Field Notes, Summer of 2017 in Siberia

During this summer I spent as much time as it was possible in Siberia. I brought notes from there, that I now offer to your attention. I hope to work on the photographs that I took; some of my best shots were taken there this year.

Without further ado, Stenography of the Itinerary on the

“Suddenly (and I have to fly tomorrow) I am not excited to go to “the field,” which is also “home.” The distance is never a stable measure. The distance grows. With time, it deepens. I am clinging to things: a kerchief that I have not been wearing for months, I definitely need to take it with me. All the colorful pens. All these books I have not finished. The pages of handwriting I did not have time to type; I am spending the last day before the departure trying to determine what I might be missing the next day. A futile wonder. I will miss nothing in particular and everything at once, but I probably will also be too occupied with what immediately arises in my sight to ponder over anything that I have left.

My phone is suddenly broken, of all things–my phone, which prosthetic qualities are never as evident as they are now, when it is not “here,” out of order. I suspect that I inhabit the screen: Evernote, messengers, colorful icons of familiar apps–icons and anchors of familiarity itself. To go without the phone, a false body member, is to be derived of the instrument, of techne, of the possibility of art, which is only available through technology. To have a new phone on the eve of flying from one country of another is more like changing planets. Now I will have to spend at least two hours and likely more recalling all the passwords that open myself to myself.

Derrida doubtlessly did not anticipate the development of technology which by a peculiar twist favors writing–for the first time in human history writing seems ubiquitous, everyone is writing, it is not going to last long, I think, when the advance of video will take over. Derrida issues old-fashionable laments on the death of love letters (as a genre) that he predicts tirelessly in his own love letters–little did he know. He would have been thrilled by sexting.

Itineraries deprive one of that little sense of home which one might possibly have after having moved from one hemisphere to the other. Every travel is a little bit of death, death foreshadowed, half-disclosed, hinted, promised–a rehearsal of how you’ll leave everything at once on a certain day to come. The inevitability of it is monotonous: it is not the event itself but the inescapability of it which is gruesome. To think about all the orphaned objects you will leave, and of the facelessness, the indiscernibility of these objects.”


read the rest here:

“A Tale of a Young Woman”

“Everyday Life, Geoengineering, and the Industrial Spectacle in Soviet Siberia” talk at the AATSEEL meeting 2/4/2017, San Francisco
This is the first time I talked publicly in such detail about a story written down and titled by V. Gavriolov “Bratsk-54: A Tale of a Young Woman,” the story of a young female Bratsk dam construction worker.
It is my honor to make her lost, nameless, inevitably distorted through writing, through translation, voice sound. She was deemed disposable. She wasn’t.

The Human in People-Altered Landscapes

Talk at “The Extra-Human” 13th Annual Graduate Conference in Comparative Literature, September, 25th, 2016; University of Texas in Austin


The 1st of September



The 1st of September is the beginning of the school year in Russia. This is a precious piece of ethnographic evidence, a fascinating photographic fragment of the epoch, which I obtained during my fieldwork in Siberia during the summer of 2016. It has not been shown before.

Here the opening of a new school in 1957 is set in the photograph for eternity.

Craig pointed out today that it goes along well with the 1st September celebration, so I have it, reluctantly, out for your I’m sure utter enjoyment.

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.

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