Ukrainian Echoes in Dubai – Intellectu(m)al Action At The Emirates Literature Festival

emirates literature festivalAs a neophyte political theorist currently residing in the UAE, the recent developments in Ukraine initially forced me to consider two questions:

  • To what extent the collective picture we get, reflects the personal story/experience of the local population?
  • What does the event of the protests show about the overall political structure there?

So to my astonishment, I found myself in a taxi getting on the Marrakech Street towards the InterContinental Hotel where the Emirates Literature Festival was taking place (March 4th – 8th ). One of the prominent themes of the festival was the Individual Voice especially if one considers the work of Kate Adie and Orlando Figes – the latter agreed to talk to me in a clearly British fashion over tea and biscuits. Overall, the Festival hosted a multitude of talks, seminars, panels and book presentations where one hundred fifty authors interacted with the public. Nevertheless, the subject matter of personal history and political oppression stood out throughout my two-day visit. Albeit, I found myself at a literary-fair, I was politically charged and rightfully so, since Ukraine was mentioned a couple times during the panel “Change Happens – It’s History” and not only. Therefore, this article aims at the prioritization of the personal narrative in critical times and its exploration as opposed to political action, where main points of references will be the book “Just Send Me Word” – including the author’s interview – and the current political development in Ukraine from the perspective of political theory.

 

“Just Send Me Word”: When I Got Word from Orlando Figes

 

The first presentation I attended was essentially about a love story from Pechora gulag (1946-1954) “Just Send Me Word” by the British Historian Orlando Figes, which has been “fossilized” in the form of 1,246 letters exchanged between Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanova. Yet, through the omnipresence of love the reader can easily get a feel of the actual time these letters were written – a unique characteristic for primary sources of that period – as well as draw conclusions about the importance of demonstrating character in dreadful conditions. The particular historian’s efforts to reconstruct the actual “experience” of a political prisoner during the Soviet period, the written account of it by Lev and Svetlana and the fact that the couple passed away carry not only historical but political significance as well.  The political dimension comes in place because the Gulag experience was a collective experience, influencing both the prisoners and their “network of support” but at the same time it has a particular subjectivity preserved in the letters. In the language of Alain Badiou “Man’s true character is revealed in his immortality – his subjectivity”2 and such revelations occur only during the event, which for Badiou force the state to reveal “its excess of power, its repressive dimension.”3 According to my interpretation, the Gulag-experience constitutes such an event, while Ukraine does not. However, before comparing the literary-fair with the Ukrainian turmoil, further elaboration on each “event” is necessary.

 

The book presentation included an extensive background of the project, a reading of letters that illuminated the different personal qualities of the couple, but most importantly three questions were latently present throughout the talk.

  • Why was Professor Figes drawn to these letters? Or why should anybody care for that matter?
  • What did these letters revealed about the period and the internal network of the Pechora gulag?
  • What can we learn from strong characters who endured inhumane treatment during political uncertainty?

 

As I could infer from the presentation and the interview, one of the reasons why this book came into being was the necessity to preserver Lev’s and Svetlana’s individual voices not so much for posthumous fame as for their exemplary defiance of the condition they were thrown into and despite all odds, survived. As Professor Figes told me later on:

 

“The reason why I write is to reconstruct the perspectives of those real characters […] and let the reader, as in a civil court setting, decide for himself.”

His response made me think of the complexities of such reconstructions and prompted me to ask him about the nature of meaningful action. He didn’t reply straight away. After a short silence he started:

In history anything the historian chooses to highlight is action.I interruptedbut meaningful for others, he continued: Action always involves thought and as a historian I reconstruct the thoughts that were involved in that period.

 

Of course when a historian converses with a political theorist same concepts have de facto different meaning, nevertheless his comment revealed an important insight. As a historian, Professor Figes chose to exercise “the revelatory quality of speech and action [which] comes to the fore when people are with others and neither for nor against them.”4 Hence, the attempt to create a public space and truly get to know the people involved – in this case Lev and Svetlana – comes solely after interacting with them through articulation. I was surprised by the humbleness of Professor Figes who admitted that “You read their letters, visit the Gulag and you think you know everything about them but when you actually meet them you realize that you don’t.” I was taken aback but again this mirrors the intrinsic complexities of the personal narrative.

 

The significance of the individual voice was omnipresent at the panel “Change Happens – It’s History” but more importantly, the underlying theme of the panelists was political action. And here, the most appropriate definition of political action comes from the work of Hannah Arendt, who supported that “finding the right words at the right moment, quite apart from the information or communication they may convey, is action.”5

 

The actual question addressed to Orlando Figes during the panel was:

What is the role of a Historian the female facilitator had asked.

Orlando Figes:

To show the experience of history or for that matter the experience of chaos […] which the revolution feels like […] also to understand that the meaning of history is both intellectual and emotional as the way people held each other across the barber line cannot be merely understood but must be felt as well, I paraphrased.

Recalling his response at the panel an hour ago, I asked him whether he believed that social efforts can be swallowed by violence.

Orlando Figes:

I don’t agree that violence can overcome the voices and people’s actual efforts, as culture (encompasses) space, language, the ideas we live by… “Too much to suppress,” I continued.

 

Political action is strongly correlated to the existence of a network, which was emphasized throughout the letters of Lev and Svetlana. Furthermore, going back to the question of why prioritizing individual voices matters for all of us, points us again towards political action. In other words, only through understanding one specific perspective, we can eventually appreciate the necessity of a network and the complexity of the “whole” true picture. In Lev’s case his network was comprised by friends and relatives who helped him smuggle these letters and even get Svetlana in Pechora not once but four times – an incident of severe political risk nonetheless. But the network-mentality requires a cautious approach. I asked him two questions regarding this issue. The first one was whether this informal web of friendships so vital for the survival of many prisoners cultivated the culture of corruption that is still so very present in both Russia and Ukraine. While my second question referred to the situation between the private and the public divide today in Russia and whether it carried any political significance. Since we were pressured for time Professor Figes combined the two questions in one reply.

 

Absolutely, the ‘blat’ or connections has a reference to the Gulag system and because the shades of networking are complex the mistrust is widespread among the people [regarding] the public sphere. Since 1991 the experiences of the camp has been influencing their belief systems and behavior both socially and politically (a point he emphasized during our tea-talk as well) however, there are new means available today for creating public sphere.”

 

The final point of the “Just Send Me Word” presentation was a short clip of the aged couple – Lev and Svetlana – which was recorded in 2008. The translator asked Svetlana why did she choose to marry Lev?  Her reply was both humorous and insightful:

I didn’t know him that well then [laughter and a short pause] but if I had to choose one characteristic that drew me towards him that would be “Надежность (which in Russian is a mixture of trustworthiness, reliability, and security)

 

Instead of Conclusion: My Word

 

After everything was said and done, both the panelists (among them Professor Figes in a simple dark-blue shirt, blue jeans and brown shoes) and the audience rushed to get their books signed or take a stroll outside under the Dubai sun. I stood at the queue, got the book signed and thanked the author for his time and his comments. However, as I was looking over my notes on the taxi-ride back to my apartment in the desert I was still thinking of Ukraine and the three initial questions were hovering over my head like two swords of Damocles: What is political action? Why the personal narrative matters?

 

The slogan of the Emirates Literature Festival was “Be Inspired. Be Transformed. Be There.” I found it apt, as after listening to the stories I felt definitely inspired and confident that prioritizing our own narrative in relation to our political/economic/social conditions prepares us to commit political acts or regrettably, let others do it for us. Still, as I pondered the above mentioned questions, I looked outside the window as the taxi driver was preparing for a turn on the Marrakech Street. The InterContinental Hotel was an unusual public place and of course its public access was short-lived. At that moment Ukraine came back to me along with the Ancient Greeks. According to them, anything that stems from necessity destroys political life altogether as it destroys the “human ability to act in concert.”6 However the network-structure supplies an alternative as it still orchestrates behavior, but what kind of action is possible in Ukraine?

During the Q&A section after the panelists’ (Kate Adie, John McCarthy and Orlando Figes) discussion, somebody from the audience asked:

“According to you what is the potential of social media for historical change?”

All the panelists got instantly animated and Kate Adie replied:

The so called social media …make more noise than anything else. Actual social efforts don’t change history as violence overcomes the voices.”

This is an important comment as it clearly demonstrates skepticism among the mainstream enthusiasm about social-media, which has been exceptionally loud at the discussions regarding EuroMaidan. In spite of her skepticism though, I disagree with her as social efforts reflect the very course of historical/political action. The EuroMaidan protests started as peaceful demonstrations against Yanukovich’s denial to promote his country in the EU sphere of interest. However, that decision stroke a sensitive chord for a portion of Ukraine’s population, which associated EU partnership with general prosperity and political improvement. Undoubtedly, what ensued offers an important insight of the public sphere’s nature in Ukrainian society. They claimed it through social media and “orchestrated” specific political actions, such as:

the strike by students of the Kiev-Mogilyansky Academy who are demanding the repeal of the anti-democratic Yanukovich laws, but who are not joining with the ultra-rightwing warriors on Independence Square.”7

The recent developments in Ukraine show that under no circumstances should a political event be mistaken for political action. If in the event of Gulag, which “vanishes as soon as it appears” according to Badiou, offers the space for Man (Lev Mishchenko) to show his true character and subjectivity, EuroMaidan offers an identification with the collective and projects the infinite character of situations.8 The violence that erupted shows exactly to what extend the situation can deteriorate. However, for an event that started on 21st of November 2012, EuroMaidan has shown a different perspective of “networking”, which can mobilize solidarity due to the desire for a positive change. But yet, the “Надежность” that comes from people’s interactions shrunk since the bright people in Ukraine, like Bohdan Solchanyk9 a 29 year-old PhD student, have been killed. But yet, the core of βίος πολιτικός (political way of life according to Aristotle) is the interaction of people in a particular public space in order to be able to “see the same thing from various standpoints in the human world.”10 The Independence Square will never be the same again nor for that matter any social network platform with a “Maidan” hashtag because the participants saw the same thing – the promise of “Надежность.

  1. As Peter Hallward reminds us in his introduction to Alain Badiou work Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, (New York: Verso, 2001), xi. Electronically available at:  http://www.aeogea.com/pdf_library/books/1089841438_badiou-ethics-an-essay-on-the-understanding-of-evil.pdf
  2. Thomas A. Huddleston, “Towards A Politics of Truths: The Political Theory of Alain Badiou,” CUREJ – College Undergraduate Research Journal University of Pennsylvania, (Spring 2009), 49. http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1123&context=curej
  3. Alain Badiou, Theoretical Writings, 153.
  4. Eli Zaretsky, “Hannah Arendt and the meaning of the Public/Private Division” in Hannah Arendt and the Meaning of Politics ed. by Craig Calhoun and John McGowan (London: University of Minnessota Press, 1997),223.
  5. Ed. Peter Baehr, The Portable Hannah Arendt, (New York: Penguin Group, 2000),184.
  6. Hannah Arendt, On Violence, (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1970), 52.
  7. Boris Kagarlitsky, “A Quadrille of Monsters,” http://links.org.au/node/3734
  8. Alain Badiou, Theoretical Writings, 155.
  9. Mykola Riabchuk, “Revolution In Ukraine: Take Three” Eurozine: http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2014-02-28-riabchuk-en.html
  10. Hannah Arendt, “Introduction into Politics” in Jerome Kohn ed. The Promise of Politics (New York:

    Schocken Books 2005), 168.

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