Dustin Breitling: Can you chart out or elaborate upon your personal trajectory and crucial events that led to your current focus? You are a geographer, a curator and a researcher whose interest 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 that 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 guide us through the genesis of the school and what are its implications beyond Russia?
Nikolay Smirnov: Before university, I lived in the Rybinsk, 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 local area’, this is a very specific discipline and set of formal and informal institutions which were developed in the USSR. It is similar to European societies for studying ‘local history’ and ‘local lore’, from the one hand, but, from the other, kraevedenie has some specific features developed in Soviet times. Recently, I conducted special research on kraevedenie and finally understood what is it. The research was published by VAC foundation in Russian and I hope will be published in English soon too. In general, kraevedenie is an interdisciplinary sphere which 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, population. We also collected some items from expeditions and formed a kraevedchesky museum. We also made some public actions to draw peoples’ attention to some problems of heritage. For example, we cleaned an abandoned church for several days or fastened signs on edifices which were valuable for 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, 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 scouts-like activities such as living in the tents, sitting around the fire, playing the guitar, etc. I also loved it but I was very seriously captured by 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 detectives 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 them in correspondence with an Olympiad in geography. And I became its laureate several times, and due to this 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 which was crucial for my early beginnings. Respectively, Russian geography, in general, is quite far away from art and Russian art is quite far away from interdisciplinary research, they both are quite academic. It began to seem that 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 is my place, 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 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 as 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, images of space from the space. Finance, for instance, has gained such, independence, in 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 owes 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 the speculative geography is the horizon of geography when it turns into Meta-geography through the speculative contemporaneity of late capitalism and dealing more with geo-images or geographic derivatives, than with space itself. So the 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 of 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 one concrete way? The new media-devices which 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 a 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 of space is leading to other spaces (real and imaginable), the space becomes total frontier, this is a vision of space in the future, where it is going to. 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, that also links up with the problem of knowledge. Today 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 for a certain image or action to be based rather on an attempt to realize politically a ‘geographic will’, rather than a so-called ‘objective’ knowledge.
Therefore, any geographic subject becomes political in this context, especially when knowledge is incomplete, decision making 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 which 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 as 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 but 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, and also 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 reality are closely intertwined here
DB: Could you also elaborate on your another project such as Permafrost?
NS: It was an exhibition realized in the frame 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 arts and humanities. I was the collaborator of 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, published as a book.
The Permafrost-themed Zeroth Arctic Biennale was to become the culmination, the grande 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 MelnikovYakutian Institute for Permafrost Research, Russian Academy of Sciences, that 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, with 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 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 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 the 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. It has been actively defining the human forms of life on the one hand, and has also served as a “stratum” from which natural resources are extracted, an object of scientific study and research.
In my curatorial narrative, I marked three vectors or three approaches that we can pursue in our exploration of 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 to 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 the human’s 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 that 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 at 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, the 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 and proceeded to exhibit the 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 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, 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 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 science, 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 the interdisciplinary enterprise from the very beginning, and it 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!
DB: Perhaps tying in your work of Metageography, could you introduce us to the school of Eurasianism? Your work fleshes out the structural parallels of what you see with Eurasianism anticipating the Post-Colonial discourse. As you write “we should consider Eurasianism, along with Négritude, as one of the first experiments in postcolonialism, as a forerunner of postcolonial theory. Eurasianism was strategic essentialism avant la lettre. Its abrupt break with the Romano-Germanic culture that enthralled contemporary Russian elites functioned like decolonization.”
NS:Eurasianism was a philosophical and political current that emerged in the 1920s among the Russian diaspora in Europe. ‘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 such geocultural worlds is Russia-Eurasia, the supranational geoculture with a common destiny of its parts and similarly having its own significance and specificity as Western Europe, India, China or USA.
So, you see that the space identity or geographic identity is a starting 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 1870 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.
Classic Eurasianism formed in the 1920s as an anti-western space, an emancipative ideology and we can consider it as 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, 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 the casual everyday life of people and practiced by them in everyday life more than in an institutional (church) service.
This ‘orthodox-centric culture core’ supposed as 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 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 the Mongolian nomad culture.
The view of classical Eurasianism was also culture-centric, and in this way, it anticipated postcolonial studies. Namely, it placed culture above social and economic circumstances and claimed the economy and the political sphere are dependent 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 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 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 the 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 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 “Eurasia”, held a Eurasian seminar and even the Eurasian club operated in Paris.
The Left Eurasian project encompassed all parts of life, where we can consider that it consisted of three main spheres: theory, political activism and aesthetics. Music and literature was the main part 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 can say that in aesthetics, Eurasianists were searching, as well in politics and social organization, something primordial, more-than-individual, ontological basis of life which was considered opposite to the individualistic ego consciousness.
The political activism sphere became increasingly important in the 1930s, and it kind of annihilated the leftist Eurasianist activity. 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 beginits autonomous being, but produced and realized its own non-Western Ideal. They called this new Ideal as ‘Eurasian’ and the ‘New West’ resting on a new Universalism based on Marx, Fedorov and the October revolution.
They considered the USSR at that time as the closest to the Eurasian Ideal, but not equal to it, and therefore still needed to be transformed from inside. For them the revolution, having begun as a communist and socialist i.e. western project, later became the national affair of Russia, became a Bolshevist one more specifically. As Karsavin wrote back in 1925: “For the Bolsheviks, against the Communists!”. For them, the Bolsheviks were ‘Russian maximalists’, carriers of a pre-modern mentality closer to the ideals of Mongolian Empire and old-believers than to modern-minded nihilistic communists. The Bolshevik is a Russian maximalist while a Western Marxist is an atheist and nihilist.
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 co-existence 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 linked, but there is a separate existence of the practical and metaphysical spheres. Here, this is how they believed to have synthesized Fedorov and Marx or religious philosophy and socialism.
In the fulfilment of the Ideal Living in the name of the Common, his supporters were seeking to animate mankind with the idea of Mirodelaniya (life-constructing). Following this ideal was understood by the left-wing Eurasianists as a special task of Russia-Eurasia and its Common Deal.
When the part of Eurasianists who were based in Clamart, near Paris, began to synthesize Marx and Fedorov, the other part of the movement rose against it. In 1929, there was a split within Eurasianism on the leftwing and right-wing which was called “Clamartian” and The United Eurasianist project collapsed.After this, the practical political activity became increasingly important for left Eurasianists in the 1930s, among them were a lot of pro-Bolshevik-minded young officers-emigrants. Some of them would later collaborate with the GPU-NKVD and many would return to the USSR, become imprisoned and shot in late 1930s.
This is how the left-wing Eurasianism ended up. We see that it developed a kind of complex dialectic of the whole and its parts which is very actual in the contemporary world. We know that the world should be united and diverse at the same time. The principal question again becomes how to implement it? This is a speculative claim, a kind of impossible claim. Nonetheless, it works as a horizon, as a desirable Ideal, which I am sure, should exist and pull the world towards this impossible condition. Also, the Eurasianists attempted to conceptualize the world as a “unity in diversity”, which correlates with Peter Osborne’s definition of contemporaneity as the ‘disjunctive unity of different spatialities and temporalities’ And I think the programmatic Eurasianist claim could be the following: the world is destined to be unified and diverse, this is the core of Eurasianist thought and our contemporary period, whose prophets the Eurasianists regarded themselves as, thus I think this is the main progressive outcome of their enterprise.
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.
NS: 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 were really tough, Old Believers saw the ruling power as the kingdom of the Antichrist, so they believed that it is 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 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 the 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 capitalism and ethical principles 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 life: 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 Russian Empire
The opening of the wide-spread religious dissent of common people in Russia inspired revolutionaries very much. The Narodnik (Populist) movement in the 1860-1870s 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. Here, just to remind ourselves, Lenin’s elder brother was Narodnik, he was persecuted and it influenced young Lenin a lot. Moreover, narodniks’ ideology influenced Russian Marxism in general, Stalin paid a lot of attention to the ethnic and religious questions, and influenced this famous Bolsheviks’ tactic to always make ‘political’ and induce schisms in crucial moments.
The Russian masses, however, were incapable of arriving at a revolution independently, despite their widespread oppositionist leanings. It was up to the Bolsheviks then to consolidate and transform native libertarianism into nationwide revolutionary events. However, far less attention was given to the various aspects of the popular worldview which made possible the revolutionary experience. Why did the masses began to revolt against the authority and official orthodoxy after the October revolution? 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 principles of the Soviet system, in the way how it was realized by masses, derived implicitly from 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 a ‘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 figure of religious libertarians are becoming even more and more important.
We are raised in a world where liberal, secular and progressive are indivisible, this fusion developed during the Enlightenment, as well as 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 proclaim it 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 worked with 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, this specific religiosity they embody is inseparable from individual or social emancipation.
DB:What are your current projects?
NS: For the last half of the year or more, I have worked quite closely with the notion of alchemy. First, I wrote an essay where I interpret Marx’s theory of the self-realization of humanity as 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’ in 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 is a very constructivist and world-transforming attitude. The central point for 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 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 the society and world by the power of their ideas. Such figures play more and more of an important role in the contemporary world 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 here is understood 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 and archive materials. I hope that COVID will allow me to realize it in 2021.