All We Have to Look Forward to Are Past Wars and Future Wars, but God Help Us from Revolutions

When my charge Abubakar and I emerged from the courtyard of our building earlier today for our afternoon constitutional, we were abruptly confronted by a moving van, almost blocking the exit to the street. The van, which was quite filthy, had two “patriotic” (nationalist) bumper stickers tattooed on its back bumper.

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“Thank you that we don’t know what war is like!” You can say what you like about the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin’s Treptower Park, but the Great Fatherland War was definitely not the “war to end all wars” almost anywhere, much less the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia, which happily intervened militarily in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan after the war, as well as enthusiastically engaging in lesser Cold War shenanigans all over the globe with and without its sparring partner the US. Since its convenient self-collapse, it has twice reduced Chechnya to rubble, occupied Crimea, set Donbass on fire, and razed East Aleppo to the ground. So much for not knowing what war is like. The experience has merely been severely localized to keep the ruling and chattering classes of Moscow and Petersburg from knowing what it’s like.

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“Our armor is strong and our tanks are swift!” This particular (modern) tank is emblazoned with the St. George’s Ribbon that has become a de rigueur accessory for “patriots” (nationalists) on holidays such as Victory Day (May 9). Some particular fervent patriots (nationalists) manage to wear the ribbon all year round, like an amulet against the evil eye.

Here we see the historical semantic switch that is always flicked by Russian nationalists, played out, in this case, on a single, dust-encrusted moving van bumper. Since the Soviet Union made the “ultimate sacrifice” in the Second World War, it now gets a free pass in all present and future conflicts, which are somehow, usually vaguely, provoked by the “raw deal” the Soviet Union and, especially, ethnic Russians supposedly got in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Cold War.

The second bumper sticker should thus be seen as a serious “humorous” threat to invade Europe in the very near future. The really funny thing is it is addressed to a purely domestic, i.e., Russian audience. Perpetually “collapsing” Europe, brought to its knees, allegedly, by Muslim fundamentalists, gays, and political correctness (in the Russian popular imagination), and thus deserving of invasion (salvation) by Putinist Russia, literally cannot see this message, ostensibly addressed to it, not to other Russians, who have it drilled into their heads on a hourly basis, unless they avoid the Russian state media altogether, which many of them have done to keep their heads from exploding.

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Bolshaya Zelenina Street, Petersburg, August 17, 2017. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Kasatkina

An acquaintance came home today to find a once blank or otherwise adorned firewall, as depicted above, painted over with an alarming, menacing war scene. There was a brief period between the collapse of the Soviet Union and Putin 2.0 or Putin 3.0, when the city’s numerous, achingly beautiful firewalls were freed of portraits of Politburo members and exemplary socialist laborers and allowed to be themselves, which was something like the visual equivalent of one hand clapping. But when money and politics poured back into the city in the noughties, the firewalls were an easy means for district council officials to show residents and city hall they were engaged in “improvements” and not just pocketing the budget money entrusted to them. (They were doing that, too, whatever else they were pretending to do.) Hiring a crew of hacks to paint the firewall in an otherwise dreary courtyard and arranging a few benches or a little garden or playground below the mural was just the ticket.

Those days of mostly harmless kitsch are now long past. Firewalls should now say something big and important, if the city is going to bother to put up the hard cash to paint them, and that message has to be aggressive and “patriotic.” As one commentator wrote, upon seeing the image of the Soviet warplanes, above, the impression they make is that Russia must start a war immediately.

Or, as in a series of five murals painted on different walls in five Russian cities on the occasion of Putin’s birthday in October 2014, “monumental propaganda” is made to short circuit all of Russian/Soviet history, especially the country’s triumphs, to the current regime and its ruler for life.

IMG_5964Memory (P = Pamiat’), one of a series of graffiti-like murals produced by the pro-Kremlin youth group Set (“Network”) to celebrate the president’s birthday in October 2014. This mural was painted on the firewall of an apartment block on the Obvodny Canal in Petersburg. Fortunately, it has since been painted over. Photograph by the Russian Reader

Thankfully, there are times when the public meta-historical messages are either unreadable or deeply ambiguous, as in this advertisement and accompanying promotion for the Uberesque taxi company Taksovichkof. (In the interests of full disclosure, I use their services very occasionally.)

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“A first!” claims the ad. “A taxi tour of 1917 Petrograd”!

It transpires the route includes St. Isaac’s Cathedral; the barracks of the Volyhnia Regiment, who decisively came down on the side of the Provisional Government during the February 1917 Revolution; the Smolny Institute, where the Bolsheviks were temporarily headquartered in October 1917; the Finland Station; the nearby Crosses Prison, where many revolutionaries of all stripes, not just the Bolsheviks, did hard time; the revolutionary battleship Aurora, which fired the shot heard round the world, returned to its moorings recently after extensive repairs; the mansion of ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska (currently, the Museum of Political History), where Lenin read out his so-called April Theses (“The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution”) after returning from exile in Switzerland; the Peter and Paul Fortress, which housed many political prisoners and revolutionaries during the tsarist period; and, finally, the Winter Palace, stormed by a unit of Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries on October 25, 1917, as a means of asserting the hard left’s symbolic victory in the second revolution.

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The route of Taksovichkof’s Excursion through Revolutionary Petrograd from 1917 to 2017 [sic]. Image courtesy of Taksovichkof

Unfortunately, knowing a little bit about the political views of the local TV celebrity and historian who recorded the tour’s audio guide, I can anticipate the tenor of the tour will be fairly counterrevolutionary and reactionary (i.e., “liberal”). But it’s better than declaring war on Finland again, I guess. TRR

P.S. The taxi tour costs 1,500 rubles (approx. 22 euros at current exchange rates). It lasts at least an hour and a half depending on traffic conditions, which are usually brutal from morning to night in downtown Petersburg. You can go on the tour from five in the morning (ideal, I would think) to twelve midnight (when the downtown is crawling with merrymakers).

Yekaterina Schulmann: We’re Not as Savage as They Say We Are

Yekaterina Schulmann
Compulsory Love
InLiberty
July 27, 2017

When we examine the campaigns, events, and public manifestations that might be dubbed signs of creeping re-Stalinization, the rehabilitation of Stalin, his emergence in the public space amid public approval, we see that each such instance was obviously organized directly or indirectly by the state, rather than by private individuals.

The monuments that have been erected recently and whose numbers have, indeed, been growing, have usually been installed under the auspices of local branches of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). This hardly makes them popular or grassroots endeavors. I would imagine everyone knows what the CPRF’s network of regional branches and our parliamentary parties amount to in reality, the extent of their loyalty to the regime, and the degree to which they coordinate all their moves with local and federal authorities.

It’s Even a Good Thing
Way back in 2002, a street in a city in Dagestan was named Stalin Avenue at the mayor’s behest. It did not happen because the locals came and surrounded town hall, threatening to set it ablaze if the mayor didn’t agree to their demands.

In 2009, in another political era, a line from the Soviet national anthem, “Stalin raised us to be true to the people,” was restored to the visual design of the Moscow subway’s Kurskaya station. Medvedev was then the president. The authorities responded to the indignation then voiced by arguing it was historically accurate. They had simply restored the station to its original appearance.

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“Stalin raised us to be true to the people.” Kurskaya subway station, Moscow. Photo courtesy of Lenta.ru

Since then, the Moscow subway has been rendered a powerful tool of pro-Soviet and Stalinist propaganda: there are the trains in which we encounter portraits of Stalin, and campaigns like this year’s “Times and Eras.” The pretext is sometimes stills from a film or historical memoirs. But you realize none of this comes from the grassroots, from ordinary folk, but from subway top brass or Moscow and federal authorities.

In Mari El, a life-sized monument to Stalin (one of the few; busts are usually erected instead) was erected on the premises of the local meat processing plant. As the town’s main employer and a major local business, the plant naturally could not afford to be in opposition to the regime, so it provided the venue for the monument.

Unveiling of a monument to Stalin in the village of Shelanger, Marii El Republic, September 9, 2015. Photo courtesy of Mariiskaya Pravda

2015 saw the opening of a Stalin Hut Museum in the village of Khoroshevo. It was something of a scandal, because the museum was sponsored by the Culture Ministry and personally approved by the culture minister.

A bust of Stalin was erected in Pskov Region in 2016, also with the knowledge and approval of local authorities.

Art exhibitions featuring images of Stalin in paintings of his era, paintings glorifying him and other Communist leaders, opened in Moscow in 2014, 2015, and 2016—for example, a show of works by Stalinist court painter Alexander Gerasimov, who authored the painting popularly known as “Two Leaders after a Rain.” These cultural treasures were shown in the Tretyakov Gallery not at the request of the art community or the museum’s staff.

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Alexander Gerasimov, Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin (“Two Leaders after a Rain”), 1938. Image courtesy of s-t-o-l.com

What is important to understand is the following. It does not follow from the things I have listed that there are no people in Russia who would, at their own behest, erect a bust of Stalin at their dacha or even be willing to donate money to restore a monument to him. Because we see a video of ordinary people in Sevastopol standing and applauding during the performance of a song about Stalin by a strange man in white trousers does not mean they were all specially dispatched there by the local authorities.

Sergei Kurochkin, “Bring Back Stalin,” August 2015, Sevastopol

What is the function of state propaganda? Speaking from a hierarchically superior stance, it establishes norms. It informs its audience about what is correct, normal, and permissible. It generates the ambience that lets people know that gadding about with a placard depicting Stalin is, at very least, safe, if not commendable generally. It lets them know that numerous books rehabilitating Stalin’s regime, which pack the shelves of bookstores throughout Russia, will not be deemed “extremist,” that their authors, publishers, and distributors will not face criminal charges under Article 282 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code, unlike other books that someone might think to display prominently in a bookstore. People are given to understand this is normal and not punishable, that it is permissible and encouraged.

When television presenters and state officials tell us there is no need to demonize anyone, that we can take a look at the Stalin era from different viewpoints, but whatever we want to say, the war was won, this is a signal that those who actually feel positive feelings in this regard and those who felt nothing in this regard should suddenly have them, that those who had no opinion on the matter should suddenly have an opinion, because they have been told it is permissible, normal, and even a good thing.

“They Want Their Own Stalin”
Theoretically, conformism is a psychological norm. We can rue the fact, but it is nevertheless the case. Individuals are inclined to join majorities. Individuals are inclined to compare their opinions with opinions they imagine are generally accepted. Maybe this is not the noblest manifestation of our human nature, but it is a sign of a mental health. We people, who are social animals, behave in this way for our own safety and to adapt successfully to society. This endows those who speak on behalf of the state, on behalf of generalized authority, with responsibility. Russia’s national TV channels are not considered sources of information and news, but voices of the powers that be. People consume TV in this way.

Let me remind you that such a sweet, innocent New Year’s TV holiday special as Old Songs about What Matters was first aired on January 1, 1996. The first program imitated the Stalin-era film Cossacks of the Kuban (1950). The film was the frame for the star-studded cast’s song and dance routines. 1996 was a presidential election year. Even the hazards of competing with the Communists in a relatively free election did not intimidate Russia’s ideologists and spin doctors. It did not stop them from organizing such a pretty, funny, sly rehabilitation of one of the most terrible periods in the history of the the terrible Soviet regime. This is what we call normalization. Look, they say, it was not terrible; it was pleasant, even. You can make fun of it and smile a good-natured smile when contemplating it. That was when the process kicked off.

Old Songs about What Matters, Russian Public Television (ORT), January 1996

Let me remind you of another early public campaign of this kind. In 2008, which, again, seems like an utterly different political era, there was a TV program, Name of Russia, which purported to pick the one hundred greatest Russians. The idea had been borrowed from the BBC program 100 Greatest Britons (2002), but was done completely in its own way. TV viewers were asked to select the one hundred most outstanding figures in Russian history, leading ultimately to the selection of a single finalist. Huge, persistent efforts were made to persuade viewers that Stalin had “really” won the popular vote, but since this would have been disgraceful, [TV channel Rossiya, known until recently as Channel Two] made the necessary adjustments, and Alexander Nevsky emerged the victor.

Name of Russia: Joseph Stalin, Rossiya TV, 2008

How did this vote really go? Now, with the know-how and knowledge we have amassed since then, we can more or less imagine how the so-called people’s will was determined, especially on television. But Name of Russia was, perhaps, the first time we saw this model fully deployed. The implied message was: they want their own Stalin, but we, the powers that be, are still shielding them from this on the sly. We still need to rein them in a bit.

A similar story involving alleged popular voting occurred in 2013, when Rossiya TV had to pick ten views of Russia, ten pictures, landscapes or historical buildings that exemplified the country. Then, as you remember, an ambitious regional leader organized the voting in such a way that the Heart of Chechnya Mosque would win. Federal officials found themselves in an uncomfortable position, and once again adjustments had to be made to the vote count so the Kolomna Kremlin would win. The ambitious regional leader got pissed off at the cellphone companies Beeline and Megafon, and they were shut down in the Chechen Republic; one of their offices was even pelted with eggs, such was the great indignation over the defeat. I mention this to illustrate how such things are organized and what their real purpose is.

A picture taken on April 14, 2012, shows the high rises of the new skyscraper complex Grozny City (right) and the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque, known as the Heart of Chechnya (left,) dominating the skyline in the Chechen capital Grozny. Photo courtesy of Agence France-Presse

We must face the truth and realize we are dealing with state propaganda, with notions of what is normal, acceptable, good, glorious, great, and outstanding that have been defined and imposed by the state. These notions strike a chord because they are voiced on the regime’s behalf and because they draw their power from actually existing needs.

A Nationwide Need for Authoritarianism Has Not Been Observed
How can we encapsulate these needs, the reality behind Stalin’s “high” rating?

I was first asked this question at an event sponsored by the Böll Foundation in Berlin.

“How can people in Russia love Stalin?”

When a question like that is tossed right into your face, you start to understand the grassroots need for justice, as understood in a peculiar way, the need for a paradoxically anti-elitist Stalin, the Stalin people have in mind when they say, “If Stalin were around, he’d settle your hash.” This Stalin was the scourge of the nomenklatura, foe of the strong and rich, and champion of poor, simple people. The degree to which this conception is mythologized and savage is beside the point, but it does exist. Many people who utter this phrase mean to appeal to strict law and order, to equality, to a primitive apostolic simplicity.

It is a sin, especially for academic researchers, to quote conversations with taxi drivers, but I too have been forced to listen to tales of how Stalin had one greatcoat and one pair of boots, but look at the way folks today live as they please and can afford everything. Meaning that the anti-elite demand is clearly encapsulated in this rhetoric. But the very idea that there is something to which one can appeal, that it is permissible, normal, and safe, was planted in people’s minds by the machinery of state propaganda.

Let’s see how successful this state propaganda machine has been over the course of several decades. Here is the simple, most basic question, as posed by pollsters at the Levada Center: “How do you personally feel about Stalin?” Look at the pattern of responses from 2001 to 2015. It would be wrong to say that any radical changes—sharp increases in respect, admiration, and sympathy—occurred. There is no evidence of this.

“How do you personally feel about Stalin generally?” Surveys conducted in April 2001, April 2006, October 2008, February 2010, October 2012, March 2014, March 2015. Possible answers: 1. I admire him. 2. I respect him. 3. I like him. 4. I could not care less about him. 5. I dislike him. He irritates me. 6. I fear him. 7. I find him revolting. I hate him. 9. I don’t know who Stalin is. 10. Undecided. All figures given in percentages of respondents.
“Do you agree or disagree with those who say that Stalin should be deemed a state criminal?” Polls conducted in February 2010 and March 2015. Possible answers: 1. I completely agree. 2. I rather agree. 3. I rather disagree. 4. I completely disagree. 5. Undecided. Figures given in percentages of respondents.

What emotions have decreased? Dislike and irritation. As part of the same trend, there has been a sharp increase in those would could not care less. What do we call that? The natural course of time. Indeed, Stalin is a quite heavily mythologized figure. When we are told that “our grandfathers fought in World War Two,” we must realize the grandfathers of the current generation of thirty- and forty-somethings saw no combat. Their grandfathers and grandmothers were children during the war years, meaning that for the currently active segment of the populace, the war happened a very long time ago. Stalin has been gradually fading into the pantheon of historical characters in which Napoleon is a beloved Russian cake rather than a French emperor, and Hitler is a meme from the cartoons shared on the VK social network.

Without discussing whether this attitude is moral and good, we do acknowledge it is inevitable, because living historical memory gradually fades away, and the symbolic field remains. So, we see that Stalin is not universally loved. Love of Stalin has not grown, and neither has the need to admire or like him increased. It would be wrong to say that the common folk adore Stalin more and more. It’s simply not true.

How do young people evaluate these distant historic periods? Here is the outcome of a survey on historical events of which we might be proud or ashamed. It was conducted among Russian and American students in 2015.

“Historical events of which students are proud.” Russia: World War Two, 63%; Gagarin’s space flight, 30%; War of 1812 (Fatherland War), 20%; Annexation of Crimea, 10%; Abolition of serfdom, 8%. USA: 1960s civil rights movement, 21%; War of Independence (1775-1783), 17%; World War Two, 16%; Space exploration, 13%; Constitution and Bill of Rights, 10%. Source: Higher School of Economics, 2015
“Historical events of which students are ashamed.” Russia: Stalinist terror, 18%; Collapse of Soviet Union, 11%; 1917 October Revolution, 9%; Execution of the Tsar’s family, 6%; Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), 5%. USA: Slavery and Jim Crow laws, 46%; military interventions (Iraq, Vietnam, Afghanistan), 36%; Genocide of local (Native American) population), 27%; Discrimination in today’s US (violation of women’s and minorities’ rights), 25%; Internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, 17%. Source: Higher School of Economics, 2015

The correlation between the primary source of pride, victory in the Second World War, and the primary source of shame, the Stalinist terror, illustrates the ambivalence that invariably entangles attempts at complete de-Stalinization, which is impossible as long as “victory” and “Stalin” are fused in the national imagination. Nevertheless, we see that young people have a quite healthy moral focus.

Let’s look at a slightly more realistic question. It does not have to do with a person that neither you nor your grandfathers have never seen, but with the period in which you would have rather lived.

“During the past 100 years, there have been different regimes in our country. The peculiarities of each of them had a marked influence on life in our country. When do you think life in Russia was best? (Mark one answer.)” Surveys conducted in June 1993, October 1994, and January 2017. Possible answers: 1. Before the 1917 Revolution. 2. During the Stalin regime. 3. During the Brezhnev regime. 4. During perestroika. 5. During the Yeltsin regime. 6. During the Putin regime. 7. Undecided. Figures given in percentages of respondents.

The outcomes in this instance are indeed interesting. For some reason, after 2014, there was sharp decline in popularity of the reply that the best time to live was before the 1917 Revolution. I don’t know why, but for some reason the amazing effect of the so-called Crimean consensus came down to the fact that this happy time “before tsarlessness,” as the saying goes, has lost its popularity for some reason. Very few people chose the Stalin era, as we see, and there was no change in this case: its popularity was low and has remained low. Meaning that maybe people “respect” Stalin, but no one is especially keen to live in the period during which he actually ruled.

The Brezhnev era is regarded as a more or less comfy, calm, peaceable time, but its popularity has been decreasing. No one likes perestroika or Yeltsin, for that matter.  A good number of respondents were undecided, and since the time span from 1994 to 2017 is quite large, people decided that, given this paltry choice, our own time, perhaps, looked okay after all.

How do these figures—this attitude to Stalin and his era, which, as we have seen, are not at all one and the same thing—correlate with people’s overall socio-political views? I have borrowed data from Kirill Rogov’s research study “Proto-Party Groups in Russia: 2000–2010s,” for which I am extremely grateful to him. The data in question are the outcome of a so-called meta poll, meaning a summary of public opinion polls, conducted over the past eighteen years by the Levada Center.

Here is a survey on a topic most closely bound up with Stalin: “Does our country need a strong hand?”

“The Strong Hand: The Authoritarian, Leader-Centered Model. Are there situations in the country’s history when the people need a strong, authoritative leader, a ‘strong hand’?” Sixteen polls conducted from November 1989 to November 2016. Figures given in percentages of respondents. Possible replies: 1. Our people constantly need a ‘strong hand’ (dark brown); 2. Power should be concentrated in one set of hands (green); 3. We should never allow power to be surrendered completely to one man (light blue); 4. Undecided (beige).

Look at the darkest line, which matches the number of replies that a “strong hand” has been “constantly needed.” The second line represents the opinion that “sometimes this has been necessary, but not always” [sic], while the [light blue] line represents the opinion that it is not necessary in any case. Look at the right side of the chart. Here we also observed the quite strange turning point, as yet unexplained by researchers, that occurred after 2014. Perhaps five or seven years from now we will say the effect of 2014 and its impact on public opinion was not as it was described to us on TV. Look at the upward tendency of the third [light blue] line: after 2014, people suddenly began to say that in no case should all power be handed over to one person. The second line (“It’s sometimes possible, but generally not a very good thing”) has taken a nose dive. The upper line was headed downward, but starting in 2011 it climbed a little, before falling again after 2013. In 2014, it experienced a sustained, short-lived upturn.

What rights do Russians value the most? Let’s look at the trends of recent years.

“What rights Russians value.” The results of sixteen polls conducted between August 1994 and October 2015. Possible replies: 1. Property rights (light blue); 2. Free speech (darker green); 3. Access to information (light beige); 4. Freedom of religion (lighter green); 5. Right to leave Russia and live in another country (crimson); 6. Right to elect one’s own representatives to government bodies.

Here we also see the mysterious, counterintuitive post-Crimea effect, when, in the wake of 2014, Russians gave access to information and freedom of speech a hard look, while experiencing a certain disenchantment in property rights.

Such are the interesting conclusions that Russians make from what they observe. However you look at this character, it clearly follows that we do not observe either a national yearning for authoritarianism оr the longing for a strong hand. Meaning we are dealing with an idea imposed on society about what it is like. Why is this done? Why are people told they long for the return of capital punishment when don’t particularly long for it? Why are they told that the whole lot of them want to resurrect Stalin? Why are they told they enjoy large-scale crackdowns?

European but Weak
The political regime, which wants, on the one hand, to concentrate power and resources in its hands, remain in power, and yet is not a full-fledged autocracy, does not have a well-developed machine of repression. It does not have a ruling ideology and the capacity for imposing it, and it does not want to be subjected to the procedures of democratic rotation. In fact, it finds itself in quite complicated circumstances.

It holds onto power by a whole series of pretty tricky tools. A considerable number of these tools relate to the realm of propaganda and represent different kinds of imitative models and patterns. Democratic institutions and processes are imitated, for example, elections, political parties, and a variety of mass media, which for all their variety report the same thing. Elections are seemingly held, but power does not change hands. Political parties exist, as it were, but no one opposes anyone. (This applies to the CPRF and the other so-called systemic or parliamentary parties.) This is on the one hand.

On the other hand, it is necessary to imitate autocracy’s rhetorical tools, meaning, roughly speaking, trying to appear in the public space as scarier than you are. Second, it is necessary (this is a subtle point, which is often not fully understood) to present oneself not as a terrible dictator, a bloody tyrant, but, on the contrary, as a civilizing, deterring force who is compelled, ruling over such a savage people with authoritarian tendencies, to keep it reigned in all the time, to constantly moderate its thirst for blood.

Meaning that it is necessary to transmit such ambivalent signals as “Let’s not demonize [e.g., Stalin], but let’s consider the issue from all sides.” It is necessary to pretend you are conceding and, simultaneously, resisting constant public pressure, which demands archaization, clampdowns, fire, and blood. If you didn’t resist the pressure, then everyone would have probably already been hung from the highest tree. Yet you are the selfsame power actor who generated the demand. You organized this entire normalization, to which you subsequently respond reluctantly, as it were.

Why is it necessary to fashion such a terrible reputation for one’s own people? To have an excuse for the crackdown on political rights, primarily voting rights, a crackdown in which you constantly engage. If people are savage, bloodthirsty barbarians, it makes sense to prevent them from electing the people they like at elections. For the time being you, a more or less civilized European, rule them, but if you let them have their way, they would immediately elect “Hitler” (the nationalist scarecrow) or Stalin (the left-wing étatist scarecrow). Both are arguments for limiting the rights of Russians to defining their own lives. Hence, the need for Stalin’s popularity.

What is my thesis? Filling society’s heads with false ideas about itself is meant to paint the government as the only “European” in Russia. Given the current social reality, this has long been untrue, to put it mildly. No, the dichotomy of the “civilized regime” versus the “savage society” does not exist, is not borne out by any reality, and cannot be measured by any instruments.

Our society is complex, multifaceted, and diverse. If we try to single out a public opinion, a common idea of values, as shared by the inhabitants of Russia (something that has been confirmed numerous times in research papers), we would see something like the following picture. We would see a society that espouses the values customarily identified as European. We would see a society that is individualist, consumerist, largely atomized, very irreligious, predominantly secular, and fairly intolerant of state violence, again, contrary to what is usually argued. It would be even more accurate to say that those who are intolerant of state violent are much better at joining forces and much more vigorously express themselves than those who put up with it.

We would see a society with values that researchers ordinarily describe as “European but weak.” We would see a society that is basically conformist, relatively passive, not terribly willing to express its opinion, and inclined to weaving the spiral of silence, which consists in people saying what is expected of them. Nevertheless, this society is not aggressive, not bloodthirsty, and does not long for the establishment of an authoritarian regime in Russia.

To govern a society like this with undemocratic methods, of course it has to be represented in a false manner. Of course you have to screw a little flag with Stalin embroidered on it into its head so as then to point at it and say, “See what they’re like.”

I urge everyone not to get involved in this game and not play up to those who engage in it much more seriously than we do, because these ideas about a wild and terrible people, first, do not capture the fullness and complexity of our reality, and second, hinder us, blocking our way to progress and development.

Yekaterina Schulmann is a political scientist at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to the lucid, vigilant Sergey Abashin for the heads-up

Another End of an Era: Pinta Shot Bar to Close in Central Petersburg

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Pinta Shot Bar on Stremyannaya Street in Central Petersburg

In the last ten or fifteen some years, signs of the city’s extinction have been coming hot and heavy, tumbling into view one after another. A few more years, and there will be nothing left of the late-Soviet and perestroika-era Leningrad/post-perestroika Petersburg where we misspent so many years of our youth and felt perfectly at home, despite the fact the ex-capital of All the Russias could never be described as homely. TRR

* * * * *

One of Petersburg’s Oldest Shot Bars to Close on Stremyannaya Street
Bumaga
June 27, 2017

One of Petersburg’s oldest shot bars [ryumochnaya], located at 22 Stremyannaya Street, is closing. [Known officially as Pinta or “The Pint,”] it has been in operation for over thirty years.

Sources at the bar confirmed the bar’s impending closure to us, but refrained from revealing the rationale behind the decision. According to unconfirmed reports, the establishment has been purchased by a third party. It will close on Sunday.

Urban legend has it the shot bar on Stremyannaya was frequented during different periods by writers Sergei Dovlatov and Joseph Brodsky, and rock musician Mike Naumenko, since it was near the popular so-called Saigon Café. Historian Lev Lurye told Bumaga that Brodsky and Dovlatov were unlikely to have visited the bar. It opened in the mid 1980s, after both had emigrated from the Soviet Union.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Ksenia Astafieva for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Foursquare and Ksenia N.

Let’s Cancel the Party and Call It a Night

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Car parked in central Petersburg, 8 July 2017. Photo by The Russian Reader

Given the sheer numbers of reactionary/counter-revolutionary events and incidents happening in Russia every day, and the equally astronomical quantities of reactionary/counter-revolutionary statements and actions committed by Russian officials high and low (e.g. East Aleppo) over the past couple of decades, it seems a nasty farce to commemorate, much less celebrate, the centennial of the Russian revolution(s) this year.

Present-day Russia and Russians have no copyright on revolution, and this stricture applies equally to self-identified “revolutionary” or leftist Russians, who have nothing to teach or say to anyone about revolution.

Clear the current Russian built and symbolic landscape of all the post-revolutionary tat and kitsch (nearly all of it reactionary, because what could be more anti-revolutionary than a cult of personality like the one generated around the dead Lenin) that clutters its physically and nominally (e.g., Insurrection Square in Petersburg), and you would find the wildly reactionary country that actually occupies the vast expanse between the Gdansk Bay and the Chukchi Peninsula.

It’s another matter that there are lots of Russians who, pluckily and smartly, individually and collectively, have been trying to overcome to this black reaction in bigger and smaller ways over the “miraculous” years of the Putin regimes. Unfortunately, however, their voices have mostly been muffled by the din of counter-revolution issuing from the Kremlin, the State Duma, and the post-Soviet Russian state’s ever-proliferating set of security forces and regulatory watchdogs, and by their own would-be allies among the brand-name liberals and leftists, most of whom have been concerned with promoting their own social and cultural capital, not making common cause with boring math instructors like “mass disorder stoker” Dmitry Bogatov or, more surprisingly, with the country’s endlessly resourceful independent truckers and other inspiring grassroots freedom fighters, none of whom have the time or the inclination to commemorate the famous revolution that, arguably, went counter-revolutionary more quickly than you can say Jack Robinson. TRR

He Had a Way with Words

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Leader of World Proletariat with Female Gate Attendant Reflected in Security Mirror, SUV, and New Year’s Tree, December 18, 2016. 11 Lomanaya Street, Petersburg

Politics begins where there are millions, not where there are thousands; not where there are thousands, but only where there are millions does serious politics begin.
—Vladimir Lenin, “Speech at Russian Communist Party Congress,” March 7, 1918

We can identify something similar in rhetorical repetitions. They can act to unfold the “plot,” move the presentation along, develop and refine the arguments. In a word, they can serve the progressive or narrative movement of oratorical discourse. They also generate a kind of “dam” by provoking and intensifying expectation, since the “denouement,” explanation or conclusion at which the speaker drives, and with it the fulcrum bearing the main weight of the speech, is propelled forward. Building a phrase or passage can also be achieved by different means, with the same goal of transferring the main weight to the end. These progressive repetitions can be distinguished from others, which, on the contrary, suspend movement, not by building up its pressure, but by turning it inside itself, as it were, forming a kind of motionless whirlpool, whose funnel, figuratively speaking, swallows and absorbs all our attention. Obscuring the horizon, they cut off our sight lines, thus cancelling the aspect of motion. Precisely this type of repetition prevails in Lenin’s discourse and is characteristic of it, as we have seen in the examples cited. As I indicated in my analysis of these examples, Lenin’s preference for this kind of repetition has to do with the very essence of his discourse. He appeals neither to feelings nor imagination, but to will and determination. His discourse does not deploy a panorama for passive contemplation. It does not serve as a guide, leading the indifferent tourist along. It fights the listener, forcing him to make an active decision, and, to this end, it pins him against the wall. “Don’t move! Hands up! Surrender!” That is the nature of Lenin’s discourse. It does not allow for a choice. I would argue this is the specific essence of oratorical discourse, in particular, of the political speech.
—Boris Kazansky, “Lenin’s Discourse: An Attempt at Rhetorical Analysis,” LEF 1 (5), 1924: 124

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Tapestry Rug Portrait of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, April 27, 2017. Kuznetsky Market, Petersburg

 

Photos and translations by the Russian Reader. Texts excerpted from a special 1924 issue of LEF entitled “Lenin’s Language,” featuring essays by Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eichenbaum, Lev Yakubinsky, Yuri Tynyanov, Boris Kazansky, and Boris Tomashevsky, and edited by Vladimir Mayakovsky. The English translations of the essays and Mayakovsky’s introduction, “Don’t Merchandise Lenin,” which was excised by censors from the original magazine, will be published in a special edition of a print journal later this summer. Watch this space for more details as they become available.

Granddad’s Hut

Granddad’s Hut
Alexei Yerofeyev
June 9, 2017
Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti

Дедова будка | Внучка Игнатия Малаховича Ерофеева Вера Дмитриевна возле дедовой будки. Фото 2016 г. ФОТО из семейного архива
Ignaty Yerofeyev’s granddaughter, Vera, next to her grandfather’s hut in central Petersburg, 2016. Photo courtesy of Yerofeyev family archive/Sankt-Petersburgskie Vedomosti 

Our city contains many details, sometimes curious trifles that impart a homeyness and simplicity to its “austere, comely look,” to a city that is sometimes uptight and business-like. Among them was the tiny wooden house that stood for over sixty year at Lomonosov Street, 9, behind the fence next to the old entrance to the Refrigeration Industry Institute.

This unpretentious hut, which resembled the huts you see nowadays on garden plots in the countryside outside the city, was partly a matter of pride to me, since it was a rare specimen of wooden construction in the heart of the city, and its designer was my granddad Ignaty Malakhovich Yerofeyev. Neither an architect nor even a carpenter, Ignaty was an ordinary caretaker.

Ignaty and his family arrived in Leningrad in 1929 from the village of Gogolevka, Smolensk Region, having left behind the house he had built there. Physically strong, thrifty, and intelligent, he had got his family away from the collectivization campaign. In Leningrad, he took a job as a caretaker. At first, the family had to live in a basement.

The family survived the Siege of Leningrad. Granddad remained at his job, while my father, who was fourteen years old in 1941, worked in a factory. Their peasant skills came in handy in the spring of 1942, when all the land in the institute’s yard was repurposed into vegetable gardens.

Only after the war did the family get permission to move into an apartment on Lomonosov Street, 9, to which its former occupants had not returned. This house was my home, just like the yard, in which there were three whole gardens. The poplars growing in them were also planted by my granddad and his friend Grandpa Kostya, who had also arrived from Gogolevka during the year of the so-called Great Break (velikii perelom).

Built by Ignaty Malakhovich in the early post-war years, the little house by the gate was the caretaker’s hut, which housed his scant collection of equipment. When I was born, Granddad was already retired, but he still really enjoyed relaxing on the bench he had placed next to the hut.

In 1968, the institute’s residential building was resettled and enlarged, and the little garden were practically destroyed. The hut, which was all we ever called it, was vacant for several years. Later, it was turned into a gatehouse, before becoming a security checkpoint in the 1990s. It was slightly rebuilt. The porch was removed, and it was repainted from green to brown.

Walking down Lomonosov Street, I always enjoyed looked at our family relic. The last time I passed through this familiar place, in April of this year, I was disappointed to see the old gatehouse was gone, replaced by a cheap-looking construction trailer.

I entered my old yard. A security guard immediately emerged from the depths of the yard and demanded I leave the premises. When I asked him where the hut had gone, he replied, “It was taken away for restoration.” I didn’t believe it. Soon I repeated the same route and stopped by the yard again. The run-in with the guard was repeated, although another man was on duty. Surprisingly, he also said the hut had been taken away for restoration.

“Can’t you see this is a temporary shed?” the security guard exclaimed angrily.

His angry question was music to my ears. Oh, how wonderful it would be if Granddad’s hut were returned to its place.

Alexei Yerofeyev is a board member of the Petersburg Union of Amateur Local Historians. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up

Maria Eismont: The Dmitriev Case Is the Most Important Thing Happening in Russia Right Now

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Yuri Dmitriev. Photo courtesy of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

The Yuri Dmitriev Case
The Accused Should Be Nominated for a State Prize
Maria Eismont
Vedomosti
June 8, 2017

“A person cannot disappear without a trace. People differ from butterflies in the sense that people have memory,” the man with long grey hair and long grey beard said onscreen.

The presentation of books of remembrance for those shot during the Great Terror in Karelia packed the screening room at the Gulag History Museum in Moscow: people even sat on the stairways. The editor of the books, Karelian historian and search specialist Yuri Dmitriev, from Memorial, was the man talking onscreen. He has spent the last six months in a pretrial detention center, absurdly charged with the crime of producing pornography.

Dmitriev sent his greetings and gratitude from prison, not so much for the kind words said about him, as for acknowledgement of his life’s work. Memorial’s historians all concur it is unique. No other region in Russia has such a complete compendium of the names of those who were shot as Karelia does. As his colleagues argue, Dmitriev succeeded in turning the figures of those who perished during the Great Terror into memorial lists complete with names, biographies, and burial sites.

The speakers occasionally slipped into the past tense, but immediately corrected themselves. Dmitriev is still alive, and we must believe he will soon be released, find the execution site of the other two Solovki “quotas” [political prisoners at the Solovki concentration camp who were transported to three different sites outside the camp in 1937–1938 to be shot and buried in secret—TRR], and present the next book of remembrance. This powerlessness, these slips of the tongue, and the trembling voices fully convey the horror of a time when the days when people were shot are long past but people still fall victim to political repression.

The Yuri Dmitriev case is, perhaps, the most important thing happening in Russia right now, first of all, because a patriot who for decades had, bit by bit, resurrected thousands of names of this country’s citizens from official oblivion, citizens murdered cruelly and senselessly in the state’s name, has himself been subjected to persecution. “The introduction to the list of terror victims will be brief: may they live in our memories forever,” writes Dmitriev in the foreword to one of his compendiums, The Motherland Remembers Them, a book in which the names are listed not in alphabetical order, but under the names of the villages where the victims lived before their arrests. “The moral of the story is also brief: remember! As is my advice: take care of each other.” Now there is a Russian national idea for you. The author of these books of remembrance should be nominated for a state prize and a government grant to keep on with his work.

There is another important thing about the Dmitriev case: the charge his persecutors chose for him. He was not charged with “extremism” or “separatism,” which have been commonplace in politically motivated cases, but with child pornography and depraved actions towards a minor. The charges not only guarantee a long sentence and promise the accused problems in prison but also challenge the public to support him. “What if something really did happen?” Dmitriev’s friends and relatives acknowledge that while those who doubt Dmitriev or are willing to countenance the charges are an overwhelming minority, such people do exist, and some of them are “decent” people.

The number of “pedophilia” cases, based on controversial, contradictory, clearly flimsy evidence and flagrantly unprofessional forensic examinations, has been growing for several years. Recently, I attended a similar event in Naro-Fominsk, seventy kilometers southwest of Moscow. It was also a memorial evening for a living person who had been incarcerated on charges of depravity against a child, actions the man could not have committed, according to witnesses who were nearby when the crime was alleged to have occurred. Dozens of people had come to remember what a good male nurse Zhenya had been. Then they corrected themselves: not had been, but is and will continue to be. Then they cried.

“Pedophilia” cases have long been custom-ordered to rid oneself of rivals and used to pad police conviction statistics, but now they have been put to use in political cases.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up