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The society of spectacle – Guy Debord

20 Sep



London Review of Books: Vladislav Surkov – Non-linear war

31 Dec

Vladislav Surkov is back. Back inside the ever-shrinking sanctum around Putin; on the elite list of Russian officials hit with visa bans and asset freezes in the west. The enemies who were so recently converging around Surkov, threatening charges of corruption and much more, have fallen silent. On 12 March, Surkov published a new short story, in Russky Pioneer (under his pseudonym Natan Dubovitsky). ‘Without Sky’ is set in the future, after the ‘fifth world war’. The story is told from the point of view of a child whose parents were killed in the war. He was brain damaged, and can only see and understand things in two dimensions:
There was no sky above our village. So we had to go to the city to see the moon and the birds. To the other side of the river. The city-dwellers didn’t like us. But they didn’t stop us. They even gave us one hilltop as a viewing platform, near the brick church. Because for some reason they thought us drunks, they put a beer stall there, next to the pay-per-view telescope and the police station.
I understand the city dwellers. They suffered much from the anger and jealousy of newcomers. And though we were offended that they thought us, their closest neighbours, strangers, I could understand them. And they understood us too. They didn’t force us out. Whatever their websites might say, they never forced us out…
Because everyone could understand it wasn’t our fault we lost the sky…
The Marshalls of the four coalitions chose our sky for their great battle. The sky above our village was the best in the world. Flat. Cloudless. The sun poured over it in a smooth river. I remember the sun well. And the sky.
It’s no coincidence Surkov went for a war story: perpetual mobilisation is the new political model he and the other political technologists in the Kremlin are busy creating. Russian television is full of hysteria about enemies of the state, fascists taking over Ukraine in a rerun of the Second World War, the great conflict with the godless gay West. Any potential opposition has been branded as a fifth column (there’s even a website where good citizens can identify traitors), and the Liberal Democrat leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky wants to ban the letter ы for being foreign. For the moment the strategy is working: Putin’s ratings are up. The rhetoric began as a reaction against the protests of 2011-12, long before the current crisis in Ukraine, but events there fit conveniently into the Kremlin’s narrative of perpetual war.
Though it might be a disservice to Surkov the writer (he has his moments) to see his story as merely another piece of sly propaganda, he is always quietly massaging in the underlying mindset that makes the Kremlin’s war effort possible. The whole of the opening passage above pulls at the post-Soviet sense of common grievance mixed with irony, tragedy and nostalgia that unites the former empire far more than any of the new surface pronouncements about Russia’s ‘conservative mission’. The draw is not so much about nostalgia for Soviet success, but the feeling that ‘we survived it together.’ (Russian TV broadcasts ironic, gently anti-Soviet films from the 1970s to Ukraine and Moldova, keeping the ‘near abroad’ near, and makes a cult out of the anti-Soviet singer Vyssotsky.)

But ‘Without Sky’ does more than tug at the past, and its war is no ordinary conflict:
It was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the 19th and 20th centuries it was common for just two sides to fight. Two countries. Two groups of allies. Now four coalitions collided. Not two against two, or three against one. No. All against all.
And what coalitions! Not like the ones you had before… It was rare for whole countries to enter. A few provinces would join one side, a few others a different one. One town or generation or gender would join yet another. Then they could switch sides, sometimes mid-battle.
Their aims were quite different. To take over a disputed coastal shelf. To forcefully introduce a new religion. Raise ratings. Try out new lasers. To stop humans being divided into men and women as gender differences undermine the unity of a nation.
Most understood the war to be part of a process. Not necessarily its most important part.
It’s naive to assume the Kremlin is simply stuck in a Cold War (or 19th-century) mindset. Annexing Crimea was rather a sign that Russia is so confident of its position in a globalised world that no one will dare to act against it: the US and EU cannot afford to impose meaningful sanctions (or so the Kremlin hopes). The Kremlin takes – or projects – a paranoid view of globalisation. A sense of global conspiracies, of higher, hidden powers manipulating the world, is one of the main ways it’s selling the war inside Russia: even many among the urban middle classes who are sceptical about Putin can nevertheless be convinced that shadowy forces were behind the revolution in Ukraine. The cynicism that Russians justifiably feel about Soviet and post-Soviet politics can easily be spun into a conspiracy-driven vision of everything that happens in the world. (From another angle the above passage is a good description of internal Ukrainian and internal Kremlin politics.)
As a smiling Surkov left the hall in the Kremlin after Putin’s ‘reuniting Russian soil’ speech on 18 March, he was stopped by a reporter from TV Rain, which like much independent media is being squeezed to death by the Kremlin. The reporter asked Surkov about the sanctions list he has been placed on by the West. ‘Won’t this ban affect you?’ the reporter asked. ‘Your tastes point to you being a very Western person.’
Surkov smiled and pointed to his head: ‘I can fit Europe in here.’
He later said: ‘I see the decision by the administration in Washington as an acknowledgment of my service to Russia. It’s a big honour for me. I don’t have accounts abroad. The only things that interest me in the US are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing.’
And yet, right at the end of the interview with TV Rain, his firmness seemed to be undermined by an odd laugh – was it rueful?
At the end of ‘Without Sky’, the boy sets out on a do-or-die mission:
Our very thoughts lost their height. Became two dimensional. We understand only ‘yes’ and ‘no’, ‘black and white’… So we couldn’t survive, needed permanent looking after. But we were dumped. Were left unemployed, without benefits… So we had to unite to survive. We created a society. Organised a rebellion of two-dimensional people against the complex and cunning. We are against those who never say ‘yes’ or ‘no’… who know the third word. There are many third words… confusing the ways, darkening truth… in these darknesses and cobwebs hides and multiplies all the dirt of the world. They are the house of Satan. There they make money and bombs… We begin tomorrow. We will win. Or lose. A third is not available.
It’s a deliberate tease of an ending: where does Surkov, a master of the ‘third word’ himself, fit in with all of this?
The day before Surkov’s travel ban to the EU was set to kick in on 21 March, his wife’s Instagram account showed them enjoying themselves in Stockholm, along with members of the Russian jet set.
‘I would take a close look at Surkov, his Stockholm photos,’ the hugely influential journalist Oleg Kashin wrote, speculating on who would be the first of Putin’s inner circle to break ranks. ‘He will hardly like the prospect of imaginary membership in the Ozero Co-operative [of Putin’s cronies] with its real consequences… Putin has turned into the hero of a thriller, who doesn’t yet know from which dark corner he should expect threats. There is expectation of the first betrayal – the Americans have made that the chief factor in Russian politics.’

A few lines that mean a lot

28 Aug


Banana Yoshimoto – Hardboiled and hard luck

I read a book during my holidays and it touched me. I wasn’t expecting a book by an author called banana to have such a profound effect on me.

In particular, this passage resonated with me. I thought of my mum. She developed an illness and then spent 5 years fighting it. In a way, especially the latter years, it was like she was saying a long goodbye. She tried to squeeze every second out of the day. If she exchanged even a hello or a thank-you with you, believe me, it was important to her.

Red Star – Alexander Bogdanov

11 May


Pre-revolutionary Russia is being written about but it sounds like the Russia of today.


The Police in Ukraine – Zhardan – Depeche Mode

18 Mar


That’s how it is.

Serhiy Zhadan – Depeche Mode – Life

10 Mar


Yeah, that’s pretty much what life at 30 is!

George Orwell – Tea

10 Feb

If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several ofthe most important points.
This is curious, not only because tea is one of the main stays ofcivilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject ofviolent disputes.
When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I findno fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others areacutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one ofwhich I regard as golden:
First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China teahas virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup oftea’ invariably means Indian tea. Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made ina cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be madeof china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produceinferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough apewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad. Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it outwith hot water. Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, ifyou are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoonswould be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea thatcan be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that onestrong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea loversnot only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger witheach year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra rationissued to old-age pensioners. Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the potit never infuses properly. Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference. Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle. Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is,the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfastcup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half coldbefore one has well started on it. Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using itfor tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste. Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one ofthe most controversial points of all; indeed in every family inBritain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, butI maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactlyregulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too muchmilk if one does it the other way round. Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in aminority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover ifyou destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It wouldbe equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to bebitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you areno longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you couldmake a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.
Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.
These are not the only controversial points to arise in connexion with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilized the whole business has become. There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tealeaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping thecarpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sureof wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups of thattwo ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.