In mid-July 2006, Saint Petersburg and Russia’s Petersburg-born president, Vladimir Putin, hosted the annual summit of G8 leaders. In keeping with recent summit practice and the aggressive reanimation of Petersburg’s erstwhile imperial image, most of the events of the summit took place at the lavishly refurbished Constantine Palace, in the southern suburb of Strelna. Meanwhile, in the far north of the city, on Krestovsky Island, hundreds of Russian leftists and a handful of their foreign counterparts gathered at the Second Russian Social Forum. The forum was held at the Kirov Stadium, a monument of Soviet public architecture now condemned to destruction. Although the forum had been sanctioned by municipal and federal authorities, in the event the government proved to be, literally, two-faced. While activists who managed to get to the stadium were treated to free meals and tents by the Emergency Situations Ministry and graced with a visit by the city’s governor, their comrades outside the stadium and throughout Russia were the targets of a concerted campaign of harassment, detention, and interrogation by security services in the days, weeks, and months leading up to the forum and the summit. Operation Barrier, as it was known, prevented or otherwise discouraged hundreds of activists from coming to Petersburg. Alterglobalists who made it to the stadium found themselves in a peculiar situation: free to do and say almost whatever they liked inside their nearly empty “reservation,” they were refused permission (which had been granted earlier) to march from the Kirov Stadium to the Aurora, the famous revolutionary battleship permanently moored across the Neva River from the Winter Palace (The State Hermitage Museum). Outside the stadium, especially in the downtown district, most attempts at spontaneous public protest were quickly suppressed by the police and special forces troops.
The new film by Petersburg-based artist Dmitry Vilensky, Protest Match. Kirov Stadium. July 14-15, 2006, is both a visual/aural document of the forum and a reflection on the precarious nature of leftist activism in today’s Russia. Nearly two months after those hot July days, I met with Vilensky at his home in the Petrograd Side district. Our discussion touched on a number of issues: the history of Russian social forums; the response of Vilensky’s workgroup/newspaper, Chto Delat?, to the summit and forum, as well as to a similar landmark event in the city’s recent history, the 2003 tricentennial celebrations; the meaning of militant research and engaged art; and the current cultural and political conjuncture in Petersburg and Russia.
Thomas Campbell: How was the Second Russian Social Forum organized? Did Chto Delat? take part in the planning of the forum?
Dmitry Vilensky: This is a deeply local and complicated story. From the very beginning, the Russian social forums were bound up with the political thinker Boris Kagarlitsky, who was a sort of spokesman, and his Institute for Globalization Studies (IPROG), which formed the core of the organizing committee. From 2004 on, they were the only organization that could put together a minimal budget — you can’t do such big events without a budget. They always had connections with different left institutions, like the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Around the time our group was forming (2003) I read many of Kagarlitsky’s books. While I can’t say I was influenced by him, he is a quite interesting, challenging thinker. He might not be a great philosopher, but as a sociologist, political analyst, and journalist he’s brilliant, one of the best. Boris started to write for our newspaper, and we met in places like Paris, at the European Social Forum, and often in Moscow. Plus, he’s friends with folks like Viktor Misiano (the editor of Moscow Art Magazine and a prominent curator) and thus interested in cultural issues. There was some interconnection between the two worlds. He was eager to accept our work because he understood that nowadays the left is more or less restricted to the cultural fields, particularly in Russia. For example, you can do very little in the realm of real politics, but you can publish a new book or put on a concert that has obvious left appeal and even content.
The first quasi-social forum, the so-called Moscow Social Forum, in Golitsyno (2004), was a disaster. There were tons of folks there whom we call “Ultra Culturalists,” after the name of the Russian publishing house Ultra.Kultura. Those guys mix whatever they want — radical Islam, nationalism, fascism, the ideas of (National Bolshevik Party leader and writer) Eduard Limonov. It just has to be “ultra,” because “ultra” is good. The forum was held outside, there weren’t enough people to do the work, and everyone was drunk. A lot of nationalists showed up, and there was also the important moment when Kagarlitsky and the other organizers didn’t let Limonov speak. It wasn’t a social forum at all.
Last year we analyzed the lessons of this event, and the movement also developed. The First Russian Social Forum (2005), in Moscow, was a good event. It was well organized: there were lots of different panels, a general assembly, and an interesting agenda. Boris asked us, along with people like media activist Oleg Kireev, to take care of the cultural part of the program.
They ran buses between Petersburg and Moscow, so we managed to get a lot of copies of our newspaper to the forum. I saw that activists weren’t just taking single copies for themselves, but whole stacks, to hand out to the folks back home. So it was really a good event.
We knew already then that the following year (2006) the social forum would be a kind of counter-event to the G8 summit (in Petersburg). Boris was responsible for the organization, so even before the official committee was formed we talked a lot about making a film, holding an exhibition, and so forth. There was a lot of hope in those days. We hoped that many foreigners would come, that we could find a good venue for the event, and so forth.
TC: I understand that there was fierce debate within your group about what your role in the Petersburg forum and your approach to the summit should be.
DV: You’re right. There is some healthy skepticism among a lot of us about political events as counter-events. We’re in permanent conflict with single-issue, simple-issue activists — for example, with people who say that it’s wrong to kill black people, or that workers should be paid for their work. Yes, they’re right, all people are equal and have a right to good pay, but intellectually you can hardly start with such statements. That’s why we’re now organizing a big conference on fascism because combating fascism doesn’t just mean going into the streets and saying that it’s bad to kill foreigners — although that does need to be said. Intellectually, you have to go deeper. You have to analyze the problem using a totally different language than what you find on stickers and posters in the subway. You have to understand what socioeconomic forces are supported by fascism, who is manipulating these sentiments, how it’s produced by state power and new modes of production, how it’s generated at the grassroots levels, among classes that are excluded from the general public sphere. Why hasn’t the grassroots become the nice angel of multitude but its evil twin brother, the dark angel of multitude?
Sure, you can go out and shout “Fuck the G8!” or “Fuck big capital!” But this task isn’t all that interesting for us. So we had to think hard about what we wanted to do. On the other hand, it was clear to me that we had to be on the inside. As a group engaged in the politicization of art, it’s vital that we maintain our ties and contacts with other groups, to be in the middle of multitude. It doesn’t matter that we’re not always so enthusiastic about the things they do, that we have arguments or fights with them, that we regard some of their actions as naive. For me as an artist, it’s important to be personally involved with the movement, to be in permanent dialogue with the key figures. And they know our newspaper, see our films, come to our exhibitions, and sometimes participate in our working group discussions. That’s why, to paraphrase what Fredric Jameson wrote in our newspaper (Chto Delat? 13 (July 2006): “Culture and Protest”), it was impossible to do nothing.
I knew some international artists who had already combined their work with protest movements. For example, Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann, who organized Ex Argentina at the Ludwig Museum (2004). For them it was important that the G8 summit (1999) that took place right before the collapse of Argentina was held in Cologne, at the very same Ludwig Museum. The president of Argentina was one of the invited guests: his country was hailed by the G8 leaders as a neoliberal success story. Then everything collapsed, and later that same year Seattle happened. Yeltsin was also there — yet another example of successful neoliberalism: it didn’t matter that Russia had barely recovered from the ruble crash of the previous year (1998). Alice and Andreas make many references in their works to this last “peaceful” meeting of world leaders.
There’s also Oliver Ressler, who made a beautiful video, This is what democracy looks like! (2002). It’s about the protests at the 2001 World Economic Forum in Salzburg, where a group of nine hundred protesters were brutally blockaded by the police. In the video Oliver interviews many of the protesters. We correspond with each other, and Oliver has noted to me that what’s happened in other places has been a continuation of what went on in Salzburg.
Then there’s WHW (What, How & for Whom), a curators’ collective in Zagreb that’s been putting out an anti-war magazine for the last fifteen years and participating in different campaigns.
My idea was to engage some of these artists in the production of a set of posters — a special issue of Chto Delat? — that would be distributed throughout the city. I asked them to address not activists but the general public. And it was a good thing that we had relationships with various activists groups because our group wouldn’t have been able to handle distribution.
As it turned out, however, it was also nearly impossible for even these groups to circulate the newspapers/posters. Five days before the summit opened, the authorities shut everything down.
TC: Some of the activists who circulated your newspaper were detained by the police?
DV: Some of the members of DSPA (Pyotr Alexeev Resistance Movement) were arrested, not for distributing the newspaper, but for stickering. In any case, they immediately discovered that it was impossible to post anything in the public space.
The funny thing is that DSPA has continued pasting up the newspaper long after the summit ended. They think it has a great effect on the public. And it’s true that whereas before the summit you could get ten days in jail for doing this, now you’d be hard pressed to get a 100-ruble fine. I actually had to have a talk with them the other day to try and persuade them to stop postering the protest issue and start distributing our new number, on self-education, to as many university students as we can find.
So the poster campaign was a failure.
TC: Did you expect the totally exaggerated police response that we witnessed in July — the massive detentions and harassment of leftist activists all over Russia?
DV: Not at all. Right up to the last minute, Kagarlitsky and other members of the organizing committee hoped that everything would go okay with the authorities. Now it’s clear that the there was a schism within the authorities over how they should react to the social forum. Ella Pamfilova (chair of the Presidential Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights) said she was for letting forum participants march from Kirov Stadium (the site of the forum) to the cruiser Aurora (the “revolutionary” battleship moored across the Neva River from the Winter Palace). And Valentina Matvienko (the governor of St. Petersburg) was for it, too. It’s a matter of public record.
TC: Yes, you know these kiosks and info boards that the city government has erected around the city that serve as a kind of visual chronicle of their achievements during the last “quarter”? The chronicle that’s plastered on these kiosks now includes a photograph of Matvienko chatting with Ilya Ponomarev (former Yukos executive and current leader of the Left Youth Front who was arrested during a Communist Party-organized rally in downtown Petersburg during the summit).
DV: Yes, Matvienko was actually quite brave. And more realistic. It shows that the Russian authorities are quite vulnerable. And not at all homogeneous: there are different groups whose interests clash. There are more liberal groups as well as groups that stand for more repressive modes of governmentality. And they all have their own commercial interests and power interests — for instance, the secret services want to gain more power.
Take one simple example. During the last evening at the stadium, they knew that only about a hundred fifty people were left inside. Why did they surround the stadium with a couple thousand OMON (SWAT) soldiers? The answer is very simple: because someone had paid for them. They couldn’t have gotten away with a request for only ten soldiers. It was all paid for with enormous amounts of cash.
TC: And some of those OMON guys were from different regions of Russia so they had to have something to do.
DV: They had to do something even though nothing was happening. Because it was paid for. That’s why their response looked so disproportionate. I think there were lots of things going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about. Returning to your question, until the last moment forum participants thought the authorities would allow them to march, to shout, to chant. AKM (Avant-garde of the Red Youth) had prepared a street party that was supposed to bring up the rear of the demonstration — everything was ready. But we didn’t expect that about three hundred people wouldn’t be able to come. This is exactly what comes out in the interviews in my film as well as in other media reports — that about twice as many activists decided not to come. It made no sense to lots of people. Yes, you could try and come to Petersburg, but lots of people were on the lists of the police and security services and would have definitely been detained.
It wasn’t like what you had in America when Martin Luther King said, “Let’s fill the jails.” For this strategy to work, you need thousands of people. But another three hundred people can be easily dealt with.
That’s why no one expected such a reaction on the part of the authorities. Certainly Ponomarev didn’t expect this. As it turns out, he was in a tricky position. It appears that some of the folks on the organizing committee had quite direct connections with the city authorities and even the Kremlin. There’s even a rumor that the forum was supposed to produce a concluding document and have a meeting with Putin — just to represent the idea of democracy.
TC: Chto Delat? was formed in response to another huge event in the recent history of Petersburg — the city’s tricentennial celebrations (2003). Do you see any parallels between how the tricentennial was celebrated, how the space of the city was restructured then, and what when on here during the July summit?
DV: There are some obvious parallels — the “gentrification” of the whole city, the concentration of police, and the restrictions on movement. At the same time, the authorities seemed to have learned something. For example, I’ve read that security measures during the summit were supposed to create fewer problems for locals. This was discussed and showcased. For example, the Canadian PM wasn’t allowed to visit the Hermitage because of the logistical and security problems it would have created: the inconvenience to the general public and thus a bad image for the summit. Also, Tony Blair’s visit to the new offices of the British Council was pulled off without blocking any streets. So the authorities have learned some lessons.
But your question is a good one. In our pre-summit discussions, we all agreed that the situation was the same. The tricentennial happened before our group existed in the way it functions now, but in any case I remember our sense of powerlessness back then. The big difference, though, is that the tricentennial affected us more personally. The action we did then happened because we were really furious. The tricentennial celebrations were presented as something for the entire population. There was a list of about three thousand events — like a show of the smallest dogs, a show of the biggest dogs, whatever. From the get-go, however, we knew that even such absolutely moderate and sold-out art world figures like Sergei “Afrika” Bugaev and the Mitki weren’t allowed to do the cultural projects they’d proposed. The authorities then had absolute control over what could go on in the public sphere and what couldn’t. Even minor exhibitions were rejected because they allegedly weren’t aimed at the general public.
That’s why we were furious and why what we did, we did at the last minute. We were tired of the populist rhetoric being pounded into our heads — that after 1913 nothing happened in Petersburg/Leningrad, and then came Putin. There was, as it were, nothing in between: an entire period, of which we were really proud, was eliminated from the official discourse of the tricentennial.
That’s why we held our stupid demonstration. Because of the security measures and the silly way the celebrations were organized, a lot of Petersburg intellectuals wanted to leave the city then. We also wanted to leave, with the difference that we wanted to make our departure public, to show that we had nothing in common with the tricentennial.
In terms of current resistance strategy and in retrospect, maybe this was a poor gesture: to leave the city publicly. We wrote a manifesto (“Petersburg without Roofs”) and distributed it to the media. Then we went to a train station and “left” the city. Fortunately, at the last minute our action became more sophisticated. Our loosely knit group (about twenty-five people) was joined by a number of architects. They had a brilliant idea: let’s not just leave the city but found a new city. And found it somewhere not in the downtown — the whole downtown Petersburg culture, with the Hermitage and the Mariinsky Theatre, was something we were fed up with — but on the outskirts. Let’s refound the city symbolically, taking as our principles the avant-garde, the commune, etc. Plus, in architectural and planning terms, this was how the city should be developed — away from the center. So that was the plan: take a commuter train to the outskirts, march towards the sea, and lay a new foundation stone. Very silly.
In the event, we had a nice, long walk. We walked for a couple hours, handing out leaflets to passersby and carrying banners on which we’d written slogans like “Petersburg from Scratch” and “Say No to the Zoocentennial!” (The latter slogan plays on the graphic similarity, in Russian, between 300 and zoo.) Then we ended up buying some vodka — we decided to turn the thing into a picnic. That was when about ten squad cars showed up. The police explained to us that we were holding an “illegal” demonstration. They were really quite polite.
TC: But it’s not as if they were expecting you. You weren’t on any lists?
DV: Of course not. Some vigilant member of the public tipped them off finally. There are parallels with the G8 here, too. During the summit, if you tried to block Nevsky Prospect (the main thoroughfare in Petersburg) you were arrested immediately. But the anarchists who did a clown parade on Vasilievsky Island marched for a long time before the police showed up and started chasing them. Nobody cared.
TC: Here’s another parallel — the site of the social forum. It struck me when I was there that I was taking part in some kind of strange action that had more of an aesthetic character. We were in this very strange place — the Kirov Stadium, which was slated for demolition. (A new football stadium — a “spaceship” designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa — will be built in its place.) Plus, this was a site that had very clear material and symbolic links to the Soviet past. The stadium was built by a consortium of architects led by Alexander Nikolsky, the doyen of the Leningrad constructivist school and a man who gave the world such avant-garde gems as the Tractor Street development and the Tenth Anniversary of the October Revolution School (which are in a district of the city that your group investigated in Chto Delat? 7 (September 2004): “Drift. Narvskaya Zastava”). The stadium was also where millions of Leningraders went to see the city’s premier league team, Zenith, play. And it was also as if we’d all left the city, as your group tried to do in 2003. Did you reflect on any of these connections before or during the forum?
DV: The situation was in fact quite complicated. Because of the “anti-terrorist” concerns of recent years, big “planetary” events like the G8 are now held in the outskirts, not in city centers — it’s not just to keep away the protesters. And this G8 was no exception: they didn’t meet at the Winter Palace. They were too paranoid to do that. (Most events took place at the Constantine Palace, in Strelna, in the southern suburbs.)
In any case, the G8 is mainly a media event. I was too busy to watch the coverage during the summit, but people who did have told me that it was focused on the contrast between “the summit” and “the stadium.” I had been pessimistic that we wouldn’t get any media attention — you usually need a big budget and a big name to get noticed in this country — but from the moment I came to the stadium (before the forum opened) I was amazed by how many TV crews were already there. There was even some kind of VJ from MTV Russia. When I was trying to set up the Chto Delat? exposition they kept coming up to me to ask what I was doing, what I thought about this or that. Why were they so interested? It’s still puzzling why there was so much coverage of the forum. We even made it into glossy magazines. Is it because leftism is trendy?
TC: Did you see this spread in Bolshoi Gorod magazine (July 5, 2006, pp.10–11)? They had a who’s who of “antiglobalists” that included thumbnail sketches of many of the people who were on the frontlines of the forum or who were in your film: Kagarlitsky, Ponomarev, Pyotr Raush (veteran leader of the Petersburg Anarchists League), Mikhail Druzhininsky (head of the Unified Action Committee), Dmitry Zhvania (head of the DSPA and ex-head of the Petersburg branch of NBP), and Yevgeny Faizullin (aka “Elephant,” an important figure on the Petersburg antifa/anarcho-punk music and Indymedia scenes). All this was sandwiched between ads for things like Velkopopovicky Kozel beer.
DV: I’ve been reading a lot of discussions among protest group activists. The big issues right now are the use of violence versus the use of media coverage — i.e., whether you work with the media at all, etc. In our case, it was pointless to think about violence: for that you need thousands of people. On the other hand, I remember that at one of the organizational meetings, someone got up and said that we needed a special PR or press liaison for the forum. In reality, we didn’t need anyone. All we needed was someone to kick out the journalists who were security services moles. And without our urging the international media showed up, too.
TC: Don’t you think that the Russian authorities needed the social forum to take place? They had to show, on the one hand, that Russia is a democracy (albeit a “sovereign” democracy, whatever that means). The message was thus that of course Russia, like other developed countries, has protest movements. Not only that but that the government is so solicitous that it even provides its protesters with stadiums to protest in, army tents to sleep in, free grub, and so forth. On the other hand, the media coverage I saw tried to make the “antiglobalists” (as they were invariably called) seem funny and trivial. The message here, on the contrary, was that an event like the G8 will inevitably bring out the “antiglobalists,” but it’s not all that interesting. So in all the TV reports I saw, none of the forum participants was allowed to say anything about why they were there, what the issues were that brought them there. The only sound bites that made it on air (clearly out of context) were comments, from people like Ponomarev, about how nice it was that the authorities brought tents and food, or how lovely it was that Matvienko showed up. Journalists made no attempt to find out what or whom the “antiglobalists” represented.
DV: I absolutely agree with you — there was such a strategy. I read an interesting study of the results of the forum. The author points out how the coverage of the forum changed over the course of three days. The coverage became more serious after the waves of “illegal” street demos as well as during evening newscasts. But in general you’re right.
At the same, the activists with whom I’m in contact, especially the ones who spend a lot of time talking with folks on the street, noticed that public reaction shifted as well. You talked about the stadium as a device of estrangement for us participants, but this setting looked odd to non-participants as well.
TC: I imagine that’s because, as I’ve already said, the place figures so large in the imagination and memory of so many Petersburgers. It was the central football stadium for many years. It’s also in the midst of the so-called Central Park of Rest and Culture (a peculiar Soviet institution). And it’s the most “wild” place in the inner city. Generations of people grew up there.
DV: Yes, I’ve talked to many people who’ve told me that they’d like to be able to sit in the stadium alone because it’s where Zenith won the Soviet championship in 1984. It’s a sacred place.
This brings us to another topic: potentiality. People aren’t stupid. We still have this Russo-Soviet tradition of not trusting what “they” are saying: if they say “white,” you think “black.” People still operate out of this tradition when they consume media. And ordinary curiosity plays a role. Thus it looks strange that so many people are getting arrested — for what? That’s why most of the coverage deliberately avoided mention of the arrests.
TC: Did you get anything from the panels held at the forum? How did the panels Chto Delat? organized — on protest and culture, and on poetry — go?
DV: The panels were incredibly successful. At last year’s forum, our panel was mostly attended by old friends and a few folks from the Moscow cultural scene. But our first panel this year, on protest and culture, generated a lot of interest and was heavily attended. I was amazed by the level of discussion. The second panel, which I missed the beginning of, was planned as a kind of provocation. So I was stunned to show up and find folks staying late and discussing things like poetry and communism. I thought to myself, Oh my God, this is really crazy!
TC: My impression of the discussions, especially about poetry, was that the estrangement brought on by the setting actually made people more open to talking about such things. There was the sense that we were in the middle of the ocean — on a ship or on an island where we cut off from the “real” world and thus free to discuss whatever we liked.
DV: I attended some of the discussions organized by Alexander Buzgalin (of the Alternatives Movement) dealing with new modes of class analysis, the rise of new classes. Most of the participants there, although they came from Trotsykist or industrial labor positions, were quite open to talking about questions of multitude, of new immaterial labor, informal networks. I know Buzgalin — he’s not exactly Negri, but he is someone open to the moment. Also, the panel organized by Lev Ponomarev (a prominent civil rights activist) was quite relevant given the situation with civil rights in this country. There was also an interesting panel on how coordinating councils work — although it’s hard to imagine what anyone could get from this.
On the other hand, I would caution you against underestimating the meaning of such meetings. Different people from different regions get to meet, and this could be especially important for people protesting the state’s new social policies on housing, healthcare, etc. I was at the concluding discussion, and people did say that they were leaving the forum with new information, new contacts and so forth. While we do have to problematize the general structure of social forums, I would say that here we’re witnessing the birth (or rebirth, if you look back to the pre-Revolutionary period) of the Russian multitude.
TC: You’ve already shown your film about the forum?
DV: Yes, twice already — at an exhibition called Urban Contact Zones, in Hamburg, and just last week in Moscow, as part of our exhibition/conference on strategies of self-education, at the State Center for Contemporary Art. The forum for me is tool for self-education, for engaging in dialogue and changing your position.
TC: Have you had a chance to find out how people are reacting to the film?
DV: Yes, I talked to people who saw it in Hamburg and in Berlin (where I also showed it, actually). Most people who have some connection with art and politics like it a lot. And they liked it from both points of view — you have to balance politics with aesthetics. To load this type of work with information about the current political situation would be wrong. The film is not reality: it’s just my construction, it comes from my understanding of the situation.
At the same time, in the film’s voiceover I always position myself within the movement. What I do is a form of militant research. “Militant research” is a very simple term. It means that when you’re researching or interviewing, when you’re behind the camera, you say “we” together with the person you’re filming or interviewing. “We” means we here together, whether you’re the cameraman or the interviewee. It definitely changes the modality of the speakers.
TC: Did you already know most of the people you interview in the film?
DV: There are about eighteen interviews in the film. Several of the people are grassroots activists whom I met at the forum for the first time, so it’s not just the opinions of the organizers that you hear. It’s quite well balanced. But yes, most of them I did know before: these are people I’ve met over the last few years.
It’s interesting: the forum became a kind of public space where it was okay to be filmed. But some people have problems with the authorities so they cover their faces or whatever. I did notice, however, that when I was filming, some people wondered why I was hanging around. And other people would tell them, “It’s okay: it’s our TV. It’s Dmitry!” That’s funny: our TV! I tried to explain that I wasn’t from TV.
TC: It’s a common feature of strikes and large protests that there is an in-house media unit that films the events and then reflects the image of the collective back to itself at some later point. Was anyone else from inside the movement filming the forum?
DV: That’s an interesting question. I kept looking for someone among the activists who was filming. I myself had an assistant helping me film, and that was good because with one camera I could have hardly managed to make the film. But I was hoping that I could get footage from at least three or four other cameras. There was nobody doing video, though — only people with digital photo cameras. I also wanted to use another cameraman, but he was busy during this time. In reality, I wasn’t well prepared. It makes me think that I should have had money so that I could have hired someone.
TC: Did anyone film the spontaneous, “breakout” protests during the summit — for example, the attempt to block Nevsky near the SAS Radisson Hotel, or the anti-war picket on Malaya Konyusennaya?
DV: No, no one did. That’s the problem with our activists: everybody is so damn poor. DSPA does photo documentation of their actions. When they did their “Carnival in the Reservation” action, on the last day of the forum, they asked me to film it because they didn’t have their own camera.
It actually reminds me of the nonconformist art movements during the late Soviet period. There were also lots of things that happened then that were never filmed — no one had even Super 8 cameras. Even in the late eighties video cameras were incredibly expensive. So you could hardly afford to document happenings and other stuff.
TC: In the case of the New Artists of Leningrad (an eighties punk/pop art movement with parallels to the New York Downtown scene), it was only thanks to Yevgeny Kozlov, who often had a photo camera with him and happened to take lots of pictures, that we have any record of a lot of their now-legendary happenings.
This brings me to my next question. What is the value of these kinds of forums when they’re limited by this kind of self-enclosure? For example, when you read about the things the New Artists did in the eighties, it sounds great on paper. But besides creating self-perpetuating legends or a groovy scene, how do you go beyond this — to represent the event and to continue organizing these forums in a way that does something more or something different? For example, in the sense in which Seattle became the symbol of something bigger.
DV: But you know what happened in Seattle? The activists had their own film studio. Everyday they had several cameramen filming and bringing in footage to this huge professional studio — it was like Hollywood. That’s why Seattle became so popular — because Indymedia established a studio there that could do independent coverage in real time. There were so many cameras there you can hardly imagine it.
That’s the big difference in our situations. For example, I was just talking to this guy who made a big film about Reclaim the Streets, in London. He was telling me about how they organized that event: how they raised money, how they printed and distributed flyers, how the various groups within the organization coordinated their work, and so forth. He also told me about their strange cooperation with really wealthy families, with rich kids. For example, one of the groups had trouble with studio space. They get this call telling them to come to a villa outside London, and in the park there this really nice guy just gives them ten thousand pounds. That’s how it happens: an incredible fundraising campaign, with a lot of the donors remaining absolutely anonymous. But they knew that lots of these donors were kids from normal rich families. I guess they liked the idea of taking over the city center and having a party there with good DJs.
But here in Russia nothing like that could happen. Though it actually did go on here before the Revolution — for example, with the big art collectors (like Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov) who were wealthy entrepreneurs. Or with people like Ryabushinsky, who owned factories all over Russia but gave money to the Bolsheviks.
What are the reasons? If we read Paulo Freire, we can understand that the border between oppressed and oppressors is quite fragile. People either experience false generosity or they really do begin to identify with the oppressed — it doesn’t really matter where they come from.
TC: There was no Indymedia presence here during the summit?
DV: No, there was. The guy who ran it, Dima Model, is a very famous artist and character. They ran a website, but they didn’t do any videotaping. I asked Dima why they weren’t filming — he himself is a brilliant cameraman — but he said they wanted to focus on updating the site, especially with reports from the Legal Team. A couple of the Legal Team’s cameramen did get arrested, by the way.
I think this is the central issue of mass movements. Crowds of a few hundred people, even a few thousand people, can easily be stopped. It’s no problem. But you can hardly manage a crowd of fifty thousand, one hundred thousand. You can’t arrest them, you can’t block them. The only thing you can do is start shooting, but most governments know that means the end for them. The next thing you know there’s a helicopter on the roof of the presidential palace and the president is escaping. That’s why such things often happen peacefully because even the police understand that it’s pointless.
So returning to the potentiality of movements, it’s interesting to observe the dynamic. Things are developing. Three years ago, when our group started, there was almost nobody out there. DSPA didn’t exist then, nor did a lot of other regional organizations. It was around 2000 that things started to change.
Nowadays there are about two thousand activists in the movement around Russia. If the situation keeps developing, you can easily imagine this number growing to twenty thousand, two hundred thousand. And then you must have a new, incredibly oppressive totalitarian machine, new modes of control, or negotiations with this new source of power.
TC: Do you think this is the situation with NBP and Limonov — that they became a real new source of power and thus it became necessary to employ truly repressive measures against them? Or are they also a kind of optical illusion, a trick of what here is called “political technology”?
DV: This is a tough question. They do some spectacular, effective actions, but at the same time the party is rife with internal contradictions. A lot of the language and structuring principles they use are quite obviously proto-fascist. On the other hand, there’s a faction within the party that’s fairly internationalist or anarchist. And they’re still doing this balancing act now only thanks to Limonov’s incredible charisma. I’m not sure they’ll have any real impact on society. I agree with the critique that claims that what they’re really about is the production of excessively spectacular media events. They’re not doing the profound work needed to create a real movement. Sure, they can attract some radical teenagers. The situation would be different if they were allowed to legally register as a party and take part in elections. The government is making a mistake by outlawing them.
For me, though, Limonov is mainly a nostalgic figure from the past. I remember how in the nineties he was hanging out in bohemian circles — that’s what he is, after all, a poet, and a great one! — and talking to folks like (Moscow artists) Alexander Brener and Oleg Kulik, trying to persuade them to form a party. Those guys have changed since then, only Limonov hasn’t. He’s reproducing the radicalism of the nineties, which I’m not sure works anymore. On the other hand, it’s true that grassroots NBP activists have really been severely repressed in the past couple years.
TC: If we look at other artistic reactions to the summit, there was also some kind of exhibition in the garden of the Fountain House/Anna Akhmatova Museum. I know that you took part in an open forum discussion connected to this event.
DV: This was a kind of continuation of Making Poverty History. It’s a very clever way of instrumentalizing protest. For me it was a pity because just as in Scotland and England, when they did it the first time, a lot of decent, respectable people from NGOs decided to collaborate. Here in Russia, the thing was organized by folks like Sasha Menus, who’s worked for many years as an editor and designer for the street papers Na Dne (The Depths) and Put’ Domoi (The Road Home), which are associated with the Nochlezhka (Night Shelter) Foundation. Sasha’s a great guy — I like him a lot. But the guy who runs Nochlezhka itself right now is some kind of yuppie. When he speaks you understand that what’s important for him is having access to international NGO financing, that he views Nochlezhka as a form of entrepreneurial activity. Valeri Sokolov (the founder of Nochlezhka) was really crazy, but he was a real grassroots activist. Sure, he was also sometimes invited to things like a reception with the Queen of England, but with him it was different. He didn’t know how to dress to meet the queen because he didn’t have anything to wear, whereas you just know that Valeri’s successor has several nice suits in his closet at home — a different color for every occasion. It’s a real shame.
In general, though, I’m fed up with discussions about the cultural scene here in Petersburg. Yes, people came to the thing at the Akhmatova Museum, but in reality they didn’t care. It was just another event to show up at.
The curators tried to organize a discussion on the theme of the exhibition (poverty), but they gave up when they realized no one cared. Since some German art students were participating, they then decided to do a panel on artistic education, and they invited (prominent Petersburg art historian) Ivan Chechot to chair it. I was absolutely furious when I saw the list of folks they invited — like the director of Anna Nova Gallery. She didn’t show up, thank God. The whole thing was so stupid.
Maybe I’m too critical, but the current Petersburg cultural scene can be described by three terms: conservatism, narrow-mindedness, and cheap servility. In Moscow, people sell out for big sums of money. Here people sell out for free. The cultural sphere offers them so few opportunities to realize themselves that they take whatever they’re offered. Many artists actually don’t care about the context of representation in which they find themselves, but at the same time they have the false hope that it all will lead to something. Maybe it’s a good thing that they don’t care about money, but often this means they’re serving big institutions with their free labor. Somebody is making money off this stuff — for example, the municipal administration. And this situation has been going on for years. These artists don’t have international careers nor do they make any real impact locally. It’s just the same few names that circulate endlessly.
TC: Is that why you made the decision to go international, so to speak?
DV: I wouldn’t say that I’ve left the local scene. I’m trying to change the scene. We do screenings at venues both inside and outside the cultural world. Plus, we do four working group meetings a year at the Pro Arte Institute. And we do one big project a year in Russia, a big show with publications that get distributed. So everyone knows we’re here.
Your question is interesting, though. I recently met two so-called international artists and I realized that the situation is much the same all over the world. For artists in Buenos Aires, for example, the reactionary regime of “normalization” means that you have far fewer opportunities to do things in your local community, but at the same there are ten times more opportunities to work with people in the outside world who share your positions, your ideas, your search for a new language and a new aesthetic.
At one time the situation provoked in me a kind of political sadness. As Marxists, though, we have to be realists. This is how things are happening now. But you have to stay open to the local situation. You should be ready to work with anyone who shows interest in what you’re doing. These aren’t empty words. I’ve started working with people in Moscow and a few other places in just this way. Yes, I told them, you can write, you can translate, you can distribute the newspaper, you can participate in our discussions. And then some day you can participate in one of our exhibitions, travel with us, or whatever.
For example, I’ve worked with the students at the Pro Arte Institute. I curated a graduation show for them, and then I was invited to make a proposal for a group collaboration. I proposed the theme Obshchezhitie (which means both “dormitory” and “life in common” in Russian), but in the end they chose another curator, whose proposed concept was “Transparency.” Whatever that means. I tried to talk to them about art and democratization and social engagement, but after all this they asked me, “Dmitry, how should we position ourselves with the galleries?” I was forced to tell them I didn’t have a gallery myself, that I don’t care about galleries.
I do understand that it’s incredibly complicated nowadays for young artists or young activists to get started. On the other hand, I don’t respect the fact that people aren’t willing to take a risk. Why don’t they establish their own space instead of waiting to be invited? Of course there are few such opportunities. How is it that in the late eighties and early nineties we were able to establish so many things ourselves while the new generation isn’t able to do this? Yes, you can put it down to gentrification and inflation, but you don’t have to do things downtown: there are tons of empty spaces on the outskirts. You can go to Kingisepp (a town halfway between Petersburg and the Estonian border) if you like, as long as you mean what you’re doing.
TC: Yes, it’s really strange. One of the inspiring parts of what happened here in the eighties was this genuine DIY ethic. No one was reflecting on any of the difficult conditions — they just went out and did something. And they didn’t ask for anyone’s permission.
DV: Something has changed. There are a few counterexamples, like DSPA. So many things are still possible. Do radio, do zines. I understand that getting space can be complicated, so do something for one night. Do whatever you like. But people don’t do anything.
TC: Don’t you think this is connected to the reemergence of what in Russia is called the “power vertical”? That is, to the re-imposition of a heavy bureaucracy, but also with the sense that now we’ve got people in charge, everything’s organized, surveilled, and structured, as opposed to the “horrible” chaos and anarchy of the eighties and nineties? This became part of the narrative of the social forum. It wasn’t just a bunch of wild hippies and anarchists who showed up and pitched their tents. No, everything had to be negotiated with the governor’s office, the Emergency Situations Ministry had to bring the tents. And this is the meta-narrative that’s been injected into the society: nothing can happen without their permission, without their being involved. So this is how young people experience their sense of possibility.
DV: Maybe you’re right. But things like social forums can’t happen without some level of cooperation from the local authorities. However, the organizations inside the forum, like DSPA, are absolutely outside these negotiations. Or me, for example. What do I have to do with the Ministry of Culture? Absolutely nothing.
What I’m talking about is microactivities, not biennales. But maybe your hypothesis — that the idea of the vertical, the idea that someone up above lets you do things is implemented in the subconscious — is accurate.
TC: A corollary to this, something I’ve noticed in the last four years, is the sudden emphasis on big events. The summit and the tricentennial were organized as huge, lavish affairs. It may seem like a minor thing, but in the nineties you could turn on the TV and see programs where folks would come in and play live rock music in studio. Nowadays you turn on the TV and it’s just one “star”-studded “gala concert” after another. There’s this endless bigness. The message is that only these mass, top-down collective events truly reflect popular taste. Another example of the same phenomenon is a figure like Mariinsky Theater director and principal conductor Valeri Gergiev, someone who has begun to exercise real political power. This also has the effect of structuring cultural and social space in a way that turns “ordinary” people into only consumers of “Culture,” not producers of “culture.”
DV: For me, too, there’s this lack of balance between big and small. That’s why it’s always so hard to work in Petersburg. It’s somehow drummed into people’s heads that culture is the Hermitage and the Mariinsky. Everything that’s lower down doesn’t count. That’s the story of the local branch of the State Center for Contemporary Art. They can’t get their own space, they aren’t supported by the local administration. It’s just been failure after failure.
At the same time, you have to wonder about the city’s potentiality. The student population is five hundred thousand! What are they doing? Are they just surviving, getting by on low-paying jobs? Maybe this is the historical moment — the students don’t struggle. The situation for them is much worse than for students in France or Germany, but they do nothing. It’s so easy to organize, however: the universities today are like Fordist factories in the past.
TC: In the “Culture and Protest” issue you actually do have an article by Ilya Kalinin about a recent instance of successful student resistance, in Saratov. This past spring, student protests at the University of Saratov led to the reinstatement of the chair of the history department, who had been fired because he wasn’t a member of the United Russia party, which has infiltrated the university administration. Even though they were threatened with expulsion and surrounded by OMON troops for several days, the students held out and won. When I told friends about this story, they were shocked. It hadn’t been reported in the national mass media.
DV: Yes, it is amazing. There are lots of cases like what happened in Saratov. A beloved teacher or dean is fired absolutely illegally, without any legal procedures. It happens everywhere, but people don’t stop it. Saratov showed that you can easily stop it. That’s why it was so important for us to publish Kalinin’s article, to bring attention to an instance where people organized themselves.
Maybe we underestimate the influence we have on society. In Russia there’s this stupid proverb that a people deserves the government it gets. The relationship is much more complex, however. And what you’ve been talking about — that the authorities have infiltrated the entire society with their ideas — is really dangerous. Passivity — deciding that it’s just easier to drink a lot or pay bribes — is way too prevalent in our tradition. So it’s easy to accept the notion that students should suddenly have to start paying five thousand dollars if they want to stay in school. They can just get a job or borrow the money if they want to study! The logic of passive acceptance is still a heavy presence here.
TC: That’s the paradox. The notion is that now Russia is governed by the logic of the market. So even if that leads to illogical or brutal results, you have to make your peace with this “higher” logic. For example, education here used to be free, now it’s not. How is this an improvement?
DV: I don’t have any easy answers. The situation is quite bad. Even with all the newfound budget surpluses, the authorities are incredibly inefficient and corrupt. No one trusts anyone else. That’s the big difference between western capitalism and so-called Russian capitalism. In the west, you don’t have to pay for everything with cash — people trust each other in some capitalistic sense. “Just send me the bill!” And the bill will be paid. Here this is impossible! The power vertical doesn’t work. There is a permanent struggle for money, resources, and power. Our system isn’t stable. It’s like in a family: if you don’t trust your wife you can’t continue living together.
So what we have in Russia is ultra-capitalism. But maybe there hasn’t been enough time for things to improve. The dynamic has been incredible: a mere fifteen years. My son and I were talking the other day about how neither of us had any sense of what things would be like here in two years. In Germany, for example, you can predict more or less what will happen. Maybe the leftist parties will get another two percent more of the popular vote or two percent less. Maybe the foreign policy will be more US-oriented or more EU-driven.
But here even such a simple thing as the handing over of power is a huge problem. You can hardly trust anyone. Putin can chose a successor and come to an agreement with him, but who will guarantee that the deal will be honored? Maybe Putin will be safe, but what about his current entourage? In a “vertical” everything depends on the person above you. There’s no mechanism for solving problems. It’s like in Petersburg: everything depends on Matvienko. And so on down the line. The whole structure is based on an incredible concentration of personal power, not on building institutions. What if a power-holder dies or otherwise disappears? Then the whole structure falls apart, and it takes a lot of effort to put it back together.
That’s why there’s still so much corruption. So when Putin announces the creation of the so-called national projects (in housing and healthcare, among other areas), he freely admits that half the allotted money will be stolen — but at least something will get done. That’s really amazing.
September 11, 2006
Saint Petersburg, Russia
Copyleft: Thomas Campbell & Dmitry Vilensky
More information is available at: https://chtodelat.org
All images except Thomas Campbell’s badge are stills from Protest Match. Kirov Stadium. July 14-15, 2006, a video film by Dmitry Vilensky (2006)
Thomas Campbell is a sometime resident of Saint Petersburg and a graduate student/teacher at Yale University. His research interests include postwar and contemporary Soviet/Russian art, Soviet/Russian cinema, and Leningrad/Petersburg counterculture. As a union activist, he has participated in three strikes and numerous actions by GESO (Graduate Employees and Students Organization) and HERE-UNITE Locals 34 and 35 (Yale University/New Haven). In Petersburg, he has been involved, as a translator, writer, and organizer, in dozens of collaborations with such art groups as the Free Culture Foundation and Chto Delat? He has written articles on Joseph Brodsky, Alexander Herzen and Tom Stoppard, Yevgeny Yufit, neoacademism and necrorealism, Jacques Ranciиre, and Day Watch. He is also the co-author (with Igor Khadikov) of Kniga vecherinok (The Party Book, 1996).
Dmitry Vilensky is an artist who prefers to work collaboratively. These collaborations result in a variety of collective projects, including videoworks, installations, public actions, radio programs, and examinations of urban space and everyday life. He is a member of the workgroup Chto Delat?/What Is to Be Done? Founded in 2003, in Saint Petersburg, our group aims to create and develop public spaces open for dialogue about the politicization of knowledge production and the place of art in this process. Chto Delat? publishes an eponymous English-Russian newspaper with a special focus on the Russian artistic-intellectual situation. Each issue of the newspaper is an experiment that draws artists, critics, activists, sociologists and philosophers into a heated editorial process that results in theoretical essays, art projects, open-source translations, public discussions, questionnaires, dialogues, comic strips, etc. This copyleft publication is usually published in connection with specific events and is distributed for free at conferences and exhibitions, where it reaches a broader cultural public. As a supplement to artworks or as an intervention, the newspaper is a trigger that pushes the public to perceive and partake in a process of collective subjectification. This trigger pursues a strategic goal: to extend this space as an experiential base for solidarity, both in a micropolitical and internationalist sense. We don’t want to engage only in a confrontational re-reading of various theoretical and practical approaches from the Soviet avant-garde and critical theory, but to find our own way of developing these ideas. We’d also like to examine intellectual action as an important element of economic and political struggle. The aesthetic methods that we develop always respond to the challenge of a concrete historical situation. For us it is important to describe reality as a process of constant change that arises due to the conflicts and contradictions that make the transformation of society possible.