A Muted Joy: Who Got Left Out of Putin’s Amnesty

Lenta.Ru
December 19, 2013
A Muted Joy
Four Defendants in the Bolotnaya Square Case Amnestied

The amnesty passed yesterday by the State Duma has enabled charges against four defendants in the Bolotnaya Square case to be dropped. Today, December 19, opposition activist Vladimir Akimenkov and journalist Leonid Kovyazin, who had been held in a remand prison for over a year, were released. Human rights activist Nikolai Kavkazsky was released from house arrest, and charges were likewise dropped against Maria Baronova, who had been under travel restrictions. Our correspondent went to the hearing at the Nikulinsky District Court in Moscow to see how the “prisoners of Bolotnaya” were freed.

Lawyers and journalists waited for the hearing to begin in a small, five-table cafe on the first floor of the Nikulinsky District Court. It had been known since yesterday evening that motions to amnesty four defendants in the Bolotnaya Square case—Maria Baronova, Vladimir Akimenkov, Nikolai Kavkazsky and Leonid Kovyazin—would be filed today. The four had been charged under sections 2 and 3 of Article 212 of the Criminal Code (participating in rioting and incitement to riot). Yesterday, the State Duma amended the president’s amnesty bill, extending it not only those convicted of such crimes but also to suspects and defendants charged under this article. However, the hearing had already been delayed by two hours and the people in the cafe were nervous.

Someone suggested the motions would not be accepted until Vladimir Putin’s press conference was over, because Judge Natalya Nikishina was waiting for a go-ahead from the Kremlin. Someone else claimed that traffic jams were to blame: because of them, the defendants had not been delivered to the court on time.

“In our difficult times, any delay gives rise to conspiracy theories,” lawyer Sergei Badamshin said by way of summing up.

When asked whether the four defendants would be released, lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant answered quite cautiously.

“It often happens that courts like to drag things out until the verdict. In Russia, the authorities don’t like letting people go. Today, I heard that some lady from the Federal Penitentiary Service said that for Nadya [Tolokonnikova] to be amnestied they would need a paper from child protection services saying that Nadya had not been deprived of her parental rights. Can you imagine? What grounds do they have for suspecting her of this? Her daughter has a birth certificate in which Nadya is identified as the mother. But in Russia, if they don’t want to let someone go, they always come up with an excuse.”

Dmitry Agranovsky, Vladimir Akimenkov’s lawyer, was categorical.

“I prepared the draft amendments to the amnesty bill along with MPs from the Communist Party. We ensured that the cases against people eligible for amnesty who have been charged under Article 212 would be dropped not after the verdict, but at the stage where they are currently are. From a legal perspective, Akimenkov should be released today, end of story. Since yesterday, there has no longer been any need for his detention. His complaint has already been filed with the European Court of Human Rights, and if he’s kept in the remand prison even for a day after the amnesty bill is published, that will be tantamount to a real abuse of power, since they are no legal grounds for detaining him. He should be released in the courtroom.”

Agranovsky recited [the final stanza of Pushkin’s poem “Deep in Siberian mines”] with expression.

“The heavy fetters will fall, / The jails will crumble. And freedom / Will joyfully hail you at the entrance, / And brothers will give you back your swords.”

Lawyer Alexei Vetrentsev, who was representing defendant Leonid Kovyazin, did not think his client would be released today.

“I think Leonid will be released from the remand prison only tomorrow. There’ll be paperwork at the prison, and he’ll have to gather his things.”

The expression on Vetrentsev’s face was extremely sad.

“For us, the amnesty is a good decision, but I feel embarrassed before the others. It is inhuman to carry out an amnesty this way, releasing some people while others are left in jail.”

Nine other people were to appear with his client in the cage for defendants at the Nikulinsky District Court. Only two of them, Kovyazin and Akimenkov, were supposed to be released. Baronova, the mother of a young child, had been under travel restrictions, while Kavkazsky had been under house arrest.

“I’m ashamed, but I’m glad, and that’s an objective feeling,” said Baronova. “You can feel as guilty as you like because the others aren’t being let out, but now for the first time in two years I can leave the country for at least a few days. I’m looking here at names of banks that give consumer loans for the New Year holidays, so I can go to Berlin.”

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(Left to right) Sergei Krivov, Stepan Zimin, Denis Lutskevich, Andrei Barabanov and Artyom Savyolov. Photo: Gennady Gulyaev/Kommersant
Anatoly, grandfather of anarchist Alexei Polikhovich, another defendant, sat motionless not far from Baronova. Anatoly’s grandson was first charged under “amnestied” Article 212, for involvement in rioting. But after a press conference last year in which President Vladimir Putin spoke out strongly against people who had [allegedly] assaulted police officers, Article 318 (“use of violence that does not endanger human life or health […] against a representative of the authority”), the standard charge, was added to the charges against Polikhovich. Riot police officer Igor Tarasov had then suddenly remembered that at the May 6, 2012, rally, Polikhovich had “hit him in the wrist, causing severe pain.”
Immediately after the defendants were brought into the courtroom, the four lawyers moved to have their clients released in connection with the amnesty decree published yesterday in [official government newspaper] Rossiiskaya Gazeta. The appeals were wholly supported by the prosecution. Judge Natalya Nikishina then asked whether the appeals were supported by the remaining defendants not covered by the amnesty—that is, Polikhovich, Alexandra Dukhanina, Denis Lutskevich, Stepan Zimin, Sergei Krivov, Andrei Barabanov, Yaroslav Belousov and Artyom Savyolov.

Polikhovich replied by chuckling ironically a few times, but the other defendants unanimously seconded the appeals. Stella Anton, Denis Lutskevich’s mother, wept loudly. Twenty minutes later, Judge Nikishina returned to the courtroom and read out her decision: to grant the motions and dismiss the criminal charges.

The first to exit the courtroom was Leonid Kovyazin. His wife Yevgenia threw her arms around him.

“The guys aren’t getting out, and that’s bad,” said Kovyazin, now free. “My joy is severely muted for this reason.”

When asked what conditions had been like for him in the Butyrka remand prison, Kovyazin answered calmly.

“At first, I had conflicts in the remand prison. Then I got used to it: the only tough thing was the waiting. Other than that, the people in prison, who are mostly there on drugs charges, are often quite outstanding. Incidentally, I was surprised it wasn’t only young people who used drugs: there were fortysomething men in jail with me who told me how they had got hooked on heroin on their birthdays. Basically, I can’t say anything good about jail: any term of imprisonment means stress, unhappiness and a few years deducted from your life. For example, it is physically painful to ride in the paddy wagon: it is very cold in winter, and extremely hot in summer.”

Kovyazin had been accused of overturning portable toilets that had been set up in Bolotnaya Square during last year’s May 6 rally, which ended in massive clashes between protesters and police. Kovyazin was frank about his actions that day.

“I had gone to the square to shoot video for the Vyatsk Observer newspaper, but then I lost my cool. When I saw the case materials, the video shot from above, I noticed that at the moment [when police dispersed the rally] only around fifty people remained in the square, but the police were on both sides. I had shot scenes of people being beaten by the police, but then I had put away the camera and yet was unable to leave. Perhaps that was my mistake: the camera distances you from what’s happening, but when you’re involved in the events, it’s different.”

Kovyazin did not deny that he had pushed the toilet stalls.

“It was an emotional decision. After the fact you can discuss it at length and reflect on it, but when you see [people being beaten] . . . I was caught up in the action. Later, when the task force came to arrest me, I said to my brother, ‘See you in five years.’ Fortunately, that hasn’t come to pass.”

After a pause, Leonid continued.

“If I could play it back, I would do what I did, only I would have gone without the camera. As Vova [Vladimir Akimenkov] joked to me, ‘When you get out, the journalists are going to slap you first, then shake your hand.’ Because that kind of involvement is, of course, a violation of professional journalistic ethics. But I don’t believe I was involved in rioting.”

“There was no rioting in the square,” asserted Nikolai Kavkazsky, one of the amnestied defendants and a lawyer with the human rights organization Civil Assistance. “It is obvious to everyone that on May 6 there was a sanctioned march and rally that the authorities wanted to disrupt. People who went to that rally are now on trial, but not the policemen who actually violated the law, which prohibits dispersing rallies. What happened to me, for example? I saw a police officer hitting some unknown people with a truncheon. He was beating them severely, you might say. I went up to the police officer and wanted to say to him, ‘Why are you violating the law on police conduct? Why are you beating citizens?” But I didn’t manage to say anything. He raised his truncheon. I wanted to cover myself with hands, but the blow landed on my arm, and to protect myself from this police officer, I lifted my leg. That was it.”

Kavkazsky was arrested on July 25, 2012, when he left his home to buy new pants. (He never did buy those pants.) Later, in the remand prison, he found that the hardest thing to endure was being cut off from the familiar, everyday world.

“When you’re cut off from the phone and Internet, from interacting with your usual circle of people, you feel completely isolated. That’s the scariest thing. And there’s not knowing. Conditions in prisons are horrible: they’re not meant to observe human rights but to violate them. Everything is forbidden there. Why do they forbid you from listening to music you want to listen to? Why can’t you put duvets on your blankets? Why can’t you eat the food you like?”

Kavkazsky spent nearly a year in the remand prison. He was switched to house arrest only in August of this year because endocrine disorders he suffers from had flared up while he was in custody.

Vladimir Akimenkov, an activist with the now-routed Left Front, was also released from the remand prison on Thursday. At first, he had wanted to turn down the amnesty.

“It’s a Byzantine decision: they’re planning to release some and not others. I don’t understand how I’m better than the others, why guys who have become real comrades to me, people with serious health problems, including fathers and men separated from their other halves, have to be in prison.”

His lawyer convinced Akimenkov to sign the appeal. He did not consider himself guilty.

“I did none of the things I’ve been charged with. I was not involved in a riot that, incidentally, did not happen.”

Akimenkov looked out the window and rubbed his wrists.

“I find it strange to go outside, strange to feel my hands without handcuffs on them. But after I find a job, I’ll be going to the Bolotnaya Square trial, making care packages, giving money and doing everything possible to ensure there is not a single political prisoner in this country.”

In the very near future, Akimenkov plans to attend another trial, that of Left Front coordinator Sergei Udaltsov, accused of organizing the “riot” in downtown Moscow a year and a half ago. The court has yet to begin examining the charges against him.

Svetlana Reiter

NB. The original article features a four-minute video of the December 19 court hearing and its aftermath.

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“In short, all those who traditionally cause problems for the police”

You’ll be hard pressed, for better or worse, to find much of anything in the English-language press (except, tellingly, in The Daily Mail) about this past weekend’s clashes between people defending the Rote Flora cultural center in Hamburg and the police, but the hyper-reactionary Russian mainstream media has been furiously sending out foaming-at-the-mouth dispatches to its subjugated target audience that include telltale verbal gems like this:

Здание оккупировали леворадикальные группировки, иммигранты, панки, рокеры, бездомные — в общем, все те, кто традиционно доставляет проблемы полиции.

(“The building was occupied by radical leftist groups, immigrants, punks, rockers, homeless people—in short, all those who traditionally cause problems for the police.”)

Meanwhile, at Putinist state-controlled cable network RT, the best friend of “anti-imperialist” rebuhlooshinaries the world over since 2005, you can purchase video footage of the clashes starting at fifty euros.

Rubber Apartments

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A bill against fictitious residential registration has been approved by parliament and is likely to come into force before the end of 2013. MPs who voted for the law insisted it targeted “rubber apartments” where hundreds of people are fictitiously registered and, more broadly, illegal immigration. Lenta.Ru has read the text of the bill along with lawyers from the Public Verdict Foundation and concluded that the tightening of controls over registration and movement will directly impact Russian citizens as well.

Introduced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the bill, which has the neutral-sounding title “On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation,” contains several subsections. Amendments have been made to the law on the freedom of movement of Russian citizens, the Administrative and Criminal Codes, and the law on the registration of foreign nationals by migration authorities. The preamble to the newly revised third article of the law on freedom of movement states residential registration is for informational purposes only, rather than a compulsory action. Whether someone is registered or not “cannot serve as grounds for restricting or a condition for exercising the rights and freedoms of citizens” as stipulated by the Constitution and other regulations.

This is consistent with the style in which new Russian laws are drafted: all attempts to prohibit something by law are based, allegedly, on a concern for protecting rights and freedoms. So it is in this case: a direct quotation from the Constitutional Court’s 1998 ruling that residential registration should not restrict the rights of citizens is followed by a list of the ways in which citizens will be restricted.

Thus, Russian citizens who have traveled outside their home regions must be registered within ninety days. If this does not happen, people renting housing and landlords may be held administratively or, in some cases, criminally liable. For living in an apartment without registering, tenants will be fined two to three thousand rubles [approx. 45 to 65 euros]; apartment owners, two to five thousand rubles [approx. 45 to 110 euros] and legal entities, 250 to 750 thousand rubles [approx. 5,500 to 16,500 euros]. Fictitious registration will be punishable by a fine of 100 to 250 thousand rubles, up to three years of hard labor or a similar term of imprisonment under Article 322 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code.

— Andrei Kozenko, “Who’s no longer a tenant here: how the ‘rubber apartments’ law will impact Russians,” Lenta.Ru, December 18, 2013

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There is a stark political economy to the illegalization of migrant labour that goes unremarked in much of the election-season hand-wringing over the city’s growing population of nelegaly (“illegals” in derogatory officialese). For one thing, demand for labour that is low-paid, verbally contracted, un-unionised, and flexible far exceeds the city’s (deliberately minimalist) quota of work permits. Perhaps as many as four fifths of the city’s migrant workers are therefore employed without an official work permit, or individual patent permitting private employment. There is an open market for official work permits, as well as a (near indistinguishable) market for fakes. As I have explored in my research on the difficulty of creating documented selves in Russia, the degrees of intermediation for obtaining a work permit means that “cleans” and “fakes” are often distinguishable only at the point that they are checked by the police.

At the same time, the gulf between average wages and average rental costs in the city mean that many migrant workers live in conditions that violate administrative regulations: in multi-tenant “rubber apartments” (rezinovye kvartiry) without corresponding residential registration, in container-dormitories on building sites, or in the unventilated basement of a multi-storey apartment building entirely unrecorded within city housing stock. The choices here are stark: for those on a typical migrant wage in the catering sector of 15-17,000 roubles (around £300-£330 per month) the only way to make ends meet in a context where the rental costs exceed average wages three or four-fold is to share an apartment illegally with 15 or 20 other tenants, paying money to a notional “landlord” (another migrant who takes a cut) and paying off the local policeman to ensure that the apartment is protected from raids. In a city where the 2010 census identified over 92% of the city’s registered population to be ethnically Russian (russkii), the economic constraints upon legal migrant labour have made for an easy popular conflation between being visibly non-Russian, being a “guest worker” (gastarbaiter), and being an illegal.

Xenophobia is not new in Moscow. But the combination of a laissez-faire wage policy (with a race to the bottom for undocumented labour), together with excessive restrictions on legally documented labour, and the widespread use of bribes to circumvent administrative regulations has allowed for the normalisation of a casual racism in which discrimination on the basis of ethnicity is justified through concerns for security and comfort—or protection against “illegals”. One commercial website offering temporary accommodation to non-Muscovites, for instance, cites its own policy of ethnic selection in the following terms:

[W]e don’t have racist prejudices, but today the situation has developed such that the largest demand for a place to stay in Moscow comes from Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians. In accordance with the existing demand for inexpensive hostel accommodation in Moscow, we attempt only to house people of Slavic appearance (litsa slavianskoi vneshnosti), for the comfortable living conditions of all residents, and in so doing avoid any conflictual situations.

 — Madeleine Reeves, “Mayoral politics and the migrant economy: talking elections and ‘illegals’ in Moscow,” cities@manchester, September 5, 2013

 

Photo courtesy of The Moscow News

Homosexuals and Homophobes: Victoria Lomasko on the Side by Side LGBT Film Festival

Originally published (in Russian) at soglyadatay.livejournal.com

Victoria Lomasko
Side by Side: Homosexuals and Homophobes

When the organizers of the Petersburg LGBT film festival Side by Side invited me to serve on the festival jury, I agreed right away. I’m no expert on cinema, and I’m not a member of the LGBT community, but given what has been happening in Russia, the festival has become a political event, and being involved with it is a way of clearly expressing your civic stance.

As one of the organizers, Gulya Sultanova, told me, “This time, almost all the movie theaters [the festival approached] decided to support the film festival, despite the potential risks. And that’s worth a lot.”

I found it difficult to share Gulya’s optimism. I was certain that attempts would be made to disrupt the festival, and that trouble lay in store for organizers and festival goers.

A Dangerous Opening

Several minutes before the festival’s opening ceremony at the Warsaw Express shopping and entertainment complex, police got word of a bomb threat to the movie theater. While police combed the building for a bomb, festival goers hung outside in the chilly wind.

“There are homophobes on the corner. They’re really creepy.”

A gang of beefy skinheads appeared a few meters away from us. As Gulya later explained, the guys were nationalists from an organization called Soprotivlenie (Resistance). One female viewer standing next to me was visibly nervous.

“Now they’ll start throwing rocks at us, like during the rally at the Field of Mars. Now they’ll start firing at us with pneumatic guns!”

Right there among the gay activists was Dmitry Chizhevsky, a black bandage on his face. It had only been just recently that persons unknown had attacked an LGBT community center and shot Chizhevsky in the eye with a pneumatic pistol.

Side by Side organizers asked festival goers not to wander off by themselves.

We were finally ushered into the movie theater. The Dutch film Matterhorn, about a father who has kicked his gay son out of the house, opened the festival.

Police escorted Side by Side viewers from the movie theater to the subway.

Predictions by Foreign Guests

Post-screening discussion of Out in East Berlin: “I think the tough times are still ahead of you.”
3_strahi“We were afraid of pogroms, that they would try and kill homosexuals in the street.”

At the last minute, many foreign guests had been frightened to come to Russia.

Side by Side Received Five Bomb Threats during Its Ten-Day Run

Five times the police received false threats of bombs planted at Side by Side festival venues. Loft Project ETAGI art center and Jam Hall Cinema were each threatened once, the Skorokhod cultural center, twice.


“We’ve received another bomb threat, friends!”

The police and ambulance came each time, and everyone was evacuated from the buildings where the “bombs” had been “planted.” At ETAGI, for example, its staff, patrons from its cafes, bars and shops, and its hostel guests were kicked out onto the street along with LGBT activists.

The people behind the false bomb threats have not been found.

Side by Side co-organizer Manny de Guerre: “No venue will ever work with us again.”

Manny’s worries were justified. After the bomb threats, both the Zona Deistviya co-working space at ETAGI and Jam Hall Cinema terminated their agreements with Side by Side for the remaining screenings.

One day, the festival program was disrupted entirely. Not only were the screenings not held. A discussion entitled “Young People’s Freedom to Access Information on LGBT” was also canceled.

Lena Klimova: “In our city, many people don’t even know the word LGBT.”

Lena Klimova, a journalist and creator of the Internet project Children 404, was supposed to take part in the discussion. She had specially come all the way from Nizhny Tagil for the festival.

Through the Back Entrance

The screening, at Jam Hall Cinema, of Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle), which was then playing without incident at many other theaters in Petersburg, was interrupted by a bomb threat. The police led viewers out of the theater through the back entrance. At the main entrance, Petersburg legislative assembly deputy and United Russia member Vitaly Milonov demanded that police free children whom the “sodomites” were, allegedly, “forcibly holding” at the screening. Around twenty lowlifes came out to support Milonov.


“We caught several minors in the movie theater and photographed them with their IDs.”

While waiting for the theater to be checked for bombs, Side by Side viewers took refuge in a nearby cafe, but several people, including me, lingered on the street. A policeman came up to me.

“Tell your people not to stand in the street but to hide in the cafe. They could be attacked.”

“They don’t want to go into the cafe.”

“It’s dangerous. Although they look like ordinary people. Maybe they won’t be noticed, and no one will bother them.”

While what the policeman said jarred me, it didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was the absence of support for Side by Side on the part of Petersburg’s civic and leftist activists.

In the Bomb Shelter

After Jam Hall pulled out of its agreement with Side by Side, the festival moved to the Green Lantern Press Club, a small basement space. No bomb threats were made to this venue.

As festival jury member Bård Ydén remarked, “What bombs? We’re already in a bomb shelter.”

The feature films Tom at the Farm and In the Name Of and the documentary film We Were Here were shown in the “bomb shelter.”

LGBT Christians

In the Name Of is about a priest’s struggle with his homosexual desires. Andrei, a pastor at a Protestant church, took part in the post-screening discussion.

LGBT Christian: “A persecuted minority is being oppressed in the name of the church.”

“I’m offended by the idea that a person can’t be both Christian and LGBT.”

The pastor recounted how he had once invited LGBT Christians to celebrate Easter at his church, but the other parishioners had refused to eat at the same table with them.

Pastor: “The Bible unequivocally treats homosexuality as a sin.”

We Were Here

We Were Here, about the AIDs epidemic among gays in San Francisco in the 1980s, made a huge impression on me. The epidemic claimed over fifteen thousand lives during this period. The US government considered introducing a compulsory quarantine, clothes with identifying marks or special tattoos for people infected with HIV. Mass protests by the LGBT community put a stop to such plans. Gays demanded information about the new disease, development and free distribution of drugs, and government support for HIV-positive people. At the same time, the LGBT community established charitable organizations: hundreds of gay activists became volunteers, while many lesbians donated blood and worked as nurses.

One of the people featured in the film, AIDS activist Ed Wolf, came to the festival.

Ed Wolf: “I’ve ridden around Petersburg. You have many gays here. I saw them myself.”
Moderator: “So the American government wasn’t willing to solve the problem?” Ed Wolf: “An army of activists forced the government to act.”

Thanks to the civic engagement of the LGBT community and, later, the society at large, the epidemic in San Francisco was stopped relatively quickly.

Ed Wolf continues to work on HIV/AIDS issues. According to him, women are now at risk.

“It’s hard for women to force their husbands to wear a condom every time.”

Wolf also said that gays are also men and that it’s time for them to reconsider their patriarchal views of women.

Lesbiana

At Side by Side, I noticed that the LGBT community was also not free of sexism. Spotting my jury member badge, one young gay man asked which movies I would be voting for. Hearing I had chosen Blue Is the Warmest Color and Lesbiana: A Parallel Revolution, he said, “Those films are so boring. And lesbian sex is disgusting to watch.”

Most of the films shown at Side by Side were shot by male directors and dealt with gay love. Lesbiana: A Parallel Revolution was the only feature film at the festival made by women about women. The screening room was half empty: men did not come.

The audience at Lesbiana

Lesbiana combines interview with aged lesbian activists who were involved in the LGBT and feminist movements during the 1970s with documentary footage from the period. In those years there were a lot of separatist lesbian communes, where women lived and engaged in painting, sculpture, literature, music and performance.

Sharing our impressions of Lesbiana at a cafe: “I wonder whether there are ‘feminine lands’ in Russia where only lesbians live?”

Jury Deliberations

The jury at Side by Side consisted of Alexander Markov, a filmmaker; Marina Staudenmann, director of the Tour de Film international film festival agency; Bård Ydén, director of the Oslo Gay and Lesbian Film Festival; and two people far removed from the professional cinema world, Elena Kostyuchenko, a journalist and LGBT activist, and me.

 Alexander Markov (on left). Elena Kostyuchenko: “As the only LGBT activist on the jury, I’m responsible for authenticity.”

Our discussion quickly shifted from the films to Russia’s homophobic policies.

Elena Kostyuchenko: “If they start removing children from LGBT [families], our lives will change forever.” Marina Staudenmann (on right)

We were nearly unanimous in our choice of the winning feature film.

 Marina Staudenmann: “La vie d’Adèle.” Bård Ydén: “La vie d’Adèle.”
Alexander Markov: “La vie d’Adèle.”

Valentine Road, about the murder of a transgender schoolboy by his classmate, won the prize for best feature-length documentary film.

The Festival’s Closing Ceremony

Aside from the by now routine bomb threat, viewers who came to the closing ceremony had a surprise in store from the Rodina (Motherland) party. Party activists handed out “gift bags” to them.

Side by Side organizers describing what was in the “gift bags”: “The bags contained rope and bars of soap, along with a note reading, ‘From Russians with love.'”

Gus Van Sant, the festival’s most anticipated guest of honor: “The people who wanted to shut the festival down caused the LGBT community to close ranks.”

Gus Van Sant showed up at the Side by Side closing ceremonies with Sergei “Afrika” Bugaev, whom he introduced to the audience as his “good Russian friend.”

A woman in the audience asked the famed director, “What is a Putin endorser doing at an LGBT film festival?”

Van Sant chose not to answer the question.

Afterparty at the Malevich LGBT club

Sitting among gays and lesbians at the closed LBGT club, I mulled over my impressions of the events of the festival. I had felt frightened several times during the clashes with homophobes, and I was glad I was heterosexual. I would not be forced to live my entire life in a constant state of anxiety.

Towards the end of the festival, Gulya Sultanova said, “We’re just a festival, but there’s the sense we’re running a military operation.”

LGBT activists are just people. Why must they live as if they were invisible or criminals?

Smychka

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When you can’t think of anyone else to blame (and especially when you wouldn’t think of blaming your collective self), blame the Russian peasants:

Leonid Vasilyev, head of the Laboratory for History Studies at the Higher School of Economics, believes that the times are very bad not only in Russia, but throughout the world.

“Poverty and ignorance have come to the fore: they are the twin pillars of the world today. Over the past half century, the population of the Earth has increased from 1.6 billion people to 7 billion, of whom 6.2 billion are poor and ignorant. We are seeing the same thing in Russia,” he said.

Vasilyev believes that the Russian peasant commune—archaic, ignorant, inert and hostile to innovation—has now come to power in Russia. The commune has acted as a powerful canopy over the history of Russia or, rather, it  has not let our country’s history come into its own.

“After all, what was the Russian commune for most of its existence? A nomadic population. The commune would use slash-and-burn agriculture to exploit a piece of land from four to eight years, and then it would pick up stakes and go cultivate a new plot. Hence the lack of horizontal ties, of solidarity, in Russia. Serfdom was a blessing for this population; it reduced the costs of encampment. Please note that the Russian commune never raised a rebellion against serfdom. Cossacks and Old Believers protested, but not the Russian commune. The folk liked living under serfdom,”  the historian argued.

At the end of nineteenth century, the commune rejected the intelligentsia’s campaign of “going to the people,”  but the Bolsheviks were able to reach out to peasants by giving them simple slogans and restoring serfdom in the form of collective farms.

“Eighty years have passed, and commune members have moved into the Russian cities. They have not changed much: there is still the same old archaism and ignorance. That is, they are the people whom the current regime represents. If you held fair elections, they would win a stunning victory,”  lamented Vasilyev. “What hopes are there that the situation will change? Hope is almost nonexistent.” *

* Quoted in Pavel Pryanikov, “The child is crying, demanding the pacifier of xenophobia,” Russkaya Planeta, November 23, 2013; photo courtesy of Russkaya Planeta and RIA Novosti.

The Psychic Governor

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Not is only Georgy Poltavchenko, Petersburg’s unelected governor, a capable administrator and a pious Orthodox Christian, he is also, as he revealed last week during a passionate speech delivered at a special powwow with law enforcement officials and “representatives of ethnic diasporas,” a psychic, a mind reader or remote viewer capable of hearing what migrant workers in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are saying as they depart for the former capital of All the Russias (apparently, to wreak mayhem, judging by further remarks made the governor and others at the high-level confab):

“So your countrymen travel to our country, to our city, in particular. They travel from distant villages there and so on. And just as they’re about to board the plane or the train going to Russia, they say, ‘We’re going there because the Russians don’t know how to work! They’re all drunkards. They’re all loafers!’ But members of the nation to which I myself belong, the Russian people, over the course of a thousand years created an enormous state along with other peoples. And if those loafers and drunkards hadn’t built the Russian state, who knows what the people who come to our country thinking such thoughts would be doing nowadays. I want everyone to remember what I’m about to say: the Russian people are a people that I won’t permit anyone to walk all over!”*

* As quoted in: Maria Gordyakova, “Make yourselves at home, but don’t forget you’re just visiting,” Gorod 812, December 2, 2013, p. 12; the online version of the article (which has a different title) can be accessed here.

Photo © RIA Novosti and Sergey Subbotin

Drugstore Cowboy

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World-famous cinematic auteur Gus Van Sant has made me mutter “What the fuck” twice in my mostly uneventful life. The first time was sometime in 1988, when one evening my kitchen was suddenly flooded with incredibly bright light. I went outside to see where the light was coming from, and discovered Mr. Van Sant and his crew two blocks away, at the old St. Francis Hotel in Portland, Oregon, filming the final scene of what would end up being Drugstore Cowboy. The second time was tonight, at the closing ceremony of the Side by Side LGBT film festival at the Skorohod culture space in Petersburg, where Mr. Van Sant was the guest of honor. It was bad enough that he told the audience—who had just filed back into the Skorohod after a bomb threat, the fifth of Side by Side’s ten-day run, had cleared the place for an hour and a half while the police searched for the nonexistent bomb—about his visit, in 1991, to an equally nonexistent “gay artists’ commune” on Pushkinskaya Street. What was totally disheartening was that his remarks were translated by a person (an “old Russian friend,” Van Sant called him) who had helped pulled the wool over his eyes back then, twenty-two years ago, and who less than two years ago helped re-elect to the Russian presidency the man who is the real source of “homophobia” in Russia, not the “grassroots” homophobes of beleaguered Petersburg, who at most have been able to muster a couple dozen zombies to look funny at festival goers on a couple of occasions and phone in a bomb threat every other night. Mr. Van Sant should stick to making films about Portland, where he really does understand the lay of the land. Despite the fact it roused me out of the house that night in 1988, Drugstore Cowboy was a terrific movie.