Redak­tion „novinki“

Hum­boldt-Uni­ver­sität zu Berlin
Sprach- und lite­ra­tur­wis­sen­schaft­liche Fakultät
Institut für Slawistik
Unter den Linden 6
10099 Berlin

“We Don’t Leave Our People Behind (Only Their Bodies)” – an Inter­view with the ​​Founder of “Party of the Dead”

Das rus­si­sche Kol­lektiv “Party of the Dead” (russ. Par­tija mërtvyh) im Inter­view bei novinki am 11. März 2022. Wir spra­chen über die Zeit “vor” und “nach” dem Krieg, die jet­zigen Pro­test­be­we­gungen und dar­über, was die “Toten” zu sagen haben.

novinki: Thank you so much for spon­ta­ne­ously agre­eing to this inter­view. Recently there have been many re-posts of con­tent from the Rus­sian artist collec­tive Party of the Dead (Par­tija Mërtvyh on social media net­works like Insta­gram and Face­book), and we wanted to talk to you per­so­nally about your work and the war. To be honest, we weren’t really sure what awaited us today, if we would talk to people who are living or dead.

Party of the Dead: [Laug­hing] Well, you are tal­king to someone who is half-dead…or half-alive. Or to someone who is neither alive nor dead.

novinki: How long has your collec­tive existed for?

PD:The collec­tive has existed since the begin­ning of 2017. It began as just a joke, and then it slowly turned into some­thing real.

novinki: Were there any poli­tical signals, or why in 2017? Is this year con­nected with the peak of civil resistance?

PD: It just hap­pened that easily. In 2017 the collec­tive {rodina} still existed, and Party of the Dead appeared under their influ­ence, stres­sing and ampli­fying themes that had existed before in the art of {rodina}, like the con­nec­tions bet­ween death, poli­tics, and des­pair. Party of the Dead just extended these ten­den­cies to their logical conclusions.

novinki: Where did Party of the Dead originate?

PD: There are two main loca­tions, Saint Peters­burg and Tomsk. Saint Peters­burg is the core loca­tion of Party of the Dead. We mostly do dif­fe­rent kinds of actions in Saint Peters­burg, and in some way we orga­ni­cally fit into the local necro­phile con­text of the city. The other place, which in my mind is actually more mea­ningful for Party of the Dead, is the Sibe­rian town of Tomsk, where the Immortal Regi­ment emerged. Our idea about the walk with skulls, our first action, was a reac­tion to the Immortal Regi­ment.

novinki: So there seem to be layers of dif­fe­rent dis­courses here, such as the 9th of May with the Immortal Regi­ment, as well as art move­ments like the Necro­rea­lists of the 1990s. What is your con­nec­tion to the Necro­rea­list move­ment, other art collec­tives like the Israeli pro­ject Buried Alive – which was sup­po­sedly founded by Rus­sian emi­grants – or the older Rus­sian cos­mism move­ment from the end of the 19th century?

PD: The Immortal Regi­ment ori­gi­nated in Tomsk at the initia­tive of local jour­na­lists and the media sta­tion TB‑2, and within just one year it grew into some­thing big. Then it was appro­priated by the state, the Immortal Regi­ment was taken away from the initia­tors, TB‑2 was des­troyed and an alter­na­tive ver­sion of the ori­gins of the Immortal Regi­ment appeared, men­tio­ning Tyumen ins­tead of Tomsk as the place of origin. According to this ver­sion, it was a poli­ceman who had a dream of star­ting it.

Now, about Necro­rea­lism: we do some­times refer to Necro­rea­lism, as for us it is a mea­ningful phe­no­menon of the past. We are not con­ti­nuing this tra­di­tion, but it is surely con­nected to Saint Peters­burg as a cul­tural topos. One could maybe say that we push the poli­tical radi­ca­liz­a­tion of the Necro­rea­lists for­ward, some­thing that at one point I started cal­ling Necroac­ti­vism. It is an alter­na­tive to Necro­rea­lism, which merely records the state of death and decay. Necroac­ti­vism doesn’t just record that state, but poli­ti­cizes or even revo­lu­tio­nizes it.

Addi­tio­nally, the ethical dimen­sion of Cos­mism is really important for me. That fee­ling of guilt before the dead and neces­sity of jus­tice, not just for the living ones, but also for the dead. I deve­loped the fol­lowing for­mula: Party of the Dead is cos­mism with a minus symbol. For Party of the Dead, there is no resur­rec­tion, no immor­ta­lity; on the con­trary, we pro­pa­gate a free, uni­versal death.

Con­cer­ning Buried Alive: I encoun­tered them rela­tively recently, in 2020, as we took part in the same exhi­bi­tion. Our work was placed in the same room, and we com­ple­mented each other. On one side, there was Party of the Dead; on the other side, Buried Alive.

novinki: Wow, that is fasci­na­ting, we didn’t know there were such direct ties. The other point of refe­rence we were thin­king of when seeing your work is obviously Rus­sian con­cep­tua­lism, which also ope­rated with actions, slo­gans and pos­ters. Are you refer­ring to conceptualism?

PD: Well, yes, there is of course a lot of con­cep­tua­lism in what we are doing, in the con­stant use of text, the pre­pa­ra­tion of poli­tical text. But I wouldn’t say that we have direct ties or a direct rela­ti­onship to con­cep­tua­lism. On the other hand, though, there recently was an exhi­bi­tion in Siberia, where there is the phe­no­menon of Sibe­rian iro­nical con­cep­tua­lism, and as I men­tioned pre­viously we are con­nected to Siberia and the Sibe­rian con­text. But we have a dif­fe­rent ver­sion of Sibe­rian art.

novinki: Why do you think death is such an important topos in Rus­sian cul­ture? It seems that there has been a long tra­di­tion of this – and now some sort of cul­mi­na­tion point has been reached.

PD: Yes, the cul­mi­na­tion point of all of this is the war that Putin started. Because Russia is death and the dest­ruc­tion of the world.

novinki: Party of the Dead itself illus­trates an end of any free­doms, rights, and poli­tical attempts. How did the 24th of February, the first day of the war, change your art? Does this day mark a tur­ning point or even a point of no return for your collective?

PD: There were no sub­stan­tial changes in the actions of the collec­tive. But of course the events are abso­lutely cata­stro­phic. We just try within our capa­bi­li­ties, which are quite limited, to react to what is hap­pe­ning. The most important recent actions were pro­bably the ones we orga­nized on the 22nd of February as a reac­tion to the reco­gni­tion of inde­pen­dence [of the DNR and LNR]. We felt the approach of war and the neces­sity to react to it. We did an action on the Pis­ka­ryovs­koye ceme­tery in Saint Peters­burg, a ceme­tery that not long ago was visited by Putin. It is the ceme­tery for the vic­tims of the Lenin­grad blo­ckade. By being there, we in fact ful­filled a magical action of clea­ring the place from Putin’s blas­phe­mous visit and returned the ceme­tery to the dead. Then we had ano­ther action about Rus­sian sol­diers called z200. From inside Russia, one of the most mons­trous things about this war  is the vast number of dead sol­diers that nobody is picking up. Not only are they silenced, but they are actually lying there and decaying. That is really a new extent of Putin’s necropolitics.

novinki: You said that your artist collec­tive was estab­lished in 2017. Was there also an urge to respond to the war that started ear­lier, with the annex­a­tion of Crimea?

PD: Yes, we pre­viously had other anti-war actions. For example, in 2018 we had an action in Siberia on the 23rd February, when we invented  slo­gans like ‘The Dead don’t go to war’.

novinki: How does your artist collec­tive func­tion? Are there any hier­ar­chies? How many people are involved, and do the par­ti­ci­pants change?

PD: The com­po­si­tion of our group changes over time, and the con­cept is not deve­loped solely by myself, but also by the other par­ti­ci­pants, as we are trying to avoid any hier­ar­chies. The pro­blem is that most of my com­rades have to stay as anony­mous as pos­sible, as this is really dan­ge­rous for them.

novinki: You are tal­king as if in the name of the dead, but at the same time you have a very peace-loving and life-affir­ming tone.

PD: Well, it somehow turned out this way, that death for us is rather libe­ra­ting, that it is a cir­cum­s­tance that allows you to say the truth and not be scared of anything. We are oppo­sing the ones in power on one hand, and on the other hand there is a very strong mes­sage: ‘Peace to the graves. Death to the palaces.’ My poli­tical posi­tion is radi­cally left, some­thing like anarcho-com­mu­nist. But we have all sorts of people with dif­fe­rent poli­tical posi­tions in our collective.

novinki: Do you have hope for the future?

PD: Yes, of course there is hope. Somehow pro­test is being formed, because the cur­rent situa­tion is very cri­tical. When there were pro­tests for the libe­ra­tion of Navalny last year, I think society was not really con­so­li­dated, it was in fact quite pola­rized. But now that the situa­tion is get­ting darker, graver, it seems that a larger number of people are wil­ling to do some­thing against the war.

novinki: Well, from out­side of Russia it looks like the oppo­site: it looks as if the number of pro­tests is decre­a­sing, as if there is a lot less resis­tance now. 

PD: The popu­la­tion is much less orga­nized. In fact, all orga­niz­a­tional struc­tures have been com­ple­tely des­troyed in the course of the past year. Many people have left, many were impr­i­soned, and so on. And people who are going out on the streets now are doing this against a huge, huge number of fac­tors like per­se­cu­tion, and then on top of this there is this new phan­tastic law.

novinki: From here, with our heart being torn apart, we are obser­ving the changes of Russia ‘before’ and ‘after’ the war, which has been going on for 14 days now. How was it to sud­denly find oneself in fascist Russia? 

PD: Not a very plea­sant fee­ling, I’m tel­ling you. There were many indi­ca­tors for this, all of this has been going on for more than one year. In principle, there is not­hing too sur­pri­sing about what hap­pened. The only sho­cking thing about it is how far it actually went, nobody expected that. Of course, there is a fee­ling of hea­vi­ness and anxiety when you find yourself within a mad, actually fascist government. Many people, even those who are far away from pro­test and poli­tics, have this fee­ling that ever­ything they were trying to build for the past 15, 20, 30 years has been des­troyed, that ever­ything just col­lapsed. This is really an infor­ma­tion war. Fascist Russia is spen­ding a lot of resources on lea­ding this war, while the oppo­si­tion cannot even directly call it a war. The other day this big cam­paign with the letter ‘Z’ was started. In the Saint Peters­burg metro, for example, there are bill­boards with this letter ever­y­where now, com­posed of the ribbon of Saint George. It really seems that this fascist society evolves fur­ther and fur­ther every single day. People in Russia are very fle­xible, they have been taught to be this way, they just get used to the posi­tion of those in power. They don’t listen to their con­sci­ence, unfortunately.

novinki: Is it somehow pos­sible for you to open people’s eyes? 

PD: Well, at the same time there is also some­thing posi­tive about this men­ta­lity, with its pri­mary fea­ture being fle­xi­bi­lity. [laug­hing] If all of a sudden the power struc­ture would change, these people would also adjust to this situation.

novinki: Do you intend to con­tinue your actions? Are you eager to con­tinue your work in the artistic field? 

PD: Yes, I have the wish to resist.

novinki: The form of your pro­test and acti­vism fits the con­di­tion under which you have to work. You are wea­ring skulls and taking pic­tures of your actions, which can later be put online anony­mously. This form that you estab­lished long before the begin­ning of the full-scale war is now obtai­ning new rele­vance. Do you have an idea to coope­rate with your col­leagues in Ukraine?

PD: I really hope that this will work out. I have recently been in con­tact with Nikita Kadan, who is from Kyiv, and he sug­gested that we take part in some exhi­bi­tion. But I don’t know, it is very dif­fi­cult now to make any fore­casts for the near future. Maybe some­thing is going to work out.

novinki: Is there a demo­gra­phic factor in the protests?

PD: Yes, there is a pat­tern: the older people are, the fewer of them there are who think reflec­tively. Mostly young people are going out to pro­test the war — the ‘Putin’ genera­tion. This is a socio­lo­gical obser­va­tion. But of course there are examples of resis­tance among older people as well. For example, there is this won­derful Saint Peters­burg artist, Elena Osi­pova, who also par­ti­ci­pates in the protests.

novinki: Is there maybe a favo­rite slogan of Party of the Dead with which you would like to con­clude this interview?

PD: I just remem­bered our old poster: ‘We share one Earth.’ [laug­hing] This poster really gains addi­tional layers of mea­ning when being held by a dead being.

Bild­quelle des Bei­trags­bildes: “Своих не бросаем (только их трупы)” am 07. März 2022, © Party of the Dead.

con­ducted by Phi­line Bick­hardt, Natalia Gri­nina and Yeli­z­a­veta Landenberger

trans­la­tion by Yeli­z­a­veta Landenberger

trans­la­tion edi­ting by Patrick Kurth