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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