Yevgeniy Zhuravel interviews Kirill Medvedev (above), a Moscow-based poet, translator, and activist. He is the founder of the Arkady Kots band.
YZ: Can you tell a bit about yourself and how did you became a leftist? It seems that in Russia till recently it was not a common political choice.
KM: I became a self-conscious leftist at the beginning of the 2000s. There is a rather typical scenario for that generation of the Russian left, which emerged mostly from the Soviet intelligentsia of different levels of prosperity. Many of us were still able to spend our childhood under still rather comfortable conditions, so we were able to absorb the humanistic code of the Soviet intelligentsia, and then suddenly found ourselves in the historical hole of the 90s, when this code turned out to be not only redundant, but simply made survival difficult. Some of our parents had believed that shock therapy and total privatisation are the necessary stages on the way to democracy, others voted for the failed Communist Party, and some became quickly disappointed and depoliticised. The new left emerged from this trauma, but not out of a desire for revanche, but with the feeling that both nostalgia for Soviet times and jolly anti-Sovietism, which brought most of the intelligentsia to support Putin, are dead ends; that if one wants to be a citizen and a political subject, some hard work is required in order to build a new political culture and environment. Sometime during 2003-2004, I started getting an idea that maybe this thankless job—being part of the left—is not the worst way to spend the next decade or two.
YZ: The band that you are a part of is called Arkadiy Kots, after the Russian translator of “The Internationale”. Who are the people in the band, why this particular name was chosen and what musical and political traditions do you follow?
KM: The name seemed to be appropriate because Kots was simultaneously a poet, a translator, an activist and a sociologist; he wrote a study on the Belgian unions from the beginning of the 20th century. Such synthesis is interesting to us. Oleg Zhuravlev, with whom we founded the group, is a well-known young sociologist, member of the “Public Sociology Lab” collective, which does research on the recent protests in Russia and Ukraine. They just published a book in Russia, which will be released in Holland soon. Nikolay Oleynikov is a member of the renowned art-group “What has to be done?”(Chto Delat?). His work is related to antifascism and gender problems. In fact, in the Free Marxist Press, we published his collection “Sex of the Oppressed”, the discussions of sex and politics. If Oleg brings to the group the spirit of research, Nikolaj the spirit of militant queer carnival. Anya Petrovich and Misha Griboedov are more professionally connected to music: they are practically the musical directors of the group, fighting, for example, with my horrible unprofessionalism. Gosha Komarov, an activist of the Worker’s Platforms, which unites the most workerist (proletarian) part of the left radicals, is a multi-instrumentalist. This is the backbone of the group, we are all convinced communists, but, as it happens, we occasionally end up playing with people who do not share our views, which gives us some openness and a chance not to turn into a sect.
We translate a lot to Russian – from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to old Italian anarchist songs. We write songs based on poems of Russian poets and write our own: “Be Involved in Political Struggle”, “It is not shameful to be a worker” etc., which hide uneasy reflections about our own political subjectivity.
Overall we try to juxtapose maximised aesthetic openness with a clear political message, to get out of the boundaries of the radical left, subcultural milieu. Right now we are working on an album devoted to the history of the worker’s movements, from Luddites to Zhanaozen, with a support of Confederation of Labour of Russia, whose congress we recently opened with our Russian versions of songs “Bread and Roses” and “Power in a Union”, and gave a concert after the end of it.
YZ:You started the Free Marxist Press publishing house back in 2008. How did it evolve? What did you print recently and what are the plans?
KM: It all had started with samizdat (DIY?) books – “Why I am a Marxist?” by Ernest Mandel, Pasolini’s “Communist Party – to the Youth”, “Marxism and Feminism” by Marcuse etc. Later on we started making small press runs at print shops. Producing a book from A to Z—translation, formatting, cover design, printing, binding, distribution – for me personally was an important experience, though a little bit exotic, mixing the spirit of completely unalienated creative work a la William Morris, on the one hand, and the productionism of the 20s, on the other. Being engaged in the material production of a book one gets into a very special relationships with a text which it contains.
We were oriented to both our comrades from the left movement, and to the outside, to show that left theory and poetry is a part of a world culture of the 20th century, the part that was either rejected or castrated in the Soviet Union, but also was ignored by the liberal generation of the 90s, with catastrophic results.
Right now the main series of books that we prepare are collections of the most important 20th century and contemporary Marxist authors: Ernst Bloch, Isaac Deutscher, Edward Thompson, Ernest Mandel, Stuart Hall, Michael Löwy, Daniel Bensaid, Mike Davis, David Harvey and others. We also started our poetry series – with books of Victor Serge and Kenneth Rexroth and work on collection of Friulian poems of Pasolini.
One more series is called the “The New Red” – these are the books of the contemporary Russian authors, in most cases young, who emerged in the last ten years at the intersection of science and activism. They work on different subjects as scientists and publicists, but the most important issue is the creation of a new left paradigm, in opposition to liberal-capitalist and national-Stalinist ones, but, which is very important, rooted in the Russian and Soviet history, that is on some level could be grasped by a lot of people. Another important theme is rethinking of the role and forms of party politics, it is important after the fall of the Communist party orthodoxy, and after disappointment in alter-globalization forms, the experience of Occupy and Indignados, in claims of total horizontality and lack of any kind of representation.
That is why we are very interested in works of Jodi Dean and are preparing to release her new book.
YZ:You decided not to copyright you own works. How has it worked out so far?
KM: In the beginning, it was a spontaneous reaction to what seemed to be a formation of a new bourgeois-authoritarian paradigm in the beginning of 2000s, when the chaos of the 90s was followed by a kind of normalization, unification of decorous, at least on the surface, bourgeois rules of the game with authoritarianism, a conservative trend with a new iteration of neoliberalization of economy. Cultural production for the depoliticized middle class, which was suggested to be happy that the 90s did not end up with a new revolution and sit still, “mind your own business”, as they say, thinking in the spirit of the late Soviet stereotypes that creative work and political involvement are not compatible. On the other hand, the radical ghetto that came from the 90s is more concerned with making expressions rather than creating a left radicalism distinct from the right and outlining foundations for some kind of new left politics. I think that my various gestures at that time were an individual protest, an attempt to find some personal, independent, and in a way, nonsensical point from which it was possible to move on.
My un-copyrighted books were published without my knowledge by NLO publishing house in Moscow, then in Estonia. When published in other countries the principle stays the same – I do not sign contracts on the publishing of poetry and manifests, and publishers, if they want, take their own responsibility for publishing without contract, though usually I stay in contact with them and may even come for a presentation. But problems still occur: for example, because of the refusal to sign a contract, I couldn’t publish my book with Verso.
After we founded our own publishing house, which published some un-copyrighted books, my own refusal to copyright seems to me even more logical. These strange relationships with intellectual property rights seem to be natural for the politically involved publishing I am interested in.
YZ:The 2011-2012 protests had changed the political landscape in Russia. What is the state of the civil society right now, after the Russian state has entered a reactionary phase. What are the consequences of the Maidan?
KM: The consequences are sad for oppositional politics: it practically has to be redone from scratch. The protests were a powerful event, which politicised many people for the first time in twenty years, but behind the abstract universalised “we” (citizens, free people, those who are against of dictatorship, and so on) the movement turned out to be incapable of expressing any kind of clear social program understandable to the majority. Many participants perceived themselves as the only real and free citizens compared to others, supposedly a zombified mass. It was extremely well used by propaganda which imposed the division between the metropolitan middle class with its own interests and all others, allegedly happy with Putin’s politics.
The Ukrainian events became another strike on the opposition, especially the left one. In general, there are two major ways of interpreting those events; liberals, on the one hand, believe Maidan to be a catch-up anti-Soviet revolution, in the logic of late convergence of post-Soviet countries with the Western civilisation. And this notion (by the way, similar to vulgar Marxist notion of determinism of historical process) in its extreme has a potentiality of social racism, because certain socio-cultural stratas (for example, people living in Donbass with their special consciousness formed during Soviet industrialism) start seeming to be just an obstacle for the so-called civilized, meaning, post-industrial, development. And this view in combination with the specific lingo of hatred is horrible in any possible sense. By the way, now we hear the same thing about Greeks, supposedly “lazy” and not wanting to adhere to the standards of the modern capitalism.
The other line of thinking, which is shared by “proNovorossian” left, is that the liberation from Russian influence and Soviet heritage puts post-Soviet states into complete dependence on the politics of Western neoliberal players, promotes further deindustrialization, unemployment, and degradation of society. From the point of view of analysis this is an essential question which we just do not have a right to ignore, but on the ideological level there exists its own extreme point – a kind of resentment taken from the point of view of some abstract “common people”, imagining that, for example, people of Donbass and all good ordinary workers are opposed by some kind of indivisible entity consisting of local oligarchs, world financial elites, pro-European intelligentsia, and “banderovtsy” (that is the name Russian state propaganda gives not only to fans of this infamous historical figure but also to all supporters of independent from Russia Ukranian state.)
This dangerous misconception by a part of left including the ones well-known in the West, like Boris Kagarlitsky, is that by supporting this rhetoric it would be possible as a result to take control of and put in the right direction the anti-liberal, anti-oligarchic sentiments of the masses, and direct them at minimum, against the liberal economic lobby. It is clear that it leads to a union with “red-browns” (a communist-nationalist alliance), for whom it is quite an appealing picture of the world, and Putinism, for which propagandist manipulations in this area is a way to protect its power.
Overall there are many who got lost between these two extremes, and turned out not ready for rational analysis. Emotions take over, people, often unconsciously, tend to be inclined to one of this opinions, make emotional statements on social networks, and some start to believe that a comrade of theirs just turned into “banderovets” or “vatnik”. As soon as one says something about American, or on the contrary, Russian, Putinist imperialism, it is seen as a sign of belonging to one of these two categories. The result is atomization and broken connections. Many just move aside, thinking that in this situation it is just impossible to find really like-minded people.
I believe that in the left movement there can exist rather different positions regarding the future of Crimea and Donbass, but there cannot be only two things: on the one hand, there can be no support of Putin’s politics in Ukraine (even with slogans against American hegemony, for multipolarity, etc.); on the other hand, there can be no elitist hatred of the majority (which is also a minority on certain territories), despite the prejudices that majority may share at the moment. I am sure that the main goal of the left at the moment is to end the power of financial institutions and neoliberal governments and start a new, post-Thatcherite era. But the struggle with peripheral dictatorships, like Putin’s, which aspires to a global influence and some kind of reactionary cultural messianism, is not less, but even more important.
Regarding Russian society, as a whole I can say from my personal experience of contacts with a lot of different people from random fellow-travelers to former classmates that the state’s Ukrainian, anti-liberal, revanchist, conservative propaganda was indeed successful. People do reply readily with arguments taken from TV broadcasts. But this surface layer of propaganda disappears rather fast when one replies not with familiar propaganda from the other side, but tries to speak about real social problems. And then it turns out that people have claims and hatred against this regime no less than oneself. That is the work that left should do.
YZ:What are the political movements that you associate yourself with in Russia? Can you tell us about the Russian Socialist Movement you are part of? What are the possible options for the left in Russia regarding activism and work with unions.
KM: In a wider sense, I align myself with a certain milieu which shares anti-racist and egalitarian values – internationalists left, union members, environmental, human rights, feminist, and LGBT activists. I believe that only from intersection and interaction of these circles can there be a social and political alternative for Russia.
The Russian Socialist Movement (RSM) appeared in 2011 as a merge of a few radical left groups, including “Forward” (“Vpered”) movement, which I became a member in 2005, and which acted at the time at the intersection of intellectual art and political agendas. We did poetry events and concerts in support of strikes, repressed labour rights activists. We picketed the staging of Brecht at the theater of bourgeois loyalist Kalyagin, against handling an important art award to imperialist artist Gintovt, we did a pro-feminist incursion at a debate of pro-Putin intellectuals, which ended up with a bloody fight, and wrote a letter to Alain Badiou with an advice to not to come to a conference organized by Kremlin’s intellectuals-spin doctors…
At RSM we continued these traditions –during rallies and protests, together with artists and poets, we organized a human megaphone, master-class on production of banners, mass distribution of books of Free Marxist Press etc.
Overall, the ambition of RSM, as expressed in its main slogan: “Revolution! Democracy! Socailism!”, was and will be the convergence of all healthy radical left forces, establishment of relationships with unions, environmental activists, feminists. Despite the partial Trotskyist background we never spent our time on sectarian critique of other left, remained maximally open and friendly. But the movement had its flaws: the common principles turned out to be a bit diffuse, and in moments of crises, the unity gets broken and centrifugal forces get activated. To build an organization on some kind of cementing dogma, on articles of faith (even if they are posed as scientific axioms) is a dead end, but common, even if a bit rhetoric position, which can unify very different people into a movement is more important than sympathies or common cultural, language codes inside micro-groups. The objective is to evade these two extremes.
Right now in Moscow the movement is not having its best times: in Saratov one of our activists Sergey Vilkov, a journalist, is being persecuted for exposing a local deputy connected to corrupt business and nationalistic underground. The Petersburg group is very active, groups in other cities appear, in Nizhniy Novgorod, in Yekaterinburg.
Some of us work with unions. I mentioned earlier that Arkadiy Kots has also moved in this direction. Unions politicize slowly but surely. Union members can be very careful in their statements, but the most conscious of them understand the situation absolutely adequately: it is telling that Alexey Etmanov, Oleg Shein, Dmitriy Gevarin, the well know left connected to unions, unequivocally stated position against interference in Ukrainian internal affairs, against war, for Russian workers as hostages of a small group of oligarchs, higher-up officials, and the Christian Orthdox-Stalinist ideological lobby. And a recent statement by the Confederation of Labour of Russia, in the background of rabid cult of victory in WWII from one side, and equation of USSR with Nazi Germany from the other, is a good text about common history of European workers, antifascist and left movements.
Till now all attempts to create a mass organization independent from the Communist Party resulted in reproduction of Stalinist rhetoric, aesthetic and revanchist emotions. Liberals’ rhetoric based on constant appeals to historical repentance is also a dead end.
Our goal is that critical approach to history, including Soviet history and a taboo on petty jingoism do not contradict the ability to accept this history as ours, including the one of victories and achievements. We need democratic, people’s history of Russia and USSR, the one turned to the future. And I believe that only a historic block, consisting of the labour movement, the new left intelligentsia, and movements for gender equality, is capable of generating a new view of history and, essentially, a new, modern left force, open and able to fight for socialism in different segments of society. In this sense RSM follows its own agenda, and looks up to the experiences of Brazilian Labour Party, as well as those of Syriza, Podemos and Turkish HDP, which are important to us even in their negative aspects.
YZ:It seems that in the last few years there is an emergence of feminist and gender-equality movements. What is your opinion of them and do you take any part in their activities?
KM:Yes, it is with a lot of happiness that I see this growth, the multiple feministic exhibitions, debates, conferences, street actions, breakthrough of feminists into mass media. I certainly take part whenever I can and I took part, for example, in their graffiti action on March 8 night.
The Left is often turned off by the most radical and separatist manifestations of feminism, and feminists, rightfully so, criticise left men for enduring patriarchy; here a lot is tied to emotions, to abscesses that have to be lanced, sometimes in a provocative manner. It is clear that the aggressive reaction of a huge number of men to even the most inoffensive feminist statements is a compensation for social pressure, for symbolic and real violence on the part of other men. A man is humiliated by his boss, he loses in a competition, but he is sure that a woman next to him exists to support his self-esteem, even in the most perverted way, by tolerating his violence. Even more clearly, behind most of women’s antifeminism is a hidden history of repression, humiliation, and violence on part of men.
So decreasing of social pressure on human beings is one of these common goals. I believe feminism and socialism are not completely irreducible to each other, but struggle with the delirium of patriarchy, which covers up family and street violence against women, fight for real, not formal, gender equality within families, at work, in governing bodies, struggle for support of women by society and the state in the form of crisis centers, free kindergartens, schools, guarantees of economic independence for mothers and so on; this all our common, left and feminist struggle.
(H/t: Paul Canning)