This piece of fan mail—disguised as an intemperate reaction to my previous post—just came in. I think it’s actually a camouflaged plug for the latest installment in the Despicable Me series, which, I’m happy to say, is playing at my neighborhood movie theater. ||| TRR
The Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, formerly the Main Intelligence Directorate, and still commonly known by its previous abbreviation GRU, is the foreign military intelligence agency of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. GRU controls the military intelligence service and maintains its own special forces units.
Unlike Russia’s other security and intelligence agencies—such as the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the Federal Protective Service (FSO), whose heads report directly to the president of Russia—the director of the GRU is subordinate to the Russian military command, reporting to the Minister of Defence and the Chief of the General Staff.
The directorate is reputedly Russia’s largest foreign-intelligence agency, and is distinguished among its counterparts for its willingness to execute riskier “complicated, high stakes operations”. According to unverified statements by Stanislav Lunev, a defector from the GRU, in 1997 the agency deployed six times as many agents in foreign countries as the SVR, and commanded some 25,000 Spetsnaz troops.
Set in 1976 California, the film is an origin story depicting how Gru (Steve Carell) became allied with the diminutive yellow creatures (all voiced hilariously by Pierre Coffin, provided, one hopes, with plenty of throat lozenges) and embarked on his career path to villainy. Only 11 years old (11 ¾, to be precise), Gru sees his chance when given the opportunity to apply to become a member of the evil supergroup the Vicious 6 after they violently oust their leader, the elderly Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin, giving the impression that he’s having a lot of fun).
If there is an actual “Russian anti-war movement,” this is what it looks like: Dmitry Lyamin, accused of torching a military conscription office in Shuya, the third largest town in the Ivanovo Region. Lyamin has been transferred from Ivanovo to the notorious Butyrka remand prison in Moscow, allegedly, so that he can undergo a psychiatric examination at the equally notorious Serbsky Institute. According to former political prisoner Ivan Astashin, who now spends all his waking hours helping the new wave of political prisoners in Russia and publicizing their cases, there are rumors among the legal community that the criminal charge Lyamin faces will be changed from “destruction of property” (Article 167 in the Russian Federal Criminal Code) to “terrorist act” (Article 205), a much more serious charge that carries a penalty of up to twenty years in prison.
What is life like for us under fascism? It’s fine. I eat, sleep, work, play computer games and football, and get laid.
Repairs have begun on the roofs of the Soviet high-rise buildings on my work beat. The contractor drags powerful electric roofing kettles onto the roof, hacks away the old tar, melts it down, and immediately pours it back onto the roof. The kettles are powerful—advanced technology that works quickly and efficiently.
The kettles are also five years old. They are left right on the roofs over the winter, and so they are rotted and burned out. The molten tar splashes onto the cables, and everything in the vicinity burns and smokes. It is no exaggeration to say that you can smell the stench two blocks away. It is unlikely that there is anything healthy in the fumes generated by the molten tar. It is Uzbeks who work on the roofs: their bosses persist in calling them jigits. They work without safeguards or personal protective equipment. On the first day, they asked their bosses for water. Their bosses told them to get it themselves—”otherwise, next time they’ll be asking for broads in bikinis.”
Yesterday the cops nabbed them. The cops told them, “Your registration isn’t in our database. So, you either spend a couple days in jail until we figure it out, or you each cough up 5,000 rubles now.” [At the current—official—exchange rate, 5,000 rubles is approximately 88 euros.]
Do you think there is a database somewhere that says that you are just a human being?
Their electrician is from Bashkiria, a skinny kid in glasses with a typical whistling accent. He graduated from an architectural college back home, came to Petersburg, and worked on a low-voltage network for a couple of months, but now has been hired as an electrician servicing the three-phase fifty-kilowatt kettles. On the first day, he regarded the whole setup with mortal dismay. In his bag he has a set of screwdrivers and a crimper for patch cords. Now he dives into the overheated equipment, changes the burnt-out heating elements, and splices the burnt, beaten cables. Then he unsuccessfully tries for hours to wash off the oil stench.
“Who will pay for your disability?” I ask him.
“They can’t pay us overtime.”
He put up with this as long as he could before breaking down and going on a drinking binge. He squandered all his money, arriving back at work with a black eye and his left cheek puffed up like a pillow. His glasses were still intact, however. He asked me to lend him money for beer.
“How much do they pay you?” I ask.
“They promise mountains of gold.”
“Could you be more specific?”
“It’s daily work. 2,500 rubles a day.”
The word he was looking for in Russia was “daywork” [podënnaia], not “daily work” [podnevnaia]. There is such a thing as “daywork” and “dayworkers.” Who make sixteen dollars a day if you calculate their pay in terms of the actual exchange rate.
How much does the Russian lad Vitya, who made the remark about the “broads in bikinis,” make? How much does their supervisor, a handsome, businesslike, quick-thinking middle-aged man with shifty eyes, make?
What will they buy for themselves by pinching the money budgeted for roof repairs? A car? A tiled path for their dacha? When they walk on this path, will they think about the people whose health has been permanently scarred by tar on hot roofs? I doubt it.
Fascist brutality springs from this everyday, workaday brutality. Indifference to people as individuals grows from this virtually legalized slavery.
Source: George Losev, Facebook, 28 June 2022. Mr. Losev works as an on-duty electrician for the housing authority in Petersburg. He points out that the roofing tar kettles he describes are nothing like the one in the video I inserted, above. They are much larger and electric-powered. This is not to mention that “Alfredo the kettle man” (in the video) is wearing protective equipment, unlike the Uzbek workers in Mr. Losev’s story. Translated by the Russian Reader
I was asked to show how to make a “syllable tram.”
I scanned the roadway (see the links, below). The drawings were quite hastily done, right before class. (
The strip should be glued with adhesive tape on the reverse side. (Leave a millimeter between the sections so that it is easier to fold and store.) The tram, which is approximately 290 mm wide (nearly the same width as an A4 sheet of paper) and 85 mm high, is fitted onto the strip. One window in the tram is cut out, and a transparent sleeve is pasted on the other, into which a consonant is inserted.
The strip needs to be fastened with something. (I fastened it to the table with tape.)
The tram travels from right to left. When it reaches a marked stop, a vowel appears in the cut-out window. When you make the tram, test it and draw the letters on the strip so that they appear in the exact same place as the empty spot.
Source: Natalia Vvedenskaya, Facebook, 28 June 2022. Ms. Vvedenskaya teaches Russian to immigrant children at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center. Most of these children are originally from Central Asia, like the workers in Mr. Losev’s story. The first image, above, is a screenshot of a short video that Ms. Vvedenskaya included in her original post, showing her pupils playing with her “syllable tram.” Translated by the Russian Reader
The Petersburg artist and activist Yelena Osipova created a placard for this past weekend’s Crimson Sails celebrations (for newly minted high school graduates/school leavers) and stood with it on Malaya Sadovaya, a pedestrian street in downtown Petersburg. Her placard read, “May your sails be white, not red with blood. Make the world good!” Photos courtesy of Irina Bogdanovskaya, as posted on the public Facebook page Yelena Andreyeevna Osipova. Artist. Citizen.
Ukrainian activists in the Eastern Human Rights Group are using social media to build up a register of people forcibly deported from Russian-occupied areas.
A bot has been launched on Telegram (@come_back_to_ukraine_bot) to contact citizens removed to Russia.
Deporting people against their will is a war crime. International and local human rights organisations, and the Ukrainian government, say there is mounting evidence that Russia is doing so on a large scale.
The Russian defence ministry said on 18 June that more than 1.9 million people, including 307,000 children, had been evacuated from Ukraine to Russia since the full-scale invasion on 24 February. Ukrainian activists deny Russian claims that all evacuees have left Ukraine voluntarily.
“If we don’t find how to help them, Russia will erase the Ukrainian identity of these children,” Oleksandra Matviichuk of the Ukrainian Centre for Civil Liberties responded.
Halya Coynash reported that the Mariupol council had drawn attention to a leaflet distributed to Mariupol residents “inviting” them to the Russian Far East. She commented:
First, they destroy a successful and warm city on the Sea of Azov, and then they drive its residents to Siberia or Sakhalin to work as cheap labour.
Mariupol’s mayor, Vadim Boichenko, said that he has a list of 33,500 residents forcibly deported either to Russia or to the Donbass “republics,” and is coordinating rescue efforts.
Coynash also published details of the “filtration” of residents in the occupied areas by Russian forces, with those considered “unreliable” being sent to detention camps in the Donbass “republics.”
Ukraine’s human rights ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova said last month that 210,000 children, and more than 1 million other Ukrainians, had been deported against their will. Reuters reported these numbers, saying they could not independently verify them, and that the Kremlin had not responded to a request for comment.
Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, said earlier this month that a war crimes case was being built up relating to the deportation of children to Russia.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in its report on human rights violations in Ukraine between 24 February and 12 April, said that its Mission had received “numerous consistent reports” on forced deportations from the occupied territories to Russia. It said that Russia had denied these accusations, but added:
If (some of) these deportations were forcible (including because Russia created a coercive environment in which those civilians had no other choice than to leave for Russia) and as they necessarily concerned civilians who had fallen into the power of Russia as an occupying power, this violates in each case International Humanitarian Law and constitutes a war crime.
Mateusz Morawiecki, prime minister of Poland, said on a visit to Kyiv this month that deportations – which recalled Poles’ experience under the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union – are “an exceptional crime, about which there is almost complete silence in western Europe.”
The Eastern Human Rights Group, set up in 2014 by labour activists in Donbass and now operating from Kyiv, decided to work on a register of deported citizens after appealing unsuccessfully for the Ukrainian government to take action.
“Our team lobbied repeatedly for setting up a state structure to deal with repatriation, but, as happens quite often, the government did not listen,” the group stated on 13 June. “We decided to take action on the issue ourselves, and at a non-government level we are working on the issue of repatriating Ukrainians.”
□ Two all-European public zoom calls about the Russian-occupied areas are being held on Monday 4 July and Thursday 14 July, on which Ukrainian activists will report on what can be done to support civil society there. The initiative is supported by the European Network in Solidarity with Ukraine. You need to register in advance to participate.
□ The Eastern Human Rights Group has also reported on forcible military mobilisation in the Donbass “republics,” and use of the death penalty there. Here are three recent Facebook posts. With thanks to Anna Yegorova for the translations.
For the last three weeks, forced mobilisation in the occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk regions has slowed down, due to active protests by mothers, sisters, and spouses of the forcibly mobilized.
However, the Ministry of National Security in the Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” swiftly suppressed women’s protests, as we recorded the detention of several women in Yenakievo and Rovenky.
Since last Saturday, military patrols searching for men of conscription age in the cities of occupied Donbas have become more active with men being detained in the streets again. (The detentions are not as massive as in March, but that is understandable: there are simply not as many men as there were in March.)
This new stage of forced mobilisation is associated with the need to send new manpower to fight in Donbass.
Forced mobilisation has again affected workers at enterprises, and enterprise managers have spoken out against it. The administrations of the “Luhansk people’s republic” and “Donetsk people’s republic” said that “construction brigades” [a term dating back to the Soviet times, usually designating student groups as “volunteers” to work on farms and plants] from the Russian Federation would soon arrive to replace the workers [so that the latter could be send to the battlefield].
Over the past three weeks, the so-called “people’s militia” of the Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” has increased military patrols in the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine, due to the increasing number of defections from AK-1 and AK-2 units. Forcibly mobilised people, even after they have been dressed in uniform, seek opportunities to escape from the Russian convoy escorting them to the front line.
Frequent defections became public thanks to women in [the occupied territories of] Donetsk and Luhansk reporting to Vera Yastrebova, the head of the Eastern Human Rights group.
One woman said that her brother escaped with a group of mobilised men on the way to the front line, and now they are wanted by the local “authorities.” There are also cases when mobilised residents of the two “people’s republics” jump off trains that take them to the front line, following a brief training in the Russian Federation.
Over the past three weeks, there have been more than 100 cases of defections from the “LPR” and “DPR,” a source from the DPR told us.
By Vera Yastrebova.A working group is preparing to change the criminal “law” of the Luhansk “people’s republic” to introduce a new type of punishment – the death penalty, I have been told by sources there.
A decision was first made back in 2021, when the Kremlin decided to create unitary “legislation” for the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” and essentially rewrite the laws in Luhansk to match those of Donetsk. But they haven’t had time to do that.
Now the principle has been agreed, and changes are being developed very quickly. The haste is due to the fact that the Luhansk “people’s republic” will be able to apply the death penalty to Ukrainian prisoners of war.
The issue of the “death penalty” will be further pushed by the Kremlin, in order to force Western countries to engage in direct negotiations with the leaders of the “LPR” and “DPR,” my sources say.
On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. On 22 June 2022, artist Yelena Osipova held a solo anti-war picket on Nevsky Prospect in Petersburg. On 22 June 2022, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the official Russian government newspaper, published a lengthy interview with Mikhail Piotrovsky, the longtime director of Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum,, in which he justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of his country’s greater historical and cultural “mission.” Ms. Osipova and Mr. Piotrovsky were born a mere eleven months apart, in November 1945 and December 1944, respectively. If Ms. Osipova’s bravery doesn’t bring honor on her hometown, it’s not for her want of trying. Despite having much greater resources at his disposal and a bigger bully pulpit, Mr. Piotrovsky has definitely brought shame on his city. As long it is run by people like him, Russia’s great “cultural capital” has no future. In any case, Ms. Osipova’s barely audible message makes a jarring juxtaposition with Mr. Piotrovsky’s arrogant, “learned” apology for Russian fascism. ||| TRR
Yelena Osipova, photographed in front of Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospekt in downtown Petersburg on 22 June 2022. Photo courtesy of Irina Bogdanovskaya, as posted on the public Facebook page Yelena Andreyeevna Osipova. Artist. Citizen. Thanks to Maria Mila for the heads-up. The placard on the left reads, “To the unknown soldier, 1941–1945. He was buried in the earth.” The placard on the right reads, “22 June 1941–1945. In memory of the Patriotic/Second World War. Become a pacifist! Pacifism – pacificus – peaceable. Pacifists condemn all wars and campaign vigorously and publicly to prevent them.” On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, a massive invasion of the Soviet Union. Ms. Osipova was born on 11 November 1945, that is, six months after the end of the Great Patriotic War.
[Elena Yakovleva]: We have all been shocked by the fighting not only on the fronts of the special operation, but also on the cultural front, by all the attempts to cancel Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concerts, and the Russian language. What is behind “cancel culture”? Having ourselves escaped from the dictates of ideology, are we now witnessing its return in the West?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: The attack on us in the realm of culture is, of course, a semblance of what we had in Soviet times, when all connections were cut off by command, at a moment’s notice, at the snap of someone’s fingers. I have the sense that the Soviet Union, with its ideological dictates, has spread to the West. I did not expect that I would read in liberal Western newspapers such things as “The Hermitage is an imperial museum that preaches imperial ideology. It should not be allowed anywhere! The Hermitage’s [planned branch] in Barcelona should not be opened under any circumstances!”
I have been inundated with ultimatums. How dare you not speak out against the special operation in Ukraine?! Go out and protest immediately! Why are there no protests in your country?
But in this case we should understand that we have been subjected to such a powerful attack in the field of culture because culture is an area in which we are absolutely competitive.
We have the initiative here. We are trendsetters.
Are we an exporting country?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: Yes, and our cultural exports are more important than imports.
Our recent exhibitions abroad are a powerful cultural offensive, a kind of “special operation,” if you wish. Which many people don’t like, but we are advancing. No one can be allowed to thwart our offensive.
In response to calls to cancel Tchaikovsky, smart people in Russia have been saying, “We won’t cancel anything. On the contrary, we will continue to love the Europe that we learned about while studying at universities.” Is the asymmetry fundamentally important in this case?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: Of course. Given our cultural advantage, we don’t have to loudly announce that we are reneging on one cultural agreement or another in response to their bans. They can do it unilaterally. There is definitely no need for bilateralism — precisely because we are winning.
I think that under no circumstances should we succumb (and we shall not succumb) to the seductions of “cancel culture.” I believe we are immune to it because we have already been “canceled” six ways to Sunday. First, the entire culture of Tsarist Russia was canceled, and then Soviet culture was canceled. Monuments were demolished dozens of times. But we also know something else: monuments come back, everything is restored. The knowledge that memory and culture come back is in our blood. That is why we are not eager to overdo it when it comes to “cancelations.” Besides, you can’t cancel Tchaikovsky, except, perhaps, performances of Tchaikovsky by Russian orchestras. But this is just unfair competition.
Why is the West so passionate about “cancel culture”? And about the dictates of “public opinion”?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: I would not exaggerate the difference between the dictates of Soviet ideology and “public opinion.” Public opinion is bound up with governments or regulated by them.
As for “cancel culture” in the West, it is part of a large wave that was born amidst BLM, and linked to the culture of guilt and repentance for guilt. It suddenly surged: they began pulling down monuments and not standing for the American flag. They think that Voltaire is bad, and this guy, and that other guy. It’s a little ridiculous. How much can you repent for the terrors of colonialism, which in fact was so entirely categorical? Or for the unfortunate slave trade, which after all began not in Europe, but in Africa?
They seemingly had already begun to sense that this road leads nowhere, but then Russia turned up by chance. So let’s “cancel” Russia, they said. Although the glee with which they have rushed to condemn us, to tear us up and expel us, again speaks to the fact that we are strong in culture.
When the Bizot group boycotts Russian museums, it’s just ridiculous. I was one of the people who founded the group, and I know that we actually created it to help museums do cultural exchanges unencumbered by politics. But now it’s apparently been ideologized on the Soviet model. If this Soviet-style infection has gone so far, let them be sick alone. We don’t need to be sick too. We have historical immunity against this. I think we will spread it to others.
Since it hasn’t succumbed to the hype of cancellations, has the Hermitage keep its exhibitions abroad going?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: Not only the Hermitage. When the special operation in Ukraine began, exhibitions by Russian museums were everywhere. We have a Morozov [Collection] exhibition in Paris and exhibitions in Italy. Our most controversial exhibition, a Fabergé show, was in London. The Russian Museum had an exhibition in Spain.
This was our “special operation,” if you like, a great cultural offensive.
As soon as all the ideological sirens were turned on due to the special operation in Ukraine, we initially announced that we were pulling everything out immediately. But then we thought it over and said that we had been given guarantees. The organizers were quick to confirm them. We organized the Morozov exhibition in Paris in cooperation with the Louis Vuitton Foundation, and suddenly realized that this global commercial company was a much better partner in today’s “Soviet” Europe than government entities were. Having no freedom of maneuver, they were “ordered” to break off relations with us, while the business people who made promises to us did EVERYTHING to fulfill them. It was a matter of honor for them: they promised us that [they would send] everything back on time.
But then people in Russia started yelling, “Why did you take our treasures there? They’re worth so much money!” And all hell broke loss on the other side: “Since they’re worth ‘that much’ money, let’s impound them!” People with tormented mercantilist mindsets could not really understand the essence of the matter, so very provocative things were shouted on both sides. I must say that the provocation by the press was the main complication in this whole special operation. Yesterday, I was sent a copy of the FT featuring a discussion by journalists in their art (!) department on the topic of whether Russian paintings should have been impounded. It was due to such journalistic caterwauling that pieces from our museums were detained at the Finnish border. It was the weekend, and Finnish customs officers had read their fill of newspaper articles about how everything should be confiscated from the Russians. Although before and after that, ten of our truck caravans passed through their border post.
From our side, it was the bloggers shouted more. The journalists have been schooled by you.
Mikhail Piotrovsky: Only there are few real journalists left and just a couple of newspapers. Everyone is like a blogger now. And bloggers don’t understand that this is a cultural offensive, that the Shchukin and Morozov exhibition in Paris is like the Russian flag flying over the Bois de Boulogne. Do you know how everyone appreciated it in Italy? They said, “If the Hermitage can leave its paintings with us at a time like this, it means that they know what they are doing over there in Russia.”
It is also very important that the protagonists of our exhibitions were [Sergei] Shchukin and [Ivan] Morozov, Russian businessmen from the Old Believers community who largely defined the evolution of European culture. Matisse was once asked if he would have painted Dance had it not been for Shchukin. “And for whom would I have painted it?” Matisse said. Shchukin suggested things, commissioned things, was capricious, and great works were born. I was recently awarded the Demidov Prize, and it was an occasion to recall how Nikolai Demidov and the great French jeweler Pierre Thomire created this Russian style of malachite with bronze. They had such fights! Thomire said they should do things one way, Demidov said no, it must be done another way. But consequently, there is the Malachite Canopy in the Hermitage.
Does a producer [sic] have the right to interfere in an artist’s plans like that?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: He absolutely has the right. Yes, sometimes such interventions can be bad. But sometimes they can be good. In the case of Shchukin and Morozov, it was a good thing. They were the RIGHT customers.
Let’s not forget that it was the Old Believers who revealed to us the beauty of the old Russian icons. They were the first to clean them and preserve them. And Shchukin brought Russian icons to Matisse, in particular, to reverse the influence of Persian miniatures on him.
At the Morozov exhibition, we presented Russian paintings collected by him and showed art through the collector’s eye. Morozov collected Manet and [Valentin] Serov, and I would hear people say when they were leaving the exhibition, “You look [at their paintings] and you realize that Serov is no worse than Manet.”
The Fabergé exhibition made a very big splash. That is another Russian phenomenon that influenced the West.
So, we in fact did undertake a big cultural offensive. And we came out of it, having done everything we had planned to do.
Europe has long been a cultural model for us. The “RG” had a conversation with the writer Eugene Vodolazkin about attitudes to Europe. With reference to Dostoevsky, we talked about the fact it is almost dearer to us than to the Europeans.
Mikhail Piotrovsky: We recently held a round table at the Council of the History of World Culture at the Academy of Sciences, which we were going to call “Is Russia Europe?” but instead called “Is Russia Europe? Is Europe the EU?” The general sense of our debate was this: we are Europe, as much a part of it as France or Germany, and maybe more than the United States. If Europe were not us, Gogol would not have written Dead Souls while living in Italy. We recently held another round table on visual art, at which we recalled that Dostoevsky wrote about the Sistine Madonna.
This is our long-standing choice: we are inseparable from European culture and from Europe itself. The special military operation in Ukraine does not change anything. There have been plenty of disagreements and wars within Europe, from the Thirty Years’ War to the First World War. We are Europe and at some moments more Europe than many of its classic [sic] countries. And certainly more than the EU, which is now turning into the Soviet Union.
Of course, we also have an Asian aspect. But Peter the Great already knew how to balance all this wonderfully. We at the Hermitage understand this like no one else, because our main theme is world culture in the Russian context. I constantly talk about our right to be Europe, because in the south of Russia we have a Classical heritage — Chersonesus, Kerch, Taman. And whoever has a Classical heritage is Europe. In Norway, for example, there is no Classical heritage; there were neither Greek colonies nor Roman legions.
Therefore, it is all ours. We must dispose of it as our own, and not think that we are opposing Europe. Do we have different values? But they all have different values. Do we have special Orthodox values? But there are Orthodox values in Europe as well. In many ways they are consonant with Catholic values and not consonant with various secular ones. As an absolutely full-fledged and equal part of Europe, we will never be isolated. It’s just our sense of self. And the Hermitage is a symbol of this self-awareness. I keep repeating that the Hermitage is an encyclopedia of world culture written in Russian. The Hermitage’s Rembrandts, which have been in Russia for three hundred years, are Russian Rembrandts. The Russian Shakespeare is impossible without [Grigori] Kozintsev and [Innokenty] Smoktunovsky. Other doors — to Asia — are always open. But this does not cancel our presence in Europe.
Since people who value Russian culture have not yet gained the upper hand in Europe, must we now form a European model for ourselves?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: We must form this model now. And we are forming it.
Although there seem to be no Shchukins and Morozovs in Russia nowadays.
Mikhail Piotrovsky: Shchukin and Morozov shaped tastes. But now we are shaping, for example, international law. For many years, we have been carefully fashioning guarantees for the return of our paintings by changing international laws and creating immunity from impoundment. All this was first elaborated for Soviet exhibitions, and later, already in my own time, we constantly worked on developing it. The descendants of Shchukin and Morozov tried to sue us, so I urgently got the pictures out of Rome by plane. But every year we have strengthened our legal safeguards. We said, “Do you want our exhibitions? Then give us real guarantees. Spell it out in the contract: the exhibition will be returned on time even in case of lawsuits.” Europe accepted all these terms. The Americans didn’t, so we haven’t had any exchanges with the Americans for ten years. Although people who wanted to host exhibitions from Russia introduced a new law in the United States that enabled the government to give us guarantees and immunity. But it was too late; now it’s not enough. But with Europe, all the guarantees worked. In particular, when paintings from our Italian exhibitions were detained at the Finnish border, our diplomats and Italian businessmen helped us. They immediately sent all the paperwork to the Finnish government: “We gave guarantees, how can you not trust them?!”
At the last moment — even amidst the sanctions — our Western partners introduced a clause stating that prohibited luxury items do not include items that are in exhibitions of Russian museums abroad. It was even stipulated that Russian transport companies have the right to transport exhibitions throughout the EU. We didn’t take the risk — we transported [the exhibitions] in foreign vehicles — but this point was specially inserted. So, we not only look at Europe as a model, but also try and shape the international rules ourselves. This is quite important, especially now, when there are disputes about every [piece of art] in the world over who it actually belongs to.
Has the attitude towards the Hermitage changed among its Western fans?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: We’ve been getting stabbed in the back a lot lately. Outside the country, the Khodorkovskys of the world have been slinging mud at us, while here at home, as always, certain people have been calling for draconian audits. On the other hand, we have gotten a better sense of who our friends are and who are our enemies. The “society of friends of the Hermitage” have proved their mettle. In Israel, for example, they comported themselves brilliantly. They immediately spoke out. “How can we be friends of the Hermitage, using this honorary title, and then suddenly severe ties [with the museum]?”
Mikhail Piotrovsky: It changed a lot. But besides those who have been writing maliciously about us, unexpected friends have appeared — for example, those French and Italian businessmen I mentioned.
What should we be doing in the field of culture?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: I think we have to do everything in such a way that we are seen, but we don’t have to travel anywhere at all to do this. After becoming director of the Hermitage, I announced a moratorium on exhibitions inside Russia because it was dangerous to transport things then: there were thieves everywhere, there was no money, no real insurance, either. So we didn’t send exhibitions around Russia for ten years. But now we are announcing a moratorium on exhibitions abroad.
I urge everyone now to look back at the experience of the Siege of Leningrad — at the know-how for saving things in an organized manner that was acquired then, at the understanding that when guns speak, the muses should not be silent. On the contrary, they should speak loudly. The experience of the Siege also taught us to address the world beyond the encirclement. During the Great Patriotic War, the Nizami and Nava’i exhibitions and evenings at the Hermitage were examples of this appeal. They showed the whole Soviet Union and the whole world that we remembered the great poets even in the midst of famine and war. Therefore, we are now, as part of the “Great Hermitage” program, going to be doing everything to make the whole world see us and, roughly speaking, envy us.
Now, for example, we are opening an exhibition of works by one of the most famous Danish artists, [Vigilius] Eriksen. He painted Catherine the Great and her court, and for the tricentennial of his birth he earned an exhibition at the Hermitage. We requested pieces from Denmark for the exhibition, but they were not given to us. Well, we have more of Eriksen’s works than they have in Denmark. So, an excellent exhibition is now opening in the Nicholas Hall featuring huge portraits of Catherine and the Orlov Brothers, accompanied by the amazing stories of how they were created, how they were repainted and the medals on the uniforms were altered. The exhibition is on the internet, including a lecture in English. We are broadcasting a message to Denmark: look, a small but very important piece of European culture is the great portrait painter Eriksen in the Hermitage.
What do you say to those who demand that you repent for Russian policy?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: Our country has now shifted into another time. The first period of the Scythian War is over. We retreated and retreated, now we are not retreating. A pivot has been made. And it is already clear that it’s the final one. Everything began in 2014 in Crimea. Crimea created a situation in which there was no other way, in which we had to pivot.
Our country is making great, comprehensive transformations. And we, respectively, are part of them and with her. Working calmly and normally is our stance.
The Hermitage has done exhibitions about war many times. What can you say about how it’s perceived? For example, a totally pacifist reaction is not something I find congenial. Apparently, I’m a militarist.
Mikhail Piotrovsky: We are all militarists and imperialists. (laughs)
First and most important, it is my country, and I must stand with it. I sometimes repeat the jingoistic formula: this is my country, such as it is. There are situations when it is absolutely clear that a person must stand with his country. In the West they understand that these are all substantive things — that we stand with our country. When a very serious issue is being resolved, there are no options.
I am currently reading Alexei Varlamov’s wonderful book about [Vasily] Rozanov, and [there is a section in it] about 1914 and his hyper-patriotic sentiments. This patriotism at the beginning of the 1914 war is [a phenomenon] known to everyone, but it has not been explained very well. We are somehow dismissive of it, but it was a quite important thing in fact. We, people of culture, must now understand our involvement in everything that is happening. A person involved in history, first of all, must do well what it is that he does [as a vocation], in keeping with the principle that when guns speak, the muses should also speak. And in keeping with the realization that culture, which for us stands above politics and everything else, will later ask us to account for what we did for it. As we were asked after the war, after the Siege: what did you do — on your own?
For me, the attitude to war is established by the great Pushkin in A Journey to Arzrum. Where is he rushing the entire book? To see the demoted Decembrists and then go into battle?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: Arzrum was also the only foreign land Pushkin visited. It expanded the world for him. There is nothing wrong with the fact that a person wants to have the most complete set of sensations. This is especially true when he wants to embody his deep feelings in something, to see and do something new. If he has grounds for it, he throws himself into it. It is an element of self-esteem. I always say that Russian patriotism is a sense of one’s own historical dignity. An individual understands that he must go to war, while another person understands that he must do something else, but which is no less important. Behind this is a sense of one’s own historical dignity, the desire to live up to one’s history and the mission of one’s country. It sounds quite dramatic, but we understand our country’s historical mission. This feeling that our country is changing world history, and that you are involved in it, is crucial now.
Nor are things so simple when it comes to attitudes towards armed hostilities. On the one hand, war is blood and murder, but on the other, it is a means for people, for a nation, to assert themselves. Everyone wants to assert themselves, and in their stances on the war, they undoubtedly assert themselves. We have all been brought up in the imperial tradition, and an empire unites many peoples. It unites people by finding things that are common and important to everyone. It’s very tempting, but it’s one of the good temptations, let’s say. Although we don’t have to succumb to it, ultimately, and we must be able to regulate it within ourselves. Nor should we forget the principle that a person should do what he must do, come what may. For museums, “doing what we must” means preserving and promoting culture. And keeping in mind all the time what is beyond the besieged territory. And speaking not only to people inside it, but also “outside” it.
The Russian government and pro-Kremlin media say that the aim of Russia’s current war against its neighboring country is the “denazification” of Ukraine. But Farida Kurbangaleyeva argues that Russia’s government has in fact performed “denazification” earlier as well—on the “non-Russian” peoples living in the Russian Federation.
Chukcha tatarskaia—“you Tatar Chukchi”—an unknown woman wrote to me via Facebook. To put it mildly, she had not liked my post about the aftermath of the Russian occupation in Bucha and decided to deliver me the knockout punch with an irrefutable argument. For her, this argument was my ethnicity, and this is understandable: there is nothing more shameful for a member of the “state-forming people” than being a Chukchi, or a Tatar, or a Ukrainian yokel. That is, there is nothing more shameful than not being Russian.
This incident made me think of the “denazification” that Putin has used to justify his military invasion of Ukraine. In spite of his plan, from the start of the full-scale war many people started talking about how about Russia itself needed to be denazified—and I completely agree with this. But this is not the end of the story.
What Putin is calling “denazification” is not a struggle against Nazism, but the desire to destroy national identity, to eliminate the Ukrainians as a people. This is why in the occupied territories, as the Ukrainian authorities report, Ukrainian-language books have been removed from libraries and burned, and the study of Ukrainian has been canceled in schools. Where there is no language, there is no culture, no identity, no people. Meanwhile, in Russia, other peoples have been similarly “denazified” already. With more or less bloodshed, but in any case, quite successfully.
My personal denazification began shortly after my third birthday—when I first went to nursery school. At that age I spoke fluently in my native Tatar. One of my relatives loves to recall me energetically explaining the pictures to her from my book about the surrounding world: Менә бу әшәке гөмбә, ә менә бусы — әйбәте. (Mena bu ashake gumba, a mena buse—aibate: “This is an inedible mushroom, and this one is good.”)
I have to admit that it would be hard for me to repeat the stunt now. The nursery-school teachers had been given strict instructions: Soviet children should only have one language—Russian. Everything else was the devil’s work, forget it.
The denazification worked—by the first grade I still understood Tatar, but already had a hard time speaking it. That’s how I am now: I can understand everything being said to me, but I switch to Russian to reply. Why waste time fumbling for the right words?
For many people, Tatar language was a much-despised subject at school. And it’s not surprising: you knew that there was absolutely no reason to study it. People rarely spoke it at home, and in some places not at all, and it was unlikely to come in handy in the future either. Some of my Tatar classmates didn’t even go to Tatar language classes, preferring to take local history classes with the Russian kids instead. That is, they practically didn’t know their native language at all.
This was the late Soviet period, when the myth of the “friendship of peoples” and equality was still actively promoted. “Look at what a good student Farida is,” my teacher Anna Viktorovna would say to my classmate Roma. “Even though she’s a Tatar girl.”
I suppose that my mother had also encountered the same sort of approving motherly intonation at her first job at a nursery school (when she was just out of school and hadn’t yet entered Kazan University as a physics student). One of the other teachers—a woman from a Russian village—would tenderly refer to my mother as “my little chaplashka.”[The chaplashka is a typical Tatar skullcap, but it can be used as a condescending term for Turkic peoples.] At around the same time you could regularly hear people on the Kazan trams saying, “Hey you there! Quit talking in your language!”
But I digress. These are my memoirs, not my mother’s.
I can say that nearly all of my urban Tatar agemates—people who were kids in the 1980s—are a linguistically handicapped generation. Speaking Tatar was awkward and embarrassing. The primary native speakers at this time were people from the villages. Of course, there was also the urban Tatar intelligentsia, but it was so thin and fragile that one almost never heard Tatar spoken in the cities. Except maybe in the national theater.
Because of this, when the republic declared its “sovereignty” in the 1990s and Tatar became a required subject, the majority of the people who came to teach it in schools and universities were villagers. Many of them spoke Russian with a strong accent, lacked a certain confidence and even dressed more poorly than their colleagues in physics, algebra, or English. People treated them correspondingly, referring to them condescendingly as “Soviet farm workers” [kolkhozniki].
It’s hard to imagine anyone yelling at their schoolkid for getting a D in Tatar. What’s more, some parents openly admitted to encouraging their kids not to study it. No one was worried about the final grade report—by the time graduation rolled around, they would get all As and Bs. Who would want to ruin someone’s life over a pointless subject? The same situation held in the technical schools and universities.
The time came for us to become parents ourselves. What could we say to our kids in the “mother tongue”? At best a few primitive phrases. The grandparents would try to make up for lost time, but “lost” is the key word here.
I’ve observed the following scenario several times. At the playground, a group of mothers gangs up on the mother of a “late-speaking” child. “It’s all because you speak two languages at home. That’s not right, you have to pick,” they say. Some of these “instructors” themselves send their kiddos to “early development schools” where the kids are taught English as early as possible—either from the moment the child starts turning over, or maybe when it can lift its head. After all, everyone knows that the earlier you start learning a second language, the better.
Meanwhile, the Russians in Tatarstan are very tolerant Russians. They’re long since used to Tatar names and holidays, and mixed marriages. They know the words isanmesez [исәнмесез] (hello), rakhmat [рәхмәт] (thank you), and sometimes even say Alla birsa [Алла бирсә] (God willing) as a joke. When I left for Moscow, I realized that in other regions the problem isn’t just that Russians don’t want to learn the languages of ethnic minorities. Russia is both a multi-ethnic and a xenophobic country.
My experience working as an anchor on TV channel Rossiya was pretty revealing. It was 2007. Alexandra Buratayeva and Lilya Gildeyeva [who are ethnic Kalmyks and Tatars, respectively] had already made their names on national television, but the negative wow-effect was nevertheless plain to see. Online, I would periodically run into requests like “get rid of that churka” [a racial slur mostly used for people from the Caucasus and Central Asia] or questions like “What, you couldn’t find a Russian woman? Where are the Katyas, Mashas, Natashas?”
My colleagues mostly treated me with decency and goodwill. Well, if you don’t count the entertaining questions like whether I’d been on the Hajj or eaten horsemeat. Or the kinds of questions every member of an ethnic minority gets, like:
“What is your Russian name?”
“This is my only name.”
Rage, negotiation, unwilling acceptance.
I know of many cases when a Fidail has become a Fedya [Ted], a Gulnur., a Gulya, and a Kamil, a Kolya [Nick]. Even closer to home, my grandmother, Khadicha Fazleyevna, lived for fifty years in a communal apartment where she was known as “Auntie Katya.” My friend, an Avar named Maryan, told me that when she was studying at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, she usually told people her name was Marianna. She thought that people would be nicer to her that way. One girl from her circle of university friends would periodically say to her, “Gosh, you’re so normal—just like us.”
I remember that once a Sberbank employee, holding my Russian Federation-issued passport and reading out my full name, asked me what my citizenship was. That the principal of the school my daughter went to wasn’t sure that her intellectual capacity was the same as her Muscovite agemates: “Southern children (!) achieve physical maturity more quickly, but sometimes lag intellectually.” A midwife in a Moscow birth center asked me whether newborns are swaddled in my country.
One time my wallet was stolen in a mall. The first word uttered by the policeman who came to investigate was “Darkies?” [churbany]. I was stunned, because in my understanding no defender of public order has the right to utter this word. I replied, “It was two women of Slavic appearance,” which obviously stunned the policeman in turn.
My second cousin Azamat was unable to rent an apartment in Moscow. As soon as they heard his name over the phone, Muscovites would ask, “What are you, an Uzbek?” and hang up. He didn’t have time to tell them about his excellent job or steady salary at Sberbank. He was able to rent only through people he knew.
To expand my examples beyond my personal life, I called all my non-Russian friends. I didn’t have to make any effort to seek anyone out or ask insistently for comments. These are all stories of just “one degree of separation.”
Ibragim, a Kumyk born in Grozny (Chechnya): “Once I submitted my papers for a foreign-travel passport and couldn’t get it for eight months. I was told repeatedly that it wasn’t ready yet. In the end I just sat down in the office of the passport officer and declared I wouldn’t leave until I got my passport. The man clearly hadn’t expected such audacity. He thought for a while and then took my passport out of his desk.”
Artur, a Chechen born in Grozny: “We fled Chechnya during the First Chechen War. I went to a bunch of different schools. When I was in the fifth grade, we lived in Cherkessk. One time in class, people started talking about Chechens, and the teacher said, looking right at me, ‘You’re basically all terrorists, you need to be isolated.’ When I started at university, I couldn’t get a job. I didn’t become a waiter at a cafe, a salesman at a store, or someone handing out advertisement flyers [like other university students]. A few years ago, I was barred from entering a Moscow nightclub on New Year’s Eve. The security guy looked at my passport and refused to let me in. When I asked him to explain why, he said, ‘No comment.’”
Alexandra, a Buryat from St. Petersburg: “I never wanted to go down into the subway, where people always gave us dirty looks. One time I was riding with my whole family and heard someone say, ‘They’re breeding up a storm.’ Another time I was walking toward the escalator and a stranger started to shoulder me out of the line. I kept going, so then he shoved me aside roughly and said, ‘You should always let Russians ahead of you! Got it?’”
Alexandra was one of the organizers of the initiative Buryats Against the War in Ukraine. She asked Russia-based subscribers to talk about examples of xenophobia they’d encountered living in Russia. She’s been getting messages for over a month now. Reading them, Alexandra nearly stopped sleeping. One time she wrote me at three in the morning to say she (and many of her respondents) needed a therapist.
But getting back to my Tatars and my denazification. A few years ago, Tatar language was once again made optional as a school subject in Tatarstan. It was happily dropped not only by Russians, whose pressure had largely caused the law to be passed, but also by many Tatars. Why bother? Everyone knows that there’s absolutely no point: almost no one speaks Tatar anywhere, and there’s unlikely to be any need for it in the future. At least at this point in history, speaking Tatar at home isn’t forbidden. The idea was just that: “Speak it at home” and even “How terrible that they used to forbid that.”
Thanks a lot, but “speaking at home” is also a road to nowhere. It also means the loss of language, just dragged out a bit. I can confirm this through the example of some Russians I know who have lived in the Czech Republic for many years.
Here’s a mother who delights in her fifteen-year-old daughter: “You wouldn’t believe it! She wrote a card to her grandma yesterday without making a single mistake!” That is, the girl speaks Russian very well (because they speak it at home), but the grammar is a real problem for her. This girl’s children will speak Russian a bit worse and barely be able to write. The grandchildren will speak in broken Russian and tell their friends that their grandma was Russian. Cool, right?
Without systematic lessons and academic programs, textbooks and teaching aids, courses and constant practice, a language cannot be preserved. All the more so if it’s optional. Imagine if people studied Russian in schools as an elective. Or chemistry, or algebra. Would many students want to take these subjects? Losing a language when it’s “study it if you want to” is just a matter of two or three generations.
No one among my Russian friends who were born and raised in Tatarstan knows Tatar or is planning to learn it. As an illustration, I offer a few sample conversations with my girlfriends. Both are cultured, educated women and highly empathetic. They would never call me a “Tatar Chukchi.”
Dialogue No. 1 (which took place prior to the reversal of the Tatar language requirement in schools):
“Tatar’s on the schedule every day, I’m so sick of it! Katya (her daughter, whose name has been changed) gets so exhausted by it. I wish they’d get rid of it already!”
“And what will you do if they get rid of it?”
“I want them to bring in English, and Italian would be good too. I’d love for her [Katya] to go to university in Italy.”
“But it’s not like all the kids are going to go do that. Many of them will spend their whole lives in Tatarstan.”
“So? What do they need Tatar for?”
“To talk with their friends, for instance. Listen, wouldn’t you like to know Tatar, so you could speak it with me? I speak Russian with you, after all.”
“You got to be kidding! Isn’t that an awfully big sacrifice to make—studying Tatar just so I can talk with you?”
Dialogue No. 2, quoted as a monologue (it was delivered after Tatar was made non-obligatory):
“Thank God, they got rid of Tatar. When I think back on my school days I just shudder (she utters in Tatar the phrase ‘My homeland is the Republic of Tatarstan,’ purposefully mispronouncing the words). They should just make them take local history instead. At work I have a ton of Russian colleagues who used to live in Kazakhstan. They have a hard time getting Russian citizenship here. They have to take a Russian-language exam if you can believe it. But in Kazakhstan they’re really mistreated—they’re forced to learn Kazakh. I even thought lucky my grandparents came here to build the KAMAZ [auto factory] instead of Baikonur [a cosmodrome built in Soviet Kazakhstan]. Otherwise, I’d be suffering—having to learn Kazakh or trying to get Russian citizenship.”
Just a minute! My grandparents didn’t go anywhere to build factories. And my other grandparents didn’t either. They spent their whole lives living on this land. And before that, for centuries, their grandparents lived on the same land. They spoke, read, and wrote in Tatar. Until the moment when someone decided to administer and regulate this process—to denazify the Tatars, you might say.
Yes, Putin started using the term, but he didn’t start the process, of course. The policy of stan “foreigners” was pursued under the Russian Empire as well and hit a high point during Soviet times. Over the past one hundred years, the Tatars have had their alphabet changed twice. Before the Bolshevik coup and for a little while afterwards, Tatars wrote and read in Arabic. This writing system was left alone even when the gate of Lyadsky Garden in downtown Kazan sported a sign saying, “No musicians or Tatars allowed.”
In the late 1920s, Tatar was switched to yañalif—an alphabet based on the Latin one, and then in 1939 to Cyrillic—by the way, easily the most inconvenient option for Tatar phonetics. Consequently, Tatars were cut off from an enormous store of literature, poetry, philosophical and religious works written using the Arabic script. And, by extension, from their own history and culture.
My father, who was born in 1940, spent his childhood and youth in the Old Tatar district—a low-lying part of Kazan where Tatars historically lived. Now this neighborhood has been transformed into a colorful tourist trap with a gaudy ethnic flair. But we have to remember that before 1917 Tatars didn’t have a choice: they did not have the right to live in the prestigious upper part of the city.
According to my papa, when he was growing up in the neighborhood, not a single Russian lived there who didn’t know Tatar. And around mid-century there were quite a few Russians living there. His childhood friends Polina and Katya would switch to Tatar every time they wanted to keep secrets from their mother, who didn’t know Tatar. This means that places spared the denazification process saw wonderful results—a genuine, not sham, friendship of peoples. With true equality, mutual respect, and the preservation of ethnic identity.
Nowadays this tale sounds fantastical, and I can’t find an answer to my question: why did those Russians not mind speaking Tatar, and where did those Russians go? I also have a feeling of guilt for not putting enough effort into developing and preserving the language in my own family. I think I should have hired a tutor. I think I should have bought a self-instruction manual. I think I should speak with my elderly parents more often. At least now, at least a little. And even in a sloppy way, I should still try to speak Tatar with my kids.
So, there is a grain of truth in what the unknown woman on Facebook said. In some sense I really am a “Tatar Chukchi”—an incomprehensible hybrid, a person without kith or kin and without a language, trying to seize hold of her roots before they wither away.
And what will happen later, when Ukraine prevails in the war with Russia, securing both a moral and a physical victory? What will happen when the Ukrainians liberate the occupied territories, when they bring Ukrainian back into the schools, when they publish wonderful new books written in Ukrainian? And when Russia (I really want to believe this) will truly and finally be free? What will happen, not with the Ukrainians, of course, but with us—the denazified Russian-dwelling chebureks? I hope I’m wrong about this, but I think I know what will happen.
I recently stumbled across an openly xenophobic comment on Facebook. The thread was discussing the sanctions that the US government was afraid to implement against Alina Kabaeva. One of the contributors wrote, “What do they expect from her? She’s a typical Tatar woman: husband, kids, family. It doesn’t take a lot of brains to do that.” This comment was liked by someone with whom I share a few dozen friends, someone who’d posted lots of fiery statements against the war in Ukraine.
When I expressed astonishment in response, the Facebook-friend posted a bunch of smile emojis and wrote, “Sorry.” But when I noted that I didn’t find it funny at all, his tone changed abruptly. He wrote repeatedly that he was “speaking with me as an equal” and advised me to “not be stuffy and blow things out of proportion.”
Thus, we non-Russians will go down with this warship. We’ll go where the free Ukrainians—who speak their native language at home, and at school, and at work, and wherever they want—sent it.
We’ll head for the bottom along with our country’s liberal civil society, which will genuinely rejoice over Ukraine’s victory, and then set about building “the beautiful Russia of the future.” But a few things in this new Russia will stay the same. No one there will force anyone to study non-native or pointless languages. After all, this is a violation of rights and freedoms and is basically non-democratic. There will be fewer and fewer people trying to study them on their own. Those who wish to can speak them at home or take elective classes. And not blow anything out of proportion. Those who attempt to get uppity about it will be declared ethnic nationalists and Russophobes.
You’re hearing this from me, the “Tatar Chukchi.”
Source: Farida Kurbangaleyeva, “My Personal Denazification,” Holod, 28 May 2022. Translated by the Fabulous AM. Photo (above) courtesy of Wikipedia. Farida Kurbangaleyeva (Фәридә Корбангалиева/Färidä Qorbanğälieva) worked as a presenter of the program “Vesti” (“The News”) on the Rossiya channel until 2014 and, later, as a presenter on the channel Current Time. Now an independent journalist, she lives in Prague.
The phenomenal Petersburg photographer Alexander Petrosyan snapped this hyperrealist folk-conceptual photo at this week’s international economic forum in Petersburg, where the honored guests include the Taliban and the “president” of one of the fake Donbas “people’s republics.” There has been a lot of coverage of the remarks made at the forum by this snapshot’s ostensible subject. I have excerpted one article about them, below. This excerpt is followed by my translation of an interview with Sergei Khestanov about the forum and the broader Russian economic outlook in the light of the war and western sanctions.
As is traditional, the forum was dominated by a plenary session involving Putin. Earlier in the week, Peskov announced that Putin would make “an extremely important speech”. A couple of days later, he went out of his way to insist that the president was not about to announce a mobilization. It’s unclear why this was necessary – it’s no longer early March when this rumor was widespread.
The speech itself (which lasted for almost 90 minutes) contained no surprises. Putin spoke Friday about how “crazy sanctions” were not hurting the Russian economy, but, instead, causing pain for the Western countries as they wrestle with a crisis caused by an ill-conceived coronavirus response. “Our special military operation has nothing to do with it,” Putin said. More than once, Putin insisted the Russian economy remained open for business and reaffirmed his belief that the West would come to its senses and that Western companies would soon return to operating in Russia as normal.
But the most interesting part was when the moderator, Margarita Simonyan (head of state-owned RT and a prominent hawk on Ukraine) began putting questions to Putin and Tokayev. Along with the president of Armenia, Tokayev was one of only two heads of state to travel to the forum. It was painfully clear that Tokayev’s presence was repayment for Putin’s support back in January when troops from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) helped to re-impose order in Kazakhstan and, at the same time, marginalize Tokayev’s predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
However, Tokayev’s gratitude knows some bounds. That was apparent two days before he shared the stage with Putin when he gave an interview to state-owned Rossiya 24 in which he confirmed that his country would fully comply with Western sanctions on Russia.
Judging by what followed, Putin was aware of that interview. The highlight of the session was Putin’s attempt to pronounce his colleague’s name and patronymic – Kassym-Jomart Kemelevich. In January, when Kazakhstan was at the center of international attention as a result of civil unrest, Putin was already struggling with this difficult – but not impossible – name and twice uttered something incoherent. This time, at the start of his speech, Putin got it right – but during the Q&A session he again referred to Tokayev as “Kemel-Zhemelevich”, prompting a highly suspicious look from his supposed ally (this is clearly visible in the video).
Tokayev’s answers to Simonyan’s questions were far from the platitudes of an ally and some of what he said ran directly counter to Putin’s position. Diplomatic and courteous (Tokayev is a former UN Deputy General Secretary), the Kazakh president told Putin:
Kazakhstan “takes sanctions into account” (a response to a question from Simonyan suggesting the West must be pushing Kazakhstan to stop cooperation with Russia).
No economy can successfully pursue a policy of self-reliance and import substitution.
Ukraine’s accession to the European Union must be accepted as a new reality, even though its economy is in a dreadful condition.
The U.S., and the West in general, are not in the throes of a major crisis. At present, the U.S. economy is “modern and dynamic.”
That there are some Russian politicians, journalists and cultural figures who make “absolutely incorrect statements about Kazakhstan” and other states and “sow discord between our peoples.” This is likely to refer to occasional calls in the Russian parliament to protect the Russian-speaking population of Kazakhstan, which is concentrated in the north of the country. Such pronouncements are very reminiscent of the rhetoric in Russia about the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
Finally, without prompting, Tokayev dismissed the possibility of Kazakhstan recognizing the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. He dismissed the republics – recognized by Russia – as “quasi-state entities.”
You can watch the whole of the plenary session here, or read a transcript here.
The scandal continued Saturday when Kazakh media reported Tokayev had turned down the Order of Alexander Nevsky bestowed on him by the Russian government. The official reason was that Kazakhstan’s president is not permitted to accept honors from foreign countries while in office – Russian state-owned media devoted half a day to reporting this explanation.
Source: “Showcasing Isolation,” The Bell, 19 June 2022
The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) wrapped up this weekend. The feelings it generated are complicated. On the one hand, there was a heated discussion of the forum in social media; on the other hand, it was mainly not economic news that was discussed, but the juicy scandals that happened at the forum. Does the international forum have a future in the face of total western sanctions? And have the speeches at the SPIEF made it clearer what will happen next with the Russian economy? We talked about this with Sergei Khestanov, a well-known economist who has developed dozens of financial theories and techniques. He also serves as an adviser on macroeconomics to the CEO of Otkritie Investments.
— Judging by the discussion of SPIEF on social media, the hottest guests were the Taliban (an organization that is banned in Russia) and Philipp Kirkorov. Is this due to the exoticism of their being at the economic forum or the absence of significant guests?
— The Taliban were just a kind of exotic highlight, I think. By the way, they were not particularly visible in the latter part of the forum. There weren’t many notable guests, really, but then again there hasn’t been an abundance of such guests for many years. What was unusual was that some guests of the forum (Russians, by the way) were asked not to advertise their participation and to wear name tags that did not spell out their companies and positions, lest they be hit by sanctions. From the economic point of view of, it doesn’t mean anything, but it is a quite interesting reflection on how the forum is seen.
— Was western business represented at the forum in general?
— It was practically absent. Many [western businessmen] simply cannot attend without spoiling their reputations, even those who have not yet abandoned the Russian market.
— And what was interesting from a substantive point of view?
— In terms of the forum’s substance, I would draw attention to the statement made by [Sberbank chief] Hermann Gref that the Russian economy would be able to reach the level of 2021 in ten years. That’s quite a frank recognition of the state of our economy. Vladimir Putin’s statement about banning audits of businesses is also welcome if the number of such audits is really reduced. However, it bothers me that they have been talking about this for so many years [without doing anything about it.]
— Putin also announced a reduction in the preferential mortgage rate to seven percent.
— Volumes of orders have been falling in the construction industry, so we need to support it. And since, as a rule, the construction industry is closely affiliated with local and, sometimes, regional authorities, the desire to support it is quite understandable. Plus, the industry is a multiplier, so helping it helps the metals industry, manufacturers of cement, lumber, and so on. However, the decline in volumes is not yet tremendous, so nothing terrible would happen without help, but nor do I expect the support to trigger a boom.
There is another danger here: real estate prices in Russia, especially in the megacities, are overheated. if the decrease in mortgage rates is not coupled with an increase in down payments, we could end up with a mortgage bubble. And then, under certain unfavorable circumstances, of which there might be many going forward, we could face a terrific downturn in prices and a serious mortgage crisis. I would not say that the danger is great now, but it cannot be ignored.
— Wait, what collapse? What crisis? It followed from Vladimir Putin’s speech that we have been successfully coping with western sanctions. Supposedly, foreign exchange earnings are so great that they almost equaled the volume of the frozen portion of Russian gold and foreign exchange reserves.
— Russia is bursting with money that it cannot digest because of import restrictions and the threat of frozen accounts. It turns out that money has been earned, but what to do with it? It isn’t possible to use it constructively. And this madness with shoring up the ruble is due to the fact that there is no demand for non-cash payments: exporters need controls, but they cannot sell currency. So, it’s like a pear is dangling in front of you, but you can’t eat it.
— But Central Bank head Elvira Nabiullina in her speech suggested a way out for exporters: they should focus on the domestic market.
— Those are pretty words, but most exporters have been working for the domestic market for a long time. The problem is that the domestic market’s capacity is limited. For oil and petroleum products, for example, domestic demand accounts for about a quarter of current production. That is, if we refocus on the domestic market, we need to cut production threefold. Will that make things better?
Export industries perfectly satisfy domestic demand, and everything else is exported. This also applies to the metals industry, both ferrous and non-ferrous metals, and the oil industry, and the petrochemical industry. Nizhnekamskneftekhim, the world’s largest producer in its class of raw materials for plastics, supplies its products to both the domestic and foreign markets, but only a very small portion of what it produces goes to the domestic market, because such is the demand.
— And, for example, aluminum and titanium are used mainly in aircraft construction. Given current conditions in the domestic market, they can be used, at best, to make kvass cans.
— Exactly. The domestic Russian market is simply not able to absorb everything produced by exporters. So, this call to pivot to the domestic market is like that joke. “Bunnies, become hedgehogs, so the foxes won’t eat you.” “Great, but how do we do it?” “I don’t know — I’m a strategist, not a tactician.”
— To be fair, Nabiullina had also talked about structural adjustment in the past.
— What the Central Bank head said about structural adjustment is right, but it doesn’t make much sense yet. Unless we note the speech made by [Alexei] Kudrin, who said that it would take two to three months to develop a strategy. I consider him one of the most serious public figures in terms of macroeconomic analysis, so his words carry a lot of weight for me. Two or three months is a realistic amount of time, I think. It would bring us to the beginning of autumn, and all over the world at this time, business picks up after the summer lull. Plus, statistics for macroeconomic indicators will have been reported, and the relevance of the data will have increased. So I’m eighty to ninety percent in agreement with him.
— But what don’t you agree with?
— My main disagreement is that, since the sanctions have not yet ended, the effectiveness of strategies is low. No matter how good a plan is, it will have to be changed quickly and often. Moreover, so far most of the sanctions have impacted imports, and that is not so terrible. Of course, it’s sad that Ivan Sixpack can no longer buy a new smartphone, but this has little effect on the economy. Export sanctions are much more serious when it comes to filling the state coffers. But I think it’s too early to talk about them before next year.
— Well, so far, Ivan Sixpack does not seem to be suffering much. Many people say that the sanctions are not really hurting us.
— Since demand has dropped a lot, people are under the illusion that nothing terrible has happened. But by the second half of September, I think that stocks in the warehouses will be exhausted, and it will become clear what is happening with durable goods.
— Especially with spare parts for cars. This topic is now of concern to many people. A friend of mine is now glad that she didn’t buy a foreign car, as she had originally wanted, but a Russian-assembled Renault.
— She shouldn’t be too glad. Some of the spare parts for inexpensive Russian-assembled foreign cars are made in Russia, but only some. The rest are imported.
— So, we will have to establish a shuttle trading business for the delivery of spare parts.
— Maybe, but the whole business will be tedious, time-consuming and, accordingly, much more expensive. As in the 90s, people will have to buy cars that Russian spare parts fit. They will have to learn how to do their own repairs. In Soviet times, I went abroad to buy a used car with cardboard templates in tow to determine whether the wheels from a Lada would fit it, whether the filters would fit. I knew how to re-rivet brake pads. Basically, I can fix anything on a car, except the carburetor. Most of the motorists of that time could do the same. Maybe they couldn’t do everything, but they could do the most basic things like cleaning the spark plugs and changing the oil and filters. Those were the necessary skills. But nowadays, many people don’t even know how to change tires.
— They’ll have to learn. Once again the menfolk will gather in garages on weekends, although many people don’t have their own garages anymore. They only have spaces in multi-story parking lots, and you can’t repair a car there.
— And the skills have been lost. Of course, a parallel import market will be established, and people will learn how to do repairs, but it will be difficult for motorists. It will become immensely more expensive and more difficult to maintain a car.
— Speaking of cars. Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov announced plans to resume production not only of the Moskvitch, as discussed by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, but also of the Volga and even the Pobeda. The latter, by the way, was produced in the 50s. Is the [Russian] car industry really that bad off? What about the Chinese? Wouldn’t they help us? After all, they are switching to electric vehicles. Could they transfer the production of internal combustion engines to Russia?
— As I understand it, Manturov was actually talking about reviving the brands, not the cars of that generation themselves. Because if there is a demand for classic Ladas now, it’s not very big. In the back country, the fact that they can be repaired easily is appreciated. But all the other cars [of the period] were total tanks. I used to drive a Pobeda back in the day. It really, you know, encourages you to develop your shoulder muscles, because turning the steering wheel involves great physical exertion. The brakes are the same way.
But what they probably have in mind is producing new models under those brands, maybe even stylized to look like the old ones. Aesthetically, the Pobeda is beautiful — it’s just hard to drive it. The Volga 21 is beautiful, and so are the Moskvitches up to the 412 model. And if you also give it a two-tone paint job, like the Moskvitch 403, you could make a very popular model. Volkswagen also produced an updated replica of the Beetle.
— And how will they make them?
— They will probably buy the platforms from the Chinese, or [the Chinese] will even supply the assembly lines. Then designers will be commissioned to come up with designs, maybe even stylized to look like Soviet cars. And so the brands will be reborn.
— In conclusion, let’s return to the guests at SPIEF. In terms of foreign leaders, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev attended the forum. Chinese President Xi Jinping also made a short speech via video link. There is probably no point in asking whether SPIEF can now claim the role of the “Russian Davos.” I wanted to ask you abpit something else. Given the current conditions, is there any point to this event?
— Tokayev, I think, just couldn’t help but show up. Everyone paid attention to how he spoke relatively harshly about the DPR and the LPR. Of course, he is a professional career diplomat and spoke in such a way that you can’t find fault with him, so it’s quite difficult to extract any one definite message from his speeches.
— What about when he said that Kazakhstan had no choice but to support western sanctions?
— But this is quite obvious: he didn’t say anything new. It is clear that the economy of Kazakhstan cannot fight a consolidated decision by the western economies. This would not only be difficult, but also not really necessary. So, where its own interests are not affected, Kazakhstan can help Russia — but no more than that. By the way, the Chinese have the same attitude towards us.
— Is that why Xi Jinping not only did not come to SPIEF, but was also brief in his video message?
— There is not much to talk about in the current circumstances. So it’s not that Xi didn’t want to talk. There was nothing in particular for him to talk about. It is clear to everyone that the Russian economy is not doing very well. So, our corporations signed contracts with each other, which they happily reported before going their separate ways.
The question of whether SPIEF should be held is another matter: the degeneration of such forums is not only a Russian problem. The Davos forum has also been experiencing a lack of serious ideas. Ten years ago, the substantive part of it was much larger, but nowadays everyone is for all the good things and against all the bad things. And all other [economic] forums face similar problems: a lack of substance and a focus on narrow subjects. So, what is happening with the Petersburg Forum is not unique.
It’s hard to say what the reason is for this. Maybe the format has worn out its welcome. As in art, there is a fashion, a trend, and then times, traditions, and tastes change, and the format goes away. Maybe it is due to the fact that the world economy has been slowing down. When the forums were interesting, the economy was growing; intense economic processes were underway, and reforms were being undertaken in the countries of the former USSR and Eastern Europe. But now there is stagnation everywhere, even in the IT field, about which I know a thing or two. What can I say? Moore’s law has been disproven! The number of transistors on a single chip no longer doubles every eighteen months. So, this is a universal problem. I don’t know whether this trend is reversible or permanent, but for the time being it’s like this. Do you remember the Central Committee plenums in Soviet times? The “resolutions” that were “submitted for consideration” and instantly “approved”? The long tedious speeches about nothing? It’s all coming to look a lot like that.
Source: Tatyana Rybakova, “‘Do you remember the Central Committee plenums in Soviet times? It’s all coming to look a lot like that’: Sergei Khestanov on the St. Petersburg Economic Forum and the future of the economy,” Republic, 19 June 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader
In June, the prosecutor’s office asked the court to sentence the artist Yulia Tsvetkova to three years and two months in a penal colony for “distributing pornography.” She was charged with this crime for posting drawings of vulvas on the Russian social media website VKontakte.
If I had to make a list of the methods used by the Russian state to make the life of grassroots activists unbearable, the list would be long. It would include such dirty tricks as endlessly postponing court hearings, delaying investigations, forensic examinations, and official inquiries, and encouraging right-wing “morality watchdogs” to persecute activists by telephoning them, threatening them, and intimidating them. And then the police throw up their hands, because, allegedly, they do not see anything criminal in the actions of these pseudo-Orthodox (but in fact criminal) figures.
All these methods also nicely illustrate the fact that the authorities are not content with merely complicating, or even paralyzing, the work of civil society in Russia.
The current Russian regime also finds it vital to avoid responsibility. Rather than punishing people directly for dissent, it seeks = far-fetched grounds to punish them. Rather than imprisoning them immediately and for a long time, it draws out investigations as much as possible, so that, on paper, the number of political prisoners is not too large, but their persecution considerably discourages other activists.
Even if I listed all these methods, the list would not be long enough to describe everything that the artist and activist Yulia Tsvetkova from Komsomolsk-on-Amur has faced. Children from her theater workshop were summoned for questioning, her home was searched, she was under house arrest, her lawyers were not admitted into the courtroom to defend her, and recently she was declared a “foreign agent,” although it is completely unclear how an activist from a small provincial town could work as a “foreign agent” and in the interests of which foreign countries she could do this work. This campaign of political persecution has been going on for three and a half years, and Yulia has been accused of violating several laws, including “promoting LGBT” among minors and “distributing pornography” by posting schematic drawings of genitals on a educational outreach community page on Vkontakte.
It is quite difficult to believe that all this has been happening in reality, that it is really for her work in a children’s theater workshop and for body-positive and educational pictures that Tsvetkova has faced such an unprecedented onslaught. I cannot get my head around the fact that an entire army of civil servants (police officers, forensics experts, judges, prosecutors, social workers, etc.) have spent so much time trying to find evidence of the artist’s guilt. At this point, of course, it is a pity that we don’t have access to the files in the government accounting office. How interesting it would be to find out how many man-hours have been spent on this “job.” How much paper has been wasted on all the absurd paperwork? What are the salaries of all the officials involved in this political case, and how have they directly benefited from it? Who got a promotion? Who got an apartment? A new office? A bonus?
No one can give back the most valuable thing that the artist and her mother have lost — time. Three and a half years spent in endless court hearings, under house arrest, under travel restrictions, under relentless pressure — it is impossible to compensate them for this time lost by making apologies or giving them money.
But the most terrible thing is that this story has not ended and the court has not yet made a decision. The prosecutor’s office has asked it to sentence Tsvetkova to three years in prison.
It is a wildly inappropriate sentence for pictures that no one would label pornography.
Everyone who has ever heard about the Yulia Tsvetkova has has probably asked themselves: why her? And why have the authorities pursued the case with such cruelty? How has it happened that a huge repressive apparatus has dispatched so many forces to persecute a female activist from a distant provincial town?
It is very important to closely examine the work of Yulia Tsvetkova, because this is a rare case when the authorities have been extremely honest. The Russian government does not like what feminist activists do, because their work is aimed at emancipating women and sexually educating young people, so that the country’s culture of violence weakens, and respect, tolerance, and acceptance of different people within the same community becomes the new cultural norm.
The state-sponsored system of patriarchy opposes sex education, because it does not want young people to grow up independent and capable of making decisions about their sexuality and choosing whether to become parents or not.
But the most important point is that the modern Russian government is against any form of self-organization, because it sees self-organization as a threat to its legitimacy. Free, educated people naturally want the authorities to represent their interests and share their values. The Putin regime does not like independent people, and it opposes grassroots initiatives and diversity.
So, the question of why the Russian authorities targeted Yulia Tsvetkova to demoralize and frighten the grassroots community is useful for thinking about what exactly we can oppose to the Russia’s self-reproducing system of state violence. Feminism, LGBT activism, sex education, and outreach work with teenagers — this is what the state patriarchate fears and this is what will enable us to defeat it.
Source: Darya Apahonchich, “‘The State Is Afraid of Feminism and Sex Education’: Why a Female Artist from Komsomolsk-on-Amur Has Been Targeted for Persecution,” Moscow Times, 17 July 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader. Ms. Apahonchich is an artist and feminist activist who was herself declareda “foreign agent” by the Russian Justice Ministry in December 2020. She has lived in exile since the summer of 2021.
This is “social democracy,” Russian fascist style, as exemplified by A Just Russia — For Truth party leader Sergei Mironov, as translated by a mindless unpaid robot:
The leader of the Fair Russia — For Truth party, Sergei Mironov, proposed to take away the property of Russians who decided to emigrate from Russia.
He noted that this can be done within the framework of the presidential decree of March 1, 2022 “On additional temporary economic measures to ensure the financial stability of the Russian Federation.” According to it, Russian citizens who “have left or live in unfriendly countries cannot dispose of their real estate on the territory of Russia.”
At the same time, Mironov proposed not to be limited only to “unfriendly” states and to apply a measure in the event of a person leaving for any country.
“The essence of their act does not change from this. I think it makes sense to extend the restrictions to all travelers, regardless of where exactly they have pricked up their skis.“
The head of the party added that he considers the current flight of “our homegrown rich people” abroad to be a cleansing of society. In his opinion, only “obvious traitors” or “owners of criminally obtained fortunes” can leave Russia.
“Although one easily combines with the other. So I see only a positive aspect in the fact that these gentlemen are ridding us of their presence. The air will be cleaner,” he concluded.
Here are the “social democratic” fascist robot’s remarks in the original Russian:
Лидер партии «Справедливая Россия — За правду» Сергей Миронов предложил отбирать собственность россиян, решивших эмигрировать из России.
Он отметил, что это можно делать в рамках указа президента от 1 марта 2022 года «О дополнительных временных мерах экономического характера по обеспечению финансовой стабильности РФ». Согласно нему, российские граждане, которые «уехали или живут в недружественных странах, не могут распоряжаться своей недвижимостью на территории России».
При этом Миронов предложил не ограничиваться только «недружественными» государствами и применять меру в случае отъезда человека в любую страну.
“Суть их поступка от этого не меняется. Полагаю, есть смысл распространить ограничения на всех выезжанцев в независимости от того, куда именно они навострили лыжи.”
Руководитель партии добавил, что считает очищением общества нынешнее бегство «наших доморощенных богатеев» за границу. По его мнению, из России могут уехать лишь «очевидные предатели» или «обладатели состояний, полученных криминальным путем».
«Хотя одно легко сочетается с другим. Так что в том, что эти господа избавляют нас от своего присутствия, я вижу только положительной момент. Воздух будет чище», — заключил он.