Boris Koshelokhov, 1942-2021

Boris Koshelokhov in his studio at Pushkinskaya 10 in Petersburg. Photo courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

A Titan Among Artists: Boris Koshelokhov Has Died
Kira Dolinina
Kommersant
July 12, 2021

The artist Boris (Bob) Koshelokhov has died at Petersburg’s Mariinsky Hospital aged eighty. Despite the thousands of canvases he has produced since 1975, Koshelokhov will be mourned first of all as a charismatic leader of the Leningrad underground. His mere presence in the artistic landscape enabled others to feel that they were situated within a great tradition whose principal value was the freedom to live as you wished.

The news that Bob Koshelokhov had passed away was expected (relatives and friends had discussed and written about his serious illness on social networks), but it was no less stunning, simply because Bob could not pass away: his personal relationship with time and space had long ago settled into an unlimited flow of being. Neither the numbers of birthdays, nor figures of work produced, nor the status of a Petersburg art old-timer stuck to him. Bob could not be called a “veteran” or a “mighty old man”: nothing about him ever changed.

The man in the photos from the 1970s looked like the same man whom you would encounter until quite recently at exhibition openings and in the courtyards of the Pushkinskaya 10 Art Center: long hair, beard, leather vest, black clothes, booming voice, darting gaze. Koshelokhov had become a guru less than a year after he started doing art himself, yet no one ever tried to push him off this pedestal.

His biography seems to have been specially written to fit the canon. He was orphan who ran away from orphanages with enviable regularity until the seventh grade. He was half-educated man who worked as a heating plant stoker, then as a carpenter, then as a trucker. He married an Italian woman and briefly emigrated, but then returned from this “golden cage” to an “iron cage” (his own iron cage). He lived in communal apartments and squats, and achieved cult status. In the early 1970s, he came to Leningrad from his Southern Urals hometown of Zlatoust to study medicine. He lasted two years: his programmatic study of the history of philosophy (Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Camus) resulted in his being expelled for his fascination with “bourgeois” ideas. Devoutly believing in existentialism, spending all day long in second-hand bookstores and the legendary “Saigon” cafe, where he received the nickname the Philosopher, he arranged his life exactly in keeping with the precepts in the books he read: “Your freedom was born before you.”

His freedom was born on November 2, 1975, the day when his friend the artist Valery (Clover) Kleverov told Bob that he too was an artist. Koshelokhov himself later kidded that it was just a joke, a way to somehow repay Bob for the fact that he had turned his 27-meter-square room in a communal flat into a gallery selling paintings for a whole year. Joke or no joke, Bob took the idea to heart: an artist is someone who sees. Given a strong desire, anyone can become an artist. (Similar ideas espoused by Joseph Beuys were unknown in Russia at the time.)

Even paint was not needed: Koshelokhov’s first works were concocted from objects found in garbage dumps.

But when Koshelokhov got his hands on paint, it was clear that he really was an artist — an artist who was powerful, considerable and critically important to entire Petersburg culture.

Boris Koshelokhov, Happy New Year!, 2007. Oil on canvas, 120×190 cm. Image courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

Koshelokhov’s first exhibited work was “made of shit and sticks” in the true sense of the phrase. For an exhibition in memory of the deceased Leningrad abstract artist Yevgeny Rukhin, a show that had not been sanctioned by the authorities, Bob produced a “collage” consisting of a tabletop to which he had attached a hospital bedpan, a child’s potty, a coin and a brass exclamation mark. While all the other participants of the show were nabbed by the valiant police as they approached the venue, the Peter and Paul Fortress, Koshelokhov calmly made his way to the site, thus signifying that the exhibition had taken place.

Koshelokhov’s painting was made of the same stuff — he composed everything on the go. His expressionism was homegrown and self-made, unlike international expressionism and even dissimilar to what the baroquely passionate artists of the Arefiev Circle had done a little earlier on the other side of town. A spontaneous artist, Koshelokhov mixed everything with everything else, painting on carpets, plywood, upholstery from old sofas, and abandoned propaganda banners. He employed impossible combinations of colors (since they were all his personal discoveries, because even the fact that you get green when you mix blue and yellow was something he discovered for himself). And he painted, painted, and painted.

Although, in fact, he himself preferred to say that “the work should be like a boil: it pops up, comes to a head, then suddenly opens up, as if it bumped against a corner, so that the blood flows with might and main.”

Actually, only Koshelokhov himself could live up to this prescription. But he tried to teach others: the group Chronicle (Letopis), which he founded in 1977, is now famous primarily for the fact that Timur Novikov made his start there. And yet in terms of their painterly method, their devilishly rich rhythm of work (critiques were held every week; if you didn’t bring a new picture to them, you were told to take a walk), and rabid omnivorousness, Koshelokhov’s team fostered its own version of neo-expressionism at exactly the same time as the Europeans were developing theirs.

Koshelokhov’s painted oeuvre is all about philosophical categories, to the point of cosmism. And what matters is not its “complexity”  (on the contrary, the images are simple and executed backhandedly), but its quantity. Koshelokhov did not do dozens of anything: his series number hundreds, and sometimes thousands of works. His latest project, Two Highways, was produced over thirty years and consisted of three or four thousand canvases [sic] and tens of thousands of sketches, pastels and drawings. That was how he thought — in terms of numbers with many zeros after them.

One of his last solo shows was entitled 70,000 Years of Boris Koshelokhov. It was occasioned by [his seventieth birthday], but no one was interested in the numbers in his passport.

Boris Koshelokhov at an exhibition of his works. Photo courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

Vadim Ovchinnikov, one of the so-called New Artists who listened to him attentively, explained Koshelokhov’s place in art best of all: “We advise critics who doubt Koshelokhov’s significance to pay attention to the neon ‘Titan’ sign on the corner of the house on Nevsky and Liteiny where the artist lives.” Only a pandemic was capable of overpowering such a titan. There will be a hole in the stratosphere without him. But everyone who knew Koshelokhov is certain that he has just flown through that hole to the place where his thoughts have always dwelled.

Translated by Thomas Campbell

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Two Highways (Nick Teplov & Alexander Markov, 2008). Courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

2097 (Vadim Ovchinnikov, Boris Kazakov, Georgy Baranov, Tatiana Ledneva, 1996). Courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

The Creative Path of Boris Koshelokhov (Yevgeny Kondratiev, 1988). Courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

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Boris Koshelokhov’s Two Highways

It seems to me that every person is an artist. It’s just that some people know this, and others don’t.

— Boris Koshelokhov

Alain Badiou argues that social progress is propelled by “events”—great insights, discoveries, and revolutions in art, science, politics, and love. Although he often uses language that is evangelical to evoke the lived relationship to these events (it is no accident that one of his prototypical heroes is Saint Paul), Badiou is rather more prosaic, even purposely “mathematical,” when he describes how events come about. In a situation whose elements remain as many and self-identical as they were before the event, the poet, scientist, revolutionary or lover sees something other (more) than what the canon, scientific dogma, public opinion, and common sense tell him that he should see. After this event, the world remains the same and is changed forever. The exact proportion of sameness and difference is determined by how those who live in the wake of the event construe its afterlife. For Badiou, what matters are whether we remain faithful to the event or not, and what forms our faith (or faithlessness) takes. In fact, this is what the event is: the sense or nonsense we make of it; the way it changes how we act even when its whole significance escapes us; the social reaction and personal deadening that set in when we deny or forget the truth the event revealed to us. The event has no other meaning.

For Petersburg artist Boris “Bob” Koshelokhov (born 1942), the event was this: in 1975, his friend the painter Valery “Clover” Kleverov told Bob that he, too, was an artist. Nowadays, Koshelokhov suspects that a sense of guilt made Clover pronounce these fateful words. Koshelokhov had been helping Clover and his family improve their cramped living conditions and (later) emigrate by selling Clover’s works—on zero commission—from a makeshift gallery that doubled as Koshelokhov’s room in a communal flat. Besides not making any money off these transactions, Koshelokhov also drew the ire of his neighbors, who sent denunciations to the authorities. Wanting, apparently, to compensate his friend’s risky, selfless efforts on his behalf, Clover pronounced Koshelokhov an artist. Koshelokhov believed him.

What followed is art history—in more ways than one. Within a year of declaring himself for the truth accidentally revealed by Clover and after the latter man’s departure for America, Koshelokhov had gathered around him his own haphazard group of disciples, Chronicle. The group’s name is linked to Koshelokhov’s understanding of the artist’s task: “The artist is a chronicler; he has to record everything.” The dozen-some young artists in Chronicle—which included latter-day Petersburg art superstars Timur Novikov and Elena Figurina—gathered weekly in each other’s homes to discuss their new paintings. If they showed up for the weekly session without a freshly painted work, “Master” Koshelokhov showed them the door (even when it was the door of their own apartment).

The group provided a way for Koshelokhov to spread the gospel of art he’d been vouchsafed by Clover. It also created a refuge for Koshelokhov and his pupils from a late-Soviet art world where neither the right wing (the state-sponsored Union of Artists) nor the left wing (the so-called unofficial artists and their alternative quasi-unions) had much time for the purely artistic and personal truths Koshelokhov & Co. wanted to pursue with paint on canvas.

More important, Chronicle gave Koshelokhov the means to realize his notion of art as philosophical/existentialist practice. State Russian Museum curator Ekaterina Andreeva argues that Koshelokhov finds in painting an external outlet for the endless work of inquiry going on in his head and heart. Koshelokhov sees the artwork as the (potential) site of a dialogue between maker and looker, an intermediary in their otherwise lonely search for the meaning of self, world, and being. The result, according to Andreeva, is an “altered space” that forever changes how Koshelokhov’s interlocutors think and behave after they have entered it.

Koshelokhov’s dialogical view of art echoes within his biography. By his own account, he has spent his whole life in dialogue with others—whether the medical school classmates with whom he studied existentialist philosophy in the sixties (they were all expelled for this seditious act), the artists of Chronicle, the habitus of the famous “Saigon” cafe (where Koshelokhov earned the moniker “Philosopher”), or the inmates in the smoking room of the nearby Russian National Library (the equally famous “Publichka”). Through the books of philosophy that Koshelokhov found in this last haunt and elsewhere he has extended his dialogue with others into remoter times and kingdoms. This dialogue is re-enacted in his artistic practice, which can be imagined as an active interrogation of the artists and schools with whom Koshelokhov shares aesthetic ground: the Fauves, The Blue Rider, Dadaism and surrealism, Paul Klee, CoBrA, the Transavantguardia, the Neue Wilde, Figuration Libre.

Koshelokhov’s work likewise evokes international and Slavic traditions of outsider and naive art. In keeping with these traditions and Mikhail Larionov’s notion of everythingism (vsechestvo), and joyously bowing to straitened material circumstances, Koshelokhov has often turned the least promising debris of daily life into the stuff of art: discarded sofa frames, Styrofoam packing, bedpans, and other treasures rescued from garbage dumps. In this connection, his disciple Timur Novikov once remarked that if you come across a Koshelokhov painting from the seventies on a good canvas and high-quality frame, it’s almost surely a forgery.

Koshelokhov’s work also makes an especially clear appeal to the immediacy of children’s art. By his own admission, his five-year-old son Ilya has become his severest critic and “teacher.”

The context most germane for an understanding of Koshelokhov’s work, however, is the post-war Leningrad/Petersburg neo-fauvist/neo-expressionist school, in which Koshelokhov can be seen as the lynch pin between the immediate post-WWII generation (the circle of Alexander Arefiev) and the young bucks who created a grassroots artistic perestroika during the eighties and early nineties (Novikov, Oleg Kotelnikov, Ivan Sotnikov, Vadim Ovchinnikov, Vladislav Gutsevich and their fellow New Artists). For these younger Petersburg neo-expressionists and other local contemporaries, Koshelokhov has served as a peculiar model of steadfastness in the midst of faction and fashion. It is a testament to his significance in Petersburg’s “second” culture that his life has become the stuff of legends.

Finally and most vitally, Koshelokhov’s artistic practice is a dialogue with biological evolution and universal history. He rehearses the evolving variety and perennial sameness of animal and human life, and re-maps the migration of these life forms through geography and history. In his own words, his work and life is a cognitive and pictorial ontogenesis that repeats the phylogenesis of art history and human culture.

Paradoxically and appropriately for an artist so interested in dialogue, Koshelokhov’s path has been a remarkably lonely one. In a Russian artistic culture that favors collective identities, he has taken pains to emphasize his independence and distaste for “crowds” and “scenes” (the tusovki that prominent Russian curator Viktor Misiano identifies as the dominant form of post-Soviet artistic and cultural life). This sense of independence was his birthright: an orphan, he spent his childhood passing through and running away from a series of orphanages in the Urals. The wanderings of his youth and middle life took him to places as far-flung as Odessa and Leningrad, and jobs as unromantic as ship’s electrician and armed security guard. Most remarkably, just as his influence within Leningrad’s underground art scene was solidifying, he gave it all up and left for Italy with a young Italian aristocrat-communist. Just as surprisingly, he returned to the Soviet Union several months later, having found life in his new “golden cage” no more conducive to his pursuit of the truth revealed by the event of 1975 than life behind the bad-old Iron Curtain.

Whatever the peripeteias of Koshelokhov’s life, then, they all answer to another of the dictums he often repeats (following Sartre): “First my freedom was born, then I was born.” Koshelokhov teaches us that human life is a work of art that takes shape as its makers—we ourselves—haltingly grope backwards and forwards toward this originary insight.

Since the dawn of another great and little-understood political event, perestroika, Koshelokhov has become bolder and more single-minded in his faithfulness to the event that changed his life in the mid-seventies. This boldness has manifested itself in an increasing turn to scale and number. Ekaterina Andreeva points out that many of the great artists of the modern and postmodern periods (she cites Picasso, Warhol, and Ilya Kabakov) have also employed rapid, serialized mass production as a means of unburdening themselves of their genius. Koshelokhov had always been productive and profligate, even in the midst of harrowingly inhospitable working conditions. (His “studios” have included the machine room of an elevator and waterlogged cellars lit by a single bulb.) Many of the hundreds of paintings, sculptures, and assemblages (the so-called concepts) of his early period disappeared into the mists of oblivion and the landfills of suburban Leningrad almost as quickly as they appeared.

In the late eighties and early nineties, Koshelokhov carried out two projects that even more clearly signaled his desire to “world the world” by turning it into art: Puppets of Peace March Around the World (1989, oil on canvas, 23 meters x 6 meters) and Heilige Sunder (1992, oil on canvas, 120 meters x 3 meters). Fortunately, these gigantic pieces weren’t consigned to the rubbish bin of history. They are now in private collections in France and Moscow.

In 1992, Koshelokhov began work on his magnum opus, Two Highways, which Andreeva cites as one of the most significant art works of contemporary art. The first two stages of the project—1,200 black-and-white sketches and 6,000 (40 cm x 30 cm) pastels (five variations on each of the original sketches)—were completed in 2002. The third and final stage—a 5,000 square meter mural incorporating the findings of the previous two stages—so far exists only in the imaginations of Koshelokhov and the friends he has infected with his sober, tender, and naive re-visioning of life. He says that he is ready to produce the work anywhere in the world, given a wall that is big enough, a team of helpers, and a minimal amount of funding.

As Koshelokhov explains it, the two highways in his project’s title (in English in the original) are the earthly path and the heavenly path. “I travel in a vehicle over the earth’s surface. My peripheral vision picks out quintessential human images and artifacts from the Stone Age to modern times. My journey takes me from Europe to Africa, across the Atlantic and America to Alaska. From there I go to Japan, Asia, the islands of Oceania, and around Australia. Finally, I cross Antarctica and complete my journey in South America.” Andreeva suggests that the prototype of this imaginary trek is a solo road trip from Trieste to Palermo that Koshelokhov made in his Italian wife’s Citroen in 1978. It also has to be mentioned that for some time in the late eighties and early nineties he worked as a gypsy cab driver in Petersburg. He ferried people and things around the city at all hours of the day and night in a used Mercedes-Benz until the mafia forced him into an early retirement.

Mikhail Trofimenkov has written of Two Highways that it gives us a glimpse of how God sees the earth as He flies above it. For his part, Koshelokhov claims that, like the opposite side of a Moebius strip, the earthly path repeats (in extension) the forms and ideas that lie hidden in the empyrean. His mission is to re-awaken the viewer to the possibility of participating in the world’s co-creation by uniting thought and feeling, theory and practice, sensus et ratio (to borrow the artist’s beloved coinage). Everywhere—even in the less prepossessing quarters of Leningrad/Petersburg (Koshelokhov’s real muse)—we are reminded (by colors, shapes, faces, bodies, buildings) of the miracle of being’s unfolding. Ekaterina Andreeva argues that it was this impulse—to see the whole world and to see it all at once—that launched the postmodernist/transavantgarde project. In this sense, she speculates, it was no accident that Koshelokhov found himself in Italy just as the movement was jelling. (There, he exhibited in a special program at the Venice Biennale, “New Soviet Art: An Unofficial View.”)

Preached by Mikhail Larionov and Joseph Beuys, and then taken up by Koshelokhov and Novikov’s New Artists, the now-unfashionable avant-garde notion that everyone is an artist and everything can be turned into art (which we must distinguish from the directive to turn everything and everyone into commodity and consumer) is nothing other than the ethical imperative to remain faithful to the insight that visited Koshelokhov in the mid-seventies: that the mission of art is to reunite vision and thought, self and world. In Koshelokhov’s case, “insight” has to be understood literally. Two Highways is a journey that the artist has been making without leaving his current studio at Pushkinskaya-10. Like all genuine avant-garde projects, though, this journey won’t be complete until the human world (or, at least, one 5000 square meter corner of it) is physically and spiritually transformed. // Thomas Campbell 

Sources
· Ekaterina Andreeva. “Khudozhnik,” Novyi mir iskusstva 6 (1999): 3–5.
· Ekaterina Andreeva. Postmodernizm. Iskusstvo vtoroi poloviny XX—nachala XXI veka [Postmodernism. Art of the Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries]. Saint Petersburg: Azbuka-Klassika, 2007.
· Ekaterina Andreeva. Videotaped interview, January 2007, Saint Petersburg.
· Alain Badiou. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Trans. Peter Hallward. London and New York: Verso, 2001.
· Thomas Campbell and Nick Teplov. Unpublished tape-recorded interview with Boris Koshelokhov, October 2006, Saint Petersburg.
· Boris Koshelokhov. Zhivopis. Exhibition catalogue. Text by Ekaterina Andreeva. Saint Petersburg: Na Obvodnom Gallery, 2002.
· Nick Teplov, editor. Bob Koshelokhov. Two Highways. Saint Petersburg, 2003.
· Mikhail Trofimenkov. “Bob pravdu vidit,” Kommersant 14 August 2002.

Source: boriskoshelokhov.com

The Naked Truth

I Am/We Are Yulia ||| Telegram ||| July 6, 2021

😡The ArtPlay Design Center in Moscow has reneged on its agreement to provide a venue for a performance in support of Yulia Tsvetkova.

Over the last month, negotiations had been underway with an ArtPlay staffer about staging a performance as part of the Naked Truth project. The performance’s organizers provided a press release, all the information requested by the venue, and layouts and diagrams of the upcoming performance. The venue agreed to host the event, and the performance was to be held in ArtPlay’s small auditorium on [July] 14. Performances about female physicality had previously been staged at this site, and ArtPlay is known in art circles as one of the most creatively liberal spaces.

The Naked Truth. Performance view. Courtesy of I Am/We Are Yulia Telegram channel

However, today, an organizer of the performance was [told that ArtPlay would not host the performance], since, according to the ArtPlay staffer, they “do not hold events with a political bent.”

This is not the first time that a major contemporary art center, well known for its liberal views, has turned down requests by artists to host events in support of Tsvetkova, most often by citing “political” motives and the “dangerousness” of her case.

The Naked Truth project has been in existence for a year. As part of the project, performances in support of Yulia Tsvetkova have been staged by respected and significant male and female artists from Moscow and Petersburg.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Darya Apahonchich: “What’s a Vulva?”

Hello, my name is Darya Apahonchich, and the Russian Justice Ministry obliges me to start any video and story that I publish online with the phrase:

THIS MESSAGE (MATERIAL) HAS BEEN CREATED AND (OR) DISSEMINATED BY A FOREIGN MASS MEDIA OUTLET PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT, AND (OR) A RUSSIAN LEGAL ENTITY, PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT.

Since I have become not just a foreign agent, but a foreign agent media outlet, I decided to take advantage of this unexpected status and record a trial internet video, as if I had my own TV channel. So, this is my first video, and it deals with the case of Yulia Tsvetkova and issues surrounding the female body.

This program is about what the vulva is. I’ll explain why I’ve chosen this topic. The fact is that my apartment was searched by the police. During the search, one of the officers found a lot of posters protesting the Yulia Tsvetkova case. At some point he asked me, “What’s a vulva?”

At that moment, the search had been going on for a long time. I didn’t feel like talking and said that, in keeping with Article 51 of the Russian Constitution, I wished to exercise my right not to incriminate myself. I wouldn’t be telling the officer what a vulva was.

Almost three months have passed since then, and I thought it was unfair that there was a cop walking around who didn’t know what a vulva was, so I decided to record this video so that he and others could fill in this gap in their knowledge.

Now I shall fantasize what I would have said at that moment in reply to the officer’s question.

So, the policeman would ask me, “And what is a vulva?”

And I would answer him, “Unfortunately, I can’t answer your question quickly. I can only answer by resorting to a fairy tale.”

And he would say, “Well, you have so much junk in your home that we’ll be searching it for a long time. Let’s hear your story.”

And I would say, “Good, because your question reminded me of a question that a dinosaur asked a sea cow. The fact is that this tyrannosaur ran out of friends suspiciously often. He would invite them to dinner, and by the end of the dinner they would all be gone. So, he asked the sea cow for advice.

“‘Listen, sea cow, you have so many friends. How do you manage to be an equal among equals? I’d like to do the same.’

“‘Yes, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s my advice: start reading about the world and its problems, about injustices, have a look at theory, and make friends who are also interested in these things. And yes: you need to completely abandon meat and eating living creatures,’ the sea cow answered.

“The dinosaur took this advice, and when he and the sea cow met a year later, he was quite different.

“‘Listen, I did everything as you taught me. Now I read books with other former predators. We get together to discuss the global cold snap and the violence that we generate. But I’m very sad, and so are all my friends – we are really grieving. It seems that this isn’t what I wanted,’ he said to the sea cow.

“‘Yes, but you wanted to be an equal among equals, didn’t you?’ the sea cow asked.

“‘Yes, but not like this. I’ve achieved my goal, but not in the way I thought.”

“‘You know, tyrannosaurus, this happens quite often. For example, I recall the story of a jellyfish who quarreled with everyone.’

“‘What’s the story? Tell me!’

“So, the sea cow told the dinosaur the story.

“‘Once upon a time there was a scyphozoan jellyfish who quarreled with everyone. She couldn’t help it when she heard something about motherhood or the rights of females:

“Well,” she would grumble, “They used to give birth to jellyfishlets in the sea, and there were no female rights, and everything was normal.” But no one wanted to be friends with her, and so she asked a moon jellyfish for advice.

‘“How do you not quarrel with anyone? What’s your secret?”

‘“You know, I have a magic spring in the sea, and as soon as I want to say something about the rights of females, I swim to it, take in a mouthful of water and count to a thousand, and then let it out. And that’s it. I don’t quarrel with anyone.”

‘The scyphozoan took the advice and began doing the same. It helped her, and then she asked the moon jellyfish another question.

‘“Look, it’s a great method: I’ve made up with family. But magic water isn’t scientific, is it?”

‘“Well, yes, but you had to learn a new way of interacting with your loved ones, so you did it. You’ll change your mindset later on.”

‘“That’s great, of course, but I still prefer knowing what I’m doing, not just doing it. This story reminds me of the story of the doubting bee.”

‘“What’s the story? Tell me!”

‘And the scyphozoan told her the story of the bee.’

‘“Well, there was once a little bee who doubted whether she really needed to spend the whole summer gathering nectar.”’

And that’s when the policeman would have interrupted me.

“Look, I already got the point about the sea cow, the jellyfish, and the dinosaur, but what does that have to do with the vulva?”

“Look, you’ve come to search my home because I might have seen someone jaywalking,” I would have told him, “but you’ve been looking at my vulva posters for the past six hours. What’s the connection there?”

“All right, go ahead,” he would say.

And I would go on.

“So, the bee doubted that she really needed to collect nectar, flying from flower to flower every day: the work made her tired. She shared her thoughts with a stick caterpillar, and the stick caterpillar decided to play a nasty joke on the bee.

“‘Listen, honey bee,’ she said, ‘there is a magic flower called the elecampane. It is difficult to find, but as soon as you find it, you bring the pollen from it home, and you shall always have food for all your brothers and sisters.’

“And the bee flew off to look for this flower. When she met the stick caterpillar in the autumn, she was reproachful.

“‘Caterpillar, did you deceive me?” I spent the whole summer looking for the elecampane, but I couldn’t find it.’

“‘Yes, I deceived you because I wanted you to keep pollinating the flowers while thinking that you were looking for elecampane. Because your work is very important: without you, the flowers would not be able to reproduce, and the whole green world would die, and we would die with it. That’s why I lied to you.’

“‘Look, maybe your method worked,’ the bee said, ‘and I have been pollinating flowers all summer, but it’s wrong. I’m a rational being and I understand how important my work is, but it’s better to have a theory than not having one, to know what I’m doing than not knowing.’”

“Yes, I understand,” the policeman would then say. “So you mean that in all these stories, the characters achieved their goal, thinking that they were doing something different, but they were disappointed because it is better to have a theory than not having one?”

“Yes, you’ve got it quite right, comrade policeman,” I would say, “and that brings you closer to the question of what the vulva is. The vulva is a sexual organ, and many organisms have one. But feeling shame over the vulva is the starting point of our misogynous culture, while the movement towards respect, towards understanding that the vulva is an organ of a living person who has the right to know about their anatomy is a process. Therefore, the vulva is the path from shame to respect.”

And now I will draw a picture of how I told this story.

First, I told you about my conversation with the policeman. This was the first narrative frame. Inside it was the second frame, about the dinosaur and the sea cow, followed by the story about the jellyfish, and, at the very center, the story about the bee. The structure of my story will also help you to think about what the vulva is.

I want to finish this story with two conclusions.

First, please support Yulia Tsvetkova, whose trial begins soon.

Second, don’t hesitate to ask questions about the female body. It is very important, even for young women.

Thanks for listening!

Thanks to Darya Apahonchich for providing me with a slightly abridged Russian text of the story she tells in her video, above. Images courtesy of Wikipedia. Translated by the Russian Reader

My Motherland

Yuri Korolev, My Motherland, 1972. Smalt mosaic. Photo: Vadim F. Lurie. Used with his permission

Vadim F. Lurie
Facebook
April 26, 2021

It’s a little strange to write about something positive these days, but I saw that, as part of the complete reconstruction of the Central Bus Station in Moscow, they preserved its old mosaic, which is now behind glass. Buses start from the 6th floor of the station, which is located under the same roof as the Shchelkovsky Shopping Center. On the other hand, I wasn’t able to find in my collection photos of the historic Toksovo station, which was demolished, and from which I departed for the dacha half my life.

Translated by the Russian Reader

What You Have to Do to Be a “Foreign Agent” in Russia

Darya Apahonchich. The inscription reads: “Not only a body, but also a person.” Courtesy of Kommersant via Ms. Apahonchich’s Facebook page

Аn “agent” due to wages: foreign agent status threatens teachers
Oleg Dilimbetov and Marina Litvinova
Kommersant
April 7, 2021

A job at a foreign institute of higher education or a salary from a foreign employer can be grounds for obtaining the status of a so-called foreign agent. This transpired during the the hearing of a lawsuit brought against the Justice Ministry by Petersburg teacher and activist Darya Apahonchich. She had requested that the ministry specify the reasons it had forcibly registered her as a “private individual acting as a foreign mass media outlet functioning as a foreign agent.” The ministry provided the court with written proof of her employment at a French college [in Petersburg] and the Russian branch of the International Red Cross. The ministry confirmed that the “foreign funding” received by a potential “foreign agent” does not necessarily have to have anything to do with subsequent “dissemination of information” or “political activity.”

Ms. Apahonchich was placed on the register of so-called individual media foreign agents on December 28, 2020, along with three journalists and the human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov. At the time, the Justice Ministry did not explain what specific reasons had caused them to assign her this status. In March, Ms. Apahonchich filed a lawsuit in Petersburg’s Lenin District Court, claiming that the obligations imposed on her by the Justice Ministry due to the new status violated her rights under the Russian Constitution and the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). On April 5, during a preliminary hearing of the lawsuit, Ms. Apahonchich was informed of the Justice Ministry’s objections to her claims and finally learned the reasons she had been entered into the register.

The ministry told the court that the woman [sic] had received foreign money transfers from Sweden, Germany, France and Finland. As Ms. Apahonchich explained, these were official fees for participation in festivals and exhibitions and her work as a teacher.

Thus, she was paid 35 thousand rubles by the Finnish Museum of Photography.  She received Another 112 thousand rubles from the French college [in Petersburg], where she taught Russian. She received about 60 thousand rubles from friends via the PayPal transfer system, and these transfers were expedited by Deutsche Bank (Germany). [That is, Ms. Apahonchich had received the fantastic sum of approximately 2,220 euros at current exchange rates — TRR.] In addition, Ms. Apahonchich was imputed with having received bank transfers from her employer, the Russian branch of the International Red Cross. The Justice Ministry stated that the source of these funds was Norway, and the intermediary was Sweden. The activist herself claims that she performed work at the Red Cross under a [Russian] presidential grant.

As for “dissemination of information,” the Justice Ministry pointed out that Ms. Apahonchich had reposted on social networks the article “Feminist Fairy Tales: Princesses Fighting the Patriarchy,” published by Radio Liberty (which has been deemed a so-called foreign agent media outlet by the Russian authorities). The ministry also told the court about the YouTube channel “Feminists Explain,” where Ms. Apahonchich has discussed the topic of gender equality, and her article about domestic violence, published on the website Colta.ru. In addition, the woman [sic] had appealed on social networks for solidarity with the defendants in the case of the Network (deemed a terrorist organization in the Russian Federation and banned) and LGBT activist Yulia Tsvetkova.

“The list of my sins is long but honorable: I taught Russian as a foreign language, participated in international festivals, and voiced solidarity with  the regime’s victims. Yes, I also accepted financial assistance from friends from abroad,” Ms. Apahonchich said when asked to comment on the Justice Ministry’s position. “It is clear that they brought the house down on me for solidarity: for solidarity pickets, for public discussions with friends. The situation was not what it is now: everyone seems to have gone off the rails. We’re in trouble, we need help.”

Her lawyer Alexander Peredruk noted that the Justice Ministry had not even tried to prove to the court that there was a connection between the foreign funds received by his client and her activism.

“Based on the Justice Ministry’s position, if you publish something on social networks, it does not matter whether you receive foreign funds directly or indirectly. And it is very difficult to independently monitor the matter: when collaborating with an LLC, you cannot know for certain whether it receives foreign money,” the lawyer said. “The Justice Ministry argues that the separately existing evidence of receiving funds from abroad and publishing on social networks is enough. They have not tried to establish a direct connection between them.”

The Justice Ministry told Kommersant that the law sets quite clear criteria for inclusion in the register. In the case of “individual media foreign agents,” it is sufficient to “distribute news reports and materials intended for an unlimited number of persons,” as well as to receive “money and (or) other property” from foreign states, organizations and nationals, or “from Russian legal entities receiving money from these sources.” To obtain the status of an “individual foreign agent,” it is enough to receive “foreign” money and “distribute news reports and materials” created by a “foreign agent media outlet” or “participate in the creation” of such “news reports and materials.”

“The legislation specifies neither the need for an obligatory link between the receipt of foreign funds and the dissemination of news reports and materials, nor evidence of the individual’s political activity,” the Justice Ministry confirmed to Kommersant.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Yuri Leiderman: This Is Trotsky’s Tribe and Udder

Yuri Leiderman
Facebook
March 26, 2021

This is Trotsky’s tribe and udder,
this is the universe shedding tears in armillaria.
As you lift, so you go,
whether you’re Lenin or Soloukhin.
Humanity is evidence that the stars are rat finks,
even the Lord knows that.

Tiny paroxysms flit across the face of Ahab-cum-Trotsky, Isaac aka Allotment, tiny fistulas, springs-and-wells, the Danube shallow, the Dniester shoaled. That crapper in the Udmurt village, where I dropped the latch made by their grandpa. I had gone there to meet my daughter’s relatives. I had no oriental rugs in my flat, no Aladdin lamps, and I didn’t even speak Hebrew, much to their dismay. And to my own dismay, I wasn’t a carpenter.

One leap is the ocean, another leap is the ocean. One nation is a leap, and not a very long one. One street is an ice pick. Did I say street? Hell, every lighted window! And who are we? The bandage on Trotsky’s forehead, the nails Tashtego used to nail the flag. We are the Lord, his soles, his lyrniks, and kill Biljo.

Mr. Leiderman’s drawing is reproduced here with his kind permission. Translated by the Russian Reader

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The Russian Reader covers grassroots political, environmental and social movements, economic and social issues, and independent culture in Russia and the Russian-speaking world. It is not funded by no one except other readers like you. You can click the “Donate” button in the sidebar to make a donation via PayPal or go to my Ko-fi page and buy me a “coffee” or two. Otherwise, I do all work on the website for free and I do most of it myself. Unless otherwise noted, everything published on the Russian Reader can be reproduced elsewhere, so long as the Russian Reader is acknowledged as the source and a link back to the original post is included. || TRR

Vasily Kaluzhnin: There Lived an Artist on Liteiny

Vasily Kaluzhin: There Lived an Artist on Liteiny. Poster for the exhibition at the Anna Akhmatova Museum in Fountain House (St. Petersburg), 19 March-18 April 2021

Svetlana Smaznova
Facebook
March 19, 2021

The honor of discovering Vasily Kaluzhnin belongs to the Petersburg writer Semyon Laskin (1930-2005). His novel The Hostage of Eternity recounts the tragic life of the Leningrad artist Vasily Kaluzhnin, a friend of Yesenin, Akhmatova, and Klyuev.

Vasily Kaluzhnin, Palace Square in the Siege, 1941. Tempera on canvas. Photo by Svetlana Smaznova
Vasily Kaluzhnin, Nevsky Prospekt in the Siege, 1941. Tempera on canvas. Photo by Svetlana Smaznova
Vasily Kaluzhnin, Portrait of a Woman, 1920s-1930s. Charcoal on paper. Photo by Svetlana Smaznova

________________

“Damn it, old man! Well, why aren’t you painting?” reads the handwritten inscription on one of Vasily Kaluzhnin’s self-portraits. Addressed to himself, Kaluzhnin’s words sound like a confession of faith. Painting was his only god, and this deity’s temple was a room in a communal apartment on Liteiny Prospect, chockablock with paintings.

The word “miracle” suits best what we know about the artist Vasily Kaluzhnin (1890-1967). He miraculously survived the Siege of Leningrad and the Stalinist crackdowns, and his body of works has been miraculously preserved. Most important is the miracle of his paintings and drawings. Black charcoal “lace,” sanguine drawings, now thick and almost brick-colored, now delicate and transparent. The besieged city, a pearly fog on the Nevsky, emptiness and grandeur. Post-war landscapes of Leningrad and Murmansk, portraits, and genre scenes, painted freely, without fear of being accused of “formalism.”

Vasily Kluzhnin, Murmansk, 1950s-1960s. Tempera on cardboard. Courtesy of Mikhail Ankundinova. Image courtesy of the Akhmatova Museum at Fountain House

The work of the artist Vasily Kaluzhnin is presented in the museum of the poet Anna Akhmatova for a reason: Akhmatova and Kaluzhnin were neighbors. And not so much geographically (the artist lived most of his life at Liteiny, 16, across the street from Akhmatova), as in the sense that they inhabited the same cultural and historical space. Their destinies were connected by invisible threads, and their lives were lived in close proximity to each other. They were born and died within a year of each other. Both of them lived long lives, sharing with their generation the full fate of the twentieth century. Both felt a sense of belonging to world culture, in whose space the paths of the poet and the artist so often intersected.

A photo from the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Mikhail Kuzmin’s literary career (1925) is the only document that records the fact that Akhmatova and Kaluzhnin were acquainted, along with a small dark drawing, made with thick charcoal, depicting either Akhmatova or Dante in profile. For Kaluzhnin, the poet who lived across the street from him was of the same magnitude as the great Dante Alighieri. The drawing was probably produced in the 1920s.

Vasily Kluzhnin, Sunbathing, 1930s. Charcoal and sauce on paper. Courtesy of Mikhail Ankundinov. Image courtesy of the Anna Akhmatova Museum at Fountain House

The exhibition represents only a small part of Kaluzhnin’s artistic legacy: ballet and theater sketches, nudes, landscapes, and portraits from the 1920s to the 1960s. One of the important themes is the besieged city and the evacuation of paintings from the Hermitage, made in different versions and media, from colored pencil to paints. The exhibition also includes rare photographs and documents from private collections.

Source: Akhmatova Museum at Fountain House

Thanks to the Five Corners community Facebook page for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Kill the Bill (That Will Kill Independent Culture and Education and Introduce Total Censorship in Russia)

“This is direct censorship. Withdraw the bill—don’t disgrace yourselves!”
Nikolai Nelyubin
Fontanka.ru
February 8, 2021

Vladimir Putin has received a letter from the progressive intelligentsia. The masters of culture, science and education have asked the guarantor not to touch the law on education by introducing “licenses for educational outreach.” For the depths are lower, and Gorky has nothing to do with it.

Professionals in culture, education and research involved in educational outreach work in our country, are concerned about the future of culture, education, and research. The reason is the draft law “On Amendments to the Federal Law ‘On Education in the Russian Federation,'” adopted by the State Duma in its first reading, which, in particular, would make official vetting of “educational outreach programs” mandatory.

On February 8, more than a thousand Russian professionals in the field of educational outreach published an open letter to the authorities demanding that they reject the amendments, since they  would “open the door to repressive regulation and censorship.” [See my translation of the open letter, below—TRR.]

On February 9, the details of the legislative initiative are slated for consideration by the State Duma Committee on Education and Science, chaired by Vyacheslav Molotov’s grandson Vyacheslav Nikonov. The bill could pass its second reading as early as February 10.

A co-author of the legislation, Dmitry Alshevskikh, a United Russia MP representing Sverdlovsk Region, earlier shared with Fontanka.ru his arguments for adopting the new norms, which would destroy “anti-Russian propaganda” disguised as “educational outreach.”

“Certain forces are trying to introduce Bandera,” the people’s deputy explained.

The authors of the open letter to President Putin, Prime Minister Mishustin, State Duma Speaker Volodin, and all the co-sponsors of the sensational bill are no strangers to post-postmodernism in art, but in this case they are unanimous. There is nothing to be quibble about: we are getting closer to obscurantism and pathological tendencies that are better to nip in the bud.

It will be more difficult to work
Supporters of the independent cultural scene are convinced that the regulations governing educational outreach would complicate the work of people who organize exhibitions, lectures, discussions, and other public events.

“There are currently no requirements for vetting exhibition projects and the educational programs that accompany them (lectures, seminars, and meetings) except for cases when the project is funded by state grants,” says Tatiana Pinchuk, director of Petersburg’s Street Art Museum, about the current state of affairs.

Natalia Karasyova and Elizaveta Zinovieva, co-founders of the Big City Art project, which holds “art breakfasts” featuring lectures and excursions, are afraid of the vagueness of the mechanisms for obtaining a license, the lack of a list of documents for making such application, and, importantly, the cost of the entire procedure.

“It will be virtually impossible to obtain a license due to the cost and bureaucratic hurdles. So, we will be operating outside of the law,” they say.

Moreover, players on the independent education market cannot understand what exactly they would have to license.

“It is not clear from the bill what exactly ‘educational outreach’ includes,” wonder the women at Big City Art. “It is one thing to get a license for an educational center, and another thing to get one for small-scale meetings and blogging.”

Art scholar Anastasia Pronina also argues that the bill is vaguely worded.

“Officials would have additional levers for pressuring and regulating us, while those engaged in educational outreach work would find themselves in a tough spot,” says the curator. “If the bill is passed into law, it will be a problem to vet the topics announced by our speakers, and we will be obliged to draw up contracts for all our lectures and public events. The lectures at Benoit 1890 Cultural Center are educational in nature and free to attend. During the pandemic, we have introduced a nominal entry fee to regulate attendance. Our project promotes contemporary art in a bedroom community in Petersburg. I think it is clear that this is not an easy job, and we are grateful to all the lecturers who speak to our audiences for free.”

Curator Lizaveta Matveeva notes that a separate item in the draft law would require organizations that partner with and hire foreign specialists to obtain special permits.

“This is another go-round in our government’s maniacal desire to rid us of the presence of foreign colleagues and stop the dissemination of their ‘values and information,'” Matveeva argues. “My field cannot function without interaction with foreign colleagues, without a bilateral exchange of know-how. Culture and art cannot survive in isolation. Our country has already been through this experience, and it led to nothing good.”

Where have the censors been rummaging?
“The more vague a law is, the more repressive it is,” Matveeva argues. “Currently, oversight is implemented correctively, but there are concerns that this draft law and subsequent secondary laws may introduce preventive regulation that would require vetting educational materials before they are published, and this is real censorship.”

“It could reach the point that talking about Andy Warhol’s paintings would be considered promotion of the western way of life,” say Karasyova and Zinovieva. “It is absurd, but it is possible.”

According to the organizers of informal cultural events, censorship can manifest itself even more easily in the field of contemporary art. The young women give examples.

“This could concern projects that criticize the government by artistic means, or projects produced in cooperation with foreign colleagues,” they say.

“If cultural institutions are required to clear every exhibition project involving a cultural program with the state, then implementing any project would turn into a bureaucratic hell,” argues Pinchuk. “Also, it is not clear how broad the powers of the supervisory authorities would be. If they don’t like the theme of an exhibition or the subject of a lecture, would they simply ban it?”

Historian Lev Lurie is horrified.

“Educators also tell us about Ohm’s law, after all,” he says. “The question arises: aren’t they hyping the achievements of foreign scientists? Maybe they underestimate the successes of the virologists from the Vector Center in Novosibirsk? We need balance in the natural sciences, too! So, now we need to expand the training of these facilitators. Retired officers—political workers—can handle it. If, God forbid, [Vyacheslav] Makarov is not re-elected to the [Petersburg] Legislative Assembly, he could well attend such events, because he has a sense of who has the “Siege of Leningrad gene” and who doesn’t. He could run such events himself, but monitoring them is more important.”

Who would be affected by the law?
No one has actually counted how many independent educational platforms there are in Russia today. It is clear that this sector was growing quite dynamically until quite recently. There are professional educational platforms and schools, and there are hobby clubs.

“Meetings and lectures are also held in bookstores, libraries, cafes, independent galleries, and other places,” Matveeva explains.

“Based on the blanket statements [in the draft law] we can surmise that a project dealing with the oeuvre of a single artist and a show of his works would be defined as educational outreach since an analysis of the artist’s career constitutes, in one way or another, dissemination of information about the artist’s know-how and expertise,” argues Pinchuk. “Along with doing exhibition projects, museums, including the Street Art Museum, also do cultural and educational projects, and various events—meetings, seminars, and lectures—are held as part of these projects. During these events, knowledge about art is disseminated, and members of the cultural scene share their know-how and competence. That is, the activities of museums fall under the definition of educational outreach as provided in the draft law.”

It comes down to money
“Russian citizens, including vulnerable segments of the populace, would thus also lose the opportunity to gain knowledge from highly qualified specialists on a regular, often pro bono basis,” it says in the open letter to Russian officials.

Matveeva answers the question “why.”

“If organizers and lecturers have to produce and reproduce paperwork to get permission to hold each of their one-off lectures in a library or a cafe, it would be easier not to organize anything at all and wait for better times to arrive in Russia,” she says. “Many events are organized by enthusiasts, by professionals passionate about their work. Events are often held for free or for a nominal fee. They are attended by people who don’t have the opportunity to pay for an expensive course or time to study, but they can periodically go to lectures to learn something new, and maybe meet and hobnob with other people. Educational events are also popular among the elderly: for them it is a form of leisure.”

Karasyova and Zinovieva agree.

“If commercial educational events simply increase in price and part of the audience peels off, then non-profit organizers are likely to fall by the wayside, as they will not be able to carry the costs,” they say.

Lurie is categorical.

“People will show up and say that you are not telling the right story about hedgehogs. ‘You can’t talk about hedgehogs like that,******!” they will tell you. ‘And if I give you fifty thousand, will I be telling the right story about hedgehogs?’ you will ask. ‘Well, for fifty it would be better, but for sixty it would definitely be a good story about hedgehogs.’ That’s all you need to know about this law,” he says.

What history teaches us
“Increasing the amount of paperwork has never helped the cause of popular education,” Pinchuk argues.

There are also examples in history of how to introduce state control.

“The Cultural Revolution in the USSR at the turn of the 1920s and 1930s,” recalls Lurie. “Then all private NEP outfits were put under control. They became state-owned. They were made part of the overall structure. In particular, the Knowledge Society (Obshchestvo “Znanie”) emerged from this arrangement. Or there were the times of [Konstantin] Pobedonostsev, when a bailiff came to every event and could shut it down.”

“We are being dragged into the Middle Ages. Or into the USSR,” says Marina Rudina, an employee of the Russian Museum who specializes in its educational and research work. “This know-how was perfectly tested back then. There is a persistent sense of obscurantism. And, from my point of view, strange information is flowing from every corner, including from federal and state TV channels. We need protection from extremist influences? There is already a law for this. I don’t understand why we have this business about ‘combating extremism’ in the new law again. Apparently, this is a clear formula: there are only enemies everywhere, and we must defend ourselves from them. Are we going to sacrifice everything?”

Lurie recalls other specific examples.

“We feel great about the valiant deeds of Alexander Matrosov and Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, Valentina Tereshkova and Dmitry Donskoy. We don’t expect anything bad. The problem is that there is imperfect censorship in Russia. There are no firm guidelines, for example, on whether Pobedonostsev and [Georgy] Malenkov are positive characters, and so we don’t know what to expect. There is uncertainty. We are afraid to talk positively about Malenkov. What if suddenly it turns out that he was working against the Motherland?”

To avoid this, says Lurie (who even at the start of Putin’s constitutional reforms spoke about the inevitability of total censorship), there must be “special people” who attend excursions and other events, lectures, and quests, either openly or undercover.

The historian sketches a new dystopian novel on the go.

“They will write a note to their superiors. They will have to record everything with surveillance devices so that it won’t be their word against [their opponents]. Then it will transpire that someone berated Matrosov. This means that a regulation stating that Matrosov cannot be derided will be needed. After all, such thoughts about Matrosov could be whispered by the enemy, while an educator might not have known it was forbidden. We must protect educators!”

“Why are they doing this?”
“The bill will drive another nail in the coffin of private cultural institutions in Russia. It seems that the current policy is aimed at ensuring that there are fewer and fewer educated people with a broad outlook, and that knowledge outside of the school curriculum can only be obtained abroad,” Pinchuk argues.

“The censorship and repressive laws already adopted by our government have greatly changed the climate and environment, and have complicated the already extremely difficult lives of cultural professionals,” says Matveeva. “We can no longer publicly and openly touch on certain topics, we cannot work with certain organizations, and it is better for us not to receive grants from international organizations and foundations. Given that the government provides no support to artists, art historians, and other producers of culture and art, it is not quite clear how officialdom expects people to work and support themselves.”

“Why are they doing this?” Rudina asks, immediately answering her own question.

“To completely obliterate education, to make it impossible for there to be flights of thought and broad spaces to think. There should be many opinions, many sources of knowledge and trends. When everything is regulated, is approved by people at the top, this is direct censorship, the exclusion of any opinions other than those ‘approved by the government line.’ Just withdraw the bill—don’t disgrace yourselves!”

Late last year, Petersburg MP Elena Drapeko told Fontanka.ru that voters had asked the State Duma to introduce censorship in Russia.

As of February 9, over 210,00 people had signed a petition against the proposed amendments.

__________

This session of Petersburg’s Street University, held on Elf Square in the city center circa 2008-2009, would have been impossible under the proposed amendments to the Law on Education. 

__________

February 8, 2021

Open Letter

To:

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin

Chairman of the Russian State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin

Russian Federation Council Members A.A. Klimov, E.V. Afanasyeva, A.V. Vainberg, L.N. Glebova, and O.V. Melnichenko

Russian State Duma Members V.I. Piskarev, A.G. Alshevskikh, N.I. Ryzhak, A.K. Isaev, R.D. Kurbanov, I.V. Belykh, N.V. Poklonskaya, D.I. Savelyev, A.V. Chep, A.L. Shkhagoshev, E.A. Yampolskaya, V.V. Bortko, S.M. Boyarsky, O.M. Kazakova, E.G. Drapenko, A.M. Sholokhov, O.L. Lavrov, S.A. Shargunov, O.M. Germanova, V.Yu. Maksimov, N.N. Pilus, and S.B. Savchenko

Russian Federal Minister of Culture O.B. Lyubimova

Russian Federal First Deputy Minister of Culture S.G. Obryvalin

We, the undersigned, are cultural, educational, and academic professionals engaged in educational outreach work in Russia, as well as Russian citizens concerned about the future of culture, education, and research in our country. We write to you in connection with Draft Law No. 1057895-7 “On Amendments to the Federal Law ‘On Education in the Russian Federation’” (hereinafter referred to as “the Draft Law”), which was passed by the State Duma in its first reading. If the Draft Law becomes law, it will, in our opinion, open the door to repressive regulation and censorship. In its current form, it threatens the constitutional rights of Russian citizens and the growth of our country’s educational and cultural fields due to its vague wording and rawness.

The Explanatory Note to the Draft Law states, “The federal draft law is aimed at improving the legal regulation of educational activities in the Russian Federation,” and “the draft law […] would generate additional conditions for developing human culture, encouraging individual socialization, and motivating individuals to form an active civic stance.” However, it contains no detailed comparative risk-benefit analysis proving that the stated goal would be pursued, rather than its opposite.

At the same time, the rules and regulations that would be issued if the Draft Law were passed, as well as the content of the Draft Law itself, have rightly caused fears among professionals that administrative barriers to educational outreach work would be raised that infringe on constitutionally protected rights and freedoms, including:

  • the right to education (per Article 43, Paragraph 1 of the Russian Federal Constitution)
  • the right to seek out, receive, transmit, produce and disseminate information (per Article 29, Paragraph 4 of the Russian Federal Constitution)
  • and freedom of literary, artistic, scientific, technical and other types of creativity, as well as freedom of instruction (per Article 44, Paragraph 1 of the Russian Federal Constitution).

The Draft Law is extremely restrictive

According to Article 43, Paragraph 5 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, “The Russian Federation establishes federal educational standards, [and] supports various forms of education and self-education.” In its current version, however, the Draft Law and the accompanying regulations adopted if it is implemented (as suggested by the public statements of its authors) are aimed not at supporting but at limiting educational outreach as sponsored by federal cultural and educational organizations, as well as by independent platforms, private organizations, and grassroots groups.

The text of the Draft Law defines educational outreach work as “activities, implemented outside the framework of educational programs, that are aimed at disseminating knowledge, skills, values, know-how and competence in order to develop individuals intellectually, spiritually, morally, creatively, physically and (or) professionally, and meet their educational needs and interests, and that touch on relations regulated by this federal law and other legislative acts of the Russian Federation.” The vagueness of the wording means that educational outreach work can be defined as any public activity in which knowledge and competencies are disseminated. Hence, we can conclude that educational outreach work could include not only individual lectures and workshops organized by licensed educational institutions, but also exhibitions, festivals, conferences, the work of popularizers of science and art, openly accessible blogs and vlogs, and much more.

The Draft Law introduces redundant regulations and opens the door to censoring educational outreach work

The Draft Law prohibits incitement to social, racial, ethnic or religious strife, and incitement to actions contrary to the Russian Federal Constitution. At the same time, the dissemination of information for these purposes is already prohibited by current Russian federal legislation, whose norms are also applicable to educational outreach work (per Article 10 of the Federal Law “On Information,” Article 13 of the Federal Law “On Countering Extremism,” and the corresponding provisions in the Administrative Offenses Code and the Criminal Code).

Currently, oversight is implemented correctively (ex post). We are concerned that the secondary legislation could introduce preventive (ex ante) regulation requiring that educational materials be approved before they are published, thus restricting freedom of opinion, as well as significantly complicating the work of law-abiding educators while not affecting the activities of banned extremist organizations.

The Draft Law is isolationist

The Draft Law obliges educational organizations to obtain the approval of the executive authorities when negotiating educational agreements with foreign organizations and foreign nationals involving expenditures. The provision would cover not only financial contracts involving state educational institutions (to which the laws on public procurement apply), but also other agreements, including non-financial cooperation agreements, which are signed in large numbers by all major educational institutions, as well as contracts made by non-governmental educational organizations.

The introduction of additional restrictions and controls on international exchanges and the engagement of foreign nationals by educational organizations inevitably entails an additional bureaucratic burden that most non-profit independent organizations would not be able to handle because they lack the necessary resources. Consequently, international exchanges would face the threat of significant cuts, leading to the stagnation of culture and research in Russia: growth in these fields is impossible without a constant exchange of know-how and ideas with colleagues from other countries. The lack of an opportunity to build stable, permanent relations with the international professional community would inevitably lead to a lag in the growth of culture, research and education in our country.

Educational outreach is carried out not only by large state institutions, but also by independent non-profit organizations, as well as by grassroots groups who find it difficult to secure the minimal resources needed for engaging foreign colleagues and implementing international projects. In this regard, introducing requirements for obtaining additional permits to engage foreign nationals in educational outreach projects would make it impossible to implement grassroots and non-profit undertakings. Russian citizens, including vulnerable segments of the populace, would thus also lose the opportunity to gain knowledge from highly qualified specialists on a regular, often pro bono basis.

The Draft Law delegates unregulated oversight to the Government

The Draft Law adopted by the State Duma in the first reading is extremely vague: it does not specify procedures and boundaries for overseeing educational outreach work, does not delimit regulatory entities, and does not define the types of international cooperation pursued by educational organizations that would require official approval. Essentially, the State Duma (a legislative body) has wholly delegated policymaking in the educational outreach field to the Government of the Russian Federation (an executive body) without setting any criteria and restrictions. This makes it possible, when adopting secondary legislation, to interpret the will of the legislators quite broadly, in a variety of directions. The vagueness of the wording, as well as the delegation of further rule-making to the Government of the Russian Federation, raises concerns in the professional community that the regulation would be repressive and involve censorship, thus considerably complicating the implementation of educational outreach work.

Oversight and restriction of educational outreach based on extremely vague reasons, thus allowing for varying interpretations “on the ground,” are contrary to the constitutional rights and freedoms of Russian citizens. In this regard, we, cultural, educational, and academic professionals engaged in educational outreach work in Russia, call on you to reject Draft Law No. 1057895-7 “On Amendments to the Federal Law ‘On Education in the Russian Federation,’” as its adoption, in our opinion, would open the door to repressive regulation and censorship due to its vague wording and rawness.

[Signed, in the original, by Lizaveta Matveeva (St. Petersburg), curator of the Main Project of the Seventh International Moscow Youth Biennale, the Art Prospect International Public Art Fair, and the DYI Fair, and 1,002 other signatories]

Thanks to Susan Katz for asking me to translate the open letter and sending me the link to the article from Fontanka.ru. Both texts were translated by the Russian Reader

Zinaida Pozdnyakova, “Kalinin Prospekt”

Zinaida Pozdnyakova, Kalinin Prospekt (from the series New Arbat), 1977. Color autolithograph, 33 x 50 cm. Reprinted with the artist’s kind permission. All rights reserved. Originally published on her Facebook page

Ms. Podzdnyakova comments: “I was commissioned to do this series for an exhibition in Moscow. Traffic had then just opened on Kalinin Prospekt, and everyone rushed there to look at the skyscrapers. And I decided to portray all of it. This is my tribute to social realism. I was happy to draw houses in Zaraysk, and peasant houses and interiors in Ukraine, etc., but then I had to depict Kalinin Prospekt. It was difficult for me, but I found workarounds. I drew it almost as soon as Kalinin Prospekt was opened after construction. It was new, and everyone went there to walk and eat; the weather was great. I was looking for something that I myself found interesting and unusual. I even went to a restaurant [there] with a friend, something I had never done before.”

What workarounds! | | TRR