The Kids Are (Not) Alright, Part 2

What’s wrong with this picture?

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What follows is an excerpt from the seemingly endless series of “grassroots” exposés of the irremediable “stupidity” of twentysomethings, “most ordinary” Russians, Ukrainians, amerikosy, etc., that are posted in such abundance on the Runet these days.

At work, I have a personal assistant, a young woman, Nastya, a Muscovite, 22 years old [sic], who is in her final year at law school. She asked me a question.

Wow, why do they build the metro so frigging deep? It’s inconvenient and difficult!”

“Well, you see, Nastya, the Moscow metro originally was dual purpose. It was planned to be used both as public transportation and as a bomb shelter.”

Natasha grinned incredulously.

“A bomb shelter? How stupid? What, is someone planning to bomb us?”

[…]

“Have you been to the Baltic States?”

“I have. I’ve been to Estonia.”

“Well, how was it? Was it a hassle to get a visa?”

“I was there under the Soviet Union. We were one country then.”

“What do you mean, ‘one country’?”

“All the Baltic States were part of the Soviet Union! Nastya, did you really not know that?”

“Holy shit!”

“Now you’re going to totally freak out. Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova were also part of the USSR. And Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. As well as Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia!”

“Georgia! You mean those assholes there was a war with?!”

“The very same. You do know that the Soviet Union existed then collapsed? You were even born in it!”

“Yes, I know there some kind of Soviet Union that then collapsed. But I didn’t know it lost so much territory…”

I was riding in the metro and looking at the people around me. There were lots of young faces. All of them were younger than me by ten years, a dozen years. Were they all just like Nastya?! The zero generation. Ideal vegetables…

Source: Kazbek Magerramov (Facebook), via allmomente.livejournal.com

Among the numerous comments to this Zadornovesque anecdote, most of which empathize with the author’s blunt point and bewail the allegedly vegetable-like state of the “zero generation,” I couldn’t find a single comment pointing out that if silly Nastya were now indeed twenty-two years old, she would have had to have been born in 1992 or 1993, that is, one or two years after the actual Soviet Union actually collapsed in 1991. But in this shaggy-dog story, the first-person narrator tells dumb Nastya that she was somehow born in this magical land about which she is so woefully ignorant.

This logical gaffe makes me think the whole thing has been made up. Like half the “tales from real life” about the laughable simplicity of “ordinary blokes,” twentysomethings, pindosy, ukropy, women or, alternately, the gritty folk wisdom of cabbies, roaming the mighty virtual steppes of the Runet nowadays.

The kids are alright, really. It’s just that they have been left to their own devices. Which, like all the other discriminated and marginalized groups left to their own devices over the last twenty-four years by the state, the ruling classes, the mainstream media, and their allies in the newfangled virtual Kadet parties and Unions of the Russian People, makes them ideal figures of “fun,” scorn, and fear. And perfect stalking horses for transparent exercises in post-imperial melancholy like this one.

Putin’s Russia (how it pains me to type this phrase) is not just a pollocracy. It is also an “anecdotocracy.” Researchers of “post-authoritarian” societies like Russia really should be delving deeper into how polls and anecdotes have been used to help people to oppress themselves and make common cause with others impossible.

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In the Russian Hinterlands

The social structure of life in the Russian provinces is defined by the shadow economy
Simon Kordonsky and Yuri Plyusnin have explored life in the hinterlands
Pavel Aptekar
May 28, 2015
Vedomosti

Provincial Russian society is divided into several quasi-estates, which are defined by informal features. Membership of “one’s own” set in the hinterlands provides access both to the fruits of the state allocation of resources and the benefits of the shadow economy, while maintaining an acceptable standard of living even when a person’s official status is low. The provincial lifestyle impacts how life is practiced in the big cities. The social structure of the provinces is stimulated by informal economy and the rent economy, and by the desire of the ruling class to preserve its privileges. Such are the conclusions of a report issued by the Khamovniky Foundation, “The Social Structure of Russian Provincial Society,” prepared by Simon Kordonsky and Yuri Plyusnin on the basis of research done by the foundation between 2011 and 2015. Soviet-era social statuses have been lost, and most residents of the hinterlands cannot clearly define their place in the new social reality. The new сlass criteria—level of income, membership of the civil service, entrepreneurship—are having a hard time taking root in the small towns and rural areas.

66.3% percent of the population, the popular majority, lives on wages, old-age pensions, and state allowances. The share of businessmen, members of the liberal professions, and seasonal workers (i.e., those who earn their money in places where they do no live) does not exceed 15.2% and is comparable to the number of outcasts (13.4%), i.e., prisoners, convicted offenders, and homeless people. Government officials make up another 5.1% of the population. The percentage of outcasts is high, but it should not confuse us. According to the calculations of Vladimir Radchenko, former first deputy chair of the Supreme Court, during the past twenty years, one in every eight men has passed through the prisons in Russia, and the proportion of men familiar with the criminal subculture is twice as large.

In the provinces, the individual’s position is a reflection of their informal influence, which primarily depends on their belonging to an informal group (e.g., a family, clan, street, professional community or gang). Official status and publicly declared income (wealth) are less significant factors. Simon Kordonsky told Vedomosti that upward mobility is difficult. People with criminal records find it hard to get decent jobs, while energetic businessmen and seasonal workers with higher incomes tend to emphasize their status outwardly, through the ways they furnish their homes and other superficial features. Yet they maintain informal ties with other local residents. Aggravation of relations can take a dramatic turn, involving arson, arrest, and even violent death. Local communities are willing to come together to defend themselves from “strangers”: from industrial and infrastructure projects by large companies, government pressure on local kingpins and leaders, and incursions by criminal gangs.

Provincial society is more fragmented and loose, argues Natalya Zubarevich, who researches Russia’s regions. She believes that Kordonsky and Plyusnin’s description of their social structure is too schematic, and that we should speak of ten to twelve large social groupings. But the current situation in the hinterlands is indeed largely a consequence of the informal economy, notes Zubarevich; statistics ignore it, but it impacts people’s unofficial status. Archaic economic forms are well developed in the villages and small towns: subcontracted manufacturing, with families and locales specializing in various forms of manual labor, and garage workshops where everything “from furniture to children” is repaired and produced. The informal and natural economies help the locals survive crises. The metropolitan centers and the provinces influence each other. The big cities export advanced technologies, contemporary lifestyles, and consumer standards to the hinterlands, but they adopt the informal practices common in the provinces, the unwritten laws, and the authoritarian style of relations. In turn, the growing informality of governance and the economy in the provinces is reinforced by the current political model, under which the ruling class has been trying to transform its unofficial privileges and group interests into law.

The Kids Are (Not) Alright

Piter_april15_35

Enter Pioneers, all in ranks, some with plywood planes and lorries,
Others with piquant denunciations, handprinted in block letters.
From the next world, like chimeras, shades of pensioned janissaries
Nod their approval to the kids, whose snub noses gleam with ardor.
They crank up “The Russian Balldance” and dash in the hut to Dad,
Chasing out sleepy Dad from the double bed where they were made.

What can you do? Such is youth.
Strangling them would be uncouth.

—Joseph Brodsky, “A Vaudeville”

_________

Survey

Students at the Russian State University for the Humanities disrupted a lecture by Nikolai Starikov, a member of the Anti-Maidan movement. They were supported by some professors. How, in your opinion, should the conversion of public universities into hotbeds of liberalism and a source of manpower for a Russian Maidan be stopped?

• Regularly rotate teaching staff, weeding out teachers known for making Russophobic statements and being involved with dubious Western NGOs — 83 votes (25%)

• Actively campaign for vocational education as an alternative to countless “lawyers” and “economists.” People who are busy with real work do not rebel — 33 votes (10%)

• Follow the recipe used by Tsar Alexander III, who pacified Russia for a long time after the terror campaign by the Populists: reduce the number of higher education institutions and raise tuition costs for fee-paying students — 53 votes (16%)

• Leave them alone, let them sow their wild oats. Students have always been rebels, but once they graduated and wised up a bit, they became conscious and law-abiding members of society — 168 votes (50%)

Total votes: 337

Source: Kultura newspaper

Editor’s Note. The survey results were current as of 1:30 p.m. Moscow time on May 27, 2015. Thanks to the invaluable Andrei Malgin for the heads-up.

________

“We’re still little,” or Delegating political responsibility to adults
Anna Zhelnina
May 26, 2015
Vedomosti

Recently, debates about how bad things are in Russia—whether they are very bad or whether there is light at the end of the tunnel—have been topical. For example, an article by Maria Snegovaya and Denis Volkov, published in Vedomosti (January 20, 2015), dealt with the political mood of Russian young people. The authors came to a relatively optimistic conclusion. Young people were much more democratic and focused on Western values than the older generation. This attitude on the part of young people gave the authors hope for social and political change in the foreseeable future.

Research carried out by the Higher School of Economics in 2012–2013, as part of the European project MYPLACE: Memory, Youth, Political Legacy and Civic Engagement, found that the views of Russian young people were much more complicated and confusing than has been suggested by the usual divisions into “pro-Russian” and “pro-Western,” “pro-Putin” and “oppositional” camps. Our data consisted of 1,200 surveys, answered by young people 16–25 years of age in Saint Petersburg and Vyborg, and sixty in-depth interviews with survey participants where we had the opportunity to discuss the political views of respondents in greater depth. The interviews showed the survey data had to be treated with caution. Even if a person had come across as liberal in the survey, it did not mean they did not consider Stalin an effective manager, and Putin, a democratic leader.

Entrusting Russian young people with one’s political hopes is, at very least, premature. They have noticeable problems with political consciousness. Until we got to politics, the vast majority of our respondents gave the impression of being quite conscious, informed, independent citizens. But when it came to political issues, many felt insecure and did not want to analyze them. In part, this explains the comfortable, quite normative choices of answers in the questionnaire. It was easier to check off that you support freedom of speech, the ability of citizens to shape events at home, and other “correct” answers.

On the other hand, young people have traditionally delegated responsibility to “adults” and “those who know best.” This position—that we are “little”, that we have to finish our educations, and get our own lives up and running—is a powerful barrier to collective action. It is curious this stance is a response to the attitude of “adults” towards young people. In the Russian discourse, young people are usually imagined as dependent objects in need of refinement, “patriotic” and other mentoring, but not as subjects of their own destinies. (Elena Omelchenko, director of the Center for Youth Studies at the Higher School of Economics, has long argued this point; see, for example, her article “Youth Activism in Russia and Global Transformations of Its Meaning.”) Young people willingly accept this position and do not want to change anything. Consequently, they do not shape the participatory skills, the civic skills they would need for political engagement in adulthood. Postponing interest in politics “for later,” young people practically postpone it forever. No wonder that a variety of civic education programs designed to instill the habits of citizens in young people are so popular all over the world.

When pinning hopes on young people, we need to consider two other things. First, young people, as they grow up, often forget about tolerance and the experiments of adolescence. Second, in Russian society there is not the radical ideological and cultural gap between the generations of parents and children that would be necessary for the kind of revolutionary outbursts of student unrest the world saw in 1968. For our respondents, parents and older relatives are the only people who can be trusted, and when making decisions, young people are guided by their opinions. Some respondents from the older age group (21–25 years of age) voted the same way in the 2011–2012 elections as their parents had. Moreover, family discussions of political change and parents’ opinions of the 1990s, the “restoration of order” in the 2000s, and even Soviet times have a much stronger impact on young people than any TV propaganda, which our respondents fairly easily identified and ignored, in contrast to the views of their elders. It is often forgotten that Russian society is experiencing a crisis of confidence in public institutions as well as in people outside the closest circles of friends and family. Our respondents are far from being ideological rebels in their families. Even if you do not agree about something with your parents, only they can be counted on for support, and only they want the best for you.

Under these circumstances, it was to be expected that the interviews showed the young people were extremely alienated from politics in general. Politics and everything associated with it was a “dirty business” in which involvement was absolutely senseless. This feeling of meaninglessness has been another important factor blocking attempts by even critically minded and informed young people from participating in political and civic processes. “Nothing can change” and “Everything has already been decided for us” were the phrases they used to explain their own lack of involvement. This, however, is not an exclusively Russian trait. Studies of European young people have also demonstrated a long-term, growing disillusionment with formal politics, declining interest in political parties, elections, and so on (see Flash Eurobarometer 375, April–May 2013).

Interpreting sociological data and trying to use them to make forecasts is a complicated and often thankless task, especially when it comes to mass mobilization, revolutions, riots, and similar “flash” events. Researchers of social movements have long been struggling with the question of why people do, nevertheless, take to the streets. Even in the most difficult conditions, when there is strong dissatisfaction with the situation, policies, and the regime, protests may or may not happen. That is why the analysis of attitudes and stated opinions is not an effective way of predicting behavior. People do not always do what they say, and even if they honestly believe in liberal values, it is not a given that at the crucial moment they will back up their statements with action. On the other hand, if they keep silent, it does not mean this will always be the case.

The author is a senior fellow at the Center for Youth Studies at the Higher School of Economics in Saint Petersburg. All texts were translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of anatrrra.livejournal.com

Anna Gaskarova: What the Bolotnaya Square Case Will Leave Behind

What the Bolotnaya Square Case Will Leave Behind
Anna Gaskarova
May 26, 2015
Snob.ru

My husband, who has been behind bars for over two years as a suspect, defendant, and convict in the Bolotnaya Square case, and I have long had a tradition of giving theater tickets to our parents on birthdays, New Year’s, and other holidays, nearly always to productions by Teatr.doc. Our favorite, by the way, is Two in Your House, about the house arrest of Belarusian opposition leader Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu. It is one of the theater’s rare productions in which there are more laughter-inducing scenes than frustrating ones.

Six months ago I was contacted by the playwright Polina Borodina and asked to help collect material for a production about the Bolotnaya Square case for the theater that I loved so much. All that was required of me was to give an interview. At the time I thought that Polina would find it hard to write the play: there was nothing impressive about being the relative of a prisoner. It is very boring. I didn’t think she could manage to put together a story about the Bolotnaya Square case that would be interesting to anyone besides those involved in it.

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The premiere took place on the anniversay of the events on Bolotnaya. Policemen gathered outside the theater, and plainclothes officers sat in the audience. I saw the third performance of the production, and police were again standing on duty outside. It was raining, and Elena Gremina, the theater’s director, asked the officers to come inside.

“It is warm in here, and the play is quite good,” she told them.

They would not come in.

I fidgeted, giggled, and fretted, because I could not remember a thing I had said to Polina in the interview. It was scary to hear myself. And every time I recognized my own words in the lines of the actors, I cringed, buried my face in the shoulder of my sister, who was sitting next to me, and thought to myself with relief that it was a good thing I had not put my foot in my mouth.

The boring trials, the red tape of the remand prisons, the monotony of putting together food parcels, and the terrible anguish of the relatives in the Bolotnaya Square case has been turned into a very interesting story told by four actors in the words of the mothers, fathers, wives, fiancées, and friends of the arrestees. There are no exaggerations and distortions; only quotations from interviews with loved ones. They talk about how visits go, how to get married in a remand prison, how the defendants entertained themselves during the boring trials—and how to inform a defendant that his mother has died.

I had always wondered whether anything except shame, three and a half lost years, and painful memories would remain after the the Bolotnaya Square trial, something decent and instructive—not for us relatives but for those were there with us on Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, and for those who were not.

I think this question has stopped vexing me. Stalin’s purges have left us Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales. The Bolotnaya Square case will leave behind Teatr.doc’s The Bolotnaya Square Case.

ee61b2c98d7567978852636630bb38f2Many thanks to Polina Borodina, Elena Gremina, Konstantin Kozhevnikov, Anastasia Patlay, Varvara Faer, and Marina Boyko.

Photos courtesy of Snob.ru

Alexei Gaskarov: The Robin Hood of Zhukovsky

Alexei Gaskarov: The Robin Hood of Zhukovsky

Three years have passed since the opposition March of the Millions on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow ended in a physical confrontation with riot police, hundreds of arrests, and, later, dozens of criminal cases brought against protesters, who had engaged, allegedly, in “rioting” and “violence” against the police.

Although more than thirty defendants have been tried as part of the Bolotnaya Square Case, police investigators and prosecutors continue to unearth new suspects to this day.

This is the story of leftist social activist and antifascist Alexei Gaskarov, a 29-year-old economist from the Moscow suburb of Zhukovsky, as told by his family and close friends. Gaskarov, who is also an elected member of the Opposition Coordinating Council, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison on August 18, 2014.

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Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of avtonom.org

Deportation of Crimean Tatars Remembered in Petersburg

Deportation of Crimean Tatars Remembered in Petersburg
David Frenkel
Special to The Russian Reader
May 20, 2015

On May 19, Petersburg democracy activists commemorated the Soviet Stalinist government’s mass deportation of Crimean Tartars on May 18, 1944. Activists held a series of solo pickets on Nevsky Prospect before gathering for an evening event at Open Space, a co-working venue run by the organization St. Petersburg Election Observers.

Several activists, including Vsevolod Nechayev, leader of the Democratic Petersburg coalition, Andrey Zyrkunov of the liberal-democratic party Yabloko, and Igor “Stepanych” Andreyev, a famous local activist, took to the city’s main street with placards calling on fellow citizens to remember the anniversary of the deportation and blaming the current Russian authorities for preventing commemorations in Crimea itself.

IMG_8818Local activist Igor “Stepanych” Andreyev picketing on Nevsky Prospect, May 19, 2015. His placard reads, “Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars is a crime with no statute of limitations! A people’s memory cannot be murdered! Even according to the NKVD’s statistics, 44,887 deportees from Crimea died in 1944–1945.”

Apparently inured to pickets and demonstrations of various kinds, passersby mostly exhibited indifference. A couple of young men attempted to harass the protesters, but most passersby merely glanced at the picketers before continuing on their way.

IMG_8836Picketer handing out leaflets on Nevsky Prospect, May 19, 2015

In the evening, activists gathered at Open Space to continue their commemorations. Alexandra Krylenkova, leader of St. Petersburg Election Observers, is field coordinator of the Crimean Field Mission on Human Rights.

Activists viewed a documentary film about the deportation and chatted with Asan Mumdzhi, a member of the Crimean Tatar community in Petersburg.

They also talked via Skype with Zair Smedlya, head of the Qurultay of the Crimean Tatar People. Smedlya described the current situation in the Crimea. Police arrest protesters en masse even at authorized protests and auto rallies, but generally the authorities refuse to grant permission to hold such events.

“The same old story,” muttered someone in the audience.

The current Crimean authorities have tried to turn the commemoration of the 1944 deportation into a celebration of the fact that President Putin signed a decree “rehabilitating” the Crimean Tatars on April 21 of this year.

Mumdzhi compared this to Jews being “rehabilitated” by Germans.

IMG_8905Asan Mumdzhi

Smedlya also claimed that people had been arrested for carrying Ukrainian flags, which is not illegal.

“Crimean policemen didn’t know the Ukrainian laws. Now they do not know the Russian laws,” Smedlya quipped.

The gathering ended with a screening of the Crimean Tatar-language film Haytarma, which tells the story of the highly decorated Soviet fighter pilot Amet-khan Sultan, who accidentally witnessed the deportation and managed to keep his family in Crimea.

 All photographs by and courtesy of David Frenkel