Answering a Call

By Boris Groys, 2012

So Bartana’s videos, abounding as they do with references to a communist and especially Soviet past, make a lasting impression. The red cravats that decorate the young listeners of Sierakowski’s speech in the first film Mary Koszmary (Nightmares) are reminiscent of the red cravats of the Soviet pioneers. At the end of the trilogy (in Zamach (Assasination)) Sierakowski’s funeral takes place in the Palace of Culture — a typical example of Stalinist architecture that was donated by Stalin as a ‘gift’ to the Polish nation after the Second World War, and which has since been regarded (and reviled) as a symbol of Soviet domination. The funeral ceremony itself is also redolent of the ceremonies practised during the socialist era. The cult of leaders who sacrificed their lives for a communist future remained central to communist ideology for many decades. The last scenes of Bartana’s trilogy imitate the carefully staged rituals of mass grief in the presence of the dead body of the leader, which are so familiar to those who witnessed them, either in person or on screen. But it is the second of Bartana’s videos that most explicitly references images belonging to a Soviet past.Mur i Wieňôza (Wall and Tower) revives the aesthetics of early Soviet cinema and its dedication to the construction of a new socialist life and a new socialist man. The scenes of common work, common meals and common recreation seem to have been directly lifted from Soviet films of the 1920s and 1930s.

This impression is only strengthened by the humble materials that are used in the building of their new life and the fact that at no point is any contemporary machinery seen. Bartana’s characters labour as if they are living in rural Russia after the October Revolution or, for that matter, in the Palestine of the same era. Their clothes also remind the viewer of socialist dress from the 1920s and 1930s — particularly as depicted in the photographs of Alexander Rodchenko and the films of Dziga Vertov. The whole process of constructing the settlement is shot from different angles to create dynamic images that are very much in the style of Rodchenko or Vertov. And these images suggest, just as they do in Vertov’s documentaries, that the process of building a new life presupposes no hierarchy and almost no division of labour; that it is, rather, an egalitarian effort, a collective celebration of the building process that creates a characteristically desexualized camaraderie between men and women.

The result of this ecstatic, unifying work seems to be rather modest: the small settlement looks a bit like a Stalinist labour camp and seems to be lost in the middle of nowhere. This nowhere is symbolized at the end of the film by another reference to Poland’s past — the anonymous-looking mass architecture of late socialism, examples of which can be seen behind the fragile structure of the settlement. The Jewish builders of the new future are depicted by Bartana as vital men and women, full of energy and hope. But the way in which they work is deeply anachronistic, belonging to a period of early industrialization, such as the Jewish collectivist agricultural projects in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s. These young Jewish enthusiasts with their socialist work ethics and primitive technology seem to be lost not only in space but also in time. They build something resembling a cross between an Israeli kibbutz and a Soviet kolkhoz in the middle of post-communist, post-industrial, postmodern Europe. They embody the collectivist, productivist enthusiasm of different socialist movements during the period between the First and Second World Wars, yet they live in our contemporary era of privatized endeavour and individual consumption. One of the ambitions of this project seems to be not so much a return of the Jews to Poland but, rather, an attempt to return to the universalist roots of Zionism, after many decades of crippling nationalism and provincialism. During the Cold War, Soviet communism and Israeli Zionism were ideological and political enemies. The Cold War may now be over but neither ideology has emerged on the winning side of history. Today, Zionism has a problematic reputation and even within Israel itself the socialist roots of the movement have been mostly forgotten and the kibbutzim essentially privatized. The posthumous reputation of the Soviet Union is equally poor, and inside Eastern Europe and Russia, communism remains an ostrasized ideology. The recent history of both of these movements has made observers forgetful of their common roots in the socialist aspirations of a European intelligentsia and working class in the run up to the Second World War. Bartana’s video trilogy, in merging Zionist and Soviet imagery from the interwar period, reminds us of this shared history. The symbol of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland combines the Polish eagle and the Star of David — but, more importantly still, the colour of the flag is red. It is interesting that this combination of kibbutz and kolkhoz, or of Soviet ideology and Zionism, imagined so powerfully by Bartana, has a real historic precedent that has been largely forgotten. In the late 1920s the USSR launched a call to the Soviet and international Jewry to build a home for themselves on its territories.

The Jewish Autonomous Region was founded in Birobidzhan — a region in Siberia, on the Amur River, along the Sino-Soviet border. Launching the project in 1926, Mikhail Kalinin — then Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR — said that Jewish people had a task to secure their national identity and that this goal could only be realized by creating a compact agricultural population of at least several hundred thousands of Jews. In his speech, Kalinin proposed Birobidzhan as a new Jewish homeland. [1] One could argue that a territory in the middle of the Siberian taiga does not correspond to the historical image of Jews as intellectual, deracinated city dwellers. But the Soviet ideologues hoped to use the Jewish settlements not only to transform economically Birobidzhan but also to transform the Jews themselves through collective agricultural work into ‘the new men’. As Kalinin explained in a later speech from 1934: ‘I think that the Jewish nationality of Birobidzhan will not be a nationality with the characteristics of the Jews of the ghettos of Poland, Lithuania, White Russia and even Ukraine, because it is already giving birth to socialist “colonisers” of a free, rich land, to people with big fists and strong teeth, who will be the forebears of a new strong nationality
within the family of Soviet peoples.’ [2]

This vision of Jews ‘with big fists and strong teeth’ is not that distinct from the Zionist vision of a new race of ‘muscular Jews’ emerging on Palestinian territory. It is no coincidence that one of the founders of the Zionist movement was Max Nordau, who became world renowned for his book Entartung (1892), which was dedicated to the struggle against so-called ‘degenerate art’. The book later became the main source of inspiration for the famous ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition organized by the Nazis in Munich in 1937. Nordau, alongside other leaders of the early Zionist movement, also feared for the inappropriate professions and unhealthy lives that he felt Jews were leading in European cities, particularly Eastern-European shtetls. It was not only the antisemitic press that perceived Jews to be physically weak, psychologically unstable, culturally underdeveloped, interested only in money, unfit for military training etc., but also the founders of Zionism. Agricultural work and military service were encouraged by the Jewish renaissance in Palestine as a means to overcome the centuries of degeneration they felt had been inflicted on Jewish people under diasporic conditions. [3]

Soviet ideology of the 1920s and 1930s also celebrated hard work, sport, military service, vitality and youth. But, of course, this biopolitical renaissance was understood more in terms of class than race. New Soviet power wanted to overcome the degeneration of proletarian bodies that inevitably resulted from capitalist exploitation. The masses of poor Eastern European Jews seemed to be a perfect example of this exploitation. It is very telling that the communist and Zionist movements began to realize their shared goal of revitalizing Jewish bodies almost simultaneously. The United Kibbutz Movement was established in Palestine in 1927 and in 1936 they founded the Socialist League of Palestine; at the same time, the Soviet government launched the Jewish kolkhoz movement in Birobidzhan and later founded the Jewish Autonomous Region.

It is clear that the Soviet powers felt in competition with the Israeli kibbutz movement. However, the Jewish kolkhozes in the USSR not only copied the kibbutz movement but also incorporated the internationalist claims of communism that the Zionist kibbutzim lacked. The Soviet ideologues hoped that this internationalism would give their project a global appeal, reaching out to Jews everywhere, including in Palestine. Accordingly, Soviet authorities began to collaborate with many international Jewish organizations in Europe, the US and Palestine to finance and organize the re-emigration of Jews into the Soviet Union. During the 1920s and 1930s, around 1,500 foreign Jews (including a certain number of Jews from Palestine) joined thousands of Soviet Jews in emigrating to Birobidzhan. The Swiss architect Hannes Meyer — a former director of the Bauhaus in Dessau, a collaborator of El Lissitzky and a dedicated communist — was commissioned to design the city of Birobidzhan, which was the administrative capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region. The formation of a new Jewish identity and the happy life of Jews in this region became a regular feature in the great late-avant-garde magazine SSSR na stroike. In one of the magazine’s most widely-known photographs, a Jew from Palestine is shown driving a tractor in Birobidzhan. Especially interesting in this respect is the Soviet film Iskateli Schastya(Seekers of Happiness) made in 1936, which depicts the early, heroic period of organization of Jewish kolkhozes in Birobidzhan.

The film was an attempt to demonstrate the creation of a new kind of socialist Jew — hardworking, collectivist and healthy — through their participation in agricultural labour. At the heart of the film’s narrative is a Jewish family that emigrates in 1928 from ‘abroad’ — journeying from an unnamed land, which is ‘warm’ and with ‘fresh air’, but where there are ‘no jobs’. The place they have come from is unmistakably Palestine. The family is made up of old Dvoira, her three children (two daughters and a son who represents the new ‘muscular Jewry’) and Pinya, a husband to one of the daughters, who embodies the stereotype of degenerate Jewish diaspora: weak, work-shy and obsessed with money. At the end of the film Pinya commits a crime and tries to flee to China before getting arrested by the organs of Soviet security. His fellow Jews, meanwhile, find relative success, and the film ends in a celebration of their new socialist homeland. The parallels to the Zionist ideal are manifold. However, there is one crucial difference: Jews here are not opposed by the indigenous Russian population. They had not arrived uninvited. They were called — and answered this call. Their colonization of Birobidzhan was needed and valued, so they were never in conflict with their surroundings. The factual history of Jews in Birobidzhan is, of course, rather different. At the end of the 1930s and again at the end of the 1940s, there were concerted attempts to suppress the cultural identity of the population. The number of Jewish people in Birobidzhan never exceeded 40,000; today, the Jewish Autonomous Region still exists as a part of the Russian federation, although its Jewish population has diminished to some 4,000.

The Jewish colonization of Birobidzhan has an uncanny relevance to the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland. As in Bartana’s film trilogy, the Jewish colonization I describe was an answer to a call. In both instances the coming Jews built a closed, collectivist community. And in both cases the socialist work ethic that contributes to the creation of the ‘new Jews’ is documented in photographic and film images that are heavily influenced by the aesthetic of the Soviet avantgarde. One can argue that the merging of Zionist and communist symbolism in Bartana’s film trilogy reflects an attempt by the artist to return to their common (progressive, atheist, activist) roots — and to liberate the Zionist project from the ethnic separatism that has crippled and destroyed its former utopian appeal. The socialist dream corresponds to the traditional Jewish hope to transcend an ethnic isolation through cosmopolitanism and universalism, while avoiding at the same time complete cultural assimilation. Bartana attempts to revive this hope through her project for a Jewish Renaissance in Poland and through the revival of socialist idealism and aesthetics — a form of Zionism that need not be connected to Zion, to the blood and soil of Jewish ancestry, nor need obsess over a return to origins, but instead crafts a place for the Jews in the middle of nowhere and at the same time in the middle of somewhere where others are amenable to this project. It is no accident that at the end of the trilogy the representatives of the new generation speak a shared language, English, while those representing an older generation speak in a number of different tongues, including Polish, German and Hebrew. We watch an ultimate synthesis between the two old foes of the Cold War, a socialist dream formulated in the universal language of our time — English.

The idea of answering a call has an important place in Jewish history. Beginning with Abraham, the Jews understood themselves as a people answering a call — of God, of reason, of a better future. But Bartana does not conceal from the spectator her scepticism towards this new call; indeed the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland and the expectation of another Jewish revival is coloured by a degree of irony. In some respects, Bartana’s trilogy reminds me of the Soviet sots-art in the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, certain Russian artists revived the aesthetics of Stalinist Socialist Realism in the middle of the late socialist tristesse. What was their goal? In part, their ironic reminder of former enthusiasms was intended to jar with the contemporary mood of disillusionment. At the same time sots-art operated by ‘defamiliarizing’ the symbolism of communism, placing images outside of their familiar context in order to expose the mechanisms of the Soviet propaganda machine. The combination of Soviet and Western visual idioms, which was experienced as a violation of the Cold War division between these two cultures, had an absurdist, stunning effect. Two works by Alexander Kossolapov — Sashok, Would You Like Some Tea? (1975) andLenin-Coca-Cola (1993) serve as good examples: here the pictorial language of official Soviet ideology is used in a very private context and in the framework of a Western commercial advertisement. Similarly, when an Israeli settlement is built in Poland instead of Palestine it becomes ‘defamiliarized’ — its absurdity is made even more apparent when infused by anachronistic images from Soviet history. In this sense, Bartana’s trilogy might be described as an example of ‘Zion-art’, as she simultaneously ironizes and aestheticizes the obsolete pathos of the Zionist project.

However, we know well enough that in our current cultural climate to ironize a cultural phenomenon is also to revive it, to release its hidden possibilities. Ironization is rejuvenation. In And Europe Will Be Stunned an anachronistic, ideologically mobilized Jewish youth builds (again) a utopian project in the middle of nowhere. But utopia is, by definition, located nowhere, and its time is, by definition, anachronistic (out of time) or even ‘achronistic’ (without time). If the call had not been made in the ‘real’ world, it could be launched in a different, hypothetical one — the fact that Jewish Renaissance movements have not been historically successful does not mean that the idea is logically impossible. Thus, Bartana’s project may be utopian, but it is not fantastical. The world that Bartana constructs for us is certainly anachronistic and consequently melancholic, but it is not as depressing as our current world.

1. Birobidzhan, in the Jewish Encyclopaedia, http://www.eleven.co.il/article/10642 

2. U.S.S.R. in Construction, illustrated magazine, issue no. 3–4, 1935. 

3. Todd Samuel Presner, Muscular Judaism:The Jewish Body and the Politics of Regeneration (Routledge, London and
New York, 2007), p. 2.