Petersburg Truckers Say No to Plato
Special to the Russian Reader
November 27, 2015
On November 24, Petersburg truckers joined protests against the new levies imposed heavy tonnage cargo trucks known as the Plato payment system, which have sparked unprecedented work stoppages and other protests by Russian truckers nationwide.
Alexander Rastorguyev, leader of the TIGR (Association of Go-Getting Russian Citizens) movement, and Sergei Gulyayev, an ex-deputy of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly, both known for their opposition politics, inspired local truckers to launch a “snail” protest convoy.
The truckers took off in two separate convoys on parallel streets, Moscow Highway and Sofia Street, at 11 a.m. Shortly afterwards, another group of trucks joined them, increasing the number of slowly moving trucks to three hundred.
The truckers held a spontaneous rally on Sofia Street, where Rastorguyev urged them to keep driving to the Smolny, Petersburg city hall, where the authorities would “listen to them.”
During the rally, a tire was set on fire, an obvious reference to the Euromaidan protests.
The truckers slowly moved onto the Petersburg Ring Road, paralyzing traffic in the streets. The convoy was led by a group of cars plastered with anti-Plato posters. Traffic police regularly stopped the drivers, although no one was detained.
While the truckers made their way to the Smolny, authorities negotiated with protest leaders. The authorities warned the trucks would paralyze the downtown and suggested that truckers choose six delegates to negotiate with a deputy governor in his office another part of the downtown.
The truckers, however, did not want to elect delegates. They wanted a meeting directly with authorities at the Smolny and as an entire group.
Around thirty truckers finally reached the gates to the Smolny, although they had to leave their trucks on the other side of the Neva River. They gathered around the entrance and waited for officials to come out and negotiate with them. They waited in vain.
They stood and talked among themselves for about an hour until police arrived. A police officer demanded they disperse and organize a legal rally instead. Claiming they had not “come for a revolution,” they decided to give the authorities a chance, promising to organize a snail convoy to Moscow if their demands were not fulfilled in the coming days.
All photos by and courtesy of David Frenkel
Read my previous posts on the new Plato cargo haulage levy system and protests by Russian truckers:
Zarina Yunusova: “I Will Never Forgive What They Did to Me”
BBC Russian Service
November 27, 2015
Zarina Yunusova, the mother of the five-month-old baby who died in Petersburg after he was forcibly removed from his parents by Russian police officers, has called on the Russian authorities and concerned Russian citizens to conduct an objective investigation into the causes of her child’s death and reconsider previous decisions in the case.
In addition, the young woman has appealed to the Tajik authorities, who, according to her, should be bolder in defending the interests of Tajikistani citizens.
After returning home and burying her son, Yunusova has gone back to her parents’ home in the remote mountain village of Kandak, in Obi-Garm, in the east of Tajikistan.
Relatives and friends of the young woman that it will thus be easier to survive the loss of the child and rid herself of the painful memories of what she has experienced over the last month and a half.
“I constantly rewind that accursed day in my mind. I remember how the authorities came to our place at six in the morning, how they took the child from me. I did not want to give him up. I fought back, I screamed, I cried, I begged, and I dragged me on the floor, but they removed the child anyway. I still remember holding him in my warms, feeling the warmth of his body, and seeing him smile at me. I will never forget it and never forgive those who did this to me,” says Yunusova.
Jail Cell, Fine, Deportation
When I met Yunusova at the gate of her house, I noticed that the quite emaciated young woman was limping a little. Her relatives explained that two of her toes were injured at the Petersburg police station where she and the child were taken.
“It happened when they were taking the child. While she was fighting for little Umarali, Zarina injured two toes. For some reason, the Russian Interior Ministry made public only video footage showing a female officer cradling the child, not the part where the child was removed. They should show the whole world how they did it,” says Nazar Boboyerov, a relative of Yunusova’s.
Five-month-old Umarali Nazarov died under mysterious circumstances in the early hours of October 14 after he was removed from his mother, 21-year-old Zarina Yunusova, detained for immigration violations, at a police station in Petersburg’s Admiralty District.
The woman was placed in a temporary holding cell. The same day, the court fined Yunusova 5,000 rubles and ruled that the Tajik migrant should be expelled from Russia.
According to Yunusova’s relatives, she tried to find her son, but the police did not give her the address of the medical center where the baby had been taken.
A day later, the parents were informed of Umarali Nazarov’s death.
Cause of Death
According to the Petersburg Bureau of Forensic Medicine (BSME), the cause of five-month-old Umarali’s death was a generalized cytomegalovirus infection.
The child’s relatives categorically disagree with the official finding. The parents have numerous medical documents from the clinic where the infant was periodically examined. They suggest that the boy was perfectly healthy.
Umarali was Rustam Nazarov and Zarina Yunusov’s firstborn child. The young people had not met before their wedding. The bride was found on the advice of relatives.
As is typical in many Tajik families, a few months after the wedding festivities, Nazarov went to Russia to work, and later he was joined by his wife.
“We really wanted children. I joined my husband, got pregnant in Russia, and had the child in Saint Petersburg. I took care of the baby, associated only with members of our family, and almost never left the house. I went to the medical clinic where the baby had his examinations only with my husband. I know nothing about immigration laws, rules, and violations. My husband handled all these problems,” recalls Yunusova.
“There Is No Hate, Only Resentment”
Zarina Yunusova grew up in a large family. She has nine brothers and a sister. She was unable to finish school. The school is located five kilometers from their house. Children have to spend nearly three hours getting to school on mountain slopes, so many children in the village do not attend school.
The majority of girls who do not attend school live in remote rural regions. While the numbers of girls and boys are approximately even in the lower grades, there are many fewer girls in the upper classes, say local teachers. Often parents decide that after the obligatory ninth grade a daughter should quit school and prepare for an early marriage.
At the same time, illiterate brides are valued in rural areas. They are meek, humble, and completely financially dependent on the husband’s family.
Zarina Yunusov went to Russia to be with her husband without fear. Until she traveled to Russia, she knew very little [about the country], but she could not have guessed that anything bad would happen to her.
“After what happened, I will never go to Russia again. How can I forget what they did to me, how treated me? There is no hatred, but the resentment will last a lifetime,” says Yunusova.
The Authorities Did Not Arrive
The body of five-month-old Umarali Nazarov was flown to Dushanbe on November 15. He was buried the same day in the village of Boboi Vali in the Faizobod District, in the east of the country, where the baby’s father comes from. Only several foreign and independent local journalists were on hand to meet the family.
The baby’s relatives waited several hours for officials from the Tajik Ministry of Health, Interior Ministry, and General Prosecutor’s Office, but none of them arrived to meet the Nazarov family, despite promises from the Tajik Consulate in Saint Petersburg that they would be met at the airport and a forensic medical examination would be performed.
Officials from Dushanbe visited Zarina Yunusova several days after her arrival.
At the request of the Tajik Interior Ministry, Yunusova gave blood for a blood test, whose outcome will be known within a week.
In addition, the Tajik police took a statement from Yunusova in which the young woman asks for a criminal investigation into the death of Umarali Nazarov and that the Russian police officers and doctors at the Tsimbalin Children’s Hospital responsible, in her opinion, for his death be brought to justice.
In her suit, Yunusova also asks for 10 million rubles [approx. 141,00 euros] in financial compensation from the Russian side.
“I want to know the cause of my child’s death. The Tajik Interior Ministry explained to me that I had to give blood so they could put an end to all the rumors and prove that I am healthy and that the baby was healthy. When we asked them why the relevant agencies did not show up the day we flew in and conduct an independent examination, we were told they had not known about the family’s arrival in Tajikistan,” says Yunusova.
Hush Up the Case, Hide the Perpetrators
The major case squad in the investigative department of the Tajik Interior Ministry declined to comment on the particulars of the case to the BBC Russian Service while the investigation was still underway.
According to Karimjon Yerov, president of the Russian non-profit partnership ETMOS (Ethnic Tajiks for Responsible Migration by Compatriots), the results of a forensic examination of Umarali’s death would change nothing.
“Russia has never recognized medical records from Tajikistan. All the certificates that Tajik citizens get at home have not been recognized by the Russian side, despite an agreement to that effect. But in this case Russia will recognize an outcome that the parties could have agreed in advance, an outcome that blames the family and helps save face in the name of the so-called strategic partnership,” argues Yerov.
According to Yerov, Dushanbe is also not interested in getting to the bottom of the case and is now doing everything it can to hush the case up.
“The Tajik Consulate in Petersburg repeatedly stated its intention to conduct an independent forensic medical examination. Later, however, people from the Tajik Embassy claimed that such promises had never been made to the Nazarov family. A few days ago, a man identifying himself as an employee of the Tajik Interior Ministry and declared that he had arrived to detain and send home the Tajik nationals who had organized the protest rally outside the Tajik Consulate in Petersburg. I am not certain that Tajik nationals need a Tajik-Russian partnership based on humiliation, disempowerment and the deaths of Tajik nationals,” says the president of ETMOS.
Karimjon Yerov speaking at a November 14, 2015, protest rally at the Field of Mars in Petersburg, demanding an objective investigation of Umarali Nazarov’s death (in Russian). Around a hundred people attended the rally.
The Prosecutor General’s Office told the BBC that the supervisory authority had not opened a criminal case in the death of the Tajik baby and was not currently involved in any investigation of the matter.
“In terms of government agencies, the Tajik side is quite dependent on the Russian side, so it is hardly worth expecting a conflict between them, even over the mother of the deceased child. As for punishing the guilty in Russia, the course of the investigation clearly displays an unwillingness to do this. The mother’s deportation, for example, speaks volumes. It may well turn out that departmental interests will prevail over the rule of law and basic human values. If we don’t manage to insist on a proper investigation of the Umarali Nazarov case now, then in the future we might see numerous such cases throughout Russia,” stresses political scientist Anton Yevstratov.
My previous posts on Umarali Nazarov’s death:
- “Why Such Hatred? (The Death of Umarali Nazarov),” 23 October 2015
- “Deported Mother Returns to Tajikistan with Body of Dead Baby Son,” 17 November 2015
- “Do Tajik Lives Matter in Petersburg?” 11 November 2015
An Example of Senseless Brutality
Why the Story of the Death of 5-Month-Old Umarali Nazarov Becomes No Less Important over Time
November 26, 2015
I want to tell you how Zarina Yunusova is doing. Yunusov is the mother of the five-month-old boy Umarali Nazarov, who in mid-October suddenly died in a Petersburg hospital after he was taken from his mother at a police station. Yunusova still hardly eats or sleeps, and she cries constantly. Journalists from the Tajik news website Asia-Plus, who visited her at her parents’ home, where she has lived since she was expelled from Russia, describe her as terribly emaciated and depressed. Yunusova has still not met with a psychologist. The trip to the village is long and hard, and she is not permitted to go anywhere alone without her husband. Her husband, meanwhile, has stayed in Petersburg, where he has been trying to gain recognition as an injured party in the case of his son’s death. The independent forensic examination of the body in Tajikistan they were promised was never performed, but Yunusova herself was recently summoned to the Tajik Interior Ministry, where they took a sample of her blood without really explaining why.
Yes, and the current news agenda is completely different. The Russian public has been discussing the Russian bomber downed by the Turkish air force on the Turkish-Syrian border and the response of the Russian side. Before that, there was news of the deaths of Russian civilian pilots at the hands of terrorists in Mali, and a mere three days before the bloodbath in Bamako, the Russian authorities had officially recognized the Kogalymavia plane crash in the Sinai as a terrorist attack. Convoys of angry truckers have been lining the roadsides and threatening to move on Moscow. Crimea has been plunged into darkness due to the explosion of a power line in Ukraine, and the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court upheld the tellingly cruel sentence (twenty years in prison) against Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, accused of terrorism.
So why I am talking today about Yunusova when Umarali Nazarov died a month and a half ago, was buried ten days ago, and the decision to expel his mother was made long ago and has been carried out? Because however long ago it happened, whatever dramatic and frightening events have filled our lives since then, the Tajik baby’s death has shocked a huge part of active society. Nearly 150,000 people have signed a petition demanding a thorough investigation of Umarali’s death, and dozens of people still ask me how they can help the family and what can be done so that something like this never happens again.
Because Umarali’s story is special. It is an example of pure, completely senseless inhumanity manifested publicly by the system towards the most defenseless people in the total absence of extreme necessity and all political expediency. At each stage of this story—from the Federal Migration Service officers who raided the Nazarov apartment and decided not wait until Umarali’s grandmother brought them the family document’s and did not let Yunusova put a cap on the baby, to Judge Elena Shirokova, who made the final decision to deport the dead baby’s mother—one person with a heart might have entered the picture and everything would have been different. But no such person was to be found.
Neither Yunusova nor her husband, with whom no one has been able to get in touch for several days, can fight for their rights in this case. So it is we who have to demand an objective investigation and punishment for the guilty.
Translated by the Russian Reader
You Have the Oyat at Your Back, Young Arseny
November 23, 2015
Arseny, a third-grader from the Podporozhye District, crosses a river in a boat on his way to school. On the weekends, he serves as an altar boy at a church. His father abandoned Arseny and his mother, a real estate agent conned them, but the authorities know the score. At school, he got two zeroes for conduct when he had no pencils or shoes on September 1, the first day of school. 47news journeyed to the backwoods of the Leningrad Region and spent a day with Arseny’s family.
Every weekday at 7:40 a.m., 9-year-old Arseny Prokhorov and his mom Irina Prokhorova ford the Oyat River in a rubber boat. They are hurrying to school.
The Oyat River, which has its source in the Vologda Region, is 266 kilometers long and flows into the Svir River. It has a strong current and contains rapids. Its course has not changed for at least a thousand years.
“It is especially frightening in the mid season, when the ice sets and the current pulls along whole sheets of it. We make a point of carrying the boat higher upstream. And in the spring, the current carries the slush produced by the ice, and the water rises a lot,” Irina Prokhorova told me.
Last spring, she was crossing the river alone when the boat capsized and she fell into the water. But she swam ashore pulling the boat out with her. Arseny stood on his side of the river and cried.
Believe me, he is quite grown up. Incidentally, the only two zero marks for conduct he has had this year were on September 1 and September 2. He had no notebooks, pencils or shoes. Children’s protective services came after that and inspected the house, but nothing has been heard on this shore from social services since then.
The boy and his mother have lived in the village of Gribanovskaya in the Vinnitsy Rural Settlement of Podporozhye District for four years. The village is situated on the right bank, but seven houses have stood on the left bank for a long time. No one lives in six of them during the winter: they belong to summertime cottagers.
The school bus picks Arseny up at 7:50 a.m. The school itself is four kilometers away, in the village of Vinnitsy. On the weekends, the only way to get there from Gribanovskaya is on foot. Irina uses an old bike to get there or she and Arseny walk there together. The commuter bus runs three times a week: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
The village of Gribanovskaya is 350 kilometers from Petersburg and 76 kilometers from the district center, the town of Podporozhye. The village contains around ten households and three dozen inhabitants. The first census of Gribanovskaya was taken in 1873.
That House There
After our phone call, the mistress dashes out of the house, climbs down a steep bluff, unties the boat, and drags it to the water. Plying the oars in a masculine fashion, she sails towards us.
A petite woman jumps nimbly from the craft. She is dressed neatly, but is nervous. We clamber aboard the boat. The first to go aboard is Father Vladimir, rector of the local church. He helps the family any way he can. I, the correspondent from afar, get on the boat second. We have to step from the sloping ice into the boat’s soft bottom. The black water, the tiny oars, and the air temperature do not inspire me with optimism. I begin to doubt whether the boat will bear our weight. The priest is not having such a smooth time of it on the oars. We begin to drift.
The backyard is depressing. Irina gets right down to business. They will soon run out of firewood. Father Vladimir frowns.
I am given a brief, simple tour of the local way of life. Irina and Arseny once had rabbits and a couple of pigs. They slaughtered them out of necessity. The garden and the potatoes they grow there are their salvation.
Arseny’s diet is as basic as that of a postwar child: oatmeal in the morning, soup for lunch, and buckwheat kasha or macaroni for supper. The family lives on 2,500 rubles a month [approx. 35 euros], which Arseny’s grandmother sends them. Irina’s oldest daughter from her first marriage helps them out by sending produce.
“Once every two weeks we sail to the mobile shop,” says Irina.
She would be glad to work, but jobs are nowhere to be found, neither in Vinnitsy nor, especially, in Gribanovskaya.
Irina is from Petersburg. She has two daughters from her first marriage, aged 17 and 27. She and her new husband moved to Vinnitsy. They had decided to get away from the noise of the city. Arseny was born there. In 2012, their house burned down. Since Irina was officially registered as a resident of Petersburg, she was refused assistance by the local authorities. With this incident in the back of her mind, she does not ask the authorities for anything nowadays. She had to sell her share in an apartment in Petersburg and buy the house in Gribanovskaya. Moreover, the real estate agent, who showed them the house in winter, did not mention there was no bridge or ferry. Nor did Irina ask. Then her husband hit the bottle and left the family. In parting, he gave Arseny a lifejacket.
We go into the house. Only of one of the three floors is inhabited. It contains a kitchen with a brick oven and a double room. It is warm and cozy inside, not at all like it is outside. Arseny comes out. He shows us his desk, books, and drawings. He gets Bs and As at school, although he recently got a D in shop. He did not bring glue and cardboard to class. His mother did not have the money to buy them. On the other hand, he is a champion at reading contests.
Arseny takes weekly lessons with a painting teacher in Vinnitsy. Once again, Father Vladimir has helped him out with this. Arseny says his dream is to be an artist and see the Coliseum and the Louvre one day.
The family has a plan to this end: to finish the first four grades and enroll in the Russian Academy of Art’s Ioganson State Academic Art Lyceum in Saint Petersburg.
Arseny’s hobbies included books and chess, which he has played since the age of six. He also likes the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoons.
When asked whether he knows who Bobby Fischer was, he confidently replies, “I saw a book about him, but I haven’t read it yet.”
Right at this moment, a film about the life of the brilliant American chess player is showing in Petersburg theaters. I doubt that most young people would have responded to my question as Arseny has.
There is a computer in the house with Internet access. Although his mom does not encourage it, Arseny has his own page on the VKontakte social network and is interested in the news. Among the latest news, he remembers the crash of the Malaysian Boeing the most. Arseny has the sense the world is ruled by God, and that Vladimir Putin reigns on earth. True, at first the lad misspoke himself, calling the president “Alexander.” He also knows about important people “somewhere out there.” But the ticks and vipers in the backyard are more real to him. He makes no bones about the fact he is afraid of them.
A tick bit him this past spring. It turned out to be carrying encephalitis. The doctors kept Arseny in hospital five days and then sent him back home with his mother. Since then, Arseny has periodically had a temperature.
This is bad, because earlier the boy had suffered from barely noticeable disabilities that had almost disappeared through the efforts of his mom. The boy has been exempted from attending physical education classes. Which is just as well, since every day he does chores at home like an athlete. Now Irina worries whether the encephalitis will affect his nervous system.
“The school requires a written waiver exempting Arseny from transfer to boarding school. But how can I give him up?” wonders Irina.
Father Vladimir supports her. He booms that it would be wrong to send the boy from his child’s bed, with his mom nearby, to a state-sponsored cot.
And There is a Church Nearby
We get ready to go to the local church. Arseny serves there as an altar boy, helping with the mass. As we get ready to go, it transpires that the most burning question will soon be the question of winter boots. Arseny simply does not have any. The boots donated to him two years ago have fallen apart. Despite their problems, mother and son look neat and self-possessed. We have to cross the river again.
We take Father Vladimir’s Zhiguli to Our Lady of Smolensk Church in Vinnitsy. We go into the church, which smells of oven, wood, and incense. There is a stand-up piano in the corner. After the icy snow, drizzle, and darkness, I immediately feel sleepy. Arseny assists the priest for two hours.
It is getting on towards nine in the evening. There is neither a single soul nor a single car on the streets of Vinnitsy and, especially, Gribanovskaya. We have returned to the ford. The road was utterly muddy, and snow mixed with rain is coming down. In the darkness, descending the steep bank to the boat is completely unpleasant. We bid farewell to the squeaking oars. We cannot see the boat all. Just in case, we say goodbye again. We hear a reply. It is like a film about the war, as if they are going off on a recon mission.
I finished my work in Gribanovskaya around nine in the evening. Father Vladimir gave me a lift to Vinnitsy and set off to administer extreme unction to a local woman. In her youth she is said to have practiced witchcraft.
There was no sign of cars on the street, so my logistics hit a dead end. The local police saved the day. A call to Podporozhye District Deputy Police Chief Dmitry Vladimirov asking to facilitate my not kicking the bucket was understood loud and clear. His guys saved the day. Police officer Andrei (who, incidentally, was supposed to be finishing his shift) drove me 75 kilometers through a blizzard and over potholes to Podporozhye. Along the way, his wife called, worried.
Suddenly, in a place where the thicket had almost overgrown the road, a healthy white wolf with gray markings crossed the road in front of us. The beast stopped, flashed its eyes, and vanished. Perhaps it was surprised to see people at such a time in such a place.
P.S. Of course we talked with Arseny and his mother. You can soon read about Arseny’s dream on 47news. In the meantime, think about this article.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Videos and photos courtesy of 47news
“Soon the whole country will work for the Rotenbergs”
November 25, 2015
Long-haul truckers have continued their protests against the Plato system in Russia. Truckers are outraged by new tolls on federal highways and are determined to have them abolished. In the Northern Capital, drivers got all the way to the Smolny [Petersburg city hall], but a dialogue with the authorities did not take place there. Private entrepreneurs and veteran truckers Oleg Krutskikh and Alexei Zhatko told Rosbalt about why they are willing to fight to the last, what they will do in the event of failure, and what their families think about their protest.
How did you start working as truckers?
Oleg: I began driving when I got out of the army, in 1998 or 1999. My dad was a driver, and I followed in his footsteps. You know how it is: army brats are drawn to the army. Well, sons of truckers are drawn to trucking. First, I drove a KamAZ, then a MAZ. I am from the Voronezh Region. In the 2000s, my family and I moved to Petersburg. I spent ten years behind the wheel of cargo trucks, then I became an entrepreneur, although I have kept driving myself.
Alexei: I am originally from the Stavropol Territory. I moved to Petersburg in 1999. I moved my father here. He is a trucker. At first, I worked as a dispatcher in a container company. Then I took a truck from this company to break in. I put Dad behind the wheel, and he went to work. Then I started to drive myself and I bought several trucks.
It was profitable to work in freight haulage then, right?
Oleg: Yes, in the no-holds-barred nineties and noughties, you got paid in cash in dollars. A round trip within the city cost $100, to Moscow, $850–950. Then we were forced to legalize, which was the right thing to do. We started paying taxes. We became self-employed entrepreneurs or turned our operations into limited liability companies. Until 2008, we did more or less all right. We made enough to pay for fuel and pay our drivers. The oil flowed abroad, and the government had enough money both for itself and for people, to throw them some bones. Then the dollar rose, the price of spare parts soared, and there was less work. Depreciation amounts to a lot of money in Russia, and you are left with peanuts. Basically, we cannot afford to replace our vehicle fleets.
Alexei: From 2002 to 2008, when the tax system was semi-gray and payments were made in cash, I bought trucks. I had eight of them. Subsequently, every year I would cut one truck to be able to repair the rest. Now I have one heavy transport truck left. I used to have these issues. I would drive to the service center and they would replace all the bad parts. You won’t believe me, but now I know which city and which demo yard has the cheapest spare parts. What is a demo yard? A place that sells used parts. That means we are not running 100% safe on the road anymore. Even if a part has 20% wear and tear, your safety is lower.
Oleg: The point is that incomes have fallen almost to zero. Basically, [the authorities] want to take the shirt off our backs, but we are refusing to budge. We are not earning anything nowadays. We have ground to a halt and are idling.
Have you been involved in the protests for long?
Oleg: Since November 11.
Alexei: I was out of town for two months. I left in August, and when I got back these new developments had emerged. I was forced to leave the truck in Krasnodar and fly here. It was cheaper. I have not worked since November 15.
The stance of the authorities is clear. Long-haul truckers must pay the damages the big rigs cause to federal highways.
Alexei: I really do not understand this. If the permissible weight is forty tons, how can I cause damage to roads? I pay motor vehicle tax and excise duties. I cannot cause more damage than is stipulated by the State Standards. But I am told that I cause more damage than I should anyway.
Nobody knows how the motor vehicle tax is spent. Take a look at our roads. The M10 from Petersburg to Moscow is more or less okay. The M7, to Tatarstan, is good, and the M4 is not bad. There are no other [decent] roads [in Russia]. Take, for example, the M5. The section from Syzran to Penza is a disaster. From Samara almost to Ufa there are two hundred-odd kilometers that we travel at a snail’s pace. And then they say they are closing the highway because it has drifted. In fact, they just do not plow the road, and traffic moves slowly. You cannot climb hills or get up to speed. So the authorities decide to close the whole thing. It is easier for them.
Oleg: Or take a look at how much the toll roads cost. They have now opened a road near Vishny Volochyok to Moscow. It is 920 rubles one-way, meaning nearly 2,000 rubles round trip [approx. 28 euros]. The toll on the M11 is 1,200 rubles. So a round trip has gone up by 4,000 rubles. And I have not figured in the tolls on the Western High-Speed Diameter. Plus, the Plato system costs around 2,000 rubles until March, then it will cost 5,000 rubles. The rise in expenses due to toll roads will come to around 9,000 rubles. That is a 25% increase.
Look, a 25% rise in freight haulage costs means that all the prices in the shops will go up. Old ladies and pensioners will bear the brunt. I think the authorities are keen to put tolls on absolutely all roads. For example, Leningrad Region Governor Drozdenko said that regional roads should be toll roads, too. They have gone after the truckers first, because we could be accused of damaging the roads. If they imposed this law on all drivers at once, it would not be just us who were out protesting. Others would come have out as well.
Do you think the authorities were afraid of mass protests?
Oleg: I think they wanted to get us to this point stage by stage. At first, they will work out the bugs on us, and then gradually incorporate everyone else.
It will come to the point where drivers of passenger cars will pay the duty as well. If we do not squash it and stop it, the entire country will work for the Rotenbergs. The burden will fall on everyone’s shoulder. We will be like slaves. They will legally be able to use us.
Alexei: Try and understand the trucker’s mindset. I like my job because I am as free as the wind. If I want to go Novosibirsk, I go there. Tomorrow, I might want to go to Krasnodar. It is a kind of freedom. But now they are trying to put a noose around my neck, and they can always tighten it. I find myself in Novosibirsk, for example. They tighten the noose, and I cannot make it back home. My only choice would be to abandon everything, sell the truck, and get home on some other form of transport. So I don’t want this noose. But long-haul truckers are a kind of caste who are no strangers to hardship. Our lifestyle differs little from that of a dog. We live in our rigs like a dog in a kennel. Just like a dog pisses on the wheel, so do we. So if truckers do end up moving on Moscow [in protest] that will not be a problem. Living in our rigs for a month near Moscow would be easier than pie.
You have not even tried to register on the Plato system?
Alexei: Why should I? I don’t recognize it and I am not planning to recognize it.
It would be easier for me to run my rig downtown sometime, drive it up to the Smolny ignoring all the traffic warning signs, and set fire to it.
What is the point of working under such a system? I am ashamed for the government. I used to idolize Medvedev. I used to respect him. Three or four years ago, he said that we would add a tax of seven rubles to the price of fuel and abolish the motor vehicle tax. I was really happy about this. I thought, let it be that way. I did not quite get it, but it would be simpler for me than running to the state savings bank all the time to pay the taxes and fees. But how has it all turned out?
Now they are promising to reduce the fines, but there is not a single regulatory document backing this promise up. You phone Rosavtodor (the Russian Federal Road Agency), and [they tell you] the rates on the Plato website are still in effect. How is that? My idol Dmitry Medvedev says one thing, but something else happens. This has political implications. But still, it is painful, what can I say.
I understand that you don’t want to associate your protests with politics?
Oleg: This is our life. We are fighting for it, for the lives of our families and their families.
Alexei: We don’t need revolutions and upheavals, because there are problems after all upheavals, and the economy will have to recover. There won’t be any work, and the country will suffer from poverty. We don’t want that.
And what is the difference? One group of people is now in power, then people just like them will take over. The only thing I do not understand is why a barrel of oil cost eight dollars in the 1990s, and now it costs over forty dollars, but we still do not have enough money. And why in the 1990s, if someone in the government admitted his mistakes, he offered his resignation, but nowadays an official who has goofed up big time says, “Well, that didn’t work out. Sorry, but I am going to keep working.”
Oleg: And what happened with [former Russian defense minister] Serdyukov? How could you, guys? They spit in the country’s face. If they spit in the Investigative Committee’s face, who are we truckers? I won’t be surprised if [the powers that be] do not react to us at all, if they just have the riot police crush us.
You think they could start cracking down on the protests using the riot police?
Oleg: For now we are being treated more or less decently. Time will tell.
What is the news from the field? Do you know anything about how the events have affected businesses in Russia?
Alexei: The first [city] to sound the alarm has been Tyumen. They produce their own bread and milk, but everything else is shipped in. The produce will not last long. In Volgograd, a glass factory has temporarily shut down. But here I am thinking: many factories are certainly owned by politicians, by MPs. Ordinary people would not own them. And this is a blow to the owners. So while we are not driving, there should be some movement on the part of our rulers.
According to my information, there are four ferries at a standstill in Novorossiysk, and New Year’s is around the corner. In Derbent, there are many train cars loaded with persimmons, tangerines, and pomegranates that are not going anywhere. They simply have nowhere to offload the produce there. The persimmons arrive there in ordinary heated freight cars and cannot be stored for long. I think if we continue the stoppage, then it will not just be a protest—
But a strike, rather.
Alexei: It is a strike. We cannot go back on the roads. We have been cornered. If things go on like this, it will be worse.
Approximately how much do you pay in taxes per year?
Oleg: I did the calculations for seven trucks. We burn through about 30 tons of diesel a month. Multiply that by 7 rubles, and it comes to 210,000 rubles a month, or two and half million rubles a year. Plus there is the motor vehicle tax and the taxes for individual entrepreneurships and limited liability companies. All in all, it comes to around three and a half million rubles [approx. 50,000 euros]. Meaning that if Plato goes online, we will probably bite the dust, and the treasury will come up three and a half million rubles short. If you do the math, that amounts to good pensions for twenty-eight old ladies or tiny pensions for fifty old ladies. So all those old ladies will lose their pensions. The people who work for me will end up at the unemployment office, and the state will have to cut them unemployment checks.
The truckers have shown all Russians a great example of solidarity. Basically, people from different parts of the country have united to fight for their rights.
Alexei: Despite the fact that the media have been blacking us out, all of us—our groups of drivers and our dispatchers—have been getting the message out. I have lots of dispatchers who have been explaining to customers that they are not going hand over loads to anyone, because we are all in solidarity, because each of us has his trucks out there. When I was driving from Novorossiysk to Krasnodar to store my truck in the lot there, a traffic cop stopped me. He asked where I was going. I explained I was going to a lot, then flying to Petersburg.
That was a traffic cop who asked me. What does this tell us? That the traffic police, too, probably have their own trucks out there or friends and acquaintances. They support the truckers, but they have their orders. I myself am a former military man. Everyone understands everything perfectly.
As far as I know, the police have so far not been actively hindering the protests. In Petersburg, for example, the protesters got off with small fines.
Alexei: No, their objective is to break up the convoys of trucks.
Are you not afraid of provocations?
Oleg: We got together to figure out how we would run our protests, and there was immediately news on the web that Oleg Krutskikh was an accomplice of Navalny and all. Someone started writing to truckers that there would be no protest, that it had been called off. A specific agency is working against us.
Alexei: People get SMS alerts that a protest will not take place. That so-and-so works for Navalny and is trying to start a commotion.
What do you think about United Russia MP Yevgeny Fyodorov’s statement? He said you were protesting “at the behest of the United States.”
Alexei: That is insane. Perhaps the man has some problems. Maybe he reads too much about America. There is no trace of commonsense audible or visible in what he said.
Oleg: I would like to appeal to you as a member of the media. 80% of the news is about Egypt and Syria. Guys, we have so many problems in our own country that at least 95% of the population could care less what is happening abroad. Only the 5% who have business abroad care. I have a huge request for you all: tell us, the 95%, about Russia. When things have been put to right in Russia, maybe you can tell us about life in other countries.
Alexei: I guess then it will be difficult for someone to raising his popularity rating. Showmen dominate politics in our country. More than anything they want good ratings, not to solve the major problems within the country.
I really am unconcerned about what is going down in Donetsk when I have nothing to eat at home. I have to feed my own people. I have two children, after all. I have been shut down for two weeks, and I realize that my wallet is empty.
Will your reserves last long enough to keep off the road like this?
Alexei: It doesn’t matter. We will go take out a loan then. Clearly, we won’t be able to pay it back. But we do not have much of a choice. We have to live.
So you are going hold out to the last, then?
Alexei and Oleg: We will hold out to the last. We have nothing to lose. We cannot go back out on the road: we will be fined.
How have your families reacted to your involvement in the truckers’ protests?
Alexei: My family has never been involved in politics. My spouse, although I do not share information with her, sees and understands everything perfectly well. She is a speech therapist and a teacher, who gets paid no more than fifteen thousand rubles a month [approx. 215 euros]. Yet she tells me I should quit this business. But I cannot quit my job. This is a lifestyle.
Oleg: It would be hard now to retrain to do some other job. As for the protests, my involvement has been spontaneous. They say I am an activist. I am no activist. I am just someone who generally likes the truth.
Everyone now involved in the protests are activists.
Alexei: Yeah, take any trucker. Any of us can be slapped with the charge of organizing a protest. Because all of us are on the telephone communicating.
We exchange telephone numbers at our encampments, and that has united us even more. But we have no leaders. All of us are organizers. We agree to meet by calling each other. One person passes the information on to the next person. The radio is our mass medium. All of us could be locked up as organizers.
In Dagestan, for example, it is not just Dagestanis who are attending the protests, but people from different regions. The guys at our encampment in Novorossiysk snapped and took off for Dagestan, because they knew it would be the hottest spot. That is how fast information spreads among our lot. And if the politicians think we are disorganized louts, they are wrong, although that is what many of them are saying.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Rosbalt
Female Pensioner from Leningrad Region Beats Official with Stick
November 23, 2015
SAINT PETERSBURG, NOVEMBER 23. Criminal charges have been filed against a sixty-one-year-old woman who assaulted the head of a municipal district in the Lomonosov District.
As the press service of the Leningrad Regional office of the Investigative Committee informed Rosbalt, the official had gone to a village to deal with the populace’s discontent over construction of a parking lot. During the discussion, a local woman hit him with a stick.
She has been charged with the criminal offense of “inflicting violence on a public official.”
Translated by the Russian Reader. Image courtesy of www.zazzle.co.nz
“Russia is a bird, not a bear”
November 21, 2015
Yelena Osipova’s “naïve” posters remind us of the link between politics and street protests
A cozy basement with uncomfortable pictures: that is how one might describe in a nutshell the exhibition of paintings and posters by Petersburg artist Yelena Osipova currently underway in the Petersburg office of Open Russia, which shares the space with the Petersburg office of the Parnas party.
The exhibition marks a milestone—Osipova has turned seventy—but it is her debut exhibition. She has never been a member of any artist unions and groups, but she has stood outside in the rain, frost, and heat at nearly all the protest rallies that have taken place in Petersburg in recent years. The striking posters that Osipova holds at these rallies expose the latest injustices or crimes, warn of dangers, and empathize with the plight of others, whether they have been victims of terrorist attacks, natural disasters, dishonest elections or civil rights violations.
The exhibition was not easy to put together. The organizers set out to show not only Osipova’s best political posters but also her paintings, mainly portraits and landscapes. The show also includes two large genre scenes, the first featuring an ordinary Soviet beer hall, the second, a group of punks. Perhaps they are the link to the posters, which call to mind not only the tradition of political satire but also primitivist painting.
“This exhibition is the first in my life,” says Yelena Osipova. “And I love the room and these vaulted ceilings and the fact you can see how my paintings segue into the posters. The latest poster, showing a mother with a dead infant, is about the dead Tajik boy Umarali Nazarov, while the first was prompted by the Nord-Ost tragedy in 2002. Then I went to the Mariinsky Palace [seat of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly] with a simple lettered poster, handwritten on a sheet of wove paper. I just could not understand why no one took to the streets then, why everyone was silent. On the fortieth day after the deaths of the hostages, I made a poster in which I painted a picture in acrylics on fabric.
You are a professional artist. Where did you study?
“I graduated from an art school. It was then called the Tauride Art School, now it is the Roerich Art School. Marc Chagall had studied there in his day, though not for long. I had then wanted to apply to the monumental painting program at the Mukhina Academy. I had been influenced by the frescoes of Andrei Rublev and Dionisius, by the size of their figures and their schematic manner. But young women were just not admitted to the monumental painting program, and I have no regrets about it now. What would I have done? Painted murals in the subway? I am an artist and educator. I taught for over thirty years. We organized three art schools from scratch.”
So you mostly painted landscapes and posters, then Nord-Ost happened and you turned to posters. What exactly happened after Nord-Ost?
“An ever more horrible event: Beslan. No conclusions had been drawn! I had two posters: one was lost, while the other version is exhibited here. The lost version was two-sided. On the reverse side, the slogan “Moms of the world, give birth to little princes. They will save the world!” was written on a blue background. I made the next poster, “Don’t believe in the justice of war!” when the war in Iraq began. I stood outside the American consulate, the British consulate, outside the consulates of all the governments who had supported sending troops into Iraq. There was no reaction. When it was the anniversary of the Beslan tragedy, the mothers of the dead came to Petersburg and wanted to walk down Nevsky Prospect to the Russian Museum holding icons and candles. Ultimately, no one joined them. Just one other woman went with the Beslan moms, plus me with my poster. So we marched alone, amidst the general indifference.”
But this indifference has continued. Look how many people came to the rally protesting the death of the Tajik baby Umarali Nazarov, who was taken away from his mother.
“Yes, but more people are coming than before. Civil society is slowly emerging. We have had the Marches for Peace, and certain rallies have drawn a good number of people. It used to be that no one came to these things at all.”
Have you been detained at protests?
“Of course I have been detained. There was a G20 summit here one summer. I went there with two posters: Don’t believe in the justice of war! and another one about the disposal of nuclear waste. The police detained me then, and I have been detained many times since, sometimes quite roughly. There were unpleasant incidents outside the Mariinsky Palace on St. Isaac’s Square when the war with Ukraine began. Yet the people who go to these events think like you do, and that is quite important. You feel you are not alone with your thoughts, that there are other people who think the same way. Okay, so there are not so many of them, but they are out there.
“Now, perhaps, it will become more difficult, and people will retreat to their apartments, as they did in Soviet times. The laws that have been passed [restricting public protests] are tough to deal with even financially. It used to be that the biggest fine I got was five thousand rubles. People collected the money on the web, and later I sent it on to the Bolotnaya Square prisoners. But the fines now are so high that you cannot pay them. It is too bad that society resigned itself from the outset and did not oppose these laws. After all, they could have resisted and taken to the streets, but, unfortunately, when people have begun to live better, they become indifferent.”
Are there any landmark works, works important to you at this exhibition?
“Yes, for example, Theater Entrance. I painted it during my fourth year at art school. I was really into the theater then, and my thesis painting had a theatrical motif. There are also three paintings here from my Vologda series, pictures of fields in Vologda. There is a landscape painting of Gurzuf, in Crimea. The big painting shows a beer hall that was behind the Nekrasov Market. It had these big round arches, and the beer was poured straight from a tap. You could meet professors and students and artists there. I have painted Russia there with a halo, looking sad. It was the nineties, a very complicated time. And my other painting on this subject is Punks in the Subway. I knew all those kids.
And what is Oh mania, oh mummy of war…, featuring two crows?
“It’s an anti-war poster. I drew it after Boris Nemtsov’s murder. I used a poem by Marina Tsvetayeva. She wrote it in Germany, and I saw the resemblance with our circumstances. The poster Not everyone who is naked is needy is about the death of Berezovsky. I play on the birch motif [Berezovsky’s name is derived from the Russian word for birch tree, berëza], and there are funereal crows.
Do you appreciate some of your posters more than others?
Maybe this one, Don’t believe in the justice of war!, and the Beslan poster. In fact, the political posters about tragedies I always rendered in the three colors of the Russian flag.”
Will you continue to make new posters and freeze on the streets?
“At one point I though that maybe there was no need for this and I wanted to quit, but people said I should do it and told me I gave them hope.”
At the entrance to the exhibition is a small poster, Vote for the bird. At the bottom of the poster is a heavy United Russia, pumped full of oil; on the top is a bird.
“The bird has always been the symbol of Russia,” argues Yelena Osipova.
And to her mind, Russia’s color is blue, as in a certain painting by her beloved Wassily Kandinsky. True, Osipova now sees less and less of the color in her homeland’s plumage.
Translated by the Russian Reader. All photos by the Russian Reader except where otherwise indicated. Yelena Osipova’s work will be on view at 19 Fontanka Embankment until November 25, 2015.
“On November 30, we will go to Moscow and shut down the Moscow Ring Road!”: Major protests by truckers in the Caucasus
Irina Gordiyenko | Dagestan
November 22, 2015
A major protest by truckers is taking place in the Caucasus. Officials are trying to ignore it, and in response truckers are threatening to move on Moscow
Strikes by truckers against the introduction of a new road tax have swept across Russia. The biggest of them is still underway in Dagestan. Hundreds of truckers have lined up along dozens of kilometers of highway. Manas, Khasavyurt, Kizlyar, and Kayakent are the spots where people have been striking for a week. The protests have been ignored. Officials have avoided contacting the strikers, while television has refused to cover the strike. Amateur videos posted on the web are immediately removed and their users blocked.
The strikers are determined. If their demands are not heard, they intend to move on Moscow on November 30.
The roadside of the Rostov-Baku M29 highway near Khasavyurt looks gaudy at the moment. Trucks with yellow, red, blue, and green cabs are parked in two tight rows next to each other. The trailers are hung with enormous posters reading, “Hands off long-haul trucking!” and “Stop robbing the people!” The chain of trucks stretches for dozens of kilometers, and at any moment the annoyed truckers could block this federal highway.
“We don’t want to do it,” says Dibir, a trucker from a small village nearby. “We know it will be violently dispersed. But they don’t want to hear us. We went to the city administration, to the Ministry of Transportation, and to Rosavtodor (Russian Federal Road Agency). They wouldn’t even let us in the door. We called the TV channels: they have refused to come cover us. Instead, they sent in trucks of riot police.”
An excited crowd of around two hundred people stands around an improvised stage. From time to time, someone mounts the stage to appeal to the truckers not to give up and stand their ground.
They have been here for five days. They sleep in their cabs, cook their own food, and during the daytime they welcome the growing number of colleagues who have been joining the strike. They are no strangers to hardship. They have been tempered by runs on rough roads lasting many days.
As of November 15, vehicles weighing over twelve tons are charged an additional fee for each kilometer of federal highway they travel. The government issued a decree setting the fee at three rubles six kopecks per kilometer. The new system of taxation has been dubbed Plato. In effect, truckers (or trucking companies) are obliged to register with Plato and choose one of two methods of payment. They can either buy a special onboard device that counts the kilometers of federal highway they travel and then calculates the fee, or before each run, they can buy a detailed route map from the company running Plato.
If they refuse to pay, individual entrepreneurs can be fined 40,000 rubles [approx. 580 euros]; legal entities, 450,000 rubles [approx. 6,500 euros].
In the best case scenario, you can make forty to fifty thousand rubles per run,” says Dibir. “The [new] tax adds an additional fifteen thousand rubles in costs. What are we going to live on?! We are not on the Forbes list.”
All Russian truckers now know about the Forbes magazine list of Russia’s wealthiest people and the spot occupied on the list by Arkady Rotenberg.
The surname Rotenberg is now quite popular in Dagestan. Posters bearing it can be seen all along the the M29, for example, “Rotenberg is worse than ISIS” (a terrorist organization banned in Russia) and “Russia without the Rotenbergs.” Every trucker now knows that billionaire Arkady Rotenberg is a friend and supporter of President Putin, that Arkady Rotenberg has a son named Igor Rotenberg, and that Igor Rotenberg owns a little company that mysteriously signed a contract with the government farming the new federal transportation tax out to this private company.
Truckers are not only the people who haul loads from their own regions to other regions, for example, Dagestani cabbage. (There are several districts in Dagestan that traditionally cultivate green cabbage on an industrial scale and then supply it to other parts of Russia during the winter.) Truckers are one of the foundations of the Russian produce economy.
Watermelons, tomatoes, onions, aubergines, pomegranates, and oranges: all this produce is brought from Iran and Azerbaijan, and the geography of further transshipments covers the entire country. For example, Dagestani truckers literally “pick up” and transport the entire harvest of Krasnodar Krai, Stavropol Krai, Astrakhan Region, and Volgograd Region to other parts of the country. They supply the major markets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg with produce.
“We are in the fifth day of our strike. Around three hundred train carloads of persimmons have piled up on the Azerbaijani border, right in the middle of the fruit’s season,” one of the strikers explains to me. “Three hundred train carloads is nine hundred truckloads that we should have delivered to Russian markets. Instead, the produce is spoiling. Take a look at how much persimmon prices skyrocket now.”
There are over two million heavy trucks officially registered in Russia. Around half of these are registered in the south of Russia. Cargo transportation is now in the truest sense one of the most important sources of income in Dagestan, a republic of three million people.
Take, for example, the large village of Gudben. Its population is around fifteen thousand people, and it has two thousand registered trucks. The average family in Gudben consists of five people, so at least ten thousand residents of Gudben survive on the money earned from cargo runs.
“We would love to find other work,” says Guben resident Tahir, “but there is just no other work in Dagestan. This is the only way we can feed our families.”
The second major site of the trucker protests is the federal highway near the small village of Manas. Several days ago, outraged truckers blocked the highway, demanding that authorities come meet with them. The authorities did come, but incognito. They threw up their hands and left. Then they sent in truckloads of riot police, who dispersed the protest.
So far the truckers have agreed not to block the highway. They are waiting. But riot police are on duty there. Every day they detain dozens of people, charge them with misdemeanors and send them to jail for ten days, videotape the truck drivers, and rip the license plates from their trucks.
The truckers are philosophical about such methods of coercion. We will not succumb to provocations. We want to be heard, they say.
The Dagestanis have been joined in their protests by truckers from other regions.
“I cannot imagine how we will go on living. This is going to be a big blow to our wallets,” says Vladimir from Saratov.
A couple days ago, Vladimir unloaded a cargo of Sakhalin fish in Krasnodar. Hearing that a big strike was underway in Dagestan, he decided to join it.
“In other parts of Russia, the protest actions have quickly come to an end. They have been quickly dispersed. But the folks here are stubborn,” says Vladimir.
And Vladimir is not alone. Many truckers from other regions who made runs to the south over the past week have joined the Dagestanis, including Chechens. In Chechnya itself, there is a strict taboo on any protest, so they are forced to travel to neighboring regions to strike against the injustice.
“A liter of diesel costs thirty-three rubles. For example, you need half a ton [of fuel] to get to Moscow,” continues trucker Tahir. “Under Medvedev, the price of diesel went up by seven rubles and we were promised a decrease in the transportation tax. We believed them. But the tax never was decreased. And now a new tax has been introduced to boot.”
In addition to fuel, every trucker has to pay the transportation tax (around forty thousand rubles a year), insurance (around fifteen thousand rubles per run), and customs duties (if the produce hails from Iran or Azerbaijan), plus license fees and a ton of other related formalities. We should also consider that any breakdown is the driver’s responsibility. Spare parts for all trucks, whether they are Volvos or KamAZes, are expensive.
“I ran into a pothole on a dark highway in Volgograd Region. I was stuck there for a week. I paid twenty thousand rubles [for repairs]: that is about half of what I earned from the run. You cannot imagine how awful the roads are around Volgograd and Samara! And for this we have to pay more?!” relates one trucker.
But there is yet another nuance. The new road tax will inevitably lead to higher rates for cargo transportation. The truckers will be forced to include them in the cost of their services, and so prices for the goods they transport will increase nationwide.
“We do not want to do it. People here live very poorly as it is,” says the trucker Dibir. “Price have gone up at the markets in Khasavyurt. We will fight to the last. And if they do not want to hear us, we will drive to Moscow and set up camp on the Moscow Ring Road. We are used to living in field conditions.”
Translated by the Russian Reader
Further reading (in Russian):
- “Truckers Rebellion: Second Wave of Rebellion Supported in 24 Regions,” RBC, November 19, 2015
- “Stores Reports Disruptions in Delivers Due to Introduction of Levy on Trucks,” RBC, November 20, 2015
UPDATE (?) Carl Schreck, “Road Warriors: Russia Yields On New Transport Tax After Long-Haul Trucker Protests,” RFE/RL, November 20, 2015. Thanks to Comrade SC for the heads-up
I should say right at the outset that Ivan Sotnikov is one of the most highly esteemed and deeply cherished painters in Petersburg. When he was still a young man of twenty-three, the legendary Vladimir Shagin offered him one of his paintings in exchange for Sotnikov’s painting Alien (Homon LTD). Two years previously, Sotnikov had etched his name in art history along with Timur Novikov. The two friends had their picture taken in the empty aperture of a stand at a group show organized by the TEII (Society for Experimental Visual Art).
They had dubbed the picture frame, à la Malevich, the Zero Object. They turned the popular amusement of sticking one’s head through a hole—for example, the “porthole” of a plywood rocket ship—and having one’s picture taken into an avant-garde act, a nullification of routine and a relaunching of vital systems.
Sotnikov has not specialized in performance art. It has, however, been a natural consequence of his life-as-art approach. The inventor of the musical instrument known as the utyugon, on which he performed at the notorious happening that has gone down in the history books as the Medical Concert, he has perused art shows without dismounting from his bike and walked the streets with a net on his head, like a gladiator escaped from the arena. (He was then either returning from a production of The Biathlete or, on the contrary, had been walking around before showing up to the performance, giving it a much needed visual jolt.)
In one of his principal but little-known performances, he showed how life and art are indeed inseparable. In 1996, Sotnikov was ordained as a Russian Orthodox priest and some time later was assigned to a parish in the village of Rogavka, where St. Xenia of Petersburg Church had been set up in the former Blue Danube beer hall. Armed with Novikov’s recomposition method, the first thing Father Ioann did was fashion a belfry. He made the bells by cutting the bottoms off of natural gas canisters.
If we adopt a Kharmsian method of analysis, the passage through the Zero Object was a reversal of Malevich’s transformation at the 0.10 Exhibition. Sotnikov and Novikov lunged backwards from the infinite (the transfinite) through the zero into the finite (cisfinite) realm we inhabit. In the person of Ivan Sotnikov von Stackelberg, the cisfinite world has, perhaps, found its most obliging and kindred artist. Who else loves our fragile world so furiously and is able to transform it into such an intense and beautiful pictorial surface? Georgy Gurjanov once admiringly showed me new paintings by Sotnikov on the screen of his iPhone: a gorgeous baby Heracles, a boa constrictor, shampoo bottles in a bathroom, and mobile phone casings succeeded each other in no particular order like flashes of the iconosphere, like the bright blossoms of an organic imaginary.
Sotnikov, however, does not mechanically accumulate images of life. He is not a postmodernist artist-cum-recorder, but a creative transfigurer of vital impulses into a grotesque and grand panorama of interacting energies, even when it comes to the particulars and small formats. Electric light from windows slashes through the dark night like the plangent signal of a commuter train (Aeronautical Park). In a still from a TV report, a Mriya transport plane carries the Soviet space shuttle Buran, and these seemingly animated machines, as they fly through the heavens above the earth and the clouds, are something like a symbolic picture of our entire world, just as miniature books of hours once were. The burning headlights of riot police trucks crush space (Elections). Snow falls on pines and the hipped roof of Vyritsa Church, or night descends on the churchyard, day after day, one painting after another, as it were affirming the inescapability of this landscape, in which the artist’s soul was reborn. Sotnikov’s depictions of New Year’s trees are marked by such a cornucopia of form and emotion that this motif alone is revealed as an entire theatrum mundi.
This theater, it bears pointing out, is always in the realm of art. It is realized in the field of painting, whose subject is the interplay of light and volume. It is no coincidence that, despite his penchant for the grotesque, Sotnikov never depicts the inhabitants of these spaces when deploying his favorite motif of lighted windows at night. He is attracted by the glow of these seemingly blank façades in the dark. In both streams of his painterly work, paintings from life and imaginary scenes, Sotnikov is paradoxically unique while being traditional at the same time. He is modern, but his original impulse comes from within the world of art. In his landscapes and still lifes, he strives to emulate the paintings of so-called third-way Soviet artists: Georgy Rublyov, Yuri Vasnetsov, Vladimir Grinberg, Vladimir Lebedev, Nikolai Lapshin, and Vladimir Shagin. As they navigated their own paths between the ideologies of the avant-garde (constructivism) and socialist realism, these artists stubbornly keep faith in painting as the only basis of life. In his conceptual series (Cars, Computer Games, Snowflakes, Fir Trees, and so forth), Sotnikov sets his bearings on folk art. Thus, car icons in computer games acquire the status of modern pictograms, like solar signs in traditional art. While focused on the artistic tradition, Sotnikov does not delve into history, into the past, since he sees shape and texture as part of the current organic world, which draws its colors from everywhere, launching a cyclic exchange between plants and sunsets, embroidery and carving (e.g., the stone reliefs in the Montenegrin town of Kotor), pictures and, once again, forests and sunrises.
Sotnikov’s fellow “savage” painter and collaborator Oleg Kotelnikov captured the evolution of Sotnikov’s pictorial expressions best of all. In the eighties, said Kotelnikov, “He did it with his legs, but now he is doing it with his hands.” The New Artists and Kotelnikov stopped doing it with their legs circa 1987. Artists who “used to paint with mops and brooms,” according to Novikov, switched to stencils and manual work. Drawing with the legs is like having eyes in the back of one’s head or having an ear for painting. When you have this skill down pat, it is time to go back to traditional painting. Sotnikov is a rare master of organic expressionism: his work possesses the unity of a tableau vivant and reminds me of a dormant volcano. There is beautiful scenery on its slopes, but fiery lava churns in its crater, and the temperature and pressure are no lower nowadays than they were in the 1980s. His paintings Death-Defying Stunt, St. George’s Porcelain Set, and Lenin in Razliv are now among the few genuine historical witnesses of our time.
Few people manage to do in life what Father Ioann has done, I thought to myself once as I watched him storming the door of his studio and insistently muttering “I can’t get no . . .” under his breath after returning from performing mass. Rolling Stones fans get the most satisfaction from singing this song, it has been said. That is how to live the life of a painter: to never stop searching for satisfaction while repeatedly intervening in the war between heaven and earth, between life and death, and portraying the frontline—self-identity in the opening of being—so attractively.
Translated by the Russian Reader
This essay was originally written for the forthcoming catalogue of a retrospective of works by Ivan Sotnikov that will open at Novy Museum in Petersburg in mid December. My thanks to Dr. Andreyeva for permission to reprint the translation of the essay here.
Mr. Sotnikov died on November 16 and was buried yesterday, November 19, in the cemetery of Our Lady of Kazan Church in the village of Vyritsa.
AST-Moscow Statement on the Detention of Elena Bezrukova and Alexander Ognev
November 18, 2015
Police raided the Moscow flat of leftist activist Elena Bezrukova in the early morning of November 18. They searched her home, and our comrade was detained and taken to the Troparevo-Nikulino police station. As of this writing, police officers have refused to provide any information, denying that our comrade is being questioned. Police are denying her basic human rights by not allowing contact with loved ones. Attorney Dmitry Dinze has also not been allowed to see her.
Currently, the whereabouts of our comrade Alexander Ognev, the police’s principal target, are unknown. A native of Lipetsk, Ognev organized protest rallies in his hometown during the nationwide mass protests of 2011–2012. Ognev’s civic stance has come back to haunt him in way that has become common in Putinist Russia. The document exempting him from military service miraculously disappeared from his medical records, and then Ognev received a draft notice. As a conscientious objector, he ignored the call-up, after which he was summoned to the Investigative Committee for questioning. Ognev was then taken to the military recruiting office, where he was illegally detained for three days, choked, and threatened to be sent to “a unit in Dagestan from which [he] would not come back alive.” After his release, the opposition activist’s bruises were documented.
Today’s search was connected with plans to file desertion charges against Ognev. It is not clear how it is possible to desert the regular army without spending a single day in the service, but Russian investigators, who serve the criminal regime now established in the Russian Federation, have their own way of thinking, which is not accessible to ordinary citizens.
At this moment we are doing everything possible to find out what has happened to Elena and Alexander and facilitate their release. We are hoping for the best, but Russian realities are such that we should be mentally prepared for any eventuality. Now we really need the support of all libertarian activists. Circulate information and make plans for protest rallies against the latest politically motivated criminal charges, which may be filed against our allies. Remember that only the solidarity of working people can break this system, which cynically ignores basic human rights.