partsa. As the women convicts say, “Those who haven’t done time in Mordovia haven’t done time at all.” I had heard about the Mordovian prison camps while I was still being held at Pre-Trial Detention Center No. 6 in Moscow. They have the harshest conditions, the longest workdays, and the most flagrant lawlessness. Prisoners see their fellows off to Mordovia as if they were headed to the scaffold. Until the last, they keep hoping: “Maybe they won’t send you to Mordovia after all? Maybe the danger will pass you by?” It didn’t pass me by, and in the autumn of 2012, I arrived in the prison country on the banks of the Partsa River.

My first impression of Mordovia was the words uttered by the prison’s deputy warden, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov, who actually runs PC-14. “You should know that when it comes to politics, I am a Stalinist.” Colonel Kulagin, the other warden (the prison is administered in tandem) called me in for a chat my first day here in order to force me to confess my guilt. “A misfortune has befallen you. Isn’t that right? You’ve been sentenced to two years in prison. People usually change their views when bad things happen to them. If you want to be paroled as soon as possible, you have to confess your guilt. If you don’t, you won’t get parole.” I told him right away I would work only the eight hours a day stipulated by the Labor Code. “The code is the code. What really matters is making your quota. If you don’t, you work overtime. And we’ve broken stronger wills than yours here!” Colonel Kulagin replied.

My whole shift works sixteen to seventeen hours a day in the sewing workshop, from seven-thirty in the morning to twelve-thirty at night. At best, we get four hours of sleep a night. We have a day off once every month and a half. We work almost every Sunday. Prisoners “voluntarily” apply to work on weekends. In fact, there is nothing “voluntary” about it. These applications are written involuntarily on the orders of the wardens and under pressure from the inmates who help enforce their will.

No one dares to disobey (that is, not apply to go to the manufacturing zone on Sunday, meaning going to work until one in the morning). Once, a fifty-year-old woman asked to go back to the dorm zone at eight p.m. instead of twelve-thirty p.m. so she could go to bed at ten p.m. and get eight hours of sleep just once that week. She was not feeling well; she had high blood pressure. In response, a dorm unit meeting was called, where the woman was scolded, humiliated, insulted, and branded a parasite. “What, do you think you’re the only one who wants more sleep? You need to work harder, you’re strong as a horse!” When someone from the shift doesn’t come to work on doctor’s orders, they’re bullied as well. “I sewed when I had a fever of forty Centigrade, and it was fine. Who did you think was going to pick up the slack for you?”

I was welcomed to my dorm unit by a convict finishing up a nine-year sentence. “The pigs are scared to put the squeeze on you themselves. They want to have the inmates do it.” Conditions at the prison really are organized in such a way that the inmates in charge of the work shifts and dorm units are the ones tasked by the wardens with crushing the will of inmates, terrorizing them, and turning them into speechless slaves.

There is a widely implemented system of unofficial punishments for maintaining discipline and obedience. Prisoners are forced to “stay in the local until lights out,” meaning they are forbidden to go into the barracks, whether it is fall or winter. [The “local” is a fenced-off passageway between two areas in the camp — Trans.] In the second unit, where the disabled and elderly live, there was a woman who ended up getting such bad frostbite after a day in the local that her fingers and one of her feet had to be amputated. The wardens can also “shut down sanitation” (forbid prisoners to wash up or go to the toilet) and “shut down the commissary and the tearoom” (forbid prisoners to eat their own food and drink beverages). It’s both funny and frightening when a forty-year-old woman tells you, “So we’re being punished today! I wonder whether we’ll be punished tomorrow, too.” She can’t leave the sewing workshop to pee or take a piece of candy from her purse. It’s forbidden.

Dreaming only of sleep and a sip of tea, the exhausted, harassed and dirty convict becomes obedient putty in the hands of the administration, which sees us solely as a free work force. So, in June 2013, my monthly wages came to twenty-nine rubles [approx. sixty-seven euro cents]—twenty-nine rubles! Our shift sews one hundred and fifty police uniforms per day. Where does the money made from them go?

The prison has been allocated funding to buy completely new equipment a number of times. However, the administration has only had the sewing machines repainted, with the convicts doing the work. We sew on obsolete and worn-out machines. According to the Labor Code, when equipment does not comply with current industry standards, production quotas must be lowered vis-à-vis standard industry norms. But the quotas only increase, abruptly and suddenly. “If you let them see you can deliver one hundred uniforms, they’ll raise the minimum to one hundred and twenty!” say veteran machine operators. And you cannot fail to deliver, either, or else the whole unit will be punished, the entire shift. Punished, for instance, by everyone being forced to stand on the parade ground for hours. Without the right to go to the toilet. Without the right to take a sip of water.

Two weeks ago, the production quotas for all prison work shifts were arbitrarily increased by fifty units. If previously the minimum was one hundred uniforms a day, now it is one hundred and fifty. According to the Labor Code, workers must be notified of a change in the production quota no less than two months before it is goes into effect. At PC-14, we just woke up one day to find we had a new quota because the idea happened to have popped into the heads of the wardens of our “sweatshop” (that’s what the prisoners call the penal colony). The number of people in the work shift decreases (they are released or transferred), but the quota grows. As a result, those who remain have to work harder and harder. The mechanics say they don’t have the parts to repair the machinery and will not be getting them. “There are no spare parts! When will they come? What, you don’t live in Russia? How can you ask such questions?” During my first few months in the manufacturing zone, I nearly mastered the profession of mechanic, out of necessity and on my own. I would attack my machine, screwdriver in hand, desperate to fix it. Your hands are scratched and poked by needles, your blood is all over the table, but you keep on sewing. You are part of an assembly line, and you have to do your job alongside the experienced seamstresses. Meanwhile, the damned machine keeps breaking down. Because you’re the newcomer and there is a lack of good equipment in the prison, you end up with the worst equipment, the most worthless machine on the line. And now it’s broken down again, and once again you run off looking for the mechanic, who is impossible to find. You are yelled at and berated for slowing down production. There are no sewing classes at the prison, either. Newcomers are immediately plunked down in front of their machines and given their assignments.

“If you weren’t Tolokonnikova, you would have had the shit kicked out of you a long time ago,” say fellow prisoners with close ties to the wardens. It’s true: other prisoners are beaten up. For not being able to keep up. They hit them in the kidneys, in the face. Convicts themselves deliver these beatings and not a single one of them happens without the approval and knowledge of the wardens. A year ago, before I came here, a Gypsy woman was beaten to death in the third unit. (The third unit is the “pressure cooker”: prisoners whom the wardens want subjected to daily beatings are sent there.) She died in the infirmary at PC-14. The administration was able to cover up the fact she had been beaten to death: a stroke was listed as the official cause of death. In another block, new seamstresses who couldn’t keep up were undressed and forced to sew naked. No one dares complain to the wardens, because all they will do is smile and send the prisoner back to the dorm unit, where the “snitch” will be beaten on the orders of those same wardens. For the prison warden, managed hazing is a convenient method for forcing convicts to totally obey their lawless regime.

A threatening, anxious atmosphere pervades the manufacturing zone. Eternally sleep-deprived, overwhelmed by the endless race to fulfill inhumanly large quotas, the convicts are always on the verge of breaking down, screaming at each other, fighting over the smallest things. Just recently, a young woman got stabbed in the head with a pair of scissors because she didn’t turn in a pair of pants on time. Another tried to cut her own stomach open with a hacksaw. She was stopped from finishing the job.

Moscow outskirts, 1988, by Igor Palmin

Moscow outskirts, 1988, by Igor Palmin

(Source: cold-cell, via animaginarycountry)