Soldiers Who Refused to Go to Donbass Sentenced to Prison

Maykop Contract Soldiers Who Refused to Go to Donbass Sentenced to Prison
Yevgeny Titov
October 13, 2015
Novaya Gazeta

Contract solders from Military Unit No. 22179, located in Maykop, have been sentenced to prison terms. Anatoly Kudrin has been sentenced to six months in an open penal settlement, while Alexander Yevenko, Ivan Shevkunov, Alexander Yenenko, and Pavel Tynchenko received one year each. Alexander Yenenko, who communicated most actively with the press, got the longest sentence [sic].

“It is disgusting,” says Svetlana Kimnatnaya, Ivan Shevkunov’s mother. “All the character references were positive, tons of peoples vouched for my son, and many people from the unit supported him. We had been hoping for probation.”

In autumn 2014, soldiers from Military Unit No. 22179 in Maykop were transferred to the Kadamovsky Firing Range in Rostov Region [eighty kilometers from the Ukrainian border]. Subsequently, contract soldiers left the range in large numbers. Many filed letters of resignation, which were not given due consideration by the unit’s commanding officers. The contract soldiers complained of poor living conditions and feared they would be sent to fight in Ukraine.

Regarding the conditions of their military service, the contract soldiers said they had been forced to sleep on boards, and there had often been no electricity and proper food. The topic of Ukraine had surfaced because separatists from the Donetsk People’s Republic were encamped near the Kadamovsky Firing Range. According to the soldiers’ parents, the separatists had agitated among the soldiers, offering them money to go fight in Donbass.

Subsequently, a group of soldiers was charged under Article 337.4 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code (absence without leave for over a month). It later transpired that among other things they had not been paid the money due to them for temporary duty travel. One of the men, Alexander Yevenko, a veteran of the conflict in Chechnya, was ultimately paid thirty thousand rubles.

Alexander Yevenko
Alexander Yevenko

During the course of the investigation, another soldier, Alexander Yenenko, repeatedly informed Novaya Gazeta about illegal investigative methods, the use of psychological coercion, and threats. To verify this information, Novaya Gazeta sent a request to the Chief Military Investigation Department of the Russian Federal Investigative Committee. According to their reply, they cannot comment on the matter.

Alexander Yanenko
Alexander Yanenko

Alexander Yevenko (not to be confused with Alexander Yenenko) has said he intends to appeal the decision of the Maykop Garrison Military Court. The appeals hearing in his case will take place October 22 in the North Caucasus District Military Court in Rostov-on-Don.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos by Yevgeny Titov. See his previous article on this conflict, “Why Are Maykop Contract Soldiers Resigning?” from the July 15, 2015, issue of Novaya Gazeta (in Russian). See also “Prison terms for Russian contract soldiers who refused to fight in Donbas,” Belsat TV, October 14, 2015 (in English).

How Russia Treats “Compatriots”: The Case of Tatyana Kotlyar

A residence permit on Lermontov Street: why a human rights activist from Obninsk violates the laws of the Russian Federation
Julia Vishnevetskaya
October 3, 2015
Deutsche Welle

Human rights activist Tatyana Kotlyar, who has registered over a thousand immigrants at her home, is on trial in Obninsk. DW got to the bottom of the case.

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Human rights activist Tatyana Kotlyar

The latest hearing in the case of human rights activist Tatyana Kotlyar, on Friday, October 2, at the Obninsk Magistrate Court, began with a surprise. It transpired that the judge hearing the case had resigned a mere two days earlier.

“I wonder if there is an article in Criminal Code for causing a judge to resign?” joked defense counsel Illarion Vasilyev.

He does not rule out that the resignation was connected to the Kotlyar case. Earlier, 43-year-old Judge Svetlana Baykova sent the case back to the prosecutor’s office because new circumstances had come to light: the list of immigrants the defendant had been accused of having registered in her “rubber” flat had changed. Along with the new circumstances has come a new judge, Dmitry Trifonov. Now everything has to begin again, complains Vasilyev, although, during the previous phase, examination of the witnesses alone lasted two months. Since none of the witnesses was present at the October 2 session, a substantive consideration of the case was postponed until October 12.

The substance of the case
Former Obninsk City Assembly deputy Tatyana Kotlyar does not deny that she has registered over a thousand people in her three-room flat on Lermontov Street. She registered them deliberately and made no secret of the fact, even mentioning it in an open letter to President Putin. Former residents of such different countries as Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Tajikistan, Germany, Israel, and even Brazil are registered in Kotlyar’s flat.

“There were Old Believers from Brazil, who had decided to return to Russia seventy years later,” recounts Kotlyar. “They sold everything  and left. When they showed up on my  doorstep in their old-fashioned caftans, I thought a folk music ensemble had arrived. Now they have received land in rural areas, they have received Russian passports, and they are fine.”

Most of Kotlyar’s wards arrived in Russia under the state program for the resettlement of compatriots. In operation since 2006, the program involves a simplified procedure for obtaining Russian citizenship for people “brought up in the traditions of Russian culture, [and who] speak Russian and do not wish to lose touch with Russia.” Kaluga Region is one of the regions participating in the program. In these regions, new residents of the Russian Federation are supposed to get full support from the state, including assistance finding employment and even relocation expenses.

“But no one warned them that the first thing they would need to do would be to register themselves at their place of residence,” complains Kotlyar. “Without registration [propiska] it is impossible to draw up documents, send children to school, and register for care at a local health clinic.”

“She didn’t take a kopeck from us”
This was the problem faced by Diana Tigranyan, who moved with her family from Yerevan to Obninsk.

“At the Russian consulate in Armenia they promised us mountains of gold! No one said we would need a residence permit,” recounts Tigranyan. “But here it turned that the owners of the flat we rented were afraid to register strangers. There are firms that charge 15,000 rubles a person for this service. But I have a husband, parents, and two children. Where would I get this money?”

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Diana Tigranyan and family

It was not just anyone who advised Tigranyan to turn to Kotlyar, but the Federal Migration Service itself.

“The female employee who was processing my documents said, ‘I cannot help you in any way, but out in the hallway there is a woman. Try approaching her.'”

At first, Tigranyan thought Kotlyar also made money from residence permits.

“I offered her money, and she turned it down. When we told about this in court, no one believed it. But she really is a saint. She didn’t take a kopeck from us.”

Criminal case
Tatyana Kotlyar became an offender on January 1, 2014, when the so-called law on rubber flats came into force. It makes registering a person somewhere other than their place of residence a criminal offense. Criminal charges were filed in March 2014. Kotlyar was charged under Article 322.2 of the Criminal Code (“Fictitious residence registration of foreign citizens in residential accommodation in the Russian Federation”) and Article 322.3 (“Fictitious local registration of a foreign citizen in residential accommodation in the Russian Federation”). Interestingly, on the list of twelve names entered into evidence by the prosecution, there are two people whom Kotlyar has never seen herself.

“Apparently, some woman at the passport office or post office who handles registration knew about my flat and just registered some more people there, for money or as a favor.”

In recent months, Kotlyar has registered several hundred Ukrainian citizens.

“They come to see me every day. They include both refugees from hot spots and men from other regions who are threatened with being drafted into the army in Ukraine. The Russian government has promised to help, but ultimately these people face the same problem as all immigrants.”

Kotlyar is certain that the law on rubber flats violates human rights.

“This did not happen even under Stalin. Then they sentenced people to camps for residing without a passport or residence permit, but at least they didn’t punish the landlord.”

According to Kotlyar, the government is trying to fight the effect rather than the cause.

“Where there is demand, there will always be supply. The problem is not rubber flats, but the very institution of the residence permit. It should be a matter of simple notification, and its presence or absence should in no way affect the provision of civil rights.”

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Illarion Vasilyev, Tatyana Kotlyar’s defense attorney

She helped solved the crime
Illarion Vasilyev, Kotlyar’s attorney, understands that the human rights activist has deliberately put herself in the way of the new law to draw attention to the problem.

“Yes, it’s her civic stance. She knows she will be held liable, and she has issued a challenge,” says Vasilyev in an interview with DW. “Has she harmed anyone? Yes, she probably has. The service of legalizing compatriots costs a lot of money, and Kotlyar constitutes competition for the firms that make money on this. But the people who are questioned as prosecution witnesses at the trial bow at her feet and say thank you.”

Article 322.2 of the Criminal Code stipulates a fine of 100,000 to 500,000 rubles or imprisonment for up to three years for fictitious registration. The article, however, contains an important proviso.

“A person who commits an offense under this article shall be exempt from criminal liability if he helped solve the crime and if his actions do not constitute another crime.”

According to Vasilyev, no one has helped solve the crime as much as Kotlyar herself has.

Translated by the Russian Reader

No Assembly Required (Alexei Etmanov on the Russian Car Industry)

Semi Knockdown Disassembly
Why are Russian automotive giants dreaming of shrinking?
Irina Smirnova | Leningrad Region
October 9, 2015
Trud

Employees leave the AvtoVAZ factory in Togliatti, Russia, on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2009. Photographer: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/Bloomberg
Employees leave the AvtoVAZ factory in Togliatti, Russia, on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2009. Photographer: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/Bloomberg

 An independent workers union has held a rally protesting layoffs at AvtoVAZ, which is planning to cut 15,000 of its 49,000 workers in the near future. No one has officially voiced these figures, but trade unionists managed to sneak a peak at the lists of “superfluous” people. Layoffs are also anticipated at two subsidiaries, AvtoVAZagregat and Volga Machinery Plant (VMZ). Until recently, 2,000 people were employed at the first plant, which is a major supplier of car seats. Now the plant is undergoing bankruptcy proceedings, and its workers have not been paid for three months. The prosecutor’s office has filed 800 lawsuits to recover back pay, and activists at the plant have gone on hunger strike, but what is the point?

AvtoVAZ had conducted mass layoffs last year. 12,000 people left the company then. AvtoVAZ’s president, Bo Andersson, claimed the company was not planning mass layoffs of workers in 2015, but would part only with 1,100 apparatchiks. But workers anticipate a new round of layoffs, and trade union activist Vyacheslav Shepelyov has been fired for taking part in the hunger strike.

AvtoVAZ is not simply a big factory, but an indicator of the situation in Russian industry. Strategic decisions regarding the auto-manufacturing giant are made at the government level. And here, it seems, a social explosion is brewing.

“Who told you about an explosion? Those are tall tales!” says Alexei Etmanov, chair of the Interregional Trade Union Workers Association (ITUWA) and a deputy in the Leningrad Regional Legislative Assembly.

Alexander Etmanov
Alexander Etmanov

As always, Etmanov does not mince his words.

“A thousand people came out and made a little racket, and what of it? Hunger strikes? Even if everyone starves to death, people will still get laid off. They have got used to spoon-feeding a toothless trade union, so now they can take it on the chin.”

Etmanov believes that AvtoVAZ inevitably faces a restructuring under which its non-core assets will be cut loose. But layoffs can and should be resisted.

“Look at Air France. The company management there was nearly torn to shreds: they had to run to escape from enraged employees. As a result, management came to the opinion that layoffs might not be so inevitable, that they were negotiable. But management grows fat on our problems in Russia. AvtoVAZ employees are not even willing to join a [militant] trade union. How will they defend themselves? The people gobble up anything the boss brings them in his beak.”

But isn’t AvtoVAZ part of your trade union?

“They are an entire eighty ITUWA members among a workforce of 49,000. We are not a mass force there capable of protecting workers. The workers will not be able to achieve anything for themselves within the official trade union. Alas! They will go to work as janitors, leave the country for a better life or drink themselves to death. Our people have no experience of fighting for their own interests. They are intimidated and broken. I blame myself as well. I have done little to ensure that working people show more solidarity. That is our main concern: to teach them solidarity. We live under the harshest capitalism, and it is simply naïve to expect mercy from above.”

Although, as Etmanov stresses, protesting is not the only way to fight for jobs.

“For example, the government of Leningrad Region has passed a law reducing Ford’s property tax by 50%, which amounts to 160 million rubles. For a small plant, that is substantial assistance. The federal government, of course, has greater means of this kind than local authorities. The ITUWA is preparing a package of measures to save the Russian car industry, measures that were applied in Brazil, Germany, and other countries during the 2008 crisis. Although certain State Duma deputies shout, ‘Why help American automotive giants?’ They don’t understand that [companies like Ford and Nissan] have long become part of the Russian automotive industry. The plants pay taxes in the Russian Federation, and our people work there.”

But after the collapse of the ruble aren’t Russian-made cars more competitive? They are now cheaper than their foreign counterparts.

“In fact, they are not cheaper,” objects Etmanov. “The difference in the currency exchange rate devoured the entire profit margin, since AvtoVAZ imports most of its parts from abroad because Russian suppliers cannot provide the high-quality product that a normal car industry needs. Car production in Russia is unprofitable; there is no margin. And the question of the day is whether there are enough of these companies that adhere to quality standards and do not want to manufacture bad cars. Now they are working at a loss.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Images courtesy of the Moscow Times and Soviet Russia Today

Base?

pensions
Russia’s old-age pensioners: menace to Russian liberal democracy?

Slava Rabinovich
October 2, 2015
Facebook
#‎ConcreteWall‬

Inflation: 14-17% in rubles.

Consumer basket inflation: 25-70% in rubles (depending on the specific consumer basket).

Currency devaluation:  50%. The value of foreign currency has risen 100%.

The government has decided to index pensions for inflation only by 4% in 2016.

Pensioners vote for Putin.

Putin has stoked and burnt their money in Crimea, Donbass, and Syria, and on an insane military and security services budget, and has stolen trillions right from the same budget.

Pensioners vote for Putin.

Putin has lucked out with pensioners.

________

And yet a little over ten years ago, it was the old-age pensioners (rather than portfolio investors like Mr. Rabinovich or the “rising middle class”) who mounted the first serious, massive grassroots challenge to Putin’s policies and his rule. 

Maybe the old-age pensioners have gone silent now and no longer want to mount such challenges to Putin’s rule. But it is quite amazing to observe so many able-bodied and mentally competent folks in the prime of their life engaged in casting around for whole (mostly imaginary, mostly disempowered, mostly lower) classes of people to blame for Russia’s slide into totalitarianism lite. What sense does it make to say that any whole class of people “votes” for Putin and constitutes his “base,” when we know that elections in Russia are rigged six  ways to Sunday? 

This is not say that Russia’s old-age pensioners shouldn’t be distressed by their deteriorating economic fortunes, as reflected in the distressing and real figures cited by Mr. Rabinovich, above, but the search for the “rubes” who have buttressed Putin’s rise to minor godhood should start with the classes of Russians who have really benefited from his rule. It has most signally not been the mass of old-age pensioners who have made out like bandits, although they may be more vulnerable, in some instances, to Putin’s propaganda machine and, at the local level, to the blandishments offered by the United Russia electoral machine.

If anything, my own (albeit limited) experience of grassroots protest campaigns in Petrograd has shown me that, more often than not, retirees and oldsters do more than their fair share of shouting, tussling, and scrapping with the powers that be.

But it must be nice for Russia’s worldly and well-heeled urban hipsters, thirty- and fortysomethings, and go-getters (whose brains, again in my limited experience, are no less addled by the popular prejudices of the Putin era, and whose bodies are no less averse to putting themselves in harm’s way) to imagine that Putin’s “base” is made up of old-age pensioners, the chronically poor, blue-collar workers, and residents of the Russian hinterlands.

__________

Putin Reforms Greeted by Street Protests
Steven Lee Meyers
January 16, 2005
New York Times

KHIMKI, Russia, Jan. 15 – Mikhail I. Yermakov, a retired engineer, has never before taken to the streets to protest — not when the Soviet Union collapsed, the wars in Chechnya began, the ruble plummeted in 1998 or President Vladimir V. Putin last year ended his right to choose his governor.

On Saturday, however, he joined hundreds of others in the central square of this gritty industrial city on the edge of Moscow in the latest of a weeklong wave of protests across Russia against a new law abolishing a wide range of social benefits for the country’s 32 million pensioners, veterans and people with disabilities.

Demonstrations were held in at least three other cities in the Moscow region, in the capital of Tatarstan and, for the fourth straight day, in Samara in central Russia. In St. Petersburg, several thousand demonstrators blocked the city’s main boulevard, with some calling for Mr. Putin’s resignation.

Taken together, the protests are the largest and most passionate since Mr. Putin came to power in 2000. They appear to have tapped into latent discontent with Mr. Putin’s government and the party that dominates Parliament, United Russia.

“It is spontaneous, and this is the most dangerous thing for the authorities,” said Mr. Yermakov, 67, as speakers denounced the government from a step beneath a hulking bust of Lenin. “It is a tsunami, and United Russia does not understand that it is going to hit them.”

The law, which took effect on Jan. 1, replaced benefits like free public transportation and subsidies for housing, prescriptions, telephones and other basic services with monthly cash payments starting at a little more than $7.

In a sign of bureaucratic inefficiency, some of those eligible have yet to receive any payments.

Mr. Putin and United Russia’s leaders have defended the law as an important reform ending a vestige of the old Soviet Communist system, but they clearly failed to anticipate the depth of opposition from those who relied most on the subsidies: millions of Russians living on pensions of less than $100 a month.

The protesters have denounced the payments as insufficient to cover the cost of the benefits and as miserly for a country that recently reported a budget surplus of nearly $25 billion.

As the protests unfolded in city after city across Russia, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Aleksei II, who typically allies himself with what is known here as “the party of power,” questioned the law and the government’s handling of it.

“What counts is that this policy should be fair and effective,” he said in a statement on Thursday. “It should be met with understanding by the people. The latest events show that these principles are not observed in full.”

Aleksei P. Kondaurov, a Communist member of the lower house of Parliament, said the law and the protests underscored the shortcomings of the political system that had evolved under Mr. Putin, one dominated by United Russia, which has refused to debate with opposition parties, let alone compromise with them.

“It was clear that it was not carefully calculated,” Mr. Kondaurov said of the new law in an interview.

Mr. Kondaurov predicted the protests would grow and spread to other pressing social issues, which he said Mr. Putin’s government and United Russia were ignoring.

At a minimum, the protests have raised doubts about Mr. Putin’s other proposed reforms, including those in banking, housing and electricity, which were supposed to be the centerpieces of his second term.

“It’s not going to be like Ukraine,” Mr. Kondaurov said, drawing a parallel, as some have here, to the far larger demonstrations that overturned the election there for president in November. “But it is clear to me that a political and economic crisis is taking shape in Russia.”

After first brushing off the protests, United Russia’s leaders have begun scrambling to respond. They have accused the Communists and other parties of inflaming tensions and have tried to deflect blame to regional governments, which they say are responsible for implementing the benefit changes.

Some local governments, most prominently the Moscow city administration, have vowed to reinstate the benefits stripped at the federal level, but few other regions are wealthy enough to afford to do so.

On Friday, the chairman of Parliament’s social and labor committee, Andrei N. Isayev, said that next week, lawmakers would consider raising pensions by 15 percent in February, rather than 5 percent in April, as now planned.

Others in United Russia have also tried to distance themselves from Mr. Putin’s new government, which has been in place for only 10 months. The deputy speaker of Parliament, Lyubov K. Sliska, said Friday that she did not rule out the dismissal of Prime Minister Mikhail Y. Fradkov and his cabinet.

But the protests have continued to grow. They began quietly, with a rally organized by the Communist Party in Solnechnogorsk, near Moscow, on Jan. 9, the 100th anniversary of the 1905 uprising.

A day later, here in Khimki, several hundred people briefly blocked the main highway to St. Petersburg in what several of those involved called a spontaneous uprising. After a scuffle with the police, 12 elderly protesters were arrested, but initial threats to prosecute them were quickly dropped.

Since then the protests have erupted in at least a dozen other cities, drawing thousands. In Tula, 110 miles south of Moscow, aging protesters clashed with bus conductors who refused to allow them to board city transport without paying, prompting the city to post police officers on the buses.

In Novosibirsk, in Siberia, a dozen pensioners mailed their cash payments for transit — the equivalent of a little more than $3 — to Boris V. Gryzlov, the leader of United Russia and parliamentary speaker, according to the Regnum news agency.

The protesters here in Khimki’s central square on Saturday represented those who have fared the worst in Russia’s post-Soviet transition.

Mr. Yermakov’s monthly pension equals roughly $85 a month. As a resident of the Moscow region, a separate administration from that of the city government, he qualified for a supplement of $7 to replace the subsidies lost under the new law. The bus fare for three trips to the small tract of land he is allowed for planting a vegetable garden, four miles away, will take nearly half that amount.

Vladilena T. Berova, whose given name is an homage to Vladimir Lenin, served at the end of World War II as a corporal in Soviet intelligence and went on to work as a psychotherapist for five decades in Moscow. Now 78 and widowed, she survives on 2,000 rubles a month, about $71.

“The fascists took my youth,” she said, referring to the war. “And now these people are taking away my old age.”

The protests have included something still rare in today’s Russia: personal criticism of Mr. Putin, who has remained popular by projecting an image of stability, one carefully protected by officials and state television.

“Instead of listening to us, he is listening to an organ,” Mr. Yermakov said, referring bitingly to Mr. Putin’s participation in the unveiling of a newly restored organ in St. Petersburg on Friday with Germany’s president, Horst Köhler.

The benefits law has already been credited, at least in part, with a slip in Mr. Putin’s ratings, as well as a general decline in the public’s mood.

A poll by the Levada Center, released on Saturday, said that only 39 percent of Russians considered Mr. Putin the most trusted politician. That is still higher than anyone else, but a drop from 58 percent a year ago.

Sergei Y. Glazyev, a member of Parliament who challenged Mr. Putin during the election for president last year, said in an interview that “the people’s struggle for social rights” should be decided in a national referendum, rather than imposed by the Kremlin and its governing party. Voters, he said, had been fooled.

“A majority of those who voted for Putin,” he said, “had a quiet different expectation of what they would get.”

Mr. Rabinovich’s Facebook post translated by the Russian Reader. Image, above, courtesy of the Moscow Times

Oleg Shevkun: “I Don’t Know How to Trim My Sails to the Wind”

“I Don’t Know How to Trim My Sails to the Wind”: The Head Editor of Radio Station for the Blind on His Dismissal for Speaking Out on Crimea
Darina Shevchenko
October 6, 2015
Yod

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Oleg Shevkun. Courtesy of his Facebook page

Oleg Shevkun, head editor of the online radio station of the All-Russia Society for the Blind (VOS), was fired after making comments on the air about the unlawfulness of incorporating Crimea.

“I think that, from the viewpoint of international law, the incorporation of Crimea was unlawful. And the countries that responded to it with sanctions are right. We got Crimea along with isolation from the rest of the world,” Shevkun said on the air.

The VOS confirmed to Yod that Shevkun had not worked since late September: he had resigned voluntarily. Shevkun, who is wholly visually impaired, told Yod about his firing and what he planned to do next.

Why did you start talking about the incorporation of Crimea on Radio VOS, which, according to its website, is engaged in “covering all aspects of the life, work, and adaptation of people with visual impairments”?

We have tried to stay away from politics on our radio station, but it turns out to be impossible. From September 14 to September 20, the VOS held a big festival entitled “Crimean Autumn.” The point of the festival was to gather the visually impaired people of Crimea and pass on the VOS’s know-how to them. Radio VOS was involved in the festival, and on the eve of the festival we got a question from a listener in Ukraine while we were on air: “Are you going to Crimea for reasons of conscience or because your job requires it?” I could have left the question unanswered, but I am used to speaking sincerely with people. I said that my conscience did not bother me, but that I considered the incorporation [prisoedinenie] unlawful from the viewpoint of international law, and was surprised how Crimea had become part of Russia. And that I was even more surprised that this idea had been supported by the residents of Crimea. Then I added that we were going to visit people who had supported this business, and we had something to offer them.

So you did not use the word annexation” [anneksiia]?

No, I think I answered the listener’s question politically correctly. The head editor had to voice his own position on Crimea. And this was what I did. I should note that no one who called into the studio during this program disputed the unlawfulness of Crimea’s incorporation into Russia. Listeners said, Well, what of it? America breaks the law, too. If it is going to be “Well, what of it?” then we will be living by the laws of the jungle. Mom taught me not to steal, the Bible says, “Thou shalt not steal,” and in contentious situations you have to negotiate.

What happened after this broadcast?

At the festival in Crimea, one of the participants asked Alexander Neumyvakin, the president of the VOS, why management was not monitoring the content of programs on Radio VOS. Neumyvakin said there are different opinions, but the program was soon deleted from the archive. Vladimir Bazhenov, director general of the VOS cultural and sports rehabilitation complex, told me I would be fired after the festival.

How did he explain this decision?

The radio station survives on subsidies from the state. If the higher-ups find out we have been criticizing Crimea’s incorporation, blind people will end up out of work and without rehabilitation.

Do you think he was expressing his own fears or did he get a signal from higher up?

Bazhenov told me the Ministry of Foreign Affairs knew about what I had said about Crimea. But I think he was playing it safe. During the following program [at the festival], the blind people of Crimea said they had been shocked by what the head editor of Radio VOS had said, and had welcomed the “little green men” like family. In the evening, at the banquet celebrating the end of the festival, after one of the toasts it was announced that among us there was a certain person . . . Basically, he no longer worked at Radio VOS. And they called my name. I was asked to publicly renounce my beliefs; then, maybe, I could keep my job. I refused to refute my personal opinion. Bazhenov  replied that, if that was the case, I should either resign voluntarily or they would fire me for cause and I would never be able to get a job again. I was not allowed to host my programs, for example, a talk show about new technologies for visually impaired people. We took second place with this talk show at a competition for radio programs in the Central Federal District.  I used to think that such situations happened only in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s books.

How did your colleagues react to your dismissal? Did they try and defend you?

My colleagues were told I had said on air that Crimea had been annexed, although this was not the case. There was a co-presenter with her own position and two listeners on the program in which we discussed Crimea. Everyone voiced different opinions, as should be the case when an important topic is discussed. The management objected: what had been acceptable two years was now impossible, and I should have sensed which way the wind was blowing.

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Oleg Shevkun on the air at Radio VOS. Courtesy of his Facebook page

What did you say?

I don’t know how to trim my sails to the wind. If I follow the wind all the time, what will be left of me?

Had you made any political statements on the air earlier?

When Russia’s isolation from the world began, we did the program “Navigator,” about the lives of blind people around the world, and we established a partnership with a radio station for blind people in Great Britain. We did a big interview with Seva Novgorodsev and Dina Rubina. We have tried to remain open despite the trends in society. We did programs with blind Ukrainian people, and they talked about what had changed for the better for them after the change of regime. “Crimea is ours” [Krymnash] was also in our programs. For example, I did an interview with Sergei Aksyonov, the head of Crimea.

Have you found a job yet?

I am still looking, but I am confident there will be work, despite all the complications. After my firing, a nasty text about me, entitled “Anatomy of Freedom” (by analogy, apparently, with “Anatomy of a Protest”), was leaked onto forums and social media.  It explains to our listeners that I am an “American sectarian” and that I have “American curators.”

Why was it necessary to write and distribute a text like that?

After my firing, listeners were outraged and asked questions. The text explained to them who I was.

The text also says that “under your leadership, Radio VOS really became a ‘ray of light’ for many blind people.” Tell us how you got the job of head editor at Radio VOS and what you accomplished during your time in the post.

I was a pastor in the Evangelical Church, taught, and always dreamed of working on the radio. In 2011, VOS Radio was founded, and I began doing a show there on technologies for the blind. The ratings went up. In 2013, I was offered the job of head editor.  Under my leadership, the team managed to increase our listenership by several times. We have a great team consisting of ten professionals, both sighted and visually impaired people. I am certain they will go on working at a high level. We have won prizes at different festivals where such famous radio stations as Echo of Moscow and Radio Russia were involved.  Many new programs have come on the air, for example, a program about how blind people can solve everyday problems. On the show “Student Council,” students talked about how blind people should behave in a university cafeteria and adapt to life in a dormitory. We broadcast music by visually impaired musicians. It was very important to us to establish a dialogue with our listeners. For example, blind people sit at home and need to break out of this isolation.

The presenters give them the opportunity to call on the air; they guide them through the discussion, support them, and inspire them. For example, a man calls on the air and says he hesitates to use a white cane. The presenter asks him which is more shameful, to go out carrying a white cane or stay put at home. The man finally agrees  he should get out of the house.

Or, for example, we had a blind man from Yekaterinburg, Oleg Kolpashchikov, who sails, on the air. He and his crew of blind people have traveled nearly around the world. Kolpashchikov talked about what it had been like when he lost his sight. He is even glad to be blind now, because it is disgusting to have to look at some people’s faces. He said all this in a pleasant bass voice, calmly, easily, positively. Maybe he said it crudely, but such words give confidence to people who have recently gone blind.

So you almost never discussed sociopolitical topics on the air?

Very rarely.

Do you regret you expressed your opinion about the incorporation of Crimea and lost your beloved job?

The director general said he had not been happy with my political position for a long time. I did not hide my political views. For example, I came to work wearing a “I am praying for Ukraine” ribbon. My dismissal was a matter of time. I grew up on Radio Svoboda and Echo of Moscow, and cannot quickly cave in to a fickle world.

Base

rds-pensioner-banner
“You, Grandpa, are still not old. / You’ll live without indexation. / It’s not the same for our friend Assad / Who can’t live sans our aviation.” Courtesy of Ivan Ovsyannikov and the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD)

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State Duma Rejects Indexation for Working Pensioners
October 9, 2015
Lenta.Ru

Photo: Alexander Kozhokhin/RIA Novosti

The pensions of working pensioners will not be indexed for inflation. Olga Batalina, head of the State Duma’s Committee on Labor, Social Policy and Veterans Affairs, made the announcement on Twitter.

batalina
“Despite the Finance Ministry’s ideas, the pension will be preserved for all working pensioners, but will not be indexed [while they are still working]. You quit work, indexation kicks in again.”

She noted that all working pensioners would continue to receive payments, but the payments would not be raised while they are employed.

“You quit work, indexation kicks in again,” added Batalina.

Earlier, on October 9, she announced that the government had to decided index pensions twice in 2016. Batalina explained this would be done so that pensions would increase to the level of inflation for 2015.

On October 8, however, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov noted that the possibility of a second indexation next year would depend on the Russian economy’s growth.

On the same day, the government approved the draft budget for 2016. It is expected that revenues will reach 13.58 trillion rubles, expenditures, 15.76 trillion. The deficit is projected at 2.8 percent of GDP (2.18 trillion rubles).

A part of the treasury’s expenditures will be covered by a freeze on pension savings. Another cost-saving measure is reducing the indexation of pensions (to 4 percent at an expected inflation rate of 12 percent). Moreover, the idea of terminating pension payments to working pensioners was considered.

Translated by the Russian Reader

_________

Balancing Russia’s Budget Could Cost Pensioners $46 Billion
Anastasia Bazenkova
June 24, 2015
The Moscow Times

Russia’s roughly 40 million pensioners receive on average 12,900 rubles ($240) in state pension payouts. Photo: Denis Abramov/Vedomosti

Russia’s economic crisis is forcing the government to consider sweeping savings on pension payouts, a move that could go down badly with a core part of President Vladimir Putin’s electorate.

The Finance Ministry this week floated a proposal to save more than 2.5 trillion rubles ($46 billion) over three years by raising pensions at less than the rate of inflation.

The measure comes as the ministry struggles to slash spending amid an economic recession that is eroding budget revenues.

A steep devaluation of the ruble has meant that prices have grown much faster over the past year than salaries, and since payroll taxes are the main source of income for the pension system, the Finance Ministry has said continuation of inflation-linked pensions could threaten the country’s state-run pension fund.

In May, average nominal incomes were 7.3 percent higher than in May 2014, while prices were on average 15.8 percent higher, according to the Rosstat state statistics service.

“If the income of the fund continues to grow slower than its payouts, it could break the entire pension system,” the Vedomosti newspaper quoted Deputy Finance Minister Maxim Oreshkin as saying last month.

The government is already subsidizing a 3.3 trillion ruble ($60 billion) hole in the pension fund, said Pavel Kudyukin, an associate professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

“This is no longer affordable for the state,” he said.

Pre-Crisis Thinking

According to documents for a government meeting on Monday obtained by news agency RBC this week, the Finance Ministry has drawn up plans to curb planned pensions increases from 7 percent to 5.5 percent in 2016; from 6.3 percent to 4.5 percent in 2017 and from 5.1 percent to 4 percent in 2018.

That means that payments will be increased not in the line with the actual inflation, which is expected to fall back into single digits early next year, but according to inflation forecasts made in early 2014, before Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis and a sharp decline in global oil prices pushed Russia’s economy into recession. Russian GDP is expected to shrink by around 3 percent this year.

These changes, together with cuts to some other undisclosed social spending items, would save around 2.5 trillion rubles over 2016-2018, RBC reported, citing the Finance Ministry documents.

The government has said no decision has yet been taken.

The changes may require changes to legislation, which requires that Russian pensions are indexed twice a year in line with inflation.

Political Consequences?
Spending on pensions has risen rapidly in recent years as President Putin has sought to use booming oil revenues to raise living standards of pensioners and low-paid state employees.

Pensions were raised even in 2009, during Russia’s last economic crisis, Kudyukin said.

Russia’s roughly 40 million pensioners receive on average 12,900 rubles ($240) in state pension payouts, according to the data from Russia’s pension fund.

The Finance Ministry’s proposal to abandon the link between pensions and inflation aroused sharp criticism from other ministries.

Maxim Topilin, the labor minister, demanded that money be found for the indexation of pensions for next year and the following years and for an analysis of the effectiveness of spending, news agency RIA Novosti reported Tuesday.

Analysts polled by the Moscow Times doubted that the measure would be implemented, as pensioners provide a bedrock of support for President Putin ahead of planned elections in 2018.

“Pensioners are the current government’s main electoral support,”said Pavel Salin, head of the political science center at the Financial University. “The authorities will not reduce pension payments on the eve of the election period.”

Unwillingness to alienate voters is why another Finance Ministry proposal, to cut government expenses by increasing the retirement age of civil servants from 60 to 65 years, has little chance of approval, analysts said.

Hiking the retirement age has been on the agenda for several years — the idea has been repeatedly promoted by former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin — but has never gained traction.

But even if the Finance Ministry succeeds in making savings on pensions, any discontent would not lead to dramatic political consequences, experts said.

The move could cost Putin a few percentage points off his rating, but not dozens, Salin said.

Putin could afford that — the president’s approval rating is at a record high of 89 percent, according to a poll by the Levada Center released Wednesday.

Given the political apathy of Russians and a surge in patriotic feeling that followed Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from last year, people will bear less generous pensions, Kudyukin said.

“The question is, for how long will they bear them?” he added.

“I Broke All the Laws I Could” (Leonid Nikolayev, 1984-2015)

“I Broke All the Laws I Could”
Juliana Lizer
October 2, 2015
Takiedela.ru

Leonid Nikolayev, the legendary activist Crazy Lyonya from the radical art group Voina, was buried this week. Juliana Lizer reports about a man who gave up the routine of office work for the life of an underground revolutionary.

leonid nikolayev
Leonid Nikolayev

We Don’t Need a Chairman
Leonid Nikolayev grew up in a bedroom district in Moscow beyond the Moscow Ring Road, a place dotted with identical, shabby blocks of flats built in the eighties and nineties, skinny trees in vast, empty yards, rows of shell-like garages scribbled with blue and black markers, kiosks offering beer and chocolate bars in the most unexpected spots, and a market, the main source of produce and clothing. The entertainment and cultural offerings were minimal. It was half an hour by bus to the two nearest cinemas, which featured standard Russian and Hollywood fare. There were two cafés in the entire neighborhood. A McDonald’s, built in the early noughties, was a universal boon and a new place to hang out besides the stairwells, yards, and the plastic-bottle-and-bag-littered woods.

According to Nikolayev’s mother Svetlana, the range of his interests was defined in the upper classes at school: the hard sciences and history. So, after graduating, he enrolled in the Moscow Institute of Fine Chemical Technology. At first, he was very passionate about his studies. He was at the top of his class, and pursued good grades.

“I majored in materials science and even worked for a year in a nanotechnology-related field, at a research institute. I was very much impressed when there was talk of allocating money for developing nanotechnologies, and researchers in all fields thought about how to squeeze the word ‘nano’ into their research, because that was the only way to get funding,” Nikolayev told journalists.

Nikolayev lost interest in his studies while doing his master’s degree. He became bored. After some thought, he went to work on a construction site, then got a job at a private holiday resort in the Moscow Region. He shoveled snow, supervised equipment repair, helped with household chores, and chatted with the holidaymakers. After a while, this “sensible” fellow was noticed and invited to try himself in a new role. Nikolayev began successfully selling sauna stoves.

In September 2008, Nikolayev went to his first protest rally, 100 Pickets in Defense of 2×2.

The Prosecutor General’s Office had found “signs of extremism” in several programs broadcast on the Russian cartoon channel 2×2. The channel had received a warning and was threatened with having its broadcasting license revoked.

“I really liked the way the people who did this chose to defend [the channel],” recalled Nikolayev.

“One hundred or so picketers lined both sides of Tverskaya holding different placards. Lyonya stood next to the monument to Yuri Dolgorukiy. He was quite self-confident. He fought off the cops ably and correctly: he had carefully listened to the instructions we gave before the rally. He had a cool placard on a wooden base he had made himself. It was obvious right off the bat he was an office worker. He was dressed like one and was carrying a briefcase,” recounted Julia Bashinova, a co-organizer of the rally.

After the rally, Nikolayev decided to join the movement We (My), which had been organized in the wake of the euphoria generated by Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. As his comrades remembered, Nikolayev found out about the movement when he saw the absurdist protest action Send the Leaders to the Mausoleum, in which activists had rallied for construction of a double mausoleum for Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, chanting slogans such as “Riot police in every home,” “All power to the Chekists,” and “Putin lived, Putin lives, Putin will live.” They also sang the Soviet national anthem, inserting “Putin,” “Putinism,” and “Putin’s party” in the appropriate places.

“Lyonya came himself to the movement. He signed up and came to our meeting. He said, ‘When I saw a protest action happening in this way, I immediately realized this was for me.’ I thought then that here is this simple fellow who sells sauna ovens and has no idea what he has got himself into. Soon, however, he was one of the movement’s most active and productive members,” recalled We founder Roman Dobrokhotov.

Along with We, Nikolayev was actively involved in organizing the Solidarity movement, where he fought against leaderism, as well as for the movement’s compliance with its own principles.

“In 2009, when the entire We movement joined Solidarity, and the issue of a single chairman was raised, Lyonya drew a placard featuring the slogan ‘We don’t need a chairman,” and we chanted this slogan. You would think it was a lot of fuss about nothing, but Lyonya took democracy very seriously. Within the movement, he always reconciled everyone and acted as an arbiter,” said journalist and former activist Alexander Artemyev.

In the late noughties, Nikolayev probably lived the same way as the majority of those who took to the streets in 2011–2012 with white ribbons. On weekdays, he woke up at the same time, went to the office, had lunch, left the office, met with comrades, and attended rallies and pickets.

“Lyonya himself told me that the boring life of a stove salesman did not suit him, so he not only expressed his values in protesting but also was having fun to the max by being involved in the most audacious protest actions. The Voina group’s craziness attracted him,” recounted Dobrokhotov.

At that point, the art group, which included Oleg Vorotnikov (Vor), Natalia Sokol (Koza), Pyotr Verzilov, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and other members with the most unimaginable nicknames, was a huge success among the politicized public, primarily for the action Fuck for the Teddy Bear Heir! In an action dedicated to Putin’s designated successor Dmitry Medvedev, Voina activists had collectively copulated at the Biology Museum in Moscow.

Nikolayev met the founders of the controversial art group at a New Year’s party. It was 2010.

Our President
In 2010, the Blue Buckets movement emerged. Its members fought against the rudeness and total impunity of officials who sped through traffic with flashing lights on their roofs. Movement members wrote on their own cars that they yielded “only to 01, 02, and 03” [i.e., law enforcement and emergency vehicles], and they fastened little blue buckets, resembling flashing lights, to their roofs.

In late May 2010, a video quickly made the rounds of the media and social media showing a pedestrian in a red t-shirt and a blue bucket on his head deftly dashing atop the roof of a black car equipped with a flashing light. The scene is near the Kremlin Wall. A character in a suit jumps out of the car and tries to catch the bucket man. The bucket flies to the ground, only to reveal yet another, light blue bucket beneath it. The pedestrian in the red t-shirt runs out of the frame, followed by the suit in his car.

Voina claimed responsibility for the incident, and the name of the action’s hero was revealed: Crazy Lyonya Is Our President.

“I broke all the laws I could. I acted like a flashing light,” the newly minted president commented. It was then that Nikolayev got pinned with the obscene nickname Yobnutyi (“Crazy”).

“Certain castes have now taken shape in our society. Security officials and prosecutors have risen above other people. We see they can break the law, run people over with their cars, do whatever they want, violate traffic laws, and they are not punished for this in any way. […] I   just spoke to them on an equal footing,” Nikolayev explained to journalists.

From that moment, middle manager, liberal opposition activist, and frequent attendee of the Marches of Dissenters Leonid Nikolayev ceased to exist.

“Crazy [Lyonya] is a call to all the passive crazies in the country (of whom, we know, there are millions) to reexamine their stance and finally become active crazies,” Voina explained in an interview with the website Salt.

Nikolayev decided to leave Moscow with his new artist friends and gradually dropped off the radars of his old liberal friends.

“I was at a get-together right before their departure for Petersburg, on the veranda of some café on the Arbat, right after Lyonya was arrested for the flashing lights action, then released. Vor was saying then that Lyonya had to abandon his ‘normal life.’ Vor was persuading him fairly vigorously,” recalled ex-Voina activist Gray Violet.

In his own words, in Petersburg, Nikolayev turned his own life into a political statement.

“I no longer wake up in the morning to drive through traffic jams to get to the office. I sleep until noon in order to spend the night in the company of crazy friends rehearsing audacious actions. The things that used to be in the background—a trip on public transport, an outing to the store—have now, without money, turned into an adventure, into a quest you have to go through every day,” Nikolayev told the site BesTToday in an interview. “I have traded noisy, dusty Moscow for calm and beautiful Petersburg, and I am not just saying that.”

Hello, Right Ball
On the night of June 14, 2010, a sixty-five-meter-high penis, drawn in thick white lines on the roadway of the Liteiny Bridge, rose over the Neva, exactly opposite the windows of the so-called Big House, FSB headquarters in Saint Petersburg.

“After the action Dick Captured by the FSB, when Lyonya saved one of the female participants and spent the night at a police station, he became an example for us to follow, an example of self-sacrifice. After that night, we started doing this little thing: we greeted each other by saying, “Hello, Right Ball!” and “Hello, Left Ball!” Incidentally, there was a point to how we divided the balls. Despite the half year he had spent with Voina, who were totally extreme in their political views, Lyonya continued to consider himself a liberal. Well, and I got the anarchist left ball,” recalled Lyubov Belyatskaya, who was involved in the action.

Voina’s next action was Palace Coup. The activists overturned several police cars, and this cost Vorotnikov and Nikolayev their freedom. Some time after the action, both men were detained at a safe house in Moscow, transported to Petersburg, and locked up for three months in a remand prison.

In his own words, Nikolayev was treated quite tolerably in prison. The conditions were even insultingly pleasant: his cell was not overcrowded, there were no conflicts, the floor was wooden, the windows were double-glazed, and the staff was friendly. Nikolayev was bored in prison, but he regarded it as an interesting experience. He exercised, tried to help his cellmates, and asked friends to put vegetables and herbs in care packages.

“The convicts, the underworld, turned out to be quite pleasant, interesting people to talk to,” Nikolayev recalled after his release.

Vorotnikov and Nikolayev finally got out of prison on a cold evening in February 2011. Relatives, friends, and journalists had been waiting for them all outside the remand prison in minus twenty degree weather: prison staff could not manage to draw up the necessary release documents.

“Everyone thought that now we would go to someone’s house. But instead we drove to Palace Square, and they skated there on the ice and snow. The square was absolutely deserted. It was night and twenty degrees below zero. Some cops walked up. I told them, ‘Look, they just got out of prison. You had better leave.’ And they left,” remembered activist Elena Kostylyova.

“Our goal is winding people up, convincing them they should not be afraid of anything, that they should act. If they are not yet smashing up and changing everything, I think this will happen. I am ashamed to look at these conditions, at the way we live, at the regime in power in Russia. It is just shameful to put up with it,” Nikolayev explained Voina’s actions and his own actions.

Fame had come to Voina. The days passed in endless interviews, and people recognized the group’s members on the street. According to friends, Nikolayev was not happy about this. He was mainly silent, smiled or sat with a blank expression on his face.

“Voina hung out at my place for a long time, and at some point I got fucking annoyed with their posturing and irresponsibility. But Lyonya was completely different. I never associated with him the Voina crowd at all. He was super kind, super responsive, super calm, and unbelievably sincere, and my sense was they took advantage of this,” recalled leftist activist Leonid Gegen about Voina in Petersburg.

“In November 2011, he came home thin, bearded, shaggy, and dirty. I was terrified. But I knew it was useless to forbid him to do anything. He would have left all the same; only he would have stopped communicating with the family. He was very grateful I respected his choice. He really appreciated it,” recalled Nikolayev’s mother Svetlana.

They saw each other for the last time in the summer of 2012. Not wanting to expose them to danger, Nikolayev would communicate with his loved ones by Skype.

After the incident with the torched paddy wagon on New Year’s, a kind of holiday postcard to all political prisoners, Nikolayev disappeared from the media. The art group would continue for a time to roam from one safe house to another in Russia, but in the spring of 2013, several media reported Voina’s entire lineup now lived in Europe.

Whereas news about other group members periodically appeared in the press, Nikolayev vanished, and the most unbelievable rumors about him were soon circulating. According to one story, Nikolayev had received political asylum in Europe, settled down, and was leading the boring life of an emigrant.

Vasya
“Look, Vasya, you’re an electrician. What have you seen besides your wires? You have to wise up or get the heck out of this country,” confidently said the drunken landlord who had agreed to settle the modest thirty-year-old Vasily in his flat. He would live under the same roof with Vasya for a year and a half, but would learn his real name only from an obituary.

A year in Petersburg and a year and a half in Moscow under an assumed name, physical labor, and rare encounters with friends from his past life: Crazy Lyonya was now Vasya at crash pads, at work, and among his new acquaintances.

“I met him on Nevsky, in a crowd of people, and then several months later at a friend’s house, only I was surprised his name was Vasya. Well, Vasya was as good a name as any other, and I called him Vasya. The funniest thing was that I realized who he was only a little over a year ago, when I looked at Voina’s website. I saw a photo of him and understand why he was Vasya. Well, Semyon Semyonovich [the name of a central character in the popular 1969 Soviet comedy film The Diamond Arm], I thought,” recalled a female acquaintance of Nikolayev’s from Petersburg.

“I harshly criticized certain of his ideological kinks like rejecting money, shoplifting, and that sort of thing. For starters I got him a job as a helper with builder friends of mine. He quickly learned from them and within six months he was taking on his own jobs to earn money for himself and the revolution,” said an anonymous source.

“It’s groovy when you’re chatting with people who—”

“Who don’t know you who are?”

“Who don’t know who I am,” the newly minted Vasily told journalist Marina Akhmedova in an interview.

Photographer Julia Lisnyak recalled the particulars of that interview.

“He often ate anything whatsoever, and it was unclear where he lived, so Marina and I decided to go and feed him. We told him a little fib that we were famished and ordered a bunch of sushi, which he happily wolfed down. Marina asked, ‘Lyonya, where do you live? Where do you get clothes?’ He said, ‘Look, these shoes are hand-me-downs. You see what nice shoes they are? They’re the shoes of a dead linguist! Well, and what of it? The man died, and I was given his shoes. He was a linguist.’”

In December 2013, Nikolayev took a piece of cardboard, wrote “Moscow” on it, and went hitchhiking.

On January 6, 2014, he arrived at a flat recommended by a friend and asked, “Do I understand correctly that I can sleep here for two or three days?”

The tipsy director Nikolai, landlord of the potential crash pad, asked the new tenant to bring him two bottles of cranberry liqueur. The tenant coped with the task and would ultimately stay a long time.

“Somewhere after six months, I realized I was faced with a radical phenomenon, that this was not just some dude who had come to find a place to crash, but a man with a long-established destiny. I found out he was no Vasya, that he had not been telling me his real name,” recounted Nikolai.

In the summer of 2014, Nikolayev ran into Lena, a friend since his days with We, in Kamergersky Lane in Moscow.

“He was wearing a hoodie, had a bicycle, and was listening to street musicians. He told me he had been in Moscow several months, was in hiding, worked in construction, and his housemates knew him as Vasya. He used forged documents and could not meet with relatives and friends for fear he could be arrested. He asked me to call him Homeless Vasya instead of Crazy Lyonya.”

Lyonya-Vasya would also meet another old friend accidentally. He noticed her in a café and went up to say hello, asking she not say his name out loud.

“He had hipster glasses, a red beard, and a diamond-patterned sweater. I didn’t recognize him right away,” recounted Anastasia. “Later, he shaved his head and showed up in a black leather jacket. ‘Vasya! Where are your damned glasses? Put them on now, you look like yourself,” she remembered being later exasperated at Lyonya-Vasya’s next change of image.

“I spoke to him like Don Quixote to Sancho Panza. He was like my errand boy, in the literal sense of the word. He completely humbly and calmly accepted the job, like a White Army officer’s orderly. ‘Why is my underwear not washed? Where is the bread? Have you me bought me a subway pass or not? How am I going to travel tomorrow? By the way, go and buy me a sex doll: I need it for rehearsal.’ When I found out who he was, I flipped out. I had lorded it over one of the central figures of the radical anti-Putinist left, a star of the Russian counterculture, and made him run errands,” the director Nikolai confessed.

But it was probably Nikolai who helped Nikolayev get into the character of Vasya the electrician. The director had believed in this act to the last.

The hard work exhausted Nikolayev. He could be bothered in the middle of the night to unload a truck or dig a hole. However, Vasya the electrician was optimistic, followed the political situation closely, read a lot about science and art, and attended cultural events. Despite the difficulties and poverty, he was pleased with the fact that he was thin, pumped up, and had become tougher. He tried to eat healthy food, drank kefir, and cooked lentils. There was the most protein in them, he explained to everyone. As in Petersburg, he lived very ascetically. He slept on the floor, had no relations with women, and did not drink. This surprised his acquaintances, but they did not pester him with questions.

“If I had come in and saw him sleeping on a bed of nails like Rakhmetov [a revolutionary in Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is to Be Done?], I wouldn’t have been surprised. He became my tutor on political issues. He told me everything: how democracy in Russia differed from democracy in America, who the ultra-leftists and ultra-rightists were, how French communism differed from Russian communism, what mistakes Lenin and Stalin had made, what had happened in Paris in 1968, and who the Red Army Faction in Germany were. Later, I watched all the films about the RAF and found out that Fassbinder had done work on them. It was an amazing brainwashing,” said the director Nikolai admiringly.

Once, when Vasya was strolling in downtown Moscow with a female friend, the police asked him to show his documents.

“Young man, have you washed your passport or what?”

“Yeah, I washed it. Ha-ha!”

“Oh, I’m also from the Tula Region!”

“You’re kidding? What district you from?”

Vasya named a nonexistent district in the Tula Region, but the policeman who was “also from the Tula Region” did not notice this. According to Dmitry Dinze, Nikolayev’s lawyer, his client had not been on the wanted list.

“In 2012, they had been looking for him, but the investigator worked on the case in such a way it was clear he could have cared less about Leonid Nikolayev. But the case has not been closed, the statute of limitations has not yet run out.”

“He had the idea of creating his own underground. Although he admitted himself he would be unlikely to find ‘hotheads’ willing to be involved in bold, provocative actions, since a lot had changed since they had overturned the cop cars, and the dudes in prison for the Bolotnaya Square case had literally done nothing, but had got hefty sentences. He understood that there were really few risky actionists. ‘It is unreal even to find someone to act as lookout,’ Lyonya would say sadly. But he really wanted to whip up something big, to stage a sensational performance. He worried that nobody had heard anything about Voina for over three years. He joked about stealing a tank on May 9 [Victory Day] or setting fire to an FSB building,” said Lena.

In conversation, Nikolayev described his plan as grandiose and quite absurd.

“It will be really funny, unbelievably funny. But the cops and FSB guys will be royally angry!” he assured his listeners.

However, he kept postponing implementation of his plan. Too many people whom he had asked for help had turned him down, he was unable to find a photographer and cameraman, and he lacked money for props. It was this, according to an acquaintance who wished to remain anonymous, that had forced Nikolayev to go to work for the Beryozki Noncommercial Gardening Cooperative. He lacked exactly thirty thousand rubles for implementing his venture.

On the afternoon of September 22, Nikolayev was sawing branches from a felled tree. At the same time, a workmate set to cutting down another tree. The falling trunk struck Nikolayev on the back of the head. He suffered a basal skull fracture and brain swelling, and went into a coma. The documents in Nikolayev’s pockets were made out in someone else’s name, so it was not easy to figure out who exactly had been admitted to hospital, then sent to the morgue. According to the doctor, there was no chance he could have survived.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of e-flux. Check out the poignant photographs of Leonid Nikolayev by Julia Lisnyak, as published in the original article, and read about the other face of Takie Dela, its work as a charity foundation (in Russian).

Contemporary Art Killed My Dog

On a number of issues and events you have opposed Putin’s policies, and now you are at the Moscow Biennale [of Contemporary Art] at the VDNKh, a venue where the order of things is supposed to be questioned [sic]. Do you believe that here, in the current political situation, there can be a place for real criticism that is both anti-Putinist and anti-capitalist?

Yanis Varoufakis, anti-anti-Putinist
Yanis Varoufakis, anti-anti-Putinist

[Yanis Varoufakis:] Absolutely. But let me clarify something. I am not an anti-Putinist.  Anti-Putinism is too strong a word. I am very critical of Putin, but his demonization in the West is something I also resist. We should be smarter and think about what it means to be critical. I am extremely critical of what Putin did in Chechnya, and I have not forgiven him for it. But on the other hand, Putin was absolutely right about what happened in Georgia, and the West was absolutely wrong. I think that the West’s position on Crimea has also been inconsistent. Russia was surrounded [sic] by NATO when Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and other countries were included in the alliance. And for Russia it was an insult, as well as something close to violating the agreement between Reagan and Gorbachev [sic]. And Putin has been right about this, too. So I have never supported the policy of demonizing Putin. And I am afraid that Russians will have to suffer the awful consequences of this process, consequences which they do not deserve.

So I believe that spaces like this give us hope for the existence of another, rational, critical approach that does not take one side or the other and allows people from the West and Russia to get together and develop a more sophisticated optics for seeing the world and politics, for being critical without demonizing.

—Excerpted from Sergei Guskov, “Yanis Varoufakis: ‘Being critical without demonizing,’” Colta.Ru, October 2, 2015. Translated, from the Russian, by the Russian Reader

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There are only a few things I would add to Mr. Varoufakis’s remarks, above. First, he presumably made them in English, not Russian. Since he is an extremely persuasive speaker and conversationalist, it is quite possible some nuances in what he said at the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art were flattened or distorted when translated from English (?) into Russian, and these distortions have only been amplified further in my back translation.

But I doubt this is the case. The point of his remarks seems quite plain, so they are either a fabrication on the part of Colta.Ru or what Mr. Varoufakis more or less said in the event, minus the “static” of two consecutive translations.

If this is what he said, then Mr. Varoufakis is only another in a long line of Western leftist thinkers and activists who, seemingly, have found something “anti-hegemonic” or “anti-imperialist” or “productively” anti-American or, God forbid, “anti-capitalist” about Putin’s policies and actions, or have found it possible to hobnob with or shill for Putinists, on the Putinist dime, in the name of some kind of “criticality” or “third position” above the current fray, or just because they were bored and wanted an all-expenses-paid junket to Moscow or Petersburg or Rhodes.

A smarter person than me (and an actual Russian leftist activist to boot) has pointed out that Putin is nothing remotely like an anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist. On the contrary, my smart friend has argued, folks in the west should make an effort to find out about grassroots social and political activism and activists in today’s Russia and look for ways to make common cause with them. Or, at least, not stab them in the back by supporting Putin explicitly or implicitly.

Because Russia, like “the West,” is not a monolith. And that is the second way in which Mr. Varoufakis went wrong in his remarks in Moscow. “The West” is not a single entity, even among its political, intellectual, and media elites. It is not an organism singularly hellbent on “demonizing” Putin, whatever that means. It requires no effort at all to compile a very long league table of Putin’s wholehearted or partial supporters in “the West,” from Stephen Cohen to Donald Trump, from Silvio Berlusconi to Mary Dejevsky, from Nick Griffin to any number of leftist and centrist politicians in Europe. For reasons I haven’t been able to explain, that table has been growing fatter as Putin’s actions have become more aggressive and “demonic,” both at home and abroad.

Neither is Russian society nor the fabled (and utterly imaginary) “Russian people” monolithic, but over the past fifteen years the Russian state apparatus, the Russian mainstream media (especially television), and Russian mainstream political parties have become a monolith, one of whose primary goals, especially in the last two or three years, has been to demonize “the West” and the domestic opposition any way it can, no holds barred.

You would have to have been in the middle of this properly demonic media hysteria, moral panic, and “cold civil war” to appreciate just how thoroughgoing and thoroughly frightening it has been, and since I have been following Mr. Varoufakis’s own adventures over the past year or so, I can imagine he simply has no clue about what has really been happening in Russia since the blocks came off completely post Maidan, because he was very busy with more important matters.

One job this blog has taken on has been to provide little snapshots of that awfulness while also, more importantly, giving non-Russian speakers a chance to hear Russian voices other than Putin’s, however unimpressive or inaudible they might seem to big shots like Putin and Mr. Varoufakis.

Finally, I would like to address the question of why Mr. Varoufakis imagines, apparently, that big hoedowns like the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art are such perfect places for elaborating a “sophisticated optics for seeing the world and politics, for being critical without demonizing.”

Just a year ago, my hometown of Petrograd hosted Manifesta 10, another such prominent venue for “criticality.” In the midst of an occupation and invasion of a neighboring country by the host country, the host country and host city’s continuing legal demonization of LGBT, and a local election campaign, for the city’s governorship and district councils, that involved making sure the non-elected incumbent in the gubernatorial race would face no real opposition in his bid to legitimize his satrapy and, on election day, threatening independent election observers with murder, the Manifestashi did absolutely nothing that would really ruffle anyone’s feathers, least of all their sponsors from city hall and the State Hermitage Museum, and they barely reacted to the maelstrom of neo-imperialist hysteria and officially authorized criminality raging around them. Basically, they partied like it was 1999, while providing their fellow citizens with the welcome illusion that the shipwreck wrought by fifteen years of Putinism in politics, the economy, civil society, culture, education, medicine, science, industry and, most painfully, people’s minds could be conjured away or endured and understood a little better by taking a sip of contemporary art’s renowned and heady “criticality” and pretending Petersburg was Helsinki or Barcelona, if only for a summer.

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What has got better on Russia’s broken social, political, and art scenes since last autumn to make it even more desirable to engage in “criticality” at a biennale in one of Russia’s capitals, this time with the Russian Federal Ministry of Culture footing the bill?

Latterly, a cynical lunatic named Dmitry Enteo has smashed up a bunch of sculptures by the late Soviet sculptor Vadim Sidur and gotten off almost scot-free for his crimes. On the other hand, the list of political prisoners in Russia has continued to grow, and it now includes Crimean activists Oleg Sentsov and Alexander Kolchenko, sentenced to hard time in prison for no particular reason.

And then there is Alexei Gaskarov, who, if he lived in a more democratic country, would be running a party like Syriza or Podemos (minus the “criticality” and verbal cuddling up to other people’s dictators), but instead looks to be facing another two and half years in a penal colony, again, for no particular reason other than his own staunch opposition to Putin’s regime.

In the current dreadful “conjuncture,” a good day is a day that goes by without news of yet another anti-Putinist activist being arrested, an art exhibition’s being trashed by “Orthodox activists” or otherwise shut down because it might offend the sensibilities of someone’s grandmother, or a new law’s speeding down the State Duma assembly line so as to tighten up the screws on dissent and “treason” yet again.

In fact, I had a bit of such good news earlier today, when I learned that Andrei Marchenko, a Khabarovsk blogger whose case I have been following, was only fined 100,000 rubles (approx. 1,350 euros) instead of being sent down for two years to a work-release prison, as the prosecutor had demanded, for the horrible crime of writing one untoward sentence about Putin’s Ukrainian misadventure on his Facebook page in 2014.

Where does Mr. Varoufakis fit into this picture? Probably nowhere, which is probably where he should have stayed instead of playing to Moscow’s art and hipster crowd, always happy to let itself off the hook when it comes to taking responsibility for the ongoing disaster, and to the invisible figure up in the emperor’s box, especially at an opera with the almost deliberately ham-fisted and parodical title of Acting in a Center in a City in the Heart of the Island of Eurasia.

Thanks to Comrade AW for the heads-up. Images courtesy of BBC News and the Manifesta Biennial Facebook page

Nabokov Would Have Wanted It This Way

Nabokov Museum Shuts Down “Nude” Comics Exhibition
October 1, 2015
Rosbalt.ru

The Nabokov Museum, a branch of the St. Petersburg State University Faculty of Philology and Arts, has shut down an exhibition by artists Dominique Goblet and Kai Pfeiffer, which was part of the 2015 Boomfest International Comics Festival. According to one account, the reason for the closure was that the works featured images of naked, primarily male, bodies.

Dominique Goblet and Kai Pfeiffer, panel from Plus Si Entente

Boomfest founder Dmitry Yakovlev said to Rosbalt that museum staff had told him problems might arise with the show because of the nudity while it was still being mounted. A compromise was therefore reached. The European artists’ nude characters were dressed in paper underwear.

“We agreed to a compromise. The guests at the show’s opening even thought the underwear was supposed to be there. The artists were probably also not willing to have their show closed. But this variation with the underpants was found. Naturally, before opening the show, we discussed it with the museum. We promised there would no flagrant eroticism or pornography. Yet when you walk around the city there are naked bodies all over the place,” said Yakovlev.

The exhibition was open three days. It was dismantled personally by staff at the Nabokov Museum. Boomfest organizers have no plans to find a new venue for the show. Its layout was quite complicated, as it was embedded into the museum’s interior. The works will soon be sent back to Goblet in Brussels, and Pfeiffer in Berlin.

Dominique Goblet and Kai Pfeiffer
Dominique Goblet and Kai Pfeiffer

According to Yakovlev, this was the first time an exhibition had been shut down in Boomfest’s nearly decade-long history. However, festival organizers have experience organizing even more complex projects in terms of message and graphic content. For example, in 2011, artists Anton Nikolayev and Victoria Lomasko presented the book Forbidden Art, a graphic reportage documenting the trial of the curators of the exhibition Forbidden Art 2006.

“I am extremely saddened by what has happened, but I am especially sadden by the fact that we don’t know the exact cause  of the show’s closure,” said Yakovlev.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Images courtesy of Boomfest

Syrias

Here are four very different but complementary reflections on the dangers of Putin’s new Syrian adventure by, respectively, an electrician and veteran grassroots activist, a sociologist, a magazine editor, and a political scientist and leftist activist.

A video released on YouTube claimed to show Russian air raids targeting the ruins of al-Rabiyah and Shinsharah near Kafranbel
A video released on YouTube claimed to show Russian air raids targeting the ruins of al-Rabiyah and Shinsharah near Kafranbel

George Losev
October 1, 2015
Facebook

Russia pacified the North Caucasus just as the US pacified Afghanistan. The Taliban have disappeared from the news but not from life.

The US has started many wars, and the Russian Federation has already started two. The US has got into conflicts in the Middle East primarily for domestic political reasons, and the Russian Federation has done the exact same thing.

The US lies constantly, and the Russian Federation does, too. (As do the EU, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and everybody else.)

But is there even a single reason to support the dispatch of Russian forces to Syria? There are no such reasons, just as there were no reasons to support the NATO bombing of Libya or the [US/UK] bombing of Iraq.

And now, as in the case of the war in Ukraine, just watch carefully and take note of what you see.

P.S. That is, while there is no chance to do anything more substantial.

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Greg Yudin
October 1, 2015
Facebook

You would have to be Putin, of course, to support Assad by way of restoring order.

Assad is a man who, in the past four years, has:

  • let slip an armed grassroots uprising;
  • permitted a civil war with hundreds of thousands of victims;
  • used chemical weapons against his own citizens;
  • allowed the full-scale deployment of an international terrorist group;
  • and lost control of two-thirds of his country.

And this man, of course, is the man who will pacify all of Syria and calm everyone down.

It has often been said of Putin that he takes a cynical (i.e., “realistic”) approach to foreign policy. It is nothing like this. In the case of Syria, it is Obama, who says we should get together and appoint them a leader who can restore order, who has taken the cynical approach.

The approach of Putin and his elite, however, is not cynical but stupid. The point of this approach is that you should always support the current regime. Simply put, the boss is always right just because he is the boss. They arrived at this hard-won conviction through their own uncomplaining obedience. This belief is the basis of their power and their philosophy in life. For its sake they are even willing to entangle themselves in an international conflict.

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Alexander Feldberg
October 1, 2015
Facebook

Until today, this business with Syria seemed strange to me in the sense that it would not be easy to sweep the Russian people off its feet with it. I understand about small victorious wars, but I imagined that this was not like Ukraine, which is next door, or Hungarian geese, which we could even fondle with our own hands until recently. And then, we are talking about a country that has lived through a war in Afghanistan, despite the incomparable scale of the conflicts and so on. But this morning I was riding the subway and saw this guy, an ordinary guy in his forties with a decent face, even, a guy who looked a little like actor Yevgeny Mironov. This guy was riding the subway and looking at something on his telephone. He was not just looking but literally devouring the phone with his eyes and putting it next to his ear from time to time to make out the sound over the roar of the subway. (For some reason he was not using earphones.) I peeped a little and saw that Sergei Ivanov was on the screen of the dude’s phone. This was when I got curious and a bit anxious, because, on the one hand, it is hard to imagine a situation in which a normal person would get so excited by a speech by Sergei Ivanov. On the other hand, in the morning I had heard on the radio about the Federation Council, which Putin had again asked for authorization, just like that other time, and that had made me a little queasy. So I broke down and gently asked the man what was happening.

yevgeny mironov
Russian actor Yevgeny Mironov

“Sy-ri-a!” he mouthed to me, clearly afraid to miss something important in the broadcast.

Then he briefly turned to me again and sighed, “We are going to bomb!”

He said it as if a weight had finally been lifted from his shoulders, as if the going had been tough, but now, thank God, it had been decided.

And at that moment I had the terrible desire not to be here, to disappear somewhere completely. I realize this was cowardice, a momentary weakness, but I felt it all the same. And I also remember a conversation I had with Bob when we were sailing down the Irrawaddy River, and thought that perhaps he had been right: “You may hate him, but you cannot get rid of him.” I don’t want to be responsible for these motherfuckers. I don’t want to think constantly about whom else they have taken it into their heads to crush or bomb. Let them build underwater chapels for scuba divers and invisible bus stops, but please, please, don’t let them bomb anyone.

invisible bus stop
Officials opening an “invisible” bus stop in the village of Körtkerös, Komi Republic, on September 22

Bob
Bob, an Australian who looked like a gray-haired Homer Simpson, spoke intermittently and passionately, now and then dipping his elongated head into his third glass of claret.

“Very well, I know you Russians have it hard. You always have someone to answer for, either Putin or Stalin. ‘He’s Russian? Very well, let’s ask him about Putin.’ It’s the same crap with the Americans. At the drop of a hat they get told, ‘It’s all because you made a mess of things in Iraq, fellows!” You guys are constantly confused with someone else, with some big, important motherfucker. We have it much easier in this sense. ‘Australia? Isn’t that the place where there are kangaroos ?’ We are just Aussies, you know, Alex? I travel where I wish, live where I can earn money, and nobody is going to torment me with your Putin.”

“I already told you,” I replied, “I don’t like Putin.”

“Bingo!” Bob roused himself. “You may hate him, but you cannot get rid of him. Although I know that things are even more complicated in Russia. You Russians hate yourselves most of all.”

Then, in keeping with the conventions of bad movies, Bob laughed heartily and, winking conspiratorially, said, “I’ve read Tolstoyevsky!”

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Ilya Matveev
October 1, 2015
Facebook

If I were in Putin’s shoes I would think hard about the following paradox. Of course, you can accuse America of “destroying sovereignty” everywhere from Libya to Ukraine all the time. But America cannot just up and destroy sovereignty. It can encourage the opposition. It can even drop bombs. But it is not capable of just up and destroying state institutions themselves. The problem is that wherever a state has collapsed, it had already been weak. And a state’s weakness lies in the absence of its autonomy vis-à-vis narrow group interests, be they elite clans, oligarchs, tribes, and so on. A weak state is also labeled “patrimonial,” meaning it has been “privatized” by particular interests. This weak state syndrome was typical of absolutely all the countries Putin thinks the State Department got to. The paradox is that the Russian state, the Putinist state, is weak. It has low autonomy vis-à-vis elite groupings, and its formal institutions are window dressing for backroom deals. The more Putin “immunizes” the state from the opposition, the “fifth column,” and so, the more he strengthens precisely these same elite groups, all those Sechins and other “friends of the president,” who have an interest in weak institutions. Thus, everything Putin does only weakens the state. The easiest way to illustrate all this is with the dilemma of his successor. Putin has built a state in which no one knows what will happen after Putin, including himself. Ukraine-scale chaos is quite possible at the very least; Libya-scale chaos, at the very most. But unlike Libya and even Ukraine, Putin will only have himself to blame for this. After fifteen years, there is nothing left of the government, the parliament or the courts. All that remains are Putin’s “friends” and his “manual control.” It is a sure bet that the State Department and American imperialism are not to blame for this. In this case, it is homemade.

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My thanks to George Losev, Greg Yudin, Alexander Feldberg, and Ilya Matveev for their permission to translate and publish their remarks here. Click on the links, above, to read their previous contributions to this blog. Images courtesy of the Telegraph/YouTube, Tochka.net, and Zvezdakomi.ru