News of South Karelia, Finland

Two Russian Homosexuals Awaiting Asylum in Lappeenranta
January 19, 2015
Lappeenrannan Uutiset

vastaanottokeskusThe men are awaiting asylum at the Konnonsuo reception center. Photo by Janne Koivisto

Two Russian gay men are seeking asylum in Finland.

They are currently waiting at the Konnonsuo reception center in Lappeenranta, where they have been since September.

According to the men, they have been treated very badly in Russia. In recent years, Russia has made laws against homosexuals more severe.

The men are 24 and 36 years of age.

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Lappeenranta Uutiset has asked its readers whether gay refugees should be granted asylum.

As of five p.m. Finnish time on January 21, 2015, 81% of readers who responded to the poll said that yes, gay refugees should be granted asylum.

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Victoria Lomasko: Drawing Lessons at a Juvenile Prison

Victoria Lomasko
Drawing Lessons at a Juvenile Prison

In August 2010, I visited the Mozhaysk Juvenile Prison for the first time as a volunteer for the Center for Prison Reform and gave a drawing lesson to inmates. I have continued working with the Center, teaching master classes on drawing at the girl’s penitentiaries in Novy Oskol and Ryazan, and the boy’s penitentiary in Aleksin, but Mozhaysk is the only place which I have visited more or less regularly.

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Victoria Lomasko with students at Mozhaysk Juvenile Prison

There is almost no funding for the trips. We travel by commuter train, carrying everything we need for classes in our backpacks, so with rare exceptions we use the simplest materials—paper and black pens—during the lessons.

The Center organizes the trips once a month on particular days. If you miss a trip, you have to wait for the next time round.

The rotation of inmates at the penitentiary is constant. Some are released on parole, while others are transferred to adult prisons. New inmates show up all the time. Over a six-month period, the roster of my drawing group changes completely.

Some teens are well educated, while everything is completely new to others. Many of them have psychological problems.

In short, teaching classes at a penitentiary is a tricky task: you have to experiment and develop your own lesson plan. At the exhibition Really Useful Knowledge you can look over two lessons from my program, “Form and Counterform” and “Ceramics Painting,” as well as the outcome of a creative exchange between the Mozhaysk Prison and prisons in Buenos Aires, which my friend the translator Anna Voronkova helped organize. After returning from Argentina, Anna became one of the main volunteers at the Center for Prison Reform.

Why do we travel to the prisons? The Center’s staff and volunteers bring clothing to inmates about to be released on parole, and hygiene items, birthday presents, and treats to the other inmates. Staff and volunteers also provide psychological assistance and collect material for preventive publications aimed at troubled teens. Another of the Center’s missions is to recruit creative people willing to work regularly with the teens, who need to interact with people from the outside world no less than they need shampoo and socks.

I realize I cannot teach someone to draw when lessons are so infrequent. My emphasis is on developing analytical thinking (the structure of the drawing) and empathy (working on the image). It is also vital to help the kids gain self-confidence, so all the pictures are shown at exhibitions. We photograph these exhibitions and bring the photos back to the prison to show the kids.

The kids find out about the drawing lessons from their minders, but more often they hear about them by word of mouth. Around five to ten students come to my classes. There is often a self-taught artist among them who really wants to learn to draw.

lomasko-prison-1Oleg: “There are swastikas encrypted in Raphael’s drawings.” 

Oleg draws a lot. He has his own views of Renaissance masterpieces.

lomasko-prison-2A drawing by Oleg. “Look over there—wogs!” “Where?” “Right there!”

Oleg is a skinhead. It all started when, aged eight, he witnessed the murder of a friend: teenagers from the Caucasus killed him to get hold of his telephone. At fourteen, Oleg organized a “fight club,” in which he was the youngest member. The fighters “staged flash mobs at Caucasian markets.” Oleg said that in his small provincial town, the population was divided into skinheads, people from the Caucasus, and suckers. He was convicted of a gang killing. He expected to be rewarded for his patriotism, not punished. Oleg had kept up his spirits at the penitentiary: he had been studying foreign languages, philosophy, and economics. He dreams of becoming a politician: “Yanukovych’s priors hadn’t stopped him from becoming president.”

In the autumn, he was transferred to an adult prison.

lomasko-prison-3Andrei: “On the outside, lots of things keep a guy from wising up.”

Andrei is a prison artist. He makes “bands” (drawings on handkerchiefs). He wants to draw beautifully and with feeling, but despises formal exercises. But he did like the lecture on concentration camp drawings. He reads Solzhenitsyn and has been teaching himself to draw by copying illustrations in books from the local library. Andrei’s sentence ended before the New Year, but no one is waiting for him on the outside.

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A drawing by Andrei

Yevgeny had been a gambler. He was sent to the colony for busting open a slot machine. He did not know how to draw and did not want to learn: he came to class to get things off his chest.

lomasko-prison-5Yevgeny: “I take out my anger on the world by drawing. Each drop is a grievance: it’s like rain.”

Yevgeny always looked tense. He hated his surroundings and once said he wanted to murder people.

“Shut up. You don’t know what murder is,” the skinhead Oleg said to Yevgeny, taking him down a peg.

lomasko-prison-6Alexei: “On the outside, I drew cartoon characters.”

Alexei is a tall, handsome teenager. He is well read and has a good memory. What he liked most of all during the lessons was explanations of the abstract foundations of composition, which either irritated or dumfounded the other inmates.

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A drawing by Alexei

It was obvious the other boys avoided Alexei, and one of them half-jokingly called him a maniac. It turned out that once on New Year’s Eve, Alexei had committed a double murder while intoxicated: he had stabbed one of his victims around fifty times with a knife. Before the New Year, Alexei was transferred to an adult prison in Tambov, while the skinheads were sent to a prison in the Moscow Region.

lomasko-prison-8Natalia Dzyadko: “Why does no one come here to play football with the boys?”

Human rights activist Natalia Dzyadko has worked with the penitentiary for eight years. Along with staff members at the Center for Prison Reform, she brings candy and presents for the inmates’ birthdays, and invites people willing to work with the boys to the prison. It is difficult to gain entry to the prison without outside help. There are exceptions: the famous actor and musician Pyotr Mamonov has been granted the right to visit at any time, without a pass. True, he does not come that often, once or twice a year, but the inmates who have caught his concerts at the penitentiary still remember Mamonov.

lomasko-prison-9The inmates have almost no time for themselves: their lives are organized on a strict schedule. But when they do have free time, what they like doing most of all is playing football.

lomasko-prison-10Singer: “We’re fighting a plague, we’re fighting the entire Russian narcomafia.”

Activists sometimes visit the penitentiary, for example, a band made up of former alcoholics and drug addicts, from the organization Transfiguring Russia. The musicians performed for the boys songs they had written about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.

lomasko-prison-11The boys said the concert was cool, but that it was odd the musicians were wearing slippers and torn socks.

lomasko-prison-12Father Andrei: “I’m going to sing you songs from the ‘80s.”

Father Andrei from Descent of the Holy Spirit Church also visited the inmates. The church is famous for its prior, ex-rocker Sergei Rybko. The priest performed several songs at a concert in the prison.

lomasko-prison-13Father Andrei: “God definitely needs all of us.”

As in adult prisons, many inmates at the juvenile penitentiary turn to religion. There is a tiny wooden church on the premises. There are lots of icons in every residential unit, and even the TV in the common room is ringed with icons. Orthodox priests frequently come on the weekends to receive confession, chat, and show films about Russian Orthodoxy. No one comes to see the Muslim boys.

lomasko-prison-14“They have put us up a crooked New Year’s tree with crooked decorations.”

As New Year’s approached, they were few boys left at the penitentiary. Some had been released, while others had been transferred to adult prisons.

Victoria Lomasko’s project Drawing Lessons at a Juvenile Prison is on display until February 9, 2015, at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid as part of the group show Really Useful Knowledge.

Free Leonid Tikhonov!

Why was Leonid Tikhonov actually convicted?
January 11, 2015
unionrights.ru

On December 15, 2014, Nakhodka City Court handed down a guilty verdict against Leonid Tikhonov, chair of the Dockers’ Union of Russia (DUR) local branch at Vostochny Port JSC in the Russian Far East. The trade union leader was sentenced to three years and six months in a medium security prison. Moreover, in future Tikhonov will be barred from engaging in trade union activities for three years.

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Leonid Tikhonov

Tikhonov was accused of embezzlement. But the trade union is certain the prosecution and harsh sentence were port management’s revenge against Tikhonov and the entire local for acting too aggressively to prevent them from capitalizing on the deteriorating labor conditions of dockworkers.

The case has been much discussed in the media. But we can draw our own conclusion about who is in the right here. We only have to examine the facts in the case.

* * *

Criminal charges against Tikhonov were filed on June 22, 2012. He was accused of misappropriating 359,571 rubles (approx. 8,600 euros at the time) from Vostochny Port JSC, money allocated to the trade union for purchasing New Year’s gifts. None other than Anatoly Lazarev, managing director of Vostochny Port JSC, filed the charges against Tikhonov.

However, neither the trade union committee nor trade union members employed at Vostochny Port complained about the allegedly misappropriated funds. On the contrary, they came to the defense of their chair.

The trade union submitted to the court a written decision by the Vostochny Port JSC trade union committee to allocate funds as New Year’s gifts in the amount of five hundred rubles per member and the subsequent transfer of the money to shop stewards for presenting to union members employed at Vostochny Port JSC. That is, the money was allocated for gifts.

Perhaps Tikhonov had violated the trade union committee’s decision? The trade union submitted to the court affidavits given by members of the DUR local at Vostochny Port JSC. Around ninety-five per cent of the local’s members testified. They confirmed they had received gifts in December 2011. In some departments, gifts had taken the form of baskets containing sweets and alcoholic beverages. In others, the five hundred rubles were given in cash to each member. Each shop steward had decided how exactly to distribute the money, as gifts or cash. Only fifteen of all the members surveyed did not confirm receiving gifts that year: some recalled they had not received them, while others could not remember the events because they had happened too long ago. It thus transpires that the allocated funds had indeed been spent on gifts.

The court, however, decided not to admit these documents and affidavits as evidence.

On the other hand, the fact that criminal charges were filed after a representative of port management made a complaint cannot but raise questions.

The fact is that the money that Tikhonov was accused of embezzling did not belong to Vostochny Port JSC.

Vostochny Port JSC had allocated the funds to the DUR local at the port, as stipulated by the collective bargaining agreement between the trade union and the port. The money is allocated for funding cultural, sporting, and recreational activities. The local must submit a report on how the money is spent, but as soon as it is credited to the trade union’s account, under Russian law the money belongs to the trade union local.

The DUR has a special independent audit commission for checking the financial activities of its local branches. It had audited Tikhonov and concluded he had not allowed funds to be misused.

Thus, the trade union did not consider itself a victim. And under Russian law only the person or organization to which the funds in question belonged can be recognized as the injured party in embezzlement cases. Vostochny Port management is completely irrelevant in this instance.

The lack of a proper injured party eliminates the possibility of criminal prosecution. But charges were filed, and precisely at the insistence of port management.

Why did this happen?

* * *

Criminal charges were filed against Tikhonov in the wake of an active campaign by the trade union, including mass rallies and public protests by port workers, in June 2012.

On June 2, 2012, port workers held a rally demanding a rise in base pay and salaries for all grades of workers at the port, because freight turnover and shareholder dividends had been increasing there for quite a long time.

The trade union also sought an end to the practice of transferring dockers to fixed-term employment contracts (more than a thousand such contracts were signed at the port annually) and recruiting an ever-increasing amount of workers through subcontractors. Fixed-term contracts and casualization mean that dockers lose supplemental pay and additional holidays, earn less money, and are stripped of benefits. However, this means additional income for shareholders, and additional bonuses for port managers.

A mere two weeks later, on June 19, 2012, authorities searched the trade union’s offices at Vostochny Port and seized financial records. And on June 22, 2012, as we recall, charges were filed for the “misuse” of funds on New Year’s gifts.

Isn’t it curious that port management showed its concern over the New Year’s gifts—purchased with money not belonging to it and without any complaints by those who received the gifts—in June 2012, right after the trade union rally?

* * *

The Dockers’ Union of Russia has no doubt that Leonid Tikhonov is innocent.

The trade union’s members, dockers at the ports of Vostochny, Nakhodka, and Vladivostok, also have no doubt of his innocence. They all came to support Tikhonov at the court hearings.

“Leonid Tikhonov is innocent. The charges against him are farfetched and amount to nothing more than persecution for trade union activities.” This is the position of the fraternal trade unions of the Confederation of Labor of Russia (KTR) and dockworkers’ unions in other countries affiliated with the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

“We are shocked by Leonid Tikhonov’s sentence and imprisonment,” says the DUR’s executive committee. “Our lawyers are currently seeking a review of this harsh decision and the release of the trade union leader. We will appeal the verdict, of course.”

The trade union is also preparing a complaint to the International Labor Organization.

* * *

Leonid Tikhonov’s colleagues and comrades have not wavered in their support of him.

We hope to secure Leonid’s release and restore his good name. We will keep fighting for this until we have won. The trade union does not abandon its members.

Together we are strong!

* * *

Leonid Tikhonov
unionrights.ru

Leonid Tikhonov is chair of the Dockers’ Union of Russia (DUR) local branch at Vostochny Port in Primorsky Krai.

Tikhonov was born on March 25, 1963, in the city of Sarapul in Udmurtia, where he grew up. At the age of sixteen, he went to work as an equipment tuner at the local radio equipment factory.

In September 1983, Tikhonov arrived in the Soviet Far East, where he enrolled in Vocational School No. 30, in Vrangel, near Nakhodka. The school then trained specialists for the entire region.

A year later, Tikhonov was drafted into the army. He served with a radar unit in Chukotka.

After the army, in 1986, he returned to Nakhodka and continued working as an equipment operator at Vostochny Port.

In March 1988, Tikhonov was married. His wife, Svetlana, works as an electronic engineer at the Ship Traffic Control Center in Nakhodka Bay. They have a daughter, who was born in December 1988.

Tikhonov founded the Vostochny Youth Residential Complex and chaired the Vrangel Youth Residential Complex Council.

Tikhonov worked for fifteen years as an equipment operator at Universal Handling Terminal No. 1 in Vostochny Port. In 1998, he was elected deputy chair of the Vostochny Port JSC trade union committee of the Dockers’ Union of Russia. He has been chair of this same local since 2003. During his tenure, he received a law degree so as to defend the interests of workers more intelligently.

Tikhonov’s hobbies include sports and camping. He took first place in his weight category at the European Powerlifting Championship in 2012 and the World Championships in 2013. He has also won a number of other prizes.

His friends, colleagues, and trade union comrades know Tikhonov as an open and communicative but also infinitely principled, resilient, courageous man, intolerant of injustice and always ready to come to the rescue.

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Support Leonid Tikhonov by sending messages to the Union Rights Defence Centre!

“Standing on the Rooftop of a Dvor” and Other Miracles of Daily Life in “Brutalist” Petersburg

I usually don’t agree with the smart-alecky overread leftish folks who start crying “Orientalism! Orientalism!” whenever they see travelogues and anthropological essays “from the real Russia” like this one, but here I am tempted to join them.

I am also astonished the editors at the Guardian don’t understand the difference between “brutal” living and “brutalist” architecture, of which per se there is no more in Petersburg than anywhere else in the world.

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This is not to mention that “dvors” (courtyards) usually don’t have “rooftops,” at least not in this regional ruin-porn capital.

More importantly, self-avowed “urban decay” devotees like the whiz-bang art photographer from the Guardian are sorely missing out on the much more interesting and inspiring, but infinitely more complex and often tragic story of how the city’s residents have been fighting at the grassroots over the past ten years to preserve its classical, spectacular skylines and numerous architectural treasures as well as the often pleasantly green courtyards in its non-neoclassical, “brutalist” districts. But to tell that story you have to see Petersburgers as more than disempowered, colorful props in your personal post-ideological, neo-romantic visual fantasy.

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At some point, art—and solidarity—means putting down the camera. Or pointing it in a direction other than immiseration and defeat. Such angles exist in abundance everywhere, even in lowly Petersburg. // TRR

Photos by the Russian Reader

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Here are a few glimpses of the real modern city of Petersburg and the people who have been fighting for it.

 

Alexei Gaskarov: When Process Is More Vital than Outcome

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When Process Is More Vital than Outcome
Alexei Gaskarov
December 29, 2014
Zhukovskie Vesti

At six o’clock in the morning on 28 December 2014, Alexei Gaskarov, a defendant in the Bolotnaya Square Case, was transferred out of Butyrka remand prison in Moscow. Gaskarov will ring in the New Year while in transit to a medium security prison where he will serve his three-and-half-year sentence. In August, Zamoskvoretsky District Court in Moscow sentenced four defendants in the Bolotnaya Square Case—Gaskarov, Alexander Margolin, Ilya Gushchin, and Elena Kohtareva—finding them guilty of involvement in rioting and using violence against authorities. The recent decision of the appellate court was adamant: it upheld the lower court’s verdict. On the eve of the New Year’s holiday, Gaskarov summed up this difficult year, spent away from loved ones, and speculated on what is happening in the country.

Here is Gaskarov’s letter to the readers of Zhukovskie Vesti, written a few days before his transfer:

In December, the Laboratory of Public Sociology (a project based at the Centre for Independent Social Research in Petersburg) published the results of its study of civic movements in the wake of the 2011–2012 protests. The main conclusion was that the critical attitude to the regime had not faded, but had been forced to transform into different local initiatives and “small deeds.” The mass mobilization for fair elections and the experience of joint action had made public politics an integral part of life and an essential element of self-realization on a par with caring for loved ones and professional success.

Perhaps one of the key case studies in the research project was the evolution of civic initiatives in our own city, with the caveat that, by Russian standards, we have always had an active civil society and, as far as I know, Zhukovsky has to some extent been an example to all other Russian cities. The internal logic of the observed transformation is quite obvious and is reflected in the well-known dissident argument that those who give up freedom for sausage (stability) ultimately lose everything. The more strongly public space is constricted, the more noticeable are the crises in all other areas of public life, and not giving into pressure is a very rational choice in terms of the common good, even if one has to retreat at some points.

With its demands for democratic reform, the tentative Bolotnaya Square movement cannot lose separately from the rest of society, even if for the majority it remains a case of protest for its own sake. For the right question to ask in the current crisis is not why oil prices have fallen, but why nothing has been done over the past fifteen years to overcome our country’s economic dependence on the vagaries of foreign markets.

We cannot know the reasons for certain decisions, and I am far from saying that all those in power are “crooks and thieves,” but there is no doubt a society that has chosen an authoritarian model of governance is incapable of building an effective economy. Consequently, the harder the screws are tightened, the closer the denouement.

The lack of political competition leads only to an increase of incompetence in decision-making. For the sake of mythical manageability, the system is deprived of a complex but effective system of checks and balances, turning into a primitive vertical, which functions in an improvisatory mode.

A simple example from recent days is the Central Bank’s independence. The president’s friend needed 625 billion rubles,* and they up and printed them no questions asked, instantly causing the currency market to collapse and transferring all the costs to the entire population. On television, of course, they explained that “the West” and a “fifth column” were to blame for everything. This would not be possible in any democratic country. In Russia, however, absolute power goes on corrupting absolutely.

Despite the fact that there was more talk of dignity, freedom, and intolerance of hypocrisy and lies at the opposition rallies on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue in 2011–2012, the regime faced a fairly simple choice: either dialogue and reforms, or crisis and stagnation, which still means change, ultimately, but at a completely different price. It is almost an axiom, so people should not get upset if they were unsuccessful, for example, in defending a forest, challenging vote rigging in court or changing urban planning policies. The experience of collective action, rather than short-term outcomes, is vital in its own right.

In Argentina in 2001, the economic crisis produced such contradictions between society and authorities that the people’s only demand was Que se vayan todos! (“Out with them all!”). And the world witnessed one of the largest societal reconstruction projects based on self-organization and local government, something that had seemed unreal, as it does now in Russia. Who could have predicted the shameful flight of the once-strong Yanukovych in 2013? It is possible that if there is no liberalization and political thaw, at some point those who now appear important and confident will just disappear, and no one except we ourselves will be able to make decisions for us. And it will be right at such a moment that we will need the know-how of collective action and a vision for the future of both our city and the country as a whole.

* In the original, Gaskarov writes that “the president’s friend”—an obvious reference to Rosneft chairman and Putin insider Igor Sechin—needed “25 billion rubles.” I have corrected this to the figure of 625 billion rubles cited in the press as the amount of Rosneft’s recent bond issue, especially because before his arrest, Gaskarov worked as an economist and would not otherwise be prone to such mistakes. The figure of 25 billion rubles is thus either a typo or reflects his restricted access to information.

Editor’s Note. This translation was previously published, with an introduction and afterword by Gabriel Levy, on People and Nature. Translated by the Russian Reader. Image courtesy of personalsuccesstoday.com