Why is there such a deafening silence when it comes to resistance and dissent in Russia—especially in the face of the regime’s recent rocket and suicide drone attacks on Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure? Beyond the government’s brutal apparatus of repression, what might be responsible for this? What does this silence say – and how polyphonic is it at most? Researcher Anastasiia Spirenkova, member of the Agitatsia group, explores these questions in a series of articles for V/A. The following first part shows the facets of the current silence in Russia, traces its cultural background and shows why in this regard it might not make sense to speak of the much-cited wall of silence – but rather of a fence.
Over the six months of Russia’s full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, the international artistic and university community has begun to rethink the legacy of Russian culture and, more broadly, the culture created in Russian-speaking groups and communities. At the same time, both inside and outside of Russia, a lack of language, a lack of words to describe the war and violence that is taking place, has manifested. The reasons for this scarcity vary: some people are constrained by horror or fear, others do not consider it possible to describe what is happening by using outdated vocabulary. This, following the new Russian court practice forbidding the uttering the very word “war” regarding what’s happening in Ukraine right now has led the various parties and participants in the events, both active and passive, to fall into silence. This first part of a series of articles, seeks to understand how silence now works in the space of Russian art and culture.
Silence in Russian can be expressed with two different meanings: molchanie for silence as an absence of words, and tishina for quietude, silence as an absence of sounds. What is of interest here is mostly the first one: someone non-speaking, someone being deprived from speaking (or writing), someone consciously keeping silent, or something being suppressed. From a linguistic point of view we have to distinguish and pay attention to the speaker and the recipient of this (non)uttered silence. It is also necessary to distinguish between a constative silence—a silence that describes a reality—and a performative silence: a silence that may change reality. And we have to clarify if everything that is called “silent” really is silent? For Mikhail Bakhtin “breaking silence [tishina] with sound is mechanical and physiological (as a condition of perception)”, in contrast with “breaking silence [molchanie] with words [that] is personal and meaningful: it is a completely different world”. He also points out that “silence [molchanie] is possible only in the human world (and only for humans)”.
As Michael Gorham, the author of “After Newspeak, Language Culture and Politics in Russia from Gorbachev to Putin” (2014) noticed, silence in Russian culture was often opposed to an excessive use of language and redundant speaking, such as “wordiness” (mnogoglagolanie), which in a way also became—in a form of a huddling/cluttering (zabaltyvanie) and “whataboutism”—a classic propaganda technique. Gorham adds that Russian folklore broadly “celebrates verbal moderation, paucity, or restraint,” which leads to “the balancing act between action and words.” Silence, thus, could manifest action in contrast to pointless babbling. This dichotomy has its roots in the Byzantine tradition. As Mikail Epstein reminds us, that “fundamental to Eastern Christian mysticism and asceticism was «mental doing»: the perpetual inner utterance of prayer that brings the mind into a state of complete silence [bezmolvie, same as molchanie]. Hesychasm (literally “silence” [bezmolvie]), a teaching that emerged among the Athonite monks in the 14th century, is essentially the discipline of silence-through-speech, that is, the uttering of the inner word of prayer, which is being itself and excludes outward speech, the action of language”.
For the philosopher Mikhail Yampolsky this overload of words and information is a flux, which he considers to be an important component of contemporary culture. Yampolsky also coined the term “park of culture” for the phenomenon of the coexistence of violence and an immense cultural boom in Moscow. New cultural venues in the capital of Russia under supervision of the Head of Moscow’s Department of Culture Sergey Kapkov, such as Gogol-center, the Documentary Film Center, Garage Contemporary art museum, newly reconstructed Gorky Park and other Moscow parks, and transformed municipal libraries, were functioning at the same time and on the same streets where protesting citizens were brutally detained by the police and OMON units and where a great number of film screenings or exhibition openings were interrupted and even ended by pro-Kremlin activists. In 2018 Yampolsky wrote: “The park of culture is permeated by flows—flows of people, information, communication, a stream of Facebook feed, words and images (photographs). This textual mass is not neutral, it creates a kind of ecosystem in itself, capable of producing a homogeneity effect. Facebook is a supermodel of this flow, in which messages about arrests and searches fall into a general flow with selfies, kitties, children, pictures of food, poems and articles about culture.” This was the phenomenon observed in the Russian capital after the annexation of Crimea—years before the beginning of the full-scale war in Ukraine.
After 24 February 2022, the Russian intelligentsia or so called cultural “elite” started to question what is ethically appropriate to say or write: when it is better to keep silent and to whom the floor should be given during ongoing discussions on social media. It was not only about the choice whether Ukrainians or Russians should be able to speak but also concerned Russians themselves. Tensions between different opinions about one’s right to stay silent or one’s right to speak also emerged between Russians who left the country (either long before 24 February or right after) and the ones who stayed. Now the debate continues between those who left the country early because they disapproved of the war in general and the ones who left Russia only after the start of “partial” mobilization on 21 September 2022, which threatened personal involvement in the war. Driven by guilt and the preceived inability to personally stop the war as citizens of a country-aggressor, many wanted to simply disappear (a desire previously evoked in articles on V/A) or to remain silent.
The need for a new vocabulary is shared not only by Russian culture professionals. One of the co-founder and curator of the antiwarcoalition.art project, Antonina Stebur, admits: “Since 24 February I have been experiencing a kind of numbness of language where I simply lack the words to describe what is happening: on a personal level, I lack vocabulary and theory; on a political level, political practice is not working well enough; international institutions are not coping with the challenges that are constantly arising. There is a lot of stalling and slowing down.” An art curator from Belarus, Stebur became a double refugee, first from Minsk; then from Kyiv. Now she works on the Antiwar coalition project together with her Ukrainian colleagues Natasha Chichasova and Tatiana Kochubinskaya and teaches at Berlin University of the Arts.
At the same time, for many Ukrainians the silence of Russians seemed to be a founding basis of the war. Anna Koriagina, a film festival coordinator and programmer from Ukraine, wrote: “Many people call the Russians who come out to the anti-mobilization demonstrations ‘brave.’ Let’s not forget that these ‘brave’ people remained silent for 7 months while their army was killing the Ukrainian people. Their silence is an accomplice, even the key element of this war.” In this case, silence becomes not only an action, but an indulgence for mass murders and violence. Many voices within the Ukrainian community demand that cultural events organized by Russian institutions or funded with Russian money and also events featuring Russian artists, musicians and filmmakers are cancelled. In other words: There is a demand to mute Russian culture—to turn it silent. The counterargument to such a call is often that by muting Russian cultural practitioners altogether, the voices of Russian opponents to the war would also cease to be heard. There is, however, a paradox here: the call for the cancellation of events is particularly strong in cases where the Russian artist has not expressed his attitude to the war in any way, i.e., when he is already silent. If we multiply the cancellation of such performances by an individual silence about the war, we just get compounded silence.
In addition to the absence of spoken or written words (molchanie), we may also think of silence as the absence of sound (tishina). As music critic Yaroslav Timofeev notes in an essay from 2021: “By uttering the word “silence” we break silence. Today you will not hear a single second of absolute silence. It is unattainable within the earth’s atmosphere.” He also reminds us that John Cage’s famous “4’33”” is often “described as silent, but the author’s intention was the opposite: it is a parable about the impossibility of silence.” Timofeev’s text was written for “Sound Up Silence,” a performative concert by composer Dmitri Kourliandski that was presented in Moscow in October 2021. This project explaining the phenomenon of silence in music and followed by pieces by Cage, Mozart, Haydn, Webern, Zagny and Kourliandski was one of many cultural events devoted to silence that started in Russia way before February 2022. Dmitri Kourliandski inserted silence into Cage’s “4’33””—in the middle of the piece one of the musicians stands up and walks away. Isn’t it one more example of possible compounded silence? Were these performances and exhibitions an anticipation of a “bigger” silence? If the absolute absence of sound is impossible, is it the same for the absolute absence of words? And how does this apply to ongoing discussion of silence all over the Russian state, in private and independent cultural institutions and in various Russian communities?
For instance, Garage Museum, one of the biggest contemporary art museums in Russia, published “an announcement in the light of current events” two days after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, according to which “the team decided to stop work on all exhibitions until the human and political tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine has ceased.” However they continued to host some forms of public events, master-classes and guided city tours with a focus on inclusive programs and events for kids. Moreover, Anne Imhof’s exhibition that was initially planned for Garage museum became “the basis” for a Imhof’s show that has just opened at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In the middle of June 2022 Garage journal announced a call for papers for their special issue “On Behalf of Silence” focusing on silence as a form of resistance. Earlier the same month Garage announced the second season of public events held in Silence—a spatial installation by Polish artist Paweł Althamer. That installation was opened on a square outside the museum a year ago in 2021.
The independent literary and theoretical journal Translit published its June issue with the title “No More Words”. Its editor-in-chief, Pavel Arsenev, rightly observes that the very fact of publishing 143 pages of the magazine about silence and the absence of words, is in fact a performative act. In recent months, the theme of silence has also emerged in niche independent projects. On the T-shirts of the “Russian anguish” (Toska Rosii) project by Pavel Yutyaev, for example, an artist from Novosibirsk, appear the following inscriptions: “Silence is gold / Silence is evil” (Molchanie zoloto / Molchanie zlo) and “No words” (Net slov). Silence is also a motif in the world of art galleries and art fairs. Karina Barabanova’s series of drawings, which were exhibited at the Cosmoscow commercial art fair, reproduce fish lying on the market counter with the following inscriptions: “No words,” “Let [us] go,” “Sorry for swearing,” and “Hope.” Forbes Russia describes the situation in the Russian art market with the title “Time of hate and silence.” The article is followed by the comment of the founder of Lumiere Brothers Photography gallery Natalia Litvinskaya: “It is a time of silence today. There are some sales, but very insignificant. The current situation affects everyone.”
Certain is that the notion of silence has come to the forefront of the Russian cultural landscape. The scene of Russian culture institutions has changed dramatically in these past few months. A wide range of artistic directors and heads of state theaters and museums that didn’t support the war were either fired—or they resigned . For the rest of their colleagues who haven’t openly supported the invasion, it’s just a question of time. They keep silent for now, but it won’t be possible for long. A former PR-manager of Meyerhold center (TSIM), Sofa Kruglikova, admitted as much in her comment for Novaya Gazeta Europe: “[S]ilence was a shield that would allow us to keep doing our thing. We have heard many times that it is important to keep doing performances. But now there are no longer measures of silence: you either actively support and do what you are told, or you don’t exist.” Theater critic Marina Davydova feels the same: “Unlike construction workers, pilots, flight attendants or cashiers, cultural workers operate with meanings and ideas. It is their privilege and at the same time their responsibility. They have no right to go on writing reviews or putting on plays without having formulated their position on the main question of our present life. All other meanings they work on are, pardon the pun, meaningless in this situation of silence”.
It seems that at the time of the biggest war in Europe since WWII, silence became a crossroads where polar opposing sides came together. But not to unite everyone in a common wave of silence. On the contrary—we may observe constant talks about silence (which already may seem like an oxymoron), calls for silence, accusations in silence, silence of despair or silence of fear. Although there were periods in history, where a “wall of silence” may have been erected— the current situation in Russia, while the war in Ukraine goes on, might be better described with the metaphor of a “fence of silence”; where all sides look at each other, trying to define when silence is needed—and whether it may be appropriate or instead inadmissible.
Silence has its moment during dramatic events in history—as well as long-term traumatic experiences. In “Mafiacraft,” a study on silence and the Sicilian mafia, ethnographer Deborah Puccio-Den called the mafia “a cognitive event shaped by silence, a performative non-speech act fed by the endless process of questioning it produces.” In today’s Russia instead of the mafia we may call the war the same kind of “cognitive event shaped by silence.” It probably has to do with the long tradition that we may call “half silencing”.
In recent years a number of aspects of Russian life were reflected in public discourse as simultaneously existing and non-existing. Thus, the quarantine applied by Russian authorities during the first waves of the COVID-19 pandemic was never called by its name. Alongside government restrictions a “self-isolation regime” [samoizolatsia] was proclaimed, which actually kills two birds with one stone. First, the responsibility is turned from the authorities towards the citizens. Second, all kinds of legal consequences such as insurance payments or state compensations cannot be applied because there is no pandemic, as now there is no “war,” just a “special military operation.” This half-suppression of a huge social event has given rise to a joke : “At this moment in Moscow, there is gradual increase in the total suspension of the partial removal of the temporary ban on quarantine measures”.
The same kind of partial silencing or a particular way of denial we may see in the statement of the head of Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov, who claimed a total absence of homosexual people (and therefore the absence of their repressions) in the Republic: “We don’t have such kind of people. We don’t have homosexuals.” Years later, at the moment of an obvious depletion of Russian army manpower resources, Kadyrov called heads of Russian federal regions to start “self-mobilization,” explaining that there is no need to wait for an official call from the president, that each region has to provide at least one thousand volunteer soldiers to the army. In the end, when mobilization was officially announced by Putin, it appeared with a label “partial,” which again we may interpret as a half-suppressed, half-existing. To draw a parallel with an iconic book, it’s not the Dark Lord “Who Must Not Be Named” but the “Quarantine That Must Not Be Named,” the “War That Must Not Be Named,” the “Mobilization That Must Not Be Named.” Contemporary Russia becomes a land of non-uttered facts, events and phenomena. Walking in the fog of silence, the moment you say anything you may disappear. But in order to reach other galaxies you have to break this silence—if they will accept your signal.