Party of the Dead: Necroaesthetics and Transformation of Political Performativity in Russia During the Pandemic

Party of the Dead, The Dead in the Dead City, 2020. Performance action. Photograph by and courtesy of Evgeny Kurskov.

The Dead in the Dead City

On April 5, 2020, a few days after the regime of self-isolation had been implemented in Russia,(The mandatory quarantine dates vary by region. In St. Petersburg, a strict regime of self-isolation began on March 31, 2020.)the so-called deadmen — members of the St. Petersburg performance collective Party of the Dead (Kristina Bubentsova, Maria Vonogova, Maria Nelubova, Maxim Evstropov) — gathered in an apartment not far from the city center, where a corpse prop awaited them. The deadmen went out into the empty streets of the city, carrying the fake corpse (wrapped in a white cloth) on a medical stretcher, thus transgressing the stay-at-home state order with their performative funerary procession. Carrying the stretcher to the sparse sounds of medical sirens, the deadmen walked the streets of the quarantined city, now eerily empty. As self-identified “zombie flaneur,”(Maxim Evstropov (2020), “Art-activism and consensus of the police” Facebook, April, 25, 2020 https://www.facebook.com/the.party.of.the.dead/posts/3212592815427069 (accessed January 8, 2021).) the deadmen paused to take photos in the seemingly frozen city, photos they would later post online as documentation of their performance The Dead in the Dead City.

Party of the Dead, The Dead in the Dead City, 2020. Performance action. Photograph by and courtesy of Evgeny Kurskov.

While there have been various performance and activist interventions created in response to the coronavirus in Russia, the virus and quarantine have become the unique, fertile soil for Party of the Dead, an art collective that also considers itself Russia’s largest political party,  as it includes all the infinite number of the dead.

It has now become painfully clear that the global pandemic and subsequent isolation have not only prompted fundamentally new conditions for living and survival, but also intensified the problems and challenges that were already present in Russia and worldwide. In this regard, the American philosopher Judith Butler speaks of “the rapidity with which radical inequality, nationalism, and capitalist exploitation find ways to reproduce and strengthen themselves within the pandemic zones.”(Judith Butler “Capitalism Has its Limits,” Verso Books (blog), August 2, 2020, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4603-capitalism-has-its-limits.) Сontrolling the COVID-19 pandemic in Russia has its own national specificity. The government initially hesitated to introduce quarantine measures, and President Vladimir Putin notoriously avoided this issue. When quarantine measures were instituted in April 2020, they were cryptically referred to as “self-isolation,”(Officially, self-isolation forbade any leave of domicile, except for taking out the trash, buying provisions and medicine, and walking pets.) the term implying that citizens control staying at home themselves, which allowed the state to avoid extensive financial responsibility for individual and commercial economic loss. The ambiguity of the order created a proliferation of “grey areas,” whereby the quarantine was perceived to be enforced only in matters that were convenient for the government.

Predictably, the concern for citizens’ health became a convenient pretext to initiate new repressions against activists and implement forms of consolidation of state power. The Russian government used this critical, spatiotemporal conjecture to undertake amendments to the Russian Constitution in order to allow Putin to legally remain president until 2036. Meanwhile, a ban on single-person pickets was successfully passed, and protesters were routinely arrested for breaking the self-isolation regime. The closure of public space – already a contested subject in Russia – was highly alarming to activist, artist, and intellectual communities, raising questions about the possibility and ethics of political action. The pandemic, thus, became a pretext for artists and activists to rethink the problem of access to public spaces and the politicization of the private sphere, and to start politicizing these issues in their work, both on the streets and online.(For example, Katrin Nenasheva, NIICHEGODELAT, ZIP group, Techno-poetry.)

In St. Petersburg specifically, the authorities lacked the financial resources to ensure the observance of the self-isolation order, and the quarantine was perceived to exist only nominally in most aspects of daily life. Residents could freely move around the city, many bars and restaurants continued to operate underground, and shop employees served customers without masks and gloves. In stark contrast to this situation was the attitude towards funerary services in the city and nationwide. While many restrictions appeared to be nominal, the ban on saying farewell to the deceased was tightly controlled in St. Petersburg with a peculiar force: not only were family members forbidden from visiting their dying loved ones in the hospitals, they were also forbidden to hold funerals. This selective treatment of government care for the living appeared contradictory and cruel, igniting public debate. The annual Victory Parade – the Russian government’s official celebration of Victory Day during the Great Patriotic War in World War II, an event of great national importance as well as a ritualized occasion to mourn the deceased – was also postponed. It was as if death itself became the most marginalized, most vulnerable part of life, and in effect, held hostage by the state. This newfound condition of death (a subject of significant debate in Russia) became the backdrop for the activities of the Party of the Dead, whose members position themselves as the protectors of the dead. “Like death is excluded from the public space, so is protest excluded now – that’s why protest returns by way of the cemetery,”(“Eternity smells with Putin.” Radio Liberty June 22, 2020: https://www.svoboda.org/a/30683918.html?fbclid=IwAR1-o7iNacwgIr9Wqgv6Z1OIdMb33zI96iVi8tMBlqtRPSCaJp0Q_spHi7M) said Party of the Dead’s Maxim Evstropov, following a performance action in a St. Petersburg cemetery.

Party of the Dead, The Dead in the Dead City, 2020. Performance action. Photograph by and courtesy of Evgeny Kurskov.

Ceci n’est pas un Parti [It is not a Party]

Party of the Dead has been making performance actions in public spaces since 2017. Its founding member, Maxim Evstropov, was a member of the now-defunct performance group {rodina} (motherland), also dedicated to activist art. Their visually striking performance actions are documented through photos and sometimes videos, which are shared on social media rather than in specialized art spaces in a manner characteristic of other Russian actionists and art activists.

A key contextual reference for Party of the Dead is the National Bolshevik Party (NBP), founded by Eduard Limonov, the largest youth political party that operated from 1993 until it was banned in 2007. It included up to 40,000 members and was exemplary for its unprecedented political success and unity fostered by the cultural intelligentsia at the time. The name Party of the Dead originates here: the NBP referred to the deceased members of their party as “the party of the dead,” whereby extraordinary individuals of the past were added postmortem into their pantheon of heroes. However, the elements of nationalism, militarism, and imperialism covertly present in the NBP are not inherited by Party of the Dead, which also lacks the revolutionary vigor of NBP’s political manifestations, such as NBP’s infamous storming of the president’s reception’s hall in 2014 with demands for abdication of power

Party of the Dead proclaims itself a political party that includes all the deceased. The collective’s “living membership” is fluid and includes approximately twenty members. “Living members” habitually meet in Rosa’s House of Culture,(Rosa’s House of Culture is also the home of Chto Delat?, the unique Russian school of engaged art, where Evstropov lectures.) an important club for political artists and activists in St. Petersburg that hosts socially engaged exhibitions and houses a library. One member, Kristina Bubentsova, was drawn to Party of the Dead while attending an open assembly dedicated to the discussion of their 2019 project Draft Charter, an ongoing and specifically unfinishable writing of the rulebook of Party of the Dead. Bubentsova was interested in the possibility of an ironic stance on politics, which she felt spoke to the postmodern condition of our time.(Referencing Umberto Eco, Bubentsova noted that “ […] in the era of postmodernism one cannot even say ‘I love you,’ without it being a reference to popular film.” Interview with members of Party of the Dead: Kristina Bubentsova, Olga Karperka, D.K and Maxim Evstropov; archive of Pavel Mitenko, October 23, 2020.)Another member, Olga Karperka, who teaches literature in a public school, noted that she already considers her profession as a sort of medium between the world of the dead – writers and poets – and the world of the living. The involvement of Karperka and Bubentsova speaks to how the Party of the Dead cultivates its living membership; Bubentsova, as many other living members, found out about the collective through social media, while Karpenka got engaged through common friends.

Outside of St. Petersburg, there are factions operating in Tomsk, Ufa, Moscow, and Berlin, and anyone can name themselves a member and act without coordination from  the St. Petersburg faction. However, the sole principles that must not be contradicted are “Freedom, Equality, and Death,” which are written in the Party of the Dead’s charter in French Liberté, égalité, mortalité. Other members occasionally correspond with those in St. Petersburg, but mainly to have their events promoted on its social media, which attracts a vast public. As a vision of organizational utopia, the Party of the Dead dreams of becoming a necrointernational that includes – under the paradoxical idea of representing the dead – all the living.

The goal of Party of the Dead is the realization of a necrorevolution that would allow the dead to be considered as such, without their sacralization and the cultish appropriation of their memory for political ends. The path to realization of this goal is paved through a fight against the idea of immortality, specifically the stance against the strive for continuity and immortality by power.(Interview with members of Party of the Dead Kristina Bubentsova, Olga Karperka, D.K and Maxim Evstropov; archive of Pavel Mitenko, October 23, 2020.)The theme of immortality is resurrected from Russian cosmism, a futurist movement that explored the extension of human life, the fight against aging, and the exploration of outer space. Cosmism is considered a precursor to contemporary transhumanism and is influential in laying the foundation for modern astronautics. Philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov (1829-1903), one of cosmism’s founding fathers, was particularly invested in the dual utopic projects of immortality for all and the resurrection of the dead as a realization of true justice.(See Boris Groys, ed., Russian Cosmism (MIT Press and e-flux, New York 2018).) In contrast to cosmism’s desire to overcome death, Party of the Dead returns the right to death to the people in order to enhance their right to life. As such, it repoliticizes death through its necroactivism, appropriating the necropolitics of power that is actively taking hold of the realm of death through, for example, the prohibition of funerals. It becomes apparent, then, that Party of the Dead is actually not a party, but rather a manifestation of the relationship between politics and death in Russia.

Necrodiscourse and Necroaesthetics

The prefix necro- from Greek nekros or corpse is a recurring trope of the Party: necro-picket, necro-activism, necro-delivery. Necro- is also an aesthetic and was introduced into the context of Russian performance by Yevgeny Yufit (1961-2016), the founder of the late Soviet art collective the Necrorealists. The idea of Necrorealism was to undermine and deconstruct everyday existence and the automatism of life through an ironic game with the concept of death. Participants organized performative, often absurdist actions and made a series of films outside of the state system of cinema with a focus on black humor inspired by German Expressionist and Surrealist cinema. Party of the Dead’s omnipresent use of necro- clearly points to the legacy of the Necrorealists, however, there are also clear distinctions between the two groups. Yufit understood necro as a form of realism, and the Necrorealists used body makeup to create an aesthetic similar to postmortem stages of bodily decay. In contrast, Party of the Dead uses corpse paint; as mentioned earlier, a makeup used in black metal subculture. The necroaesthetics of the Necrorealists served as a way to disappear from ideology, to become nonpolitical; for Party of the Dead, necroaesthetics is a way of manifesting ideology to make visible the way power takes hold over the realm of death.

Party of the Dead, The Immortal Regiment, 2020. Performance action. Photograph by and courtesy of Maxim Evstropov.

There is also a highly referential quality to Party of the Dead’s discourse and aesthetic. For example, Evstropov often remarks on the importance of the city of Tomsk, where the Immortal Regiment attracts thousands annually on May 9, Russian Victory Day.(The Immortal Regiment started in 2011 and was hence popularized throughout Russia attracting thousands. The Immortal Regiment can be seen as part of the mythification of Soviet World War II history by the Putin regime.) Here, individuals self-organize and march while carrying portraits of family members who died in the Second World War. Party of the Dead appropriates the aesthetic form of this movement, replacing the family portrait with the symbol of a skull.  The collective’s protest signs, a signature attribute of the group referred to as a necro-picket, usually include ironic statements such as “Eternity smells of Putin” and “May the dead get well soon.” Such statements echo the Novosibirsk performance and mass art movement Monstratsia, where hundreds gather yearly and carry nonsensical signs as part of a carnivalesque political parade. Monstratsia is a public action similar to a political demonstration, but whose deliberate embrace of absurdism appears as parodying the idea of public demonstrations. Since 2017, Party of the Dead has participated in Russia’s popular May 1 or Labor Day parades, masked in their signature corpse paint, while carrying these types of nonsensical protest signs and skulls. The conflation of the Immortal Regiment and Monstratsiaone explicitly patriotic and mournful, the other carnivalesque – betrays the act of appropriation and irony so central to postmodern culture and at the core of Party of the Dead’s work.

Despite the explicit irony in Party of the Dead’s rhetoric and written banners and signs, speech (particularly in the context of the pandemic) has become an act of protection and care, an extension of the collective’s role as protectors of the voices of the dead. At the same time, speech serves as an act of liberation, as Party of the Dead symbolically allows the dead to “speak for themselves.” Moreover, Party of the Dead represents the dead in the capacity of ghosts for it is only through the medium of the living that ghosts can exist and be represented. Thus, the dead stand among other invisible or marginalized groups devoid of political voice. Giving space to others is part of the subaltern drive by contemporary Russian artists and actionists, such as Katrin Nenasheva, Daria Serenko, and the Union of Convalescents. Recent Russian actionism is in conversation with global trends in socially engaged art by giving space to victims of domestic violence, sex workers, people with mental illnesses, and during the pandemic to couriers, salespeople, and pharmacists. Although Party of the Dead does not consider itself a form of actionism (they do not make transgressive actions in city spaces for the aim of media reaction, as definitive of Russian actionism), they do share actionism’s politics of care. In effect, Party of the Dead not only emancipates all of the dead, but also liberates its own members through necroactivism, according to the members of Party of the Dead.(Maxim Evstropov “Party of the Dead: from necrorealism to necroactivism,” Moscow Art Magazine, http://moscowartmagazine.com/issue/101/article/2230 (accessed January 30, 2021).)

Party of the Dead, Delivery Death Club, 2020. Performance action. Photography by and courtesy of Alexander Belov.

On June 6, 2020, Party of the Dead reacted to protests by Delivery Club employees (those who deliver food) against unbearable working conditions and the government system of fines. According to protesters, almost 300 employees didn’t receive their salaries for more than a month and some were forced to spend the night on the street. As a gesture of support, Party of the Dead replaced the logo on their backpacks by adding one word: “Delivery Death Club” (our italics). When a photo was posted on Facebook, the following caption brought a political dimension to the routine delivery process:

“Delivery by foot necro-courier

Delivery by bike necro-courier

Necro-delivery from 15 minutes

Death delivery to the Kremlin”(Maxim Evstropov (2020), “Delivery of the Death” Facebook, June, 7, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/max.stropov/posts/3067230760003015 (accessed August 2, 2020).)

Through these statements, Party of the Dead highlighted that the quarantine – under today’s neoliberal labor conditions – is not universal, as our daily existence is maintained and serviced by less-privileged, more-vulnerable bodies. In other words, staying home is not just a question of ethics, but of politics and political representation. In this performance action, Party of the Dead extended their mission to include not only the care of the dead, but also the care of the living. Death and grief, which occupy the realm of private space, the intimate and personal, have suddenly become radical political rights and the grounds for equal access.

Death Goes Public

Party of the Dead has not “gone virtual” during Covid but has continued its performance actions in the streets and public spaces of the city. However, its bodily presence is not a heroic activist gesture, but rather connected to the real desire to speak “not about the abstract dead, but about the real dead, and therefore, to truly be present for that,” said Evstropov.(Interview with Maxim Evstropov, archive of Antonina Stebur, October 13, 2020.)However, this choice of action left Evstropov with conflicted feelings. For activist practices, the choice between compliance with the self-isolation and going outside and potentially spreading infection, bears an ethical weight. This choice has become radically politicized: “You can no longer just stay home or just go outside,” says Evstropov, “neither is seen as neutral anymore, transforming into a political gesture.”(Maxim Evstropov (2020), “Art-activism and consensus of the police” Facebook, April 25, 2020 https://www.facebook.com/max.stropov/posts/2960250310701061 (accessed August 2, 2020).)

On May 31,  2020, well into the pandemic and in disregard of the stay-at-home order, Evstropov laid inside a medical bag for human corpse disposal on the grass of a central square in St. Petersburg known as the Field of Mars. The title of this durational performance action, Let’s not say bye, we’ll see each other soon (also written on a sign next to the disposed  body), was a clear response to the official government prohibition of saying goodbye to deceased relatives during the pandemic. While the presence of a “corpse” also appeared in the earlier The Dead in a Dead City performance, the playful and ironic quality that had defined Party of the Dead was absent. For instance, there were no skull masks or corpse paint. This performance action (with participation by Maria Vonogova) speaks to how the collective’s aesthetics have changed during the pandemic through their more direct confrontation with a bleak reality: the mass deaths due to the coronavirus, prohibition of funerals, and the widespread failures of the Russian healthcare system. Likewise, the physical placement of a material “dead” body into the public space manifested not a discursive ambivalence to the dynamics of existence/nonexistence of the quarantine in Russian politics, but a desire to expose the hidden sight of death.

There is a timely return to Greek tragedy as uniquely addressing the themes of justice, death, and mourning, so evocative of our current global pandemic. In Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex, for example, the pollution of the city of Thebes that so angered the gods is caused by a ritually unclean death. Since Ancient Greece and perhaps long before then, the proliferation of the idea that death and illness pollute the city has resulted in the specific separations of the realms of living bodies from decaying bodies in Western culture, reinforced by centuries of city planning, hospital architecture, and legally structured rituals of mourning. Today, the bodies of the dead are conventionally subjected to very strict measures; localizing and containing their presence, there are special sections of hospitals, morgues, and crematoriums and cemeteries are largely outside of the city. Rituals of mourning for the departed are strictly regulated by culture, both in terms of their site and duration. The pandemic has destabilized these naturalized borders and social conventions – what in Greek tragedy is considered pollution – and what is today understood as the conflation of the visible and the invisible spaces of death. The presence of mobile morgues (refrigerated vans stationed outside of hospitals) is ever more horrifying because it is a trespass of death into the sphere of the living. In a city that has forbidden funerals (which were not forbidden in other Russian cities), Party of the Dead’s pandemic performances make this pollution explicit. It occurs across multiple registers at once – across the borders between life and death, between public and private life, between the past and the present.

Party of the Dead, Eternity Smells like Putin, 2020. Performance action. Photograph by and courtesy of David Frenkel.

It is no coincidence that Party of the Dead holds its performance actions not only in urban spaces, but also in cemeteries – places of human grief and mourning, where public rituals and intimate experiences merge, and where the past and present intertwine. “Death is neither an absolutely public, nor an absolutely private matter. It is met with public rituals and collective grief, while at the same time, it is impossible to share it,” states Evstropov.(Interview with Maxim Evstropov, archive of Antonina Stebur, October 13, 2020.)

On June 21, 2020 in protest against the amendments to the constitution and Putin’s so-called “nullification,” Party of the Dead organized Eternity Smells like Putin, a necro-picket at a cemetery with such slogans as “Death has the rule of law throughout the Russian Federation!” and “Yes death! Yes nullification!”(“Eternity smells with Putin.” Radio Liberty, June 22, 2020: https://www.svoboda.org/a/30683918.html?fbclid=IwAR1-o7iNacwgIr9Wqgv6Z1OIdMb33zI96iVi8tMBlqtRPSCaJp0Q_spHi7M) This somewhat ironic performance action can be interpreted as pointing to pollution in Russia, a country where mass death due to Covid overlaps with Putin’s political dream to remain president to the year 2036. Commenting on the performance, Evstropov says that the idea of nullification implies something new, but what is born is just the same decrepit old, and this is certain as death itself.(Ibid.)

Party of the Dead, Eternity Smells like Putin, 2020. Performance action. Photography by and courtesy of David Frenkel.

Adding to the spatiotemporal undifferentiation that has resulted from the virtualization of life during the global pandemic, the amendments to the Russian Constitution that allow prolonging the presidential term manifest a notion of the future of Russia contaminated by the memory of the Soviet past. In both the context of contamination and the performance action Eternity Smells like Putin, the public space of action aptly moves to the outskirts of the city— the cemetery, the site of bodily decay and death, where the unmourned deceased return as ghosts. In the haunted present, Party of the Dead performs a political action that is directed not only into the future, but also into the past, yet becomes fully present in this eternally returning notion of time.

Antigone’s Work

Just as the coronavirus breeds on and is exasperated by preexisting conditions of the body, the social fabric of present-day Russia is made even more vulnerable by its scars from the Soviet past. In Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied,(Alexander Etkind, Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied (CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).)historian Alexander Etkind notes that post-Soviet subjectivity, as it is expressed in cultural forms, manifests symptoms of a repressed historical trauma, which continually return as the Freudian uncanny, as ghosts that haunt the present. With the absence of official state reckoning with vast state purges of human life, systems of spying, and rampant community violence against its own population in the former Soviet Union, the work of mourning – so essential to the health of the subject – has been blocked. Etkind claims that the unexamined nature of the Soviet past (the explicit violence of the political regime), leads to Russia becoming a “postcatastrophic nation,” a melancholic nation without a clear sense of the object of loss.(Ibid., p. 244.)To return to Judith Butler’s point that the pandemic does not manifest anything expressly new, but exasperates the things that were already there, the ghostly traumas of Russia’s unexamined past undoubtedly surface into the pandemic present. Thus, Russia remains a postcatastrophic nation in the midst of another catastrophe. This state of collective melancholy requires collective healing; as deadmen, Party of the Dead attempts to clean the pollution. Likewise, it returns the death of fellow citizens to the visibility of public space without using them for nationalist ends, interrupting the history of appropriation of their memory for the project of the state power. In such a way, it becomes hospitable to the ghosts of the dead, without responsibility for which, according to Etkind, no just social contract is possible. Through this work, Party of the Dead is the Antigone, coming to perform the act of mourning for their brothers and sisters, eternally demanding justice for the dead.

The interviews with Kristina Bubentsova, Olga Karperka, D.K and Maxim Evstropov conducted in preparation of this article took place at Rosa’s House of Culture on October 13 and October 23, 2020.