Revolutionaries in living color

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It is often said that it was the painters who invented photography (by bequeathing it their framing, the Albertian perspective, and the optic of the camera obscura). I say: no, it was the chemists. For the noeme “That-has-been” was possible only on the day when a scientific circumstance (the discovery that silver halogens were sensitive to light) made it possible to recover and print directly the luminous rays emitted by a variously lighted object. The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star. A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed.

It seems that in Latin “photograph” would be said imago lucis opera expressa; which is to say: image revealed, “extracted,” “mounted,” “expressed” (like the juice of a lemon) by the action of light. And if photography belonged to a world with some residual sensitivity to myth, we should exult over the richness of the symbol: the loved body is immortalized by the mediation of a precious metal, silver (monument and luxury); to which we might add the notion that this metal, like all the metals of alchemy, is alive.

Perhaps it is because I am delighted (or depressed) to know that the thing of the past, by its immediate radiations (its luminances), has really touched the surface which in its turn my gaze will touch, that I am not very fond of color. An anonymous daguerreotype of 1843 shows a man and a woman in a medallion subsequently tinted by the miniaturists on the staff of the photographic studio: I always feel (unimportant what actually occurs) that in the same way, color is a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white photograph. For me, color is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses). What matters to me is not the photograph’s “life” (a purely ideological notion) but the certainty that the photographed body touches me with its own rays and not with a superadded light.

— Roland Barthes,
Camera Lucida

Color by klimbims (Olga)Mikhail Bakunin, 1860 Ulyanov family, 1879 Piotr Chaykovsky Kropotkin | Кропоткин Anton Chekhov Nadezhda Krupskaya, Vladimir Lenins wife Continue reading

They saved Lenin’s brain

 

An autopsy was performed on Lenin the same night as his embalming, lasting four hours and forty minutes. “Approximately halfway through the process Lenin’s brain was opened, and the direct cause of death was ascertained… When Lenin suffered a stroke on January 21, 1924, a large amount of blood rushed into his brain, much more blood than the sclerotic arteries had been transmitting. This pressure was too great for the brain’s damaged vessels, and the walls of those vessels broke down, flooding the brain with blood.” An official report of the autopsy was published the day of Lenin’s funeral. One reader, a non-party intellectual, criticized it for conveying the message that “Lenin is only matter, nothing more than a combination of a cranial hemisphere, intestines, an abdominal cavity, a heart, kidneys, a spleen…”

The weight of Lenin’s brain was 1,340 grams.

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In 1968, Paragon Films adapted one of its older theater releases for television. Madmen of Mandoras (1963) only ran for seventy minutes, so about twenty minutes of footage had to be added to fill an hour-and-a-half slot. The result was They Saved Hitler’s Brain, an awful potpourri of shitty sixties sci-fi, WWII nostalgia, and spy film.

Of course, no one actually saved Hitler’s brain. As everyone knows, most of it was left splattered over the walls of a Berlin bunker. What little remained could hardly be salvaged.

However, the brain of another world-historical figure — one who was comparable in stature, if politically his polar opposite — was in fact preserved. Vladimir Lenin’s brain is still soaking in a vat somewhere inside the Moscow Institute of Brain Research, founded shortly after his death. Nikolai Semashko, Commissar of Health, summoned a pair of internationally renowned neurologists to the Russian capital to examine Lenin’s brain. Cécile and Oskar Vogt were the ultimate brain cytology power couple in Paris at the time. Semashko and his Politburo ally, Stalin, ostensibly wanted to establish the genius of the deceased Soviet premier on a materialist basis.

Upon their arrival in 1925, the Vogts were warmly greeted by party officials. Given a team of understudies and laboratory aids, as well as a building in which they could conduct their research, the husband-and-wife tandem immediately set to work. Oskar in particular was impressed by Lenin’s neuronal arrangements. His brain apparently housed a high number of abnormally large pyramidal cells clustered near the cortex, supposedly indicating a strong associative faculty. Vogt referred to Lenin in private as an “association athlete.”

lenin's brain compared with another

But there was an ulterior motive behind their invitation to Moscow. Lenin had left a testament in which he commented upon the strengths and weaknesses of the leading Bolsheviks, many of whom were now vying to succeed him. While none emerged wholly unscathed, the sharpest criticisms were reserved for Stalin. In the final months before Lenin’s death, he and Stalin had fought vociferously. Things got so heated that Lenin recommended Stalin be removed from his position as General Secretary.

Krupskaya, Trotsky, and a few others hoped Vogt would find Lenin was compos mentis up to his death. Stalin of course hoped that Vogt would vindicate Lenin’s brilliance, but judge him to be not fully competent at the time he dictated his testament. At the end of the day, not much came of the inquiry. Provisional results were published in 1929, but no follow-up articles or essays immediately succeeded it. Not until 1967 would more information be released regarding the tests performed on Lenin’s brain.

Мозг Ильича Журнал «Смена» за 1925 год, рассказывает о «лучшем образце мозга человека с крупнейшим интеллектом»

Much has been written about this bizarre episode in the history of medical science and the early Soviet state. Tilman Spengler, a German author, novelized the story in 1991. Lenin’s Brain has since been widely translated. Paul R. Gregory, a Cold War liberal, included a chapter on it in his hokey collection Lenin’s Brain, and Other Stories from the Soviet Secret Archives. Igor Klatzo’s joint biography of Cécile and Oskar Vogt features a chapter about their time in Moscow. Jochen Richter’s “Pantheon of Brains: The Moscow Brain Research Institute, 1925-1936” can be read here.

Dubious though the science must seem, at nearly a century’s remove, the cult of genius within neuroscientific circles was not limited to Lenin. Vladimir Mayakovsky’s brain was also donated to the Institute and studied at length. Following the death of Albert Einstein in 1955, the great physicist’s brain was removed, mapped, cut into cross-sections, and scrutinized at length. Like Lenin, Einstein considered himself a socialist (albeit of a different stripe). Go figure.

Communist cranial capacity crushes cretinous capitalism.

The first building of the Moscow Brain Institute "Mozga" DETAIL_PICTURE_697657_80754362untitledVogt, Oskar *06.04.1870-+Hirnforscher, D- in seinem Forschungsinstitut im Schwarzwald bei der Betrachtung einer Filfolie aus einer Serie von Gehirnschnitten- 1943

Trotsky’s Italian connection: Gramsci or Bordiga?

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Since the rediscovery of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks after World War II, there have been a number of attempts to adapt their heavily-coded theoretical content to various political projects. Particularly during the period of the New Left, Gramsci was interpreted and reinterpreted ad nauseam. Gradualists of a social-democratic stripe tried to fit the (allegedly anti-Leninist) “war of position” to their own frameworks. Figures like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe deploy the ubiquitous Gramscian buzzword of “hegemony” for their postmodernist, post-Marxist populism. Finally, theorists such as Christine Buci-Glucksmann and Peter D. Thomas have sought to reconcile Gramsci with a more classically Leninist program in light of critiques by Louis Althusser in France and Perry Anderson in England.

Gramsci = Trotsky?

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Trotskyists during the 1960s down to the present have followed suit. Even the Spartacist League, known for their strict orthodoxy, nodded approvingly toward a document by Cliff Slaughter from 1960 in which he relied heavily on Gramsci’s The Modern Prince. Just how compatible are Trotsky’s politics with those of Gramsci, though? Certainly during their political careers, they found themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum within international communism. Not only did Gramsci support Trotsky’s expulsion from the Russian party in 1925 and 1926, but he continued to lambaste Bronshtein during the period of his imprisonment. Paolo Casciola, an Italian Trotskyist, explains the continued differences between Gramsci and Trotsky from 1926 up through the 1930s in his rebuttal to the “turncoat” Alfonso Leonetti:

Gramsci or Trotsky?

[I]t would be useful to pause for a while on the fable of the “identity of views” between Trotsky and Gramsci. Such a fable is based on the fact that Gramsci “broke” with Stalinism during his prison years, after the “turn of 1930” — a turn which Leonetti had continuously championed. This is a question with which we shall deal in future. What we want to emphasize here is that Leonetti used such an ostensible “identity” as a voucher to justify politically his adherence to Gramscism and Togliattism. It was a rather dubious historico-political operation which was made easier by the cooperation of a series of “Trotskyist” intellectuals and unscrupulous “historians of the workers’ movement.” As a matter of fact, Gramsci’s “moral break” with Stalinism was only a temporary disagreement with the “Third Period” policy, and he was reabsorbed after the Popular Front counter-turn of 1935. If this be the case, then certain things said in the article which Tresso wrote after Gramsci’s death seem somewhat rash. But whereas Tresso could not know anything about Gramsci’s evolution during the 11 years of his imprisonment, Leonetti was able to read several testimonies on that period. But he used them in his own unfortunate way.

To Leonetti, the “identity of views” of Gramsci and Trotsky lies above all in their ostensibly identical assessment of the “period of transition” from Fascism to Communism, as well as in the fact that they both raised the slogan of a constituent assembly for Italy. But this is a superficial and utterly false equation. As a matter of fact, whereas Trotsky emphasized that the “democratic transition” was only one possible variant of the post-Fascist development — linked to and dependent upon the revolutionary awakening of the working class — Gramsci saw such an event as “the most likely one,” and, on this basis, put forward the slogan of a constituent assembly within the framework of a gradualist, Menshevik, Popular Front perspective. It is not by chance that, a few days before his death, Gramsci let the PCd’I know that “the Popular Front in Italy is the constituent assembly.” The Stalinist continuity between Gramsci and Togliatti was thus re-established, after the interlude of the “Third Period.” On the other hand, the lack of identity between the views of Trotsky and Gramsci is shown by several other bits of evidence. According to the testimony of Bruno Tosin, whilst opposing the “turn of 1930” not only did Gramsci hold that the party had been right to expel the Trotskyist oppositionists, but in his Prison Notebooks he criticizes Trotsky every time he mentions him, ever inclined to legitimize the continuity from Lenin to Stalin.

I don’t irrationally hate Gramsci. For the most part I prefer his “liberal” Marxist phase from 1916-1920, when he was closer to Gobetti, and then his early Leninism in alliance with Bordiga. After 1923, Gramsci basically took his orders from Moscow, following all the zigzags coming out of the Kremlin. Had he not been imprisoned, I suspect he would have eventually become a more theoretically sophisticated version of Togliatti. Some of his historical and philosophical reflections are interesting, but politically he’s the pits.

Personally, it’s my opinion that the effort to sanitize Gramsci’s Dmitrovian popfrontism, in order to render them compatible with Trotsky’s views, owes to the intellectual celebrity of the former after World War II. And this celebrity is in turn largely a product of the PCI’s nonstop promotion of Gramsci since 1945. The definitive study of this historiographical shift is John Chiaradia’s “Amadeo Bordiga and the Myth of Antonio Gramsci.” Chiaradia contends that many of the same tactics that were used to oust Trotsky from the Russian party were used to oust Bordiga from the Italian party.

This seems to be borne out by the documentary evidence. If you read anything written by communists about the Italian party before 1945, Gramsci’s name barely even appears. By contrast, Bordiga’s name appears repeatedly. In Franz Borkenau’s World Communism, Trotsky’s writings, Arthur Rosenberg’s books, Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Ignazio Silone’s section of The God that Failed, Bordiga is mentioned over and over. Like I said, after WWII he was mostly just known as Gramsci’s justly vanquished opponent.

Trotsky on Bordiga

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In all his published works and correspondence, the only reference Trotsky made to Gramsci came in Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight it, published in 1931. He explained that Italian comrades informed him that “with the sole exception of Gramsci, the Communist Party would not even allow for the possibility of the fascists’ seizing power.” Appreciative enough, I suppose. The source of this information, the “Italian comrades” to which Trotsky alluded, can be easily guessed, however. Leonetti, the erstwhile Left Oppositionist who later defected to Stalinism — dealt with above by Casciola — corresponded with Bronshtein about Italian fascism frequently during those years. He remained a loyal Gramscian throughout every phase of his career, and was one of the few prior to 1945 who recalled Gramsci’s name. Deeply resentful toward Bordiga, Leonetti even wrote an article trying to convince Trotsky that the source of Stalin’s Third Period doctrine of “social fascism” was the communist left. From the reply Trotsky sent to Souzo (pen name of Leonetti), it would seem the former was briefly swayed:

February 14, 1932

Dear Comrade Souzo:

I have received your article on the Bordigists, which I find very good and extremely useful, especially the paragraph that shows Bordiga to be the father of the theory of social fascism.

Apart from this, Trotsky was overwhelmingly positive regarding Bordiga’s role within the Italian party. In 1929, he wrote a letter to the editorial board of the journal Prometeo, in which he praised “the living, muscular, and full-blooded revolutionary thought of Amadeo Bordiga.” He underscored his longstanding respect for and personal acquaintance with the man who had inspired their movement: “I have become acquainted with the pamphlet ‘Platform of the Left,’ which you issued back in 1926 but which has only just now reached me. Similarly, I have read the letter you addressed to me in issue number 20 of Prometeo and some of the leading articles in your paper, which enabled me to renew, after a long interruption, my fairly good knowledge of the Italian language. These documents, along with my acquaintance with the articles and speeches of Comrade Bordiga — not to mention my personal acquaintance with him — permit me to judge to a certain extent your basic views as well as the degree of agreement there is between us.” Continue reading

Lenin’s tomb

Мавзолей.Строительство-2 Мавзолей.Строительство-3 Мавзолей.Строительство-4

The cult of Lenin

Boris Groys
The Total Artwork
of Stalinism
(1986)

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The Lenin cult was very significant both in the political legitimization of Stalin and in the evolution of socialist realism, since even before Stalin came to power Lenin had been proclaimed the model of the “new man,” “the most human of all human beings.” Maiakovskii’s slogan “Lenin is more alive than the living” adorning the streets of Soviet cities does not contradict the cult of Lenin’s mummy in the mausoleum (perhaps one of the most mysterious in the history of world religion). Although I shall not attempt an exhaustive description of the cult here, it does deserve a few words. It has undeniably exerted a hidden formative influence on all subsequent Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet culture, if for no other reason than the central position it occupies in the invisible Soviet sacred hierarchy. Twice a year, “the entire Soviet land” submits its “report” in parades and demonstrations that pass by the mausoleum, and the leaders who accept this report stand on the roof of the structure, symbolically basing their power on the mummy of Lenin concealed within.

The construction of the mausoleum on Red Square and the founding of the Lenin cult were vigorously opposed by traditional Marxists and the representatives of left art [LEF]. The former spoke of “Asiatic barbarism” and “savage customs unworthy of Marxists. ” LEF also reacted to the first temporary variant of the mausoleum, which was later slightly simplified, describing it as “a verbatim translation from the ancient Persian” that resembled the grave of King Cyrus near Mugraba. Such criticism today, of course, is no longer possible — not only because the mausoleum was long ago pronounced “sacred to all Soviet citizens, ” but also because everyone got used to it long ago.

Мавзолей.Строительство-5Мавзолей.Строительство-6 Мавзолей.Строительство-7 Мавзолей.Строительство-8 Мавзолей.Строительство-10 Мавзолей.Строительство-11

The LEF critics, who perceived in Lenin’s mausoleum only an analogy with ancient Asian tombs, were as usual blind to the originality of the new Stalinist culture taking shape before their very eyes. The mummies of the pharaohs and other ancient rulers were walled up in pyramids and concealed from mortals — opening such graves was considered sacrilege. Lenin, in contrast, is on public display as a work of art, and his mausoleum, as is evident from the long lines that have formed before it every day for decades, is without a doubt the most frequented museum in the Soviet Union. If the “militant atheists” of the time exhumed the relics of saints and exhibited them in museum-like displays as antireligious propaganda, Lenin was from the outset simultaneously buried and displayed. The Lenin mausoleum is a synthesis between a pyramid and a museum that exhibits Lenin’s body, the mortal husk he shed to become the personification of the building of socialism, “inspiring the Soviet people to heroic deeds.” Continue reading

The concept of the Left and the Right

A moderated panel
Platypus Review 68
July 4th, 2014
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Chris Cutrone|Nikos Malliaris|Samir Gandesha
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We are the 99%!

— Occupy Wall Street
(September 2011)
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The Left must define itself on the level of ideas, conceding that in many instances it will find itself in the minority.

— Leszek Kolakowski
“The concept of the Left”
(November 1958)
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The distinction of the Left and the Right was never clear. But following the failure of the Old Left, the relevance of these categories has increasingly ceased to be self-evident. In its place there has been a recurring declaration of the “end of ideology”; by 1960s intellectuals like Daniel Bell, 1980s postmodernists, and 1990s post-Left anarchism.

Yet in spite of the recurring death of ideology, the terms “Left” and “Right” seem to persist, albeit in a spectral manner. With the politics that attended the uprisings of 2011 — from the Arab Spring to Occupy — there seemed a sense that the left ideology has simultaneously become irrelevant and inescapable. While the call for democracy by the “99%” has its roots in the historical demands of the Left, these movements were notable to the extent that they were not led by left organizations. To many who participated in these movements, left politics seemed “purely ideological” and not a viable avenue to advance discontents. Now that this moment has passed there is a sense that the Right has prevailed, and even a sense of resignation, a sense that the Left was not really expected to be competitive.

This ambiance seems in contrast to the past. At the height of the New Left’s struggle to overcome the Old Left, the Polish Marxist Leszek Kolakowski declared that the concept of the Left “remained unclear.” In contrast to the ambivalence of the present, the act of clarifying the ambiguity of the Left seemed to have political stakes. The Left, he declared, could not be asserted by sociological divisions in society, but only by defining itself ever more precisely at the level of ideas. He was aware that the ideas generated by the Left, such as “freedom” and “equality,” could readily be appropriated by the Right, but they would only do so if they failed to be ruthlessly clarified. For Kolakowski the Old Communist Left had ceased to be Left and had become the Right precisely on the basis of its ideological inertia.

What does it mean today when the challenges to the status quo are no longer clearly identifiable as originating from the Left? While it seems implausible that Left ideology has been transcended because people still explain social currents in terms of Left and Right, there is a sense in the present that to end exploitation will demand a measure of realpolitik — a better tactical response — rather than ideological clarification. One has the uneasy feeling that existence of the Left and the right only persist by virtue of the fact the concept of the Left has somehow become settled, static, and trapped in history. But wouldn’t this be antithetical to any concept of the Left?

Estatesgeneral

Preliminary remarks

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Chris Cutrone:
 “The Concept of the Left” was published in English translation in 1968. Actually, the essay dates from the late fifties, and it was a response to the crackdown that came with the Khrushchev revelations. Most famously, there was an uprising in Hungary in 1956 after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin, but in fact there were attempts at liberalization in other parts of Eastern Europe, including Poland. Kolakowski participated in that, but also suffered the consequences of the reaction against it, and that’s what prompted him to write the essay. Much later, Kolakowski became a very virulent anti-Marxist. But in the late fifties, he’s still writing within the tradition of Marxism and drawing from the history of its controversies, specifically the revisionist dispute and the split with the Second International into the Third International.

Kolakowski wrote that the Left needs to be defined at the level of ideas rather than at the level of sociological groups. In other words, Left and Right don’t correspond to “workers” and “capitalists.” Rather, the Left is defined by its vision of the future, its utopianism, whereas the Right is defined by the absence of that, by opportunism. Very succinctly, Kolakowski said, “The Right doesn’t need ideas, it only needs tactics.” So what is the status of the ideas that would define the Left?

He says that the Left is characterized by an obscure and mysterious consciousness of history. The Left is concerned with the opening and furthering of possibilities, whereas the Right is about the foreclosure of those possibilities. The consciousness of those possibilities would be the ideology of the Left. Kolakowski’s use of the term “utopia,” when he says the Left is defined by utopia, is a rather peculiar and eccentric use of the term. It’s not a definite image of the future; it’s rather a sense of possibility — a consciousness of change. This might involve certain images of the future, but it’s not defined, for Kolakowski, by those images of the future. Left and Right are relative; there’s a spectrum that goes from a sense of possibility for change and ranges off to the Right with a foreclosure of those possibilities, which is what justifies opportunism and politics of pure tactics.

Another useful category that Kolakowski introduced is “crime.” He says politics cannot be fully extricated from crime, but the Left should be willing to call crime “crime,” whereas the Right needs to pretend that crimes are exigent necessities. In other words, the Left is concerned with distinguishing between true necessities and failures to meet those necessities, which is what political crime amounts to. So Kolakowski says that the Left cannot avoid committing crimes, but it can avoid failure to recognize them as crimes. In this respect, crimes would be compromises that foreclose possibilities — political failure is a crime. This is important, again, because the context in which he was writing was Stalinism, and Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes. In other words, Khrushchev’s concern was, “Okay, Stalin is dead and there’s been a struggle for power in his wake. How are we going to make sense of the past twenty or thirty years of history. What were the crimes that were committed?” The crimes that were committed in this respect were crimes against the revolution — crimes against freedom, crimes against the possibility of opening further possibilities for change. In this respect, the Left is concerned with freedom, and the Right is concerned with the disenchantment of freedom — the foreclosing of possibilities for freedom. Whereas the Left must believe in freedom, the Right does not. Hannah Arendt in the 1960s in On Revolution points out how remarkable it was that the language of freedom had dropped out of the Left already at that point.

Today, one of the reasons why Platypus says, “The Left is dead! Long live the Left!” is that the concept of freedom, and therefore the concept of the Left itself, has given way rather to concerns with social justice. Social justice can’t be about freedom because justice is about restoring the status quo ante, not advancing further possibilities. While we might say there can be no freedom without justice, we can say that there can be justice without freedom. When the avowed Left concerns itself not with freedom but with justice, it ceases to be a Left. That’s because pursuing a politics of justice would stand on different justifications than pursuing a politics of freedom — in the name of justice, crimes against freedom can be committed. Continue reading

Cruising past: Moscow’s forgotten gay history

Agata Pyzik
Calvert Journal
July 17, 2013
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In honor of Pride Week, which just passed here in New York, I thought I’d repost this excellent article by Agata Pyzik. Agata is a journalist who writes for the Guardian and author of the recently released Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes between East and West, which I cannot recommend highly enough. (My review of it should be published shortly; until then, check out Sebastian Truskolaski’s piece over at Review 31, which gives a great overview of the work). Though Pyzik’s article here takes the form of a review of Yevgeniy Fiks’ photo collection Moscow, it clearly is part of a broader reflection on sexual politics and the Left.

Lately, you see, I’ve been somewhat dismayed by the number of LGBT activists online who’ve expressed admiration for communist leaders like Stalin and Mao. Meanwhile, they explicitly rejecting “revisionist” or anti-Stalinist currents such as Trotskyism, revolutionary strains of anarchism, and left communism. Despite being solidly part of the leftist tradition, perhaps even its most historically significant iteration, Stalin and Mao were both cultural conservatives who passed legislation banning abortion and criminalizing homosexual intercourse. Stalin appended the law to the 1934 Soviet Criminal Code under Article 121, which stated that

…sexual relations between men are punishable by prison terms of up to five years hard labor…

Officially, homosexuality was associated with “bourgeois decadence” and immorality, and pathologized as a mental disease harmful to social morality. How any of this squares with their LGBT activism is beyond me. The RCP-USA, I know, held a similar stance until just the last decade, when it apparently underwent an “internal cultural revolution” (whatever that means). For the most part, though, I don’t even see this issue being addressed.

By contrast, the entry on homosexuality in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia just three years earlier was extremely liberal in its tolerance given the standards of the time. While its author, M. Sereinski, did consider it an “unnatural” form of attraction, he was largely sympathetic to the plight of gay men and women who were persecuted in other countries for supposed immorality. Sereinski appealed to the authority of the prominent sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, two early advocates for decriminalization. He asserted that many of history’s greatest geniuses — he names Socrates, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci — exhibited homosexual tendencies, and further lamented the fact that many attempted suicide due to the social stigma attached to it. “Soviet law does not recognize so-called crimes against morality,” he explained. “Our legislation, based on the principle of social defense, punishes only those cases in which the object of the homosexual’s sexual interest is under age.”  

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Homophobia has never been in a “better” state in Russia than it is today. The horrific murder of 23-year-old Vladislav Tornovoy in Volgograd this May — he was raped with a bottle, castrated, and stoned — shook the public. But not enough, it seems: little has been done to prevent a repeat. One of the murderers admitted the reason for the killing was the “provocative” dress of the victim and his sexual orientation, which, apparently, “hurts patriotic feelings.” The authorities did have to admit it was a hate crime and to acknowledge Russia’s homophobia problem; but this is a problem that the government themselves have exacerbated with the recent introduction of a new nationwide law “against the propaganda of homosexuality.”

Russian history does not, however, present an uninterrupted line of hellish homophobia. The Bolsheviks legalized homosexuality soon after seizing power in 1917, at the same time establishing equal rights for women. And, although homosexuality was banned in the Thirties as part of Stalinist retrenchment, the Soviet landscape did accommodate spaces of social dissent and revolution in which gay men could express their sexuality together.

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These spaces — the city’s hidden topography of gay life — have recently been brought to light in the work of New York-based Russian photographer Yevgeniy Fiks. A self-proclaimed “post-Soviet artist,” Fiks sees it as his duty to react against the collective amnesia surrounding the Cold War period; previously he commemorated the overlooked history of communism in New York. At first glance, Fiks’ plainly titled new book, Moscow, could be just an ordinary photo album of public places in the Russian capital: we see parks, squares, boulevards, riverside embankments and public toilets. We admire the splendid architecture of the capital, its greenery and its striking constructivist-classicist constructions and we are impressed by the care taken by the Soviet authorities to make even toilets look beautiful. The pictures emanate a sense of peace and silence. But the way in which we see the locations depicted in these photographs is transformed when we learn that each and every one of them was a Soviet cruising ground.

What we suddenly perceive in these pictures is the eye of the original viewer. Yes, there are a lot of public toilets, but we now see these facilities in a different way, as sites that enable spontaneous relations between adults. These prohibited actions had to take place in hiding, away from prying eyes; paradoxically, this was only possible in public. Fiks has ordered the photos chronologically according to the period in which certain haunts were popular, from the Twenties to the Eighties, which means here we’re looking at the complete history of Moscow cruising. But the timescale seems to leave one question unanswered, quite deliberately: what about the years after the transition from communism? Fiks’ photographs seem to distance the author from Soviet, and specifically, Stalinist, times, and to reclaim the public space for a different version of history (not one much promoted in official versions of the Soviet past) and to reclaim homosexuality from today’s horrifically homophobic climate.

As well as a sui generis chronicle, Moscow is also a specific “work of mourning,” in which pleshki — the Russian name for cottaging sites — become unorthodox repositories of collective memory, what Pierre Nora called “lieux de memoire.” Nora’s idea has been influential in Holocaust studies as a term to describe places of extermination and it is striking that the places photographed by Fiks feel completely empty and abandoned, reinforcing the sense of the disappearance and silencing of the victims of homophobia. And these places were dear to many: they acquired a private slang terminology in which the statues of Lenin and Marx that were present in every Russian city were affectionately referred to as “Auntie Lena” and “Director of the Pleshka,” both out of familiarity and as a way of queering them. To use Situationist terminology, gay men were carrying out a détournement of these areas and symbols of revolution — a sort of satirical, subversive reappropriation that demonstrated that there was no real conflict between communist ideology and alternative sexual orientations.

The current spread of far-right, homophobic sentiments cannot be overlooked and marked down as just another effect of the years of communism; instead it must be seen as part of the failed transition to capitalism. The persecution of people with alternative sexual identities must be a serious PR blow to Russian liberals who’d like to see Russia as a potential market, free from the “eastern barbarism” that this part of the world is still often associated with. If homosexuality had been banned in Soviet Russia, anti-communist liberals would have a perfect argument, linking homophobia and the Soviet past; but it wasn’t, or at least not initially. In the Bolsheviks’ original conception of communism, sexuality wasn’t there to be policed by the state; it was there to revolutionize the citizen, with love seen as a public good. Continue reading

Assorted Soviet propaganda posters, 1918-1939

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Here’s an assortment of early Soviet propaganda posters from the revolutionary period up to the eve of the Second World War. I found a cache of exceptionally high quality, high resolution scans. Obviously my posting of them does not constitute an endorsement of the political views they express, especially in its more monumental Stalinist overtones (being more sympathetic to Trotsky and the Left Opposition myself).


Red Wedge beats the White Circle, 1919 El Lissitzky Aleksandr Rodchenko, poster for books with Lilia Brik, 1924 Aleksandr Rodchenko, Dobrolet poster 1923 Battleship Potemkin movie poster 1925 Soviet tramcar service advertisement, 1920s.


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Bauhaus master Walter Gropius’ submission to the Palace of the Soviets competition, 1931

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Just a few brief notes, since I’m presently occupied with other tasks and because I’ve dealt with this topic (however cursorily) elsewhere. Recently I stumbled upon a cache of outstanding images of Walter Gropius’ 1931 submission to the Palace of the Soviets competition in Moscow. The majority of these images are floor plans, numerous because of the complex multilevel structure Gropius envisioned. Many, however, are sketches — perspective and axonometric drawings — depicting the view of the Palace from the river as well as approaches to its various entrances. A few more show the building’s situation vis-à-vis the rest of the city, site plans and the like.

Some have noted the similarities between Gropius’ proposal for the Palace of the Soviets and his earlier experiments with the idea of “total theater” for Erwin Piscator. James Marston Fitch, for example, pointed out the continuities that exist between the designs Gropius made for Piscator up through a 1930 proposal for a theater in Kharkhiv, Ukraine, leading ultimately to his conception of the Palace of the Soviets (Fitch, Walter Gropius, pg. 22). Gropius had already designed a theater for Oskar Schlemmer at his Bauhaus building in Dessau.

Total theater.

Important differences may be mentioned as well, however. Certainly Gropius’ Palace of the Soviets project was conceived on a much grander scale, given the specifications and requirements outlined by the Bolshevik government. Predictably, this entailed shifting qualitative dynamics that couldn’t be solved merely by quantitative increase or multiplication. Acoustical studies thus form an integral part of Gropius’ argument for the viability of his building.

Obviously, as everyone knows, things didn’t turn out the way the modernists had expected in the USSR. Neoclassicism won out, much to the chagrin of Le Corbusier, Moisei Ginzburg, Hans Poelzig, Erich Mendelsohn, Hannes MeyerSigfried Giedion, and the rest. Many felt it was a repeat of the whole League of Nations debacle. Giedion even sent Stalin an angry collage in protest — a futile but rather entertaining gesture. Would’ve loved to have seen the befuddled look on Dzugashvilii’s face when he opened that letter.

You can enlarge any of these images by clicking on them and scrolling through the gallery I’ve compiled.

Sketches.

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Soviet travel brochures from the 1930s

In 1928, Stalin established a government-run foreign travel agency under the name Intourist (a contracted portmanteau of Иностранный [foreign] турист [tourist]). Though it had by that point already evacuated its international obligation to foment world revolution, Stalin’s regime was still looking to raise interest in the fledgling socialist state. All of the following brochures targeted potential tourists from the most advanced capitalist nations in the West — Germany, England, France, the US.

Stylistically, these pieces vary. Many are rather naïve, pastoral, even vaguely Orientalist, especially with respect to the more “exotic” Soviet Republics. Continue reading

Paul Nelson, Robert Pontabry et Anatole Kopp à l'inauguration de l'exposition des techniques américaines, Grand Palais, 14 juin 1946a

Foreign architects in the Soviet Union during the first two five-year plans

by Anatole Kopp

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Image: Paul Nelson, Robert Pontabry et Anatole Kopp
à l’inauguration de l’exposition des techniques
américaines, Grand Palais, 14 juin 1946
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Reproduced below, sans footnotes, is the French-Russian architectural historian Anatole Kopp’s late article on “Foreign architects in the Soviet Union during the first two five-year plans,” from 1988. As things stand, it’s probably the most thorough account of international specialists’ activities in the USSR. In a post that’ll soon follow, I’ll go over Kopp’s career and outlook, his strengths and shortcomings, his collaborations and disagreements with peers such as Henri Lefebvre. His earlier work was stronger, and more influential, but this article is valuable if for no other reason than its comprehensiveness. That said, it does leave out mention of a few noteworthy figures, such as Hinnerk Scheper and Johan Niegeman. I’ve included some images of them, even though he neglects to mention them.

Soviet architecture of the 1920s — avant-garde architecture — was largely unresearched in the West until the mid-1960s. Since then, in Europe, in the United States, and also progressively in the Soviet Union, various studies have been devoted to this subject. What has remained largely unexamined, however, is the activity of a large number of foreign technicians who went to work in the USSR beginning in 1928. Their participation in various construction projects and in the development of Soviet architecture is the subject of this essay. Continue reading