Communist parade / Irina Salter /

Svetlana Gordienko interview

An interview with Vitaliy Kuriennoi by Svetlana Gordienko

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An interview by Svetlana Gordienko

Vitaliy Kurennoi is a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, where he is head of the philosophy faculty’s cultural studies department. 

He graduated from the philosophy faculty of Moscow State University in 1998, after which he started to work both as a university tutor and as an editor at the Russian philosophical magazine "Logos".

To date, Vitaliy Kurennnoi has published more than 100 articles in various media reflecting the modern agenda in Russia.  He also participates in the "PostNauka" project, where experts from different spheres of knowledge share their ideas with the general public. 

Vitaliy Kurennoi has participated in several research projects. The latest, launched in 2013, is devoted to elaborating a socio-cultural development strategy for the Satkinsky municipal district of Chelyabinsk Region. Satka is an industrial mono-city and the project for its development can be regarded as a model for the revitalisation of Russian mono-cities in general.

Vitaliy Kurennoi also headed a big research project run by the Higher School of Economics, whose topic was "the cultural system of modernity and main strategies of cultural politics in the USSR.” 
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You mention the “civilisational skills” needed for life in the city: For the peasants that were moving into the city in the early 20th century, it was the hygiene skills and literacy elements, while for the working class – “literacy is widespread, people do not just wash their hands, but also comb their hair, keep their clothes clean, and rarely beat their wives. What skills are needed for adaptation today, and what will be needed in the future for people who move from small towns or villages into the metropolis?

The city exists simultaneously in different periods. In some cases today it is still important to beat your wife less, or more precisely, use less violence. The level of violence is a key indicator of urbanisation, and with just this alone the problem is critical in our society, in our cities. Most of the conflicts that we consider “ethnic”, are primarily associated with this: big cities are inhabited by people who are carriers of entirely different codes of behaviour in terms of violence, they are trying to display it, and that gives rise to conflict. And these violent practices – they are not even social, I would say, but something from zoological ethology – can even come as a response to a direct look in the eye.

Urban civilisation is, first and foremost, a softening of manners. The city always involves a distance, with all its complex, and at the same time standardised, rituals of politeness. When there are no such skills, a situation occurs that we perceive as rudeness, or petty crime.

Or, to take another aspect – misunderstanding the purpose of public spaces. For example, our courtyards. We have cleaned out the garages, and created​public parking zones. But no, pieces of iron with padlocks start appearing immediately, by which citizens are trying to fence off their own piece of this carpark. What is this? – This is the village coming to the city. In Moscow, everything is not that bad, but if you take a look across Russia – it is just hammered with these vestiges of the village – all this jumble of sheds, garages and other things. What kind of urban space can we talk about when these spots of semi-​rural – semi-​urban lifestyle creep like a cancer into all possible areas?!

You talk about the “under-​urbanisation” of Russian cities, including Moscow. Can Moscow benefit from this, or must it pass through the complete European trajectory of urban development? When will Moscow be sufficiently urbanised?

I do not think there is any standard ‘European’ level of urbanisation. It is a process, not a state, and the process is complicated and accelerating. Today, machinery is increasingly important in this process. For example, in Germany, it may happen that you have arrived in the country from the airport and you have to take the train, and there is no cash, only the ticket machine. And the machine has a very complex interface, and so is unwelcoming. If you do not know how to use it – you are certainly going to overpay. And then there gathers a group of other newly arrived residents, each making their long hard way to developing a new – for them – civilisational skill.

Urbanisation – is actually a synonym for modernisation if we talk of modernity as the term for the type of civilisation and culture which began to emerge in Europe somewhere in the middle of the 18th century. To talk about all its components is very difficult. But there are some simple things. This civilisation, indeed, suggests a very different culture of violence. Of course, the most terrible war ever also came from the womb of this same civilisation, and this must always be remembered. These themes – they are of a different order, and in terms of “urbanisation” we cannot even grasp them, so let’s not be mistaken about this. But if to distract from them, and remain within modernity as urban culture, it is, again, about reducing violence and raising the comfort level of existence.

Comfort, by the way, is hardly the only intelligible content of the concept of “progress” as the key concept of modernity. As for me, for example, no one can convince me in some original Russian values, opposed to the “European” values​of modernity, until I see a mass rejection of electricity, a move in Tver to dwell in overgrown field or real attraction to the simple and heavy peasant labor in taiga. Moscow, moreover, is a special case – it is a global city that inherits some features of an imperial metropolis. Here, mediaeval and post-​industrial society stand side by side on the one staircase, you might say. Some things are moving rapidly, some are standing still, but something else is flowing backwards. A normal process of urbanisation.

I once saw you talking of public space as a communicative infrastructure that is capable of promoting trust and sympathy in society. In Moscow, there are a large number of public spaces, designed in the Soviet era, but they do not seem to have helped build community relations. What type of public spaces are lacking in Moscow? Can a municipality centrally plan and create such spaces?

Soviet public spaces were formed under the influence of two determinants – ideology, and the monitoring and control of the masses. A plaza is not for a market, it is for parades in front of the podium and the monument to Lenin. The House of Culture is for organised and supervised recreational and cultural activity of workers of a particular factory and their families. A park is for the health, culture and leisure of large masses of the population. But now that the ideocratic society has become a thing of the past – these places no longer function and get partly replaced by various newly invented surrogates, like a festival of the city which everybody can conduct in their own way. Mass industrial society is also increasingly becoming a thing of the past.

I do not want to say that this is “postmodern,” in terms of the understanding that people used to go to the factory for some reason, and had no idea of how to open spas, design offices and boutiques instead. But people’s behaviour is changing. The focus of life (and research focus as well) has shifted from production to consumption, from labour to leisure.

Soviet public spaces were not designed for spontaneous communication of communities, or such other common forms of urban behaviour, as strolling. Urban spaces either acted as a place for the controlled entity of “mass ornament,” or as void transit zones. In the dark corners of the city the shadow culture grew its roots, and it is no accident that the “gateway” has become synonymous with the space of hooligan violence. So, of course, today it is necessary to change all this ideological relationship to spaces, and start talking of them in a different way.

For example, in the Satka district of Chelyabinsk Region we have just presented a programme of socio-​cultural development, in which the development of urban spaces is critical – it is a mechanism for the long-​term development of social and cultural capital. But the concept of “central planning ” which you mention scares me a little – it is a Soviet vestige. Urban policies should be based on the principle of community participation. The experience of branding areas – one of the forms of organisation of urban policies – shows that when conducted through “central planning ” it causes subsequent rejection, such as we have seen in Perm, for example. Of course, there is a desire to get the result immediately, bypassing the hard way, but we have to realise that if you seriously want to work with the culture, people’s behaviour, and not the government media, it is very much a long distance race.

Is there a difference between public space and the space of publicity? Can we include urban food places, developed networks of retail and other commercial organisations that take popular urban spaces and benefit from a large number of people passing through them in the category of “public space”? Which functions can be assigned to them and how?

I will not multiply terms. There is a regular urban planning term – “public space”. The public uses it; it can take the form of bus stops, toilets or a street. And there is a “public space” – a space where we find the public. What is the public? – It’s a certain kind of communication. Walk into any – with rare exceptions – institution in Moscow of those that you have listed. There will either be music, or the waiter will not allow you to talk normally – he needs to continuously serve you. Public space is a complex communicative culture, for which we do very little to develop its conditions.

Are virtual social networks a new type of public space? If people on the Internet are able to resist the influence of propaganda, does this mean that it will soon cease to be considered by the state as an instrument of influence? How can social media affect the urban space?

The audience is always associated with the media, for example, such a phenomenon as a newspaper in its standard form implies a certain kind of audience, and, consequently, a certain type of communication in public spaces. For example, the newspaper is a mandatory attribute of a café. Today, of course, the public is changing, and the media environment is too. This is a big topic so I will limit myself to one remark: Of course social networks create the preconditions for an effective response to ideology and propaganda. But I do not have much euphoria about this, because these same networks create the conditions for themselves produce to new forms of ideology and propaganda, which, incidentally, is much harder to resist than the TV. You should not confuse the media, which is the means, and its goals. A means can always be used for different ends; by itself it is not a panacea.