“Lie Still, Bitch!”

ammosov-1Anton Ammosov. Courtesy of OVD Info

Beaten, Sacked and Threatened with Torture: The Story of a Man Detained for Posting Comments about the FSB
OVD Info
April 24, 2019

In November 2018, libertarian Anton Ammosov was detained in Yakutsk by FSB officers. The officers beat him in their car and threatened to torture him. Then his home was searched, he was sacked from his job, and his home was searched a second time. Ammosov had warranted this treatment only because he had commented on news stories about the Network case and the suicide bombing at FSB headquarters in Arkhangelsk in October 2018. Ammosov told OVD Info about what happened to him and how his life changed with the FSB’s advent.

I was then still employed as a systems administrator at the Ammosov Northeastern Federal University. My boss telephoned me on the evening of November 20, 2018. He told me I had to go to the personnel department at eight the following morning and bring my [internal] passport with me. I was really surprised, because the personnel department opened at nine. But my boss insisted I had to be there by eight and the matter was urgent.

The next day I arrived at the university at the scheduled time. I was seen by the deputy head of the personnel department. I wondered why he was personally handling the matter. He took my passport and left the office for five minutes. He said he had to make photocopies. He told me some rubbish about problems with the database. I realized he was doing what the FSB told him to do. I heard him talking to someone on the phone, but I did not put two and two together. I spent ten to fifteen minutes in the personnel department.

I went outside, planning to walk to the building where I worked. I had walked only a few meters when I heard a van’s side door opening. Armed, masked men threw me down on the snow.

“Lie still, bitch!” they screamed.

They beat me, cuffed my hands behind my back, and pulled my cap down to my nose. I could not see a thing. I was dragged into the van, which immediately took off.

I was placed in the front row of seats with my knees on the floor. My scarf and the cap pulled down over my face suffocated me. I was beaten on the back, kidneys, and buttocks. I was hit in the head several times, but when I screamed I was officially disabled and had glaucoma, they stopped hitting me in the head.

When I asked why I had been detained, the masked men responded by beating me harder. One of them either sat on my back or pressed it with his knee. He twisted my fingers, trying to unblock my phone, but there was no fingerprint sensor on my smartphone. The man twisted my little fingers. He said he would break them if I did not tell him the password to my telephone. Then he said they would take me straight to the right place for such things and torture me with electrical shocks by hooking me up to a generator. One of the FSB guys quoted what I had written in the comments section of the regional news website ykt.ru.

I had written there that FSB officers were cooking up criminal cases and torturing people with generators. I had written about the Network case. I wrote about the young man who had blown himself up in Arkhangelsk. There was also a news item about the FSB’s having detained someone for a post on the social network VK, and I had published an unflattering comment about them.

We drove for twenty minutes. They beat me the entire way, threatening to torture me with electrical shocks.

ammosov-2FSB headquarters in Yakutsk. Courtesy of Google Maps and OVD Info

The car stopped. They pulled me roughly to my feet and dragged me somewhere. Along the way, they constantly dropped me on the marble floor. I hit my knees on the floor several times. They also made a point of slamming my whole body against door jambs and columns. They joked about how clumsy they were. Every time they dropped me on the floor they told me to get up. When I was unable to get up on my own, they would jerk me to my feet by pulling me up by both arms. The handcuffs dug into my wrists.

I was taken into a room. I could see only the floor and my feet: the caps was pulled over my face the whole time. They stood me beside the wall while they rifled my backpack. They took the cap off and asked about the medications in my backpack. It was then I saw them: five men in sand-colored uniforms and balaclavas. They were strapping and tall, with blue eyes, meaning they were not locals. Apparently, locals are not hired by the FSB in the ethnic republics.

I was asked about the medicine before they pulled the cap back over my eyes. They said they were going to eat meat and when they returned, they would torture by shocking me using a generator. I was really afraid. I did not understand what was happening. I had not yet been told why I was detained.

An FSB field officer wearing no mask came in a while later. I gathered he was an investigator. He asked me about the password to my phone. I was standing next to the wall, the cap pulled over my eyes. I said nothing. I refused to speak to him. He said he would call in the boys in masks. They would “do their number” on me and I would talk whether I wanted or not. It was thus in my interests to give him the password; otherwise, I would  be tortured badly. I cracked and told him the password. The field officer was happy.

My hat was removed and I was sat down in a chair.

“What is happening? Why have you detained me?” I asked him.

“You know why,” the field officer replied. He said they had been watching me for a long time. They had a case file on me. He was glad to meet me in person.

I found out why I had been detained only a few hours earlier.

A major entered the office. He said someone had posted a picture containing threats against the FSB in the comments section of the website ykt.ru. They thought I had done it. I replied I had not done it. There were 20,000 students and 6,000 staff member at the university, and they all had the same IP address. I got the impression the major did not understood much about this stuff. He said the FSB surveilled WhatsApp and Telegram and read everything.

Interrogation
When they unblocked my phone, they asked me what I thought about anarchism, whether I knew Mikhail Zhlobitsky, what I thought about him, and what my political views were. They asked about Telegram and what I had been doing on the chat group Rebel Talk, whether I had been looking for allies there. They asked me what I thought about Putin, Russia, and Navalny.

I had joined the chat group out of curiosity for a day or two. I had learned about it in the news reports about the bombing in Arkhangelsk. I was on it for a while, wrote a bit, left the group, and forgot about. I did not write anything worth mentioning in the chat group.

During the interrogation. I realized I was on lists of theirs. I could have got on the lists due to the speech I gave at an anti-corruption rally in Yakutsk in June 2017.

I was in the FSB office for around eight hours. It was a room three meters by four meters, and it was not heated. I was handcuffed to the chair. I was not provided with legal counsel.

They threatened to shoot me, saying traitors like me should be executed. They were surprised by my ethnicity. They said I was the first Yakut they had detained on such charges. They threatened to leave me in the FSB’s remand prison. The field officer told me he had murdered many people. He asked me to give him an excuse to beat the crap out of me or cripple me.

ammosov-3Remand Prison No. 1 in Yakutia. FSB officers threatened to send Anton Ammosov there. Courtesy of Google Maps and OVD Info 

The masked mem threatened me when they did not like my answers to questions. They had to tell me what they wanted to hear from me. They told me my home would be searched. They would be looking for a bomb or part for making a bomb.

At around five in the evening, I was taken to another office, which had windows. I realized it was evening, because it was dark outside. The state-provided attorney came. I told him I had been beaten and threatened. He could not have cared less. He made no mention of my complaints in the papers that were drawn up. He signed them and left.

I spent approximately twelve hours at FSB headquarters, until nine in the evening. I was not fed, given anything to drink or allowed to make a phone call the entire time.  My wife had no idea what had become of me.

My wife thought I had been hit by a car or died. She called all the morgues. All my relatives searched for me, because I had never disappeared before. My wife was getting ready to go to the police when the FSB agents brought me home. My wife wept when she saw us.

They showed us a document claiming the search was conducted due to my comments on the website. They did not let us photograph the search warrant, which had been issued by a court only at five in the afternoon te same day, meaning after they detained me.

The search took two hours. They confiscated two desktop computers, my work laptop, flash drives, hard drives, a router, and telephones. They told me to buy a new telephone and SIM card right away and report to FSB headquarters at one o’clock the next day.

I was told they wanted to charge me with vindicating terrorism because I had written “Well done, kid” under a news report about the bombing in Arkhangelsk.

They found out about the comment because of what I told them during the interrogation. I had thought the whole affair had kicked off due to the remark, but it later transpired they did not know about it.

My posts on Telegram and comments to news reports were sent off for a forensic examination by linguists.

I fell asleep that day only towards morning. I did not eat at all for the next three days: I had no appetite. I went to FSB headquarters as if I were going to work. I was summoned nearly every day.

They asked me again about my political views and what anarchism was. I replied I did not support anarchism. I identified myself as a libertarian, but not a radical one. I believed the state was a necessity, but not a state like the one we had in Russia.

I was also asked about Navalny. I said I supported him.

The Beating
Because I was summoned to the FSB, I was not able to have my injuries from the beating medically certified. I made it to the emergency room only on November 23. The medics refused to document my injuries when I told him FSB officers had beaten me. They kicked me out of the emergency room, telling me they did not need any trouble. They suggested I go to the medical examiner’s office.

When I came to the medical examiner’s office, they initially agreed to document my injuries, but when they found out who had injured me, they kicked me out of the surgery and demanded a reference from the Russian Investigative Committee.

The lawyer whom my mom helped me find after what happened at the FSB suggested I go to an outpatient clinic and have my injuries documented there, but without telling them who injured me. Otherwise, they would turn me down, too. That was just what I did.

The GP, a woman, documented I had been beaten all over, suffering soft-tissue bruises on the back, the buttocks, and both knee joints. It was not certain whether my kidneys had been injured. An eye doctor prescribed drops. In the summer of 2018, I had glaucoma implant surgery. After I was beaten in the van, not allowed to put drops in my eyes at the FSB, and stood hunched over, which I am definitely not supposed to do, I had poor vision in my sick eye.

Sacking
A few days later. I learned that. on November 21, the day I was detained, FSB officers had come to my workplace at the university around two in the afternoon. They confiscated my two desktop computers and all the laptops in the office, despite the fact they were not mine. They also took three printers, one of which was out of order, routers, flash drives, and notebooks.

The videotape from university surveillance cameras showing the FSB abducting me also vanished from the university.

On December 29, university rector Yevgenia Isayevnva Mikhaylova summoned me to her office.

She asked what happened, why security services officers had come after me, and inquired about my political views. She then said I should write a resignation letter. I told here I did not want to do it. She replied it was people like me who undermined the university’s image. She disparaged Navalny every which way to Sunday. She said Putin was the best president and he should reign forever.

That is verbatim.

After I refused to resign voluntarily, Mikhaylova said she had to react to events so the FSB would see she had punished me. She suggested I quit for a while. Then she would rehire me and transfer me to a new department. I would not have minded such a transfer, by the way, but I did not trust her, of course.

ammosov-4Ammosov Northeastern Federal University. Courtesy of Google Maps and OVD Info 

When I came back to work after the New Year holidays, I learned by chance a few days later that I had been sacked in late December. A colleague had access to the university’s 1C Database. It said there I had turned in my resignation letter on December 29, that is, the day after my meeting with the rector. But that was not true.

The folks in the personnel department twisted every which way in the wind. They said I had been sacked in order to transfer me to another position. They suggested I sign a resignation letter and backdate it. I refused to do this. But then the head of the personnel department told me the FSB had called. She thought it had been a signal to sack me. It was clear, however, she had not made to decision to sack me. The rector had told her to do it.

When I told the FSB officer handling my case I was being sacked, he said he would phone the university and find out what the problem was. Subsequently, I was transferred to another department.

There I was assigned work that did not fit my specialization: I was supposed to do paperwork. I was transferred to a job I was unable to do. I was put in the coldest corner of the room and given an old computer.

I resigned two weeks later. I realized that was the whole point. Subsequently, I got a job at a technical creativity center, where I now teach robotics to children. After the new year, the FSB ceased summoning me to interrogations.

The Second Search
At six in the morning on April 2, regular police and Investigative Committee officers rang our doorbell, demanding we open it. The security forces offices showed us a search warrant issued by the Basmanny District Court in Moscow. The search’s ostensible purpose was to confiscate electronic devices that could contain correspondence with Zhlobitsky. I was an official witness in the case.

I was told I had been corresponding with Zhlobitsky on VK under the pseudonym Pyotr Vasilyev or Vasily Petrov. However, I had not been registered on VK for many years. The accusation was thus utter rubbish.

During the search, the authorities confiscated two desktop computers, a flash drive, a hard drive, and two telephones. I was then taken to the Investigative Committee for an interrogation. I was again questioned about Zhlobitsky.

A few days later, I got another phone call from the FSB field agent. He chewed me out. He said I had concealed the Investigative Committee’s visit from him. He told me I had not been sincere with the FSB. He threatened to put me on a list of politically unreliable citizens. I would be banned from employment in the state sector and sacked from my current job.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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“Court-Martial Putin!”

citizen putin van

“Citizen Putin! Don’t reduce Russia to Syria: don’t run for president anymore. We are going to have deal with fixing the consequences of your rule for years as it is.” Dmitry Skurikhin embossed this slogan on his van in early 2015—presciently, before the Kremlin sent its military to defend the Assad regime later the same year. Photo courtesy of Novy Krasnosel

Yevgenia Litvinova
Facebook
April 25, 2019

[The following was dispatched by Open Russia.]

In Petersburg, an Open Russia activist was detained at a courthouse and taken to a police station for wearing a patch on his jacket that read “Court-Martial Putin.”

Businessman and civic activist Dmitry Skurikhin was detained at the St. Petersburg City Court. He was at the courthouse to attend a hearing appealing a three-day jail sentence for his involvement in the Angry Mothers March.

Police detained Skurikhin because of the phrase “Court-martial Putin,” embroidered on his blazer. Bailiffs stopped him at the entrance to the court and hit the alarm button, summoning a squad of armed policemen to the courthouse. Skurikhin was taken to the 29th Police Precinct, where police attempted to make him explain his “unauthorized picket” at the courthouse.

After discussing the matter with the police, Skurikhin was released. He went to the courthouse, where he was allowed inside without hindrance. But the hearing in his case, scheduled for one o’clock, had already adjourned. The case had been heard in his absence. Skurikhin has filed a complaint with the court’s chairman on this point.

A businessman from Leningrad Region and father of five children, Skurikhin has gained notoriety for the political posters he puts up in one of his stores, posters inspired by current events. Local police have tried on several occasions to fine Skurikhin for the alleged misdemeanor of “placing announcements in an inappropriate place.” Skurikhin has, however, been acquitted by courts on each occasion.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Mark H. Teeter: Turn on the News

tumblr_m58pus9vFN1qz9qooo1_500Marilyn Monroe doing a spit-take.

And Now the News, With Somebody You Weren’t Expecting
Mark H. Teeter
Moscow TV Tonite
April 7, 2019

The accepted wisdom among high-dome media analysts here in Russia has been that Muscovites who checked on-the-hour radio news either tuned in Ekho Moskvy or Kommersant FM for actual news, in larger and smaller doses, respectively, plus commentary from sources who were relevant and informed or were supposed to be.

Or they got earfuls of untruths, half-truths or misrepresentations of the news from just about everywhere else on the dial, along with pseudo-commentary from various professional spokes-liars (presidential, ministerial, etc.) or professional dim bulbs (Russian MPs, selected idiots on the street, somebody’s cousin Vanya).

Whether or not you accept this accepted wisdom, there has been an interesting recent development you should note: an intriguing Third Way that you may have missed (as I did until recently) has opened up here in the New Muscovite ether for listeners keen on locally sourced radio news coverage. Its creators have given their project’s genre the highfalutin name Avtorskie Novosti, that is, Auteur News, by analogy with avtorskoe kino or auteur cinema.

You might, however, dub the genre The News from Somebody Noteworthy Who Doesn’t Do Radio News for a Living and Might Offer an Interesting Take on Today’s Edition of It.

Auteur News was the brainchild of the modest-sized NSN (Natsionalnaya Sluzhba Novostei), which described the project, as I discovered on its website, in alluring terms.

Auteur News from NSN is a radio program broadcast simultaneously by three stations (Nashe Radio, Rock FM, Radio Jazz) with a daily audience of 1.5 million people in Moscow and four million in Russia. The presenters of Auteur News are well known to listeners, as they are among the most famous people in the country. Currently, 200 contributors are involved in the project.

That thumbnail sketch should pique the interest of listeners numbed by Ekho’s necessary but wearisome good accounts of bad news and the embarrassing agitprop elsewhere on the dial: “President Vladimir Putin today signed another new law to make life better and happier.”

Question No. 1 in the minds of potential listeners would likely be, “Wait, just who are the Auteur 200?” And they would be right to ask. Nikita Mikhalkov is certainly a famous person, for example, but many people would feel more confident getting their news and commentary from a bag of doorknobs.

But let’s start with the glass half full: a brief retelling of how I came across Auteur News.

The wife and I often put on Radio Jazz quietly as background music to dinner, when the grandson, who hates jazz, isn’t joining us.

We were listening to it with one ear, as usual, when the news came on at 8:00 p.m. one recent evening.

Imagine my surprise when a measured female voice from the seemingly politics-free jazz station launched into a four-point litany of items-plus-commentary that seemed like something you’d call Real News with Real Attitude.

The Ministry of Finance, Radio Jazz told us, had “refused to provide the Russian Academy of Sciences funding for international scholarly and scientific cooperation,” which would result in Russia “finding itself in the backwaters of science again, the fruits of which we already know from the Soviet period.”

A repeat of that would be, the voice continued, a “very sad” prospect.

Hmm! My one-ear listening quickly ratcheted up to one-and-a-half-ear listening.

Radio Jazz continued on a more upbeat note.

“Kirill Serebrennikov’s ballet Nureyev was named Ballet of the Year by the jury of the professional music award BraVo,” with the presentation taking place at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.

This wouldn’t seem a particularly newsworthy story: the ballet had won a sizable basket of international awards since its premiere in 2017. Ah, but then you recalled the scandals surrounding the production here, including the arrest of the director, and the overall public attitude toward things artistic identified with “non-traditional orientations.”

But the announcement of the award was not the end of the item, as the presenter continued.

“I had the good fortune to see the ballet Nureyev It really is a wonderful ballet, striking from many points of view. And considering that Kirill Serebrennikov, in fact, staged the ballet by long distance, so to speak, the outcome is little short of a miracle. It is sad our national know-how is linked to creative events in ways that are not positive. But I would like to congratulate Serebrennikov on this well-deserved award. May he have the strength to overcome all his trials.”

Wow, just wow. It dawned on me what I was hearing was not only not The News in Putinese. It was news-plus-opinion that would make many Putinistas angry and hostile. I was beginning to wonder whether black sedans and a police van were heading toward Radio Jazz that very minute.

Next, Radio Jazz reported that an ominous institution called the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia, which sounds even more ominous in Russian (Federalnaya Sluzhba Ispolneniya Nakazanii, or Federal Service for the Enforcement of Punishments) now “want[ed] to oblige its employees to apologize to prisoners in cases where their rights and freedoms have been violated.” As in, “Sorry for the rubber hoses and the knuckle sandwich there, Petrov, we didn’t mean to, y’know, violate your rights and freedoms and stuff.”

As absurd as it sounded to me, it sounded even worse to the Radio Jazz news commentator.

“What a Kafkaesque reality! We will torture people, but then apologize to them. I don’t really understand how these things go together. Lately, I’ve been seeing various features of the old utopian Soviet mindset in a great number of legislative acts. You get the feeling lawmakers don’t understand what is happening in reality at all and create an attractive little mockup of it for themselves, to placate their consciences. As in, ‘Go right ahead, citizens, demand an apology from your jailers for beating and torturing you.'”

Kafka and sarcasm are surely justified in passing along this news item, I agree, but it was still hard to believe my ears. At this point, I was experiencing a flashback impulse to close the kitchen door and huddle around the radio so the neighbors wouldn’t hear us listening to illegal “foreign voices”!

The final item Radio Jazz offered its evening listeners to ponder was a question about as philosophical as a news broadcast gets: How happy are you?

First, the context.

“Finland is the happiest country in the world,” Radio Jazz told us by way of summing up the annual World Happiness Report. “This ranking of global happiness takes into account GDP per capita, life expectancy, charitable contributions, social support, the level of freedom and the level of corruption in terms of their impact on residents ‘vital decisions.’”

Well, Miss Radio Jazz News gave the neighboring Finns plenty of credit.

“Frankly speaking, I am ready to agree right off with this award, because in Finland they do a huge number of social projects. The Finnish people try to be at the center of their own culture. For example, if a festival takes place in a large city in this country, the residents of the surrounding villages are brought there free of charge by bus so  they can be involved in culture. I won’t even mention many other important laws related to social status, support for the population, and so on. In sum, we should follow the path of Finland, and not, say, North Korea.”

The last time I heard a Russian newsreader say, “Let’s not be North Korea” was, let’s see here, carry the two, ah, that’s right: never. Which was why I almost lost a mouthful of after-dinner decaf doing a Danny Thomas spit-take over the kitchen table as the news ended. A little went up my nose, but it was still worth it.

After the shock wore off, a little laptop skating yielded some background on the presenter and commentator of that evening’s edition of Auteur News: “Irina Prokhorova, editor-in-chief of the publishing house New Literary Review, specially edited what she thought were the top stories of the day for NSN.”

All I could say was, Nice job, Irina, and here’s hoping you get another turn at Auteur News before unpleasant men in ill-fitting suits are sent to chat with you at your place of work.

A further bit of web surfing still did not yield what I wanted most: a list of the Auteur 200 and a schedule of their appearances for, say, the upcoming month. But I did dig up a little more background.

I discovered that Auteur News had been on the air for nearly five years, and over 200 presenters had contributed, including politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, politican and TV presenter Pyotr Tolstoy, football star Ruslan Nigmatullin, actor Sergey Bezrukov, rock musician Andrei Makarevich, writer Sergey Lukyanenko and other Russian celebrities.

This was clearly a very hit-and-miss kind of thing, I could tell. You can imagine setting a long jump record with a sudden vault across the kitchen to turn the radio off before “Auteur News with Vladimir Zhirinovsky” (or Pyotr Tolstoy) abused your eardrums, but if such leaps of faith were what it took to get the likes of Makarevich, long implicitly banned from state-controlled media as an “enemy of the people,” back in the public arena, then maybe it was worth it, I figured.

Yes, perhaps sharing the airwaves with the loud and confused was not too great a price to pay for getting a great unheard voice of reason heard again.

And that, it has long been assumed here, is the same devil’s bargain by which the majority Gazprom-owned Ekho Moskvy stays on the air: lowbrow types and state shills get air time so real news and sane views can reach millions who would otherwise have to scan the dial for “foreign voices” or, more likely, give up the dial altogether and simply glue their eyes and ears to social media.

Which doesn’t sound so bad at first blush, until you recall that social media were instrumental in blessing our brave new millennium with President Donald Trump, who has in turn introduced us to a new and apparently effective form of zombie-generating, masses-manipulating monologue that substitutes for press releases, news conferences, and indeed governance itself: the Auteur Tweet.

Yikes.

In any case, I was still bothered by one thing: how a longtime listener to Radio Jazz could have remained blissfully unaware of Auteur News for the first five years of its existence. Were the presenters less outspoken before? Or did my long-suffering ears simply click automatically to OFF for any radio news that happened to reach them from a station other than Ekho or Kommersant? Possibly both, but one more net search yielded a more likely answer.

This time, I turned up NSN’s original announcement of Auteur News, dated November 7, 2012, which noted the program would air only on weekdays, and only twice daily, at 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. If you were merely a one-ear listener, and your dinner usually ended before eight, it obviously took a bracing shot of Irina Prokhorova to get your attention.

This last search also produced a much better picture of the fabled Auteur 200, as the original announcement named names that were big time; indeed, almost all of them, as the list ran to some 178 people (if my count was correct). And the Big Picture spectrum is a broad one: there are plenty of presenters an educated listener would definitely like to hear an earful from. Beyond Makarevich, the list included director Serebrennikov himself, historian and journalist Nikoai Svanidze, progressive politician Irina Khakamada, saxophone legend Igor Butman, political scientist Nikolai Zlobin, filmmaker Alexei Uchitel, theater director Konstantin Raikin, satirist Mikhail Kononenko, producer and composer Stas Namin, national elections commissioner Ella Pamfilova, and a bunch more.

That said, there are just as many (probably more, actually) who would make the same listener wish he had taken his high-school long jump practice more seriously. Beyond Zhirinovsky and Tolstoy, you find motorcycle gang leader Khirurg (The Surgeon), the “pranksters” Vovan and Leksus, dim Duma stalwarts such as . . . but why list the losers here, have a look for yourself.

And relax. While there are definitely some wildcard types, including several rock musicians who use a single name (ask your grandson), you won’t find Director Doorknobs on the list. At least not yet.

Which is a reminder that, while Auteur News is a real find, without an updated contributor list and a schedule for it, you’ll need to be wary.

Irina Prokhorova was a great way to start, but the next presenter you hear might well focus on Putinista bikers running amok in Crimea.

Be prepared to leap.

Mark H. Teeter, a former opinion page editor and media columnist for the Moscow Times and the Moscow News, is the editor of Moscow TV Tonite on Facebook. His original article was lightly edited to conform with TRR’s nonexistent style guide. My thanks to Mr. Teeter for letting him reprint his article here.

_________________________________

Bugger

victimA photo showing evidence of the outrageous crime against the Russian state and Russian society committed in Yaroslavl the other day. Fortunately, nearly all mentions of it have been forcibly deleted from local media. However, some traces of the sickening crime are still faintly visible in the photo, alas. Courtesy of Kirill Poputnikov and Yarkub 

Russian Law on Offending Authorities Enforced for First Time
Ksenia Boletskaya, Elizaveta Yefimovich and Alexei Nikolsky
Vedomosti
April 2, 2019

Over the past several days, officials of Russian federal media watchdog Roskomnadzor and the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Yaroslavl have ordered local media outlets and Telegram channels to delete news about a inscription concerning Putin that was written on the local Interior Ministry headquarters building, 76.ru editor Olga Prokhorova wrote on Facebook and Yarkub wrote on its Telegram channel. Prokhorova claims other Yaroslavl media outlets have been contacted by officials about the report, and many of them have deleted it.

Yarkub reported on the morning of April 1 that police were looking for the person who scrawled “Putin ****r” [presumably, “Putin is a bugger”] on the columns of the local police headquarters building. The inscription consisted of exactly two words, so one could not conclude definitively that it was directed at the Russian president, who has the same surname. 76.ru did not quote the graffiti even in partially concealed form, but both media outlets published photographs of it. The second word in the inscription [i.e., “bugger”] was blanked out in the photos.

Vedomosti examined a copy of Roskomnadzor’s letter to Yarkub. Roskomnadzor did not explain why the news report should be deleted. Roskomnadzor wrote to other Yaroslavl media outlets that the news report violated the new law on offending the authorities. (The website TJournal has published an excerpt from the letter.)

The amendments restricting the dissemination of published matter that voices blatant disrespect for society and the state went  into effect on Friday, March 29. According to the amended law, websites are obliged to delete such matter at Roskomnadzor’s orders or face blockage. They can also be forced to pay fines starting at 30,000 rubles.

According to the new law, only the prosecutor general and his deputies can decide whether a piece of published matter offends the authorities and society, and Roskomndazor can send websites orders to remove the matter only when instructed by the prosecutor general’s office.

Roskomnadzor’s only telephone in Yaroslavl, as listed on its website, was turned off today.

A source at the prosecutor general’s office told Vedomosti the office had not sent Roskomnadzor any instructions concerning news of the inscription in Yaroslavl.

“We have had nothing to do with this,” he said.

Roskomnadzor spokesman Vadim Ampelonsky categorically refused to discuss the actions of the agency’s officials in Yaroslavl. After the new law went into force, Roskomnadzor’s local offices had been carrying out preventive work with media outlets, he said. Roskomnadzor officials had thus been trying to quickly stop the dissemination of illegal information without charging media outlets with violating the new law.

When asked whether Roskomnadzor had received instructions from the prosecutor general and his deputies about news of the inscription in Yaroslavl, Ampelonsky avoided answering the question directly.

“We can neither confirm nor deny it,” he said.

Prokhorova argues incredible pressure has been put on local Yaroslavl media.

“Our nerves are frazzled, and we have been left with a nasty taste in our mouths,” she wrote.

Yarkub’s editors claim the incident was an attempt at censorship.

In the letters they sent, Roskomnadzor’s local Yaroslavl officers did not threaten to block media outlets that did not delete the news report. But the letters and telephone calls did their work, and many local media outlets, including newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets in Yaroslavl, the website of radio station Echo of Moscow in Yaroslavl, the website of Yaroslavl TV Channel One, deleted the news report. Our source at Moskovsky Komsomolets in Yaroslavl initially told us the report about the inscription had not been deleted. Subsequently, he explained the report had been deleted at the behest of the newspaper’s Moscow editors. However, the Moscow editors claimed to know nothing about the news report’s removal.

Editors at Echo of Moscow in Yaroslavl radio station told us the news report had been deleted after several conversations with Roskomnadzor officials, but refused to say more. The official requests were recommendations, we were told by a source at the radio station who asked not to be named. Initially, Roskomnadzor asked the radio station to soften the news due to the fact that the main surname [sic] was in it. After some discussion, the editors decided to remove the report from the station’s website altogether, because “an act of hooliganism had ruffled feathers where it counted,” our source told us.

Georgy Ivanov, Kommersant Publishing House’s principal attorney, said the offensive remarks must be voiced in a blatant manner. In the news reports, the inscription has been blurred or blotted out, however. Legally, only the prosecutor general’s office can decide whether published matter is offensive or not, while Roskomnadzor’s function in these cases is more technical, he said. Roskomnadzor has been engaged in constant discussion with the media on implementing laws, but editors are not always able to interpret the agency’s communications with them, to decide whether they are recommendations or orders, and it is thus no wonder regional media perceive their interventions as coercion. Ivanov argues the Russian media had numerous worries about the new regulations on offending the authorities and fake news, and these fears had come true.

“We criticized the proposed regulations primarily because of how law enforcers and regulators act in the regions,” said Vladimir Sungorkin, director general of the popular national newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. “In Moscow, we can still foster the illusion laws are enforced as written, but out in the sticks the security forces cannot be bothered with the fine points. They often get carried away.”

Sungorkin is certain that incidents in which local officials use the law about offending the authorities and fake news to twist the media’s arm will proliferate.

“It is a birthday gift to the security services in the regions,” he said.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Ivan Ovsyannikov: How Russia’s New Laws on Disrespecting the Authorities and Fake News Will Play Out

markischer bunny

Russia: How Will the Laws on Disrespecting the Authorities and Fake News Play Out?
Ivan Ovsyannikov
Eurasianet
March 26, 2019

Six months after easing punishments for speaking out on the internet, Vladimir Putin has signed laws that would restrict freedom of speech in Russia, argue civil rights activists.

People who are deemed to have disrespectfully criticized the Russian authorities and disseminated fake news face blocked websites and stiff fines.

The new laws do not explain how to distinguish ordinary criticism of the authorities from disrespectful criticism, and fake news from honest mistakes or the truth, in cases in which the authorities have decided to declare it fake. Defining disrespect and unreliable information has been left to the discretion of the authorities.

How the New Laws Are Worded
According to Russian Federal Law No. FZ-30 and Russian Federal Law No. FZ-31, which have amended the previous law “On Information, Information Technology, and Information Security” (Russian Federal Law No. FZ-149, dated July 27, 2006), people who disseminate “unreliable socially significant information in the guise of reliable news” could be fined, under the corresponding amendments to the Russian Federal Administrative Offenses Code, between 30,000 rubles and one million rubles, while people who voice their “flagrant disrespect” for society, the state, its authorities, and its symbols “improperly” could be fined between 30,000 rubles and 300,000 rubles.

On March 18, 2019, Putin signed the corresponding law bills, as previously passed by the State Duma and the Federation Council, into law.

Russia’s federal communications watchdog Roskomnadzor now has the power to restrict access to a website that has published “false” or “disrespectful” claims, according to law enforcement agencies, without a court’s sanction.

Both law bills were tabled in the Russian parliament by Andrei Klishas, who formally represents Krasnoyarsk Territory in the Federation Council, the parliament’s nominal upper house. Klishas had previously coauthored law bills on making the Runet autonomous, on stiffening punishments for advocating separatism, on breaking rules for holding political rallies, on desecrating the national anthem, and on declaring media outlets “foreign agents.”

klishasAndrei Klishas, a member of the Russian Federation Council for Krasnoyarsk Territory. Photo courtesy of Ilya Pitalev/RIA Novosti and RBC

The Russian Government Will Be Able to Pinpoint and Block Bad News
Despite the prohibitive bent of MP Klishas’s lawmaking, he heads United Russia’s “liberal platform,” stressing that his law bills are not attempted crackdowns. When discussing the law criminalizing disrespect for the state and society, Klishas pointed to European precedents.

“The rules existing in Europe say you can criticize the authorities as much as you like and demand their resignation. […] But when you communicate with the authorities, you should show respect, because they did not appear out of the blue. They are the outcome of people’s choices,” Klishas told Znak.com in an interview published in February 2019.*

As for the law on so-called fake news, MP Klishas stressed only people who distributed knowingly false information that engendered panic and endangered society had to fear prosecution, not reporters and bloggers who made honest mistakes, he told the website.

Klishas’s stance is not shared by the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, which described his law bills as unacceptable, anti-constitutional, and a threat to the public.

“The way in which these innumerable, insane law bills are tabled reveals a simple desire to curry favor with the regime. They generate a sense of legal uncertainty. First, swearing was criminalized. Then ‘extremism’ and ‘foreign agents’ were targeted. Now fake news and ‘disrespect for the authorities’ have been added to the list. Give the well-known practice of selectively charging and convicting people for these crimes, no one knows what might get them in trouble,” says journalist and presidential human rights council member Leonid Nikitinsky.

The law on fake news does not stipulate how real news should be differentiated from counterfeits, which makes the law a bogeyman, argues Nikitinsky. The authorities can use it to trip up undesirable journalists and silence unwanted news.

Nikitinsky notes that, while Russian state propaganda is chockablock with fake news, it is is independent media that are primarily at risk of being penalized for violating the new law.

New Prohibitions Make Up for Easing of Old Bans
Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group, argues the penalties for disrespecting the authorities and fake news are meant to compensate for the partial decriminalization, in November of last year, of “extremist” statements published on the internet.

After first-time convictions for public incitement to hatred or enmity (Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 282 Part 1) were reclassified as administrative offenses, Russian police lost part of their workload. Under the so-called quota system, in which law enforcers are evaluated according to the number of crimes they have solved, the introduction of new offenses in the Administrative Offenses Code can generate new possibilities for fudging the statistics on cleared cases and conviction rates.

On the other hand, the amended law appears “liberal” only when compared with its earlier redaction, which stipulated a maximum of five years in prison for careless statements on the internet.

Improper Does Not Mean “Obscene”
If the law against fake news would probably be applied selectively, administrative charges of disrespect for the authorities and society could be a large-scale phenomenon within a few years, argues Alexander Verkhovsky, head of the SOVA Information and Analysis Center.

“People are punished five times more often under the ‘anti-extremism’ articles in the Administrative Offenses Code than under the corresponding articles in the Criminal Code. The partial decriminalization of Criminal Code Article 282 shifts the proportion even more heavily toward administrative punishments. The introduction of new articles in the Administrative Offenses Code means there will be fewer criminal prosecutions and many more administrative prosecutions,” Verkhovsky predicts.

Last year’s easing of anti-extremist laws was justified by the fact that the mechanical application of Article 282 had produced a proliferation of inmates who had no relation to extremist groups. The administrative prosecution of “disrespect for the authorities” could also balloon into a crackdown against rank-and-file Russians.

“It is difficult to predict the extent to which such cases will be politically motivated,” says Verkhovsky.

Prosecuting people of disrespect for the authorities is complicated by the lack of clarity over what can be said and what cannot. According to Roskomnadzor’s official clarification, which was not issued in connection with the new law, “four well-known words (kh.., p…., e…., and b….), as well as the words and expressions derived from them,” are considered obscene.**

Verkhovsky stresses, however, that improper does not mean obscene. The new law does not define what it means by “improperly.”

Nikitinsky agrees.

“You can arbitrarily call anything improper,” he says.

The Authorities Are More Sensitive to Criticism 
According to Chikov, the passage of Klishas’s law bills is the regime’s knee-jerk reaction to its dwindling popularity. After the pension reform of summer and autumn 2018, the ratings of Russia’s supreme executive and legislative authorities took a severe hit. Also, according to a poll done by VTsIOM, a year after the last presidential election, in March 2018, Putin is trusted by 33.4% of Russians, a drop of 21.9% from March 2018.

For example, in March 2018, a court in Naberezhnye Chelny sentenced activist Karim Yamadayev to twenty-eight days in jail for erecting a fake headstone for President Putin by way protesting the law bill that would create a “sovereign” Runet, if passed into law.

putin doa“Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, 1952–2019.” Image courtesy of BBC Russian Service

In summer of 2018, Petersburg activist Varya Mikhaylova was fined 160,000 rubles for publicly displaying the picture 9 Stages of the Supreme Leader’s Decomposition, which also depicts Putin, during the city’s annual May Day march. Despite the fact the march itself was legal, the picture had not been vetted by the police. As Mikhaylova admits, she was completely surprised when she was detained, since she has a poor sense of the line between what is acceptable and what is forbidden.

The Kremlin is likely to use the new laws to crack down on its most audacious critics.

varyaVarya Mikhaylova (center, with megaphone), carrying {rodina}’s 9 Stages of the Supreme Leader’s Decomposition as she marched with the Party of the Dead bloc in last year’s May Day demo in Petersburg. Photo by Elena Lukyanova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

_________________________

* Members of the Federation Council are not “chosen by people” in the sense of free and fair elections, but appointed by President Putin via highly stage-managed “elections” in the legislatures and parliaments of the Russian regions they only nominally represent. Aided and abetted by lazy journalists and political spin doctors, the thoroughly non-elected members of the Federation Council, whose only function is to rubber-stamp destructive law bills like the two described in the article, have taken to calling themselves “senators” in recent years, although Russia has no senate or senators. TRR

** I.e., khui (“dick”), pizda (“cunt”), ebat‘ (“fuck”), bliad‘ (“bitch”), all of which are indeed incredibly productive roots in colloquial Russian. TRR

Ivan Ovsyannikov is a member of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD) and a trade union organizer. Lead photo and translation by the Russian Reader. All other photos featured in the translation were selected by me and were not included in the original article, as published on Eurasianet.

Yulia Tsvetkova: Blues and Pinks

“He Threatened to Kill Us for Perverting Children”
A Feminist Staged a Children’s Play. She Has Been Accused of Extremism and Interrogated by Police
Larisa Zhukova
Lenta.ru
March 15, 2019

The police department in Komsomolsk-on-Amur has been investigating the work of feminist Yulia Tsvetkova, producer of the activist comedy theater Merak. The ostensible cause of the investigation is her production of a children’s play about gender stereotypes, Blues and Pinks, which the people who denounced Tsvetkova to the police regarded as promotion of homosexual relations among minors. The suspicions of the authorities have also been piqued by the anti-militarist dance productions Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition and Prague Spring, and the VK community page Komsomolka. Lenta.ru recorded Tsvetkova’s account of why regional activists have grown accustomed to threats of real violence and how the local extremism prevention center (Center “E”) inspects children’s dances and drawings.

“Are You Against the Soviet Union?”
Everyone who has known us for a long time agrees that something completely insane has been happening. We have pupils who have been working with us for almost sixteen years, starting with my mom’s early development workshop.

Our theater is me, the actors, and my mom, our manager. We are a tiny theater company in a really small city and the only young people’s theater of its kind. We are not a classic theater company, but a horizontal (egalitarian) and activist theater. We highlight societal problems and look for ways of solving them. We established the theater a year ago. We decided to call it Merak, with the stress on the first syllable. In Serbian, mérak means a buzz, a high, life’s little pleasures.

The actors are twenty-one children aged six and up. They write poems, contribute to the scripts, build scenery, and choreograph the dance numbers. As director, I supply the overall outline, but then I leave the creativity to them. How do you feel in this scene? I ask them. What should it be like? How should the dialogue sound? What words would  you use to say that? How would you dance it? Some find it odd I deal with children as equals, but I believe it has to be this way. We use improvisation, forum theater, gags, and free dance.

Everything was fine until February, until we decided to stage four danced-based plays, which we had been rehearsing for six months. Two plays are staged one day, while the other two plays are staged the next day. We came up with the idea of calling them a festival by way of combining them. It would have been the first activist art festival in the region. A week before the first performance we got a phone call from city hall. The next day, the Youth Center, a venue we had already confirmed, told us they were booked up on the dates we needed, and there were no openings for the next six months.

The telephone conversation with city hall lasted over an our. City officials went over our poster point by point. Why was our play called Blues and Pinks? We wrote, “We can do it again”: were we against the Soviet Union or something? We were asked what we meant by the word “individual.” Obviously, there was something about what we were doing they didn’t like. We also suddenly got the cold shoulder at other venues.

pic_08ab34d1a9a5f76eb7ff4c96411bec73Detail of a poster for The Color of Saffron Festival of Activist Art. The inscription reads “We can do it again. We can ban it!” 

After the news that the festival had been shut down was published, city hall called us and said we had misunderstood them. Actually, they supported our undertaking. They invited us to a meeting at which they made it understood that if we denied the news reports, they would help us find a venue. Since I don’t like having my arm twisted, and I didn’t think I had done anything wrong by talking about the connection between their first phone call and the sudden refusals to give us a venue, I was not about to refute any of the reports. That was when they interrogated the kids.

“The Kids Are Feared like Terrible Dissidents”
To be honest, I thought we would be called on the carpet for our anti-militarist production Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. It is a translation of a song by Serj Tankian, lead singer of System of a Down. He often voices his opposition to war and the arms industry. The big dance number in the play is set to his song. It’s an urgent problem for us, because all the boys who attend our workshop, which has been functioning for over twenty years, try to smuggle in toy pistols at first. But we have a ban on weapons, even toy weapons. Why? We are trying to make sense of things. During the big dance number, one dancer acquires a “pistol.” Then another gets one, too, as a means of defense. A third dance gets hold of a machine gun, and the atmosphere heats up. It is satirical and exaggerated, of course, but it is a quite dramatic play as well.

pic_dc844038f81c1c5c70e0d764a49c0a98

Merak Theater’s poster for its four-play, two-day festival, The Color of Saffron. Originally scheduled for March 16 and 17, it was to have featured (in descending order) Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, Spring [sic], Untouchables, and Blues and Pinks

But when we came up with the play, the shooting at the college in Kerch occurred. The kids were scared: the shooting affected them greatly. We talked a lot about what they thought about the incident and how it could have been avoided. No one at school discussed the incident with the children at all, although it should be said adults generally avoid discussing really important things with teenagers. The kids came up with the play’s finale on their own: it showed how the situation could have been avoided.

Prague Spring is a production based on Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. We pay homage to Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography and Maurice Béjart’s 1955 choreography, using music by John Cage. Coincidentally, I got the idea during the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops: the two “springs” came together in my mind around the subject of human rights and resisting oppression. It’s a simple, obvious subject, but when you grow up in a small city like Komsomolsk, it can seem quite remote and forbidden. But this is just what I read into it, inner thoughts not meant for viewers. The kids simply dance spring. That’s it. Six-year-olds hop up and down and run around in circles, making up half of it as they go along.

Our fifteen-minute play Untouchables focuses on bullying at school and kindergarten. A lot of what the kids told us themselves about their own experiences went into the play. The more we talk things through, the easier it is for them to deal with them.

pic_eda40eabbbb3ba6a6ff95708693a0148Photo from the Merak Activist Comedy Theater’s page on VK 

Blues and Pinks is a play that illustrates stereotypes about girls and boys. According to the script, we run through the list of clichés: girls like pink, boys like blue; boys are messy, girls clean up after them; boy are defenders and warriors and shouldn’t cry, while girls are future mothers who dream only of getting married; girls and boys can never understand each other. This is presented on stage as a lighthearted dance. We try and show the notion that if a boy pulls your pigtail, it means he likes you is a step away from the idea that if a man beats a woman he must love her.

We continue by suggesting a solution. One of the boys dances, releasing his pent-up feelings as it were. The other boys follow his example, realizing that, whether they dance or not, it does not make any more or less guys. The girls share their dreams. One of them wants to be a businesswoman, while another wants to be a director. They recite the names of great women: the first woman to climb Everest, the first woman to win an Oscar, and so on.

Sophisticated audiences in the western half of Russia would probably find it quite naive, but in our city it is timely and relevant. For example, the other day, a local radio presenter, Tatyana Zhemerenetskaya, announced she planned to run for mayor. She was fired: her bosses were outraged by her excessively “unfeminine ambitions.” Women are supposed to stay home and make soup. In the final scene of our play, the kids say they are individuals. They have dreams and passions.

The funny thing is I didn’t even think about the connotation of the play’s title, which the police caught. One of our pupils came up with it. I have hung out with female LGBT activists, and none of them ever call themselves “blues” or “pinks.” They are just colors to me. Honestly, if I had had doubts, I would not have bothered using the words in the title.

Our actors are between six and seventeen, but the authorities fear us as if we were terrible dissidents. Miraculously, we found a woman interested in contemporary young people’s theater who was not afraid to provide us with a venue. We intend to hold the festival there as planned, on March 16 and 17. But we have nowhere to seat viewers: we cannot find people who will give us chairs. One person said yes, but later he was scared off, apparently.

“She Drew the Rainbow of Her Own Free Will”
The policewoman who came to my office could not say out loud the reason for the investigation. The complaint read that we were promoting homosexuality among minors. She showed me the complaint and blushed.

During my interrogation, I was told I was at the local department for extremism and terrorism prevention (Center “E”). Three complaints had been filed against me: for promoting homosexual relations among minors, for inciting hatred towards men, and for “extremism,” I think.

The interrogation lasted nearly four hours.

First, the officers gave me screenshots of various posts and photos from my personal social media page and the community page Dandelion Field, where I write about really simple things like contraception, HIV, and condoms, things that, unfortunately, not all teenagers know about. There was also stuff from Komsomolka, which deals with feminism. By the way, there I don’t write at all about men: it’s a community page about women.

One of the screenshots showed a workshop from last year at which a girl had drawn a picture, and there was a rainbow in her picture. I was forced to write two paragraphs explains that my underage female pupil had drawn the rainbow of her own free will. No one had pressured and coerced her to draw it.

Next, we got hung up on the phrase “gender stereotypes.” The police officer thought gender had something to do with transgenders. I explained to him what gender stereotypes were, what I meant by the term, and gave examples of stereotypes, as if I were sitting for an exam at school.

Then I was shown a screenshot of a post in which I had negatively assessed the “gay propaganda law,” and I had described the persecution of the lesbians in Chechnya and the “corrective” rapes to which they had been subjected.

The detective asked whether I engaged in propaganda. He asked was sex education was, and who needed it and why. He asked what feminism was. He asked what intersectional feminism was. Ultimately, I had to describe to him how I imagined traditional family values, what I thought about families. I wrote that I wasn’t against traditional family values like love, acceptance, and warmth. This ridiculous testimony took up four pages.

This was followed by the persecution of our children and personal attacks on them. There is no other way of putting it.

“The Police Have Come for You. Let’s Go”
The police officers running the investigation are clueless about the questions they have been asking, and this incompetence has only exacerbated the circumstances.

On March 10, they came for one of boys and one of our girls. It is not clear why they were chosen. There are seventeen teenagers in our theater, and they attend different schools. The police did not pick on our oldest and youngest pupils.

The 15-year-old girl was summoned after school from her house and grilled for two hours by five adults: two police officers and three female school employees. They put the screws on her and descended into semi-insults. They quizzed her about LGBT. Did she know what it meant? they asked. How had she found out? Was I promoting homosexuality? Did I encourage girls to sleep with girls, and boys with boys? The subjects they discussed were such that they would have earned an 18+ rating, but the interrogation took place without the girl’s parents present.

pic_7bc908930662b55a0cdbabb1976b5037Photo from the Merak Activist Comedy Theater’s page on VK 

The 13-year-old boy was kept after school. He was summoned to the headmaster’s office. “The police have come for you. Let’s go,” he was told. No one had the presence of mind to call his parents. The police officers showed him the likes I had awarded a post I no longer remembered, but they were showing this to a child! The absurdity was off the charts. They asked the boy and the girl about each other. Maybe they had picked the through the list of  numbers in their telephones.

When, the next day, they came for another of our boys, we warned him to call his parents immediately. He called his dad, who works as a beat cop, so he was not grilled for two hours, but twenty minutes, and the conversation was more polite and less biased.

Everyone is scared. Naturally, it is frightening when you’re interrogated for two hours. For now, no one wants to quit the theater, because everyone is aware of my work. They know I am opposed to violence, and I treat boys and girls equally. But, first of all, the subject itself scares the kids, because they are still kids and not tuned into all these issues. Second, they feel the pressure: they are afraid to say something wrong and inadvertently throw me under the bus.

Their parents and I have now been trying to understand the legal grounds of why we have been persecuted. We have been poring over the laws.

“Rewind to Fifty Years Ago”
Until recently, everyone really loved our theater and told us how cool we were. We did two productions wholly in English about the history of the English language, which were unprecedented in our city. At the Drama Theater, we did a dance performance about the problems of teenagers entitled Evolution. It was about how society puts pressure on carefree kids, but ultimately their friends help them and their problems are solved. This was all performed to poems written by one of the girls involved in the production. The show was a benefit for disabled children and the local organization Lighthouse of Hope. Not a bad track record for a single year!

Children grow up, and the problems they face get more complicated. First of all, they deal with domestic violence. I have had whole black months when it was one story after another, and I cried because I felt so helpless. It’s really scary: dad’s beating mom, dad’s beating me, dad’s beating my brother. Gender stereotypes are also something our kids deal with up close and personal. My fifteen-year-old female pupils are already pestered now with questions of when they are getting married and having kids, and why they should bother with careers. Homophobia is also a force. I know there are LGBT teenagers out there, and I cannot imagine how hard it is for them to cope alone. The streets in Komsomolsk are a really dangerous place, just as in most typical provincial towns, I would guess.

Komsomolsk is one half a factory town, and one half a gangster town. When you hear about us, rewind to fifty years ago. It is not the twenty-first century here, but the twentieth century. I think what really spooked the police was that I had been talking about activism and feminism. These words scare people.

Our local feminist community consists of two volunteers and me. I have an audience of a thousand some subscribers on our community page, but between two and twenty people in Komsomolsk itself. That is the number of people who come to our events. Unfortunately, that is our audience for the time being. It is a infantile scale.

But there have always been plenty of haters. When I decided to do a lecture on abuse, there were threats: we will come and show you what real violence is like, I was warned. Instead, a group of women showed up who sabotaged the lecture by insisting victims had only themselves to blame or something of the sort.

Even our women’s tea party was disrupted. We wanted to make it women-only, without men, so we could talk about our problems. Men wrote to us that they would come and show us what feminism was. There were so many threats that even the young women themselves got scared, along with the venue where we had scheduled the tea party. They asked us not to come.

I have stopped responding to death threats. Now, as we have been chatting, I have received three messages from a young man. The only word in the messages you can print is the word “you.” Yesterday, a man wrote on the community page of our theater workshop threatening to kill us for “perverting children.” This the general background.

After I was interrogated for four hours by the police about feminism and sex education, I felt I had a claim to the hashtag #FeminismIsNotExtremism. Six months ago, I would insert in posts in connection with the case of Lyubov Kalugina, when I was not even remotely in harm’s way. It is one thing to read about persecuted activists, but it is another thing to become one of them. People keep asking why I do it. What is the point?  My run-in with the police makes me think hard about the kind of country we live in. But I can name at least twenty-one people for whom what I do is not pointless. I can name even more people, actually.

pic_55145f4a6ff0238f1689b54bfaa9dccbPhoto from the Merak Activist Comedy Theater’s page on VK 

What scares me most is the kids think they did something wrong. I ask them, You believe in what we do? Yes, they reply. Do you see anything bad about it? No, they answer. But the whole situation puts them under psychological pressure. It is a really terrible precedent, because the kids have been rapped on the knuckles as it were. They really work their butts off staging our plays. They invest a tremendous amount of energy in them. They are sincerely looking for ways to change the world for the better. These kids are really delicate and sensitive, and they are close to each other as group. They volunteer their time, they visit orphanages, they support other social projects. They are totally maxed out: they try and get straight A’s at school, and they are involved in academic competitions. In the midst of all their activities, they manage to come to four-hour-long, physically draining rehearsals.

But then adults tell them activism is bad, activism is evil, without even fully understand what activism is. And when these adults show up a week before our festival and tell us to get lost, both the kids and I are stressed out. They are really worried.

I have not slept or eaten for three days. I am on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I have been summoned again to the extremism prevention department. The phone is tapped, and calls with my lawyer are cut off. But I dream of opening a women’s crisis center in our city and an alternative independent school where the children would be not be bullied and hounded, and continuing to move the theater forward. In late spring, we are doing a production based on Svetlana Alexievich’s book Last Witnesses, about children during the Second World War, and in the summer we are staging a new English-language production.

Thanks to Darya Apahonchich for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader.

UPDATE. DVHab.ru reports that, despite the fact the local authorities ostensibly canceled Merak Theater’s Color of Saffron Festival, the festival went ahead way anyway at “closed” venues. DVHab.ru included a full video of Merak’s performance of Blues and Pinks in its article. I have reproduced it below.

Alexander Podrabinek: We Are Different

podrabinek-ssylkaAlexander Podrabinek in exile in Yakutia in 1979. Courtesy of Institute of Modern Russia

We Are Different
Alexander Podrabinek
Grani.ru
March 8, 2019

Nor are we in this together. I did not want to draw a dividing line between people and put them in different camps, but I have no choice: there are tough times on the way. If we are not lucky, things could go back to the way they were. You all will go back to your kitchens. Your tongues will be firmly in your cheeks again, and the jokes made by stage and TV performers will be cautious and carefully calibrated to register the authorized quantity of discontent. We will go back to our labor camps and prisons, our psychiatric hospitals and places of forced exile, to our intransigence and contempt for violence. By “we” I do not mean only those of us who have already spent time in those places. There will be new generations of stubborn, improvident, free-spirited Russians. We were different back then, and we are just as different now. Once upon a time, Solzhenitsyn quite accurately identified you as “smatterers.”*

You always knew what was permitted and what was forbidden. You had the Soviet individual’s sixth sense for knowing where the line ran. Few of you ever crossed the line, and the few who did left ordinary life behind forever, some going to the west, while others were sent east. When communism collapsed and freedom dawned, you immediately felt brave. You spoke loudly, angrily, and righteously. It was a sight to see. We were glad our ranks had swelled. We were glad we were stronger and could change our country.

The fresh breeze of change has subsided, however, and the familiar smell of Soviet rot is in the air. Censorship, political prisoners, extrajudicial killings, and wars of aggression have reemerged. Where are you now, masters of reincarnation? What side are you on? How many of you are still on our side? You now go regularly to the Kremlin to receive decorations, medals, state prizes, and honorary titles. You heed the demands of censorship and edit out anything that could cause Roskomnadzor to blow a fuse. You have a keenly honed sense of what can be said and what cannot be said, of what plays can be staged, movies made, and concerts held, and which it would be better not stage, make, and hold. You serve on a variety of presidential and ministerial councils. Pretending to be in opposition, you seek permission for your protests from the authorities, but as soon as the Kremlin calls, you rush there to explain yourselves and prove your personal indispensability.

As before, you sing the same old song about the value of small deeds, because you are afraid to be free. You were also afraid back then, when we were imprisoned. You carried the regime’s water in silence or grumbled under the watchful eye of art critics in plain clothes. You pretended to be fearless freethinkers and the movers and shakers behind imaginary reforms. On the stage, you cracked witty jokes approved by the censors. You published your censored stories and novels in the thick literary magazines. Commissioned by the State Committee for Cinema (Goskino), you made cheeky movies whose cheekiness was carefully calibrated. But you never crossed the line lest you lose your place on the gravy train.

You might wonder whom I am addressing. Who is the target of my reproaches and accusations? That is an easy question. Take an honest look at your past and your present. What did you do under socialism? What did you after it collapsed? Who made you bend your back in the old days? How straight do you stand up nowadays?

To be honest, the recent scandal involving humorist Mikhail Zhvanetsky compelled me to write this. Public outrage over the latest instance of a celebrity pandering to the Russian powers that be was countered by a chorus of defenders of spinal flexibility. How dare you? they asked. Who are you compared to him? He joked his whole life while you were silent. He is a genius, but you are nobodies. One defender dubbed the storm of criticism a “stink,” while another advised Zhvanetsky not to pay any mind to the “scum.” Yet another defender reminded everyone that Zhvanetsky was permitted to do what lesser people were forbidden.

It is amazing. Do you really regard yourselves as a magnificent, exceptional cultural elite? During the hardest times, you skillfully kowtowed to the Soviet regime. You were caricatured reflections of evil. You were witty, resourceful, and even gifted, but you were the regime’s shadow. You looked good amid a scorched desert where everyone was forbidden to do anything, but where you were allowed certain indulgences by royal decree. Is this what makes you so perpetually proud? Does it forgive you your past and future sins?

You are good at forgiving and vindicating yourselves. It is the meaning of your lives and the key to your survival. You have forgiven yourself for your cowardice during Soviet times, because the times were dangerous. You forgive yourself for selling out nowadays, because it is good for your wallet. You will always find a way to vindicate yourself. Proud, unperturbed, a noble air about you, you will walk the streets again.

Good luck at your old jobs!

* “The Smatterers” was the unhappy English coinage for the title and subject of Solzhenitsyn’s 1974 essay “Obrazovanshchina,” as published in the bilingual anthology From Under the Rubble.

Translated by the Russian Reader