An Israeli tank, part of Operation Protective Edge. Photo: Getty
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Leader: A collective punishment being visited on all Palestinians

The New Statesman view.

For global leaders, foreign crises come not as single spies but in battalions. The shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet by pro-Russian separatists, the Israeli assault on Gaza in retaliation for missile attacks by Hamas, the murderous rampage of Isis in Iraq, the perpetual civil war in Syria – all have shaken and demoralised western elites.

Never has the UN Security Council, which is divided along old cold war lines, seemed more irrelevant. Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the UN, is an especially forlorn figure, a symbol of the decline of the world’s multilateral institutions.

The graphic images of the bodies of passengers, lying in the wreckage of Flight MH17, have concentrated the public mind on the war in Ukraine. It has been said that Vladimir Putin’s determination to rebuild Russia’s sphere of influence and bolster his nation against western expansionism is a sign of weakness rather than strength. But the ease with which the Russians were able to annex Crimea and enter eastern Ukraine merely reinforces western impotence.

The challenge for the United States and the European powers is to agree a set of policies that would ensure that support for rebel groups such as the one that shot down Flight MH17 has profound economic and political consequences for Russia and its leaders.

Meanwhile, Israel’s long war against the Palestinians goes on. Israel has a right to defend itself from incoming rocket fire from Gaza but, however ruthless and cynical Hamas may be, no state, least of all one that purports to be a liberal democracy, has the right to shell a hospital deliberately or indiscriminately kill civilians. It can seem at times as if a kind of collective punishment is being visited upon all Palestinians.

On page 24, Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, writes that he “saw no evidence during my week in Gaza of Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields”. This is an important insight: the Israeli justification for bombing hospitals, schools and a home for the disabled was that Hamas militants were hiding inside the buildings. Even if they were, this would still offer no justification for the state-directed murder of the innocent, who include children.

Before this latest small war, Hamas, corrupt and nefarious, was weak. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – the country’s then president, Mohammed Morsi, brokered the last ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in November 2012 – had left the Palestinian militant group even more isolated.

Yet the ferocity of Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip has served only to bolster Hamas. By killing civilians and destroying homes, the most recent offensives by the Israel Defence Forces may prove to be the greatest recruiting sergeant Hamas could wish for.

If any ceasefire is to be permanent, it must be followed by substantive moves towards a political settlement of a kind that, in truth, has never seemed more unlikely. The economic blockade of Gaza – which Palestinians liken to an open prison – must be ended and the 1.8 million people who live in the blighted Strip must be given hope and a sense of possibility, as suggested by Uri Dromi, a spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments between 1992 and 1996, writing on page 16.

At present, there is no sign that Israel, its people traumatised by decades of war and by Hamas rocket attacks, is willing to make unilateral moves towards a lasting peace. The settlement building continues in the West Bank and the Likud-led coalition government remains belligerent.

What unites the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East is the world’s powerlessness to resolve them. The UN Security Council is riven and ineffective; the EU cannot agree over what should be done in Ukraine. Under the leadership of the cautious and pragmatic Barack Obama, the US is in retreat from world leadership, exhausted by its occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Before Gaza, I’d spent most of the past two months in Baghdad, Beirut, Jerusalem, Aleppo and Damascus,” Jeremy Bowen writes in his NS Notebook. “The Middle East is on fire. I haven’t seen anything like it since my first reporting trip to the region in 1990. I don’t think anyone knows how to put the fire out.” Such is the weakness of the western powers in an age of insecurity. 

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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.