A pause from Russia to note that thanks to the wonderful journalist and francophile Doug Ireland, I found out that this past week marked the 100th anniversary of Jean-Paul Sartre’s birth. Ireland is right to draw attention to one of the most famous intellectuals of the 20th Century. Apparently, many people don’t read Sartre any more, seeing his Existentialism as outdated and naive. I only started reading him recently, when I used a section of his Critique of Dialectical Reason in a paper on reification in Frantz Fanon and Georg Lukacs. I remember a professor happened to see the text on my desk and commented, “People still read him?” I haven’t read much of him, though at the time I planned to. His preface to Fanon’s book is a classic essay which I think every educated person should have read, as for his Being and Nothingness (which I haven’t read). Ireland mentions this in his blog, and I also recommend Edward Said’s interesting first encounter with Sartre in 1979.
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By Sean — 2 years ago
The poet, musician and activist Kirill Medvedev is few contemporary Russian leftist voices that has had some play in English. Several of his writings have been translated: his collection of poems and essays, It’s No Good, articles and poems in N+1, an article in the Guardian on disavowing his copyrights, an essay in the New Left Review, two essays in the London Review of Books, a post on LeftEast, an essay on the Russian Reader, and a short profile in the New Yorker.
To modestly add to this corpus, the following is my translation of a short interview with Medvedev recently published in Novaya gazeta. In it he stresses the need to close the chasm between Russia’s urban intelligentsia, or creative class and the Russian working masses. Although the division between the Russian intelligentsia and the masses has deep historical roots, the current efforts to foster this split has, in many ways, served as a means for Putin to consolidate his authority in his third term. Quick to eschew the notion of a “zombified mass” and the specter of a “civil war,” Medvedev views the recent long distant truckers’ protests as well as his conversations with people throughout his travels in Russia as having the potential to bridge that gap and find a common political language.
The poet, musician, and Left activist on the truckers’ protest, Bolotnaya and the Russian revolt
Interviewed by Yan Shenkman.
Kirill Medvedev, the lead singer for Arkady Kots has been arrested many times and for many different reasons, for protests in support of the Bolotnaya prisoners to openly leftist, socialist speeches. He has also been actively involved in the truckers’ protests. He was arrested while picketing, released thanks to public pressure, and is now waiting for his trial at home. A well-known poet and translator, the winner of literary awards, and author of several books, Kirill is one of the very few who believe that the intelligentsia and the people can still come together. Moreover, that it’s necessary to do so.
Yan Shenkman: In December, shortly after your arrest, you and your band went to the Khimki truckers’ camp, performed, and fraternized with them. What do these people represent to you as a Left activist?
Kirill Medvedev: Well, for starters, they aren’t the type of workers who have nothing to lose but their chains, but are rather a radically minded middle class, although there are both individual entrepreneurs and salaried employees among them. They’ve done relatively well since the Soviet times, love their work, and do not want to lose it. They have a sufficiently high level of personal and collective self-respect. There is something emotionally similar in their reaction to the responses to the monetarization of benefits ten years ago: Why do they treat us like shit? It’s remarkable that all these drivers from different parts of the country, including Dagestan, are acting in concert. I really feel that they are generally a metaphor for a new civil and geographical unity. It’s wonderful that all sorts of people and political forces sympathize and help them. And particularly we, the Left, believe that it is necessary to link their protest with other labor protests, and explain to people that the Platon system must be abolished, that this isn’t just about truckers, and agitate for an independent trade union and help create it. This is what must be done at the given moment.
This means coming together is possible?
Can and must. The main thing is to not take cultural and stylistic differences for class conflict. The Moscow intelligentsia fears civil war, and is afraid of the notorious Uralvagonzavod. [Recall that in 2012, a group of Uralvagonzavod workers sent Putin a video offering to clear the streets of the protesters. The workers of Uralvagonzavod have since come to symbolize Putin’s “silent majority”—Sean] But a civil war between Uralvagonzavod and Café Jean-Jacques patrons is imaginary. It’s nonsense. Not long ago, by the way, Uralvagonzavod was preparing to go on strike, and strikes have been known to happen only among class conscious workers trying to defend their rights. Let’s put myth aside. The workers themselves are not good or bad, but there are those among them who beat the intelligentsia and creative class by a mile in terms self-organization. Of course, the destruction of education and healthcare, the fight against violations of the Labor Code, and for a real right to strike are boring for some and are not as interesting as the free speech and fair elections. But the [truckers’ protest] in fact unites everyone.
In fact, you, a staunch leftist, performed for protesters at Bolotnaya. And you have repeatedly stood up for those arrested on May 6th.
Well, the Left also took part in the protests and there are many leftists among the prisoners of May 6th. As a matter of fact, we need to constantly remember that all sorts of people [protested at Bolotnaya], or the propaganda about the incident will win out. The problem is that, in terms of rhetoric, the prevailing view among the protesters is that they are the only free and thinking people in Russia. There’s a division between right and wrong. The authorities skillfully took advantage of this and started a confrontation which we all suffer from up to now. The formula is simple: let’s respect each other, let’s not view each other as wretched sovoks [i.e. those with a soviet mentality] and obnoxious kreakls [i.e. those of the creative class], and everything will be fine. Most of us have common interests.
So you say a civil war is imaginary. But you know that there is senselessness and merciless in the event of revolt, and that it’s entirely possible, that they will not beat the oligarchs and government officials, but those who are hard to get along with, like you and me? The entire history of Russia speaks of it.
This likely а revolt will not remove or abolish non-participation. What sometimes seems like a wise moderation can just bring blood and chaos, and radicalism, as any sharp turn or a sudden stop, can veer you away from the abyss. Yes, evidently, some kind of spillage is already inescapable. But you need to participate because of this and to try to avoid ruthlessness and senselessness. It is to make sure that at the crucial moment those same truckers, for example, after realizing that there’s no way to escape politics, that they grab for leftist ideas, and not, say, nationalist ones. But there are no guarantees. Marx said that the first thing a victorious proletariat will do is hang him and Engels from a lamppost.
He just didn’t live to see, but it could be completely like that. . . And yet you are very different. It is completely normal for an ideological socialist to fight for workers’ rights, but [tolerate], say anti-Western rhetoric. You, an intelligent man and a translator of Charles Bukowski, are unlikely to put up with this. And it’s because there are [differences], right?
If we imagine them as a kind of zombified mass which, by definition, is anti-Western and xenophobic, then we will view them as enemies. But we would not be socialists if all of this would result in exclamations like, “Oh, look, some of them are anti-Maidan, and somebody said something xenophobic, and someone said something anti-American. That’s it, we’re not with them, they’re bad. It’s just silly. Furthermore, American culture and poetry is one thing, but to talk about American imperialism, but not forgetting Russian imperialism, is a joy to any leftist. So it’s possible to find a common language.
The Left has a bad reputation in this country. As soon as you say the word “socialist”, you get, “Well, they want everyone to live in khrushchevki again, that everything will be rationed, and that there will be the gulag.” They say you’re a soft version of Zyuganov.
The reaction you mention usually comes from liberal society. For the intelligentsia, the Soviet Union is primarily the gulag, but unfortunately, the topic of the camps which is mostly among intellectuals, is incorrect and historically inadequate, but it’s there. I’m much more concerned with how to communicate with the majority, which normally relates to the Soviet Union, and for whom the prison camp isn’t main thing in the least. I travel a lot. And lately the conversation with fellow train travelers often begins with Ukraine and Bandera, and everything flows from that. Of course, there are fanatics, but basically, if you get into real problems—one’s apartment, work, the medical clinic, and prices—it’s quite possible to find a common language. As a result, you can talk about the gulag, and the reaction is usually quite standard: they all know and acknowledge it, but we, any grandmother will say, have achieved a lot, we won the war, I felt the country needed me, and the people it. And I have no objections. She really has a much better feel for the Soviet era, it’s her personal feelings, and they’re not from television. You can’t tell people that they have lived their lives in vain, that they and their parents were all just pathetic and deluded victims. The entire history of the Soviet Union from the beginning to the end is the history of the conflict between the past with the future, the archaic and the progressive, and monstrous senseless sacrifice and the tremendous achievements. I’m sure many will call me a sovok or even a Stalinist for this opinion. And that’s the big problem. To solve it, to at least try to, both sides need to at least have contact.Post Views: 210
By Sean — 13 years ago
So I’m back from Ryazan. But before I tell about my time there, I have to report my meeting with some Russian Marxists. Russian Marxists, you say? Yes, but these aren’t your hard Communists from the Soviet era. These are some young intellectuals (mid 20s to early 30s) I met at an art show last weekend. My friend Claudia, who got her PhD from UCLA and moved to Moscow to live with her boyfriend Stas, invited me to the show. Stas was showing some photography in a show of modern artists from Moscow. I liked his photos a lot. One of the other exhibits was by this art collective called “Chto Delat?” For those who don’t know “Chto Delat” is Russian for “What is to be done?” which was also the title of a book from the 19th century Russian revolutionary writer Cherneyshevsky and also a very famous pamphlet by V. I. Lenin. The group also publishes a newspaper called What is to Done?: The Newspaper for the New Creative Platform. I was intrigued by the paper because the issue they were giving out focused on the question of the “emancipation from/of labor” and featured articles on Toni Negri and Michael Hardt. I happen to be reading Hardt and Negri’s new book, Multitude, so it was quite a coincidence to meet other like-minded people. Stas was more than happy to introduce me to them.
I never imagined finding Leftists in Russia. At least, not the leftists of this type. Most “leftist” are anarchists. Russian Communists tend to be Russian nationalists. Communism has a totally different meaning here than in the US. I doubt many American communists would find themselves in good company with their Russian brethren. The folks I met, however, were very interested in Western Marxism, as well as Hardt and Negri’s book Empire. One of them, Aleksei, happened to have a copy of Multitude with him. I chatted with Aleksei and another member of the collective, Nik, for a few minutes, parting with plans to meet on Sunday and talk over coffee.
On Sunday, I met Aleksei at the art show and after waiting for him for about an hour (he was busy running around talking to various people about their exhibition and newspaper), he, Lida, Natasha (to female members of the Chto Delat collective), and I went to this great caf? near the Kuznetsky Most metro station. I can’t remember the name of the place, but you had to buzz the door to get in. I guess the doormen wanted to make sure you were ‘cool’ enough. Aleksei explained that this was a place were a lot of Moscow’s young “intellectuals” hang out. I personally think the door thing was all for show and they didn’t really care who came. At any rate, the place was pretty interesting, complete with book shelves and a jazz band. Very Euro-bohemian. We sat in a fog of cigarette smoke, had some drinks and talked about our common political and philosophical interests. Natasha, Lida, and Aleksei ate what is called “zakuski,” which are appetizers you eat while drinking. Usually “zakuski” consists of marinated herring and vegetables. Lida, Natasha and Aleksei also drank this interesting vodka that I swear was infused with dill. I tried it, but wasn’t too impressed. I was hungry so I ordered a full meal of pork cutlets and potatoes and a beer.
We talked about some philosophical writers we liked like Slavoj Zizek, Fredric Jameson, Hardt and Negri, Adorno, Foucault, Marx, etc. Aleksei was very interested in they state of the academic left in the US. How much influenced they had. What is their relationship to the left in general. Natasha was from St. Petersburg and was in Moscow for the art show. She also had an exhibit of art clothing. She was part of the Petersburg portion of the collective. Lida, who I think was just along for the ride, was a psychologist. They all seemed to be interested in my research of the Komsomol. (When I tell young people that I am researching the Komsomol, they seem really interested especially since I’m looking at its first years. Older people, ie those who were in the Komsomol in the 1970s and 1980s simply ask me, “Why?” but then they proudly pull out their Komsomol or Communist party cards to show me. Old people, those in their 60s to 80s, think it is just the greatest idea in the world. As long as I tell the real story of the Komsomol, that is as the archivist in Ryazan said, the positive history.) The conversation with Aleksei, Natasha and Lida was mixture of Russian and English. It is real difficult for me to talk about such subjects in Russian.
It was a fun evening and it is nice to have some Russian friends. I told Aleksei that I was interested in writing an article for Chto Delat during my stay in Russia. He liked the idea and suggested I write something about Hardt and Negri’s new book.
Next, going to Ryazan . . .Post Views: 123