Almost 100 years ago, Italian leftist intellectual Antonio Gramsci hailed the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917 as “The Revolution against Capital,” which proved to him that the prophesied proletariat revolution needed not be postponed until the “proper” historical developments had occurred. Gramsci understood “proper historical development” to be the readiness and consolidation of proletariat power across the world that would guarantee the success of the revolution in one single country. In 2017, the world not only witnesses the centennial of the Russian October Revolution, but it contemplates its own chronic weariness of the idea that the dominance of capital can one day end.
The year is marked by a proliferation of conferences, exhibitions, books, artists’ projects, serious discussions, and idle talks about the Russian Revolution across the globe, including in Russia. However, the country doesn’t seem, at least through official mechanisms, to be rushing to lead the conversation. This is why the Modern Mondays event, “An Evening with Chto Delat,” at MoMA on September 25th felt more like an unforeseen intervention than an anticipated event. The evening featured a film screening and talk with Dmitry Vilensky, a member of the St. Petersburg-based, Russian artists group (English translation: “What is to be Done?) that produces films, theater performances and public projects in Russia and Europe rarely seen in US.
Chto Delat’s most recent film-lecture “Palace Square 100 Years After. Four Seasons of Zombie” (2017), presented at MoMA didn’t look like an attempt to celebrate the most important event of Russian history and one of the most for the 20th-century world. Seemingly anti-climactic, the film features a series of commentaries, made by a pedestrian strolling around the enormous St. Petersburg Palace Square, where 100 years ago the October Revolution took place. The pedestrian turns out to be a Russian philosopher and professor of the European University at St. Petersburg, Oxana Timofeeva. Observing the life around her, she tries to make sense of what she sees and then starts to perceive “ghosts.” As a member of Chto Delat herself, Timofeeva reflects on the fate of the Palace Square, the city’s commercialized tourist center, in which Oxana is attempting, in vain, to rediscover its revolutionary legacy.
A constant reminder of Russia’s revolutionary past during the time of the Soviet Union, Palace Square has in fact, since the 2000s, been turned into a symbol of Putin’s post-Soviet Russia: a nation fascinated with their pre-revolutionary, monarchic affluence. This affluence is represented by the baroque decor of the Winter Palace (now the Hermitage Museum). There is the triumphal arch of the neoclassicist General Staff Building through which revolutionary solders and sailors ran towards the palace’s gates to overthrow the Provisional Government in 1917. While providing the backdrop for the revolution, the Winter Palace has also preserved its iconic image of Empire which today’s Russia again aspires to be.
Within the USSR, St. Petersburg has represented two opposite identities: the official cultural capital and the center of a dissident movement, where the alternative music and art scene blossomed in the 1970s and ‘80s. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became associated with governmental corruption and dodgy capitalist schemes that drove this historical city toward provinciality. It’s not surprising that Russian, radical Orthodox activists chose St. Petersburg as a place to stage a violent mass protest against the release of the film Matilda by Russian director Alexei Uchitel. This controversial historical drama depicts a romantic love affair between Russia’s last tsar Nicholas II and ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya, a star of the Royal Mariinsky Theater. Religious activists accused the film’s director of blasphemy and the attempt to taint not only the image of the last Russian tsar, murdered by Bolsheviks and later canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, but also the entire Russian monarchy. (The premier of the film has recently taken place in St. Petersburg under high security and was unannounced to a larger audience.)
This incident illustrates the never-ending struggle for canonical representations of the history of both the monarchy and revolution in Russia. This struggle is echoed in the moment of “Four Seasons of Zombie” when Timofeeva, continuing her walk around the Palace Square, stumbles upon a horsed carriage, which takes tourists on a four-minute trip around the Square. She also poses for a photo with photogenic impersonators of Russian tsar. All is going as it should, until she sees the first “ghosts,” two street singers: Roman Osminkin, a prolific “techno” poet and performer, and a female accomplice. They perform a pop-folk-rap song, loudly shouting out words such as “apocalypse,” “communism,” and “unburied ashes.” This triggers Timofeeva to reflect on the corporeal nature of the forgotten revolution, and she begins to see the city and its square through the metaphorical perspective of someone witnessing a zombie apocalypse — thus collapsing two meanings in one. One meaning refers to the zombie revolutionary proletariat — a reserve army of labor, or as Marx would put it, a surplus labor force — which Timofeeva regards as virtually dead, even before it was sacrificed for the sake of the revolution. The second one imagines zombie-consumers, akin to those undead from George Romero’s movie Dawn of the Dead. Seen from this perspective, the square suddenly becomes a place where former proletariat turned by biocapitalism into brainwashed consumers, unaware of their deadness, mingle with the zombie revolutionary proletariat of the past.
To illustrate the thought, Chto Delat’s members and friends perform a choreographed zombie dance in front of the Winter Palace. In one section of the dance, they bring their moving bodies close together, almost touching, yet actually maintaining the small distance of the width of one matchstick between each couple, all the while writhing in undead fashion without permitting the thin piece of wood to fall to the ground., This intentionally awkward movement hints at the idea that zombies have an ability to share body parts to perpetuate the wholeness (and solidarity) of an endlessly decomposing body.
In Russia, the current dominant approach to the October Revolution is to consider it a big tragedy: that it was the nation’s fatal mistake to fall under the spell of ruthless Bolsheviks. While countering this view, Chto Delat’s film seems to argue with some alternative and neoliberal ideas as well. However the film also does not sugarcoat, the effects and cost of the revolution. It offers, rather, a pessimistic response to a nostalgic sentiment that regards revolutions as a sort of cultural activity, a “dance” to enjoy. As an example of this nostalgia, Dmitry Vilensky, in conversation with MoMA’s curator Ana Janevsky, repeats the famous Emma Goldman quotation “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution,” which became the title of an ongoing series of international exhibitions and events exploring performance in relation to the idea of revolution. The film as well offers a fresh alternative to the neoliberal academic approach that is exemplified by many academic conferences organized around the Red October centennial. Failing to regard October Revolution as a revolution against capital, academic approaches often reduce its significance to its cultural aspects, or sees the revolution as the harbinger of a darker time: the Stalin era purges, repressions, and the gulag.
Since we live in the age of ongoing capitalist crises, when revolutions and counterrevolutions have become more frequent, Chto Delat’s use of zombies is a pertinent reminder of the incessant unrest of the dead that capital produces.
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