I’ll Show You the Life of the Mind

the life of the mind
Screenshot of a virtual tour of the Spiridonov Mansion (1895-1896) aka the Baby Palace (since 1965), located at Furshtatskaya Street, 58, in central Petrograd. The room depicted here is known as the Oriental Room. Thanks to Comrade KK for the heads-up

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The Man Behind Dialogues: The FSB Are Listening to Us Now 
The creator of the project Dialogues, which has been shut down, explained to Fontanka.ru why he wants to start it up again at another public venue and why he is not leaving Russia
Elena Kuznetsova
Fontanka.ru
June 27, 2016

Nikolai Solodnikov. Courtesy of Open Library

Nobel Laureate Svetlana Aleksievich, musician Diana Arbenina, animator Garri Bardin, Deacon Andrei Kurayev, journalist Yulia Latynina, and poet Vera Polozkova are just a few of the celebrities who have been guests of the project Dialogues at Petersburg’s Mayakovsky Library. Hundreds of Petersburgers have attended the discussions in person, while even more have watched the live broadcasts on various media websites.

The project, which was run by Nikolai Solodnikov, former deputy general director of the Mayakovsky Library, on a voluntary basis, was shut down yesterday, June 26, after the FSB came to the library and carried out searches. One hypothesis is that the security forces were interested in the political activism of Dialogues. Another hypothesis is it was Solodnikov’s frequent visits to Latvia that bothered them. Fontanka.ru contacted the man behind Dialogues to set the record straight. 

Nikolai, if they were in your shoes, many other people would be in Latvia by now. Where are you now?

For reasons of safety, I cannot answer the question.

Meaning you are not in Russia?

All I can say is that I am not in Latvia. [In the background, a voice announcing flights can be heard—Fontanka.ru.]

After the incident with the FSB did you have thoughts of leaving the country?

I am Russian. I do my projects in Russian for Russians. I cannot imagine myself as a political émigré, and I have no plans to leave Russia.

You have said the FSB had been putting pressure on Dialogues for a year and a half. Why did you decide to shut the project down only yesterday?

Different things overlapped. The elections and the fact we had been spending a lot of time in Latvia, where Katya [Solodnikov’s wife Katerina Gordeeva, journalist and co-organizer of DialoguesFontanka.ru] had our fifth child. It is not the children who bother them, of course. They are annoyed by the Open Lecture project we have been doing in Riga, Tel Aviv, and Odessa. And they had been combating Dialogues, in fact. So now things boiled over and exploded.

Meaning that if there had been no searches, Dialogues would have continued?

Of course. I hope it will continue, only not at the Mayakovsky Library. Because what is it like for the elderly ladies who make up the core of the library’s employees to go through interrogations and seizures of equipment? That would be incredibly heartless.

Surely after yesterday’s announcement you have already received proposals to move the project to another location.

Private organizations have had some ideas, but I haven’t considered them yet. I am still hoping we can gather in a space where very different people in terms of views, age, and social status can come.

Are you implying the next venue for Dialogues will also be public?

I really hope so. I am a citizen of the Russian Federation, and the people who attend our events are citizens of the Russian Federation. We are, in fact, the Russian people, who have the right to gather in public cultural institutions.

Public institutions have a hard time accepting the opposition agenda, which Dialogues, in particular, supported.

I am not an opposition activist. I am someone who deals with education and awareness. Teaching was my first occupation. I taught for a long time, and I hope I will teach again in the future. The only thing I can do is teach people to talk to each other while maintaining different points of view.

We are speaking via Skype now. Before that you called from a new number.

Tell me straight that the Federal Security Service (FSB) is eavesdropping on us. When you call me, something clicks and hums on your end.

Before yesterday, did you have any sense that the security forces were following you personally?

Since May of last year [when Ukrainian politician Mustafa Nayyem was supposed to speak at Dialogues, but the trip was canceled—Fontanka.ru] I have had no doubt that all my phones have been tapped. Although I think they have not been following me. I have no documents or evidence, but I do have the sense they have been listening in on me.

“Aside from land we have no real estate in Latvia”

You resigned from the Mayakovsky Library yesterday. How will it affect the career of the library’s director, Zoya Chalova?

I really hope things will be a bit easier for her.

We tried to call her, but to no avail. There is no sense that Chalova supports you at all.

She is the director of a public institution. That says it all. I am very grateful to her for the entire time we worked together. She is one of the bricks in the wall who helped deter the people who carried out the search on Thursday and interrogated the librarians.

Cultural functionaries, including Konstantin Sukhenko, head of the Petersburg Municipal Culture Committee, have said that Zoya Chalova did not know what the sources of financing for Dialogues were, and she was very worried about it.

She knew what they were from day one of the project.  I have always said this, and I have said it repeatedly to Fontanka.ru: Dialogues is financed solely by Katya and me, meaning the salary I earned at the Mayakovsky Library, 43,000 rubles a month, and what Katya earns. Together, we have tried to combine what we have, borrow money here and there, and ask friends to pay for our guests’ tickets and accommodation. No oligarchs have been involved.

Can you name at least a few of the friends who have supported the project?

Nikolai Solodnikov and Katerinia Gordeeva. That is quite enough.

In addition to financing, the FSB were interested in your links to Latvia. Apparently, the Chekists [sic] assumed that you were not merely spending time there, but living there as well.

We have five children, aged six years to one and half months. We left in late 2015, because Katya was going to have our fifth child.  The heating main opposite our house on Chaikovsky Street was turned off. In November, the hot water and light were being turned off every other day. It was impossible to live with small children in a flat with no water and electricity. We decided to temporarily relocate to Riga so that Katya could finish her pregnancy in peace and give birth.

Do you have a residence permit or property abroad?

Everybody knows that three or four years ago Katya bought a small plot of land in Latvia to obtain a residence permit. We did this and, in accordance with the law, immediately informed the Russian Federal Migration Service about it.

You haven’t built a house yet?

No, except for the land, we have no property in Latvia.

How did you feel working at a public library? After all, it is almost like the civil service, but at the same time you had a residence permit in another country.

I felt great. My wish is that all other worthy people had a residence permit while not parting with their Russian passports for any reason. A residence permit makes it easier to get around the world: you don’t have to apply endlessly for visas.

But the FSB sees this as a certain duality and contradiction.

There are some not very healthy people working there, but there are also normal people. Just as there are more people than Sukhenko working in the municipal culture department. By the way, many Petersburg municipal officials also have resident permits abroad.

Getting back to Dialogues, if the project would have continued in the old format, what would have its future been?

We thought we would do Dialogues monthly at least until the end of 2016. We worked like bees, regularly inviting new guests.

What did you feel yesterday when you were told the project was over?

A huge amount of work has been done, and it is sad when it ends this way. But we are going to go forward. There are people who support us. We will cope.

Our conversation is now being constantly interrupted by other calls. Who is calling?

Your journalist colleagues.

You have probably been getting many expressions of support. What matters most?

What matters most is that Katya and I really support each other in these circumstances.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The Package

"My grandfather was imprisoned for a joke, while I'll go to jail for a repost."
“My grandfather was imprisoned for a joke, while I’ll be going to jail for a repost.”

Varya Mikhaylova
Facebook
June 24, 2016

As you know, the so-called Yarovaya package, a series of flagrantly repressive amendments to the Russian Federal Criminal Code, whose official aim is combating terrorism, was passed today by the State Duma in its third and final reading.

You can read here why this is bad:


Aleksandra Ermilova and I summarized the worst things about these amendments and went to Nevsky Prospect to hand out leaflets. Or rather, I handed out the leaflets, while Sasha stood holding a remarkable autobiographical placard [pictured, above].

This is what we wrote in the leaflets:

IF YOU DON’T INFORM YOU’LL GO TO JAIL
An article on non-informing has been added to the Criminal Code. “Failure to report a crime” will entail a sentence of up to one year in prison. This law applies to such crimes as terrorism, seizure of power, and attempts on the life of a public official.

ALL YOUR COMMUNICATIONS WILL BE SAVED AND READ
Monitoring of correspondence has been toughened. Records of all your telephone calls, SMS messages, and emails will be saved for six months, and the security forces will be provided with the means to decode encrypted communications.

YOUR PACKAGES WILL BE VETTED
Postal workers will now be obliged to search vigorously for prohibited items in our packages: money, narcotics, weapons, explosives, and “other devices that pose a threat to human life and health.”

YOU INVITED A FRIEND TO A PROTEST RALLY, YOU GO TO JAIL
The Criminal Code will now include an article on “inducing, recruiting or otherwise involving” someone in organizing a “riot.” The law stipulates a penalty of 300,000 to 700,000 rubles or a prison sentence of five to ten years.

YOU REPOST THE “WRONG” THING, YOU GO TO JAIL
The punishments for “extremist” entries, reposts, and comments on the web have been toughened. Despite the fact that freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Russian Constitution, you can now be fined from 300,000 to 500,000 rubles or sent to prison for two to five years for making certain statements. By the way, 369 people were convicted of “enciting hatred by means of the Internet” in 2015.

YOU’RE STILL A KID? YOU’RE GOING TO JAIL ANYWAY
14-year-olds will now be tried as adults not only for serious crimes but also for involvement in riots and non-informing.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The End of the World

Czeslaw Milosz
A Song on the End of the World

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.

Warsaw, 1944

Translated, from the Polish, by Anthony Milosz

Source


Photographs by the Russian Reader

Valery Brinikh: A Surprise Witness

George Orwell, writer: "The further a society drifts from the truth the more it will hate those who speak it."
“George Orwell, writer: ‘The further a society drifts from the truth the more it will hate those who speak it.'” Image from Valery Brinikh’s Facebook page

Valery Brinikh
Facebook
June 25, 2016

Hello!

The latest hearing in my criminal trial took place on June 24, but it was no run-of-the-mill hearing. When, last week, the court turned down defense attorney Andrei Sabinin’s motion to examine a linguistics expert from the beautiful beyond via videoconferencing (although, literally right before this, two prosecution witnesses from Krasnodar had been examined in this manner), neither the prosecutors nor the judge suspected that soon they would have the honor of gazing at this linguistics expert in person. We provided them with this pleasure.

The linguistics expert smashed the so-called findings of official state expert Sergei Fedyayev to smithereens. She immediately pointed out that Fedyayev had violated the fundamental methodological principles of forensic examinations for identifying signs of extremism. First, such forensic examinations should be comprehensive, involving not only a linguist but also a psychologist and, better yet, a sociologist or political scientist (if social groups are at issue). By definition, a linguist cannot cope with all these tasks alone. Nor did linguistic expert Fedyayev cope with his task. His analysis of the article “The Silence of the Lambs” skids on the sharp turns like a Volga car. Hence the large number of mistakes and simple linguistic blunders he made, producing findings that were not only at odds with the principles of linguistics but also with common sense.

During her testimony, our expert pointed to a number of instances where Fedyayev clearly went beyond his competence as a linguist by giving legal evaluations of individual passages in “The Silence of the Lambs” and thus infringing on the court’s realm of responsibility. In addition, his findings contain a definition of the concept of a “group,” something only a sociologist or political scientist is competent to define. The Russian Supreme Court has directly ruled it is inadmissible to define the authorities (state officials) as a “social group.” But what does the Russian Supreme Court mean to Fedyayev when the Adygea Supreme Court is dealing the cards? Fedyayev’s analysis also contains probabilistic conclusions (i.e., dealing with the realm of possibility), which are inadmissible in a linguistic forensic examination.

Apologizing to the judge for infringing on legal issues, our expert noted that the article does not oppose one group to another, one nation to another, and that there is no evidence of incitement to enmity and hatred on ethnic and other grounds in the text.

Our expert also testified that lexical-semantic and lexical-stylistic methods should be used in analyzing the text, while the huge number of other methods listed by Fedyayev either were not employed or were superfluous. In particular, by not using conceptual analysis, Fedyayev was led to erroneous conclusions.

The overall conclusion of the linguistics expert we called to the stand in Maykop City Court yesterday was that the article “The Silence of the Lambs” was highly critical and chockablock with negative assessments of the authorities and the hog breeding business, but there was nothing in the article that could interpreted as inciting enmity and hatred. In particular, she pointed out to the court that the words “Adyghe” and “Adygean” are encountered in different contexts in the article, testifying to the fact that the author distinguishes between the notions, using them in the article to denote different things. While the word “Adyghe” clearly refers to an ethnicity, “Adygean” has several meanings, one of them being a resident of Adygea, without reference to his or her ethnicity, as in krasnodarets, sochinets, stavropolets, and so on. [That is, the Russian terms for residents of Krasnodar, Sochi, and Stavropol, respectively.—TRR.]

What mattered to me was our expert’s answer to the question of whether it was possible, having received an unfamiliar text in the morning, to carry out a forensic examination of it by the evening of the same day and discover grounds for suspecting the text of extremism by using linguistic methods. My question was prompted by the fact that on September 15, 2014, Fedyayev, at the request of the FSB’s regional office in the Republic of Adygea, conducted a linguistic examination of the article “The Silence of the Lambs” in ten hours, and his memorandum to this effect (not even an expert opinion) was the grounds for the Maykop City Court (Judge Irina Ramazanova, presiding) ruling that the article was extremist. Later, on the basis of the very same memorandum, whipped up in a single workday, the very same Fedyayev wrote up the expert findings that served as the basis for my indictment on criminal charges.

The conclusion of the expert we called to the stand was unequivocal: it would be impossible. Sometimes, explained the expert, who is a past master at linguistic and comprehensive forensic examinations, analysis of a single sentence might take three hours. So, personally, she takes two weeks to perform such examinations.

In general, the testimony or, rather, the lecture by the linguistics expert we called to the stand was so thorough that neither the judge nor the prosecutors could think of anything substantive to ask her. Thus, by presenting critical reviews of Fedyayev’s forensic examination, we have drawn a thick line under it, making it completely impossible for it to be used as evidence for the prosecution in the criminal case against me.

The next hearing has been scheduled for 2:15 p.m. on July 4. Most likely, we will file a motion to have the forensic examination redone, asking this time for a comprehensive, rather than linguistic, examination.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Please read my previous posts on the extremism case against Adygean environmentalist Valery Brinikh.

Image courtesy of Twitter
Image courtesy of Twitter

Karl Liebknecht, Warmonger

Petersburgers have lately been up in arms over a decision, by the municipal toponymic commission, to name a newish bridge over the Duderhof Canal, amid the new estates in the city’s far southwest, the Akhmat Kadyrov Bridge. The decision was recently confirmed by the city’s governor, Georgy Poltavchenko.

Little do Petersburgers suspect (or, rather, care) that for almost the past one hundred years they have been living cheek by jowl with a munitions plant named in memory of German socialist and anti-militarist Karl Liebknecht. TRR

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[Modern militarism] wants neither more nor less than the squaring of the circle; it arms the people against the people itself; it is insolent enough to force the workers . . . to become oppressors, enemies and murderers of their own class comrades and friends, of their parents, brothers, sisters and children, murderers of their own past and future. It wants to be at the same time democratic and despotic, enlightened and machine-like, at the same time to serve the nation and to be its enemy.
—Karl Liebknecht

Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant JSC. Photo by the Russian Reader

Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant JSC is a leading machine-building enterprise of the military-industrial complex, supplying the army’s demand for empty armor-piercing tank ammunition shell casings.

The company manufactures advanced products for military use, popular on the international arms market, works on state defense orders and in cooperation with other plants, and produces non-military products and consumer goods.

snaryad

The Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant is the only company in Northwest Russia specializing in the production of artillery shell casings.

We successfully execute important state commissions and make a significant contribution to the defensive power of our country and friendly nations.

Source: Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant JSC. Photo courtesy of the company’s website. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Russia is interesting from this point of view. The high state of tension in its international position has forced it to introduce universal military service, while as an Asiatic-Despotic state it is faced with an unequalled internal conflict. The internal enemy of Tsarism is not only the proletariat, but also the great mass of the peasantry and bourgeoisie, even indeed a large part of the nobility. Ninety-nine per cent of Russian soldiers are by class position bitter enemies of Tsarist despotism. A low level of culture, national and religious conflicts, and also contradictions in economic and social interests, together with the more or less subtle pressure exercised by the extensive bureaucratic apparatus as well as the unfavourable local organization, the inadequately developed transport system and other things: all these represent an important check on the development of class-consciousness. There exists a much attacked system of elite troops, who are provided with every facility: the gendarmerie, for example, and especially the Cossacks, which effectively constitute a special social class on account of their good pay and other material provision, of their extensive political privileges, and of the arrangement by which they live in a semi-socialist community; they are thus closely bound in an artificial way to the ruling classes. In this way Tsarism tries to secure a sufficient number of loyal supporters to offset the ferment which has penetrated deep into the ranks of the army. And to all this, to these “watchdogs” of Tsarism, there must be added the Circassians, and other barbarian peoples living in the empire of the fist, who were loosed over the land like a pack of wolves in the Baltic counter-revolution, together with all the other numberless parasites on Tsarism, the police and their accomplices, and the hooligans and black hundreds.

But if in the bourgeois-capitalist states the army based on universal military service and designed as a weapon against the proletariat represents a frightful and bizarre contradiction, the army based on the same system under the despotic Tsarist system of government is a weapon which is necessarily turned more and more with crushing weight against the Tsarist despotism itself. The experiences of the anti-militarist movement in Russia can therefore only be applied to the bourgeois-capitalist states with the greatest of care. And if the efforts of the ruling classes of capitalism in the bourgeois-capitalist states to bribe the people to fight against itself—to a great extent indeed with money actually taken from the people—are finally doomed to failure, we already see before our very eyes how the desperate and pitiable attempts of Tsarism to buy off the revolution by bribery are suffering a rapid and wretched fiasco in the tragic world of Russian finance, in spite of all the attempts of unscrupulous international capital to save the régime. The question of financial loans is certainly an important one, at least for the tempo of the revolution. But if the revolutions cannot easily be made, it is even less easy to buy them off, even with the means available to the big capitalists of the world.

Source: Karl Liebknecht, Militarism & Anti-Militarism 

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Our Company
When it was founded on October 15, 1911, Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant JSC was called the Parviainen Russian Society for the Manufacture of Shells and Military Supplies. Subsequently, it had a number of other names featuring the phrase “Karl Liebknecht Mechanical Plant.” By decree of the Council of People’s Commissars, the company was nationalized on June 28, 1918. In different periods of its history, the plant has been part of the Soviet Ministry of Machine Building (First Chief Directorate), the Department of Munitions and Special Chemicals at the Ministry of Industry, the Committee on the Russian Defense Industry, and the Russian Ministry of Defense Industries (from 1992), the Russian Federal Economics Ministry (from 1997), the Russian Munitions Agency (from 2000), and the Department of Munitions and Special Chemicals at the Russian Industrial Agency of the Ministry of Industry and Energy. From August 2008 to the present, the company has been been overseen by the Department of the Conventional Weapons, Ammunition, and Special Chemicals Industry in the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

Source: Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant JSC. Translated by the Russian Reader

 klmp-1
Modern-day street view of the Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant. Courtesy of Citywalls.ru
klmp-2
“Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant JSC.” Sign at the plant’s main entrance. Courtesy of Citywalls.ru
“No one is forgotten, and nothing is forgotten.” Part of a memorial to plant workers killed during WWII, in the plant’s courtyard. Courtesy of Citywalls.ru
Another monument, without a signature (perhaps the founder of the factory).
“Another monument, without a legend [sic], (perhaps the founder of the factory),” writes “liubliupiter,” the user who shot and posted these photos of the plant and its premises. Courtesy of Citywalls.ru
klmp-5
Ironically, the brother and sister-in-law of the plant’s founder, I. Parviainen, Peter and Anna Parviainen, sheltered Vladimir Lenin at their house in the village of Jalkala, near the resort town of Terijoki, just across the then Russian-Finnish border, in August 1917, when the Provisional Government put out a warrant for Lenin’s arrest. Likely as not, however, this is probably not a monument to Peter Parviainen’s industrialist brother, but to Karl Liebknecht, of course. Courtesy of Citywalls.ru
The revamped Karl Liebknecht Plant of the future. Courtesy of Wikimedia
An illustration of a revamped Karl Liebknecht Plant of the future. Courtesy of Wikimedia

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Resolution Adopted by an Assembly of Workers at the Old Parviainen Plant, April 13, 1917

We, the 2,500 workers of the Old Parviainen Plant, having gathered on April 13 for a general plant assembly and discussed the current situation, have resolved as follows:

1) We demand the removal of the Provisional Government, which acts only as a brake on the revolutionary cause, and hand over power to the Soviets [sic] of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies;

2) Relying on the revolutionary proletariat, the Soviet [sic] of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies must put an end to this war [my emphasis], which has benefited only the capitalists and landlords and weakened the forces of the revolutionary people;

3) We demand the Provisional Government immediately publish the secret military agreements entered into by the previous government with the Allies;

4) That a Red Guard be organized and all the people armed;

5) We protest the issuing of the so-called Liberty Loan, which actually serves to subjugate rather than liberate;

6) That the printing presses of all the bourgeois newspapers leading the campaign of hatred against the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies and the workers’ press be requisitioned and handed over for use by workers’ newspapers;

7) Pending the requisition of the printing presses, the following newspapers should be boycotted: The Russian Will, The New Times, The Evening Times, Speech, The Day, The Little Newspaper, The Kopeck, The Living Word, The Modern Word, The Petrograd Gazette, The Petrograd Leaflet, The Petrograd Newspaper, and Unity;

8) We protest against England’s interference in our domestic affairs and the detention of emigrants;

9) That all food products be requisitioned for the needs of the masses, and fixed prices be set for all consumer goods;

10) That peasant committees immediately seize manorial, demesne, imperial, and monastic lands, and the tools of productions be handed over to the workers;

11) We protest the withdrawal of revolutionary troops from Petrograd;

12) That it be recognized the Provisional Government can in no way arrange for the issuing of pensions to former ministers and their families, indigenous enemies of the people.

Source: media.ssu.samara.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader

The so-called Old Parviainen Plant was located on the Vyborg Embankment. Correspondingly, the so-called New Parviainen Plant, the current Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant, was located on Chugunnaya Street, roughly two kilometers to the east. TRR

Source: Wikipedia

800_dda70a6bc346eadcf94e36e4977d48be
The Red Guard of the Old Parviainen Factory, circa 1917. Courtesy of Fotografii starogo Sankt-Peterburga (Photographs of Old Saint Petersburg)

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Landwehr Canal, Berlin

The canal where they drowned Rosa
L., like a stubbed out papirosa,
Has almost virtually gone wild.
So many roses have moldered since that time,
It is no mean feat to stun the tourists.
The wall, concrete forerunner of Christo,
Runs from city to calf and cow
Through fields blood has scoured.
A factory smokes like a cigar.
And the outlander pulls up the native gal’s
Frock not like a conqueror,
But like a finicky sculptor,
Getting ready to unveil
A statue fated to live a while
Longer than the reflection in the canal
Where Rosa was canned.

Source: Radio Svoboda. Translated by the Russian Reader

800px-RosaLuxemburg2a
Rosa Luxemburg memorial at the site where she was thrown—either dead or alive—into the Landwehr Canal, Berlin. Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Stability Pit, or, Bend Them like Gandhi

Screenshot of a photograph on the website of the Debt Collection Development Center. The photograph was taken during a conference on debt collection. Source: Tsentr razvitiia kollektorstva
Screenshot of a photograph found on the website of the Debt Collection Development Center. The photograph was taken during a conference on debt collection. The man in glasses displayed on the screen is identified as “M. Gandhi.” Source: Tsentr razvitiia kollektorstva

Russia in the Pit of Stability
The state has disclaimed all liability for the country’s future
Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina
Moskovsky Komsomolets
June 22, 2016

The country has been handed the bill for Crimea, Donbass, and “stability.” The bill includes unemployment, poverty, and hopelessness. The petrodollar dolce vita is over. The only things growing now in Russia are prices, taxes, and utility bills, while incomes, purchasing power, and the standard of living are falling. Nineteen million Russians live below the poverty line. Yet the minimum monthly cost of living in Moscow is 14,413 rubles [approx. 200 euros], and 9,452 rubles nationwide, meaning that a huge number of people who are not officially poor are barely making ends meet. Thirty-nine percent of families do not have spare cash; they spend their entire incomes on groceries. The worst thing is that these people cannot afford to buy not only things but also medicines. Almost fifty percent of the population suffers from structural hunger. And that is not is the limit: the crisis is not over yet.

On the other hand, no one in the government has been sacked, there has not been a single bankruptcy on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires, and the number of dollar millionaires in Russia has not changed. “We picked the sweet berries together, but the bitter berries I pick alone”?

“Berries Are Sweet,” a song from the film Earthly Love (Yevgeny Matveev, dir., 1974)

The propagandists have, of course, been trying to powder the ugly picture with “poll results” claiming that eighty percent of Russians consider themselves happy, ninety-four percent look to the future with optimism, and eighty-two percent support the president’s policies. Not even the most desperately optimistic patriots believe in this anymore, however. Universal jingoistic boldness has given way to a heavy hangover, and instead of talk about Russia getting up from its knees, you more often hear the saying, “It won’t be worse than the nineties.”

It will be worse. In the nineties, it was only the free hand of the market that suffocated ordinary folk, but now the market will be reinforced by the strong arm of the state. More and more new taxes will be introduced: on property, land, vehicles, securities, and anything that moves. More and more bureaucratic dodges will be devised so the state can get its share, but from everyone and for nothing. There will be more and more new construction projects whose price tags will be doubled or trebled so the “elite” can maintain their prosperity. Phrases like “Crimea tax,” “payment for an extractive economy and decades of incompetent sloth,” and “money for officials and security forces” will be inscribed in invisible ink on each new levy, requisition, and massive construction project.

Sensitive to change, since they have something to lose, and quick off the mark, because they are able to leave, the middle class has quickly realized that hard times are coming. Since the introduction of sanctions, its ranks have thinned: some have been ruined, while others have fled. Even before the crisis, the regime did everything it could to make doing business more or less honestly in Russia unprofitable. Even the sanctions and promises to support domestic producers have changed nothing. Those who steal have it good, those who work have it bad, and the smaller the business, the more it gets fleeced. Due to the government’s anti-western rhetoric, many entrepreneurs who do business with other countries also got scared they would be targeted with everything from travel bans to confiscations of money and property. Hedging their bets, they have taken refuge in the Baltic countries, where it is easy to get a residence permit, as well as in Europe, Asia, and even Latin America. So many economic emigrants have left the country in recent years that we could speak of “economic steamships” bearing them out of the country. Many have purchased citizenships in other countries, and many of those people plan to renounce their Russian citizenships due to the passage of new laws. (The question of whether Russia needs such citizens and whether we should mourn their departure is beyond the scope of the article.)

But what will happen to those people who stay here? Will the nineties seem like a piece of cake to them?

People had no money in the nineties, but neither they did have any debt. Today, around thirty-eight million people have outstanding bank loans. This is fifty-nine percent of the working population, and it excludes people in debt to semi-underground micro lenders. Moreover, eight million people have at least three outstanding loans, and every sixth person has no way to pay back his or her debts. More than half the loans taken out in 2016 were used to pay off outstanding loans. In addition, people raised on the ideology of consumption cannot kick the credit habit even in hard time. Impoverished and unemployed, they mechanically keep on acquiring debt, using the money they have left to buy appliances or a trip to a resort, thus getting bogged down ever deeper in debt. The laws are written in the interests of the banks, and the inaction of the police and the connivance of the authorities favor the debt collectors. Banks get away with things mere mortals could not get away with. Billions are spirited out of the country annually using crooked banking schemes, and these crimes go to trial only in exceptional cases. It is one thing, however, to move capital abroad and not returns millions in loans to the treasury. It is almost a safe thing to do.

It is another matter not to give back a bank 100,000 rubles on time. True, a law regulating the work of debt collectors has finally been passe. As of 2017, absolutely criminal methods of forcing people to pay their debts will be prohibited. The law is quite timely, but you can count on laws only in countries where they are obeyed. Debt collection will thus shift from the legal realm to the semi-legal realm. Instead of official bank employees, debtors will now be getting visits from shaven-headed wise guys who supposedly have no connection to the banks.

By the way, bailiffs have recently been permitted to garnish the bank accounts of debtors. No one could care less whether you need the money for a life-or-death operation or you have a whole house of children to feed. The bank needs the money more than you do. The more the debt burden of the population increases, the more such measures will be adopted to help banks get their money back.

In the nineties, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, utility rates had not yet skyrocketed, and people could put off paying bills for years on end, until better times. There were no methods of debt collection, and besides, the housing and utilities sector had not yet been divvied up among contractors, many of whom are now in the hands of officials and their “subsidiaries,” only minus any government liability.

Nowadays, people who are overdue paying their utility bills for a couple of months are threatened with having their gas, electricity, water, and heating turned off, sued in court (which in Russia is always on the side of the strong), and can legally be evicted from their apartments. The regime, of course, serves the interests of the property management companies by increasing fines and simplifying debt collection procedures. Trying to carve up a meager budget, people wonder whether to pay the utility bills or make their loan payments. They base their decision on whom they fear most: the extortionists from the utility companies or the gangsters from the banks. The water and the power will probably not be turned off nationwide, but targeted outages and evictions will definitely kick off, and the most defenseless will be at risk. In my landing, a pensioner living with her sick son has had her electricity shut off, and the widow of a man disabled during WWII has received a “polite” threat from the housing service.

For the time being, Russians are keeping on top of their bills, but according to experts, the numbers of overdue utility bills will skyrocket and grow exponentially. Already sensing the profits to be made, collection services have taken an interest in the matter. (The new law on debt collectors, by the way, does not extend to people in debt to utility companies.) Considering their methods, this is definitely frightening. The website of the Debt Collection Development Center features a special section on extorting utility bill debts that lists such methods of pressuring debtors as special notices in the media and leafletting, participation of debt collection specialists in general tenant meetings, legal threats, and unorthodox options [nestandartnye varianty].* The last point gives me the creeps. What exactly are these unorthodox options? A clothes iron? A soldering gun? Matchsticks under the fingernails?

Another sign of the times that did not exist in the nineties is that no one feels sorry for anybody nowadays. A young family with a child has no way of paying back its foreign currency mortgage? Parents cannot pay for their son’s eduction? People have to sell the TV, car or dacha to pay off the loan used to buy that selfsame TV, car or dacha? You shouldn’t have borrowed money from a bank! You have no money to pay your bills? Sell your flat and buy one you can afford! You cannot pay for medical treatment or pay your university fees? Get a job! There are no jobs? That is your fault!

People have no sympathy for others or sense of solidarity. Nor should we expect protests and rallies in support of these who have gone into debt, even when the whole country ends up in that pit. The police and judicial system insures our government against any disturbances.

In fact, the punitive apparatus (from the police and the courts to bank debt recovery departments) is a single sector in which the state is present in one way or other. But what does the state do for its own people? It squanders state funds, including the pension fund. It cuts spending on everything not associated with the military, abroad and domestically. It has been exiting the social sector, shutting down hospitals, schools, and kindergartens, eliminating further and supplemental educational programs, canceling benefits, and reducing welfare payments that as they were amounted to kopecks. 24,000 schools, 4,800 hospitals, and 4,800 medical clinics were closed in Russia from 2001 to 2013 alone. (There is no data on the Rosstat website after 201. Apparently, it was decided to classify the information.)

The state has disclaimed all liability for the country’s future, but it still costs a lot to its people. In the nineties, the regime attempted to spend the Soviet inheritance, which was so rich that part of it is still left over today. In the noughties, it cashed in on resource extraction.  Today, it has no choice but to shake down its own citizens for money. The entire state vertical, the entire system of power, from the government to the security forces, has focused on this. And since it often has to shake the last kopecks from people’s pockets, the process will be cruel and painful.

Translated by the Russian Reader

* In the interests of fairness, I should mention I could not find this exact wording on the Debt Collection Development Center’s website, although I did find the page where the other methods listed, above, were discussed. TRR