Europe: democracy, or barbarism?

An open letter to Angela Merkel.

Dear Madam Chancellor,

Yours, more than any other country, bears the responsibility for the crimes of national socialism. Yours, more than any other country, has confronted the tasks of history and memory, providing younger generations with a keen understanding of the dangers of anti-Semitism and racism.

As we draw upon the 80th anniversary of the accession of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor, you have reiterated the principles of responsibility and vigilance which have guided Germany for almost sixty years. They resound evermore in a Europe which, in recent years, has experienced a rise of racism, anti-Semitism and the far right.

All those across our continent who fight for a Europe of fraternity, who build the European identity called for by the philosopher Husserl from 1935 as the only means of overcoming the dangers of nationalism during the rise of Nazism, need your support.

The voice of Germany must be clear and audible, because people are listening. You bear the responsibility conferred on you by your influence and the place of your country’s history in that of Europe.

To move from the ethic of conviction that you proclaim to an ethic of responsibility, Germany, like all countries in the EU, must put the development of democracy, and above all the fight against racism and anti-Semitism, at the very heart of its stance. Decisions on the financial, economic and institutional problems of Europe, crucial as they are for the future of the EU, must be measured against the strength they bring to democracy in Europe. The order of priorities as it stands must be reversed, and the central question of European democracies must be thus: “How are we to give life to Europe’s project of civilisation, based on peace, democracy, equality and the priority of the collective, plural and diverse above the identity of individuals?”

In this respect, the persistence of Roma ghettos in Slovakia, Romania, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, the anti-Semitic murders in France, that of the Roma in Hungary and those of Turkish origin in Germany, the annual demonstration of the past SS in Latvia, the Utoya massacre in Norway, the stigmatisation of Muslims and the rise of racial discrimination are unacceptable cases, which much be denounced with vigour.

In particular, the decay of the constitutional state in Hungary and the authoritarian trend in the Orban regime must be fought with the same energy as the burial of national debt.

Above all, the policies of Germany and Europe regarding Greece will not be solved by endless austerity, which deepens every day the social hopelessness instrumentalised by the neo-Nazis, Golden Dawn.

Germany cannot disregard the development of racist and anti-Semite positions and the increase of racist murders on its shores. It cannot ignore the permissiveness of part of the political establishment towards those who have a growing influence on our continent because they are regarded as the success story of the far right in Europe, capable of combining legal and illegal actions, of being elected to Parliament and of using physical violence against immigrants in the street.

In particular, the democratic vigilance of Germany should push you to demand that Prime Minister Samaras respect his commitment to remove neo-Nazis from the Greek parliamentary delegation in the Council of Europe, which is possible, legal and a democratic necessity. Although he firmly made this commitment in December, following an exceptional mobilisation in Athens of European civilians with the support of notable intellectuals and Nobel Prise laureates such as Elie Wiesel, Bernard Kouchner, Serge Klarsfeld, Adam Michnik and Dario Fo, in January he quietly sent a delegation including the neo-Nazi Eleni Zaroulia.

Because your country has a particular responsibility in the fight against racism and anti-Semitism you cannot remain silent in the face of this inacceptable double game, which reinforces neo-Nazism, and you must demand that the Prime Minister respect his democratic commitment.

It consists in the protection of the weakest against violence on two fronts, social and racial, and in the duty of democracy to oppose its inflexible enemies. In a word, it consists in the fundamental values of Europe and of its civilising project, without which it loses sense and will fall inevitably into barbarism.

Yours sincerely,

Benjamin Abtan, President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement

Photograph: Getty Images

Benjamin Abtan is the President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM).

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.