Insider / Outsider

Seven years ago the Russian action artist Oleg Mavromatti invented a performance, which in theory could become the last life experience for the artist. Then Mavromatti was going through a difficult period: he had to leave Russia, as the society turned out to be unprepared for his artistic provocations, for which he could serve his time in prison. The artist suggested that the society, already split, should decide in favor or against: in favor of his life or death: each vote against raised the probability of the artist’s being struck with an electric shock on an electric chair, to which Mavromatti fixed himself.

Many people voted against. They did it not only because of their personal dislike for Mavromatti or because they did not support his position — people were curious whether his words about his preparedness to die from electricity would be really followed by death. The action was named “Insider/Outsider”.

Mavromatti expected the people's reactions to be fast and emotional, he waited for public agitation, and, indeed, many people voiced their opinions about the artist's act. Yet, the act, radical as it was, only fixated and indicated the situation of choice, in which a man finds himself from childhood: to accept or to re1ect. The ability to divide people into insiders/outsiders is a necessity, one of the conditions of survival. Yet, where is this borderline between life necessity and the desire to label a live person, which may dramatically change the life of the person we have named an outsider?

I suggest digging in my memories, in the situations where I had to make a choice or to find myself with a label on my neck, and trying to understand how reasonable my choice was and how exact the label was. Sometimes things are clearer when viewed from outside.


When my parents bought a house in the countryside, I was just born. Actually, they bought the house because I was born: I needed fresh air, nature, pure water – in fact, everything the capital was short of. What the village was short of was medications. So, when I caught a common cold or something not serious, it was simpler for my parents to treat me with cowberry water. My parents began to ask the villagers to sell us a jar with cowberries: “We have just come here from the place where cowberries do not grow, so, we do not know where cowberries grow here”. “We have none”, they said, only because we were outsiders, so, why should they help us.

As you can see, I recovered and continued to live in that village. I lived and learnt about the surrounding world from books, cartoons and my parents’ stories. Parents’ stories are wonderful, I will tell you about cartoons a bit later, and what is bad about books is alienation of the reader. Of course, a writer can entice the reader, address the reader directly as the book’s character, but this does not seem to be sincere.

However, I had several books thanks to which I could feel I was a character, too, who could interact with other characters. Such was a book of fables by Ivan Krylov — a thick volume with minimum text but with folding cardboard illustrations. When I wanted to, I opened a page, where cat Vaska listened to his master and ate what it wanted, and I looked and touched the cat; and at this page the elephant was driven along the city streets, while I was watching. Later there appeared books in which the plot was developing, depending on my decision: the choice was to return to page 13 or to look into the dark room on page 19.

The cartoons which I watched from tapes gave me an even greater illusion of the openness of the outer world. Here Cossacks have decided to play football: they got up and started to play against the French, German, British, and no one stopped them, no one drove them away. Here is cat Leopold, going where it wants. Here is the human child, living among animals in the jungle. Here at the end of the Cat’s House, kittens and their relatives are building a common house together with their relatives and then live there peacefully.

Then I had to grow up and start making friends. The local guys were obnoxious. My parents thought so, and I was scared of them, too, when they passed by, dirty and smutty. The children of the urban citizens, who also bought several dachas in that village, were quite suitable for friendship.

So we, the children of urban people, myself and two other buys, became friends. Three is a bad figure. Two can always conspire against the third one. Sometimes I conspired, so that I could feel an insider, recognizing someone an outsider.

Finally I turned five, and we moved to the city, where I started school. Everything there turned out be different.

The city

When I first came to the city, I said ‘hello’ to everyone: I nodded shyly and said ‘hello’. However, my parents made me break this habit of greeting all the passers-by. I was not allowed to open the door to strangers, to accept gifts from them and, of course, to get into strangers’ cars. I trusted and obeyed them, although I remembered that there was half-crazy old Filippych, who was a tramp without income, so, we gave him food and cigarettes, and he gave me his own gifts, self-made whistling toys.

Having mastered the rules of living in a big city, I went to the first grade of school, where I was the youngest. That was not a problem, though: the children did not see any special difference between myself, a five-year-old, and them, six-and seven-year-olds. But there was difference between us, common kids, and a boy names Kirill, who had a permanently running nose and whose mother worked at that school as a teacher of English. Kirill was an insider for that school, and we tried not to play with him: we knew that, if we hurt him by chance, his mother would come and yell at us.

Children’s alliances would get formed and fall apart: today you are an insider, and tomorrow you become an outsider. You are an insider, if you have a Fanta cap with a Pokémon hologram, and an outsider, if you have ignored the medical checkup. It seemed to me that the teachers were supposed to be more consistent: to determine who their pets were and to live with it. Yet, when after the school contest the teachers said “That’s my student” about me, after my classmate complained I was reading Harry Potter at the lesson, the teacher’s good disposition was lost, and the book was seized till the end of the school day.

Sometimes new students joined us. Naturally, a novice does not understand at once what’s what: from whom the homework could be copied, which pies in the school cafeteria were the tastiest, and who was to be avoided in the class. So, I hurried to explain and show everything to the newcomer, but the newcomer had already made friends with another classmate. And the boy would become another boy’s friend.


Unfortunately, we live in the world, which had been divided by boundaries with checkpoints long before we were born. Insider the boundary, there are insiders, and people with dog’s heads were living outside the boundaries. We cannot do anything with it: boundaries cannot be denied. Of course, there are exceptions — the fall of the Berlin wall and the existence of the Schengen agreement. However, the former phenomenon is unique, while the latter phenomenon is unstable.

State boundaries are only the top of an iceberg, the main things are inside. And this is our business.

First we erect partitions under the guidance of our parents: these boys are bad, and you shouldn’t be friends with those guys. Having gained experience, we determine ourselves who the insiders and who the outsiders are, but in the younger years, this mostly concerns the close circle of friends. The older we become, the more our choices are motivated by our outlook. And just the opposite: our outlook is formed by dividing people and phenomena as those that suit us and those that not. So, selection of the suitable shelf is mainly determined by our childhood experience.

However, as opposed to state boundaries, these boundaries are not permanent: sometimes a trifle makes us eject a person from the category of insiders into the category of outsiders. Or just the opposite.

As long as the existence of such boundaries depends upon us, we can refuse from dealing with them. At least, we should take a responsible attitude to erecting these boundaries — we should learn to listen to each other; remember that boundaries generate partiality, that black and white have an alternative of multiple colors, and that sometimes someone’s life depends on our choice.

Translated from the Russian by Tatyana Padve
© Valery Gannenko

Valery Gannenko

A correspondent and a columnist of the web portal "".
A human-to-be.







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