THE YEARS OF STAGNATION AND THE POODLES OF POWER

Wednesday 18 January 2012, 14:59

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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Everybody is always remarking about how stuck our society feels these days. The music doesn't change, the political parties are all exactly the same, and films and TV dramas are almost always set in the past.

We are also stuck with an economic system that is not delivering the paradise that it once promised - but is instead creating chaos and hardship. Yet no-one can imagine a better alternative, so we remain static - paralysed by a terrible political and cultural claustrophobia.

I want to tell the story of another time and another place not so long ago that was also stifled by the absence of novelty and lacking a convincing vision of the future. It was in the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and 1980s. At the time they called it "the years of stagnation".

There are of course vast differences between our present society and the Soviet Union of thirty years ago - for one thing they had practically no consumer goods whereas we are surrounded by them, and for another western capitalism was waiting in the wings to fill the vacuum. But there are also echoes of our present mood - a grand economic system that had once promised heaven on earth had become absurd and corrupted.

Everyone in Russia in the early 1980s knew that the managers and technocrats in charge of the economy were using that absurdity to loot the system and enrich themselves. The politicians were unable to do anything because they were in the thrall of the economic theory, and thus of the corrupt technocrats. And above all no-one in the political class could imagine any alternative future.

In the face of this most Soviet people turned away from politics and any form of engagement with society and lived day by day in a world that they knew was absurd, trapped by the lack of a vision of any other way.

But in the late 1970s a post-political generation rose up in Russia who retreated from all conventional political ideologies, both communist and western capitalist, and instead turned to radical avant-garde culture - in music and in literature - to try and protest against the absurdity of the system. I want to focus on their story - because it is fascinating and forgotten (and they produced some great music) - but also because of what happened to them when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Despite the differences between east and west, I think that the fate of that post-political generation does offer a glimpse of what happens in a stagnant political culture when a door finally opens on a different kind of future. Especially as some of the choices they made were very unexpected - and the outcomes sometimes very sad.

At the heart of the Soviet dream was The Plan.

The fundamental idea was that the whole of society could be planned and organised in a rational way. A giant headquarters had been set up in Moscow in the 1920s called Gosplan, it's job was to work out the needs of every single person and then make sure those needs were fulfilled.

And for a while it worked - the Soviet economy grew faster than America in the the 1950s. But then in the 1960s it faltered and those who ran the Plan began to discover that they could not control such a complex system. Their scientifically planned targets began to take on a strange and increasingly absurd life of their own - and the planners found that the system was controlling them.

In 1992 I made a film called The Engineers' Plot which told the story of the Plan and what happened to it. Here is a section from the end which shows the bizarre world the failure of the Plan created for the life of all Soviet citizens.

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I've followed it with an extract from a Panorama programme made in 1981. The crew managed to get into the Soviet Union and secretly film bits of everyday life. It is a brilliant and vivid portrait of the emptiness and disillusion that was spreading through all levels of society - and how no-one believed in anything any longer. The woman who talks as she wallpapers a flat expresses this in a beautiful and touching way.

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The disillusion had begun back in the 1960s as the economy faltered. As a result a new generation began to turn away from politics - and to begin with they looked to America and its pop culture as an alternative.

The problem was that it was very difficult for Russians to get hold of anything American. But then Dean Reed turned up.

Reed is an extraordinary figure. In the 1950s he had been a not very successful teen idol, but then he reinvented himself in the mid 60s as a singing leftist revolutionary, travelling the world singing songs that attacked American imperialism, not just in Vietnam but in Latin America and the Middle East.

This led him inevitably to the Eastern bloc countries, and then to the Soviet Union where he became a superstar. It was a bit odd - a generation of Soviet teenagers loved Dean Reed because he brought American music and modern culture into their society, yet Reed himself loathed America and had come to Moscow as part of his quest to expose the corrupting influence that America was having on the world.

Back in the 1990s the Arena series made a great film about the life - and very strange death - of Dean Reed. It was presented by the journalist Reggie Nadelson. Here is an extract about Dean Reed's arrival in the Soviet Union and the effect he had. The Russian rock critic, Atermy Troitsky, who appears will also turn up later in this story.

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The disillusion with the communist dream grew throughout the 1970s. The millions of people who worked in the factories began to notice that the managers whose job was to run the plan were beginning to use the absurdities for their own purposes - to loot the system for the own profit.

Then in 1979 came the invasion of Afghanistan. It is now looked back on - rightly - as a disastrous decision that further undermined the Soviet Union. But what is forgotten is how for many of a young, disillusioned generation in Russia it was seen as a way to regenerate the ideals that were collapsing at home.

Sir Rodric Braithwaite, who used to be Britain's ambassador to Moscow, has written a wonderful book called Afgantsy. It tells the story of the Soviet invasion through the eyes of those who took part, and that includes the thousands of aid workers and civilian advisers that also went in. Their aim was to try and build 'socialism' in Afghanistan, just as thousands of westerners would later try and build 'democracy'.

Braithwaite quotes a Soviet youth adviser called Vladimir Snegirev who went to Afghanistan. In March 1982 he describes watching the Afghan New Year celebrations in the Kabul Stadium, and how they express the dream of creating a new world.

"There is a striking contrast which is only possible here: many of the women on the terraces conceal their faces under the chador - a primitive, medieval superstition; but parachutists are landing in the stadium and they are women too, who grew up in this country. The chador and the parachute. You don't have to be a prophet to foretell the victory of the parachute"

For Snegirev it was the ageing and corrupt Soviet leadership under Brezhnev that was the problem. He later wrote of the optimistic vision that Afghanistan seemed to offer:

"Were it not for our sclerotic leadership, people like Brezhnev, everything would work out differently. That's what I thought, that's what many people my age thought. When we arrived in Afghanistan we began to do what we had prepared ourselves to do for the whole of our previous lives.

In Afghanistan it was as if time had gone backwards, but now a power had arisen in this land which wanted to drag the people out of their superstition, to give children the chance to go to school, women the opportunity to see the world directly, instead of through the eye slits of the chador. Was that not a revolution? The battle of the future against a past already condemned?"

Here is part of a documentary made in Kabul in 1983 that filmed life under the Soviet occupation. It shows the Soviet advisers trying to transform this ancient world, including the celebrations for the new idea - Afghan Womens' Day

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And here are some of the video rushes of the celebrations of Afghan independence day in 2002. They are happening exactly twenty years later in the Kabul Stadium - the very place that Snegirev watched the Afghan women celebrate their liberation. Now the women tell the camera they are celebrating the freedom brought by America and democracy.

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But soon millions of Russians at home began to find out the futility and the horror of what was really happening in Afghanistan. Zinc coffins containing the dead soldiers were dumped in the middle of the night on the doorsteps of their families (sometimes it is alleged they contained the wrong body), soldiers returned with smuggled photographs and diaries that recorded brutal and horrific massacres of Afghans.

The mood of the generation who had turned away from politics and ideology now became much harder, cynical and sceptical. And one of the main casualties of this was the singer Dean Reed. Those who had once idolised Reed now turned against him.

Reed found himself trapped. He wanted to counter what he saw as American imperialist propaganda - and in 1986 he appeared on the US current affairs show Sixty Minutes to defend the Soviet Union, and that included defending their presence in Afghanistan.

To the Russian youth, who increasingly knew the truth about Afghanistan, this was absurd. He was now seen as Brezhnev's propagandist. And Reed found himself isolated. This isolation was powerfully expressed in a bitter song written as a message to him by one of his few friends left in America called Johnny Rosenburg.

A few weeks later Dean Reed was found drowned in a lake in a forest in East Germany. There are many conspiracy theories, some say he was killed by the CIA, others believe it was the KGB. But it was probably suicide.

Here is Soviet youth turning against Reed, and Johnny Rosenberg's song - from the Arena film.

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Instead, in the 1980s, many Soviet youth turned to a new kind of music and culture that also borrowed from America, but it was one that attacked both the hypocrisy of western bourgeois capitalism and state communism. It came directly out of the punk movement in New York in the mid to late 1970s.

One of the key early figures was a Russian avant-garde write in exile in New York called Eduard Limonov. He had been expelled from Moscow by the KGB in 1974 and he arrived in New York just as the punk scene was taking off. Limonov became friends with people like Richard Hell of the band Television, Patti Smith, and the Ramones.

Limonov took the punk vision (best expressed, he said, in Richard Hell's song Blank Generation) and fused it with with Soviet disillusion. Limonov argued that that the West was in many ways just a more sophisticated version of the Soviet Union, with more sophisticated propaganda - plus a similar intolerance of real dissent.

Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis

In 1979 Limonov expressed this in a novel called It's Me, Eddie. In it he portrays a fictional version of himself on a dark, violent and pornographic journey through the hidden underworld of America. It was funny but also a cold and merciless depiction of the real effect Power has on modern American society and those in it. It shocked many people - but it became a best-seller in France and Germany, and Limonov was hailed as the voice of a new punk avant-garde.

These ideas had a big effect on the blank generation in the Soviet Union - and a new avant-garde underground grew up in Leningrad and Moscow who turned to culture, above all music, as a way of expressing the absurdity of their society, something that they believed politics was incapable of doing.

In 1986 the BBC captured the tamer end of this underground in a documentary they made about a Leningrad musician called Sergey Kuryokhin and his friends.

Kuryokhin was a classically trained pianist who had embraced the new musical radicalism - and formed a band called Popular Mechanics. Here are some extracts from the film - with Popular Mechanics rehearsing, conducted in a wonderful way by Kuryokhin. It is also a very good picture of the mood of that group, many of them children of high-up party members, who have completely detached from believing in any political future.

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But the punk movement was not just composed of the children of the party bosses. In the 1980s a very big and influential cultural underground flourished throughout Russia, and it was much more than just a copy of western punk. One of its leading bands came from Omsk in Siberia, it was called Grazhdanskaya Oborona which translates as Civil Defence (the name was shortened to GrOb - which also means grave or tomb).

GrOb was led by a legendary singer called Yegor Letov. He was once incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital in Omsk for three months because of his rebelliousness. The music that Letov created was far more interesting than the western punk that had inspired it. His songs mixed modern noise with Russian folk in a full on attack on the emptiness of the world he saw around him.

The very perceptive journalist Mark Ames who edited the eXile magazine in Russia throughout the 1990s, and knew many of the avant-garde, says that Letov was one of the great geniuses of Russian literature.

Ames wrote of Letov:

"Punk may have started in New York and London, but the bravest spawn of all was Letov and his followers. When he began in the 1980s, Letov shunned the artsy irony of other anti-establishment bands in favour of raw violence and reckless confrontation against the blandness of the Soviet Union and the vapid optimism of Gorbachev's Perestroika. He left every band and every dissident in the dust, and they never forgave him for it.

Letov himself was the incarnation of what Edward Limonov calls "Russian Maximalism", the tendency to take things to their extreme."

Here is part of one of GrOb's greatest songs - Everything Is Going According to Plan - followed b a beautiful song by another member of the Siberian punk scene, Yanka Dyagileva, who was also Letov's lover in the 1980s.

I have cut the music to pictures of what was just around the corner, the sudden collapse of the Soviet union that began in 1989, and its strange aftermath. I have also added the lyrics to GrOb's song. The key lyric to Yanka Dyagileva's song that follows is "the television is hanging from the ceiling, and no one knows how f***ing low I'm feeling."

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With the collapse of the Soviet Union this generation faced a terrible question. In the 1980s they had retreated from any engagement with political ideology of both left and right, and they distrusted the west as much as the hated communist oppression.

They had turned to culture instead and built an ad-hoc avant-garde movement to try and mimic and expose the absurdity of the system.

But now the system had gone - what did they believe in?

One of the group decided to try and express this dilemma in a dramatic way. In 1991 Sergey Kuryokhin, of the band Popular Mechanics, went on a popular TV talk show. He set out to prove that Lenin was really a mushroom. Kuryokhin wanted to show that in a society where no-one believed in anything the media could be used to make anything real.

To western eyes it is a bit silly, but at the time it caused a sensation. Here is a short extract

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And you can watch a longer version here

The leading members of this post-political generation were now going to split and go off in very different ways.

Some made very sad, personal choices. In 1991 Yanka Dyagileva was found drowned in a river. It is believed that she committed suicide. Two other leading members of the underground punk scene also committed suicide.

But others decided to use the ideas that had driven the underground movement to try and create a new kinds of politic and new ways of running society in the wake of the catastrophic collapse.

These visions would manifest themselves in very different - and opposing - ways. But what linked them was a belief that in the avant-garde culture lay the seeds of a way of escaping the old, failed forms of politics.

The leader of one of these movements was the novelist Eduard Limonov.

When the Soviet Union collapsed Limonov had been allowed to return from exile. In 1992 he watched aghast as Yeltsin and a small group of technocrats decided to impose western-style free market capitalism overnight through "shock therapy". To Limonov this was a disaster, because from his experience of America he was convinced that American capitalism was no different from Soviet totalitarianism. It was just more subtle in its forms of oppression.

Limonov set up a political party. He called it The National Bolshevik Party. It's aim he said was to recapture the original aims of the Bolshevik revolution and integrate it with a modern nationalism.

The National Bolshevik Party almost immediately became the bete noire of both Soviet and Western liberals who saw it simply as the rise of a right-wing nationalism that was trying to hold back the inevitable modernisation of Russia.

This seemed to be confirmed dramatically when, in 1992, the BBC filmed Limonov on the mountains overlooking the besieged city of Sarajevo. He had come there as a supporter of Radovan Karadzic - and the film shows Limonov firing a large Serbian sniper rifle into the heart of Sarajevo.

It was part of one of the most imaginative and perceptive pieces of documentary journalism the BBC has ever made. It is called Serbian Epics - made by Pavel Pawlikowski. The central figure of the film is Radovan Karadzic and the poetry he writes, and in one hour the film tells you more about the Bosnian conflict and its roots than any other film I have seen.

Here is the section containing Limonov - and it is also beautifully shot.

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The shots of Limonov with the sniper rifle caused a scandal in Russia. Limonov has always claimed that the sequence was edited in a way that distorted what was happening.

But what is true is that Limonov, his party and the ideas behind it are far more complicated and interesting that they at first seem.

Limonov has explicitly said that his aim is to take ideas and attitudes from avant-garde art and music and use them to try and create a new kind of confrontational politics - one that could break through the fake ideas of western democracy to show how the new bourgeois elites were greedily destroying the Russian state.

Much of this Limonov says comes directly from his experience in New York in the 1970s:

"Loud denial of so-called values of civilisation, grotesque, trash, screaming, some borrowings of Rightist aesthetics, were all common for the New York City punk movement of the 1970s as well as for the first National Bolsheviks in the 1990s.

The newspaper of the party 'Linomka' (the name of a hand grenade) was in the 1990s the most radical and most punish of the whole world. With its slogans like "Eat the Rich!" or "A Good Bourgeois is a Dead Bourgeois!" or "Capitalism is Shit!" We were in the punk tradition, what else?…."

And the party symbol was deliberately designed, Limonov says, to play just such punkish games

One of the first members of the National Bolshevik Party was the punk legend Yegor Letov - leader of GrOb (he was member number 4). Then Sergey Kuryokhin - the leader of the Popular Mechanics band joined and the party soon became a home to many members of the 1980s avant garde music scene.

You can watch some footage of Letov playing at an NBP rally here.

Together they reached back into the past - and borrowed, as punk had done, from fascist and revolutionary aesthetics (and even further - both Limonov and Latov idolised Mayakovsky), in order to invent dramatic ways of confronting contemporary smug westernised culture. They also associated with some very nasty people who took nationalism to racist and xenophobic extremes.

To western liberals who want to spread democracy round the world someone like Limonov is a frightening alien because he is reawakening the dangerous force of nationalism. But he in turn sees western liberals as fools who have been duped, and are really the unwitting agents of a corrupt economic global elite. Limonov believes that the only way to confront that corruption is to harness a force that appeals to the mass of the people.

Here are some glimpses of Limonov and his party on a march called by the communist party in 1997 as President Yeltsin was letting the oligarchs loot Russia - Limonov's young supporters mingling with the old communists. One of the National Bolshevik Party banners has a fantastic slogan.

RUSSIA IS EVERYTHING
EVERYTHING ELSE IS NOTHING

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But there was another route that this generation took.

The key figure is a man called Vladislav Surkov. He is half-Russian, half-Chechen. He was born in the provinces, but like all the others he came to Moscow in the 1980s.

Surkov is shadowy and secretive, but he has given a very unusual window into his life and ideas. In 2009 Surkov allegedly published what seems to be an autobiographical novel under an assumed name. It is a cynical satire called Almost Zero and it tells the story of Egor, a disillusioned youth who comes to Moscow in the 1980s.

Egor can see through the fake ideology of the Soviet Union and he becomes a hanger-on of the Moscow underground movement - dabbling in avant-garde theatre. In the post-communist 1990s he then becomes a cynical PR man who will promote anything for anyone.

Egor is compared in the novel to Hamlet - someone who can see through the superficiality of the present age, but is unable to have any beliefs or even feelings about anything. In real life Surkov worked in the late 1990s doing PR for the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, but then, in 1999 he switched and started working for Putin - and became a ruthless manipulator of modern politics.

Reuters/Corbis/Sergei Karpukhin

Surkov created a modern and innovative way of managing the new democratic system - but in a way that his critics say has sidelined the mass of the people and completely diminished real democracy.

To do this Surkov created a constantly shifting political tableau. As well as being one of the architects of Putin's own party, United Russia, Surkov also allegedly helped to set up opposition parties the Kremlin could then use for their own purposes. And he copied Eduard Limonov - he set up a quasi-military nationalist youth group called Nashi.

Nashi claims to be an "anti-oligarchic, anti-fascist movement" but members have reportedly compared themselves to the Hitler Youth. And the Kremlin allegedly uses them to beat up opposition journalists.

At the same time Surkov writes lyrics for a rock group called Agata Kristi and essays on conceptual art.

A TV journalist who worked in Soviet television called Peter Pomerantsev has written a fascinating article about Surkov. You can find it here. In it he argues that Surkov has turned Russian politics into postmodern absurdist theatre. In a way, just like Limonov, Surkov is adapting avant-garde ideas to this new political world.

"The novelist Eduard Limonov describes Surkov himself as having 'turned Russia into a wonderful postmodernist theatre, where he experiments with old and new political models'.

There's something in this. In contemporary Russia the stage is constantly changing: the country is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while, backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away.

Surkov is at the centre of the show, sponsoring nationalist skinheads one moment, backing human rights groups the next. It's a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is indefinable."

Here is part of a report the journalist Tim Whewell did for Newnight about the forces behind Nashi. He shows them using the very same slogan - "Bury the Dollar" - that Limonov's party uses.

And at one moment Whewell manages to doorstep Surkov and grab an interview. Whewell is a brilliant reporter with a range and cleverness that few others beat.

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Eduard Limonov and Vladislav Surkov hate each other.

But in many ways they are very similar because both are convinced that western democracy is a complete sham - and both are trying to create political alternatives to what they see as the second wave of stagnation that took over Russia in the 1990s. This was the result of the corruption caused by the attempt to impose western capitalist and democratic ideas on the country.

Surkov believes that the truth is that the idea of democracy will always be an illusion, that all democracies will always be "managed democracies" whether east or west. So the solution is for a strong state to manipulate people - so that they feel they are free, while they are really being managed.

Limonov's solution is the opposite. He wants to bring The People back onto the stage of history - and make them active participants in building a new future. He believes that the way to do this is to use revolutionary propaganda, and to borrow from avant-garde ideas of the spectacle, in order to galvanise the masses and break through their torpor.

Opinion in the west is divided about Limonov. Many see him as leading the resurgence of the neo-fascist right. But others believe that he is misunderstood - that Limonov is genuinely trying to create a new kind of politics.

A French novelist called Emmanuel Carrere has just won the prestigious Prix Renaudot for a widely-acclaimed novel about Limonov's life. In it he portrays Limonov as an ambiguous hero of our time who is struggling with the great question of our age - how to create a vision of a new and different future in a post-political age where all ideologies are despised and distrusted.

Here are the rushes of one of Limonov's "revolutionary provocations" where members of the National Bolshevik Party invaded the Finance Ministry in the heart of Moscow in 2006. It is very like some of the activities of the Occupy movement that would happen later in London and New York - and it may be that both Surkov and Limonov are ahead of us. We're just at the start of trying to work out how to escape from our years of stagnation.

The protestors are shouting "Return the Money to The People" and "Putin Must Go".

I've also included some rushes of members of the NBP held in a cage in a court after another provocation - including one moment that shows just why liberals are frightened of Limonov's party.

This is followed by Limonov outside the court talking about the trial. The woman you glimpse behind him in the swirly coloured blouse is Anna Politkovskaya - who would be shot by an assassin in 2006.

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Then, last December, thousands of people in Moscow came out and demonstrated against Putin and his "managed democracy". They too were shouting "Putin Must Go". It was exactly what Limonov and his supporters had been doing for ten years - but on a vast scale.

Limonov held his own rally alongside - obviously hoping that he would be the vanguard for this new insurgency. But he and his supporters were completely ignored. The protests swept on past them.

A week later, in response to the protests, Putin demoted Surkov - sidelining him from power. Surkov gave a great quote:

"I am too odious for this brave new world"

Maybe history is finally moving Limonov's way, but in its ruthless way it is leaving him behind - his job done.

Or maybe not. Maybe the new Surkovs will find a way of managing the protests. No one knows

Meanwhile rock music in Russia is a pale shadow of its former glory. Last year one of Russia's most famous rock critics, Artemy Troitsky, went on television and attacked rock musicians for becoming the poodles of those in power. In particular he savaged the lead singer of Agata Kristi, Vadin Samoylov, for being "the trained poodle of Surkov". This is because Surkov had written lyrics for Agata Kristi.

Here is a picture of Putin with his poodle - Tosya. The Kremlin image managers have always tried to keep Tosya hidden - because they consider poodles not to be very butch.

Troitsky's remarks caused a massive row, and he is now being sued for criminal slander.

Troitsky has reportedly defended himself by saying he loves dogs - and that he didn't think that calling someone a "poodle" was an insult. Poodles he said in court are actually "kind, intelligent, endearing dogs" and that he would not be offended if he was called "Che Guevara's trained poodle"

Brave man - standing up against the system.

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  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 2.

    When an authoritarian regime approaches its final crisis, but before its actual collapse, a mysterious rupture often takes place. All of a sudden, people know the game is up: they simply cease to be afraid. It isn’t just that the regime loses its legitimacy: its exercise of power is now perceived as a panic reaction, a gesture of impotence. Ryszard Kapuściński, in Shah of Shahs, his account of the Khomeini revolution, located the precise moment of this rupture: at a Tehran crossroad, a single demonstrator refused to budge when a policeman shouted at him to move, and the embarrassed policeman withdrew. Within a couple of hours, all Tehran had heard about the incident, and although the streetfighting carried on for weeks, everyone somehow knew it was all over. Is something similar happening now? (Zizek)

    www.charlesfrith.com

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    Comment number 3.

    Didn't Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) do something similar (to what Limonov did) in the 1980s during the wilderness period between Tito's death in 1980 or whenever and the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s? This was when Yugoslavia couldn't decide on a replacement for Tito and was instead governed by a council of mostly faceless politicians. Most of us probably remember NSK for the band Laibach but there were also Red Pilot aka the Sisters of Scipion Nasice (or something similar) who represented the drama wing of NSK, a painters' group called Irwin (I think) and a couple of women architects.

    NSK have their virtual state at nskstate.com and I believe anyone can apply to be a citizen and get a passport but apart from that NSK seem to be very obscure these days.

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    Comment number 4.

    Thanks. A very interesting post and interesting comments beneath it. Change is coming to this world. I wonder who could take a Limonov type role in the UK? What's Ian Bone up to these days?

    I'm from Ireland. We don't have much time for that sort of thing. We used have a Limonov of sorts. His name was deValera. It didn't work out.

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    Comment number 5.

    Adam where are you going to make a post about anarchism? This "left right" definition of politics is a bit old and boring.

 

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