A boy who set a house on fire


Today’s society is characterized by fragility and risk; its old, seemingly stable communities and ways of belonging are crumbling. Everlasting signposts and answers are disappearing, and new questions are accompanied by growing anxiety. Social insecurity is a projection of collective emotions, visions, and attitudes. It is fuelled by fears and scepticism and defined by distance, distrust, and the pressure of individual choice and its consequences. In the whirlwind of change, there is nothing to alleviate these feelings. 

After centuries of control, the contemporary state grows alienated from its citizens, misled by neoliberal freedom, and leaves common space at the disposal of increasingly uncontrollable private initiative. Simultaneously, a combination of freedom and collective confusion results in people’s ignorance of the same common space and solidarity that could create new membership and accountability practices. Then, when the neglected public space turns into a body of fire, the fire itself becomes proof of the existence of public space. The state, however, remains responsible for extinguishing it, although with minimal public involvement compared to the «indiscretion» of the Soviet era. 

Offering a sense of security in exchange for control, the Soviet state transformed the fight against fire into the fight against human participation in unleashing the fire. The man himself became a fire hazard, a politically dangerous mixture, a flammable material that had to be controlled. In turn, open flames, a burned-out house, and a number of reported fire fatalities became possibilities for the ruling order to prove that its presence in fire-affected areas was indispensable. 

The affected response to authorities by rejecting power offerings was: ignoring, formally agreeing and later disregarding, pretending, and hoping that it will be ok anyway and everything would be all right in the end. The history of firefighting in pictures and texts is a story of negotiations between power and public on safety possibilities and their failure, the refusal to follow instructions as a prerequisite for stability. 

This disregard may testify to a failure of the offer, imposition, formalism, and garish cardboard facades that promise, but lie and neglect, resulting in a “Society of Mutual Disregard”. The craving of the Soviet state for constant control is confronted with both ideological and practical non-acceptance of its power by society. Such disregard cannot be fought, and therefore it is smothered by the flow of words. Public mistrust in state explanations, warnings and «care» manifests itself in times of fire. Then the state power evaporates, collapses, burns, for people refuse to listen to authorities and read their messages. 

Professing technocratic futurism, the regime took an industrial leap in circumstances where the majority was illiterate. They hoped to quickly create a new, prepared for the imagined future, and functionally replaceable person. For this purpose, the environment around such a person had to be controlled as in laboratory facilities and research fields. Nature had to be framed, fixed, monitored, and incorporated into the vision of a rationalised and improved human capable of self-control. Man was prepared the role of master of nature: the role manifested in the verbal-visual power discourse, namely, in warnings, instructions, punishments and rewards. No personal version, orientation, and reflection would be left to self-regulation. 

The fire that could not be prevented due to human weaknesses made room for increasing state presence. After the fire was extinguished, the empty space turned into a new ideological construction site. It was the moment of fire that opened up the possibility of s(t)imulating state control. Thus, the fire turned into public simulation of continuous examination and power self-reflection. Rhetoric of self-criticism, speeches at meetings, reports, reprimands, situation charts, and galleries of hero portraits became tools for monitoring the illusion of human nature improvement and a project report to the power itself, in hopes of building a new, fire-proof society.

When the fire broke out and part of the promised reality was lost in flames, human nature was to blame. Nature was too slow for new impact politics, so it was not capable of keeping up with political acceleration. Uncontrollable fire also served as a metaphor of political struggle for the corrigible man. The self- proclaimed heir of enlightenment, the Soviet order decided the age of maturity of the human mind.

In 1917, the Soviets promised to annihilate the bourgeoisie in the flames of world revolution. Having stabilised, the Soviet power started extinguishing the flames of freethinking, resistance, and alternative visions with the permafrost of GULAG, routing the flow of deportations to Siberia down the paths created by political martyrs in tsarist times. Those who remained in Soviet civilisation kept resisting its power, but at a fundamentally different, profane level. In his drunkenness, hidden poverty, indifference or administrative superficiality, the Soviet man refused to believe in warnings coming from the power that lied in all areas and then demanded trust in the veracity of fire safety. Although fire-prevention notifications were most easily verifiable, big lies swallowed little truths, and most often those responsible for fire safety appeared on lists and in reports only, but did not check or manage the real situation.

Thus, in contravention of the state’s struggle to order nature, man conspired with nature against power and regularly ignored the declared era of new predictability: cattle-sheds, grain stocks, community centres and new factories burned. When natural forces such as fast and shifting winds, great drought, and forests met with a discarded cigarette butt, or drunken slumber in front of the TV, the order of power was challenged. The fire turned into an issue of political efficiency, a propaganda task, an annual schedule of lectures, an increase in the number of posters: in short, in the bureaucratic modernist struggle against the raw material for state experiments, namely, against people. The fire could be conjured up and filled with words to engage, educate, explain, or ignore a series of real-life power failures and distorted living conditions.

Moving away from the reality of causes with many series of posters (that many did not see) and fire safety instructions (that were signed but rarely read and which continue to bet signed but rarely read), fire fighting transformed into a project of maintaining the Soviet presence in a torrent of images and texts.

Printing and not reading, signing without studying — such combinations were demonstrative of the disregard for safety and continue to be demonstrated even today. We pretend that the validity of the instructions is indefinite, until a sudden social or political fire, similar to burning down a barn, brings about a zero state, an unexpected or desirable beginning, a new time. The consequent change and succession.

Deniss Hanovs

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