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Russian Socialists in the Struggle for Democracy

For the past few weeks, protests for fair elections in upcoming municipal polls have become weekly in Moscow and St. Petersburg as thousands have defied authorities to attend unsanctioned rallies. The police crackdown has been particularly harsh in Moscow. Protests on July 27 and August 3 resulted in over 2000 detentions. Images of police in riot gear wrestling citizens to the ground and beating peaceful protesters were reminiscent of the mass protests against election fraud in 2011-2012.

Members of the Russian Socialist Movement, a small Marxist, anti-Stalinist organization active in the Russian left, have been participants in local electoral campaigns and in the protests. Two RSM activists, Valeria Kovelishina and Ilya Budraitskis talk about the Russian Socialist Movement, their electoral work, the protests for democracy in Russia and what they might mean for the future.

Witnessing the Collapse of Communism

Roundtable discussion marking the 30th anniversary of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Participants include Timothy Garton Ash, Bridget Kendall, and Jens Reich.

The Evictors

Around Moscow, there’s a whole industry of so-called “black creditors” — microfinance institutions (or MFOs) that swindle and seize debtors’ homes. Ivan Golunov’s investigation for Meduza has discovered that almost 500 apartments have been seized from their owners over the past five years without so much as a court order. In fact, this scheme involves more than simply “squeezing” people from their homes. It is possibly part of a wider, international money-laundering system. Here’s Meduza special correspondent Ivan Golunov on the ins and outs of this industry.

Zizek on the Soviet “empire of signs”

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I’ve been reading Slavoj Zizek‘s In Defense of Lost Causes and he has some interesting thoughts on revolutionary terror (Ch. 4, “Revolutionary Terror from Robespierre to Mao”) and Stalinism (ch. 5 ‘Stalinism Revisited, or, How Stalin Saved the Humanity of Man”).  I thought I’d share this one passage I found interesting,

The public prosecutor in the show trial against the “United Trotskyite-Zinovievite Center” published a list of those that this “Center” was planning to assassinate (Stalin, Kriov, Zhdanov . . .); this list became “a bizarre honor since inclusion signified proximity to Stalin.” Although Molotov was on good personal terms with Stalin, he was shocked to discover that he was not on the list: what could this sign mean?  Just a warning from Stalin, or an indication that soon it would be his turn to be arrested?  Here indeed, the secrets of the Egyptians were secrets also for the Egyptians themselves.  It was the Stalinist Soviet Union which was the true “empire of signs.”

A story told by Soviet linguist Eric Han-Pira provides a perfect example of the total semantic saturation of this “empire of signs,” the semantic saturation which, precisely, relies on the emptying of direct denotative meaning. For many years, when the Soviet media announced the funeral ceremonies of a member of high Nomenklatura, used a cliché formulation: “buried on Red Square by the Kremlin wall.” In the 1960s, however, because of the lack of space, most of the newly deceased dignitaries were cremated and urns with their ashes were placed in niches inside the wall itself – yet the same old cliché was used in press statements. This incongruity compelled fifteen members of the Russian Language Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences to write a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, suggesting that the phrase be modified to fit the current reality: “The urn with ashes was placed in the Kremlin wall.” Several weeks later, a representative of the Central Committee phoned the Institute, informing them that the Central Committee had discussed their suggestion and decided to keep the old formulation; he gave no reasons for this decision. According to the rules that regulate the Soviet “empire of signs,” the CC was right: the change would not be perceived as simply registering the fact that dignitaries are now cremated and their ashes placed in the wall itself; any deviation from the standard formula would be interpreted as a sign, triggering a frenzied interpretive activity. So, since there was no message to be delivered, why change things? One may oppose to this conclusion the possibility of a simple “rational” solution: why not change the formulation and add an explanation that it means nothing, that it just registers a new reality? Such a “rational” approach totally misses the logic of the Soviet “empire of signs”: since, in it, everything has some meaning, even and especially a denial of meaning, such a denial would trigger an even more frantic interpretive activity – it would be read not only as a meaningful sign within a given, well established, semiotic space, but as a much stronger meta-semantic indication that the very basic rules of this semiotic space are changing, thus causing total perplexity, panic even!