Issue: №3 2014

Section: Situations

“Occupy” in Moscow. Contemplating place.

“Occupy” in Moscow. Contemplating place.

The material is illustrated with photo-documentation of the #OccupyAbay project, 2012. Photographs: Mark Boyarsky

Gleb Napreenko Born in Moscow in 1989. Art historian, art critic. Lives in Moscow.

1. The Euphoria of Infatuation

The word occupy has a spatial meaning: to occupy something means to take it up and isolate it from external connections, to single it out against the rest of space as a special place. This occupation of a territory from the rest of the world is reminiscent of a lover’s jealousy.

“Occupy” creates a different set of optics for perceiving place—also different from the gaze of routine concern that ignores everything non-functional, insignificant for its goals, and from a superficial gaze of a reveling flâneur. The gaze of an “Occupy” participant on the territory of the Moscow camp on the Chistoprudniy Boulevard is one of inhabitation, and, continuing the metaphor already started, an infatuated one. Similar to the question “where did you get that scar?” that may be asked by a lover trying to penetrate into the story of markings left by history on a beloved body, the monument to the Kazakh poet Abai, previously known to few people, became beloved and well-studied by the occupants. It was discovered, for example, that the poet wrote freedom-loving verse, and the Twitter hashtag #OccupyAbai gave the camp its name.

It was as if the place in “Occupy” had awakened and returned layers of its hitherto unclaimed historical meanings to the occupants. The smallest details of the space—the windings of the boulevard trails, the position of trees—were endowed with new meaning. Not only with mundane meaning (here we will have a kitchen, and here we will lay rugs and sleeping bags): meaning sought out by a loving gaze in the traces which it scrutinizes does not reside on the plane of the mundane and utilitarian. It leads into the vague distance of something possible, potential, but never fully realized. It is not so important where the traces come from, but that they reference something greater, something other than visibility and utility. Everything at “Occupy” seemed significant, as are significant the details on the scene of a crime.

But the potentiality with which all the traces of the place were endowed at “Occupy” did not just remain a fantasy. The place showed its real ability to generate newness—for example, as a meeting place. Many people’s lives changed owing to their encounters at the camp, their communal initiatives, and their work on flyers. The real space of the camp where it was possible to physically place one’s body, turned out to consolidate a lot more than an internet-space or even a normalized world of relations with colleagues or classmates. That is why the authorities hastened to close down this street club that brought people together in an overly unregulated manner.

OMON’s [“Otriad Mobilniy Osobogo Naznacheniya,” Special Purpose Mobile Unit] dispersal of the camp was one of the reasons (but not the only one) that the possibility of creating newness had seemingly remained unfulfilled. The euphoric feeling of the possibility of something unimaginable was much stronger at “Occupy” than at a protest, where you arrive expecting a certain outcome, for example, of returning home, or of being placed in a Paddywagon. A protest always has slogans and demands often addressed against something; precisely the absence of an emphasis on demands or negation gave “Occupy” the charisma of positive unpredictability.[1] This euphoric unpredictability unnerved authorities, and before organizing the dispersal of the camp, they were trying to place it in a ghetto especially allocated for the safe practice of euphoria. The authorities were calling for the inhabitants of the camp to move to the symbol of neoliberal urbanism, the head of the Moscow department of culture Sergei Kapkov’s modernized Gorki Park, which allegedly was to become the “Russian Hyde Park.” Luckily, things never reached that level of humiliation.

2. The Weight of Possibilities

However, violence from the side of the authorities was not the only factor that led “Occupy” to a crisis. The feeling of vast possibilities turned out to be a heavy burden—inevitably, it beckoned the question: “What are we doing here, after all? What can we do?”

At “Occupy,” it was revealed that it was impossible to “simply” stroll, however many times the idea that “every citizen has a right” to a “simple” stroll was voiced by the protesting liberal orators. Because to stroll is to inevitably create something. It was revealed that there is no such thing as “simply” a place, a bare “free” space. The mythical image of an ostensibly pure white, like a white ribbon (the symbol of protests from 2011-2013) substrate of reality, which would supposedly be laid bare if it was cleansed from authoritative emperors and from prescribed modes of behaviour, turned out to be irrelevant: a Lockean liberal tabula rasa of public space, which in reality, does not exist. And one of the possible errors of self-identification that tempted some of the occupiers, was their attempt to ignore the presence of power, the idea of a “ground zero,” a “simple” walk in a non-place.[2]

Power is not something external to “Occupy,” something that could be separated from it. Indeed, authorities were constantly infringing on the process of the creation of newness in the camp, but they also created the possibility of its emergence. “Occupy” existed precisely in the gap between different streams of urban movement and modes of behaviour prescribed by the state—on the lawns between walking trails, pausing movement along the boulevard. The state specifies the power flows that frame “Occupy,” but not as empty space, rather, as a space of potencies, hidden in relations between people. These potencies that exist in any kind of public space are normalized and driven into channels by the public order. “Occupy” is an island of turbulence, and while it emerges between entrenched channels, it does so precisely owing to their presence.

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An important role of violence in framing the space of the camp became at times visible: in OMON’s cordons at the Chistie Prudi [“Clean Ponds”] or the rows of Paddywagons along the perimeter of the camp at Barrikadnaya [area around the namesake Moscow Metro station]. It was precisely an authoritative order that constituted the structure of space. But not only space: the occupants, the participants of the camps became such only when faced with a particular type of modern power. Identity is a place under the gaze of power. As Althusser asserted, the (social) subject emerges at the hail from a cop, in the interpretation of ideology, or, as Lacan seconded, identity is paranoia. The idea of struggle for space presumes resistance, which is surmised in the presence of the Other who claims a place as something that already belongs to him or her. Precisely the conflict with the Other gives a place value.

But once again, “Occupy,” was not only resistance to authority; it was always something else for every participant—something of one’s own. This dispersive “something else” was the substance of “Occupy,” a particular method to appear in front of the Other, which is impossible, for example, at an ordinary rally, where people march under common flags and carry banners with common slogans. It is impossible to narrow “Occupy” to a simple confrontation with authority, as much as it is impossible to narrow down all of its participants with a vast variety of ideas, to a single signifier.

That dispersiveness, the heterogeneity of participants, was one of the causes of difficulties in “Occupy’s” self-awareness. In order to persist and not dissolve, it had to recognize itself against the face of power, in the space between flows regulated by it; not as a single place with a specific function (for example, like the theatre, or the metro), but as a place full of a dispersive potencies; not as a single whole, but as a multitude, to use the terminology of post-Operaists such as Paolo Virno.[3] The operation of self-awareness—one of the instruments of which tried to be the assembly—did not fully succeed, and this is possibly the result of “Occupy’s” internal contradiction. The inarticulateness of the common goal at “Occupy” was its inseparable component, the component of its charisma. But the murky necessity to articulate who we are and why we are here together and the simultaneous impossibility of such an articulation, brought “Occupy” to its twilight to the same degree as its dispersal by the authorities.

3. The Bait and General Intellect

What could have become the common basis for “Occupy” participants in all of their dispersiveness? For this, we must turn to the arrival of the Russian “Occupy” before it was called “Occupy.” The camp emerged after the dispersal of the May 6 protest on the Bolotnaya Square and its subsequent migration onto the alleyways and boulevards, when the “strollers” had seemingly become bait for the authorities, pursued by police and the OMON. The participants of the “strolls” either dissipated, dissolving into small groups in the courtyards, or gathered again, and shifted from place to place as a crowd, bringing Paddywagons and OMON squads with them. This kind of migration was reminiscent of the situationist practice of dérive [drift].

Thus, at the foundation of “Occupy,” there was an idea of space in a state of constant flux, displacement, disappearance, nomadism, entraining the attention of the authorities with it. This desire to be elusive bait in the eyes of the Other found its continuation in the flyers published by the Occupants, addressed to the general population or OMON. The goal of these flyers was both to proclaim one’s own existence, and to wake the nervousness and anxiety of the addressees – to push them out of a stagnant stream of life into a state of turbulence. The occupiers’ reaction to the Paddywagons racing through the boulevards testified to how satisfying they found their self-awareness of serving as elusive bait for the state: the police vans were greeted with whistles and applause in anticipation of “screw-tightening” [“vintazh”] (this is how the participants of protests had ironically called the police arrests).

The motivation to appear as bait in the eyes of the Other, the skill of dispersing into many units and to gather again, the readiness for a constant change of positions, resonates with the contemporary structure of the labour field and references, for example, Paolo Virno’s “A Grammar of the Multitude”.[4] The modern office clerk, the journalist, the translator—any worker of immaterial labour—is constantly in a state of need of self-representation in the eyes of the employer, in the eyes of the Other. They have not been written into any kind of stable structure, they are unprotected, responsible only for themselves. This situation receives a continuation-reversal in the Occupy idea of asserting oneself without any kind of representation, but through one’s presence alone. Through a similar analogy, the post-Fordist demands for labour mobility transformed into a constant state of readiness to migrate during “Occupy.”

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From the genesis of the Russian “Occupy” that began with drifting along the boulevards, it is apparent why the name “Occupy” did not become a label or a brand simply borrowed from the international context: the majority of its participants were also part of the post-Fordist problematic of the First World. The birth of the camp from the grassroots initiative responded to the logic of the international “Occupy” itself—the logic of absolute horizontality, and not the reception of the idea from above, although the orientation to the New York “Occupy” gave what was happening in Moscow a “vertical” dominant – the idea that we have something to imitate and compare ourselves to. Some, to this day, evade the international word “Occupy”, brought from the outside, and prefer to call the camp “Abai”; but precisely in this course of thought there is something genuinely “occupying”—the desire not to compare oneself to a greater whole, to any concrete demands.

An appeal to Virno’s ideas allows to refine the above-mentioned high-minded idea of the realization of space in the camp as potency. According to Virno, individuals forming the post-Fordist multitude have the general basis of General Intellect—this is the “‘common places’ of the mind, […] the linguistic-cognitive faculties common to the species”.[5] It is precisely they that form the foundation, which, preventing a distinct expression of identity, nevertheless presents the possibility of different varieties of subjectification; precisely the readiness to a change of subjectifications that would preserve the General Intellect base is in demand in the post-Fordist form of production. The public space of “Occupy” is not a tabula rasa, but a General Intellect: with the emancipation of space, what is discovered is not a neutral void, but a “background luminescence” of the modern post-Fordist city.

One of the problems of “Occupy” is a question: how could a multitude of subjectifications based on General Intellect be capable of giving some sort of identity to all those present. How could the self-awareness of the multitude not be defined by a whole, but through a fixed identity, as with the classic proletariat, while not being reduced to the position of bait in the eyes of the Other?

4. Left Behind

The problems of the Russian “Occupy” did not only touch on the self-awareness of the multitude or the attitudes to the possible violence from the side of the authorities, but were also tied to the contradictory position of “Occupy” in the social structure. The difficulty of internal segregation at “Occupy” is not simply the dispersive multitude of subjectifications. It points to the complexity of Russian society itself, far from identical to Western post-Fordism. By far, not every Russian labourer finds himself or herself in a situation described by Virno—for example, the need for constant self-representation as a unique commodity characteristic of workers of the post-Fordist neoliberal economy, coexists with the Soviet model of society, living out its last days by inertia. It is important to identify the place of “Occupy” in its relation not only to power, but to the whole structure of society, to a huge portion of society that was left behind. The format of “Occupy” in how it occurred in Moscow is the inheritance of a narrow class stratum: the common phrase in analogous international protests, “We are the 99%” could not be transplanted to Russia because of an overly apparent social chasm even between the Occupiers and other pedestrians on the boulevard.

Seemingly open to everyone based on its orientation to direct democracy and self-representation, “Occupy” turned out to revolve around those who had time, strength, interest and the will to carry out these practices. And even if the idea of direct self-representation is possible for a stratum of potential “Occupy” participants, what is to be done about the rest of the population? Who will speak on its behalf? Is the idea of direct self-representation relevant to it? The same question could also be posed in relation to the international “Occupy,” impossible in the Third World. Those, who are involved in “Occupy” and direct self-representation only speak on their own behalf, but are at once economically and politically connected to the huge masses of the population that remained outside of the space of the camp. We are all dependent on Russian oil workers or the labourers in Chinese factories who will never come out to “Occupy.”

In this context, the inability to formulate the demands at “Occupy” is not only the avoidance of any kind of fixation of one’s position, but also an honest admission of the impossibility of speaking on behalf of the whole society, absent from “Occupy.” The silence of “Occupy” is an honest consequence of the idea implanted in its foundation: we are what we are; we could only speak from our name, and first and foremost, only through our own presence. “Occupy’s” jealously-infatuated withdrawal from the rest of the world addressed at the beginning of this article was an important emancipatory act, but it also signaled to the limitation of the idea of a comparable camp. 

5. The Head and the Body.

The collisions of self-awareness of Russian “Occupy” with the public context expressed themselves in the story of its assembly, called upon to realize the idea of direct democracy. When the assembly appeared a couple of days after the inception of the camp, many greeted it with enthusiasm, since it answered the call to figure out what it is that we are doing here. In part, the assembly allowed the campaign and financial groups to arise. But eventually, the assembly as a method of self-awareness became enclosed on itself, much like consciousness that does not have a working contact with reality becomes enclosed on itself.

All the more so, since the assembly was a form borrowed from “Occupy Wall Street” and not something that directly grew out of the camp itself—it carried an element of violence, the necessity of the proper “left” self-awareness of the camp based on the example of Western “Occupy.” From the leftist position, the assembly displayed a fairly comprehensible intolerance for “leaders” arriving at the camp (the deputy Dmitriy Gudkov, the TV host Kseniya Sobchak) or the nationalists wishing to participate in the assembly. It is true that the ideas of leadership or nationalist segregation contradict the very foundations of “Occupy.” But, on the other hand, the assembly’s intolerance to these ideas signified its weakness as a weapon capable of decisively pinpointing the authentic basis of “Occupy.” Because many of the participants of the camp really wanted to see “leaders” or sympathized with the nationalist ideas, but the assembly was incapable of revealing a common foundation uniting occupants and to allow this foundation to effectively actualize. And what does it really mean, to allow the foundation to actualize, if this foundation is understood as General Intellect? Is it at all possible in the framework of a separately demarcated “Occupy”?

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If for some time, the camp and the assembly coexisted in harmony, then later on, a rift appeared between the search for structures and the initial foundation of physical presence at the camp. The result of this situation was the division between “Occupy’s” “body” and its “consciousness”—the assembly, when after another attack by the police, the camp moved to the Arbat, but the assembly would gather independently at Barrikadnaya. The bodily presence had separated from the structure, which soon begat the dwindling of both.

6. The Inevitable Lie of Representations? 

The story of the assembly is one of the symptoms of the antinomy of “Occupy”—of its contradictory relations with representation. Denying representation on any level bears no direct connection to the presence of a person, with his or her embodiment; nevertheless, “Occupy” is obliged to present itself to the rest of society and is tied to the constant regeneration of representation. The assembly contended to be the organ of representation in the eyes of the rest of society: for example, precisely the assertions achieved there were voiced to the police. However, the assembly evoked as much discontent from the members of “Occupy,” as the parliamentary politicians present at the camp garnered discontent from others: the assembly was namely accused of not representing the camp.

The assembly that I had a chance to attend on Isaac Square in St. Petersburg looked remarkable: for more than an hour, gestures and regulations of the assembly process were being discussed, and it was not even the first session of such a discussion. It was as if the participants of the assembly were attempting to create a new universal language of gestures, which would allow everyone to communicate with utmost efficiency, having overcome estrangement engrained in language. However, the attempt of creating this unalienated language skidded, turning the assembly into a hermetically sealed self-perpetuating machine. The weariness from representations with lies characteristic of them, turns out to be inseparable from the necessity of their constant production.

The relations between “Occupy” and the media are illustrative: a constant video and photographic fixation and a live online feed became an important component of the camp, supplementing embodiment with mass-mediated representation. The non-Russian word “occupy,” became something of a brand in itself for mass media, including international media. The same antimony could be found, by the way, in Pussy Riot’s activities, to recollect the oft-repeated accusations of mediation and even of a pop sensibility, levied against them. Both Pussy Riot and “Occupy”—movements, that despite denying representation in the fields of power and ideology for their deception and inadequacy, and despite using the tactic of spontaneous bodily invasion into an unacceptable public space, are also vying to appear in the media field for the sake of resonance and effect—movements that insist on their collectivity and anonymity (we have no leaders), but which are recognizable precisely because of their collectivity and anonymity. The assembly crowning “Occupy” could be compared to the bright balaclavas on the heads of Pussy Riot. Both the assembly and the balaclavas could provoke irritation, because they enter into a space of deceit characteristic of any representation, to which people in contemporary Russia—where the mechanisms of representation appear absolutely dysfunctional and inadequate for reality—are especially sensitive: the history of political protests began precisely from the indignant movement “For fair elections!” [Za chestnie vibori!].

It is interesting that “Occupy” appeared at the crossroads of this movement, when the hopes for re-election were eclipsed by a yet indistinct new agenda, an agenda of serious anger, which is not so much tied to the demands of true representation, but which replaces all representation through an aggressive, minimally estranged embodied action. The day for such action became May 6, when protests were marked by fights with police, begetting further harsh judicial persecution of the demonstrators. “Occupy” could be regarded as a continuation of this burst of energy, appearing after final farewells with the hope of “true” representation and “fair” elections, a burst directly and desperately seeking something new. “Occupy” posed a question: how is it possible to turn a grassroots impulse and horizontal relations into a weapon of ideological struggle, if this struggle inevitably demands the lie of representation?


Vague potentialities, multitude, General Intellect, an ambivalent relationship to representation, all outlined in this text, are obviously not the only possible ways of understanding “Occupy.” But they are closer to reality than, for example, the perception of the camp as a variety of the Ukrainian Maidan, as a weapon of harsh demands.

For its young participants, “Occupy” did not become a method of a decisive declaration of demands, but an experience in developing political self-awareness, asking questions on the place of political practices in society. Suppose this experiment did not achieve any visible effects, but in its charisma and laboratory boundedness, it shares its fate with many such similar youth experiences, akin to the oath taken by future Russian socialists of the nineteenth century, Herzen and Ogarev on the Vorobiev Hills, that they will fight for the happiness of the people to the end of their days. Also naïve (how can two people change the world?), it became a milestone for its participants, a cluster of possibilities and hopes, capable of giving momentum to a subsequent movement. 

Moscow, 2013


  1. ^ For example, in the periodical October, Martha Rosler contrasted a protest’s capacity to negate and “Occupy’s” positivism. Rosler M. Occupy Response // October, no. 142, Fall 2012.
  2. ^ William Thomas Mitchell examines “Occupy’s” spatial specificity as an attempt to create a free space for any possible statement: Mitchell W.J.T. Image, Space, Revolution: The Arts of Occupation // Critical Inquiry, vol. 39, issue 1, Autumn 2012.
  3. ^ Virno P. A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. New York: Semiotext(e), 2004. P. 40.
  4. ^ Ibid.
  5. ^ Ibid.

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