"The one who wants to die does not die": The Dionysian Haven of Anya Al'chuk

by Dragan Kujundžić

Ne slepite glaza pustote (Do not blind the eyes of emptiness).

                                         Anya Al’chuk, Siringa, 1981


“The One Who Wants to Die, Does not Die,” says  Maurice Blanchot in The Literary Space, which concludes his reflection on Kirilov’s suicide in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (Besy), Kirilov who kills himself in order to become God, and then Blanchot continues into the reflection of “this strange project, double death,” suicide as a double mort, a double death and death’s double. ”To kill oneself is to mistake one death for the other; it is a sort of bizarre play on words. I go to meet the death which is in the world, at my disposal, and that thereby I can reach the other death, over which I have no power” (Blanchot 104). I wish to talk today about the poetry and suicide of my friend, a great Russian poet and artist Anya Al’chuk in Berlin in March 2008. To put it up front: can a suicide be an act of militancy, of militant aesthetics?[1] Kirilov’s as you may remember, was in the Besy appropriated for precisely such an outcome of political violence. What if Al’chuk’s poetry, and her tragic ending, required a completely different regime of reading, one that could not be reduced or subsumed under the name of aesthetics, aesthetization, and especially not militancy, harking back to militia, military and warfare. What of this oblique offering, a passion for life in death, which operates, puts to work a secret which is also at work in literature, and cannot be reduced to some aesthetic quality? And which has the right to refuse its secret before any court of law. Suicide like literature is this place of the secret and an absolute secret. But a secret which impassions.  “In place of the secret: there where nevertheless everything is said and where what remains is nothing—but the remainder, not even of literature” (I am here following Derrida,  Passions, 1993 28). We should remember this concatenation of secret, passion and literature, we will return to it. I would argue, and am giving you already a conclusion, on a topic that knows only of openings, approaches to borders, “uncertain thresholds one cannot attain” (Blanchot), a singularity and incompleteness, which for me includes an interminable mourning and a sense of loss of a friend: the event that for me remains the encounter with Anya Al’chuk requires a completely different regime of reading which defies the notions of militant agency, completion in aesthetic concepts or experience (including that of “conceptualism”), or even notions of poetic expressivity. But for all that its performance is no less effective, while it remains an effectivity without power. The most enduring cultural effects, be it writing, poetry, or pedagogy, come from the source of impotence and passivity, disarmed but for that no less resilient and enduring.  Al’chuk’s life and poetry belong to an act where “immeasurable passivity reigns,” (Blanchot), a passion without will. An experience of the impossible.  Or, something, as Blanchot would say, like a suicide, art and suicide—“a shocking comparison” — “testing the limits of possibility” (Blanchot 106). “Both involve a power that wants to be power even in the region of the ungraspable, where the domain of goals ends” (Blanchot 106). “An ordeal where everything is risked, … where nothingness slips away, the power to die is gambled” (Blanchot 106).


You will not hear from me anything that you cannot find in Mihail Ryklin’s infinitely moving, recently published Dionysos’ Harbor, Anya’s Book, [Pristan’ Dionisa. Kniga Anny], (2013) the saddest book I’ve read in my life. It analyzes the reasons for Anya’s suicide, in the wake of unjust and hurtful accusations, the political violence piled on her during the trial related to the exhibit Ostorozhno Religiia and recounted at length and in detail in Ryklin’s book Svastika, krest, zvezda, as well as in Pristan’ Dionisa.


I am not privy to any details of Anya Al’chuk’s last days that I have not found in Ryklin’s book. Like others, I have heard, from her closest friends in Berlin whom I know and who were with her just a few days before her death, the speculation about Anya’s death and possible political assassination, which Ryklin puts to rest in this book. Ryklin himself has pointed out in numerous places that Anya’s suicide remains a singular act, incomparable to any other suicide, a realm of secret, thus in many ways improbable, even to the closest friends. I merely propose to read with you some of the traces this event left, like a ripple in water, and to read some of her poetry in light without light of this event. However I do not want to pass on the opportunity to remember how I met with Anya and share it with you since, now I understand it in light of the infinite finitude of her passing and absence, not only does it testify to her generosity and personal warmth, but in some essential ways may also explain her poetry.


I met Anya Al’chuk and Misha Ryklin in December of 1990, a quarter of a century ago. I was at the time, during my stay as a graduate student, on an exchange program between University of Southern California  and Literaturny Institut  Imeny Gorkogo,  invited to give a talk at the Institute of Philosophy of RAN in Moscow where I read my essay on Bakhtin and Derrida. (Published in English I am proud to say by the other great Bakhtin scholar from Yale University, Michael Holquist--the other of course being Katerina Clark). It is my particular pleasure to see in the audience graduates from the institute who testify to the immense importance of this institution in contemporary Russian culture, and who have now boarded stellar international careers in their own right already equaling their senior colleagues, like Valery Podoroga, Lena Petrovska, Oleg Aronson, Misha Ryklin, among others, in the urgency and relevance of their work. I am also honored to count some of them as my friends, as I am forever grateful for the generosity of the welcome their senior colleagues accorded me in 1990. In that very cold December of 1990, Anya Al’chuk and Misha Ryklin proposed to take me for a tour of the metro, and show me the stations Ryklin since analyzed in his then forthcoming, landmark and seminal book, Terrorologiki published in 1992 about terror and the building of the Moscow metro, a book intuiting or formulating the mechanisms of terror and terrorism which we have only now started to grapple with.


As we have yet to give a proper account of Ryklin’s other work, such as Prostranstva likovaniia [The Space of Jubilation] published in 2002, a reflection on the work of the totalitarian and totalizing metaphor of political violence; Vremia diagnoza [The Time of Diagnosis] which appeared in 2003, a day to day diagnosis of the genealogy of the post-Soviet condition in Russia, particularly related to the war in Chechnia and the building of internal repression in Russia;  Svastika, krest, zvezda [Swastika, Cross, Star, The Work of Art in the Time of “Managed Democracy”] published in 2006, and dedicated to the outcome of the pogrom of the exhibit and artists of the Ostorozhno religiia! [Beware, Religion!] in the Saharov Center in 2003, and the subsequent trial in which his wife Anya Al’chuk was one of the three accused and put to trial; Svoboda i zapret. Kul’tura v epohu terrora, [Freedom and Repression,  Culture in the Time of Terror], published in 2008, or Komunizm i religiia. Intelektualy i Oktiabrskaia revolutsiia  in 2009. That this already amounts to an inimitable and colossal opus dedicated to a reflection on post-communism, but also culture and violence in general, is without a doubt. It would require a conference on its own, it is as I see it, not enough talked about.


We went through a number of stations, most particularly stopping at the Novoslobodskaia, Baumanskaya, and Borovitskaia, with the Imperskoe Derevo, the Imperial Tree, where I was first introduced to Ryklin’s reflection so relevant today, on political terror and violence, whereby in the monumental chiseled architecture in the granite and semi-precious marble, Ryklin was the first to perceive and analyze, in ways which to this day remain unsurpassed, the “Imperial plenitude fulfilled in architecture and formation of the metro, pointing already beyond its profane political equivalent [i.e. Stalin] towards something like Imperiality, higher or more than empire,” an imperial impulse at work all the way to today’s claim of Crimea and Novorosiia, a timeless or undead political empire or vempire at work. We are in the nadir of political violence with valences that go beyond those of the moment in which the metro was built: “the figures in the metro make the people (narod) the final referent of terror. Since what else is the people (narod), if not God, become immanent to his own creation, having refused transcendental claim.” (Ryklin, 1994, 45). We will see soon how narod become God, the ultimate reference of terror, from this quote, reared its ugly nationalist head in the trial of Anya Al’chuk, related to the exhibit Ostorozhno Religiia!, just as they did in the recent warmongering already inscribed in the Baumanskaia in “the tropes of the external enemy, which in fact deeply interiorize the mechanisms of terror itself” (Ryklin, 1994, 43). In a word, in the figures inscribed in the metro, Ryklin discovers something that Jacques Derrida recently called an autoimmunitary suicide, imaginary or symbolic, which opens up the time of terror or follows in its wake. Thus we will be following the singularity of each of these suicides as we go along, as no two are alike, and these two, one personal and the other collective and political, point to two different issues or outcomes of the conclusion of nihilism, political or otherwise.


But there is another memory I want to share, that of the visit on another occasion, to the  VDNKh-a, Vystavka dostizhenii narodnogo khoziaistva, [The Exhibit of Achievements of the People’s Economy],  where we were joined  by Lev Rubinshtein and Dimitry Prigov. To this day, along with my lecture at the Institute for Philosophy, this remains one of the most impressive and formative cultural experiences of my life, and the visit to the VDNKh an unsurpassed lesson in readings of cultural signs of Soviet art and ideology. It was a bitterly cold winter, and we were the only visitors in the vast space of the exhibit (not that the warmer weather in December 1990 would bring more visitors I suspect), exhilarated by it, particularly with those aspects of the exhibit which pertained to biopolitics, fertility, production and reproduction of animal life, symbolized by the enormous eggs in which replicas of egg farms were placed, giant ideological ovaria, used in the narodnoe  khoziastvo and the oneiric inventions of its achievements, the people, narod, become God, creating ex-nihilo and ex and ab ovo. (In his last seminar, Jacques Derrida analyzed this as a relation between the animal and the sovereign, la bête et le souverain). A lot of laughter was had and I want to remember with you Anya in this halcyon moment, the high noon and shared  laughter.


In the course of the visit, I was myself particularly thrilled by a contraption the name of which was Stanok dlia iskusstvennogo osemenenii pchelinikh matok, [A stand for the artificial insemination of queen bees] and I told this to my hosts to our shared amusement. Since then, I educated myself a bit in the apiary science, pchelovodstvo, and learned that indeed such a contraption, such an apparatus is actually used (although how it works is still a bit of a mystery to me), you can buy such thing online and it ain’t cheap, but the narodnoe khoziastvo of the USSR claimed the biopolitical primacy of the invention. And let me say quickly that I am not making fun of insects or any kind of animals, not least of all since I am reading this in the presence of Oxana Timofeeva whose work on animals inspires in me a true awe. But for another reason as well. Several months after we parted ways and I returned to continue my graduate studies in the US, I received an envelope with a pleasant surprise: a photograph that Anya Al’chuk took the trouble to go out of her way and make after our visit, the photograph of that very Stanok, and then added the trouble of sending to me (at the time you could send such shipments from only one post office in Moscow), to me, whom she had met until that moment only once or twice in her life. She remembered our visit, and went to make a photograph of our shared experience. Such was her generosity. In his introduction to her collected poetry, published by NLO in 2011, Ryklin quotes Anya’s assessment of her own work, of which there were two strains. The one was her poetic persona, “which required profound introspection and self-determination, the other, [that of an artist], required intensive communication with others, colossal energy turned towards the outside, to others.” (Ryklin, 2011, 18). Colossal energy turned towards others, I can testify to that, and I am forever grateful to have been in my life a recipient of such a hospitable and generous turn.


But now that I reflect on the nature of Anya Al’huk’s poetry, this gesture also may be emblematic of her writing, which, to anticipate a bit, opens up spaces of welcoming and generosity, a space of gift. And the choice of the photographic object that she sent me as a gift is somewhat fortuitous here, and lends itself favorably to such an interpretation. The stanok happens to be a mechanism that is the prosthetic origin of life (no such thing as bare life, a long footnote engaging Agamben on this account is warranted here), this machine inseminates and disseminates life by means of an artificial contraption, a prosthesis, other than life. Combined in its name are isskustvo, art, and the queen bee, matka, the figure of the receptacle par excellence. Thus, a forked and aporetic trope, pointing toward the prosthetic, grafting and graphematic, typographic, that is writing, and receiving, passivity, giving life itself from the place of affirmation, here inextricably tied together. Which Anya, in turn, captured in a photograph, and sent me as a gift, and thus replicating, refolding, in the original sense of replicating (plico, plicare, lat. to fold, to weave), the original as always already prosthetic. She translated that configuration found at the exhibit, (already a repetition at the origin), to the inscription on the photographic substrate, which in turn gave space to and re-marked, as in marked for the second time, and thus countersigned, after the fact, our shared experience as a joyous affirmation. And thus reoriented it to the future, the time to-come, avenir. Anya remarked it as a shared gift of the visit and time together, this time captured in the ever reproducible image and yet so singular a gift, a gift of life, more than life, a survivance in the prosthetic image. This photograph is in itself a graphematic inscription of the traces of the prosthetic origin of life, a desire “to see life and a movement given to a graphe, to see a zoography become animated, …. A pictural [apicultural ?—D.K.] representation, … the dead inscription of the living” (Derrida, Khora,  118)[2]. In doing so she put to work the khora, the receptacle at the origin of the world, which, as Derrida famously says, anachronizes being. Khora is that which receives, the receptacle, something indeed like a queen bee or a photograph, by giving place to the form while itself receding and withdrawing, giving life to the shared memory and to life itself in a figure of remarking it, accepting it, affirming it and welcoming it: giving it back as a gift. And this in itself is an introduction to the poetry of Anya Al’chuk.


Anya Al’chuk’s poetry was organized in ten poetic cycles, from Siringa in 1981 (I give the dates of the earliest poems in the cycle) , Dvenadcat’ rytmicheskih pauz (1985), Slovarevo (1988), Prosteishie [Simplest] (1989) Dvizheniia [Movements] (1988), Sov sem’ (1989), OVOLS – an anagram of slovo, word (1996), ne BU 2000, 57557, correspondence in the form of Japanese poetry, and Pomimo, Besides, 2005-2008. She has undergone a creative transformation while from the start remaining faithful to a few poetic principles, from a somewhat classical prosody a la Mandelstam, to a dismantling of the syntax in which her poetry receives its hidden, enigmatic, secret sense. From the very titles of the poetry is visible an attention to the signifier which refuses to close itself around or adhere to the determined meaning, and redirects words to unintended but dormant senses (senses, as in directions, destinations), a graphematic play launching words to their destinerrant trajectories, always elsewhere, “running away from the darkness, but you, but you!”, “pobeg iz tem (NO TY)”: a poetic gesture figuring an opening out of darkness in or through the bracketed, protected by the brackets and thus sheltering an appellation to the other: “no ty!” (another, musical connotation is not without relevance as well: the notes, noty). In Slovarevo, a whole town made of words, rhymes with Sarajevo, or in Sov sem, seven owls and a totality, sovsem, all and everything broken into its semantic-atomic particles, poetic atomization as Keti Chuhrov wrote in the introduction to the ne BU. Ovols, an anagram of Slovo, word, marks a refusal of the word to its logoification, or logocentricsm, a poetic practice or performance which works an avoidance of the logocentric meaning that would be assured to language. As Dimitry Bulatov summarizes, “At the beginning there was, not, a word…” (Bulatov, 2011, 319). We are at the scene, to quote Keti Chuhrov a bit more, of the “typographic sign and letter, … which are revealed only in writing” (Chuhrov, 211, 337) . ne BU, is a title impossible to translate, even from Russian into Russian, whereby the “ne BU”, I will not be, is promised to the “NEBU,” to the skies, to the heaven, in any sense to the transcendence, and at the same time refused: ne BU nebu, I will not to heaven. The disjunction ne-Bu creates a space where meaning (or sense) refuses a transcendental horizon or signified. I could sign everything that Keti Chuhrov had to say about Anya’s poetry, the proximity of Al’chuk’s poetry to the notion of writing, ecriture and archecriture in Derrida which puts the reader in front  of aporetic semantic outcomes, making the choice impossible, and thus operating on the borderlines of language, refusing readymade codifications, and thus open them to the realm of ethics. This affinity with the Derridean notion of ecriture is not surprising, in historical terms, since it is Misha Ryklin and his colleagues in the Institute for Philosophy RAN who were instrumental in bringing Jacques Derrida to Russia in 1990, a few months before my visit (like many other things in life, I myself owe Jacques Derrida the introduction to Misha Ryklin,  Lena Petrovska, Valery Podoroga, etc. ), and Anya was familiar with Derrida’s work.[3] But not just as some appendix married to a philosopher, I hasten to add. Anya and Misha were equal partners in intellectual enterprises, publishing books together, even inscribing themselves as joint authors in the acronym title, RAMA. Performansy (Ryklin, Al’chuk, Misha, Anna=RAMA; RAMA to this day remains Mikhail Ryklin’s email address), in 1994. But I would like to take Keti Chuhrov’s conclusion a bit further and benefit from her presence here in the audience to initiate a discussion. I would like to ponder over the conclusion that Al’chuk’s poetry reveals or “opens up clearances from which grows a being of language.”   This poetry of anagrams, palindromes, blank chasms and chiasmatic reversals, denies itself an access to any being, any firm anchoring, and revelatory opening, it is always on the way elsewhere, towards the encounter of its alterity. It may be detrimental to the very notion of being, revealed or not. Ira Sandomirskaia wrote about the internal distance opened within the word, on the border of agrammaticality, anagrammaticality, which, as Misha Ryklin said, operates the realm of pre-ontological, “the nocturnal landscapes of language where everything is half dissolved, half molten” (Ryklin, 2011, 13; 2013, 224).


It is a poetry giving itself over to the internal distance and departure, doors of poetry opened to nebo/ne bog, not to god, no god, to god and a farewell to god, a-dieu, a stairway to heaven leading to the Dyonisian harbor, thus to a non-revealable threshold, an ecstasy and passion without body, telo, and without telos, a slovo without a logos. Thus no being is given or revealed here, epiphany in heaven, but language which receives or welcomes an encounter with the other, a dream of an encounter with the other, an opening towards a hospitality, for better of for worse: memento mori (son). This poetry of affirmation is mindful of the darkness which motivates its generosity and its hospitality. After all, Anya Al’chuk in Slovarevo wrote an entire poem consisting of words of affirmation, nikogda, da, da, da,  ne pereiti. [never, yes, not cross, where da wins over ne (yes over no) seven to one]. It is a yes-saying, a oui dire, to the graphematic turn and iteration, da, da, da, da ,da, da, da! By means of a prosthetic reversal it celebrates an inscription and ecriture, before any being, any determination of meaning, pre-semantic and pre-ontological, and thus creates the space for the advent of the other, for better or for worse. That trusting and joyous opening, we shall see, may have been Anya’s downfall. But at the same time, this poetic contraption, this poetic prosthetic stanok operates the stanzas (same etymology between stanok and stanza, and meaning the same thing, a standing place, an opening, a respite, a khora) which welcome and receive the semiotic, the very insemination and semantic dissemination, operating in Al’chuk’s own formula, “words, which call us to life” (2011, 15). Words, which call us to life, should be a title of a book dedicated to Anya Al’chuk. . And stanok indeed harkens back, I checked in the Dal’, to stanok pechatny, printing machine, thus typography, graphematic inscription and reproducibility, while stanok also has the meaning of stan’, pristan’ pristanishche, a harbor, a dock, a pier, a haven or a New Haven Harbor[4], as in Pristan’ Dionisa. While with a different stress, stanok may mean an inheritance, leftovers, ostanok, someone’s earthly remains after death. Al’chuk’s words call us to life and protect us, her readers, as in a harbor or haven suspending death. The author takes on herself the risk of protecting and sheltering the reader.


And then, the bee: in the Greek, Melissa, was the name of a nymph who brought up Dionysus on honey, and you have guessed, Dionysus is not only the god of wine, but, older than that, of bee-keeping,  at the origin of apiculture (see for example Ransome, The Sacred Bee in Ancient Time and Folklore, 102), but also the art of sweet words, like poetry.  Pristan’ Dionisa harbors mellifluous poetry (Al’chuk’s poetry has been put to music, noty, on several occasions).


Al’chuk’s poetry operates, works, pre-semantic and preontological, a space giving affirmation, which in the anagramatical reversals and turns, that is tropes, always turning towards the other, promises the future, the to-come of Russian language already at work in it: it gives place while receding, while withdrawing itself into a secret and a restraint (ne pereiti!), opens it up, opens a doorstan’ (I quote Al’chuk here in both Russian and English) to a non-semanticized to-come, a prelinguistic pure language, a khora and a choral work, an a-venir of senses. It offers a space for language as a gift. It is a singular and unique Anna-gramma.


Al’chuk’s poetry performs a counter- or post- Heideggerian quest for etymologies, but the one not turned toward the past and more authentic language (High German, or Greek, in the case of Heidegger). It most of all is not about the literality of etymology, not any –logy, but on the contrary: a forking off or the rhetorical force of language turned towards what in language is yet to come as the linguistic other, a-venir.  This language operates a certain violence, no doubt, as all writing does, but violence which is there to ward off, paralyze or resist the ideological, political, etymologico-cultural or nationalist appropriations of language, such are to be found in Heidegger in an exemplary way. To this, Al’chuk’s signature juxtaposes a risk that she takes on herself, to open herself completely and without reservation towards the arrival in the language of the other, another of the language, another of being, not another word, but other than and of the word or being.  It is a poetry which opens a shelter or a pristan’ for the words yet to come.


This kind of writing reworks and pulls the ground under any logoification of language, any sovereignist, nationalist appropriation of the phallogocentric moguchii russkii iazik (the potent Russian language, a formula I always found somewhat obscene), above the “barriers of the national” (Sandomirska, 2011, 348). A comparison with the work of Dimitry Prigov and the affinities (numerous) and differences (also significant) between him and Al’chuk if time permitted, would be warranted here.[5]


But Melissa, to stay with the figure of the bee and move toward the conclusion of our paper, is also Demeter’s priestess initiated in the mysteries by the Goddess herself. When her neighbors learned about the initiation, they tried to make her reveal the secret of her revelation, but she remained silent, never letting a word pass her lips. In anger, the women tore her apart. Demeter in turn, to thank her for her gift of death, caused the bees to be born from her dead body. Melissa, who taught men not to be cannibals nor to kill each other, by teaching them to eat honey, and who introduced modesty and restraint among people, did not want to reveal Demeter’s mystery. At the origin of literature, says Derrida, is the right to keep a secret, in an “absolute solitude of a passion without martyrdom” (Derrida 1995, 31).


The exhibit Ostorozhno, religiia! [Beware, Religion!] with works from various artists, such as Alexandar Kosolapov, Elena Elagina, Ira Val’dron, Oleg Kulik, Vadik Monro, and An’ia Al’chuk opened on January 14, 2003. By all accounts, it was not even mildly provocative in relation to anyone’s religious feelings, and certainly not offensive to anyone with minimal cultural or any literacy, with only oblique references to Christianity, often without any. A number of artists were active believers in Russian Orthodoxy and churchgoers.  It was in a gallery, a space codified as not sacred, and thus precisely the space where religious imagery should be put to the test as artists see fit. That practice and freedom or artistic expression in the officially registered and assigned artistic and gallery space is a protected, codified and legalized inheritance of secularism, civilization, and division of powers between church and state. It is even written in and protected as such by the current Constitution of the Russian Federation. Not, I want to stress, that its supposed radicalism of which there was little in relation to the religious language would matter for what followed: even if it had been much more radical or what is called scandalous, the exhibit would still be legitimate and necessary. In any case, the Moscow art scene had seen before much more radical artistic confrontations with the religious, say in the work of Brenner. And, by the way, the public space in Moscow still displays, next to the seat of the presidential powers, the religiously blasphemous effigy of Lenin’s dead body in his mausoleum-museum, against prescriptions or proscriptions having to do with the funerary rites related to the ritual and even hygienic disposal of dead bodies, of all organized monotheistic religions, certainly of the Russian Orthodox Church. No protest from the Russian Orthodox Church, no hurt religious feelings, related to that body from the Russian Orthodox Church, no hurt feelings for the blasphemous display of the Messianic and pseudo Christic quazi immortality embodied in the exhibited corpse of Lenin. A curious silence there. So it makes one think that other forces were at work in what was to follow.  The exhibit was held in the Sakharov Memorial Center, the only institution in Moscow where one could see openly on display a protest sign to the war in Chechnia, for example. On January 18, 2003, a group of brown shirt thugs destroyed the exhibit by throwing paint at it and writing in the true Christian spirit with indelible paint, disparaging remarks like “gady,” “svoloch,” [scum, swine] etc. The perpetrators were at first arrested by the police and the police report rightly listed the arrest warrant as huliganstvo, hooliganism. There are laws on the books for such crimes in Russia. But such charges, after the political machine was put to work were dropped, and very soon the tables reversed. It is the artists who were accused of fomenting religious intolerance, and the two organizers, and one artist, Anya Al’chuk, were put on trial. The trial was accompanied by an unprecedented propaganda campaign of the official media and the Russian Orthodox Church, and the court sessions by the attendance of believers bussed from around the country, in an atmosphere of open hatred, expression of anti-Semitism, with words like Zhidy, [Kikes], daily hurled at the accused regardless whether they were Jewish or not, without any interference of the court. It was the first massive display of public resentment in an official public space in Russia marked by religious fervor since the fall of communism in Russia, started “on the background of the moral terror and propaganda, and unleashing the religious terror, the most senseless and dangerous emanation of extremism” (Ryklin, KSZ, 45). I will not recount the details of this eruption of politico religious violence. I refer you to Ryklin’s book, as well as a summary of the court proceedings by Anya Berstein in one of the most recent issues of Public Culture (Duke UP). On March 28, 2005, among the accused who faced several years of imprisonment, the two gallery managers were sentenced to stiff financial fines, and Anya Al’chuk acquitted. The acquittal, as Ira Sandomirskaia wrote in her essay, was worse than any accusation, both this “accusation” and the “acquittal” were incommensurate with the notion of justice or even current laws of the land. The anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic hysteria unleashed around the trial (anti-Semitism of which, predictably, the Jews themselves were accused of fomenting in the first place, a tone unheard of in Russia since the days of the Beilis trial and the fabrication of the Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion a hundred years ago), more than validated even the mild critical stand that the exhibit took towards organized religion in Russia. If anything, the exhibit did not go far enough in its critical dismantling of the religio-political practices in Russia, and a much stronger artistic statement would have been warranted, to match in representation the literalism of the religious violence unleashed around the exhibit. Certainly the aftermath of the exhibit put on display the symptoms of religious intolerance that would more than warrant a much more stringent, engaged, “scandalous,” and provocative artistic performance, and a legal protection of the artists as well, than what was in fact put on display.


The events around Ostorozhno Religiia! mark a certain religious turn in Russia, an acceleration of the discourses and political practices of purification and cleansing, up to the unleashing of religious and state violence, that is, as Ryklin would say, the most primitive of forces. The destruction and politico-religious violence unleashed around Beware, Religion! was a first salvo in the line of religious markers of political repression in Russia, which was followed by the Pussy Riot performance in the Hram Hrista Spasitelia (Church of the Christ the Savior) for which the young women served harsh prison sentences; the recent ban of Tannhauser in a theater in Novosibirsk for putting on stage the dramatic personage of Christ; all the way to the killing of Boris Nemcov, the first reports of the reasons for the assassination being the reaction of the assassins to Nemcov’s supposed speaking against the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack and Islam (none was to be found); the other is that somehow the killers were aiming at Putin, but could not get to him and, faute de mieux, they settled for the second best, Putin’s fiercest critic (?!). In all these expressions of violence religion is used as a point of justification, thus operating in the realm of or as an excuse for the non-secular suspension of the laws, of the state of exception resulting in sovereignism “of the autocrat and dictator, who is now named a president” (Ryklin KSZ 35), or simply for slaying the political opponents like Nemcov.


It is a turn of forces which attacks the body of Russia itself, destroying its most valuable and sensitive cultural and societal enervation. As many political commentators have noticed (I could quote here recent public statements and analyses by scholars and intellectuals such as D. Bykov, A. Etkind, E. Al’bac, M. Iampolsky, L.Rubinshtein), this unleashing of a politics of resentment destroys the societal, health, educational and cultural fiber of the society:  and in their analyses they have all used the word “suicide.” It is an autoimmunitary turn motivated by self-purification, a destructive force which attacks the protective fibers of society, the destructive spasm which Jacques Derrida in the book Philosophy in the Time of Terror, called an autoimmunitary suicide, which “feeds the monstrosity it claims to overcome” (Derrida).


But what kind of suicide is it, where are the sources of its autoimmunitary violence against the social body? Mikhail Iampolsky traced it recently to the unleashing of the forces of resentment, interiorized both by the current regime in its sovereignist fantasy, and by the population who is helpless in the face of the destruction of its standard of living, cultural and political space, social and economic safety nets, etc. In this environment, the religious turn is an attempt to compensate, by means of a purgatory acceleration and the auto-immunitary perversion, for all those shortcomings, by attacking that which, in the last instance holds Russian society together: culture, health, education, etc.


Friedrich Nietzsche, in his various writing, we are also reminded by Gilles Deleuze, distinguished two types of suicide. One which is reactive, the product of resentment, unleashed by forces hostile to life. It is the work of the reactive man, the ugliest man, with bad conscience, “rumbling with bile and full of secret shame” (Zarathustra).

This man commits suicide even while alive, is at the ready to unleash destruction against others, symptomatic of the collective suicide and the product of reactive and reactionary forces, the negative and reactive nihilism, leading into what Jacques Derrida would call the autoimmunitary suicide.


To this, Nietzsche juxtaposes the Dyonisian principle, the Dyonisian affirmation of life and the moment of transmutation into the will for nothingness. The negation here expresses the affirmation of life, the negative becomes “the thunderbolt and lightning of the power of affirming” (Deleuze 175). The Dionysian affirmation sacrifices the reactive forces, becoming “the finest creation,” passing into “service of an excess of life,” (Deleuze 175). Only in this transmutation is the nihilism completed and overcome.


For us who new Anya Al’chuk, and much more of course for her family and loved ones, this reflection does not help much in dealing with the sense of loss, or healing it. But from that realm from which she speaks to me today, from the singularity of her finitude, from that Dionysian harbor, from her books, poetry, photographs, performance art recorded in publications, I truly feel only the most generous affirmation of life, a life giving force, and joyous jubilation and hospitality, generously opened to and welcoming the other. The finest creation in service of life.  It is not not mindful of death, of memento mori(son), but emanates affirmation precisely in spite of it and in its threatening possibility. From the current regime I feel only resentful nihilism, it is already dead even while alive, a bad infinity, dead on arrival. To this, Anya Al’chuk juxtaposed an immanence of joy, whereby the one flying to the heaven/skies, uletaiushchi v nebo, refuses the appropriation of the religious horizon (v (ne Bog), no God, placing itself on the docking border of Dionysian ecstasy, in the quest for the Dionysos- haven (“gde pristan’ tvoia, Dionysus?”). “Dionysus’ haven is a hope to make this life eternal.” (Ryklin 224).


“My wife loved people and needed human warmth; she was incapable of hating anyone and never learned to do so. As a talented poet, my wife relied on the state in which her soul was merged with the world, and now this source of blissful happiness, her trusting way, her openness, friendliness, her unique form of naiveté, had run dry, drowned in the current of hate directed at her”  (Ryklin). In another place of Pristan’ Dionisa, Misha Ryklin describes how Anya, having taken some psilocybin (the hallucinogenic mushrooms) fell into an ecstatic delirium in which she took on herself all the guilt hurled at her, up to and including the feeling of guilt and responsibility for her accusers. It is that weight of assumed guilt for the other, for others, that was unbearable for her body to carry. But in this orgiastic ecstasy, spoke the origin of the ethical itself. The ethical, says Jacques Derrida in the Gift of Death, has its origin in the orgiastic.


Three years later, almost to the day of the anniversary of her acquittal, Anya Al’chuk, the poet who wrote at her tender age of 25 in her very first collection of poetry, that she feels the “the heavy arches of the bridges,” (tiazhest’ khrebty mostov), “under which I wait for the day to die in me” (“gde zhdu umertvlenia dnya v sebe”) and admonished not to “blind the eyes of emptiness” (ne slepite glaza pustote), the author of these lines filled her pockets with heavy stones, took some sleeping pills, pulled the cap over her eyes thus blinding herself, and walked into the river Spree. Three weeks later her body was found under the heavy ridges of the Mühlendamm Sluice Bridge in the center of Berlin.


“Whoever wants to die, does not die, she loses the will to die. She enters into the nocturnal realm of fascination  wherein she dies in a passion bereft of will” (Blanchot  1982, 105). “Qui veut mourir ne meurt pas, perd la volonté de mourir, entre dans la fascination nocturne où elle meurt dans une passion sans volonté.” (Blanchot 1955, 128).








Al’chuk, Anya. Sobrannie stikhotvorenii.  Moskva: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2011.

-----------------,  Ryklin, Mikhail. RAMA. Performansi. Moskva: Obscuri viri, 1994.

Berstein, Anya. “Caution, Religion! Iconoclasm, Secuarism, and Ways of Seeing in Post-Soviet Art Wars,” Public Culture, 10, 2015.

Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Litreature. Tr. Anne Smock. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1982.

-----------------------. L’espace litteraire. Paris: Gallimard, 1955.[The quote slightly adjusted for gender by D.K.

Bulatov, Dmitrii, in Al’chuk, Anna. Sobrannie stikhotvorenii

Chukhrov, Kety, in Al’chuk, Anna. Sobrannie stikhotvorenii

Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche and Philosophy.  Tr. Hugh Tomlinson. London: Athlone Press, 1983.

Derrida, Jacques. Philosophy in the Time of Terror. Tr. By Giovanna  Borradori. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2003. Here quoted from the Kindle Edition, 2015.

--------------------. On the Name. Ed. Thomas Dutoit, Tr. David Wood et al. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993.

Iampolskii, Mikhail. “V strane pobedivshego resentimenta,”, October 6, 2014, last accessed May 4, 2015.


Kujundžić, Dragan, “Against the Stream: the Danube, the Video, and the Nonbiodegradables of Europe,” Interculturality 8, Spring 2015.

-----------------------. “Mythology, Philosophy, Anthropology, Deconstruction.  The Legacy of Jacques Derrida.” In Mifologii “zhivye” i knizhnye [Mythologies, “Live” and Literary]. Edited by S. Arkhipova and S. Nekliudov. Moscow: Russian State University for the Humanities, Center for Typological and Semiotic Folklore Studies, 2011.

-----------------------, “Prigov: the Future of Russian,” in Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, Spring 2009.

Ransome, Hilda, M. The Sacred Bee in Ancient Time and Folklore. New York: Dover Publications, 2004.

Ryklin, Mikhail. Pristan’ Dionisa. Kniga Anny. Moscow: Logos, 2013.

-------------------. In Al’chuk, Anya. Sobrannie stikhotvorenii.  Moskva: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, , 2011.

-------------------. Komunizm i religiia. Intelektualy i Oktiabrskaia revolutsiia. Moskva: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2009.

-------------------. Svoboda i zapret. Kul’tura v epohu terrora. Moskva: Logos, 2008.

--------------------.Krest, svastika, zvezda Moskva: Logos, 2006.

-------------------. Vremia diagnoza. Moskva: Logos 2003.

-------------------. Prostranstva likovaniia. Totalitarizm i razlichie.  Moskva: Logos 2002.

-------------------. Isskustvo kak prepiatstvie. Moskva: Ad marginem 1997.

--------------------.Terrorologiki. Moskva: Ad marginem, 1994.

-------------------.  Jacques Derrida v Moskve. Moskva: Ad Marginem, 1993.

Sandomiraska Ira, in Al’chuk, Anna. Sobrannie stikhotvorenii

Savkina, Irina. “Nastoiashchee prodolzhennoe,” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 93, 2008.

Sukhovei, Dar’ia. “Penie nechitaemogo,” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 93, 2008.



Anna Al’chuk


распахнута д-верь  [Pristan' Dionisa]


from: Al’chuk, Anya. Sobrannie stikhotvorenii.  Moskva: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2011.



[1] The essay has been originally written for and read at a conference on “Political  Violence and Militant Aesthetics After Socialism,” organized by Marijeta Božović, and held on April 17-19, 2015, at Yale University, New Haven, USA.

[2] See on the Khora, Dragan Kujundžić, “Mythology, Philosophy, Anthropology, Deconstruction.  The Legacy of Jacques Derrida,” Moscow 2011.


[3] Jacques Derrida’s historic visit has been the topic of another landmark book by Mikhail Ryklin, Jacques Derrida v Moskve, 1993.

[4] A word play which inscribes a location of the conference, New Haven, by referring to the original name of the town, the New Haven Harbor.

[5] It take the liberty to refer to my essay about Dimitry Prigov “Prigov: the Future of Russian,” in Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, Spring 2009

Join the Colloquy

Poetry after Language

Marijeta Bozovic, Walt Hunter
Book Chapter
Journal Article
Journal Article
Journal Article
Book Chapter
Journal Article