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SSEES Research Blog


A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


Join our PiraMMMida scheme!

By tjmsrol, on 8 July 2020

Join our PiraMMMida scheme!

Launched on 1 July 2020, PiraMMMida.life, an experimental exhibition platform curated by UCL SSEES Lecturer in Critical Area Studies and FRINGE Centre Co-Head Michał Murawski, in collaboration with David Roberts (Bartlett School of Architecture), Masha Mileeva (Courtauld Institute) and Denis Maksimov (Avenir Institute).

PiraMMMida features the work of over 20 contributors: scholars, artists, architects, practitioners and others. SSEES contributors include Lecturer in Eurasian History Philippa Hetherington, Associated Professor in Czech with Slovak Literature Peter Zusi and Professor of Sociology Alena Ledeneva. The first batch of contributions was published on PiraMMMida.life on Wednesday 1 July; while the remaining contributions will continue to drop, like money from the MMM tree, in weekly batches every Wednesday until the end of July 2020. A virtual PiraMMMida conference will take place on 1 September, with the Call for Contributions (open to all) to be circulated in due course.

PiraMMMida.life – the cyber version of the PPV show at the (cancelled) Venice Biennale of Architecture 2020 – is a transmedia, transdisciplinary project exploring the relationship between finance, architecture, art and power. PiraMMMida borrows its name from MMM Bank, a notorious post-Soviet pyramid scheme launched by Sergei Mavrodi in 1991 and persisting in various guises (as MMM Global) until today. PiraMMMida explores Ponzi schemes, such as Mavrodi’s, and other “fake horizontals”: pharaonic edifices of exploitation and fraud masquerading as paragons of grassrootist virtue.

PiraMMMida.life is a project of PPV (Perverting the Power Vertical: Politics and Aesthetics in the Global East). It is supported by the Bartlett Architectural Research Fund, the FRINGE Centre for the Study of Social and Cultural Complexity and the UCL European Institute, carried out in collaboration with S.a.L.E. Docks and the Avenir Institute.

This is an excerpted fragment of an interview with Michał Murawski about PPV first published (in Russian) in Project Russia (www.prorus.com) on 3 July 2020. The interview was carried out by Asya Belousova.

Asya Belousova (AB): Perverting the Power Vertical (PPV) started as a seminar series that Michal Murawski has been running at UCL with some colleagues. Could you get into details and say what the seminar was dedicated to and how it progressed to become a platform for research and projects for Venice biennale? 

Michał Murawski (MM): The art historian Masha Mileeva and I launched PPV as a seminar series at University College London in October 2018. Actually, it was initially called “Power Vertical: Politics and Aesthetics in the Global East”. We invited Denis Maksimov, an independent curator, scholar and weirdo, to give one of the first seminars. It turned out he lived in London and we had similar seditious ideas about how to work with institutions, so he joined us as Co-Convener of the seminar series. Actually, he perverted us, and gave us the idea to change our name from PV to PPV


With regard to the Venice Biennale […] in our first year of operation, we worked with Arts Territory’s Kasia Sobucka’s and the Signum Foundation to put on a small project, called the Palace of Ritual, at Palazzo Dona Brusa. […] This year, we are working with the like-minded S.a.L.E. Docks, an activist initiative which squatted an exhibition hall on Dorsoduro, to realise PiraMMMida at the Architecture Biennale. We hope to realise this project in physical form in Venice in 2021, but we had a hunch that the Biennale would not go ahead this year – despite misleading promises to the contrary – so we decided to go online, with some funding from the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL. David Roberts is our comrade and Fellow Traveller from the Bartlett, and he has joined as co-curator of PiraMMMida this year.

PPV #8: The Palace of Ritual, May 2019, photographs by MM

AB: Why are you attracted so much to the pyramid? You are concentrating on the Eastern Europe. Why? What cases are you exploring and dissecting?

MM: Perhaps we can begin with why we are attracted to the “power vertical”. We are interested in ideas, concepts or phenomena that derive from East European or other post-socialist contexts; we are committed to trying to “unanchor” these ideas from their places of origin (while remaining conscious of their origins), and to applying these ideas into the broader world, to try to understand the world through categories derived from the “East”; rather than always trying to understand the East, and the South, and everywhere else, through categories taken from the West or the North, from France or America. Why do we always have to understand Russia or Nigeria “through” Foucault or Agamben? Why can’t we understand things that are happening in the core liberal capitalist countries through categories taken from our own peripheral or semi-peripheral contexts? We are not the only people who think like this – Yevgeny Fiks did a similar thing with this suggestion of “theory of pleshkha” as an alternative to Judith Butler-derived “queer theory”, the anthropologists Doug Rogers and Don Kalb have also written about it, and our colleagues the geographers Elena Trubina and Martin Müller are thinking along the same lines with their understanding of the “Global East” – but we are trying to institutionalise this move of unanchoring or “unbinding” theory from the East in as perverted and relentless a way as possible.


We were attracted to pyramid schemes for different reasons, I think. As an anthropologist I am really obsessed with the vernacular architecture of the pavilionchiki [temporary retail pavilions], which were demolished by Sergey Semyonovich [Sobyanin, Mayor of Moscow] on the so-called “Night of the Long Diggers [9 February 2016]; and generally with the other Las Vegas-esque pyramidal forms that sprouted up all over the post-Soviet world during the 1990s and 2000s. There are so many of them and they are amazing! My favourite one, of the ones I have been to, is the Kazan pyramid. I want to have a big party one day in the restaurant at the tip of the tower. And my other ambition is to one day visit the bus station in Chelyabinsk, which emanates a particularly otherworldly sort of cosmic power. These pyramidal forms are emanations or embodiments of the era of “wild capitalism”, the era of gryby i mutant (mushrooms and mutants), in Dasha Paramonova’s phrase, which – in theory – came to an end on the Night of the Long Diggers. But, as we are trying to point out, this era is far from over.


3) What are the prerequisites and mechanisms that enable pyramid schemes to come about? 

Pyramid in Kazan, photograph by Michal Murawski

MM: […] Pyramid schemes like MMM come about – and are able to entice vulnerable people in – at times of crisis, systemic transformation and desperation; at the kinds of times when statues fall, inflation goes hyper- and people take to the streets to riot. Various parts of the world are more or less always in this kind of state of normalised crisis, especially the formerly colonized countries, which are kept in this state of crisis by the global monetary system. The most famous pyramid schemes in the West – those of Ponzi and Madoff, for example – also came about at times of global financial meltdown. And the rise of cryptocurrency – in essence, these are get-rich quick schemes, which profited their early investors but which go in and out of cycles of explosion or implosion every four years or so – promised to be a radical new type of “truly horizontal” pyramid scheme, which began to proliferate in the long recession following the sub-prime mortgage crisis; a recession followed by over a decade of brutal austerity, which many people seemed to never get out of. And, of course, our current Covid moment is ripe for these kinds of schemes to develop too: inequalities are sharpened, battle lines are drawn on the lines of class, race, gender and sexuality; statues and monuments are toppled. We are in the middle of this sort of systemic reconfiguration, and we won’t know what the other side looks like for some time yet. We would like it to look less vertical, and more egalitarian, more queer, more black, less white, less hetero, less male.

Of course, we’re not too hopeful that this is possible, but we shall see. We are also very aware, of course, that the more you emphasise how horizontal, how democratic, how transparent something is, the more you of a rhetorical emphasis you place on this horizontality and democracy, the more pyramidal and the more pharaonic and exploitative things actually tend to be in essence. So this is in a sense what PiraMMMida is about. The PiraMMMida project is sort of an exploration of “fake horizontality”, an examination of the ways in which people claim things are horizontal, whereas actually they are as vertical as a vysotka [a Stalin-era skyscraper]. This is what most of the contributions to PiraMMMida explore. Rita Kuleva writes about pyramids in the art world, Philippa Hetherington about pyramids in public health (what does “flattening the curve really mean?). Artworks by Alena Ledeneva illustrate various types of informal political and economic geometries. The text contributions explore these themes very directly, the visual and architectural contributions do so a little more subtly.

A Mavro voucher, photograph by Michał Murawski

Another example is [former Georgian President] Saakashvilli’s all-glass police stations – built, of course, in the form of pyramids. They are supposed to be transparent, so that the police are in theory forced by this transparency to be more polite and less corrupt. But, of course, what happens it that the police just go and beat people up underground, in the dark dungeons beneath the light-filled police station (or this what people in Tbilisi joke, anyway). And what’s happening with the [Russian] constitutional referendum is another crazy manifestation of this kind of fake horizontality. First Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] pretended that the changes to the constitution were all about making the Duma stronger. Then [Valentina] Tereshkova [Russian deputy and cosmonaut, the first woman in space] “forced” him to take upon himself the burden of accepting amendments that would make him President for ever (and who better to descend from on high with such an initiative than somebody with the extraordinary cosmic, otherworldly, divine authority of Tereshkova?) And he modestly accepted this burden. Then – after the whole process was injected with this horrendous, heteronormative patina – the vote happened. And the vote is being carried out in the most democratic way ever! You don’t even have to go to the polling station – the polling station comes to you! And what could be more democratic than a transparent ballot box (if only the boxes were in the shape of pyramids)?

A Perverso voucher, photograph by Michał Murawski

And, to cap it all off, you are rewarded vouchers for voting, which you can redeem in Azbuka Vkusa [a Moscow grocery chain]. You are basically given Mavros [the name of the “vouchers” issued to participants in MMM Bank] for voting! Or Perversos (this is the name of the (crypto-)currency which we [launched] at the virtual vernissage of PiraMMMida.

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