Dustin Breitling: Can you chart out or elaborate upon your personal trajectory and the crucial events that led to your current focus? You are a geographer, a curator, and a researcher whose interests delve into spatial practices and representations of space and place in art, science, museum practices, and everyday life. Can you unpack for us what is your concept of ‘speculative geography’ and how does it relate to your projects such as ‘Metageography’? You write in your publication on the topic that the idea of “co-spatiality is emerging, suggesting that several different spaces can coexist in one place. As a result, the difference between “inside” and “outside” positions disappears. This is a metageographical vision of the future. For metageography, the future is the total frontier.” Perhaps you could guide us through the genesis of the school and what are its implications beyond Russia?
Nikolay Smirnov: Before university, I lived in Rybinsk, a town in Central Russia. And there, while being in school, when I was around 14-16, I was a member of kraevedcheskiy circle. Kraevedenie literally means the “study of the local area’, this is a very specific discipline and a set of formal and informal institutions that were developed in the USSR. It is similar to European societies for studying ‘local history’ and “local lore’,” but, from the other side, kraevedenie has some specific features developed in Soviet times. Recently, I conducted special research on kraevedenie and finally understood what it is. The research was published by the VAC Foundation in Russian, and I hope it will be published in English soon too. In general, kraevedenie is an interdisciplinary sphere that combines local studies, art, and activism. It is also not academic, but an identity discipline and a kind of ideology.
We, in our circle, used to go on expeditions where we studied our region, its history, culture, and population. We also collected some items from expeditions and formed a kraevedchesky museum. We also took some public actions to draw people’s attention to some problems of heritage. For example, we cleaned an abandoned church for several days or fastened signs on edifices that were valuable for the local context but were threatened to be demolished. We were all teenagers, but our official chief, the head of the circle (it was an official organization in the frame of the local department of culture), our chief was an adult man. He was an art historian and an amateur artist, so some of us drew the objects of our research during the course of these expeditions, so we can say they were real interdisciplinary research expeditions made by teenagers. Of course, some of the circle’s participants went there just to spend a good time outside with friends. You know, all these scout-like activities such as living in tents, sitting around the fire, playing the guitar, etc. I also loved it, but I was seriously captured by the research activity. I mean, that experience of kraevedcheskiy circle was crucial for me, it demonstrated the effectivity and attractiveness of the complex form of interdisciplinary activity between geography, history, travelling, expeditions, research, art, and activism.
So, I was captured by this complex research activity, which also satisfied my passion for detective stories. You know, finally, it is a quasi-detective story: you go somewhere and try to investigate something in situ, take photos, speak with people, find routes, draw, gather materials, and then you make some conclusions. With this narrative, what you receive at the end is something between the object you investigated and your own creation. I even began to conduct my own research and participated in it, in correspondence with an Olympiad in geography. And I became its laureate several times, and due to these events, I entered the Moscow State University, Faculty of Geography, so it really changed my life.
Then this interdisciplinary activity fell apart for some time: I trained as a geographer and then as an artist in several different institutions. At some point, I lost and missed the ‘synthetic’ activity and approach that was crucial for my early beginnings. Respectively, Russian geography, in general, is quite far from art, and Russian art is quite far from interdisciplinary research, they both are quite academic. It began to seem like I should choose whether to be an artist or a geographer. I didn’t feel comfortable with this predicament, I couldn’t understand for a while where and what my place was, but then, happily, I found this possibility of ‘synthetic activity’ again, yet this time in contemporary art. Now in my projects, I combine research, expeditions, activism, art, and the humanities—all these various things, again, as I was once doing in the kraevedcheskyi circle during my school period.
Speculative geography and Meta-geography
One such approach for me today is speculative geography. It is closely connected with the notion of geographic derivative. Generally speaking, any image or representation of geo-space is geographical derivative since it derives from the space itself in the same way that a financial derivative derives from financial assets. Derivatives are images of a primary asset, its derivative function, or meta-form. Financial capital is thus meta-capital, and images of space are meta-geography.
Contemporaneity is very speculative in all senses, meaning it has become detached from its ‘denotata’, derivatives from assets, and images of space from the space. Finance, for instance, has gained such independence that it has become a market in its own right. Likewise, the meaning of a particular positivist geography in the late capitalism period is being swiftly replaced by geographic images, or meta-geography. This empowerment of geographic images and its gaining of a new status owe much to finance capitalism and the general speculative nature of contemporaneity. As a result, we witness the advent of a capitalism of geographic images, according to post-soviet geographer and friend of mine Dmitry Zamyatin.
One can say that speculative geography is the horizon of geography when it turns into meta-geography through the speculative contemporaneity of late capitalism and deals more with geo-images or geographic derivatives, than with space itself. So speculative geography is a kind of contemporary form of Meta-geography. Nonetheless, it differs from it, because the discourse of meta-geography is more classical in a postmodernist sense, let’s say, it is a part of classic postmodernism. We have space, and we have its images or representations, which form its own reality, mirroring the classical postmodernist school, but speculative contemporaneity reinforces and transforms this situation in a different way. For example, Foucault talked about heterotopy, a very important notion in postmodernist geographies. It is the ‘other’ space, the different space, which is contained in a usual or conventional articulation of space, like a prison or a commune.
Today the principle of heterotopy reinforces different times and how space itself becomes porous, existing simultaneously in many different regimes. The idea of co-spatiality is emerging, suggesting that several different spaces can coexist in one place. Space or place can be represented by many different images or can function in many different spatial regimes. As a result, the difference between “inside” and “outside” disappears. Are you in some place or in your own image of this place, or in some spatial regime in which this place functions in some concrete way? The new media-devices that augment our feeling of reality also play a significant role here. On the one hand, it is all about the multitude of various functional regimes and the ways of space’s representation. On the other hand, it is about the intertwining of space and its images and representations, where the space becomes porous, both in an imaginative and functional way. Reality and its representation are interdependent and intertwined, that’s what I am saying concerning meta-geography, that the future is the total frontier. It means that any point in space is leading to other spaces (real and imaginable), and the space becomes a total frontier. This is a vision of space in the future, where it is going. I wrote it as ‘Meta-geography’ but actually this is about the trajectory of the transformation from Meta-geography into speculative geography.
Let’s describe this transition a little bit, which also links up with the problem of knowledge. Today’s society functions as a society of (non)-knowledge and risk because of the overproduction of knowledge and a failure of expertise, and this is also a philosophical problem of access and correlation. Can we have access to the world in-itself or only through its images? It makes any space unknown to a certain extent, in this sense, the geographic derivative is an image of an unknown space. It allows us to not merely describe space, but to shape it. The end of expertise also means the end of a classical positivist geographer, who is replaced with a geographic discourse engineer. Thus, speculative geography means that a certain image or action is based more on an attempt to realize politically a ‘geographic will” than a so-called ‘objective’ knowledge.
Therefore, any geographic subject becomes political in this context, especially when knowledge is incomplete. Decision making then becomes a form of betting, an attempt to predict future changes, thus setting them on a desired course. Ultimately, geographic speculation is ‘spatial will’ realized, an ‘image investment’ in a territory, an attempt to change the world with the power of an image.
So, speculative geography, on the one hand, is a certain optic and practice that can be used in research projects dealing with space and its meanings. On the other hand, it is a new condition of both Meta-geography and geography when they tend to merge in late speculative capitalism. Here, I continue the Soviet and Post-Soviet school of Meta-geography in an attempt to reflect upon the new conditions of geographic knowledge. I’m lucky that I am collaborating with geographer Dmitry Zamyatin, who developed the postmodernist theory of Meta-geography as the ‘images of space and space of images’. I consider myself his disciple in a way, but at a certain point I tried to make a critique of his practice and, you see, trying to develop it further. Now, I see these attempts as a dialectical continuation, where we did the exhibition project ‘Meta-geography’ together several times, working both with representations of space and our theory of Meta-geography. This theory was developed in the late 1960s, and it is distinct from more recent western elaborations on Meta-geography. Generally speaking, it is concentrating more not on the critique of spatial images and more on their power and might in the possible transformation of the world. I believe that it is related to the tradition of the Russian Avant-Garde and Constructivism in a sense, as well as to some traditions of Russian mystics and religious philosophy like Hesychasm and Sofiology when the image or internal reality becomes the means and levers of the worlds’ transformation. The outer and inner realities are closely intertwined here.
DB: Could you also elaborate on your project such as Permafrost?
NS: It was an exhibition realized in the framework of the Laboratory for Complex Geo-Cultural Research of the Arctic (LKGIA) in 2016. The Laboratory was founded by a group of Yakutia-based scholars and culture-makers, and Dmitry Zamyatin headed the Lab. From the very beginning, it worked as an interdisciplinary research platform for the arts and humanities. I was the collaborator in this laboratory for some years. In particular, I took part in 2 expeditions on the Chukotka and Taimyr—regions in the Russian Arctic. The expeditions were realized in small groups, where geographers took part together with artists and video-makers. As a result of those expeditions, we produced video-materials, art-works, and research texts. In particular, I wrote the text “The New Foundations of Geocultural Analysis,” which was included in the final Laboratory’s collection and published as a book.
The Permafrost-themed Zeroth Arctic Biennale was to become the culmination, the grand finale, of the Laboratory activities. I was invited to curate the main project and a two-week residency for several artists whom I had selected. For the residency, it seemed important to create projects in collaboration with Yakutia-based institutions and artists. There was also an open call in Yakutsk supported by the organizers. We managed to work together with several institutions, for instance, with the Melnikov-Yakutian Institute for Permafrost Research, Russian Academy of Sciences, which enabled us to receive some exhibits from them and to install one of the projects on their premises, namely in the fascinating underground permafrost laboratory. We also collaborated with the Museum and Center of the Khomus, the National Moving Image Archive of Sakha-Yakutia, the Mammoth Museum, the Sakha-Yakutian Artists’ Union, local historians, and other institutions.
Of the ten participating artists, only three were from Moscow; the rest were based in Yakutsk. This means that the project was almost completely entrenched in the local context. For me as a curator, it was important to create a coherent narrative of the permafrost by embedding particular projects into it. ‘Lateral’ connections among the exhibits grew increasingly important as the project evolved, while the works of artists from various contexts, as well as scholarly objects, archival materials, and local history materials, became equal in terms of their functional status.
The exhibition was divided into sections, and their sequence worked to develop the narrative. Permafrost lies beneath the Earth’s surface. It is a strange world, incomprehensible to humans, who, for most of their history, have been trying to make sense of it. Mikhail Sumgin, the founder of permafrost science, called it the “Russian Sphinx”, implying the many enigmas it concealed. For humans, this world has been both a subject and an object at the same time. On the one hand, it has been actively defining the human forms of life and has also served as a “stratum” from which natural resources are extracted, an object of scientific study and research.
In my curator’s note, I pointed out three ways we can explore the permafrost: 1.) The pagan tradition of animating the subterranean world 2.) scientific discourse 3.) consumerist attitudes towards it as a subsurface resource waiting to be conquered and appropriated. I tried to materialize or tell this narrative through different objects in the exhibition. For example, an electromagnetic probe used for geophysical exploration from the Museum of the Institute of Permafrost, the phallic-shaped device used to penetrate deep below the surface of the Earth, represented humans’ conquering and appropriating of the Subterranean world in alliance with science. One of the other central objects was a fragment from a documentary Wooly Mammoth: The Autopsy which covers the discovery of the best-preserved body of a mammoth with soft tissues and blood-like liquid in Yakutia. The film was shot by visiting researchers obsessed with the idea of cloning mammoths. The displayed frames show the permafrost as it starts bleeding with mammoth blood — a pivotal and shocking point in the story when what appeared to be dead suddenly seems potentially alive. At this point, ancient animist beliefs collide with advanced science, and a possibility of cloning can potentially shatter the conventional boundary between the living and the non-living, between the subject and the object. The boundary, which is shattered by animism as well as by contemporary technologies such as cloning. Nature and culture, subject and object, the male and the female, thus swap places.
The other important piece of the exhibition was provided by the Yakutian magician and man of muscle, Nikolay Vetter. He works as a caretaker at one of Yakutsk’s cemeteries. During his work there with the ‘subterranean world’ and ‘dead bodies’ and in digging graves, for example, he feels seized by heaviness, which suddenly overcomes him and needs to be released or discharged somehow. To release it he bends metallic nails and other metallic stuff and also uses them in healing. He then proceeds to exhibit the bent metallic nails, bended by Vetter. Because the outcome of his effort looks like abstract sculptures, while what he makes with bare hands makes him a quintessential sculptor—a masculine human who makes a physical effort and masters the material. And of course, these objects are the results and documentation of his complex interaction with the subterranean world. Vetter was happy to take part in the exhibition, he also made a performance during the opening, which was quite popular. People, especially children, loved it!
The other artist, Irina Filatowa painted the portraits of the founders of permafrost science, and she did it in the style of social realism, like all these official portraits of Soviet times that hung everywhere in official places, such a bureaucratic social realism style. We placed these portraits into the Institute of Permafrost’s underground lab which looks fascinating—it is a kind of dark, frozen tunnel. She revisited the idea of The Subterranean Museum of Eternity formulated by the founder of permafrost science, Mikhail Sumgin, in the 1920s. He proposed the creation of a vast underground refrigerator museum where the bodies of animals and humans of various races would be kept for thousands of years. He also suggested that the museum’s holdings should include important manuscripts and that experiments with the state of anabiosis should be conducted on the museum’s premises. So one could say that we began to realize Sumgin’s idea. In Filatova’s project, this “museum of eternity” now houses representations of the founders of the permafrost sciences, including Sumgin himself.
The Permafrost project and the Laboratory’s activity, in general were very interesting and a fruitful experience for me. It was so interesting because it was an interdisciplinary enterprise from the very beginning and has produced interesting analytical writings and interesting art. I included some of its outcomes in other projects later. For example, I included Vetter’s and Filatova’s pieces in my project dedicated to the Death/Immortality and Subterranean World, produced for the Ural’s Biennial. And later, I included Vetter already in the project about Religious Libertarians made for the Riga Biennial. So it was a really good experience!
NS:Eurasianism was a political and philosophical movement that began in Europe in the 1920s among Russians who had moved there. ‘Classical Eurasianism’ at that time was a kind of pre-structuralist geographical and cultural science. Their worldview accordingly appeared to be broken up into territorial cells with relatively hermetic geocultures. Each of them has its own place of development, its own language (in all senses of the word: from strictly linguistic to language as an inability to make a precise translation from one system of world perception to another). One of these geocultural worlds is Russia-Eurasia, the supranational geoculture with a common destiny among its parts and having its own significance and specificity as Western Europe, India, China, or the USA.
So, you see that the space identity or geographic identity is the starting point and focal point of Eurasianism (and any other Ideology of space). In general, our contemporary ideology of space was born in the 19th century in Germany, through the works of Karl Ritter and Alfred Hettner. They formed chorology as a ‘new geography’, as an ideology of space. And the notion of geographical organisms and geographical identities was a very important part of it. Chorology acted (and still acts in postcolonial optics) as a liberal, emancipative ideology of space, and ‘New geography’ was an important trend in the 1870s and the 1920s in Russia. In particular, Kraevedenie, which I mentioned in the beginning, became the specific embodiment of chorologic ideology, implemented through local practical-theoretical activity. Ultimately, Chorology and Kraevedenie are the roots of Eurasianism.
Classical Eurasianism formed in the 1920s as an anti-Western space, an emancipative ideology, and we can consider it a predecessor of postcolonial thought, approximately in the same functional sense as negritude was for postcolonial theory and Afrofuturism. Eurasianism was a geographic structuralism as well, and here is what I regard as the scientific meaning of Eurasianism. Also, Nikolai Trubetzkoy, Petr Savitzky, Peter Suvchinsky, Roman Jacobson, and Leo Karsavin are the main authors of Eurasian ideas.
According to them, Russia-Eurasia is a specific geoculture, or a particular geographic individuum, or ‘territorial symphonic personality’. The culture based on Orthodoxy, and in particular, ‘Domestic Confession’ (term coined by Nikolay Trubetzkoy) lies in the center of the specificity of Russia-Eurasia. In general, ‘Domestic Confession’ means that orthodox rites and customs permeate all of the casual everyday lives of people and are practiced by them in everyday life more than in an institutional (church) service.
This ‘orthodox-centric culture core’ supposed to be a ‘supra-national order’ highlights Russia-Eurasia as a specific geographical person, distinct from other geographical surroundings. This geographical person (as well as any other) has its own mestorazvitie (literally placedevelopment). In the case of Russia-Eurasia its ‘placedevelopment’ is characterized by a pre-modern imperial supra-national order of ruling, borrowed from the Genghis Khan Empire. The Russia-Eurasia, as well as the Mongol Empire, did include different regions, peoples, and ethnic groups in all of its cultural diversity and often with a high degree of sovereignty of its parts. Also, Russia-Eurasia borrowed what we could say ‘a continental feeling’ from Mongolian nomad culture.
Classical Eurasianism also looked at things from a cultural point of view. In this way, it was similar to postcolonial studies.In other words, it put culture ahead of social and economic conditions and said that the economy and politics depend on cultural attitudes.Eurasianism asserted the value of the “other” opposed to the Western cultural worlds and denied any Universalism or cultural hegemony. It was a theory of general cultural relativity, which was expressed in different organisms-like cultural and geographical structures (geographical Persons).
So, you see that Eurasianism is not only theory but also the ideology of space in which the geographical identity stays at the center. In Eurasianist thinking, the ideas are inseparable from the space, and the space is inseparable from its image. That’s why it is a very meta-geographical way of thinking, and the Eurasianist complex is a quite prominent part of Russian Metageography, if we consider the latter as the conjunction of the ideas and images about Russian space itself. The ideas of ‘Classical Eurasianism’ are quite popular in current Russia. The rhetoric of contemporary Russian power is actually adopted from classic Eurasianism in a postcolonial avatar-like fashion and often uses an anti-western rhetoric. This is the rhetoric of a multipolar world, which actually obscures ‘market universalism’, however, the situation with classic Eurasianism is not so simple, because there was also a left-wing fraction that insisted on a new social left-wing universalism.
At the end of 1920s, classic Eurasianism split into right-wing and left-wing factions. The latter became not only a theory of the geographical specificity of Russia-Eurasia, but a complex project, that consisted of theory, political activism, and aesthetics. I describe the main idea of the left-wing Eurasianist total project as ‘Living in the name of the Common’. It was a kind of Utopia,or ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ where, in general, they tried to combine the ideas of Karl Marx with those of Nikolai Fedorov. They asserted that Marx provides us with the critique of Western capitalist society, and Fedorov shows us what to do next, as the alternative. The peak of leftist Eurasian theoretical activity took place in Paris at the second half of 1920s: they published a weekly newspaper called “Eurasia”, held an Eurasian seminar, and even the Eurasian club operated in Paris.
The Left Eurasian project encompassed all parts of life; we can consider that it consisted of three main spheres: theory, political activism, and aesthetics. Music and literature were the main parts of Eurasian aesthetics, and were very close to Marina Tzvetayeva’s poetry, regarding it as a pure expression of the Eurasianist sensibility. Some composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Serge Prokofiev, Arthur Lourie, Vladimir Doukelsky, Igor Markevith were close to Eurasianists ideas. One could say that Eurasianists were looking for something primordial, more-than-individual, ontological basis of life that was opposed to the individualistic ego consciousness in aesthetics, politics, and social organization.
In the 1930s, political activism became more and more important, and it kind of killed off the leftist Eurasianist movement.I will talk about this a little bit later, but in theory, I mentioned the crucial combination of Marx and Fedorov. Also, they concentrated on the historical meaning of the October Revolution, for them, it was an interruption of modernity, of progress, of a historical process connected with the bourgeois worldview and hegemony. According to them, in the process of Revolution, Russia-Eurasia became itself, a ‘geographical personality’. It not only interrupted its previous secondary imitative path of development, and began its autonomous being, but produced and realized its own non-Western ideal. They called this new ideal “Eurasian’ and the ‘New West,” resting on a new universalism based on Marx, Fedorov, and the October Revolution.
The concept of Ideocracy (‘power of Idea’) – is the central point of their theory. It depicts the Eurasian ideal state system. Ideocracy should replace Bolshevism through entryism. Ideocracy combines metaphysical dualism with historical monism and “unleashes the hands” for world-building (life-constructing). Because of the separation of the practical and metaphysical spheres, theoretically, under Ideocracy, the coexistence of the principles of Russian religious philosophy, such as vseedinstvo (all-unity) and the all-round Bolshevik principle of practical ‘life-building’ becomes possible. Theoretically, Ideocracy can coexist with the principles of Russian religious philosophy and all-around socialist practical life-building. It is possible due to the mismatch and link, but there is a separate existence for the practical and metaphysical spheres. Here, this is how they believed to have synthesized Fedorov and Marx, or religious philosophy and socialism.
DB: Moreover, another fascinating aspect of your work has been to excavate into the Shaman, Schismatic, Necromancer or what you identify as a distinctive characteristic of “Religious Libertarians in Russia,” could you reflect and work us through this article concerning the link between the Raskol (Schism) in the 17th century, that you contend laid down the foundations for an array of sects, dissenters, and forms of Occult Libertarianism.
The Raskol or schism in the Russian Orthodox Church occurred after the reforms carried out in the latter half of the seventeenth century. As a result, a portion of the population rejected the reforms and “went into a schism”. The struggle between schismatics or Old Believers and the government was really tough. Old Believers saw the ruling power as the kingdom of the Antichrist, so they believed that it was a sign of the forthcoming Apocalypse. They didn’t accept the reforms and fled abroad or to remote regions of the country, or even committed mass self-immolations. The regime, in turn, persecuted the dissenters, saddling them with increased taxes, and even burning whole villages alive.
Despite a more or less successful campaign of suppressing open protests, a big percent of the Russian population stayed ‘unmanifestly’ or secretly in the Old Belief. They imitated the official Orthodoxy on the surface or fled to the margins, but many of them kept their societies, or obschines. Due to the fact that Obschina, or a specific peasant communal society, was crucial for their way of life and many aspects of their daily lives, as well as their resources, they became collectivized. Moreover, adapting to life in the hostile state, they even began to legalize their communities in a tricky way, in 1777, Ekaterina II put out a decree permitting peasants to enroll in the merchant classes. Old Believer communities saw it as an opportunity to gain economic independence, and communal assets, or obshchaks were invested in by business enterprises, nominally headed by a manager. The state considered this person to be the proprietor, but this was not the case. As a result, ‘Old Belief’ came to play a pivotal role in the formation of Russian capitalism, which bore unmistakable characteristics of socialism. Toward the middle of the nineteenth century, Raskol became a corporation, injecting into Russia a form of capitalism and ethical principles that were reflected in its own community.
In the middle of the 19th century, the state began to suspect a “false bottom” in domestic capitalism. They organized a series of investigations and were terrified, because these expeditions unveiled a little bit of the real picture of people’s lives: it turned out that the religious beliefs of the common people differed significantly from official Orthodoxy. It was a matter of a hybrid faith, a folk Orthodoxy, including strong pagan elements as well as collectivist social ideals. The government saw that popular beliefs were close to Western socialist views: universal equality, collective property, and a rejection of state hierarchy. Their communities formed a web, and it was a kind of spatially dispersed, oppositional religious confederate republic, embedded in the Russian Empire.
The wide-spread religious dissent of common people in Russia inspired revolutionaries very much. The Narodnik (Populist) movement in the 1860s and 1870s made a bet on religious dissent and peasant communes. The radical intelligentsia set out for the provinces to “rouse the masses” against Tsarism. In general, these attempts failed, but they were very important predecessors of the Marxist struggle in Russia. Just to remind ourselves, Lenin’s elder brother was Narodnik; he was persecuted, and that influenced young Lenin a lot. Moreover, narodniks’ ideology influenced Russian Marxism in general; Stalin paid a lot of attention to ethnic and religious questions, and influenced the famous Bolshevik tactic to always make ‘political’ and induce schisms in crucial moments.
Even though many people in Russia were against the government, they were not able to start a revolution on their own. Then it was up to the Bolsheviks to bring local libertarianism together and turn it into national revolutionary events.But people didn’t pay nearly as much attention to the different parts of the common worldview that made the revolution possible.After the October revolution, why did the people start to rebel against the government and official beliefs?In general, they were not convinced that Marxists were Bolsheviks. This enigma always attracted researchers—something left unanalyzed in the mass consciousness behind the class struggle. Even though Soviet Marxists always emphasized the political role of popular freethinking and religious dissent in oppositional movements, the next step was made in the post-Soviet period, in particular by post-Marxist historian Aleksandr Pyzhikov. He traced the foundations of the Soviet project to the Old Belief ethics of various priestless denominations, i.e., to the messianic radicalism of the popular faith. He even proposed the bright and controversial formula that the roots of Stalinist Bolshevism lie in the religious dissent of the masses, particularly in the ethics of the Old Believers. In other words, many fundamental tenets of the Soviet system, as the general public understood it, implicitly derive from the communal societies of pre-revolutionary religious dissenters.
I trace these multiple and interesting connections between political emancipation and religious marginality and bring in the figure of the ‘religious libertarian’. Such cases were not only in Russian history around the October Revolution; they are still widespread. Taking into account the phenomenon of what Charles Taylor calls the supernova effect, i.e the proliferation of new religious movements and hybrid forms of spirituality, the role of religious libertarians is becoming even more important.
We are raised in a world where liberal, secular, and progressive are indivisible, this fusion developed during the Enlightenment, as did the opposition to this progressive combination against religion. Over the past 300 years, art and science have simplified many controversial phenomena, seeking to find the ‘secular’ aspects in them and proclaiming them as progressive, discarding everything else. Yet, today, we are witnessing an amazing transformation in libertarianism, where the progressive splits off from the secular. In the context of reassembling the field of political ideologies, the task seems to be reversed: now we look at the complex phenomena of the past and ‘discover’ in them the religious side in conjunction with emancipation and the concept of freedom. Thus, we understand that the union of the liberal and the secular was of a situational, history-specific nature, and so we give depth and ambiguity back to these historical phenomena.
Here, I argue, lies the actuality of the figure of religious libertarians; it can be applied not only to the past, but as a contemporary phenomenon as well. When I conceptualized this notion, I realized that persons and cases with whom I have worked before can be clearly recognized as religious libertarians, for example, Eurasianists or Nikolay Vetter, a magician from Yakutsk. For all of them, their specific religiosity, in which they are very creative and unique, is inseparable from individual or social emancipation.
DB:What are your current projects?
For the last half of the year or more, I have worked quite closely with the notion of alchemy. First, I wrote an essay in which I said that Marx’s theory about how people become self-aware is like an alchemical opus magnum.It was a super interesting research project in which I reread the first volume of Capital through an alchemical optic. For example, Karl Marx considered the process of exchange as “the alchemist’s retort of circulation,” in which different value-forms ‘crystallize’ as the result of this particular stage of the long general social process of human self-activity (Selbstbetätigung). There are other fascinating matches, and I hope that the outcome will be published very soon.
In general, alchemy has a very constructivist and world-transforming attitude. The central point of alchemy is the close correlation between material transmutation and spiritual or intellectual transfiguration. It means that the alchemist can transform the world outside by working with the internal spiritual world, and vice versa.
To continue the alchemical topic, I collaborated with Hong-Kong based artist Royce NG on his project for the Tokyo art-institution, Asakusa. Actually, we began to write a script for his film which we called ‘State Alchemist’. It is not finished yet, but I can tell that there are the odious philosophers that play a key role, namely, Nick Land and the Kyoto school of philosophy, which was related to Japan fascism, and contemporary Russian Neo-Eurasianist philosopher Alexander Dugin. We look at them as state alchemists – persons who are trying to realize some sort of social and state alchemy, namely, to transfigure society and the world by the power of their ideas. Such figures play more and more of an important role in the contemporary world, which is drifting towards more esoteric and Neo-Traditionalist ideologies.
I also won the Frame curatorial fellowship and will be realizing it next year. My research Eurasian Alchemy understands alchemy as both the process and result of the transmutation of ideas, methods, concepts, practices, and materials. Eurasia is understood here as a gigantic geopolitical, geoeconomic, and geocultural ‘alchemical retort’ in which all these processes take place. Furthermore, the research looks into different geo-ideologies, Finno-Ugric cultures, hermetic philosophy, and Ethno-Futurism. It is supposed that the research takes place in the form of an essay-exhibition, which allows us to include all possible forms of practices and manifestations, namely art pieces, as well as non-artist manifestations, scientific materials, and archive materials. I hope that COVID will allow me to realize it in 2021.