Supah Powah

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Chuvash Pensioner Receives Two Years Probation for Repost on VKontakte
Artyom Filipyonok
RBC
October 14, 2016

A court in Chuvashia has sentenced a local pensioner to a two-year suspended sentence for reposting printed matter earlier ruled extremist. In May of this year, Andrei Bubeyev, a mechanical engineer from Tver, was convicted of reposting an article by Boris Stomakhin.

Tsivilsk District Court in Chuvashia has sentenced 62-year-old pensioner Nikolai Yegorov, who works as a security guard at a cement factory, to a two-year suspended sentence. He was found guilty of “inciting ethnic hatred” (as punishable under Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 282.1), reports Interfax.

Police investigators claimed that, on May 8, 2014, Yegorov posted an open letter by journalist Boris Stomakhin, which had been ruled extremist, on his page on the VKontakte social network. Lawyer Yevgeny Gubin had previously reported that prosecutors had asked the pensioner be sentenced to 360 hours of compulsory labor.

Yegorov himself claimed he had not posted anything. According to his lawyer, his client’s personal page was accessible to anyone “due to his poor knowledge of the specific features of the Internet.”

Journalist Boris Stomakhin, who supported Chechen separatists, has been convicted of inciting hatred and publicly calling for extremism on three occasions. He is currently serving a sentence for justifying terrorism. In April 2014, he was sentenced to six and a half years in prison.

In May of this year, Andrei Bubeyev, a mechanical engineer from Tver, was convicted for reposting an article by Stomakhin. The sentence was harsher: Bubeyev was sentenced to two years and three months in a work-release prison colony. The Tver man was convicted of “publicly calling for extremism” (as punishable under Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 280.2) and “publicly calling for actions aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation” (as punishable under Russian Federal Criminal Code 280.1.2).

In 2002, the law “On Combating Extremism” beefed up the definition of extremism. Extremism includes such acts as “violent change of the constitutional system and violation of the Russian Federation’s integrity,” “public justification of terrorism and other terrorist activity,” and “incitement of social, racial, ethnic or religious enmity.” Nikolay Mironov, director of the Center for Economic and Political Reform, told RBC that over half of extremism convictions have to do with publications in the Internet and, in particular, on social networks.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Image courtesy of supahpowah.tumbler.com

Facebook Is Fun! (Islamophobia in Russia)

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819. Oil on canvas, 491 cm x 716 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris. Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819. Oil on canvas, 491 cm x 716 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

My memories of kindergarten are fairly fuzzy by now, but I do seem to recall we did a lot of sharing. This, I think, explains why the dark satanic mill known as Facebook has become so indispensable and popular in our modern world. Like kindergarten, it’s all about sharing.

For instance, this morning I was feeling fairly glum about the ongoing slaughter in Aleppo, the apparently total indifference my Russian friends (and “friends”) feel about the role their armed forces have been playing in this massacre, and my inability to do anything about any of this, much less changing anyone’s mind.

Apparently, Facebook even has algorithms for detecting when you’re feeling blue, and like a cheery kindergarten minder in such circumstances, it gets you involved in some fun sharing to buck you up.

This was what Facebook decided to share with woebegone me this morning.

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“At Venice Film Festival, Sokurov Says European and Muslim Aesthetics Incompatible,” reads the headline on Newsru.com, an alarmist Russophone news website based in Israel.

When I clicked on it, the item turned out to be old news, an article, dated September 8, 2015, quoting controversial statements made at last year’s Venice Film Festival by the Petersburg auteur Alexander Sokurov, who was in Venice to debut his latest indisputable masterpiece, Francofonia.

Presenting his film Francofonia at the Venice Film Festival, Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov said the European and Muslim aesthetics were incompatible. Calling for an end to “the endless and pointless incursions,” to immigration by an alien culture, Sokurov thus polemicized with the chair of the festival jury, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, who earlier had suggested solving Europe’s rampant immigration crisis by organizing entry for the immigrants. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra reported on Francofonia and Sokurov’s statements.

Presenting what the newspaper called “a brilliant allegorical tale about the Old Continent through its museum symbol, the Louvre,” Sokurov said, “History teaches us nothing. Prudence and compassion are alien to history.”

“Europe, which has attained supreme achievements in art and philosophy, keeps making one mistake after another,” said the Russian maître, as quoted by InoPressa.

“What is happening, these endless and pointless incursions [or, invasions], seem like an indescribable nightmare, a humanitarian catastrophe in the face of which ordinary people are powerless, and politicians do nothing. And no one thinks to protect our culture, which will cease to exist quite soon,” the filmmaker continued.

[…]

The Italian periodical described the action of the film as follows: a ship that must bring European culture to a safe haven sails into a storm. If it sinks, its precious cargo will be irrevocably lost to all Europeans.

“Europe finds itself on The Raft of the Medusa, as in the famous painting by Théodore Géricault, exhibited in the Louvre. Just like the frightening boats, crowded with desperate people making their way to our shores.”

The article here refers to the numerous cases of the illegal delivery [sic] by sea (sometimes ending in tremendous loss of life) of thousands of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa.

During the presentation of his film, Sokurov called for “a stop to these migrations.”

“To really help these people, it is necessary to intervene in the countries from which they are escaping and try to solve the problems there. Instead, we pile them up together here, where they have no prospects, and try and impose our TV lifestyle on them,” he argued.

“The outcome will be catastrophic for both parties,” the filmmaker warned.

Sokurov was certain that “our aesthetic and the Muslim aesthetic are incompatible.”

“With all due respect, we must maintain a distance and protect our culture from the iconoclastic fury that is destroying it,” said the filmmaker.

He reminded the audience of the total destruction of unique landmarks in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria, by militants from the terrorist group Islamic State, which is banned in the Russian Federation.

Recently, the extremists blew up three tombs of local patricians in the captured city. Earlier, they demolished the Temple of Baalshamin (2nd century BC) and the Temple of Bel, consecrated to the supreme Semitic deity [sic].

“Even the Nazis would have not dared to do what has happened in Palmyra,” said Sokurov.

I have quoted at length the day brightener Facebook chose for me, because it amply demonstrates a sad but irrefutable fact. Islamophobia is a perfectly common attitude and a perfectly respectable political “stance” in Russia, adopted and bruited loudly and publicly by well-read, highly educated members of the “liberal” Russian intelligentsia, as evinced here by one of their darlings, Alexander Sokurov.

This, in turn, explains the near-total silence of “liberal” and even “leftist” Russians on the destruction of Aleppo.

Let me put it as crudely as possible. Despite the court judgement handed down on popular blogger Anton Nosik the other day, a really large number of educated “white” Russians think Muslims are subhumans whom, if push comes to shove or your “civilizational project” has got bogged down and you cannot think of anything better to do, can be slaughtered with impunity and without blinking. In fact, it is better for one’s digestion, state of mind, and personal pursuit of high culture (per Sokurov) to put a mental wall between yourself and whatever is happening to the Muslims in your midst, or to the Muslim Crimean Tatars in Crimea, or to the Muslims in Grozny (back in the first years of Putin’s perpetual reign), or to the Muslims in Aleppo.

If you think I am exaggerating, I invite you to come to the Motherland and have heart-to-heart chats with a sampling of members of the so-called intelligentsia. In some cases (but not, happily, all cases) you will come away thinking you’ve just spent time with Trump supporters, UKIP cacklers, BNP bruisers or clowns from the KKK.

But the funny thing about Facebook is that it is not the only satanic mill on the oppressively vast World Wide Web. Nowadays, you can also ask something called Google whatever question your wicked heart can conceive—for example, how many Muslims are there in Russia?

“In Europe overall, however, Russia’s population of 14 million Muslims (10%) is the largest on the continent.”

Yikes!

Where did all those Russian Muslims come from? Did they immigrate to the Motherland from Syria and other majority Muslim countries?

No, despite the recent heavy influx of migrant workers from the Muslim Central Asian republics (once also part of Russia, in its guise as the Soviet Union), which has even more recently been waning due to the bad economy, among other factors, most of Russia’s Muslims were born and bred in the Russian Federation. Thus, to the outside world, they are “Russians,” if not to many of their fellow Russian citizens, who probably cannot get their heavily bookish heads around such funny facts as Moscow’s being the largest Muslim city in Europe.

You would think that, with so many Russian Muslims and post-Soviet Muslims sharing (there is our keyword again!) your cities, towns, and villages with you, you would not want to go out of your way to antagonize Muslims for no reason at all.

(Not because they are touchier than your average bear, but just because no one in this world enjoys being kicked around for years on end just because they’re different.)

But that is what the Russian government has been doing in Syria, and that is what significant numbers of Russia’s best and brightest have been doing for a long time now, if only rhetorically, if only at the Venice Film Festival, on Facebook or in their kitchens.

The consequences, both now and in the future, could not be more miserable, especially for the alleged “European” culture that only Russian intelligenty and European neo-Nazis seem to get so exercised about.

Thanks, Facebook, for cheering me up! I knew I could count on you. TRR

Crazy Train (In Praise of Boris Johnson)

Except for riding a bike to work when he was mayor of London, calling on people to go to Russian embassies and protest Russia’s sickening, brutal behavior in Syria may have been the only sensible thing Boris Johnson has done in his life, especially given what it has revealed not about him and his alleged hypocrisy (nearly all powerful politicians, even the ones we adore, are horrible hypocrites) but about the psycho-tactical dimension of the Kremlin’s otherwise unmotivated bombing campaign. The properly “hysterical” reaction to Mr. Johnson’s modest proposal by the Russian MoD and the Kremlin is a mirror of the deafening silence on what is happening in Aleppo from the (nonexistent) Russian public. Actually, this deafening silence and meek acceptance are also how the Russian authorities expect, in their “logical” mode,” “the west” and “the international community” to react to their Borg-like crushing of all living life in Syria. So, “logically,” they throw a tantrum and snort fire when anyone has the temerity, like Mr. Johnson, to notice what they’re doing and call it what it is. On the other hand, in their “irrational” mode, whose ultimate expression is rebranding a country that is coming apart at the seams infrastructurally, intellectually, educationally, politically, economically, aesthetically, environmentally, demographically, morally, religiously, ethnically, industrially, socially, etc., into a “reemergent super power,” not for any higher purpose such as “communism” or anything nice sounding like that, but only in order to keep Putin and Co. in power for the rest of their natural lives, the Russian authorities really do want literally everyone in the world to pay attention to what they are doing in Syria and to be awed, to be impressed. That is, to remonstrate, throw fits, descend on their embassies, send them poison pen letters, whatever. Naturally, they don’t want them to go much farther than that, though that might be “fun” too, given that the “development program” they have sketched for their country amounts to suiciding it every which way possible.

This is the only time in my life I have genuinely felt a wan bit of liking for Boris Johnson. If only for exposing what the Stop the War Coalition really are (“Stalinist running dogs” is the proper term, I believe), he deserves a knighthood or a year of free lunches at Subway. TRR

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Hero for a day. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph

Old King Coal Was a Merry Old Soul

Miners outside King Coal's offices in Gukovo. Photo courtesy of Caucasian Knot
Miners outside King Coal’s offices in Gukovo. Photo courtesy of Caucasian Knot

Miners in Gukovo Reject Governor’s Figures on Wage Arrears Payments
Caucasian Knot
October 6, 2016

About 100 miners have picketed outside the offices of the former coal mining company King Coal. The protesters claimed that reports they had been paid 20 million rubles in back pay were not true.

Caucasian Knot has previously reported that, on September 30, Vasily Golubev, governor of Rostov Region, stated the Regional Development Corporation had paid off 20 million rubles in back pay owed to miners working for the King Coal group of companies. The governor said the remaining debt was 270 million rubles.

The picketers, who gathered on October 5 outside King Coal’s offices in Gukovo, were outraged at the inaction of officials and information disseminated by the authorities, which they called “false.” In particular, they were upset by Governor Golubev’s announcement that miners had been paid 20 million rubles in back pay.

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Vasily Golubev. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

“What 20 million?! At twelve o’clock on October 3, we were paid 17,604,000 rubles,” said Nikolai Nadkernichny, a co-coordinator of the protest. He cited information from the Gukovo Territorial Committee of Trade Union Organizations.

“The governor probably rounded the figure. Well, he did a good job of it. Would that our pay were rounded up this way,” he added.

Nadkernichny doubted the governor’s claim that the remaining wage arrears amounted to 270 million rubles.

“On January 1, 2016, the wages owed us amounted to 319 million rubles. Even if you substract 20 million, you still don’t get 270 million,” sad Nadkernichny.

According to him, 200 people were still employed by King Coal in payroll and collections, accounting, and security. They were not being paid, so the actual amount of wage arrears was even higher.

Dmitry Kovalenko, an activist, reported that, on October 3, 406 workers at the Zamchalovo Mine, 93 workers at Tunneler LLC, and 279 workers at Rostovgormash had received payments.

According to Kovalenko, workers in the above-named organizers had not [sic] been paid for almost two weeks. Only at the Diamond Coal Company were workers being paid.

The protesters were also outraged that Mikhail Tikhonov, Rostov regional minister of industry and energy, had skipped a meeting with them scheduled for last Friday (September 30) and had kept brushing them off.

“His press office said he was in Moscow, but on Friday he was shown [on TV] at tube-rolling mill in Taganrog. The minister is obviously avoiding us, because this summer he promised 1,000 tons of сoal allowances [for heating and cooking] by October 15, but so far we have received only 100 tons,” said Nadkernichny.

“We are waiting for a reply from the President to the registered letter we sent him on September 23 after his community liaison office refused to take it. But so far there has been no response,” said Nadkernichny.

Caucasian Knot has also reported that properties (two administrative buildings and the right to lease the lot were they are located) owned by Diamond Coal Company JSC, a subsidiary of King Coal, had been put up for auction. The starting price for the properties was 50 million rubles.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Go to Caucasian Knot’s special page on the Gukovo wage arrears protests for this and earlier reports on the conflict.

Slugfest for the Motherland

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А “mixed martial arts” fight between eight-, nine-, and ten-year-olds never hurt anyone.

We beat the hell out of each other in the schoolyard, although it wasn’t televised, sadly.

Later, some of us grew up to be policemen or joined the armed forces. Meaning, some of us grew up to be people who do important work in our country by keeping the inferior races down, with a couple of dozen pistol shots to head and chest, if necessary, or traveling to foreign countries to kill their people by the thousands and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands because they had the misfortune of being born in the wrong place at the wrong time, although they never harmed a hair on any of our curly imperial heads.

Kadyrov has the right idea. He is training his own children and Chechnya’s children for the day when he and his army of Russian patriots will have to descend on the metropole and rip the empire’s “fifth column” and “national traitors” limb from limb.

And he is broadcasting it on TV so that all these enemies and traitors can see that he and his people are getting ready to come after them.

Only a person completely off their rocks would call this “stability.”

For the last seventeen years, Putin has been concocting a Vesuvius-like social, economic, and political volcano that will soon blow up in everyone’s face. Worldwide. The people of Aleppo have already been hit by future seismic aftershocks from this belated volcanic explosion. Who will be next? 

Kadyrov Children’s Televised MMA Bouts Prompt Criticism In Russia
RFE/RL
October 6, 2016

Russia’s ombudswoman for the rights of children says she has sent an official query to the children’s ombudsman in the North Caucasus region of Chechnya after state television broadcast mixed martial arts (MMA) fights between children.

Anna Kuznetsova made the announcement on October 6, two days after three sons, all aged between 8 and 10, of Chechnya’s Moscow-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov won their fights in the cage during a so-called exhibition bout in Grozny.

Ten-year-old Akhmad beat another boy by a technical knockout.

Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “If all of this is true, then probably a live broadcast of a child’s knockout is the reason for the proper supervisory authorities to closely look into this matter.”

The chairman of Russia’s MMA Union, Fyodor Yemelyanenko earlier called the fights “unacceptable,” saying the children risked permanent injury and psychological harm.

Yemelyanenko said children under the age of 12 should not be allowed to take part in any MMA fights and that anyone under the age of 21 must wear a helmet and protective gear, which was not the case in the fights involving Kadyrov’s sons.

He also expressed concerns that the children’s fight was shown on state television.

Kadyrov posted a video of the bouts on his own Instagram account.

Kadyrov’s cousin Adam Delimkhanov, who is a Russian lawmaker, lambasted Yemelyanenko for the criticism, calling him “a coward.”

“Whoever the man is, he will have to be accountable for every word he uttered regarding my dear nephews,” Delimkhanov wrote on Instagram on October 6.

Kadyrov was inaugurated on October 5, his 40th birthday, to a new term as Chechnya’s leader.

Thanks to Dmitry Kalugin for the heads-up 

Fond of Paradox: The Works and Days of Vadim Ovchinnikov

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Vadim Ovchinnikov, 1990s. Photo by Igor Ryatov. Collection of Igor Ryatov

Ekaterina Andreyeva
Fond of Paradox

Vadim Ovchinnkov’s masterpieces have always been remembered in Petersburg. The paintings Window, Green Square, and What Is Ruining Us, which he exhibited at shows in the late 1980s and early 1990s, have become enmeshed in the local mythology, just like the image of the man who painted them. According to Dunya Smirnova, Ovchinnikov was “fond of paradox,” and had the looks of a brave, mysterious hero, a Petersburg James Bond.

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Atmospheric Phenomena, 1988. Oil on canvas, 60 х 120 cm. Collection of Ekaterina Andreyeva

Ovchinnikov spent the first part of his life in Pavlodar, Kazakhstan. He spent the second part on the Gulf of Finland, in Leningrad aka Petersburg, where he moved with his younger brother the artist Alexander Ovchinnikov. Seven factories were built in Pavlodar in the 1950s to assist in conquering the so-called virgin lands. One of Ovchinnikov’s first paintings, which was shown at an exhibition of the nonconformist Society for Experimental Visual Art (TEII), was entitled Factory Gates. Ovchinnikov found a familiar industrial landscape in Leningrad, but there was nothing familiar about his factory gates. They flashed and flared amid the darkness of the canvas like an alchemist’s crucible or a spaceship. What the steppes and the seas have in common is their vastness and inconstancy, and in the steppes, human historical time has been added to these immeasurable dimensions. (“The trough stands like a monument, / The backhoe, like a token of hope.”) The reality of Ovchinnikov’s perpetually mercurial paintings is grounded in the history of the steppes, where magic and industry share the same space. An Asian shaman, he relocated to the north to assemble the Chukchi Poems, which resemble a wizard’s arsenal; to rhyme colors and words by paying heed to the signals emitted by the imagination (“I found gold in the steppe. / It was flat on its back upholstered in sand and gloom”); to give shape to sounds; and to write mail-art letters that always inspired a sense of an unprecedented happening among their readers.

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Danger! Keep Out. Enamel on iron, 16 х 12 cm. Collection of Alexei Mitin

The symbols in Ovchinnikov’s paintings are often situated on horizon lines, thus resembling sheet music, but also the patterns on shamans’ tambourines, which facilitate the passage from the underworld to the earthly and heavenly realms. The geography of the voyages he undertook without leaving his studio almost defies description. Ovchinnikov lived several lives simultaneously and was in touch with various worlds. These imaginary spaces were recorded in pictorial series that stretched through the 1980s and 1990s: Spring in Chukotka, Atmospheric Phenomena, City by the Sea, The Life of Plants, Riders, and War Games. Ovchinnikov’s paintings takes viewers on trips to the peculiar worlds of Leningrad’s New Artists and the transavantgarde of the 1980s, while The Green Square: Symbol of the International Environmental Revolution gives them direct access to the Russian avant-garde’s experiments.

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The Green Square: Symbol of the International Environmental Revolution, 1988. Oil on plywood, 100 х 99 cm. Collection of Gennady Pliskin

Partly predicted by Boris Ender, who once noted in his diary that a green square on a white field symbolizes the form of human life, the work consists of a sheet of plywood painted bright green. Ovchinnikov probably had not read Ender’s diary entry, but he half parodically and half seriously extended the series of Malevich’s squares by painting a piece of scrap wood he had found somewhere. Ovchinnikov would not have been able to see the paintings of Boris Ender and his sister Maria and Ksenia or the colorful abstractions of Mikhail Matyushin until the late 1980s, when they were exhibited at the Russian Museum for the first time after an interim of more than fifty years. However, he undoubtedly studied the few paintings by Pavel Filonov he had seen at the museum: Solar Energy No. 2 (1981) is painted in the pointillist crystalline manner devised by Filonov. But the dynamic freedom of color combinations and the primary element of color and sound waves fascinated him much more, and so by the mid 1980s he had recreated and completely transformed in his own way the painterly technique of the Matyushin school in the series The Life of Plants and Atmospheric Phenomena. Ovchinnikov’s take on Mikhail Matyushin’s so-called expanded vision involved a combination of imagination and observation. Ovchinnikov discovered and rediscovered the real world, which lives for color, in tense abstract compositions that elaborated Matyushin’s paradoxical notion of the universe, in which rays from different sources intersect after millions of years, where the vast sun permeates our tiny earth with its radiation, and things great thus incorporate themselves into things small. The freedom of the avant-garde’s ideas emerged before we were born, but in Ovchinnikov’s work they found their living, perfect shape.

The Life of Plants, late 1980s. Oil on canvas, 50 x 70 cm. Collection of Svetlana Kozak
The Life of Plants, late 1980s. Oil on canvas, 50 x 70 cm. Collection of Svetlana Kozak

Among the New Artists who paid tribute to painting—Timur Novikov, Oleg Kotelnikov, Ivan Sotnikov, and Inal Savchenkov—Ovchinnikov stood out in the sense that his paintings were alive with a sense of the world’s unity, which was bound together by painterly matter. Moreover, the world, dynamic and amenable to harsh mergers and acquisitions, could indulge in contemplation of its own greatness only in the colored substance of paintings, pierced here and there by a sprout, an extraterrestrial beam of light, a magic arrow or an unforgettable hallucination. Like his comrade Timur Novikov, Ovchinnikov had his own philosophy of art making. Their minds sought to master the eastern technique of dashing between microworld and macroworld. Always in motion like the wind, Novikov managed in western fashion to accurately capture the harmony of the capstone, to the find the arch’s single focal point. Ovchinnikov, on the contrary, would quietly meditate in his studio for days on end, captivated by the endless changes, the alchemical process by which colors are sublimated into images, and the reverse process by which images dissolve into color. Ovchinnikov’s work was unique in that he freely drifted between figurative and abstract painting for many years. It helped him couple cross-sections of mythmaking, opened up sites of strength and poles of energy, the stories of flora and fauna before human being emerged, the legends of the saints, and dazzling visions at the limits of the heavens and his own consciousness.

A Walk, 1992. Oil on board-mounted fabric, 41.7 x 58 cm. Collection of Gennady Pliskin
A Walk, 1992. Oil on board-mounted fabric, 41.7 x 58 cm. Collection of Gennady Pliskin

People who dwell with Ovchinnikov’s pictures on their walls know that, like living beings, they reveal themselves anew and differently every day, giving one the sense of witnessing a transfiguration. The texture of his pictures is as mercurial as a natural landscape.

In 1993, I wrote the following in the booklet for Ovchinnikov’s first solo museum show, A Walk (Progulka): “Next to them you live as it were outside, amidst nature, which ineffably transfigures from one minute to the next. They constantly reveal a changing dynamism of shapes and new shades of color while simultaneously hiding past shapes and colors. Like a living substance, their colorful surface interacts with light and is capable of transforming like the surface of the sea.”

Spatial extension in Ovchinnikov’s paintings and poems changes vis-à-vis the organic budlike capsules of Matyushin’s living spaces or the symbolic fusions of heavenly and earthly worlds in the work of Vladimir Sterligov. In Ovchinnkov’s works, readers and viewers are constantly moving along lines formed by slices of space, along the trajectories traced by pictograms and dialects.

As if it had bathed the rough flanks of cliffs,
The water drained away to the babble of bubbles and never came back.
I saw
Tower cranes constructing a temple,
Clouds from the east racing above them.
Girls from our class
Running along the shore in white dresses.

Unification and harmonization occur in this case thanks to incessant transpersonal movement. Like the contrail left by an airplane in the sky, it shapes the mercurial, intermittent lifeline of the totality, emerging again and again. This line captures acoustic accents and momentary images, simultaneously emancipating them from immediacy. Thus, the word potok (here, “class,” but literally, “stream” or “flow”) once again partakes of free movement, tossing off the shell of Soviet bureaucratese. This harmony is marked by the shade of drama, for it moves via losses and lives only in the temporal being of art, in the event of the creative act, whether pictorial, poetic or musical.

The Creation of the Universe Has Been Completed, 1987. Mail art. Collection of Svetlana Kozak
The Creation of the Universe Has Been Completed, 1987. Mail art. Collection of Svetlana Kozak

For many people, including quite sophisticated professional connoisseurs, the paintings of Vadim Ovchinnikov were testimony to a miracle, the presence of a living, universal art. In the late 1980s, the head editor of the New York-based magazine Art & Antiques was so stunned by Ovchinnikov’s paintings that he undertook something editors rarely undertake: an experiment. He placed on the magazine’s cover a photograph not of the front side but the back side of a painting by Ovchinnikov, that is, a piece of stretched canvas with inscriptions in Cyrillic, indecipherable to most of the magazine’s readers. He thus augmented the effect of a sudden artistic discovery. The painting itself took up a full page inside the magazine. In the historical circumstances of the times, Russia was thus marked out as a continent of new art. This now rather old story persuades us that it suffices for people who want to see authentic postmodernist or transavantgarde painting, meaning art freely transiting the borders of time and space, and implanting itself in the flesh of cultures, from the primitive to the global and urban, look at the work of Vadim Ovchinnikov alone in order to comprehend his illustrious contemporaries such as Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, and Sandro Chia. Especially because looking at Ovchinnikov’s pictures is endlessly interesting. For he always followed his own Rule No. 26, as published by the mysterious Collegium D.P.: “Painter! Skillfully using pattern, color, texture, color temperature, tone, daubing, line, tone value, varnish, and Chinese and Indian philosophy, tell the viewer everything, but do not give away any secrets.”

Vadim Ovchinnikov: The Mineshafts of Nirvana, a posthumous retrospective of works by Vadim Ovchinnikov (1951–1991), curated by Dr. Andreyeva and Svetlana Kozak, will be running at the Museum of 20th and 21st Century St. Petersburg Art, in Petersburg, until October 30, 2016. A slightly different version of this text, excerpted from the exhibition catalogue, has been published, in Russian, in ArtGuide. For more information on Vadim Ovchinnikov’s art and life, see the website ov-ov.com (in Russian). Translated by the Russian Reader

Lina Mouzner: Giving Voice to the Women of Syria

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Lina Mouzner. Photo courtesy of tiszatajonline.hu

War in Translation: Giving Voice to the Women of Syria
Lina Mouzner
Literary Hub
October 6, 2016

In the last few months, I’ve moved houses no less than 35 times.

I have been threatened, beaten, strip-searched, thrown in prison, tortured and made to watch as my mother knelt weeping at the dirty feet of tribal leaders to beg for any information about my kidnapped father. I have waited at countless checkpoints, praying that no one finds the bread, the money, the schoolbooks, the chocolates I have hidden in my bag, on my body, trying to smuggle them through to people on the other side. I have buried seven husbands, three fiancés, fifteen sons and a two-week old daughter I finally agreed to have at 42 for my husband’s sake, to bring life back to his tongue after we laid our two grown, handsome sons to rest, one after the other, and grief took all his words away. Our daughter did not die because of a bullet or mortar shell or carbomb, like my father, sister, brother, cousin, mother, neighbor, pharmacist, teacher. She died because the siege had cut off not only our food and electricity, but also our medicine and medical supplies. There were no child-size incubators to be found in our city. My husband rushed her slowly asphyxiating body from one hospital to another until he finally found one in the next town over. He left her with the nurses there and came home at dawn, exhausted but joyful in his relief. In the afternoon he went back to bring her home, and was led away from the small pediatric ward and down to the morgue, where her perfect blue body lay among countless others they had not yet found place enough to bury. Her name was Fatma.

In the last few months, I have watched my city, Maarrat al-Numan, burn, I have watched my city, Raqqa, burn, I have fled Aleppo from the increased fanaticism of the rebels, I have fled Aleppo from the chokehold of the regime, I have fled Aleppo to Turkey, I have fled Aleppo to Lebanon, I have fled Aleppo not knowing if I will ever return, or what I might find if I do.

All this I have watched from my living room in Beirut. Sitting on a worn gray couch with earplugs in, trying to block out the sounds of sheering metal from the construction site right under my window as I translate stories from Arabic to English for the Damascus Bureau, an under-project of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

I was tasked with translating mostly those dispatches sent in by women, first-person accounts of life under siege and war, written for the “women’s blog” section. Though they are as far from our understanding of “women’s blog” in marketing terms as Raqqa now is from Beirut, the degradation and exhaustion of waiting at borders and checkpoints factored into the physical distance.

The women, the writers, range in age from their teens to their sixties and seventies, come from all walks of life, all parts of Syria. They are teachers, activists, seamstresses, farmers, doctors, volunteer paramedics, housewives, writers, aspiring writers, students and revolutionaries.

My body vibrating, whether to the shattering of an earth drill or to the tension of what I read, I have witnessed them march in the streets calling for change, bury loved ones, resuscitate strangers, defy soldiers and snipers, wait in breadlines, pack their whole lives into vans and cars, undergo daily humiliation at checkpoints on their way to and from work, to and from university, which they have refused to leave or discontinue.

To witness, however, feels too passive a word. It is an action that is at its heart, inaction. Their writing is filled with crossings; they are constantly traversing borders both visible and invisible, and it makes me think about the one between these two languages, Arabic and English, each a landscape unto itself. I am also hoping that what I am allowed to smuggle through will survive the journey.

In Arabic, the root of the verb, to witness, is sh-h-d. Roots are important in Arabic. They are present, that is, known and recognizable, not obscure etymologies but immediate and close, giving life directly to all the words that bud and branch from them. From the three-letter root verb, you make the subject and the object, but also adjectives, adverbs and a whole host of other, more complex verbs, subjects and objects related to the first. Even these words—subject, verb, object—are more directly related in Arabic. Translated literally, the subject is the doer, the verb is the doing, the object the one it is done to. In English, a writer writes a book; a letter. In Arabic, al-katib yaktubu kitab; maktoob. All from the root k-t-b, to write.

From “to witness,” we get shahed, the one who witnesses; mashhad, the spectacle or the scene, but also shaheed, martyr; istishhad, to be martyred, to die for a cause.

As if the act of bearing witness, followed to the end of one of its branches, snaps under the weight of what is seen, and you fall to your death. As if to die for a cause in Arabic is to bear witness to something until it annihilates the self.

For the last few nights I have been glued to the news, unable to turn it off. Following the progress of the Kurdish forces as they fight the ISIS militants out of Kobane. Over coffees and drinks with friends in our local watering hole in Beirut, we go over headlines, possibilities, projections, trying to keep the quaver of hope out of our voices and words. Unable to allow ourselves to truly believe anymore, after all that we have lived and seen, that a people might be allowed to bear their fates in their own hands without outside interference bending the situation in favor of the hegemonic political agenda. And then it is confirmed: the battle has been won in our favor. The enemy has been driven out of our town. The town council invites us back to reclaim our homes. Immediately I pile into a bus with my mother and sisters for the long journey back to our village, singing and ululating all the way. All I can think of is my journal, with all the poems I have written over the years. Left behind in the rush to leave, I have mourned it every day since, cursing myself for forgetting it. We climb the hill together, a key buried in my mother’s pocket, that never once left my mother’s pocket, flying the last half kilometer over jagged rocks and dried clumps of earth that were once orchards and fields. I see my mother pull out the key, ready to open the door, only to find a pile of rubble where our house once was. My clothes my journal my needlework our photos shards of our treasured blue cups ground into the dirt. Everything everything gone.

I let out a sob then, breathless with anguish, standing on a hill in Tell Maarouf in a living room in Beirut.

* * * *

To translate a text is to enter into the most intimate relationship with it possible. It is the translator’s body, almost more so than the translator’s mind, that is the vessel of transfer. The mind equates words, expressions, deals with techniques and logistics; it is within the body that the real alchemy—mysterious, unnamed and inexplicable—takes place. That alchemy has to do with truth more than signification, that is, the animating force behind signification, which transforms it into meaning, into something that moves. Gayarti Spivak qualifies the act of translation as “erotic,” but there is something too gentle about that word to ring true for me. The word captures the act of surrender, and the abundantly physical communion with the text, but there is something messier and bloodier that is elided. More agonized and agonizing too. There is a violence in undoing someone’s words and reconstituting them in a vocabulary foreign to them, a vocabulary of your own choosing. There is a violence, too, in the way you are—for long moments—annihilated by the other; undone in return. Neither the translator nor the text emerges from the act unscathed.

I cry a lot while doing this work. It isn’t something I can control. Every time I think I have become hardened to these stories, a moment, an expression, a detail will throw me off the scaffolding of language, away from the structural safety of its grammar and rules and headlong into the wilderness beyond. There is always something unexpected, unimagined, no matter how used to the narrative of loss and displacement and violence I think I have become.

When I first receive one of these texts and sit down to read it, I can see her, the writer, clearly in my mind’s eye. She gets on the mini-bus. She emerges from a taxi. She calls the neighbors, asking when they last saw her brother. I am aware that this first-person voice is hers, and of how it conjures her up as vividly as the images she shows me through her eyes. And then I sit down to work, taking in her words, her voice, anew. And two contradictory things become true at once: that despite the fact I am attempting to reproduce her words as faithfully as I can, they must now re-emerge in words unavoidably my own. And that because of the fact that I am attempting to reproduce her voice as faithfully as I can, it must now re-emerge in a voice unavoidably my own.

“I get on the mini-bus,” I write. “I emerge from the taxi,” and then it is I calling the neighbors, and I am nearly hysterical with worry as I wait for their response. In the considered, deliberate act of translation, these I’s bump up into one another again and again until they are accidentally shattered, the various pieces of these commingled selves becoming, for long moments, indistinguishable from one another. Afterward, trying to pick them up and separate them out, I am left with a thousand cuts I can feel every time I move or breathe. Afterward I realize that there is a shard I have failed to remove, that it has entered my eyes and become lodged there, cutting into my vision always, digging into the form and content of my memories.

Translation is not just about transposing words from one language to another. But transplanting a feeling, a way of seeing the world, from one vocabulary of experience to another. I think of the verb, to transplant. A seedling from soil to soil. But also an organ from body to body. The procedure must be as delicate, as cognizant of the original conditions of creation in order to nurture and ensure a continuation of life.

In Arabic, the word for the action of transplantation is zare’. Simply to plant. There is no prefix implying movement from one place to another, an in-built warning of possible rejection. There is only the thing itself, planted, as if the process of its life begins all at once in this new soil, this new body. I prefer this way of thinking about translated words, and the possibility of their finding life. But the conditions of growth, for growth, remain the same. There are still no guarantees that anything will take root, or that the new body will not reject the new organ for being foreign.

* * * *

When my family and I washed up in Canada, carried out on the great wave of migration away from the civil war in Beirut, I found that I could no longer unlock the trunk in which I carried the words to explain where I had come from, what I had lived. When I did manage to force it open, what I found inside was soggy, useless. The words were all in another language, non-native to this new soil. I translated them as best as I could. Qazeefeh became shell. Msalaheen became militiamen, gunmen. Hajez became checkpoint. Malja’ became shelter. But the new words were strangely light. They carried none of the weight of what they truly meant. Qazeefeh was piercing and hot, abject terror, near-misses and direct hits. It was luck and unluck, it was what left the neighbor boy with melted clumps for hands and took away my grandmother’s hearing in one ear and what missed my father again and again as he crossed the border to Syria and back over four long years, on his way to the Canadian consulate, checking on the status of our visas. Msalaheen were those who held your life in their hands every time you passed through ahajez made of sandbags, militia flags and insignia fluttering above, the colors and shapes meaning the difference between friendly and unfriendly, sometimes life and death. Msalaheen scrutinized your papers and peered into the car with slitted, predatory eyes as you made yourself as small as possible, trying to pretend you couldn’t smell the stink of your parents’ fear. They were those who kept your neighborhood safe; those who made your neighborhood a target. Malja’ was long sleepless nights, the whole building crowded into one airless underground room, the dizzying smells of mold and other people’s bodies, listening to qazeefeh after qazeefeh fall all around you, the echoes booming in your chest as intimate and sure as heartbeat. But malja’ was also endless games of cards and forced sleepovers with friends caught at your place overnight, watching the way the old neighbor twitched as he snored and plotting to steal his dentures while he slept, your giggles luckily muffled by the sound of gunfire. Gunfire now the catch-all name for M16, Kalashnikov, 120, B7, Grad, Doshka, Katyusha, 155, Hawen; my skill in telling them apart by sound now rendered useless.

But once I had the words translated, I found that no one really wanted to hear them, be near them. They were light in English, yes, but also cumbersome and huge. Giant styrofoam shapes. When I carried them with me into the classroom or into the home of new friends, I had to struggle to fit them through the door. Their size dwarfed me, crowded me out; everyone stared. When I tried to put them down, they formed a barrier, setting me apart as so inconceivably other it became impossible to clamber over them, to find my way back to the world of school dances and mall outings, pop quizzes and notes passed back and forth about your crush this week.

In order to enter, then, to become one amongst the many individuals that made up my new world, I had to let go of that whole lexicon, repudiate it, as if it were a sort of shame.

For years I wrote stories about Jennies and Alexes and Melissas, about their suburban childhoods and private disappointments, about dreams and desires moved only by the eddies of a personal history, floating far above the undertow and tidal shifts of collective history. Trying to rewrite my past in an effort to not have to translate it.

I had become used to feeling light. I did not want my country hanging around my neck like a weight I must always carry; unable to take it off or put it down. I did not want to be buffeted about in the whirlpool resultant from the violent meeting of two currents, the personal and the historical, perpetually sucked down into the eye of the vortex along with the thousands upon thousands of other bodies carried there by the same riptide. And everyone around me drowning: how could I live with attempting to save myself alone?

It goes the other way, too. I remember how a student in one of my creative writing classes once handed in a story set in Beirut, about a college student like him pining over a girl who then rejected him in favor of another, richer and more muscular. A story he told us was based on personal experience. His characters were called Damien, Samantha and Brad. Not entirely unheard of here, but odd enough as a group to raise an eyebrow. While workshopping his story with the class, I asked him why he had not named them Salim or Dala or Bilal. His name, after all, was as Arab as they come.

“But Miss,” he replied, incredulous. “I’m not writing about war and bombs and tragedy. Why would I give them such names?”

* * * *

A bomb is a shocking experience. Even to one who feels they have become inured to it. Each heart-hollowing concussion is a redefinition of everything you ever thought you understood. It has nothing to do with fear. Fear is something you get used to, it becomes the new baseline from which your body operates. Quivering, animal, alert. You even come, in the dark malja’ of your consciousness, to accept the idea of your own death. But the breathless outrage of being reduced to utter insignificance—each bomb a punctuation of this idea—is not something you ever get used to. For it is not merely your interiority that is threatened with annihilation, but the entire surrounding world that grounds it in meaning. Parks, schools, streets, friends. Squares, alleys, journals, children. Rivers, parents, trees. Husbands, wives, orchards. Snatches of celebration and joy. Moments of silence and repose. The cat curled up on the garden wall. Stacks of old photographs, your grandmother standing ramrod-stiff for the cameraman in the first flush of her youth. The paintings carefully chosen and framed on the wall. The plants in powdered milk cans all in a row, their leaves tangled into one canopy. A brown egg on a blue plate one early morning. All the people, places and things of your life that you have stacked and shored up against nothingness, all flattened into a grainy, featureless landscape to the inhuman scope from above. All of them collateral damage.

English is the lingua franca of the media, and regardless of what I know of poetry or fiction, which has room enough to embrace foreignness, to break the audience-pleasing structure of introduction-crisis-resolution, I am aware always of the prevailing narrative of the media, because it is there that we, who are not of the predominant culture but who write in its language, who feel ourselves always implicated in two worlds, read about ourselves most. We know how language can be used to beat the rhythm of the war drum, mustering ranks upon ranks of public support. We know how language itself can wage war against us, by mimicking the same casual dehumanization of a bomb. Everyone you know and love: terrorists. Militants. Strategic targets. Collateral damage. The leveling of your neighborhood: an unfortunate mistake. The razing of your city: the birth pangs of a new Middle East. Seven dead, twenty wounded. Forty-one dead, ninety-three wounded. 1.2 million refugees. 2,000 migrants.

All the life squeezed out of them so that they fit into one headline. Sentences become coffins too small to contain all the multitudes of grief.

The trauma, recreated in words: countless particularities flattened and rubbled into one. In the mediatized narrative, your individuality, your personhood, is not a right you are granted by virtue of being human. To become a story worthy of unfolding in the small confines of the mass media, you must earn your individuality by lifting yourself up and out of collective circumstance, either by the exceptionalism of your life or the spectacle of your death. For the story to come to an end, you must serve the purpose of the story, not the other way around. As such, lessons are learned; resolutions are reached; audiences are comforted.

But there is no real resolution to the trauma of the collective. It lives on in all the stories you will ever tell from now on, in all the stories that will be passed down along the line of culture, even when they are about something else. It reshapes your vocabulary. It becomes part of your language. A barrel will no longer ever be a barrel again; shrapnel will always explode from it. The word mustard will forevermore carry a whiff of gas, rashing your skin, smarting your eyes. When you say Sabra, or Shatila, you are not referring to a place, but to a heap of dead bodies shot indiscriminately and tossed aside like worn rags. When you say the word catastrophe, no one need ever ask which one it is you mean. It is towns, cities in their entirety become past tense. These are things that can only ever be reproduced, retold, re-imagined, but never, never laid to rest or resolved. There is no end to the story, only the story.

When writing about war, I am often at a loss as to how to proceed. I want to make the writing as dissonant as I can, to recreate a sense of disruption, of an essential brokenness. I want to make the writing as unobtrusive as I can, to have it slip easily into the mind, mild-mannered and unassuming, before revealing that it has been wearing a vest of explosives all along. But these are theoretical questions, questions of technique, and ultimately ways of distancing myself somehow from a raw wound at the core that simply and only begs to be told, no matter how.

But told to whom? Who is the reader I’m addressing when I am writing in English? It is not my mother tongue, though I feel almost at home in it, though I love it as if it were my own. Like any language, I know it is a tool, as available to raw beauty as it is to hegemonic violence. And I know the only way to redeem it for all of us who it marginalizes is to fight our way out of those margins and insist on being part of the text. But my English is a war wound. It is a result of the roughshod amputation of my mother tongue. Because we were forced, or rather, allowed the privilege to flee at an age when I was first learning to use my voice on the page. But it is a wound from a war much older than that. Because even before we left, I read mostly in English, I was encouraged to read mostly in English, I was complimented on my English, I was told, in a thousand different ways, that it was superior to Arabic, more accomplished, more intelligent, more likely to be taken seriously. It has taken me a long time to allow myself permission to use it as I wish, to break it and retake it without the secret childhood hope that the highest compliment that should be paid to my writing is that I sound like a native speaker.

And I wonder, what is it that brings me to the page? What brings me back, again and again, to the war? To the site of that wound and the need to try and make sense of it through language? Is it the desire to know or the desire to be known?

* * * *

Now I am back inside my childhood, in the world of malja’ and qazeefeh and msalaheen. Stopping at hajez after hajez. Learning the names of the many hawajez that strike fear into the heart of the Syrians. The same way Hajez el Berbara was notorious among some Lebanese—spoken of like a dread portal with its own metaphysical logic, either allowing you through and past or swallowing you up and disappearing you—the Syrians have Hajez el Muqass, Hajez el-Conserwa, Hajez al-Khanaser and countless, countless others. These were once names of common places, squares or streets or bridges crossed without a second thought, now made otherworldly borders with that prelude. The word itself a portal into the uncanny.

I stop at these checkpoints every time with my heart carried in my mouth like contraband that might be dropped or crushed or lost at any moment, knowing I will pass through, because there is a story on the other side of that hajez, but not knowing in what shape; not knowing what distortions that portal might work upon my body.

I often wonder, while working, if I should add an asterisk, an explanation, context, use those translator’s tools at my disposal to broaden the world beyond the page. To drive home a certain urgency; to explain how everyday objects become sinister or meaningless or numinous during wartime.

Windows. Clocks. Mirrors.

A Note on the Translation: war changes the laws of physics, bending time and space to its will.

Sometimes I do add notes, small parenthetical asides that are no real elucidations at all, for words I am familiar with but whose permutations accumulate, and other, new words, their meaning created and destroyed in the same moment by the explosion of violence.

Hisbah, for example. Qualified as (ISIS religious police), other times as (ISIS morality police). Does the word strike the same fear in your heart as it does mine, reader; does it elicit the same disgust that such flesh-hungry men might dare invoke the name of God and his morals, the God I have spent my whole life serving in my heart and dressing modestly for? Does it ignite the same incandescent rage as I watch these blasphemers from Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, Pakistan and sometimes Europe and America, snatch my revolution, my revolution from my hands and use it to whip my back? I, who was willing to alienate myself from my family to print pamphlets and distribute them, organize rallies and advise people on the best way to run from tear gas and live bullets, defying even the men in my cell who said that revolution is no place for women?

Shabbiha, for example. Sometimes left as is, but italicized, since they are so common to the landscape of the Syrian war, predating as they do the Syrian war. Sometimes qualified as (secret police), others as (regime thugs or collaborators). Have I described them well enough that you understand, reader, how they are a monstrous thing that haunts and shadows, even though I cannot explain the aural recall of the word shabah, ghost? How they are the hell-hounds of Bashar al-Assad, willing to rip your life apart for whatever scraps their master throws their way? How they are one of the reasons we revolted, and that shucking our fear of them to march in the streets with heads held high and sure was the first revolution we enacted upon ourselves?

When I tell you of how I smuggled in fancy chocolates and trendy shoes through the checkpoints at a risk to my life, are you disappointed in us for not being pristine in our victimhood, or must I add a note to explain how even in siege people might prioritize luxury over necessity to live as opposed to merely survive?

When you hear me exclaim, over and over, “Alhamdulillah!”—“Praise God!”—when I hear that my son or husband has been killed by a sniper or carbomb or left gutted on the side of the road by the shabbiha (though we now use the word martyred for all the war dead, including two-week old daughters who die because of a siege on medical supplies), do you think me so twisted into barbarism by my baffling religion that I might truly find joy in this news, or must I add a note to explain that submitting to God’s will is the only way I have not to go utterly mad with grief fighting it?

When I tell you how my nine-year-old cousin was martyred his first day fighting on the frontlines, do you think us monstrous to have let him go, or must I add a note to explain how we have come to accept that in war the desire to fight and its attendant risk of death is something that doesn’t respect childhood?

You understand at least that merely lifting my voice to tell you these things is an act of trust, of faith in your ability to understand. And that I, as a translator, must if nothing else respect and reproduce the faith inherent in those words. To excise my paranoia about the English-language reader’s judgment from all my work. In that way, I am learning too that even as I speak of death and destruction, my every word becomes a force shored up against them as soon as it is written

* * * *

Often I imagine these women one day waking up and realizing that this is it. The end of this chapter. One day they open their eyes after blinking away a sleepless night spent worrying over the future minutes, the future years, and decide that whatever gamble they will be taking to leave is better than the gamble of staying. And so, in the quiet dawn of a room, in the midnight roar of barrels falling from the sky, they pack up what they cannot imagine leaving behind. They gather their children close and call their husbands, they pick up elderly parents and arrange whatever bundles they have made, that they are able to make, tight. They leave in droves or as single families, they leave in worn-out slippers, in trendy, sparkling heels, on bare feet, leaning on canes, clutching infants to their breasts. They leave behind their houses, their streets, their cities, their countries, their dead. And they set off out into the unknown, carrying the memory of all that they leave behind in their hearts and on their tongues, even if they carry nothing else. These they will resurrect in stories, and these stories will be passed on, and so they will endure. This is what they carry, this is what they bear. They are bearing their witness.

And we who listen to their stories are also bearing witness. Carrying something whose significance cannot be described in language, but must nevertheless be contained within it.

A journalist friend tells me about being in Greece, reporting on the arrival of refugees in Lesvos, rising from the sea both resurrected and, like Lazarus, irrevocably transformed by death. On the backs of the trucks circling the town is the word “metaphoros.” A Greek acquaintance explains that this means transport, and she is struck by this, as I am too when she tells me about it. How going back to the roots of language can reveal something essential about a word’s purpose. How stories might be transformed and disguised to pass through the world more easily, but still smuggle with them the same truth. And how the perfect metaphor for the acts of reading and writing, and the witness you must bear to perform each, is translation, specifically its Latin root: to cross, to carry over. For they all require an active form of engagement that is at once, paradoxically, an active form of surrender. You must bear the words, no matter how heavy or foreign or grotesque or strange, you must bear them with their full weight and allow them to carry you where they will, carry you so far into yourself you finally emerge into an understanding beyond. Beyond the self, beyond language. A place where you might, for endless moments, imagine that you have become someone else entirely, and thus emerge transformed, bearing back with you into the world the knowledge that such a place exists, that such metamorphosis is possible. I am not entirely sure how one does this. There are no maps to these territories that lie beyond the borders of that which is explicitly voiced. But I do know that the only way to evaluate what must be carried over and how, what can be sacrificed or modified and what at all costs must not be lost, is to journey across that border

Translation is a symbiotic act. Between writer and translator, of course, but also between languages. In becoming its vessel, you carry over something of yourself but also something of the original language, because that is the way that language works. It is a communal heritage, but is also something entirely individual, entirely your own. And that is what gives it its transformative possibility: this inevitable commingling of self and other, of self and culture, of personal history and collective history. Language gives the individual the power and strength of the collective. And writing, speaking, telling stories—wielding language in narrative form—has the ability to transform the collective through the individual experience. To cross over from that which is felt, experienced, to that which is voiced—for the purpose of witness and being witnessed—is each and every time the declaration of a singular understanding of what it means to be alive in the world. This opens up new spaces, new imagined possibilities, and those, through language, become part of the collective heritage.

It is the best form of resistance I can imagine for a world scarred with forbidding, categorical borders. Between the self and other, between where you come from and where you end up, between the personal narrative and collective history, between genders and cultures and languages and countries and the similar calls for dignity and recognition contained in stories. The only way to make borders meaningless is to keep insisting on crossing them: like a refugee, without papers, without waiting to be given permission, without regard for what might be waiting on the other side. For when you cross a border, you are not only affirming its permeability, but also changing the landscape on both sides. You cross carrying what you can carry, you cross bearing your witness, you cross knowing that you are damageable, that you are mortal and finite, but that language is memory, and memory lives on.

Istishhad: to be martyred; to die for a cause.

It is an especially difficult word to translate, because it has been so marred by blood and violence, so disfigured by zealotry and malice. It is a word that has been ripped from its roots, those that connect it to something so emblematic of what it means to be human, to be driven always by the twin desires of wishing to know and wishing to be known.

Its root: sh-h-d, witness. In its most literal form, istishhad in fact means: to have been witnessed. Witnessed by God, who is nothing, symbolically, if not the omniscient reader—and writer—of the human condition. To be witnessed is what gives one’s life meaning; that is what gives death its cause.

* * * *

And yet, despite all this, there are times when I am wrung out. When I wonder if there can be any consolation in the exulting of our collective ability to use language to heal and bridge and repair in the face of such violent ruptures of meaning. What is the use of such abstract consolation in the face of the hard, physical realities of hunger, of fear, of being forced to flee home, of being unable to flee home, of being a teenage girl who goes down to the cellar to get her pyjamas and is then caught on the landing by a hail of sniper bullets as her father and I watch helplessly from above, unable to pull her out of harm’s way?

“In a few minutes,” she writes, “the bullets stopped falling and my father came down and carried me into the house. Two bullets had pierced my foot and I had shrapnel wounds all over my body. When I saw all the faces around me and all their falling tears, I tried to console them.

‘Don’t cry,’ I said. ‘I’m alive, alive, alive.’”

Lina Mounzer is a writer and translator living and working in Beirut. Her work has appeared in Bidoun, Warscapes, The Berlin Quarterly and Chimurenga, and her first short story was published as part of the anthology Hikayat: An Anthology of Lebanese Women’s Writing, published by Telegram Books. She has translated, from Arabic to English, short stories by Chaza Charafeddine and Mazen Maarouf and a novel by Hassan Daoud. Among other things, she is at work on her first novel.

Thanks to Sam Charles Hamad for the heads-up and everything else. TRR

Krasnodar Farmer Kills Himself after Land Seized

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Kuban Farmer Shoots Himself over Illegal Seizure of Land
Gella Litvintseva
Proved.rf
October 1, 2016

A farmer in Krasnodar Territory has committed suicide because he was unable to get back a thousand hectares of land that had been illegally seized from him, according to Alexei Volchenko, organizer of the August 2016 tractor convoy and a farmer from the Kalininskaya Distrist.

“Nikolai Gorban, a farmer in the Timashyovsk District, shot himself. It happened three days ago. A thousand hectares of land were confiscated from him by court order. The man wrote a suicide note in which he named the people he blamed for his death. Prior to this, gangsters came to his place, threatening him and promising to do away with his family. His loved ones are now preparing for the funeral,” says Volchenko, head of the Kalininskaya District Peasant Farm Enterprise.

According to Volchenko, the victim received the land plot after buying the shares from the land’s owners. After the court ruled the land confiscated, he tried to get it back, but failed.

“The farmer had his own land. He had bought it from other shareholders, like himself, and had it marked off and registered. But later the meeting of shareholders [at which they had decided to sell the land to Gorban — TRR] was declared null and void by the courts, and the land was returned to the collective farm, which Oleg Makarevich has been trying to get his hands on. The farmer went to see Natalya Kostenko, of the Russian People’s Front [a pro-Putin astroturfed “civil society” organization — TRR], to ask for help. He went personally to see her twice, and he called her. He went to see Andrei Korobka, deputy governor of Krasnodar Territory, and asked him for help. He met with me. He said, ‘I’ve lost everything. I’m going to put a bullet in my head.’ I told him not to do anything, that all was not lost, that in the end it wasn’t worth his life. I told him we would tough it out, we would beat them come what may. But he said, ‘I don’t want to live.’ I tried to dissuade him, but now we’ve found out it’s all over,” recounts Volchenko.

On September 23, convoy participants were in Moscow. Scheduled meetings with the president and the agriculture minister did not take place. They only managed to have a small get-together with Kuban officials. At the beginning of the week, Volchenko announced the farmers would be meeting with a presidential envoy in Yeysk on September 28, but ultimately this meeting did not take place, either.

“We got ready and went to Yeysk. I went into the hotel where the event was going to take place. They looked at me like I was an idiot. ‘Young man, are you smoking something or popping pills? What presidential envoy? What journalists? We have nothing scheduled.’ I went outside and saw cars with tinted windows, FSB officers walking around, and Vyacheslav Legkodukh (the Krasnodar governor’s envoy for farmer relations) sitting in a cafe and eating. I got the picture. I went to the farmers and said, ‘This is a setup. Let’s leave for home on the sly.’ They wanted us to gather outside the hotel so they could arrest us again for holding an unauthorized assembly,” recounts Volchenko.

Earlier, the protesting farmers met with Alexander Chernov, chair of the Krasnodar Territorial Court, who promised he would review all the cases the farmers requested. For now, he is their only hope.

“All the judges say Chernov is a very decent man, and keeps his word. Currently, farmers have won some of the cases that were before the courts. There are positive results, but it’s not clear whether this will be enough, because right now several farmers are under tremendous pressure, Nikolai Maslov, for example. Certain media outlets have been writing that he is a raider, that he has been trying to grab land from Shestopalov and his honest Dmitriyevskoye Agricultural Enterprise. But people just want to mark off and purchase their own land, 200 bloody hectares. Tremendous pressure has been exerted through the press. Andrei Koshik, a Kuban journalist, went to Novaya Gazeta newspaper in Moscow and tried to get the journalists to publish this garbage. They refused and wrote about it on Facebook,” says Volchenko.

The problems of Kuban’s farmers became widely known in the spring, when they decided to travel to Moscow by tractor to tell the president about illegal land seizures in Krasnodar Territory and about corruption in the local courts and district councils. To capture the president’s attention, over the course of seven months the farmers released doves with messages for him, held several rallies in a field, set off for Moscow in tractors, and wrote to the president’s public relations office. Their tractor convoy in August ended on day two in Rostov-on-Don, when the farmers were jailed and fined. Subsequently, convoy participants have been subjected to continual pressure from local authorities and law enforcement agencies.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Anatrrra for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Viktor Pogontsev and Rossiyskaya Gazeta, where the caption to the photo reads, tellingly, “Record grain harvests in the Kuban region in recent years have bothered certain local farmers. They have been demanding a new redivision of the land.” Rossiyskaya Gazeta is the Russian government’s daily newspaper of record.

Whataboutism as State Policy

Portrait of Omar Kipar, a Nogai man, circa 1900. Courtesy of Wikipedia and the Russian Museum of Ethnography

Sergey Abashin
Facebook
October 1, 2016

The Russian authorities do not like remembering and commemorating events that darken and cast doubt on the beatific picture of the country’s past, meaning conquests, mass murders, deportations, and so on. Not only the authorities but also many people who consider themselves intellectuals, thoughtful and knowledgeable people, avert their eyes and turn up their nose when they are reminded of such events. Why stir up problems? they say.

Another argument is that “there” (which usually means “the west”) things were much worse or no better at any rate. That is right, both the fact that memory has often been used to fuel conflict and political rivalry, and that things were no better “there.” But does this mean we should forget history, forget its difficult and controversial chapters, engage in censorship or self-censorship? Would that really help us solve our current problems in the here and now? Would such a simple trick help us feel that we and our history are “righter” than other countries and their histories?

On October 1, 1783, Suvorov defeated rebellious Nogai troops who had refused to abide by the decision to resettle them and their families from the Black Sea region to the Urals. Many of the Nogais who were not killed in battle or hunted down and killed were forced to scatter across the steppes and mountains, to escape to the Ottoman Empire. Thus, one of the most powerful nomadic powers to exist in what is now Russia perished.

Sergey Abashin is British Petroleum Professor of Migration Studies at the European University in Saint Petersburg. His most recent book is Sovetskii kishlak: Mezhdu kolonializmom i modernizatsiei [The Soviet Central Asian village: between colonialism and modernization], Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2015. Translated by the Russian Reader

But What Does the Proletariat Have to Do with It?

I’d like to offer you an odd little musical and visual artifact from late Putinism 3.0 to while away a slightly gloomy autumn evening, just as the song and video, below, attempts to conjure away the mounting troubles of the present by returning musically to the allegedly untroubled years immediately after Stalin’s death.

boyarsky

I came upon the song and video through a post sponsored by the Facebook page “Petersburg: Only For Love,” as pictured above.

The Facebook post quotes dialogue from the end of the video, featuring the members of the Petersburg band Proletarian Tango performing Mikhail Matusovsky and Tikhon Khrenikov’s famous 1956 song “Windows of Moscow.”

“Will you go with me to Petersburg?”

“What is there to do in that Petersburg of yours? Drink?”

“Live… Create… Love…”

“Thanks to the band Proletarian Tango for reminding us that the curb capable of dividing Muscovites and Petersburg still hasn’t been laid!” the post concludes. This is a reference to one of few shibboleths that distinguish Moscow Russian from Petersburg Russian—the two cities have different words for “curb” (bordyur and porebrik, respectively).

The still image shows a band member’s hand caressing a poster featuring a photograph of Petersburg singer and actor Mikhail Boyarsky, a vocal supporter of the Putin regime.

WINDOWS OF MOSCOW (1956) 

Music: Tikhon Khrennikov
Lyrics: Mikhail Matusovsky

Up high the sky darkens again,
And windows have lit up in the dusk.
It is here that my friends live,
And with bated breath
I gaze at the windows at night.

I love to dream under the windows.
I love to read them like books.
And, holding on to the precious light,
Exciting me and enticing me,
Like people, they look at me.

As in years gone by, once again I
Am ready to stand beneath your window.
And to the light of its rays
I alway hurry faster,
As on a date with my youth.

I admire you at night.
I wish you, windows, good luck.
It has been dear to me for many years,
And there is nothing brighter than
The unquenchable light of Moscow’s windows.

Source: Viktor Kalugin, ed., Anthology of Russian Song (Moscow: Eksmo, 2005). Translated by the Russian Reader

________

This tellingly depressing passage from Wikipedia’s article about the song’s composer, Tikhon Khrennikov, restores everything to the period that Proletarian Tango’s video tries so hard to airbrush out. TRR

By the 1930s, Khrennikov was already treated as a leading official Soviet composer. Typical was his speech during a discussion in February 1936 concerning the Pravda articles “Chaos instead of Music” and “Ballet Falseness”:

The resolution of April 23, 1932, appealed to the consciousness of the Soviet artist. Soviet artists had not withstood scrutiny. After April 23, young people were inspired to study. The problem was, we had to master the skills and techniques of composition. We developed an enthusiasm for modern western composers. The names of Hindemith and Krenek came to be symbols of advanced modern artists. […] After the enthusiasm for western tendencies came an attraction to simplicity, influenced by composing for the theater, where simple, expressive music was required. We grew, our consciousness also grew, as well as the aspiration to be genuine Soviet composers, representatives of our epoch. Compositions by Hindemith satisfied us no more. Soon after that, Prokofiev arrived, declaring Soviet music to be provincial and naming Shostakovich as the most up-to-date composer. Young composers were confused: on the one hand, they wanted to create simpler music that would be easier for the masses to understand; on the other hand, they were confronted with the statements of such musical authorities as Prokofiev. Critics wrote laudatory odes to Shostakovich. […] How did young composers react to Lady Macbeth [of Mtsensk]? This opera contains several large melodic fragments which opened some creative perspectives to us. But the entr’actes and other things aroused complete hostility.”

Together with other official representatives of Soviet culture […], Khrennikov signed the statement welcoming the “sentence of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union passed on traitors against the Motherland, fascist hirelings such as Tukhachevsky, Yakir, and others.”

[…]

In 1948, Joseph Stalin appointed Khrennikov Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers, a job he would keep until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 when the Union of Soviet Composers was disbanded.

The controversial Shostakovich memoir Testimony claims that Khrennikov was so intimidated at a meeting with Stalin that the composer soiled his pants and suffered a nervous breakdown.

For a long time, it was held that no Soviet composers were arrested or prosecuted thanks to Khrennikov’s efforts.

In an interview with pianist Jascha Nemtsov on November 8, 2004, in Moscow, Khrennikov claimed that composer Mieczysław Weinberg, when arrested, had been discharged immediately because of Khrennikov’s protection; according to Khrennikov, the same had happened to Alexander Veprik. The facts are that Veprik spent four years in a prison camp, and Mieczysław Weinberg, who was released in June 1953, had been saved from prosecution, and probably from execution, only because of Stalin’s death. In recent years, information that had been suppressed since 1948 has been published, and documents and facts, now known, confirm that there were extensive prosecutions.

In 1949, Khrennikov officially attacked the young composer Alexander Lokshin, using the rhetoric of one of Stalin’s most notorious ideologists, Paul Apostolov. In his speech, Khrennikov contrasted Lokshin’s “modernist” style with Stepan Razin’s Dream by Galina Ustvolskaya, which he considered an ideal example of true national art.

Khrennikov’s speech aroused great indignation in Mikhail Gnessin, who accused him of duplicity. Not daring to criticize Lokshin in the professional milieu, Khrennikov attacked him ideologically from his position as a leading Soviet official. After this ideological campaign, Lokshin was excluded from academic circles.

Khrennikov did not prevent Prokofiev’s first wife, Lina Ivanovna, being charged as a “spy” following her arrest by the NKVD on February 20, 1948. As head of the Composers Union, Khrennikov made no attempt to have the sentence against Lina Prokofieva quashed or even to mitigate her plight in the Gulag. The Composers Union did not help Prokofiev’s sons, who were forcibly evicted from their apartment. After Lina Prokofieva returned from the Gulag, the Composers Union did nothing to improve the extremely bad living conditions of her family. It was the prominent singers Irina Arkhipova and Zurab Sotkilava who protected Prokofiev’s first family. Afterward, the family was exposed to regular official humiliations. According to Prokofiev’s first son, Sviatoslav, the Composers Union officially refused Lina Prokofieva permission to go to Paris, after she had been personally invited by the French culture minister to the unveiling of a Prokofiev memorial plaque. Instead, Khrennikov took part in that ceremony with his whole family. The Composers Union also refused Lina Prokofieva permission to go to the opening of the Sydney Opera House. At the same time, Sviatoslav Prokofiev noted the typical rationale of the Soviet functionary: sometimes Khrennikov would help if it was not dangerous for his own position and career.

The ideological campaigns of 1948-49 against the so-called formalists in music were directly connected with the offensive against the so-called rootless cosmopolitans, which formed part of the official anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, which flourished after the Second World War in various shapes: ideological resolutions, declarations by official writers and critics, and offensive caricatures and vulgar anti-Semitic abuse in the satirical magazine Krokodil (Crocodile). Historians of official anti-Semitism in the USSR name Khrennikov among the most active fighters for the “purity of Russian culture.” In Soviet official policy both before and after Stalin’s death, a clear distinction was drawn between “good Soviet Jews” and “Nazi Zionists.” True to this party line, the leadership of the Soviet Composers Union branded composers as “Zionist aggressors” or “agents of world imperialism,” and made accusations against “ideologically vicious” and “hostile” phenomena in Soviet musical culture. The accusation of Zionism was often used as a weapon against people of different nationalities, faiths, and opinions, such as Nikolai Roslavets. The “struggle against the formalists” was pursued in other countries, too. According to György Ligeti, after Khrennikov’s official visit to Budapest in 1948, The Miraculous Mandarin by Béla Bartók was removed from the repertoire, and paintings by French impressionists and others were removed from display in museums. In 1952, Ligeti was almost forbidden to teach after he had shown the score of the proscribed Symphony of Psalms by Igor Stravinsky to his students. Ligeti was saved only because of the personal protection of Zoltán Kodály.

Khrennikov and other functionaries of the Composers Union constantly attacked the heritage of the Russian avant-garde as well as its researchers. For example, the German musicologist Detlef Gojowy (1934–2008) was persecuted because of his promotion in the West of modern Soviet music of the 1920s. Gojowy was proclaimed to be an “anti-Soviet writer.” Until 1989, he was forbidden to visit the Soviet Union, and some of the publications he sent to Soviet colleagues were intercepted by Soviet customs. At the same time, Soviet musicologists engaged in developing the Russian avant-garde tradition were officially prohibited from going abroad. Once again, Nikolai Roslavets was an example.

[…]

In his last years, Khrennikov made extremely negative statements about perestroika, its leaders, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the liquidation of corresponding organizations:

“It was a betrayal by our leaders. I consider Gorbachev and his henchmen, who deliberately organized the persecution of Soviet art, to be traitors to the party and the people […].”

In another interview given to the same newspaper Zavtra […] he described Stalin as a “genius,” an “absolutely normal person,” tolerant of criticism:

“Stalin, in my opinion, knew music better than any of us. […] As in classical Ancient Greece, so too in the Soviet Union music was of the greatest importance to the state. The spiritual influence of the greatest composers and artists in the formation of intelligent and strong-willed people, first of all through the radio, was huge.”

Source: Wikipedia. The above article was lightly edited to make it more readable.

__________

By way of cleansing your palate, I’d like to sign off with a recording by the wonderful Soviet jazz singer and actor Leonid Utyosov performing “Windows of Moscow” with real feeling and dignity.