In the third and final part of her series of essays for V/A, researcher Anastasiia Spirenkova examines how Russian writers and poets like Viktor Pelevin, Naum Bleek and others view silence as a powerful means of self-reflection and protest. Spirenkova also discusses the role of silence in contemporary Russian theater—and its use of silence to foster intense communication. Spirenkova thus reflects on the dynamic nature of silence, demonstrating how its function can change depending on the context and the individuals involved, highlighting its transformative potential both on an individual as well as on a collective level.
“That’s a nightmare”; “I still can’t believe that it’s happening, it looks like a horrible dream”—in the year since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine we often heard such reactions. And yet, the motive of dreaming has been a feature of Russian writers and poets for many years.
“It turned out that all scandals and misunderstandings were preventable by falling asleep at the very beginning of the conversation… In general, it transpired that no matter what kind of human activity Nikita tried to adapt himself to, difficulties existed only up to the moment when he fell asleep,” wrote Viktor Pelevin in his short story Sleep! in 1991. The protagonist of the story, a young man named Nikita, discovers that all of society, including his family and himself, are constantly asleep. This condition does not interfere with people’s work, studies, or use of public transport. As long as everyone is dreaming, the social system continues to function on inertia. The main goal of sleeping is not to talk about anything problematic or questionable, anything that stands out from the homogenic structure of the community. In other words: when one sleeps, one keeps silent. Nikita, however, feels lonely and begins to wonder what people around him dream about. He even approaches a woman on the street and tries to wake her up: “I know that normal people don’t talk about it. Maybe I’m not normal. But haven’t you ever wanted to talk about it yourself? […] Look, let me poke you with a pin! Why didn’t I guess…Would you like one?” Finally Nikita finds the source of his hesitation: a pin that fell in his shoe.
Words are often perceived as something pungent, prickly, and piercing by Russian authors. Reflecting on the war and his emigration from Russia, poet and rapper Naum Bleek from Yekaterinburg wrote: “I couldn’t stand the sight of this picture, so I left my home and lost everything, but the pin of my tongue remained [emphasis by the author]” In his verses from 2022 the subject of silence constantly comes up. We see that Bleek also contrasts speaking with sleeping. His lines implore listeners to cherish a friend “if his sight is not a poison, if his heart is alive, if he speaks – not sleeps, even if he’s beaten up.” For Bleek silence is a question of choice: “A voice or a reticence, you’d better choose and not be late, whether you’re a dance or a tank.” Silence also appears as a sign of personal crisis and inability to find the right words: “I keep silent for months like a stone that you’re too lazy to remove from the road”; as a product of public expectations: “I could have been silent quieter”;or as an undesirable condition: “The world is now in trouble, it won’t be forever, the evil seal will fall, I don’t want to be silent.” Meanwhile silence still can be a way to cherish words right for the moment and to use them wisely: “certainly one shouldn’t tell nobody the main things…save clear words, otherwise the listeners will execute them anyway by hugging in their bosh.”
Indeed when we hear appeals for waking up they mainly refer to self-reflection, to break up silence. In 1904 Leo Tolstoy started his anti-war manifesto “Bethink yourselves!” against the Russo-Japanese war with the idea of the dream (translated by V. Tchertkoff and I.F.M. NYT, July 10th, 1904):
“Again war. Again sufferings, necessary to nobody, utterly uncalled for; again fraud; again the universal stupefaction and brutalization of men. […] What can this be? Is it a dream or a reality? Something is taking place which should not, cannot be; one longs to believe that it is a dream and to awake from it. But no, it is not a dream, it is a dreadful reality!”
Silence can be imagined as a collective spell cast on a town or a village. One anonymous author, who published his poem in the first issue of ROAR (Russian Oppositional Arts Review) in April 2022, tells the story of his mother, who, judging by the context, lives somewhere in occupied Donbas and holds pro-Russian attitudes: “My mother lives on the border. They had bombs falling and she had a heart attack after I told her on the phone that what was happening was criminal, that silence was complicity, and that I had bought a ticket out of the country to Central Asia because now it was dangerous for me to stay here.” Silence has become a point of fracture in the family. The author describes the village where his mother lives, and which she has refused to leave despite his desperate pleas, as a space shrouded in silence: “In the village, silence is fear. It is conjured up by the television in every house, the barking of dogs in the yard and the shouting across the road: ‘where to?’, ‘I’m going over there’, ‘then yes’, ‘yes, aha’. Like mold on an old veranda, over and over again silence treads green across the paint and everything becomes defenseless and naked.” Silence is a viscous space, like quicksand or a swamp, from which one cannot escape: “And, sometimes, someone comes to the edge of the village, listens to the silence, looks at the alabai [a dog], feels defenseless and naked, and begins the old, old song that everything there [in the West] is bad, imported and full of GMO [Genetically Modified Organisms], that our strawberries are the best, and on television Putin and fortune-tellers spell silence, they save us all, and what about grass, grass? And the song brings us back to earth, the song saves – silence kills“.
However, silence can also be a collective effort of critically reflecting reality. Vsevolod Lisovsky, for example, a renowned experimental theater-maker who fled Russia recently after two consecutive arrests, seized on the subject of silence. In 2016 he created a project called Silence on a Given Topic, where one actor and the audience keep silent for one hour without using physical contact or looking at smartphones. According to the director the project appeared to be a “quite viable model” and even went on tour throughout Russia and abroad. It was a space of an intensive communicative exchange. Lisovsky explained: “This is by no means meditation. You don’t meditate in a theater, you have to meditate elsewhere. And we’re not promising that this silence reveals some special intimate meaning. We’re not idiots. Nor are we crooks. I cannot call this thing an innovation in 2015. It is precisely a performance. An entertainment event. Providing a service to the public. We provide this population with a scarce commodity – silence…We ourselves are curious to see how the actor will manage to play a reflection on the subject without opening his mouth or falling into pantomime.” I’ve previously discussed how silence may work as a catalyst for communication in reference to Daria Serenko’s #silentpicket (2016-2017; 2022 — ongoing), but in Lissovsky’s performance, created in the same year as #silentpicket, silence is constituting the entire process of communication: very intense and emotional communication.
Through the years Lisovsky kept thinking about silence, especially after the beginning of the war in Ukraine. In December 2022, during his public talk for Polit.ru, he shared his latest reflections: “Now, due to the fact that the zone of silence is getting bigger, there is more and more desire to talk, in particular about what we are forbidden to talk about…When a certain zone of silence arises, it, like a black hole, becomes a gravitational center, a center of attraction, and gravitational lines are built around it. So the bigger the black hole, the bigger the gravitational lines.” As it happens with some taboo topics or words, silence may produce the Streisand effect — a certain communicative blast. Words restrained by state or self-censure or by personal emotional incapacity will come out at some point; however, the question remains when and where they will pop out—if they’re in the world, or if they will just explode unspoken in one’s head. As we know from Lisovsky’s interview for Holod, he was preparing a cabaret with artist Irina Korina, poet Andrey Rodionov, and actress and director Katya Troyepolskaya during his last months as a member of the “Chronicles” art group. In Trash Songs, or Just Don’t Talk About Her everything is constructed around the “reticence of a key event.” According to Lisovsky, all current life in Moscow visually seems “completely normal”: “There are no external reminders of war…it is boring and uninteresting to talk about. The war is present purely as a figure of reticence. And we wanted to work with that feeling.” After Lisovsky left Russia, it was not clear whether this idea would work outside the zone of silence and whether the cabaret would be produced somewhere else—and if it would, what form it would take.
It turns out that silence does not only depend on its speaker, who is non-uttering a statement in a certain context and circumstances and having a certain interlocutor or recipient, but that silence has its own dynamics. For every person the motives of silence may change (for better or for worse), being a result of a personal struggle, protest, fear, or self-preservation. Silence is dynamic in a collective dimension as well. If one is muted because of an ongoing nightmare, maybe the other feels the same. If one cannot get out of the spell of silence and wake up, maybe a community can do it. Silence becomes a crucial variable that changes the equation. That’s why the demands and expectations concerning silence may seem vague or ambivalent. That’s why sometimes it’s hard to say whether silence is something one should keep or break.