Month: January 2014

Beyond Language – 2

As one reads Masha Gessen’s telling of the story of Pussy Riot (Words Will Break Cement – The Passion of Pussy Riot), it becomes clear that the group’s distinctive quality is a reliance less on verbal statements than on visual and gestural ones. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour action on February 21, 2012 involved the performance of a song containing the “holy shit” (срань господня) line contributed by Andrei Tolokonnikov. Its main intended purpose, however, was to create a shock situation, something akin to the 1960s “happenings” of the American painter and performance artist Allan Kaprow. These were scripted events, consisting of visual  and aural cues that prompted both  performers and audience to create a work of art together.

Like other Pussy Riot actions, the Cathedral event was designed primarily as a live experience. It was also to be filmed and presented on video via the Internet, though the chaotic circumstances of the brief action made it hard to produce a coherent volume of footage. The action had a political element, but was essentially an act of prayer, with the title Богородица, Путина прогони! (Mother of God, Drive Putin Away!). Thus, in addition to being a work of New Media Art, it was consistent with being a religious ritual, and could hardly be described as blasphemous. The song’s opening melody and refrain were borrowed from Rachmaninov’s Богородице Дѣво (Rejoice, O Mother of God), from the All Night Vigil.

Masha Gessen presents a good and detailed account of the cruel and farcical Pussy Riot trial, as well as sympathetic portraits of the group’s members. Some of the book’s most instructive chapters are the early ones in which she discusses the development of the group’s artistic and aesthetic aims. These are elaborated further in the extracts from the members’ statements given during the trial, and one wonders if there might be a case for gathering them, along with others, in a separate volume, as they help towards a theoretical and practical understanding of the group’s artistic project. As Maria Alyokhina stated at the trial:

I am very irritated that the prosecution refers to contemporary art as “so-called art.” I would like to note that the same expression was used in the trial of the poet Brodsky. His poetry was referred to as “so-called poetry ” and the witnesses who testified against him had not read it. Just as some of those who testified against us did not witness what happened but only saw the video on the Internet.

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Misunderstanding Maidan

This post by Brian Whitmore on Radio Liberty’s The Power Vertical blog appears to be based on a misunderstanding of what the Maidan protests in Ukraine are all about. Noting the rise of right-wing nationalism among younger Russians, Whitmore draws a parallel between this phenomenon and the presence of nationalist groups among the Ukrainian protesters:

This politically active youth has no memories of — and certainly no nostalgia for — the multiethnic Soviet Union. In Russia, this manifests itself in the antimigrant slogan “Russia for Russians” as well as in opposition to what nationalists call Vladimir Putin’s “Chekist regime.” In Ukraine, it manifests itself in a yearning to be free of Moscow’s influence and meddling — which all too often veers into overt Russophobia.

Perhaps the “overt Russophobia” should rather be seen as an expression of Ukrainian lack of “nostalgia” for the Soviet Union. As Andreas Umland is quoted as pointing out in an article recently published in the Financial Times, the nationalist groups in Ukraine represent only a small minority of the protesters

and have no chance of “becoming parliamentary or taking over”, even if the protests succeed in toppling Mr Yanukovich.

By all the evidence, the Ukraine opposition is largely democratic and anti-fascist. In Russia the situation is different: there the Bolotnaya protesters are a dwindling minority, while a Putin-enabled takeover by fascist or nationalist forces remains a real possibility. The “Rusomaidan” envisaged in the Power Vertical post looks unlikely to materialize.

Why Putin Is Still In Power

In late 2011 the Russian scientist, writer and political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky gave an interview to the Institute of Modern Russia that was headed: Which Will Fall First – the Regime or Russia as a State? In the interview, Piontkovsky predicted the collapse of Vladimir Putin’s government, though refused to speculate on how long it would take – it might be a process lasting only a couple of weeks, or it might be a long-drawn-out decline spanning several years. Piontkovsky looked to the spread of people power – the kind of power that was then making itself felt throughout the Middle East in the shape of the Arab Spring. This power had the ability to overcome the rigid structures of the state:

How did it all start in North Africa? In Tunisia, a relatively prosperous country by African standards, a young man set himself on fire because he couldn’t find a job. Putin’s regime has ripened to its end. But the end will come later rather than sooner, because of the already mentioned satiated, lazy, and cowardly elite. Still, today’s macroeconomic indicators place serious time limitations. And with serious budget deficits, ruble devaluation, and double-digit inflation, social outbursts will spontaneously form in various regions. All this will push the elite to a greater sense of courage. Which will fall first – the regime or Russia as a state – will become crystal clear to everyone in about three or four years from now. 

In late 2012, Piontkovsky published an article called Why Putin Will Be Gone in 2013,  in which he predicted that Putinism would fall for the same reason that the Soviet Union fell in 1991. The USSR, he wrote, collapsed “not because of falling oil prices, not because of Gorbachev’s ‘betrayal’, and not because of Reagan’s SDI bluff which so terrified the old men in the Kremlin. When in the mid-1980s the communist myth that had created the system finally died in the hearts and minds of ordinary people as well as those of the Soviet nomenklatura, Soviet communism was strategically and psychologically doomed. As Andrei Amalrik had predicted with such genius a quarter of a century earlier.” [my tr.]

Likewise, the Putin Myth of the strong man, the “father of the nation”, protecting it from the Chechen terrorists who were supposedly blowing up peaceful citizens in their apartment blocks, had run out of steam – Russia’s techno-financial elite, Piontkovsky argued, had lost faith in this myth, and without the elite’s support the Putin system could not survive.

Of course, Putin is still there, so Piontkovsky’s prediction was incorrect – as numerous columnists and observers have not been slow to point out. In an article titled Putin or Russia, published at the very end of 2013, Piontkovsky conceded the point, but insisted that the article’s “conceptual carcass” – an outline for a theory of the death of authoritarian regimes and its practical application to contemporary Russia – was still fully backed up by the events that had taken place in Russia during the past year. As a retarding factor, he pointed to the attitude of intellectuals like Leonid Radzihovsky, who for years declared that “Putinism is shit – but it protects us from fascism”. This, Piontkovsky argues, is no different from the statement by the Silver Age Russian essayist and philosopher Mikhail Gerzhenzon, who in the aftermath of the 1905 revolution declared in the essay anthology Vekhi that  “so far from dreaming of union with the people we ought to fear the people and bless this government which, with its prisons and bayonets, still protects us from the people’s fury.”

Now Piontkovsky no longer sees hope that Russia might witness the rise of a popular democratic movement like Ukraine’s Euromaidan. Apathy reigns – and, if not yet formally in power, the fascists are very nearly there:

It was not the masses that brought Hitler to power in January 1933, but a deal he made with the elites. And now ask yourself: what do the fascists in Russia need to do in order to take power without winning free elections, but as a result of the internal  evolution of the Putin regime, of a deal made with it by – may one say it – the “elites”? Is their task easier or harder? In my opinion, much easier. In their case they don’t have to convince 50 million voters. It will be enough to convince three or four villains of the national leader’s inner circle. And they need no convincing.  [my tr.]

The Snowden Puzzle

Published at almost the same time as Edward Lucas’s ebook, Catherine A. Fitzpatrick’s full-length (200+pp) study of the Snowden case – Privacy for Thee and Not For Me: The Movement for Invincible Personal Encryption, Radical State Transparency, and the Snowden Hack – is now available on Scribd.

In her author’s preface, Fitzpatrick likens the case to a Rubik’s cube:

Turn the colorful cube one way, and it seems as if Edward, a 29-year-old systems analyst who said he became troubled by secret practices “done in our name”, was only concerned about civil rights… Turned in another direction, and it seemed that his coercive action… was in fact presenting Congress and the courts with an undemocratic fait accompli.

Although the author does not claim to provide a solution to the puzzle, her book analyses its many and various pieces in extensively sourced detail, so that others may reach a conclusion for themselves.

The Snowden Disaster

Edward Lucas’s newly published ebook The Snowden Operation: Inside the West’s Greatest Intelligence Disaster is available from Amazon as a Kindle Single. It gives a clear and concise all-round survey of the Snowden affair, setting it in the historical context of international espionage. In particular, it analyses the particular characteristics of Snowden’s disclosures, which the author says

are heavily spun and damaging to American and allied interests in a way that goes far beyond the purported goals of promoting a debate about digital security.

The Great Maidan

maidan-ukraine2

Kyiv journalist Vitaly Portnikov again, this time on Radio Liberty, writing about the Yanukovych government’s failure to understand the nature of the protest movement that is advancing against it:

The government will simply start to switch police from the east to the country’s “difficult” regions, retake the objectives that were seized, continue negotiations from a position of strength … In the end, there will be no police and Berkut left in the east of the country. And then …  And then  the capture of administrative buildings in the east will begin. The residents of the eastern and south- eastern regions have no more “love” for the government than people in the western and central ones…

People are afraid, but when the repressive machine with its batons is evacuated to disperse the people in the central regions, their fear will vanish – together with the Russian “horror stories” about the split of Ukraine. Because the dividing line in the country does not follow a line between east and west, but the line between Yanukovych/authoritarianism and the Ukrainian people. And this lack of understanding on the part of the government in Kiev is its biggest problem: the problem that led to Maidan and is gradually and naturally growing into into a Great Maidan – a Maidan that will soon cover the whole of Ukraine.