When I was in my early twenties, my father, a consummate capitalist (my only God is money, he would say, mainly for the pleasure of shocking) told me those who had not been communists in their youth did not have a heart. Such a surprising statement was but a typically tactical move: those who still believed in communism as adults, he would pontificate gloatingly, were obviously imbeciles.
I have often remembered this comment and its logistics, daddy seeking to preempt his daughter’s unwelcome turn to the left by announcing a disastrous outcome. It was as good a strategy as any other, yet it failed for the one reason he could not anticipate. Social conscience is like sex: while both may lose some urgency with time and be led by experience towards different styles, neither sex nor social conscience can just go away. Once you’ve been there, you never forget.
Growing up in Latin America during the seventies meant occupying a privileged space of political transformation, that of Third World revolutions. It was hard not to be enthusiastic about the struggle against the disparity on which economic development was built, surrounding fast-emerging cosmopolis with endless misery belts. Yet while ours was the continent of charismatic leaders and intellectual guerrillas soon to be replaced by lengthy dictatorships, part of this rebellion’s encouragement lay beyond its shores, in the success of a May 68 that legitimized student uprisings (paid in blood that same year in Mexico City), or the overturning of a feudal monarchic system in a remote country the size of an entire continent. It would be years before the reality of Soviet repression became public enough to reach a youngster like myself, and even longer for this understanding to sink in in the face of a reactionary sneer only too happy an experiment of such magnitude went sour.
As soon as I could, I flew away from the restrictions imposed on women of my class. Fighting for justice at school or in the streets, the awareness of ideological shortcomings and contradictions was secondary to the perversion of a democracy which positioned its freedom against the wellbeing of so many. The eighties brought the end of illusion, but also an infantilizing of political resistance by a replenished conservatism that considered itself essential enough to be beyond politics, whence the cynical accusation of “political correctness” to anything that might stand in its way. Externally reduced to guilt and compassion, and internally fractured by its losses and differences, social combat sought new ways to dress its battles, attempting them from within: radicalism gave way to legal action and aggressive citizenship, at least til 9/11 hit.
A few years ago, I visited St. Petersburg. Only pronouncing this name would make me cringe, as if betraying a long-lost dream. The monumentality of the city and proud demeanor of even its most humble dwellers was impressive. Strolling up and down Nevski Prospekt among ravishing girls wearing slightly dated clothes and overweight men in black leather jackets, I had the feeling of a gigantic set where different empires overlapped. In the forefront, the frenzied renewal of neo-classic architecture in bright pastel colors and gallons of golden leaf. Right behind it, the decrepitude and misery that neither the USSR nor contemporary Russia’s version of democracy have eradicated. Among them, in those gaps still not reached by the latest makeover of a city built three hundred years ago on swamps, the leftovers of a modernism whose daring geometry and black and red symbols depict the twentieth century’s greatest fallen myth: Leningrad.
*Written in response to a homonymous call for papers by artwurl.org in 2006. The issue in question was later cancelled.