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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.”


Aaron Lake Smith

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