The Moonlight of Fantasy: The Russian Revolution Now

Montage of images from the Creative Ireland’s website and from the Design Museum’s ‘Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution’ exhibition.

 

Introduction: ‘The five-year plan in four!’[1]


 Gavin Murphy introduces a series of essays looking into the legacy of the Russian Revolution on European ideals of progress.


 
 
A gentleman from Creative Ireland came to the art college to give a talk. Creative Ireland is the Government’s Legacy Programme for Ireland 1916. The idea is to build on the success of the 1916 commemorations as a national cultural strategy for 2017-2022. Here, its website tells me, was a new five-year plan.
 
In the media, we were told, there are so many conflicting images of Ireland in circulation that the perception people have of the country is often confusing. As a trading entity, this does Ireland no favours. Creative Ireland, the talk continued, aims to produce a singular positive image. This is the great contribution culture can make.
 
An accompanying slide to illustrate this point consisted of numerous newspaper clippings cut and pasted together in a dynamic collage. The headlines were legible, unlike the smaller printed text beneath them. There, right in the middle, I could make out the name of Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist. I am familiar with his work. I had read Globalization and Its Discontents some years ago. What stood out in the book was Stiglitz’s account of the collapse of the Soviet Union and other communist bloc nations. In particular, it was the account of ‘shock therapy’ that was deemed necessary for the former Soviet bloc to transition to a market economy. It was a raw tale of how ideologically ridden incompetence (on the part of the IMF and US Treasury, amongst others) enabled widespread corruption, asset stripping of state resources on a grand scale and the rise of the oligarchs. The dream transition to a smooth flowing free market economy was clearly not to be. Nor was liberal democracy to stabilize to become the final form of human government as promised by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History.
 
The headline in the slide image was not referring to Russia but to Stiglitz’s critique of Ireland and Europe’s more recent economic policies. I am presuming the article was dealing with Ireland’s facilitation of Apple’s tax avoidance in Europe. I am also presuming the point Stiglitz might be making is that Ireland’s tax regime is a rush to the bottom in an attempt to steal one over on competing neighbours. Actually, it could have been one of a number of articles Stiglitz has written in recent years questioning the policy of austerity and the role of the Troika in Europe. I looked at the slide, thought of Stiglitz’s role as a cultural one, and began to realize that here was a government agency actively seeking to eradicate critical debate and confusion in the name of national unity and culture. This is a strange legacy for 1916 given how heavily contested the Dublin Insurrection was at the time and how it remains so. My experience of living through the conflict in the north and working through its complexities was such that any successful engagement with 1916 would have to problematize this history with insight and purpose. Clearly, my idea of culture is at odds with that of Creative Ireland.
 

Screenshot of the Global Reputation page on the Creative Ireland website taken on 12 October 2017. It has been amended since. 

 
Not one to chew on a bone, I looked a little closer at the Creative Ireland website. There, under the heading Global Reputation (one of Creative Ireland’s five pillars), my suspicions were confirmed:
Amid increasingly fierce global competition for investment, tourism and export markets, a clear articulation of a country’s values, capabilities and beliefs about itself is increasingly important. Creative Ireland will facilitate the development of that articulation, and will strive to increase our influence in the world, with direct and indirect economic and social benefits.[2]
Culture is to be subsumed into a grander narrative of national economic unity. We have a new destiny, or what Creative Ireland calls ‘a single proposition’.[3] It is one which puts the turmoil of the crash behind us as we ‘increase our influence in the world’. The imperial hint is uncanny. The message is clear: don’t question the economy, serve it. I find this unnerving. There are clear cultural precedents to such state-sponsored, accessible and idealized definitions of role and self which are shaped by the desire for economic stability and growth. The spectre of Socialist Realism looms large before me. ‘The five-year plan in four!’, that’s what I say. Stranger still, the first part of the quote above is repeated three times in a row and so makes up three of the six paragraphs on the webpage. It is worth going back and reading the first line again ... ‘increasingly fierce … increasingly important’. The mood is one of threat and survival. It’s a kind of government sponsored do or die which is odd, since the remit of Creative Ireland is couched in notions of wholeness and well-being. Now read it another two times. To repeat it twice is pushing it, thrice suggests a crazy new mantra for our times.
 
Poster 'Fulfill the five-year plan not in five years, but in four', Nicolai Chomov and Iurii Merkulov, c.1930.

 
Creative Ireland may be an extreme example, enough to get worked up over, but hardly an informed view of culture shared by practitioners and various cultural institutions on this island. Still, it should be seen as a crude articulation of a growing trend. Creative Ireland is a state funding model where the arms-length principle and the notion of artistic autonomy have vanished. I have written elsewhere of the dominance of utilitarian forms of art practice and its management where the current measure of worth is increasingly restricted to that of social and economic performance.[4] Likewise, debate around the shrinking role of arts and humanities within education is echoed in the concerns of mainstream media, as it struggles to maintain an informed public sphere cohering around enlightened values, however defined. More than one commentator has spoken of our new dark times in which the role of critical dissent is increasingly marginalized.
 
Poster of ‘Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution’ at the Design Museum, London.

 
New dark times need new jokes – and when asked if I was doing anything ‘for 1916’ my reply was that I was waiting for 1917 … much more important, I would say, leaning in to my inquisitors and meeting their eye. Their reaction was always telling. Some would get it, others needed an explanation. It did put me thinking though. It seemed apt to ask what kind of attention would be generated by the centenary of the Russian Revolution. I had already visited ‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932’ at the Royal Academy, and, ‘Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution’ at the Design Museum in London earlier in the year. I had picked up a copy of the Times Literary Supplement’s 1917 Anniversary special issue and I’m anticipating there will be special issues from London Review of Books and the New Left Review. The British intelligentsia sure have an appetite to investigate the historical legacy of the revolution and its importance to the twentieth century. This is not surprising given the contribution to debates around socialism within its history. But what about in Ireland and what will be the nature of the material produced? These are questions certainly worth asking given the wealth of coverage the centenary of 1916 generated. I am reminded of a point Terence Brown made some years ago with regard to the paucity of Irish intellectual life in the twentieth century:
The socialist ideas and preoccupations of much modern Europe have had curious little currency in a country where ideology has meant protracted, repetitive debates on the national question with, up to very recently, little attention directed to class and social conditions.[5]
The fear is that similar limitations will continue to dog present circumstance.
 
Of course, these questions can only be answered in retrospect. They do suggest, however, that examining previous examples of those engaging with the Russian Revolution and its legacy within and beyond Ireland might be quite fruitful. I am curious to see what they were looking for and what they found. In turn, it seems apt, given my (casual, not specialist) interest in twentieth century Eastern European culture, to consider those films, novels, essays, artworks, poems which assert themselves when I think of so vast a topic. This begs a degree of self-consciousness in that it is necessary to be wary of how certain examples and concerns have attained prominence due to their role within a Cold War context. I think here of a discursive economy dominated by notions of East and West, oppression and freedom. The Russian avant-garde is a good case in point: it is central to defining modernist art in the West yet still looked upon with some indifference in contemporary Russia as I discovered with surprise when I visited the country some years ago. To write from one edge of Europe about another edge of Europe is to recognize a perspective with certain limits, but it may be one that promises insight if I consider what I find so compelling in the light of my present bugbear regarding local cultural concerns of the present. I recognize my discomfort when witnessing a reassertion of crude forms of nationalism as an organizing principle around a perceived social and economic threat. While Creative Ireland may not be a particularly virulent strain, this cannot be said for other nastier forms arising across Europe, America and beyond.
 
Poster of ‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932’ at the Royal Academy, London.

 
So what will follow in the coming months is a series of four essays, each considering an aspect of this topic in some depth. The first examines the ‘othering’ of the Russian in the revolutionary context. I contrast a tone found in Orlando Figes’ historical account of the Russian Revolution (A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924) with Liam O’Flaherty’s account of his visit to Russia in 1933 (I Went to Russia). It seems strange to pitch Figes’ meticulously researched and refreshing historical account (and a doorstop of a book) against O’Flaherty’s often amusing, anecdotal and slim travelogue. The choice is motivated by the idea that different kinds of writing can voice similar concerns and so the odd contrast will allude to a grander literary and intellectual context to which each contributes. In other words, I hope the limited examples in this essay will give a wider sense of the standard positions which have solidified to define the legacy of the Russian Revolution in the West. I am particularly concerned with differing notions of tragedy when applied to the Russian Revolution: from a sense that things could have been otherwise should circumstances have allowed, to an inevitable pathos as the wretched of the earth seek their place in history.
 
Cover of the Times Literary Supplement’s 1917 Anniversary special issue.

 
The second essay looks at how the Russian avant-garde has helped shape ideas of modernist art and modernism in the West whilst being simultaneously marginalized in Russian Soviet and post-Soviet culture. At the heart of this is an idea which has operated as a standard touchstone for what a critical practice should be. It can be found in the Communist Manifesto, although the idea has numerous variants which have been in circulation over time: “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.[6] My aim is to track how evaluations of Russian avant-garde art by various critics and art historians revolve around this. The story told is often one of a drift towards Socialist Realism where avant-garde practices are effectively outlawed. Socialist Realist dogma becomes the polar opposite of an avant-garde spirit. Closer attention to how critics have evaluated tensions between Soviet cultural policy and avant-garde ideals can reveal how this is not as clear cut as is usually presumed. In fact, a closer look reveals various forms of distancing from Russian avant-garde practices at play in the standard accounts in circulation in the West. Furthermore, Boris Groys, a prominent art critic of our times, is adamant that the avant-garde spirit beats the very heart of Stalinism, animating it in ways never quite imagined by avant-garde practitioners. This, Groys argues, explains the indifference or awkwardness in contemporary art historical accounts in Russia towards the avant-garde and Socialist Realist traditions.
 
The third essay explores the notion of the dissident writer as it emerges in Cold War and post-Communist discourse. Straddling East and West, the dissident is insider and outsider in both. Again, I take an example to capture a local flavour when considering wider concerns. In this case, I look at The Crane Bag Journal of Irish Studies. The Crane Bag was produced from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s with a focus on literature, philosophy and politics. A themed edition of the Crane Bag journal from 1983, titled Socialism and Culture, centred around a visit to the USSR, no doubt an exotic excursion for Irish academics at that time. Many articles display a keen interest in the figure of the dissident intellectual who is cast against the repressive backdrop of Socialist Realism. Examples include figures such as Josef Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, as well as lesser known Hungarian poets. I want to get a sense of how the local writers react and appraise their Eastern European and Russian counterparts. I am also interested to see how the Crane Bag contributors evaluate the role of the writer in the light of those dissidents challenging cultural authority and the state at some cost to themselves in terms of estrangement and displacement. My sense is that the figure of the dissident and notions of a critical practice as defined by western intellectuals are tied intimately. Once again, the line in the Communist Manifesto (‘the free development of each …’) arises as a standard of value within these debates. How local writers in the 1980s handle this will make for an interesting comparison with present circumstance and the plight of critical practices therein.
 
This brings us to the final, concluding essay. This considers selected works of recent Russian cinema in a bid to capture present cultural concerns in and towards Russia and beyond. The argument I presume will take shape is that a certain mood can be found in films such as Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979), The Asthenic Syndrome (Kira Muratova, 1989), Hard to Be a God (Aleksei German, 2013) and Leviathan. (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014). It may be described as a prevailing tone characterizing the legacy of the Russian Revolution in recent times. It is not the initial zeal which coloured many western appraisals of Russian avant-garde art practices nor is it the sense of hope held out by the figure of the dissident in Cold War discourse. Instead, it is a mood born from collapse: a melancholia and bewilderment stemming from a loss of faith in upholding ideals that inspired revolution in the first place. It may even be defined as a form of despondency from failed attempts to seek salvation from its aftermath. Perhaps the collapse of the idea that we can collectively shape a future for the good is our present predicament. Hence the title of this series of essays: The Moonlight of Fantasy.
 
The Moonlight of Fantasy: the phrase is not mine. It belongs to Alexander Herzen, a nineteenth century Russian exile and contemporary of Karl Marx. Herzen had lost faith in European ideals of progress, considering them, like nationalism, to be an opiate for the “exhausted and cheated masses”.[7] Herzen anticipated the dangers of utopian thinking, believing it could “exact human sacrifices in the present for the sake of an imaginary future”.[8] His despondency grew from a sense of stasis of the bourgeois order of his times (a downbeat Fukuyama). Herzen’s views are a useful reminder of how disillusionment colours the romantic imagination. There is something, however, in the phrase, something charged, something enchanting, poetic and hopeful that is worth holding on to. But to do so must be accompanied with a measured caution. One senses that Russia and that contained within its imperial reach may well perform as a romantic trope in the European cultural imagination. We have an expectation that Russian culture, pre-Revolutionary or otherwise, will have a melancholic core, whether this lies in a nineteenth century Russian intellectual’s inferiority complex when facing Europe, or, in the perceptions of a twenty first century writer such as Svetlana Alexievich grappling with the post-Soviet condition. Indeed, the choice of films selected for this essay may well be influenced by expectations and desires within the European film industry (and availability) when it comes to the idea of what we in the West want to see when it comes to Soviet and post-Soviet cinema.
 
So at root, an argument will arise in these essays using Herzen’s moonlight to illuminate its key themes – the emergence of a post-critical funding landscape, a neo-nationalist upsurge in global politics, the legacy of avant-garde critical practices, and the role of the dissident writer. It is appropriate for these themes to be explored in a magazine like CIRCA particularly given its origins, trajectory, collapse and potential for its present reincarnation. I am happy for the opportunity afforded by CIRCA to work out some thoughts, present a few ideas and to contribute to a forum which I hope will grow in line with the increasing need for serious critical debate on the role of culture within and beyond these shores.
 
 
Gavin Murphy lectures in Art History and Critical Theory at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.
 
 
[1] ‘The five-year plan in four!’ was the zealous response to Stalin’s first five-year plan. The slogan was used in various poster campaigns. Nicolai Chomov and Iurii Merkulov’s Fulfill the five-year plan not in five years, but in four is a good example from 1930.
[2] https://creative.ireland.ie/en/pillars/global-reputation
[3] : “Creative Ireland presents an opportunity to create a single proposition based on Irish culture and creativity that represents a considered, compelling and imaginative view of how we wish to be seen by the outside world – the outward expression of our identity – for everyone who wishes to know about or to engage with Ireland.” Here: https://creative.ireland.ie/en/pillars/global-reputation
[4] https://www.academia.edu/12150885/Fantasy_Islands_Pleasure_and_Bureaucracy_in_Artist_Led_Organizations
[5] Terence Brown, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922 – 1985, Fontana Press, 1985, p.105.
[6] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848), Verso, 2016, p.50.
[7] See, Pankaj Mishra, ‘At the Helm of the World’ (Review of ‘The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen’ by Aileen Kelly), London Review of Books, Vol.39, No.11, 1st June 2017, p.21.
[8] Ibid.