That Was the Year That Was, or, Hell, Upside Down

hell upside downWhenever I see something like the post I saw on Facebook a week and a half ago, containing photographic images of alleged “Russian redneck (?) culture,” I regret that I am not a mutant, alien or robot capable of translating and writing ten times more than I do on this blog, whose secret mission is to give people a glimpse of a Russian society that is smart, brave, independent minded, strong, and willing to get a few lumps on the head (or worse) to build a country that is democratic, egalitarian, LGBTQI-friendly, vigorously environmentalist, progressively urbanist, anti-xenophobic, pro-immigrant, and any number of other good things.

That is why I try and give a voice in English to some of the people trying to build that Russia or at least trying to think about building it. I am hardly very successful in that mission, since I have neither the time nor the abilities as a writer and translator to do more than gesture in this direction.

But one thing I try not to do is focus obsessively on Putin, his whys and wherefores, which is what 99% of what the so-called media do, including some alternate media, both inside and outside Russia. Putin is hardly the only problem in Russia (or the world), just as he is definitely not the real solution to any real problems. Nor are “Russian rednecks.”

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That said, I must admit I wish there were more of me to go around so as to cover larger chunks of both the scary and this encouraging parts of this beat, which are usually mixed up so thickly you cannot easily pry them apart.

Like almost all the years since 1905 or so, 2015 was a banner year in Russia for writing about “hell, upside down” and seeking out the saints, heroes, and just plain decent folk among the wreckage continuously amassing at the angel of history’s feet.

So here are the ten posts, published in 2015, that my readers read the most avidly among the 220 posts I filed over the year.

  1. “Rotenberg Is Worse than ISIS!”: Russian Truckers on Strike in Dagestan and Elsewhere (The year-ending story that the major Russian media have been trying not to cover at all.)
  2. Why Such Hatred? (The Death of Umarali Nazarov) (What happened when a totally corrupt law enforcement and immigration system took an infant Tajik boy into custody while preparing to deport his mother.)
  3. Victoria Lomasko: 18+ (A look behind the scenes of Petersburg’s lesbian scene.)
  4. The Two-State Solution (Racism and the Russian Intelligentsia) (Reflections on the tortured and often racist soul of the Russian liberal intelligentsia by Boris Akunin, Kirill Kobrin, Yegor Osipov, and Our Swimmer.)
  5. “A Home for Every Russian” (In which I refute the rather odd argument that Putinomics is really a much improved version of “actually existing socialism” when it comes to delivering affordable quality housing to the masses.)
  6. Oleg Shevkun: “I Don’t How to Trim My Sails to the Wind” (A portrait of the quiet heroism and sanity of a blind journalist in an insane time.)
  7. Syrias (Five different but complementary reflections on the beginning of Russia’s misadventure in Syria by George Losev, Greg Yudin, Alexander Feldberg, Ilya Matveev, and Bob the Australian.)
  8. “Smash the Kikes and Save Russia!” (If you are a neo-Nazi, you don’t want to have Petersburg Jewish community leader Leokadia Frenkel as your opponent.)
  9. Vlad Kolesnikov: A Real Russian Hero for Russia Day (Young Vlad Kolesnikov was recently driven to death in a provincial Russian town for facing down the madness of a society made sick by Putinism, but back in June of last year that as-yet-unknown ending was outshone by his sheer pluck.)
  10. Suffer the Little Children (In neo-imperialist countries on the warpath, the neo-imperialist brainwashing starts in kindergarten.)

Here are the five posts, originally published in previous years, that had the most staying power this past year.

  1. Don’t Leave the Room (April 2013) (An inspired bit of graffiti inspired this dubious translation of a bitter poem by one of the great Russian poets of the postwar period.)
  2. Ilya Matveev: A Word to the Wise (On Putin’s “Leftism” and Solidarity with Russians) (February 2014) (This little gem could not be reread or republished enough, but its message seems to have been lost on large swaths of the western “progressive left.”)
  3. Hanna Perekhoda: Freedom and Social Identity in the Donbas (August 2014) (A heartbreaking essay whose message seems to have been lost on folks inside and outside Eastern Ukraine.)
  4. Victoria Lomasko: A Trip to Kyrgyzstan (August 2014) (There is nothing trippier and more educational than going on a trip to former Soviet republics and the far-flung reaches of Russia with graphic reportage artist Victoria Lomasko.)
  5. Russia’s Anti-Gay Law Kills (July 2013) (This was just a little bonbon of a blog post, a translation of a news release documenting a street performance in Moscow, but if it seemed alarmist then, it seems like common sense nowadays.)

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For one reason or another, the following posts, also published in 2015, did not make my readers’ top ten this past year, but they meant the most to me.

  1. Kena Vidre: What Was Frida Vigdorova Like? (A warmly written memoir of the heroic Soviet journalist and human rights activist.)
  2. Rikhard Vasmi: Counting the Ships as They Sail Past (Pavel Gerasimenko’s perfectly rendered review of Petersburg artist and Arefiev Circle member Rikhard Vasmi’s 2015 posthumous retrospective at K Gallery + my translation of a little book Vasmi made in 1994 about life in the Port of Petersburg.)
  3. 59°54’32″N 30°29’49″E (Okkervil River) (In which four brave souls set out to find what manner of life exists on the far shore of the Okkervil River, which is a real river in southeast Petersburg, not just a compelling pop band from Austin, Texas.)
  4. “I Broke All the Laws I Could” (Leonid Nikolayev, 1984-2015) (A heartbreaking and detailed obituary of the tenderest troublemaker in the world’s largest country.)
  5. The Hipster’s Dream Debased (Portlandia) (What happens when milquetoast Putin-era hipsterism meets hyper-powered catastrophic urban redevelopment in the middle of Petrograd.)

With any luck, this blog will not lack for inspiring subject matter this coming year, either, and might even undergo some stylistic and substantive changes. We shall see.

Thanks for reading.

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A Lesson in Solidarity: With the Striking Truckers in Khimki

Tamara Eidelman
How I Gave a Lecture to Truckers
echo.msk.ru
December 26, 2015

When I informed my near and dear that I had been asked to give truckers a lecture on civil disobedience, their reactions were basically the same.

“They won’t understand a thing.”

“They support Putin and won’t give you the time of day.”

“Update your vocabulary,” someone even said to me.

“Haven’t they left yet?” asked a woman who knows her way around politics quite well.

All these statements were not very encouraging, and in any case I was badly dithering. I knew I was capable of giving interesting lectures, just not to truckers. I pictured burly men who yawned as they listened to my arguments and might even, for all I knew, shout, “Why are we listening to this? We are not interested.”

But it turned out they were interested.

My friend, who had dreamed up this whole thing, and I slowly and painfully made our way to Khimki. The shuttle bus dropped us off on the wrong side of the Mega shopping center, so we had to walk through it. Holiday lights were shining, people were hurrying to do their New Year’s shopping, but no one wondered about the big rigs parked in the parking lot.

And we still had to find the parking lot. We walked a long way through enormous spaces crammed with the cars of happy Mega and Ikea customers. Finally we saw the trucks: the word “lonely” came to mind. They were parked in the back of beyond. True, they had to be visible from the road, not far from the anti-tank obstacles, but who would see them there?

The trucks sported homemade placards reminding Rotenberg that the tire iron was under the seat. There was a New Year’s fir tree with only a few decorations on it. We were looking for Viktor with whom we had arranged the lecture. We were told Viktor was in the “cafeteria.” Oh, they had a cafeteria? The cafeteria was yet another truck, where you could have tea. We discovered only two or three fellows there. The rest had gone off to have lunch, obviously, to a more suitable place for such things. Were they really going into Mega? What did they think about the happily occupied shoppers, who had arrived as it were from another world?

We stood and chatted. It transpired we were not the only guests there. There was a bus driver who had brought a load of passengers to Mega and in the meantime had stopped by to see how things were going. It seemed it was not his first visit. He talked about how much money people who drive buses had to shell out for no reason at all.

Young women who wanted to draw what was happening at the truckers’ camp and post the drawings on Facebook showed up, as well as a woman with a camera. They said it was not their first visit, either, and that there were even old women who brought the lads borscht.

Meanwhile, the guys had started to gather. They really were big and strapping, and I found it hard to picture them listening to the lecture. But as soon as Viktor said the lecturer had arrived, they immediately happily formed a circle round me and listened.

I told them about Parnell and the first boycott in the world, against Captain Boycott, about how the landlords in Ireland had pitilessly raised the rents and complaining was useless.

“It conjures up certain associations,” commented one of the listeners. “Only there is no point in boycotting Rotenberg.”

“Hang on and let us listen. This is interesting,” the others said, stopping him short.

I looked around and could see they really were interested.

I saw I was surrounded not by ferocious wild men, but by attentive listeners with intelligent faces. I continued.

We moved on to Gandhi. The interest grew. The slogan “fill the prisons” provoked healthy mirth. One of the men was told he would be their Gandhi and would go to prison first. Another man asked whether there was not a difference between Russia and India: in Russia, where so many people had perished in Stalin’s camps, it would hardly be possible to fill the prisons. He was told that no one was forcing him to go to prison: he was just being told how things had been in the past. Someone immediately said they did not have to repeat what had already been done, but could come up with something of their own.

We had an intense discussion of what exactly they could come up with. This was the problem. So far they had not come up with anything than blocking the road to Moscow, and even then far from everyone agreed with this plan. The drivers gathered in Khimki were supposedly supported by their comrades in dozens of regions, but the majority was inclined to “wait and see.”

Discussions broke out after almost every sentence. Meanwhile, Shamil, an intelligent-looking Dagestani, and Sergei, a short, energetic man, had joined us. Everyone had his or her say. Someone said it was a pity that his schoolteacher, Raisa Demyanovna, had not talked about things as emotionally as I was.

The conversation became more and more relaxed. When I said that Gandhi had called on his supporters to refrain from sex, everyone gleefully hooted that I was talking about them, that they had long refrained from sex. All of them had very unhappy wives waiting at home, some of whom had threatened divorce. They had no money and their husbands were away from home, so of course you could understand them. Some of the men had gone home, while others said they could not, because “what would the guys say.”

We segued to Martin Luther King. The story of the busy boycott by Montgomery’s Negro population elicited cheers of approval.

“That’s great! They hit them in their wallets!”

Sergei commenced on a fairly coherent account of Gandhi, but he was interrupted and told the “speaker” had just told them about Gandhi.

The questions rained down one after the other. Of course they mainly boiled down to the famous “What is to be done?” We tried to discuss how to break through the media blackout. Some said we had to establish a public television channel.

“Do you have a website?” I asked.

It turned out a site was being created.

Everyone unanimously chewed out Channel One. Everyone wanted more lectures. Everyone was interested.

An hour later we said goodbye. We were asked to come back again, and we promised to do it.

We headed back home, our emotions overflowing. What a joy it had been to converse with completely sane, intelligent, energetic people, to establish a rapport with them, to see the look in their eyes, and hear their questions.

I would love for them to get an answer to the question “What is to be done?” I would love it if as many people as possible went to see them, if they did not feel worthless and abandoned on New Year’s Day, if they won.

By the by, as for the issue of “updating my vocabulary,” not a single truck driver swore even once when I was there.

And the man who asked about Stalin’s camps also asked me why I thought that, unlike in Europe, each new Russian regime wanted to “bend” us. I said there was a really long answer, but I would give the short answer: because we put up with it. Everyone applauded.

Tamara Eidelman is an Honored Teacher of the Russian Federation and a historian.

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Truckers
Anatrrra
LiveJournal.Com
December 26, 2015

Yura, Mikhail, Anatoly, Andrei, and Vitya are all truckers and arrived in Moscow from different cities almost a month ago. After an unsuccessful attempt to paralyze the Moscow Ring Road, they are stuck in a parking lot in Khimki. They can leave if they like, but the police will not let them back. In Khimki, almost all the protesters against the Plato toll payment system are individual entrepreneurs. After making all the various deductions, their take-home income is around 20,000 rubles a month [approx. 250 euros]. If they earn even less, they won’t have enough to feed their families, and some of them have three or even four children. This is their first large-scale protest and coordinating with their brother and sister drivers has not been so easy, because it is a big country and very few of them know each other personally. There were many provocateurs at the beginning, and the know-how of cooperating accumulates only gradually in a new protest arena. “The economy must be changed” is a phrase that you hear them saying along with disappointed remarks about the government and those commentators who depict them as savages. In fact, it is very pleasant and interesting to converse with the truckers in Khimki. They are interested in lots of things and are open to communication. And they need support. In addition to information support they mainly need diesel fuel, 300 liters a day. One Moscow activist showed up with his own canister. Everyone can do this: you don’t have to have your own car. So let’s support the truckers both emotionally and materially!

"Plato came online and the price of bread went up."
“Plato came online and the price of bread went up.”

"Russia's independent media: Russia 24, Channel One, NTV" / Truckers with placard: "No to Plato!"

"Russia's independent media: Russia 24, Channel One, NTV" / Truckers with placard: "No to Plato!"
“Russia’s independent media: Russia 24, Channel One, NTV” / Truckers with placard: “No to Plato!”
"Remember, Rotenberg: the tire iron is under the seat."
“Remember, Rotenberg: the tire iron is under the seat.”
Tamara Eidelman (center; see her account, above) in discussion with the truckers in Khimki, December 26, 2015.
Tamara Eidelman (center; see her account, above) in discussion with the truckers in Khimki, December 26, 2015.
Victoria Lomasko (top right) making a graphic reportage of the proceedings (see below), Khimki, December 26, 2015.
Victoria Lomasko (top right), producing a graphic reportage of the proceedings (see below), Khimki, December 26, 2015.

To see the rest of Anatrrra’s photo reportage, go to her LiveJournal blog.

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Victoria Lomasko
From A Chronicle of a Troubled Time

Compared to A Chronicle of Resistance, which I compiled in 2011-2012, this is a more modest series. I have neither the drive nor the resources to regularly document protests, nor are there inspiring scenes of rallies attended by hundreds of thousands of people, but there are certain kinds of pressure groups I still want to sketch.

What do they have in common?

  • The people involved are self-organized and there is a lack of obvious leaders.
  • The people involved constantly emphasize they are “normal, ordinary people, remote from politics.”
  • They have specific social demands, caused by a violation of their rights.

Notable examples are the protests by residents of the Moose Island (Losinoostrovsky) District of Moscow against the construction of a church in Torfyanka Park and the protest by truckers. The protest camp in Torfyanka and the truckers’ camp in Khimki continue to function.

Andrei, a trucker from Petersburg: "After the New Year everyone will wake up, but the truckers in Khimki will be gone. We need support now." Placards on truck: "No to Plato" and "I'm against toll roads."
Andrei, a trucker from Petersburg: “After the New Year everyone will wake up, but the truckers in Khimki will be gone. We need support now.” Placards on truck: “No to Plato” and “I’m against toll roads.”
Dmitry, an activist from Torfyanka: "The authorities are put too much pressure on people. There is an idea of linking this protest with the one in Torfyanka." Placard on truck: "I want to feed the wife and kids, not oligarchs."
Dmitry, an activist from Torfyanka: “The authorities are put too much pressure on people. There is an idea of linking this protest with the one in Torfyanka.” Placard on truck: “I want to feed the wife and kids, not oligarchs.”
Anatoly, a trucker from Petersburg: "I have two loans, the apartment is mortgaged, and three kids . . . I am not interested in politics: let me work!!!" Placard on back of truck: "Remember, Rotenberg: the tire iron is under the seat."
Anatoly, a trucker from Petersburg: “I have two loans, the apartment is mortgaged, and three kids . . . I am not interested in politics: let me work!!!” Placard on back of truck: “Remember, Rotenberg: the tire iron is under the seat.”
Tamara, a teacher and historian (left): "My acquaintances tried to scare me that truckers were zombies." Man in black hat (right): "They don't even know us."
Tamara, a teacher and historian (left): “My acquaintances tried to scare me that truckers were zombies.” Man in black hat (right): “They don’t even know us.”
 Tamara (left): "Would you like me to lecture about trade unions next time?" Man in white coat (right): "Sure! And for you to dress warmer." Truckers' camp, Khimki, December 26, 2015.

Tamara (left): “Would you like me to lecture about trade unions next time?” Man in white coat (right): “Sure! And dress warmer.” Truckers’ camp, Khimki, December 26, 2015.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Anatrrra and Victoria Lomasko for their kind permission to reproduce their work here.