Meeting Russian Marxists

So I’m back from Ryazan. But before I tell about my time there, I have to report my meeting with some Russian Marxists. Russian Marxists, you say? Yes, but these aren’t your hard Communists from the Soviet era. These are some young intellectuals (mid 20s to early 30s) I met at an art show last weekend. My friend Claudia, who got her PhD from UCLA and moved to Moscow to live with her boyfriend Stas, invited me to the show. Stas was showing some photography in a show of modern artists from Moscow. I liked his photos a lot. One of the other exhibits was by this art collective called “Chto Delat?” For those who don’t know “Chto Delat” is Russian for “What is to be done?” which was also the title of a book from the 19th century Russian revolutionary writer Cherneyshevsky and also a very famous pamphlet by V. I. Lenin. The group also publishes a newspaper called What is to Done?: The Newspaper for the New Creative Platform. I was intrigued by the paper because the issue they were giving out focused on the question of the “emancipation from/of labor” and featured articles on Toni Negri and Michael Hardt. I happen to be reading Hardt and Negri’s new book, Multitude, so it was quite a coincidence to meet other like-minded people. Stas was more than happy to introduce me to them.

I never imagined finding Leftists in Russia. At least, not the leftists of this type. Most “leftist” are anarchists. Russian Communists tend to be Russian nationalists. Communism has a totally different meaning here than in the US. I doubt many American communists would find themselves in good company with their Russian brethren. The folks I met, however, were very interested in Western Marxism, as well as Hardt and Negri’s book Empire. One of them, Aleksei, happened to have a copy of Multitude with him. I chatted with Aleksei and another member of the collective, Nik, for a few minutes, parting with plans to meet on Sunday and talk over coffee.

On Sunday, I met Aleksei at the art show and after waiting for him for about an hour (he was busy running around talking to various people about their exhibition and newspaper), he, Lida, Natasha (to female members of the Chto Delat collective), and I went to this great caf? near the Kuznetsky Most metro station. I can’t remember the name of the place, but you had to buzz the door to get in. I guess the doormen wanted to make sure you were ‘cool’ enough. Aleksei explained that this was a place were a lot of Moscow’s young “intellectuals” hang out. I personally think the door thing was all for show and they didn’t really care who came. At any rate, the place was pretty interesting, complete with book shelves and a jazz band. Very Euro-bohemian. We sat in a fog of cigarette smoke, had some drinks and talked about our common political and philosophical interests. Natasha, Lida, and Aleksei ate what is called “zakuski,” which are appetizers you eat while drinking. Usually “zakuski” consists of marinated herring and vegetables. Lida, Natasha and Aleksei also drank this interesting vodka that I swear was infused with dill. I tried it, but wasn’t too impressed. I was hungry so I ordered a full meal of pork cutlets and potatoes and a beer.

We talked about some philosophical writers we liked like Slavoj Zizek, Fredric Jameson, Hardt and Negri, Adorno, Foucault, Marx, etc. Aleksei was very interested in they state of the academic left in the US. How much influenced they had. What is their relationship to the left in general. Natasha was from St. Petersburg and was in Moscow for the art show. She also had an exhibit of art clothing. She was part of the Petersburg portion of the collective. Lida, who I think was just along for the ride, was a psychologist. They all seemed to be interested in my research of the Komsomol. (When I tell young people that I am researching the Komsomol, they seem really interested especially since I’m looking at its first years. Older people, ie those who were in the Komsomol in the 1970s and 1980s simply ask me, “Why?” but then they proudly pull out their Komsomol or Communist party cards to show me. Old people, those in their 60s to 80s, think it is just the greatest idea in the world. As long as I tell the real story of the Komsomol, that is as the archivist in Ryazan said, the positive history.) The conversation with Aleksei, Natasha and Lida was mixture of Russian and English. It is real difficult for me to talk about such subjects in Russian.

It was a fun evening and it is nice to have some Russian friends. I told Aleksei that I was interested in writing an article for Chto Delat during my stay in Russia. He liked the idea and suggested I write something about Hardt and Negri’s new book.

Next, going to Ryazan . . .