OPEN LETTER TO ARSENY ZHILYAEV. IN THE FOG OF HISTORY
I’ve been re-reading your text for a while, and what I concluded is that the adverb “not,” at the beginning of your statement, doesn’t hold at all: “We do not [author’s emphasis] agree with colleagues that everything we’ve done in art for the last 8, 14, 20, or for some more than 30 years, has been to decorate bombs.” If you remove ‘not’, it would read more plausibly. It’s not the silence or the Aesopian language in the early days of the war from the majority of Russian intellectuals that struck me. The most striking thing was the public posts about this being the end of their career, “I should have left earlier”, “it’s infuriating that scholarships are being rescinded” (for example, Ilya Matveev’s post with many comments). And, now, it is clear to me how culture functioned in Russia. You had huge opportunities and resources in comparison to Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, or Kyrgyzstan. When you write about the courage it takes to be engaged in contemporary culture in Russia (an insensitive/problematic statement against the backdrop of the bombing going on in), it sounds pretty funny, because it’s clear that you don’t know anything about the courage it takes to be engaged in contemporary culture in Ukraine and Belarus, Kazakhstan, or pretend that you don’t know about it. What kind of courage are we talking about if you have always worked “regardless” of the borders, having a certain historical “farsightedness”, although everything was happening before your eyes? How many collaborations have you had recently with artists from Ukraine, Belarus, or Georgia?
The readiness with which the contemporary Russian culture is willing to commit suicide is amazing, and yet it becomes clear that the connection of art with capital and embellishment was so strong that without it Russians do not know how to survive. The way cultural workers live in Belarus (the entire cultural infrastructure was financed with their own funds or NGO money, and there was no state funding in principle) and in Ukraine (conditions were slightly better) is incomparable with the amount of money and resources poured into Russian culture. You urge people not to retire because it’s still possible to do something but how can it be done if at the beginning of your statement you claim that it didn’t work out? This is a delay of at least twenty years.
I have always wondered why after 2014, Russian artists don’t put the war with Ukraine i.e. the annexation of Crimea on their agenda? Why are there no projects about Georgia, the war in 2008, and after all, about Chechnya? One of the few artists working with these issues is Aslan Goisum. What else could be more colonial than this silence? Of course, there are other examples — for example, the works of Anastasia Vepreva and others, but they are extremely rare. I remember that the map of the Garage Triennial included the Crimean peninsula, and this obviously caused a critical response from Ukrainian artists. There were no critical comments from Russian artists and only responses that Crimea is not the most important topic and there are more significant things. Sasha Obukhova, on the instructions of The Garage Museum, went to Crimea to explore Russian contemporary art and was surprised to admit that there were no contemporary artistic practices there — and Ukrainians responded to her that all art was expelled during the annexation in 2014.
About anti-war Russian cosmism. We have always been annoyed by labeling cosmism as Russian. We cannot understand for what reason it is necessary to insist on its ethnicity. Why do with it what was done with the avant-garde, namely tightly gluing the adjective “Russian” to it and suppressing the universal internationalism of the avant-garde? Russian cosmism, with all due respect to your work, when viewed from the perspective of the former Soviet republics, has always looked like an imperial and chauvinistic concept, where “Russian” referred to self-exotisation and souvenirs. Nikita Kadan wrote about the realism of the pit — and this is where Ukrainian cosmism is now, while Russian cosmism shines out from the black hole of mobile crematoriums that the Russian army brought with them to burn the bodies of slain soldiers. We think that in the past twenty years, Russian art has been working not “against history”, but in the fog of history.
From the outside, work “against history” looks completely different. Here is an excerpt from the recent interview by the artist Vitaly Bespalov with Sergey Guskov (02/21/2022):
SG: Since you’ve mentioned the “inclination towards the right,” explain what your interest is here?
VB: As a rule, the extreme left believe that any engagement with totalitarian aesthetics by default makes you a supporter of certain ideologies. Although, in my opinion, this part of the political spectrum is not sufficiently studied in terms of imagery and aesthetic form. This engagement doesn’t mean that I am flirting with such aesthetics in some way. In general, I’m curious why it causes such a flurry of emotions in people. It is obvious that such ideologies are unlikely to seriously influence anything ever again, and their supporters are unlikely to gain power.
As a non-citizen of the Russian Federation, I am deeply frightened by the blindness of such statements. “The fog of history” has settled in so tightly — now you can understand why Putin decided on military aggression since statements of this kind come from the contemporary art scene. I’m not even talking about the hypocritical position of the authors of the TZVETNIK who made a dumb publication only on the 4th day of the war, but on the 11th day, they removed the blue-yellow mark from their Instagram profile and deleted their posts dedicated to Ukraine.
Imperial tropes become even more visible in an interview with the artist Daria Kuznetsova made by Anna Karpenko. The whole interview is indicative of what I mean; I copy a few quotes here:
Q: Is Russia’s aggressive policy towards the so-called indigenous small-numbered peoples and the appropriation of neighboring lands accompanied by the destruction of local culture, language, traditions, part of the history of Russia at the “center of world history” for you?
A: I look at it a little bit differently. From my perspective, which is grounded in the historical and fiction literature that I’ve read, the policy of the Russian Empire was not aimed at oppressing the small peoples who inhabited it (their cultures, traditions, and religions), while the communist government even invested a lot in their development. The small people who lived on the territory of the Russian Empire and were part of it were not oppressed, their culture and religion were not destroyed. In particular, mosques, Buddhist pagodas, Catholic and Greek Catholic churches, synagogues, and Orthodox churches existed and were preserved — all this coexisted in all its diversity. Of course, there were more Orthodox churches, because there was a larger Orthodox population. Of course, the Soviet government didn’t support religion, not only small peoples’ one but also Orthodox — none at all. Which in my opinion, of course, was a mistake. <…>
Q: Aren’t you getting confused with the dark side of the great project of “friendship of peoples”? In Belarus, for example, in one night, October 29–30, 1937, the entire cultural, scientific, and civil intelligentsia (more than 100 people) were shot. In the period from 1937 to 1938, Stalin’s repressions against Belarusians reached its peak: more than 100,000 people were arrested, repressed, exiled to camps, and thrown into prisons. The Belarusian language was actually supplanted and replaced by Russian at the state level.
A: I don’t know the specific situation in Belarus, as far as I remember, Belarusian was taught at school along with Russian, the same was true for the Ukrainian language. National literature was published in these languages and translated into Russian. Stalin’s repressions, like any other repressions, are terrible.
Statements of this kind were the norm: they weren’t openly criticized or condemned. I know that this is not a representation of the entire art scene but in a certain sense it is mainstream, and the apolitical nature of TZVETNIK and Serkova’s theoretical texts were set up precisely to bypass critical thinking, and at the same time to represent “the newest art” as something completely new, where the old political schemes don’t work and clearly defined political positions shouldn’t be heard. I think all this was a fair representation of how things were in Russian culture before February 24, 2022. Responsibility turned out to be dispersed in the form of “peace doves” on avatars or vague “no war” statements (what war? — there are many of them). The avoidance of a clear designation of the aggressor, the vagueness, and instrumentalization of the concepts of reaction, fascism, and nationalism hung in this fog. The fact that Russian institutions have done almost no anti-colonial work over the past years is obvious: rare and small attempts to do it have not become part of the broader discussions. Now your resentment of exclusion through voiced boycotts is striking, like Katya Degot’s under Nikita Kadan’s post. Kadan published an image with the caption that the Russians are bombing Babyn Yar. Degot wrote: “not Russians, but Putin.” This is the diagnosis that you need to work with, and take responsibility for both personally and collectively.
Yes, I think it is necessary to boycott all Russian state and oligarchic institutions, as well as all those who are not working against the war now, and remain silent. Only then will the “great Russian culture” feel how cultural workers have lived and are living in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
The day after Uladzimir Hramovich’s essay was published, Arseniy Zhilyaev sent us a written response to it. We post this text here in full and translated from Russian.
OPEN LETTER TO ULADZIMIR HRAMOVICH
Let us start by pointing out that we can understand and agree with the majority of statements that Hramovich brought up in his text. Nevertheless, some things require additional commentary and clarification. We want to emphasize that we see this mere exchange of opinions as very valuable nowadays. Not the least as a dialogue between the two artists united by their mutual status as being from aggressor countries (although the Russian and Belarusian roles in this conflict are disparate). We will try to briefly react to the criticism and, to some extent, dispel “the fog of history”.
Unfortunately, we fully share the surprise associated with the first reactions to the war coming from Russia. Letters, written at the end of February, despite including demands to halt hostilities and sometimes especially harsh criticism of the authorities, contained language that read as imperialistic or inappropriately petty. Even in those letters that had the best of intentions, the shock to what was happening activated deep set patterns that had been cultivated in specific local space and time. Thinking about self-preservation, survival; hoping, perhaps in secret, for authorities and/or the greatness within a culture to reconcile everything and everyone, is a very understandable mode of life in Russia. Here we do not exclude ourselves in any way: we are not an exception, and we fully share the accountability with our colleagues.
It is particularly complicated to assess this situation from the inside. There are no ready-made answers here. Without underestimating the collective accountability and the amount of work to be done, we should note that Russia has been a country where people have not been free for a long time. While accepting varying kinds of criticism to compromises we have made, we note that today within the informal dialogues there is a widespread opinion that the relationship between people and Russian authorities resembles the dynamic between a victim and a rapist. “Like it, don’t like it, be patient my beauty”1 is a principle that has long become the norm both in Russia and in Belarus. The discourse of guilt, the popularity of which is understandable from a psychological standpoint, is applied to people who already have a long and complicated history of traumatic relationships with an abuser. This should not be forgotten.
By inertia, The Russian discourse mostly continues to maintain the idea of its superiority in relation to the former USSR countries. Although, in fact, considering the depth of integration with and its value for the international context, its profoundness and self-righteousness, art from Russia was most often seen as inferior to art from neighboring regions well before February 24. At the same time, it does not seem to us that the measure of anti-colonial work should be based solely on the number of joint projects or direct critical appeals to the political undertakings of the authorities. It seems that artists from Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine – countries that have faced military aggression from Russia, have recently had more significant things to do than work on joint projects or increase visibility in Moscow. And money, which is cited as an aggravating circumstance for the absence of that decolonial work that was not carried out, cannot unequivocally correlate with the reflexivity, complexity, and development of artistic production.
Yes, it is tough for many to come to terms with the loss of the “beautiful Russia of the future”2 with its bike lanes, cafes, contemporary art centers, and liberal values, but here and now, it hardly matters. There will be no more contemporary art in Russia, or, at least, it will be incredibly far from what we have seen here for the past 20 years. During the war, it makes no sense to talk about it. After that, those who remain at large or will not be broken by the situation will have a chance to start from scratch with a clear understanding of their priorities and values, without anesthesia, without untenable hopes.
The philosophy of the “Common Cause” by Nikolai Fedorov views the war as one of the main enemies. War is the conductor of death and suffering. It is possible to perceive terminology, rhetorical devices, religiosity, utopianism, and other often contradictory aspects of Russian cosmism in various ways. But the obvious cannot be denied. If there is anything significant in cosmism for the current moment, it is its fundamental pacifism and opposition to any form of discord and violence. As for internationalism and Russianness in cosmism, no one has ever, except for the ideologists of imperialism like Prokhanov, emphasized its ethnic specificity. It has always been about internationalism and openness. “Russian” in the phrase “Russian cosmism” indicated a particular cultural specificity, which arose due to the peculiarities of the Russian and Soviet contexts. Simply denying it would not remove these features; and if one were to assume that it did, it would hardly have been a liberating gesture.
There should be many cosmisms, as well as futurisms. There is a corpus of texts and artistic works which can be characterized as “Ukrainian cosmism”. And here, in addition to the references brought up by Vladimir in his text, we refer to the latest issue [of “Cosmic Bulletin”] containing bright voices from the Ukrainian context. Over the past decades, a constellation of new futurisms has emerged, and each of them articulates the future in its own way, based on the local views and peculiarities. There is Ethnofuturism, which came from Tartu and is associated with Finno-Ugric culture; there is Gulf futurism, Sinofuturism, and other futurisms. All of them, thanks to deliberate work with their own cultural specificity, can be perceived as critical, anti-colonial projects that oppose any colonial and imperial violence. We see Russian cosmism, like all other cosmisms, as part of precisely this liberation movement. At times of war, it is particularly tough for the parties of a conflict to engage in any dialogue. The dialogue of cultures, the dialogue of art, is no exception here. Any association with the aggressor country induces a negative reaction. These emotions are understandable and certainly justified at the moment. We hope that the cooperative work for the sake of peace will make the conversation about different versions of cosmism, different versions of futurism, and, in principle, radical artistic projects of the future more appropriate.
The call to boycott Russian institutions and artistic initiatives that do not openly declare their anti-war position does not sound harsh. This demand looks like a more balanced reaction that differs from the voices of the radicals who call for the complete isolation of everything and everyone associated with the Russian and Belarusian contexts – regardless of whether a person in question is arrested and subjected to violence for participating in an anti-war rally or calling for the destruction of the whole world to restore the Russian Empire. Calls for complete isolation, ethnic destruction, and alike also exist, but we will not comment on them. Just let us point out that now, the list of boycotted art institutions in Russia includes those who openly and unequivocally demanded an end to hostilities in Ukraine. It is clear that people have something to do besides tracking the social media of Moscow museums and centers of contemporary art. Just let us remind you once again that the overwhelming majority of cultural and art workers in Russia spoke out against the war. It applies to both employees of institutions and people who have nothing to do with them. Yes, the directness of their position varies. Everyone now assesses the risks for themselves and their loved ones. In the conditions of this new reality, people who express their opinion about what is happening, face up to 5, 15, or 20 years in prison, depending on the inventiveness of the authorities. However, despite everything, the slogan “No to war!” endures.
This phrase, popular in mainstream culture and traces back to either an obscene anecdote or a song, was used by Putin during talks with French President Macron on February 7, 2022 [ed.]↩
Initially, the expression “beautiful Russia of the future” was used by Russian politician Alexei Navalny when he spoke about the potential transformations he would carry out if he came to power [Ed.]↩