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#19: Experience of Perestroika

Dmitry Vilensky // Introduction to “Victory over the Coup”

“The true picture of the past flits by. . .” These words by Walter Benjamin have the most direct bearing on the phenomenon of perestroika.

A choir of contemporaries is attempting to construct a comfortable image of perestroika as an irreversible movement toward capitalism. This image serves the needs of the squalid powers that be and thus legitimates the paltry existence of the choristers themselves. To interrupt the flagrantly obscene din raised by these voices, it makes sense to turn to the central question that Benjamin asks in his theses on the concept of history: who is the subject of history? For those who accept the task of continuing the struggle for emancipation, the answer to this question is unambiguous: “the struggling, oppressed class itself.” That is, the class-as-multitude that clearly realizes and rejects the existing order of things, which fetters our lives, dreams, and the dignity and strength of constituent labor. That is, all those who still remember the pride of belonging to the human struggle for freedom.

The true picture of the past flits by. . .” These words by Walter Benjamin have the most direct bearing on the phenomenon of perestroika.

A choir of contemporaries is attempting to construct a comfortable image of perestroika as an irreversible movement toward capitalism. This image serves the needs of the squalid powers that be and thus legitimates the paltry existence of the choristers themselves. To interrupt the flagrantly obscene din raised by these voices, it makes sense to turn to the central question that Benjamin asks in his theses on the concept of history: who is the subject of history? For those who accept the task of continuing the struggle for emancipation, the answer to this question is unambiguous: “the struggling, oppressed class itself.” That is, the class-as-multitude that clearly realizes and rejects the existing order of things, which fetters our lives, dreams, and the dignity and strength of constituent labor. That is, all those who still remember the pride of belonging to the human struggle for freedom.


If we make our peace with the history of the victors, this will be a betrayal of the perestroika experience. But if we are willing and ready to inherit the Soviet project, we need to rethink it as a history of the oppressed, as a battle for the actualization of all the genuine “Sovietness” that was repressed in the history of the USSR as a party-state. Without this paradoxical gesture, we stand little chance of drawing anything positive from the terrible experience of revolution defeated and popular power betrayed in the aftermaths of 1917 and 1991.

In fact, for us, the Event of perestroika gave us our first “revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed (Soviet) past,” and not for a comfortable bourgeois future. This past was foolishly squandered. It was obliterated by a party-state that proved capable of poisoning everything around it even as it lay dying, rising from the ashes under the control of former KGB officers, party apparatchiks, and young sycophants from the Komsomol, who all quickly found a common language with the capitalists of the world. In the final analysis, our fidelity can be articulated in one compact political slogan. Its appearance heralded the dawn of Soviet history. Paradoxically, it also signaled its closure in those clear, sunny days of late autumn when the death agony of the temporary perestroika soviets reached its tragic culmination. This slogan is: “All Power to the Soviets!”

That is, in order to begin to talk about perestroika, we need once again “to brush history against the grain.”

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