Making War on “War and Peace”

vladimir-putin-and-rector-of-stpetersburgs-state-university-ludmila-dp85mc
Vladimir Putin and Ludmila Verbitskaya. Photo courtesy of alamy.com

There is no less genuinely patriotic crowd in today’s Russia than Putin and his cronies. They have a wild hatred for everything really good about the country, its history, culture, and language:

Ludmila Verbitskaya, president of the Russian Academy of Education, has suggested removing Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace from the school curriculum and replacing it with “works of spiritual literature.” According to her, children “cannot understand the full depth” of this work, but everyone should read the Bible.

Read the details (in Russian) and weep on RBC.

UPDATE. Comrade VK has drawn my attention to the following statement by Professor Verbitskaya. While it does complicate the picture a bit, it brings home again the thoroughgoing hypocrisy of the current regime, whose alleged conservatism consists only in battering, dispiriting, and tricking their would-be constituents by hook or by crook to keep themselves in power for as long as humanly possible.

“I have almost no free time, and so I am obliged to read what I still poorly understand due to the fact that my generation was deprived of it: the Bible. Since I was educated as a Russianist, I sense how imperfect my English is, and so before going to sleep I make sure to read something interesting, like Agatha Christie, in the original. But my favorite novel is War and Peace. I pick it up quite often and reread parts of it.”

Source: Zampolit.com

Advertisements

International Translator’s Day: Victoria Lomasko

I have it on good authority that today is International Translator’s Day. Since this blog consists mostly of things I’ve read in Russian and felt like sharing with you all in English, every day that I post something here is translator’s day to me.

But there are things that I get more pleasure from translating and thus dispatching back to the world of my native language. One of those things has been the unique graphic reportage work of Russian artist Victoria Lomasko. And over the past four or five years I’ve been translating Ms. Lomasko’s work, the piece that has touched me most has been “Feminine” (2013), which I’d like to reintroduce to you today in a slightly shinier version. TRR

__________

Victoria Lomasko

Feminine

svidanya

“When I was young, I had a date lined up on every corner.”

In the series Feminine, all the characters are drawn from life, and their remarks are recorded verbatim. However, I have tried to move away from reportage and towards symbolism—to generalize specific situations in images that express my feelings and experiences.

The portraits here are not so much images of specific people as they are archetypes: the faded, lonely woman; the slutty boozer; the rigid old Soviet woman, etc.

 nety

“There are no factories in this town and no dudes.”

 tetay Luda

“He just couldn’t put on slippers and become a domesticated dude.”

Each drawing adds its own tint (of sadness, irony, and anger) to the overall picture—the life of women in the Russian provinces.

blyadstvo

“I’ve been feeling slutty since December.”

I was born in Serpukhov, a town in the Moscow Region.

The women and girls I knew talked about men: acquaintances and strangers, exes, current husbands and boyfriends, future husbands and boyfriends. We believed that love would change the monotonous course of our lives.

 

svyatay

“I’m not sloshed. I’m a saint.”

I had one other belief—in my calling as an artist. Only my dad, a self-taught artist, supported my plan to study in Moscow and then work as an artist. Believing the nonsense I was spouting was infectious and a hindrance to finding a husband, some of my girlfriends’ moms tried to force their daughters to spend less time with me. They were right: I’m still not married, and I don’t have any children.

v bory

“We’re used to the fellas paying for everything.”

I have lived in Moscow for over ten years. When I travel to the provinces, the scenes I see and the conversations I hear are familiar to me. Even divorced girlfriends sympathize with my “bitter plight.”

I became an artist, but I do not feel like a winner. In this country, their life strategies and mine are transformed into losses. I look at the “heroines” in Feminine and find a part of myself in all of them.

avtomat

“Where can I get hold of a machine gun to kill Putin?”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Originally published by Chtodelat News. Victoria Lomasko’s book Other Russias will be published by n+1 in December.

Help!

"Putin, Help!" Photo courtesy of Go31.ru
“Putin, Help!” Photo courtesy of Go31.ru and 5koleso.ru

Drivers Spell Phrase “Putin, Help!” with Buses in Stary Oskol
RBC
September 27, 2016

Drivers at the OskolPasTrans passenger transport company in Stary Oskol have held a flash mob during which they parked their buses to spell out the phrase “Putin, help!” They have published a video of their protest on their own channel on YouTube.

The drivers involved in the protest asked that attention be paid to the actions of local officials, who, according to the drivers, have driven them out of the transport market. In the video, the drivers note that the flash mob’s main goal is an “objective investigation of the local passenger transport market.”

The protesters are also seen toting placards with slogans such as “Governor, help!” “No to corruption,” and “Give us back our property.”

As a female driver in the video recounts, she appealed to the Arbitration Court to protect her interests. On September 6, 2016, the court ruled in favor of her lawsuit, but “attempts by city hall to terminate [the company’s?] contract have continued.”

According to the Belgorod-based new website Go31.ru, OskolPacTrans was the city’s major carrier, but the authorities had concerns about the quality of their services. In the summer of 2016, the Stary Oskol mayor’s office terminated its contract with the carrier, and the drivers were put out of work.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Nikolay Mitrokhin: The Photogenic Telegonist

Anna Kuznetsova and family
Anna Kuznetsova and family

The Pro-Life Appointment
Nikolay Mitrokhin
Grani.ru
September 12, 2016

In any other country, the appointment of Anna Kuznetsova as ombudsman for children’s rights would be deemed a win for feminism. She is a mother of several children, relatively young (thirty-four), a certified psychologist, a veteran of public organizations where she has helped single mothers, a woman from the provinces, and, finally, pretty and feminine. All these qualities set her apart in the positive sense from the Putinist bureaucracy. She could have been a style icon for feminists and liberals.

However, the appointment has caused a flurry of attacks. The first wave of criticism hit Kuznetsova when it transpired her husband was a priest. The second wave rolled over her when it was discovered she supported the pseudo-scientific concept of telegony, long popular among the Russian Orthodox crowd. But is that so unforgivable? After all, the liberal segment of the Russian political elite features people like Garry Kasparov, who is fond of Anatoly Fomenko’s “new chronology,” and Vyacheslav Maltsev, an alleged psychic who is running in the number two spot on the PARNAS list in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Russian society is politically passive, but all the same it sees right though a person when a few details of his biography are outed. This applies to all of Putin’s recent appointments. Police general Tatyana Moskalkova  was appointed the federal ombudsman for human rights, while Anton Vaino, grandson of the former head of the Estonia Communist Party and a specialist in protocol, was made the president’s chief of staff. Olga Vasilyeva, a former staffer in the presidential administration’s propaganda office, has been tapped as education minister, and now a priest’s wife, an activist with the pro-Putin Russian People’s Front (ONF), and the manager of a large grant program has been appointed the ombudsman for children’s rights. We really can see through all of them. Anna Kuznetsova’s appointment fits the pattern of how Putin has been reforming the upper ranks of the nomenklatura, a pattern that became obvious after a series of dismissals and appointments over the summer.

Putin has been solving several problems. The whistle-blowing campaign in the liberal media and social networks against people from the president’s inner circle has borne fruit. Putin has been reacting to criticism from the urban middle class, including the liberal public, which he still fears, despite his ostentatious contempt for them and his reliance on his “base in the heartlands” as figured, allegedly, by the workers of the Uralvagonzavod tank factory, in Nizhny Tagil. He decided to clean the stables of wildly self-indulgent siloviki, governors, and old pals, thus seemingly pulling the rug from under the liberals’ argument. The sacking of Sergei Ivanov, his former of chief of staff, has been symbolic of this tack. Other controversial figures, like former education minister Andrei Furskenko, former Central Electoral Commission chair Vladimir Churov, and former federal ombudsman for children’s rights Pavel Astakhov, were ousted before the big 2016-2018 election campaign. And theirs are not the last names on the black list: culture minister Vladimir Medinsky, Federation Council member Yelena Mizulina, and Petersburg governor Georgy Poltavchenko have also been marked for possible sacking.

Why, though, has Putin been replacing them with Russian Orthodox conservatives and anti-westerners rather than nominal liberals? Why have there been three Moskalkovas to every one Pamfilova?

The information available on Anna Kuznetsova’s life and views, as well as the reaction to her appointment in certain circles, gives us a sense of the social milieu whose support Putin finds vital at the end of his third term. An interview with Kuznetsova’s brother, Konstantin Bulayev, and a search of the social networks help us piece together her family history. Apparently, her father is Yuri Bulayev, deputy warden of Penal Colony No. 4 in Penza. In the penal colony, he runs the convict labor adaptation center, where he is responsible for “expanding the product portfolio, prospecting for potential clients, and recruiting potential contractors for employing convicts.”

The children, apparently, have taken after him rather than their mother, an engineer at the Penza Electrotechnical Research Institute, which develops “cryptographic information protection hardware and telecommunications equipment for ministerial and departmental special communications networks.” Kuznetsova, as we know, specialized in the social adaptation of single mothers and administered government grants for this purpose. Her brother, a 31-year-old lawyer, has a plum job as head of the contracts and legal department at the Samouchet Center in Penza, which sends utility bills to customers. A year ago, he and the center were harshly criticized for the exorbitant prices they charged for their services as intermediaries. This did not faze Konstantin Bulayev, though. The local press quoted him as saying, “What, you want to dazzle people with figures?”

Through Kuznetsova and her husband, this hard-working family of provincial officials is linked to the Russian Orthodox Church. Through Viktor Bulayev, Yuri Bulayev’s brother, the family is linked to the Great Don Army. In recent years, Viktor, a former military man with combat experience in Chechnya and an ex-firefighter, has been an activist with the Great Don Army, the organization that seized the southeast part of Lugansk Region and was driven out by Russian special forces and Lugansk People’s Republic units in 2015.

However, all of this is clearly insufficient to unleash a nationwide charity foundation.

Kuznetsova’s foundation is called Intercession. It receives the bulk of its private donations from the Moscow-based Alexander Foundation, which also renders assistance to children, in Penza Region, via Intercession, and Smolensk Region, where it operates independently. In November 2014, the Alexander Foundation essentially became Intercession’s sole sponsor. The man behind the nearly anonymous organization is Alexander Popov, former head (2012-2013) of Rosnedra, the Federal Service for Subsurface Resources Management. A former staffer for Igor Sechin, Putin’s most trusted ally, Popov now runs Itera Oil and Gas Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rosneft, which is run by Sechin. The Alexander Foundation has the same address as Itera’s headquarters.

Another organization allied with Intercession (there are few such organizations identified on the foundation’s website) is the Penza branch of the Law and Order Center. This foundation for KGB-FSB veterans is an affiliate of the organization Officers of Russia. Nikolay Kovalyov, former FSB director (1996-1998) and longtime member of the State Duma (to which Kuznetsova recently tried to get elected), heads the Law and Order Center’s expert council. On the Penza branch’s website, you can find many articles about the peculiar memorial events held by the former KGB officers, including Route of Mercy, which provides “material assistance to veterans [of the KGB-FSB] who have been actively involved in the patriotic education of young officers.” However, after the December 2014 arrest of Vladimir Zarechnev, head of the Law and Order Center and a colonel in the FSB’s anti-corruption directorate, for brokering a bribe given to the governor of Sakhalin, the foundation has clearly curtailed the scope of its work.

In terms of church policy, the position taken by the Kuznetsov family is also fairly clear. They are affiliated with the Pro-Life Movement within the church, which now operates under the name Association of Organizations for Protecting the Family. The movement is involved not only in opposing abortion but also in promoting radical anti-western and monarchist ideas. Judging by the blogs of the movement’s leaders, such as Ruslan Tkachenko and Father Maxim Kolesnik, liberals and Ukrainians are objects of special hatred. The movement’s leader is the Moscow-based Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov, known for his outrageous escapades. Smirnov heads the Patriarchal Commission on Family and the Protection of Motherhood and Childhood. With the general support of the Moscow Patriarchate, the ideological group of priests he controls has been lobbying for restrictions and bans on abortion and biotechnology, as well as opposing juvenile justice.

Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov
Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov

On July 3 of this year, Kuznetsova’s husband, the priest Alexei Kuznetsov, posted an article on his Facebook page by a leader of the Pro-Life Movement, the Moscow priest Maxim Obukhov. The article had been published on the radical nationalist website The Russian People’s Line. The article frankly outlines the movement’s principles and objectives.

“Everyone agrees, even Matviyenko, that the country’s priorities are the traditional family and procreation. It is a feature of our Eurasian civilization. This consensus exists among the various religions and social strata, with the exception of a narrow segment of liberals who do not represent the public. This universal understanding must be incarnated on the legislative level: we must shake up the legislation and change the laws. But this cannot be accomplished by sudden attacks and shouting. What is needed is serious creative and systematic work.  Such work was done by Yelena Mizulina, who drafted a decent package of anti-abortion amendments.

“Unfortunately, the Russian Orthodox community has not established its own lobbying groups, which testifies to [its] immaturity and the improper application of [its] exertions. However much we have struggled over abortion legislation, we have continued to avoid lobbying. Lobbying is staff work that requires systematic professionalism and quality. But we just march out, sword unsheathed, to various rallies and demonstrations.

“There is no end in sight to the Orthodox community’s work. We have to sift through all the laws to check whether they are compliant with the interests of the family.”

So it would seem the public has interpreted the sparse details of Ms. Kuznetsova’s life correctly. Her party’s program will be her main guide in her work as a high-ranking government official. All of her previous public work has somehow been linked to the radically anti-western segment of the ROC and Russian society in general. It suffices to say she systematically received donations from an organizer of the Russia-Ukraine war, the adventurer Konstantin Malofeev. In turn, she raised funds for the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics in her own region.

In practice, all of Kuznetsova’s work is endlessly remote from both Orthodoxy and traditionalism. In an argument on Facebook, she defends her pro-family position not in terms of Christian values, but solely in nationalist Newspeak:

“if there had been fewer normal large families, you just would not exist)) The population has died out [sic]. Calculate what would have happened to the population if one child had been born in all six or seven generations, considering that some people don’t have children, some people were unable to have a family? Your grandchildren would already be speaking Chinese or something else))) Currently, the 3% of large families provide at least some dynamism in the demography, where is the deficit in the pension fund from? Why is the working generation fewer than the pensioners, whose ‘only’ children just cannot earn money for them, even if they are as you say, ‘high-quality,’ and what if they are not? What if the one is prison? What if he is disabled? The pension fund is also meant for such children, but who will put it [sic] in this fund? Your ‘only’ child again?” [Spelling and punctuation preservedNM.]

This replacement of Christ and religion in general by hypertrophied fears over family and children is a typical trait of the new Christian fundamentalism. Under the patronage of the Life Center, it arrived in Russia via the US, and over the past decade, it has become popular in the intellectually secular circles of anti-westerners like Mizulina and Sergey Kurginyan. Whereas, ten years ago, Father Maxim Obukhov spun his horror stories about “black demographers,” sponsored by western foundations, “interested only in reducing the birth rate,” on the Moscow Patriarchate’s website, Russian politicians can often be heard saying such things nowadays.

But the general public doesn’t necessarily need to know about Kuznetsova’s real views. The newly minted state official and her husband have already disowned telegony, blaming the whole thing on malicious journalists. This week, they will have to disown monarchism, a distaste for vaccinations, and doubt about the existence of AIDS. By appointing Kuznetsova, Putin has appealed to the so-called patriotic segment of the political spectrum, which, nonetheless, does not go in for excessively radical views and likes pretty pictures. For these patriots, traditionalism is when someone else has six children, but they still have the right to an abortion. In this circle, it is the done thing to jabber about the danger of vaccinations, but they will make sure to have their own children vaccinated. “Tradition” means wishing an atom bomb would rain down on America’s head after the Saturday evening news, but definitely taking the kids to McDonald’s on Sunday. So Kuznetsova’s public representation will be as false and ambiguous as Putinist propaganda as a whole.

Kuznetsova will speechify on support for the traditional family, and once a quarter she will post a photo of a large family, a church in the background, on her blog, but she herself will be on business trip or just on her own, as has long been the custom in families with infants, apparently. First and foremost, judging by her statements, Kuznetsova will defend Russian children from  adoption by foreigners. She is unlikely to bother to do anything about the longstanding problems of oversight of Orthodox orphanages and foster families who have taken in dozens of children to raise, but she has already promised to deal as harshly as possible with Moscow School No. 57.

The country will hear a lot about the hardships of children in Donbass, but don’t expect to hear anything news about the lives of children in Kuzbass from the ombudsman’s office, and good-hearted anti-Putinist Muscovities will continue to raise money for the medical treatment of both groups of children. The fight to outlaw abortion will intensify, and Kuznetsova will become the main ally of Vitaly Milonov and his soul mates in the new Duma, but in the next five years there will probably be no drastic changes in this area, because the presidential administration will not back off from its neutral stance. And, of course, the employees of Kuznetsova’s foundation will not be idle. They will have to allocate many more presidential grants and sponsorship money. A place at Putin’s right hand is worth a lot.

Like Matviyenko, Pamfilova, Moskalkova, and Vasilyeva, Kuznetsova is following the peculiar career path of Russia’s sovereign feminism. The number of women in senior positions in Russia has increased in Russian years, and I would not be surprised if, ten or so years from now, the selfsame Kuznetsova, having done a couple of ideological flip-flops, takes up the post of defense minister in a future (not necessarily Putinist) government. That would make sense in its own way.

Nikolay Mitrokhin is a fellow at the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen. He is the author of books on the current state of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian nationalist movements in the postwar Soviet Union. Photos courtesy of Storm Bringer and Pravoslavie.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader

Talk of the Town

You would be forgiven if you imagined Russia’s liberal, leftist, technical, creative, conservative and other intelligentsias were abuzz right now with righteous anger or triumphant glee about what the country’s air force (now officially known, bizarrely, as the Russian Aerospace Forces or VKS) has been up to in Syria and, more specifically, Aleppo, these days.

No, many of them are terribly exercised, in various directions, about the controversy over an exhibition by American photographer Jock Sturges in Moscow.

This was borne out by the websites of some of the country’s leading dailies this morning.

vedomosti-syria

The liberal Vedomosti, a business-oriented newspaper, listed its top stories this morning. The top story was entitled “Faces in a Queue for the iPhone 7”; the second most-read story was about the Sturges show.

True, Vedomosti readers are serious lads and lassies, so the number three story was about Syria. It was headlined, “Five World Powers and EU Demand Decisive Steps from Russia in Syria.”

Earlier today, I posted a few bits from the bizarre article about yesterday’s emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, published in the country’s other serious, formerly liberal, business daily, Kommersant.

Similarly, Moskovsky Komsolomets could not figure out what its readers would find more titillating: reading about how the VKS’s top guns were bombing Aleppo to smithereens or how astroturfed patriots were threatening the God-given right of every self-respecting intelligent to implement Dostoevsky’s maxim that beauty would save the world.

mk-syria

By way of splitting the difference, this morning’s website featured a picture of a chap obviously meant to embody the most average-looking Russian bloke on earth, sadly contemplating one of Sturges’s blasphemous nudes, while a sidebar headline shouts, “Everyone [sic] Is Bombing: Churkin Thinks Peace Impossible in Syria.”

Izvestia has become a particularly noxious loudspeaker for the regime in the past years, so the front page of its website contained a fair number of articles and op-ed pieces chockablock with baldfaced lies about the bloodbath in Aleppo, but at least it had the dignity not to yield to the fake moral panic brewing around the Sturges show.

The relative paucity of Russian media coverage of the Syrian conflict and publicly accessible grassroots reactions was confirmed by the following completely unscientific Google search.

“Джок Стержес” (“Jock Sturges”) got 12,000 more hits than “бомбардироква Алеппо” (“bombing Aleppo”), even though, one could argue, the bombing of Aleppo by somebody or other has been a more topical item in the news for a longer time than Jock Sturges, whatever his longevity or virtues as a contemporary artist.

Results of Google search for
Results of Google search for “Jock Sturges” in Russian, September 26, 2016
Results of Google search for
Results of Google search for “bombing Aleppo,” in Russian, September 26, 2016

When I did the same search (“bombing Aleppo”) in English, I got over a million hits.

Results of Google for
Results of Google search for “bombing Aleppo,” in English, September 26, 2016

Certainly, we immediately have to factor in the sheer numbers of Anglophone media and readers in the world. There are quite a few more of both than there are Russophone media and readers, and so one would expect to find more responses to particular topics of global interest in English than in Russian.

But what about the vox pop?

An even more unscientific survey of the Russophone segment of Facebook this morning (that is, the part of the segment to which I have access, amounting to several hundred people, most of whom could be identified as intelligentsia or quasi-intelligentisa) showed that quite a few people were up in arms over the Sturges show or coolly editorializing about it to their extended communities of invisible friends, while literally no one was writing anything about Syria.

This has been the case for the past year. Not only that, but I have shared a fairly large number of articles and opinions about Syria, including my own, over that time, and have elicited a total of zero likes and comments from my Russian Facebook friends.

Non-Russian friends, on the contrary, like and comment on these posts in the same numbers as they and their Russian counterparts usually react to the other, non-Syrian things I write about.

Maybe I have the wrong Russian friends, but my hypothesis is that “politically engaged” or “socially conscious” Russians are literally afraid to say or write anything in public about the Syrian conflict. They have the good sense to know that their president-for-life has sunken his teeth into this geopolitical chew toy and has no intention of unclenching them.

Hence, anyone foolish enough to comment on this catastrophic attempt to reassert an increasingly impoverished country as a super power might get themselves in trouble with the powers that be. Over the last year, they have been hauling in utterly ordinary people  on “extremism” charges in fairly large numbers for reposting or commenting on the most innocuous things on Facebook and its Russian equivalent, Vkontakte.

Even more telling, there has not been a single public demonstration in Russia against Russian military involvement in Syria during the past year—to my knowledge, at least.*

Again, this has to be taken with a grain of salt. The current Russian regime has gone out of its way to make public demonstrations and pickets an unattractive pastime for all but the bravest of Russians.

Still, the war in Syria is the central international conflict of our time, and Russia’s best and brightest have literally nothing to say about it, even though their nominally elected government has not been merely a party to the conflict, but has come firmly down on one side, arguably, the wrong side, the side causing the most damage.

I find this deafening public silence about Syria more disturbing than anything else happening in Russia right now.

* After I posted this, Comrade BN wrote the following to me: “In Moscow last year there were some very small pickets protesting against the war in Syria, and the people who organized it attempted to set up an anti-war committee. As far as I know, though, the authorities pretty much intimidated them with varying degrees of extremity into giving up.”

“It’s Doomsday Right Now in Aleppo”

Late-breaking news from the Bizarro World:

Despite the fact the breakdown of the ceasefire achieved through the mediation of Russia and the United States was preceded by systematic ceasefire violations on the part of the opposition, to which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov drew the attention of his western counterparts, the initiators of the emergency meeting of the Security Council tried to emphasize violations on the part of Damascus.

[…]

Given the abruptly increasing pressure from the West, the opposition, which the West calls “moderate,” has also delivered a new blow to Moscow’s peacekeeping efforts. A communiqué by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which unites thirty groups, states that, “as a sponsor and partner of a regime committing crimes against our people,” Moscow’s further mediation is unacceptable.

In this situation, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, was forced to admit for the first time, during the Security Council meeting, that a return to peace in Syria had become an almost impossible task.

Source: Kommersant, September 25, 2016; translated by the Russian Reader

Meanwhile, back on our planet:

As the situation in Syria worsens, the White Helmets are risking their lives to save Syrians trapped and injured by airstrikes and fighting.

They’re a group of volunteers who act as first responders to bombardments.

Ammar Salmo is a spokesman for the White Helmets who says the situation on the ground is worsening by the day.

‘It’s doomsday right now in Aleppo,’ he says.

‘I want the people of the world to move, to make something for humanity.’

Source: “Breakfast,” ABC Radio National, September 26, 2016

Wayward Pines

khvoyny-map-1

Khvoyny is located south of Krasnoye Selo, an outlying suburb of St. Petersburg
Khvoyny is located south of Krasnoye Selo, an outlying suburb of St. Petersburg

A Town’s Story
Irina Tumakova
Fontanka.ru
September 14, 2016

This is Saint Petersburg too, but there is no medical clinic, no pharmacy, no legally operating shops, and no eateries here. The roofs are hastily under repair in time for the elections, but the trash is not hauled away. Fontanka.ru took a look at how this Petersburg gets along.

История одного городка

The letter was an invitation to journey, as the old rubric in the newspapers used to be called. Fontanka.ru got a call from a woman who introduced herself, requested we tell no one she had called, and complained about her unbearable life. She said her life and the lives of her two and a half thousand neighbors were unbearable.

“Just don’t tell anyone I called you,” she repeated, switching to a whisper.

We will honor Nina Petrovna’s request, although I never did figure out whom she was hiding from. (Nina Petrovna is not her real name.) When I came to visit her, when she gave me a tour of her town’s horrors, we were gradually joined by neighbors and even a former municipal councilman who had a roll of glossy paper tucked under his arm. I would nod, rustle my notepad, and feel like a high commission, registering people’s complaints. The procession would expand, and every passerby who did not join it would happily greet us. That is right, they would say, spell them all out in the newspaper. “They” were the authorities who had reduced the whole town to misery. Towards the end, everyone asked me in unison not to identify them.  They had secrecy down pat here. This was not surprising: Khvoyny is the former military garrison town L-237. So Nina Petrovna is a composite character.

Nowadays, the place is an exclave of Petersburg known as Khvoyny (“Coniferous”). Formally part of Petersburg’s outlying Krasnoye Selo district, all the local residents are registered as residents of Petersburg. In practical terms, this village of two and a half thousand residents is stuck between two districts of the surrounding Leningrad Region, Gatchina and Lomonosov. Khvoyny has ceased being a military town, but has still not become a civilian one.

“No one needs us!” Nina Petrovna bitterly informs me. She has spelled out what the trouble is in four words.

Nearly all of Khvoyny’s residents are retired army officers, officers’ wives, and officers’ children. In the early 1960s, they were allocated flats in this spot, which was considered a paradise. There are coniferous trees here, but even more hardwoods. The three-story brick residential buildings are almost in the midst the woods. I arrived here from downtown Petersburg and almost suffered oxygen shock. Here and there, you need to take a forest path to get from one building to another. Since construction of the town was completed in the 1960s, many of the buildings are Stalin-era houses with three-meter-high ceilings. On the upper floors, the ceilings have cracked in places and are covered in mold, because the roofs have not been repaired since the sixties, apparently. But now metallic structures tower next to the buildings: the roofs are rapidly undergoing major repairs.

“Oh, yes,” Nina Petrovna nods. “It was a miracle we were put on the capital renovations program. We have been promised our roofs will be fixed by September 18 [Russian election day this year—TRR].”

Previously, the only way to get into L-237 was through a checkpoint at the invitation of a local resident, but all that remains of the checkpoint are iron gates always left open. Before Nina Petrovna can tell me about the town’s hardships, I notice evenly laid asphalt in the passages between the houses, and cheerful flowerbeds and neat playgrounds in the courtyards. There are even public exercise machines next to the school. So my first impression of Khvoyny is that only profoundly ungrateful and picky people could complain about it.

“You’ve got to be kidding!” says Nina Petrovna, waving her hand. “We planted the flowers ourselves. And our municipal councilman pushed through the playgrounds and the asphalt. What he managed to do when he was on the council is left. But then someone from Krasnoye Selo was elected instead of him. No one deals with our problems anymore.”

We won’t be coming back to how the former municipal councilman “pushed” those things  through. The story looks shady, and the so-called ex-councilman absolutely refused to share the paperwork with us. The problem is that, formally speaking, everything in Khvoyny, including the land, still belongs to the Defense Ministry, and it is not quite clear on what grounds the municipal powers that be were trying to build a garden town, complete with asphalt and exercise machines. But the residents of the former L-237 are terribly worried that the asphalt and the playgrounds and the exercise machines and even the half-repaired roofs will all be taken away. Just as the swimming pool, the bathhouse, the cafeteria, the clinic, the pharmacy, and the shops have already been taken away. Khvoyny once had all these amenities.

“The swimming pool is still there,” Nina Petrovna corrects me. “I don’t know what is in there now, but the military garrison has put it under guard, and someone stops by there from time to time.”

The medical clinic is also still standing. I am led there as if it were a local landmark.

poliklinika1
The sign reads, “Working Hours of the Khvoyny Village Medical Clinic.”

“It used to be a hospital branch,” Nina Petrovna says. “It had everything: an X-ray machine, a lab, and complete staff of doctors. You could undergo physiotherapy here.”

The door has been wide open for many years, and you can walk in. Chair legs covered with a layer of dust lie in the hallways. Books are strewn about, and computer debris crunches underfoot. When the military moved out, it looks as if they did all they could to make sure the enemy would not get their hands on these precious things. The stench testifies to the fact the building is now used as a public toilet.

Their Krasnoye Selo residence permits mean the residents of Khvoinyi are assigned to the Krasnoye Selo Medical Clinic. But, says Nina Petrovna, it takes something like an hour to get there on the minibus. But to say that the residents of Khvoyny have been left without medical care would be shamelessly slandering the authorities.

“The outpatient clinic and the district doctor come three times a week,” Nina Petrovna admits.

The “outpatient clinic” is a minivan. The doctors sees patients right in the van. The patients queue up outside the van.

“If it’s raining, we stand under umbrellas,” sighs Nina Petrovna. “Can you imagine what it’s like in winter?”

Once, she tells me, a neighbor summoned an ambulance from Krasnoye Selo. It arrived the next day.

Another building the residents of Khvoyny like to show off is the former cafeteria. The military, apparently, retreated from this building in keeping with all the regulations, trashing everything they could not take with them. The cafeteria’s doors are securely locked, so visitors get in by climbing through a shattered window.

A wise man once conversed with the people via a TV screen. A old man complained to him about awful roads, roads on which it was impossible to drive a car. The wise man’s reply was reasonable. Why, he said, do you need a car if there are no roads? It is the same thing with the residents of Khvoyny. They don’t have a pharmacy, but why do they need a pharmacy if they don’t have a medical clinic, either?

“People who have cars are alright,” sighs Nina Petrovna. “But it’s so much trouble going by bus every time to buy medications.”

But residents have to take the bus in any case because neither are there any shops in Khvoyny. There is a building in town. The sign on it says, “Store.” The windows are boarded up.

“People from one of the big retailers came here, either Pyatyorochka or Magnit,” Nina Petrovna repeats a rumor. “The military demanded such high rent they left as soon as they arrived!”

“Store”

This story of how the military “demanded” high rent conceals, apparently, the reason why there no shops and no pharmacy in Khvoyny. All the buildings are still the property of the Defense Ministry. Local residents assure me the process of transferring them to the city has been going on for fifteen years or so. The ex-councilman, mentioned earlier, knows something about this, but once again he does not want to show me the paperwork. He says the problem will be resolved quite soon.

For now, though, anyone who wants to open a shop or pharmacy in Khvoyny has to contact the military about the rent. Apparently, such people do reach out to them. And certain people seemingly manage to luck out and agree on the rent. Products are sold in a cubbyhole in the boarded-up store. In a kiosk on the next street over, an enterprising fellow sells milk, bread, vodka, sausages, and other edibles that he ships in from Petersburg. An old woman bakes him pasties to sell. So the kiosk doubles, as it were, as a “branch” of the former cafeteria. All these businesses seem to have settled with the military on terms that are not suitable for large retail chains and even less so for pharmacies. But quality control of the products is as reliable as can be. It is implemented not by some consumer watchdog agency, but by the consumers themselves. If push comes to shove, they can beat up the retailers.

Another sight to see in Khvoyny is the rubbish dump on the outskirts of town. There used to be a path here that people took when going shopping in the neighboring village of Taitsy. When the dump appeared, they had to alter their route, because the dumpsters are hauled away, at best, on the eve of big holidays, and the perpetual puddle near the dump is so large that, at all other times, residents have to toss their rubbish into dumpster from a distance of three meters. You can see, however, that accuracy is not the principal virtue of Khvoyny’s residents.

pomoyka

If you think the military are so ruthless only to the civilian population, think again. This accusation completely falls away when you see their own dormitory. It is inhabited by those in Khvoyny who do not have their own flats. The garrison continues to operate, and despite the peacetime conversion I have described, the garrison’s current headquarters is still located in the town. Soldiers and officers assigned to the garrison are housed in the dormitory as well. If you are lucky, the ceiling in your room will leak only in one spot. At most, you will need to put two buckets on the floor to catch the water. And it is not so terrible there is one toilet per floor. As we recall, the former medical clinic functions as a public toilet.

My tour of Khvoyny lasted three hours. During those three hours, the hard lives of Khvoyny’s residents and the total neglect they suffer at the hands of the powers that be filled me with compassion for them. We said our goodbyes next to an imported car with a plush toy dog in the back window. A St. George’s Ribbon was tied round the doggy’s neck. Before leaving, I decided to have a look at the glossy scroll the ex-councilman had been carrying throughout my tour. It turned out to be a campaign poster for country’s main political party. He had to hang it on wall to do his part for the campaign. I asked the residents of Khvoyny whether they were going to vote for this party.
sobachka

“Of course!” said Nina Petrovna firmly, her lips pursed. “I don’t see an alternative. Otherwise, there will be war. The country will divided up, and the Americans will grab all our riches.”

I left town with a feeling of joy. It was a good thing, after all, the residents of Khvoyny would be hanging on to their riches.

All photos by Irina Tumakova. Map images courtesy of OpenStreetMap and Google Maps. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade VZ for the heads-up