Reviewed by Sarah Bay Gachot
When did everyone go to sleep?
Lenin for Your Library began as a correspondence project carried out over the course of 2005-2006 when Yevgeniy Fiks mailed 100 copies of Vladimir Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, along with a form letter, to 100 corporations. Fiks explained in the letter that the book was a donation to their corporate libraries and that he would appreciate a note confirming receipt.
Olga Kopenkina in her essay for the resulting book of this project, reviewed here, marks Fiks as “more like a prankster than a committed communist.” With his dispersion of Vladimir Ilyich’s assailing of the Capitalist hydra heads of colonization, monopolies, exploitation, and labor aristocracy, Kopenkina notes that Fiks “negates the system” through a “mechanism of donation.” I imagine this to be like a visitor throwing a bucket of live smelts at a raft of sea otters being trained at the zoo. You would think the otters would go wild, tiny paws flying about, stuffing wriggling smelts in their tiny furry maws, trainers be damned. You would think that some of these people at Apple, The Gap, DuPont, Ford, would see this book by Lenin, a man Fiks considers the figural equivalent to a serious contention with “post-Soviet trauma,” burning a hole in their corporate desks and at least make an attempt to communicate that they not only got it, but that they get it.
But most of Fiks’ correspondees don’t respond at all. Lenin for Your Library includes all of the 34 letters that Fiks received in return for his 100 donations. Some of the letters report that they will, indeed, install the book in their library. (Hazel Jaramillo from Autodesk, in a bubbly handwritten note, reports that it is “already checked out!”) Some letters say they have no library to speak of. Some explain the liabilities of accepting such donations and return the book (most notably Senior Legal Assistant Gianluco Greco from the Walt Disney Company, who explains at length that they could not possibly accept unsolicited “gifts” from outside the company, for, in so many words, should Disney choose to happen to make a major motion picture about Lenin, a Lenin theme park maybe, or a Lenin line of children’s action figures that might have the strong whiff of said gift, Disney doesn’t want there to be any confusions about where that idea came from).
But all of these letters, either through lack of response, scribblings by rote, muddled attempts to help, or general political illiteracy, have sleeping otter souls. They ignore the smelts (maybe catch a glimpse) and focus on their trainers—they think, get that orange ball in the green hoop for the dead rancid sardine I will win, hypnotized into thinking that nothing makes a difference. The human sleeping otter muses, Lenin for my library? My uncle liked that band… The letters that Fiks received range across the spectrum with varying degrees of humanity, but none of them respond to the fact that Fiks has sent them a critique of imperialism that stands in for, and cannot be mistaken as, a critique of them.
Fiks was born in Moscow in 1972. Lenin for Your Library was one of his early projects upon returning to art after 10 years of acclimating to the USA and the specter of post-Soviet Russia when he moved to New York in 1994. Fiks sees that the “legacy of the Soviet bloc is a trauma, which I’m trying to address through compulsive remembering rather than via repressing of those memories. So my relationship to the legacy of the Soviet bloc is about the disruption of historical amnesia which has affected all of us.”
Fiks includes an excerpt of “Chapter IX: The Critique of Imperialism” from Lenin, a hot ember between Kopenkina’s essay and the reprints of the 34 letters Fiks received from corporations. Aside from recurring injections of his beef with Orthodox Marxist and outspoken opponent, Karl Kautsky, and the fact that British and German (and others’) imperialism was explicitly a fact in 1916, Lenin’s text is precise and current in its capitalist mathematics—a math that loses its remainders into the pockets reached by a few hands at the expense of all. Capitalism leads to monopoly plus imperialism and equals the end of progress.
As for why Fiks chose Lenin, Kopenkina suggests in her essay, “Lenin remains marginalized, left out of contemporary political discourse. This status is not only because Lenin embodies the failure of the practical applications of Marxism, but also because he is perceived as a radical.” In choosing Lenin’s book to distribute, Fiks is sifting through cultural and political amnesia, rooting out the source of what was once a great hope for society.
I want to call these people. I want to ask them what they were thinking when they wrote these letters in response to Fiks. What were you thinking? Of course, you were just doing your job. Some of you took a little extra time at it. A page cracks out when I do the things that I typically can’t help doing to paperback books—I pull open its paper wraps until the spine cracks, flatten it, bend it inside out to read with one hand while I scrawl almost illegible things in the margins in pencil. The book has the exact size and design theme of the 100 copies of Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism that Fiks donated to the corporations. It is a humble printing. The 34 letters are reproduced in full color.
I start by Googling. I am web-stalking people who knew nothing about what they were doing when they did it. I find you, J. Greg Clark, of Coca Cola, through a link that shows you not only responded to Yevgeniy Fiks but also to a postcard from a loyal fan, “Lora,” of the cancelled show Firefly, who, according to a Firefly fan forum, wrote pleading postcards to a long list of companies that might be able to help bring Firefly back on the air. Perhaps product placement could help, she thought. You wrote cheerily to Lora: “It is very thoughtful of you to share your comments about this program with us. We try to associate our brands with programming that will be appealing to our consumers. Your comments let us know that we’ve been selecting the right programs to showcase our refreshing soft drinks!”
And Diane… Oh, sweet Diane M. Parent from CVS. You are the hardest working woman in customer relations. I found you all over the place—forums galore. You assured customers that, yes, if they bring two buy-one-get-one-free coupons to a CVS and buy two of that item, they will walk out of there paying just the tax (!). You responded on more than one occasion that CVS may, indeed, someday carry the herbal nicotine addiction treatment NicoDrops (found on a finance forum—you didn’t know these people were fishing for stock tips). You even made swift work of reassuring inquiries as to WTF was up when a renegade pharmacist at a CVS in Texas took it upon himself to refuse birth control to a customer on moral grounds. You declared, “Upon learning of the incident, we moved quickly to personally deliver the customer’s medication to her free of charge, and we have apologized to her for this unfortunate situation. Additionally, we have taken steps to address this situation with the individual pharmacist….” Love, Diane.
No, Diane didn’t write that “love” salutation. But her letter to Fiks is more than concerned. It calls to mind hours of research, phone calls, last-ditch attempts to inquire of that bookish-looking colleague she runs into at the water cooler, “Oh, my gosh, I’m so glad I found you—tell me, do you know…???” Diane writes to Fiks: “Thank you for contacting CVS Pharmacy, however, CVS does not have a company library and I have not been able to locate anybody who has received a book as a donation. I have checked with the Community Relations Department and they are not aware of any donation of this type. The address where this letter is addressed is the corporate headquarters for CVS Pharmacy, but again, we are a corporate headquarters of a pharmacy and do not have a library. Perhaps you are thinking of another company or library. If you need to contact us, we can be reached at 1-800-746-7287 from Monday through Friday between 8:30 AM and 6:00 PM EST.” Diane, oh, Diane—Yevgeniy was sure thinking of you and no other company or library but you. (Other than the other 99 who were sent the book, of course.)
Am I negating how Fiks “negates the system,” as Kopenkina call it, by thinking of these people in this way? I empathize when I can sense a human. I feel the desperation of corporate cogs; the bathos of the wizard pulled out from behind the curtain. Lenin for Your Library touches a nerve—gets in there for a millisecond—touches a human cell within a behemoth machine. This book makes me think, Let’s start a corporate/non-corporate pen pal organization! Let’s keep the blood flowing, the eyes and mind open, and the words coming out. Wake up.
Yevgeniy Fiks, Lenin for your Library? (Ante Projects, 2007)