The cult of the dead was not alien to them, nor a certain respect for those who were absent. It seemed these people with their Slavic faces, fresh and cruel, slept in a photographer’s prayer-room.1
I’m where the light is black-orange. The city is known for its lack of Soviet infrastructure and staunch and hardened nationalism. Morning comes as a pearly corona wraps its bloodless arms around the sun. Gothic and jangly architecture stands tall, and between it — swastikas and white pride slogans are spray-painted onto a few of the walls.
In the very centre of the city stands a high empty hill. I meet Vadim — the guy I’ve been staying with here. He likes IT and salsa dancing. A rough path twirls around the hill scattered with dead leaves. Snow gently falls. Covered in moss and dead leaves, a sniper’s bunker juts out the side of the hill and faces the city streets. We go further up, more snow; the streets disappear out of view. I feel well out of the city now as the leafless branches entangle and rip the face of the sky like a cleft palate.
We reach a ledge in the hill. A concentration camp stands with bullet-holes in its sides, completely abandoned. Vadim tells me of a notorious lunatic who squats there and is supposedly building an archive of local military history. The brick walls are decrepit and battered — all tangled meat. Trenches fifteen to twenty feet deep surround the camp, banking up to tall fences, rusted and crowned with razor wire. We circle the camp. We yell out. Vadim throws rocks. We stand and look at the monolithic structure for a while. An old face with one tooth and matted carpet hair rears out from the slightly ajar doorway. Vadim asks if the man can open the gate and let us in — he tells us to fuck off.
We move deeper up the hill. It’s getting colder. The forest is caked in cloud.
A tree falls down a little further up, it’s like a throat being pulled out of a neck. It opens to a hollow. Small green fires burn in snow. Silence, stillness. The tips of the hill are covered in smoke and mist. Young built men with shaved heads — buzz cut bleached white — in camouflage gear and bomber jackets bust up the fallen trunks with hatchets. They have rifles slung over their shoulders. Vadim turns and proceeds to walk back down the hill. I lock eyes with one of the skinheads. I smell of fear. I follow Vadim. The skinheads shout out and proceed to advance on us coming down the hill. They turn in front of us and block the path down. I can only make out vague traces of the language — they’re asking repeatedly if we’re Russian, pushing us in the shoulders, their rifles still slung over their shoulders. ‘Ni, ni’, we express profusely. Vadim speaks to them at length. Many of them have slits carved into their eyebrows. We’re pulled into their hollow. Fires limply burn. They talk to Vadim awhile — I pick up scraps of the conversation. It calms. Vadim says we’re leaving. Descending, he tells me that they’re an anti-Russian, bordering on white supremacist, nationalist gang called The Moskulls — a straight-arrowed pun on the capital of the former USSR. He tells me that there is another abandoned concentration camp further up and that the gang are preparing for a WWII re-enactment that is to take place there tomorrow. He tells me that we’ve both been invited. Unabashedly excited, I ask if he’s going? He says no, and that they’re fucking idiots.
We catch a bus to Vadim’s flat. The woman in the apartment downstairs is a prostitute. She digs her toes into the stairwell carpet and smokes cigarettes as we pass her, between customers. I trawl through the net at Vadim’s place, trying to find anything on The Moskulls, to no avail. Vadim bucks his arms and shoulders across his chest as he practices for his salsa class. In the hallway the sound of television static and porn moans move up and down the stairs.
The battle hasn’t killed us, but at calm air in the quiet room we kill ourselves.2
I wake up, put my clothes on, pack my video camera and make instant coffee. Vadim walks through the front door with the woman from downstairs. I tell him that I’m going to the re-enactment. He nods his head expressionlessly and puts his mouth into the coffee cup.
I careen around and up the hill, losing track of the way. Snow hits down and blurs the path. I ascend fast, frantic that I’ll miss it. I start to hear the staccato of voices in the distance.
The stage has been set around the concentration camp, sectioned off with long strips of yellow police tape. Marching band music with robust strings plays through tinny speakers in the trees. A man bent on one knee has a circuit board with a set of triggers for explosives before him. The national flag is half-mast atop the concentration camp. The set is complete with all original attire and weaponry from the times — trench coats, boots, hats, helmets, badges, Gatling guns, rifles with bayonets, tommy guns, blank bullets. Behind the yellow tape, the crowd is waxed in energy. Close to 400 people have arrived — largely made up of families, women rocking babies against breasts. The people fall silent as a man pulls up to the microphone and begins to speak over the horns of war. The teeth of my vision is thrown around as the spectacle begins … Gun shots crack hard and shrill, ringing our ears into this mélange of history … Soldiers crawl on the ground through the dead leaves, others form troupes and run at other men … they shoot each other … half of the men fall and play dead on the ground … The narration continues and the fallen soldiers stand … More yelling as grenades are hurled about — the man works his fingers about the explosive circuit board like a piano tuner … He works the board again — the earth shivers with a deep thudding blast … the concentration camp is engulfed in smoke — snuffed … a full-size tank has rolled in from the side — it hammers forth another blank projectile. Unknown soldiers spill out of the concentration camp through the smoke and pretend to be mowed down by the onslaught of blank bullets. From the hill here, the seething mass of pretend corpses resembles some kind of crazy map — strewn about like islands … They pile up and scatter … The smell of gunpowder and sweat … Victor and vanquished move into new positions and await the narrator’s story and instructions. Crossfire erupts on the sides of the camp … Ropes pull Gatling guns, countless shots bang — all the Russian troops are executed. The killers keep shooting at the heaving corpses, walk over to them and pierce the hearts of the dead with retractable bayonets. Most of the skinheads I met yesterday are not here. I spot one, maybe two. I make out that every battle is based on a real historical battle, and that every one of these battles that they re-enact sees them conquer. They’re winning battles they lost in the past. It seems simple — a clear subversion and subsequent reclamation of history; the oppressed killing their oppressors. Yet there is a more erratic narrative bubbling underneath … the whole prospect of skins in a city where the Nazis hit hard. And the event is so heightened and glamorous that it’s almost sensual. Where do the men fit? Are they nationalists? Patriots? Resistance soldiers? Carnivalesque protestors? Performers? Artists? Actionists? Activists? Ghosts? The crowd watch entranced as they’re twisted on a carousel of mangled histories — rolling timelines collide and lacerate and become withdrawn in the face of themselves. The concentration camp today is a fort of the enemy — the Moskulls seize it.
The battles conclude and it’s time for photos. The soldiers sling the rifles over the shoulders of dream-faced boys and girls who smile, pretend to load the weapons and put their eyes down the scopes. Women and children pose with their heroes as their husbands and fathers take photos. Kids hands sift through dead leaves and collect empty shells. A group of teenagers have a rifle. They laugh and take turns holding the gun and pointing it at each other. One teen bends to his knees and folds his fingers at the back of his skull — his friend puts the gun to his forehead and pulls the trigger.
All the soldiers stand before the camp. The flag is raised full. Many of them have band-aids over one eyebrow. The soldiers call in unison: Slava Ukraina! Slava Ukraina!
Monday, Vadim’s place … I write obsessively of the event … This masquerade of history is as demented as it is complex — does it rectify the bewilderment of post-independent identity? A fractured event of a fractured people … Can we look at it from the intersection of art and politics? The gang’s re-enactment lives up to the art world’s confused definitions of Carnival, although they operate from the darker, more insidious end of the spectrum. The concatenation of art and politics is too often confused with the possibility of this combination being a good thing. This cocktail is written and spoken about so dazzlingly and romantically in contemporary art circles, that we forget about how it can also be moronic. If this event employed more conceptualised, convoluted and pompous trickeries of subversion, and was also self-designed as a revolutionary means of escape, then this event would be heralded as some kind of grand artwork-in-disguise. Instead, the Moskulls are too ugly — they equate nationalism (in a country that was ravaged by the Nazis) with neo-Nazism and white supremacy. It’s messy — and these curious distillations are even more transgressive, violent and complex than they seem. However — just as useless as the Moskulls’ racist and stupid views — it’s also pointless attaching an art-as-activism/activism-as-art framework to this event because the event has already been aestheticised before we decide if it is or not:
Art can in fact enter the political sphere and, indeed, art already has entered it many times in the twentieth century. The problem is not art’s incapacity to become truly political. The problem is that today’s political sphere has already become aestheticised. When art becomes political, it is forced to make the unpleasant discovery that politics has already become art — that politics has already situated itself in the aesthetic field.3
The performance of the day is a dissolution of art into life, whether we agree with it or not. Layering this theoretical hodgepodge of a skin over the top is effete.
Vadim comes home with the woman from downstairs. They’re speaking Russian. They dance salsa in the kitchen. I tell them about the event and how deranged it was and what I’ve been drawing from it. He asks what it has to do with him? I take it as rude for a second — what’s he got to say when he intrinsically supports the country’s extreme sex trade? I think for a while, until I see myself slipping into the conundrum of making grand ideas of a culture — how it really just rectifies and breeds a new bunch of stereotypes of ‘the white poor’.
Vadim and his lover talk in Russian to each other. They look out the window as the sun hangs in the vaguely remote horizon. He turns around and asks how long I intend to stay for.
Scott McCulloch is a Melbourne-based writer, documentarian and literary studies teacher.