Farida Kurbangaleyeva: My Personal Denazification

The Russian government and pro-Kremlin media say that the aim of Russia’s current war against its neighboring country is the “denazification” of Ukraine. But Farida Kurbangaleyeva argues that Russia’s government has in fact performed “denazification” earlier as well—on the “non-Russian” peoples living in the Russian Federation.

Farida Kurbangeleyeva

Chukcha tatarskaia—“you Tatar Chukchi”—an unknown woman wrote to me via Facebook. To put it mildly, she had not liked my post about the aftermath of the Russian occupation in Bucha and decided to deliver me the knockout punch with an irrefutable argument. For her, this argument was my ethnicity, and this is understandable: there is nothing more shameful for a member of the “state-forming people” than being a Chukchi, or a Tatar, or a Ukrainian yokel. That is, there is nothing more shameful than not being Russian.

This incident made me think of the “denazification” that Putin has used to justify his military invasion of Ukraine. In spite of his plan, from the start of the full-scale war many people started talking about how about Russia itself needed to be denazified—and I completely agree with this. But this is not the end of the story.

What Putin is calling “denazification” is not a struggle against Nazism, but the desire to destroy national identity, to eliminate the Ukrainians as a people. This is why in the occupied territories, as the Ukrainian authorities report, Ukrainian-language books have been removed from libraries and burned, and the study of Ukrainian has been canceled in schools. Where there is no language, there is no culture, no identity, no people. Meanwhile, in Russia, other peoples have been similarly “denazified” already. With more or less bloodshed, but in any case, quite successfully.

My personal denazification began shortly after my third birthday—when I first went to nursery school. At that age I spoke fluently in my native Tatar. One of my relatives loves to recall me energetically explaining the pictures to her from my book about the surrounding world: Менә бу әшәке гөмбә, ә менә бусы — әйбәте. (Mena bu ashake gumba, a mena buse—aibate: “This is an inedible mushroom, and this one is good.”)

I have to admit that it would be hard for me to repeat the stunt now. The nursery-school teachers had been given strict instructions: Soviet children should only have one language—Russian. Everything else was the devil’s work, forget it.

The denazification worked—by the first grade I still understood Tatar, but already had a hard time speaking it. That’s how I am now: I can understand everything being said to me, but I switch to Russian to reply. Why waste time fumbling for the right words?

For many people, Tatar language was a much-despised subject at school. And it’s not surprising: you knew that there was absolutely no reason to study it. People rarely spoke it at home, and in some places not at all, and it was unlikely to come in handy in the future either. Some of my Tatar classmates didn’t even go to Tatar language classes, preferring to take local history classes with the Russian kids instead. That is, they practically didn’t know their native language at all.

This was the late Soviet period, when the myth of the “friendship of peoples” and equality was still actively promoted. “Look at what a good student Farida is,” my teacher Anna Viktorovna would say to my classmate Roma. “Even though she’s a Tatar girl.”

I suppose that my mother had also encountered the same sort of approving motherly intonation at her first job at a nursery school (when she was just out of school and hadn’t yet entered Kazan University as a physics student). One of the other teachers—a woman from a Russian village—would tenderly refer to my mother as “my little chaplashka.”[The chaplashka is a typical Tatar skullcap, but it can be used as a condescending term for Turkic peoples.] At around the same time you could regularly hear people on the Kazan trams saying, “Hey you there! Quit talking in your language!”

But I digress. These are my memoirs, not my mother’s.

I can say that nearly all of my urban Tatar agemates—people who were kids in the 1980s—are a linguistically handicapped generation. Speaking Tatar was awkward and embarrassing. The primary native speakers at this time were people from the villages. Of course, there was also the urban Tatar intelligentsia, but it was so thin and fragile that one almost never heard Tatar spoken in the cities. Except maybe in the national theater.

Because of this, when the republic declared its “sovereignty” in the 1990s and Tatar became a required subject, the majority of the people who came to teach it in schools and universities were  villagers. Many of them spoke Russian with a strong accent, lacked a certain confidence and even dressed more poorly than their colleagues in physics, algebra, or English. People treated them correspondingly, referring to them condescendingly as “Soviet farm workers” [kolkhozniki].  

It’s hard to imagine anyone yelling at their schoolkid for getting a D in Tatar. What’s more, some parents openly admitted to encouraging their kids not to study it. No one was worried about the final grade report—by the time graduation rolled around, they would get all As and Bs. Who would want to ruin someone’s life over a pointless subject? The same situation held in the technical schools and universities.

The time came for us to become parents ourselves. What could we say to our kids in the “mother tongue”? At best a few primitive phrases. The grandparents would try to make up for lost time, but “lost” is the key word here.

I’ve observed the following scenario several times. At the playground, a group of mothers gangs up on the mother of a “late-speaking” child. “It’s all because you speak two languages at home. That’s not right, you have to pick,” they say. Some of these “instructors” themselves send their kiddos to “early development schools” where the kids are taught English as early as possible—either from the moment the child starts turning over, or maybe when it can lift its head. After all, everyone knows that the earlier you start learning a second language, the better.

Meanwhile, the Russians in Tatarstan are very tolerant Russians. They’re long since used to Tatar names and holidays, and mixed marriages. They know the words isanmesez [исәнмесез] (hello), rakhmat [рәхмәт] (thank you), and sometimes even say Alla birsa [Алла бирсә] (God willing) as a joke. When I left for Moscow, I realized that in other regions the problem isn’t just that Russians don’t want to learn the languages of ethnic minorities. Russia is both a multi-ethnic and a xenophobic country.

My experience working as an anchor on TV channel Rossiya was pretty revealing. It was 2007. Alexandra Buratayeva and Lilya Gildeyeva [who are ethnic Kalmyks and Tatars, respectively] had already made their names on national television, but the negative wow-effect was nevertheless plain to see. Online, I would periodically run into requests like “get rid of that churka” [a racial slur mostly used for people from the Caucasus and Central Asia] or questions like “What, you couldn’t find a Russian woman? Where are the Katyas, Mashas, Natashas?”

My colleagues mostly treated me with decency and goodwill. Well, if you don’t count the entertaining questions like whether I’d been on the Hajj or eaten horsemeat. Or the kinds of questions every member of an ethnic minority gets, like:

“What is your Russian name?”

“This is my only name.”

Rage, negotiation, unwilling acceptance.

I know of many cases when a Fidail has become a Fedya [Ted], a Gulnur., a Gulya, and a Kamil, a Kolya [Nick]. Even closer to home, my grandmother, Khadicha Fazleyevna, lived for fifty years in a communal apartment where she was known as “Auntie Katya.” My friend, an Avar named Maryan, told me that when she was studying at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, she usually told people her name was Marianna. She thought that people would be nicer to her that way. One girl from her circle of university friends would periodically say to her, “Gosh, you’re so normal—just like us.”

I remember that once a Sberbank employee, holding my Russian Federation-issued passport and reading out my full name, asked me what my citizenship was. That the principal of the school my daughter went to wasn’t sure that her intellectual capacity was the same as her Muscovite agemates: “Southern children (!) achieve physical maturity more quickly, but sometimes lag intellectually.” A midwife in a Moscow birth center asked me whether newborns are swaddled in my country.

One time my wallet was stolen in a mall. The first word uttered by the policeman who came to investigate was “Darkies?” [churbany]. I was stunned, because in my understanding no defender of public order has the right to utter this word. I replied, “It was two women of Slavic appearance,” which obviously stunned the policeman in turn.

My second cousin Azamat was unable to rent an apartment in Moscow. As soon as they heard his name over the phone, Muscovites would ask, “What are you, an Uzbek?” and hang up. He didn’t have time to tell them about his excellent job or steady salary at Sberbank. He was able to rent only through people he knew.

To expand my examples beyond my personal life, I called all my non-Russian friends. I didn’t have to make any effort to seek anyone out or ask insistently for comments. These are all stories of just “one degree of separation.”

Ibragim, a Kumyk born in Grozny (Chechnya): “Once I submitted my papers for a foreign-travel passport and couldn’t get it for eight months. I was told repeatedly that it wasn’t ready yet. In the end I just sat down in the office of the passport officer and declared I wouldn’t leave until I got my passport. The man clearly hadn’t expected such audacity. He thought for a while and then took my passport out of his desk.”

Artur, a Chechen born in Grozny: “We fled Chechnya during the First Chechen War. I went to a bunch of different schools. When I was in the fifth grade, we lived in Cherkessk. One time in class, people started talking about Chechens, and the teacher said, looking right at me, ‘You’re basically all terrorists, you need to be isolated.’ When I started at university, I couldn’t get a job. I didn’t become a waiter at a cafe, a salesman at a store, or someone handing out advertisement flyers [like other university students]. A few years ago, I was barred from entering a Moscow nightclub on New Year’s Eve. The security guy looked at my passport and refused to let me in. When I asked him to explain why, he said, ‘No comment.’”

Alexandra, a Buryat from St. Petersburg: “I never wanted to go down into the subway, where people always gave us dirty looks. One time I was riding with my whole family and heard someone say, ‘They’re breeding up a storm.’ Another time I was walking toward the escalator and a stranger started to shoulder me out of the line. I kept going, so then he shoved me aside roughly and said, ‘You should always let Russians ahead of you! Got it?’”

Alexandra was one of the organizers of the initiative Buryats Against the War in Ukraine. She asked Russia-based subscribers to talk about examples of xenophobia they’d encountered living in Russia. She’s been getting messages for over a month now. Reading them, Alexandra nearly stopped sleeping. One time she wrote me at three in the morning to say she (and many of her respondents) needed a therapist.

But getting back to my Tatars and my denazification. A few years ago, Tatar language was once again made optional as a school subject in Tatarstan. It was happily dropped not only by Russians, whose pressure had largely caused the law to be passed, but also by many Tatars. Why bother? Everyone knows that there’s absolutely no point: almost no one speaks Tatar anywhere, and there’s unlikely to be any need for it in the future. At least at this point in history, speaking Tatar at home isn’t forbidden. The idea was just that: “Speak it at home” and even “How terrible that they used to forbid that.”

Thanks a lot, but “speaking at home” is also a road to nowhere. It also means the loss of language, just dragged out a bit. I can confirm this through the example of some Russians I know who have lived in the Czech Republic for many years.

Here’s a mother who delights in her fifteen-year-old daughter: “You wouldn’t believe it! She wrote a card to her grandma yesterday without making a single mistake!” That is, the girl speaks Russian very well (because they speak it at home), but the grammar is a real problem for her. This girl’s children will speak Russian a bit worse and barely be able to write. The grandchildren will speak in broken Russian and tell their friends that their grandma was Russian. Cool, right?

Without systematic lessons and academic programs, textbooks and teaching aids, courses and constant practice, a language cannot be preserved. All the more so if it’s optional. Imagine if people studied Russian in schools as an elective. Or chemistry, or algebra. Would many students want to take these subjects? Losing a language when it’s “study it if you want to” is just a matter of two or three generations.

No one among my Russian friends who were born and raised in Tatarstan knows Tatar or is planning to learn it. As an illustration, I offer a few sample conversations with my girlfriends. Both are cultured, educated women and highly empathetic. They would never call me a “Tatar Chukchi.”

Dialogue No. 1 (which took place prior to the reversal of the Tatar language requirement in schools):

“Tatar’s on the schedule every day, I’m so sick of it! Katya (her daughter, whose name has been changed) gets so exhausted by it. I wish they’d get rid of it already!”

“And what will you do if they get rid of it?”

“I want them to bring in English, and Italian would be good too. I’d love for her [Katya] to go to university in Italy.”

“But it’s not like all the kids are going to go do that. Many of them will spend their whole lives in Tatarstan.”

“So? What do they need Tatar for?”

“To talk with their friends, for instance. Listen, wouldn’t you like to know Tatar, so you could speak it with me? I speak Russian with you, after all.”

“You got to be kidding! Isn’t that an awfully big sacrifice to make—studying Tatar just so I can talk with you?”

Dialogue No. 2, quoted as a monologue (it was delivered after Tatar was made non-obligatory):

“Thank God, they got rid of Tatar. When I think back on my school days I just shudder (she utters in Tatar the phrase ‘My homeland is the Republic of Tatarstan,’ purposefully mispronouncing the words). They should just make them take local history instead. At work I have a ton of Russian colleagues who used to live in Kazakhstan. They have a hard time getting Russian citizenship here. They have to take a Russian-language exam if you can believe it. But in Kazakhstan they’re really mistreated—they’re forced to learn Kazakh. I even thought lucky my grandparents came here to build the KAMAZ [auto factory] instead of Baikonur [a cosmodrome built in Soviet Kazakhstan]. Otherwise, I’d be suffering—having to learn Kazakh or trying to get Russian citizenship.”

Just a minute! My grandparents didn’t go anywhere to build factories. And my other grandparents didn’t either. They spent their whole lives living on this land. And before that, for centuries, their grandparents lived on the same land. They spoke, read, and wrote in Tatar. Until the moment when someone decided to administer and regulate this process—to denazify the Tatars, you might say.

Yes, Putin started using the term, but he didn’t start the process, of course. The policy of stan “foreigners” was pursued under the Russian Empire as well and hit a high point during Soviet times. Over the past one hundred years, the Tatars have had their alphabet changed twice. Before the Bolshevik coup and for a little while afterwards, Tatars wrote and read in Arabic. This writing system was left alone even when the gate of Lyadsky Garden in downtown Kazan sported a sign saying, “No musicians or Tatars allowed.”

In the late 1920s, Tatar was switched to yañalif—an alphabet based on the Latin one, and then in 1939 to Cyrillic—by the way, easily the most inconvenient option for Tatar phonetics. Consequently, Tatars were cut off from an enormous store of literature, poetry, philosophical and religious works written using the Arabic script. And, by extension, from their own history and culture.

My father, who was born in 1940, spent his childhood and youth in the Old Tatar district—a low-lying part of Kazan where Tatars historically lived. Now this neighborhood has been transformed into a colorful tourist trap with a gaudy ethnic flair. But we have to remember that before 1917 Tatars didn’t have a choice: they did not have the right to live in the prestigious upper part of the city.

According to my papa, when he was growing up in the neighborhood, not a single Russian lived there who didn’t know Tatar. And around mid-century there were quite a few Russians living there. His childhood friends Polina and Katya would switch to Tatar every time they wanted to keep secrets from their mother, who didn’t know Tatar. This means that places spared the denazification process saw wonderful results—a genuine, not sham, friendship of peoples. With true equality, mutual respect, and the preservation of ethnic identity.

Nowadays this tale sounds fantastical, and I can’t find an answer to my question: why did those Russians not mind speaking Tatar, and where did those Russians go? I also have a feeling of guilt for not putting enough effort into developing and preserving the language in my own family. I think I should have hired a tutor. I think I should have bought a self-instruction manual. I think I should speak with my elderly parents more often. At least now, at least a little. And even in a sloppy way, I should still try to speak Tatar with my kids.

So, there is a grain of truth in what the unknown woman on Facebook said. In some sense I really am a “Tatar Chukchi”—an incomprehensible hybrid, a person without kith or kin and without a language, trying to seize hold of her roots before they wither away.

And what will happen later, when Ukraine prevails in the war with Russia, securing both a moral and a physical victory? What will happen when the Ukrainians liberate the occupied territories, when they bring Ukrainian back into the schools, when they publish wonderful new books written in Ukrainian? And when Russia (I really want to believe this) will truly and finally be free? What will happen, not with the Ukrainians, of course, but with us—the denazified Russian-dwelling chebureks? I hope I’m wrong about this, but I think I know what will happen.

I recently stumbled across an openly xenophobic comment on Facebook. The thread was discussing the sanctions that the US government was afraid to implement against Alina Kabaeva. One of the contributors wrote, “What do they expect from her? She’s a typical Tatar woman: husband, kids, family. It doesn’t take a lot of brains to do that.” This comment was liked by someone with whom I share a few dozen friends, someone who’d posted lots of fiery statements against the war in Ukraine.

When I expressed astonishment in response, the Facebook-friend posted a bunch of smile emojis and wrote, “Sorry.” But when I noted that I didn’t find it funny at all, his tone changed abruptly. He wrote repeatedly that he was “speaking with me as an equal” and advised me to “not be stuffy and blow things out of proportion.”

Thus, we non-Russians will go down with this warship. We’ll go where the free Ukrainians—who speak their native language at home, and at school, and at work, and wherever they want—sent it.

We’ll head for the bottom along with our country’s liberal civil society, which will genuinely rejoice over Ukraine’s victory, and then set about building “the beautiful Russia of the future.” But a few things in this new Russia will stay the same. No one there will force anyone to study non-native or pointless languages. After all, this is a violation of rights and freedoms and is basically non-democratic. There will be fewer and fewer people trying to study them on their own. Those who wish to can speak them at home or take elective classes. And not blow anything out of proportion. Those who attempt to get uppity about it will be declared ethnic nationalists and Russophobes.

You’re hearing this from me, the “Tatar Chukchi.”

Source: Farida Kurbangaleyeva, “My Personal Denazification,” Holod, 28 May 2022. Translated by the Fabulous AM. Photo (above) courtesy of Wikipedia. Farida Kurbangaleyeva (Фәридә Корбангалиева/Färidä Qorbanğälieva) worked as a presenter of the program “Vesti” (“The News”) on the Rossiya channel until 2014 and, later, as a presenter on the channel Current Time. Now an independent journalist, she lives in Prague.

Children

PAZ-3205 bus. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

I have spent half the day wandering around Orenburg on various errands. At a crossing, I saw a yellow PAZ bus, marked “Children” and with a flashing light. I thought, wow, how they take care of their children’s safety. But I didn’t look inside. But now I have just seen a column of three yellow “Children” buses with flashing lights — and it wasn’t children inside them, but soldiers.

Source: Jenya Kulakova, Facebook, 6 May 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader


Sometimes it seems that United Russia has reached the limits of cynicism and nothing they do can surprise you. But their functionaries hand a crippled soldier a package of buckwheat and a bottle of sunflower oil, shove the party logo in his hand, and proudly post the photo. And it becomes clear that United Russia’s cynicism is a bottomless pit.

Source: Ilya Yashin, Facebook, 5 May 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader


If anyone did not understand why I think that my daughter should not go to school in the Russian Federation, this is her class and homeroom teacher at a fucking Victory Day trivia competition.

Fortunately, my daughter didn’t go to school today.

Source: Leda Garina, Facebook, 6 May 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

Coach Yakovlev’s War with the Zwastika

Valery Yakovlev copied out some of the supportive text messages he received after the media wrote about his case.
Photo courtesy of Sibir.Realii (RFE/RL)

Valery Yakovlev, a 64-year-old children’s sports coach in the village of Onokhoy, in the Republic of Buryatia, spoke out against the special operation in Ukraine and twice tore down a “Z” sign from the entrance of the village’s sports school. His explanation for why he did this was recorded by the school’s doorkeeper on a dictaphone, and the recording was later handed over to the police. For publicly discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation, the court fined the Coach Yakovlev 90 thousand rubles [approx. 1,030 euros].

Valery Yakovlev is a USSR master of sports in classical archery. He has been a winner of individual events and an overall champion at republic-wide archery competitions. Having worked as a coach for twenty-two years, he has trained numerous champions, masters of sports, and candidates for master of sports.

For many years he was a successful businessman: he had his own store in the village. Later, he bought twenty hectares of land and became a successful farmer.

In adulthood, he fulfilled a childhood dream by building a glider and flying it. He is fond of sailing, paints pictures, and studies Spanish. He plays the synthesizer. He has four adult children, as well as grandchildren.

On March 23, a flash mob entitled “Za nashikh” [“For our lads”] was held in Onokhoy. In its wake, a Latin letter Z was pasted on the entrance to the children’s sports school. When Coach Yakovlev saw the sign, he tore it down. But the next day the letter appeared on the door again.


So I tore it off again [says Valery Yakovlev]. On the third day, when I came to practice, the doorkeeper didn’t want to give me the keys to my room. She said she’d been forbidden to give them to me. I think that was their way of provoking me. I snapped. I yelled, “Is this because I tore down the letter?! Did anyone ask you, me, or the children whether we wanted this letter on the door? Who gave you the right to hang it up there on my behalf?! Do you want bombs falling on your heads? Or your children’s heads? Why are you acting like sheep? So, now if I’m against the war, I can’t be given the keys?!” I don’t remember it verbatim anymore, but I said something like that. The whole thing was recorded on a dictaphone and turned over to the police.

I was later summoned to the police station. They kept me there until half past eleven. And the next day they interrogated me for another four hours. Some police boss showed up who started scanning me, checking me out. They asked me what ethnicity I was. The next day, a lieutenant colonel arrived and started scanning me too. It was unpleasant, frankly speaking. I had the feeling that they were digging hard for one specific word, figuring out what my associations were with the Z, so that later they could they tie it in with the army. I felt that they wanted to pin me with this fifteen-year article [i.e., the new article in the Russian criminal code that makes “discrediting” the Russian army punishable by a maximum of fifteen years in prison]. But I argued that there was nothing political about what I did. I just didn’t want the children to get mixed up with that sign. It gives off dangerous vibes.

I told the police that I don’t like the armed forces, I don’t like marching, I don’t like military uniforms. There are people who have this point of view. There is no such sign on the art center. There is no such sign on the comprehensive and music school, there is no such sign on the recreation center or the kindergarten. There’s not even one on the village administration building! But there is a sign like that on the children’s sports school! Why? I run the archery section. I teach kids to shoot. It’s shooting! But I don’t want them to apply their knowledge. What’s not clear about that? I don’t like that letter. And yes, it reminds me of something.

What is the total amount of the fine that the Zaigrayevo District Court imposed on you?

I was tried on three charges at once. The first two were for tearing off the sticker [with the letter Z]. The third was for what I said on tape. On April 5, the Zaigrayevo District Court of Buryatia found me guilty of violating Part 1 of Administrative Offenses Code Article 20.3.3, “Public actions aimed at discrediting the deployment of the Russian Federal Armed Forces.” I was ordered to pay 30 thousand rubles for each of the violations. The total amount of the fine was 90 thousand rubles. I was given two months to pay the fines.

After the verdict was announced, I only said, “But at least I won’t be ashamed in front of the children!”

Could you afford, on your salary, to pay off this amount so quickly?

My salary at the school is 18 thousand rubles a month [approx. 205 euros], and I have a pension of 9 thousand rubles a month as a working pensioner. Of course, it was unpleasant. I thought that I would have to sell my outboard motorboat. Or that I would have to give up my entire salary every month and live for the time being on my pension alone. Since I have a lot of potatoes in the basement, I would have survived.

But my children took pictures of the charge sheet and announced a fundraiser on the internet. Apparently, they circulated it on some messenger services. The donations came to me, along with the messages. I can’t read them without crying, I immediately get a lump in my throat. Some of the messages are brief: “For the fine,” “For the fine to the ghouls,” “For justice,” “Hang in there, bro!” Others are longer: “Accept this donation with my respect and gratitude,” “You are not alone, thank you for your courage and honor,” “All the best to you, normal people are on your side!”, “You are right, thank you,” “Valery, you are a hero of our time,” “Conscience is your main thing,” “Thank you, you are a role model,” “Thank you for peace — no war.”

There was not a single negative comment. People sent messages from different cities around the country. That is the most important thing.

As my children tell me, the comments about the doorkeeper were by no means unsparing in all cases. But I haven’t seen them myself, I’m not on social media.

We ended up raising 200 thousand rubles [approx. 2,300 euros] in two days instead of 90 thousand. I gave the surplus to charity and asked people to stop sending money.

The letter Z taped on the Onokhoy sports school’s front door. Photo courtesy of Sibir.Realii (RFE/RL)

Has the village’s attitude towards you changed?

Some people say “Hello, Valery Anatolyevich” when they meet me, as usual. But others walk by me like they don’t know me. But, apparently, these people were not close to me before. I see surprise in some people’s eyes, like they didn’t know I was that kind of person.

A lot of soldiers from Buryatia have been dying in this war. Is this discussed in your village?

Do you think that people even know this? They don’t know. There is no such information in the public domain. I once went up to a father of two sons of draft age. They are about to be summoned to the military enlistment office. I said to him, “Listen, your sons may be taken away from you, they may be killed. What do you think of that as a father?” He replied, “Well, that means it was fate.” I almost fell over. Another father had a different reaction. He said, “I’d rather go with [my son] and rob a store so that we could go to prison together. He will always be my son, whether he’s a criminal or anything else.” Those are the opinions people have.

I saw on the internet the [internal] passport of a man whose body had been found on the battlefield. He had the same last name as people I knew from a neighboring village. I wanted to call them and ask whether he was their relative. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Later, I found out that yes, it was their relative.

I don’t know what to think about this… I can’t talk. Everything inside me hurts! (He cries – Siber.Realii.)

Sometimes you start talking to people, and the person responds by talking at you like the TV. Everything is immediately clear. I ask whether they’ve been watching TV. There’s no one to talk to anymore except old acquaintances. I’m irritated by human stupidity and people’s unwillingness to try and understand anything, their inability to be independent in their judgments.

Where do you get your information from?

I used to listen to Echo of Moscow, but now it’s gone. There are twenty channels on the TV in Onokhoy, but there is nothing to watch. I rarely turn it on. I even have my own personal rating of channels in terms of mendaciousness: Zvezda, TV Centre, and so on. I also have my own ratings for TV presenters. I regard them as frontline soldiers. They do tremendous work, trying to condemn millions of people to death.

I’m not involved in politics, and I don’t trust anyone. First I compare and analyze the information. I use the internet and YouTube. I look for the experts, in both politics and economics. By the way, judging by the forecasts of the latter, we are in for rough times. I have land, several hectares, that I’ve been working for many years. I bought more seeds and potatoes just in case. I have to at least cover my costs as a farmer — diesel fuel, tractor repairs, and dog food.

Can we say that the story with the stickers and the audio recording has come to an end?

Now I am being asked to make a statement in the media saying that I made a mistake, and that the western media blew things out of proportion. They even gave me a sample text written in advance. I don’t know what to do yet. After all, I don’t want to lose my job working with children. I love my job.

Onokhoy, Republic of Buryatia. Photo courtesy of Sibir.Realii (RFE/RL)

Why do you think what has happened to Russia happened?

There should be turnover in the country’s leadership. Eight years and two terms should be the maximum in office, no matter how good a president is. This should be the case in any country to prevent dictatorship and corruption.

Now, after some time has passed, do you not regret that you tore down that letter Z and got into so much trouble for it?

When I saw that sign, I thought for only half a second. Later, I pondered why I did it. I thought for a long time and this is what I discovered: when I was in grades four, five and six, I hated Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov. At the time, I didn’t know why I hated them. [They were] “enemies of the people” and “traitors.” But many years later, after I had read almost all of Solzhenitsyn’s works, when I found out who Sakharov was… My God, how they hammered that stupidity and rubbish into our heads! I don’t want it to happen again. That’s all.

Source: Sibir.Realii (RFE/RL), 18 April 2022. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the link. Translated by the Russian Reader. Earlier today, Reuters published a revealing portrait of another brave Russian teacher who resisted his country’s wartime plunge into fascism and also paid the price.

“Give Birth Yourself!”

Maria Petrovskaya holding a placard that reads “Give birth yourself” in Nizhny Novgorod. Courtesy of Radio Svoboda’s Instagram page

The crackdown against Russians who oppose the war with Ukraine continues. Two new articles in the administrative offenses code and the criminal code — Articles 20.3.3 and 280.3, i.e., making it a crime to “discredit the Armed Forces” — have been specially adopted to punish those who call the war a war. But they have been enforced by the courts and the security forces in a such a way that grounds can be found in anything a placard reading “Fascism will not pass,” a placard containing an anti-war quote by Putin’s, leaflets containing the biblical commandment [“Thou shalt not kill”], asterisks instead of letters, the inscription “Two words” [i.e., “No war”] — for detaining and charging someone. Police in Nizhny Novgorod did not like placards that read “Mariupol. We remember, we grieve” and “Give birth yourself!”

A photo of a young woman holding a placard featuring a man in black cradling a bomb and the slogan “Give birth yourself!” gained fame far beyond Nizhny Novgorod in March. The woman in the photo was the school teacher and feminist Maria Petrovskaya. She had not been involved in public protests before. According to her, the war was her turning point.

“There is a certain last straw,” says Petrovskaya. “All my friends were on Bolotnaya Square, and then on Sakharov Avenue. [This is a reference to the “fair elections” protests in Moscow in 2012.] I endorsed their stance and supported them emotionally, and it was around that time that I began to get a little interested in politics. And yet, as long as it was about the pro-Putin clique’s political, territorial (e.g., Crimea), and financial ambitions, I was not so deeply worried about it. But war destroys and takes the lives of people on both sides. When it comes to the suffering of people, I can’t stand on the sidelines.”

The court hearing on the “Give birth yourself!” protest is still to be held, but the police charged Petrovskaya not with violating Article 20.3.3, but with the more familiar Article 20.2.5, i.e., “involvement in an unauthorized protest rally.” Law enforcement officers decided that Ilya Myaskovsky, who photographed Petrovskaya, was a full-fledged participant in the picket, which meant that it was no longer a solo picket, but a “mass” protest.

But last week, the Sormovo District Court in Nizhny Novgorod fined Petrovskaya and Myaskovsky for their involvement in another protest, in memory of the victims of Mariupol, under Article 20.3.3. Petrovskaya says that, as in the case of the “Give birth yourself!” protest, it was entirely a feminist protest that Myaskovsky had nothing to do with. He only photographed a homemade cross made of branches on which the message “5,000 killed. Mariupol. We remember, we grieve” had been hung.

Нижний Новгород, плакат в память о жертвах в Мариуполе
Maria Petrovskaya’s placard in memory of the victims of the Russian assault on Mariupol.
Photo courtesy of Radio Svoboda

After the police took Petrovskaya to the precinct, Myaskovsky followed her in a jitney.

“For over an hour [Myaskovsky] hovered outside the doors to the police station, waiting for me. In the end, the inspector who was writing me up dragged him into the station as well. ‘To talk,’ as he said. Meaning that Ilya might not have been charged if he hadn’t chivalrously followed me.”

Petrovskaya and Myaskovsky were charged with “discrediting the Armed Forces.” But Sergei Kulikov, a lawyer from the Visor Project who represented them, says that in court even the policeman who wrote out the arrest sheet could not immediately explain how Kulikov’s clients had discredited the Armed Forces.

“‘Can we say exactly who this text targets?’ I asked the police officer [in court]. ‘No,’ he says. ‘Does this text contain a negative appraisal of the authorities?’ I asked him. ‘No,’ he says. Well, okay, I thought, let’s take the bull by the horns. ‘Does this text discredit the Armed Forces in any way?’ I asked him, and he repled, ‘No!” The police officer later realized that he had made a mistake, and asked to testify at the very end [of the hearing]. He said that in the context of everything that was happening, it discredited [the Armed Forces], of course! Who else was it about?” recalls Kulikov.

Both activists were fined: Myaskovsky, 30 thousand rubles [approx. 324 euros], and Petrovskaya, half that amount. The lawyer presented the court with written proof of Petrovskaya’s low salary at the remedial school where she teaches, and the judge decided to show leniency.

People at Petrovskaya’s workplace do not approve of her activism.

“After the “Give birth yourself!” placard went so vividly public, I was horrified to find that almost all my colleagues supported the war and had a positive take on what Putin was doing. They thought I was a disgrace to the school. The head teacher told me that her colleagues had been calling her all weekend, consoling her and asking her how I could have done such a thing. I was given a very long dressing-down, and so was the director, although he is already an elderly man. Everyone told me that I was throwing him and the [regional] education ministry under the bus, although it’s hard to see how I could have done that,” recounts Petrovskaya.

Нижний Новгород, задержание Марии Петровской
Police detaining Maria Petrovskaya in Nizhny Novgorod. Photo courtesy of Radio Svoboda

Kulikov argues that the police’s lack of preparedness helped his client avoid the charge of “discrediting the Armed Forces” in this case.

“They probably had not yet been instructed what to do with this article. They have been instructed now. I know this for sure because there are two cases in which even pro-government picketers have been charged under this article. So, I think our policemen are performance artists, too. They have been given an absurd tool, and they are raising the absurdity to the next level! It’s more like the law enforcement that the Soviet authorities practiced after the Revolution: ‘revolutionary legal awareness’!” says the lawyer.

“If they fined people who held up a blank piece of paper or a placard with three asterisks followed by five asterisks [thus suggesting the Russian phrase Net voine (‘no war’), which consists of a three-letter world and a five-letter word]… Or, for example, I saw an image of three bears and five bears drawn by a female artist, and she was fined, too. Toy bears in memory of dead children: yes, that discredits the army, of course,” says Petrovskaya.

Last week, city hall announced a competitive review of Nizhny Novgorod’s bomb shelters. The purpose of the review is to maintain the shelters “in constant readiness so that they can be used for their intended purpose.”

Source: Alexander Lugov, Radio Svoboda, 11 April 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

He Said He Was Proud to Be Ukrainian

Petersburg shop teacher Gennady Tychina. Photo: Arina Vasilchuk/Novaya Gazeta

Policemen armed with machine guns came to shop teacher Gennady Tychina’s class at School No. 109 in Petersburg’s Primorsky District.

They took the teacher to a police precinct, where they held him for over forty-eight hours. A few days earlier, the school’s headmaster had urged Tychina to resign voluntarily. There was only one reason for this, according to Tychina: in a conversation with another school employee, he had said that he was proud to be Ukrainian.

Tychina started working at School No. 109 in August 2019. He had not received a single reprimand in three years. In early February, he had started doing the paperwork to apply for a first category teacher’s license, but had not yet managed to send the application to the Education Development Center.

On March 1, Tychina told a school security guard that he was proud of his Ukrainian background. He did not say a word about the “special operation” [i.e., Russia’s invasion of Ukraine].

“After this conversation, the school administration began to put pressure on me. I was told that I [needed to quit because] I was propagandizing the children. I oppose the “special operation,” and that’s what I said when I was first called into the headmaster’s office. But as a teacher within the walls of the school, I am not on anyone’s side. And I don’t discuss politics with my students.”

Gennady Tychina’s written complaint about being pressured to resign, dated 4 March 2022

The school’s acting headmaster, former physical education teacher Alexei Tatarnikov, demanded that Tychina resign. Tychina then wrote a complaint about the pressure from the school administration. The complaint was even countersigned in the school’s office. The date was March 4th.

The next day, three people came to Tychina’s shop classroom: the headmaster and two policemen armed with machine guns. They had come to detain Tychina.

“If the headmaster had been in his right mind, he would have knocked and said, ‘Gennady Nikolayevich, come out into the hall.’ And then he would have explained to the children that Gennady Nikolayevich was busy and now they would have a different class. So that they wouldn’t have had to see anything,” the teacher sighs. “There were fifth-graders in the class. They were shocked. And the director said to them, ‘Come on, come on, come out.’ It was like being in a camp.”

School No. 109 in Petersburg’s Primorsky Distrist. Photo: social media/Novaya Gazeta

“Gennady reached out to me as soon as they started forcing him to resign,” says lawyer Sergei Bulavsky. “I gave him advice. Then he called again and explained that the concept had changed [sic]: he had been taken to a police precinct, the 35th. His shoelaces had been removed and his belt taken away, and he had been put in a holding cell with a wooden bench. He couldn’t sleep or do anything else. But he was allowed care packages with food and drink. He was held for over forty-eight hours, although this is against the rules. Apparently, they wanted to ripen him up, to make him burst into tears and confess. Finally, he was taken to the Primorsky District Court. After a few hours, it transpired that there were glaring discrepancies in the charge sheet. It said that [Tychina] had used obscene language in public and was thus, allegedly, guilty of petty disorderly conduct. But he was detained at his workplace, right in the classroom. They had to let him go until more coherent charges are filed. So now we are waiting for a summons.”

Almost all of Tychina’s belongings remained at the school, including the keys to his apartment; he stayed with friends for several days. He was afraid to go to the school after his release, so Bulavsky went instead. Tychina’s belongings were given to the lawyer only after the power of attorney was issued. Bulavsky was asked to take Tychina’s work record book [trudovaya knizhka], but he refused to take it: Tychina’s dismissal will be challenged in court.

When asked what he wants to do next, Tychina answers unequivocally: to teach.

“I’m good at teaching, the kids love me. It’s not likely to work out for me at this school: I’m not going to go back there and look like a maniac. But I want to fight to have this dismissal rescinded.”

Tychina’s shop classroom at School No. 103. Photo courtesy of Gennady Tychina

Tychina’s pupils still do not know why he suddenly disappeared. They even telephoned him to ask him personally. He answered half-truthfully: he was still on sick leave. He does not know yet what he will tell them after March 23, when his sick leave, due to the case of neuralgia he got during his stay at the police precinct, ends.

The security guard, whose conversation with Tychina sparked his problems at work, neither confirmed nor denied Tychina’s story. After your correspondent asked him her first question, the guard summoned the acting headmaster. As Tatarnikov explained, “We are going to trial now. That is why we can’t say anything.”

Source: Arina Vasilchuk, Novaya Gazeta, 25 March 2022. Thanks to ES and SP for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Irina Milyutina: “I Think About What Will Become of My Students”

Irina Milyutina picketing on February 24, 2022, in Pskov. Her placard reads: “Stop this madness! No war!” Photo: Nikolai Kuzmin. Courtesy of 7×7

“Teachers could have a lot of impact, but they are probably the most disenfranchised people,” argues Irina Milyutina, a teacher from Pskov. After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, she held a solo picket and signed an open letter by Russian teachers against the war with Ukraine. The police detained Milyutina during the protest, and her school hinted that the young woman was only harming herself by her actions. In an interview with 7×7, Milyutina talked about how it came about that she held an anti-war protest, whether local teachers have been forced to teach “patriotism lessons” in connection with the events in Ukraine, and whether teachers can stop the war.

“I don’t have anything to prove to anyone”

— Tell us about yourself. What do you do? What are your interests?

— I work as an English teacher at a public school in Pskov. We have a dynasty in our family: Grandma and Mom are also teachers. I like working with children, I really love my subject, I try to improve my English skills. In my free time I make cosplay costumes for photo shoots, play computer games, dance, and read. And I’m interested in politics.

— Have you been involved in protests before?

— I have gone to protest when it was impossible to be silent. I went to solo pickets against the amendments to the [Russian] Constitution, in memory of [slain opposition leader] Boris Nemtsov, in support of journalists labeled “foreign agents,” and twice against the war with Ukraine.

— Was it scary to go to a public protest?

— What is there to fear? Solo pickets are legal, first of all. Second, what would I feel like if I sat home shaking in fear? I would stop respecting myself.

— What consequences did the protests you were involved in have for you? Did the police, officials, school management, colleagues, or parents of students put pressure on you?

— There was no pressure generally, only questions about why I was doing this, because “nothing will change anyway.” And the [local] Department of Education has been very interested in my actions. They even called me at home in the fall, although it’s not clear why.

— How do your superiors, colleagues, and parents of students feel about your civic stance and involvement in protests?

— I don’t bandy my views about at work and I don’t talk about them with anyone there. Only my social media audience knows about what I’m involved in, and if someone else knows, I don’t discuss it. Most likely, there are rumors. Some [coworkers and parents] support me, while some condemn me, and this is normal. I don’t have anything to prove to anyone.

“How can the authorities so shamelessly deceive and muzzle the people?”

— Why did you decide to protest the war in Ukraine by picketing on February 24?

— I hoped to the last that the conflict would not grow to such an extent, although Russia’s arms exhibitionism has been covered by the propaganda channels from all angles for many years, as long as the hybrid war continued. I protested against this in the spring, when the situation was heating up more and more.

But as soon as I learned on the morning of February 24 that troops had been officially sent in and the war had become conventional, I was shocked. I realized that I couldn’t ignore it. The Russian Federation’s foreign policy has raised many questions before, but this [was beyond the pale].

— How did passersby react to your protest? Did they support or condemn you?

— When I was standing there with my placard, people came up to me. Many thanked me, saying that they agreed with my position. But I was only thinking about one thing: how can the authorities so shamelessly deceive and muzzle the people and misrepresent the truth?!

I was terrified at the thought of how the world community would react, how the people of Ukraine, who are now forced to hide in bomb shelters, would treat Russians. What terrible consequences await the whole world because of the ambitions of the Russian Federation. The damage is irreparable.

— Why did the police detain you during the picket?

— I still don’t understand why I was detained. I am well aware of the rules for solo pickets and did my own picket in full compliance with them. They detained me just like that, despite the fact that I had my documents with me. They said something about a “public event” at the police precinct, but there was no public event. They have only done a field interview with me at the moment.

Irina Milyutina protesting in 2021 against the practice of labeling dissident journalists “foreign agents.” Her placard reads: “Not a foreign agent, but an agent of Russia and her citizens.” Photo courtesy of 7×7’s Telegram channel

“Teachers are disenfranchised people”

— Did your school react to your protest against the war with Ukraine?

— The school’s management reacted by asking whether I understood that we teachers are dependent people and saying that I was only making things worse for myself by my actions, that I was not thinking about the future at all. Although just the opposite was the case.

— The Kaluga Regional Ministry of Education has ordered schools to teach lessons on “patriotism and pride for their country” because of Russia’s recognition of the LPR and the DPR. Have your or other schools been asked to teach similar lessons?

— I have not yet heard that teachers in Pskov have been ordered to teach patriotic education lessons due to the current situation. I hope this doesn’t happen. It’s nonsense. I think that school teachers, like other educators and scholars, could have a lot of impact, but, unfortunately, they are perhaps the most disenfranchised people, deprived of the opportunity to express their opinions. Some of them, out of fear of losing their jobs, dance to the tune of the authorities by meeting frankly criminal demands. It’s a very sad situation.

— Why did you sign the open letter by teachers against the war with Ukraine?

— I was incredibly pleased that so many teachers finally realized that they have the right to speak out, the right to be outraged by the situation, and wrote this open letter.

Just like them, I think about the future of our country, about what will become of my students. The current actions of the authorities are leading to a catastrophe that will ruin everyone’s lives. Can we let this happeen?

— What do you expect in the near future when it comes to your protest activity and the situation in Ukraine?

— I don’t expect anything from my activism. I’m doing it because my heart tells me to. I stand for justice, for peace and good relations with other countries, for progress. But what’s happening now will only lead us to isolation, collapse, and being hated by our neighbors, and not only by them. I’m in favor of ceasing hostilities and withdrawing the troops. We would do better to deal with matters inside our country, because there’s total ruin all round us as it is.

Source: Ivan Zhurakov, ‘I think what will happen to my students’: Why a teacher from Pskov protested the war against Ukraine,” 7×7, 28 February 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

Back to the Basics

Today, September 1, is the Day of Knowledge — the first day of school — in Russia and some other post-Soviet countries. As it happens, it was sometime around the Day of Knowledge thirty-one years ago that I began studying Russian. My first Russian teacher was a Hungarian woman named Zsuzsa, at Portland State University. She was only the first of many wonderful guides to the language over the next five or six years (the time it took me to achieve relative fluency), including Nora, Sergei, Zoya, and an amazing Chinese grad student who explained Russian grammar — in Russian (speaking English in class was forbidden at UDub) — better than anyone I’ve ever met; all the lovely, patient and generous lecturers and instructors at the Herzen Institute, who were selflessly dedicated to their profession at a time when working conditions for teachers in Russia couldn’t have been worse; the incomparable Katya Vidre, who introduced me to the work of Alexei Khvostenko and Sergei Dovlatov and so many other things; and countless other Russians, especially the cast of bohemians who helped me with my thesis project, a translation and line-by-line commentary of Joseph Brodsky’s long poem “Predstavlenie.”

Although you might not always guess it from this blog and its prevailingly grim subject matter, learning (and reading) Russian has been immensely liberating. Becoming a Russian reader and speaker has made me a different person, a person capable of seeing the world, however darkly or brightly, through other eyes.

I was reminded of this tremendous gift and the sheer joy of plunging into a new language by the four “Russian pedagogical moments” below. I hope they inspire some of you to learn Russian. At very least, you can read through this post and learn your first twenty-seven words and phrases in the language. ||| TRR

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“V or B? Fill in the missing letters.” This is a worksheet made by the RFL teacher extraordinaire Natalia Vvedenskaya for the immigrant children she teaches at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center. The words are banan (“banana”), yabloko (“apple”), vaza (“vase”), kolbasa (“sausage”), divan (“couch,” “sofa”), sobaka (“dog”), rebyonok (“child”), and morkovka (“carrot”). This was originally posted on Ms. Vvedenskaya’s Facebook page.

The words and phrases on the second page of the worksheet are velosiped (“bicycle”), avtobus (“bus”), baton (“baguette”), volshebnaya palochka (“magic wand”), gruzovik (“truck, lorry”), banka s vareniem (“jar of jam”), rubashka (“shirt”), and baklazhan (“aubergine, eggplant”).

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Some of Bridget Barbara’s favorite Russian words are arkhiologicheskikh (“archaeological”), zharko (“hot”), delala (“[a female subject] was doing/did”), kavychki (“quotation marks”), prikol’no (“cool”), kuda (“to where”), sovremennyi (“modern,” “contemporary”), ping-pong (“ping-pong”), bifshteks (“beef steak”), and dostoprimechatel’nosti (“sights,” “landmarks”).

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Vadim F. Lurie, “Russia for the Sad.” Posted on the photographer’s Facebook page on August 13, 2021, and reproduced here with his kind permission. The textbook in the photo is open to pages headed with the word grust‘, “sadness.” As Mr. Lurie informs me, “The boy is examining a special book about emotions and discussing it with his mother.”

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Natalia Vvedenskaya playing language bingo with her pupils at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center. She writes: “We discussed transport today. Bingo is still the best game for all levels of knowledge of the language and ages. Only it’s very exciting. The screaming is fearsome.”

Slugfest

I usually like what Kirill Martynov writes, but the screed, below, is overdoing it. DOXA are just four nice smart, brave kids, not the Red Army Faction. They shouldn’t have to bring down the Putin regime on their own. This is not to mention the fact that Russia has been an “ordinary dictatorship” since 2012, if not much earlier. || TRR

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Kirill Martynov
Facebook
April 16, 2021

At work, I have to constantly write about the “socio-political situation.”

My thoughts are now as transparent as Patrushev’s tear: we have arrived at an ordinary dictatorship with a president for life, prisons and a ban on practicing their professions for dissenters, and the subsequent collapse of the state—after this patriotic feast ends with some pathetic and shameful event, as usually happens to dictatorships.

Accordingly, there is practically nothing to write, except for specific stories—for example, about when they try to block YouTube or how they will simulate elections under the new circumstances.

The DOXA case should be read in this light: this is not about random “siloviki going after a student magazine,” but about the dictatorship purging education and the media. It is impossible to win a trial against the dictatorship, so further bets will hinge on whether everyone remains free or not.

The advantage in this case is that “DOXA’s criminal video” says nothing except the that students also have the right to take a civic stance, and university administrations should not try to persecute them for this. It looks like the kind of case that should end in a suspended sentence, which, by Russian standards, is tantamount to an acquittal.

However, so far the state has imposed special pre-trial restraining measures on DOXA. All four editors can leave their homes for one minute a day, from 11:59 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. (so as to avoid putting them under house arrest for some reason).* All four of them have already been issued summonses for more than twenty interrogations, scheduled for every working day between now and late May.


In a better world, Summit Brewing Co.’s fabulous Slugfest IPA would be my new sponsor. Instead, it only dulls the pain I feel when contemplating the one-sided slugfest happening in the world’s biggest country. Image courtesy of Summit Brewing Co., St. Paul, Minn.

Armen Aramyan wrote his honor’s thesis in epistemology with me as his academic advisor. I hope that the investigator will have time to talk with him about this interesting subject. (“Why so many books?” the police asked when they searched his apartment.)

So from an epistemological point of view, the situation looks something like this. The authorities are now able to kill DOXA’s entire support line in a matter of days: the state will simply devour a few lives and go on, thus maintaining “stability.” But the state’s weakness is that it has no idea what phenomenon it is facing.

It has no idea how these people think, what they want, and what to use to “break” them. When the Americans were at war with Japan, they commissioned anthropologists to study Japanese culture. Our state is waging a war on young people blindly, like a drunken gangster in a dark alley.

I have no idea at all what DOXA—a horizontal student editorial board that writes about modern philosophy and harassment—looks like to police investigators.

And while the state is trying to figure out this unknown quantity, to unravel how it can be bought off or destroyed, many more interesting things will happen.

* As reader Pavel Kudyukin pointed out to me, house arrest was not imposed in this case so that its duration could not later be subtracted (as “time served”) from a sentence of imprisonment or probation imposed after a trial and guilty verdict. This suggests, he argued, that the powers that be have already decided to convict the four DOXA editors and send them to prison. || TRR

April 16, 2021

Covid is raging in Russia: over the past twelve months, there have been about 500,000 unexplained excess deaths. Putin is killing Navalny in prison, right now, literally. And this is the scene today, Friday, at 11:15 p.m., on Pyatnitskaya Street in downtown Moscow. How is this possible?!

Translated by the Russian Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by the Russian Reader

Sergey Abashin: A Mishmash Instead of an Identity

Students in the middle group of the seventh form at Moscow’s Comprehensive School No. 282, where more than half of the pupils are children of foreign nationals. Photo: Alexey Kudenko/RIA Novosti. Courtesy of Republic

A mishmash instead of an identity. Why do the Kremlin’s attempts to formulate the concept of a “Russian nation” always end in xenophobia?
Sergey Abashin
Republic
April 3, 2021

On March 30, the Kremlin hosted a meeting of the Presidential Council on Interethnic Relations. Vladimir Putin opened the discussion with the following statement: “In the practice of a number of countries, civic and ethnic identities are often perceived as competitors. I consider this approach (in our country, at least) absolutely incorrect, to put it mildly, and I want to emphasize in particular that it is absolutely unacceptable for our country. A person may belong to one or another ethnic group, but we all have one country—big Russia.” It is unclear what countries the president was hinting at and what he meant by making such a contrast, but there will probably be political scientists willing explain his critique. But the arguments about “civic and ethnic identity” are a clear continuation of the previous search for an answer to the question “who are we?”, to which the current Kremlin, which likes to speculate about its historical purpose, returns regularly.

Identity issues
The intrigue in this discussion revolves around its affirmation of very different versions of self-determination. The Russian Constitution states: “The bearer of sovereignty and the only source of power in the Russian Federation is its multinational people.” The phrase “multinational people” was, in the early 1990s, a political compromise between the idea of the unity and equality of all the inhabitants of the new Russia (“the people”) and its ethnic diversity (“multinational”), which formed the basis of its avowed federal structure. The compromise did not last long, however. After the defeat of Ichkeria/Chechnya, which had declared itself self-declared independent, the Kremlin began  systematically curtailing the rights of the Russian Federation’s constituent territories and strengthening the central government. In the political reality of the 2000s, the formula “multinational people” had begun to look unsuitable: new terms were needed that would place a greater emphasis on unity and community.

In the language of the ruling elite, two competing and co-existing constructions emerged, which, although they did not figure in the Constitution, attained de facto official status. The first was the idea of “Russian civilization,” which historically united different peoples into a single community with its own “genetic, cultural and moral code,” as Putin had put it earlier. The word “civilization” imparted to Russia a lofty and important status as a discrete world, not merely one among a number of countries. It accorded well with its claims to being a great power and an alternative geopolitical center, equal in weight to the entire “western civilization,” and it also referred to the imperial and Soviet past, which could be inserted in the “civilizational” framework. Russian civilization has its counterparts—”Eurasian civilization,” that is, the community of Russia and neighboring countries, and the “Russian world”, that is, the community of Russia with separate regions and groups loyal to Russian culture. The set of countries and groups that fall into these latter categories, however, has no precise outlines and depends more on the ambitions of Kremlin politicians. The relationship between the “Russian” and “Eurasian” civilizations and the “Russian world” and their hierarchical ranking among themselves are not entirely clear, but such an internal contradiction does not really bother politicians, who easily switch back and forth between these concepts.

The second idea, which also took root in the official rhetoric, was the formula of the “Russian nation,” which in theory refers only to a civic identity that incorporates ethnic diversity. At the end of his speech at the council, Academician Valery Tishkov said, “The metaphor of the country as a civilization is important, even interesting, but it seems to me that the stricter category—the nation of the state [natsiya gosudarstva]—is more important.” It is stricter in the sense of being in compliance with the Constitution, since it is easier to bridge “the people” [narod] to “the nation” [natsiya]. And it is stricter in the sense of the language accepted in the world at large, where “nations” and “nation states” are part of the picture, which in turn emphasizes modernity. The formula “Russian nation” [rossiiskaya natsia] no longer reflects claims to historical unilateralism and uniqueness, in which one can detect undertones of isolationism and anomaly, but rather, on the contrary, to normality and usefulness to the rest of the world. “Russian nation,” however, does trigger other doubts. Ethnic minority activists see it as part of a plan to assimilate them, while ethnic Russian nationalists see it as belittling and underestimating the role of ethnic Russians [russkie].

The imperialists, for their part, find in the formula a rejection of the country’s superpower past, echoes of the “prison of the peoples” critique, and an unwillingness to maintain continuity with the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

So far, “Russian civilization” and “Russian nation” have been used as equivalents in official rhetoric. The antagonism between the two concepts does not bother political officials, instrumentality being more important in their eyes than theoretical disputes. Officials are also in no hurry to abandon the constitutional formula of the “multinational people,” apparently finding advantages in its ambiguousness and the possibility of multiple interpretations. However, in 2020, along with other amendments to the Constitution, the expression “state-forming people” was introduced, further confusing the entire ideology of self-identification, in which “the people,” “ethnic groups” (“nationalities”), “civilization,” and “world” are now mixed up in the same heap. The emphasis on the special role of ethnic Russians destroys the idea of civic identity, since it assumes that (Russian) ethnicity constitutes it. This contradiction, however, has been ignored out of political expediency.

Rhetoric versus specifics
This scholasticism has become quite tiresome, but it is repeated from time to time at all sorts of official meetings. However, there are now issues that have given a new impetus to the discussion of civic/ethnic identity—i.e., migration and migrants, more precisely, the children of migrants, to whom a good half of all the speeches at the council meeting were devoted. Foreign migrants pose a problem for the concepts of “Russian civilization” and “Russian nation,” because millions of people who are not citizens of Russia live and work here. At the same, many of these people are not fully documented (they are “illegal,” so to speak). Not all of them speak Russian, nor have they imbibed the images of Russian history and life that local residents get in kindergarten. In other words, they are not inscribed in the implicit chain of command and thus provoke fear and prejudice among populace and politicians alike.

From a legal and institutional point of view, the children of some migrant workers from the CIS countries pose a problem to Russia’s central government because firstly, according to the law, they have a fuzzy legal status in Russia and, accordingly, there are formal and informal restrictions on their access to schools, and secondly, the schools themselves do not have a federally approved program for working with migrant children, who immediately find themselves in classes with regular pupils—as a rule, among the underachievers, thus spoiling test score stats for schools. The officials who spoke at the council promised to quickly solve these problems, which for years have generated resentment and complaints from human rights defenders and non-governmental organizations working with migrant children.

Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov called the education of children who come to Russia with their parents “a mission for our education system [and] an urgent challenge for us.” He mentioned the upcoming comprehensive system for assessing the individual educational needs of migrant children, which will be used to chart the right educational path for each child, supporting it with psychological and pedagogical assistance. This would seem to imply the creation of preparatory classes in schools, in which the children of migrants would have to acquire the necessary language skills in order to switch to the normal mode of study in general classes. In turn, Valentina Kazakova, head of the Russian Interior Ministry’s Migration Department of the Russian Interior Ministry, assured council members that the law on foreign citizens would be amended concerning the status of minor children, giving them unhindered access to educational institutions. If you believe these responsible officials, Russia is finally going to establish official mechanisms for working with migrant children.

However, legal measures alone do not explain how the Russian state ideologically integrates migrants into the image of “who we are.” In this instance, legislative and institutional pragmatics do not necessarily match the political rhetoric, which is usually focused on excluding migrants as “dangerous aliens.” The Council on Interethnic Relations has borne out exactly this asymmetry. Commenting on the topic of immigrant children, President Putin declared it an “unpleasant area”; he recalled that in Europe and America, “when the level of migrant children in school reaches a certain percentage, local residents remove their children from these schools,” and “schools are formed that are almost 100 percent immigrant children,” which, according to the president, “in no case should be allowed in Russia.” “The number of migrant children in our schools should be such that it enables [them] to adapt deeply to the Russian language environment. But not only to the language—to the culture in general, so that they can immerse themselves in our Russian values system. It will be good for them, and, accordingly, it will not hurt our families; it will not create problems for educational institutions.”

The words chosen were interpreted in the media as a call to “monitor the proportion of migrant children in schools,” “limit the number of migrant children in schools,” and “regulate the number of such children in Russian schools,” thus only causing a media-induced wave of anti-migrant fears.

It cannot be said that this ritual online discussion in the Kremlin was completely pointless. Specific plans to change the policy on migrant children are a cause for cautious optimism. However, the current political elite’s vocabulary and conceptual apparatus makes the depressing impression of being rooted in the archaic past of the twentieth or even the nineteenth century, but not in the twenty-first century. This elite reconstructs answers to the question “who are we?” from dead and moribund ideologies, condemning Russia not to solve, but to reproduce earlier confrontations and conflicts.

Translated by the Russian Reader