Making Women Visible: Russian Language Classes for Immigrants and Refugees in Petersburg

apa-1
Darya Apahonchich with students during class. Photo by Anna Shevardina. Courtesy of Radio Svoboda

“Making Women Visible”: Why Female Immigrants Stay at Home for Seven Years
Karina Merkurieva
Sever.Realii (Radio Svoboda)
March 7, 2020

“My husband and children and I came to Russia from Afghanistan over eight years ago. At first, I had no time to learn the language: I had to help the children and work at home, and then I was unable to find suitable courses. So this is only my second year studying Russian,” says Suraya.

Since she is shy about speaking Russian, she agrees only to a written interview. She has been studying Russian for a second year at courses for female immigrants and refugees in Petersburg. Classes are held at Open Space, a co-working space for social activists, and at two libraries. Groups are divided into several levels according to how well the students speak Russian.

In February, project organizer Darya Apahonchich announced the launch of a new group for beginners. According to her, she saw the need for such courses in 2018, when she worked for a similar project run by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“There were classes for children and adults. I taught Russian as a foreign language. The only problem was that only those who had official immigrant or refugee status could attend. In Russia, not everyone obtains this status. Another thing was that the course was limited in time. Not everyone was able to get the necessary minimum of Russian under their belt in this time,” Apahonchich says.

The group she led mostly consisted of women over the age of thirty.

“Young women who come to Russia at an earlier age and go to university have one set of opportunities. As soon as a woman becomes a mother, her set of opportunities decreases dramatically,” Apahonchich adds.

At one of the classes, a new student from Syria decided to join the group. In order for the students to get acquainted, Apahonchich suggested that everyone introduce themselves by telling what country they had come from, how long they had lived in Russia, and how long they had been studying Russian. It transpired that nearly all the women in the class had lived in Russia around seven years, but had only begun to study the language. According to them, they had no opportunity to study Russian before: they had to raise children. Working outside the home was not the custom in their native countries, so their husbands had not allowed them to take language classes.

apa-2A lesson in Darya Apahonchich’s group. Photo by Anna Shevardina. Courtesy of Radio Svoboda

“I was very shocked at the time. These women’s children have basically grown up in Russia: they know Russia on the level of native speakers, and make jokes more easily in Russian than in their native languages. The women have found themselves linguistically and culturally isolated, however. They stayed at home all those years. They didn’t even have a place to learn the language,” says Apahonchich.

When the Red Cross courses were coming to an end, Apahonchich suggested to the women that they should not quit their studies, but continue studying Russian elsewhere. They leapt at the suggestion.

“I realized that those woman would go back to their families, and that would be the end of their introduction to the Russian language. I didn’t want to let that happen,” she recalls.

Other groups and new teachers have subsequently emerged. The project currently encompasses four groups at different levels of proficiency. Classes are taught by eight volunteer teachers. Some of them, like Apahonchich, majored in Russian language pedagogy at university, while others are native Russian speakers with humanities backgrounds and experience teaching history or Spanish, for example.

“I wanted to create a horizontal structure in which each teacher could organize their own groups and take responsibility for the learning process,” says Apahonchich.

As a result, the teachers work autonomously: they find venues for holding classes on their own, and decide with their groups what topics would be interesting to discuss in class.

In her group, for example, Apahonchich focuses not only on teaching the Russian language, but also on the legal aspects of life as an immigrant in Russia. During classes, her students read brochures on how to behave if you are faced with aggression from the police, how to get a job, and how to rent an apartment without falling victim to fraud.

“Our all-female collective discusses issues related to health and doctor visits,” says Apahonchich.

According to Suraya from Afghanistan, this is one of her favorite topics.

“I also like to read texts about Russia and Petersburg, and discuss the weather and family. I really need this vocabulary when I pick up my daughter from kindergarten or go to the clinic. In the clinic, however, I often encounter aggression. The people at reception shout at me if I don’t immediately know what to say,” Suraya explains.

While the courses are more aimed at teaching Russian, the instructors sometimes also talk to the female immigrants about women’s rights.

“Right now, the easiest way, I think, to get women out of linguistic and cultural isolation is to get them into the world of work. That way they could learn Russian more quickly, adapt socially, and make new friends. At the same time, we have before our very eyes the example of women from Central Asia who come to Russia to work and eventually find themselves separated from their families. That is the other extreme. For the time being, I just want these women to stop being invisible. Currently, the majority of the Russian populace doesn’t even suspect how many female immigrants live in cultural isolation in their country,” says Apahonchich.

According to the UNHCR, about 220,000 refugees and persons with temporary asylum status were registered in Russia in 2019. Most of those people came from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, and Yemen.

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

They Got Crazy Prophylactics

Petersburg Schools Required to Do “Prophylactic Work” to Prevent Pupils from Attending Nemtsov Memorial Rallies
Mediazona
February 28, 2020

The St. Petersburg Education Committee has ordered schools to do “prophylactic work” to prevent pupils from participating in “unauthorized” rallies on February 29. The letter sent to school administrators was published on the Telegram channel Yabloko Human Rights in Petersburg.

The letter was marked “Urgent!” Yelena Spasskaya, the committee’s deputy head, pointed out that the request to schools was prompted by a letter they had received from Viktor Borisenko, deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s Petersburg and Leningrad Region office.

On February 29, as in previous years, events in memory of slain politician Boris Nemtsov will take place in a number of Russian cities.

On February 25, Petersburg authorities refused to authorize a memorial march, citing as one of the reasons its supposed ignorance of the abbreviation “RF” (“Russian Federation”).

Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed on February 27, 2015, on Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge near the Kremlin in Moscow. After a jury rendered its verdict, the alleged killer, Zaur Dadayev, was sentenced to twenty years in a maximum security prison. The remaining defendants received sentences ranging from eleven to nineteen years in prison. The people who ordered the killing have not yet been found.

87952337_10207112861577322_8619842742794584064_o“Schools and Hospitals Instead of Bombs and Missiles. No to War with Ukraine and Syria.” A protester at the Boris Nemtsov memorial march in Moscow, February 29, 2020. Photo by Anatrr Ra

Petersburg Authorities Claim Ignorance of Abbreviation “RF” as Reason for Refusing to Authorize Nemtsov Memorial March
Mediazona
February 25, 2020

Petersburg city hall has claimed that the “ambiguity” of the event’s aims was one of the reasons it refused to authorize a memorial march for slain politician Boris Nemtsov, according to Denis Mikhailov, a member of the march’s organizing committee.

As stated in a letter sent to the committee, the organizers had listed “condemnation of political crackdowns [and] violation of human rights and freedoms” and “demanding the rotation of authorities in the RF” among the aims of the planned march.

“It is not clear what crackdowns and violations of human rights and freedoms are meant; where and how they have been carried out, and by whom,” wrote city officials, adding “There is no such abbreviation [as “RF”] in the current legislation and Constitution of the Russian Federation.”

Earlier, march organizers reported that the city’s committee for law and order had not agreed any of the march routes they proposed. The committee suggested that the opposition activists hold the march not in the city center, but in Udelny Park, located in the city’s north. The opposition activists turned down the suggestion, calling it “unacceptable.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

Children of the Soviet Union

This fascinating documentary, made by Disney in 1987, gives its putative US television audience a glimpse into the daily life of a Leningrad schoolboy, Alyosha Trusov. Alyosha attends Leningrad School No. 185, an English-language magnet school that my boon companion had graduated only a few years before this film was made.

Thanks to Yelena Yoffe for the heads-up.

 

Everything Is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid, a recent memoir by the narrator and protagonist’s older half-brother Sergey Grechishkin, also gets my seal of approval. I would especially recommend it to university lecturers teaching courses about everyday life in the late-Soviet period and anyone else who wants to know what childhood was really like for what anthropologist Alexei Yurchak has rightly called “the last Soviet generation.”

Don’t be scared off by Grechiskin’s explicitly pro-capitalist, pro-western stance: he is too good a writer to let that get in the way of the story he has to tell, which he tells much more honestly than most of his compatriots and, certainly, nearly all westerners who have written about the period.

Thanks (again) to Yelena Yoffe for the heads-up. Grechishkin’s book turned several long bus trips in December into supremely pleasant journeys.

grechishkin

This book is both a memoir and a social history. On one hand, it is a light-hearted worm’s-eye-view of the USSR through one middle-class Soviet childhood in the 1970s–1980s. On the other hand, it is a reflection on the mundane deprivations and existential terrors of day-to-day life in Leningrad in the decades preceding the collapse of the USSR.

The author occupies a peculiar place in the Soviet world. He is the son of a dissident father and also the stepson of a politically favored Leningrad University professor and Party member. He also occupies a peculiar place in the literal geographic sense — both his home and school are only a few blocks away from the city’s KGB headquarters, where a yet-unknown officer called Vladimir Putin is learning his trade.

His world is a world without flavor. Food is unseasoned. Bananas are a once a year treat. A pack of instant coffee is precious enough to be more useful as a bribe to a Party official than a consumable. Parents on business trips thousands of miles away from home schlep precious and scarce bottles of soda across the Soviet empire for their kids. Everything is bland: TV, radio, books, music, politics — life itself. The author staves away boredom the best he can, with a little help from his friends. They play in the streets of their beautiful city, still resplendent with pre-Revolutionary glory; make their own toys and gadgets; and, when they get older, pass around forbidden novels and books of poetry.

But occasionally, an infinitely more exciting world makes itself briefly known. A piece of foreign bubble gum with a Disney wrapper. A short Yugoslavian cartoon. A smuggled cassette tape with mind-blowing music by someone named Michael Jackson. And these hints of a completely different life introduce small cracks into the author’s all-pervading late-Soviet boredom — cracks that widen and widen, until reality itself shatters, and a brand new world rushes in.

I Am the Lizard King, I Can Say Anything

The flag of Polevskoy. Courtesy of Wikipedia

United Russia Councillor Suggests Ural Villagers Send Children to Boarding School Due to Lack of Bus
Mediazona
January 27, 2020

In Sverdlovsk Region, Lyudmila Boronina, a member of the Polevskoy Urban District Council, suggested that residents of the village of Krasnaya Gorka send their children to a boarding school since the village does not have its own school or a bus to take children to Polevskoy, the nearest town. Boronina’s remarks were quoted by the newspaper Vechernye Vedomosti.

As the newspaper writes, on January 21, the council’s committee on social policy discussed educational issues, including the fact that there are few regular buses to Polevskoy from Krasnaya Gorka, forcing children to walk four kilometers along the highway to school. Boronina, who took part in the discussion, works at the Center for Culture and Folk Art and coordinates United Russia’s Strong Families project.

“Let’s recall the good old Soviet times: we had a system of boarding schools for children from rural areas. Children were brought to school on Monday morning and picked up on Saturday evening. We have a remedial school in the district. It is temporarily under repairs, but the district owns the building, and it is heated. Maybe we could consider a boarding school for rural children whose parents are not able to drive them to school?” Boronina said at the committee meeting.

Maxim Bestvater, a spokesman for the regional branch of the United Russia party, told the website Nakanune.RU that the proposal was far from perfect and would probably not be implemented since it had been met with hostility.

Bestvater urged people not to compare Boronina with Olga Glatskikh, as their remarks were of a “different caliber.”

As director of the Sverdlovsk region’s youth policy department, Glatskikh met with teenagers in Kirovgrad in 2018. She told them that the state basically did not owe them anything, but their parents did. She also said that the state had not asked their parents to have them. Glatskikh’s department was soon abolished, and she herself resigned.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Why do I translate and post stories like this? There are several reasons. First, because seemingly unimportant dispatches from the Russian back of beyond punch big holes in the myth of the “stability and prosperity” supposedly enjoyed by people in the nonexistent “Russian heartlands” under Putin. If I had the time, the money, and some extra help, I could churn out dozens of posts a day, all of them from places other than Moscow and Petersburg (although they are not immune to these problems, either) showing the staggering instability and immiseration the regime has visited upon villages and towns like Krasnaya Gorka and Polevskoy. Second, the fact that stories like this one are widely reported in Russian media and hotly discussed in Russian social media complicates the simplified picture of Russia as a country with no independent media or civil society. Third, they show how an authoritarian-populist regime functions in the twenty-first century—by “welcoming” certain limited, localized expressions of public discontent, thus deflecting attention away from the decision-making elites in the capitals and their overawing responsibility for the “minor apocalypses” that have been unfolding for decades in the provinces. Given Putin’s new “social turn,” as outlined in his recent state of the nation speech, it will be interesting to see what contradictions and collisions are sparked as the mafia state pretends to put on a more human face. [trr]

What Is the Higher School of Economics Smoking?

vyshkaThe Higher School of Economics building in Moscow. Courtesy of the university’s Facebook page

The Higher School of Economics is stripping DOXA of its status as a student organization. This means we will no longer be able to work there
https://doxajournal.ru/hse_doxa

Our sources have informed us that right now the Council of the Student Initiatives Support Fund is voting to strip our journal of its status as a student organization. This would mean we would no longer be able to work at the Higher School of Economics (HSE). According to our information, Yaroslav Kuzminov, the rector of HSE, has already voted to remove the status.

The council is voting on whether to ban our work at HSE at the behest of Natalya Pochinok, rector of the Russian State Social University (RGSU). She complained about an article in DOXA about her career as rector. Pochinok claimed the article discredited the university’s professional reputation and harmed cooperation between the two universities. And yet neither Ms. Pochinok nor the council have contacted us.

Consequently, the university’s legal office compiled a detailed report in which it claimed that many of the articles published in DOXA had, allegedly, damaged the university’s professional reputation. The following articles [in Russian] were mentioned:

Other articles published in DOXA were mentioned in an accompanying letter to the council, recommending it vote to exclude us from HSE. The HSE employee who wrote the letter found “signs of political activism” in them.

Our journal was founded on the idea that self-criticism and public debate are an essential element of university life. The revocation of our status as a student organization deprives HSE’s students and instructors of a feedback channel and representation in the public space.

The news of the attempt to deprive us of our status as a student organization came as a complete surprise to us. HSE is the university where our journal was born and evolved: we have always considered it our alma mater. We ask for and count on support from the journalistic and academic communities. For almost three years, we have advanced the idea of academic and civic solidarity. We hope that our work in this area has not been meaningless.

Besides, we do not believe our work has harmed HSE’s reputation. On the contrary, we have even shown it is one of the few Russian universities that is not afraid of open, public discussion. Therefore, we demand from HSE’s administration the same open discussion about the closure of our organization. We would argue that, otherwise, the damage to the university’s reputation will be much greater than from any of our articles.

The Editorial Board of DOXA

Contact us by email (doxa.fgn@gmail.com), telephone (+7 915 076 2181) or Telegram bot if you would like to make a comment or suggestion or discuss something with us.

___________________________________

Greg Yudin
Facebook
December 4, 2019

All twenty years I’ve had the chance to observe the Higher School of Economics, the same thing keeps happening there. The university really wants to be like the big boys and knows that the big boys have this thing called student self-government. The university, therefore, makes huge, sincere efforts to develop and support it.

You will be surprised, but then it turns out that student government wants to govern. Meaning that it has its own, profoundly incompetent and infantile viewpoint on the university’s development. After that, the university declares this was not what it had in mind and either tells the student government to go to hell or turns it into a Komsomol-like organization.

If memory serves, this is a least the third time things have followed this same scenario. The only difference is that DOXA is, of course, several cuts above all the previous student projects that emerged at HSE. It is a project of national importance that literally from scratch has in a short time made the Russian student body a subject. It has obviously begun to have an impact on the situation in Moscow and has the potential of putting the problems that really concern Russian university students on the national agenda.

I cannot say, by the way, that I have no issues with DOXA and that it is flawless. (It would be odd if such a breakthrough project were perfect from the get-go.) In my experience, DOXA is staffed by quite modest, reflective and constructive people who are well aware that they can be wrong.

But to close a powerful student project on the basis of a denunciation from the rector of RGSU, a plagiarizer and dealer in dissertations and diplomas, a weak, incompetent politician, and to report it in official documents? There is no force in Russia strong enough to force HSE to whip its own students in front of the RGSU rector. This is an internal decision, and its style (“damage to the university’s professional reputation”) is quite telltale.

We can imagine what would happen if, say, the rector of Columbia University asked the Stanford administration to close the Stanford student newspaper. Until the HSE administration understands that student self-government inevitably involves unpleasant people who have a different point of view than theirs on the university’s development and with whom they have to be able to negotiate, it won’t become a normal university.

What separates HSE from RGSU is the fact that DOXA emerged and evolved there, not the number of published articles, not quartiles, and not citation indices. Because students who really support the university are a major, long-term resource, and the statements made yesterday by all the major student organizations in support of DOXA bear this out, while you can always buy articles, at the end of the day. Ask the RGSU rector about it: she has an impeccable professional reputation in the business.

Translated by the Russian Reader

What Does the FSB Want from Russian Academics?

russland-fsb

What the FSB Wants from Russian Education and Science
Either Professors and Students Defend the Autonomy of Scholarship, or the Only Thing Left Will Be the “Science” of Russia’s Security in a Global World
Konstantin Gaaze
Vedomosti
November 28, 2019

On the evening of November 27, the FSB’s Border Service barred the well-known French sociologist Carine Clément from entering Russia. She was stopped at passport control in Sheremtyevo Airport and later informed that, as a “threat” to “national security,” she had been banned from entering Russia for ten years. Clément was slated to chair a panel on social stratification and the subjectivation of social status at a conference marking the ninetieth anniversary of the birth of the late sociologist Vladimir Yadov.

It is pointless to attempt to interpret the travel ban on Clement in the light of her planned lecture on resemblances between the so-called Yellow Vests [Gilets jaunes] and the so-called Quilted Jackets [vatniki]. The trouble is not with parallels, but with the fact that the FSB, the supreme authority on the life of the mind in Russia, has long ago decided that castrating the Runet is not enough to set people’s brains straight. It is time to strike—and strike hard—at the bourgeoning social sciences and the humanities.

We often forget that FSB has not one sword at its disposal—the Russian federal communications watchdog Roskomnadzor—but two swords: Roskomnadzor and Rosobrnadzor, the Russian federal education watchdog. When my own university, the so-called Shaninka, was stripped of its accreditation in the summer of 2018, the only rumor that explained the absurdity and inconsistencies of the inspection procedure and the accreditation commission’s final report was that Lieutenant General Alexei Sedov, head of the FSB’s constitutional security service, had personally made the decision not to extend our accreditation.

The legendary spook realized back then, apparently, that the real enemies were not professional opposition activists, but young men and women with books by Bourdieu and Arendt tucked under their arms. One day you read the structuralists, the next day you record a video and post it on YouTube, and the day after that you take to the streets to show you exist and are still capable of acting. Who needs scholarship that has such a dangerous effect on people’s minds?

Especially since there is a different kind of scholarship, which churns out piles of monographs dealing with Russia’s “special path,” the country’s security in a global world, and the degradation of the west’s “spiritual culture,” and which dominates the universities where students are marked down for reading primary sources: they have to read the textbooks written by their professors, not the works of “foreign agents.” Such universities hold an endless stream of events celebrating the founders of allegedly original schools of thought who, in fact, are plagiarists and fools who have not bothered to crack open a new book since 1991, if not since 1980. They organize online conferences where 18-year-old bachelors of sociology have to discuss such burning topics as whether women can serve in the police and in what capacity with students from Interior Ministry academies in neighboring regions.

What is at stake for the FSB in this case is not isolating Clément from her Russian audience, but ensuring the victory of one type of education and scholarly production over another—the victory of textbooks over primary sources, the victory of rote phrases over real knowledge, the victory of articles chockablock with references to the president’s annual state of the union address over articles that quote Foucault and Judith Butler.

This decision has been ripening for a long time, but it was hampered by other players in the bureaucracy, including major universities, officials, and Kremlin-backed pollsters, who understood that Russia’s current model of governance could not countenance the total ideologization of the social sciences. But all these nuances lost their significance after the protests in Moscow this past summer. The enemy must be defeated. So, beginning this autumn, the Kremlin and the capital’s universities have been hotly discussing whether there are too many students studying sociology and political science. Wouldn’t it be better to send them all to culinary school?

It is time we understood that it is not a matter of who reads the classics correctly and who doesn’t. It is a matter of the very opportunity to read—not in a closed reading group, but in an open lecture hall; not under a blanket, but at the university, in the company of students. We cannot hide behind the walls of our oases—the Higher School of Economics, RANEPA, the European University in St. Petersburg, and the Shaninka, among others. Either faculty and students will join together and defend scholarly autonomy, or, ten years from now there will be nothing left except the indigenous “science” of national security.  It is clear we could all emigrate. It is equally clear this would be a betrayal not only of future students but also of scholarship itself.

Konstantin Gaaze is a sociologist who lectures in the Fundamental Sociology program at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (the Shaninka).

Photo courtesy of Stern. Translated by the Russian Reader

Yulia Tsvetkova: Pink Turns to Blue

76618320_1260332754165872_8902406124347588608_oYulia Tsvetkova. Photo by Maria Nyakina. Courtesy of ONA

Russian Feminist Association ONA
Facebook
November 20, 2019

Yulia Tsvetkova Named a Suspect in Alleged Distribution of Pornography

The police are again playing hard ball with our colleague and comrade Yulia Tsvetkova. Yulia returned to her native Komsomolsk-on-Amur via Khabarovsk from Petersburg, where she appeared at the Eve’s Ribs festival. She was met by law enforcement officers right at the train station. They told her that a criminal investigation into distribution of pornography had been launched, and she was a witness. They took Yulia to the police station to interrogate her. Yulia refused to testify in the case. The police immediately made her a suspect. She had to sign a non-disclosure agreement and an undertaking not to leave the city, after which nine police officers (!) searched her apartment and the premises of her children’s theater studio. Among other things, they confiscated equipment and brochures on gender issues. They accused Yulia of “promoting” something or other, calling her a “lesbian” and “sex coach.”

We fully support our colleague in this situation and express our solidarity. We demand an end to the political prosecution of the feminist activist!

Photo by Maria Nyakina (St. Petersburg)

Thanks to Darya Aponchich for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader. See our post from earlier this year, “Yulia Tsvetkova: Blues and Pinks,” a translation of an interview with Tsvetkova about her work with a children’s theater in Komsomolsk-on-Amur and the crackdown against the theater by local officials.