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#19: Experience of Perestroika

Dmitry Vilensky // What’s Next after Next? Commentary to a film/discussion

A conversation about Next Stop Soviet; political naïveté; what it means to experience defeat; exhaustion and humanism; who changes the world; vanity and visionaries; how to keep your ear to the ground; and the challenges that each generation faces.

Next Stop Soviet was a Scandinavian initiative that organized the visits of thousands of young Scandinavians to the Soviet Union in 1988. The idea was to continue breaking the isolation of the USSR through manifold human and cultural exchanges. The outcome was that five thousand Danes went to the USSR through more than one hundred different projects. The Danes lived in private homes with young people with the same interests or occupations as their guests. Among the hosts was Dmitry Vilensky, a member of Chto Delat? It was his first contact with foreigners.

A conversation about Next Stop Soviet; political naïveté; what it means to experience defeat; exhaustion and humanism; who changes the world; vanity and visionaries; how to keep your ear to the ground; and the challenges that each generation faces.

Next Stop Soviet was a Scandinavian initiative that organized the visits of thousands of young Scandinavians to the Soviet Union in 1988. The idea was to continue breaking the isolation of the USSR through manifold human and cultural exchanges. The outcome was that five thousand Danes went to the USSR through more than one hundred different projects. The Danes lived in private homes with young people with the same interests or occupations as their guests. Among the hosts was Dmitry Vilensky, a member of Chto Delat? It was his first contact with foreigners.

Ungdomshuset (“Youth House”) was the popular name of the building formally named Folkets Hus (“House of the People”), located on Jagtvej 69 in Copenhagen. It functioned as an underground scene venue for music and a meeting point for various leftist groups from 1982 until 2007, when it was torn down. Due to the ongoing conflict between the municipal government of Copenhagen and the activists occupying the premises, the building has been the subject of intense media attention and public debate since the mid-nineties.
What is the task of this film? That’s a good question, the right question. Cinema has long faced the task of how to film a political seminar. The task has been solved in different ways: the famous discussion scene in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point or the lecture scene in Godard’s La Chinoise established a certain approach to filming such things.

It is obvious that during editing the words of a discussion’s participants are always distorted by the director. For what we see, finally, is the director’s take: he marks what he finds essential and what should remain off screen. A filmed discussion is, first and foremost, what we see on screen. Sound here is subordinated to facial expressions, poses, and the way the bodies of the speakers are arranged in the filmed space.

The idea of the film was to gather around table two generations of Danish activists-the legendary but now-forgotten Next Stop Soviet and the young artists who participated in my seminar “Art and History,” most of whom also participated actively in the life of the Ungdomshuset. The discussion took place in a specially constructed environment of movable screens on which we had placed iconic images linked to the perestroika era and images symbolizing the struggles of the Ungdomshuset.

Why did I find it important to engineer the semantic collision of these two periods? There were a lot of personal motives. Objectively speaking, however, these are the two major instances of international youth mobilization initiated by Danes. That is, it was necessary to exchange the political experience acquired during such different periods.

I start with two parallel premises. First, there is my personal experience of involvement in perestroika, which to a great extent formed me politically; this experience includes my involvement with Next Stop Soviet. Second, there are my observations of the current conjuncture in Russia. In 2006, the composition of protest forces began to be quite reminiscent of the situation during the early phase of perestroika. That is, I had the sense that time had gone into reverse. Whereas Soviet society moved in the direction of strengthening civil liberties during perestroika, today the situation is evolving in the opposite direction. The suppression of all forms of opposition has as it were sent society back to the beginning of perestroika, when certain things had become possible, but the state’s repressive apparatuses still totally controlled the situation. The difference is obvious, however. Perestroika happened at a rare moment in history when the ruling classes didn’t want to go on with business as usual, but the grassroots were unable to formulate their own common vision of a better society. It was this paradoxical conjuncture that led to the collapse of society, which was then once again reborn as a single-party authoritarian state. The time had thus come to recall the dramatic experience of perestroika.

The case of the Ungdomshuset is somewhat different. It happened in a different period, but this period bears a certain resemblance to perestroika. I primarily have in mind a situation when any interests that don’t fit into the economization of life are sacrificed to profit and imaginary security.

The dramatic defense and demolition of the house in 2006, and the subsequent historical street battles with the police, numerous unlawful arrests of participants, and attempts to find a new house, which mobilized a large number of young people in Denmark and Europe, came to symbolize the continuing struggle for another world, the defense of people’s right not to submit to the total control of biopolitical power. But it turned out that this mobilization had a lot of weak points. It proved unable to exit the narrow framework of identity politics and find a way to appeal to the whole society or to all oppressed groups. I hoped that turning the spotlight on the history of political movements would help us get our heads around today’s problems.

How did the discussion go? I don’t think it gelled. It was probably my fault that the students were passive. Perhaps I as the moderator wasn’t able to ask questions that resonated with them, and I dominated the discussion too much. Maybe it was something else. Plus, the fact that we were making a film probably began to intervene in the discussion, and the cameras undermined the unmediated exchange of opinions. Although I had hoped that the cameras would discipline the discussion, in the good sense of the word.

I think that the work could catalyze further discussion. Certain things were revealed. Also, as an artist I was interested in the formal experiment-how to construct the discussion space, to choreograph the visual aspect of a changing symbolic landscape.

Then what is the point of showing this work?The artist’s task is to mark out the situation of the discussion rather than represent the discussion itself. We had the experience of contact, of conversation. But this experience is not expressible visually, and that has to be admitted honestly.

Would it have been possible to do things differently?
I think so. It was worth trying to do the film collectively, although such attempts invariably fail. As an alternative, each of the participants should ideally have made his own film. Strange as it might seem, Next Stop Soviet was concerned with producing this sort of polyphonic documentation: the variety of the work being done by most of the groups and the very process of interaction and immersion in Soviet reality were recorded in films. But the drama of Next Stop Soviet was such that as soon as these films were finished, they immediately became of no use to anyone. The question for me was, what will happen to the Ungdomshuset’s archives? Why is it that we talk so much about the knowledge accumulated by movements when at the same time this knowledge always proves to be inaccessible, displaced from collective memory?

What can we take from history? It was important for me to compare the two periods. To understand the logic of mobilization. To understand what it means to suffer defeat. Later on during the discussion one of the participants said in a fit of anger, “We lost everything.” And the room went silent.

I was amazed by the indifference of Danes to history. The symbols of the revolutionary part—the declaration of International Women’s Day (March 8), which took place at the Ungdomshuset, Lenin’s visit—seemingly have no role at all in the present. The discontinuity of historical experience is obvious, and I think this weakens the movements.

Leftist consciousness is always dramatic. It is built on an analysis of the experience of cruel and often bloody defeats. We learn through the experience of loss. Even history’s seemingly most vivid moments—the Paris Commune, 1917, 1991, and such smaller episodes of struggle as Next Stop Soviet or the Ungdomshuset—are simultaneously defeats. But if humanity can continue to make sense of them, the experience of these defeats proves to be more important than the senselessness of capital’s victories. It is through these defeats that we can genuinely question ourselves and society at large. Each   defeat that we have comprehended turns into a pure potentiality that works to create a new historical breakthrough. This is the only way that history is made.
In essence, the only question that remains is this: are people willing to imagine that they make their own history?

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