It’s such a pleasure to continue my exploration of Uppsala, my new home city, after the interruptions of intensive travelling and Covid. I visit Upplands Konstmuseum, the Uppland art gallery, for the first time, presently located at the castle. I’ve been to the castle before but ages ago and didn’t remember how fine the view over Uppsala is from there.
I wanted especially to look at an exhibition of the work of the Russian artist Pavel Otdelnov, Promzona, which I found out about by chance (for understandable reasons, the gallery is not vigorously marketing this exhibition just now. Otdelnov has, however, been critical of the invasion but I didn’t see much about his background or standpoints at the exhibition). Otdelnov grew up in Dzerzhinsk, an industrial city, 370 km east of Moscow in the Nizhny Novgorod oblast. The city was an important centre for the chemical industry (including during a period chemicals for chemical warfare, according to the exhibition). Otdelnov’s family lived there and some of its members worked in the industry. Otdelnov describes the dangerous work where the workers were exposed to toxic gases and where explosions with fatalities were hushed up.
He also describes with letters, documents and photos the solidarity of those working at the plants.
All this came to an end (or largely came to an end, I’m not sure whether any remnants of the once extensive industrial facilities remain) with the end of the planned economy. One after another, the enterprises closed down, leaving a spectacular landscape of industrial ruins, which Otdelnov has documented in photographs and by drone.
It’s fascinating to look at the artist’s photos and films but the exhibition has a frequent fault of artists dealing with social questions. There is an attraction to the visually spectacular, and a tendency to make the worst case scenario the norm, which, in practice, leads to confirming fixed negative ideas, to prejudices rather than analysis. I suspect that a lot of the worst details about life in the plant were from the period of “High Stalinism” in the 30s and 40s. Were the workers at the plant in a better position before the Stalinist bureaucracy sat firm in the saddle? Did things improve after Stalin’s death? We are not told but the historical periods glide into one another in a confused way.
Chatting to the museum staff after viewing the exhibition (as one of the few, if not the sole viewer), I mention that it is strange that the city is still called Dzerzhinsk, presumably after Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the first Soviet secret police, the Cheka, given the extensive purge of city names associated with the Russian Revolution elsewhere. The attendant did not know who Dzerzhinsky was and I provided a short introduction (this was not on my plan for the day..).
Despite its analytical gaps, the exhibition is well worth seeing. I understand, of course, why one might feel distaste for things Russian at present. I don’t, however, share this reaction – for me the ordinary Russian people are not the perpetrators; they too are victims of the regime, not in such a dramatic and violent way as the Ukrainians but still victims. And I am not prepared to let the Putin regime dampen my interest in Russian culture and life any more that I would have made a bonfire of Goethe’s works had I been around in World War 2. We should be critical of the actions of the Putin regime but not allow ourselves to be swept away by Russophobia.
The tragedy of the current situation (as well as the destruction, killing and disruption of people’s lives in the Ukraine and the deaths of soldiers on both sides) is that this conflict has turned and will continue to turn ordinary people in the Ukraine and Russia against one another for a long time to come. Working people in Ukraine and Russia have much in common in their struggle for decent lives against the kleptocrats in Russia and crony capitalism in the Ukraine. The Putin regime bears a heavy responsibility for this but I would also argue that the US, Nato and the Ukrainian government have also contributed to the awful course of events.
The latter is probably not a popular position just now when there is an understandable surge of sympathy and solidarity with the fate of ordinary Ukrainians. But we shouldn’t let the fog of war becloud our brains. We should still think of the agenda of the various parties involved or associated with the conflict. What are the short- and long-term aims of the US government? What is in the interests of the German government and establishment? What do the Russians want? What type of regime is Russia – what conclusions can one draw if it’s not imperialist in the narrow sense? What do the leading economic forces in Ukraine want? What is in the interests of working people in the Ukraine and in Russia?