The Public, Publicity, and Protest in Putin’s Russia

13.12.2012, 14:32
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Strelka Press, as you know, publishes in English and Russian. And now we have four new Russian titles to add to our list. Our aim is to both promote English-language authors by making them accessible to a Russian audience, and to make Russian texts available in English. For the moment, the most recent Russian-language titles remain untranslated. However, with this bilingual objective in mind, we thought we would at least provide an edited translation of some of the blog posts that appeared recently on our Russian-language blog, as a means of introducing the authors, their work, and making the scope of Strelka Press more transparent.

The four new publications continue to explore some of the themes laid out in Strelka Press’ first seven titles, such as the evolving nature of public space in the digital era (seen in Alexandra Lange’s Dot-Com City). More specifically, this set pick up on the ownership of urban space, both civic and corporate, and the potential for protest and resistance inherent in its form (similarly relating to Owen Hatherley’s Across the Plaza or Julia Lovell’s Splendidly Fantastic). Although the new titles all operate principally within the context of present-day Russia, the themes are in a sense universal.

In “Public Space. From Emptiness to Paradox.” the well-known media theorist and philosopher Boris Groys speculates about the origins, nature and function of public spaces — viewed as a socio-cultural phenomenon. Groys argues that media and tourism are the primary drivers behind 21st-century public space. Media coverage and tourist ratings, however, create “not constructed, but virtual public spaces of transparency.” When this happens, architecture and design move in a new direction toward authenticity and honesty. Groys explains the mediatisation of public space by arguing that “the universality of media has replaced the universality of the avant-garde, and the universality of modernist reductionism has been replaced by cultural diversity and local traditions as an indication of authenticity… The lack of common tastes means that cultural actions can only be carried out at one’s risk, and this is precisely what happens. The modern artist, architecture and theorist is like the Nietzschean tightrope walker: The only measure of success is his ability to dance on the rope in front of an audience for a certain period of time.”

In “Culture Three” architectural theorist and social commentator Vladimir Paperny — described by Groys as one of Russia’s most important cultural scholars — follows up his seminal text “Culture Two: Architecture in the Age of Stalin”. His new essay is a reflection on the cyclic nature of Russian history and culture, asking whether terminal velocity (i.e. linear historical progress) can ever be attained. Paperny conjures a remarkable constellation of ideas and realities to support his teleological argument: from the Moscow metro to Medvedev and Putin; from Nikolai Fyodorov to Douglas North and Ayn Rand.

As though questioning Paperny’s interconnectedness, the visual anthropologist and cognitive scientist Ilya Utekhin asks “How easy is it really, for a person in an urban landscape, to see the connections between diverse elements and form a mental picture of the landscape’s underlying unity and logic? What makes this process easier and more organic? What creates the visual cues in the landscape that make this possible?” Utekhin’s essay is a meditation on anthropological urbanism set in post-Soviet St. Petersburg. The contemporary megapolis is a place for life in every sense of the word: a place for rituals sacred and non-sacred, civic as well as personal. His narrative draws on a range of academic disciplines and is full of seemingly fleeting observations on the urban environment that turn out to be both precise and important. But Utekhin’s essay is also a reflection on the nature and shifting boundaries of public spaces. “Although we call these places ‘public,’ nowhere do we find a clear division between public and private. In this sense, a group of friends standing together and chatting in a public square create an entirely private zone. When people find themselves in a public space, they frequently ‘set up a tent.’ They sit down and set about their business in a temporarily occupied space. Having spread out their things — thereby signaling their temporary ownership — they don’t wait for strangers at their table. They move away from strangers on a park bench, and before ‘landing,’ they ask the stranger sitting nearby, ‘Do you mind if I sit here?’”

The way these socially choreographed moments, and their potential to turn to protest, play out in both the geometric and virtual space of the city is the subject of Alexei Levinson’s «Spaces of Protest. Moscow’s Demonstrations and the Community of Citizens«, in which he argues that the Internet has become a permanent home for civil society, whereas the city has morphed into little more than a temporary shelter. Levinson studies the protest events of December 2011 to September 2012 from multiple points of view: sociological, political, and, naturally, from the urbanist perspective.

Levinson’s observations are precise and nontrivial. For example, he writes, “the marches seemed to show that our public squares were built for something and somebody else besides us. They also showed how architecturally poor our city is. Seeing these squares juxtaposed with the rallies, we realised that our city is somehow blind and deaf. A city should encourage residents from all social strata to express themselves. It should be a place where these groups can socialise, or, to put it another way, a house for civil society. But central Moscow’s squares reflect a city of rulers and subjects.”