The Penguins Can Fend for Themselves

vechorka-penguin

“There will be no global warming. Russian expedition continues to uncover the secrets of Antarctica.” Front page of the March 13, 2015, edition of Vechernyi Petersburg newspaper.

Earlier today, my comrade Louis Proyect posted a link on his Facebook wall to a Reuters article on the crazy extent of official and grassroots climate change skepticism and ignorance in the world’s biggest country. Here is a short excerpt:

Wildfires crackled across Siberia this summer, turning skies ochre and sending up enough smoke from burning pines to blot out satellite views of the 400-mile-long Lake Baikal.

To many climate scientists, the worsening fires are a consequence of Siberia getting hotter, the carbon unleashed from its burning forests and tundra only adding to man-made fossil fuel emissions. Siberia’s wildfire season has lengthened in recent years and the 2015 blazes were among the biggest yet, caking the lake, the “Pearl of Siberia”, in ash and scorching the surrounding permafrost.

But the Russian public heard little mention of climate change, because media coverage across state-controlled television stations and print media all but ignored it. On national TV, the villains were locals who routinely but carelessly burn off tall grasses every year, and the sometimes incompetent crews struggling to put the fires out.

While Western media have examined the role of rising temperatures and drought in this year’s record wildfires in North America, Russian media continue to pay little attention to an issue that animates so much of the world.

The indifference reflects widespread public doubt that human activities play a significant role in global warming, a tone set by President Vladimir Putin, who has offered only vague and modest pledges of emissions cuts ahead of December’s U.N. climate summit in Paris.

Russia’s official view appears to have changed little since 2003, when Putin told an international climate conference that warmer temperatures would mean Russians “spend less on fur coats” while “agricultural specialists say our grain production will increase, and thank God for that”.

The president believes that “there is no global warming, that this is a fraud to restrain the industrial development of several countries including Russia,” says Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst and critic of Putin. “That is why this subject is not topical for the majority of the Russian mass media and society in general.”

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This reminded me of a dismal interview I had read this past spring in Vechernyi Petersburg, a now-defunct local rag. (The front page of that particular issue of “Vechorka” is depicted at the top of this post.) I had thought about translating it at the time, but since I prefer to push stories that, however bleak, have a positive hook (meaning they feature an underdog or underdogs fighting the powers that be, whatever the odds), I thought better of it.

Now, however, that the official line seems to be run the country into the dirt as quickly as possible, I am kicking out the jams (at least, tonight). After all, somebody out there might be wondering why a country that should have everything going for it in terms of human and natural resources is trying so hard to become a failed state. Interviews like the one that follows—with a gentleman not only purporting to be a scientist, but a scientist charged with running the Russian Antarctic Expedition—might give you a clue.

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Global warming is a topic that bears no relation to reality
Valery Lukin, head of the Russian Antarctic Expedition, says Antarctica still holds many secrets
Sergei Prudnikov
March 13, 2015
Vechernyi Peterburg

The summer season of the Sixtieth Antarctic Expedition is coming to an end. The scientific research vessel Akademik Fyodorov is now making the rounds of the stations, supplying them with food, fuel, and materials for the coming eight or nine months. In early March, the ship left Progress Station. Its next stops are Molodyozhnaya Station, Novolazarevskaya Station, and Bellingshausen Station. In April, the Akademik Fyodorov will sail for the shores of South America, and on May 15, it will return to Petersburg. In anticipation of the completion of the latest stage of work, Vechernyi Peterburg met with Valery Lukin, head of the Russian Antarctic Expedition (RAE).

Valery Vladimirovich, what are the results of the 2014–2015 season? 

I must say right off the bat that employees of thirty-one organizations, representing ten federal agenices, are involved in the RAE. They include Roshydromet, Rosrybolovstvo (Federal Agency for Fishery), Roscosmos (Russian Federal Space Agency), Rosatom, the Ministry of Defense, and so. Work is underway on sixty-four projects, and each of them is significant. Nevertheless, I would note the drilling of a second borehole into the subglacial Lake Vostok and laying the foundations for installing new ground-based monitoring equipment for the GLONASS satellite navigation system. Interesting work has been done in the oasis of dry valleys,near the American McMurdo Station on the shore of the Ross Sea. They contain the most ancient varieties of permafrost on earth, thirty to forty million years old. Such polar caps exist in similar conditions on Mars. This gives us a unique opportunity for developing the technology to sample this material in the future. I should also note that the Russian Federal Ministry of Culture has implemented several of its own projects in Antarctica for the first time. One of them is the creation of the latest (the third) in a series of virtual branches of the Russian Museum for RAE personnel. The first was unveiled on board the Akademik Fyodorov; the second, at Novolazarevskaya Station; the latest, at Bellingshausen Station.

One of the priorities in Antarctica is the study of climate change. Why is it important? And how do things stand with global warming?

Indeed, it is extremely important. After all, what is the ice of Antarctica? It is compacted precipitation. By carrying out isotopic studies on it, we can track changes in temperature on earth, as well as the levels of methane and carbon dioxide that were in the atmosphere many years ago. Based on the research done on the ice core at Vostok Station, we have assembled a picture of climate change over the last 420,000 years. This included four complete climatic cycles: glaciation and warming with an average period of 100,00 years. We are now in an interglacial period, between peaks of cooling. But it is unclear how long this period will continue and whether it has reached its maximum. No one knows where we are headed. As for global warming, in my opinion, it is only a topic for speculation that is advantageous to businessmen, politicians, and journalists, and which bears no relation to reality.

But what about the movement of glaciers, which are, allegedly, melting furiously?

Glaciers are always moving. Near the Geographic South Pole, at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, they move at a speed of 11.5 meters a year. Near Vostok Station, they move at a speed of two meters a year. This is ordinary aerography: new ice forms, old ice flows. Now if it stopped moving, that would be something worthy of immediate attention. In the 1960s, Sovet scientists and their colleagues from Dresden took measurements of the glacier on a 100-kilometer segment of the track from Mirny Station to Vostok Station. Forty-four years later, the measurements were repeated. The ice had grown by forty-two meters! What melting are we talking about here?! As for speculation around a topic, let me remind you that, twenty years ago, all the media suddenly wrote about the growing hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica and the catastrophe it threatened. It was the owner of the large chemical company DuPont who had raised the issue. It was he who paid scientists to study the phenomenon. The scientists concluded that the reduction of the ozone layer had to do with Freon entering the upper atmosphere. Ultimately, this substance was banned. But Mr. DuPont created a new substance, Freon-141, which, by the way, is two and a half times more expensive than the “old” Freon. The problem of the hole in the ozone layer did not go away. But it has been forgotten: people with a stake in the matter performed the task assigned to them. The same thing is sure to happen with the topic of global warming.

Antarctica is an icy, barren continent. What is the practical benefit of researching it?

National security. The economic effects. Strengthening international prestige. With regard to safety, we are talking about ground support in the Southern Hemisphere for our space program. In Soviet times, this problem was solved by a special space fleet. A whole series of craft was built. Then they were scrapped. Using radar stations located in southern Russian, we can look into near-Earth space no farther than thirty degrees latitude south. If we talk about the economic effect, we could talk about developing fisheries in the Southern Ocean. One of the most valuable commercial fish in the world, the Patagonian toothfish, is found in these waters. It dwells at a depth of 600 to 1,200 meters, grows to a length of two meters, and weighs up 160 kilograms. The cost of one kilogram of this fish on the wholesale markets is sixty dollars. It is selling like hot cakes in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and the US. From the 1960s to the 1980s, we were the leaders in catching it. In the 1990s, we virtually abandoned this field. The challenge now is to return. Finally, estimating the mineral reserves [in Antarctica] is an important taks. Our country’s economy is resource dependent. And if we do not keep up with the prospects of mining on earth, we have a lot to lose. We have to have our finger on the pulse.

The media periodically reports incredible events that are observed on the sixth continent. Either people disappear with enviable regularity or strange magnetic phenomena occur. What can you say about this?

These UFO publications cannot be taken seriously, of course. People have definitely not disappeared. Although there are a lot of mysteries. And we are going to encounter them again and again. Subglacial lakes, for example, were discovered a mere twenty years ago, and by chance. We were able to identify Lake Vostok due to a combination of seismic research, radar observations, and satellite measurements. It turned out that in the vicinity of Vostok Station the ice sheet was fairly smooth. There were hills all around, but here there was a flat slab, 250 kilometers long, 70 kilometers wide. Where does that happen? That is right: only on the water.

Valery Vladimorovich, many scientific programs are now feeling the pinch due to the difficult economic situation in the country. How has this affected the RAE?

Budget cuts to the expedition this year will amount to 10%. However, given the need to use foreign aircraft, sail into foreign ports, and pay with foreign currency, the real reduction in the budget will be 35%. Unfortunately, certain programs will have to be wound down. For example, we are planning no research and drilling work at Vostok Station. It is just too expensive. Boring into the subglacial lake and collecting water from it, something we have been so looking forward to doing, is not going to happen next season. In most other areas, research will continue.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Valery Lukin, as it turned out, was much too sanguine about the effect of budget cuts on the RAE.

Russian Antarctic Expedition Halts Research Due to Lack of Funds
October 14, 2015
The Moscow Times

Russia’s state-funded Antarctic expedition has had to halt its research due to a lack of funding, the TASS news agency reported Wednesday, citing one of the scientists involved in the expedition.

“It’s not yet clear how long the research will be suspended for,” Ruslan Kolunin told TASS. He said that work on drilling a borehole in the ancient Lake Vostok has also been suspended. “The borehole is frozen at the moment, no work is under way there right now,” he was cited as saying.

The only research being carried out in the Antarctic as part of the expedition this year is a meteorite project by the Ural Federal University, Kolunin said. “That is financed by sponsors and the university, though,” he added.

Earlier this year, the expedition’s head Valery Lukin said that scientists wouldn’t be able to continue researching Lake Vostok during the next season, which lasts from December 2015 to February 2016, due to decreased funding, TASS reported.

The expedition, Lukin said, is financed directly from the federal budget. In 2015 it was allocated 1.18 billion rubles ($18 million), but in 2016 that will decrease to 1.061 billion rubles ($16 million), which he said was not enough to continue work at the lake.

Lake Vostok lies buried beneath a 3,769-meter layer of ice. Locating it and accessing its relict waters is considered one of the main discoveries of the expedition so far, the report said.

Nikolay Mitrokhin: Right-Wing Saints

Alexander Mikhailovich (center), a co-founder of Sorok Sorokov (Multitude), a militant Russian Orthodox organization that Patriarch Kirill has identified as his personal guard
Alexander Mikhailovich (center), a co-founder of Sorok sorokov (“Multitude”), a militant Russian Orthodox organization that Patriarch Kirill has identified as his personal “guard”

Right-Wing Saints
Nikolay Mitrokhin
October 26, 2015
Grani.ru

Last week at a meeting of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), three decisions were adopted that illustrate the further transformation of church leadership into a fascist-type extreme right-wing organization.

The rank of bishop was awarded to Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), abbot of the Sretensky Monastery in Moscow, who is closely linked to Black Hundreds-like organizations. For the last fifteen years, at least, his public and political reputation had prevented him from moving up into the ranks of the church’s “generals,” despite his successes in advocacy (the Sretensky Monastery’s publishing house is the largest in the ROC) and close ties to the Russian state establishment. Now decency has been cast to the wind, and the path to a big church career has been opened to him.

In another decision, the Synod formed a joint commission of the Russian and Bulgarian Orthodox Churches on the issue of canonizing Archbishop Serafim (Sobolev) of Bogucharsk. It has been emphasized that the commission was created at the personal behest of Patriarch Kirill, who on May 5 sent a formal request to the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. An émigré from Russia and, subsequently, one of the leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Serafim is known not only as the man who practically founded modern Bulgarian monasticism. He also penned many xenophobic essays (just like Putin and Nikita Mikhalkov’s favorite philosopher Ivan Ilyin) that mixed the Russian nationalism of his day with a hatred of other faiths. In the 1930s, he vigorously campaigned against the theologians of the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, insisting on rejecting all forms of ecumenical cooperation. And of course, like the other so-called Karlovites, the European bishops of the ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia), he actively collaborated with the Nazis. This did not stop him, as a Russian patriot, from collaborating just as successfully with the Stalinist regime after the war.

Sobolev’s most prominent Russian disciple and protégé was the young émigré priest known to us as Archpriest Vsevolod Spiller. To a large extent swayed by the ideas of his teacher, he returned in 1949 from Bulgaria to Moscow, where as deputy head of the Department of External Church Relations he was an influential church official. But then his ideas came into conflict with the political reality and, maintaining his post as prior of the Church of St. Nicholas in Kuznetsy, he became an equally influential figure in unofficial church life. In particular, he vigorously supported resistance groups within the church, which attempted to reconcile right-wing views with human rights rhetoric in order to gain greater autonomy for the clergy and the ROC as a whole.

A group of young disciples from the Moscow intelligentsia formed around Spiller. In the early 1980s, they were ordained as priests, and by the middle of the decade they had begun to confront their own former comrades who had chosen a more liberal vision of the church’s future. During perestroika, they founded the most successful ecclesiastical education project of the new era, St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Institute, and in the early 2000s, as a result of a large and successful intrigue, they became the leading ideological faction within the ROC. Members of this faction have held a variety of leadership positions in the church and still control at least two posts at the overall church level. One of these clerics is Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov, head of the Patriarchal Commission on Family and Youth Affairs. Smirnov is known for his aggressive xenophobic and extremist rhetoric (and his involvement in at least one major violent protest action), and he virtually acts as the church’s liaison with the extremist group God’s Will.

There is no doubt that the prospect of Archbishop Serafim’s canonization and, therefore, the church’s blessing to republish and promote his works is the handiwork of St. Tikhon’s Institute, now known as St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of [the] Humanities, especially since the university’s rector, Archpriest Vladimir Vorobyov, one of Spiller’s principal disciples, is on the canonization commission.

Finally, the third ideologically significant accomplishment of the Synod was the resolution it adopted in connection with the report made by Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, chair of the Synodal Department on Church and Society Relations, on “proposals for countering neopaganism.”

“[We] consider concerns about the increasing spread of neo-paganism in countries for which the Moscow Patriarchate is canonically responsible, including the cultural and information sectors, reasonable. [We] emphasize the need to work more vigorously on the overall church and diocesan levels in order to refute the neo-pagan errors. This works must be conducted primarily with young people, with communities of athletes and sports fans, members of military-patriotic clubs, law enforcement officers, and persons in places of incarceration,” wrote the Synod in its resolution.

This is a response to the clear failure in recent years of the Moscow Patriarchate’s efforts vis-à-vis “socially congenial” categories of young people. Despite the patriarchate’s desire to harness the energy of right-wing extremists and militarists in the youth subcultures to its own advantage by implementing the concept of military sports clubs in the parishes (there are definitely two or three such clubs in every region), it has become more and more obvious that the ROC’s “sluggish” stance did not satisfy its “flock” of extremists. Emblematic in this regard was the sensational renunciation, in 2013, of Russian Orthodoxy by Alexander Povetkin, a boxer popular among Russian nationalists, and his virtual conversion to neo-paganism as publicly demonstrated by the tattoos and amulets on his body.

Obviously, the ROC’s balanced position the Ukrainian conflict and its rejection of public anti-Ukrainian rhetoric has also caused dissatisfaction among patriotically minded right-wing radicals and facilitated their rejection of the church’s leadership. No wonder that Vsevolod Chaplin, whom the neo-Nazi gang BORN had considered as a candidate for assassination “for betraying the interests of the Russian people,” is now so worried about the religiosity of football hooligans, policemen, and convicts.

But maybe, in this case, the Moscow Patriarchate really is concerned about the morality of young people? This could be admitted as a possibility if the patriarchate and the patriarch personally had not hired those very same right-wing football hooligans and neo-Nazis as their personal bodyguard. Nor in the text of the Synod’s decision is there a single word of condemnation of “sports fans.” After all, they create idols and worship them, which is a direction violation of the commandment “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”

Alexander Mikhailovich (center) and his comrades from Sorok Sorokov (Multitude)
Alexander Mikhailovich (center) and his comrades from Sorok sorokov (“Multitude”)

In my opinion, these decisions by the Synod, which hammer away at the same point, are symptoms of the fascization of the church’s leadership. In this case, “fascization” is an academic term describing the process by which a subject of public space is indoctrinated with a certain set of ideas and practices. When it was under the authority of the communist regime, the ROC was frozen in terms of its ideological evolution for seven decades and is now going through the same stages that the major Christian churches of Europe went through during the twentieth century. If the “pre-modern” mystical obscurantism of the Black Hundreds had dominated under Alexy II, Kirill’s ROC has shifted into the phase of modernist fascist experiments, typical of Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. Statements by church leaders about the role of the “national leader,” the desired “unity of the people,” the sacred duty of war, and the special rights of collective subjects, which are more important than individual rights, and even the particular focus on young people are all phenomena from that earlier era and its rhetoric, just like militarized youth organizations in ecclesiastical communities.

Everything having to do with the Russian profession of fascism and other versions of right-wing radicalism, which was quite popular in the Russian émigré community of the 1920s and 1930s, is thus only welcomed in the church at the moment. The Synod’s recent decisions testify to this fact.

While it is a big problem for the church, “fascization” is not of paramount importance to society. The church is too small in terms of numbers [of parishioners] and too fragmented in terms of organization and ideology for these processes, which primarily affect the church’s administrative apparatus, to have a real impact on Russian politics on the federal and even local levels. However much some in the church leadership would enjoy commanding strictly serried ranks of militants, there are fewer and fewer people who would want to join the ranks of these militants, especially just for the heck of it. Therefore, there are many more generals in this army than soldiers.

Meanwhile, the process of fascization, despite its unacceptability to modern society, has a variety of consequences. By itself, fascism was for its time a revolutionary movement, a form of catch-up modernization. It brought with it not only anti-democratic and xenophobic impulses but also the destruction of obsolete social institutions and barriers. It paved the way for new technologies, and provided means of social mobility and opportunities for young people.

In this regard, the work of Patriarch Kirill and his team does not appear so straightforward. The ideological component of Kirill’s reign and his blunders in the realm of information policy have overshadowed to outside observers the efforts made by the patriarch and his supporters within the church over the past five years. Reform of the ROC’s administrative apparatus (the establishment of the Supreme Church Council, changes to the number and function of departments), the creation of quasi-democratic institutions (the Interconciliar Assembly, ecclesiastical courts, congresses of various categories of clergymen), the unification of church law, a significant increase in the number of bishops, and, finally, the retreat from old-fashioned ways of confessing the faith (i.e., the fight against eldership, mysticism, superstition, and flagrant ethnic and confessional xenophobia) and a policy of actively recruiting educated young people all have laid the foundations for the ROC’s further transformation into a more modern church.

For an enormous number of rank-and-file (and not so rank-and-file) priests and lay people, it is not that all the games with black-shirted militants and the flagrant Russian nationalist rhetoric are completely unacceptable, but rather that they are absolutely trivial compared with other truths and values they associate with Russian Orthodoxy. Daily concerns about Sunday school, soup kitchens for the homeless, and, finally, their own wallets are much more important to them than the ideological “deviations” of the Moscow Patriarchate’s leadership. Especially because, even within the church, the leadership has been incapable of ensuring that brains are being washed in the right direction, much less clearly signaling its wishes.

Thus, the real needs and concerns of these people in a modern, post-industrial society make it possible to express very different priorities in the work of Russian Orthodox communities than as seen by the higher-ups. Sooner or later (it is a matter, here, not of years but of “five-year plans”), these priorities will obviously come to be at odds with the church’s ruling elite and its small groups of radical supporters on the ground. And then the ROC will have its own version of the Second Vatican Council, “post-Gulag theology,” priests organizing pancake feeds for aggressive congregants, and all the other things modern Russian society expects from the ROC.

Nikolay Mitrokhin is a research fellow at the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen. He is the author of groundbreaking books on the current state of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian nationalist movements in the postwar Soviet Union. Photos courtesy of atheism.dirty.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader

The Most Educated Nation on Earth

Natalia Sharina, librarian and
Natalia Sharina, librarian and “extremist”

Only pure Nazi scumbags arrest librarians. I say this as someone who worked for four years in a public library. I cannot imagine anyone ever arresting our librarians at a big public library in the Pacific Northwest for any reason related to their professional duties.

This should be yet another signal to Russians (“the most educated nation on earth”) to get off their self-satisfied butts and send the current regime down the drain, but they really, really like the freedom from responsibility that “life under dictatorship” gives them, so this story will be another source for sustained yawning here (if even that), like nearly everything else that has happened since Putin was triumphantly “elected” to a third term, including the recent abduction, murder, and gutting (“autopsy”) of a 18-month-old Tajik baby by Petersburg police and medics, who will all be getting off scot free for their hideous crimes, because they are normal “white” people, not “black asses.”

In response, I am expecting another vigorous round of whataboutism from many of my “progressive” Russian and Russianist (i.e., for all intents and purposes, Putinist) friends. They will be furiously searching for stories about the horrors of life in “enemy” countries like the US and Finland or wherever.

(Or Norway, Sweden and Denmark: for “progressive” Russian patriots, the Scandinavian countries are a special imaginary hell on earth they have to keep picking at rhetorically like a scab they do not want to heal ever. Search me why this is the case. Maybe it has something to do with the terrible “betrayal” to the international communist cause represented by social democracy, but look where we are now, my communist comrades!)

But no sensible leftist, liberal, hip contemporary art curator or just plain person on earth is going to keep buying this Russian “progressive” political song and dance at this mind-numbing rate of total societal breakdown. People who do not want to deal AT ALL with their own homegrown Nazi scumbags have no right to comment on the political affairs of other countries or hop around the globe preaching the evils of capitalism and “neoliberalism.”

A librarian. Unbelievable.

Photo courtesy of Rushincrash

How Dante Got Punched in the Kisser

Dante Teodori
October 26, 2015
Facebook

This is the story of how Dante got punched in the kisser and now bears all the hallmarks of an alleged real man.

Petersburg LGBT activist Dante Teodori
Petersburg LGBT activist Dante Teodori

I was going to the Rainbow Coffee Klatch on the subway today. I looked and saw this one guy eyeing me quite maliciously. The fellow was well built and dressed in sport clothes but dressed decently. After a while, he came up and leaned over me. (I was sitting down.) He told me either I could take off my scarf and scram from the car or he would kick my ass. (I have omitted the obscenities.) I refused. He smacked me in the face and split my lip. I took the second blow on the head and it split my eyebrow. Then some dude pushed him away.

I got out at a station and looked for the cops or some other official service, but there was no one. I got back on the train and pushed the hotline button to connect me to the driver, but it didn’t work. Well, okay, I thought, I will just go as I am. I asked people for napkins and telephoned the guys to come meet me in the subway, since I thought my nose was broken and I wouldn’t be able to see anything because of the blood. When I got there, the guys suggested calling an ambulance, since we didn’t know where the first-aid station was.

They took me to the hospital, since they didn’t like the look of the epic lump on my forehead. At the hospital, I was examined, stitched up, and sent home to heal.

dante-2

What is the moral of this story? I could have taken the scarf off. I could have have got out of the car. I had the chance. But I think this is the wrong position to take. “It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” That is first and foremost.

Second, the scarf was not in the LGBT colors. It was knitted and given to me by a very nice woman with whom I was detained for waving the Ukrainian flag. What does this mean? That technically anyone wearing colorful clothes can get the crap beat of them.

And the most important thing. I think the only chance we have of getting closer to the future we want is to live as if it has already arrived.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Gabriel Levy for the suggestion. Photos courtesy of Dante Teodori’s Facebook page. This story has been covered widely in the local media. See, for example, “LGBT activist beaten over colorful scarf,” Paperpaper.ru, October 26, 2015 (in Russian).

The Two-State Solution (Racism and the Russian Intelligentsia)

Boris Akunin
Boris Akunin

Boris Akunin:

In Russia, two distinct, completely dissimilar peoples live side by side, and these peoples have long been bitterly hostile towards each other. (May the Byzantine double-headed eagle that Ivan the Third selected as the country’s emblem go to hell in a hand basket.)

There is Us and there is Them.

We have our own heroes: Chekhov, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Sakharov.

They have their own heroes: Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, and now Putin.

Members of the two nations recognize each other at first glance and experience a pang of acute dislike that selfsame second. We do not like anything about Them: the way They look, talk, carry themselves, rejoice and grieve, dress and undress. Their favorite singers, films, and TV shows make us sick. They pay Us in kind, and with interest.

Apart from Us and Them, there are just plain folk, who make up the majority of the population. We and They are constantly trying to win over this neither-fish-nor-fowl, to introduce them to our values.

What do you think should be done with this reality? Should we kill each other?

—Excerpted from Boris Akunin and Mikhail Shishkin, “Conversation between a Novelist and a Writer,” July 30, 2013

Our Swimmer

While there seems to be a fair amount of self-irony, in the comments, above, by the famed Russian detective novel writer Boris Akunin, I cannot help laughing when I read such exercises in self-praise by the so-called Russian intelligentsia and, at the same time, recall something that happened to me several years ago when I was running a summer study program in Petrograd for an American university.

Our students lived with Russian host families, and fitting student to host family was not always a snap, but it was mostly doable. That particular summer, however, more students had signed up for the program than ever before, and our limited resources were stretched thin. So I was taking recommendations from whomever I could get them, rather than relying only on the list of potential host families provided by our partners at the state university here in town.

That is how found myself visiting a couple in their flat somewhere in the city’s Central District. It was in a Stalin-era building, but the couple proudly informed me right away that Oleg Basilashvili, a well-known screen and stage actor and liberal intelligentsia icon, was a neighbor. They, too, were members of the creative intelligentsia. One of them was a theater critic, while the other had something to do with the Conservatory, I seem to remember.

The point, as I had already told them over the phone, was that I had one student left to place with a family, a male student. They, it transpired, had a teenage daughter. Would it be a problem for them to have a male student living in the same flat as their daughter? No, it would not be a problem, they told me.

Given the reputation of the university I was representing, they might have imagined I would be setting them up with a blond scion of a New England old money, so if their daughter was whisked off her feet over the summer or merely made useful connections in high places, what could be the harm?

As we were wrapping our conversation at their flat, having ironed out almost all the practical details, the couple thought to ask me what the young man’s name was.

“Diego,” I said.

My answer literally sent their eyes spinning in circles and smoke shooting from their ears. All it took was the “wrong” name for them to imagine a summer of their daughter basking in the glow of old American money with a patina of academic respectability turning into the constant threat of rape and ravishment at the hands of a “hot-blooded Latino.”

And they told me that in so many words, all the while denying that they were what they were—racists.

The funny thing was that Diego was gay in every sense of the word: fun to be around, a kind, sweet-hearted young man, and no “threat” to their precious daughter. But since Oleg Basilashvili’s neighbors had already outed themselves as racists, I did not want to hang around and find out whether they were homophobes as well.

I was more naïve than I am now. Although I had already had many encounters with “casual” racism and anti-Semitism Russian style, Petrograd had not yet arrived at the bad part of its mid noughties, when more proactive racists than my intelligentsia couple would ever want to be began assaulting and murdering immigrants, foreigners, anti-fascists, and members of Russian ethnic minorities in especially large numbers.

But I was not naïve enough to try and plead Diego’s case to these assholes. I immediately left their precious den of culture-vulturehood and hit the streets, cursing them out loud while also trying to think of a back-up plan.

That it is when I thought of our long-time acquaintance F.A., who had nannied the young son of a friend for years, and even had cooked for our family for a short while when we were in a bad spot. By no means was F.A. a member of the ballyhooed intelligentsia, which was not to say that she was uneducated or crude or anything but kind, loving, funny, smart, warm, and one of the best cooks I have ever met in my life. Besides that, she had worked in a factory her whole life, doing quality control, and she was Jewish.

When I telephoned her and told her what the deal was, she did not hesitate a second to welcome Diego into her home.

Needless to say, Diego and F.A. hit it off and had a great time in each other’s company that summer.

So when, a while later, I was asked to find temporary summer accommodation in Petrograd for another young gay Latino man, I could think of no better hostess than F.A. They also hit it off famously.

This is my roundabout way of saying something that has only been confirmed ten thousand times since by experiences both personal and vicarious: the liberal Russian intelligentsia is not all it is cracked up to be. It is often not particularly liberal or progressive, and is just as likely to be as Putinist or more Putinist than Putin’s mythical alleged “base” among industrial workers and peasants in the “Russian heartlands” or the “simple folk” in the big cities. If anything, my own experience has been that, on the contrary, these simple folk are not so simple and not so automatically inclined to putinize the world around them, much less racialize it.

There are just as many bigots and racists among the “Russian liberal intelligentsia” as there are among the Russian lower classes, maybe more.

Whatever the case, the fact that many Russian liberals have loose reactionary, racist screws in their brains has become apparent from the rabid reactionary discourse that has sprung up within Russia’s talking, thinking, and writing classes around the “refugee crisis” in Europe and the fresh clashes between Israelis and Palestinians..

Yegor Osipov and Kirill Kobrin’s attempts, below, to counter this utterly irrational discourse might seem mild outside of this context, but they are welcome contributions to a debate that it is most remarkable for its near-total absence from Russian public life.

Yegor Osipov
Yegor Osipov

Humanizing Palestinians
Yegor Osipov
October 21, 2015
Radio Svoboda

“Maybe Israel does not behave perfectly in the Occupied Territories, but this is no justification for terrorism.” This comment on Facebook is nearly the most moderate gesture of support for Israel in connection with the new wave of Palestinian terrorism. Despite the fact that nothing justifies terrorism, the situation requires clarification.

Unfortunately, Russian commentators often forget the fact that Israel occupies around 60% of the West Bank and has been building settlements there for its own citizens. (Despite the fact that the Oslo Accords stipulated this state of affairs was only temporary.) They forget the Jewish settlements are built so as to significantly impede the movement of Palestinians between their towns and prevent the expansion of these towns. They forget that between 2000 and 2012 Israel demolished over two and a half thousand Palestinian buildings, buildings for which it, as the occupying power, had not issued construction permits. They forget that Israel restricts the access of tens of thousands of Palestinians to water, forcing them to pay much more for it than Jewish settlers living nearby. They forget that the IDF keeps troops in the West Bank who are engaged only in maintaining the occupation: a noise grenade there, a noise grenade here, searches of houses (women to the right, men to the left), and so on every other night. This tactic is called “mak[ing] our presence felt,” and sometimes it leads to innocent victims. Without knowing this, you might think that Israel and the West Bank were different planets, but in fact both political entities depend on each other. The West Bank depends on virtually everything that happens in Israel, while Israel (and this becomes clear during waves of terror) depends on the social climate in the West Bank.

The situation with the Gaza Strip, about which Russians also do not know very much, is quite different. In 2005, after the withdrawal of Israeli settlements and military personnel, the Gaza Strip was declared territory to which Israel had no obligations because it had “ended the occupation,” although it continued to implement land, sea, and air control of the Strip. After Hamas came to power and began rocket attacks on the southern part of the Jewish state, Israel proclaimed the Strip a “hostile entity” and established a blockade of the area along with Egypt, essentially locking around 1,800,000 people in an open-air prison.

In July 2014, in response to the murder of three Jewish teenagers by Palestinian terrorists, Israel launched an operation in the Gaza Strip, killing more than 2,200 people. Last summer, Jewish terrorists tossed Molotov cocktails at an Arab house, burning alive three members of the family who lived there, including an 18-month-old baby. Israel has yet to indict the terrorists. Some people manage to include this in the “Jewish people’s struggle for survival.” I think it only plays into the hands of anti-Semites the world over. But anti-Semitism, according to a newly released US State Department report on levels of religious freedom in the world, is once again on the rise, and the bias of the UN Security Council and the world’s leading media in favor of Palestine [sic] has not gone away.

Whether Israel will cope with the current wave of terror is a big question, because what is happening is not an intifada, which involves the coordination of armed protest. Today, we are seeing one-off attacks by ordinary Palestinians in no way linked to terrorist organizations. This is desperation after nearly half a century of occupation and the continuing colonization of Palestinian lands by Israelis. Last Friday, Benjamin Netanyahu, who during the recent elections declared there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, urged Mahmud Abbas to negotiate. But it is very likely that, as Israel’s main partner (just compare Abbas and Arafat), Abbas will be unable to help calm the situation. According to reports by Israel’s security services, the leader of the Palestinian Authority has been trying to resist the current wave of violence as it is. All this only shows that the situation is critical.

However, for the Russian intelligentsia, Israel continues to be a place it prefers to discuss with eyes wide shut and using generalizations like the “clash of civilizations.” Divided, like Europe, over the issue of taking in refugees, when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Russian intellectuals, with few exceptions, adopt an uncompromising pro-Israeli stance. Reposts of videos from Israeli hospitals showing “ungrateful” Arabs are accompanied by captions such as “Watch this!” or “Read this!” Others post pictures of the Israeli flag emblazoned with the slogan “Yes! I stand with Israel! Share if you do, too!”

​​The rising wave of support for Israel points to the Orientalist bent of Russian minds, with the classic traits of Orientalism. The eastern, Arab world of Islam is incapable, allegedly, of solving its own problems. This world must always be guided by an “intelligent” West, a role that is often assigned to Israel, because Arabs are fundamentally incapable of changing themselves and their societies. The great Edward Said writes in the preface to Mourid Barghouti’s book I Saw Ramallah that the novel’s translator has done her job excellently, and in the English translation “[t]he Palestinian experience is therefore humanized and given substance in a new way.” Russian intellectuals, however, are not yet willing to humanize Palestinians. Indeed, what difference does it make that Asraa Zidan Tawfik Abed, who tried to stab a soldier in Afula and was gunned down, is a mother of three who holds a degree from Technion University in Haifa?

It is unclear how the conflict will end. It is clear only that the conflict is likely to be another turning point in Israel’s history, the next step after the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. What can the Russian intelligentsia do if it wants to help Israel deal with these as-yet-unclear new realities? At the very least, it should cease losing its self-control and speaking the language of the “clash of civilizations,” see, finally, what the Palestinian territories are like and how closely bound the West Bank is to Israel, realize the gravity of the situation in the Gaza Strip, and try and work out a positive agenda. In the end, it is this that has not happened the last twenty years. The occupation of and crimes against the Palestinians are, alas, not the problem. The problem is talking about the occupation and crimes of the Jewish state.

In his popular book Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, Yossi Klein Halevi, once a member of the radical fringe of American Jewry, describes the process of his transformation from an ultra-rightist radical to a centrist. When Halevi’s first daughter, Moriah, was born in 1985, he moved all his books about the Holocaust (which had once played a key role in his life as a member of the second generation) onto the upper shelves of his bookcases. He noticed that he put away even books with no pictures. He writes that this was his way of saying to himself these books were no longer the center of his life. Just as Halevi put away books about the Holocaust, the Russian intelligentsia needs to remove the imaginary radio broadcasting news either about the Six-Day War or Yitzhak Rabin’s murder and replace it with two maps: a map of the Middle East and a map of Israel and the Palestinian territories. The old threats to Israel are ever fewer, while we have a hard time imagining the new threats.

Yegor Osipov is a Russian journalist living in the Netherlands.

Kirill Kobrin
Kirill Kobrin

The Intelligentsia and Racism
Kirill Kobrin
October 23, 2015
Current Time

Nationalism was born two hundred years ago. At first, it was the theoretical labor of the early Romantics, poets, folklore compilers, and forgers of nonexistent ancient epics of their own peoples. Only then was it put into practice: amidst the gun and cannon smoke of the Napoleonic epic, in the secret Carbonari societies, on the revolutionary barricades.

In the late nineteenth century, nationalism generated several new nation-states. They became more numerous after 1918, not to mention the post-1945 period.

The process of carving countries up according to ethnicity continued even after 1991. The further disintegration of big countries into small countries, and small countries into tiny countries, was just barely avoided. And yet, until recently it was thought that nationalism in today’s Europe was the bailiwick of football hooligans and political outsiders. However, as recent events have shown, many, many people think in terms of “blood and soil.”

It has transpired that there is no vaccine against nationalism and even racism not only for so-called ordinary people. Wordsmiths, intellectuals, and even liberals chronically suffer from them as well. Russian liberals have proven especially vulnerable, or rather, members of the educated class who consider themselves liberals. We are not engaged in political analysis in this column, but we will look at the ethnic mindset of current Russian liberals as a historic phenomenon.

Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war has excited many people dissatisfied with the Putin regime, even those who resisted the Crimean temptation. For example, one well-known Internet figure, who has somehow passed for a political expert, shook the air with bloodthirsty calls to kill as many Syrians as possible, since they are Arabs and, therefore, enemies.

Whoever bombs Syria today, I very much welcome it, and if it is wiped off the face of the earth I won’t be the least bit disappointed. I will only say thank you.
—Anton Nossik

Many have voiced a slightly more restrained variation on this viewpoint, and one progressive media outlet has published an article that discusses, in particular, the indisputable superiority of Jewish men over Arab men in the sense of devotion to their families and courage. In connection with the influx of Syrian refugees, concern for the purity of European is voiced. The article in question is permeated with hidden and flagrant sexual motifs. The subtitle refers to “Raped Europe,” and in the opening paragraphs the author complains it is unfair that “girls love” starry-eyed defenders of refugees rather than defenders of European values.

Fear and loathing towards an alien tribe (the authors of such texts usually do not distinguish Arabs from Kurds, Kurds from Turks, and so on) and an alien religion, Islam (whose sense and essence they are too lazy to understand) have reached a fever pitch. Like all hysterics, Russian “racialist liberals” have been winding themselves up, and the noise level has been steadily increasing.

We are faced with a typical nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century mindset. Take, for example, the motif of the “raped motherland” (or “native culture”). Motherland and Fatherland had become a “mother” back with the Romantics, and later, Alexander Blok, a Late Romantic congenial to proto-fascist views, even proclaimed Russia his wife.

Oh, my Russia! My wife! Painfully / Clear to us is the long road!
—Alexander Blok

In this scheme of things, any outsider is seen as a threat to the mother’s purity, to her sexual serenity. But war and other hostile (or seemingly hostile) actions are attempted rape. Curiously, the identification also works in reverse. An ordinary woman belonging to “our” people is treated as the Mother, the symbol of the nation.

The further we go into the twentieth century, the clearer the purely ethnic and biological features in the countenance of the Woman/Mother become. She is sexually threatened by telltale-looking strangers: Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda was chockablock with depictions of handsome blonde beauties harassed by swarthy apelike creatures.

For current Russian liberals, the role of the Mother threatened by violence is now played by the whole of Europe. It is strange that these folks so rarely invoke the mythological motif of the rape of Europa, in which the maiden Europa is abducted by Zeus in the shape of a bull, who spirits her away—across the Mediterranean!—to Crete, where has his way with her. The discussions of the newfangled national-liberals about the “rape of Europe” naively retell the myth in the most unpretentious racist manner. The “rapist,” “alien” or “suspicious Muslim” crosses the Mediterranean and, once in Europe, rapes her, meaning he bends her to his will. Just imagine that not so long it was said that classic Freudianism and Jungianism were half-forgotten things of the past. But now it turns out that all these things (combined with Social Darwinism and racial theory about the “inferiority” of certain nations) are alive and dominant in the minds of people, moreover, the minds of people whose job it is to reflect on things and generate meaning.

You can, of course, seek out the historical parallels, for example, the steady rightward drift of the liberal segment of the first Russian emigration or the fascist sympathies of such champions of freedom and justice as G.K. Chesterton. But all historical analogies obscure the essence of the matter. And the essence of the matter is this. Suffocating nationalism, moreover, on both sides of the current Putinist divide, is the principal legacy of seventy years of Soviet rule. While preaching internationalism, the communist ideology and the communist regime were weaker than the primitive xenophobia and fear of outsiders that permeated the minds of the Soviet intelligentsia. The collapse of ideology has brought these sentiments to the fore. Aside from everything else, another thing has become clear. The Russian intelligentsia, which considers itself liberal, knows no more about the world than their predecessors from some Turgenev novel.

By the way, have you heard there was a decisive battle on the Danube? Three hundred Turkish officers killed, Silistra has been taken, and Serbia has declared its independence. Don’t you think that you, as a patriot, should be thrilled? As for me, my Slavic blood is just boiling! However, I advise you to be more cautious. I am sure you are being watched. The spying here is horrible! Yesterday, a suspicious person came up to me and asked whether I was Russian. I told him I was Danish.
—Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve

Everything was clear then: we were fighting for our “fellow Slavs” and wishing death on the “bloodthirsty Muslims.” The only difference is that today the names of the people we should be protecting from the villains are very different. We are witnessing a cynical pathetic remake of the novel On the Eve.

Kirill Kobrin is a writer, historian, journalist, and editor living in London.

The texts by Boris Akunin, Yegor Osipov, and Kirill Kobrin were translated by the Russian Reader.

Tatyana Maleva: People and Oil Don’t Mix

Demolishing the Population’s Income Is a Big Mistake by the Authorities
Yevgeny Andreyev
Special to Novaya Gazeta
October 17, 2015
Novaya Gazeta

Why the government prefers oil to people, why poverty could touch half the population, and why social services are losing out to defense spending

Tatyana Maleva. Photo: TASS
Tatyana Maleva. Photo: TASS

In previous years, when it submitted the latest draft budget to the Duma for consideration, the government repeatedly emphasized its social focus: it was all about people, they would say. Now, as the 2016 budget is being worked out, the authorities prefer not to think about this. Spending on the most people-focused items—education and health care—will be significantly reduced. Despite annual inflation’s soaring to nearly 16%, public sector wages will not be indexed at all, while old-age pensions will be indexed only by 4%. Tatyana Maleva, director of the Institute of Social Analysis and Forecasting at the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) told us how the social sector would cope with all these blows.

Based on your analysis of the projections for the 2016 budget now being submitted to the Duma, which of the social sector issues do you see as most acute?

Those caused by the insufficient indexation of old-age pensions. The government has chosen the most economical solution to this problem.

A 4% indexation does not correlate at all with the expected outlook for inflation. Thus, the budget risks reducing the real value of pensions.

The acuteness of the problem is amplified by the fact that, if we look at the history of incomes in post-reform Russia over the past twenty-five years, we see that pensions have fallen lower than all other sources of income such as wages and benefits. Only in 2010, thanks to the valorization of pension rights [a one-time increase in the monetary value of the pension rights of citizens with time in employment before 2002Y.A.] and pulling the minimum pension up to the subsistence level, we pushed the real value of pensions to where it had been at the outset of reforms in the nineties. It had taken twenty years to restore the purchasing power of pensions. But now, during a crisis, they are being demolished again by the budget under consideration. This is a big mistake by the authorities.

But why? After all, budget cuts are not the government’s whim, but hard necessity dictated by the economic crisis.

As events of the last two years have shown, there are basically only two kinds of resources in this country, oil and people. The price of oil has collapsed, but the people are still here.

It is people who are, in fact, the most reliable of all resources. Sooner or later, investment in people produces economic growth. Oil, on the contrary, is impacted by circumstances unconnected with the Russian economy; we cannot influence the market price of oil. It turns out that one key resource makes us hostage to the situation, while we are voluntarily refusing to support the other resource. So I would argue that during the crisis we should look for ways to support people and even risk a larger budget deficit if necessary. Most economists, including me, are forecasting a long crisis. It is only beginning, and demolishing people’s real incomes right at the outset of the crisis is fundamentally wrong.

How painful will the decision to partially index pensions be?

The government thinks that indexing pensions by 4% will affect only the 38 million pensioners. This is misleading. Models of consumption and survival are based not on individual strategies, but on the strategies of households, meaning families. Around 40– 45% of Russian families include pensioners. The experience of the nineties tells us that even miserly pensions, when they were paid, served as a safety cushion against poverty in families when their younger member lost their jobs or faced nonpayment of wages. Because, in this case, pensions support the household’s minimum consumer budget and act as social insurance. Consequently, the forthcoming partial indexation of pensions will reduce the budgets of 40–45% of Russian households. Meaning that the real impact of this decision will be the growing risk of poverty not among pensioners but among nearly half the country’s population.

The government contends that real incomes have fallen by 2–3%, and real wages by 9–10%. Do you agree with these figures?

At one time, incomes showed a more moderate decline, but now they are rushing [downwards] hot on the heels of wages. Because the factors that were propping up incomes, including pensions, have ceased functioning, and incomes are going to fall, maybe even lower than wages. Over the last year, we have experienced a huge reduction in incomes. Basically, the entire growth they had achieved over the previous three or four years has imploded. And there is no reason to expect the growth will be restored. The decline might simply slow down due to arithmetic: the base for comparison will decrease from month to month, and therefore the rate of decline in real wages may turn out to be 7–8%, not 9–10%. But this does not alter the fact the population’s income is likely to be reduced.

How hard is inflation hitting people’s wallets?

Apparently, by year’s end we will be seeing 13–15% inflation. It is inflation that has a total effect on all incomes by devaluing them, regardless of social classes and age groups. But the risks that emerge among different social group because of high inflation are different. For examples, employees face the risk of job losses and cuts in nominal wages. This is already happening. We see cuts in benefits, reductions in allowances, and the axing of bonuses around the country. Moreover, while individuals are capable of combating other causes of income reduction such as job loss or reduction in wages by looking for a new job or retraining, they can do nothing to withstand inflation.

The number of poor people in Russia increased sharply over the past year—by three million people. Are the authorities capable of dealing with this scourge, or does everyone just have to wait for a rise in oil prices?

It is appropriate to recall how poverty has evolved in Russia. In the nineties, over 30% of the population was poor, but this was shallow poverty. When economic growth began in the nineties, poverty was significantly reduced. Many poor Russians moved into the so-called sub-middle class, rather than sinking into outright poverty. Economic growth reduced poverty levels relatively easily all by itself, without a restructuring of social benefits, without support for various social groups. But as soon as the country shifted from growth to recession, this seemingly happy trajectory turned into a disaster for us. Since, during the “fat” years, a reasonable system of targeted social support for the poor was not established, we are now reaping the consequences of its lack. Very many types of social support were eliminated in 2015, and certain “visionary” regions gutted many social benefits as far back as late 2014. Therefore, poverty will grow, and in this sense, indeed, the only hope is a hypothetical rise in the price of oil.

If the price goes up, there will be more money in the budget, and maybe benefits will return. But I am not so certain of this. It is absolutely not a fact that federal revenues are converted into institutions of social support. I think that in this case there will be a serious struggle with a high probability of the social sector’s losing to the military-industrial complex.

The country made this choice long ago, and it is clearly not going to be revisited.

The official unemployment rate in Russia has not exceeded 6%, which is quite a favorable figure by international standards. At the same time, there is lot of evidence that hidden unemployment has grown. What is your overall assessment of the employment sector?

Indeed, 6% is not a high figure at all. Actually, a low unemployment rate has been traditional in Russia in all phases of the economic cycle, whether the economy has been in growth, crisis, boom or recession. Over the quarter century that Russia has been living in the market economy, it has not really experienced unemployment. But economic laws still apply, and during crises, pressure on the market increases. Ultimately, the market extends possibilities for part-time employment, and this can be interpreted as hidden unemployment. People are willing to work a full workweek, but employers offer them part-time work, either half a day or two or three days a week.

The labor market has formed a kind of social contract under which employers save on costs by not dismissing employees, because the Labor Code forces them to bear exorbitant costs when letting employees go. Employees remain employed, which gives them the chance to earn seniority. And the state pretends not to notice any of this, because it also has a stake in the situation. It saves on unemployment benefits and thereby reduces its financial obligations.

Overall, how has the current economic crisis aggravated social problems in the country? Are there factors capable of causing society to protest and take political action?

It is not just the matter of the crisis. Long-term factors are also capable of impacting the social sector. Even during phases of economic growth, many social processes in Russia were not entirely favorable. Take demographics: the long-term trend has been determined by previous generations, and it cannot be changed. Nothing can be done about the fact that each successive generation in Russia will be smaller than the previous generation.

Furthermore, if we look at a longer trend, we have to admit that wages and other types of income have fallen undeservedly much lower than GDP has sunk. This has predetermined very many processes in the economy. Low-wage labor and a low-income population cannot be effective. We have repeatedly been taught this lesson over the last twenty-five years. Coming to terms now with a drop in incomes and wages means recognizing the inefficiency of our human resources. Yes, of course, no one gets rich during a crisis. But it is not a worsening of social tensions in the country due to a sharp collapse in incomes that we should be afraid of. We should be afraid of social apathy, of the population’s withdrawing into itself and washing its hands of the situation. From the socioeconomic viewpoint, this is a step backwards. This apathy can hold us back for many decades. And even if drivers of economic growth do emerge in Russia, and we expect that people will respond quickly, this might not happen.

But what is the source of this apathy?

In the nineties, the population really lent a helping hand to economic reforms by a creating a strong platform for the informal economy. Everyone predicted that society would explode, but it did not happen. The population thus gave an advance to the government that was carrying out reforms. The country managed to make this incredibly difficult transition from one type of economy to another. The people’s patience was rewarded. We are seemingly now in the same situation. However, our vector is pointing down, not up. The current patience of Russians might pull the country down. The population has not been integrated into this economy; it has not become its subject. It has elaborated its own behavioral trajectories, tactics, and strategies, which do not correspond in any way to state policy. The state and the populace lead separate lives.

Are you not idealizing the nineties? After all, even now, during a crisis, people’s living standards and incomes are much higher than they were then.

What saved people from hunger and many people from death in the nineties? First, grassroots unorganized trading, whose symbol was the famous shuttle traders. A huge informal trading sector was formed, flea markets emerged, and so on. But this sector ultimately disappeared, losing out to powerful commercial chains. Second, a powerful sector of private household plots formed in small towns and villages in the nineties. Even if they provided no cash income, people lived off the land. During the years of economic growth, this sector has turned into dacha villages with lawns, and has also ceased to exist as a source of subsistence for households. Third, a small business sector took shape in some form, albeit a specific form with many negative traits. Nevertheless, there was entrepreneurial freedom. Now, all attempts to get small business on its feet have led to nothing. The administrative obstacles erected in recent years have shut the door to the big economy for small business. Fourth, by the early noughties, a small but noticeable nonprofit and NGO sector had been established in Russia. Now, many of these organizations have been labeled “foreign agents.” Formally, [many of] the NGOs continue to operate, but they do not have the ability to act freely as they see fit.

These are the four legs that have been sawed off the Russian market economy stool, and it will not be able to stand up without them. The set of factors that prevented social catastrophe in the nineties is no longer functioning.

Maybe other mechanisms will be developed, but so far I do not see them. So everything is going to depend on the speed, depth, and duration of the crisis. But if we proceed from the most probable assumption, that the crisis will shift into a protracted, sticky recession, the quality of services will fall, despite the fact that, purely superficially, universities, schools, and clinics will continue to function. We do not know yet how the population will respond economically to these challenges. It has very few options. In fact, its only option is to wait for mercy from the state. People have been prevented from taking care of themselves.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Ilya Matveev for the suggestion.

Sholom Shvarts

Boris Smelov, Portrait of Sholom Shvarts, 1995
Boris Smelov, Portrait of Sholom Shvarts, 1995

“Shalya”: Artist Valentin Gromov Remembers His Friend Sholom Shvarts

I don’t remember what year we met. I have no particular first impression. We were ordinary students. We were in the second class, and he was in the second class, too, only in a parallel class. That class came to our class, and we would go to their class to look at their work. Shalya did not especially stand out from the rest. He did everything the way his teachers told him to do it. One time, Arekh (Alexander Arefiev) asked us to come look at how they were drawing nudes in the other class. He pointed out Shvarts’s work. He said, “Look at his sense of line!” Later, Arekh told me he had been to Shalya’s house and seen his other drawings and paintings, and that it was day and night compared to what he was doing at school. He suggested going to visit him. Shalya and his parents lived then not far from the Finland Station, in the slums, on some side street. Shalya, his father, and his mother were sitting in the corner. Shalya tossed pieces of paper all over the place. I saw that tons of the drawings had been done on drafting paper. I asked him whether he didn’t have normal paper, and he replied that his father worked somewhere and had all these leftover finished blueprints for frame-and-panel houses that had been built and he did not need, so he brought them home, and they were great for drawing on. And we saw these stunning sketches on these blueprints. It was then we became pals.

Sholom Shvarts, Portrait of Roald Mandelstam, 1958. Tempera on canvas, 33 x 24 cm. Collection of Valentin Gromov
Sholom Shvarts, Portrait of Roald Mandelstam, 1958. Tempera on canvas, 33 x 24 cm. Collection of Valentin Gromov

All of us got the boot [from school], so Shalya was the only one in our band of friends who graduated from the Arts High School at the Academy of Arts. When we were expelled, we spent a long time hanging out. We couldn’t find a place for ourselves anywhere; we were in state of complete uncertainty. Shalya’s family had moved at that time to Ligovka [Ligovsky Prospect], where the three of them lived in a single room. He was still in school, and we were independent artists, but we saw a lot of each other at that time.

In terms of character, he was calm, reserved, and quite private. When we were still in school together and would go out on the landing to smoke, I noticed that Shalya was a little bit afraid of Arekh. Arekh’s say-so meant a lot. He argued in a quite strange way, but quite professionally. So Shalya was filled with respect and loyalty towards him.

We once got talking about indoor scenes. Shalya was quite taken with this topic and said a lot about how he saw it. Arekh suggested that Shalya paint an indoor scene for him. He said the topic should really be up his alley. Shalya accepted the challenge, and they agreed he would complete it in a week. We met again, and Arekh asked whether Shalya had finished the painting. He said he still had not finished it and asked for another week. Arekh saw him a week later, and Shalya again made excuses for why the painting was not done. Arekh then told him, “If you don’t have it painted within a week, I’ll smack you in the kisser!” When Shalya finally painted this indoor scene, Arekh’s jaw dropped. From then on he stopped treating him like a master treats a disciple and spoke with him as an equal.

Shalya was not a talkative person, but once in a great while he could get carried away with some topic and then you could not stop him. He turned a deaf ear on topics that did not interest him.

Shalya never drew people from life. He simply memorized the images and drew his “memories” of these people. He had no contact with women. We all had girlfriends and got married off, but Shalya was the only one of us who was virtually a monk. So his depictions of women were inspired by memories of passersby and acquaintances, by youthful fantasies.

shvarts-v lodke
Sholom Shvarts, In a Boat, 1950s. Ink and pencil on paper, 15.5 x 21 cm. Collection of Oleg Frontinsky

Nowadays, the post-war avant-garde is highly prized, so it is no wonder that so many forgeries surface, including forgeries of our work. The forgers try to fake Arekh’s work and sometimes they succeed in producing something that bears a fair resemblance. Shalya’s work is absolutely impossible to forge, given his technique and the way he worked with his media.

I have four works by Shalya, and all of them are masterpieces. I donated one of them (At Home, 1954) to the Tsarskoye Selo Collection. It was hard to part with it, but it seemed less individual than the rest, a little bit like scenery.

Sholom Shvarts, Canal, 1960s. Ink on paper, 31.5 x 19.5 cm. Collection of Dmitry Shagin
Sholom Shvarts, Canal, 1960s. Ink on paper, 31.5 x 19.5 cm. Collection of Dmitry Shagin

When Shalya’s mom died, he and his father stopped living together. Shalya moved to Ordinarnaya Street, where he lived until the end of his life. He lived in a five by four meter room with a single window. He almost never left that room. I can never remember seeing him, say, in the kitchen. There was a pile of pots, jars, tin cans, dirty plates, and cigarette butts everywhere. It was a hell of a mess. There was nowhere to sit down.

Shalya was a big fan of the cinema. There was not a new movie he had not seen. He constantly watched television at home. Once, Rikhard [Vasmi] and I went to see Shalya. He said he wanted to watch a film. His TV set was quite old. To turn it on you had to twist this screw and then, finally, the screen would light up. But that was it: you could not distract him with conversation of any kind after that.

Shalya lived on the third floor on Ordinarnaya. His window overlooked a street with a movie theater nearby. He was always watching passersby from the window, memorizing them, immediately pouring out his impressions on paper, and then tossing these fantastic drawings under the table, where they would intermingle with half-eaten bowls of porridge. He produced his masterpieces amidst this muddle, amidst dirty duds, leftover food, and cigarette butts. Any of these pieces would be the pride of the most prestigious museum. It was his drawing Feast that wound up on the frontispiece of the album The Arefiev Circle (Saint Petersburg: Avangard na Neve, 2002). It is absolutely stunning.

shvarts-ballad of little tug boat
Sholom Shvarts, Sketch for an illustrated edition of Joseph Brodsky’s poem “Ballad of the Little Tugboat,” 1989-1990. Colored pencil on paper. Collection of Dmitry Shagin

Shalya was the only fellow in our circle who adored Lenin. We all were anti-Soviets, but he felt Lenin had done many good things. Ordinarily, this way of thinking would have been off-putting, but art always mattered the most to Shalya, and so we figured that if he liked Lenin, then so be it.

If you talk about drawings, then of course Shalya would have to be ranked in first place among us.

Excerpted from Sholom Shvarts: Paintings and Drawings (exhibition catalogue), ed. Irina Kogan, Saint Petersburg: K Gallery, 2015. Excerpt translated by the Russian ReaderK Gallery’s posthumous retrospective of work by Sholom Shvarts (1929–1995) runs from October 8 to October 31, 2015, at Fontanka River Embankment, 24, in Petersburg. Images courtesy of paldenlenka.livejournal.com, parizhskoye kafe, and K Gallery’s VKontakte page.