Some incredible adventures can happen to a country whose artistic image
is so alien to its real material movements
— Mikhail Gefter
Infrastructures is a photo project about the Russian and post-Soviet political economy, created in 2016-2019 by Sergey Novikov and Max Sher. Using documentary and staged photography, as well as writing, they look at and reflect on both the political and cultural significance of physical infrastructures, such as roads, bridges, pipelines, etc., and 'infrastructures' of thinking and discourse that historically underpin the functioning of the State and power. The artists thus take on the role of culture critics to call into question the oft-simplistic but still dominating visual and conceptual tropes about the post-Soviet area. The 360-page book consists of 50 chapters, each with photographs and an essay in English and Russian. By combining photographs and writing, Novikov and Sher also explore complex relationships and roles of photography and text within one body of work

Contraband, Inc.
Artist and theorist Allan Sekula, in Fish Story—a work created at the dawn of the neoliberal era—paints a picture of the contemporary automated seaport as an important junction of expansionist, anti-humanist turbocapitalism. Critic Owen Hatherley calls the seaport all but the center point of neoliberal power. But what comes to mind when you think of the seaports of Russia and other countries in the post-Soviet space? The main export goods of our land empire, oil (more than half of exports) and almost all of the gas, are transported along pipelines. Ports play a secondary role here, and that's why the oil pipeline is a stable image in our culture, while the port isn't. The first association that comes to mind when we talk about ports is contraband. For that matter, raw material economies depend significantly on imports, so a significant power—both real and symbolic—is acquired by those who control imports: the customs officers and smugglers. This, however, does not mean that post-Soviet Russia is not a part of the neoliberal world, if we understand that to mean the freedom of movement of financial capital, the privatization of the state, and the replacement of public goods with "services"—of course it is, and is even in some respects exemplary. It's simply that just as there was not and could not be "real," pure socialism in the Soviet era, capitalism in its neoliberal version has its nuances everywhere. Russia is no exception, and its nuances are connected with its permanently provincial and resource-based fate. If the Western financial oligarchy is still somehow restrained by the still-working, however feebly, traditions of law and open politics, then in the post-Soviet space, the state-monopolist oligarchy can do whatever it pleases, and has put the state in service to itself—one might say it is the ideal of neoliberalism, the "market Stalinism" as coined by critic Mark Fisher. When the necessary protection is there, no bureaucracy or politics can get in your way! In his masterwork Russia Under the Old Regime, historian Richard Pipes used the term "patrimonial state" to describe the Russian political structure. In such a model of the state, according to Pipes, "the rights of sovereignty and those of ownership blend to the point of becoming indistinguishable, and political power is exercised in the same manner as economic power".

Regardless of the great shocks of the 20th century, the foundations of this system have been preserved to the present day. One of its key elements is the system of so-called "feeding," when the ruling group or an influential clan "places" their own person on some resource or monetary flow, who is then responsible for protecting this resource, augmenting it whenever possible, and can feed off of it themselves. In one form or another, the principle of "feeding" has existed for hundreds of years, though even Tsar Ivan the Terrible tried to destroy it as part of the incomplete land reforms of the 16th century. While a person is entrusted with access to the resource, they have the power to exploit it as they see fit, but cannot privatize it or gift it to their heirs. This system is consciously not regulated by any laws and depends only on personal agreements: such a situation of total legal uncertainty guarantees a certain control over the manager of the resource by those who put that person in charge. Among the most important of these resources is contraband. The post-Soviet state, a constantly mutating combination of criminal-oligarchic clans and patron-client groups, doesn't just [appear to] fight contraband, but is also engaged with the contraband process itself. Organized contraband can take different forms, but today it is almost impossible without the authorities' involvement. The Lomonosov port near St. Petersburg is one of the places where in 1992, the post-Soviet history of contraband began. The piers here still officially belong to the Navy. At the beginning of the 1990s, by agreement with the port's command, the St. Petersburg criminal world along with bureaucrats in the mayor's office brought in enormous amounts of contraband through this port. The schemes and channels that came to be and were fine-tuned then still work around the entire country. According to the economist Andrey Movchan, today "contraband is not carried by bandits but by companies that belong to well-connected people." In 2009, the Lomonosov port was rented to a firm that put about $10 million into equipping the port; however, it never began working at full capacity due to constant pushback from the Federal Customs Service (FCS), which alternately gave and rescinded permissions, or established or discontinued the customs post in the port. The director of the company asserted that in this way, the FCS was acting in the interests of the commercial structures closest to it, which had earlier tried to get control over his company. The customs payments left in arrears, which would have gone into the budget had the port been operation, were not taken into account. If someone is brought to court for contraband, as recently happened with the now-former owner of the neighboring Bronka port, then it is as a rule just evidence of the use of law as a bludgeon in the clan wars for redistribution of assets. That's how it works

Psychotronic War as Social Anesthesia
The members of the oldest Russian association fighting against psychotronic weapons, the Moscow Housing Ecology Committee (MOSCOMECO), might say, "We were conspiracy theorists before it became mainstream." But they would never say it. First of all, psychotronic war for them is not a conspiracy theory, but a harsh reality. Second of all, contemporary figures of speech are probably foreign to them. If you read the pseudo-scientific, dry texts written by committee members, listen to their recordings, and look into their biographies, it becomes clear that they count many aged representatives of the Soviet technological intelligentsia among their numbers, or at least those who feel a cultural connection with them. These texts are always peppered with references to Soviet scientists, former members of secret defense institutes or factories, who supposedly participated in the development of psychotronic weapons. On the website of the Novosibirsk division of the Russian Geographical Society (RGS), we can read about this history of the Soviet Duga over-the-horizon radar station, near Chernobyl: "According to Professor Sedletsky, the Vice President of the League of Independent Scientists of Ukraine who has since 1965 participated in the first experiments to develop 'psy-weapons' in the Institute for Problems of Materials Science in Kiev, General Secretary […] Andropov ordered the creation of the Chief Center for Psychotronics in Ukraine in 1982. The main laboratories were located in subterranean buildings […]. In them, several types of psychotronic generators were developed, and a series of preliminary tests were conducted. […] Powerful over-the-horizon radio complexes had a direct relationship to the problems of psychotronics. Their component phased antenna grids, which work based on radiation, controlled the theta-delta rhythms of the brain. These control functions were performed by two over-the-horizon stations […] Duga-2 and […] Daryal-U." The Duga radar in Chernobyl is perhaps the most famous subject of psychotronic revelations, most likely because it is located next to the ill-fated nuclear power station and is notable for its gigantic dimensions: 150 meters tall, and about 500 meters long.

Conspiracy theorists, incidentally, try to keep up with the times and occasionally update the theories to correspond to the present day. If it was previously believed that Duga was destined to irradiate the West, then today, given that it happens to be located on the territory of a new Western ally, the West itself is using it to control the population of Ukraine: with just a click, the population will come out onto the Maidan; with another, they will quickly disperse. You have probably noted that we began our discussion with a small and seemingly marginal organization, then immediately moved onto quoting a publication of the RGS. The topic has now become so mainstream that it's not just the RGS: all federal television channels (especially state ones) and mass-market newspapers are bringing conspiracy theories out of the shadows and into the light today en masse. Conspiracy theories are a convenient, nearly universal tool of manipulation. On the one hand, they seem to insinuate that everything is already decided for us, and that political resistance is therefore meaningless. On the other hand, conspiracy theories can be used to flood the media landscape with informational trash in order to distract attention, and to politically mobilize the people and legitimize the ruling party while washing their hands of responsibility.

But let's return to the intelligentsia: how did it happen that its technologically inclined "wing" became a conductor for conspiratorial irrationality? After all, Soviet scientists and engineers always tried to look like exemplary proponents of a materialist and positivist worldview? Cultural historian Ilya Kukulin offers a convincing hypothesis in his work Periodicals for Engineers. Having analyzed the genealogy and editorial policies of those Soviet scientific and technical publications that were published in the millions (Science for the Youth, Science and Life and others), Kukulin comes to the conclusion that these publications unintentionally created a syncretic and depoliticized worldview for millions of Soviet techies—a new social class, created by the Soviet regime for a military confrontation with the West. Aside from especially technical material, new discoveries in the exact sciences and tips for making the meager Soviet reality a little bit more rational, the publications printed science fiction and historical fantasy, along with various esoteric materials and a Soviet version of the New Age: articles about paranormal occurrences, parapsychology, occult theories, paleocontacts, telepathy, and UFOs. In this way, rationalism in everyday life and positivism in the sciences found themselves subtly infiltrated by irrational views on politics, economics, and history. The latter were presented as a part of the unknown world, which was best left untouched.
It's worth adding that this fear of the political was instilled in Soviet people not just using magazines, but through long-lasting and entrenched social practices: doublethink, censorship, and the undermining of social connections. The magazines here most likely accompanied them, seemingly under the assumption that "Soviet chaos and everyday difficulties are an initial given, which can be overcome not by reorganizing the economy or civil society, but only through DIY methods […]." Kukulin also finds a key difference between Western and Soviet versions of New Age thought in its depoliticization in the Soviet Union. If in America, "New Age thought was a non-conformist movement, if not wholly revolutionary […], directed against positivism […] and associated with anarchism and pacifism," then "in Soviet [popular science magazines' interpretation, it acquired] a more conservative and escapist meaning," and fulfilled the role of "social anesthesia" for people, all of whom were educated enough to understand the nature of the political regime, but demoralized and frightened enough by that regime to be completely incapable of political thought. But maybe that's all a conspiracy theory, too

Trading in Threats as a Form of Extracting Rent
Let Moscow starve! Separatists announce the secession of Siberia. The authorities' nightmares are a source of rent for the security apparatus
The author of rent-seeking theory, sociologist Simon Kordonsky, formulates the governing principle of the construction of Russia's rent-seeking soslovie (estate) society: "If classes are groups that appear on the [capitalist] market as a result of one party getting lucky and another not, […] then a soslovie is a group that is created by the state […] mainly in order to neutralize a threat." The special services, the police, and other representatives of the security apparatus are separated by Kordonsky into their own soslovie, enjoying enormous power and privileges in exchange for being required to protect the ruling group from threats. If there are no real threats or enemies, they must be invented and the impression must be created that they are fighting them; otherwise the power structures themselves will be under threat of "reorganization." The more meaningful the threat, the more resources—rental money, shares of businesses, positions, awards and so forth—can be received. In constructing threats, the authorities' deeply ingrained complexes, myths, and phobias come into play, no matter how superstitious and illusory they might seem. The only limit here is the imagination and the "can-do" spirit of the security apparatus. Such was already the case in the age of the Great Terror, when on the wave of uncontrollable expansion of power, the secret police acquired enormous—even total—power over society. Their hold weakened only after it was brought to heel from above. But if during the Soviet period, the special services were at least controlled by the Party, then today, there is no control, and they continue to develop their old Soviet methodology creatively. In this way, there is a constant stream of laws about "extremism," "terrorism," "justifying fascism," "foreign agents," and "separatism"—the repressive toolset is extensive and constantly expanding.

The rent-seeking and absolutely extralegal principle—who can do what, and who can't—is in force, for example, in the interpretation of the concept of "separatism." The criminal code defines it as "public calls for the performance of actions directed toward the violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation." Even for conversations about this, citizens can receive a prison term (some have already gotten one), but the authorities themselves consider it their right to incite separatism abroad and seize the territory of neighboring countries while doling out Russian territories if it is in the interests of someone in power: over the last decade, China received islands on the Amur River from Russia, Norway received about 200,000 square kilometers of the continental shelf, and Azerbaijan got three villages along with their residents. There is a lobbyist battle for articles of the criminal code that permit the construction of threats, as this above all else is an economic resource and a tool for expanding power: if you put an "extremist" or a "separatist" away, you get a bonus, a promotion, or social capital. Both the authorities and the special services are aware of the fact that the reality of their "successes" in the fight against threats is completely fabricated, but the authorities buy them, especially in crisis situations, because they themselves are dependent on the loyalty and decisiveness of the law enforcement soslovie, hence the insistence that "the security apparatus never makes mistakes," a mantra which the latter would like to make a part of the law. However, even that division between "authorities" and "special services" is potentially out of date. For some time now, it has been possible to call the Russian regime a dictatorship of the secret police: they are the ones, unrestricted by anything, that have the full plenitude of power

Hold onto My Heel and Be Saved
The queue to visit Matrona's sanctuary
In the history of venerating the Blessed Matrona, a wide spectrum of recent sociopolitical processes and conflicts were reflected as though in a mirror. Matrona Nikonova was born blind in a poor village near Tula in 1881 or 1885. In her youth, she lost the use of her legs. Nearly all her life, she received pilgrims who came to her for comfort, predictions of the future, and life advice. Matrona was a psychic, a therapist, and a sort of spiritual leader all in one for those like her: illiterate and disenfranchised peasants, who were forced in the 1920s to resettle to the cities en masse. For nearly thirty years, she wandered among acquaintances and relatives, living in the capital illegally under constant threat of arrest. Today, she has made the Moscow monastery where she is buried one of the richest in the post-Soviet space, and the cult around her has become truly massive: in a day, up to 5,000 people might visit Matrona's grave, with numbers exceeding 20,000 on her name day. She is the main figure in post-Soviet "deep religion," if the analogy can be made to the deep state. Matrona died in 1952, but there is almost no reliable evidence of her life. Texts about her written by religious and secular researchers are full of high-minded distaste for the harmless everyday magic on which her cult is built. [2] Such a relationship, however, is characteristic of how the intelligentsia perceives the people in general: it considers itself the ambassadors of rock 'n roll in a country of squares, but at the same time, they depend on power and are essentially a part of it (at least in the people's perception). They see the people as an unenlightened, obedient mass. This estrangement—which appears to be mutual—between the people and the intelligentsia has been reinforced by Russian political culture since the times of Tsar Peter. The contemporary regime constantly tosses sticks onto this smoldering social conflict, which is unquestionably advantageous to the powers that be.

But let's return to Matrona. Another group of works about her are "popular" biographies and testimonies of miraculous healings and salvations, successful careers and lucky marriages, all containing a great deal of practical advice, rituals, and legends. Judging by the language of these texts, they are targeted mainly at the poor and downtrodden residents of remote regions, who have seen little in their lives save for hard labor and humiliation. Anthropologist Zhanna Kormina makes the curious conclusion that these popular biographies are more creative than the dry canonical texts. The authors who work constantly in this literary field and the convent where Matrona is interred constantly produce new stories and rituals. This gave rise to the recent tradition of bringing flowers to the shrine where the saint's relics are held. The church is simultaneously trying to "normalize" the cult around Matrona, purifying it of "witchcraft" and materialism while adapting it to the demands of urban believers. This, however, doesn't stop it from selling holy water (more accurately, labels for plastic bottles), the "oil of Matrona," and other goods. At one point, there was a brutal battle within the church between the "liberals," who considered her 2004 canonization to be a break with canon, and the conservative-nationalist wing of the hierarchy. The latter's conservatism, incidentally, is not manifest in a strict adherence to Christian dogmatism, but in a pragmatic expansion of the number of followers and the advancement of chauvinistic imperial ideology. Everything can be used for this, even the people's Saint Matrona. The nationalist-conservatives currently dominate in the Russian Orthodox Church, and they are the ones who forced through her canonization, regardless of the fact that the canonization commission was initially opposed. Matrona's first grave was exhumed and her remains were brought to a convent to which she had had no connection whatsoever during her life. Now it is known as the "Temple of Matrona." One legend mentioned in a people's biography was very suitable: how Stalin in 1941 came to Matrona for advice and blessing. The creators of church policy follow a simple gospel: if you can't beat 'em, lead 'em. Such was the case once upon a time with Christianity itself, and such was the case with other Russian popular saints, who were first venerated by the people and only later canonized by the church with much reluctance. Among them is a victim of homosexual harassment, the martyr Basil of Mangazeya (17th century); a boy killed by lightning, Artemy of Verkola (16th century); an elder who called himself emperor, Feodor Kuzmich (19th century); and the exiled deserter Daniel of Achinsk (19th century).

The incorporation and adaptation of popular cults, traditions, and rites isn't anything new in the history of Orthodoxy and religion in general. These rites and cults came about partially because the church, as an arm of the state, attracted neither respect nor trust (for example, Peter the Great effectively abolished clergy-penitent privilege), while Christian legends and virtues were too ancient and abstract, poorly resonating with people's real lives. The holy fools, elders, and pilgrims that they venerated and rituals directly connected to agricultural cycles were much closer and comprehensible to them. Not all of these unofficial saints were necessarily dissidents—the majority remained within the walls of the church and preached meekness before the authorities—but this was nevertheless a form of unofficial piety, full of everyday rituals and an escape from the official canons of Christianity, which many in Russia consider a forced Jewish religion even a thousand years after the country had officially adopted it as a state faith

Movement Through Space as a Form of Resistance
As they generate legal and political uncertainty for citizens, the government also wants to have a clear and maximally simple understanding of what's happening "on the street." This desire encompasses the entire economic and political reality: the simpler society is constructed and the fewer actors it has, the more it will depend on the authorities and the easier it will be for them to manage (or create the illusion of management). This impulse is at the core of Russian gentrification, a kind of modern Haussmannism: we don't want to see these "slums" and kiosks, but enjoy "beauty" instead. Interestingly, the term "gentrification" has different connotations among Western intelligentsia and in the post-Soviet space. If in the West, gentrification is almost always an unambiguous evil and the result of excess capital taking over new territories, destroying small shops, and forcing out local residents that can no longer afford to live in such areas, then in Russia the authorities' attacks on "small business" are typically welcomed for aesthetic reasons above all else: allegedly, these "small businesses" ruin the appearance of streets and squares. But the Russian kiosk business, especially in the country's outer regions, is not business in the classical sense, but subsistence trade: an activity aimed almost exclusively at survival. Whereas major companies are the forces ruthlessly at work in the West, gentrification in the post-Soviet space is the government's prerogative. But is the difference really that important? In the announcement from Moscow's mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, on the mass demolition of "samostroy" (or "self-built structures") in 2016, a reference to aesthetics could be heard: that it was necessary, allegedly, "to return gardens, squares, and streets to Muscovites — open, beautiful, and beloved," regardless of any "property titles." In other words, property rights are nothing in comparison to the authorities' desire to brush away any sort of clearly uncontrolled activity, especially the kind that gets in the way of a pretty view.

Is any resistance possible here? Yes, but for now, it is a guerilla and depoliticized tactic: if the enemy's superior forces cannot be defeated in open combat, they can be quietly resisted through constant deception, using loopholes in the law and trying to be formally "invisible." If the law doesn't provide equality and justice, then you need to use it as a tool, just like the authorities do. In one of Russia's cities, a kind of guerilla hide-and-seek within feigned legal realities with the authorities has come together. Let's say the mayor wants to get rid of a temporary kiosk. In order to do this, they get a court decision, but the court demands an accurate reference to the location: such-and-such an address, so many meters away, say to the east, from another address. Having received the court decision, the owner of the kiosk simply hires a crane, moves the kiosk several meters to the side, and continues to work. This can go on indefinitely. Why not build a permanent kiosk or rent a commercial space? Here we return to the regime of uncertainty which is consciously supported by the authorities using, for example, complex procedures and the absence of legal guarantees. The logic dictated by the authorities' instincts of self-preservation is as follows: if the kiosk owner gets guaranteed property rights, then they will quickly realize their right to make demands to the authorities of legal protection and equality, and join together with those like him. Any minute now, they'll start a political party. The ruling groups simply can't accept anything like that. Let the people move their kiosks back and forth — for their whole lives, if they wish. Ultimately, the line between kiosk owners and the authorities is one of the most important political and economic fault lines in contemporary Russian society, and the need for certainty is the most important political demand today
The Book
Sergey Novikov & Max Sher

25.7 x 16.2 cm (vertical)
360 pages
76 photographs + 50 essays
in English and Russian
Published by RecurrentBooks in 2019
Offset printing
Edition: 300
ISBN 978–5–600–00289–0

€40.00 + shipping

5 October - 1 December 2019
TAXED TO THE MAX exhibition at
Noorderlicht International Photography Festival, Groningen

8 October 2019
Book launch at Moscow Museum of Modern Art

11-13 October 2019
Photobook market at Fotodoc Center, Moscow

3 November 2019
Book launch at the Festival of Contemporary Photography «Presence»
Sevkabel Port, St. Petersburg
Sergey Novikov is a visual artist. His work centers on the economy and culture of territories and societies and the mechanisms by which they function. Novikov's photographic practice includes interventions in urban landscape and staging as well as reenactments of the visual marks of modernity. His recent projects, ZATO (2014-2016) and Grassroots (2012-2018), were exhibited in Russia and abroad, as well as shortlisted for the Luma Rencontres Dummy Book Award Arles in 2016 and 2017, the Photobookfest Moscow Dummy Award 2017, the 2016 Anamorphosis Prize, and the 2015 Lucie Scholarship. Novikov's works have appeared in Esquire Russia, Russian Reporter, The Moscow Times, The Guardian, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Der Spiegel, Wired, The Atlantic Cities, BuzzFeed, Dazed and Confused, and other publications. He is based in Moscow

Max Sher is primarily interested in the representation of post-Soviet cultural landscape and histories. He works in photography, installation, and video, and also produces books and zines. Sher's work has been exhibited as part of solo and group shows at the Shchusev Museum of Architecture, New Tretyakov Gallery, Triumph Gallery, Yekaterina Foundation, Calvert22, Mead Gallery, Yeltsin Center, Metenkov Museum of Photography, PERMM, Zarya, and others. Sher's books include A Remote Barely Audible Evening Waltz (2013, Treemedia), Palimpsests (Ad Marginem, 2018), and 245 Khrushchev Housing Entrances (2019, self-published). He has also worked as a photographer on assignments for Süddeutsche Zeitung, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, Bloomberg Businessweek, and other publications

This project was made possible with the support of the
Heinrich Böll Foundation.
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