Part 1, Prelude
Introduction by Jonathan Brooks Platt
Victoria Lomasko is one of the leading artists in Russia today. I recently invited her to mount an exhibition in Pittsburgh as part of her book tour for Other Russias (n+1 and Penguin, 2017), which collects her graphic reportages from the Russian protests of 2011-12, the political trials that followed, and more in-depth exposés on sex-workers, juvenile prisoners, and enslaved workers in Moscow.
I became interested in Lomasko’s work when, along with art historian Nadezhda Plungian, she curated the Feminist Pencil exhibition (2012-13), a watershed moment in the emergence of a vibrant and diverse feminist movement in Russian oppositional art. Indeed, I would argue that feminism has now become the broadest and most dynamic of Russian avant-garde culture’s current manifestations. This movement has been very important in my own work on the figure of Zoya Kosmodemianskaya, an eighteen-year-old diversionist who was captured, tortured, and executed by German forces in 1941, and who subsequently became a model for Soviet youth – particularly women.
In July 2017, Lomasko traveled to Ingushetia, one of the Russian Federation’s seven North Caucasus republics. The trip was one of many Lomasko has made in recent years for a new project on the post-Soviet “Orient.” She has also written reportages from trips to Georgia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Dagestan (another North Caucasus republic). She funds these trips by offering master-classes (most commonly on stenciling for feminist posters or graffiti) under the auspices of local feminist and human rights organizations supported by European and American grants. Before the trip to Ingushetia, we had a long conversation about the complex power relations involved in her project (significantly abridged here) and then exchanged letters while she was there.
I should note that I somewhat exaggerate my enthusiasm for the thesis of Russian internal colonization (i.e., the idea that the Russian/Soviet empire not only colonized non-Russian peoples but its supposed ethnic “core” as well). My goal is to provoke Lomasko (much like she provokes the locals on her trip) into confronting the ambiguous imperial content of her project. The central problem of the internal colonization thesis comes to the fore in her offended responses. The idea that the Russian peasant was racially marked by his beardedness (which, of course, erases the experience of peasant women), and thus experienced a subjection comparable to the colonized peoples of British, French, and other overseas empires, fails to consider how such markers never superseded the more fundamental distinction of class.
The “colonial experience” of Russia is further complicated by the paradoxes of the Soviet project – building a classless society not only by eliminating the aristocracy and blocking the rise of a bourgeoisie but also by crushing the most oppressed population of the empire, the peasantry; promoting national cultures in the non-Russian periphery while suppressing any “bourgeois” aspirations to statehood; liberating women without challenging (after the first years of the revolutionary state) the fundamental patriarchal structure of the family; providing universal education without addressing the center-periphery asymmetries that made it difficult for many to take advantage of the social mobility this education afforded, and so on. It is the legacy of this particularly Soviet complexity that is most pertinent to Lomasko’s project and the rat’s nest of intersectionality that characterizes the flows of power within it.
Régis Debray once said that all communist revolutions to date have coincided with a national liberation struggle, and, he claimed with an elegiac tone, it cannot be otherwise (“Marxism and the National Question,” New Left Review, September-October 1977). Indeed, a distinct progression is discernible in many revolutionary movements, beginning with a national or communitarian struggle, which then develops into a more radical, universal emancipatory discourse. Think of how Black nationalism spawned a much more militant, economically progressive ideology in America, for example. But there is also a reverse side to this contradiction, a point of dialectical blockage rather than movement, which is no doubt clearest in the case of the Third World woman, caught, as Gayatri Spivak describes in “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, between the violence of her local patriarchal traditions and the “civilizing,” enlightenment discourses brought by the colonizer. She is deprived of agency and the capacity for political speech from both sides – the communitarian and the universalist.
But what about the Second World woman, who inhabits the still contested, post-socialist zone of global Empire, which not so long ago aspired to a peculiar form of anti-colonial hegemony? In this zone, the distinction between a “white” global north and a “brown” global south is far from clear, and the competition of various universalist discourses promotes a syncretism that invariably “queers” the colonizer. This is the most interesting thing I learned from talking to Lomasko about her project. How can we disentangle all the different vectors of surveillance and desire she describes? Competing empires (“spheres of influence”), gender asymmetries, provincial dreams of social mobility, reactionary uses of religious universalism, ethnic cleansing, the politics of memory, the society of control, and on and on… Who is following whom in all this? What subjects are taking shape, and what sacrifices do they require? Lomasko’s experiences suggest that only a kind of queer syncretism can make sense of these things and, perhaps, lead us toward a new universalism for the future.
Jonathan Brooks Platt
Houston, August 24, 2017
Conducted via Skype between Moscow and Pittsburgh, June 29, 2017
J: Before you go on your trip, I’d like to talk a bit about how you position yourself as a subject in this project. You’re a white, educated artist from Moscow. You have a progressive agenda, examining the conservative turn in different post-Soviet states and regions, particularly how it affects women and the LGBT community. You don’t mark central Russia (i.e., where ethnic/cultural Russians dominate) as superior to any of these other places; if anything, Russia often appears further along in its efforts to replace communist ideology with religion and “traditional” values. Still, the genre of travel writing is historically associated with the colonial gaze, and I do find elements of exoticism in your reportages.
V: I think you’re wrong to describe me as an educated artist from Moscow. In fact, much of my motivation for this project comes from my lack of education, growing up in Serpukhov, a small town two hours south of Moscow, where I attended one of the worst schools. I didn’t move to Moscow until I was nineteen, and my parents almost never left the Serpukhov city limits. My friends who grew up in Moscow had a very different childhood. Some of them even went to Europe with their parents when they were children. They went to prestigious schools, learned foreign languages…
J: So, you’re saying that class is more relevant to your project than colonial or racial differences? From what I’ve seen, questions of class aren’t that central in your reportages.
V: Actually, there are a lot of people in my reportages with similar backgrounds to my own. For example, I met a Dungan woman in a feminist collective in Bishkek – she spent her whole life serving her family, as Dungan girls are expected to do. They wanted to marry her off when she was very young, but she ran away, started living on her own, and she became a leader of the feminist movement.
J: Was she from a poor family?
V: No – but what’s important is that, like me, her social experience was very limited. She only knew one way of living, and she made up her mind to change it all on her own. A lot of the heroines in my reportages are trying to expand their horizons in this way. I think the most important legacy of the Soviet Union – in terms of social hierarchies – is the relation between centers and peripheries. The capital cities have all the money now, all the best activists, that’s where all the European and American centers are located, where people speak foreign languages, and so on. It’s also important to remember that Russia and the Soviet Union weren’t empires based on racial differences but national ones. And the hierarchy wasn’t only about Russia’s relationship to the other nations, but their relationships to one another. This is one of the main goals of the project – to understand this complexity.
I want to show you something I found in one of my old Soviet children’s magazines, Happy Little Pictures. Everything I learned about the Soviet Union came from magazines like this. This is an issue commemorating the 60th anniversary of the USSR. There’s this Russian boy, Dima, who gets in a plane to visit all fourteen of the other Soviet republics. Of course, he starts with the “Slavic brother” nations, Ukraine and Belarus. And, of course, he’s a white boy from Moscow. The kids he meets are all in their national costumes – here’s an Armenian sitting on a mountain, for example – and all this beauty is “ours.” Things like this filled me with envy. Where’s my plane? Where’s my trip across our wonderful Soviet Union? So, I’m doing it now. But I have to do it all on my own.
In Soviet times, the state sent artists to the non-Russian republics on specific missions. There was the Volkov brigade that taught painting in Uzbekistan, the Shock-Work School of Eastern Art in Turkmenistan, where artists from Russia taught the locals how to move from ornamental to figurative painting. There was certainly a colonial element to these projects. The artists were funded to “enlighten backwards peoples” and bring them into the fold of the great tradition of Russian painting.
But where is my budget? Who is commissioning this project from me? The only reason I teach master-classes on these trips is to get my ticket and accommodation covered. I do the reportages separately, on my own time. All I really get for my work is the opportunity to pursue my project.
Dima and his Plane
LEFT: “The Country We Live In,” Happy Little Pictures, 1982
I have a good friend named Dima. He’s five – not so small, not that big. Just like you. And of course, like you, Dima is interested in everything in the world.
One day little Dima asked me, “What’s it like, our country?” I thought about this for a long time, how to tell Dima about our country, and then I had an idea.
“You have to see it yourself, then you’ll understand.”
“There are all kinds of ways,” I said. “The best would be to walk across it on foot, then you’d see everything. But if you want to do it quicker, we could go by plane.”
“Let’s go by plane!” Dima agreed.
So, we got into a big, very special plane. We sat down and took off. And well, since the plane was so special, our trip was, too. One great flight across the whole country, from republic to republic.
RIGHT: We celebrate the Friendship of Peoples holiday on December 30. In 1922, on this day, the Soviet republics united into a single state – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Armenian Boy on a Mountain
TOP: The Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic
BOTTOM: “The Boy and the Water” (Armenian folk song)
“What mountain are you rushing to me from,
O, cool water of mine?”
“From that high mountain,” the water answered,
“with the snow-capped peak.”
“Tell me quick, where are you running to,
O, cool water of mine?”
“To the meadow,” the water answered,
“all decked-out in flowers.”
“I wish you’d stay with me forever,
O, cool water of mine.”
“I’m off to the orchard,” the water answered,
“Where the grapes are hanging full.”
Art by E. Kalachev
J: OK, I understand that you have less support, but otherwise the only difference from the Soviet model is that now it’s European institutions instead of the Communist Party spreading their ideological influence, no? Isn’t it possible that by presenting feminism as a universal discourse, you’re simply helping the west in its imperial competition with Russia? Gayatri Spivak talks about how colonialism relied on gender and race in its civilizing missions, framing imperial expansion as “white men saving brown women from brown men.” Isn’t your work just a diluted form of the same thing? White institutions helping brown women to save themselves from brown men?
V: And from Russia! Yes, this is true of the Europeans and Americans. But I don’t see myself as part of their project. The audience for my reportages is in Russia. The western funders are only interested in the master-classes. But my goal is to see if we can recreate the kind of connections that existed in Soviet times – not for the sake of the current regime, but for Russian activists. I want to show them that there are people struggling with similar problems in other parts of post-Soviet space. As for my relation to the “white institutions,” I’m just a servant to them, the same as the local activists who organize the classes. I don’t see any difference between us at all. And the locals treat me completely differently from how they treat the Europeans and Americans, because they’re the ones with the money.
J: It’s interesting that you say that. There’s an idea of Russia as an empire that didn’t just colonize its Eurasian periphery, but which colonized itself, its peasant masses, who practically became a different race after Peter the Great ordered all aristocrats to shave their beards, leaving only the peasants unshaven. Maybe you aren’t actually white?
V: I don’t know about that. I think it’s just that our country doesn’t have any money right now, and a lot of things are forbidden. There’s no local money for this kind of work. And the same thing is true in the other post-Soviet republics.
Part 2, Distant Encounters
July 10, 2017
Hello, my dear Jon,
Here are some impressions from my first day in Ingushetia.
In the airport in Magas, it struck me that apart from one blonde, clearly also from somewhere else, I was the only woman wearing trousers. The women’s skirts are all different lengths with different patterns. Later, I learned that the men in an Ingush woman’s family completely control the way she dresses. They decide how long her skirt should be, what color she should paint her nails, and whether she should cover her head with a scarf or a hijab.
The activists who invited me put me up in an elderly couple’s house. The husband, Yusef, asked me if I’m married straight away. He told me about two Ingush girls that don’t want to get married. “They’re finished,” he says. “What could be more important than family?” Before, I would have gotten angry and argued with him, but today I’m wondering if he might be right, and the most important thing we have is our relationships. How am I going to lead master-classes in feminist stenciling after this?
Later, I was drawing a monument to the “Mother-Guardian of the Hearth,” which was recently erected in Magas, when some young girls surrounded me, about nine or ten years old. I asked them if they want to be mothers like the woman in the statue.
“I want to be a boxer,” one of them said. “And then a policewoman.”
Another girl said she dreams of becoming a great poet. The activists tell me that Ingush girls have a lot of dreams when they’re young, but by the time they turn seventeen they accept their roles as wife and mother.
I asked the activists your question about how useful white, liberal feminism is in these parts. “Maybe you have your own traditions here?”
“What kind of tradition is it to degrade a human being?” they answered. “People are wrong to think we have a different kind of society. All people are the same. Everyone wants to live freely, but for some it’s dangerous to say so.”
What do you think?
Hugs and kisses,
P.S. I forgot to ask if you know about Stalin’s forced deportation of the Ingush to Kazakhstan in 1944. When they came back, they had to build everything from scratch. Twenty-three years ago, among the emerald hills and fields of Ingushetia, they built the new capital city, Magas, in the worst kind of 1990s style, like what Mayor Luzhkov did in Moscow. There are only a few young trees sticking up here and there, and there’s nothing green at all in the courtyards. I saw an old Ingush woman on a strange swing-set, stuck in a narrow space between two high-rises. It was the only place she could find out of the sun. Behind my back are the steppe and the mountains; before my eyes are black windows and brown walls.
It reminds me of Pushkin’s lines:
All falls before the Russian sword.
You fought and died horribly,
Proud sons of the Caucasus;
Our blood didn’t save you,
Nor your enchanted armor,
Nor your mountains and wild steeds,
Nor your love of untamed liberty!
Like the tribes of Batu Khan,
The Caucasus will betray its forefathers.
July 11, 2017
It’s interesting that you’re having doubts about the critique of the family, even in a place as patriarchal as Ingushetia. The Ingush are victims of genocide, after all, having struggled for centuries simply to exist as a people. Long before the deportation, the Russians destroyed countless villages, killing women and children, “taming” those mountains. Maybe the monument to motherhood reflects this history, and the contradictions – the little girls’ dreams, or this symbol of enlightenment, the “electronic library” in your drawing – are unavoidable for now?
I’m not saying that “local traditions” are good, and “white, liberal feminism” is bad. It’s always a position between a rock and a hard place – like your Ingush woman’s swing-set. The question is whether a local, less Eurocentric form of feminism can better respond to the history of violence that all Ingush people endured, not just the women. For example, in the African-American context, there was a movement called “womanism” that presented itself as an alternative to the specifically white, middle-class culture of second-wave feminism.
But, again, what interests me most is your own position. You say you don’t feel privileged in comparison to the activists you meet on your travels, and the post-Soviet legacy you share with them is more significant than the colonial history that divides you. Still, I wonder if this doesn’t have something to do with the internal colonization of Russia that I mentioned in our interview. Maybe it’s hard for the daughter of slaves to see herself on the side of the strong instead of the weak.
You quote Pushkin’s epilogue to the Prisoner of the Caucasus – a very strange text. The main part of the poem is a romantic plot punctuated by rapturous descriptions of the Caucasian landscape. But then it ends with this panegyric to Russia’s bloody conquest of the region. What’s the connection? The Circassian girl falls in love with her moody Russian prisoner and sets him free. But then she drowns herself instead of running away with him. Why? Because the advance of the empire, the taming of the mountains, means shattering their natural, unspoiled harmony. So, the Circassian girl also has to be broken. In the end, it’s like she’s been infected by the prisoner’s dissatisfaction, by his modern longing, and it ruins her. She is the sacrifice that modern civilization requires, a symbol of the emptiness inside the Russian’s own heart, the source of his insatiable desire.
Are you sure that your work in Ingushetia isn’t perpetuating the kind of imperial relations that show up in mythic narratives like Pushkin’s?
With hot Circassian kisses,
July 11, 2017
No, I’m not sure my work in Ingushetia is free of imperial myths.
Today in Magas I went to a concert commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Ingush Republic.
“Thanks to Putin’s heroic work,” says a man from the stage, “Russia, and Ingushetia along with it, are developing well. Long live the friendship of peoples and the unity of Russia!”
I was wearing trousers again. They’re more comfortable to work in, and I was curious if they’d provoke anyone, since they’re totally unacceptable for women here. And a lot of people have told me I look Ingush with my dark hair and long straight nose.
But only children – boys between five and ten – were shocked by my appearance. Some were so shocked that they found it easier to see me as a strange man with earrings. Others came up and asked if I was Ingush. But the adults know only their own women can be controlled, so if a woman dares to break the law openly, it means she must occupy a different place in the hierarchy. No one except the children said anything to me.
“You don’t criticize the bosses,” one of the activists commented on this story.
Why do you think Circassian kisses are hot?
July 12, 2017
I want to come back to your question about the connections between the monument to the Guardian-Mother and the colonial history of the North Caucasus.
In general, women are so rare in post-Soviet monuments that when you see one, you start to wonder, “And what is the government trying to tell us this time?”
In Yerevan, I remember the “Single Cross” or “Sisters” monument – two young women, symbolizing Armenia and Russia, embracing each other next to a cross. In Osh, I saw a monument to the Kyrgyz queen Kurmanjan Datka, who resisted the Russian invasion but took up a pro-Russian position after losing the war. That’s basically all I’ve seen during my trips.
It was interesting to learn how local women perceive the Guardian-Mother. All my respondents said they were surprised when she appeared, because celebrating a woman isn’t accepted in Ingushetia.
“It doesn’t reflect the people’s mood,” one Magas resident said. “It’s something the government thought up to add some ‘local color’.”
But for whom? The only non-Ingush in Magas are Russian State Security agents and their families. They have their own big apartment complex, special schools and kindergartens.
Now, what would be great would be a monument to an Amazon. According to legend the Amazons lived precisely in this area, and up to the end of the nineteenth century there were sacred holidays when women and young girls would go into the mountains for several days to sing, dance, and hold races.
Or a monument to Laisat Baisarova, a young Ingush beauty, who went into the forest to wage guerilla war and get revenge against the NKVD for the deportation. Unlike your Zoya Kosmodemianskaya, she was never captured and she lived to be an old woman.
Maybe women like these could become models for a local form of feminism? Is this what you had in mind?
July 14, 2017
My dear Vika,
It’s a good question – why are Circassian kisses considered hot? I also remember Zarema’s “stinging kisses” in The Fountain of Bakhchisaray. In a letter to his friend Vyazemsky, Pushkin explained the image by saying that his Georgian heroine bites…
Has your queer look led you into any adventures?
The fact that the locals are cold to the Guardian-Mother sounds like the cynical attitude to the government that one often meets in Russia. Or is this more a vestige of Soviet times? Judging by what you say about the security services, the Ingush must feel like they’re being watched all the time.
I read that the Amazons lived in the Caucasus after being driven out of Turkey. And Stalin apparently deported the Caucasian peoples during the war to clear a path for the invasion of Turkey. Always a rock and a hard place on the borders of empires. What kind of monument do you imagine? Girls in ritual races? A militant woman with a single breast? Not long ago I talked to the lesbian separatist poet Oksana Vasyakina about the Amazons. She told me they always get killed in ancient texts, which contradicts her ideal of a community of women free from the traces of male violence. Zoya famously said it’s happiness to die for one’s people. Is living to be an old woman for one’s people like Baisarova a greater happiness?
I’m still thinking about the Ingush as an ethnic group and their historical precariousness on the edge of extermination, the absolute imperial periphery. There must still be a national liberation movement there, at least potentially, unlike, say, in Kalmykia – which I visited some years ago – where the people seem completely Soviet in their manners. I guess the creative power of the USSR skipped over the North Caucasus. Only the Ossetians lived well for some reason. Does this have something to do with Stalin’s possible Ossetian roots? Remember Mandelstam’s famous poem – “executions like raspberries and an Ossetian’s broad chest…”
How is your colonial work in the master-classes going? Do you have any time to reflect on your subject position and the power dynamics involved?
With stinging kisses,
July 16, 2017
Sorry for the delay – I don’t get much time alone, since I’m always in the role of exotic guest for my hosts, who want to hear stories about distant lands and show me to their friends and relatives.
I’m in Nazran now. The streets are lined on both sides with the fences of brick houses, like little fortresses, and everything happens on the other side of them; so, there’s nowhere to sit. Today I found one bench, but some men started asking me questions: “Where are you from?”, “Are you married?”, “Did you come here alone?”
Children ran up, too, and they started asking each other: “What do you think, is that a boy?”
“It’s a woman. A pretty one,” the men told them.
I’m still having trouble deciding what to wear so I can work comfortably. I want to draw places that aren’t accessible to local women; for example, there’s a pond in Nazran where the men swim. If I’d gone there in a dress and headscarf, there’d have been an explosion of aggression – “Indecent behavior for an Ingush woman!” So, I went in trousers to make sure they recognized my different nationality. There were men sitting and drinking in the bushes by the pond. When they first caught sight of me, they were stunned, and I realized I wouldn’t be able to draw them. Soon they started shouting, “Hey, girl! Wait a minute!” But they didn’t go as far as to chase me.
Of course, in any Russian provincial town you can feel the curious, evaluating gaze of the Other following you. But in the North Caucasus there are these rules about how a woman should look and behave. Most of the students in my master-classes want to make stencils on this topic. There was one girl, though, who made a different poster – a mountain woman in a cap, holding a pitcher filled with Coca-Cola, and the slogan: “The times are different, and so am I.” She thinks the old traditions are fading away faster and faster.
I only notice two differences between the students and me. Not in terms of nationality, and especially not race, like you suggest. They’re Muslims, so they are more controlled by men. They also live in the deep provinces, while I work in the capital.
I was thinking about this idea that Russia colonized itself. The relationship between the aristocrats and the serfs can probably be compared to the contemporary relationship between Putin’s regime and the rest of “the people.” But there’s also another important internal hierarchy – Moscow and all the other cities. People always ask me where I’m from, not what my nationality is. When I tell them I’m from Moscow, my position in the hierarchy is immediately clear, and no one cares if I’m Tatar, Georgian, or Jewish – which would be completely possible with the way I look.
Moscow isn’t so much a city as a state within the state. I’m teaching things I learned in Moscow, and this experience has nothing to do with nationality. And I also learn things when I meet activists in other capitals – Bishkek, Yerevan, Tbilisi. But in Nazran it’s as hard to acquire new professional skills as in my own hometown of Serpukhov, which is only two hours from Moscow.
I wrote this letter while hiding from curious eyes in a ravine. But some children ran up anyway.
“Our uncle saw you from the roof. He wants you to come over and drink tea,” they said.
Then the uncle came over himself. He stood behind me and started reading what I was writing. “Why are you writing about being followed? Who’s following you?”
July 20, 2017
Hello, my dear Jon.
The family I’m staying with took me into the mountains to show me the famous Ingush towers, which were built in the 13-16 centuries, some for military use and others for living in. The military ones are especially elegant – they look like arrows stuck into the mountains with the pointed end up. Every Ingush clan had its own tower.
They would have stood for ages, like the Egyptian pyramids, but a lot of the walls were marred by Soviet shells and dynamite. A documentary film director, Mahomed Amirkhanov, told us that when they deported the Ingush, the regime decided to destroy the towers as well. I couldn’t find any information about this on the Russian internet. The locals say there are a lot of forbidden topics here: the deportation, the Chechen War, the Ingush-Ossetian conflict of 1992…
Let me tell you about the Memory and Glory Memorial in Nazran, for example. The first thing you see when you go in is a bas-relief showing the Ingush swearing an oath of loyalty to the Russian empire in 1770. Meanwhile, the monument to the deportation victims is hidden by the back fence. In the first hall of the museum there are paintings about the deportation – “Black Wednesday”, “February 1944”, “Eviction”, “The Road of Death.” But then they have display tables under the paintings with awards conferred on Ingush soldiers who showed special valor during the Great Patriotic War (although Ingush were deported from the army, too). There aren’t any explanatory texts. The locals explained it to me this way: “The paintings are there so we don’t forget. The medals, so they don’t touch us.”
You asked if the Ingush feel like they’re being watched. When I don’t just draw but also collect interviews, a lot of people ask if I’m gathering information for the security services.
To answer your question about how Soviet Ingushetia was, I could only find Soviet monumental propaganda in the village of Troitskaya, which was inhabited by Cossacks before 1991, when there were armed conflicts, and most of the Russians left. There’s one statue there of a worker and collective farm girl with Slavic features. Another one shows revolutionaries: a Cossack, a worker, and a Red Army soldier under a flag that says, “For the power of the Soviets.” All three of them have their noses knocked off.
I asked some old Ingush men why they didn’t take these monuments down during perestroika. “Don’t they remind you of the Soviet regime that deported you?”
“It wasn’t the statues that deported us, sister,” they answered. They told me no one believed in communism because of the deportation and the repression of religion.
You also asked about the special attitude of the regime to Ossetians. A lot of Ingush explain the deportation by saying that Stalin and Beria were Ossetians, and they were clearing the land for their own people. I also heard a funnier explanation – Ossetian women are very good-looking and accessible, and they bake tasty pies. So, Moscow officials married them and took them home, and they gained enough influence to help their own people.
It’s like in Pushkin’s Journey to Arzrum, remember? “Their women are wonderful and, as I’ve heard, very favorable to travelers.”
P.S. After writing this letter, I went to teach a lesson at the Memorial. The youngest student in my class, ten-year-old Dzhamilia, greeted me. “While I was waiting for you, I counted 57 of my ancestors among the deported.”
July 22, 2017
Vikusha, my sensuous odalisque!
I’m starting to bring my impressions about your subject position into order. Despite everything, I still think you went to Ingushetia bearing the “civilizing discourse” of feminism. The fact that you’re working with progressive people who want this knowledge doesn’t change things. Still, you emphasize other facts, hoping to establish solidarity in place of hierarchy. Like you, these are women in a patriarchal society, and their provincial upbringing recalls what you endured in Serpukhov, falling on a single continuum of violence (both direct and structural). For you this outweighs any ethnic or racial differences.
But this is a dangerous position to take, because you’re also modeling how to escape such conditions for them – how to acquire the privileges of the Muscovite boy, Dima, who could travel freely across “our great Soviet motherland.” The idea that your project is rooted in the utopian, anti-colonial aspirations of the Soviet Union contradicts this (petty bourgeois) narrative of social mobility. Ultimately, it serves to hide the fact that you’re still working from the privileged position of a Moscow artist with European funding.
But what if you admit that your solidarity with the locals isn’t only about gender and provincialism but also has a post-colonial aspect. Soviet modernization achieved a great deal in the effort to create a multi-national political space that was not exclusively defined by the imperial hierarchy. But the way the revolutionary regime “dealt with” the Russian peasant was probably its biggest failure. It was much easier to displace the bearded population, to conscript or imprison them, to starve or simply shoot them. And no one remembers this auto-genocide, just like no one remembers the traumas of serfdom, the horrors of migration to the city after the emancipation in 1861, and so on. Everyone is shaved now, and no one counts their repressed ancestors from the Russian village.
I think you should look at the Soviet anti-colonial utopia from a post-colonial perspective, at once reflecting on your privileged position and trying to uncover this secret history of Russian internal colonization. Without this, no matter how good your intentions are, you’ll inevitably reproduce the colonial relations of the Russian empire that the Bolsheviks never fully eliminated, and which the Russian Federation now hopes to restore.
You write that in the provinces the gaze of the Other is always following you. But they’re only looking at you because you’re looking at them, and I’m not surprised they think you’re collecting information for the security services. More than that, you intentionally provoke their gaze with your queer look and mysterious exoticism (“Is that a boy?” “No, it’s a very pretty woman.”) And you can only do this because you’re from the center. You have the freedom, the privilege to play with gender roles. They don’t.
When you go into these inappropriate places looking like (a no doubt very sexy) boy, you display your indomitable (white, Muscovite) freedom, frustrating the “primitive” desire of the locals – eroticizing and castrating them at the same time. Of course, unlike Pushkin in his orientalist narratives, you don’t care if they internalize your freedom and gender flexibility. No, you save that task for another “indecent place,” your master-classes. Is this so different from the old imperial order of civilization and barbarism?
Forever your slave,
July 23, 2017
Yesterday I was “provoking” people with my “queer look” again, this time in the town of Sunzha, which used to be the Cossack village of Sleptsovskaya. I went there to attend a church service and hopefully get some interviews from the Cossacks’ descendants. The church came under mortar fire in 2008, 2010, and 2011, and one of the priests was abducted and killed, so now there are Ingush security guards that check your bag before you go in. There wasn’t a service that day, and I only met a young girl named Masha and a woman called Sveta. Masha was born in a Cossack family, and she was the only Russian in her school. She told me her classmates used to tease her and throw stones. In the town, everyone was looking at us, but I felt fine. I asked Masha and Sveta if they ever wear trousers. They giggled nervously.
The next day I managed to catch a service. I learned from the people in the congregation that before 2008 (when Ingushetia got a new president) there was a wave of murders, in which entire Russian families were killed. There were also ethnically motivated murders before the deportation, and in the 1960s after the Ingush came back from Kazakhstan.
The local Russians complain that the Ingush call them slaves, perhaps because slavery is still widespread. They trick men from central Russia into coming here, and then they take away their documents and force them to work for a crust of bread. The Cossacks told me stories like the Prisoner of the Caucasus, only in these stories the prisoners were cleaning shit out of the barns until the end of their days. Another reason they might use the word “slave” is because the Ingush never had social estates, and they despise the Russians for serfdom. The famous Ingush writer Issa Kodzoev writes in his Kazakh Diary: “All the glory of past centuries is now fading before the vulgarity of the dim-witted peasant. The slaves have defeated the heroes.” So, you’re a lot like the Ingush – you remember who our ancestors were.
You’ve asked me several times what I, the descendant of slaves, think about the “centuries-long whip of serfdom.” I don’t know how it is now, but in Soviet times the school program taught us to hate the aristocrat oppressors and celebrate their physical destruction. Maybe our great-grandfathers were slaves, but our grandfathers washed away that shame with the blood of the class enemy, and that’s why the “Soviet man” is a new man. As the slogan went: “how proud the words ring—Soviet Man!”
Getting back to the local Russians, though, they were worried something might happen to me on the streets. “Don’t take off your headscarf, it’s safer that way!”, “Don’t wear trousers, anything could happen!”, “You look like an Ingush girl – keep quiet and they’ll think you’re one of them”, “Tell them you were born here – they treat the locals less harshly.”
I told them I didn’t feel scared – maybe because I’m a guest, or because I’m from Moscow.
“Oh!” the congregation rejoiced, “they think you’re collecting information for the security services, and they’re scared.”
Yes, Jon, I admit that I’m privileged to live in Moscow. Closer to these same security services, who could arrest me at any moment, claiming that my reportages are provoking inter-ethnic conflict. And I’ve had to pay dearly for this privilege. The hungry years in the dormitory, taking commercial orders instead of making art, never having children, living with a Moscow artist I didn’t love (because you don’t become a Muscovite just by living inside four Moscow walls).
And I have to prove my right (or “privilege”) to publish in the west again and again every time. As an American professor, you can relax and write essayistic letters on erotic themes in your luxurious Pittsburgh apartment. Meanwhile, as an author from the former “Second World”, I am expected to deliver incisive reportages on political themes to my First World readers. The riskier the better. Otherwise the work won’t be dirty and dangerous enough, and my western colleagues will decide they can do it themselves.
And, yes, I “provoke” the locals (i.e., I put myself in dangerous situations) to collect exclusive material. This is one of the ways I earn money for a ticket to America, so I can visit you, my dear.
Tomorrow I return to Moscow, where other orders are waiting. This is my last letter about Ingushetia.
 See Alexander Etkind, Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience (Polity, 2011).
 I think it is important to distinguish this former-second-world queering from the “uncanny” effects Homi K. Bhabha identifies in the post-colonial migrant, which depend on a racially estranged mimicry.
 The Dungan people are Muslims of Chinese origin in Kyrgyzstan.
 In the Russian language, ethnic differences are referred to as “national” differences. This lexical peculiarity reflects the Soviet notion that national self-determination was still possible under the authority of the multi-national (i.e., imperial) socialist state.