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

The Black Square

An Open Letter from Russian Culture and Art Workers

Art and culture workers across Russia have been signing an open letter for peace in Ukraine.

This page once contained an open letter from culture and art workers, stating their opinion on the “special military operation,”* which had been signed by more than 18,000 people. On March 4, 2022, the “law on fakes” was adopted, stipulating a fine or a term of imprisonment [for publicly speaking the truth about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine]. The process of collecting signatures has now been suspended, and the text of the letter and signatures have been concealed for the safety of all signatories.


* The government forbids us from using any other term for the “special military operation.”

We remind you that according to Article 54 of the Russian Federal Constitution, “[a] law introducing or aggravating responsibility shall not have retrospective effect,” and “[n]o one may bear responsibility for [an] action which was not regarded as a crime when it was committed.”

Source: Spectate.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader

A Letter to Russia from Russia

Nadia Plungian with her textile works at the exhibition “Post-Soviet Cassandras,” 2015

A Letter to Russia

Nadia Plungian writes to Russia from Russia

The more horrifying the images from the news, the more clearly do I realize that there is a profound significance to the fact that I stayed in Russia and repeatedly turned down opportunities to leave up until now. I am also thinking about friends and colleagues from Belarus, who are in a similar situation. Our countries have completely shut down, we have no illusions of a future whatsoever. There are no outside forces responsible for making a new era dawn. It is time to say something from within this space.

Many people are writing about political suicide. But which political reality is killing itself right now? Without a doubt, it’s the Soviet Union and its successor—Soviet post-Soviet statehood. We all saw the Soviet-era apartment buildings blowing up in Kyiv and Kharkiv. In the terrible light cast by these fires, it becomes especially obvious how closely the 2000s and the 2010s followed the Soviet epoch.

This is not just about “peacekeeping missions” but about a specific type of hybrid censorship, of visible and invisible pressure. The possibility for major changes in cultural, academic, and public life has been suspended for many years now. This happened with the nearly unanimous tacit support of the older generation, who seemed to have gotten stuck in the late 1980s and demanded that we, their children, not go beyond these historical confines under any circumstances.

People my age who wanted to change something have over the past fifteen years gone through a series of political and existential conflicts which can be summed up by the phrase “do not live.” There is no sphere in which we have not had to listen to rebukes about our lack of qualifications or threats to throw us out of the profession. Science, culture, technology, art, politics, the family. New methodologies? Irrelevant. Questions of domestic violence, violence toward women and children, generational conflicts? Laughable, those problems don’t exist. National, postcolonial, gender, religious identities? Prohibited, irrelevant, incomprehensible, nonexistent. You want to prevent historical monuments from being demolished, or, say, entire historical neighborhoods? Who do you think you are? We’re bringing out the bulldozers! You want to work at a school or hospital? Go on, we’ll see how you like living hand to mouth. And the respectable people who held respectable positions in society back in the 90s have been broadly supported when they call attempts to talk about all this “a revival of Party committees,” “leveling,” and “hysterics.”

The focus on suppressing the new, on ignoring progress—generally, the focus on a defeatist rhetoric laced with threats—is hardly a new phenomenon. For fifteen years we’ve been hearing from absolutely every corner that we have no prospects. That if you’ve got a head on your shoulders you should leave for Europe right away. That only morons and idealists would want to live in “this country,” would want to deal with the dynamics of Russian society, to write textbooks here, to reform museums, schools, or universities here, to open functional academic institutions, to form some kind of decent societal platform capable of describing the past and projecting a future.

The stance taken by the older generation was formally divided into two parts, which were fueled by two late-Soviet ideologemes. Substantively, however, they were entirely united, and they were taught to us at university. One part of society declared: you are nobody because you didn’t live in the USSR; we will take away your pensions, social security, and place in society; we will force you to pay insane mortgages, we will send you to jail for comments on social media, shame you for your personal life, and not give you even the slightest access to political life. The other part of society insisted: don’t flatter yourself, take your modest little spot—after all, you will never have money and possibilities anywhere near what they have in the West; nothing you do can ever be compared to what happens in enormous Western museums or with famous Western curators; you must memorize Western philosophers and theorists by heart because you are not philosophers or theorists, you have to imitate Western artists because you are not artists; holding out hope for anything bigger is deluding yourself; and remember, if you don’t want to play by the rules of the twentieth century, the nineteenth century will come.

I don’t know why my generation was so methodically deprived of opportunities, but I think that now the final act of this show has commenced. Because there’s nothing left to trample us with. Will all the leading thirty- and forty-something specialists in our countries be fired and deprived of income, sent to prison? And what fuel will you use to move forward then? This is not the Brezhnev era. The Soviet ideology has been destroyed; postmodernism is grown over with mold. You don’t have any writers, poets, politicians, or scientists. Who will force us to re-integrate into this meaningless, self-devouring loop, and how will they do it? Most importantly, how will you fill the empty cultural centers that you’ve been building all these years in all Russian cities? How exactly will the twenty- and fourteen-year-olds, under orders from the old folks, conceptualize and glorify military strikes against neighboring countries and the choice of complete cultural isolation? By what methods? On what terms? To what end?

I’ll add one more thing. Only now am I realizing the significance of my professional choices as a historian and art historian. Back in 2002, I rejected the possibility of working with “neutral themes,” choosing instead to deal with Stalin-era Soviet art—that is, pretty much the most depressing and censored material around. It is a field in which there are no reliable answers and no readymade narratives, and in which the big methodological steps have only been taken halfway.

My work is connected with what exists here in Russia. It is based on private archives and personal testimonies that come together to form an unwritten history of the country. It brings back the cultural and intellectual presence of people who, like us, found themselves here and stayed here at a most difficult time of transition, without any hope or any right to be heard.

The path that many of my friends and have chosen brought us face to face with a hard fact: the desire to work professionally in Russia and come up with something new in the civic, academic, and cultural sense meant operating under double pressure: without support from the older generation or from Western researchers. But we had faith in other thirty-somethings. We formed our own intellectual networks in various directions within Russia and in the territories known as post-Soviet space. We went deep into our countries and studied museums, archives, architecture, and the cities themselves, to see with our own eyes and independently analyze our history without having recourse to cliches and stereotypes.

I would not have become what I am if I had not maintained contact for the past fifteen years with independent millennials from Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan; with the scholars, human rights activists, artists, and philosophers who lived in these countries and with those who were forced to leave them, along with many like-minded people in Russia. We all encountered censorship and stigmatization and taught each other how to remain thoughtful people under these conditions. We welcomed each other into our homes, using the last of our money to put together conferences, roundtables, and exhibitions, taking every opportunity to see one another and exchange know-how. Because besides us there was no one to create the foundations for a future for our free countries. There is no one now either. There is no West offering us a readymade scenario. There is not a single Soviet institution that might have solutions.

We are alone.

This war is being waged without our consent and against us, physically destroying the fruits and prospects of friendship, cooperation, and solidarity for our generation.

Nuclear threats, attacks on neighbors, closed borders—this is the crazed twentieth century, screaming at us to heel.

But history will not grant it this authority. There is no such thing as the past dictating the rules for the future, or the past dragging the future into its old coffin.

Twentieth century, you tossed us out of your cubicles and deprived us of places in politics a long time ago. But this has had only one result—we are now free to choose our own places in politics and culture.

Nadia Plungian is a Moscow-based art historian, curator, and feminist activist. Source: Colta.ru, 1 March 2022. Translated by the Fabulous AM

Being Vladimir Putin

[Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe:] For example, when I first dressed up as Putin, I had the feeling that I had become some kind of colossal totemic maggot, which was about to burst from the shit it had eaten.

At the same time, I was not a villain, but a “forest sanitation worker” [sanitar lesa: animals such as ants, birds, wolves, badgers, etc., who “sanitize” their environment as predators and scavengers, are called sanitary lesa] and I had to devour our deceased country, the great Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, as soon as possible, so that a new life could begin as soon as possible.

[Interviewer:] Do you think he’ll consume us after all?

[Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe:] Yes, and quite soon. You know, in Bali, where I have lived for a very long time, there are lots of different parasites — wood beetles and termites. A luxurious teak cabinet in the style of the Dutch masters stands in the house. You use it every day, you have clothes hanging in it, but at some point you touch it — and it crumbles. It has simply been devoured. That’s what will happen to our country.

Thanks to Andrey Silvestrov for the quotation. I traced it to an Afisha magazine interview that it is no longer accessible. The passage as quoted here I found on Andrei Amalgin’s LiveJournal blog. Amalgin, in turn, cites this 2013 LiveJournal blog post about the late great performance artist Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe. The image above, from the 2005 series of staged photographs entitled StarZ, is courtesy of Mutual Art. Translated by the Russian Reader