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Anne Bobroff-Hajal


Ilya's article raises fascinating issues of the general role of culture in societies. His description of Kremlin culture wars has, as he mentions in passing, uncanny U.S. parallels. In Russia, he writes, "Kremlin strategists, supported by the ruling elite, appropriated the American term 'silent majority' to categorize hard-working, religious, patriotic Russians resentful of the attack on their values and stability by the smug, self-proclaimed 'best.' It is well known that the term was taken up to facilitate the replacement of social contradictions with cultural ones and to create a new type of conservative union binding the governing elite and the masses."

In both Russia and the U.S., wealthy minority elites have sought to hoodwink broad swathes of their populations into believing the elite's interests are identical with their own. In Russia, this powerful minority is the current government, terrified by recent “non-parliamentary opposition from the street” and their “preoccupation with the specter of regime change.”

In the United States, hugely wealthy elites have also worked very hard to convince electoral majorities that far right-wing ideology is in their interests, as against the supposed “smug, self-proclaimed 'best:'” coastal-dwelling, arugula-munching, snobby Democratic oppressors. The right's first great victory along this path was the Republican “Southern Strategy,” the racist backlash to the Civil Rights Movement. The second was the conversion of the American Midwest from fiery Prairie leftism to Red State conservatism.

Early in the 20th century, the American Midwest was a hotbed of socialism and leftist populism, hallmarked by “Socialists like Eugene Debs, fiery progressives like Robert La Follette” and the anarchist IWW. There were once “Socialist newspapers in Kansas and Socialist voters in Oklahoma and Socialist mayors in Milwaukee, and...radical farmers across the region forever enlisting in militant agrarian organizations with names like the Farmers' Alliance, or the Farmer-Labor Party.” (Thomas Frank, What's the Matter With Kansas?) My own grandmother, named the Milwaukee Socialist government's Factory Inspector in 1911, was given the power to arrest labor-law-breaking factory owners and sweatshop bosses!

How did the flaming-leftist American Midwest flip to today's Red State conservativism? At least part of the answer is that the U.S. right wing used culture wars, with the same appeals to religion and conservative “family values” Ilya describes for Russia: anti-gay, against women's right to chose an abortion (and in the U.S., against all gun-safety regulations).

In reality, the 99% has very little common interest with the superrich 1%. So the only way to try to convince the 99% otherwise is via culture.

Perhaps the most powerful U. S. cultural force over the last decade in particular has been secretive organizations of billionaires (of whom the Koch Brothers are leaders, but by no means alone), revealed by Jane Mayer in her recent Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. While the billionaires have created an electoral Frankenstein with the current rise of Trump, they've more lastingly affected American culture. They've founded and funded with hundreds of millions of dollars so-called “public interest” foundations, think tanks, talk radio, and other tools that have moved the entire public political discourse in the US far to the right. What used to be “centrism” is now labeled so far left as to be unAmerican; what used to be considered right wing radicalism is now normative. Perhaps most disastrously, the billionaires have convinced the American majority that climate change isn't happening during the very years we might have rallied to save the planet.

It's also interesting in this context that the Koch Brothers have donated millions to the arts (including American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art). They use the glories of art to camouflage what they're actually busy doing behind the scenes with their think tanks and foundations. This echoes the “big projects” art-funding Ilya describes in Russia.

Another US/Russia parallel is the “oppressors” as identified by elites in both countries: “the smug, self-proclaimed 'best'...the liberal beau monde,” as Ilya writes. In the U.S. this characterization has been pasted onto the left by the right, not adopted by the left itself, as Ilya describes for Russia. I'd love to hear more from Ilya about how this process has unfolded in Russia, how and why the 2012 protest movement chose this route, which appears to be self-defeating.

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Ilya's article raises fascinating issues of the general role of culture in societies. His description of Kremlin culture wars has, as he mentions in passing, uncanny U.S. parallels. In Russia, he writes, "Kremlin strategists, supported by the...

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Anna Bitkina describes a spectrum of today's Russian artists' strategies in an inclusive spirit that might be useful to activists in the US at the moment, whether we are artists/curators or in other fields. TOK Curators' practice has a strong social component around current issues such as migration, development of education, deprivation of social resources, and others. To work in the narrowing public space in Russia today, TOK's practice involves collaboration and negotiation with politicians and administrators in St. Petersburg. TOK constantly crosses seeming barriers, into other academic disciplines and more recently into the territory of "social workers, policy makers, and therapists."

At the other end of the strategic spectrum (as we might view it), when asked what areas of 21st century Russian art deserve more attention and research, Anya described the importance of today's underground Russian art, which has reconstituted today (following its Soviet-era end) as public spaces become more strictly controlled by the State. "Serious, very interesting artistic practices are happening in those underground places.... It's important to research these because they reflect on conditions of Russian society and Russian politics these days." Thus, Anya values a wide range of artist strategies, running the gamut from negotiating with local governments to working underground.

Another very interesting strategic concept that Anya proposes is using positive elements of the former Soviet national networks of Houses of Culture (Doma Kultury), which for decades provided people of different ages, social status, and education an opportunity to get involved in creative artistic and educational projects. A similar system of Soviet youth clubs additionally offered a wide spectrum of cultural activities to young generations. "I think those structures are important to revisit now," says Anya. This is a part of Russians citizens' cultural and institutional heritage, and "We should use it more often in every day life, and connect it to contemporary creative practices." Chto Delat's School of Engaged Art, and TOK draw on that heritage, using some of the same methods.

I would like to hear more from Anya about whether TOK and Chto Delat are primarily using House of Culture educational and artistic methods within individual cities such as St. Petersburg. She observes that the national club network is still operating and active now "in a different mode." Is it possible now to somehow work within actual inter-city structures in Russia?

In whatever country activists are working to create new systems to meet the needs of everyday people rather than the needs (and whims) of the super-wealthy, it's important to assess the positive and negative elements of existing institutions, so as not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Cultural and institutional heritages have been developed and tested over long periods of time, and we should cherish the work done by many who came before us. We will need the fruits of their many years of labor.

Of course, many institutions have been developed to favor the interests of elites, and we need to understand the structural elements that favor elites over ordinary citizens. Houses of Culture were established in part to create a cultural buttress for the Soviet autocracy. Yet they also had the very positive qualities Anya describes.

In the US today, Bernie Sanders has attempted to adapt the long-established institution of the Democratic Party to advance socialism (meant not in the old "Communist" sense of state control of the national economy, but as a state which provides a social safety net, redistributes wealth, and puts human needs - including environmental protections - above corporate ones). Sanders correctly assessed that the Democratic Party could never be adapted in this way if it continued to fund its candidates by large donations from hugely wealthy donors, whose world view consciously or unconsciously becomes the candidates.' So Sanders raised the vast majority of his campaign funding via millions of tiny donations from ordinary American citizens.

History has shown that in moments of chaotic collapse of old systems, traditional institutions are reborn to one degree or another, often because new institutions are desperately needed but there is little time to generate entirely new forms. Maybe the time to assess the good and bad aspects of current institutions is before a crisis, so that should that moment come, we are well-prepared.

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Anna Bitkina describes a spectrum of today's Russian artists' strategies in an inclusive spirit that might be useful to activists in the US at the moment, whether we are artists/curators or in other fields. TOK Curators' practice has a strong...

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Posted on 5 Apr

Thanks, Linnea! And thanks for this forum.

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Thanks, Linnea! And thanks for this forum.

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