Sex of the Oppressed

Nikolay Oleynikov, St. Petersburg
March 3, 2016

Sex of the Oppressed was first published in Russian by the Marxist Free Press (2013). What follows is the author’s Foreword to the book. The English translation by Jonathan Brooks Platt will be available in early April 2016 by its Canadian publisher, PS Guelph (www.publicationstudio.biz), and by its German publisher, Archive Books (www.archivebooks.org).

 

Sex is always located between oppression and liberation, creativity and the market, coercion and choice. Right? Sex can overcome the socially, economically, and culturally conditioned boundaries of gender and class. Sex is profoundly intimate. Sex is broadly social. It seems vitally necessary for every person. (People who deny the influence of sex in their personal lives still recognize its influence on humanity as a whole.) So is it possible and is there sense in speaking about sex politically? Are sex and politics connected? What are the objective circumstances we find ourselves in now, in this historical moment, as we try to raise this question? What are our presuppositions, and how do we define ourselves as subjects? Why is sex important to us? Why is it important to ask this question here and now?

The discourse of the body, sexuality, and gender was (not) formulated in contemporary Russia under the influence of specific historical factors. It directly inherited the Soviet sexual doctrine, according to which sex appeared as a kind of “dark matter”. The pre-conditions for this doctrine disappeared along with the Soviet Union and its particular form of power distribution. But the subsequent changes, which were never properly reflected upon, led us to a situation where, twenty years later, the threat of rebellious sex is used as a scare tactic to manipulate the “Orthodox majority” (this seems to become easier to do with each passing year). The body and sensuality, excluded from the space of public discussion in the USSR, were repressed for a long time but never disappeared completely, and what we have now – this ignorant, medieval reality of new legislative projects, breaking out like a teenager’s pimples – this is precisely the result of our immoderate and thickheaded “abstinence” with regard to making sex part of the political agenda. And here there is a big difference between contemporary Russia and practically all of the rest of the world, where, over the last two hundred years or so, everything that has happened in social and political life, each new battle, has either been accompanied by the issue of sex or provoked by it, whether directly or indirectly. Every process that led to a shifting of boundaries actively included the genitals and relations between them. And in most cases each new victory, each newly liberated territory, was marked with a long shaft rising up as a challenge, and upon it red folds, flapping in the wind, sometimes red and black.

Like before, not many people fuck around with sex in Russia today, and the most interesting of those that do are on the left. Here we have Keti Chukhrov, Oxana Timofeeva, Kirill Medvedev. The Voina group and Pussy Riot. Thanks to a tangled concatenation of contradictory circumstances and objective events, radical feminists have now received a public platform, and their voices are becoming all the more audible. Hurrah! Small but steadfast groups of LGBT and queer-activists, both political and depoliticized, have also become more noticeable and have received more reasons to articulate the queer question – now “thanks” to the hysteria that the regime has consistently fueled in recent years.

Nikolay Oleynikov, Sex of the Oppressed, 2013
Nikolay Oleynikov, Sex of the Oppressed, 2013

In recent times, and in truth not only recently, we increasingly fall silent when it comes to sex, we are silent during sex, and we keep quiet afterwards. It’s a complicated topic, what can you say? We don’t like to make mistakes in public. So for the most part we keep mum. When it comes to anything else we are more or less prepared to speak, but not about sex. Even when it seems the discussion must turn directly to sex – to sexuality, to gender – we hold our tongue. We, the sharp-tongued, sharp-sighted, sharp-brained, loud-voiced creative workers, intellectuals, and activists, whose privilege consists foremost in the fact that we have a public platform, a stage, a microphone, and an exhibition space – a space for discussion. It is my contention that our silence, our failure to articulate this question, has brought about these social processes that are now descending on us from above and which we can no longer do anything about. Because it’s too late. Now we, too, must raise the question of sex from an oppressed position. And we are surprised that the repressive state apparatus is coming back into the game on the question of LGBT. Because we fucked this issue up, preferring to jerk off quietly in the corner, because we were afraid our shouts and moans would wake the neighbors, who were themselves afraid of waking us, and because we were too late, we didn’t rush to raise the question of sex creatively and politically when we should have.

Wilhelm Reich, a student of Freud, a German psychologist, sociologist, psychoanalyst, and committed leftist – was thrilled at the end of the 1920s when he learned that in the Soviet Union – where homosexuality (at that moment) was not a crime, in a country that had endured so many cataclysms, disasters, and deprivations, in the most progressive country in the world – the youth were finally receiving a full-fledged sexual education. But then, when he visited the USSR, he found out what this meant – stories about terrible venereal diseases and the propagandizing of abstinence. Instead of revolutionary liberation, the repression of sex. It’s a kind of vicious circle, no?

We’ll never be able to escape the vicious circle of patriarchal society if we don’t take up this repressed and complicated question. We need to reformulate it each time anew, make mistakes, make corrections, experiment, and look for a creative approach to sex. To insist on sex!

This book, of course, is not a theoretical work, but more like the creative field research of an artist and his close friends and acquaintances, like-minded men and women.

Here you will find four dialogues in four different registers of intimacy:

  • a kitchen conversation (almost exactly like the late-Soviet “dissident” tradition, mentioning far too many names of close and distant acquaintances, friends, and not friends)
  • an intimate correspondence
  • a police interrogation
  • an experimental interview between two close friends following the procedure of answering questions with questions.

All the participants in the project – and this is important to note – are connected to the radical leftist or radical queer circles of activists, thinkers, and creative workers. They all spend most of their time living in Moscow and, of course, they participate actively, to the utmost, in grassroots political life. Each of the participants has proved their worth in sex, in their work with it.

The book begins with a conversation with Keti Chukhrov. Keti is a philosopher, a poet, an artist, a musician, and the author of several books. In 2008 the Free Marxist Press (Moscow) and Translit (St. Petersburg) published Simply People (Prosto liudi), a collection of her dramatic poems. The plot of one of these poems, “The ‘Afghan’ Market-Kuzminki” (Afgan-Kuzminki), is tied to sex and exchange. At the moment Keti is touring with a performance based on this poem, participating in exhibitions as an artist. In 2009 Keti was one of the researchers for a landmark project – the exhibition Gender Check: Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe. The exhibition included over four hundred works created before and after the collapse of the USSR by around two hundred artists from the “Eastern bloc”.

The next dialogue is an exchange of letters with the philosopher Oxana Timofeeva. Oxana is a member of the Chto Delat collective, the author of several books, including a hefty monograph on Georges Bataille (Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2009) and the recently published History of Animals: An Essay on Negativity, Immanence and Freedom (Maastricht, 2012).

The third chapter is an interrogation, where Oleynikov takes the role of the police officer, and the prisoner is played by Grey Violet, who was an active participant in the life and actions of the Voina group and in the life and defense of Pussy Riot. Gray Violet is also the co-author of several important books and one of the most high-profile queer activists in Russia.

The fourth chapter is a discussion-conversation-interview with a friend, Kirill Medvedev, about the most painful of problems – how to be a man in our changing world. Medvedev is himself a mountain of a man. A poet, who writes ferocious erotic political poems when he falls in love. All without commas: ferocious erotic political. A translator of Bukowski, Pasolini, and a devil’s dozen of other important people. Two more projects have emerged from his practice as a translator: the Free Marxist Press and the Arkady Kots musical group, both of which do their best to fill lacunae in our knowledge of New Left discourse and the broad tradition of struggle and protest in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

In between, like a fifth chapter, are several albums of drawings by Oleynikov about sex and the political. Beginning with the covers and then over the course of the book, here and there flash strange, gaunt beings with the heads of dogs. They are oppressed, and their sex is difficult to determine. The angry maws of stray mutts, from whom you never know what to expect as their throats rattle from hunger and fury. These homeless, thin, furious beings (“hunger, anger, and joy” was a slogan on one of Oleynikov’s flags at the May 1st demonstration of anarchists and radical leftists in Moscow in 2011) are a metaphor, an image of the real political animal.

Despite thorough consideration in the so-called western context, many of the questions raised in this book are just beginning to be addressed in the Russophone world. Several controversial positions, which only appeared on the horizon in the most recent Putinist years, have already provoked intense, painful, even traumatic conflicts in the activist and intellectual communities. But several of the authors in this book believe that the real work on these painful questions begins with such conflicts and irreconcilable differences.

In 2012 the Third May Congress of Creative Workers was held in Kiev, and through the initiative of Liza Babenko (The Center for Visual Culture, Kiev) it focused on questions of gender and feminism. In Ukraine, even to a greater degree than in Russia, queer aesthetics and body politics are an uncomfortable topic for power and a red flag for the ultra-right. Exhibitions, conferences, and festivals dedicated to gender often end with real pogroms and beatings of leading Kiev intellectuals and activists.[1] So there was no doubt that the fight for a space of public dialogue on this topic should be one of the key directions for the work of the congress.[2] The official reporting of the event would begin something like this if it had happened under Brezhnev: a wide spectrum of topics was covered during the congress. However, for various reasons, the brief history of the May Congress practically ended with this. For one, because the political situation in Russia was moving many of the most active participants to focus on different tasks and tactics. Radical feminists from Kiev, Moscow, and St. Petersburg continue their struggle, of course. But for several of the authors of this book the arguments of the congress are still going, still providing an impulse for reflection. Sometimes these are controversial and paradoxical reflections. This is why they don’t sound like assertions but questions, and the same goes for the questions about what it could mean to be a “macho” feminist in the dialogue between Kirill Medvedev and Nikolay Oleynikov, questions they are asking themselves first of all.

Sex is human relations, sex is the animal in us, sex is a spiritual practice, sex is public, sex is fiercely intimate and profoundly political. It can be a commodity or it can not be a commodity, it can be an instrument of oppression or the opposite – liberation. This is why we speak about sex, insisting on sex here and now, constituting sex anew. Creatively and politically.

[1] The characteristic hatred of Ukrainian rightists was confirmed during the uprising in Kiev in the winter of 2014, when many leftist activists were beaten up on the Maidan.

[2] From 2010-2012 the congress gathered progressive creative workers together to discuss relevant topics of creative labor for forty-eight hours on the eve of May Day in Moscow. Then they marched together in the red and black column at the demonstration. In 2012 there was also a traveling session in Kiev.

Nikolay Oleynikov

Nikolay Oleynikov

Nikolay OLEYNIKOV (1976) is a Moscow based artist and activist, member of Chto Delat?, editor for the Chto Delat? newspaper, member of the editorial board of Moscow Art Magazine (2011), co-founder of the Learning Film Group and May Congress of Creative Workers, and member of the Arkady Kots band. Since 2013 Oleynikov has been a tutor at The School of Rose (School of Engaged Art Chto Delat) and a proud member of the board of ROSA’S House of  Culture, a multidisciplinary hub for new practices of engaged culture in St.Petersburg. Oleynikov is also the author of the book SEX of the OPPRESSED (FreeMarxistPress 2013, PS-Guelph 2016) and an editor for ArtsEverywhere's section on New Russian Colonialism and an upcoming series of publications entitled Tracing the Now.

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