The Conscience of Petersburg and the Conscience of Ukraine

osipova-sentsov-nevsky-1 june 2018Artist Yelena Osipova, protesting on the corner of Nevsky Prospect and Malaya Sadovaya in Petersburg four hours ago. Her placard reads, “2018, the 21st century. A filmmaker gets twenty years [in prison] for dissidence. Oleg Sentsov is on hunger strike. He demands the release of sixty-four Ukrainians from Russian prisons. Save him. Don’t be silent.” Photo by Yekaterina Bogach

UPDATE. Yelena Osipova was detained by police two hours later. Grigory Mikhnov-Voytenko captured the arrest on video. Thanks to Comrade Nastia for the heads-up. 

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Fears grow for hunger-striking Ukrainian film director Sentsov
AFP
June 1, 2018

Fears grew on Thursday for the health of Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov who has declared a hunger strike in a Russian prison, with a politician who spoke to him via video link saying he appeared unwell and warning “this could end badly.”

The 41-year-old went on hunger strike on May 14, demanding that Moscow release all its Ukrainian political prisoners as Russia prepares to host the 2018 World Cup next month.

Sentsov, a pro-Ukrainian activist and documentary director, was detained in Crimea in 2014 after Russia annexed the peninsula. He was accused of masterminding arson attacks.

Sentsov, who denied the allegations, is serving a 20-year sentence after being convicted on terrorism charges.

Politician and media star Ksenia Sobchak said she spoke to Sentsov in a video call on Thursday and tried to persuade him to halt his hunger strike but he refused.

“I am horrified because I understand that he looks like a man who will go all the way,” she told liberal radio Echo of Moscow.

“And, honestly speaking, this frightened me,” she said, adding that her mother, Lyudmila Narusova, [a member of the Federation Council], helped organize the call to Sentsov’s prison.

“I have a feeling that this hunger strike will end badly,” she said.

“He is very pale, very thin,” she said, adding that his teeth have begun to crumble.

On Monday, Russia’s prison service said Sentsov agreed to “receive supportive therapy,” without providing further details.

The prison service said his condition was “satisfactory.”

Sentsov’s lawyer Dmitry Dinze said on Thursday he had no recent contact with his client but was going to visit him on Monday.

He said the director was stable, but confirmed Sentsov had lost two teeth.

“The climate does not agree with him,” he said, adding that there was no dentist in his prison so teeth have to be pulled out.

Top opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is serving a 30-day sentence over organising an illegal protest, called on President Vladimir Putin to release more than 60 “Ukrainian political prisoners” including Sentsov.

“His feat, and his sacrifice, and his death will put him on a par with Bobby Sands, (Anatoly) Marchenko, and other titans of humankind,” he wrote on his blog, adding Putin should want to avoid this.

Irish nationalist Sands died in prison in 1981 after 66 days on hunger strike, while Soviet dissident Anatoly Marchenko died in prison in 1986 after a three-month-long hunger strike for the release of Soviet prisoners of conscience.

Bite the Bullet in the Back of Your Head

151019.spooks1Where is Harry Pearce when we need him? Photo courtesy of Universum Film and Lite

“While Kiev may have prevented a killing, the next time a Kremlin critic is murdered the first question will be: are they really dead?”

What all the rabid verbiage about Arkady Babchenko’s “stunt” boils down to is that a good number Russians and, surprisingly, non-Russians (e.g., Reporters without Borders, the BBC, etc.) believe that, when you are confronted by a much more powerful or cunning enemy, such as the Putinist state, the noble thing is to roll over and let yourself be killed.

Everyone loves a martyr for a cause, even when an endless series of martyrs jeopardizes any real cause, if only because at some point the people who believe in the cause will eventually surrender if the cause is so needlessly dangerous, and its leading lights forbid its lesser lights from defending themselves when attacked by the enemy, much more from going on the offensive against the same enemy.

That would be unthinkable!

No, it is better to roll over and bite the bullet in the back of the head. Your friends will relish laying flowers on your grave for years to come, and if you are famous they might even hold annual memorial rallies or marches for you. The regime does not find such powwows threatening in the least, because they make the opposition to their rule look weak and pathologically attracted to victimhood.

Besides, even ordinary Russian law enforcement and judicial practice tends to frown on people who defend themselves too vigorously, often prosecuting and punishing them instead of their assailants.

When the assailants are police officers, this is triply true, as we saw during the infamous Bolotnaya Square Case, in which over thirty people were charged with “rioting” and “violence against police officers” for the mildest acts of self-defense or even their entire absence, after a small army of police attacked a peaceable, authorized opposition march in Moscow on May 6, 2012, without provocation.

It is remarkable, then, how many Russians have internalized and made their peace with a quasi-doctrine of passive non-resistance that has been coupled with a total reluctance to come to the defense of others set upon by criminals or the police, whose actions and intentions are often indistinguishable.

What is surprising is that this madness is also endorsed by seemingly respectable foreign organizations like the BBC, who have been pushing the “this discredits Ukraine forever” line for the last forty-eight hours as if their lives depended on it, and Reporters without Borders, who in their statement also came close to suggesting that if Babchenko had been an honorable journalist he would have let himself be iced by the Kremlin’s assassins.

The real back story is that there are considerable forces in western society who find it awfully irritating and inconvenient for their big picture that Ukraine and its defenders have not just given up the ghost, but have continued to put up a fight, however ineffective and puny when matched against the ostensible might of the Putinist empire.

For some reason, the resistance against this murderous empire mounted the other day by Babchenko and his defenders in the SBU has caused more offense and tongue wagging than the actual armed resistance, often quite bloody and indiscriminate and crawling with unsavory characters, we have seen in Eastern Ukraine over the last four years.

Putting it as crudely as possible, Babchenko and his SBU collaborators figured out a way to fight back and win a small victory against the Putinist empire without spilling a single drop of blood, and now lots of high-minded people are hopping mad at them, including John Simpson of the BBC (who this morning attempted, hilariously, to make up for yesterday’s tirade by remarking that if Anna Politkovskaya had pulled off the same escapade, he would have been happy) and the now utterly discredited Reporters without Borders, which has implicitly endorsed the murder of dissident journalists by the Kremlin.

At times like this I wish the fictional Harry Pearce, head of counter-terrorism at MI5 in Spooks, really were a defender of the realm, because, as he himself says at the end of the excellent Spooks movie (Spooks: The Greater Good), only people like him are ruthless enough to get the job done and actually defend the realm. If you have ever seen the show, you will realize defending the realm does not consist of running around running up a high body count, but of  being able to distinguish at the right time between friend and foe, a job that is infinitely harder than it sounds.

How is that a screwed-up but otherwise peaceable country that was invaded unprovoked by its much more powerful neighbor and a dissident journalist who fled to that country are seen as enemies by half the Russian intelligentsia and half the journalistic organizations in Europe?

If Harry Pearce were real, and I were his boss, I would want him delicately probing into why exactly the BBC has mounted such a vicious attack against Babchenko and the Ukrainian authorities in the last two days. I would be especially interested in investigating the motives of the avuncular John Simpson, whose tirade against Babchenko live on the air yesterday on Radio 4 was so unseemly and vehement I felt I must be hallucinating. (After listening to the tirade, I was not surprised to find he had filed this crypto-Putinist copy from occupied Crimea in March 2015.)

The Babchenko affair has nothing to do with fake news. It has to do with whether smaller, less powerful countries and essentially powerless individuals who oppose more powerful countries have the right to defend themselves at all.

The implication is the SBU should have waited in ambush for Babchenko’s killer with a squad of fifty armed men and then lit him up like a Roman candle when he arrived rather than plan and enact the much subtler and more effective counter-attack they claim to have carried out.

We live in extraordinarily strange times. // TRR

Zeitgenossenschaft

almost violence

Judging by virtual and real encounters in recent weeks, Russophonia has been doing its darnedest to descend into a war of all against all.

Thus, at the birthday party of an old family friend, a group of Russian physicians—people who run whole departments of hospitals and even whole hospitals—artlessly segued from running down the birthday boy’s grandson, who was seated only a table’s length away from them, and is one of the sweetest young men I have ever met, to making baldfaced statements such as “Putin is the guarantee of stability,” “There should be more than one currency in the world,” and outright nationalist assaults, prompted partly by the fact I had been introduced to the other guests not by name, but as a “citizen of country X.”

Meanwhile, on the other end of the Russophoniacal political spectrum, which looks a lot like the opposite end, only it is topsy-turvy and striped, a well-known Ukrainian provocateur decided to take a few swipes at me on Facebook by claiming I “defended” Russia.

What he really meant by this, I could not figure out for the life of me, but I gathered that the point of his mostly incoherent remarks was that, since I write about Russia and edit a website about Russia, I was thus inadvertently or even deliberately legitimizing the country.

The problem for professional Russophobes like him is that Russia exists and has existed for a long time. No one can wish it away, just as we cannot wish away climate change, rampant poverty or racism. But we can wish for a world without any of these things or a lot less of these things, and we can make that world a reality.

Russians can also wish for a more democratic, egalitarian Russia and make that a reality, too. If, like me, you are not in a position to engage directly in the country’s democratization by virtue of your nationality, you can at least help people in Russia campaigning for a freer, fairer country by writing about them and, more generally, by providing or seeking a clearer, more detailed picture of what has been going on in Russia, and what the causes of current events in Russia really are, refusing to accept the lazy non-explanations of Russophobes, Russophiles, crypto-Putinists, and bored academics alike.

My Ukrainian detractor was not having any of it, alas. My unwillingness to accept the falsehood that Russians are mostly bad to the bone was more proof I was soft on Russia.

The crux of our disagreement was that I refused to concede that there are inordinately large numbers of bad or stupid people in Russia, as compared with other countries. On the other hand, I do believe, on the basis of long years of in-country observation, conversations with thousands of Russians, and intense and extensive reading of the Russian press and the relevant literature, that Putin’s alleged popularity is an authoritarian construct, not an expression of the popular will.

This is an argument that needs to be made in full, which I have done in bits and bobs over the last few years, often by translating the work of Russian observers who have made similar claims. That is, it is, at least, a rational argument that has a good deal of evidence to support it.

I definitely do not believe in collective guilt, which my Ukrainian interlocutor seemed to think was as natural as the sun rising in the morning.

My detractor believed in lots of noxious things and decided he could dump them down my throat by way of debunking the ten-plus years of hard work I have put in covering Russia from an angle no one else covers it.

Several of my comrades and friends were party to this ridiculous conversation, but instead of defending me or at least pointing out the flaws in the Ukrainian provocateur’s completely blowsy argument, they just let him spit in my face repeatedly, although his only real object was to get my goat and disparage my work.

Here we arrive at an actual—not imaginary—problem in Russia these days: the lack of solidarity among people who should otherwise feel it and exercise it towards each other and, in its absence, the sickening phenomenon of people standing by idly and silently as out-and-out bullies—the police, Putin, NOD, “Cossacks,” Russian physicians, Ukrainian provocateurs, and so forth—beat up other people physically or verbally or both.

In the aftermath of solidarity’s triumph in the Yuri Dmitriev case, a groundswell has been seemingly gathering to support the nine young Penza and Petersburg antifascists abducted and tortured by the FSB, and then accused, absurdly, of being wannabe terrorists supposedly hellbent on causing mayhem during the March presidential election and upcoming World Football Cup.

If the groundswell really does exist, the credit for it should go to an incredibly tiny group of people who decided they had to make a lot of noise about the case at all costs. Most of these people are 100% Russians, whatever that means, and I have rarely been so inspired as I have been by this group of people, most of whom are also fairly young and predominantly female.

In fact, if you read this and its predecessor, Chtodelat News, you will find lots of stories, some of them going ten years back, chockablock with smart, courageous, team-oriented, democratic, egalitarian Russians.

Russia thus has every chance of becoming a democratic, egalitarian country in the foreseeable future. But the same could be said of the United States and a whole host of other countries—the vast majority of countries on earth, I would imagine—that either have strayed too far from the democratic path or never were quite on track in the first place.

Democracy is not an essential feature of some peoples and countries, while despotism is an essential feature of other peoples and countries. If you believe that canard, it will not be long before you are saying the Jews are entirely responsible for the mess we are in, the Palestinians are capable only of terrorism, the Americans are too blame for all the world’s problems (including problems they really did not have a hand in causing) or your own people (fill in the blank) are too corrupt, swinish, and stupid to govern themselves, so a dictator like Putin or Assad has to do the job for them. There is no alternative, in other words.

Democracy is something we do together. We either practice hard and try to make every note bend just right or we don’t practice at all or not often enough, in which case a cynical cacophonist like Putin or Trump gets to call the tune for us. Not because we are inherently racist or authoritarian, but mostly because we are too scared, indifferent, busy, self-absorbed, lazy and sorely tempted not to listen to our better natures and see the good in others.

But we are obviously not essentially good, either. We are the political animals who have the power to make and remake ourselves and our societies in ways that are better and worse. We also have to decide all the time what constitutes better and worse.

If you do not believe this, you do not believe in the power of politics and do not understand the “mystery” of human being. Ultimately, you think that some humans or all humans are too wayward and disorganized to get their act together, and therefore should be policed.

I did not think up this distinction between politics and policing myself. A far wiser and thoughtful man than I am, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière did, but as the years go by, seemingly becoming nastier and darker, I see how his distinction does get to the heart of the matter.

This is simplifying the matter unforgivably, but you are either on the side of politics or the side of the police.

Politics is messy and usually not particularly satisfying, but it is the only way we have to approximate knowing all the things we have to know to make and enact good decisions that affect us all.

Policing, on the other hand, is easy as pie. Entire groups, classes, peoples, and groups are declared out of bounds and thus subject to police action. If you argue with the police about their inclusion of a particular group of people on its list of “not our kind of folks,” they will say what police always say on such occasions—”Oh, so you’re in cahoots with them?”—and rap you over the head with a truncheon.

In the years I have been editing websites and deliberately misusing social media for the same purposes, I have been rapped over the head with heavy verbal truncheons so many times I am now permanently punch drunk.

Most of the policing, unsurprisingly, has been meted out by Russophones, many of whom really do suffer from chauvinism of a kind that, at best, does not brook the possibility that a non-native Russophone could have anything worthwhile to say about Russian politics and society. The Ukrainian provocateur was from this school of opinion

Since there are something like twenty people in the world—seriously!—who genuinely support what I do here, I guess I will keep doing it, but the other day’s round of kangaroo boxing left me seriously wary about people whom I had considered comrades. // TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader