Love Conquers All

The saw “Love conquers all” makes us disavow a violence that has always already conquered love.
—Frank B. Wilderson III, Afropessimism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2020), p. 325

Elena Vilenskaya
Facebook
December 31, 2020

Many people won’t like this, probably, but I cannot help but write it for the sake of many people’s memory. On December 31, 1994, I stopped enjoying the New Year. On New Year’s Eve, [Russian] federal troops bombed Grozny. That night, a lot of people of different ethnicities who had remained in Grozny died, and the conscripts who were sent there by the [Russian] authorities died senseless deaths. Forgiving and forgetting this would be impossible and wicked. That night, our family was unable to celebrate the New Year. I haven’t celebrated it since.

Still from The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933). Translated by the Russian Reader

Copyleft

Alexander Blok

[Response to a questionnaire]*

I have no objections to the abolition of literary estate rights.

In a person who is really alive, that is, who is moving forward, not backward, any sense of ownership should of course weaken over the years; all the more should it weaken in the intellectual laborer, and especially in the artist, who is absorbed in finding forms capable of withstanding the pressure of incoming creative energy rather than in scraping together capital, finding support in this endeavor from his loved ones, if they are indeed his loved ones.

When I die, may only hands that can best convey the products of my labor to those who need them be found.

1 January 1918

* Originally published in Novyi vechernii chas, 3 January 1918. The questionnaire was prompted by a December 1917 decree of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, ceding to the state the exclusive rights to the literary estates of writers after they died. In addition to Blok’s, Novyi vechernii chas published the responses of Fyodor Sologub and Dmitry Merezhkovsky in the same issue: arguing that the decree was “gibberish” and “inadvisable,” they called on writers to unite in protest. The responses of Vasily Nemirovich-Danchenko, Teffi, Anastasia Chebotarevskaya, Alexander Kuprin, Alexander Amfiteatrov, and Mikhail Prishvin were published in subsequent issues of the newspaper.

Source: Sergeyev’s Theater Library. Photo of the ramp in the constructivist tower of Laboratory Building “E” at the Moscow Power Engineering Institute (MEI) courtesy of Elena Krizhevskya/porusski.me. Thanks to Alexandra Vorobyova for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

How I Was Friends with Billionaires

Igor Mints, Rustam Yulbarisov, and Sasha Mints. Courtesy of Rustam Yulbarisov

How I Was Friends with Billionaires
Rustam Yulbarisov
Zanovo
November 1, 2020

This is a saga of two families, of poverty and wealth, and of the twin brothers who helped me see the biggest difference between people.

I learned that humanity was divided into classes at School No. 963. My mother managed to get me into the first A class, which was considered a university prep class, in contrast to the proletarian B and C classes. We studied English, drawing, ballroom dancing, and even the Vietnamese martial art Việt Võ Đạo, which was taught by an Azerbaijani. The school fees were also higher.

I learned directly about the divisions between people from my friendship with my classmates Sasha and Igor. I don’t know what caused us to become friends, but now I am sure that it was inevitable, because we had too much in common. Our families had moved to Moscow from the regions. We lived in neighboring houses on the same floors. We were non-Russian, and they were also a little non-Russian. They were twin brothers, and I had a brother. They clobbered each other, and we clobbered each other. Our fathers worked as officials in the new Russian government. They even gave their sons identical jackets: green ones for us and purple ones for them, and our mothers gave us identical books—Monsters, Ghosts, and UFOs.

The book so fascinated us that we formed a club called UGS (UFO and Ghost Society) and got a notebook in which we recorded the mystical happenings in our courtyard. We would visit each other, watch movies on videotape, and play LEGO. I liked going to their house more because we had a one-room apartment and they had a five-room apartment. I had to lie that we had another room, a secret one. Most importantly, they had a computer, at which I sat with the twins in turn on the same chair, battling it out on Heroes of Might and Magic II, with its codes for black dragons. Our family would get a computer later.

Our friendship ended in the eighth grade. Igor and Sasha went to study at University Prep School No. 1501 (affiliated with the STANKIN, the Moscow State Technology University), taking with them all the classmates with whom I was friends. I stayed at School No. 963 because I acted in the theater club and didn’t want to get my life entangled in machine tool engineering, mathematics and economics.

I will always remember the conversation we had in the hallway at school. We were walking past the changing rooms on the ground floor and discussing our position in the world.

“We’re middle class,” I said.

“No, we’re upper class,” they said.

Their names were Igor and Sasha (Alexander) Mints.

We’re Not the Mintses

I can still tell which Mints is which. Igor has a longer face. He’s on the left. Sasha has a rounder face and a lower voice. He’s on the right. Igor was considered a bully, and Sasha was more easy-going. I was more friends with Igor, and my brother was closer to Sasha. Their mother, Marina, is in the middle. Photo: Irina Buzhor/Kommersant

In early 2020, the Basmanny District Court in Moscow arrested in absentia Boris Mints, owner of O1 Group, and his sons Alexander (Sasha) and Dmitry, and put them on the international wanted list. The Mintses have been charged with a serious crime—aggravated embezzlement, punishable under Article 160.4 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code. The punishment for the crime is ten years in prison.

The Russian Investigative Committee accused the Mintses of embezzling 34 billion rubles from Otkritie Bank when it bought bonds from O1 Group. According to investigators, in 2017, Otkritie’s chair, Yevgeny Dankevich, agreed with the management of O1 Group to buy its bonds, although he knew that the real value of the securities was less than half of their face value. O1 Group repaid its loans from Oktritie ahead of schedule with the money made from the sale of the bonds. Shortly after the deal was concluded, Otkritie and Trust Bank were taken over by the Russian Central Bank.

The parties sued each other in court in the UK. The Mintses moved to London before the investigation was launched, and Dankevich went into hiding in Israel. The banks petitioned the court to freeze $572 million of the Mintses’ assets, including the Tower of Lethendy in Scotland, four hotels, two estates, and a residential building in Haifa. In 2017, Forbes estimated that Boris Mints was worth $1.3 billion, but a year later he had dropped out of the top ranks. He said that the two banks, in collusion with the Central Bank, had launched a “campaign” against him due to “strong personal animosity.” In 2018, Mints had to sell Budushchee pension fund, which was one of the three largest non-state pension funds in Russia, to pay his debts. Budushchee (“Future”) had made losses for its clients two years in a row, losing “every eighth ruble belonging to pensioners.” “If we all crash, then the country will crash,” Mints said in an interview.

I have nothing to brag about. My biggest crime is slightly injuring a couple of neo-Nazis. I also shoplifted clothes from stores. When I was young, I didn’t have enough clothes. I wanted to look attractive in front of the girls, and not wear jackets handed down to me by older relatives.

“We’re not the Mintses,” my mother would tell us when we couldn’t afford something. That was the most frequent phrase she muttered when talking about our family’s financial circumstance. The second most popular phrase was “we don’t have any money.” My brother remembers his childhood as “cold and gloomy.” I was forever saddled with an anxiety about what tomorrow would bring.

The last time I met Mintses in our neighborhood was before I went to university. A friend and I were drinking beer outside when a foreign-made car passed by. I recognized my school friend at the wheel. He stopped and opened the window. I smiled and put the beer on the roof of the car to free my hand for a handshake.

“Take it off, you’ll scratch the paint,” he said.

The irony is that my father doesn’t just know Boris Mints. Their career paths had been similar in many ways: both started as officials in regional governments, and then transferred to the presidential administration—with one nuance.

Rich Dad, Poor Dad

Boris Mints. Photo: Vladislav Shatilo/RBC

Boris Mints earned his first capital during perestroika: “It was fabulous money at the time—140-150 thousand rubles.” He was an associate professor of higher mathematics at the Ivanovo Textile Institute when he started working at a youth center for scientific and technical creativity (NTTM) in 1987. Mints wrote programs for automating jobs at textile mills, and along with them, he sold computers through his NTMM, receiving non-cash payments from enterprises, which were then cashed out. This scheme—selling computers and converting the sales into cash through an NTTM—was also employed by the future oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

In 1990, Mints became involved in privatizing the Ivanovo economy, heading its property management committee. In this capacity he met the head of the federal property committee, Anatoly Chubais, who hired him to join his team. Chubais then became the head of the presidential administration, and Mints was appointed head of the presidential office on local government. This position put him in contact with Russia’s leading lights, including Boris Yeltsin.

My father, Ildar Yulbarisov, graduated from the geology faculty of Moscow State University in 1981 and went off to explore the depths in the most remote corners of our Soviet homeland. In 1990, he was elected First Secretary of the Ufa City Komsomol Committee, but a year later he left because he “did not want to see the country and the Party fall apart.” My father enrolled in the Russian Academy of Foreign Trade in Moscow, while also working at the Bashkirian mission there. In 1994, my father returned to Bashkiria, where he worked for seven years. He would bring us chak-chak and Moscow sausage from Ufa.

The Mintses moved to Moscow in 1994. The Yulbarisovs had moved there in 1991. The two families crossed paths at Timiryazevskaya subway station.

“Dad, do you remember how you met Boris Mints?”

“I was hired to work in the administration of the President of the Republic of Bashkortostan. We knew the country’s leadership and the administration of the President of the Russian Federation, of course. One day Boris Mints showed up there. You and your brother went to visit them once, and your mother asked me to go pick you up. Boris opened the door. We greeted each other like old acquaintances. I told him that we were in the same system, and hinted that I would also like to move to Moscow. Then he invited me to his office on Staraya Ploshchad, and I invited him to Ufa for Sabantuy. There he met with President Murtaza Rakhimov. Mints was very pleased with the trip. When I accompanied on the way back, he said, ‘Murtaza is happy with you. You shouldn’t leave.'”

The 90s came to an end, as did the Yeltsin era. Vladimir Putin came to power, recruiting a new team. In 2000, Boris Mints left the presidential administration to invest in commercial real estate. In 2000, my father left the post of deputy department head at the Ministry of Ethnic Policy and went into the business of oilfield exploration. Mints was ranked among the top 100 richest people in Russia, and his son Sasha made it into the top ten most eligible bachelors in the country. In the Yulbarisov household, buckwheat and chicken on the table were replaced by pilaf and vak belyashi, which my father cooked with goose. I saved up the money I was given for lunch, spending it on dates with girls in cafes. I pretended that I wasn’t hungry.

The Mintses went to MGIMO to study international economic relations, while I continued a family tradition by majoring in journalism at Moscow State University.  Once our football team played at MGIMO. We went nuts in the stands, burning flares and, finally, pissing the hell out of their gym, because no one liked the rich kids from MGIMO, not even the rich kids from Moscow State.

What the Mintses Fear

Ildar Yulbarisov, the last First Secretary of the Ufa Komsomol Committee, 1990. Photo: Vechernyaya Ufa

“Dad, according to my rough calculations, we are 1,500 times poorer than the Mintses. Why is there such a difference, if you both worked in government, and then went into business?”

“No big business is created by the labor of the people who own it because it is impossible to create such value independently: there are physiological limits. Capital accumulates only if the surplus value that other people create is confiscated from them. And if you add financial fraud to capitalist exploitation, in which people “voluntarily” engage in wage labor, you get these incredible figures. I have never taken anything that belonged to someone else.”

“Maybe Mints worked harder and better than you?”

“He had a chance, and took it. It was facilitated by his personal qualities, upbringing, and system of values. He went into politics to achieve personal enrichment. I’m a simple Soviet man.”

“Did you want to take bribes and steal when you worked in politics? Or did you just not have the chance?”

“No. I was involved in two election campaigns. They would bring us cash and put it on the table. I didn’t take a kopeck, because I’m an idealist. I was 26 years old when I became a full-time Komsomol worker. I had a clear idea of what I was doing: helping people and improving life in the republic. My father taught me to be honest, and the Komsomol taught me to be responsible to the people. We had a big NTTM attached to the Komsomol city committee in Ufa. They sold everything there, and then would go booze it up at a restaurant. They gave me Italian shoes. I didn’t have to do what they did, since we lived well under communism. I had a salary of 525 rubles a month, your mother worked as a teacher and made another 220 rubles a month. We set half of it aside.”

“Are you comparing yourself to Mints?”

“No, we have had different lives. I’m not jealous, because we had unequal opportunities. There were much fewer opportunities to earn money working for the regional authorities. Today, it is obvious that the Russia inside the Garden Ring and the Russia outside it are two different countries.”

“What is the main difference between the Yulbarisovs and the Mintses?”

“Over three decades, capitalism in Russia has degenerated into its most savage form, dividing people into the poorest and richest strata. According to the most conservative estimates, five percent of the population owns seventy percent of the wealth in Russia. We are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, while the Mintses are at the top. But the situation on the moral ladder is different: the Yulbarisovs are at the top, while Mintses are at the bottom. We’re poor, but we’re honest.”

“You know that sounds like an excuse, right?”

“That’s exactly what it sounds like. I’m not worried about it. It’s you young people who are out of luck. Now wages are paid so people don’t die of hunger, and in addition there is the cult of consumption and the cult of success. The world is getting worse, but I’m sure there will be a limit. Either the people will revolt, or the Communists will come to power. Rich people like Mints are afraid of this.”

The Code for Black Dragons
Midway upon the journey of my life, I found myself in a forest dark. Then I found my Bodhi Tree and sat under it, wondering what the forest was, who I was, and where I was going. I recalled my childhood and formulated four truths that I understood from my friendship with the Mintses.

Truth No. 1. I realized that all my life I had suffered from envy, from unfavorable comparisons and the sense of my own inferiority. I even set aside a page in my diary where I write down all the people I have envied. The habit of constant comparison has nurtured in me a capacity for reflection and self-awareness: comparing myself with others, I become aware of my position vis-à-vis all phenomena in the world.

Truth No. 2. It’s not my fault. The dark forest existed before I showed up, and my path has been shaped by the objective layout of obstacles in the thicket. I have extended this truth to all people. We are not to blame for anything, and especially for our poverty, since we are not able to choose the families into which we are born or the societies in which we live. My son had no choice either.

Truth No. 3. I have to work because I have no property. I have extended this truth to all people. People are the same everywhere, and human need is everywhere the same. The poor man works to live, and the rich man lives off his work, repeating again and again, “If you work harder and better, you’ll become like me.”

Truth No. 4. Their family’s social class is a determining factor in the lives of individuals. But it is merely a historically transitory form, a flaw in the capitalist system that we can overcome through collective effort.

We sit in the same chair, playing the same game. Let’s enter the code for the black dragons and win at last!

But we have been separated by capital—by a billion-dollar chasm.

What can I set against a billion dollars of capital? Only my own existential experience. I’ve seen things you never dreamed of. A crowd dressed in black,  destroying the cozy streets of Copenhagen in a frenzy. Police sirens wailing in the rain, punctuated by singing. Hugs with a masked stranger: we were victorious then. I have seen things that we could have written down in our notebook. Those moments became mine forever, and I would never have wished for anything else.

I finished the text, opened a messenger app, and wrote to you. “Hello! This is Rustam Yulbarisov. We went to school together and were interested in things mystical. Do you still believe in aliens?”

Born in 1988, Rustam Yulbarisov works as a journalist in Moscow and is a socialist. Thanks to Bryan Gigantino for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

The Last of the Vepsians

The Last of the Vepsians

The Last of the Vepsians: A Supposedly Nonexistent People in Leningrad Region
Elena Mikhina and Yulia Paskevich
7×7
November 26, 2020

The Vepsian region begins just five hours by car from Petersburg. The Veps (alternately, Vepsians) are a minority ethnic group who seem to have miraculously survived near the metropolis, despite wars, revolutions, and centuries of assimilation. Petersburg journalists Elena Mikhina and Yulia Paskevich went in search of “the last of the Vepsians” to hear their still living language and meet their sorcerers—the noids.

Where Did the Chud Go?
Who are the Veps? We are not talking, of course, about the Yakut shaman who set out to save Moscow from Putin, but the story of the Veps is also well known. They are mentioned in school textbooks on the ancient history of Russia: “The neighbors of the Eastern Slavs were the tribes of the Chud [Veps], the Vod, and the Izhora.”

In the summer of 2019, the Russian president read out an “unusual question” during a live TV call-in show: “Where have the Chud people gone?” He answered, “They have been assimilated. But I’m sure they haven’t completely disappeared yet.”

A Bad Joke
In the regions where the Veps live, a bad joke appeared soon after Putin’s televised comment about “assimilation.” When it is told, the tellers change the name of the regional governor in question:

Putin telephones [Leningrad Region Governor] Drozdenko and asks, “Do you have Veps?
“I do,” Drozdenko replies.
“Send me a couple for a fur collar,” Putin says.

Since the ninth century, the Veps have lived in the region between Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega, in the present-day Republic of Karelia, Vologda Region, and Leningrad Region. According to the 2010 census, almost six thousand people identified themselves as Veps, which is not such a tiny number in comparison with the Kereks, of whom there were only four ten years ago. There were many more Veps in the late nineteenth century—25,000 in Petersburg Province alone. Now there are 1,380 of them left in Leningrad Region.

The area settled by the Veps. Courtesy of knk.karelia.ru

The Russian Center of the Vepsian World
Nowadays, the village of Vinnitsy is considered the center of Vepsian culture in the region. The irony is that the village was never Vepsian. On the contrary, it was considered Russian. Local people remember an old saying: “if you go to Vinnitsy, forget the Vepsian language.”

“Vinnitsy was mentioned in the chronicles a whole ten years before Moscow was,” local resident Vera Lodygina says with a hint of pride. She made a unique discovery in the 1980s, when she worked in the local trade union committee and bought up everything she found on the history of Podporozhye on each trip around the district. In one of the pamphlets, she read that the first written mention of Vinnitsy is found in the Charter of Prince Sviatoslav Olgovich in 1137.

Women at the Vepsian festival in Vinnitsy

“I told my party secretary, who reported it to the city committee, then to the regional committee. And since 1987—the 850th birthday of Vinnitsy—we have held the Vepsian Tree of Live celebration in the village,” says Lodygina.

Every year, Veps from all over Leningrad Region, Karelia, and Vologda Region come to the festival. They sing songs in their native language, cook traditional food, and hold a crafts fair.

It is a big event by local standards. The current governor of the Leningrad Region, Alexander Drozdenko, comes regularly. He buys wool socks for his daughter and teas.

Traditional Vepsian embroidery. The piece on the right is inscribed with the phrase “tree of life” in Vepsian and Russian

In 2015, the villagers took advantage of the governor’s goodwill and asked him to build a Veps folklore center for them. The money was found, and the building was built. From a distance it looks old, but in fact it is made from concrete and has an elevator and double-glazed windows. Everything that had accumulated over the previous fifty years in the museums of the local school and cultural center was moved to this “hut.”

One of the first collectors of antiquities was the former school director Viktor Yershov. When he would drag home “all sorts of stuff” from the villages (e.g., spinning wheels, bast shoes, and cast-iron pots), the teacher’s family thought he was crazy.

Vera Lodygina has long been retired, but continues to study Vepsian culture.

“Schoolchildren helped create the museum,” says Lodygina, who joined the antiquities preservation movement even before perestroika. “We would get up at four in the morning, get on the bus at five, travel to the villages, and collect exhibits. Sometimes people would retrieve caftans, dishes, and tools from their attics. I remember this one old woman running after us holding her boots: ‘Here,’ she said, ‘the grandchildren threw them in the trash (the boots were like new). They were cleaning the attic and threw them out. Take them to the museum.’ At home, we washed, boiled, and cleaned all these items. My mother used to say, ‘When are you going to get this dirt out of the house?'”

Although Lodygina is retired and no longer works in the museums, she has set up a home office chockablock with books and brochures. She is especially proud of an album with photos of national dishes prepared by herself, and a plump guest book, in which she collects feedback from all the tourists who come to her house.

People in Vinnitsy are generally happy to comply when asked to talk about the Veps. We had not been standing outside the churches in the town for five minutes when we were nabbed by another local historian, Mikhail Kurilov. First, he took us to a nearly moribund church, which had served as a waste paper warehouse under the Soviet regime, then dragged us to his home to drink tea. Over tea, he regretted that his wife had not backed “wickets”: they are the main local treat, and Kurilov’s wife is the winner of a Vepsian bakers competition. He spoke at length and in detail about the history of the region and the language.

“When the Novgorodians came to the lands where the Veps settled, they set up their own churchyards. It was also a means of propagating their faith, and a place for collecting taxes,” explained Kurilov.

Generally, however, the Veps experienced what everyone else did: villages ruled by landlords, followed by revolution, the Stalinist crackdowns, dekulakization, and an ethnicity forgotten for several decades. From the late 1930s, Veps were identified as ethnic Russians in their internal passports. The Chud turned into ordinary Soviet people. It was only at the end of the twentieth century that they remembered their roots again. Today it is even fashionable to be a rare Veps.

240 Years Old
The pagan Veps converted to Russian Orthodoxy in the tenth century. They converted without conflict, without resistance. Alexander Svirsky, one of the most revered saints in Russia, was a Veps, for example. He was born in a village on the Oyat in 1448 and was named Amos before he took monastic vows.

Although they converted, the Veps did not forget their pagan gods and their spirits—hobgoblins, mermaids, and dryads. They still pray to the lord of the forest, Izhan, when they go mushroom picking.

Noids, Vepsian sorcerers, still live in the villages. Traditionally, noids were men, but many did not return from the Second World War, so women took over the practice of witchcraft.

Veps do not tell strangers about noids nowadays. No matter how hard we searched for a noid, they had all “petered out” in a surprising way a couple of years, months, or even days before we arrived: they had all died, left town, got sick, or got old.

“The ones who could heal used to be here. But now there are no such people, and we take pills when we’re ill. It’s easier and faster,” Klavdiya Yeremeyevna from the Vepsian village of Nemzha assured us. Her friend told us a terrible story from the old days, how a witch had made sure that her father did not return from the war. No one in the village doubted that it was the noid’s fault.

Nemzha is only ten kilometers from Vinnitsy. Previously, more than 300 people lived here, but now people in the village appear in public on schedule: postal delivery and a traveling grocery truck operate three times a week for the thirty remaining residents.

Veps Lyudmila Mikhailovna, Klavdia Yeremeyevna, and Tamara Grigoryevna are some of the last residents of the village. They have known each other almost all their lives. They even calculate their age as a trio: they recently turned 240 years old.

“The old people are dying. There is no work. How can the young people avoid leaving if there are no jobs? The timber plant has closed. The the tree farm has closed. The collective farm has closed. The post office has closed. The shop has closed. The clinic has closed,” they said.

The Nemzha Homemakers: Tamara Yevseyeva, Lyudmila Popova, and Klavdia Nikonova sing the song “Under the Window the Cherry Tree Sways” translated into Vepsian. (In the original Russian, the song is called “A Maiden’s Heart,” and is based on a poem by Boris Timofeev.)

In retirement, three friends—a former librarian, the director of the village cultural center, and a mail carrier—decided to get creative. Their group is called the Nemzha Homemakers. The old women perform Vepsian songs and ditties. They have to borrow their costumes from the Veps Center, however: all their own treasures were donated to the museum long ago.

Unexpected Guests
The road along the northern Bank of the Oyat River—from Alyokhovshchina to Vinnitys—is unofficially called the most beautiful in Leningrad Region. But no one is a hurry to promote tourism here: there are no hotels or camp sites in the area. So if you don’t want to spend the night in the woods, you’ll have to do some fancy footwork. In Yaroslavichi—one of the largest Vepsian villages—we first went to the village store, where the clerks quickly arranged for us to spend the night at Aunt Galya’s house. It didn’t matter that we were nobody to them: they could not leave two young women on the road at night, nor was any question of paying for lodging.

The story of our hostess differed little from those that we had heard in the afternoon: she was born in a neighboring village, married, and worked on a collective farm, and her children have long lived in the city.

In the morning, we wake up to the sound of conversation in the kitchen: pure Vepsian is being spoken. A neighbor lady has come to see Aunt Galya, followed by two thirtysomething twin brothers who make a living by working as day laborers in the village. As soon as we poke our noses out from the curtain, everyone instantly switches to Russian.

In the morning, Aunt Galya feeds us breakfast (pasta with chicken) and tries to explain that there is nothing special there to justify traveling around for a few days. She looks at us as if we are touched in the head. She advises us to travel up the nearest hill, where other people like us (Petersburgers) live in the village of Lashkovo.

An Environmental Life Hack from Old Vepsian Women

Aunt Raya (left) and Aunt Galya live in the same house, each in her own half. Their children have moved away and now they spend most of their free time together.

This mat made from plastic bags can serves its purpose for decades.

In any local history museum they will tell you that homespun rugs are a unique symbol of folk life. Today’s old Vepsian women have gone further, producing something that should be in a museum. They knit mats from plastic bags: a real example of recycling plastic, and the dream of environmental activists.

Not Accepted by His Own Kind
Lashkovo is fifteen minutes away by car. The village is located on the top of a high hill that offers one of the best views in Leningrad Region—it looks almost like the Alps from bottom. In the second house from the road lives Sergei, a legendary character in these parts. We were told about him in almost every conversation, so it was impossible not to stop by his place. The folklore center is proud of him: “We also have young men in our community.” The old ladies tenderly say of him, “Seryozhenka is a good man, but strange.” They are worried that he has separated from his wife. They say that she could not stand the village life: one winter she asked to go to the city and did not return.

Sergei Krylov next to his house in the village of Laskhovo

Sergei Krylov was born and lived all his adult years in Petersburg. A political scientist by education and a graduate of the philosophy faculty at St. Petersburg State University, he never worked a day in his chosen profession.

“In Russia, the people who work as political scientists don’t have the necessary education, and people like me, on the contrary, do not find jobs,” says Krylov.

Consequently, he tried his hand at everything from selling plastic windows and modular partitions to working as a security guard. And at the age of thirty-four, he realized that he was a Veps.

“There is an expression: if you scratch a Russian, you might find a Tatar. Isn’t that how it goes in the original? I scratched myself and found a Veps. I was obsessed with learning the language, and starting a household and a family,” says Sergei.

He is now in his early forties, although he doesn’t look a day over twenty-five. He moved to the village of Lashkovo in 2013. He even remembers the exact date: April 16.

“And on May 1, I had already had a goat, twelve chickens, a rooster, two cats and a dog,” he says.

Sergei found Vepsians under a Russian “shell” on both sides of his family. His grandmother and great-grandmother were from the area. But their villages, and even more so the houses where they lived, are long gone, so Sergei searched for a house via the internet and found one for the price of a heavily used car. He studied farming on YouTube.

“Of course, I was wearing rose-colored glasses: I didn’t have an entirely realistic conception of what I was capable of. That is, if you have never lifted anything heavier than a ballpoint pen in your life, surviving in the village, of course, is not an easy challenge for you. There are exceptions, but I am not one of them,” he says.


The village of Lashkovo, where Sergei Krylov settled

The first challenge was the house. According to the documents, it had been standing for almost a century, but by the time Sergei arrived, it was in decline, rotting and sinking into the ground.

“I thought I could fix the house myself. Or that if I couldn’t do it myself, I could hire people to do it,” Krylov says. “But I never did find any people to do the work. I call that business Vepsian style. You tell people that you have the money and will help them with the job, and everyone tells you that they’re old or their back hurts or make other excuses. I consider myself a Veps, albeit many times removed, and I have great respect for the Veps people, but Veps do not know how to do business. It’s true.”

The second challenge was the household. Sergei kept goats, sheep, a pig, chickens, and bees. He mastered the old-fashioned Russian oven, which he saw for the first time in his life: he threw everything he found into a cast-iron pot and left it to cook, almost like in a slow cooker.

The hardest part was butchering animals.

“The first two times I asked local people to do it, but then I felt ashamed asking them over to slaughter my animals. It is very unpleasant. It’s hard when you raise them yourselves. At such moments, you first pump yourself up emotionally. (Not with alcohol, which I don’t care for.) You have to remember how this kid goat [you’re slaughtering] got loose in the garden, making a mess and gnawing your apple trees. So you psyche yourself up, then quickly go out and do it, and that’s it. I can’t say that it has gone perfectly. But I was managing to do it pretty fast lately,” says Sergei.

While Sergei  managed to get a grip on daily chores, but he has not been able to go native. He started learning his “native” language in Petersburg, but the language that is taught in the city and the one spoken by real Veps are different. The political scientist understands, according to his own estimates, sixty-five percent of what the old ladies in the villages say to him. But he is unable to reply.

During the first few years, he enjoyed getting to know the locals, visiting neighboring villages, and going to tea parties at the folklore center, and the old ladies regarded him with curiosity. It was harder to find male friends.

“They either drink or having nothing to do with [the Vepsian culture revival]. They can speak Vepsian perfectly, but they are bashful about their origins. Unfortunately, the Soviet government broke the back of the Vepsian people. In our conversations, I would ask them about the census, about whether they identified themselves as Veps. No, they would tell census takers that they were Russians. But you’re Veps! I would say to them. Yes, they were Veps, they would say, but they had no idea why they identified themselves as Russians,” Sergei recounts.

Sergei would have identified himself as a Veps. And he would have kept studying the language and helped revive the culture. But the true Veps have refused to adopt this odd guy from Petersburg as one of their own.

“If you were born here, if your history and pedigree are known, then you are a Veps, and they will treat you like a Veps. But if you come from somewhere else, then no matter what you say about your roots, you are Russian. That is, you could say that I am a stranger among my own kind and an insider among strangers. Veps support their own people. A Veps won’t rat on another Veps, but they’ll turn in a Russian at the drop of a hat. For example, in the first or second year of my life in the village, a store in neighboring Yaroslavichi was burglarized. The criminologist was sent to me first. He came, copied down my passport data, and asked leading questions. It was assumed that I had robbed the store. Who else could have done it? Everyone else is a local,” recalls Sergei.

A year ago, Sergei gave up and went to spend the winter closer to the city. Of his entire farm, he left only the bees: they were especially dear to him.

A Literary Newspeak
Veps have no special distinguishing features. If they had any, they left them behind in the ninth century. You cannot tell a Veps from a Russian, Ukrainian, or maybe Izhorian from the neighboring districts of Leningrad Region by looking at their faces. The Veps have also long adopted average Russian names and surnames. Local historians, of course, can talk for a long time about their unique patterns—the “very special” curls and squares with which the Veps decorated clothes and towels. But all this is a matter of the distant past, too, and now everyone shops for clothing in the same stores.

The language is the only thing that has miraculously survived, distinguishing the Veps from everyone else. Vepsian belongs to the Balto-Finnic group, and is closely related to Karelian and Estonian. It is not far from Finnish, so during the Second World War, Veps were employed as translators from Estonian and Finnish to Russian.

For almost a millennium, the Veps lived happily without a written language. The new Soviet government decided to endow them with an alphabet. In 1931, scholars in Leningrad devised a Veps alphabet based on the Latin alphabet and recorded all known words in the language. Textbooks in Vepsian were published, and teachers were trained.

It all came to a grinding halt in 1937. The handful of Vepsian intellectuals were arrested and punished. The Vepsian language was banned in schools. Vepsian textbooks were confiscated.

A Vepsian primer from 1936. Photo: Finno-Ugric Libraries of Russia

Vepsian again became an exclusively oral language. It was spoken at home. Once Veps stepped out of their homes, all conversation was in Russian. Therefore, children had to learn the Russian language specially for school. However, some people were forced to do this before they went to school.

“When the need comes, you learn without noticing it,” says Alevtina Shustrygina, a resident of Vinnitsy. At the age of five, she injured her eye. The case was complicated, so the child was sent to Leningrad on a crop duster. Her parents stayed at home.

Alevtina Shustrygina on the porch of her home

“I didn’t know a single Russian word,” Alevtina recalls. “How did the doctors communicate with me? There I lay for a month, and my entire childish mind was focused on learning the language: there were other children, everyone was talking, and what could I do? When my dad came to pick me up, I had already learned the language. The children in the village were all happy to see me, but I didn’t know Vepsian. I had forgotten it! I probably didn’t speak Vepsian or Russian for a day or two. Then I started speaking Vepsian again and forgot Russian. I had to learn it again in school two years later, but it was easier there.”

The creation of the written Vepsian language began anew in the late 1980s. Now its development and promotion is headquartered in the Karelian capital of Petrozavodsk, where the first Vepsian Culture Society was founded. Books appeared again, and there was even a newspaper in Vepsian. In 1991, textbooks for the first grade were published in Karelia. And while everyone is used to seeing a watermelon (arbuz) on the first page of Russian primers, the Veps primer begins with the word ahven (perch).

But there is a problem. The new language was created artificially. Originally, the northern, central and southern Veps spoken different versions of Vepsian. Moreover, each village could have its own dialect. And native speakers still speak the way they learned in their village. In these circumstances, the literary newspeak is like another dialect: the letters are the seemingly the same, but they’re incomprehensible.

“The northern dialect is almost completely extinct in Leningrad Region. The western vernaculars of the central dialect are still extant. It is spoken in Yaroslavichi, Kurba, Ozera, and Nemzha,” says Igor Brodsky, an associate professor of philology at the Herzen State Pedagogical University. “The southern dialect is extant in the Lodeynoye Pole district, but it is very different from the central one. And the literary language that was invented in Petrozavodsk is based on the eastern dialects of central Veps, which at one time were simply the best-studied in Vologda Region. But this is not the language that is still spoken in Leningrad Region. People in Ozera don’t understand it.”

Brodsky argues that the triumphant propagation of the new Vepsian language is a mistake. While it is happily being taught to beginners, and its advocates report on their successes and show off little books, published in neo-Vepsian, the old dialects are dying off.

Brodsky is outraged.

“What kind of cultural revival can we talk about if we are asked to revive the culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a patriarchal community that has long sunk into oblivion? This culture does not exist and will not exist again. And at the same time, there are no attempts to do a futuristic interpretation of Vepsian culture,” he says.

A Good Evening

“Yesterday” by the Beatles, sung in Vepsian

The Vepsian language, as native speakers explain, was a household language in the twentieth century. During the Soviet years, many songs, tales, and ditties were forgotten. Now Veps are making up for this by, among other things, translating Russian folklore into Vepsian. An old woman sings something in an incomprehensible language, and you recognize “Ryabinushka” or a song from the repertoire of Nadezhda Kadysheva. It has got to the point that “Yesterday” by the Beatles has been recorded in Vepsian, but with new lyrics about “a good evening.”

The Stuff of Legends
“And ‘The Wind Blew from the Sea’ in Vepsian? How do you like that?”

Vyacheslav Vasiliev does not hide his indignation. While playing the accordion, he sings a Vepsian song about fishing, or about an aged beaver that has been bitten on the nose by a carp. As in the north of the Veps region, where everyone is sent to make the acquaintance of Sergei, so in the south everyone has to meet Vyacheslav.

Vyacheslav Vasiliev, leader of the Veps folk group Varasta, sings a Veps song about an old beaver.

The “Vepsian south” consists of villages in the Tikhvin and Boksitogorsk districts, a remote hinterland compared to Vinnitsy. There is no folksy sheen out in these parts, and Veps are often called (somewhat contemptuously) chukars. In the villages, there are also stories of how they conjured up damage and diseases, and destroyed families. Explanations of why they did it, however, have not been preserved in the popular memory

“We were completely forgotten,” says Vasiliev, who is a native Veps. “In our region, say the word ‘Veps’ and people will reply that they live in Vinnitsy. I remember the taunts at school. We were forbidden to speak Vepsian even during recess. Although before that I had heard some words in Russian only when my parents had visitors, distant relatives from the city. And I found it amusing when they spoke Russian.”

After school, his parents sent Vasiliev to study in the city, where he became a successful lawyer. He lived in Leningrad-Petersburg for thirty years, until he was drawn back to the village. He returned and renovated his parents’ house. He recently acquired a horse that he will raise to plow fields and gardens. For the time being, he mows his hay with a scythe. His young wife Anna, also a Veps, keeps busy with the housework.

Vasiliev is not yet ready to move to the village once and for all: there are still things to do in the city. Friends often come from the city to visit him. They say that the lawyer’s house is cozy and pleasant, like grandmother’s house in childhood.

The chapel in Bobrozero is now one of the main attractions.

There is a wide range of opinions about the origins of this stone.

In addition to agriculture, the lawyer is passionate about two things: his folk music group Varasta (he considers it the most proper of such groups, since they stick to the Vepsian repertoire and do everything according to the canons) and the construction of churches. One of them stands in the center of Bobrozero. The door is always open. Inside there are a few icons, brochures, candles—all on trust. A flat gray stone protrudes from the wooden floor in front of the altar.

“I remember there was an old chapel here, then a store was built in its place, but this stone was always there, they didn’t throw it away,” says an old woman we meet in the village.

“What does she remember? The rock? Since childhood? Indeed,” says Vyacheslav sarcastically. “I brought this stone from my grandmother’s house in 1997.”

In neighboring Radogoshchi, the legends are even more interesting. There Vyacheslav built a “chapel” over a spring. True, the “spring” is a water distribution column, where water is supplied by a pump, but those are pesky details.

“The local residents complained that in winter it was difficult to get water from the column because it would be covered in ice. First I built a box over it so that snowdrifts wouldn’t form there. And then a woman said that there was a chapel in Bobrozero, but nothing in Radogoshchi. So then I built a dome with a cross and put it over the column,” explains Vyacheslav.

Like everyone else, Vyacheslav told us about noids who disappeared at the most inopportune times. In one of the neighboring villages, shortly before our arrival, an elderly man had disappeared: he went into the forest down a path and did not return. Rescuers, police, and volunteers went out to search for the missing man, but they did not find him.

“I remember that it happened before: people would get lost in the woods. And each time the locals went looking for them without any appeals to the public, and the noids would stand and say their prayers, and the person would come back. Relatives always went to my grandmother, who knew the incantations. But this time no one thought of such a thing,” Vyacheslav says sadly.

“An Honest-to-Goodness Chukhar”
We had been looking for Veps for five days now. The noids had escaped us in the most magical way: those who “remembered and knew” had traipsed off into the other world. On Friday, we were standing in Bobrozero and looking at the chapel built by the Petersburg lawyer Vyacheslav, when Vitya emerged from a thicket of fireweed, singing a Vysotsky song and carrying a square wicker basket for picking berries.

“Who are you guys looking for?” he asked.

“Veps.”

“You have found what you were looking for. I am a Veps, the last of the Vepsians,  an honest-to-goodness chukhar. I’m going to show you something that will blow your minds.”

We didn’t find a noid, but Vitya offered to tell our fortunes. He didn’t promise anything good.

Vitya is forty-seven years old. He has just returned from picking berries in the woods, and he has big plans for the rest of the day. He trades the berries for money, which in twenty minutes he trades for “the goods” in a neighboring village. A farmer’s wife sells “the goods”: in the evening, milk; in the afternoon, vodka. Vitya is not interested in milk. He calculates as follow: one bottle of vodka per man, one bottle to give away (he had “borrowed” one earlier), half a bottle for us (we are young women, and we do not drink much, but we must be entertained), and two cans of stewed meat for a snack.

“We chukhars are a forest people,” says Vitya, offering a free signature tour of the local swamps and his native haunts.

He desperately wants to show us the real wilderness and laments that we can’t stay for a couple of days.

We follow the Veps to the sound of the bottles clinking in his backpack. It gives Vita strength. “The last of the Vepsians” eagerly tells us about his life. His mother was from a dekulakized family. His father was a troublemaker who roamed with his family from village to village. His brother died sixty days ago. There was also his wife, Tanya, who died in 2014.

“Just as the sun shines and suddenly goes out, so everything became superfluous in an instant when she was gone. I just live and wait for the moment when I will meet her again. I loved her so much,” the honest-to-goodness chukhar says, almost crying.

However, he is still fairly young and quite willing to look for a girlfriend with whom to spend the rest of his life. So he soon goes into “light flirting” mode with one of us.

“What kind of decoration is that on your teeth?” Vitya asks. He has never seen braces.

Vitya casually passes by a dugout boat.

“Tolka sails in that boat,” he says.

“We’ll get to the Island soon. Back in the day, the village was surrounded by water on all sides. Then the water receded, and the Island remained,” Vitya says, continuing the tour. “There used to be lots of houses here. Here is where Grandma Masha lived. Sometimes, when I was coming from the store, she would come out on the porch and tell me to come in. I would tell her I had to go to the village, but she would tell me to come in. She lived alone and wanted to talk. We would have tea and talk.”

The extinct villages are overgrown with grass up to the chest and look like islands in the wild fields.

To the right of Grandma Masha’s house is Grandma Nyura’s hut. There is the same decay and hopelessness: photos scattered on the floor showing what things were like when the village was still thriving; frames without icons (they were removed either by relatives or illegal collectors); a stove that takes up half of the hut.

“And here, if you are believers, we shall stop and pray,” suggests Vitya. “This chapel was built for a reason. Under it there is a stone on which the footprints of Jesus Christ are imprinted: He left them after the resurrection. I’ve seen them myself. But the chapel is locked. It’s old, built in seventeen hundred something, and the boys have made a new roof for it.”

Next to the chapel, Vitya takes out a bottle: “Oh, the vodka is fogging up. Forgive me, Mother of God.” Vitya crosses himself, then takes a sip straight from the bottle. He does not wince. He does not have a bite to eat with his shot. He once again apologizes to everyone.

Vitya has been drinking for several days, and one sip is enough to send him reeling. Suddenly, he switches to politics, saying that he doesn’t need anything from Putin, and just as suddenly he recalls Politkovskaya: “Did they kill her?” The topic of the Veps is exhausted, and we make a difficult decision to part company. Vitya goes into a thicket to collect cloudberries. There has been a good crop of berries this year, and the chukhar knows where to look for them. “The last of the Vepsians” disappears into thicket. The forest welcomes him. It doesn’t welcome us.

We stomped dejectedly home through the forest, past the swamp, through the dead villages, and past another swamp, pouring the water out of our boots for the third time.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos are by the authors. Photos courtesy of 7×7. Translated by the Russian Reader

Vera Ermolaeva

Until recently, a plaque memorializing the Leningrad artist Vera Ermolaeva, executed in the Gulag during the Great Terror,  hung here. Photo: MR7.ru

Last Address Plaque for Artist Vera Ermolaeva Removed in Petersburg
Galina Artemenko
MR7.ru
December 8, 2020

The Last Address plaque memorializing artist Vera Ermolaeva has been removed in Petersburg. The news was broken by the Moscow publisher Kirill Zakharov on his social media page after visiting the city.

“[This is] the house on whose first floor Vera Ermolaeva lived. A couple of years ago, a memorial plaque was installed here, but now it has been conveniently removed,” he wrote.

The initiator of the Last Address project, Sergei Parkhomenko, is already aware of the incident and is waiting for information from his colleagues in Petersburg.

“Sometimes it happens that [the plaques] are removed for repairs, then returned. Sometimes it’s different,” he said.

МR7.ru wrote on March 25, 2018, about the installation of a Last Address plaque in memory of Vera Ermolaeva at house no. 13 on the 10th Line of Vasilyevsky Island in Petersburg.

Ermolaeva was arrested on December 25, 1934, as part of the so-called Kirov cohort. As an “anti-Soviet element,” she was sentenced to three years in the camps and sent to Karlag in Kazakhstan. On September 20, 1937, three months before her scheduled release, an NKVD troika sentenced the 43-year-old Ermolaeva to death. She was executed on September 27, 1937 [sic]. She has no grave. We know only the place where the prisoners who died or were murdered in the camp were buried: the village of Dolinka in the Karaganda Region. Ermolaeva had no relatives, so when the 20th Party Congress was held, there was no one who could apply to have her exonerated. She was finally exonerated 1989, due to “lack of evidence of a crime.”

Now you can find everything or almost everything on the internet, including the weather report for December 25, 1934. It was a frosty and clear day in Leningrad— minus 12 degrees centigrade—and the night was cold, too. Ermolaeva’s apartment was probably heated when she left the warm house forever. She lived on the first floor, in apartment number two. She had always lived on ground floors, including at her previous apartment in Baskov Lane, which her father, a landowner and liberal publisher, had bought for her before the revolution. Ermolaeva fell off a horse as a child and could only walk on crutches, so the apartment was purchased because it was next door to her high school and on the first floor. For many years, Ermolaeva lived abroad, studying and getting medical treatment there.

Ermolaeva was a brilliant artist. A member of the Futurist group Bloodless Murder in 1915-16, she was interested in history and graduated from the Archaeological Institute. She was a pioneer of the genre now known as the artist’s book: she designed children’s books as cohesive entities. Her illustrations for the works of Daniil Kharms and Yevgeny Schwartz, and Ivan Krylov’s fables are admired and studied. The famous book written and illustrated by Ermolaeva in 1929—Dogs—has recently been published as a reprint.

The cover of Ermolaeva’s 1929 book Dogs. Courtesy of MR7.ru

Antonina Zainchkovskaya, Ermolaeva’s biographer and the author of a dissertation about her, said during the plaque installation ceremony that it was very important for Russians not to forget about the Last Address plaques. She said that when she was writing her dissertation and studying the relevant NKVD documents, she became psychologically ill. It is impossible to imagine the last three years of Ermolaeva’s life (in the camp, on crutches), nor the last six days, between her verdict and her execution.

Vera Ermolaeva’s Last Address plaque in 2018. Photo: Galina Artemenko/MR7.ru

The person who initiated the installation of the Last Address plaque on the house where Ermolaeva lieved was Ekaterina Yevseyeva, art historian, granddaughter of the collector and Great Terror victim Iosif Rybakov, and wife of the artist Alexei Gostintsev, who was a student of Vladimir Sterligov. Sterligov and Ermolaeva were part of a group of artists pursuing “pictorial and plastic realism.” It was in Ermolaeva’s apartment on Vasilevsky that they met, talked, drank tea, and organized exhibitions. Someone denounced them, and they became part of the Kirov cohort. Sterligov, a student of Malevich, was also arrested, but survived his sentence Karlag and lived until 1975. Gostintsev recalls that it was at the apartment of Sterligov and his wife, the artist Tatyana Glebova, in Peterhof, that he heard from Glebova that Anna Akhmatova had informed her about Ermolaeva’s arrest the very next day.

In mid-October, a property management company decided to remove fifteen Last Address plaques from the wall of a residential building on Rubinstein street. The plaques were found by Petersburg legislator Boris Vishnevsky at the management company’s offices. He was promised that the plaques would be reinstalled after the wall was repaired, but they were not put back in place when the wall was painted.

Thanks to Galina Artemenko for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

__________________

 

Vera Ermolaeva

1989 saw the publication of the well-known art album and anthology of articles An Avant-Garde Stopped on the Run. The book’s dustcover bore the caption “A book about how the artist Vera Ermolaeva went missing on the shores of the Aral Sea, and then the sea disappeared, too.” If Kazakhstan has been currently tackling the problem of restoring the Aral Sea, along with its salty waves, a truth that was hushed for many years has been reemerging in society, albeit little by little, a truth that should be openly accessible in the history of all countries that have gone through dictatorships and are seeking to go forward democratically, a truth, however, that should include the actual story of what happened to Ermolaeva. The truth is often not as intriguing and mysterious as the caption on a book’s dustcover.

Researchers at the Karaganda Regional Fine Arts Museum established in the same year, 1989, that Ermolaeva, a colleague and comrade of Marc Chagall and Kazimir Malevich, co-founder of UNOVIS (Champions of the New Art), and Ginkhuk faculty member, had been shot on September 26, 1937, in a labor camp in the village of Dolinka, the headquarters of the Karlag (Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp). How did Ermolaeva end up in Kazakhstan? Why was she shot?

The Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp was established in the Kazakh steppes. It was the largest camp in the NKVD’s Gulag. It was based on the Giant State Farm, and its mission was rural and industrial development. Large-scale arrests in the Soviet Union and forced deportation of whole peoples to Kazakhstan were underway. To this end, the indigenous Kazakh population was driven from their native lands, which caused a famine in 1932–1933 that killed fifty percent of the Kazakh people. Only camp staff, their families, and inmates—an unpaid labor force—lived in the camp. The first inmates were peasant families, accused of being kulaks in Russia, and clergymen. They built the first barracks and railways. They were followed by political prisoners, people convicted of “counterrevolutionary” crimes.

People were left to live in the Karlag in perpetuity, stripped of their right to move elsewhere, which was tantamount to exile, and it was they who built the first labor settlements in the Karlag. The flow of political prisoners and exiles was so overwhelming that so-called troikas—groups of three officials who decided in lieu of the courts whether prisoners would live or die—were set up nationwide.

The murder of the popular Communist Party leader Sergei Kirov, in 1934, sparked a huge wave of arrests. Artists were caught up in this wave, including Ermolaeva, who hosted exhibitions and gatherings of artists in her flat, a fact noted by the NKVD. Everything about Ermolaeva worked against her: her aristocratic pedigree, her education and free thinking, her trips to Paris and Berlin, and her links to Malevich, who had been arrested twice, jailed a year for “espionage,” and was dying of cancer. By order of the Leningrad NKVD, on December 25, 1934, Ermolaeva was denounced as a purveyor of anti-Soviet propaganda and member of a counterrevolutionary group that had tried to establish illegal communications channels with foreigners. She was charged under Articles 58-10 (“anti-Soviet agitation”) and 58-11 (“organizing anti-Soviet activity”) of the Soviet Criminal Code. Article 58 had a total of fourteen clauses, and the first of these dealt with crimes punishable by death. On March 29, 1935, Ermolaeva was convicted by an NKVD Special Council as a “socially dangerous element.” Although her exact crime was not specified, she was sentenced to three years in a labor camp and dispatched to the Karlag. Her sentence went into effect on March 27, 1935, rather than retroactively on the day she was arrested. She was arrested, convicted, and transported to Dolinka along with Vladimir Sterligov, who later founded a painterly system derived from Suprematism, and several other of Malevich’s disciples.

During interrogations, the NKVD staged one-on-one confrontations between Ermolaeva and Sterligov. When they were sent to Kazakhstan, they were assigned to the same train car. Disabled since childhood and paralyzed in both legs, Ermolaeva walked on crutches. She found the trip to Kazakhstan quite agonizing, especially when the guards ordered the convicts to lie down and get up during stops and when exiting the train in the steppes. Emaciated after his spell in prison, Sterligov would help Ermolaeva get up from the ground, scarcely able to lift the tall, stout, heavy woman.

After arriving in Dolinka in April, Ermolaeva was immediately assigned to work as an artist in the Karlag’s agitprop and cultural education unit. Ermolaeva worked a great deal, designed posters, and showed her work at exhibitions in the camp. Her pieces were even sent to a show in Moscow. In Dolinka, she lived among the exiles at 56 First Street. She was noted for her politeness, discipline, and ability to get things done. She attended political education classes, was generally enthusiastic about everything and interested in everything, and was involved in clubs, amateur art activities, and theatrical productions, which she staged along with Sterligov and fellow avant-gardist Pyotr Sokolov, productions in which other convicts performed. She worked overtime, earning the title of “shock worker,” which meant that more workdays were added to her record and, consequently, were supposed to lead to her early release.

The reasons why Ermolaeva was shot and the circumstances of her final days in the camp have been ascertained. On September 14, 1937, Ermolaeva was issued a release warrant, but on the evening of the same day she was indicted under Criminal Code Articles 58-10 and 58-11. She was interrogated, searched, and accused of associating with four counterrevolutionaries, members of anti-Soviet political parties who were convicts in the camp. She had, allegedly, allowed them to use her apartment for secret meetings and sent illegal letters to other sections of the Karlag. Ermolaeva made a huge mistake by pleading partly guilty to the charges, claiming she was merely acquainted with the convicts in question and had conversed with them only about literature, art, and their families. Although her partial conviction was sufficient, eyewitness testimony was also included in the case against her. Thus, on September 17, 1937, Ermolaeva was indicted along with eight other people.

On September 18, due to a bureaucratic mix-up, Ermolaeva was told her release papers were being drafted, and she would be sent under armed escort to Karabas, where her case file (No. 3744/37) was being processed. On September 20, Ermolaeva successfully applied for release from Dolinka and left for Karabas. The very same day, she was retried in absentia by a NKVD troika and sentenced to death. Meanwhile, her case file did not turn up in Karabas, and her name was not on the lists of convicts scheduled for release. Ermolaeva was held in a remand prison in Karabas until September 25, when she was sent back to Dolinka. Upon arrival, she submitted a written explanation of where she had been the past several days. The next day, September 26, 1937, she was shot.

Ermolaeva was exonerated posthumously, due to a lack of evidence, by the Karaganda Regional Prosecutor on November 21, 1989.

Ermolaeva’s life came to a tragic end during the height of the Great Terror of 1937–1938. During this period, Stalin’s totalitarian regime destroyed the pride of the Soviet people, mainly members of the intelligentsia—scholars, educators, artists, and cultural workers—sparing neither women nor children.

Excerpted from Aigul Omarova, “The Tragic Lives of the Artists in Karlag,” Bread & Roses: Four Generations of Kazakh Women Artists (Berlin: Momentum, 2018), pp. 34-43. Translated by Thomas H. Campbell. Photo of Vera Ermolaeva courtesy of MR7.ru

Come Out for a Walk

Come out, come out for a walk with me
Come out for a walk with me
Come out for a walk with me
Come out, come out for a walk with me
Come out for a walk with me
Come out for a walk with me

We gather freely and walk where we will
Come out for a walk, just come out for a walk
We gather freely, though we’re a little scared shitless
Come out for a walk, just come out for a walk
We’ll write the word “Enough!” on the pavement in white chalk
You can take your little sister, my little brother is coming with me
Don’t take toys with you, there are tanks and soldiers
More interesting than walking, there are no more important classes

We gather freely and walk where we will
Come out for a walk, just come out for a walk
We gather freely, though we’re a little scared shitless
Come out for a walk, just come out for a walk
Let them point a finger at us. So what if we get punished?
So what if we get wet and shiver and get goosebumps?
Don’t be afraid, there won’t be enough zelyonka or poop for everyone
Of course, stay at home if you’re younger

Come out, come out for a walk with me
Come out for a walk with me
Come out for a walk with me
Come out, come out for a walk with me
Come out for a walk with me
Come out for a walk with me

Squirt guns, nerf blasters and spitball shooters
Don’t take anything, just come out for a walk
Smoke bombs and slingshots, sticks and jump ropes
Don’t take anything, just come out for a walk
There are cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians
Come out for a walk. Why you sitting on the windowsill?
You can do it on roller skates, but we’ll be shooting videos
There are helmets, elbow pads. In noughts and crosses
We play noughts, don’t put a cross on the noughts
If you want to give them a kick in the ass, you’ll get three years in the pen

They will cut us, they will beat us, be patient and calm
You still need to drive, get out of the house
On the golden porch sat the tsar, the tsarevich, the king’s son
They twist and turn the carousel, and you won’t change anything
One, two, three, four, five, here they come looking for me
I didn’t hide—it wasn’t my fault

Come out, come out for a walk with me
Come out for a walk with me
Come out for a walk with me
Come out, come out for a walk with me
Come out for a walk with me
Come out for a walk with me
Come out

Source: Musixmatch
Songwriter: Andrei Pasechny


A still from the Kasta video “Come Out for a Walk.” Courtesy of YouTube

Red Red Blood: Kasta’s Video and the End of Post-Soviet Pop Culture
Andrei Arkhangelsky
Republic
December 1, 2020

Kasta’s new video “Come Out for a Walk”—about a riot policeman whose body and even clothes bleed, like the people he beats—has already garnered two and a half million views and tens of thousands of comments. Although the song was written a long time ago, the plot of the video, according to Kasta member Shym, was inspired by the police beatings of peaceful protesters in Belarus.

The idea of the video is painfully simple: everything hidden will be revealed sooner or later. In our hyper-speed age, “sooner or later” means in a couple of hours, days, or weeks, at most. But pop culture artists, as we know, always tell us more than they mean to say. The video’s release says several symbolic things that are vital for all of post-Soviet culture.

In this video, it is not people, but blood that plays the starring role. Blood is a silent substance, but as an image it acts magically on us, because it requires no explanation. It captures our attention, fascinating and hypnotizing us. It is like fire or water in this sense: we can’t get away from it.

This is surprising to hear, of course, if you remember how many liters of fake blood are shed every day, for example, in “patriotic” movies. The blood there, however, does not make such an impression, because in its own context it is “normal,” meaning that it is shed “for a just cause.” Violence in peacetime is something fundamentally different: propaganda tries to hide this, instilling in us the need to live in peacetime under military law. Violence in peacetime makes personable poses, primps and preens, dresses in different guises, including white, and sometimes it pulls it off. The idea that for the sake of the country’s “stability” we can shed a couple of “non–fatal” liters of blood, precisely for educational purposes, was until recently considered an unspoken norm in our country. Now, in the public view, it is wrong. Kasta’s video captures this sea change in the public mood, cancelling the previous unspoken agreements between state and society.

In a broad sense, this ubiquitous, oozing, flowing blood is an even more global metaphor for all Russian popular entertainment of the past twenty years. In fact, this entertainment, starting with the historical series of the noughties (the TV adaptations of Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat and even Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle) was a story about the tons of blood spilled by the Stalinist state. However, on screen, this blood was, figuratively speaking, packed in sealed, leak-proof containers and sold to the post-Soviet audience in the form of little hearts—stuffed with love, friendship, loyalty, and so on.

“There was violence, but there were also good things”: this, approximately, is the golden formula of reconciliation (reconciliation with violence, simply put) that worked and still works in popular entertainment. State violence in movies and TV shows is always balanced by a sacrifice made in the name of the common good (the Chekist who committed injustices goes to war and washes away the sin with his own blood) or in the form of a deus ex machina (“the Party sorted the matter out and released the man, who was roughed up but alive”).

All Russian serials about the Soviet era are made with the acceptance of “history as it is,” and with the simultaneous understanding that “this is your motherland,” as former culture minister and current presidential aide Vladimir Medinsky recently suggested. Evoking Kasta’s metaphor, we can say that the blood flows moderately in Stalinist TV series: the Chekist bends over the innocent prisoner and hits him a couple of times, or even kicks him, but he does not beat the man to death. All these series are made exactly in this way: nothing is done “to death.” And so the viewer who watches them gets the feeling that while it is not easy to live with shedding a little blood, it is basically permissible.

Consequently, post-Soviet society has not had a conversation about violence as the vicious underpinning of the former ruling ideology. In contemporary cinema, police and secret service officers are presented as reflective intellectuals, as in the recent TV series Dyatlov Pass. They are tormented by life’s unsolvable problems, not to mention the fact that they are generally positive characters. We should admit that the conversation about violence has been swept under the rug over the past twenty years through targeted ideological work involving popular entertainment.

But the social trauma itself has not disappeared. The habit of violence has remained, and now it has literally leaked out in the form of the real sadism at the jail on Okrestin Street in Minsk, which can be considered a universal symbol for many post-Soviet countries. This sadism is now running down, soaking “through the gold of uniforms”: this is how it could be formulated in a broader context, not only in Belarus.

On the other hand, there is protest. In western culture, it has long been established as a social norm, nor are artists necessarily on the side of the protesters. Pasolini has a poem about police officers who beat up students at a demonstration. It includes the lines, “When you were at the Valle Giulia yesterday you brawled with the police, I sympathized with the policemen!” Then Pasolini explains why:

I know well,
I know how they were as little kids and young men,
the precious penny, the father who never grew up,
because poverty does not bestow authority.
The mother calloused like a porter, or tender,
because of some disease, like a little bird.

The conflict between police and students (protestors) is always unresolvable in some sense, but it is also normal. This paradox is typical of democracy, where, as we know, everything that is not forbidden is allowed. A free society constantly tests the authorities as to what is acceptable and unacceptable, but the very essence of democracy manifests itself in this “qual,” to borrow a term from rap culture.

Popular culture’s natural instinct again, is to discuss and reflect on protest. In Russian movies, however, the topic is taboo or ridiculed. Protest is imagined as a testosterone-fueled fad, something for people with nothing better to do, or as a form of manipulation, but most often protests are not depicted in Russian cinema at all. When we are told that popular entertainment is not to blame and owes nothing to anyone, we should respond by recalling that the silencing of socially important topics today is a way to encourage evil. When we try to answer the question of where this sadism comes from, we can mull over it for a long time in the same old lofty terms: unarticulated trauma, the post-Soviet syndrome.

But there is a simpler explanation. The same riot police officer who beats people because circumstances allow him to do it “does not know,” broadly speaking, that it is wrong precisely because popular culture has never, in the last twenty years, transmitted this simple idea to him. It has not told him that protesting is normal and shedding blood is wrong. What is worse, popular entertainment in Russia has been looking for various sophisticated ways to justify the shedding of innocent blood in the name of higher causes. And since Belarusian and Russian riot policemen have consumed this pop culture in equal measure, the outcome is roughly the same.

Just as the red substance in the video flows from helmets and riot batons, so reality itself today reminds us of its existence despite all the attempts to hide it. While you are controlling the big screen, the truth will leak out on the small screen: this is the video’s symbolic sense. When the time comes, what has been hidden will pour from the screens just as uncompromisingly. It will again be a shock to the audience, like, say, the articles about Stalinism in the perestroika-era press were to readers back then. The blood in the video is a metaphor for truth (or reality) itself, a truth that cannot be canceled in any way. This hidden thing will sooner or later burst the dam, and it will not be subdued, just as it is impossible to stanch the blood flowing in Kasta’s video.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Tushonka

In 1941, before the United States officially joined the Allied war effort, the Lend-Lease Act passed by Congress offered assistance to any nation fighting aggression (which effectively meant any nation but Germany and Japan) and pushed for the rapid expansion of meat production. The government called on the nation’s meatpackers to provide 4 million, then 8 million, then 15 million cans of tinned meat weekly for shipment abroad. The John Morrell and Company plant in Sioux Falls—drawing much of its meat supply from southwestern Minnesota farms—specialized in tushonka, or canned pork with onions and spices [sic], for the Russians.
—Annette Atkins, Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007), pp. 193–194

Navy-Style Pasta with Tushonka

Ingredients
Pasta – 250-500 g
Tushonka – 1 can (500 g)
Onion – 1
Vegetable oil – 2-3 tbsp
Salt to taste
Ground black pepper to taste
Sugar – 1 tsp
Red wine vinegar – 1 tbsp
Garlic – 2 cloves
Tomato paste – 2 tbsp
Spices to taste
Water (from cooking pasta) – 100-300 ml
Fresh herbs – 4-5 sprigs (optional)

 

Prepare the ingredients.

Bring the water to a boil, season generously with salt and add the pasta.

Mix thoroughly and cook until tender, following the instructions on the package. During the cooking process, periodically try the pasta to prevent it from overcooking.

Heat 1-2 tablespoons of vegetable oil over high heat in a frying pan. Add the chopped onion, a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of sugar. Stir-fry the onion for about 5 minutes, until golden brown.

Meanwhile, mash the tushonka until it is almost a homogeneous mush.

Peel and chop 1-2 cloves of garlic. Add the garlic to the sauteed onion, stir and fry for another 1-2 minutes.

Pour in 1 tbsp red wine vinegar. In the hot pan, the vinegar will immediately evaporate, but the fried vegetables will have a pleasant sweet and sour taste.

Add the tomato paste to the fried garlic and onion. Stir-fry the tomato paste for about 1-2 minutes.

Then add the tushonka, stir and bring to a boil over low heat.

When the pasta is ready, do not rush to drain all the water. Pour off about 1 cup of water and save it for making a sauce.

Drain the remaining water. Add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil (to prevent the pasta from sticking together) and mix thoroughly.

Add spices to the boiling sauce. I add some Mediterranean herbs, paprika, ground coriander and also salt and ground black pepper.

Gradually pour in the water left over from cooking the pasta until the sauce is the desired thickness. Bring the sauce to a boil and simmer for another 3-4 minutes.

Add the pasta and mix thoroughly. Turn off the heat, add some herbs, cover the pan with a lid and let the dish stand for a few minutes.

Sprinkle a portion of navy-style pasta with a pinch of fresh herbs and serve.

mak po flot s tush

Translated by the Russian Reader

Igor Yakovenko: The Execution of Yuri Dmitriev

The Public Execution of the Historian Dmitriev
Igor Yakovenko’s Blog
September 30, 2020

Three days before the Karelian Supreme Court handed down its ruling in the “case” of the historian Yuri Dmitriev, the program “Vesti” on state TV channel Rossiya 24 ran a segment in which “shocking pictures” of Dmitriev’s foster daughter were aired. The voice of reporter Olga Zhurenkova shook with anger as she said that “hundreds of Internet users were shocked by these terrible pictures that appeared on the Internet on the morning of September 26,” that “the Internet is boiling with indignation” at this monster who “ruined a child’s life.” The security services got into Dmitriev’s computer and pulled out photos of his foster daughter. Then the security services leaked these photos to the Internet for thousands to see. After that, Rossiya 24 showed them on TV to millions. And they also showed a video in which the foster daughter hugs Dmitriev: the girl can clearly be identified in the video, and just to make sure, Rossiya 24’s reporters called her by name.

This goes to the question of who actually ruined the child’s life and why they did it.

Rossiya 24’s handiwork lasts 4 minutes, 48 seconds. The state channel’s reporters managed to pack into this amount of time all the hatred that the ideological heirs of Stalin’s executioners feel towards the man who for many years studied and presented to the public the traces of the latter’s crimes. In all his previous trials, Dmitriev and his defense team managed to fully prove his innocence. And the prosecutors were well aware that he was innocent, so to concoct and pass a monstrous sentence on him, they recreated the ambiance of the show trials during the Great Terror. Back then, the “people’s anger” was fueled by newspaper articles, demonstrations outside the courtroom, and meetings at factories where shockworkers demanded that the Trotskyite-fascist Judases be shot like mad dogs. Now, in the third decade of the 21st century, the Internet and TV organize the “people’s anger.”

The appeals hearing in Dmitriev’s case was orchestrated like a special military operation whose goal was to prevent the human rights defender from getting out of prison alive. To accomplish this, in addition to organizing the “people’s anger,” the authorities virtually deprived Dmitriev of legal counsel. His lead defense attorney, Viktor Anufriev, was quarantined on suspicion of having the coronavirus, while the court-appointed lawyer said that it was a mockery to expect him to review the nineteen volumes of the case file in three days. Despite the fact that Anufriev petitioned to postpone the hearing for a specific period after his release from quarantine, and Dmitriev declined the services of the court-appointed lawyers, the court, contrary to normal practice, refused to postpone the hearing, and so Dmitriev was left virtually with no legal representation.

Yuri Dmitriev’s work touched a very sensitive chord in the collective soul of Russia’s current bosses, who see themselves as the direct heirs of those who organized the Great Terror, which, they are firmly convinced, is a purely internal matter of the “new nobility.” It is virtually a family secret. They believe that Dmitriev—who not only investigated the mass murders at the Sandarmokh killing field, but also invited foreign journalists there and published lists of those who were killed—is a traitor who deserves to die.

Moreover, the Dmitriev case has come to embody one of the most important amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation adopted this past summer. Namely, the new Article 67.1, which establishes a completely monstrous norm: “The Russian Federation honors the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland [and] ensures the protection of historical truth.” In other words, the task of protecting the “historical truth” is assumed not by historians, but by the state, that is, by the apparatus of violence and coercion.

In fact, the Dmitriev case has been a demonstrative act of “historical truth enforcement.”

The fact is that on the eve of Dmitriev’s trial, members of the Russian Military History Society attempted to write a “correct history” of the killing field in Sandarmokh. They dug up mass graves and hauled away bags of the remains for “forensic examination,” subsequently that they were Soviet soldiers who had been shot by the Finnish invaders.

There should be no blank or black spots in the history of the Fatherland: everything should shine with cleanliness, resound with military exploits and feats of labor, and smell of patriotism. To this end, MP Alexei Zhuravlyov—the man who recently told Russian TV viewers that Europe has brothels for zoophiles where you can rape a turtle—introduced a bill under which you could get three years in prison for “distorting history.” To Zhuravlyov’s great disappointment, his legislative initiative was not appreciated.

And really, why send someone down for three years for promoting “incorrect history,” when you can send them to a maximum security penal colony for thirteen years, which for the 64-year-old human rights activist is tantamount to a death sentence. It was this verdict that was issued by the Karelian Supreme Court by order of the heirs of those who organized the Great Terror.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Yuri Dmitriev. Photo by Igor Podgorny/TASS. Courtesy of the Moscow Times

Prominent Gulag Historian’s 3.5-Year Prison Sentence Lengthened to 13 Years
Moscow Times
September 29, 2020

A Russian court has lengthened the term prominent Gulag historian Yuri Dmitriev must serve in prison to 13 years, the Mediazona news website reported Tuesday, a surprise increase of a lenient sentence for charges his allies say were trumped up to silence him.

Dmitriev was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison in July after a city court in northwestern Russia found him guilty of sexually assaulting his adopted [sic] daughter, a ruling his supporters viewed as a victory given the 15 years requested by prosecutors.

The Supreme Court of the Republic of Karelia overturned that ruling and sentenced him to 13 years in a maximum-security penal colony, Mediazona reported, citing the lawyer of Dmitriev’s adopted [sic] daughter.

Under his previous sentence, Dmitriev, 64, would have been released in November as his time already served in pre-trial detention counted toward his sentence.

Human rights advocates condemned the Karelia Supreme Court’s ruling, calling it a “shame.”

Dmitriev has vehemently denied the charges against him.

The head of the Memorial human rights group’s Karelia branch, Dmitriev is known for helping open the Sandarmokh memorial to the thousands of victims murdered there during Stalin-era political repressions in 1937 and 1938.

How the Quakers Tried to Save Russia

The horrific famine of 1921 confronted the Soviet government with an inevitable decision: to recognize the disaster and accept foreign aid. Within a short time, more than twenty agreements were signed with international organizations that had expressed a desire to help Soviet Russia. Third on the list was an agreement between the People’s Commissariat and the Quakers. The Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends, is a Protestant Christian church whose history of interactions with Russia dates the seventeenth century. From 1916 to 1931, the Quakers were able to cooperate quite peacefully and fruitfully with all the authorities: with officials of Tsarist Russia, with the Czechoslovak Legionnaires, and with the Bolsheviks. This cooperation helped save hundreds of thousands of people, people who survived thanks to Quaker rations, doctors, tractors, and horses. In Russia, almost nothing is known about this assistance: the names of the saviors have been forgotten, and their good deeds have been consigned to oblivion. Sergei Nikitin, a long-time representative of Amnesty International in Russia and a researcher of Quaker history, is committed to restoring historical justice with his book. The book features an introduction by Vladislav Aksyonov, a senior researcher at the Institute of Russian History (RAS) and a member of the Free Historical Society, which situates the Quakers’ efforts in the socio-political context of the era.

Sergei Nikitin has written an amazing documentary book. We are taught that we are surrounded by enemies, but this book is about how this isn’t the case at all. We are taught people do everything only for their benefit, but it turns out that there are people who live quite differently. Books like this change the world.

Boris Grebenshchikov, musician

This book by Sergei Nikitin, a long-time representative of Amnesty International in Russia, is dedicated to one of the most important values of human civilization—love for one’s neighbors, no matter how close they really are geographically, ethnically, or politically. Religious feeling and compassion lead thae book’s characters, British and American Quakers, to distant Russia to help the starving and dying. The author opens this page of Russian history for the first time, carefully and thoroughly extracting hitherto unknown facts. This is not just a chronicle of humanitarian aid, but a history of humanity.

Mikhail Fedotov, lawyer and civil rights defender

No matter how you look at the story told by Sergei Nikitin, it contradicts commonly held notions in modern Russia: the English and Americans help refugees and starving people in Bolshevik Russia; Quakers cooperate with the Soviet government to combat hunger and establish health care; a religious society serves as a channel of communication between a diplomatically isolated country and the outside world. The book also discusses the commonalities between the Communist utopia and Quaker ideals, and whether it is possible to emerge victorious based on your own idea of what should be done, despite the framework in which you are placed by politicians at home, the host government, and even those you help. These are deeply personal stories, intertwined with the history of our country—a history that we need to know.

Ivan Kurilla, historian

Sergei Nikitin talks about his book How the Quakers Tried to Save Russia

Source: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Mark Teeter for the heads-up.