Alexander Bikbov Born in Moscow in 1974. Sociologist. Lecturer at Moscow University, editor of the periodical “Logos.” Currently lives in Moscow and Rome.
“Moscow Art Magazine (KhZ)”: Our conversation is intended for publication in a journal issue dedicated to the glossary of the 2010s, that is, an attempt to describe and formulate the substance of the present moment through a system of meaningful concepts, which is itself not devoid of paradox. A number of authors turned to their own experiences of the recent protest movement in which, indeed, many artists and art theorists participated. Thus, texts appeared addressed to such terms as “a compromise and uncompromisingness” or “political melancholy.” For you, as we know, the protest movement became a subject not only of civil, but also of scientific interest. Through what concepts would you describe it?
Alexander Bikbov (AB): The street protest became an unprecedented phenomenon of the last twenty years in Russia. Firstly, it brought us back to the utopias of the Perestroika, with its direct and mass political participation, whereas in the mid-‘90s, the most popular street actions in Moscow would rarely gather more than a thousand people, more often attended by a few dozens, and not even a few hundred participants. Secondly, the spontaneous taking of people to the streets had—very naturally—cancelled the stigma of public advocacy for the common, which previously had been seen as a sign of abnormality or freakishness. In Russian society, the labels of the “insane” and of “sell-outs” had been reserved as attributes for political and civil activists for quite some time, and not exclusively by the official mass media. The lack of everyday language that could have focused the protest experience on new practices, doomed the interpretation of the participants’ acts through normative and borrowed categories. The examples you provide confirm the ambition to slot an extraordinary lived experience into ready-made forms. Here, we find Benjamin’s “melancholy,” which must follow the experience of revolution. And the desire to witness the “awakening of the political,” giving way to clear-cut political demarcations and corresponding responsibilities. As well as a will to discover the common collective identity, which the street protest was intended to demonstrate, readily portrayed as a subject-sovereign. Add to this a “middle class,” which, on the eve of the first street rallies, journalists and media experts had already proclaimed as the main political operator, and the picture gets even more colourful. However, if we are to pause the entertaining game with ready-made concepts, we can only begin to grasp something in what is happening by turning to empirical data. What, then, follows from the data, provided by highly educated and independent but politically uninitiated participants about themselves? Analyzing interviews and statements recorded on the streets by my research group, we obtain an entirely different illustration of events.
Above all, the entire protest rationale might appear electoral—related to the “opposition”—as it was provoked by “unfair elections.” Routinely described as such in political commentary, it was, however, of a different nature. The beaming film strip of fast media and “expert” coverage concealed hundreds of motives and thousands of real biographical stories. The majority of participants took to the streets for the first time in their lives, and experienced something entirely different from what—close in form, and for similar reasons—happens in European democracies. First of all, in stark contrast to the participants of European movements as well as to the Russian Revolution 1917, they were certain they were not engaging in politics. Their actions did not presume revolutionary goals, moreover, they directly rejected those goals. The hope of improving, not changing, society connected a multitude of basic motives of participation. Some claimed to improve the justice system, others aimed to stop corruption in business, converge European democracy, put an end to Putin's rule, optimize local government, let children have access to liberal education in schools, just to mention some of the more articulated goals. And this made the rallies into a protest for the sake of honest stability, in counterbalance to the corrupt stability of the official Kremlin. In such circumstances, the ascribed figure of post-revolutionary melancholy is a hasty theoretical simplification.
Another important trait characterizing this protest is that it lacked underlying routine and collective political networks—be it truly competing parties or numerous regional committees and informal solidarity associations—which could have provided the experience of political solidarity and divisions, and from which projects of political reform could have grown. Following the collapse of the USSR, little institutionalized grassroots self-governance existed in Russian society. In contrast to European society, even governance over the life of a city block, a neighbourhood or a nearby park, etc., remained administered by city executives. This created a real obstacle in the transition from a critique of the political regime and its highest officials, to alternative communitarian projects.
Many of those interviewed at the rallies asserted that they intended to invest their efforts into some kind of city-, or even national-, counter-initiative: starting from volunteer cleanup to the boycott of corporations that receive corrupt rent. However, the protests were not followed by a plethora of such projects. Today, what mainly continues to persist are those initiatives that are few in number, but that were already deeply “rooted” in cosmopolitan lifestyles, and which motivated the participation in the street movement: volunteer structures and networks of civil control. Amongst them we find election monitors, civilian oversight groups fighting to preserve heritage buildings, groups aiding orphanages, the “blue buckets” who fight against bureaucratic privileges on the roads, and the non-commercial anti-discrimination organizations. For their participants, the rallies also did not become that fulcrum with which they may have expected to “turn the world upside down.” Some civil and political powers, such as small independent unions or a part of the radical left spectrum, decided that this “was not our protest” and similarly perceived the events with radical skepticism. On the other hand, the representation of the protest as a “steam valve,” a “carnival,” or a “hangout”—as described in some media outlets or by participants themselves—that does not leave any effects, was intended to prove and justify its inconsequentiality.
Today, more than two years later, there is even a bigger temptation to evaluate this story as such: some noise was made and people parted ways. Moreover, the majority of the theoretical inquiries you mention, to which reality is ill-disposed for some reason, easily succumb to the same kind of a cynical posture that a year earlier was mastered by the at-first-elated journalists of the liberal mass media. And precisely sociological research—the goals of which are far beyond the boundaries of a superficial register of the “impossibility” of rallies and their nominal traits, such as slogans and grand agendas—precisely an investigation, allows to see that this history, the entire aggregate of the events was something entirely exceptional. For a critical, pivotal moment in this “something,” the most accurate definition from my point of view is: the experience of self-trial. I will clarify what this means.
Many individuals objectively belong to various social groups and possess varied and vague social sensibilities on matters of education, pensions, social aid, government regulations, etc. Part of them is united not by a specific vocation, nor by their place of birth or salary level, but by the social qualities of a secondary order. Amongst demonstrators this is not simply a diploma attesting to their higher education, but a positive attitude towards education as such. This is not necessarily work in the private sector—there were many people from public universities and the academic sector—but a more fundamental experience of governing their lives, which people cultivate, but which they do not imbue with political meaning. That is, on an individual order, in small groups of trust, these people experiment with projects of life-building, but do so within the bounds of a “normal life,” examining these projects in the framework of personal commitment, family and career plans.
Thus, precisely these individuals, without yet knowing what unites them, responded to the call to take to the street. Similarly, they did not know what will follow, but they were ready to “see” and “try,” following an unclear temptation to test themselves that beckoned them onto the street, and that only grew from a rally to a march, and from a march to a street camp – a kind of Occupy. Thus, they received some sort of a chance. How they interpreted this chance, and how they wrote it in as a component of the design of their lives—is where the main intrigue of the history of the protest lies.
I think that it becomes clear here that even if a year and a half of active protest carries political consequences, these were not its main goal. That is, the real story is diametrically opposite to the way the mass media had usurped the description of the events as “opposition rallies.” The main reason for people taking to the street was an attempt to gain a nontrivial new experience. Not to live through an impressive roller coaster of life. No, we are talking about a much deeper experience, despite its observable ephemerality. This is, above all, an experience of public space. In contrast to the pastime inside commercial centres, in cosmopolitan coffee shops, “stylish” parks and other places of unburdened leisure proliferating Moscow and other large cities in the recent decade, this experience is not simply temporary and unsteady, but also dangerous. I never cease reminding my interlocutors about the eve of the first “general” rally held in Moscow on December 10, 2011. This was a mixture of euphoria and endless fears, fuelled by the rumours of an army invasion that had orders to fire, of “Chechen regiments” who were given a carte-blance on violence, of a fait accompli betrayal by the opposition holding talks with city hall and the police, of the fate of being caught in a police ambush in the “mousetrap” of the Bolotnaya Square, etc. People for whom euphoric motives in this situation prevailed over fear came to the place which did not exist on the map of contemporary Moscow. In some sense, a cleared place, belonging to no one. One could have entered it precisely to test oneself, that is, to live through one’s own formation of a person who has finally become implicated in history.
This feeling of new and genuine—in contrast to the government fake—historicity, is impossible to acquire in any other way without risking undergoing a trial. The feeling that something important is happening and that I am participating in it—and that I participate, partly, to experience what it is and how this history develops together with me—was an important element in the rallies in big cities. In many ways, it was precisely this that encouraged participants to come again to nobody’s (everybody’s) space of the rallies, despite all the expenses of their organization…
Kh.Z.: So is it nobody’s or everybody’s?
A.B.: As with other initiatives, no predetermined divisions worked here: either between political and apolitical, compromised and uncompromising, right and left. Oppositions that mark the space of public action in European democracies have not yet formed. For participants, it was enough that the space of the rally was not monopolized by some single force. It was not important who stood on the tribune: both the left and the right, hitherto poorly known, were received as heralds of democracy. I am speaking about the majority that has never followed the subtleties of radical politics. For them, to discover the existence of new public figures, not knowing whether they represent the radical left, the nationalist right, or the unreservedly liberal pole of unparliamentary activism, was the same kind of trial as their encounter with riot police who did not bare their batons on December 10, 2011. A whole series of events that people experienced after taking to the street and preparing for the worst did not result in their return home as fully rejuvenated, mature political subjects—not at all. For a long time, until the first “Occupy,” rallies functioned as weekend protests. The most valuable thing that participants got from them was the feeling of belonging to history. With the absence of a distinct political narrative and any kind of intrigue on the central stage of the protests—repeated time after time and quickly becoming dull—people arrived not for the sake of upholding a spectacle, nor for the sake of a well-defined political project, and not even to have their demands met. They came first and foremost to once again collide with that uncertainty, gain experience of existing in a common space and continue to live “normally”. Not in the sense of the complete immutability of living conditions. But also from a distance to the revolution of everyday life, in the meaning that this formula acquired at the end of the 1960s.
According to interviews, the protest experience changed few biographic trajectories: a really small faction of participants became activists in the traditional sense. Upon returning to ordinary life and work, the protest experience became a topic of discussion, but these discussions rarely led to jarring confrontations that happened at the end of the ‘80s, concerning the meetings of the first Parliament, elected freely and without control from the side of party bureaucracy for the first time. At that time, watching and reacting to television broadcasts resulted in the harshest demarcations and conflicts in the most stable proximity groups: debates of the Congress would literally split families and separate friends to different sides of the barricades. Following this, at the beginning of the ‘90s, many feared civil war; that is, a violent solution to insolvable questions. Following their participation in recent rallies—an experience incomparably stronger due to embodied engagement—there often followed no sort of polarization of the habitual lifeworld. The opponents continued to politely exchange opinions, remaining friends and colleagues. For example, there are very few known cases of attempts to fire someone from work for participating in street actions. On the one hand, this testifies to the bourgeois normalization of a public gesture as an “individual choice.” On the other—this speaks of the fact that this useful experiment and the range of the permissible that it was characterized by, subjugated the political experiment, much more demanding to the logic of positions and alliances. Although the rallies had many more civil and political consequences than is generally admitted, for the participants, this strategic result was much less important than the subjective one. Actually, the main acquisition of rallies and “Occupy” for the participants, became the subjectivity of independent individuals who had tested themselves.
“KhZ”: However, is this new subjectness not some sort of an anthropological or ontological prerequisite for political subjectivity? Namely, the subjectivity from which the new civil consciousness will finally form? Or just the opposite, is this not a post-political experience, which is that which comes to the surface when the political stops working and loses its discursive figuration? Another question follows from this: is this kind of experience a strictly local one, or not? After all, protest movements of the last several years proclaimed themselves all around the world and—as is especially evident in “Occupy’s” practice—had presented themselves as the new post-political type of civil action. It is sufficient in this regard to see what Judith Butler, Žižek and other scholars wrote about them…
A.B.: Truly, what was happening at the Russian “Occupy” presents the foundational experience of the political much more convincingly than the rallies. Already Aristotle defined the political through communication. It was precisely this that marked the practices of “Occupy”: the return to the fundamental and utopian form of politics as a free discussion, where some spoken words are capable of becoming slogans or collective actions. As I have already stated, this experience should be carefully weighed. It did not result in a tangible rupture of institutional political practice. More likely, it will become important for subsequent history and its cumulative effects. But today, we cannot say how this history will unfold. Considering the seriously uncontested presence of the radical right in the street space; the autocratic tendencies of the new stars of the opposition; the neoliberal sensibility of a part of the movement that saw salvation from Russian misfortunes in commercialization and wanted the poor to work more, in the remote future, this experience could bring about entirely unanticipated institutional formations. Expressly, those forms that would be the furthest removed from the “democracy for all,” the spirit of which, it seemed, soared at the rallies.
To qualify this experience of testing oneself in the historical context, it appears that we might find its closest parallels not in Russia of 1917, or Egypt of 2012, but in nineteenth-century Germany, in the practices that received the designation Bildung. Bildung is the self-cultivation of an autonomous identity, in which burgherism reveals itself simultaneously as the urban and the bourgeois. This is a method of managing one’s own life that is characterized by a high demand on oneself, the exertion of self-cultivation primarily of the cultural. At the Moscow and St. Petersburg rallies, a similar aspiration was very precisely manifested in the opposition between the “cultural us,” and the “cultureless power” …
“KhZ”: Which triggered, in turn, a barrage of criticism.
A.B.: Absolutely correct: traces of a kind of cultural racism showed through. But this was only one side of the protest owing its specificity to the elitist models of late Soviet and post-Soviet culturedness, which contraposed the possession of cultural codes to the rude tastes of lower class “cattle” [bidlo]. Its other side draws closer non-revolutionary and “apolitical” rallies to a certain form of German, urban and bourgeois culturedness. Forging himself or herself according to the highest “spiritual” example, the German burgher simultaneously maintains nonchalance for a key marker of social life—the political. Thinkers from Arthur Schopenhauer to Thomas Mann describe Bildung precisely like this, with a critical undertone. This practice does not presuppose that you learn to distinguish nuances between the right and left, that you become involved in party building, and that any kind of social choice you make will always be political in the end. Moreover, the doctrine and practice of Bildung presupposes the formation of the kind of subject who is capable of resisting the risks and temptations of radical political decisions.
I suppose that Russian protests (in larger part, the rallies, and in smaller part, “Occupy”) embodied this facility, which, in any instance, did not receive doctrinal figuration. This spontaneously multitudinous “we,” cultured people, the educated masters of their own destinies who do not tolerate that someone else dictates how they should live—take to the street, meet, become convinced of their own existence, and sometimes interact with each other. At the same time, this “we” do not wish to engage in politics—the dirty work of politicos. More like, this “we” attempts to force these politicos to act for the benefit of “our own” common interests. In this regard, the boundary that separated the protesters from the world of institutional politics (which also encompasses some potentially honest parties that have to enter parliamentary contests, and new political figures, more agreeable than the old and corrupt)—from the professional world of politics as a place of the construction of public meanings, the maintenance of which necessitates violence and bureaucracy—this boundary was always felt by “us”, “we” abidingly upheld it.
To the other side of this boundary there always remained the private world, the world of a civilized citizen who knows his or her possible and desirable future, who is partial to his or her privateness not being violated. For a part of protesters, the sortie to the rallies was a gesture of direct response to a violation of this implicitly agreed upon boundary. Many described their experience of protest participation in astoundingly banal terms of normality. Using the eloquent formula of one of the female respondents—expressed in response to the question about her own contribution to the changes—it was enough to “do everything correctly.” Then, order will be restored, laws will work, the army will become strong, police will protect, courts will provide justice, etc.
The prevalence of this civilized and private “we” at the protest, has many yet very weakly structurated and self-reflected consequences. Despite the obvious democratic agenda of the rallies, we find ourselves in a situation of a familiar historical paradox, when the political movement—which in the experience of its own participants carries an apolitical character—is capable of producing consequences that are today unpredictable: whether they will be progressive or ultra-conservative. The public, which, in a nominally democratic protest had asserted its subjectivity and autonomy, turned out to be in many respects—possibly, for now—insensitive to a whole range of acute questions and open political options that determine the whole institutional architecture of the regime in a decisive way. Educational policy, the social safety net, the principles of citizenship, were not only excluded from the agenda of the rallies, but were not even raised as a subject of a proactive spontaneous focus of the majority of interviewed participants.
A protest without a social project underlying social ties and positional preferences, makes the future of the street impulse highly uncertain. Assuming the political victory of new forces, in perspective, it is possible to see the arrival to power of radical nationalists, as much as proponents of a socialist government, advocates of individual success, or orthodox corporatists. Although, from a range of possibilities, the victory of a social state is the least likely considering the prevailing social sensibility (in part, the notion that the poor are state dependents) and judgements of many protesters about social justice and civil solidarity on the whole. The paradox of the situation is strengthened by the fact that the same people can propose and support polar opposite views.
“KhZ”: Individuals insensitive to the values of social solidarity and estranged from positional social movements must be fairly skeptical to the institutions of representative democracy. And knowing the disposition of our liberal public, this is truly the case. Moreover, in line with this critique from the right, there is also a critique of representative democracy from the left, which is the “Occupy” movement, presenting itself as a completely different experience of direct representation. Meanwhile, in one of your texts dedicated to the Russian protest movement, there is an accurate observation: not recognizing itself in the institutions of representative democracy, the protest movement was borne as a reaction to “unfair elections,” that is, as a reaction to the institution of democratic representation profaned by the authorities. What could be the future of this institutional model, which, having not had time to develop in our country, already provokes apathy at its best, and at its worst, criticism? And what lies behind the fact that critics of these institutions turn out to be their main defenders?
A.B.: In the framework of the analysis proposed by a varied lot of investigators of democracy, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Bernard Manin, representation is characterized as a ploy that allows people to relinquish true sovereignty without causing a rebellion. Moreover, the expenses of power and economy of this kind of regime are lower than in authoritarian models. In Michel Foucault’s observation, the economic depreciation of sovereignty strengthens the techniques of liberal control. I suppose that in the Russian state apparatus—fractions of which reside in a situation of a tense and fragile balance today, whereas the economic forecasts remain not so cheerful—the players can move to an understanding that representative democracy is fairly suitable as an instrument of governance. In practice, political experiments of this sort are already being carried out. They appear on par with the contrary trend of authoritarian tightening of the screws. Although experiments of representative governance are less frequent, the latest elections of the mayors of Moscow and Ekaterinburg, which saw the participation of candidates explicitly opposed to the Kremlin, testifies to this.
The usual practice of campaigning against these candidates consisted of weeding them out before the competition even began. For this, “pocket” electoral commissions only had to find a few formal violations, real or imaginary, amongst the candidates. The registration of the Moscow mayoral candidate, blogger-oppositionary Alexey Navalny, and the admission of the liberal-authoritarian fighter on drugs Evgeny Roizman to the mayor’s seat in Ekaterinburg, demonstrates the change of techniques of political control. This is not only a step to strengthening the legitimacy of the acting regime. This is an indicator of a deep shift in its very character. The Machiavellian benefit of representation is that the responsibility for the control over the subordinated is carried by the subordinates themselves.
The “liberal” elections of 2013 followed the scattered post-rally repressions: firstly following the absolutely unimaginable “Bolotny” case, under which twenty innocent people apprehended after the May 6, 2012 are being held in jail and on remand for more than a year. Against this background, these elections became a very visible move towards representative democracy: compliance with procedures and the upkeep of the “protocol” of representation. In contrast to the rallies, where the danger for the regime is in the uncontrollable emergence of self-authorized temporary communities and situational radicals, the elections of representatives have the extremely high probability of leading the winners and even election candidates to a technical compromise. That is, they are involved in the upkeep of the regime of governance, which they expect to optimize. If my assumptions are correct, some ruling factions are beginning to see the collateral of their longevity today.
In turn, criticism of representative democracy in European societies and on the world stage on the whole—to speak briefly—was communist. This does not mean that all the participants of world movements of 2011-2012 adhered to extremely left views. It means that criticism articulated by the supporters of direct democracy was primarily geared to the inability of the representatives of democracy as a form of government and a form of political compromise to resolve problems borne out of contemporary capitalism. That is why in the critical speeches of these movements, from Spain and Greece to the United States and Brazil, there is a recurring theme of a rich minority and poor majority, completely excluded from the agenda of Russian rallies and very poorly received at the Moscow “Occupy”. The same goes for the exceptional importance assigned globally to the collective reclaiming of urban space acquired by capitalist practices. This theme also resounded weakly in Moscow and other large Russian cities; or more accurately, it was present largely amongst the activists acquainted with the international experience. From this also follow the attempts of Spanish indignados, the American “Occupy” initiatives, Mexican and Brazilian protests to collectively solve problems that the capitalist state is incapable of coping with in principle, standing on the side of the wealthy minority. For example, in Oakland, the rebuilding of a hospital that provided free medical care to those in need—up to 500 people a day—was amongst the initiatives of the local “Occupy.”
This constitutes an obvious contrast with the Moscow “Occupy,” which lasted for two weeks and had an autonomous economic zone, communal coffers, etc., but which generated a small and precarious community largely closed in on itself and feebly concerned with the larger change of society, moreover, of the capitalist society. In this regard, the experiment of the Russian “Occupy” was a clear compromise in relation to the acting political regime. Here, I am not at all in solidarity with the detractors of this experiment. I turn attention to its complexity and ambivalence. On the one hand, in the Russian “Occupy,” the critique of representation was implemented by left activists acquainted with international precedents remarkably quickly and successfully. They managed to introduce the procedures of direct democracy into the space of free communication—assemblies, and free debate. Both the apolitical and inexperienced majority entered to participate in these procedures with interest, experiencing and testing themselves in them. On the other hand, as a consequence of weak socialization and politicization of the majority, what came forward was the spontaneous tendency of participants to side with neoconservative criticism of representation as not being effective enough; instead of the problems of social justice, the question of innate rights came to the fore. That is, if it is relevant to speak of a balance of many varieties of criticism, what took shape did not at all favour the international left criticism of representative democracy. Authorities, as we have been repeatedly convinced, are entirely capable of using this towards their goals. In the same way that only recently, they began to experiment with strengthening representation in order to preserve the regime.
“KhZ”: Now it would be fitting to discuss a question that is more than logical for a journal that calls itself “artistic,” namely, that high degree of aesthetization that distinguished the protest movement. Of course, the politicization of aesthetics and the aestheticization of politics registered by Benjamin was previously known, but it appears that in the protest actions of the last few years, there is some excess of the aesthetic component, its near self-sufficiency. In what respect does this component coexist with the experience of a self-trial?
A.B.: I would note that at the initial stages of the protest, the aesthetic dimension was decisive: the aesthetic rupture with the activity of politicians was in a way becoming a system of distinction. This played a key role in the assertion of the community “we” in the first two large rallies. The saturation of the space with ironically angry signs allowed participants to immediately confirm that “we are many.” Interviews and blogs were full of admissions: “I thought I was the only one, but it turns out there are so many wonderful people that feel the same way.” A sudden discovery of the self amongst many, as well as the joy of the iridescent nuances and shades of this multitude, which above other distinctions asserted culture and intellect, were simultaneously expressed in banners, public judgments and faces. The “wonderful faces” became as important an element of a compelling protest formula as the “funny” slogans. As a result, the aesthetic arrangement of the rallies was becoming part of the experience of self-trial, facilitating it.
Concerning the choice of aesthetics, it did not require any special effort from participants. Perhaps the majority of them had not been frequent visitors of sites of contemporary art. But they received a congruent aesthetic experience from other places. In part, these were thematic internet forums, such as Habrahabr.ru and Dirty.ru, where virtual communities formed during several years preceding the protests oriented not as much to the transformation of larger society, but to the aesthetic transgression of official politics. Their nucleus is comprised of educated people a part of whom is involved in cultural industries. Dissatisfaction with the political situation condensed here in the aesthetic experiments, subsequently becoming known to us during the protests: the exercises of Photoshop manipulations, ironic inversions of political slogans, etc. Various blunders of the powers that be were inverted here to such an extent, as to allow a wide educated public to laugh at them.
On the whole, attempts to invert a negative political experience into an intellectual-aesthetic form were characteristic of a situation where an educated class has no capacity to fully implement its intellectual capital in the current political environment. It is possible to discover obvious parallels, for example, with the recent experience of the 2012 protests in Turkey, which aesthetically (ironically) are very similar to Russia. It is possible to recollect how this happened in the late Soviet period, with its extremely significant and detailed culture of political irony. Today, the ironic aesthetic in Russia is significantly different from its late Soviet counterpart—in correspondence with the difference in political regimes. However, the more educated members of society preoccupied with intellectual labour are deprived of political participation and representation, the more they begin to create an isolated aestheticized world, deeply engrained with political meanings presented in their inverted form that denies politics. The familiarity with this practice prepares for a self-trial of participation in protests, the political character of which participants themselves initially deny.
“KhZ”: Nevertheless, according to your observations, what was more prevalent in the protest experience: aesthetics or ethics?
A.B.: I am prepared to reiterate that this experience of self-trial was not so much ethical as epistemic. To draw parallels, it is possible to turn to the religious experience as it is described by Max Weber, talking about the test of worldly success in the protestant ethic. When a devout adept of protestantism conducts business, his or her actions are certainly motivated by ethical prescriptions. But his or her hope of salvation is aimed far beyond the boundaries of ethical categories. Furthermore, to place aside the narrow ethical meaning of the word “trial,” or “test,” it would be no less eloquent to parallel this with the scientific meaning of the concept “experiment,” when the test of reality is carried out in search of a result. Undoubtedly, a scientific experiment carries ethical implications, but its result is not at all limited to the sphere of ethics. The distinction between a scientific experiment and the protest experience lies in the investigator’s control of the starting conditions and in his or her advancement of hypotheses. However, in both cases, reality is meant to answer the question that could not be formulated in any other way, except through the actions and personal involvement of the investigator himself or herself. Reality was experienced similarly by the participants of Russian rallies and protest actions, for whom for a long time, the key motive remained the readiness to experiment and “watch what happens” – something extremely uncharacteristic of Russian political life. That is, the desire to see the result of collective actions implemented in reality.
The protest “we,” the multitude of “wonderful faces,” the “smart and cultured” became a type of a collective atomized investigator. The reality—in which it was not always easy for the “we” to fully believe—remained the false operetta of elections, unmotivated police violence, grotesque authoritarian screams of the highest political leadership against which the “we” came out. The risky and euphoric entrance of the participants into this anomaly tested it dually: on its strength, and on its existence as such. This second moment is actually fundamental to the entire protest experience. In the collected interviews, it is possible to encounter admissions that people became election monitors, came out to the protests and the protest “strolls” primarily to see firsthand whether things were really as bad as reported in mass media and social networks. Specifically, they had to bear witness—check for themselves—that the machinations with the electoral ballots are blatantly cynical, that Kremlin commentators lie shamelessly, that the police grab indiscriminately, etc. The experience of this anomaly by the normal “we,” which “does everything according to the law,” gave participants an unprecedented grip on reality, allowing to confirm its existence. Meanwhile, it was the kind of trial that did not deprive of hope for the correction of reality, if it were only possible to find a sure move, a successful, fresh course. That is why, in reality, the experience of self-trial was supplemented by another, more familiar protest motive: will taking to the street of the “we” bring about a normalization of political anomalies, a change of political regime – will it signal the arrival of better guys in place of the bad guys in parliament, who, in time will also become bad, but who will at least give a good kick to those first guys, lingering in power? Thus, the test of reality was geared not only towards the self-discovery of its anomalies, but also towards its potential to change and answer to the intervention of the “we.” To what side, the left or the right, was a secondary question. But even the first of these two questions posed practically is not at all obvious, as much for Russian history of the 1930s, as for Putin’s period of “strengthening the power vertical” of the last decade.
“KhZ”: It should be noted that the German tradition Bildung with which you compare the Russian civil experience of the last several years, gave rise to a particular—and in many ways unique from many other European countries—understanding of culture and knowledge, as well as adequate infrastructure for them. Culture came to be understood as society’s heritage, not fully reducible to state power. Thus, in Germany, in almost every city, there still exists an institution known as Kunstverein—i.e., exhibition and cultural centres that exist because of citizen donations—not corporate sponsors, but precisely ordinary citizens, burghers who want the kind of places of common use in their city, where a community could collectively perfect itself. To surmise the post-Soviet experience of the last twenty years, the idea that dominated in the cultural environment was that the place of art is with money and with power. The goal of art is to root itself in the state system of interests and in commercial corporate strategies. Moreover, if we encounter situations of generous patronage, then most frequently, its initiators are benefactors-oligarchs incapable of rationally explaining their generous impulses. Selfless investments into culture and art are not at all built into the inherent—or at least, publicly accessible—system of values. Could it be supposed that the consolidation of social groups in Russia by means of Bildung will form the understanding of culture as a self-sufficient value: as autonomy? By the way, in the Soviet years, the liberal intelligentsia insisted precisely on that kind of understanding of culture in counterbalance to the official ideology—as a value in itself…
A.B.: You touched on an extremely interesting theme – the implementation of political sensibility in the form of investment into culture. Today, a direct connection between the protest sentiment and citizen financing of culture is not traceable, and the answer to your projective question is as unapparent as the political future of protest. Only a series of encounters between the authors of cultural projects and those who selflessly and gratuitously donated their money to the 2011-2013 protests could bring about certainty to the answer. These donations varied from the allocation of a small part of their salary and the readiness of small entrepreneurs to lend a car for the needs of the rally, to the large donations into the coffers of the organizing committee of the rallies and the organizational resources for Alexei Navalny’s oppositional mayoral campaign. On the wave of protests, one of the strategists in Navalny’s camp, the former banker Vladimir Ashurkov, had sounded a call aimed at the wealthiest segment of society. He characterized the protest as a business project and invited entrepreneurs to invest money in it to help change the political leadership of the country, and thus, to ensure favourable and stable conditions for their businesses in the long term. The course of the electoral campaign showed that this kind of approach is extremely sensitive to the criteria of returns: if cultural institutions cannot demonstrate their political or economic influence, cultural and educational professionals are relegated to the role of simple extras, to whom the mayoral candidate explains on camera what “in reality” they should see as the source of their problems.
I do not rule out that small and medium-sized entrepreneurs with a higher education—as well as people with moderate incomes and cultural demands—are more successful partners for the civil conversion of finance into culture. However, the perception of independent cultural institutions as connecting elements of community are the result of a prolonged social and communicative work that creates communities themselves. And this kind of work has not yet been done.
Assuming the current state of affairs, non-governmental cultural projects that contemporary Russian entrepreneurs currently support have little in common with the communitarian dimension. In the end, business goals often stand behind investments in culture: the strengthening of reputation, the enhancement of investment attractiveness of the region in exchange for an administrative resource, the co-optation into federal structures. Those who support cultural initiatives based on Bildung-motives, as you correctly noted, act impulsively, and I will add, altogether avoid publicity owing to political and related risks. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s case, where he was actively involved in the charitable foundation he organized before his arrest seemed like quite a stern warning. Both the former and the latter are not at all consonant with the logic of German Kunstverein, which grow out of a direct opposition of local communities to state paternalism; out of the regular support of local artists, and not the museum sacralization of the great deceased; and out of such organization of their life, that respectable citizens publicly build themselves up as cultural subjects in the familiar life-space.
In Russia, where protests have fulfilled the dual potential of an enlightened new bourgeoisie and of an affiliation with an urban community, expectations connected with education and culture beyond the boundaries of protest are subordinated by the same pragmatic and economically-oriented aspirations as the ones espoused by business donors. Primarily, rally participants await professional success, a dignified quality of life (salary), the appearance of new markets, etc. These goals are calculated according to shorter social cycles and a quicker return than those that the nineteenth-century German concept of Bildung presupposed. That is why now, with the dominance of a pragmatic relationship to culture and a fairly latent desire for community, the encounter between the lords-philanthropists and the carriers of cultural projects will sooner or later bring us to the sacramental question: “And what will we get from this?” It should be carefully examined just how this relationship will change with the appearance of new political hopes.