The publication of our special issue BASTA! has generated a lot of interest in Russian leftist and liberal circles. Hard on the heels of the issue’s presentation, in late February, the Russian politics web portal Polit.Ru interviewed two Chto Delat co-founders, Dmitry Vilensky and Artemy Magun. They discussed the newspaper’s history, the current conjuncture in Russia, and the differences between western and Russian leftism. Below, we present our readers with part one of a two-part interview. We hope to publish part two in the next week or so. (The original Russian text of the interview can be found here.)
“We Are Westernizers Who Struggle Against the Local Westernizers”
A Conversation with Dmitry Vilensky and Artemy Magun, Part I
Where did you get the idea of publishing a newspaper?
Dmitry Vilensky: Over the past five years, our newspaper has been more of a theoretical publication. It comes out in connection with different professional occasions—exhibitions, conferences, films. We have always set ourselves the task of intervening in the activist milieu. This is quite natural for us. We take a democratic, new left stance, and for us there is no gap between theory and practice. At the same time, we see “workplace” activism as vital, and in our case that workplace is the production of knowledge. This requires us to maintain a professional language at a certain level, a language that is fairly complicated for the broader public to understand. Our newspaper tries to find a creative synthesis of different disciplines, but first and foremost it is nevertheless an art publication since the only funding for our work comes from the art world. We could have a separate conversation about why it was the art world that gave rise to the tradition of a critical interdisciplinarianism in which philosophy, aesthetics, sociology, and political science can exist in a creative symbiosis. This is a serious issue, but I’ll just postulate that such a situation does exist. On the other hand, of course, it is also important for us to test this knowledge in practice. Not only in the practice of creating and distributing artworks, but also to see how they might interact with political activist movements, with the space of civil resistance in society.
From the outset it is worth pointing out that when we say “politics,” we don’t have in mind the simple administration of power—here is Putin, and he is engaged in politics. Of course, this is what we call “real” politics. It has an impact on our lives, on our subjectivity, on tons of things. But there is another dimension of the political. And it is this dimension of the political—as a certain utopian project of “commonality”—that we have to continue thinking albeit as a kind of horizon so that our lives develop somehow, so that humankind doesn’t lose its highest calling—to be free. This is what we try to do.
And since we have a certain resource, a completely private one (that is, we are not an NGO; we are an informal group of citizens), we have the capacity to publish a newspaper, to produce knowledge in the form of the printed page.
Artemy Magun: The newspaper really didn’t set itself political goals in the narrow sense of the word, in which politics is understood as administration, the struggle of elites. Nevertheless, we of course engaged in politics in the sense that we set ourselves the task of changing the political-ideological vector of the Russian intelligentsia.
Like the ideology of any group, the ideology of the Russian intelligentsia is quite heterogeneous, unstable. But the intelligentsia’s general form of consciousness all these years has been liberal in the sense in which liberalism designates, on the one hand, the defense of certain liberties, and, on the other, the belief that society develops according to particular laws. In the west, these laws are correctly understood and have already been put into practice; in Russia, unfortunately, this has not happened and, the liberals say that this something we have to strive towards. This led to the intelligentsia’s short-circuiting, to an uncritical cult of the west, and, consequently, to baseless optimism.
For the past five years, our politics has been directed towards developing—in a language that the intelligentsia comprehends: that is, the language of theory, a holistic vision of society; a language bound up with the history of Russian thought, with the history of the Russian intelligentsia, but a language that is also western—a new ideology, if you like, ideology in the good sense of the word. We have been trying to develop a new “platform” (this is the quite apt word that Dima suggested) that would unite very different, educated, emancipation-oriented Russians. We translate our texts into English not out of a sense of narcissism, but to make the discussion international—to draw, again, the emancipation-oriented class in Russia into a discussion with emancipation-oriented folks in the west. I don’t need to tell you that these people, these classes, now speak different languages. The ordinary democratic, open-minded western intellectual will talk to you about social welfare for the masses and democratism, while his Russian intellectual counterpart will explain that “the people are benighted” and that we finally have to learn to rely on ourselves and make money. Moreover, these two intellectuals will be identical in terms of their habitus and everyday values. To overcome this gap we publish a bilingual newspaper.
We used to be taught that the newspaper is a “collective agitator, propagandist, and organizer.” How did this play out in your case? What was the impulse?
DV: This project is based on the micropolitics of a particular community. We have known each other for a fairly long time; we are joined by personal ties, by ties of friendship. At some point we were struck by the clear sense that our professional situations were intolerable, that the general situation was unbearable. You sense potential, that you have outlets; you understand how you can develop—and at the same time you understand that in the given situation these possibilities are closed to you.
Most members of our group had experience of life in the west. We had an approximate sense of how we could achieve autonomy. So okay, certain outlets didn’t want to publish us—we would publish ourselves. We could use our own money, our own resources, to publish a newspaper that would have a greater professional and political resonance in our communities than academic and official institutional structures could. This meant, as a Marxist would say, taking over the means of production. It was clear that these possibilities were limited. Another important aspect of our newspaper project consisted in the fact that when we began, per-issue printing costs amounted to three hundred dollars. I understood full well that, as a more or less successful artist, I could pay for this out of my own pocket or we could all chip in—all the same we’d be able to put out the paper. Our negotiations with sponsors were simply laughable: “You see, we have this newspaper. We’ll print it whatever the case, but we’d be grateful if you gave us money.” But we don’t print ads as a matter of principle. When folks tried to tell us, “We’d like to support you, but we’d like to reserve a page,” we replied, “That’s not going to happen. Give us a million—we still won’t print your ad.”
Who is your readership? Is your print run—3,000 copies—based on your financial means, or is this the approximate number of your potential readership?
DV: I think that Artemy has already answered this question. The newspaper is for the enlightened public we try to work with—not by catering to its established tastes, but by provoking it to think in a way it isn’t used to. Plus, it’s no secret that we represent a rather vital (for me, of course) tradition that has been significant since the time of the Decembrists—the tradition of the class of Russians who gravitate towards enlightenment, towards emancipatory practices. We assume that this class—the intelligentsia—exists, and that it produces knowledge outside the structures of power. And we are part of the production of this very important knowledge. On the other hand, from the beginning we positioned this project as international: for us, it was quite important to do a project that wasn’t Russian or Petersburgian, but to show what was happening throughout the world. We live in a very complicated, conflicted, interesting place, but we are capable of tying it into the whole and thus making a contribution to the dialogue about the changes that have to be made to society as we see them.
I have the impression that you don’t try hard to advertise yourselves. What is the natural habitat of your “autonomy”?
DV: The newspaper is free, and it’s true that we have distribution problems. Because of our limited resources we are forced to limit ourselves to spotty, sporadic distribution. But I can say with certainty that everyone working in philosophy, sociology, and art knows our newspaper—all of them, from Samara to Chelyabinsk. They read it on the Internet, and we mail the paper to some of them. The same goes for anarchist and activist circles, academics—everybody knows us. Maybe we are less known in civil rights circles.
АM: People working in the humanities mostly know the paper. We share authors with such friendly publications as Private Stock, Moscow Art Magazine, and Blue Divan—the newspaper gets mentioned, it gets quoted, and it participates in major conferences. After the release of each new issue we try and do presentations in Petersburg and Moscow. This isn’t such a wide circle. But within our networks—and each of us has large networks of friends and colleagues—people know the newspaper. But we’ve never had any connections with the civil rights movement.
АМ: Unfortunately, but it’s clear why. Because our ideology is a bit different.
DV: “What Is to Be Done?” (Chto delat?) is simply a signpost: everyone understands right away that we’re talking about a leftist project. For a number of academics—Mikhail Ryklin, for example—the initial reaction was one of quite strong rejection: “Lefties!” And for the Memorial crowd: “That’s the Gulag!” When you try and explain that you’re talking about new leftists—not totalitarian, but democratic leftists—about rethinking ideas of democracy, about equality, quite often the conversation doesn’t gel. People hear “What Is to Be Done?” and think, “Aha, Lenin. That’s scary. He’s quoting Lenin: that’s already scary.”
That is, in the eyes of the liberal intelligentsia you are counted among the marginal groups?
АМ: I wouldn’t say that here we are talking about social marking. This reaction often came from friends and colleagues, like the philosopher Mikhail Ryklin. Here in Petersburg, as you know, the milieu is liberal, and our bohemian friends (we more or less grew out of the Petersburg bohemian crowd) have mostly remained liberals. But they think we’re doing this to make money or something of the sort.
DV: Western academia is leftist, so they think we’re making careers for ourselves in the west.
АM: That’s a popular accusation. The liberal intelligentsia doesn’t see us as a social group—they don’t accept our ideology.
They’re stuck in their old anti-communist stance; they judge the content, not the form. If you mention Marx, Lenin, communism, that means you’re for executions, terror, Stalin. “Have these leftists still not understood that every man fights only for himself, that only the market and the rule of law can unite our fatally atomized society, and that simply everyone needs to be, finally, tidy, clean, and civilized, and live, if possible, in the west?”
DV: It’s this amazing deafness. There was this funny incident not long ago. There is this French philosopher, Alain Badiou. He came to Berlin to speak at Humboldt University. It was standing room only: people were hanging from the chandeliers, it was something incredible. The philosopher Mikhail Ryklin and his wife Anna Alchuk announced to our philospher-friends Igor Chubarov and Keti Chukhrov that they wouldn’t go listen to this “Maoist” leftie on principle because it was disgusting, horrible. And so they didn’t go to Badiou’s two brilliant lectures. And this was coming from a professional Russian philosopher, moreover, probably one of our leading philosophers.
Would you say that the group has a common ideology?
АМ: There are things we have in common, and things we don’t. What we have in common is faithfulness to, roughly speaking, the socialist tradition, as it comes down to us from Marx, from Proudhon, whomever you like.
DV: A lot of people in Russia like to quote Mandelstam’s famous line: “The faithful oath to the fourth estate.” That is, Herzen and Ogarev and their famous oath on the Sparrow Hills. And however our liberal intelligentsia tries to reinterpret Mandelstam, however hard they try to make him an anti-communist, this isn’t true. We know it’s a lot more complicated. For us, to be leftist means seeing things in a deeper, more complicated way—a là Negri, the joy of being a communist even though it has all been discredited. During the latest tough arguments I’ve had with liberals, when they’ve said something about revolution, about genocide, I reply, “That’s correct. But guys, who threw the nations of Europe into WWI? Lenin? The Communist International? Who slaughtered millions of people? It was European capitalism that did this. Who left the bloody history of colonialism in the world, a debt we’ll never pay back? Leftists?”
But what about the Soviet experience? To paraphrase western leftists: it was over there in Russia that things didn’t work out; they made a mess of Marxism. But we experienced all of this in reality.
АМ: This is exactly what we try to think through. How can we rethink the leftist project taking into account that we did live in the Soviet Union, and for us, this is the real-life experience of the degenerated, distorted realization—of this project? That is exactly why we have to recuperate and rethink the project. I have written about the fact the struggle against the late Soviet Union was obviously a leftist struggle. During the first years of perestroika the term “leftists” was used in this sense. But then, in a completely erroneous and criminal way, people started calling communists and fascists “leftists,” and liberals “rightists,” although they were moderate leftists in the western classification. This shtetl terminology is still used here to this day, a terminology that no one in the west would be able to understand. This is rather problematic ideologeme that has hugely negative consequences.
Stalinism was a rightist project, as was fascism. And at the outset, both communism and fascism contained a certain leftist intention. It was greater in communism than in fascism, but it was there. But afterwards rightist leaders came to power. If you track Stalin’s career, then of course there were certain socialistic measures, but on the whole, starting in the mid-thirties, the regime becomes openly nationalistic: it represses workers and builds a bureaucratic ruling class, although it shakes this class up from time to time. Žižek holds that the terror was a “reminder of the revolution,” the memory of a birth trauma. Thus it is incorrect to say that the Soviet Union was the embodiment of leftism. Although, of course, it was the legacy of a leftist revolution that was suppressed and then persisted in some form. Perestroika was the return of this repressed leftist unconscious. The virus of the Revolution came to life and blew up the house.
DV: Artemy has this excellent theory that explains that this “virus” broke through the structure of the soviets. This is an important factor. It was the starting point of the Revolution: “All power to the soviets!” Perestroika began with this same slogan. Strictly speaking, all the Sobchaks, Boldyrevs, and all the rest began their political careers by running for elections to the soviets.
AM: Exactly. And the soviets they ran for had a fundamentally non-parliamentary structure. When they turned into parliaments, that’s when it was all over.
But none of this means that we simply evade the question. For us, it is important to make sense of the communist project as a real project that was, I repeat, not of course leftist in its administration, but contained certain leftist achievements. We write a lot about the specifics of the Soviet and post-Soviet experience, in which, as I put it, communism was realized in spite of communism. That is, in late-Soviet society a certain grassroots communism existed. But it existed precisely in the nonofficial realm—in abandoned buildings, construction sites, zones, empty streets, open landings, etc. That is, in a no man’s land that was alienated, but was communal by virtue of this. It was precisely this that the current rightist regime started attacking as soon as it came to power. That is, naturally this was in no way a direct realization of Marxist or of other western theories. But this experience—the contamination of left and right—has to be studied, and we have to base ourselves in this tradition, which for us is organic.
DV: You show your fundamental disagreement with Boris Groys when he says that even in the Stalinist period the Soviet Union remained the “kingdom of philosophy.” Groys argues that this is why the leftist project continued.
АМ: No, I don’t agree with that. Groys takes an idealist stance here. He believes that leftism is a philosophy, an ideological, ideocratic project. It’s exactly the reverse. If Marxism is a philosophy and an ideology, then from the very beginning it pointed out that philosophy and ideology had to be imploded from within and some kind of anti-philosophy had to be constructed. The irony is that, in the Soviet Union, this anti-idealist, anti-philosophical philosophy became the bastion of ideocracy. This is the rightist, authoritarian-“metaphysical” aspect of the Soviet experiment.
Did you become Marxists in the west, or were you already Marxists when you arrived there?
DV: This happened to all of us in the west, of course.
АМ: Definitely in the west. Either through personal contacts and conversations, or through the reading of texts, as was the case with Alexander Skidan, who didn’t live for a long period in the west, but traveled there often.
I had a strange “conversion.” You get to the west; you stick out like a sore thumb for a couple years. For a while you think, “Maybe they just don’t get it when they come out for social welfare, for grassroots democracy, when they criticize their rights-based government for its hypocrisy? Maybe they just don’t know that the Gulag and class-leveling are bad things?” But at the same time all the people you like are leftists; all the people you don’t like, right-wingers. You arrive from Russia with your liberal views and you feel this shock, something incomprehensible. Then you begin to understand that you’re not a Russian liberal there, but a scoundrel. You try to imagine what you look like and you get it: “Hold on a minute! What are you saying? You’re saying vicious things, this crap that society should be balanced, that each individual must achieve success for himself in open competition,” etc. That is, you’re saying the things you brought with you from post-Soviet Russia. Gradually, you understand that if there was anything good about post-Soviet Russia—and there were many good things: the striving to be free, to build one’s own state, those soviets we’ve already talked about, democracy—then these aren’t right-wing or even liberal ideas. They’re leftist ideas. That is, it was necessary to separate one thing from the other in consciousness. And we did this. And, of course, a conversion took place.
I won’t hide the fact that we’re westernizers. We take the western viewpoint of politics and culture, and we believe that, in the final analysis, Russia is also a western country. But we are westernizers who struggle against the local westernizers. The local westernizing liberals are people who, as in the nineteenth century, have never been to the west (or have been there, but didn’t get it), but they really love it. Whereas we don’t care much for the current, actually existing west as a system because we know it and relate to it as insiders, as internal critics. The idea of the west is freedom and revolution. But the current west doesn’t represent this idea.
When did this happen to you?
АМ: Gradually over the course of 1997–1998.
DV: The same thing happened to me during approximately those same years, although I’m ten years older than Artemy. Our group is made up of two generations—thirtysomethings and fortysomethings.
Do you mean to say that the specter of communism still haunts Europe?
АМ: And America.
DV: I think that here we’re dealing with a complicated case. What Artemy called “habitus” is quite important for us. When I first went to the west, I was probably a libertarian in terms of my views. I liked freedom. I had a very dim understanding of what was meant by the market, by capitalism. And my first friends and acquaintances were not simply leftists, they were quite radical leftists. On an everyday level, it was quite easy for me to find a common language with them. We argued about Cuba… Artemy, does it make any sense to mention in our conversation that I still have a whole lot of problems with western leftists?
АМ: Of course. It’s a very important point.
DV: The issue of immigration, the issue of Israel… Although there are many progressive things in the west, there also many questions on which we adopt completely different, opposite stances from those taken by western leftists. At the same time, my position isn’t non-left. It quite often intersects with certain rightist elements, but the nitty-gritty is completely different.
AM: Although we adopted leftist stances in the west, we didn’t at the same time merge with the western intelligentsia’s ideology. We developed our own. The liberal, ill-conceived, passive elements of this ideology, which positions itself as leftist, became apparent to us.
There are two Americans in our group. We’re constantly fighting tooth and nail with them because they adopt the traditional western leftist stance that we don’t agree with. On many questions it involves a radicalization of critical liberalism: Down with authoritarian power! Up with free and fair elections! Defend the individual from state violence! And so forth. The global situation is critiqued in a generalized, apocalyptic spirit (the whole world is a prison camp, etc.) This stance is closer to that of civil rights activists here, except that Russian civil rights activists can appeal to the west and idealize it, while in the west there is nowhere for their counterparts to turn.
In the west itself, the leftist intelligentsia (like the Russian intelligentsia) is usually prepared to criticize the government for all the inhumane things it does—for wars and other offenses. That’s fine, but not all that radical: it’s that old bourgeois pacifism and humanism, unwilling to reflect on its own social position. Hence the anarchism that has dominated since the USSR was discredited: you can’t force your political position on other people, you can’t form a party or develop an ideology, all protests have to be nonviolent, spontaneous, and “multitudinous.” This is tantamount to saying that other people will run society and answer for its miseries, and we’ll rely on their moderation and tolerance.
We, however, want to correct this position from our unique Russian point of view. This is a quite natural process. When you travel to the west you look at yourself from a different point of view. You alter this view a bit, and you understand your own point of view better; you understand what it means in the international context. Then you come back to Russia, or you don’t even come back. You just remember something, and you understand that that point of view is also partial. That is the role of our newspaper—that is why it’s unique. It is one of maybe two or three publications in Russia that genuinely represents the Russian view of the world, in the universal sense.
DV: For me, faithfulness to the Russian tradition means the unending struggle against slavery and against the authorities, for whom slavery is the only acceptable form of governance. Despite the unbelievable cynicism of the ruling class in Russia and its pro-western sympathies, all the same you can see clearly that for them this is all a Voltaire play as performed by serf actors. That is the maximum of their understanding of freedom and enlightenment. The most terrible and monstrous thing about this situation is what they take to be our culture: serfs build the scenery for neoliberal, bare-faced capitalism; Tajiks build the Federation Tower. And all of this is framed by our stunning poverty and the repression of the most basic forms of political activity. Amidst all this, the symbols imported from the globalized space look completely different.
How would you react to the interpretation that today we’re confronted with survivals of the Soviet past, with the legacy of communism?
АМ: No, this is a false interpretation that our newspaper fights with all its might. This is one of the ideologemes of the liberals that we don’t accept at all. You have to look at the situation structurally. It is then that you see that the regime, in its political-economic essence, resembles right-wing regimes in Latin America, the Middle East, etc., more than it does the Soviet Union. This is an oligarchic regime bound up with a particular form of monopoly capitalism. Moreover, it is on the same wave as the current rightist regimes in Europe. It’s just that they operate in pre-established civil societies and cannot allow themselves that much slack. However, in terms of cynicism and impudence, in terms of the ethos of absolutely full-bore technocracy, these people—all the Blairs and Sarkozys, and our current leaders—are clones. It’s just that the western leaders don’t have the same means at their disposal.
DV: One gets the sense that they simply envy Putin.
АМ: In this sense, the situation in Russia is an excess, a symptom of capitalism, which in the metropolitan center operates in a more balanced and harmonious way. But it is precisely the Europeans and Americans who’ve closed the center and now exploit the periphery. Hence the excesses that happen at the breakpoints. Beyond this, everything takes on a national character—we do things the way we’re used to doing them. This factor exists, but it doesn’t constitute the essence of the phenomenon.
DV: I also think that here surface is substituted for essence. It’s easy as pie, at the level of kitsch analysis, at the level of Pelevin or Sorokin, to come up with a simple recipe: oh, it’s this Russian grotesque, a return to Soviet times. But we’re dealing with something completely different! It’s a fundamentally different system of governance. It is constructed on principles completely different from the ones the Soviet Union was based on. The models of autocracy, of the suppression of public space are superficially similar, on the one hand, but the operative principle is completely different, I think.
The failing of contemporary Russian academia consists in the fact that we end up incapable of analyzing this. And there is no desire to do it. It’s a lot easier to scream, “Oh, we’re going back to the Soviet Union, Putin is Brezhnev, this is the stagnation period.” It’s not the stagnation, it’s something else completely. The analytic capacity to do the research, to understand what’s really happening to the country, to understand the structure of exploitation, governance, and corruption doesn’t exist. And there’s no will to acquire this capacity.
АМ: This position is doubly deceitful because it’s the position of someone who is always unhappy with any form of power. He lived in the Soviet Union, and he didn’t like it. Nowadays, whatever he does, the “bad guys” will outmaneuver him. Therefore the only honest stance for a member of the intelligentsia to take is to hate everyone who is on top. This means minding your business and muttering under your breath. And so it’s easy for him to say, “I warned you, didn’t I? This is the Soviet Union redux. And you though it was all over? None of it has disappeared over the last twenty years. This is it.” That’s very convenient. It justifies an apolitical or moderately moralizing stance.
In fact, the Russian intelligentsia is in many ways to blame for what is happening. Because the intelligentsia supported Yeltsin’s authoritarianism en masse. It didn’t put its money on grassroots democracy. It reconciled itself with corruption. (“A thief is dearer to me than a bloodsucker.”) Because it was terrified of the people.
What sort of Soviet Union are we talking about, when it is you who set this all up, who helped make it happen? To a great extent the intelligentsia helped legitimate the regime that now, finally, is turning against it.
Has anything about your group changed over the past five years?
DV: The dynamic of microgroups is always destructive. They get into a clinch and, as a rule, collapse. For me, as the group’s informal leader, it was very important to create a wider platform. In a microcommunity, any conflict can be dissipated by appealing to a wider circle of participants. Around two years after the workgroup appeared, we set up a platform that now includes one hundred and fifty members. This is not an experiment in direct democracy: it’s a closed platform. The factor of nontransparency is quite vital. There have been several instances when some rather dubious characters tried to subscribe, but as moderator I simply didn’t give them access. The platform is a community of experts, including such leading international scholars as Alexei Yurchak, but it also includes many students who express their interest by reading the newspaper and taking part in discussions. It’s a mailing list in which people from different parts of the world can freely express themselves. The prerequisite is a knowledge of two languages—English and Russian—because the e-mails are written in either language. Right now the platform is growing: in the last six months, people have been joining like crazy.
АМ: A politicization is underway. Whereas before, people wavered—should I join? I’ll get postings and discussions all the time. What do I need that for?—now the mood has radically shifted. Far from all of them are leftists or Marxists.
DV: It’s a very important resource. And it’s growing. How will it develop further? I think that, in a crisis situation, a breaking point might happen and this resource will really began to define new means of existing.
11 March 2008