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#19: Experience of Perestroika

Dmitry Golynko-Volfson // Between Two Perestroikas

The two decades that separate perestroika from the present have practically not produced a coherent, articulated interpretation of the era’s reforms. The attitude of popular consciousness (both enlightened and obscurantist) to this contradictory period is most often suspicious, sometimes to the point of cynical indifference. This attitude probably stems from the emotional hangover that set in after the historical loss that perestroika is (mistakenly) portrayed as in the cultural mythology, rather than being the outcome of a rational effort to understand its causes and effects. In a word, perestroika has not yet been vouchsafed either an exhaustive or a plausible reading. It has seemingly been “suspended” in an interpretive vacuum as if its case were closed or not amenable to comfortable discussion. A subtle critical-historical analysis of perestroika serves no one, for none of the ruling elites, current and former, has taken responsibility for the severe shock of perestroika—neither its communist organizers nor the liberal reformers nor Putin’s neoconservatives. In order to somehow compensate the historical illegibility of perestroika, Russian society has become accustomed to seeing it as a traumatic “zone of oblivion” that separates Soviet totalitarianism from post-Soviet neo-capitalism. The status of a scorched no man’s land foisted on perestroika has paralyzed the new generation from justly reproaching the preceding, perestroika generation for its flagrant historical irresponsibility.

The two decades that separate perestroika from the present have practically not produced a coherent, articulated interpretation of the era’s reforms. The attitude of popular consciousness (both enlightened and obscurantist) to this contradictory period is most often suspicious, sometimes to the point of cynical indifference. This attitude probably stems from the emotional hangover that set in after the historical loss that perestroika is (mistakenly) portrayed as in the cultural mythology, rather than being the outcome of a rational effort to understand its causes and effects. In a word, perestroika has not yet been vouchsafed either an exhaustive or a plausible reading. It has seemingly been “suspended” in an interpretive vacuum as if its case were closed or not amenable to comfortable discussion. A subtle critical-historical analysis of perestroika serves no one, for none of the ruling elites, current and former, has taken responsibility for the severe shock of perestroika—neither its communist organizers nor the liberal reformers nor Putin’s neoconservatives. In order to somehow compensate the historical illegibility of perestroika, Russian society has become accustomed to seeing it as a traumatic “zone of oblivion” that separates Soviet totalitarianism from post-Soviet neo-capitalism. The status of a scorched no man’s land foisted on perestroika has paralyzed the new generation from justly reproaching the preceding, perestroika generation for its flagrant historical irresponsibility.

Firmly implanted in the Russian social psychology, the mythological construct represents perestroika as an insurmountable rupture between Soviet and post-Soviet, between the authoritarian Soviet regime with its Communist Party ideological diktat and the elected representative democracy of the nineties with its cult of free market relations (which, in turn, was succeeded by Putinism’s “managed,” “sovereign” democracy with its triumphal natural resources economy). It is striking that today’s parties and political groupings trace their genesis to the imperial idea of national greatness or to Soviet paternalism, while no one appeals to the perestroika principles of societal renewal or to the project of building “socialism with a human face.” Of course, this equating of perestroika to a pause in time whose meaning has still not been articulated and whose fading attributes come more and more to stand in for its absent content is also a therapeutic attempt to shrug off the unsolved problems posed and brought into sharp relief by this pivotal period.

This stubborn eschewal of the preconditions and outcomes of perestroika is absolutely unacceptable for contemporary intellectuals, who are not inclined to deconstruct history, but to search within it for what Alain Badiou calls “truth procedures.” Today, the period that directly preceded perestroika—the “long Soviet seventies” (1968–1984)—has become an object of sustained critical and academic attention (as well as a number of paradoxical interpretations). Characterized by the sense that time had slowed down or come to a standstill (hence the mythology of “stagnation”) and the tendency to “freeze” history, this period contained (albeit latently) enormous reserves of social unrest and transformation, which were only partly tapped by perestroika. In the past two years, a series of programmatic books and articles has appeared (for example, in Neprikosnovennyi Zapas) that debunk the notion that the seventies were the final stage of Soviet statehood. Thus, perestroika turns out to have been not the stark frontier between two mutually exclusive sociopolitical formations, but the logical continuation of the Party bureaucracy’s expansionist policy of social stratification and the creation of huge monopolies. As a chain reaction to the “sticky economy of decision-making” and the involuntary institution of the deficit (Alexander Shubin), as well as to the “dead-end quality of intelligentsia discussions” (Boris Kagarlitsky), perestroika (as Alexei Yurchak correctly notes) issued into a wholly unexpected and simultaneously long-awaited political revolution. The most pejorative reading of perestroika as a “blind spot of indiscernibility” will seem a romantic idealization if we venture the following hypothesis. Namely, that perestroika was (at least in part) a deliberate, planned operation carried out by the bureaucratic corporation in order to redistribute property. Of course, a multitude of catastrophic mistakes was made during the course of the operation.

From this viewpoint it is possible to speak of the “short” perestroika that took place from Gorbachev’s ascension to power in 1985 to the Belavezha Accords that brought about the collapse of the USSR in 1991. This perestroika abolished the Soviet principles of popular sovereignty, ethnic and class equality, and collective ownership of the means of production. The “long” perestroika might be said to have begun with the rise of Solidarity in Poland, in 1981, and to have ended in 1999. This perestroika involved the consolidation and then the gradual dissolution of the bourgeois-oligarchic administrative method propagandized by the right-wing liberals. All these dates and periodizations are quite provisional: during perestroika, so many macro- and micro-level impulses and motivations were in play that this led to an apogee of political dissensus. An even more tangled and unstudied question is: Who were the agents of this massive bureaucratic redistribution? Did they always go on to legalize themselves in the role of major entrepreneurs, or did they remain anonymous and undercover in the role of powerful éminences grises? All of this is fertile, endless material for a solid historical study that takes into account the fact that, during perestroika, Soviet subjectivity did not undergo a crisis, but on the contrary was given wide scope to realizing itself in the business world.

There is one more myth concerning perestroika that needs to be re-examined: the conviction that it brought about a psychotic split in Russian consciousness that was accompanied by a depressive lack of faith in the future and a hysterical fear of the unending series of changes. This clinical diagnosis is, in fact, accurate, but it applies to a much later period, the mid-nineties (when it was successfully captured by Oleg Kulik and Alexander Brener, during Moscow actionism’s heyday). Subsequently, the ecstatics of mass psychosis was retrospectively transferred to the perestroika period. The time itself (which was, rather, a time out of time) was abundant with the magical, carnivalesque activeness of the masses: the well-rehearsed elements of the Soviet “society of the spectacle” were unexpectedly supplemented by examples of spontaneous, free consolidation around common interests and ideological views.

One of the readings of the perestroika, then, is that it was an organic phase in a bureaucratic-corporate velvet revolution. It is curious that Boris Groys compares perestroika with May 1968. The parallels, undoubtedly, are many, and they are fairly obvious. However, according to Slavoj Žižek, who quotes the well-known graffiti that appeared on the walls of Paris in 1968, “Structures don’t walk in the streets,” and its interpretation by Lacan, structures did indeed walk in the streets during the May revolution. On the contrary, during perestroika, the structures moved from sparsely furnished offices to more comfortable digs. This understanding of perestroika forces us to consider the revisionist thesis that the rapid flowering of so-called new, avant-garde, and experimental culture in the late eighties happened not so much because of perestroika as despite it, with its direct or oblique connivance. Perestroika itself did not stimulate the search for new artistic and theoretical idioms, the publication of intellectual journals, the founding of free universities and other convivial self-education projects, and the squatting of buildings by artist communes. This outpouring was provoked exclusively by the system’s heightened state of entropy, and thus almost none of the perestroika-era initiatives outlived the nineties. In my view, one of the most painful, irreparable consequences of perestroika is the fact that, in the following decades, Russia has been unable to produce progressive and responsible institutions for the literate, competent development of the interface between artistic practice and the public sphere. In the nineties, their place was occupied by western grant-making foundations, and in the following decade it has been subsidized by local patrons, which makes art directly dependent on the whims of big capital.

Today, however, there is the paradoxical sense that perestroika wasn’t finished: although it suffered a symbolic defeat, it still has not exhausted its renovatory potential. This sense is strengthened by the fact that, during the eighties, perestroika seemed a half-baked or even spurious, inauthentic incident, and thus the authentic breakthrough event had been postponed until a more favorable conjuncture occurred. (Are we today closer to this moment than ever before?) Alexei Balabanov articulates this sense in a pitiless, nearly physiological manner in his misanthropic film Cargo 200. The eve of perestroika, the year 1984 (when the events of the film unfold), is allegorized as the culmination of today’s bureaucratic police state. The current agenda—the inhuman biopolitical dictate of law and order, which threatens to collapse into irrational bestiality—can be overcome only by a new, purgative perestroika.

As a counterweight to the grand bureaucratic manipulation we witnessed in the eighties, today it makes sense to speak of a “real” perestroika (in the Lacanian sense of the word) that has not yet happened, that has been temporarily postponed and slated for the future. The arch-task of this perestroika has nothing to do with the redivision of power and property, but is concerned with the renewal and purification of what Badiou calls the “communist hypothesis”—that is, the return of the utopian ideals of popular sovereignty and solidarity that were implicitly programmed into Soviet democratism. Our conversation about perestroika or our use of the terms of perestroika requires a maximum of self-critical seriousness and the unambiguous rejection of easy, ironic devices for revising the Soviet past—for example, the glam comics play with the aesthetics of socialist realism practiced by AES+F, or the burlesque gags mastered by the Blue Noses Group.

The real perestroika represents an unavoidable ethical challenge that presumes (borrowing again from Badiou) a fanatical faithfulness to the Event and thus an emotional commitment to and activist involvement with it. The experience of the real perestroika is the experience (albeit metaphorical) of abiding within its historical duration, which makes it possible to radically delimit the positive components of the Soviet legacy from the negative effects of the (post)perestroika-era redistribution of power. In any case, today’s intellectuals and artists are faced with an ethical choice. Which side are they on? That of the bureaucratic velvet revolution, which has brought about the hegemony of authoritarian capitalism? Or that of the real perestroika, the perennial possibility of renewal that looks simultaneously to the past, to the future, and to our present?

Dmitry Golynko (born 1969), lives in St. Petersburg. He is a poet and researcher who specialises in contemporary culture and media. Works at the Russian Institute of Art History in Petersburg

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