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

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