I have a confession to make. I am almost exactly the same age as the wonderful Soviet movie We’ll Live Till Monday (Dozhivem do ponedel’nika, Stanislav Rostotsky, dir., 1968), which was filmed during the fiftieth anniversary year of the 1917 Russian Revolution. It is simply the best movie I have ever seen in any language about the value of and balance between formal education and sentimental education, about the conflicts between teachers and pupils, and misunderstandings among generations. It also has plenty to say, mostly between the lines but fairly boldly, about the Soviet Union in its middle age, the teaching of history, the fading revolutionary legacy, and importance of solidarity and “foolish” resistance. And it does all of it in a way that is not trivial or boring or predictable even for a second, and performed by wonderful ensemble cast of mostly teenage actors led by the beloved Vyacheslav Tikhonov and Irina Pechernikova. Pechernikova never became as famous for a number of reasons, but is as wildly charming here as Audrey Hepburn during the same period. So do yourself a favor and treat yourself to one hundred minutes of heartfelt cinematic magic with lots of real, not made-up, lessons to teach audiences. In Russian, with English subtitles.
At the film’s bleakest moment, Vyacheslav Tikhonov’s character, a middle-aged bachelor history teacher and Second World War veteran who still lives with his mother, sings and plays the following song, “Oriole.”
The song’s lyrics are based on three stanzas (the first, third, and fifth) of a poem by the OBERIU poet Nikolai Zabolotsky, “In This Grove of Birch Trees.” Zabolotsky wrote the poem in 1946, the same year he returned to Moscow after eight years of imprisonment and exile in Siberia as a victim of the Stalinist Great Terror.
The full poem, which is considerably bleaker than the already gut-wrenching song lyrics suggest, reads as follows.
Nikolai Zabolotsky In This Grove of Birch Trees
In this grove of birch trees so white,
Far from woe and misery,
Where the pink morning light
Where, like a transparent rush,
Leaves shower down from tall limbs,
Sing to me, oriole, a song of anguish,
The song of my life.
Gliding over the forest glade
And eyeing people from a height,
You have selected a wooden,
So that, in morning’s bloom,
After visiting the dwellings of men,
You can greet my morn
With your chaste and humble matins.
But, after all, in life we are soldiers,
And at the limits of what the mind can stand,
Atoms quake and shudder,
Tossing up houses like a white whirlwind.
Like maddened windmills,
Warriors wave their wings around.
But where are you, forest hermit, oriole?
Why have you gone silent, my friend?
Ringed round by blasts,
Over abysses you fly,
Over the river, where the reeds turn black,
Over the ruins of death you glide.
A silent rover,
You guide me into the fray,
And the lethal cloud unfolds
Above you as you make your way.
Beyond the great rivers,
The sun shall rise, and in morning’s gloom,
My eyelids singed,
I shall fall dead to the ground.
Cawing like rabid ravens,
All trembling, the guns shall fall silent.
And then your voice shall sing
Inside my shattered heart.
And over the grove of birches,
Over my birch grove,
Where, an avalanche of pink,
The leaves shower from tall boughs,
Where, touched by a droplet divine,
Cold grows a bit of blossom,
The morning of solemn victory shall dawn
For centuries to come.
You can find the original Russian text poem here or here, among other places. Petersburg critic, poet, and translator Valery Shubinsky has written an excellent critique of the poem, “The Last Battle,” which I hope to translate and publish under separate cover, when I find the time.
“I Only Want to Take a Bath, Nothing More”
Alexander Kalinin Rosbalt
May 15, 2017
Anna Yegorova is ninety-eight years old. She defended Leningrad all nine hundred days of the Nazi siege of the city during the Second World War. On the seventy-second anniversary of Victory Day, the combatant did not even get postcards from the government. But there was a time when she wrote to Brezhnev—and got a reply.
Anna Yegorova was born in 1918 in the Kholm-Zhirkovsky District of Smolensk Region. When she was ten, her parents decided to set out in search of a better life and moved to Leningrad with their daughter. They settled in a wooden house near the Narva Gates on New Sivkov Street, now known as Ivan Chernykh Street. Yegorova finished a seven-year primary school and enrolled in the Factory Apprenticeship School, where she graduated as a men’s barber.
“Oh, what beards didn’t I trim in my time,” the Siege survivor recalls.
After acquiring a vocation, the 19-year-old woman married Alexander Vesyolov, a worker at the Kirov Factory. As soon as the war broke out, her husband volunteered for the first division of the people’s militia. Nearly the entire division fell in battle during July–September 1941 on the southern approaches to Leningrad. Vesyolov is still officially listed as missing in action.
Yegorova was drafted into the air defense brigades at the war’s outset. The young woman served in a basement, equipped with seven cots, in one wing of the Kirov Factory. It was the headquarters of the local air defense brigade.
Yegorova still remembers the war’s outbreak, her military service in the besieged Leningrad, and victory in May 1945.
“How did the war begin? We were going to the cinema, but my mother told me I should go to the factory instead. Then I got a notice stating I had been drafted to serve in the headquarters of the local air defense brigade at the Kirov Factory. I spent all nine hundred days there. I was able to come home only once a month. My parents starved to death. Dad passed away on February 3, 1942. He was a first-class carpenter. His comrades made him a wooden coffin: they could not bury a carpenter without a coffin. Mom died a month later. They just carried her off to the Volodarsky Hospital in a blanket. I don’t even know where she is buried. Maybe at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, maybe in Moskovsky Victory Park,” says Yegorova.
Her duties included running to other parts of the city to deliver dispatches, carrying the wounded, and standing on guard at the factory, armed with a rifle. The young woman would look into the sky and watch what planes were flying overhead: planes emblazoned with red stars or planes bearing black crosses. Once, during a heavy bombardment, she was shell-shocked.
“I still remember how we chopped up houses in the Kirov District. Once, a girlfriend and I were dismantling a house near a railroad bridge, and a woman called out to us, ‘Girls, girl, come here, come.’ We didn’t go: we were scared. There were all kinds of people back then, you know. Once, this girl stole my food ration cards, and my mom’s earrings were also stolen,” recalls Yegorova.
The Siege survivor recounts how she would travel to the Krasnoarmeysky Market to buy linseed cakes and oilseed meal.
“The oilseed meal was like sawdust. Oh, how I gagged on that oilseed meal! But we had nothing to sell. We were poor.”
When Victory Day arrived, her house was nearly totally destroyed. Only an ottoman was rescued from the ruins.
Yegorova remarried after the war. Her new husband was a military officer, Nikolai Yegorov, who had fought not only in the Great Patriotic War (Second World War) but also the Finnish War (Winter War). In peacetime, Yevgorov became a first-class instrumentation specialist. In 1946, the Yegorovs gave birth to a daughter, Lydia. Yegorova worked as a secretary at the Kirov Factory, latter becoming head of a bread and confectionery department at a store.
In the late 1960s, Anna Yegorova wrote a letter to Leonid Brezhnev, secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. The essence of the message was as follows.
“Leonid Ilyich, no one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten. But it has so happened that I, a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad, awarded the medal For the Defense of Leningrad, and my husband, a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, have to huddle with our daughter in a sixteen-square-meter room on Lublin Alley.”
Yegorova does not believe her letter reached Brezhnev personally, but she does think it wound up in the hands of a “kindly” secretary who helped the family move into a one-room flat in the far southern district of Ulyanka. She lived in the neighborhood for around thirty years. She was civically engaged, working with Great Patriotic War veterans. She says she even worked as an aide to Sergei Nikeshin, currently an MP in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, who was then quite young. Nikeshin and she inspected the fields then surrounding Ulyanka.
In 1996, Yegorova took seriously ill. She was struck down by deep vein thrombosis. Her left leg “was like a wooden peg.” Her husband Nikolai died in 1999.
“After that, Mom stayed at home. I took care of her. This is my cross. We would take her to the dacha only in the summer. Otherwise, she would move about only in the apartment. She would get up in the morning and make her bed, come into the kitchen and sit down on the couch. She would turn on and call the station to request a song. She loved Boris Shtokolov’s “Dove.” Or she would request “A White Birch Weeps,” or something by Nikolai Baskov. But a month ago she took to her bed. Now all she does is lie in bed,” recounts her daughter Lydia Kolpashnikova.
Boris Shtolokov, “Dove” (a Russian adaptation of “La Paloma”)
Kolpashnikova is herself a pensioner. She has a third-degree disability. According to her, Petersburg authorities have practically forgotten her mother. True, three years ago, the Moscow District Administration called and said she could get a wheelchair. The women’s joy was short-lived. It transpired that the wheelchairs were used: they had been brought to Petersburg from Holland. To make use of the chair, they would have had to pay to have it repaired. The women decided to turn the gift down the gift.
Yegorova has received no substantial help from the local Siege survivors society. The organization can only offer trips to museums and theater tickets. This is not an option for Anna Yegorova, who is in no condition to leave her apartment. On memorial days—the Day of the Lifting of the Siege and Victory Day—however, cakes used to be brought to her. But this time around, however, she was completely neglected. According to the pensioner, the city did not even congratulate her.
Yegorova’s daughter Lydia decided to remind the authorities of her mother’s existence after hearing President Putin’s speech on TV. The president demanded that the heads of the country’s regions do a better job of caring for Great Patriotic War veterans.
“I clung to Putin’s words that veterans needed help, for example, if they needed help with home repairs. I called the district administration and asked them to repair our bathroom,” says Kolpashnikova. “Mom is completely ill. She is almost completely out of it. She has gallstones, heart failure, and atrial fibrillation. She is classified as a first-class disabled person. She survives only on sheer willpower. But now she cannot make it to the bathroom. I wipe her off in bed. She talks to me about the bathroom all the time, however. She wants to take a bath, but wants the bathroom repaired. The tile has crumbled in there. I called the Moscow District Administration and asked them to repair the bathroom, but I was told that ‘sponsors’ deal with these issues. Now, however, there is a crisis, and there are no sponsors. What sponsors were they talking about? Mom also needs medicines and diapers. There are social workers willing to run from one office to the next to get hold of diapers for free, but they also need to be paid to run around. The local Siege survivors organizations cannot do anything: they are the weakest link. I have no complaints against them.”
Anna Yegorova gets gifts from the authorities only on round dates. When she turned ninety, they gave her a towel, and they presented her with bed linens when she turned ninety-five.
“I called them in the autumn. I said that Mom would be turning ninety-eight on November 25. I suggested they come and congratulate her. They said to me, ‘We don’t have the right. When she turns one hundred, we’ll congratulate her,” recounts the Siege survivor’s daughter.
Anna Yegorova does not want to ask the authorities for anything.
“I have no strength. What should I do? I cannot stand up straight. I fall. I just want them to fix the bathroom. I want to take a bath. That’s it.”
All photos courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up
“On the morning of February 23, the workers who had reported to the factories and shops of the Vyborg District gradually downed tools and took to the streets in crowds, thus voicing their protest and discontent over bread shortages, which had been particularly acutely felt in the above-named factory district, where, according to local police, many had not had any bread whatsoever in recent days.”
Thus read a report by agents of the Okhrana on the first day of a revolution that forever changed Russia, February 23, 1917 (March 8, New Style).
Revolutionary events such as the unrest in Petrograd, which the bewildered tsarist regime failed to put down, Nicholas II’s abdication on March 2 (15) at Dno Station near Pskov, and the establishment of the Provisional Government were recalled by contemporaries as happening so swiftly that they were unable to understand where Russia was headed so wildly and who would ultimately benefit from the changes. In February 1917, no one would have predicted that less than year later the Bolsheviks, a radical faction of the Social Democrats who had been on the sidelines of Russian politics, would emerge victorious, and Bolshevik leaders themselves were no exception in this regard.
But an enormous thirst for social justice was apparent from the revolution’s outset. Russia had emerged a quite leftist country. In the stormy months following the monarchy’s fall, it transpired that a definite majority of the country’s citizens sympathized with socialist ideas in one form or another. This was reflected in the outcome of the first free elections in Russian history, which took place in the autumn, when the chaos and anarchy on the war front and the home front were obvious. The newly elected Constituent Assembly was meant to define the country’s future. The Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), a party that had consistently, albeit violently and bloodily, waged war against the Romanov Dynasty, but in 1917 had favored peaceful but radical reforms, primarily land reforms, scored a convincing victory in the elections.
If the country had managed to slip past the threat of dictatorship, issuing from the left (the Bolsheviks) and from the right (radical counter-revolutonaries), the SRs would definitely have been post-revolutionary Russia’s ruling party for a time, argues Konstantin Morozov, a professor in the Institute of Social Sciences at RANEPA and convener of a permanent seminar, Leftists in Russia: History and Public Memory. In an interview with Radio Svoboda, he reflects on why this did not happen and what the SR alternative would have meant to Russia.
What was the condition of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in February 1917?
I would say the the party was then in a state of organization disarray. A considerable part of its prominent leaders was abroad, while the other part was in prison, exile, and penal servitude. It had to be rebuilt from scratch, and it was the SRs who had withdrawn from revolutionary work in 1905–07 but who basically returned to the party in 1917 who mainly engaged in the rebuilding. It was they who organized all the party’s new cells. There were also serious problems among the SRs in terms of internal rifts, especially due to differing viewpoints on the war. In March, the SRs began to rebuild themselves as a single party, which was implemented subsequently at the party’s 3rd Congress in May and June. In my view, this was a mistake, because the disagreements within the party were such that it could not function, manage itself, and take decisions as a united party. A factional struggle immediately ensued. Accordingly, it ended in collapse and the inability to hew to a single internal party policy in 1917.
Due to the first phase of their history, the SRs are associated in the popular imagination with violence and terrorism, which they had long renounced by 1917. What were the views of the SRs and the leaders on violence as a principle of political struggle? The baggage of their terrorist pasts still haunted Viktor Chernov and other party leaders, after all. How did they view it in 1917?
The Socialist Revolutionary Party discussed the question of terrorism throughout its existence. At first, such figures as Mikhail Gots and Viktor Chernov, who advocated he inclusion of terror in the party’s tactics, had the upper hand. But even then the SRs included people who advocated a popular, mass-based party, who favored propaganda and agitation among the peasantry and proletariat rather than focusing on terror. Their ideal was a grassroots socialist party, something like the Second International’s exemplary party, the German Social Democracy. It went from bad to worse. During the 1905 Revolution, the party’s grassroots combat squads were keen on practicing expropriation and many other things that party leaders dubbed “revolutionary hooliganism.” But after 1909–11, in the aftermath of Evno Azef‘s exposure, the voices of those SRs who had argued for giving up terrorism grew ever stronger. By February 1917, there was no longer any talk of terror. The last terrorist act carried out by SRs had taken place in 1911, after which they basically ceased engaging in terrorism. Terrorist sentiments in the Socialist Revolutionary Party were resurrected only in the wake of October 1917, especially after the Bolsheviks forcibly disbanded the Constituent Assembly. Even then, however, the greater number of SR leaders were against engaging in terrorism against the Bolsheviks. These SR leaders argued that first they had to get the grassroots on their side using the methods of a popular political party.
In his memoirs, Boris Savinkov quotes his friend Ivan Kalyayev, a member of the SR Combat Organization who killed the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Kalyayev said that an SR without a bomb was not an SR. In reality, however, the majority of SRs were not involved in terrorism, and they would have disagreed with Kalyayev’s statement. It can be argued that use of terrorist tactics dealt a huge blow to the Socialist Revolutionaries who wanted the party to be a grassroots socialist party, a party that could carry out the will of Russia’s “triune working class” (in which the SRs included the proletariat, the working peasantry, and the working intelligentsia), and a party that proposed an evolutionary and democratic path to progress. Essentially, the SRs were not terrorists, of course. They had more or less given up terrorism in 1911. What mattered politically was that they were able to propose a program, both agrarian and federalist, that excited the sympathies of millions of people. By the autumn of 1917, the Socialist Revolutionary Party had more than a million members, while the Bolsheviks had only 350,000 members. Most important, the SRs won the elections to the Constituent Assembly, taking 41% of the vote.
So 1917 was the heyday for the SRs: they had a million members, and they won the elections to the Constituent Assembly. Why, ultimately, were they unable to take advantage of this? How did it happen that the SRs, despite their popularity, ceded power to the Bolsheviks later as well, despite attempts to the contrary? What predetermined their failure?
There are two sets of causes, objective and subjective, meaning, the mistakes made by the SRs themselves. What I think is fundamentally important is that it is extremely difficult to campaign for democratic reforms while a world war is underway. The fact that the Revolution took place during the First World War considerably predetermined the entire subsequent course of events. What is a world war? On the one hand, it involves a collapse in living standards and a aggravation of all the contradictions that have been accumulating in society over decades. On the other hand, it involves millions of people getting used to killing other people. This causes quite serious psychological changes. Extreme cruelty is combined with societal expectations pushed to the limit. These expectations had amassed to such an extent that in 1917 very many people wanted everything right away. Say, workers were no longer satisfied they had trade unions that the selfsame socialists would meet halfway. The workers wanted more. They wanted control and management of the factories. Practically, the Mensheviks and SRs could not take this step, because it would have led to serious industrial management issues. And the peasants wanted the land right away.
Here we turn to the mistakes made by the Socialist Revolutionaries. It was wrong to delay the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. Rather, it was wrong to go along with the liberals in the Provisional Government, the Kadets, who tried to postpone the Constituent Assembly any way they could. The liberals realized the leftist parties were stronger. They would have an outright majority in the Constituent Assembly, and consequently the peasantry and proletariat would get much of what they had been demanding. So the Kadets postponed the Constituent Assembly. That was a big, serious mistake.
Did the subjective factor play a role in the fact that the SRs failed? Let’s take a closer look. On the one hand, they were a party who styled themselves as the party of “land and freedom.” They were supported by the peasants. On the other hand, most SR leaders were members of the urban intelligentsia, not the salt of the earth. Did this contradiction factor in the SR electoral victory, but one in which their supporters were unwilling to secure their political power?
It was a lot more interesting than that. The program for socializing land ownership, advocated by the SRs, did not fall out of the sky. It was the outcome of quite serious work on the part of Populist economists and sociologists. It was revenge, if you like, for the failure of the “going to the people” campaign of 1874. In the aftermath, Populist economists, sociologists, and statisticians undertook a serious study of how peasants really lived. Within twenty or thirty years, they had figured out how the Russian peasantry really lived and what it wanted. The SRs based their own land socialization program on this research. Moreover, the SRs tended not to act like typical Russian intelligentsia, who often preferred philosophizing and imposing their own values on others. The SRs always tried to maintain feedback from the peasantry. I came across a quite curious document, a survey of sorts, which the SR Central Committee sent out in 1906 or 1907 to their local organizations, who were supposed to conduct this sociological survey, which asked peasants about their attitudes towards the regime, the army, and the clergy, and what they thought about the land, and how it should be distributed and managed. So it was no wonder the Socialist Revolutionary Party and their program, crafted over many years and through the efforts of many people, were seen by the peasants as their party and their program. On the other hand, there was a fairly powerful peasant lobby in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The grassroots level of party activists and functionaries consisted of the so-called popular intelligentsia: physician’s assistants, schoolteachers, agronomists, surveyors, and foresters.
The problem was that the SRs did not fully take the peasantry’s interests into account in 1917. The revolutionary authorities were afraid to cede land to the peasants, because, on the one hand, the army’s quartermasters argued that the supply of provisions to the army would immediately collapse. On the other hand, there were fears that the rank-and-file soldiers, who were actually peasants dressed in greatcoats, would immediately desert the front and run home. Later, at the party’s Fourth Congress, Yevgeniya Ratner, a member of the SR Central Committee, put it quite aptly. She said that for the war’s sake, for the front’s sake, they were forced into compromises with the bourgeois parties and thus were unable to defend the class interests of the peasantry and workers, and this was their huge guilt in the face of history. According to Ratner, they should have convoked the Constituent Assembly two or three month earlier, i.e., in August or September 1917, and set out to implement agrarian reforms. We should point out that some of the SRs had wanted to do this: Chernov, for example, insisted on it. There were ideas for forming a socialist government. In September 1917, the SR Central Committee was leaning towards this option.
By a socialist governmment, do you mean one that would have included all leftist parties, including the Bolsheviks?
There were two options. The first was the most leftist and quite adventuresome, or at least it seemed that way to the SRs themselves. It was proposed by Maria Spiridonova. She suggested the SRs should simply take power and form their own homogeneous SR government.
Meaning, they should have done what the Bolsheviks did finally?
It’s another matter that the Bolsheviks immediately set about tweaking their slogans and their actions. That is, they adopted the same slogans, but over time all of this was transformed into something else entirely. But getting back to the SRs, the majority of them wanted a coalition socialist government that would have included the Bolsheviks. At some point after October 1917, there were negotiations between the Bolsheviks and the socialist parties about forming such a government, but without Lenin and Trotsky. It was Lenin who in many ways destroyed this option. Was the formation of a socialist government a viable alternative if it had been agreed, say, in September? I think so. This would have been followed by elections to the Constituent Assembly, where the socialist parties obtained a majority. The SRs took the top spot, and the Bolsheviks won 25%, meaning they were the second largest faction. Clearly, they would have carried a lot of weight, but this course of events would, nevertheless, have made it possible to maintain a parliamentary democracy. Obviously, after a while, the SRs would have lost power in elections, as we see in Europe, where power swings back and forth between the right and the left. There was a chance then to set up a similar scheme for changing power through democratic procedures, via parliament. After all, the Constituent Assembly was highly regarded in society. It had been elected in the first genuinely free ballot in Russian history.
You have already touched a bit on the period after the Bolshevik coup. But let’s go back in time a bit. One of the key figures of 1917 was Alexander Kerensky. How did the other SRs regard him, and what role did he ultimately play in the party’s history?
It’s a very good question, but before answering it, I would like to voice a more general consideration. You just mentioned the “Bolshevik coup.” On the one hand, centrist and Right SRs used the term themselves. On the other hand, the Left SRs and anarchists would later come to favor the concept of a single Russian revolution that lasted from 1917 to 1921. That is, they saw it as a unified revolutionary process in which there was February and October, followed by the civil war. Currently, this is more or less how it is discussed. Those who rejected the concept argued that October 1917 was not a revolution on its own terms, because it did not involve a spontaneous popular movement. Until the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks themselves would also often speak of a coup, of their coup. But some of the SRs, Mark Vishnyak, for example, rightly noted, in my opinion, that the events of October 1917 could be interpreted as a sort of “staff revolution,” organized from above. It was a symbiosis of a revolutionary process with traits of a coup. When someone simply speaks of a coup, that is not entirely right, because there was definitely support from the workers and soldiers. Besides, the word “coup” itself suggests an analogy with Latin American-style military coups. Whatever the case, we must continue to make sense of those events conceptually.
What if we return to Kerensky?
The SR leadership definitely saw Kerensky as a fellow traveler, as the term was then. He had been in the SR movement during the Revolution of 1905–07. Elected as an MP to the State Duma, he tried to unite different Populist groups. On the other hand, some SRs might have simply envied him. Kerensky was one of the most popular people in Russia. Socialist Revolutionaries who had spent years fighting in the underground and building the party, wound up in the background, while he, who had declared himself an SR, was regarded by society in 1917 as the most important SR. Chernov had harsh things to say about Kerensky. According to Chernov, Kerensky played a quite negative role in the Socialist Revolutionary Party, because he had almost no contact with the SR leadership and did not follow the Central Committee’s instructions. The Right SRs and right-centrists supported Kerensky, while the Left SRs tried to break with him. At the party’s Third Congress, in May and June 1917, the Left SRs sabotaged Kerensky’s election to the party’s Central Committee. He was rejected outright. It was a real slap in the face.
What does that tell us? That, unlike the Bolsheviks, the SRs were not a leaderist party, remaining a more collectivist force?
Democrats are generally less inclined to leaderism, and this was fully borne out by the SRs. This does not mean there were no authoritarians among the SRs. It was another matter that the leaders had to adapt to the moods and ideas of the revolutionary milieu, to the subculture of the Russian revolutionary movement. The notions of decentralization, self-reliance, and independence fromthe leadership were quite strong in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Initially, they had a sort of collective leadership. At various times, it consisted of different people, usually three or four people. Plus, we have to speak here of three or four generations of SRs. The first generation had been been members of the People’s Will, while the last generation joined the party in 1923–24. Meaning, we are looking at a fairly complicated picture. But generally, yes, there was no single leader. Many historians and contemporaries were of the opinion this was a cause of the failure of the SRs in 1917. Chernov argued that if Gots and Grigory Gershuni had still been alive, the three of them could have led the party in 1917. Gershuni was highly charismatic, even more charismatic than Lenin, and perhaps he would have had a chance to keep the party under control. On the one hand, there is a certain point to these hypotheses, but we have to consider the weakness and division existing within the party at the time of the revolution, in particular, the strong differences between the SRs on the issue of the war. Very many people regarded Chernov as a good theorist, but not as a leader and organizer. However, he had the outstanding ability to reconcile different points of view, and he played a unifying role. His opponents dubbed him the “universal bandage.”
Let’s try and sum up. Should we regard the SRs as a failed historical alternative to Bolshevism? Or, given their looseness and perennial internal division, did the SRs nevertheless lack the strength, ideas, and people to lay claim to a truly great historical role?
I think that victory in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, in which they received a plurality and, in fact, adopted the first two laws, including the law socializing land ownership, were in fact the beginnings of a democratic alternative, an SR alternative. Would they have been able to lead the country down this road? I support the viewpoint of my German colleague Manfred Hildermeier, who as early as 1992 wrote in an article that, since one of Russian’s main problems was the huge gap between city and country, the SRs were well suited to play the role of a party voicing the interests of the peasantry, proletariat, and intelligentsia. I would also add we should not exaggerate the extreme peasantness of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. If you look at their program, you see they attempted to unite a European conception of socialism with certain nativist ideas. They argued that the peasantry’s skull was no worse than the skulls of the proletariat and intelligentsia, and was quite capable of taking the ideas of socialism on board. It was one of the first attempts in the world to fuse European values and ideas of modernization with the values of a traditional society, to merge a significant part of the Russian peasantry into the new society as painlessly as possible. The SRs assumed that for many decades to come progress would follow the bourgeois path and there would be a market economy: socialism would not soon emerge. In this sense, they were evolutionists. They were essentially the first to propose an idea that is currently quite fashionable around the world, the idea of peripheral capitalism, according to which capitalism in developed countries and capitalism in second-tier and third-tier countries are completely different things. In peripheral capitalist countries, including Russia, capitalism shows it most predatory features and is the most destructive.
The SRs also argued the Russian people were definitely capable of adapting to democracy. Moreover, they thought that the Russian traditions of liberty and community self-government afforded an opportunity for magnificent democratic progress as such. The SRs wanted to unlock the people’s democratic collectivist potential. By the way, they did not idealize the peasant commune, arguing it had to be transformed, of course. They counted on the cooperative movement, which had progressed quite powerfully in early twentieth-century Russia. It was entirely under the ideological leadership of the SRs. They believed it was necessary to rely on the working peasant economy. It would then be possible to modernize the country and eventually follow a socialist path. The main thing was that despite a certain utopianism to their views, the SRs were capable of evolving, of course. Another important thing was that the SRs, more than the other parties, were capable of acting as a venue for reconciling different interests. This is basically the road European social democracy took. However, the party’s looseness and internal conflicts were important features of its history. I think that sooner or later the Socialist Revolutionary Part would definitely have split into several parties. If we speak of the SRs as a democratic alternative, then the Maximalists and Left SRs do not fit this bill. Unlike the other SRs, they cannot be considered adherents of democratic socialism. By the way, the SRs and Mensheviks used this term quite vigorously from the 1920s onwards. Later, in the mid twentieth century, the European socialist parties would also speak of democratic socialist values. From this perspective, some SRs and Mensheviks were, undoubtedly, adherents of democratic socialism, which gave rise to the Socialist International.
The demise of the Socialist Revolutionary Party was tragic. During the Russian Civil War, the SRs finally split. The Right SRs were involved in the anti-Bolshevik movement, while the Left SRs tended to collaborate with the Bolsheviks. In the summer of 1918, however, finally convinced that Lenin and his entourage were taking Russia down the road to dictatorship, the Left SRs undertook a failed attempt to overthrow “commissarocracy,” their term for the Communist regime. In the 1920s, the party was finally finished off. In the summer of 1922, twelve SR leaders were sentenced to death at a special trial. The executions, however, were postponed, turning the convicts into hostages in case the remnants of the Socialist Revolutionary Party decided to return to its terrorist methods, now against the Communist regime. One SR leader, Yevgeniya Ratner, was held in prison with her young son, causing her to complain to Dzerzhinsky. Subsequently, their death sentences were commuted to various terms of imprisonment and exile. Most prominent SRs who stayed in Russia were victims of the Stalinist crackdowns. Several former SRs, including Maria Spiridonova and her husband Ilya Mayorov, were among those massacred in the Medvedev Forest, outside Orlyov, in September 1941.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up
Life in One of Russia’s Largest Communal Apartments
Yulia Paskevich Gorod 812
March 23, 2017
Apartment No. 2 at Detskaya Street, 2, on Vasilyevsky Island, is Petersburg’s largest communal apartment. At any rate, its tenants think so. City officials cannot say for sure how large the apartment is. According to certain documents, its total area is 1,010.7 square meters; according to other documents, the figure is 1,247.7 square meters. All we know for certain is that is contains 34 rooms and 40 common areas. Gorod 812 visited the apartment, concluding it was not the sort of communal apartment where one would want to live.
Art Around the Corner
During my first visit to the apartment, I was horrified. The odors gave me a headache, and I could not understand how people could live in such conditions. I then made a repeat visit, and I discovered the apartment had another, civil half. It left me with a murky impression. The apartment dwellers would tell me things were good, but they would not open their doors, although most of the people I encountered were decent and pleasant.
The apartment probably holds the record not only for sheer size but also for utter neglect. Visitors are usually shown the floor, which is caving in, the rotten wiring hanging overhead, and the crumbling walls. They are usually asked not to take off their coats and shoes at the entrance, as is the custom in most Russian homes, because the stroll down the hundred-meter-long hallway is cold and dirty. Some residents agree to speak with reporters only off the record. They do not want workmates to find out where they live.
The building the apartment occupies was erected in 1958, and is now surrounded by so-called elite residential estates. The Erarta Contemporary Art Museum is nearby. It is not a big hit among the residents.
The building’s first story was originally an outpatient medical clinic. In 1983, the clinic acquired a new building, and its old digs were remodeled as a dormitory for medical staff from the nearby Pokrovskaya Hospital and Children’s Infectious Disease Hospital No. 3. The numbers of doctors’ surgeries are still attached to the doors of some of the rooms in the apartment. There is not a single, thick load-bearing wall inside the apartment. The entire space has been divided by partitions, so voices and noises carry.
“When a neighbor in the next room sneezes, you say ‘Gesundheit’ aloud,” remarks Elena Pogor. “He thanks you.”
Nadezhda Khondakova, an employee at a medical center, took up residence on Detskaya Street in 1989, when three to four people lived to a room.
“I was born and raised in Karelia,” she says. “After graduating from medical college, I was assigned to the children’s hospital and got a place in the dormitory. The room had always been neglected. It was temporary housing, so no one paid much attention to maintenance. Besides, renovations were not carried out there right away.”
Outwardly, the apartment has seemingly been divided in two. The right half is cleaner and brighter, while the floor is sinking in the left half.
“As a technician said, the heating main runs under this half of the apartment,” Khondakova explains. “Every three years, we install a new floor, but they all rot.”
On March 1, 2005, the dormitory was officially designated an apartment, giving residents the right to privatize their rooms. But little has changed. The entry doors are still unlocked, so anyone can get into the apartment. Previously, homeless people would venture into the apartment to warm up or wash up, sleeping right in the kitchen. Residents try and avoid letting not only children into the hallway but cats as well. Who knows what might happen to them.
In 2011, the apartment was declared unfit for habitation. Two years later, Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko signed an eviction and resettlement notice. At the time of the signing, 27 families (62 people) officially resided in the apartment.
Old-timers recall the queues for the showers and toilets. There were two of each, and people started queuing for them at five in the morning. They also remember showdowns in the kitchen and rats. They lived modestly. If you ran out of something, you could borrow it from a neighbor without asking.
“You would leave detergent in the kitchen and someone would use half the bottle,” recalls Tatyana Pogor. “Spoons were stolen, people had their trousers swiped from the clotheslines. Half a chicken once vanished from the oven. That was unpleasant, but they left a note saying whether they found it tasty or not. Once, there was a knock-down-drag-out fight over the shower.”
When ten families had received authorizations for new apartments, the housing authority ceased issuing the authorizations.
“The apartments were issued chaotically,” says Khondakova. “It was not only people whose housing was subsidized who were affected. My neighbor Tatyana privatized her room and was resettled in a one-room apartment. I’ve been in the queue for separate apartment for twenty years, and I’ve never been offered anything.”
The residents tell me about about a drunken neighbor lady who was moved into a one-room apartment in the Moscow District, about a women who did not want to move out, and a family who happily took up a new life in the Petersburg suburb of Pushkin.
The activists argue the apartment should be resettled completely and everyone should be moved into separate accommodations.
“It’s not the district that issues us apartments. The city has been handling the resettlement,” Khondakova underscores. “We know where residential buildings are being built: Parnas, Veterans Avenue, and Shushary [in the far north and far south of the city, respectively.] But we have not said we want to live only on Vasilyevsky Island.”
After the ten families departed, the residents who were left behind divvied up the remaining space among themselves, including around 40 common spaces, such as washrooms, hallways, and the laundry room. Tatyana Lobunova’s 24-square-meter room includes 40 square meters of hallway and kitchen space, for which she pays the city’s housing authority 4,000 rubles a month [approx. 63 euros]. Khondakova pays rates between 7,000 and 8,000 rubles a month. However, a table in the apartment’s kitchen is littered with bills left unpaid by debtors. Some residents demonstratively refuse to pay the maintenance and cleaning fees for their rooms.
Residents are reluctant to let visitors into their rooms. As you gaze at the dilapidated kitchen and toilets, you imagine this shambles reigns throughout the apartment. But you would be wrong. The residents’ own rooms are clean and tidy. Many of them have equipped their rooms with small kitchens and cook food there. The doors to the different rooms vary as well. Residents sequestered behind more expensive doors do not want to chat with reporters, while the activists who demand total eviction and resettlement live in the part of the apartment where the floor caves in.
The author of a petition on Change.Org to resettle the apartment, a petition that has gathered nearly 18,000 signatures, has lived in the apartment six years. An actress at the Ne-Kabuki Theater, Tatyana Lobunova bought her room from builders. They had purchased the room for a song, plastered the walls, and resold it. Lobunova had lived in a communal apartment before. She grew up in a nine-family apartment on Konnogvardeiskaya Boulevard, in the city’s downtown. So the idea of living in a communal apartment did not intimidate her.
The cosmetic repairs in her room quickly crumbled. The new wooden window turned black and rotted, a crevice emerged under the wet wallpaper on the outside wall, and the room smelled moldy. A sofa was tossed out by way of combating cockroaches. Now the room is chockablock with cockroach traps. When I asked her whether she was really unaware of the investment she was making, she shrugs.
“I had to live on Vasilyevsky Island,” she explains. “A family theater means working nonstop. I get four hours of sleep a day. If I lived a ways from the theater, I would probably get no more than two hours of sleep a day.”
Lobunova stores letters from various officials in a folder. She produces one from the presidential administration, who advised tenants to exercise their right to turn to the local authorities to redress their grievances.
Currently, the number of proprietors who actually live in the apartment is not so great. People prefer to let their rooms for eight to twelve thousand rubles a month. It is hard to tell one renter from the next. There are people knocking about, and the heck with it.
A native of Pskov Region, Elena Pogor has lived in Petersburg around six years. Initially, she and her husband rented a room, but then friends suggested they live in the apartment at Detskaya, 2, up money to buy her own apartment or room.
“In Dedovichi, where I grew up, there are no jobs at all,” she explains. “The wages there run from seven to ten thousand rubles a month. You can earn twelve to fifteen thousand rubles a month at the regional power plant. We consider the people who work there wealthy.”
The room where she and her husband live is in the better-maintained part of the apartment.
“It all depends on people and upbringing,” argues Pogor. “We have made friends with the neighbor lady Roza and her daughter. They’re good, tidy people. It’s a shame the repairs were started and not finished. On the one hand, I could not care less. I’m not planning to stay here long in any case, but I want to live decently.”
A Potential Squat
The Vasilyevsky Island District Administration has its own plans for the apartment. In 2015–2016, an overhaul of the common property was undertaken. Workers showed up, removed the toilets, stripped off the tiles, poured cement floors in the bathrooms, and left. Tenants had to parquet the floor in the hallway themselves. The district administration has dubbed this exercise “works toward eliminating the apartment’s hazardous condition.”
The district administration told us that the “paperwork affirming the elimination of the hazardous conditions [was] currently being vetted.”
Eliminating the apartment’s hazardous status would facilitate its being sold as real estate. The question is, who would buy it and for how much. There is little hope the city’s communal apartment resettlement program would come to the rescue. It has being going sluggishly in the district: in 2016, it resettled a mere forty apartments there. So there is virtually no chance a huge communal apartment will up and vanish by itself. For the time being, the only prospect is that, as conditions worsen, the rent will grow cheaper.
Then the apartment will undergo its latest metamorphosis and turn into a squat.
For Your Information
Communal apartments will celebrate their one hundredth anniversary in the summer of 2018. There are 78,534 communal apartments in Petersburg, housing 250,027 families. 4,816 such apartments were resettled in the city during 2016.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of Yulia Pashkevich/Gorod 812
I don’t know what else to on May 1 when LGBT people in Chechnya are facing flagrant genocide, so today this was how it went down. Now we have been detained and taken to the 43rd police precinct. A man who came out bearing a placard that read, “Putin, go away. Putin is evil” was detained with us. It’s forbidden to say that now, too.
Chechen Mothers Mourned Their Bloodied Children on Nevsky
On May 1, 2017, activists staged a performed on Nevsky Prospect, the city’s main boulevard, during which Chechen mothers mourned and sprinkled their children with earth. Prone on the ground, the bodies of the LGBT people were covered with rainbow and Chechen flags. The performance was meant to express solidarity with the people of the Republic of Chechnya as well as draw attention to the horrifying events occurring there now.
Since the beginning of the year in Chechnya, which is part of Russia, there have been numerous illegal detentions, torture, and executions of homosexual men, including men deemed homosexual. We know of hundred of victims, dozens of them murdered. Even as they deny the occurrence of genocide, local officials have publicly justified these atrocities by citing medieval “ethnic traditions” and “Muslim values.”
The persecution of LGBT people in Chechnya and the North Caucasus is nothing new. The region has long been plagued by rampant corruption, violence, and murder, affecting everyone who lives there. However, targeted mass killings are a new phenomenon. Both local and federal authorities are to blame for the state terror. On the one hand, they have vigorously popularized “traditional religious values.” On the other, they have proved incapable of opposing the spread of radical Islam and ensuring the enforcement of the Russian Constitution and human rights. Impunity on the ground encourages terrorism and radicalization, leading to the deaths of civilians not only in Chechnya but outside it. Consequently, terrorists exploded a bomb in the St. Petersburg subway for the first time in the city’s history.*
“Cruelty is a severe infection that is prone to pandemic. It is not a one-off event. They started with the people of Chechnya and, although many imagined that would be the end of it, they continued with ‘their own kind,’ as is now the ‘patriotic’ expression,” wrote Anna Politkovskaya.
The escalation of terror is a vivid example of how the violation of human rights and violence against a particular group can quickly balloon into violence against everyone.
We demand the strict observance of Russian federal laws in Chechnya and preservation of the Russian state’s secular nature. We demand that religious fanatics who are calling for violence be punished according to the law. We demand an investigation of allegations of widespread torture and executions of gays in Chechnya and severe punishment for the guilty parties, including government officials.
Photographs by David Frenkel, Alexandra Polukeyeva, and Fontanka.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader
* NB. I have translated and posted the above out of a sense of solidarity and friendship with the people who staged this action during today’s May Day marches on the Nevsky in Petersburg.
However, I would be remiss not to note the striking Alexei Navalny-like anti-Caucasus/anti-Muslim rhetoric in the protesters’ communique, which, of course, is not unique to the otherwise admirable anti-corruption fighter, but is a commonplace in the non-thinking of many “ethnic” Russians. As thoroughly deplorable and despicable as the persecution of gay men in Chechnya and anywhere else is (what, are gay men not persecuted in “Russia proper”?), the activists quote the slain journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya while seemingly forgetting why she was assassinated: because she wrote truthfully about what Russian federal armed forces and police were doing in Chechnya. Moscow’s successive bloody invasions of Chechnya in the 1990s and the 2000s, involving the torture and rape of non-combatants, the wholesale slaughter of civilians, and mass displacement of the local population might seem to be more appropriately qualified by the word “genocide” than what has been happening recently to the republic’s gay men, however horrifying. Not to put too fine a point on it, “Russians proper,” with the notable exception of Politkovskaya and a brave but tiny minority of others, have never been able to assign the responsibility for what happened in Chechnya where it belongs, and they have been aided and abetted by the other “world powers” (i.e., the “former” colonial and imperial powers), who were only too happy to turn a blind eye to what first Yeltsin and then Putin were up to in their own backyard, so to speak. If Chechnya is now an out-of-control autocracy run by an “Islamist” madmen, Russians have only to look in the mirror to find out who is to blame for this deplorable state of affairs.
Nor, finally, is it a given that the recent bombing in the Petersburg subway (which wasn’t even the first such bombing, in fact) was the work of “radicalized Islamists.” Of course, that is one possibility. But there are other possibilities, as any “Russian proper” who hasn’t had his or her memory erased would realize.
When the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly passed its infamous homophobic law several years ago, there was no popular outcry against the law on the part of Petersburgers, the vast majority of whom are not Muslim and thus cannot be suspected of adhering to “medieval Muslim values.” Nobody but a handful of people “rioted” in the streets, and as far as I can tell, Petersburgers still, inexplicably, regard themselves proudly as “Europeans,” although they have this disgusting “medieval” law on the books, and many of the same local Petersburg riot cops (OMON) who wearily drag them into paddy wagons and kettle them when they occasionally want to exercise their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly were, as is well known, on active combat duty in Chechnya during the First and Second Chechen Wars and are, possibly, guilty of God knows what war crimes against the “uncivilized” Chechens, whose tiny, beautiful corner of the world has been ravaged at least three times in living memory by their Great Russian rulers. TRR
So far it’s been a fairly rough spring in Petersburg, ex-capital of All the Russias. When it hasn’t been snowing, it’s been sleeting or raining, and the sun has mostly been in hiding.
Recently, my friend and comrade anatrrra took advantage of a rare stretch of sunshine to snap these photographs of the world’s most beautiful city and some of its denizens, many of whom were also outside to catch a few rays before (as at the end of anatrrra’s complete album) the snow made its hasty return.
My thanks to anatrrra for permission to reproduce these photographs here. TRR
I met Jehovah’s Witnesses in the mid 1990s in the former Soviet Central Asian republics. I was researching the region’s religious life. When I arrived at each regional capital, I would survey all the prominent communities in turn. The Witnesses were different in one respect from other western-inspired Christian communities. There were lots of them and they were everywhere.
Like now, many were certain back then the Witnesses were a product of the perestroika era’s freedoms. This, however, was not the case. The Witnesses were a legacy of the Soviet Union.
An American Salesman’s Religion
The Witnesses are a typical American eschatological religious group. Put crudely, they believe the world will end soon, during their lifetimes. They believe in one God, Jehovah, a name used during Christianity’s first century. On Judgment Day, Jehovah will destroy sinners and save the elect. The Witnesses reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit). They do not consider Christ God, but they revere him. The day of his death is the only holiday they celebrate.
A completely and regularly revised theology has produced a set of permissions and prohibitions aimed at maintaining the way of life and behavior of a decent traveling salesman from the lower middle classes.
The Witnesses are allowed the moderate use of alcohol (immoderate use is cause for expulsion) and the use of contraceptives. Premarital sex and smoking are forbidden. The Witnesses must not “rend to Caesar what is Caesar’s”: they are forbidden from being involved in elections, engaging in politics, honoring state symbols, and serving in the army. They are most roundly criticized by outsiders for forbidding blood transfusions and organ transplants. The Witnesses suddenly had something to say when the AIDS epidemic kicked off. They support blood substitutes.
Something like family monasteries—”administrative centers”—have been organized for the most ardent followers. The schedule in the centers is strict, but the conditions are relatively comfortable. The Witnesses can live and work in them, practically for free, for as little as a year or as along as their entire lives.
Waiting for the world’s imminent end is an occupation common to many religious groups, from Russian Old Believers to the Mayan Indians. Such groups isolate themselves from a sinful world, some by retreating into the wilderness, others, by restricting their contact with outsiders.
The Witnesses differ from similar movements in terms of how they disseminate and maintain their doctrine. The method is based on the commercial practice of distributing magazines in the nineteenth century. Essentially, the entire organization meets twice weekly to read its main journal, The Watchtower, which is produced by church elders in Brooklyn and then translated and disseminated in dozens of languages. Members pay a nominal fee for subscribing to and reading the journal, fees that are scrupulously collected and sent along the chain: from local groups to the regional office, then to the national headquarter and, finally, to the head office in Brooklyn. Free distribution of the magazine and going door to door asking people whether they want to talk about God are aimed at the same thing: increasing the audience who subscribes to and collectively reads the magazine.
Ninety-five percent of today’s public find these religious activities strange and ridiculous, although from a sociological viewpoint they barely differ from going to political party meetings, networked sales of cosmetics, visiting sports clubs, getting a tattoo, the Russian Healthy Lifestyle Movement (ZOZh) or stamp collecting.
If you believe the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own figures, they operate in 240 countries, which is more than belong to the UN. At the same time, the organization is numerically quite compact, albeit growing rapidly. It has a total of 8.3 million members.
The Soviet authorities did not tolerate large groups who maintained constant links with foreign countries, so it decided to send the core group of Witnesses, five thousand people, to Siberia. A considerable number were sent to the camps, while the rest were exiled. The crackdown was a misfortune for the victims, but it was a godsend for the exotic doctrine.
As early as the 1950s, the largest communities of Witnesses had emerged in the main place of exile, Irkutsk Region. In the 2000s, the official websites of Irkutsk Region and the neighboring Republic of Buryatia claimed the Jehovah’s Witnesses were a traditional religious community in the region. Irkipediaprovides the following figures for 2011: “Around 5,500 people in Irkutsk Region are members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization. Around 50 of their assemblies operate in Irkutsk Region, each of them featuring 80 to 150 members. The assemblies are united into three districts: Usolye-Sibirskoye, Irkutsk, and Bratsk.”
The camps proved a suitable place for proselytizing, the radically minded youth, especially Ukrainian speakers, eager listeners, and the half-baked amnesty of political prisoners, an excellent means of disseminating the doctrine nationwide. As early as the late 1950s, all over northern Kazakhstan, former members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), who were banned from returning home, and former Russian criminals, who had taken jobs as farm machinery operators and welders, were digging dugouts in the steppes to hide DIY printing presses for printing The Watchtower.
Why did peasants, traders, brawny lads from the working classes, graduates of provincial technical schools, mothers of large families, and pensioners need to become Jehovah’s Witnesses? I have the same explanation as the preachers do: to radically change their selves and their lifestyles. The everyday frustrations of ordinary people, their perpetually predetermined lives, and their uselessness to anyone outside their narrow family circle (in which there is so often so little happiness) are things that torment many people. Prescriptions for effectively transfiguring oneself are always popular. However, they usually don’t work, because it is hard to stick to the program.
Like other religious groups, the Witnesses offer their members a disciplinary model for joint action. You can sit at home, chewing through your miserly pension, and watching TV, or you can feel like a “pioneer” again (the title given to missionaries who proselytize on the streets and door to door), do the right thing, hang out with other enthusiastic people like yourself, and make friends with young people. You are a young bricklayer. You are facing a lifetime of laying bricks, but your soul yearns for change and career growth. After spending six months in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, our bricklayer might be leading a grassroots group, and two years later he might have made a decent career in the organization. His wife is satisfied. Her husband doesn’t drink, their circle of friends has expanded, and during holidays the whole family can go visit other Witnesses in other parts of Russia. The children grown up in a circle of fellow believers with a sense of their own uniqueness. Free evenings are spent on the work of the organization, but that is better than drunken quarrels, and better than what most “ordinary” Soviet and post-Soviet folks are up to in the evenings.
In 2006, I interviewed Vladimir Saprykin, a former employee of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee’s Propaganda Department. His career had kicked off with a vigorous campaign against the Witnesses in Karaganda Region. I was able to get a glimpse into a period when the Party was on the warpath against the Witnesses. In the early 1960s, literally hundreds of people were sent to the camps as part of the campaign against religion per se.
Saprykin had campaigned against the Witnesses wholeheartedly and passionately, and that passion still burned in him fifty years after the events in question. He had dreamed of making them “completely free,” of “returning them to their essence.” He was backed up then by a whole group of provincial demiurges from among the local intelligentsia. They had collectively tried to re-educate the local group of Witnesses through debate, and then they had intimated them and pressured their relatives. Subsequently, they had tried to buy them off before finally sending the group’s core to prison with the KGB’s backing.
Their rhetoric is surprisingly similar to the declarations made by the Witnesses’ current antagonists.
“We stand for individual freedom of choice in all domains, including religion. […] So read, compare, think, disagree, and argue! Critical thinking is in inalienable sign of a person’s freedom. Let’s not abandon our freedom so easily.”
This is not an excerpt from a statement by a libertarian group, but an excerpt from a declaration published by a group of Russian Orthodox clergymen attached to the Holy Martyr Irenaeus of Lyons Center for Religious Studies. It was these clergymen who have now got the Jehovah’s Witnesses banned.
In the early 1960s, the KGB and such local enthusiasts managed to deliver several serious blows to the infrastructure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Soviet Union. Successive leaders of the organization and hundreds of grassroots leaders and activists were arrested and convicted, and archives, correspondence, and printing presses were seized.
This, however, did not lead to the eradication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Besides the three regions where they had constantly been active—Western Ukraine, Moldova, and Irkutsk Region—groups and organizations emerged in the sixties and seventies throughout nearly the entire Soviet Union from Arkhangelsk Region to the Maritime Territory, and from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan.
The movement was spread by ex-camp convicts, labor migrants from regions where the doctrine was strongly espoused, and missionaries.
Soviet construction sites, new cities, and workers’ dorms were propitious environments for the spread of new religious doctrines. The young people who arrived to work there were cut off from their usual lifestyles, family ties, and interests. They wanted something new, including self-education and self-transfiguration—to gad about in suits and have their heads in the clouds. Most of these cadres were promoted through the ranks by the Communist Youth League and other authorities, but there were plenty of pickings for the religious organizations.
By the way, in 1962, Saprykin campaigned to get not just anyone to leave the Witnesses, but Maria Dosukova, a chevalier of the Order of Lenin, a longtime Party member, a plasterer, and an ethnic Kazakh. During an assembly at her construction company, Dosukova had refused to support a resolution condemning the religious organization in which several people in her work team were members.
After Krushchev’s resignation, the systematic arrests of the Witnesses stopped, although some were sent to prison as a warning to the others. Everyone else was subject to the decree, issued by the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, on March 18, 1966, “On Administrative Responsibility for Violating the Legislation on Religious Cults.” You could be fined fifty rubles—a week’s pay for a skilled worker—for holding a religious circle meeting in your home. In his book About People Who Never Part with the Bible, religious studies scholar Sergei Ivanenko records that, during the seventies and eighties, attempts to combat the Witnesses by fining them and tongue-lashing them at assemblies were just as useless.
Perestroika legalized the Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the post-Soviet space. This freedom did not last for long, however. The new states of Central Asia and the Transcaucasia followed the Soviet Union’s path in their treatment of the Witnesses, achieving similar outcomes.
In Russia, the Witnesses were officially registered in March 1991 and had no serious problems for a long time. They built their central headquarters, Bethel, in the village of Solnechnoye near St. Petersburg, as well as several dozen buildings for prayer meetings. Of course, due to their activity, relative openness, and American connections, the Witnesses (along with the Hare Krishna, the Mormons, the Scientologists, and the Pentecostals) were targeted by the various hate organizations that emerged in Russia in the late 1990s, including the Cossacks, neo-Nazis, and professional anticultists.
Anticultism was imported to Russia by the ex-Moscow hippie Alexander Dvorkin, who emigrated to the US in the 1970s and got mixed up in Orthodox émigré circles there. In the early 1990s, he left his job at Radio Liberty and returned to Russia, where he made a successful career at the point where the interests of the Moscow Patriarchate and Russian law enforcement agencies intersect. The above-mentioned Irenaeus of Lyons Center is, basically, Dvorkin himself.
Professor Dvorkin has worked for several years at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of the Humanities. Until 2012, he was head of the department of sectology. In 2009, he headed the council for religious studies forensic expertise at the Russian Federal Justice Ministry. (He now holds the post of deputy chair). It is curious that Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov is also a St. Tikhon’s alumnus and is quite proud of that fact.
By supporting the Justice Ministry’s campaign to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Russian Supreme Court has not only put the “sectarians” in a difficult position but also the Russian authorities. In Russia, the Witnesses have over 400 local organizations and around 168,000 registered members. Only full-fledged members are counted during registration, but a fair number of sympathizers are also usually involved in Bible readings, The Watchtower, and other religious events. We can confidently say the ban will affect at least 300,000 to 400,000 Russian citizens. Labeling them “extremists” does not simply insult them and provoke conflicts with their relatives, loved ones, and acquaintances. In fact, this means abruptly increasing the workload of the entire “anti-extremism” system the Russian authorities have been setting up the past twenty years. The soldiers of the Russian National Guard will find it easy to raid prayer meetings and spread-eagle these “extremists” on the floor. However, given the scale of the organization, they will have to do this a lot and often. And, as experience shows, there won’t be much point to what they are doing.
Not a single country in the world has forcibly dissolved the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it is hard to imagine that these 400,000 people will all emigrate or otherwise disappear. Even now, as news of the ban has spread, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have received completely unexpected support from all manner media and numerous public figures, including Russian Orthodox priests. Given these circumstances, the successful state campaign to discredit, dissolve, and brush a major religious community under the rug is doomed to failure.
The authorities will have to decide. Either they will sanction the mass arrests of the organizations leaders and activists and send hundreds and thousands of people to the camps, which ultimately will facilitate the growth of the movement’s reputation and dissemination, as in Soviet times, or they will pinpoint those who, according to the Interior Ministry and the FSB, are “especially dangerous” while turning a blind eye to the actual continuation of the organization’s work.
I would like the country’s leadership to have second thoughts and find a legal way of rescinding the Supreme Court’s decision. There is little hope of that, however.