Dmitry Vilensky: In our previous dialogue we touched on the question of being faithful[1]to the phenomenon of Perestroika. But today in Russia, the range of possibilities for action which goes against the policies of the government is increasingly shrinking, which inevitably leads to the question – which also arose during Perestroika – of how dependent the masses who demand change are on the strategy of those in power. With all of our sympathy for grassroots activism in the Perestroika period, it’s impossible to consider it separately from decisions made by the Politburo. At a certain moment the leaders’ agenda clearly were ahead of the national mood. How should we see this dialectic of opposition? I ask this question because now, on the one hand, there is a real danger of sliding into the dead-end Soviet situation of the “chill” after the Thaw of the early 1960s. On the other hand, it’s possible that we’ll pass through a new experience of mass mobilization against the discredited authorities, who, as is now obvious, after the pre-election hysteria, no longer fulfill the hopes not only of the active and educated part of the population, but of the people as a whole. The latter have not yet been able to articulate their discontent, but beneath the surface are already questioning the situation in Russia. That was the dialectic between leaders and masses in the Perestroika era, too. It is by nature a very Russian kind of dialectic and, it seems to me, one in need of detailed analysis.

Artem Magun: You’re right, some time before 1988 Gorbachev controlled the situation and radicalized it. But starting with the Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989, we have the reverse dynamic: Gorbachev follows the will of the larger society, even to the point of changing Article 6, but at a certain point he sees the threat of collapse facing the Soviet Union and at this point his agenda changes dramatically. Starting from the end of 1990, a conservative reversal takes place; he forms an alliance with the right wing of the Politburo, appoints Pavlov prime minister, approves the army’s entry into Vilnius and makes a series of decisions which, on the one hand, discredit him, and on the other hand, prepare the way for the August putsch of 1991. During this period the initiative is taken by society, already roused to action by Gorbachev. That is to say that, in fact, the revolution from above led to the revolution from below.

Aleksandr Skidan: We shouldn’t forget about the speed with which these events occurred. In 1986 Gorbachev, under pressure from Reagan, who was threatening to develop a missile defense system in space, brought Sakharov out of exile. Dissidents began to be released from prisons and mental hospitals, which created a completely new situation: this provided the preconditions for a different type of social mobilization. In something like a chain reaction, different kinds of grassroots organizations and movements began to appear which, perhaps, although they didn’t put forward political demands immediately, turned out to be the seeds of that civil society which transformed the country in the end. Corresponding to this, the balance of power inside the Politburo kept changing depending on pressure from the West, and what concessions had to be made, and at the same time, on processes in society. And those processes were moving fast. I remember that as late as 1986 nobody believed there was any substance to glasnost or perestroika. They thought they were just the latest in a series of short-lived campaigns. But already the following year it was impossible not to notice the changes. “Novyi Mir” printed Brodsky. “Ogonek” exposed Stalinist repressions every other day. It wasn’t long before universal human values would be declared to be higher than those of class, and communist ideology to be totalitarian and criminal. The Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989 was the culmination of this process and at the same time a point of no return—in terms of the discrediting of socialism, and also in terms of the national elites’ path to independence. The “nationalities question” turned out to be impossible for Gorbachev to solve. The Baltic republics demanded secession, and in Fergana and Baku ethnic confrontations and pogroms started. The Union was crumbling. And most importantly, the lines of division along national boundaries failed to coincide with the distribution of class forces in cities, where the pro-Western liberal intelligentsia, which took a guiding role in the process of emancipation, had at the same time a nationalistic orientation and was conservative in this respect…

A.M.: But after all, an analogous process took place within the Russian Federation (or RSFSR, as it was called during the Soviet times)! The liberal intelligentsia took resolutely pro-capitalist positions, and contrasted the Soviet system with a “natural” order of things: aspirations to luxury, women’s tendency to value home and comfort, etc. In other words, both in the national republics and in the centre of the Soviet Union the emancipatory form came up against rightist, conservative content.

A.S.: But back then these ideas were perceived as progressive. That was the paradox of the moment. Beneath the calls for democracy and freedom, class interests were hidden. The intelligentsia wanted to become men and women of property, even if only of the petty bourgeois kind. Journalists dreamed of becoming shareholders in the newspaper or TV channel that they worked for, teachers of having their own house and car. All in all, to live the way they imagined the Western middle class lived.

A.M.: Yes, that is the traditional concept of Perestroika: the conversion of privilege into money. That is, the higher bureaucracy and elite intelligentsia enjoyed power and symbolic capital, but they weren’t satisfied with not having and not being able to freely demand stability where their property was concerned, since state-owned dachas are something the state can take away from you. That’s why the upheaval that took place was completely, in this sense, rational: they actually were given stability in relation to their property, and that property was multiplied many times over. Political scientists are correct in saying that Perestroika was the rise of the bureaucracy’s second echelon. The first echelon – or layer – left or was deposed, but the second , armed with liberal rhetoric, took over all positions of leadership in the society. That’s not the whole story, of course, but it’s the objectively determined part.

For the intelligentsia, however, this was a miscalculation: their high status was conditional upon the ideocratic character of Soviet society, and was doomed to disappear as a result of the capitalist privatization and pluralization of the cultural sphere. The houses and cars of Western teachers, it should be noted, are a product of the social character of Western governments, or at least of their heightened sense of social responsibility, and the feeling of “guilt” felt by business executives in face of society. How these social elements were to be emulated in a situation of total privatization – that was something very few people thought about at the time.

D.V.: Incidentally, I’ve been concerned for some time about the second, successful category of the bureaucracy. How did these people from privileged Soviet families, accustomed to comfort, relieved of army duty, etc… how did they come to feel such criminal despair and reach the point of crying, “We will make money at any price!”? How do we explain that psychologically?

A.M.: That cynicism, in my view, comes from the complete disintegration of Communist ideology. There was a vacuum, out of which this despair arose. Yes, these people had no experience of military combat, but in their moral and social formation they were prepared for crisis and catastrophe. Because they reasoned that everyone around them was lying, that any ideology is by definition a lie, and serves the interests of power. Each person must survive as he can. That is the conclusion that these people drew from the derailment of socialist ideology. It was not, of course, the only possible conclusion to be drawn. It was possible to draw another conclusion: yes, the ideology collapsed, so there’s a need to return to some kind of inner moral awareness. But the choice in favour of cynicism was simpler and clearer.

A.S.: We’re talking as if this disintegration had just begun with Perestroika. Yet, already in the 1970s, Komsomol members and Party workers were operating on purely careerist motives. Already then, nobody particularly believed in socialist ideals. It’s not surprising that these same conformists – and conformists of the next conscription – used the break which Perestroika offered for strictly career-oriented ends.

D.V.: Well, OK, but what happened in academia? Why, in contrast to the other countries of the former socialist bloc – where many of the people who came to power were former dissidents – did no institutional changes take place here in Russia? Where did the generation of the Conceptualists go? They were practically forced to leave the country. Not because they were greedy or self-interested, but simply because none of them were offered positions – say, of taking up academic posts or running museums… At the same time, as far as I recall, they themselves were not ready to fight serious battles or put forward demands. Perestroika led to a full break with the tradition of underground Soviet art, yet while the new boom in Perestroika art grew, it was not in any real way reflectedin the institutional situation…

A.M.: Well, the same thing happened in culture, as happened throughout the country. In contrast with Eastern Europe, there was no revolution of the cadres. We weren’t able to change the management of large enterprises (the “Red directors”, by and large, became the owners). Gaidar and Chubais decided to trade ownership for power, a major compromise. In order to avoid civil war, to avoid the collapse of the system, they systematically bet an alliance with the nomenklatura. This was the way it was done in the economy, and it was done the same way in academia. To some degree, the reason for this was the rather too scant infusion of Western funds for a country the size of Russia. The Marshall Plan for modernizing Western Europe cost the USA several times more.

A.S.: Here I would disagree with you. The money of Western foundations played a negative role in the 1990s. It helped buffer the economic crisis, which could have led to some deeper transformations, and at the same time helped crystallize the new elite, which got along just fine and couldn’t be bothered to think about how to revolutionize state institutions…

D.V.: So it seems, that against the background of a powerful mobilization in society there was a complete paralysis of professional structures. This stands in contrast to the mobilization in France in 1968, when leftists seized the centres of intellectual production, such as university departments, etc. Isn’t that the source of today’s crisis? If the wave of Perestroika had led to a radical transformation of institutions of higher learning in our country, the system would have had to reckon with that. This makes me doubt the authenticity of the mobilization and leads back to the question, with which we began: what, exactly, are we supposed to be faithful to here?

A.S.: For me the experience of Perestroika is a contradictory, paradoxical one. Both my grandfathers were victims of repressions, one in 1941 (for bearing the surname Shtoltz) and the other in 1952, Aleksandr Markuse, whom I was named after, and who helped suppress the Kronstadt rebellion, was one of the founders of the Academy of the Red Professors, and who taught Marxism-Leninism. I only discovered the peripeteia of my family’s history during Perestroika, when my family started to talk openly about these things; until then they could only drop vague hints. But the vague hints were enough to make me quietly anti-Soviet. And Perestroika gave those feelings a charge: I went to protests in front of Kazan Cathedral, read the poetry and literature of the White йmigrйs,and myself wrote about the Constituent Assembly dispersed by the Bolsheviks.[2]

So where is the paradox for me? In the fact that, in August 1991, distributing flyers calling against submitting to the GKChP[3] and spending three days and nights on the barricades at the Mariinsky palace, I experienced an incredible feeling of solidarity and revolutionary exhilaration. It was a unique experience of collective resistance, when a crowd is transformed before your very eyes into a people. The horror lies in the fact that this revolutionary brotherhood and truly democratic, public exhilaration led to the restoration of capitalism. That is where the, to say the least, ambivalent attitude to Perestroika in leftist circles comes from. And to those who weren’t there and didn’t experience that exhilaration, Perestroika is unambiguously perceived as a counter-revolution.

A.M.: Yes, but one can ask, does it ever happen any other way? Is there ever a revolution which doesn’t go through a tragic turnaround? And in that case, what is the world-historical significance of Perestroika? And in that sense, what kind of period are we going through now, what possibilities for revolution, for mobilization are there in the present day, considering that they also will end up being tragic and contradictory, just like then?

D.V.: Conducting research with members of the “Next Stop Soviet” movement from Denmark – this was the first mass assault of its kind, arriving in the Perestroika-era Soviet Union in 1988 – I understood that for them Perestroika didn’t just mean the end of the Cold War, it was a new burst of hope for the Left.[4] More than that, many in the West perceived Perestroika as the last hope of European Communism. Only later was it surprisingly quickly co-opted by the forces of capital, which succeeded in “tempting” people with an image of a new, Utopian capitalism: the throwing off of all class antagonisms, the end of history, the opening up of borders and other ideological nonsense. The most surprising thing is that the majority of people who lost the most as a result of these processes, welcomed them. The failure of Perestroika for a long time seemed the failure of the Left as a whole. Catherine David, in her well-known essay for the “Documenta X” catalogue, quite rightly blames the Soviet and Eastern European intelligentsia for this defeat.

A.M.: The hidden catastrophe, as Badiou says. But he doesn’t appreciate the entire contradictoriness of Perestroika. In the 1990s, Russian society still preserved its dynamism, it was post-revolutionary. A lot of things were happening for the first time, a lot was changing, and this gave rise to a strange feeling of euphoria. So it’s no accident that we’re now sitting in this kitchen, although all three of us have wonderful opportunities to leave. Because we are holding out for this experience. It hardly has to do with patriotism – it’s rather about the fact that this particular type of society, post-Perestroika – is, basically, lovable. It’s another matter that society is now, of course, changing, and not for the better. In the 1990s it seemed that the blast of negativity, libertinism and anarchy, even though it wasn’t really pouring into civic activism, would somehow nonetheless keep society immune to an authoritarian “intra-structure”. Now it’s obvious that anarchy is a bad foundation for resistance. Hedonistic individualists who don’t believe in anything are ready to cautiously make their peace with any kind of authoritarian reality, because they are already sure that any authority is evil. And from this mentality, meanness and cowardice grow.

A.S.: I still harbour hopes for a dialectic of conservatism and revolution: precisely due to the fact that institutions and administrative mechanisms were not only not reformed, but are rooted in the days of the old regime, and even deeper, in the “feeding” system. Our society is pregnant with new upheavals. Everything is stirred up – minds, language – the situation is blurred. And if we try to sum it up, I would say that Perestroika teaches us an unbelievable historical dynamism. A dynamism in which, in one year, everything can begin to change places.

A.M.: It’s understood that for our generation the constitutive “event” was precisely Perestroika and what followed upon it. Our generation saw Perestroika as a chance, an opening, and at the same time, as the realization and actualization of long-cherished hopes. And those are just the two aspects of the event – the impulse from the past and the flight to the future. What is an event after all? It opens up infinity, infinite possibilities, infinite power. And the paradox lies in the fact that the power is infinite, but infinite for a day, for a year. And afterward this infinity is gone, and we say: “How is that possible, that was infinity! How could it end?” We all know this experience from our creative work, when it seems that we can turn mountains upside-down; but the limit of what is physically possible always closes in on us.

According to Badiou an event is closed when you betray it. To the extent that we – and not only we – remember this event and keep faith with it. Not in the sense that we should worship it, but in the sense that, in our everyday life we keep going back to the possibilities and discoveries of the event. In this sense, it seems to me, the event of Perestroika has not ended, it ended as a mass public phenomenon, because it doesn’t fit the structures of mass culture or civil society – but it didn’t close for our generation.

D.V.: If we want and are ready to follow up on the event that was Perestroika, then we have to rethink it as a story of convictions, as a struggle for the actualization of Soviet potential, repressed in Soviet history. Without this paradoxical gesture, we can hardly draw anything from this frightening experience of the failure of revolution and popular power.

A.M.: We now keep faith with two emancipatory epochs – the revolutions of 1917 and Perestroika. And we must draw lessons from both. In the first, the authoritarianism of the Party led to its isolation from society and brutal repression, motivated by ideology and the technocratic authority of experts. In the second, the reluctance of workers and the intelligentsia to join with the authorities, their assumption of the indubitable corruption of institutions of any kind, led to the accession of cynics and bandits.

The next revolution (and it is inevitable) demands insistence on the Utopian image of another possible world, as well as the construction of institutions, and the involvement of broad masses in their construction. Grassroots activism – without the revolt of the dispossessed, bereft workers and servants, without “realistic” and comic exposure of the prose of life – nothing will come of it. But the efforts of leaders – the critical social reflection of experts, the seizure of political power – will also be necessary. But neither one nor the other will succeed if the West remains, as before, either indifferent or rightist-imperialist. Aside from masses and leaders, in Russia a third condition is needed – an international liberation movement.


“Chto delat/What is to be done?” was founded in early 2003 in Petersburg by a workgroup of artists, critics, philosophers, and writers from Petersburg, Moscow, and Nizhny Novgorod with the goal of merging political theory, art, and activism.


[1] Here, we rely on Alain Badiou’s notion of “fidelity to an event” as a procedure which jointly constitutes the free subject and the historical event that s/he is faithful to. The event, which consists in the emergence of the earlier unrecognized truth, cannot be considered to exist without the subject’s intervention and his/her further “fidelity”, which must be constantly singled out and distinguish situations that are connected with the event. See A. Badiou, L’кtre et l’йvйnement, Paris: Seuil, 1988. [The authors]

[2]The Russian Constituent Assembly, called for by revolutionary parties since before 1905, and which was to be the highest representative authority in the country, was finally convoked, and then dissolved in 1918 by the Bolshevik government, due to the fact that they did not have a controlling majority.

[3] GKChP is the Russian acronym for the “Emergency Committee” which was formed by reactionary Russian politicians and generals in the attempted coup d’йtat of 19-21 August, 1991.

[4]The “Next Stop Soviet” movement was a Scandinavian initiative that organized a visit of thousands of young Scandinavians to the Soviet Union in 1988. The idea was to continue to break the isolation of the USSR through manifold human and cultural exchanges. 7500 young people joined the campaign in Denmark, and the outcome was 5000 Danes going to the USSR on more than 100 different projects. There was, for example, a big culture festival in Gorkij Park, Moscow; a long march from Kiev to Chernobyl in Ukraine; and a windmill project in
Kazakhstan. The Danes lived in the homes of young people with the same interests or occupation as their guests. Among those participating, there were alsomembers of the Chto Delat? group, for whom it was their first contact with foreigners.