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Election “Khutin Pui, or What’s in Moscow? Election Campaign, a View from Below

The author has been following the protest against Putin through Facebook and a number of internet portals and claims that "even through the distance that any media technology always creates, one could not help feeling deeply affected by the joyous festivities during the protest events – tens of thousands strong manifestations, marches, flash mobs, and car rallies". "The idea that a political change must precede an economic discussion prevails. In the absence of a social program, the carnival feature of the protest movement becomes the uniting principle pulling together people who otherwise would have never ever acted together.".

Published on balticworlds.com on mars 1, 2012

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Carnival: the Politics of Representing Politics

“The world will be saved by the balagan (street theater playing farce)”. In this carnivalesque paraphrase of the famous dictum by Dostoevsky, Lev Rubinstein, truly the brain and the tongue of Moscow’s recent political protests, and the one who currently occupies the position of “the Sun of Russian Poetry”, sums up the results of the political season that is swiftly moving to its end in the presidential election on March 4th.

[1]

The carnival, according to Mikhail Bakhtin, is a mass festivity that draws a prohibited pleasure from overturning hierarchies and drawing all norms inside out. In the topsy-turvy world of the carnival, enjoyment becomes a political factor. Another twisted quotation from Dostoevsky, “The world will be saved by the Queer (mir spaset kvir)”, was displayed by the LGBT column during one of the winter manifestations. And it will, indeed, if such a motto could appear in the context of Russia’s notorious homophobia shared even by many “progressive people”. In the atmosphere of carnivalesque permissiveness, prejudices tend to be forgotten.

[2]

I have been following the events through Facebook and a number of internet portals. [3] Even through the distance that any media technology always creates, one could not help feeling deeply affected by the joyous festivities during the protest events – tens of thousand strong manifestations, marches, flash mobs, and car rallies. Since the television ignored them, they were being streamed live through i-pads and mobile phone cameras, and then reported by hundreds of photographers on Facebook and Livejournal. In general, the inventiveness and technical acuity that the protesters demonstrated during this time, appropriating the most advanced, experimental technologies to publicize the movement was amazing. The internet, and especially social networks, are themselves highly carnivalesque forms of medium, encouraging non-formal, almost intimate relations between people, and abounding in pranks, practical jokes, obscenities, and symbolic violence. Another specificity is how the internet treats time and events. It is a medium of incessant shocks: as distinct from television and newspapers, internet news portals announce a new sensation practically every hour. Thus history comes to you consisting of sensational shocks changing each other in a hysterical tempo. And since every click on “like” or “share” is not only a means of communicating how you feel about an event, but also a way of memorializing it (by leaving it to hang on you timeline waiting for you to quote it), history transforms into a total hysteria of faster-than- light-speed reactions, while your page on Facebook becomes an instantaneous archive and a museum of the here-and-now. However, since every recording system, as Plato told us many years ago, also serves oblivion, the internet is also most effective in repressing memory and history, burying one event in an avalanche of new sensations that are delivered by the minute.

It is not surprising that under the press of such an intense history happening to you while you are reading the news, and given the sense of an unholy celebration typical of the internet in general, that the viewer/reader aestheticizes and idealizes the new Russian revolution more than it probably deserves. However, it is precisely this utopian view at Russia from below as it is created through the internet that I propose to look into, with a special interest in the new politics of representation of politics. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrVfsvp-cJw

[4]

The Importance of Being Earnest, or Letting the Russians Free Themselves

Serious people do not share Slavoj Žižek’s view of enjoyment as a political factor. [5] It is extremely little attention that serious-minded international press has been giving the new protests in Moscow which started after the Duma election on December 4, 2011.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=tN_CyXSbLSA [6]

In the influential political analysis by Stratfor Global Intelligence (known as “the shadow CIA”), people who participate in the protests were hardly mentioned as a factor.[7] The Swedish morning papers Svenska Dagbladet and Dagens Nyheter had been ignoring the situation, until during the last week before the presidential election they showered their readers with Russian stuff, combining chilling stories about political murders under Putin with recipes of bliny with caviar and a quiz challenging the audience to show their knowledge about Vladimir Putin. Such a Russia sums up into a masochistic image, both frightening and appetizing, but fundamentally dead silent. That Russian protesters had been accusing Putin and his party out loud and in public as thieves and criminals, demanding resignations and a re-election, had only been mentioned in passing, with mixed-up names of people and places. The reason for the deafness of the Western media was explained by The Economist in a recent article calling on the interested parties “to let the Russians free themselves” and to get involved only in the event things get tough:

The West is in an awkward position. Although Russia would benefit from the rule of law and fair elections, the West cannot afford to be seen cheering on the protesters. Mr. Putin was elected and, until recently, popular. In Russia, more than in most countries, critics are often depicted as tools of America. Already the Kremlin has accused the new American ambassador of openly consorting with the protesters.

But the West should still be blunt in warning Mr. Putin of the consequences of any resort to force after the election. That means tough, specific sanctions if need be. The Russians are rich and sophisticated enough to sort out their politics themselves. Open repression, however, must be resisted. [8]

While the West reflects on the awkward position it finds itself in and elaborates a last-minute strategy of dealing with Putin like they did with Saddam and Kaddafi, the Russians are indeed “freeing themselves”, and the idea of the West is getting increasingly unpopular even among the “Westernizers”. Protest had been brewing among the apparently docile population ever since the 24th September, when Putin and Medvedev announced Putin’s plan for a new, 6 year long term of presidency. It burst out in quite desperate public manifestations against falsified election first on December 4th immediately following the election day. When the opposition leaders agreed to meet Ambassador Mcfaul[9] at the US embassy almost on the first day of his office, they were severely reprimanded by practically all others in the protest movement for showing “the Americans “ too much compliance and, more important, for creating a chance for the pro-Putin movements to make spectacular accusations of treason. The allegations against the civil society’s for unpatriotically “acting jackals” at the embassies (expression by Putin), were used to justify Putin’s devastating reform of the NGOs several years ago, but such sentiments remain painfully alive and a popular argument against the “progressives”. This is what creates a huge difference as compared to the mass protests of the late Glasnost and the early 1990s, when support from the Western democracies was welcome and expected. Nowadays, expressing an attitude like that would be suicidal, so that even the oppositional leaders with close links in the US Congress or the House of Commons exclude any mention of the “hand of the West” from their rhetoric.

Irony As, and Against, Linguistic Violence

Another characteristic feature of this protest is the absolute absence of any social program. As early as the protests just started, one of Russia’s leading political analysts, Liliia Shevtsova of the Moscow Carnegie Center was warning that this can be fatal for the new revolution. However, revolution is a fearful word that practically no one among the protesters would ever subscribe to it, apart from the desperate radicals:

[10]

Since the opposition is not interested in splitting from within, social and economic questions are almost never discussed, and the idea that a political change must precede an economic discussion prevails. What all in the protest movement are interested in, is a better representation. “Vy nas dazhe ne predstavliaiete” (“You don’t even represent us”, or “You don’t even imagine who we are”) thus became the most adequate slogan of the season:

In the absence of a social program, the carnival, again, becomes the uniting principle pulling together political forces from radical liberals to communists and anarchists, from millionaires to poor students and the so called “office plankton”, the well-to-do Muscovites to the poor intelligentsia outside, the glamorous high life to street beggars – in short, people who would have never otherwise ever acted together.

Our New, Great, and Beautiful Patriotism

Another new sentiment that brings people together is patriotism (“I want to be proud of my country”, I want to live in a normal country”, is how protesters often argument for reform), which combines with the already mentioned skepticism concerning the West. Just as Walter Benjamin in 1926-27 observed a Russia that knew less about the world than the world knew about it, so is also the situation today, judging by the mainstream discourse. The map below serves as an ironic representation of a self-centered Russia which in spite of its ever-expanding commercial mobility still does not understand what is happening around it, nor cares so much.

Here we can see the huge body of Our Great and Beautiful Russia occupying the lions’ share of the map’s area and adorned with a Kremlin tower and an imperial double-headed eagle. The North Pole is marked with “our North”, and surrounding Russia are marginal territories of indistinguishable nations all painted black and without borders, and all inscribed with derogatory racist and xenophobic names that proliferate in the Russian spoken language. The image of the Other, one can assume.

Among other “others” on the map, we find a distorted representation of Finland and Sweden, inscribed with piderasy vsiakie, a dirty expression literally referring to pederasty but in actual reality having little to do with sex. Sweden and Finland should actually stand proud among the nations because this abuse is used to denote not anything at all, but cleverness and sophistication – a trait that is hated but also respected at the same time by other “normal” people. This is a label (like many other political categories coined by Russia’s more colorful leaders like Khruschev or Putin in their baroque use of language) that originated in the sexual vocabulary of the GULag and became a winged word after Khruschev used it to criticize a bunch of free-thinking abstract artists at the Manezh art show in 1962. [11]

A New Non-Violence

Likewise more sophisticated than they should ideally be, are the Moscow protesters, who agree to be referred to with this abusive term, but first after an ironic re-interpretation. Such an affirmative strategy against linguistic violence has been a trend in global world, which shows that the barriers of Russian ignorance about the others are not impenetrable. When a group of young protesting hipsters refer to themselves, as, with all respect, piderasy, they are using a strategy of linguistic resistance comparable to that of a young African American appealing to his brethren as “niggers”. A term of abuse becomes a badge of honor. When Putin made a joke on national television calling the street protesters the Bandar Log [12] and thus implied himself to be the terrifying python Kaa, the monkeys’ ‘wrath of God’, the street responded with an explosion of pictures, aphorisms, and slogans ridiculing his attempt to expropriate the image of a favorite cartoon character (the python in the picture below is not Kaa, though).

In return to being called “hamsters”, with an implication that the opposition is supported by brainless vermin, three unknown individuals made an ironic public performance dressed up as innocent fluffy pets during one of the manifestation, which attracted a huge amount of attention and a record number of “likes” and “shares” in social networks:

http://t2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTVpQG7d6nb230dxRxbXDLMKC6Kdicxx400ZPJzrqEm72FuHeh85w

It must be noted, that the meaning itself of “share” has been restored in the sense of generous gift-giving and participation. Lev Rubinshtein acknowledged this new generosity as a sign of the new time, the epoch of “repost-modernism” (perepostmodernizm).

The protest has thus developed after several years of bi-monthly self-sacrifice of the obstinate few in Triumfalnaia Square into a popular feast with tens of thousands participants in the streets and probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions following the events on the internet all over the world. http://www.ej.ru/img/content/Notes/10180//1276291921.jpg [13]

Even the pro-Putin national television has reported such events a couple of times, although drowning this scarce information in hours of air time glorifying Putin’s wise rule and political acuity.

A Russia from “the Nether Domains”

The carnival is a feast that overturns values upside down, dethrones legitimate authority, and celebrates in a deluge of obscenity. A tsunami of bad language and a storm of pornographic images and allusions have flooded the internet, parts of it also splashing out into the streets. This was however triggered by Putin himself, when he publicly compared white ribbons — the symbol of the protests — with used condoms. To this, the street gave an adequate response: “Condom yourself!”:

What unites everyone is a veritable “linguistic turn” towards what Mikhail Bakhtin called “niz”, “the domain of the nether”. To Putin’s demarche, the streets responded with a hurricane of abuse (of which Putin publicly complained in his characteristically anal choice of words as “diarrhea”). Whatever tragic connotations the protests still preserved (as in the dramatic detentions by the otherwise neutral police of radical activists, both the left and the Russian nationalists) this has for the time being almost evaporated giving way to vigorous, robust pre-Oidipal mirth.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Soft Moscow

Thus, in contrast to the intervals between public actions, which fill up with analysis and gossip, loads of criticism inside the opposition, hysterical news, conspiracy theories, revelations of the Kremlin’s sinister plans, intriguing, politicking, and generally fishing in muddy waters, — in contrast to all of this, during the actions themselves, when thousands of people get together on a Sunday afternoon to join their voices in the expression of their political will, what emanates from my notebook is a spirit of pure, unalloyed joy, friendliness, even fraternity. Which is a great victory of this weird anti-revolutionary revolution. As is universally known, Moscow is in general an extremely mean city with an everyday dog-eat-dog business-as-usual attitude, too capitalism-friendly, and drowning in unfairly distributed concentrations of crazy money. It was, therefore, a miracle observing this traditionally “hard and lovelss” city (as qualified by Walter Benjamin in his Moscow Diary) suddenly brimming with anarchic energies of self-organization, a new ethic, and an exciting feeling of respect. Until the moment it is defeated in violence and/or political game playing, revolution remains a feast, and it is this rare moment that we are witnessing in Moscow.

http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.308658602515043.72609.100001127166762&type=1

And Lev Rubinstein, the brain and the razor-sharp tongue of the revolution, currently “the Sun of Russian Poetry”, has all reason to look satisfied.

references

  1. This popular motto can be translated as “Futin, puck yourself”.
  2. Inscription in the picture: “Are you still hesitating whom to vote for?” The Sun of Russian Poetry.
  3. Slogans on the picture: “Down with the party of thieves, crooks, and homophobes” [“United Russia”]; “ A reasonable person should be ashamed walking with the Nashi instead of the gays”; “The authorities repress all minorities. Only together can we win.”
  4. Newsru.com, svobodanews.ru, bg.ru, openspace.ru, grani.ru, ovdinfo.org, echo.msk.ru, novayagazeta.ru, newtimes.ru, themoscowtimes.ru, kommersant.ru, livejournal ru, and others.
  5. A political mardi gras (provody politicheskoi zimy, literally ‘a farewell to political winter’) at the square of Revolution on February 26th, a non-permitted collective action that culminated in the burning of effigies and police detentions.
  6. An enjoyable video showing a cat attentively listening to his very serious explication of enjoyment as a political factor, see on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJAOLiDQ0_A
  7. The manifestation shouting “Russian without Putin”; “Putin Go Away”, “Putin is a thief”, “An honest election”
  8. http://stratfor.com/analysis/russias-shifting-political-landscape-part-1-overview-political-changes
  9. http://www.economist.com/node/21547240
  10. See his facebook journal on http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=584309855
  11. There is nothing left here to put it right, O Lord, -- burn [it]!
  12. See http://www.zaxodi-v-internet.ru/hruschev-v-manezhe.html, especially an MP3 file containing Khruschev’s speech at Manezh.
  13. Vicious monkeys from Rudyard Kipling’s Second Book of Jungle, fought by the just, but fearsome python Kaa. Given the fact that both the monkeys and the python are known thanks to the popular Soviet animation, rather than from reading Kipling, it is remarkable how Soviet children’s entertainment (Mowgli,as well as other 1970-80s children books, movies, and especially cartoons) provide a hypertext and an archive of universally understandable allusions against the background of which the discursive practices of the protest and counter-protest have been evolving. This thesis requires further research.
  14. A protester being detained at one of the Strategy 31 actions in June 2012. Strategy 31 is the initiative by human rights activists to protect Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, guaranteeing the freedom of assembly, by organizing protest at Triumfalnaia square every 31st of respective months (January, March, etc.), http://strategy-31.ru/.
  • Pingback: Carnival to Commons: Pussy Riot Punk Protest and the Exercise of Democratic Culture – Claire Tancons()

  • Kateryna Pishchikova

    Thank you for such insightful analysis!
    I think the Russians themselves did not expect it was possible to protest like this and I hope from this realisation a new kind of civil society and public sphere will emerge, bringing indeed a qualitative change.
    Best, Kateryna Pishchikova

  • Irina Sandomirskaja

    Thank you, Kristian, it's important what you say. A third wave it is, and hopefully the last one. All skeptics secretly counted on a different result, of course. But obviously it is not over as yet

  • Kristian Gerner

    The third wave, of course!

  • Kristian Gerner

    Pluralistic ignorance recedes – so democratic Russia will recognize herself..
    This is the thor wave – from below, after the thaw and glasnost, the two steps forward from above.
    Thansk for a wonderful analysis, Irina!
    Kristian
     

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