Yelena Osipova: “May Your Sails Be White, Not Red with Blood”

The Petersburg artist and activist Yelena Osipova created a placard for this past weekend’s Crimson Sails celebrations (for newly minted high school graduates/school leavers) and stood with it on Malaya Sadovaya, a pedestrian street in downtown Petersburg. Her placard read, “May your sails be white, not red with blood. Make the world good!” Photos courtesy of Irina Bogdanovskaya, as posted on the public Facebook page Yelena Andreyeevna Osipova. Artist. Citizen

Two Petersburgers on June 22: Yelena Osipova and Mikhail Piotrovsky

On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. On 22 June 2022, artist Yelena Osipova held a solo anti-war picket on Nevsky Prospect in Petersburg. On 22 June 2022, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the official Russian government newspaper, published a lengthy interview with Mikhail Piotrovsky, the longtime director of Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum,, in which he justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of his country’s greater historical and cultural “mission.” Ms. Osipova and Mr. Piotrovsky were born a mere eleven months apart, in November 1945 and December 1944, respectively. If Ms. Osipova’s bravery doesn’t bring honor on her hometown, it’s not for her want of trying. Despite having much greater resources at his disposal and a bigger bully pulpit, Mr. Piotrovsky has definitely brought shame on his city. As long it is run by people like him, Russia’s great “cultural capital” has no future. In any case, Ms. Osipova’s barely audible message makes a jarring juxtaposition with Mr. Piotrovsky’s arrogant, “learned” apology for Russian fascism. ||| TRR


Yelena Osipova, photographed in front of Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospekt in downtown Petersburg on 22 June 2022. Photo courtesy of Irina Bogdanovskaya, as posted on the public Facebook page Yelena Andreyeevna Osipova. Artist. Citizen. Thanks to Maria Mila for the heads-up. The placard on the left reads, “To the unknown soldier, 1941–1945. He was buried in the earth.” The placard on the right reads, “22 June 1941–1945. In memory of the Patriotic/Second World War. Become a pacifist! Pacifism – pacificus – peaceable. Pacifists condemn all wars and campaign vigorously and publicly to prevent them.” On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, a massive invasion of the Soviet Union. Ms. Osipova was born on 11 November 1945, that is, six months after the end of the Great Patriotic War.


Mikhail Piotrovsky. Photo: RIA Novosti via Rossiiskaya Gazeta

[…]

[Elena Yakovleva]: We have all been shocked by the fighting not only on the fronts of the special operation, but also on the cultural front, by all the attempts to cancel Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concerts, and the Russian language. What is behind “cancel culture”? Having ourselves escaped from the dictates of ideology, are we now witnessing its return in the West?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: The attack on us in the realm of culture is, of course, a semblance of what we had in Soviet times, when all connections were cut off by command, at a moment’s notice, at the snap of someone’s fingers. I have the sense that the Soviet Union, with its ideological dictates, has spread to the West. I did not expect that I would read in liberal Western newspapers such things as “The Hermitage is an imperial museum that preaches imperial ideology. It should not be allowed anywhere! The Hermitage’s [planned branch] in Barcelona should not be opened under any circumstances!”

I have been inundated with ultimatums. How dare you not speak out against the special operation in Ukraine?! Go out and protest immediately! Why are there no protests in your country?

But in this case we should understand that we have been subjected to such a powerful attack in the field of culture because culture is an area in which we are absolutely competitive.

We have the initiative here. We are trendsetters.

Are we an exporting country?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Yes, and our cultural exports are more important than imports.

Our recent exhibitions abroad are a powerful cultural offensive, a kind of “special operation,” if you wish. Which many people don’t like, but we are advancing. No one can be allowed to thwart our offensive.

In response to calls to cancel Tchaikovsky, smart people in Russia have been saying, “We won’t cancel anything. On the contrary, we will continue to love the Europe that we learned about while studying at universities.” Is the asymmetry fundamentally important in this case?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Of course. Given our cultural advantage, we don’t have to loudly announce that we are reneging on one cultural agreement or another in response to their bans. They can do it unilaterally. There is definitely no need for bilateralism — precisely because we are winning.

I think that under no circumstances should we succumb (and we shall not succumb) to the seductions of “cancel culture.” I believe we are immune to it because we have already been “canceled” six ways to Sunday. First, the entire culture of Tsarist Russia was canceled, and then Soviet culture was canceled. Monuments were demolished dozens of times. But we also know something else: monuments come back, everything is restored. The knowledge that memory and culture come back is in our blood. That is why we are not eager to overdo it when it comes to “cancelations.” Besides, you can’t cancel Tchaikovsky, except, perhaps, performances of Tchaikovsky by Russian orchestras. But this is just unfair competition.

Why is the West so passionate about “cancel culture”? And about the dictates of “public opinion”?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: I would not exaggerate the difference between the dictates of Soviet ideology and “public opinion.” Public opinion is bound up with governments or regulated by them.

As for “cancel culture” in the West, it is part of a large wave that was born amidst BLM, and linked to the culture of guilt and repentance for guilt. It suddenly surged: they began pulling down monuments and not standing for the American flag. They think that Voltaire is bad, and this guy, and that other guy. It’s a little ridiculous. How much can you repent for the terrors of colonialism, which in fact was so entirely categorical? Or for the unfortunate slave trade, which after all began not in Europe, but in Africa?

They seemingly had already begun to sense that this road leads nowhere, but then Russia turned up by chance. So let’s “cancel” Russia, they said. Although the glee with which they have rushed to condemn us, to tear us up and expel us, again speaks to the fact that we are strong in culture.

When the Bizot group boycotts Russian museums, it’s just ridiculous. I was one of the people who founded the group, and I know that we actually created it to help museums do cultural exchanges unencumbered by politics. But now it’s apparently been ideologized on the Soviet model. If this Soviet-style infection has gone so far, let them be sick alone. We don’t need to be sick too. We have historical immunity against this. I think we will spread it to others.

[…]

Since it hasn’t succumbed to the hype of cancellations, has the Hermitage keep its exhibitions abroad going?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Not only the Hermitage. When the special operation in Ukraine began, exhibitions by Russian museums were everywhere. We have a Morozov [Collection] exhibition in Paris and exhibitions in Italy. Our most controversial exhibition, a Fabergé show, was in London. The Russian Museum had an exhibition in Spain.

This was our “special operation,” if you like, a great cultural offensive.

As soon as all the ideological sirens were turned on due to the special operation in Ukraine, we initially announced that we were pulling everything out immediately. But then we thought it over and said that we had been given guarantees. The organizers were quick to confirm them. We organized the Morozov exhibition in Paris in cooperation with the Louis Vuitton Foundation, and suddenly realized that this global commercial company was a much better partner in today’s “Soviet” Europe than government entities were. Having no freedom of maneuver, they were “ordered” to break off relations with us, while the business people who made promises to us did EVERYTHING to fulfill them. It was a matter of honor for them: they promised us that [they would send] everything back on time.

But then people in Russia started yelling, “Why did you take our treasures there? They’re worth so much money!” And all hell broke loss on the other side: “Since they’re worth ‘that much’ money, let’s impound them!” People with tormented mercantilist mindsets could not really understand the essence of the matter, so very provocative things were shouted on both sides. I must say that the provocation by the press was the main complication in this whole special operation. Yesterday, I was sent a copy of the FT featuring a discussion by journalists in their art (!) department on the topic of whether Russian paintings should have been impounded. It was due to such journalistic caterwauling that pieces from our museums were detained at the Finnish border. It was the weekend, and Finnish customs officers had read their fill of newspaper articles about how everything should be confiscated from the Russians. Although before and after that, ten of our truck caravans passed through their border post.

From our side, it was the bloggers shouted more. The journalists have been schooled by you.

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Only there are few real journalists left and just a couple of newspapers. Everyone is like a blogger now. And bloggers don’t understand that this is a cultural offensive, that the Shchukin and Morozov exhibition in Paris is like the Russian flag flying over the Bois de Boulogne. Do you know how everyone appreciated it in Italy? They said, “If the Hermitage can leave its paintings with us at a time like this, it means that they know what they are doing over there in Russia.”

It is also very important that the protagonists of our exhibitions were [Sergei] Shchukin and [Ivan] Morozov, Russian businessmen from the Old Believers community who largely defined the evolution of European culture. Matisse was once asked if he would have painted Dance had it not been for Shchukin. “And for whom would I have painted it?” Matisse said. Shchukin suggested things, commissioned things, was capricious, and great works were born. I was recently awarded the Demidov Prize, and it was an occasion to recall how Nikolai Demidov and the great French jeweler Pierre Thomire created this Russian style of malachite with bronze. They had such fights! Thomire said they should do things one way, Demidov said no, it must be done another way. But consequently, there is the Malachite Canopy in the Hermitage.

Does a producer [sic] have the right to interfere in an artist’s plans like that?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: He absolutely has the right. Yes, sometimes such interventions can be bad. But sometimes they can be good. In the case of Shchukin and Morozov, it was a good thing. They were the RIGHT customers.

Let’s not forget that it was the Old Believers who revealed to us the beauty of the old Russian icons. They were the first to clean them and preserve them. And Shchukin brought Russian icons to Matisse, in particular, to reverse the influence of Persian miniatures on him.

At the Morozov exhibition, we presented Russian paintings collected by him and showed art through the collector’s eye. Morozov collected Manet and [Valentin] Serov, and I would hear people say when they were leaving the exhibition, “You look [at their paintings] and you realize that Serov is no worse than Manet.”

The Fabergé exhibition made a very big splash. That is another Russian phenomenon that influenced the West.

So, we in fact did undertake a big cultural offensive. And we came out of it, having done everything we had planned to do.

[…]

Europe has long been a cultural model for us. The “RG” had a conversation with the writer Eugene Vodolazkin about attitudes to Europe. With reference to Dostoevsky, we talked about the fact it is almost dearer to us than to the Europeans.

Mikhail Piotrovsky: We recently held a round table at the Council of the History of World Culture at the Academy of Sciences, which we were going to call “Is Russia Europe?” but instead called “Is Russia Europe? Is Europe the EU?” The general sense of our debate was this: we are Europe, as much a part of it as France or Germany, and maybe more than the United States. If Europe were not us, Gogol would not have written Dead Souls while living in Italy. We recently held another round table on visual art, at which we recalled that Dostoevsky wrote about the Sistine Madonna.

This is our long-standing choice: we are inseparable from European culture and from Europe itself. The special military operation in Ukraine does not change anything. There have been plenty of disagreements and wars within Europe, from the Thirty Years’ War to the First World War. We are Europe and at some moments more Europe than many of its classic [sic] countries. And certainly more than the EU, which is now turning into the Soviet Union.

Of course, we also have an Asian aspect. But Peter the Great already knew how to balance all this wonderfully. We at the Hermitage understand this like no one else, because our main theme is world culture in the Russian context. I constantly talk about our right to be Europe, because in the south of Russia we have a Classical heritage — Chersonesus, Kerch, Taman. And whoever has a Classical heritage is Europe. In Norway, for example, there is no Classical heritage; there were neither Greek colonies nor Roman legions.

Therefore, it is all ours. We must dispose of it as our own, and not think that we are opposing Europe. Do we have different values? But they all have different values. Do we have special Orthodox values? But there are Orthodox values in Europe as well. In many ways they are consonant with Catholic values and not consonant with various secular ones. As an absolutely full-fledged and equal part of Europe, we will never be isolated. It’s just our sense of self. And the Hermitage is a symbol of this self-awareness. I keep repeating that the Hermitage is an encyclopedia of world culture written in Russian. The Hermitage’s Rembrandts, which have been in Russia for three hundred years, are Russian Rembrandts. The Russian Shakespeare is impossible without [Grigori] Kozintsev and [Innokenty] Smoktunovsky. Other doors — to Asia — are always open. But this does not cancel our presence in Europe.

Since people who value Russian culture have not yet gained the upper hand in Europe, must we now form a European model for ourselves?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: We must form this model now. And we are forming it.

Although there seem to be no Shchukins and Morozovs in Russia nowadays.

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Shchukin and Morozov shaped tastes. But now we are shaping, for example, international law. For many years, we have been carefully fashioning guarantees for the return of our paintings by changing international laws and creating immunity from impoundment. All this was first elaborated for Soviet exhibitions, and later, already in my own time, we constantly worked on developing it. The descendants of Shchukin and Morozov tried to sue us, so I urgently got the pictures out of Rome by plane. But every year we have strengthened our legal safeguards. We said, “Do you want our exhibitions? Then give us real guarantees. Spell it out in the contract: the exhibition will be returned on time even in case of lawsuits.” Europe accepted all these terms. The Americans didn’t, so we haven’t had any exchanges with the Americans for ten years. Although people who wanted to host exhibitions from Russia introduced a new law in the United States that enabled the government to give us guarantees and immunity. But it was too late; now it’s not enough. But with Europe, all the guarantees worked. In particular, when paintings from our Italian exhibitions were detained at the Finnish border, our diplomats and Italian businessmen helped us. They immediately sent all the paperwork to the Finnish government: “We gave guarantees, how can you not trust them?!”

At the last moment — even amidst the sanctions — our Western partners introduced a clause stating that prohibited luxury items do not include items that are in exhibitions of Russian museums abroad. It was even stipulated that Russian transport companies have the right to transport exhibitions throughout the EU. We didn’t take the risk — we transported [the exhibitions] in foreign vehicles — but this point was specially inserted. So, we not only look at Europe as a model, but also try and shape the international rules ourselves. This is quite important, especially now, when there are disputes about every [piece of art] in the world over who it actually belongs to.

[…]

Has the attitude towards the Hermitage changed among its Western fans?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: We’ve been getting stabbed in the back a lot lately. Outside the country, the Khodorkovskys of the world have been slinging mud at us, while here at home, as always, certain people have been calling for draconian audits. On the other hand, we have gotten a better sense of who our friends are and who are our enemies. The “society of friends of the Hermitage” have proved their mettle. In Israel, for example, they comported themselves brilliantly. They immediately spoke out. “How can we be friends of the Hermitage, using this honorary title, and then suddenly severe ties [with the museum]?”

We can see everything now. We see that there are people who break off their relationship [with us], but it makes them suffer and cry. But there are also those who happily took advantage of this opportunity. Apparently, they were friends solely due to the political conjuncture. Now we have a good “blacklist” of journalists and politicians This is very important. The world is not uniform.

Has your “blacklist” gotten a lot longer?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: It changed a lot. But besides those who have been writing maliciously about us, unexpected friends have appeared — for example, those French and Italian businessmen I mentioned.

What should we be doing in the field of culture?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: I think we have to do everything in such a way that we are seen, but we don’t have to travel anywhere at all to do this. After becoming director of the Hermitage, I announced a moratorium on exhibitions inside Russia because it was dangerous to transport things then: there were thieves everywhere, there was no money, no real insurance, either. So we didn’t send exhibitions around Russia for ten years. But now we are announcing a moratorium on exhibitions abroad.

I urge everyone now to look back at the experience of the Siege of Leningrad — at the know-how for saving things in an organized manner that was acquired then, at the understanding that when guns speak, the muses should not be silent. On the contrary, they should speak loudly. The experience of the Siege also taught us to address the world beyond the encirclement. During the Great Patriotic War, the Nizami and Nava’i exhibitions and evenings at the Hermitage were examples of this appeal. They showed the whole Soviet Union and the whole world that we remembered the great poets even in the midst of famine and war. Therefore, we are now, as part of the “Great Hermitage” program, going to be doing everything to make the whole world see us and, roughly speaking, envy us.

Now, for example, we are opening an exhibition of works by one of the most famous Danish artists, [Vigilius] Eriksen. He painted Catherine the Great and her court, and for the tricentennial of his birth he earned an exhibition at the Hermitage. We requested pieces from Denmark for the exhibition, but they were not given to us. Well, we have more of Eriksen’s works than they have in Denmark. So, an excellent exhibition is now opening in the Nicholas Hall featuring huge portraits of Catherine and the Orlov Brothers, accompanied by the amazing stories of how they were created, how they were repainted and the medals on the uniforms were altered. The exhibition is on the internet, including a lecture in English. We are broadcasting a message to Denmark: look, a small but very important piece of European culture is the great portrait painter Eriksen in the Hermitage.

[…]

What do you say to those who demand that you repent for Russian policy?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Our country has now shifted into another time. The first period of the Scythian War is over. We retreated and retreated, now we are not retreating. A pivot has been made. And it is already clear that it’s the final one. Everything began in 2014 in Crimea. Crimea created a situation in which there was no other way, in which we had to pivot.

Our country is making great, comprehensive transformations. And we, respectively, are part of them and with her. Working calmly and normally is our stance.

The Hermitage has done exhibitions about war many times. What can you say about how it’s perceived? For example, a totally pacifist reaction is not something I find congenial. Apparently, I’m a militarist.

Mikhail Piotrovsky: We are all militarists and imperialists. (laughs)

First and most important, it is my country, and I must stand with it. I sometimes repeat the jingoistic formula: this is my country, such as it is. There are situations when it is absolutely clear that a person must stand with his country. In the West they understand that these are all substantive things — that we stand with our country. When a very serious issue is being resolved, there are no options.

I am currently reading Alexei Varlamov’s wonderful book about [Vasily] Rozanov, and [there is a section in it] about 1914 and his hyper-patriotic sentiments. This patriotism at the beginning of the 1914 war is [a phenomenon] known to everyone, but it has not been explained very well. We are somehow dismissive of it, but it was a quite important thing in fact. We, people of culture, must now understand our involvement in everything that is happening. A person involved in history, first of all, must do well what it is that he does [as a vocation], in keeping with the principle that when guns speak, the muses should also speak. And in keeping with the realization that culture, which for us stands above politics and everything else, will later ask us to account for what we did for it. As we were asked after the war, after the Siege: what did you do — on your own?

For me, the attitude to war is established by the great Pushkin in A Journey to Arzrum. Where is he rushing the entire book? To see the demoted Decembrists and then go into battle?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Arzrum was also the only foreign land Pushkin visited. It expanded the world for him. There is nothing wrong with the fact that a person wants to have the most complete set of sensations. This is especially true when he wants to embody his deep feelings in something, to see and do something new. If he has grounds for it, he throws himself into it. It is an element of self-esteem. I always say that Russian patriotism is a sense of one’s own historical dignity. An individual understands that he must go to war, while another person understands that he must do something else, but which is no less important. Behind this is a sense of one’s own historical dignity, the desire to live up to one’s history and the mission of one’s country. It sounds quite dramatic, but we understand our country’s historical mission. This feeling that our country is changing world history, and that you are involved in it, is crucial now.

Nor are things so simple when it comes to attitudes towards armed hostilities. On the one hand, war is blood and murder, but on the other, it is a means for people, for a nation, to assert themselves. Everyone wants to assert themselves, and in their stances on the war, they undoubtedly assert themselves. We have all been brought up in the imperial tradition, and an empire unites many peoples. It unites people by finding things that are common and important to everyone. It’s very tempting, but it’s one of the good temptations, let’s say. Although we don’t have to succumb to it, ultimately, and we must be able to regulate it within ourselves. Nor should we forget the principle that a person should do what he must do, come what may. For museums, “doing what we must” means preserving and promoting culture. And keeping in mind all the time what is beyond the besieged territory. And speaking not only to people inside it, but also “outside” it.

Source: Elena Yakovleva, “Mikhail Piotrovsky explains why you have to stand with your country when it makes a historical pivot and choice,” Rossiiskaya Gazeta, 22 June 2022 (No. 33/8781). Translated by the Russian Reader, who omitted only the brief introduction and section headings, as printed in the original text. Mr. Piotrovsky, the longtime director of the State Hermitage Museum in Petersburg, located a short walk down the Nevsky from where Ms. Osipova held her anti-war picket on Wednesday, was born on 9 December 1944, that is, five months before the end of the Great Patriotic War.

Olivier

Olivier Food Market on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles

Russia took aim Sunday at Western military supplies for Ukraine, launching airstrikes on Kyiv that it claimed destroyed tanks donated from abroad, as Vladimir Putin warned that any Western deliveries of longer range rocket systems would prompt Moscow to hit “objects that we haven’t yet struck.”

The Russian leader’s cryptic threat of military escalation did not specify what the new targets might be. It came days after the United States announced plans to deliver $700 million of security assistance for Ukraine that includes four precision-guided, medium-range rocket systems, as well as helicopters, Javelin anti-tank systems, radars, tactical vehicles and more.

Military analysts say Russia hopes to overrun Ukraine’s embattled eastern industrial Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists have fought the Ukrainian government since 2014, before any U.S. weapons that might turn the tide arrive. The Pentagon said last week that it will take at least three weeks to get the U.S. weapons onto the battlefield.

Ukraine said the missiles aimed at the capital hit a train repair shop. Elsewhere, Russian airstrikes in the eastern city of Druzhkivka destroyed buildings and left at least one person dead, a Ukrainian official said Sunday. Residents described waking to the sound of missile strikes, with rubble and glass falling down around them.

A detail from Judy Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles. The second inscription is in Yiddish. It reads, “All Jews [united] in the battle against fascism.” Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the translation.

“It was like in a horror movie,” Svitlana Romashkina said.

Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko urged city residents to leave, saying on Facebook that ruined buildings can be restored but “we won’t be able to bring back the lives lost.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said air-launched precision missiles were used to destroy workshops in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, including in Druzhkivka, that were repairing damaged Ukrainian military equipment.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s General Staff said Russian forces fired five X-22 cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea toward Kyiv, and one was destroyed by air defenses. Four other missiles hit “infrastructure facilities,” but Ukraine said there were no casualties.

Nuclear plant operator Energoatom said one cruise missile buzzed close to the Pivdennoukrainsk nuclear plant, 350 kilometers (220 miles) to the south, and warned of the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe if even one missile fragment hit the plant.

On the Telegram app, the Russian Defense Ministry said high-precision, long range air-launched missiles were used on the outskirts of Kyiv, destroying T-72 tanks supplied by Eastern European countries and other armored vehicles in a train car repair shop.

But the head of Ukraine’s railway system rejected the claim that tanks were inside. Oleksandr Kamyshin said four missiles hit the Darnytsia car repair plant, but no military equipment has been stored there. He said the site was used to repair gondolas and carriers for exporting grain.

“Russia has once again lied,” he wrote on Telegram. “Their real goal is the economy and the civilian population. They want to block our ability to export Ukrainian products.”

In a television interview that aired Sunday, Putin lashed out at Western deliveries of weapons to Ukraine, saying they aim to prolong the conflict.

“All this fuss around additional deliveries of weapons, in my opinion, has only one goal: to drag out the armed conflict as much as possible,” Putin said. He insisted such supplies were unlikely to change the military situation for Ukraine’s government, which he said was merely making up for losses of similar rockets.

If Kyiv gets longer-range rockets, he added, Moscow will “draw appropriate conclusions and use our means of destruction, which we have plenty of, in order to strike at those objects that we haven’t yet struck.”

The U.S. has stopped short of offering Ukraine longer-range weapons that could fire deep into Russia. But the four medium range High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems in the security package include launchers on wheels that allow troops to strike a target and then quickly move away — which could be useful against Russian artillery on the battlefield.

The Spanish daily El Pais reported Sunday that Spain planned to supply anti-aircraft missiles and up to 40 Leopard 2 A4 battle tanks to Ukraine. Spain’s Ministry of Defense did not comment on the report.

In Kyiv’s eastern Darnystki district, a pillar of smoke filled the air with an acrid odor over the charred, blackened wreckage of a warehouse-type structure. Soldiers blocked off a nearby road leading toward a large railway yard.

Before Sunday’s early morning attack, Kyiv had not faced any such Russian airstrikes since the April 28 visit of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. The attack triggered air raid alarms and showed that Russia still had the capability and willingness to hit at Ukraine’s heart, despite refocusing its efforts to capture Ukrainian territory in the east.

When I arrived at the Great Wall of Los Angeles, I was thrilled to see so many other people there taking it in. I soon realized that they were glued to their smart phones, playing some kind of game. It was such a serious game that many of them were playing on two or three devices at the same time. None of them was paying any mind to the magnificent Great Wall of Los Angeles.

In recent days, Russian forces have focused on capturing Ukraine’s eastern cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. On Sunday they continued their push, with missile and airstrikes on cities and villages in the Donbas.

In the cities of Sloviansk and Bakhmut, cars and military vehicles were seen speeding into town Sunday from the direction of the front line. Dozens of military doctors and paramedic ambulances worked to evacuate civilians and Ukrainian servicemen, and a hospital was busy treating the injured, many hurt by artillery shelling.

The U.K. military said in its daily intelligence update that Ukrainian counterattacks in Sieverodonetsk were “likely blunting the operational momentum Russian forces previously gained through concentrating combat units and firepower.” Russian forces previously had been making a string of advances in the city, but Ukrainian fighters have pushed back in recent days.

Source: John Leicester, “Russia hits Kyiv with missiles,” Associated Press, 5 June 2022. Photos by the Russian Reader

People of Our City

When you’re a real artist, you make art with whatever comes to hand. Legendary Petersburg artist Oleg Kotelnikov (a driving force behind the New Artists of Leningrad) is definitely the real thing. Here, the late Yuri “Compass” Krasev (of the necrorealists and Pop Mechanics) displays a shower curtain that Mr. Kotelnikov repurposed back in the good bad old days. Photo by the late Oleg Kuptsov, as posted on his Facebook page on 2 June 2015.


The equally legendary Petersburg rock music and grassroots politics journalist Sergey Chernov snapped these latter-day post-Soviet “socialist” icons and posted them on his Facebook page on 3 June 2013.


Sometimes a picture is worth more than a thousand words, as when a whole time and a place is captured in a single snapshot, as in this one taken in Petersburg by the fantastic photographer, anthropologist, photo archivist, and frequent TRR contributor Vadim F. Lurie, who posted it on his Facebook page on 3 June 2015.


On 3 June 2019, I posted this announcement from Last Address in Petersburg: “Next Thursday, June 6, at 12 p.m., a Last Address plaque will be installed at 12th Line, No. 9, on Vasilievsky Island in Petersburg, in memory of Konstantin Andreyevich Poplavsky, who served as a seaman on the battleship Marat and worked at the Bolshevik Factory. A father of two children, he was shot by order of an NKVD troika on 28 October 1938, a few days after his 28th birthday. His great-granddaughter will install the plaque for him.”

But by way of illustrating this announcement I used a snapshot I had taken in 2018 during an inventory of Last Address plaques in my neighborhood to check on their condition. (The inventory was a citywide affair performed by numerous volunteers.) The plaque pictured above memorializes Andrian Nikolayevich Paparigopulo, whose story is told on the Last Address Foundation’s website (and duplicated on the Open List project’s website):

Andrian Nikolayevich Paparigopulo was born in Narva in 1903 to a family of hereditary nobles. His father was a retired major general who died in 1915. Andrian Nikolayevich and his mother presumably moved to Petrograd in the early 1920s. His investigative file in the archives records that in 1922 they traveled to Estonia to sell a dacha located near Narva that belonged to his mother. After the sale, they went back to Petrograd without having their passports checked at the Soviet Consulate in Reval. This was regarded as an illegal border crossing, for which Andrian Nikolayevich was consequently sentenced to three months of forced labor.

After moving to the city on the Neva, Andrian enrolled at the Institute of Technology, but failed to finish his studies. On 23 March 1935, he was arrested, and later, along with his mother Vera Nikolayevna, he was exiled to Kuibyshev for five years as a “family member of a socially dangerous element.” However, a year later, the Special Council of the NKVD canceled the expulsion order, and the family returned to Leningrad.

Andrian got a job at the Krasnyi Rabochii [Red Worker] plant as a planning technician. The Great Terror did not spare him: on 23 May 1937, he was arrested for the third time. For nine months, NKVD officers cooked up a case against him that was based on two interrogations that took place in May and September 1937. During the May interrogation, Paparigopulo denies his involvement in counter-revolutionary and espionage work. The September 28th interrogation begins on the same note. But there soon appears in the interrogation record a reference to the testimony of Georgy Kirillovich Kolychev (whom Andrian Nikolayevich mentions as an artist friend in the 1935 case file): “There is a group of artists bonded by their common counter-revolutionary beliefs who organized their c-r gatherings at Paparigopulo’s apartment.” Later in the record, Andrian Nikolayevich admits his guilt: “I have to admit that Kolychev is telling the truth… Indeed, I have been an active member of the c-r fascist group and its leader since 1933.

According to the fabricated evidence, the group’s members included Viktor Konstantinovich Lavrovsky, Georgy Kirillovich Kolychev, Ivan Ivanovich Bogdanov, Mikhail Vasilyevich Ivanov, and Terenty Romanovich Romanov.

On 20 February 1938, a military collegium sentenced Paparigopulo to death in a closed court hearing for involvement in a “terrorist organization.” Andrian Nikolayevich did not admit his guilt at the trial, nor did he corroborate the testimony he had given, allegedly, during the preliminary investigation, calling it phony. He was shot on the day of his sentencing. He was thirty-four years old.

The list of items seized from Paparigopulo during the search of his home includes letters and photographs, as well as four tickets to the Hermitage. The confiscated correspondence was destroyed in its entirety on 13 March 1938, after Andrian Nikolayevich’s execution. His wife (whose name, like his mother’s, was Vera Nikolayevna) was sentenced to eight years in correctional labor camps as a “family member of a traitor to the Motherland.” She served her sentence in Karlag.

Andrian Paparigopulo was fully exonerated only twenty years later, in 1958.

Source: Last Address Foundation, “Malaya Moskovskaya Street, 4, St. Petersburg.” Translated by the Russian Reader. The pictures below were taken by Jenya Kulakova at the ceremony to install Andrian Paparigopulo’s Last Address plaque.

International Day for the Protection of Children

“A happy childhood is stronger than war!”

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,

   Loitered about that vacancy; a bird

Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:

   That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,

   Were axioms to him, who’d never heard

Of any world where promises were kept,

Or one could weep because another wept.

— W.H. Auden, “The Shield of Achilles”


Wednesday is International Day for the Protection of Children in many former Soviet countries — a joyful celebration typically marked by concerts, outdoor games and arts and crafts.

In Ukraine, it’s a Children’s Day like no other. On Friday, the country will mark the grim milestone of 100 days since the Russian invasion. During that time, at least 262 children have been killed and 415 injured in wartime strikes, according to UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, which cited confirmed figures that the United Nations acknowledges are incomplete and much lower than the actual tolls.

Ukrainian officials have said there is little cause to celebrate. The war has left 5.2 million children in need of humanitarian assistance, according to UNICEF, and has disrupted children’s lives and education.

“This year, Children’s Day in Ukraine is celebrated in a different way than usual,” Daria Herasymchuk, an adviser to Ukraine’s president on children’s rights and rehabilitation, said Wednesday, according to the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.

In wartime, children “are forced to hide from the bombing in shelters, in the subway,” Herasymchuk said during a news briefing. “They are forced to leave their homes and seek shelter in safe regions.”

But despite the war, towns and cities across Ukraine still marked the occasion Wednesday — though it looked different than usual.

In the western city of Lviv, the mayor, Andriy Sadovy, posted photos of abandoned school buses, stuffed animals, name tags and backpacks on empty seats, during what Reuters described as an event marking the death of 243 children during the war.

“A school trip that will never happen,” Sadovy wrote in a Facebook post, using the hashtag #emptybuses.

“Stronger than war!”

“Today, the school buses on Ploshcha Rynok [Lviv’s central square] are empty,” he wrote, adding that “243 children will never travel to Lviv again.” He accused Russian forces of “killing children, women and civilians” and continued: “They must be held responsible for every life taken. Today, the whole world must unite to stop these terrible crimes.”

It was not immediately clear whether Sadovy’s figure of 243 referred to children killed in Lviv or more widely in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, soldiers from Ukraine’s army posed with drawings and stuffed animals in a video message for Children’s Day posted on the Defense Ministry’s Twitter account.

“We expect that you know what we do,” the soldiers say in the video. “We defend our native country. And … it is always very important for us to receive support from you, like these kinds of self-made items, pretty drawings and poems. So send them to us. Together, we will pray for our state.”

The video then zooms in on some of the drawings, which bear messages such as “Ukraine will be able to do anything” and “The enemy will not pass.”

In Bucha, where Russian forces were accused of committing war crimes during their month-long occupation of the quiet suburb of Kyiv, photos showed children making “embroidered hearts and paper birds for soldiers on the front line,” according to the Getty photo service.

Most of the 5.2 million children who need humanitarian assistance have been displaced by fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces, the agency said. On average, the conflict in Ukraine kills at least two children and injures at least four each day, UNICEF and the U.N. agency for refugees said in a news release. It said the casualties occurred “mostly in attacks using explosive weapons in populated areas,” an oblique reference to bombardment by Russia, which went unmentioned in the news release.

The “pro-children, anti-war” mural is hidden amongst these building on the far side of the Obvodny Canal.

“June 1st is International Day for the Protection of Children in Ukraine and across the region,” UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said in Wednesday’s release. “Instead of celebrating the occasion, we are solemnly approaching June 3 — the 100th day of a war that has shattered the lives of millions of children.”

Russell called for “an urgent cease-fire and negotiated peace” to end the war, without which she warned that “children will continue to suffer — and fallout from the war will impact vulnerable children around the world.”

Source: Annabelle Timsit, “As Ukraine marks Children’s Day, U.N. says 5 million need humanitarian aid,” Washington Post, 1 June 2022. Photos of the late-Soviet or early-post-Soviet-era pro-children, anti-war mural in the courtyard of the residential buildings at the corner of Borovaya Street and the Obvodny Canal in St. Petersburg taken by the Russian Reader on 28 May 2016.


“International Day for the Protection of Children, 1958. USSR Post, 40 kopecks.”

International Day for the Protection of Children is celebrated annually on June 1. Established in November 1949 in Paris by decision of the Congress of the Women’s International Democratic Federation, it was first celebrated in 1950. In addition, World Children’s Day (November 20), International Day of Innocent Child Victims of Aggression (June 4) and African Children’s Day (June 16) are dedicated to children. In terms of international law, the principal relevant document is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the UN on November 20, 1989 and ratified by the USSR on July 13, 1990.

[…]

The rights of children in the Russian Federation are protected by the Federal Law “On Basic Guarantees of the Rights of the Child in the Russian Federation,” adopted on July 24, 1998. It guarantees the basic rights and legitimate interests of children as stipulated in the Constitution of the Russian Federation. The State recognizes that childhood is an important stage of human life and prioritizes preparing children for a full-fledged life in society, encouraging them to engage in socially significant and creative activity, and inculcating them with lofty moral qualities, patriotism, and civic consciousness. Russia has a system of local child protection services, which are tasked with monitoring the well-being of children in families in their jurisdictions, as well as local and federal commissioners for children’s rights.

[…]

Abortion opponents have chosen this day to hold events in defense of the right of unborn children to life. In various countries of the world (e.g., the USA, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Belarus, etc.), they gather on or around June 1 to draw the the general public’s attention to the problem of abortion.

Anti-abortion events have also been held [on this day] in Russia, including a car rally, a procession, a march, a rally, prayer services, pickets, film screenings and discussions, informational leafletting, and suspension of abortions by medical institutions.

In 2016, Patriarch Kirill marked International Day for the Protection of Children with a special appeal to make donations to support women in crisis situations. On May 29, the last Sunday of the month, his appeal was read aloud in every church and [churchgoers were asked to donate] money for the creation of humanitarian aid centers [sic] for women expecting children. The fundraising campaign, which took place throughout the country, garnered 38 million rubles, which were earmarked for the creation of the new humanitarian aid centers.

Source: “International Day for the Protection of Children” (Russian), Wikipedia. Translated by the Russian Reader

“I Killed Your Mom”

“I killed your mom”

Anti-war messages painted on depictions of soldier and little girl in Petersburg

In at least two places in Petersburg, someone has made a wall painting depicting a soldier kneeling before girl in pink clothes who is bandaging his hand. The letter Z — a symbol of support for Russia’s military actions in Ukraine — is painted on the soldier’s sleeve.

SOTA noticed that in one of these murals, in the Matveevsky Garden on the Petrograd Side, persons unknown had added a speech bubble so that the soldier says, “I killed your mom.”

A photo of the other depiction was taken at Lanskaya railway station by a female reader of Bumaga. There, the slogan “No war” had been written over the image, while the letter Z had been painted over.

Source: Bumaga, Telegram, 2 May 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

“No war”

Yevgenia Isayeva: “If We Give Up, The Darkness Will Devour Us”

In late March, Petersburg artist Yevgenia Isayeva protested Russia’s war in Ukraine by performing an action entitled “My Heart Is Bleeding”: the young woman stood on the steps of the former City Duma, in the downtown, wearing a “bloody” white dress. The artist was jailed for eight days for her protest. Sever.Realii talked to Isayeva about her arrest and whether people who oppose the war should now leave the country.

Isayeva spread out a canvas on which the following message was written: “I feel that it is pointless to appeal to reason. Therefore, I appeal to your hearts. Women, children, old men and old women are dying every day in Ukraine from bombing, hunger, and the inability to get out from under the rubble or get medicines. Their graves, marked with homemade crosses, turn black in courtyards and playgrounds. There are thousands of people who have been wounded and mutilated, there are millions of broken lives. If you make excuses for this, then your heart has gone blind. Find the strength for mercy and compassion, do not support the bloodshed!”

The protest lasted only ten minutes. Isayeva was detained by the police, and subsequently she was jailed by the court for eight days on charges of disorderly conduct. She served her sentence in the special detention center on Zakharyevskaya Street in Petersburg.

Isayeva: “My Heart Is Bleeding” was for me a kind of essay in freedom. After February 24, I could not live normally. I felt bad, and for the first time in many years, I started having panic attacks again. And this gesture, in fact, helped me as a ritual – it was easier to go on.

Sever.Realii: Some people have gone on living as they used to live, doing their projects and trying not to notice what is happening, because rockets are not falling on houses here in Russia. How do you communicate with people whose heart does NOT bleed?

– I don’t communicate with people who are not close. I am a categorical person: it’s a matter of black and white for me now. My president was shot dead on a bridge seven years ago. (She means the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov – SR.) I have the sense that we are living an ancient or biblical myth, where there is a kind of crystallization, a highlighting of the truth – of relationships, of how we understand things, of the facts. I am sure that we will survive this horror. While before February 24 it seemed to me that all this would drag on forever, now I’m sure it won’t. Twenty-five percent of Russians do not support what is happening – that is almost thirty-five million people and it is quite a lot. Propaganda is trying to convince society that people like us are crazy. But I’m not crazy. And I told the police at the station that history would judge us and that this would happen quickly enough.

– Can art change anything in life?

– Artists are always troublemakers and disturbers of the peace, even when they later become classics. Take Dürer, for example. He was the first to make a self-portrait en face. Now it is taken for granted, but in fact it used to be that only the faces of saints were painted en face, not those of ordinary people. He was the first to portray himself like this. It was a provocation. Artists are the ones who establish the discourse and make you indignant, who make you think. Art and science look for answers to unanswered questions. It seems to me, of course, that the imagination is also very important: the system is manned by people with no imaginations, who are incapable of abstract thinking – and this is quite obvious. At the police station, they tried to convince me that what was happening was unilinear. I told them that there is your opinion, and there is mine, and it’s different, and that’s fine. And that basically it’s normal to live in a world in which there are different opinions – that’s what I think everyone needs to understand. My generation grew up amid this freedom.

Is it possible to do certain projects in Russia now without being afraid?

We are all like hostages of the system here, but if we give up, all this darkness and drabness will swallow us up and devour us. But there are absolute truths that we can and should talk about. Yes, to some extent, the theory of small deeds has failed we did things, but we didn’t do enough, since now we are faced with all of this. So we have to do it now. Now is the best moment to do rather than giving up, to help each other, while self-flagellation and feeling guilty, in my opinion, are unproductive.

– What were conditions like at the temporary detention center?

I was in a cell for two in the temporary detention center on Zakharyevskaya [in Petersburg’s Central District]. Compared to the police station, where I had spent two days, things were quite good there. My cellmate was a young woman who had been sentenced to administrative arrest over a fight with her husband; she had a black eye. She and her husband, who had been given ten days of administrative arrest, would shout back and forth to each other there. She had been jailed for seven days for their fight with each other. We had rec time in the yard. When we were walking with the other young women and talking, she would say, “My husband and I are doing our time here together.” The girls would immediately ask whether they had been detained together at an anti-war rally. She was embarrassed to tell the truth: she was the only non-political arrestee among us.

– Tell us about your family.

– On my mother’s side, we have our own plot at the Volkovo Cemetery. The oldest grave is that of Apollon Alexandrov, who died in 1866, but when he was alive he was something like a caretaker at the Alexandrinsky Theater. Basically, he was tangentially involved with art, and I have a long family history on my mother’s side. Some of my relatives are from Ukraine: for example, my ancestors include the famous artist Ivan Makukho–Makushenko, a People’s Artist of Ukraine. The surname was later split into Makukho and Makushenko. Among Dad’s ancestors (Yevgenia’s father is Maxim Isayev, an artist, director, actor, playwright, and co-founder of the AKHE Engineering Theater – SR) there is a Jewish line, whose graves are at the Transfiguration Cemetery. There is a family legend that a young woman, the daughter of a rich rabbi, and a revolutionary–minded poor Jewish boy ran away from Gomel to Petersburg and started that line. The family albums have been preserved at home: you look at pre–war photos and see how there are fewer and fewer men in the pictures: crackdowns and war took their toll, people disappeared and died. I have a very good sense of the two-hundred-year history of my family’s relations with Petersburg. Sitting in the temporary detention center, I read the essays of Joseph Brodsky. He had the idea that in Petersburg they show you the house where Dostoevsky lived, and then they show you Raskolnikov’s house: life equals literature. I lucked out with teachers at school: my literature teacher made sure that the poetry of the Silver Age has stayed with me. The romance with the city is part of my own myth. I draw Petersburg, I write about it. It is a friend, a lover, and a companion. I feel like I’m a part of it. So I don’t have the passionarity [sic] for emigration: there is no place like home.

– Have you asked yourself whether you should stay or leave?

– After the collapse of the Roman Empire came the Dark Ages, when literacy disappeared: everything was so badly destroyed that people forgot how to write, they forgot what these signs meant. But writing later re-emerged. It is very important now to carry the light through these Dark Times. Not everyone will leave [Russia]. There are children here, and they will grow into young people. I grew up in the culture of the nineties, when “freedom” was the watchword, and was greatly treasured. It is very important to sustain this freedom. Even if everything is banned, we must remain free.

Source: Sever.Realii (Radio Svoboda), 29 April 2022. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the link. Translated by the Russian Reader

Canceled in Venice

In the evening, after the Biennale has closed, I meet a young woman in a nun’s costume in the square. She offers me a candle and shows me her work: an icon of the Seven Arrows Mother of God, before whose image one should pray for the reconciliation of warring parties. The artist does not want to give her name, because icon painters should remain anonymous; she says only that she came to Venice from Budapest. “Radio Svoboda?” She is surprised. “Haven’t you been shut down yet?” But so far only the Russian Pavilion and the luxurious exhibition space belonging to the Russian billionaire [Leonid] Mikhelson’s V-A-C Foundation have been shuttered in Venice. Posters calling for the complete cancelation of imperialist Russian culture hang on the walls here and there. The QR code on the posters opens a manifesto, whose authors suggest switching our attention to Ukrainian culture. This has already happened at the Biennale.

Source: Dmitry Volchek, Radio Svoboda, 26 April 2022. Photo by Dmitry Volchek for Radio Svoboda. Translated by the Russian Reader

Decolonization

There are fewer than 2,000 Tubalars, a Turkic nation in the Altai, but they have effectively been collectively declared a foreign agent with the banning of their national cultural public organization, the latest abuse of a little-notice people far from the center of Russia.

As Ilya Azar of Novaya gazeta reports, “the Russian authorities, the Church, private business and even scientific and technical progress have consistently deprived the Tubalars of the[ir] accustomed milieu, their health and their national-cultural autonomy.” Labelling them foreign agents is the logical next step (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2022/03/22/inoagent-komarik).

In a 12,000-word article about one of the least known peoples of the Russian Federation, Azar says that Moscow banned the organization which unites almost all Tubalars as a foreign agent because it accepted money from the World Wildlife Fund and from other foreign groups to protect the cedar trees and animals that are the basis of Tubalar life.

But the Russian journalist reports that many Tubalars assume the call for this action came from others in the Altai Republic because in their view no one in Moscow knows enough about or cares what happens to them. Consequently, someone local is to blame, although that person still unknown is relying on Russian laws to gain access to resources the Tubalars control.

One likely consequence of this action by the Russian justice ministry is that the continued presence of the Tubalars on the list of protected numerically small nationalities is at risk. Without the aid they have received as a result of being included on that list, the Tubalars face a bleak future.

Their language is already dying out, their national traditions are under attack, and outsiders, predominantly ethnic Russians are coming in. Thus, for them, being labelled foreign agents is a sign that the passing of a people who have lived in the Altai from time immemorial is rapidly approaching. 

Source: Window on Eurasia (Paul Goble), 30 March 2022


The inimitable Benjaminian magic of social media: a screenshot from this blog’s Twitter feed, 30 March 2022.
Sources: Olena Halushka and Anton Shekhovtsov

Neither Putin’s speech preceding the invasion (where he stated that the very idea of Ukrainian statehood was a fiction), nor the invasion itself are something new or unseen – they are merely the next steps in a long history of the Russian colonial perception of Ukraine and Ukrainian culture as a threat that has to be destroyed.

Regardless of this, there are still numerous voices, especially among the “westerners”, calling for the separation of Russian culture from what they call “Putin’s aggression”. One of the most illustrious examples of such shortsightedness is the open letter by PEN-Deutschland, which explicitly states that “the enemy is Putin, not Pushkin or Tolstoy”, and in regard to the calls for boycotting Russian culture notes that “іf we allow ourselves to be carried away by such reflexes, by generalizations and hostility against Russians, madness has triumphed, reason and humanity have lost”. Thus, not only does this statement infantilize the whole of Russian society and redirect the guilt of warmongering onto a single person, but also, on a larger scale, it seems to completely ignore the fact that precisely Pushkin and precisely Tolstoy – among many others – were vocal promoters of the Russian imperial myth and colonial wars.

The historical lack of understanding of Russian culture as imperial and colonial by nature, and of its bearers as people who belong to a privileged group, along with the firmly engraved perception of Russian culture being more important in comparison with the cultures of neighbouring countries has resulted in the current Western belief that the suffering of Ukrainians, killed by Russian artillery and bombing, are largely equal to the inconveniences of Russian civilians. Through this lens, both Ukrainians and Russians are equally considered to be the victims of Putin’s criminal regime. And thus we see a rise in Western emergency residencies and scholarships for artists and scholars from Ukraine AND Russia. We also see plenty of panel discussions on the ongoing war where Western organizers invite participants both from Ukraine and Russia.

Moreover, the responses to sanctions imposed on Russia and the calls for boycotting its culture more and more frequently come with accusations of discrimination, “russophobia”, and hatred. Thus, a reaction directly caused by military aggression becomes reframed as unprovoked hatred of an ethnic group.

In a new music video by the Russian band Leningrad, today’s position of Russians is compared to the position of Jews in Berlin in 1940. To illustrate this comparison, people in the video wear traditional Russian kosovorotkas with makeshift Stars of David attached to them. Such an interpretation is a blatant insult to the memory of the victims of the Shoah. Moreover, the rhetoric of the band discursively coincides with the manipulative methods of Russian propaganda.

Source: Lia Dostlieva and Andrii Dostliev, “Not all criticism is Russophobic: on decolonial approach to Russian culture,” Blok, 29 March 2022. Thanks to Alevtina Kakhidze for the heads-up.

“President, Change Course!”: Yelena Osipova, The 77-Year-Old on the Frontlines of Petersburg’s Anti-War Protests

Police detain Yelena Osipova during a protest in Petersburg in March 2022. The placards she is holding call for the elimination of nuclear weapons throughout the world. Photo: Yelena Lukyanova/Novaya Gazeta

“President, Change Course!”
Yelena Osipova, a 77-year-old artist, has been taking to the streets of St. Petersburg for twenty years with her painted placards on the day’s most burning issues

Some call her the city’s conscience, while others call her the city’s disgrace — just as some consider the “special operation” a humanitarian disaster, while others regard it a liberation campaign. But Yelena Andreyevna Osipova is more afraid of people who are indifferent than of her opponents.

There have never been major renovations in the late nineteenth-century residential building where Yelena Andreyevna lives. Her communal flat is chockablock with furniture that was purchased at least half a century ago. When her guests arrive, the artist takes out a new small white towel embroidered with New Year’s tree toys. Yelena Andreyevna treats us to rice and vegetables. When she puts it on our plates, she says, “It’s delicious, there’s even meat in it.” She is glad that she has a pack of tea in her pantry. She opens it, explaining that the other day that the social security department bought her a grocery care package since she is officially poor.

Yelena Osipova in the kitchen of her communal flat. Photo: Yelena Lukyanova/Novaya Gazeta

All her life, Osipova, who graduated from art school, taught fine art in the schools. But she retired thirteen years ago.

“You have to smile at children,” she says, “but after the death of my only son [in 2009], I couldn’t smile anymore.”

Yelena Andreyevna’s pension is six thousand rubles a month [approx. 56 euros]. She receives another one and a half thousand rubles as a low-income allowance.

“Last month they added a little more — it came to about nine thousand. And the maintenance bill is five thousand. Pay, lie down and die?” the pensioner asks rhetorically. “Of course, I don’t pay for anything. I spend money only on food. My landline telephone was cut off for non-payment. I haven’t been fined [for detentions during street protests] because I have no money to pay them.”

Yelena Osipova. Photo: Yelena Lukyanova/Novaya Gazeta

“Sometimes unkind people reproach me, claiming that I am paid, that I protest for money, and so on. What money?” the artist asks, perplexed. “All my placards are at my house, I haven’t sold a single one in twenty years. Other people photograph them, make copies and sell them. But I can’t be responsible for that anymore. Sometimes people on the street try to give me money, they sincerely want to help, I see that. But I can’t take their money. If I took even a single ruble, it would negate everything I do. I’m not doing it for the money, but out of conviction. I don’t peddle my convictions.”

Yelena Osipova’s room in a communal flat in Petersburg’s Central District. Photo: Yelena Lukyanova/Novaya Gazeta

Several years ago, Petersburgers raised five thousand rubles so that the artist could pay a fine for involvement in a protest rally. But she sent the money to the men who were convicted in the Bolotnaya Square case.

Yelena Andreyevna began voicing her views and beliefs publicly — by picketing with handmade placards in the street — in 2002, after the Nord-Ost siege. She has not stopped since, despite intimidation and prohibitions from the authorities. The artist’s works, her placards and paintings, fill her room in a communal flat from floor to ceiling, as well as a closet and a corridor.

“On the night when the Dubrovka Theater was stormed, I was working at home. I was painting a picture, sitting on the sofa in front of the TV,” she recalls. “The events at the Dubrovka were shown live. Everyone was waiting for the finale, me among them, and I witnessed that horror. I saw a girl with a huge braid being carried out like firewood, and her braid was dangling behind. I saw buses filled with people with their heads thrown back. And then, a few days later, the news showed Putin arriving at a hospital, holding out his hand, and people who had been almost gassed to death, who had lost their loved ones, shook his hand.”

Yelena Osipova. Photo: Yelena Lukyanova/Novaya Gazeta

Yelena Andreyevna could not stand it. She took a piece of drawing paper and a brush and wrote, “Mr. President, change course now!” For the first time, she went to the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly on St. Isaac’s Square bearing the placard. She spent the whole day on the steps waiting for allies or at least some interest in her message, but it was in vain. In the autumn of 2002, the police detained no one for solo pickets and no cannibalistic laws on protesting had yet been adopted. No one seemed to notice the artist, however: legislative assembly members deliberately avoided looking in her direction, while passersby walked by her without stopping.

“Russians stomached the Nord-Ost siege,” says Yelena Andreyevna. “No one protested publicly. The Beslan school siege happened as a consequence. Society bit the bullet on that too. Only the parents of the dead children took to the streets with homemade placards. But the country was asleep. People have been putting up the whole time. So we now we have lived to see [war] with Ukraine, to see the whole world turning away from Russia. How could the country of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky have come to this?”

“Don’t become cannon fodder.” Photo: Yelena Lukyanova/Novaya Gazeta

“At first I was shocked that a good number of Russians supported the ‘special operation,'” Osipova admits. “When it started and I found out about it early in the morning, I took to the streets with a placard. I was in a completely suicidal mood, but people saved me. That day I saw that many people, young and not so young, shared my views. They came up to me and said thank you. One elderly man even asked me, crying, “How can I help? How can we help Ukraine?” The first time, right after the ‘special operation’ started, I stood with a placard on Nevsky Prospekt, near the monument to Catherine the Great, with the [Alexandrinsky] Theater in the background. It was a convenient place to hang up my placards, because it was already hard for me to hold them. Then I managed to picket for a long time, because I didn’t go to Gostiny Dvor [site of the main anti-war protests, a block from the Catherine the Great monument on Nevsky Prospekt]. There were policemen there, and of course they would have grabbed me right away. The young people came up with a new form of protest that day: they ran in groups up and down Nevsky Prospekt and shouted anti-war slogans. It was such a protest for peace. They didn’t have placards. But all of them were shouting. I didn’t expect this. It resurrected me.”

Yelena Osipova. Photo: Yelena Lukyanova/Novaya Gazeta

“There are also people who argue with me, scold me, attack me,” the artist says. “Recently, ladies like the ones who used to work in district Party committees, well-groomed and well-off, attacked me outside the subway. They called the police, and I was taken away. And a week ago outside the Chernyshevskaya subway station [in central Petersburg, near Osipova’s house] I was attacked by about ten titushky, men and women. They did not let me unfold my placard; they tried to take it away and even tore it. I asked passersby to dial 02 so that the police would come and protect me. It is hard for me to judge whether there are more people who attack and condemn me, or more who support me. But for sure the majority of people are indifferent, the ones who walk by without stopping or looking. They don’t want to think about the future or about their children. The main problem is that this whole thing will be left to our children. They will have to clean up everything after we’re gone. A society that doesn’t think about the future has no right to exist.”

The past twenty years have not improved Osipova’s health. It is now difficult for her to stand if she has nothing to lean against — her back hurts, her legs ache. It is hard for her to hold up placards for long. She has to be carried into the police paddy wagon not because she resists, but because she just can’t get into it under her own power. However, the artist categorically insists that she feels neither fatigue, nor disappointment, nor apathy, nor powerlessness.

“On the contrary,” she claims, “I don’t know where I get the strength from. Physically, after the pandemic and due to age, I feel quite bad. I could die at any moment; only the medication keeps me going. But the strength comes from somewhere, and I go out in public to say something important while I still have the time.”

Slogan on black background: “For the preservation of St. Petersburg: our city was built by Russians, Italians, Frenchmen, and Germans.” Slogan on white background: “A Russia that won’t be feared but admired!” Photo: Yelena Lukyanova/Novaya Gazeta

Yelena Andreyevna’s main message is still for the president: it’s never too late to change course.

“Even now,” the artist argues, “this situation, which is insanely tragic, can be turned to good, so that those who died on both sides will not have died in vain, a treaty on the non-use of nuclear weapons all over the world should be adopted immediately. It would be quite right if Putin did this. He is at an age when it is time to think about repenting for the harm that he has caused people during his life.”

Source: Nina Petlyanova, Novaya Gazeta, 28 March 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader