Well, it’s a respectable cause. Especially in a normal country, where the main features and properties of Nazism itself have been clearly defined, articulated and, more importantly, grasped by public opinion.
In a country where, on the contrary, the president of another country is referred to as a “black monkey” quite openly and with impunity, in a country where state TV facilely reports that the people of a neighboring country are a historical misunderstanding, and their language a parody, in a country where a classified newspaper ad that reads, “Apartment available for rent to Slavs,” is considered quite normal and natural, this talk about “rehabilitation” is rather strange, because there is nothing in particular to rehabilitate. And if anyone is going to be tried for such a crime, there aren’t enough judges for the job.
—Good day, Ded Moroz!
What have you brought with you?
—A whole big brotherly family
New Year’s gift bag.
Wheat breads from Russia,
Meat stews from Lithuania.
Sugar from the Ukraine,
Butter from Byelorussia.
Silks from Uzbekistan.
Karakuls from the lands of Kazakhstan.
Apricots from Armenia.
Grapes from Georgia.
Oil from Azerbaijan.
Coal from Tajikistan.
Herds from Kirgizia.
Steel ships from Latvia.
Maize from the lands of Moldavia.
Rugs from Turkmenistan.
Fish from the shores of Estonia.
—What else have you brought with you, Ded Moroz?
—Books and plays,
And scientists’ inventions.
Wealth and health,
And the friendship of neighbors.
Fishing rods and lures,
And little children’s skates.
source: Aune Morozova, Suomen kielen oppikirja 5, Petrozavodsk: Karjala, 1987, p. 92
The Ninth of May
Seventy years of victory. An even more years of sorrow. But sorrow has no place on the ninth of May. People rejoice. This is a holiday. The veterans, to whose stories the younger participants in today’s festivities listened with curiosity, were the same age back then as some of the young women in these pictures are now. I wonder what kind of victory they will tell youngsters about in seventy years?
anatrrra’s photographs are reprinted here with their kind permission. Their complete poignant photo reportage of grassroots Victory Day festivities in Moscow can be viewed here.
Remembrance Poppies versus St. George’s Ribbons
Special to The Russian Reader
May 8, 2015
Petersburg police detained two activists and a photojournalist near Park Pobedy metro station on May 8 as pro-Kremlin provocateurs attempted to prevent Democratic Petersburg activists from handing out buttons and leaflets dealing with the end of the Second World War in Europe.
The Democratic Petersburg coalition, which opposes Russia’s current Second World War victory symbol, the St. George’s Ribbon, claiming it is “distinctly militarist,” passed out buttons featuring the red remembrance poppy, a European symbol for war victims, and leaflets explaining its meaning.
In 2014, Ukraine had rejected the St. George’s Ribbon, used by Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine and Russian officialdom, choosing the remembrance poppy instead.
The buttons the activists handed out were emblazoned with the red poppy and the phrase “1939–1945 Never Again,” in Russian and Ukrainian, while the leaflets, which quoted John McCrae’s famous poem “In Flanders Fields,” described the symbol’s history and meaning.
Buttons reading “1939–1945, Never Again” in Russian and Ukrainian
“We believe the St. George’s Ribbon, which has a distinctly militarist message, should also give way in Russia to the red poppy, the universal symbol commemorating those who perished in the most terrible war.”
Activists said Victory Day should be commemorated on May 8, because Russia was part of Europe, rather than on May 9, in keeping with Soviet tradition. According to them, what Russians have usually called the Great Patriotic War was in fact part of the Second World War and was launched in 1939 by both Germany and the Soviet Union, rather than in 1941, when Germany suddenly attacked its formal nominal ally the Soviet Union.
The pro-Kremlin provocateurs, mostly young people, who were apparently led by two older men, were already waiting outside the metro station, sporting St. George’s Ribbons, when the Democratic Petersburg activists arrived to hand out leaflets. The provocateurs approached them and started an argument, justifying Joseph Stalin and promoting what they saw as the Kremlin’s current interpretation of the war’s history. Some of the provocateurs took photos and videos as the argument proceeded. However, when asked, one of the young provocateurs said he was “just passing by,” denying he had come deliberately with the others to harass the Democratic Petersburg activists.
Pro-Kremlin provocateurs harass democratic activist Igor “Stepanych” Andreyev
Within minutes, police had arrived at the scene, led by a colonel, the head of Precinct No. 33, whose beat includes the Park Pobedy station. The colonel argued with the activists before detaining 76-year-old activist Igor “Stepanych” Andreyev and, seconds later, our correspondent, who had attempt to photograph Andreyev’s arrest.
While the two detainees were held in the police room inside the metro station, police detained Anton Kalinyak, an activist who had been wearing a large red poppy on his lapel, allegedly for “using coarse language in public.” According to Democratic Petersburg, one of the provocateurs filed a false complaint with the police against Kalinyak, while the police officers at the scene corroborated his accusations.
Andreyev detained by police
The detainees were taken to Precinct No. 33, where they were charged, correspondingly, with “smoking in a public place” and “using profane language in a public place.” After about two hours in custody, Kalinyak was fined 500 rubles (around $10) on the spot, while the formal written charges against the other two detainees will be sent to their respective local police precincts. They face small fines of between 500 and 1,500 rubles.
Three years ago, on May 6, 2012, a peaceful, permitted anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow was blocked and partly kettled by police, resulting in a scuffle between some marchers and police, hundreds of arrests and, in the years after the “riot,” dozens of convictions of people who were there that day.
Some of the defendants have been recognized by prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, and many observers have argued that the police attack on the peaceful march was Putin’s deliberate revenge on those freethinking Russians who had the temerity to protest his “electoral victory” on the eve of his re-inauguration.
“Renat Fatkhutdinov was a [Kazan] policeman who threatened to rape and torture arrestees. He got a three-year suspended sentence. Denis Lutskevich was a student who was beaten by the riot police for trying to defend a young woman. He got three years and six months in prison.”
“Ten people are still serving prison terms for the fact that on May 6, 2012, they went to a peaceful demonstration that had been permitted by the authorities.”
“Anatoly Serdyukov, the defense minister, embezzled 3 billion rubles and was amnestied. Maxim Luzyanin, an businessman, scratched the enamel on a policeman’s tooth an was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. Release the Bolotnaya Square prisoners!”
“Igor Aranson, head of the local council of deputies [in the Moscow Region town of Uvarovka] [and member of the ruling United Russia party] severally beat up two men he did not know [because they had crossed in front of his car on a crosswalk], but the court declared that Aranson had been the victim of the crime. Sergei Krivov, a Ph.D. in Mathematics and Physics, grabbed a police officer’s truncheon. He was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison. Release the prisoners of May 6!”
Thanks to David Frenkel for permission to reproduce these photographs here.
“We Don’t Scold or Praise—We Do Research”: Why the Authorities Want a Research Center Declared a “Foreign Agent”
April 3, 2015 paperpaper.ru
Petersburg’s Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR) could be declared a foreign agent. Among the particulars laid against it are a video of a discussion during which someone spoke critically of the authorities, an abstract of a book with the word “politics” in the title, and a brochure containing advice for judges, which was vetted by judges themselves. CISR’s staff insists they do research and are proud of foreign financing. Paper got to the bottom of the conflict, finding out how sociological studies differ from politics, and how terrible the status of foreign agents is for sociologists.
How the work of a research center was deemed a “political action”
CISR was among the few research centers that the authorities demanded register as a foreign agent. On March 12, it received a formal written warning from the Ministry of Justice demanding that it place itself on the registry. The ministry deemed that CISR, which receives foreign funding, was engaged in political activity
As the center’s employees tell it, they had been expecting this since passage of the law on foreign agents in 2012, but had continued to hope, nevertheless, that the status of foreign agents would not be applied to research organization. In 2014, the Constitutional Court has issued a clarification to this end. Soon, however, the Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies in Saratov was placed on the registry, and their fears arose again.
“According to the Ministry of Justice,” says Oksana Karpenko, executive director of CISR, “any form of public activity that does not involve praising Russian legislation or various government policies is a “political action” whose goal is to put pressure on the government and shape public opinion negatively. Under these circumstances, it is hard to explain that sociology is an apparatus for society to reflect on itself. When this apparatus breaks down, when society is incapable of taking a sober look at itself, taking joy in its achievements and admitting its weaknesses and imperfections, this leads to a loss of equilibrium. Without it, an upright position can be maintained only with prostheses that rigidly lock society into place. These prostheses are now being tried out on independent media, nongovernmental organizations, and dissidents.”
The Centre for Independent Sociological Research was founded by researchers from the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1991 as an alternative to the Soviet academic system. It was unaffiliated with any university and from the outset worked on an interdisciplinary level with experts from different universities.
CISR’s researchers say that its main methodological difference from classical sociological institutes has been its focus on qualitative methods. Karpenko explains that while most sociology has to do with statistics, polls, and charts, CISR’s studies are based on talking to people and trying to understand what guides them in making certain decisions, how conflicts arise, and how opinions on sensitive issues are shaped.
“We focus on those issues that are relevant. We don’t make diagnoses or prescribe treatment, we don’t scold or praise—we do research. We attempt to understand how society works, and we try and tell people about the outcome of our work in an intelligible form.”
According to Karpenko, CISR has no clear profile. The emphasis has been on the interests of specific researchers, and often their work has become an area of focus at the center. In the late 80s and early 90s, CISR’s founders were focused on social movements, including nationalist and democratic movements; they also researched the so-called brain drain, poverty, and genders. Later, CISR took up migration and ethnicity, environmental issues, the development of scientific research organizations, and the informal economy (corruption).
Three grievances: video of a discussion, the word “politics,” and advice to judges
The Ministry of Justice identified three grounds for its warning when it demanded that CISR register as a foreign agent. One of them was a video recording of a lecture by Irina Olimpieva, a Ph.D. in Economics, entitled “Russian Trade Unions in Search of Political Leverage: The Evolution of Political Strategies and New Political Ambitions.”
The lecture itself dealt with the influence trade unions have on social policy. According to Olimpieva, the role of trade unions in Russia is extremely limited, whereas in foreign practice, mechanisms for influencing social policy are often enshrined in law. However, in recent years, trade unions have been forced to become more active politically. Olimpieva’s study, launched in 2006, was funded by a grant from a Russian foundation.
However, the Ministry of Justice had no beefs with the lecture itself, but with the discussion of the lecture, which was posted on CISR’s website.
As the ministry wrote in its conclusion, “During the course of the discussion, seminar participants made statements that gave a negative assessment of current legislation.”
“Researchers are now expected only to approve current policy or, perhaps, as in Soviet times, mention ‘certain minor shortcomings.’ This is essentially a ban on criticism, at least on the part of independent research organizations,” argues Olimpieva.
Another project the ministry deemed “political activity” was a brochure entitled “Conducting Impartiality Training as a Basic Component of the Professionalism of Magistrates and Organizing Psychological Relief Rooms for Magistrates.” The brochure was intended for psychologists working in the judicial system, and was based on training workshops and interviews with judges conducted by CISR.
In its conclusion, the Ministry of Justice wrote that the brochure forms “a negative public opinion,” and “the judgments of the authors are aimed at generating a negative public response.”
The objective of the workshops was to enhance the impartiality of magistrates, an institution that has emerged relatively recently in Russia, in the early 2000s. During the sessions, the judges talked about the difficulties of making decisions and examined them with psychologists. CISR researchers said the judges themselves were enthusiastic about the training sessions.
However, they vetted the entire brochure. Otherwise, “it would simply would have been impossible to publish,” the people at CISR explain.
“Judges in all countries have problems with impartiality, so that is why similar workshops are held all over the world. And for this purpose special systems of psychological supported are developed that are aimed at helping the judge disengage from personal predilections when making decisions, and be objective and impartial,” explains Olimpieva.
The third grounds for the warning was a presentation of a book entitled The Politics of the Apolitical: Civic Movements in Russia, 2011-2013. The Ministry of Justice determined that the book had a “political focus” and could influence “decision-making by state bodies.” CISR staff claim the book is a purely academic monograph written by professional sociologists, graduate students from various universities.
“It is not even a matter of the book’s content: the research topic and the title were sufficient. But it remains a mystery how placing information about a research publication on the website of a research center constitutes what the law describes as ‘political activity,’“ says Karpenko.;
Artemy Magun, dean of the Faculty of Political Science and Sociology at the European University in Saint Petersburg, says that by paying attention only to the word “politics,” one can go to absurd lengths and ban all political science departments at public universities, which a priori have no right to engage in politics.
“There is an element of politics in everything. The fact that you put up a road sign is also some kind of public statement. This border is quite flexible, and can be moved back and forth at will. But we believe that sociology exists as a science, and that it is not reducible to ideology or public relations. Meaning that we can arrive at more or less objective knowledge of society by examining it in the richness of its ideological affiliations.”
Why foreign funding is good for research
At CISR, they point out they have never concealed foreign funding and, on the contrary, have been proud of their research grants. Since the moment of its inception, CISR has subsisted mostly on money from foreign foundations and organizations. CISR has been supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Academy of Finland, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the German Research Society, the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and European universities and institutes.
Since the law on foreign agents has been adopted, argues Olimpieva, everything the organization had considered an achievement, has now been considered a minus.
“In our view, grants from international foundations and organizations indicate the high level of professionalism of our staff. But when foreign financing is leveled as a charge, no one even wants to understand what the ‘foreign’ sources are and what they finance. The word ‘foreign’ is already grounds for accusations of hostile intentions. Paradoxically, the higher the professional achievements of an organization, the more suspicious it is from the viewpoint of the law on foreign agents.”
Magun says that, on the contrary, international foundations avoid influencing research altogether and act as impartially as impossible.
“In some cases, the Russian institutions set the agenda, while the international foundations nearly always give absolute carte blanche as to the work’s content. International foundations go out of their way to exclude the ideological influence of donors. Scientific rigor is the basis for issuing grants. It is simply a higher level of quality.”
According to Karpenko, the commonplace that the one who pays the piper calls the tune “manipulates people’s attention, causing them to see a threat in the very fact financing from abroad and closing their eyes to the content and quality of the intellectual product.”
Why sociologists cannot be foreign agents
In the near future, CISR intends to appeal the warning and prove they are not involved in politics. They are afraid of receiving the foreign agent status not primarily because of the additional required reporting or new inspections, but because of the negative image that would arise around the organization.
According to Karpenko, CISR’s experts can find it difficult to establish contact with an interlocutor. If they are forced to introduce themselves as foreign agents, an interview might be called off, and the sociologists would risk not being admitted to certain organizations at all.
“For the research we do, it is important to establish relationships of trust with informants. When we go into schools or talk with officials, policemen or pedestrians, we are trying to understand how society works in a particular segment, why certain problems arise. We do no want people to be afraid to talk to us. The Constitutional Court ruled that the phrase ‘foreign agent’ supposedly has no negative connotations. As sociologists, we can say this is not the case.”
Thus, the people at CISR say the status of foreign agent will simply make it impossible for them to work professionally, because many areas of society will be closed to them.
You can sign this letter of support(in English) for CISR. It has so far collected over 1,300 signatures of researchers and scholars from around the world.
The other day, a comrade on a leftist email discussion list to which I subscribe sent the list a link to this recent article, published on the website Russian Insider. Russian Insider is a pro-Putin propaganda website whose goal is to further thicken the already briar thicket-thick wool in the heads of many western leftists and any other fellow travelers in the website’s radius as to the realities of what is going in and around Russia and its current regime.
The argument made in the article is well summarized by its headline and subheading: “A Home for Every Russian: How Putin Delivers on the Russian Dream. Russia is in the throws [sic] of a housing boom that is transforming the country and hugely increasing its sense of well-being but which has gone completely unreported in the West.”
The bulk of the article consists of incoherent razzle-dazzle with numbers, whose only purpose is to show that the journalist has done his groundwork, seemingly.
(Another comrade on the email discussion list discovered that the journalist is quite a dicey character himself. This is in keeping with the utter cynicism and recklessness of the Putinist propaganda and “soft power” campaign of the past ten years, especially after the lid blew off a year ago. The Putinist spin-doctors will literally hire anyone without a conscience, especially if they are agile on the keyboard and unencumbered by the need to check in with “fact-based reality” from time to time.)
But all that actually incoherent number crunching is only meant to reinforce the nearly orgiastic joy that will be experienced by many western comrades (longing for the “good old days” they still have not made sense of, really) when they reach the article’s money shot, in its penultimate paragraph:
The fact that the emphasis on house building in Russia remains on cheap affordable homes incidentally confirms something else. This is that the Western image of “Putin’s Russia” as ruled by a “corrupt kleptocracy” selfishly focused on its own interests has to be wrong. The emphasis on cheap affordable housing for the wider population on the contrary shows that Russia, as its constitution says, is very much a “social state”.
This is such utter rubbish that I felt compelled to respond. What follows is an edited version of my original response to the mailing list.
The first thing you should know about the so-called housing boom in Russia is that it has been made possible largely by incredibly cheap, disempowered, heavily abused migrant labor from Central Asia. This labor has often verged on slave labor. It is almost totally non-unionized and dirt cheap and utterly expendable.
As in “If you don’t like the conditions, non-Slavic laborer [my euphemism: this isn’t the local ‘term of art’], fuck off, because we’ll find another ten ‘blacks’ [a term of extreme racial abuse in Russian, although there are much worse epithets] to take your place.”
And the neo-Nazis and skinheads were also, until recently (maybe they are still doing it) coming in to bust heads and slice a few hundred or thousand throats just in case someone had missed the point.
And the laborers have lived in subhuman conditions, such as this shack I photographed four years ago at a site where yet another “elite” block of flats was under construction.
All this stuff has been documented and heavily reported, mind you, but not on fly-by-night Putinist sites like New Cold War(which, it almost goes without saying, picked up and reprinted Russia Insider’s “scoop” on the incredible socialist housing boom in neoliberal capitalist Russia) and Russian Insider, which have sprung up only yesterday just to muddy the waters, and nothing more.
Or they have been financed by co-investor buy-in schemes, in which a large percentage of an apartment’s price or even the whole price is paid up front before the foundation pit has even been dug, and the construction and zoning permits secured from bribed public officials.
Many of these co-op schemes have gone south when the ruthless developers split with the money. The co-op members have been left holding empty bags and staring at unbuilt or partly built apartment blocks. There have been huge numbers of such sad stories over the past ten years, stories that been heavily documented in the Russian and even the western media. Not so strangely, the authorities have usually been very reluctant to help these people get their money back or their apartments built.
There is a special term for these people in Russian, obmanutye dol’shchiki, which can be translated as “hoodwinked investors.” It is a term that literally everyone in the world who speaks Russian knows, except maybe those Old Believer villagers in Oregon.
Do the “militants” at New Cold War and Russia Insider, so desperate to recreate the Comintern, even speak Russian?
At Friday’s May Day festivities in Petersburg, there were whole columns of “hoodwinked investors” and people now staring down the barrels of once-advantageous foreign currency-denominated home loans among the marchers on Nevsky Prospect.
The third thing you should know about the housing boom is that, especially in the big cities like Moscow and Petersburg (which are the only places where there have been real housing booms, for the most part), is that it has been realized at devastating expense to the existing built environment, for example, in the older, pre-Revolutionary districts of the cities, which should be heritage listed, and sometimes are, but that has not stopped rapacious developers and their allies in local governments from gutting them in the name of progress (i.e., quick profit).
This has especially been the case in Petersburg, ALL of whose central districts and large parts of its suburbs are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the current housing boom (i.e., the precipitate of easy money, criminal greed, and absence of rule of law and normal planning standards) has also impinged badly on the post-war Soviet new estates, which Soviet planners had the wisdom to equip with lots of green space, parks, leafy courtyards, and lots of other great amenities, like schools and kindergartens.
All this “empty space” has been a favorite target of the utterly ruthless developers in their quest to squeeze more and more real estate into less and less space. If you had been really interested in what has been going in Russia (and urban Ukraine, by the way) over the past ten years, you would know that one of the biggest grassroots social movements to have emerged was the movement against reckless infill construction both in the inner cities and the Soviet new estates.
You can probably say lots of bad things about radical leftist figurehead Sergei Udaltsov (now doing jail time for “planning a riot” on May 6, 2012) and his Left Front, but there are no doubt tons of ordinary Muscovites who were glad to have them and other partisan (including liberals and other leftists) and non-partisan activists on hand when they were fighting off the ruthless developers trying to destroy their eminently livable, superiorly planned Soviet or pre-Soviet neighborhoods.
The allegation made in the article about the superior quality of the new houses versus the bad old Soviet apartment blocks is also quite hilarious. A friend of mine lives next to a tower of such recently built “elite” flats in southern Petersburg. She told me there had been a rash of burglaries in this building, because the walls had been built so thin the crooks could literally punch their way through them from one flat to the next, and grab whatever loot they liked. And this was in, I repeat, an “elite” block of flats. (“Elite” has been the buzzword among the cutthroat developers over the past couple decades.)
In my own experience, substandard architectural and infrastructural quality has been the rule in the housing boom, because the point has been to throw up as many square meters as possible, as if Russia were still the old Soviet Union, where high figures like this were touted every years a sign of the progress toward communism. But that made some kind of sense back then, because those figures represented real people moving from crowded and often horribly squalid communal flats and barracks into individual flats with indoor plumbing and all the mod cons.
Providing every citizen with a decent home was a problem the Soviet Union never did solveright up to the day of its bitter collapse, but at least it made a much more honest attempt than the current regime, which has never even set itself this goal. Or, rather, it has at times pretended to have set itself this goal, but only as part of the array of populist tactics and NLP it uses to disguise what it has really been up to.
Nowadays, on the contrary, the point has been to do everything as cheaply as possible in terms of labor inputs and environmental impacts, while front-loading as much of the profit onto the preliminary financing stages, which is also when the high-percentage bribes and cutbacks get passed around to compliant and interested officials. This often means that buildings just do not get built at all, because the developers and financiers “go bust” (that money landed somewhere offshore, in Cyprus, for example) before they get built.
When has an out-of-control housing boom ever been a sign of good social or economic policy or, for that matter, of a “social state”? Remember that much of this housing, when it does get built (and lots has been built, especially in “the two capitals,” as Moscow and Petersburg are called nowadays), is not built for anyone to live in, but as investment vehicles for richer Russians with too much cash on their hands and not enough good ways to launder or invest it. Or, at best, it is built to be sold as rental properties, thus sending the rents sky high in Moscow long ago.
They have been going that way in Petersburg for a long time as well, because owners want to milk the rental market for as much as it can bear, and because the demand has been huge.
In 1975, when my wife’s family moved into a three-room apartment in a newly built block of flats in one of Leningrad’s central districts, the apartment was FREE. As in my wife’s family didn’t have to pay a kopeck for it. Not a single kopeck. Similarly, my wife got a terrific free education at a specialized grammar and high school and, later, at Leningrad State University. Her family did not pay a kopeck for any of this, either. It was all FREE.
She also had plenty of free (state-subsidized) opportunities to pursue a career in sports (something she ultimately chose not to do) and explore her passion for biology at a very high level while still a teenager, including going on real scientific field expeditions to the Crimea.
Even more insanely, when my wife got ill as a child and young woman, the medical care she got was also free.
I could go on with this pinko drivel, but you get the picture.
This system was called, rightly or wrongly, socialism. I am not actually a fan of the Soviet Union for a large number of what I think are serious, almost damning reasons, which I will not go into here, but as western leftists, let us at least acknowledge that there are monumental differences between “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc in terms of economic and social policy, and the freewheeling reign of pirates, highwaymen, extortionists, murderers, thugs, and Chicago School boys we have witnessed in the “post-Soviet space” over the last nearly quarter of a century.
After 1991, my wife’s family privatized their flat for free, as did millions of other Russians around the same time.
In 2000, they sold it for around 25,000 dollars. That was the going rate then. At today’s going rate, the same flat would probably sell for around 250,000 dollars.
There is a fairly substantial class of people, although they are a distinct minority, who could afford to buy my wife’s family’s old flat cash on the barrel head, but the vast majority of people living in Petersburg would not be able to do this, unless they had their own, similarly priced, privatized flats that they could sell to generate the cash necessary to trade up (or down, for that matter) to another flat. There are still quite a few people in the big cities who have this important asset, which is a legacy from the Soviet era. One could say that it made life livable to a great extent for many of these people in the lean years.
But it also generated, eventually, a real estate market, which did not exist (or at least exist in this way) in Soviet times. And this real estate market has been as cutthroat as they come. In the 1990s, when I worked for a Big Issue-style newspaper called Na Dne (The Depths), we did a special project where we advertised all over the city asking homeless people to come in and tell us their stories. (These stories were eventually published as an anthology in Russian and English.) What we discovered was that easily over half these people had been swindled out of their flats and their rooms in communal flats, to which they had been legally entitled, by so-called black realtors, many of whom were able to launder their ill-gotten gains and then resell them on the emerging “legal” estate market.
That was how they had become homeless.
As for the homes touted by Russian Insider as proof that “Putin delivers,” they are not handed out for free, as most of them would have been under socialism. (In the late Soviet period, there were also co-op houses paid and, to some extent, built by their future inhabitants, but that is another, quite interesting story.) No, they are sold for the going rate, just as in other capitalist countries.
In September 2014, the going rate in Petersburg per square meter in newly built residential buildings was about 94,000 rubles, while the average price per meter in the four historic central districts (Central, Petrograd, Vasilyevsky Island, and Admiralty) hovered between 120,000 and 160,000 rubles, according to real estate websitebsn.ru.
At the then-current exchange rate, this translated into a price range between 2,600 and 4,500 dollars per square meter.
An acquaintance of mine who does IT work and has been trying to organize an independent IT workers union in Petersburg, wrote on his Facebook page the other day that, according to Headhunter.ru, the average (not the median) monthly wage in the city was now 35,000 rubles. At current exchange rates, this comes to around 680 dollars a month.
He also included a screenshot of the Yandex jobs site. It shows that the average monthly wage for the fifty-five thousand some vacancies the site was then currently listing as vacant, in Petersburg, is 33,000 rubles per month, or 640 dollars.
I should add that before the “crisis” set in, that is, during the “boom times,” the average wage in the city was somewhat better, but only marginally so.
So who could afford and can afford all the homes “delivered” by the international left’s new kewpie doll, Vladimir Putin?
A) The wildly and mostly illegally rich, including oligarchs, sub-oligarchs, and corrupt government officials, who need some place (lots of places, actually, if you think about the distorting effect they have had on the real estate markets in London and New York, for example) to park their loads of cash.
B) Honest, hardworking people with average or higher than average salaries who, of course, would have take out loans, sometimes very big loans, to afford these homes.
These homes are sold for big bucks, often to folks who cannot really afford them in terms of their actually meager salaries (see the screenshot, above). These homes are used to hide ill-gotten assets, money that could be used productively elsewhere, e.g., in the real economy, in increasing social benefits for the poor and disadvantaged, and in building the real infrastructure Russia and all other countries will need for a planet-friendly, twenty-first century economy.
These homes are built mostly cheap and poorly, and with no consideration as to their environmental impact and aesthetic effect on the existing built environment.
They are mostly built by disempowered migrant workers from Central Asia who are a) non-unionized, b) underpaid, c) often cheated out of their wages entirely), and d) constantly hassled and shaken down by police, immigration officials, and skinheads.
I think it might be useful to close these notes with a few recent reminders of what the Putin regime has really represented in terms of social, economic, housing, and urban planning policy:
P.S. A comrade recommended the book on the subject of housing policy in the new Russia, described below. Someone who has studied the subject in depth, apparently, rather than dishonestly fantasized in print on behalf of the Putin regime over the course of an hour, has written it. It seems like a good place to start an honest exploration of housing policy in today’s Russia.
But then again, as the last year has made painfully obvious to me, many leftists are responding to traumas and phantom pains, not to actual economic and political realities, so why would they bother with a book like this or the millions of column inches dealing with these issues printed in magazines and newspapers over the past fifteen years?
In Housing the New Russia, Jane R. Zavisca examines Russia’s attempts to transition from a socialist vision of housing, in which the government promised a separate, state-owned apartment for every family, to a market-based and mortgage-dependent model of home ownership. In 1992, the post-Soviet Russian government signed an agreement with the United States to create the Russian housing market. The vision of an American-style market guided housing policy over the next two decades. Privatization gave socialist housing to existing occupants, creating a nation of homeowners overnight. New financial institutions, modeled on the American mortgage system, laid the foundation for a market. Next the state tried to stimulate mortgages—and reverse the declining birth rate, another major concern—by subsidizing loans for young families.
Imported housing institutions, however, failed to resonate with local conceptions of ownership, property, and rights. Most Russians reject mortgages, which they call “debt bondage,” as an unjust “overpayment” for a good they consider to be a basic right. Instead of stimulating homeownership, privatization, combined with high prices and limited credit, created a system of “property without markets.” Frustrated aspirations and unjustified inequality led most Russians to call for a government-controlled housing market. Under the Soviet system, residents retained lifelong tenancy rights, perceiving the apartments they inhabited as their own. In the wake of privatization, young Russians can no longer count on the state to provide their house, nor can they afford to buy a home with wages, forcing many to live with extended family well into adulthood. Zavisca shows that the contradictions of housing policy are a significant factor in Russia’s falling birth rates and the apparent failure of its pronatalist policies. These consequences further stack the deck against the likelihood that an affordable housing market will take off in the near future.
The “Terrorist” from Simferopol On April 9, Moscow City Court Ordered Alexander Kolchenko’s Arrest Extended for a Month,until May 16
April 13, 2015 The New Times
According to the FSB, Alexander Kolchenko is a member of the anti-Russian underground in Crimea. Along with three other arrested residents of the peninsula, he has been accused of terrorism. The New Times has tried to find out what the charges are based on (it took nearly a year to gather the evidence), how the Russian security services took over Crimea, and what residents of Simferopol think about the relatives of the arrestees.
“Sasha is now accused of terrorism, but he is not a terrorist, and I am not the mother of a terrorist,” says Larisa Kolchenko. “My son literally grew up in front of my coworkers, and after his arrest they have continued to treat me well.”
Larisa Kolchenko works in a grocery store near the Simferopol railway station. She speaks softly and quickly.
“In fact, the arson of which they are accused basically, you could say, left no trace on the city. It popped up in the news once, and that was it. There was no discussion, no publicity.”
The arson at the Russian Community of Crimea building, on the night of April 14, 2014, damaged the front door, the stoop, and an awning above the door. A few days later, a Molotov cocktail flew through the window of the United Russian party’s local office. The fire damage caused to a five-meter-square kitchen in the office was estimated at 200,000 rubles. Doesn’t that sound more like disorderly conduct?
On March 31, 2015, however, Kolchenko was accused of involvement in a terrorist network and committing a terrorist attack. It was then that solidarity actions in support of Kolchenko were held, under the slogan “Send Tundra Back to Crimea,” in Berlin, Bremen, Kyiv, Minsk, Paris, Strasbourg, and Tunis. “Tundra” is Kolchenko’s nickname within the peninsula’s activist scene.
“Only those who cooperate are allowed visits”
According to the FSB, the leader of the Bandera underground in Crimea is filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who along with Alexei Chirniy, a lecturer in the military history department at the Crimean University of Culture, has been charged with violating Article 205 Part 2 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code (“Terrorist attacks”) and Article 205.4 Part 2 (“Organizing a terrorist network”). In early February, Sentsov was additionally charged under Article 222 Part 3 (“Arms trafficking”).
Before his arrest, Chirniy pursued the hobby of reconstructing medieval armor, considered himself a pagan, and posted Nazi propaganda posters on social networks. A court-appointed attorney is now defending him, and his case will be heard in the military district court in Rostov-on-Don by special procedure. [Translator’s Note: On April 21, 2014, after this article went to press, Chirniy was sentenced to seven years in a maximum-security facility.]
Besides damaging the two offices, the “Sentsov gang” has been accused of planning to blow up the Eternal Flame and a Lenin monument on May 9, 2014. According to the security services, the suspects were also planning to “destroy a number of vital infrastructure sites, railway bridges, and power lines.”
On May 8, 2014, Gennady Afanasiev, an employee of the Zheleznodorozhny District prosecutor’s office in Simferopol, made a deal with the investigation. Afanasiev was tried by special procedure—meaning, without court proceedings, which entitles the defendant to mitigation of punishment. On December 25, 2014, Afanasiev was sentenced to seven years in a maximum-security facility.
Sentsov has denied the charges against him. Kolchenko has admitted he was near the office but was not involved in the attack. He has refused to testify against the others. If Sentsov and Kolchenko are found guilty, they could be sent away for twenty years. Afanasiev and Chirniy will be main witnesses for the prosecution at their trial.
The prosecution alleges that Kolchenko met with Sentsov “at mass events of supporters of Crimea’s being a part of Ukraine,” at which the filmmaker allegedly suggested organizing a gang “for performing attacks in keeping with the Right Sector ideology.” According to the FSB, this gang was to destabilize the work of the newly created authorities “in order to encourage them to decide to withdraw the Republic of Crimea from the Russian Federation.”
Despite the gravity of the charges, nearly all of Kolchenko’s letters begin with the words, “I am still doing well.” He labels the arson a symbolic gesture of protest, rather than an attempt to “intimidate the population of Crimea,” and stresses that at midnight the building was empty.
“I was against the war, against violence. My actions were directed against the United Russia party, which voted for sending in troops,” Kolchenko writes.
In his letters, Kolchenko relates that he has been following the Bolotnaya Square case.
“Doing three and half years in prison for something like that is not really great. In that light, it is frightening to think about the sentence I can expect. I guess my prospects aren’t very bright.”
Larisa Kolchenko is worried that she has not been allowed to visit Alexander.
“They explain that since he refuses to cooperate, there is no reason for his family to talk with him. Visits are allowed to those who cooperate.”
“People in Simferopol won’t understand”
“At school, my son was a justice seeker,” says Larisa. “His heart bled for all of Crimea, and he was involved literally in everything.”
Kolchenko ended up in the radical left crowd because of hardcore music, which he became interested in while still at school. He went on archaeological digs, and marched under the red-and-black banners of the anarchists during demonstrations. He organized a protest campaign against construction of a transport terminal on the Black Sea, and was among the founders of the union Student Action, which fought against the monetization of education in Ukraine. (The nationwide rallies against monetization kicked off in Simferopol.) Later, he advised striking employees at Crimea Trolleybus.
“We literally supported him in everything,” says Kolchenko’s mother. “But when he was planning to go to Euromaidan, and was literally standing in the door with his backpack on, I rushed to him and tried to discourage him from going. I told him that people were being killed in the square [in Kyiv], and that people in Simferopol won’t understand.”
According to Kolchenko’s defense attorney, Svetlana Sidorkina, as an activist, Kolchenko had long been in the works among the security services.
“He has never been afraid of voicing his dissatisfaction. He has always openly advertised his position,” says Larisa Kolchenko.
When the so-called Russian Spring began, Kolchenko opposed the annexation. His mother agreed with him: she refused to vote in the referendum. Not all of Larisa’s kith and kin abided by her stance. Several relatives have ceased communicating with Kolchenko’s family.
“Russia has come: we’re going to act tougher”
“Sasha is a committed antifascist. Every year, he would organize a picket in memory of the murdered lawyer Stanislav Markelov and murdered journalist Anastasia Baburova. She was a local girl, after all, from Sevastopol,” says Larisa Kolchenko. “But now my son has been accused of being a member of Right Sector.”
“The activists were not and are not members of the Right Sector political party,” the press service of the organization, which is banned in Russia, has said in response. “However, we demand their immediate release and an end to political terror in the occupied territory.”
Later, Kolchenko’s defense sent a formal request directly to Right Sector, and got the same answer.
“But it is doubtful whether this is enough for a Russian court,” says Larisa Kolchenko. “Thank God, this absurd accusation played no role for people in Crimea. When we were collecting character references for the court, the attitude to him at the university was still good. At the printing plant where he worked as a freight handler, which did not move to the mainland until after the referendum, his colleagues said the accusation was unfair.”
It is difficult to suspect Kolchenko of being sympathetic to nationalists. In 2012, thirty rightwing radicals assaulted Tundra and three comrades after a screening of a film about Baburova.
Since Kolchenko has been arrested, no Ukrainian officials have attempted to contact him. This worries his mother.
“They seemed to have forgotten about the detainees,” Larisa Kolchenko says.
The Ukrainian Consul in Moscow has not visited the suspects. Russia has declared the men its citizens, but on February 4, 2015, the Russian Prosecutor General suddenly determined that Sentsov had dual citizenship. However, a judge rejected Kolchenko’s lawsuit against the Russian Federal Migration Service after an FMS employee provided the court with a passport request form containing Kolchenko’s information and his alleged signature. The defense now plans to a have a handwriting analysis of the document performed.
“He was forcibly made the citizen of another country,” says Kolchenko’s mother. “He did not fill out any forms.”
In turn, the State Migration Service of Ukraine confirmed Kolchenko’s Ukrainian citizenship in February, and on March 27, 2015, the Kyiv Prosecutor’s Office finally opened a case in the abduction of Ukrainian citizen Alexander Kolchenko. Svetlana Sidorkina said her client has sent a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights against Russian citizenship forcibly having been conferred on him.
When the new academic year began, many Crimean universities were missing students, who had left to complete their studies in Ukraine.
“Some people with whom I was friendly on the civic activism front have shoved off,” says Anton Trofimov, a lecturer in philosophy at the College of Taurida National University. “I even wondered: have all the problems ended? Is the environment no longer a matter of concern?”
Trofimov is an organizer of the carnivalesque Monstration marches, and he cofounded the student union with Kolchenko.
“In the end, a lot of friends have left, and for good reason,” says Trofimov. “FSB officers—former Ukrainian SBU security officers—have paid me a visit as well. They warned me, ‘Russia has come, and we’re going act differently, we’re going act tougher—in accordance with Russian laws.’”
“Sasha also wanted to leave,” says his mother. “But we tried to dissuade him. I didn’t want to let him go far away. We were all afraid—but of the wrong thing!”
A geography major, Kolchenko was deciding between Uzhgorod University and Lviv University, but on May 23, 2014, he was transferred to the Lefortovo remand prison in Moscow.
A friend of Kolchenko, who introduced himself as Roman, explains the cause of the crackdown.
“Throughout the spring, [pro-Russian forces] frightened the people with talk about the militants from Maidan. Except for the Tatars, no one stood up for themselves, and the authorities needed to show that the threat was still real.”
“After the arrest of the first four guys from the pro-Ukrainian movement, the FSB began conducting ‘preventive’ conversations with everyone else,” says Maxim Osadchuk, a history lecturer and buddy of Kolchenko from the leftist movement. “Almost all my friends who had anything to do with public life have left. The question of whether to emigrate or go underground and risk arrest became critical.”
Osadchuk himself left Crimea several days before the referendum and is now fighting as part of the Aydar Battalion.
Osadchuk believes the arrest of the four men was a warning to the remaining activists on the peninsula to curb their enthusiasm.
“Through threats and exhortations we were strongly advised either to leave Crimea or curtail all activism.”
“Luxury items like bouillon cubes and ketchup”
Kolchenko does not complain and is extremely laconic.
In a letter from the remand prison, he writes, “My cellmate and I have amassed so many goodies they will last us for a month. But the goodies are not as tasty as they would seem on the outside.”
In another letter, he writes, “My appetite has slumped here: the cafeteria food is quite enough for me.”
But he dreams of getting his hands on popular science magazines, and “luxury items like bouillon cubes and ketchup.”
Kolchenko has been studying Lenin, Marx, Fromm, and Ivan Franko, the last of whom he read in Ukrainian. He regrets that his familiarization with Russia has begun at a remand prison, and in one of his letters, he shares his impressions of Leo Tolstoy’s current affairs writings: “A typical extremist. Nowadays, they would probably charge him under Article 280.”*
In the letter, he quotes Tolstoy’s essay “The End of the Age”: “What will happen to Russia? Russia? Where is its beginning or its end? […] The Caucasus with all its nationalities? The Kazan Tatars? Ferghana Province? The Amur? […] The circumstance that all these nationalities are regarded as parts of Russia is an accidental and temporary one. […] whilst in the present this combination is maintained only by the power which spreads over these nationalities.”
* Article 280.1 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code, “Public calls for action aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.”
Translated by The Russian Reader. Anyone has permission to republish this and any other of the translations or original texts found on this blog, but please acknowledge the blog explicitly in your reposts, and provide a clearly indicated URL link back to the original publication.