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The Dam

The dam is creaking, breaking, spouting holes all over and we are trying our best, we are running back and forth along its length trying to cork up the length, trying to keep it from bursting on us, all with the dread knowledge that the structure will eventually give way, that the concrete is weakening and the water will come soon to drown us all.

Love

The great grinding pistons of our relationship hissed steam and slowly churned to a halt. The massive machine lie rusting in a field, enveloped in moss and kudzu. A monument to failure.

Morgue

On my lunch break, I left the office and stopped at a corner store to get some flowers for my sweetheart to bring to her office building across town. All the flowers were crammed in little feed buckets under the awning outside the bodega—flowers of every variety. Single roses, sunflowers, spring mixes, tiger lilies, lilacs. They all looked so beautiful. I considered just getting a single rose, but it reminded me too much of the end of an opera, the final ‘BRAVO!’ when fans throw them up on stage for the lead actress. But, conversely, I didn’t have enough money for a dozen roses so settled on the mid-grade option of an arrangement of lesser neon magenta, violet, and yellow flowers. I picked them up and took them inside. The plastic wrapped around them crinkled in my hand and the flowers dripped from the stems—I laid them on the counter and pulled out my money. The counter girl pulled out a plastic bag.

“What are you doing?” I asked, She didn’t answer me, and started wrapping the plastic around the stems. “Plastic? No more plastic.” I said curtly, pointing. “It’s so they won’t drip.” She said without looking up at me, continuing to wrap the stems and taping them so it looked like some kind of amputee’s stump, done up in cellophane. Now everything but the heads of the flowers were covered by a wall of plastic, slippery, glazy, without scent, moisture, or any kind of natural characteristic. I felt sad. A gentleman, the proprietor I assumed, walked up.

“Ten dollars” he said, sticking out his hand.

“Take off the plastic. Please…” I begged. The girl protested, but the man’s eyes showed empathy. “No plastic?” he repeated my request, “OK.” He shrugged, unwrapping the plastic and rolling the flowers in wax paper. I went over to the ATM and pressed buttons so I could get some money to pay him for the flowers.

I gave the counter woman my money and said thank you mechanically, and then took the flowers I bought for my sweetheart that I purchased with money that I had received from working my job, which I was temporarily on the lunch break from. I took the flowers and walked out onto the street—they seemed happy and released smells, and made me happy. The day was beautiful and breezy. I liked the feeling of the wax paper in my hand more than the feeling of the plastic in my hand and think the flowers did too (I vanquished the unpleasant truth that they were actually dead, autopsied in fact, from my mind).

“I hope they weren’t grown in bad chemicals…” I thought to myself, frowning. I walked down the bustling boulevard, carrying the flowers. I raised the bouquet to my nose, pricking up my olfactory to be hit by their sweet musky scent—I took a deep whiff. They smelled like nothing.

Great Writers (2008)

All those nights I stayed up late doing nothing but biting my fingernails and watching life pass me by. All those nights where I would try to grab out for some frame of reference to hold on to—for dates, for memories, for reflections of my meager, incidental accomplishments. All those nights I found a sick kind of comfort in flickering through the Wikipedia pages of long dead authors to see what they were doing, what kind of books they were writing when they were my age. Some where in the army, some had already been married, some had written books and had government jobs. Others will still traipsing around the world without a thought for writing–drinking, loving, working—just living life. Capote and Fitzgerald had novels, Cheever was a boy genius. Thomas Wolfe didn’t do anything until he was 29, but when he finally got around to it, it was like a freight train that had long been gathering steam. I read their first novels, their early stories, weighing their early-20s talent against mine—the unplumbed depths of my talent, only to find little in the way of competition. The Heart is a lonely Hunter—couldn’t finish more than fifty pages. Other Voices, Other Rooms—juvenile, dragging, popularized by that sexy picture of Truman Capote on the back. Cheever’s early stories—achingly upper-middle-class, the kind of person that I would like to punch in the face. This Side of Paradise—boring, horrible, lacking. Dos Passos? Cather? Djuna? Hart Crane? What was I procrastinating for? Why as I obsessing over the mile markers of the dead? My talent unharnessed, I didn’t know what to do or where to start–so instead of building my own life, I just sniped at the lives of others, pointing out their mistakes that I wouldn’t make to guide me through the murky present. Most of the people who are considered in the sexist Eurocentric canon ‘greats’ didn’t write novels until they were 25. Having just recently turned 25, I can testify that that’s when the fear starts to set in. But I never thought about the passage of time as much as when I was twenty-three, standing on the cusp of something big and horrible and hoping that I would think about it less as it went on. It was like playing an online matching game—looking at the years of others and matching them with mine. This was ridiculous because everyone goes at their own pace. Some people are late-bloomers, some are busy living life, some are preserved in Cytogenesis by a long adolescent and early-20s Christianity, like my friend Josh, emerging into the world like butterfly as he approached thirty. Henry Miller says he never read a novel until he was 25, let alone wrote one. You can still start today. The problem is one of willpower that limited amount of willpower that has to be rationed through the day with respect to your artistic pursuit—the sad truth is that your willpower can be significantly depleted by work, school, and arguments with your significant other, excessive masturbation.  Without willpower, there is no drive to do your grand idea justice—you slump out over your computer, you diddle around on Facebook for five hours. There are a million little tricks and routines to maintain and steady your willpower, none of which I seem to be able to follow—Sure, you can move out of New York City and have cheap rent and an easy job that affords you plenty of time for artistic pursuit but it’s a gamble, because if you fail there’s no excuse to fall back on. You had the time, you had the space to make something great. Conversely, there’s the problem with the city, this great core of energy, but filled with so much culture that you have to beat away other people’s stuff with a stick—there’s always a reading or a party to go to, always some kind of entertainment distracting from the blank slate of your own effort—If you’re here tonight postponing what you should be doing, distracting yourself with passive entertainment, raise your hand. What are you waiting for? Also the issue of how to survive economically and preserve energy late at night or early in the morning for your creative endeavors. Once you have gathered the willpower, there’s the problem of caffeinated over exuberance to contend with, the horror of soberly looking back over what you made the night before in a sped-up frenzy only to find that 95% of it is emotional garbage, unsalvageable.

Conversations

Conversations, once so easy and carefree, have become like delicate archeological excavations—everyone has a lot that has been buried, and you don’t want go digging it up, for fear of breaking all their artifacts, dredging up their history. Careful, always careful, because just below the surface are vast reserves of pain, like patches of noxious gas. There is trauma and pain aplenty, broken friendships, unmet expectations galore, goals and dreams unaccomplished. The ever-present weight of gravity and time pressing down, obsolesence bottled up in tiny little jars and put into a museum Eventually, all the coffins come spilling out of the graveyard. This is why I veer things toward ‘conversation topics’ now—books, magazines, abstract ideas, anything to keep us from realizing that there’s no floor below us. Anything to keep the conversations from veering towards angst and despair—we simply wouldn’t be able to stand it. But somebody always ruins our gentle, congenial rapport–convincing themselves that they need to be the pernicious bearers of ‘reality’—then the pain rises up—the grimaces on the faces, visage of death—despair pulling down the sides of the mouth, jowls sagging, a pressure building at the back of the skull. Age that was hidden in laughter and joy begins to show, and like some contagion that spreads from face to face.

Tunnels

There are still secrets to be found everywhere—a new life can be had for us all. Anti-wrinkle, anti-aging fountain of youth never get old, new life and discovery. This is the only way to get back into the nostalgic glow of the past. I read in the newspaper the other day about a man in Brooklyn convinced of the existence of underground subway tunnels that hadn’t been found yet. Obsessed, he did his research and found reference to the tunnels and the schematic diagrams of their whereabouts. At night, he and a friend went down a manhole, and broke through a brick wall with a sledgehammer—there he found his misty El Dorado, his ancient underground secret—the first subway, which lay undiscovered by all the city historians and bureaucratic planners, with all the finances of the state behind them, but was easily uncovered by his passion. He made a deal with the city and now he conducts his own tours down there, his own little plot of earth, his own little cocoon. He’s planning on breaking through another concrete wall, where he is convinced that there lies a dusty old disused locomotive that would have been too much effort to disassemble and lift out from underground. The forgotten and the disused and the abandoned are our only hope—everything else has already been built up, appropriated, demolished, developed, and finally when the ethereal credit casinos collapsed—they slowly returned to dust. Our only hope is in rediscovering the lost and buried corners of the earth.

Nightlife (2009)

I couldn’t stand to stay in and watch movies. My bookshelves reflected my boredom back at me, as if trying to tell me how foolish it was to be attempting such an accumulation of knowledge. I couldn’t even pick up the New Yorker, that potpourri of urbane social interest, that fuel for conversational anecdote that kept social awkwardness forever at bay. I didn’t want to have any more conversations, learn anymore, read anymore, talk anymore, sleep anymore or sit at a desk anymore, use computers anymore. I threw open the door and stepped out into the cool night. Onto the sidewalks hemmed in by the buildings on a flat plane, only able to walk in two directions. I wandered down the dark streets, past strangers, trying to relieve the pounding stress that had built up in my head. I stuck out my tongue and made machine-like hissing noises, pretending I was a valve letting off steam. I flapped my arms in the air like a flightless bird and stretched, hearing my back crack. I sung fake opera and made different tonal sounds—the vibrating tingle of my humming felt good on the back of my neck. I walked down the sidewalks with my eyes closed on blind trust, hoping I wouldn’t veer out into the street and get run over. Only once did I run into someone—a woman who was probably as scattered as me careened towards me without seeing where she was going. We ran into each other and both screamed and took off into opposite directions. I continued my wild meditation through the full city, through the massive urban exploration chamber, eventually finding myself in the meat-packing district—like so many parts of Manhattan, it was formerly a neighborhood that produced things that now produced mainly culture. I walked past the spectacularly built up glinting stainless steel lofts, art spaces, and cafes. Past the darkened stores, crawling with spectral pastel-colored lights, I spied some kind of public gathering in distance–the sidewalk was crowded with women in dresses and men in polo shirts and suits, laughing. As I verged on this soiree, I saw that the two double doors to go inside were open. With as much confidence as I could muster, I nodded my head to the doorman and walked in. Inside, house music thumped from the back of the sleek space and bartenders in black shirts slung out free drinks from the open bar—industrial design objects–sleek minimal lamps and scale models of new condominium complexes filled the gallery floor. Gawkers walked by smiling and peaking in the little Styrofoam windows, looking into them like King Kong. Strangers were staring at me and I couldn’t quite figure out why—maybe my loneliness had given me the rosy bright look of someone who’s just bathed in cold water? I made my way through the waves of people, only hearing the mixed murmur of their conversation. People networking and women looking for men, men looking for men, speaking words and talking with their bodies instead. Mock-ups, miniature neighborhoods, miniature cities and parks all haphazardly rendered with cheap paints, the smears of hot glue showing through in between the cracks in the walls. I had proven to myself that I could do it, that I could walk among them and drink their free booze and be stared at, but realized that I didn’t really want to—like some kind of reluctant conqueror I regretted ever even having entered their gluttonous social bacchanal, their sterile orgy of plastics and emotionless institutionalized design products. But over and over, like one cursed with an incurable addiction, I find myself drawn towards it, unable to repel the magnetic allure of the seductive ‘good time’. It reminded me of the difference between a one-night stand and a long-term relationship. The one night stand is all seduction—the easy, the erotic, the unaccountable that leaves you empty and alone-feeling once the post-coital endorphins finally start to wear off. And the other option is the hard road—a steadfast, bunkered-down resistance. Resilience to the trappings—difficult, hard lesson, but probably more fulfilling.

 

Bookstore

Feelings of despair in the bookstore: too much unread, not enough life years to both produce and consume the desired amount of work, unable to do away completely with sleep. And at the same time—feelings of lightness and happiness on the street, in the freedom of movement and the expansiveness and time and possibility that unfolds like an accordion once its no longer crammed into a single human lifetime. On the streets I could wander all night, for days, weeks, years and never reach it or never tire, the flow of the earth passing underneath and the landscape of trees, buildings, cars, meadows mountains. So different than waking up in this apartment day after day, making coffee, and immediately being crushed by the weight of the things I need to do but am not sure I enjoy. Strange continuity of the days—the accomplishments happen in small bursts, the wasting of time happens in much larger ones.

Fall

Fall, once a time of renewed promise and fresh hope, for the last several years has been an acrid-tasting period of transition: leases always seem to be ending, relationships need to be renegotiated, wardrobes must be swapped out, and all the compartmentalized elements of one’s life are ready to be reevaluated. As the dog days of August (when the heat makes work impossible) slowly fade out, a sinking feeling sets in as Fall-proper is slated to begin. Perhaps due to some global-warming-related temperature variation, in recent years in my home state of North Carolina, summer seems to draw itself out as long as possible before making an abrupt transition to winter; Fall, that magic and subtle in-between that I used to know, now feels like a faint voice on a warped record, warbling out of existence.

September is a month filled with birthdays: parties must be attended, presents must be bought. My own rolls around at the end of that month, forcing me to reckon with my own ‘life progress’ in this already tenuous period—Am I ‘better’ than I was before, or have I regressed? The body has certainly regressed—bones crack when I get out of bed, more stretching is necessary. Birthdays, like all annual holidays, are a truly awful mile marker, making one remember the mediocrity of years passed and the swiftness with which time devoured them. Only the excrement remains, the rabbit-pebbles of memory.

The last time Fall felt magical was, probably not coincidentally, a year I spent a lot of time outside. Since joining the ashen-faced ranks of white-collar culture workers, the seasons have tended to blend together, to be something that’s happening outside the window behind the glow of my computer screen. That last magical Fall, I lived in a small Southern town and worked in a bakery at the edge of town. I wasn’t in love but I rode my bike around alone or with friends. I was happy. I spent my days scooping cookie dough onto sheets and listening to either affiliate NPR or the Silver Jews with my Gen-X co-workers. At night I would take long solitary walks down the train tracks through the quiet town, where the crisp wind carried the reassuring fall smell of fire. My comrade-at- arms Rita and I would range around town at night on our bicycles looking for grad-student parties to crash—the kind of parties where you could grab a bottle of wine and down it without anyone really noticing. We would bike all over the deserted town at night, often not seeing a single car, and often end up at a lonely railroad bridge hidden away in an old money neighborhood downtown. When we happened to have a mass of bikers with us, on a Friday night, or after an art opening, we took them to the top of an empty five-story parking lot: the best view of the ever-expanding fall landscape of the Piedmont/Triad area. On other nights, I would drive to Borders and drink refill after refill of their pumpkin coffee, flipping idly through books that I still haven’t read.

In this metallic-tasting future of windows that you can’t open and climate- controlled air being pumped into dwellings and offices by massive physical plants, does the season matter anymore?

In New York, where most nature is a simulacrum, the season change primarily indicates a change of wardrobe and comfort. Thank god it’s Fall, no more excessive sweating and a great chance to show off my new coat. But in cities like New York where there is no nature that isn’t planned and groomed by designers, some biological element of the seasons is missing.

And yet, even here, old sensations have been washing over me for the past couple of days. Last night, while finishing beers in the backyard of a friend’s house after a hot thunderstorm, the way the moon framed the big hammock- slung oak tree and neon grass, the backyard floodlight hitting the vinyl siding reminded me of Halloween approaching and of the time when the growing-cool nights were pregnant with anticipation of bike rides through piles of dead leaves, pumpkin cappuccinos at the all-night gas station and the prospects for new romance with a good-looking hoodie.

The old zeal for life that comes in with the arrival of the crisp months has faded over the years down to where it is just faint-burning light—we have to blow on the coal and ashes to bring the fire back to life.

What is to be done?

Hotel Lux Moscow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This essay was originally published as "The Specters of 1917" in The Towner.

I read Shklovsky’s A Sentimental Journey in the depopulated far north of Sweden, amidst a silence so total it made my ears ring. In the mornings, we gathered berries and in the evenings we fished, eating what we found. Shklovsky’s account of the privation of the civil war years in St. Petersburg was harrowing, but something about the terse, fractured quality of three lines of the last paragraph struck me—Now I live among emigrants and am myself becoming a shadow among shadows. Bitter is the wiener schnitzel in Berlin. I lived in Petersburg from 1918 to 1922. I tromped around the primeval bogs and meadows of Västerbotten, rearranging the sentences in my head, like a mantra—I lived in Petersburg from 1918 to 1922. Now I am a shadow among shadows. It is strange when the bulk of a book’s narrative slips away immediately, but the last sentence sticks, like Bolano’s and then the storm of shit begins.

In Moscow, I read Stephen F. Cohen’s biography of Bukharin and Walter Benjamin’s Moscow Diary, while staying in a statue-topped Stalin-era apartment building in Arbat, not far from the Gothic, red-beaconed Ministry of Foreign Affairs skyscraper. Stalin’s hand is still visible all over Moscow—from the ornate, beautiful skyscrapers, built to compete with the West, to the museum-like metro with the revolutionary mosaics and stately art-deco light fixtures, still a “palace for the people” after all this time. On my first night, my hosts—an artist couple in their mid-thirties— took me down to the marble steps of the Moscow River. We drank beer and looked out on the metro trains rumbling over the neon-lit Smolensky Bridge, and the floodlit White House beyond, the flashpoint of the coup attempt twenty-five years ago. They were not particularly interested in talking politics, Hillary and Trump, or the Duma elections in September. They had a start-up I didn’t quite understand, assembling little crowns and tiaras for children. Their friends helped them assemble the crowns, but the business model was lost in translation.

During the day, I wandered the city, through the endless repaving and reconstruction. It seemed like Moscow will have entirely new sidewalks by the end of the year. Walter Benjamin came to Moscow for two months in December of 1926. He spent most of his time worrying over a strange ménage à trois (with the Latvian actor/director Asja Lācis and German critic Bernhard Reich), going to movies and plays, and trying to get steady work at the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. There is something pathetic and mopey about Benjamin in the Moscow Diary—one wants to shake him and tell him to toughen up. Still, his struggle with Russian grammar and travel-planning are charming. Comforting to accidentally find yourself walking in his footsteps, arriving at the same sea foam green Belorussky Train Station, wandering down streets like Smolensk Boulevard and past the little markets of Arbat that appear in his account. “Should I ever return to Russia, it will obviously be essential that I bring some previously acquired knowledge of the language with me… At the very least, there would have to be very solid literary and financial arrangements before I undertook a second trip.”

Willi Münzenberg, the interwar head of the Comintern’s Western propaganda apparatus, hated going to Moscow. He usually ended up staying with the other German and foreign communists from the apparat at Hotel Lux, which his civil partner Babette Gross, described as a place of “constant intrigue where everyone spied on everyone else.” In the mid-thirties, Hotel Lux became an oubliette that devoured foreign communists. The Old Bolshevik, Karl Radek, was arrested in 1936, shortly before the official adoption of the new Soviet Constitution he helped write. Nikolai Bukharin, who had once been the party’s leading theorist, allegedly turned white as a sheet when he received the call to return “home” while in Paris. Some comrades begged him not to go back. He went anyway, and was broken at theTrial of the Twenty-One and purged. On their last trip to Moscow in ‘36, Münzenberg and Gross found the former KPD leader Heinz Neumann living a spectral, pariah existence as a translator at the hotel; he embraced them both and cried, knowing that it would be the last time he would see them (he was purged in ’38). Münzenberg and Gross spent a long night awake, waiting for a knock on their door from the NKVD. The next morning, Münzenberg made a big scene to retrieve their passports and exit visas, and they fled back to Western Europe. In 1940, after trying to flee France on foot in the company of a mysterious “red-headed youth” who nobody knew, Münzenberg was found hanging in the forest near the French-Swiss border. His death remains a mystery, painfully unresolved in Gross’s excellent biography of her late husband. The former Hotel Lux in Moscow, filled with so many ghosts of murdered foreign communists, remains shuttered today, hidden behind a canvas construction facade on Tverskaya.

I met up with a socialist scholar named Ilya under the statue of Mayakovsky. We got ice cream and walked around Patriarch’s Ponds, Moscow’s answer to the Upper East Side. He had written some great articles for Lefteast and Jacobin and was working on a project about the anti-populism of post-Soviet Russian intellectuals. With his boxer’s mug and kind, intelligent eyes, I liked him immediately. Chain-smoking on a bench we talked about our shared admiration for Maxim Gorky: Gorky’s depoliticization in post-Soviet Russia, his erasure in the United States, his four-volume opus The Life of Klim Samghin, and Ilya’s love of his novel The Artamonov Business, which charts the degeneration of a rich industrialist family over generations, as each heir becomes less invested in the perpetuation of privilege, until the last son is possessed by revolutionary ideas. Ilya took me to a well-hidden little radical bookstore where the shelves were filled with biographies and scholarship on Yevno Azef and other obscure Socialist Revolutionaries and Narodniks.

After we parted, I made my way to the Gorky museum. When he decided to return to the Soviet Union under Stalin’s tutelage in 1931, Gorky was housed in an expropriated art-deco mansion belonging to a former industrialist family. Gorky had never owned property. He worried that upon his return he would be placed in a huge manor that would make a “justifiably negative impression on people working like hell, eating in cattle sheds.” The Ryabushinsky Mansion served as his home, and the de facto headquarters of the Soviet Writers Union, for the last five years of his life. I paid my 100 rubles and the security guard instructed me to put on little hospital booties over my shoes before entering the house. Motes of dust swirled in front of the swirling art-nouveau windows, and the grand marble staircase looked like it was sculpted in cake frosting. All of Gorky’s books lay untouched, as was the big wooden table in the living room where the writers would meet and pound out socialist realism. The house had good energy, it felt comfortable, one could imagine living there among the ghosts of the future lost in the past. On the third floor, there was a little exhibit to the Ryabushinsky family, with some religious people selling icons and Orthodox paraphernalia in their former “prayer room,” which had been shuttered after the revolution.

++

Moscow and Petersburg: the endless discussion of their differences, like DC and New York, dual power centers, one a center of state power and the other a center of culture built on a swamp. Muscovites give as little thought to Petersburg as New Yorkers do to DC, but Petersburg constantly compares itself to Moscow. I took the speed train to Petersburg for an international conference on what could be rescued from the legacy of Soviet politics, hosted by the Marxist art and critical theory collective Chto Delat. The group’s name—What Is To Be Done?—comes from Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel that served as a handbook for generations of Narodniks and populist revolutionaries. Chernyshevsky wrote the book while imprisoned in Peter and Paul Fortress, before being sentenced to penal servitude and exile. Lenin later used the title for his famous 1902 pamphlet, but the group identifies more with Chernyshevsky.

The impact of certain collective experiences can be so transformative that it becomes almost ineffable. There is a mysterious social alchemy of being there with others: you try to communicate to those that aren’t present, to touch a thing’s fundamental obscurity, and eventually throw up your hands and give up: I lived in Petersburg from 1918 to 1922. At the conference, I presented some research on religion and socialism. The Russians were well-familiar with Bogdanov and Lunacharsky, but were also very immersed in Lacan, Rancière, Wilhelm Reich and Jean Luc Nancy. The Europeans knew Rancière, Lacan, and Nancy, but were less familiar with the heretical Bolsheviks. An international group of about twenty artists and researchers from twelve countries showed up, and we lived together for a week, trying to dredge what was worth preserving of Soviet life and thought.

The brilliant professor Oxana Timofeeva gave a presentation on the ghosts of communism based around the five-part children’s TV seriesGuest from the Future, which aired in 1985—the first year of perestroika. The show was about a boy named Kolya, who explores an abandoned basement in Moscow and finds a time machine, which transports him to the utopian Soviet future of 2084. There, he meets a Young Pioneer named Alisa and finds that Moscow has flying cars, good weather, an ocean, and automats with endless free food. “The future is a paradise, but a very special paradise of full communism… Communism was conceived as a utopia of the future that would finally arrive after that long postponement of the socialist state… So-called simple Soviet people thought that communism would be rather like a shopping mall where everything would be free… actually a perverted fantasy of nowadays’ capitalism.”

Alisa has a mind-reading device, and after reading the minds of several animals, returns with Kolya to 1984 to tell his fellow Young Pioneers what they will be when they grow up. After Timofeeva showed a clip from the final episode where Kolya and Alisa stood in a basement before the closing portal to the future, she wiped away tears. “It gets me every time.” The end of communism, the death of utopia. “The specters of the future whose time never came live in the past like in this empty deserted house… In the actual future, nobody invented a time machine, nobody became a poet. The guy who played Kolya—who we were all in love with—died very young. He took drugs and alcohol and was actually burned alive in his house. He is buried in some godforsaken small village cemetery.”

The next day, the Russian cyber feminist scholar Alla Mitrofanova gave a lecture on mid-1800s egalitarian collectives in Petersburg, and the major advances in gender equality made by the Bolshevik Revolution. “After the [October 1917] revolution, a few very important decrees were proclaimed. A decree on peace, a decree on land, then a decree on marriage and divorce. So, it was easy for women to be married and divorced… homosexuality and abortion were decriminalized. These laws gave a lot of space for the reinventing relationships. If a situation does not destroy gender, society cannot reshape itself.” Exactly one year after the passage of the laws on marriage and divorce, a body-positive movement called “Down with Shame” emerged and held a massive, nude demonstration on Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect. While the Bolsheviks didn’t explicitly endorse the movement, some high-ranking figures, like Karl Radek, got involved and walked through the city in the buff. Alexandra Kollontai, the leader of the Bolshevik women’s organization, was tasked with spreading the revolution in gender relations, traveling to the local Soviets and setting up kindergartens, abortion facilities, and feminist organizations.

Our little congress kicked off every morning with “body training” at a dance studio near the group’s space in a gentrifying warehouse corridor off of Ligovsky Prospect. The body training was led by an bespectacled, Emma Goldman-looking collective member named Nina, whose stated passion was making sure that theory was applied to the body. Mostly this meant playing all sorts of group games—forming statues, watching each other jump for four minutes, walking around in a circle and touching a neighbor’s shoulder. At first, this seemed ridiculous, but after a couple of sessions, it seemed superior to my typical socially-atomized and vaguely fascistic exercise regime of running, the gym, and hot yoga, always struggling on a treadmill, alone and against yourself, inside your own body. The games opened up psychic space, were gentle on the body and mind, and strengthened group bonds and a sense of togetherness.

The Winter Palace was larger than I imagined, and the Field of Mars—with the revolutionary dead of 1917 interred under a plaque comparing them to the Jacobins and the fighters of 1848—much smaller. The poet Alexander Skidan gave a walking tour of the landmarks of Crime and Punishment, through the lens of Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. We did a Situationist-inspired dérive of the old working-class neighborhood Narvaskaya Zastava, home of the enormous Kirov Plant, which was a hotbed of radicalism in both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. Amidst all this reconsideration, it was hard not to think of the approaching centennial of the “bourgeois” February and “proletarian” October revolutions. The international Marxist superstars will descend on Petersburg to continue their work of rebranding communism—Zizek, Negri, and Alain Badiou—while Putin will find a way to negotiate the cataracts of historical memory, commemorating in a way that denounces Lenin, “Trotkyism” and refracts political revolution through the nationalistic lens of the Great Patriotic War. The Western commentators will remind us of the gulag and Brodsky but won’t mention the 1917’s major advances in women’s and abortion rights.

On the final night of the conference, we took a boat ride down the glittering canals of the Neva. Drunk men in Speedos stood on the quays and laughed and jumped into the polluted river, and Chto Delat yelled to their friends as we drifted past their houses, and everyone screamed and touched the masonry of every low canal bridge. A 19-year-old Swedish poet in black sunglasses read a poem in which Stalin featured prominently, while the poet Roman Osminkin—who looked kind of like Russian Eminem—heckled him for his “avant-garde poet” look. Petersburg is beautiful on the white nights, even more beautiful seen from the canals.

If we look into enough empty, deserted houses, as Timofeeva said, maybe we could discover the ghosts, the specters of the blocked future whose time never came. “To forget the hope of communism is to close that door of the house once and for all.”