The Leviathan and the Gutter: interviews NYU’s Mikhail Iampolski (Part II)

The following interview with Mikhail Iampolski, Professor in the Departments of Comparative Literature and Russian & Slavic Studies at NYU, is reposted from Gefter.ruwhere it appeared on 2 October under the title “The Leviathan and the Gutter. Might without right: a new crossroads in Russian history?”

 [Note: This is Part II of a two-part post. Part I appeared on Thursday, 16 November.]


If we’re really experiencing a “catastrophe of Russian statehood,” what good is the majority? Why not act within the current framework? [To paraphrase Max Weber,] “all power is violence.”

What is the majority, anyway? As I’ve been saying, the majority only makes sense as a pure form of televised legitimation.

And that’s all it’s good for?

The majority also legitimates Malakhov and the huge salaries he can get at Channel One Russia and all the other channels. But it doesn’t decide anything, or rather, it decides in the sense that one has to earn its affection. But Putin has mastered the basics of PR, he knows how to be likeable, how to walk around with no shirt on. By the way, that seems to me to be getting less and less effective, because he’s repeating himself. At this point, the best he can do is swim around with pikes [in Siberia]. Today it’s a pike, tomorrow a baby boy, and the day after that it’ll be a tank. And that’s his way of creating a pseudo-majority. On top of which he has these rudimentary appeals to instinct. Throw a punch and run away. Americans are bad. Stuff like that. Totally empty slogans capable of mobilizing affect — and nothing else.

But that means that strategy is impossible. There can’t be any long-term development, no plans or prospects for the future, because what you call a “show” and what you call “power” is always just a momentary impulse.

Yes, I don’t see what a possible strategy could be, even in principle. Which leads to yet another catastrophe for Russia, one that I’m experiencing personally — and that’s intellectual degradation. Because this affective sphere that’s engulfing everything, all those banderovtsy, fascists, Americans — it all leads not only to the total eradication of fact-based thinking, which is swallowed up by the succession of images on TV, but to the total disappearance of discourse. When people talk about public opinion in Russia, you know, “Public opinion on whatever issue is such and such. People support this but they don’t support that,” I always find that funny. Because I think that a majority can’t have opinions, almost by definition. There exist thinking people who develop particular opinions, but I would say that 95% of people are simply incapable of doing so. All they can do is adopt opinions from some sort of marketplace of ideas.  There’s a kind of public zone where different views, different ideas, compete and circulate, and people mostly embrace what they find most appealing and reasonable.

But when this zone of public discourse and self-reflection is completely destroyed, or washed away, people no longer have that resource to draw on for opinions. The notion that your average person who just does their job every day, who works as a mechanic, taxi driver, doctor, or manager, is capable of developing a rational and well-founded opinion on various social processes seems utopian to me. And in Russia — and this goes to your question about strategy — we’ve seen the erosion of discursive space. There is no discursive space anymore. And as you’ve also been saying, there’s nothing left besides this drama of dividing everyone into “us” and “them” — others, enemies. Discourse has been reduced to trading insults. The level of aggression is very high and there is no self-reflection anymore. Self-reflection is actually disappearing as we speak — and that’s something we shouldn’t forget — because, like culture, it depends on institutions. If there are no institutions, there can’t be any culture, either. There need to be free scientific institutions, unrestricted outlets for press and publishing, a free media, institutions for the dissemination of knowledge, of culture. There have to be museums, there have to be places where that culture and that discourse and that self-reflection are produced and disseminated. But in states of the Soviet type, or the Russian type, culture is highly institutionalized, whereas private education remains almost completely undeveloped. There is basically no private or philanthropically funded artistic sphere, the way there is in the United States. Except for the Garage Museum [of Contemporary Art], there’s hardly anything worth mentioning. And that’s how everything ends up connected to the government, which is currently destroying cultural institutions. It’s not deliberate, I think, it’s just that these cultural institutions are being destroyed alongside all the others. The destruction of the Academy of Sciences, for example, is very revealing in this sense. What’s the problem with the Academy of Sciences, you might ask. Whose way is it in? Why does Putin even care about the President of the Academy of Sciences, whether it’s this or that physicist who occupies that position? It should make no difference. But it’s because it’s an institution that functions according to certain rules, and therefore stands out from the general trend of collapse. Which means it has to be destroyed. And so you get this stupid mirage of personal power: “I get to appoint someone.” But why does he even need to do that? What good does it do him, what’s his angle?

The destruction of institutions is very important, because, for example, liberal thought cannot exist outside institutional structures. If there is no market, there can be no liberal economy — that seems obvious enough. Thought itself, again, can only occur within the framework of neutrally functioning institutions. The university where I work truly values rules, such as those protecting freedom of speech or governing non-interference in scientific matters, the objective assessment of dissertations, the awarding of degrees, and so on. These are golden rules, and if you destroy them, there will be nothing left. Science, and culture, and all the rest of it will cease to exist, because we’re only free within institutional frameworks. These are the rules that enable us to think and to produce culture. Look at what’s happening. In Russia, we have Dissernet, [which is a symptom of] the total collapse of standards for awarding degrees. It all speaks to the ongoing destruction of the cornerstones of discursive practice. We’re experiencing a general dumbing-down of Russian discourse, and that includes any potential for self-reflection. For me personally — because I’m connected to these practices — this is one of the most painful, one of the saddest aspects of contemporary Russian reality.

Mikhail, where does this obsessive focus on problems of national security come from? The Minister of Education just said that the purpose of education is to contribute to national security, in a basically unmediated way…And immediately, everyone’s attention turns to the fact that some subsection of the FSB has gotten involved in the Serebrennikov case, on the grounds that the FSB “concerns itself with museums and theaters,” that its representatives possess, — and I quote — “an absolute understanding of currently ongoing processes.” So even as they’re destroying things with one hand, they use the other to cover or protect this or that person, at least, for the time being. Is that the new model of “national security”?

It has nothing to do with protecting anyone. I think that it relates to that principle of power, which is now the Russian government’s central organizing principle. I once compared Putin to Danila Bagrov from [Aleksei] Balabanov’s [1997 film] Brother, who was constantly saying that the main thing in life is power. All those guns, all those tanks and whatnot — it’s the principle of power, which is now the fundamental organizing principle society in general. Of course, that principle is deeply connected to TV, because you have to show some [T-14] Armata tank, for example, and say that they don’t exist anywhere else on earth — and meanwhile, even the Russian army isn’t using them yet. They’re constantly bluffing — like, remember when Putin showed [Oliver] Stone some film [supposedly of Russian planes bombing terrorists in Syria,] but actually it was footage of America [bombing the Taliban in Afghanistan]? It’s all one big bluff, just a picture on a screen. Who cares who shot the footage, or when? The point is, there’s bombing. We all watched that Russian aircraft carrier, [the Admiral Kuznetsov], belching smoke as it sailed from the Barents Sea to the Mediterranean. That was so clearly wrong, as an image, and people found it embarrassing. Still, the main problem with it was that it didn’t make a good image.

And now look at how violence happens in Russia: it’s the very same thing, the very same principle of power, where there’s an obvious and disproportionate emphasis on spectacle. What kind of spectacle? It’s bursting into a theater wearing masks and waving machine guns, and forcing everyone down to the ground. It’s when, one fine morning, you use a blowtorch to cut a hole in the front door of some movie director, or female journalist, and then you make a lot of noise arresting them, do something crazy to attract attention, as a show of force. Because today, the main event isn’t the investigation or trial, it’s the arrest itself. The arrest, the search of the premises. It’s that same bare torso, Putin’s bare torso, all over again, except now everyone is doing it. And after that there’s the trial itself, which unfolds exactly the same way every time. And that’s where, I think, they get into the area they like the least: presenting evidence and preparing for the trial, which they’re incapable of doing because the evidence is either all fabricated or just not there. So they put the screws to some poor old bookkeeper, they build their whole case on just the one bookkeeper, and everyone understands that it’s all nonsense. And that’s why they drag the investigations out endlessly, even when there’s nothing there. They arrest [Aleksei] Ulyukayev. Supposedly he had bags of cash on him, but then they hold him for a year or two, just dragging it out — what for? What are they investigating for that length of time, if it all boils down to his asking for a bribe and then receiving a bag of money? What is there to investigate for an entire year? But the investigation never ends, and it’s because they have no evidence. This is a point where there are still vestiges of institutional sensibility, because they have to present at least some kind of evidence. There will be lawyers, the press will show up, and no matter how you slice it, you have to have a trial — a painful, humiliating, disgusting trial, which they’re unable even to organize properly. Which is why everything that’s connected to this juridical side is always infinitely protracted, it’s like it’s mired in a swamp. The judge will mumble some vague verdict at top speed. And after all that they say, fine, we’ll put them on house arrest and not in prison, because who knows what their crime even was. The trick is to make a good show. But first, you need the running in with the masks and machine guns and the throwing of everyone to the ground. That makes an impression, gives people something to talk about, get everyone all excited, and everyone can see who’s in charge. Those tanks of ours, the guns, the aircraft carriers — it’s all the same thing.

But this power you’re talking about, it isn’t directed at anyone in particular. It’s not even very selective, for the most part: it grabs and arrests people almost at random. As [film director] Vladimir Mirzoyev said to us this summer — we were discussing the behavior of Moscow police at demonstrations for Navalny — the cops are like [Pieter] Brueghel’s blind men

It’s not whom they grab, but how. Young men assembling peacefully are seized and thrown to the ground. Each one is carried aloft by ten cops. They grab old women — there was a photo where ten strapping OMON officers in helmets are dragging this helpless, fragile creature. Because that’s the point. They’re all showing off their fangs, their bare torsos. It’s that same bare torso all over again.

But doesn’t power need to have a point of application, some kind of purpose?

The purpose is a show of power within a society that lacks any institutions. Everything is organized around the question of who’s top dog, who’s the strongest. There are no rules or an officialdom to follow them. There aren’t really any bureaucrats, or functions, or mechanisms — it’s just one big show of force. That’s why I keep saying that Russia has become a society of diffuse violence. Everything is just spectacles of violence, pointless violence, enacted against this or that unfortunate who becomes the victim. It’s like Danila Bagrov: I’m strong, I’m the strongest, I’ll cut everyone down.

But still, it always turns out that all these demonstrations of power are the power of the powerless, to quote Vaclav Havel.

Take Rosneft as an example. Rosneft is a huge and very powerful organization, but it refuses, on principle, to proceed through economic means. They don’t want to buy anything on the market, they don’t want to compete with other companies, they’re uninterested in economic relations of any kind. If they want to get rich, they grab someone and expropriate them. Which means that the institution of the market is absent — like every other institution. “I just take things from people, because it’s what I like to do. I’m strong, I can just take things by by force.” Rosneft’s entire business model is putting people in prison, bringing them low, and expropriating them — they do literally nothing else. Is that supposed to be an economic institution? What is it, even? Rosneft seems to have merged with some branch of the FSB. But what does Rosneft have to do with the FSB in the first place? You see? Where there are no rules or laws, everything is based on who crushes whom. It’s the only way. If you don’t crush others, you will yourself be crushed. That’s all. You’ll be done in by the other thugs. So you have to show the other thugs what’s what, make them know their place, because otherwise it’s “I’m going to waste you.” All around we see people demonstrating their right to commit violence. And by the way, this is why they pick victims like Serebrennikov. Because Serebrennikov is famous, he has friends in high places, he’s known all over the world, various Oscar- and Nobel- and whatever-prize-winners will rush to his defense. But the more friends he has, the greater my show of force if I thumb my nose at them, because then I demonstrate that I’m stronger than that whole international community. It’s like, “You think you’re so great with your theater or whatever, but we’re going to show you who’s boss here, because I’m the strongest.” And if I can do that, maybe no one will try to pull anything on me because I’m on top. When you have functional institutions, none of that is necessary, because then Rosneft would just sell or extract oil. They wouldn’t need special connections to the FSB — why? If you have oil and pipelines — go ahead and sell them. But when there’s nothing, when everything has collapsed, everyone becomes a violent actor. Everyone. The Ministry of Culture becomes a violent actor, and you start getting these people who walk around exhibitions destroying the artwork. The whole story with Matilda is extremely telling. Would you agree?

I’m still confused about what creates this structure — or what animates it, to be more precise. You started by saying that Putin is biding his time because he has no power, and then you said that FSB and various judicial structures really have nothing to offer — they drag things out, get lost in the red tape, are totally nonfunctional. And that endless oscillation between power and powerlessness seems like a huge problem to me: I don’t understand where it’s going and what it threatens to become. Any crisis has to have a beginning and an end.

When institutions are destroyed in the name of their own government, and when these same institutions start to destroy everything around…

But doesn’t the presence of force indicate the existence of some sort of power?

But see, it’s not like Putin can run over to Kazan and tell the local cops not to stick a bottle in someone’s behind. By the way, that’s happening all over the country: cops forcibly inserting bottles into the anuses of arrestees. And so, the only thing left for him to do is to act extremely sovereign, and to say, “The courts will sort it out. We’ll see.” What else can he do, run around and just scream at everyone impotently? There wouldn’t be any point. People couldn’t care less about his “Eh, they’re idiots,” or “we’re supporting so and so” — they just couldn’t care less. If a raid on someone’s offices earns the cops the epithet “idiots,” but actual arrests produce no response, what’s the point? So, I think that Putin refrains from commenting. His own position of power is based on all these symbolic illusions, on TV ratings, so as soon as he starts giving orders while people sit around doing nothing, that rating will plummet, because it will turn out that his bare torso doesn’t impress anyone after all.

As you present it, though, this whole system looks very paradoxical, like Caligula’s horse in the Senate. What’s the point of all these shows of power? Why can’t they institutionalize violence, if violence is the order of the day? But there aren’t even any institutions of that type!

Right, because the thing is, those institutions have also collapsed. You can’t institutionalize violence in the absence of institutions as such. Because institutionalized violence is a meta-institution that must proceed according to strict rules — otherwise it’ll be a mess. Because if law enforcement violates all possible instructions, rules, and laws, it’s horrifying. But that’s where we are. You can’t create law-abiding institutions for violence when there are no courts, no justice, when there’s just nothing at all. I feel like life in Russia today is just this Russian roulette — it shoots at random. We won’t just take you down if you’re in the opposition, if you’re some kind of enemy, a Navalny, because you present a threat — no, you’re just a theater director, but we’ll take you down, too. For nothing at all.

All right. But if that’s all true, let’s talk about how to resist. Where is the public, what do we do, how do we build up an ethics of resistance?

That’s a very difficult to accomplish when everything has collapsed. Consider what happened to the intelligentsia, which used to produce authoritative discourse. Today’s intelligentsia is in dependent relationship with a form of power that has destroyed all institutional norms, so everyone feels like a serf again — like during the Soviet era. Except that, in my opinion, Soviet Russia had more functional institutions than contemporary Russia. There used to be principles and rules. Today, a theater director can’t know for sure that [Minister of Culture Vladimir] Medinsky will finance their projects. They have to kowtow to him to earn the financing in the first place, which is a situation that gradually pushes the entire intelligentsia into a condition of serfdom. When people say that Serebrennikov shouldn’t have dipped into government funds to run his little theater, it’s clear they understand that depending on the state turns you into chattel. And of course, they’re gradually getting into the role, they’re behaving more and more like chattel. But they still try to put in their two cents, because they understand the gravity of the implications. Because today it’s Serebrennikov, but tomorrow it’ll be [Konstantin] Bogomolov, or [Oleg] Tabakov, or whoever. Which is why they’re so slow to act, they have to stay within the bounds of what they think is allowed.  But because they’re all wage slaves, essentially — and wage slaves, as we know, are herded to elections and told how to vote — because they’re in this condition of renewed serfdom, this kingdom of chattel, resistance becomes extremely problematic. Because even the protection of human dignity, even basically decent behavior starts to seem extremely dangerous. And that applies to everyone. To musicians, for example: your orchestra could be taken away from you, you could be prevented from touring or performing, which actually happened to [Yuri] Shevchuk and [Andrey] Makarevich —  I remember concert halls being forbidden from renting space to them. It’s a situation that gradually drifts into enslavement.

People really don’t want it to be this way, but they end up in a situation where resistance is too risky in terms of their lives or their work. That’s where you get this ideology of chelobitnye, these humble petitions. Let’s sign a petition that no one cares about, let’s get a hundred People’s Artists to sign it, we’ll hand it to the tsar when he’s pinning a medal to our chests or whatever. To my mind, it’s all just pitiful. Right now, everyone’s talking about [Chulpan] Khamatova, who expressed her support for Serebrennikov while receiving some award. She even said she was scared. But I can’t shake this feeling that it’s all incredibly pathetic, this squawking of decent people trying to maintain their self-respect, their conscience, and yet they can’t bring themselves to violate the established boundaries — because that might turn them into the next Serebrennikov. It’s all very sad, I think. The capacity for thought has already disappeared, and now dignity is gradually being snuffed out, but I don’t see any solutions. People still depend on these vestiges of government. And the government is acting like a depraved medieval lord rather than a modern, institutionalized structure. When libraries are forced to pull books from their shelves — for example, Russian classics published by the Soros Foundation — what can it mean? I won’t even mention the various Matildas, it’s all too grotesque. In my opinion, what we’re dealing with is not a growing resistance, but the degradation of civil society.

I’d like to end here. We’ve raised a number of issues today, but solutions are, for now, incredibly few and far between. And you’ve given such a serious, such an exact description of the overall picture that, unfortunately, all we can do is fall silent.

Interview by Irina Chechel and Alexander Markov. Translated by Maya Vinokour.