The year 2017 faces the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Consequently, many projects, exhibitions and books have been planned, and there will be a consumerism of already told stories, images and histories. Luckily, there will be also some authentic revolutionary approaches to one of the most important events of modern history. One of the problems, of course, is the definition (and periodization, and duration) of the event itself, and another one is the use of it, the way it feeds our projects and impulse our thoughts to future: its potential repertory of repetitions, the anxiety of its replication.
Photocollage in commemoration of the 1st Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution,
Unknown author, 1918. The twelve Apostles of the Bolshevik government, including Kollontai.
Utopische realitäten, 100 Jahre Gegenwart mit Alexandra Kollontai is a festival of exhibitions, performances, screenings and talks produced by Haus der Kulturen der Welt in cooperation with HAU Hebbel am Ufer. The program, going on until Sunday 22nd, January, includes visual and sound works, films, theatrical pieces and performative projects from Marina Davydova / Vera Martynov, Mariano Pensotti, Jonas Staal, Dakh Daughters, Vlatka Horvat, Simone Aughterlony / Jen Rosenblit, Lina Majdalanie, Maru Mushtrieva, ::vtol:: and ultraviolet. However, I won’t refer here to these works, but rather to a series of questions arisen from a round table held in HAU2 yesterday 18th, January with the presence of Marina Davydova, Tetiana Hawrylyuk from Dakh Daughters, Vlatka Horvat and Lina Majdalanie. The talk, moderated by Joanna Warsza and entitled “The first day of the Revolution is a women’s day” was a lateral event (a fact demonstrated by one of the participants coming late and another one leaving before the end), but a very interesting one indeed, specially to consider some very usual problems we use to face when the issue of the Russian Revolution comes up against our current political and artistic agendas. And I say against not only because of its natural ability to problematize “utopian realities” to the core; the lack of knowledge (namely: education) of what happened then, and the context in which it occurred, leads to very naïf forms of fascination and, at the same time, to the instrumentalization of the information in a context which is incapable of producing critical responses. So it looked when Marina Davydova referred to October Revolution as a “counterrevolution” in relation to the February one (which was officially named “February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution” by classical Soviet historiography). This approach is not new at all, but it lacked a contextualization, since Davydova didn’t explain which aspects of the February Revolution (I tend to suppose that its “parliamentarism” is one of them) were for her more advanced and revolutionary than the Bolshevik one’s. Later on, she also stated a Lenin’s call to the people to “steal whatever you need”, which is, at least terminologically, a very simplistic way to talk about Bolshevik’s politics on property. Meanwhile, the youngest participants showed themselves quite cynical about Lenin because he was not in Russia at the beginning of 1917, a position only justified by ignorance of tsarist policies on revolutionaries, which also affected Alexandra Kollontai, exiled from Russia between 1908… and 1917.
Some of these surprising statements could be related to language obstacles, but there’s a big question behind: how could we appropriate the figure of Alexandra Kollontai, a Bolshevik long before 1917 and the only woman in Lenin’s government, in this context of interpretation and using those words. And then it’s when another issue appears: the question of our lack of macro-political projects and the incommensurability of them for official histories of the present. When they state these words of Kollontai: “revolution is the new relationship between men, women and children”, and we remember her call to women’s equality to men as the first target of a proper revolutionary movement, we can’t forget the commitment of that fight within the horizon of the total transformation of the whole society in all its levels. In this aspect, contemporaneity still differs: we’re use to stress conditions of emancipation in the surface of micro-political aims, and this is something Kollontai wouldn’t understand.
Alexandra Kollontai at the Second Women’s International Conference. Unknown author, 1921.
But nothing of it appeared yesterday, nor even the models of actuation of women in the Russian Revolution(s), being Kollontai’s example just one among many others. The question of how Kollontai’s behavior relates to artistic practices, by the way, remained obscure, and so was the more general issue of art and political commitment, briefly approached by Hawryliuk from the perspective of Maidan’s events in Kiev in 2014 and by an anecdote told by Davydova about the occasion when dozens of Ukrainian women stood in front of the armed police holding mirrors. Interesting case of a very aesthetic, sui-generis political action, but a dubious example of a women’s self-organized initiative, at least following first-hand testimonies on the happening, which give to activist Oleg Matseh the responsibility for the action. Anyway, another reminder of how complicated can be to claim being “the voice of a revolution” (as Hawrylyuk says they say DAKH is) or the first instigator of certain action in the context of a civil unrest.
At the end, the only red line of the talk ended up being, appropriately, selfishness, since it was not really possible to articulate the minor planets named after Russian and Soviet dissidents and censured artists (the background of Horvat’s project), the situation of Lebanese artists (a very interesting speech from Majdalanie) and the role of artists at Maidan, with Alexandra Kollontai’s ideas and legacy: these are the cases when artist’s talks confirms the critics of ignorant people. Nevertheless, something happened at the end, when a person from the public rubbed salt in the wound asking all of the participants to talk about the current state of women’s emancipation in their societies. A very common discourse, present at Davydova and Hawrylyuk’s speeches, came back to front: the “I-can-do-whatever-I-want-so-I-don’t-complain-but-the-situation-is-complicated” one. As Vlatka Horvat pointed out, running out of time: the situation will start changing when it is not possible to say “I’m OK” anymore. Until we’re not all OK, it’s like anybody is. Well, it looks that Alexandra Kollontai is still working among us: welcome back to Berlin