SASHA SHESTAKOVA REPOSITIONING THE RACIAL CAPITALOCENE
In the context of emerging de-colonial interventions in Russia and beyond, Russian interdisciplinary researcher Sasha Shestakova critically explores the past and present web of relations in the Arctic. By using the 2020 “Interdependency as a Condition” symposium as an entry point, Shestakova discusses how contemporary planetary problems of living in more-than-human worlds can be repositioned and reconfigured.
This text was written by Sasha Shestakova in the context of “Interdependency as a Condition,” a symposium curated by The Creative Association of Curators TOK, which took place between October 16-18, 2020, and which was a part of the IV Arctic Art Forum “Ecosystems of the invisible,” held between October 10-December 30, 2020.
The upcoming TOK’s symposium is titled “Decoding the Habitual” and will take place on October 15-16, 2021 in the framework of the 6th “Tallinn Photomonth Biennial,” as a part of the exhibition “Intensive Places,” which is also curated by TOK.
The flickering light from the window of an old wooden house, surrounded by fluffy snow hills, the steam from the boiling kettle, the snow-covered pine trees, the visibility of air, coming from one’s mouth from breath. This romantic image comes to mind every time the North is mentioned.
The IV Arctic Art Forum “Ecosystems of the Invisible,” curated by Kristina Dryagina and Ekaterina Sharova from the Arctic Art Institute, has been an ongoing endeavour to see beyond postcard images. The Arctic Art forum has been a yearly event since 2015 in the city of Arkhangelsk in the North of Russia. The main aim of the Forum since its launch in 2016 has been to nourish the knowledge-production about the Circumpolar North with the focus on the artistic process and practices originating in the region. As Ekaterina Sharova put it, “the forum has been not just a result of our work, but rather a process of research of what is happening in the North, it has been an autobiographical story for each of us.” This year’s overarching theme of the forum reveals the need to show the worlds and histories concealed by the homogenising gaze from the centre of the Colonial State. The division between the so-called centre and the so-called periphery exists on multiple levels. The economic inequality contributes to the relative invisibility of the art and culture, situated outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The Arctic Art Institute invited the curatorial collective TOK (Anna Bitkina and Maria Veits) to land their continuous and nomadic symposium project on the platform of the IV Forum. Focusing each time on a different layer of social and political realities and using various sets of strategies to infiltrate into it, the second TOK symposium, entitled “Interdependency as a condition” contributed to untangling the complex relations between the centre and the periphery of capitalism, often masked by the fairy-tail like visions. The title for the symposium is inspired by a recent interview of Judith Butler for The New Yorker in February 2020 in the context of the launch of her new book “The Force of Nonviolence.” Butler’s critique of individualism points to the “interdependency as a condition,” which also takes the form of a planetary entanglement of multiple humans and non-humans. As Bitkina and Veits argue following Butler’s ideas, the key concepts of the symposium—accountability, responsibility, and interdependency—allow for the creation of alternative futures within oppressive presents.
To unravel the past and the present connections within the Arctic, the symposium included four panels: «On Conditions: Periphery of Global Capitalism and the Arctic Region», «Shared Forecast: Challenging Geographical, Political and Mental Borders», «Step Back: Unveiling Suppressed Ecological History and Trauma», and «Towards Non-Violent Existence». The symposium has moved from the interrogation of the ongoing colonial violence to envisioning anti-extractive futures. This year, the Symposium speakers were not only curators but also artists, filmmakers, decolonial researchers, memory and trauma studies scholars, as well as environmental journalists.
In this essay, I will use this symposium as an entry point to discuss how the planetary problems of living in more than human worlds can be reconsidered with attention to Russian politics and contexts. Before I start, I have to point out that I am writing this text from an apartment in Moscow, benefiting from the colonial extraction, which leads to the possibility of central heating in winter, but more importantly from being able to occupy this space as a person who writes and reads in English. I intend to use my privileges to discuss Russian settler colonialism’s operations on natures and cultures.
I will, firstly, discuss the situated approach to the concept of Anthropocene. I will move on to discuss how this approach complicates the notion of the Racial Capitalocene. Finally, I will touch upon the decolonial accomplice and speculate on the ways it can be achieved.
The colonial logistics of waste
The Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen coined the concept Anthropocene in the 2000s to describe the last 2000 years of human-made influence and the resulting alterations with regards to the Earth’s natural processes. Although some scholars see it as a global condition that equally influences everyone, others have emphasised class, gender, and race’s contingent conditions, shaping the Anthropocene’s differentiated experiences.
The historical view on the issue proposed by Kathryn Yusoff in her book “A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None” shows that the man-induced destruction of the water, soil, and numerous species has always been entangled with colonialism. For example, the first ‘golden spike’ of the Anthropocene, which is supposed to show the beginning of the human influence on nature, dates back to 1610, the beginning of ‘trade’ after the ‘discovery’ of America. However, as Yusoff puts it, at the very same time, “the fungibility of Blackness and geologic resources (as land, minerals, and ores) is coeval, predicated on the ability of the coloniser to both describe and operationalise the world-space as a global entity.” One possible term to describe this condition is Capitalocene, a term introduced by Jason W. Moore. According to Madina Tlostanova, who was also present at the symposium, the term reveals that a disastrous planetary condition is unevenly distributed, exposing the least privileged people to its consequences. The notion of the Сapitalocene also emphasises that not ‘all people’ are to blame for the existing conditions, but rather the corporate infrastructures, sustaining settler colonialism. This perspective allows one not to blame a friend for drinking their coffee from a paper cup instead of paying closer attention to the direction where that very same paper cup would travel along with other waste.
The logistics of waste, in which old reusable coffee cups and their paper equivalents are doomed to participate, reveals the intersections between coloniality and the Capitalocene within Russia’s territory. Madina Tlostanova describes Russia as a “Janus faced Empire” inside the relations of coloniality: while being subjected to colonial violence, Russia also performs it. An example of the former is the dumping of nuclear waste from Germany in Russian cities Angarsk and Novouralsk despite the protests of ecological organisations. The reason for this destruction is the perception of the land as an ‘empty’ space. This partial blindness is the materialisation of the colonial approach to land.
Simultaneously local authorities and corporations reproduce the same logic when dumping the waste from Moscow in Shiyes, an area close to Arkhangelsk. As Kristina Draygina’s presentation has revealed, the destruction of land not only caused an ecological disaster, but it was also a social problem: many people who live near Shiyes have developed an intimate and long-lasting connection with the local forest as it has been a significant part of their childhood and adulthood. This situation calls for the reconsideration of the existing forms of knowledge production with respect to cosmopolitics.
The curator of the «Shared Forecast: Challenging Geographical, Political and Mental Borders» panel Taru Elfving has brought up the notion of Cosmopoliticsas a possible way to deal with the environment, where both humans and non-humans co-exist. The term cosmopolitics was introduced by Isabelle Stengers, who proposed making decisions “in the presence of all of those affected, not only humans.” Elfving has continued Stengers’ train of thought by pointing out that “we can’t just assume access to different forms of knowledge.” She also proposed to think about ‘hauntings,’ meaning the dire need to question the long-lasting knowledge assumptions, which are needed to be reconsidered and unlearned.
An example of such cosmopolitical inquiry was given in Ekaterina Sharova’s presentation, in which she discussed the artist residency Maryin Dom’s projects in the Chukola village. I will concentrate on the artistic works created by Uliana Podkorytova and Ustina Yakovleva.
In Uliana Podkoritova’s video Porato Basko—which translates from the Pomor language as ‘beautiful’—the sound of a departing ship is heard in the background, punctuating the temporalities which are concealed by the glossy visions of progress, emerging in an often reproduced image of an icebreaker sliding through the ice. Podkoritova’s video focuses on the nuanced relations between women living in the Chakola village and the local river Pinega. Transcending the clear borders between land and water, with the latter entering the living spaces, the video introduces a non-linear time, attuned with the environmental rhythms. Being attentive to such temporalities does not imply easy dichotomies between ‘traditions’ and ‘progress’; instead, it introduces a different pace: one that remains attentive to multiple temporalities at stake.
The Chukola village was the home of Maria Dmitrievna Krivopolenova, a singer and a storyteller thanks to whom many local stories have been preserved. This added another temporal layer, with which Ustina Yakovleva interacted. Her embroideries of local ornaments were made on homespun fabric. The visible fibres and stitches reveal the material labour behind the images, thus showing the creation process, which has historically been seen as ‘female work’ and rendered invisible. Through these seemingly small actions, Yakovleva’s work produces a non-progressive time. The intimate attunement with the rhythms of nature has required the unlearning of the Western assumption of linear time which also implies the inevitability of technological progress.
In addition to this, the process of unlearning all-too-human assumptions implies questioning who has been historically counted as human within both scientific and legislative frameworks. As artist and filmmaker Susan Sсhuppli has pointed out in her symposium talk «Learning from Ice», the indigenous voices and accountability frames are still nearly absent within both legislation and science. Indigenous people are thus often rendered into a non-human entity within the existent ways of knowledge production.
In the Russian local context, the processes of anti-indigenous silencing and suppression have been also reflected in the Russian language. Since the end of the nineteenth century, indigenous people of Siberia, as well as the Northern, Caucasian and Central Asian territories of the Russian Empire, but also Jews, were officially referred to on the legislative level as inorodsy (literally meaning ‘of a different race or kin’). The word remained widely in use for many decades after most of the provisions of the 1882 “Law about ruling inorodsy” ceased to exist in 1917. The term implied a different legislative status, meaning that they were ‘slightly less human’ than the ethnic Russian (i.e. Slavic) people. The status of inorodsy implied that indigenous people did not have equal political representation; in order to circumvent these obstacles, they had to not only learn the Russian language, but also be converted to Christianity. The discursive and legislative dehumanisation processes continued for the next centuries, resulting in the current situation; they also bear cosmopolitical valuneces which imply the attuning to multiple temporalities of indigenous resistance.
Russian Racial Police-Capitalocene
The destruction of soil and water has been intimately connected to the racialisation processes for the simple reason that seeing land as ‘empty’ and ‘available’ meant not considering people living on that land to be humans. The notion of Racial Capitalocene emphasises that an anthropogenic disaster is not only capitalist but also white. However, it is mostly discussed concerning the “south of the global north,”that is, the countries facing Euro-American colonial violence. The binary of colonial differences between the Global North and the Global South is criticised by Madina Tlostanova, who points out that in order to see more heterogeneous relations of coloniality, one has to pay attention to the colonial violence within the so-called second world. The racialisation processes towards indigenous people inflicted by the Russian State become obscured by the overlaying shadows of coloniality. In the Russian context, it is especially vital to see racialisation as a process of dehumanisation that produces neutral ‘Russian’ citizens as well as multiple others. A recent example of the racialised destruction of land is the recent oil spill in the Taimyr Peninsula.
As the head of Norilsk regional Ngasan commune, Valeria Boglova points out that this disaster has led to the destruction of soil and water and the erasure of the indigenous lifeworlds, making it impossible to fish and herd deer. These destructions have long-term consequences, instigating the ongoing erasure of ‘everything native,’ including lifestyles, languages, and cultures. They are made extinct due to the modus operandi of oil spills, sustained by the corporations and the state. Like in Shieys, the modus operandi is supported by police-driven measures such as labelling the local ecological organisations as ‘foreign agents’ and merely banning them.
The toxic alliance between corporations and the state involved in the destruction of indigenous lifeworlds provides a critical counterpoint to the notion of the Capitalocene, which tends to overemphasise the capital’s role, ignoring the positions of the state and legislative structures. One example of entanglement of the state and the capital is the colonial logistics of waste, maintained by police violence.
How can white (Russian) people utilise our privilege to be accomplices for the indigenous people? The ‘Indigenous Action’ group differentiates ‘allies’ from ‘accomplices.’ While the former co-opt indigenous resistance to satisfy guilt or foster one’s portfolio, the latter joins the struggle as a conspirator. ‘Indigenous action’ points out:
Accomplices are realised through mutual consent and build trust. They don’t just have our backs; they are at our side or in their own spaces confronting and unsettling colonialism. As accomplices, we are compelled to become accountable and responsible to each other; that is the nature of trust.
In his presentation «Arctic Biopolitics», Julian Reid continued this line of thought, pointing out that “putting indigenous people on the pedestal” as the ones who can ‘teach’ white people alternative relations to nature ‘naturalises’ the ongoing historical oppression. The ‘resilience’ of indigenous people, which Reid discusses, is the direct consequence of the oil, gas, and coal extraction, which have led to the condition requiring being resilient.
This idea can also be correlated with K. Wayne Yang’s critique of the concept of ‘sustainability.’ Revealing the plantation-logic roots of this term, he writes: “Sustainability is premised on the expansion of chattel slavery, of land accumulation, of Indigenous displacement, of white emplacement, and therefore the expansion of the plantation.” Without close attention to the ways of resistance and legislative formations of relations to land, the search for indigenous knowledges, coupled with ‘sustainability,’ becomes another form of colonial extraction, which is aimed not at resources, but at various forms of knowledge that emerge.
Susan Sсhuppli’s symposium presentation has paved the way for an alternative form of inquiry, which takes into consideration the idea of indigenous political action. She has discussed a petition submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights by Inuk woman Sheila Watt-Cloutier to reformulate the human-ice relations on a legislative level. As a representative of the Inuit communities, she fought for ‘the right to be cold’ against settler-colonial violence by introducing non-human actors into the legislative frameworks. The petition was, however, rejected. As Sсhuppli pointed out, this project’s failure results from the existing legislative divisions between ‘nature’ and ‘culture.’
The recent local successful example of legislative change, which happened because of the laborious resistance of activists, is visible in the southern part of Russia. In Bashkiria, The Bashkir Soda Company was planning to mine limestone from one of the sacred hills (Shihan) Kushtau. The peaceful protest of ecological activists and indigenous people was raided by the police as well as private security forces, hired by the mining company. The destruction of the Shihan threatened both the indigenous Bashkir lifeworlds and the unique natural ecosystems of the area. After several months of protest, Shihan was acknowledged by the local authorities as a protected area.
Such legislative resistance relies on introducing new laws and on revealing the settler-colonial roots of the already implemented ones. Brenna Bhandar describes this strategy as ‘legal rapture,’ which she defines as:
a form of immanent critique that exposes the contradiction inherent in rights that are characterised by an illusory separation of the public sphere from the private; and by doing so, illuminates how rights that appear as ‘real’ rights are in fact, in their content, enforcement, and realisation too often shaped by the ‘particular elements’ of the so-called private sphere, namely, the imperatives of capitalist development, embedded in colonial modes of governance.
Going back to the Russian context, this kind of work is also done by indigenous ecological activists. One recent example is an article by Eugeny Simonov, the coalition coordinator of ‘Rivers without Borders.’ Discussing Russia’s “Strategy of the Arctic development” signed in 2020, he pointed out that the extractivist roots of the document extensively rely on the ‘support of indigenous culture.’ Looking at other delineated points in question which allocate regions to the extractable resources, he notes that indigenous knowledges and cultures are seen as another resource required to establish the ‘ethnoecological tourist clusters.’ Yet those ‘clusters’ are supposed to operate amidst the ‘growing conflict potential in the region.’ In the language of the Russian legislation, that means that any protests, especially the ones disturbing Russian resource-driven interests, are to be repressed.
To sum up, the act of becoming the accomplice in both local and global ecological disasters caused by the anthropogenic and white colonial destruction is an ongoing inquiry into one’s positionality, thinking habits, and imaginations. One has to become a time-traveller: dismantling past and present oppressive structures for the decolonial futures to come.
 Arctic Art Forum http://arcticartforum.arcticartinstitute.com/ Accessed February 20. 2021
 Symposium “Interdependency as Condition” http://arcticartforum.arcticartinstitute.com/ Accessed February 20. 2021
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 Katryn Yusoff. White Utopia/Black Inferno: Life on a Geologic Spike. E- flux. February, 2019 https://www.e-flux.com/journal/97/252226/white-utopia-black-inferno-life-on-a-geologic-spike/ Accessed December 21, 2020
 Tlostanova Madina The Planetary Crisis and Ways to Refuturing in the North-East of the Anthropocene in Arctic Art Forum. I. On Conditions: Periphery of Global Capitalism and the Arctic Region. Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHEey8ZJdSQ&list=PLugLDGkATYnODFJ4shGX085fQUZP5EP-r&index=1 Accessed December 20, 2020
 Tlostanova, Madina. “Postsocialist ≠ Postcolonial? On Post-Soviet Imaginary and Global Coloniality.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 48, no. 2 (May 2012): 130–42. https://doi.org/10.1080/17449855.2012.658244.
 Nuclear Shipment leaves Germany for Russia. BBC News. June, 24. 2020 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-53156266
 Ejatlas. 2019. Shiyes Landfill in Arkhangelsk region, Russia. Environmental Justice Atlas. https://ejatlas.org/conflict/shiyes-landfill
 Dryagina Kristina. Organization of Сonstruction. Tools to Discover the Invisible. Arctic Art Forum. III. Step Back: Unveiling Suppressed Ecological History and Trauma. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cAgba2-U0mo Accessed December 21. 2020
 Elfving Taru Spectral Shorelines in Arctic Art Forum: III Shared Forecast. Challenging Political and Mental Borders. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2aJcQJRD8u0
 Sharova Ekaterina. Contemporary Art and Amnesia. Experience in the High North. III Step Back: Unveiling Suppressed Ecological History And Trauma https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cAgba2-U0mo
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 Slezkine, Yuri. 2016. Arctic Mirrors Russia and the Small Peoples of the North. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
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 Tlostanova, Madina. (2011). The South of the Poor North: Caucasus Subjectivity and the Complex of Secondary "Australism". The Global South. 5. 66-84. 10.1353/gbs.2011.0011.
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 Ejatlas.2020 Arctic Oil Spill in Norilsk, Russia in Atlas of Environmental Justice https://ejatlas.org/conflict/arctic-diesel-leak-in-norilsk-russia Access March, 25. 2021
 Myznikova Viktoria. Ot Hibin do Chukotki. Kak zhivet Arktika. [From Hibins to Chukotka. How does Arktic live]/ Ecosphera. September, 16. 2020 https://ecosphere.press/2020/09/16/ot-hibin-do-chukotki-kak-zhivet-arktika/
 Russian oil spill exposes history of Indigenous Peoples’ rights violations. IWGIA, June, 23, 2020 https://www.iwgia.org/en/news/3790-russian-oil-spill-exposes-history-of-indigenous-peoples%E2%80%99-right-violations.html
 This was pointed out to me by Vita Zelenska.
 Indignous Action. Accomplices, Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex. Indigenous Action. May, 4. 2014 https://www.indigenousaction.org/accomplices-not-allies-abolishing-the-ally-industrial-complex/?fbclid=IwAR1yEeQEAaJTOYBXUkx9CMLyIeTwkt42EMiH3qQbq6hPuxd2OWGsX0JfeoY Accessed December, 10. 2020
 Reid Julian. Arctic Biopolitics in IV. Towards non-violent existence. Arctic Art Forum https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgzdcsH5vIE
 Yang K. Wayne. Sustainability as Plantation Logic or Who Plots the Architecture of Freedom? E-flux. October, 16. 2020 https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/the-settler-colonial-present/353587/sustainability-as-plantation-logic-or-who-plots-an-architecture-of-freedom/ Accessed December, 10. 2020
 Schuppli Susan. Learning From Ice in III. Step Back: Unveiling Suppressed Ecological History and Trauma Arctic Art Forum https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cAgba2-U0mo
 “My zahitniki Kushtau” Meduza.io. August, 22. 2020 https://zona.media/article/2020/08/22/kushtau-toratau
 Shihan Kushtau v Bashkirii poluchil status pamiatnika prirody. RIA Novosti. September, 2, 2020. https://ria.ru/20200902/kushtau-1576629059.html
 Bhandar, Brenna. “STRATEGIES OF LEGAL RUPTURE: THE POLITICS OF JUDGMENT.” Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice 30, no. 2 (October 1, 2012): 59. https://doi.org/10.22329/wyaj.v30i2.4369. This concept was also discussed by my colleague Anna Engelhardt in relation to indigenous resistance during our collective seminar Politics of Infrastructures of Care https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LzsSxCYwJrY
 Siminov Eugeny. V duhe missii NKVD [In th spirit of NKVD mission]. Sever.Realii November, 1. 2020 https://www.severreal.org/a/30923987.html?fbclid=IwAR360_DCILttkG5U-IWPriAjlZqUKwdtNf5VBm0xrR36IKds4HeGKyCQFqg
Sasha Shestakova (b. 1993. Moscow, Russia) is an interdisciplinary researcher whose primary interests include a decolonial perspective on art, non-western perceptions of time and space, and the politics of infrastructures. They are currently working on Ph.D. at the Ruhr University Bochum, supervised by Prof. Henriette Gunkel. In their Ph.D. project, they use the museum collections to interrogate the temporal relations of Russia’s settler colonialism. Their work has been published in Parse Journal, Strelka Magazine, Frictions Journal, and other media.
Cover image: Ivan Arkhipov, Untitled, Murmansk region, 1970s.