Robotic Producers

In the Soviet modernity, not only mechanisms should have been exploited beyond their limits, not only workers were expected and were trying to surpass themselves in effectiveness of their labor, but living beings, cared and mediated by humans, were also enhancing beyond belief the hidden capacities of their bodies.

The instruments of the rising biopower were eugenics, active human-led environmental change, and husbandry loaded with the ideological demand of demonstrating the superiority of the Socialist governmentality.

When Foucault described what he called “anatomo-politics of the human bodies,” which presupposed “the body as a machine,” processed through different stages of disciplining and optimization (Foucault, 1978, 139), he did not mention that the bodies going through all the stages of the cycle which had to make them more efficient and more docile, were not only human. The non-human body was also a cog of the state gear wheel.

Marshalled by the regimes of biopower, pigs were becoming reproduction machines, cows—biorobots, chickens—egg conveyers, rats—laboratory instruments, sheep—fur-generating automatons, and dogs—alive mechanisms of cosmic exploration. Cows, pigs, sheep, chicken, geese, and all the breathing beings had to be useful, give what was demanded of them, and reproduce themselves; they were counted, weighed, measured, compared, exhibited; their products calculated, scaled, pasteurized, and distributed; their offsprings enumerated, examined, and their further trajectories decided.

The ubiquity and wide implementation of the process was like a mass madness, a lunacy of daydreaming caught in a swarm of hectic, frenetic activity giving no rest nor respite to humans and nonhumans alike. Seven-year-plans of developing of the Soviet economics were finished in five years, and five-year-plans in three years. The central and regional newspapers were dappled with “949 liters of milk for each cow in four months received milkmaid Nosova”; “milkmaid Melentyeva is taking an obligation to milk 2900 liters per cow” in a year; animals almost took Socialistic obligations as well: at least a sheep of the Ust Uda region in one kolkhoz was planned to produce 2,6 kg of fur a year; one hundred ewes were expected to bring one hundred five lambs a year; one sow bred 12 piglets; plants did not hang behind either: one hectare was supposed to produce 12,5 centners of crops, and so on (examples are from “Angarskaya Pravda” #42 (2093), 1960).

All across the Soviet Union individual milkmaids, steelmakers, coalminers, conveyer operators, and well as collective farms and enterprises, were taking on “raised obligations” (povishennie obyazatelstva) to produce, manufacture, assemble, make, complete, and accomplish. Every new achievement, were it a number of tons of steel or eggs per chicken, was soon surpassed, record broken, and it seemed that there will be no ending to enlarged capacities of the body, plant, machine, and metal.

Milkmaids were not just milking and taking care of cows, but “created milk rivers,” transforming the trope of fairy tales into the Soviet reality. Delicate corn was all of a sudden growing in Siberian taiga, Northern tundra, and Central Asia semisavanna for that sole reason that such was the wise decision of the Party. Michurin’s amazing apples not only were about to bloom in the regions which were historically too cold or too dry for them previously, but it was only a matter of time, and of several decades at that, until said apples would adorn the Mars’s rusty surface with the carpets of their shed petals and then fruits.

In such context, it was only too reasonable that prairies were transubstantiated into arable land and rivers had to be turned around and rush towards their streambeds, irrigating deserts. In 1947, the project of the near-Pole Salekhard-Igarka railway, which had to be built in permafrost, began emerging as a parallel to Baikal-Amur Mainline; the construction of Salekhard-Igarka was necessary not only in order to develop communications in the scarcely populated region, but also to shield the country from the enemies’ backstabbing blow which they could deliver any moment from the unprotected lands of the Arctic. People who were working on the railroad, imprisoned and converted into forced labor, were thrown into naked, barren landscapes, and expected to protect themselves by extracting out of thin air the shelters and sustenance, much as they were expected at other sites of the “constructions of the century.”

“Breathers” became robotic producers of goods and themselves; when the body is a machine, its frailty is but an annoying obstacle, and the stock of such bodies is practically inexhaustible, but recreatable, refillable, and restorable. Those had to be bodies brimming with enthusiasm, euphoric exaltation of living and participation in a great project of building the Sovietopia: the model of the future for the whole world.

Resurrection of Flâneur: Between the Figures of Player and Wanderer

To combine two things about Pokemon hunting so far–one, remark that Pokemon Go created a new kind of flâneur, and the other, observation that it might be dangerous for a Black person, especially male, to play the game because his seemingly goalless meanderings might look suspicious (Akil, 2016), we receive a picture of flânerie as of a social practice accessible to a limited population, an elitist and classist pastime.

To be sure, Baudelairian-Benjaminian flanerie was a privileged practice from the start: Flaneur is an urban journeyer and sojourner-taker who crosses streets and squares cutting corners, stopping at deadends, returning and advancing through the magnetic new and new corners, passing galleries of display windows, cars, blinking buses, people, cafes, in search of inspiration, distraction, and entertainment. He (he is a he back then, certainly; women are present in the urban space of his imagination almost exclusively as prostitutes, and then they are faceless and nameless–although in modern cities no doubt many females indulge in flanery by way of endless goalless walks) belongs to a certain class; he has time, money to satisfy hunger and thirst, a profession which does not require excessive investment of efforts; is able-bodied to endure hours of strolling, and, quite possibly, relatively young and good-looking, at least he is curious about fashion: the goal of goalless walk is not only to see and explore and return and discover, but also to show yourself, to look at your own reflection in sleek glass and steel surfaces, to meet old acquaintances and take a pleasure of adventure in serendipitous encounters.

To be a flâneur haunting (or haunted by) Pokemons, is to be, just as a Baudelairian flaneur, engrossed with oneself; only the search is less ambiguous and the goal is “visible” (to you); but there is a racial cut–even a high social positioning won’t make the Blackness of the actor unnoticeable or less suspicious in the eyes of voluntary neighborhood watchers–and also a technological cut, which will produce certain age- and again class-related social silhouette of the Player.



Akil, Omari. Warning: Pokemon GO is a Death Sentence if you are a Black Man. July 7, 2016
View story at

Bliss, Laura. Pokémon Go Has Created a New Kind of Flâneur. Citylab. July 12, 2016

#anthropology #blacklivesmatter #flâneur #player

Dog’s Heart

In 1928, Soviet scientists Sergey Brukhonenko and Sergey Chechulin revitalized a cut-off dog’s head, which lived, connected to a pump engine imitating the contraction of the heart, fusing the blood vessels with blood enriched with oxygen. As a journalist of the regional newspaper “Angarskaya Pravda” wrote in 1959, “The cut-off head exhibited all the features of live: it swallowed food, it blinked with its eyes, moved its ears, and smacked its muzzle.” (Salnikov, 1959)

“In our times, (Salnikov continues) Moscow scientist V.P. Demikhov succeeded in transplanting a new heart to the dog, and to transpose the head of the puppy to the neck of adult dog.” (Salnikhov, 1959).

The goal of these Frankensteinian experiments, was to exceed the known limits of longevity, and to build a new resilient breed of fighters for the Communism.

With a provisional force of a genius, Mikhail Bulgakov wrote the novel “Heart of a Dog” in 1925,  known to the late Soviet general public mostly by the film of the same title, directed by Vladimir Bortko (released in 1988).

In the process of bioengineering, akin to the social-engineering process of creation of the new Soviet man, professor Preobrazhensky transplanted a part of the brain of some drunkard to the ill-bred dog, and the dog became a man: with no manners, no education, no heart, and no brain (as these qualities so often go together).
Endowed with his practical knowledge of eugenics, racial ideas of blood purity, nobility, and aristocratism, Professor Preobrazhensky represent the former, pre-Revolutionary Russia. He is a mediumic medic, a member of intelligentsia, compelled to conduct such an experiment and afflutter with the possible result. He is the symbol of the old world, the best part of it–the one that had a chance of survival and even career in the new Soviet state.
However, Sharikh, his creature, barely speaks or conducts himself as a human being; despite and because of it, he is actively socializing and with excitement discovered that the new world is ideal for him. He starts building himself as a less-than-human being would, and at one point even appears at the Professor’s doorframe drunk and, what is worse, with a gun and in a leather coat, famous attributes of the ChK officer.
The Professor admits the failure of his experiment, and makes another surgery, this time transplanting the dog’s brain back into the skull (which by now is a human skull, strictly speaking). The transformative power of science is not omnipotent for Bulgakov, even armed with devilish tools of eugenics and racial theory, and the social experiment is doomed to failure.
Far beyond the novel, in the Soviet society, the idea of the classless future, of the new man and manlike woman, as well as the not unakin to the USA’s resurfacing popular trope of “melting pot,” idea of the “brotherhood of the nations,” in which national differences in the long run should be erased, live.
Salnikov, E.T. “Kak nauka i religiya obiasnyayut zhizn i smert’.” Angarskaya Pravda, N23 (1943), 1959

Repertoire of Stories

I have known long and well enough some of my acquaintances to get to know the repertoire of their stories, which they repeat on different occasions with slight alterations. These modifications tell more than the stories themselves. The storytellers know I know their stories, but it by no means prevent them from repeating them, and me from listening. I forget details too, and listening to them over and over again, I am involved in a process of recollecting and re-membering. With stories polished by the author to the point that their flow is never interrupted, it is sometimes difficult to tell if they adjust the details, or I mis- and dis-remember them. Either way, into these discrepancies, inconsistencies, and gaps, something important fells. Ideally I’d like to decipher several recordings of one story and analyze them. It could make a compendium, an ideal book of one story, perhaps a story not even significant itself, but acquiring meaning through attentive reading.

In detecting the repeated stories, timing, a personal timing, becomes of substance. Kathleen Stewart in her “A Space on the Side of the Road” describes her method as follows:

“The project has itself been a process of re-membering and retelling, and the resultant account stands as an allegory of the cultural processes it is trying to represent. In began with two years of fieldwork from August 1980 to September 1982 and continued through a dozen return visits in the years that followed and through the twists and turns of field notes, tape recordings, memories, photographs, phone calls, postcards, letters, telegrams, and professional papers. One time, it has become a process of long dwelling on things re-membered and retold, forgotten and imagined.” (Stewart, 1996, 7)

As she was forced to rely on memory on a number of occasions, she fell in the gaps by re-listening to the same stories time and again. (Stewart, 1996, 8)

I had long imagined a book which would envelop all variants of “Leaves of Grass,” for example, not only the first and the final versions of it, but all the intermediate versions. (And this is, too, not the first time I speak about such an edition. My second or perhaps even the third reiteration of this next to impossible for materialization, idea, adds a metapragmatic tinge to the project of collecting a compendium of one story; a collection of stories consisting of infinite repetitions of one episode.

Why people repeat stories, might be another question to ask. Does not life in its overabundance of stories offer us infinite possibilities to create and recreate themselves through different narrations, why focus on the same plot? What is in the repetition? Why we prefer to stick to the same stories, retelling them over and over again? Perhaps by way of repetition we create a space of certainty, a reliable narration, and, in the end of it, a reliable narrator–the narrator who could be believed precisely because she deviates and digresses, and her story forks into a bunch of stories, tale bifurcates into a spectrum of tales without losing its identity.



Stewart, Kathleen. A Space on the Side of the Road. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey, 1996.


Home. A strange sense of home in Anosovo. I was surprised to find that I am actually glad to see its broken roads and small houses again. Walking up the street I recollected in the ten thousandth time how I wanted, in a fulfillment of an odd dream, to go in such a place after college as a school teacher.

I envisioned a Siberian village, and although it was silly and I knew it was, I toyed with the idea and started writing what should have been a limitless novel, with one plot around a young Moscow female dreamer, who was sent in a place like that, obligatorily, as was a custom of those times—it was called, distributed, raspredelena—but went quite consciously, curios and inspired, as also happened not unoften.

Music Box

On a ferry Balagansk—Anosovo, someone had a music box for a child’s entertainment. The child had long lost any interest in it, and did not open the lead. I was curious what it sounded like. Finally, the music box fell on the floor with a frail ringing, and started playing. It played a familiar melody. My aunt, being a maiden, had such a box, it looked exactly the same—black, plastic, with flat gleaming walls; opened, it displayed several red velvet compartments.

I once took off a cover which shielded the notched cylinder, and studied the mechanism. One had to tighten the spring for the cylinder to rotate. Thin metal plates which responded with pleasant sounds to the notches disturbing them, captivated my attention. I could look at their alternating bending and straightening for a long time.

Once taken off, the cover was never glued back. I saw other music boxes of this model, only with a plexiglass cover showing the secret mechanics. That was a smart invention; it probably saved a great deal of boxes from being taken apart.

Two Difficulties of My Summer Fieldwork

One of the main difficulties that I encountered during my summer fieldwork (mosquitoes aside), is the unified narrative which defeats the private accounts on all levels of information collections.

According to the Scientific and Collections Division worker E., in the museum’s collections, data that are related to the dislocation and dispossession of people living in the zone of the Bratsk dam flood, are absent because it was a matter of ideological choice. Only official propaganda documents relevant to the Bratsk dam construction, were carefully gathered; accounts of events that contradicted official narrative were avoided and excluded. It was noticeable for me throughout the museum spaces in Siberia. No complexity of events beyond the layering of the Soviet propaganda were ever introduced in the way the past was reconstructed in exhibitions and collections. Not only was the unified narrative held across different museums, but also little change is noticeable how events are narrated in regard to different dams’ constructions.

For instance, Ust-Ilimsk dam’s construction began in 1963, 9 years after the beginning of the Bratsk dam construction and two years after the first stationary generator of Bratsk dam, unit N18, started operating. Ust-Ilimsk dam, too, was magnificent in terms of amounts of energy it produced and also in numbers of the displaced and the dispossessed: 14.2 thousand of people in 61 settlements, were relocated. Nonetheless, Ust-Ilimsk dam was the product of the slightly shifted times, and people’s stories arguably received some more attention: Students of ethnographic laboratories recorded their narratives. The first piercing story of disenfranchised displacement which sounded loud and clear, was written by the writer who lived through what he, contradictorily to the established narrative, perceived as tragedy—it was the novel “Farewell to Matyora” by Valentin Rasputin, published in 1976.

There was a Science-Research Laboratory of Humanitarian Explorations (Nauchno-issledovatelskaya laboratoriya gumanitarnikh issledovaniy) in Bratsk State University, which collected oral narratives of the Bratsk relocation survivors, but according to the university official V., in connection to the crisis of 2008, the laboratory had lost the grant endorsements and ceased to exist in 2012. I tracked down the organizer of this laboratory, who now lives in Irkutsk, and also have a connection with a philologist who have been collecting stories, and I hope that both these lines would yield to results. A number of personal stories were published in the 1990s, and then some I am collecting myself in the village of Anosovo.

I sometimes think: Why do I do it? How could I make it matter, what these people felt and thought back then or are thinking now? Damage has already been done, my findings would not be incorporated by the state or private enterprises in their decision making process. Things about other dams have been written already, from the anthropological, ecological, sociological, geological, and a number of other perspectives. And that is the second of my main difficulties in the field. I feel powerless to justify this research, that has been a matter of my own inexplicable curiosity slowly fusing into the matter of… pain, I would say, if I wasn’t afraid of appearing too maudlin.