Vasily Kaluzhnin: There Lived an Artist on Liteiny

Vasily Kaluzhin: There Lived an Artist on Liteiny. Poster for the exhibition at the Anna Akhmatova Museum in Fountain House (St. Petersburg), 19 March-18 April 2021

Svetlana Smaznova
Facebook
March 19, 2021

The honor of discovering Vasily Kaluzhnin belongs to the Petersburg writer Semyon Laskin (1930-2005). His novel The Hostage of Eternity recounts the tragic life of the Leningrad artist Vasily Kaluzhnin, a friend of Yesenin, Akhmatova, and Klyuev.

Vasily Kaluzhnin, Palace Square in the Siege, 1941. Tempera on canvas. Photo by Svetlana Smaznova
Vasily Kaluzhnin, Nevsky Prospekt in the Siege, 1941. Tempera on canvas. Photo by Svetlana Smaznova
Vasily Kaluzhnin, Portrait of a Woman, 1920s-1930s. Charcoal on paper. Photo by Svetlana Smaznova

________________

“Damn it, old man! Well, why aren’t you painting?” reads the handwritten inscription on one of Vasily Kaluzhnin’s self-portraits. Addressed to himself, Kaluzhnin’s words sound like a confession of faith. Painting was his only god, and this deity’s temple was a room in a communal apartment on Liteiny Prospect, chockablock with paintings.

The word “miracle” suits best what we know about the artist Vasily Kaluzhnin (1890-1967). He miraculously survived the Siege of Leningrad and the Stalinist crackdowns, and his body of works has been miraculously preserved. Most important is the miracle of his paintings and drawings. Black charcoal “lace,” sanguine drawings, now thick and almost brick-colored, now delicate and transparent. The besieged city, a pearly fog on the Nevsky, emptiness and grandeur. Post-war landscapes of Leningrad and Murmansk, portraits, and genre scenes, painted freely, without fear of being accused of “formalism.”

Vasily Kluzhnin, Murmansk, 1950s-1960s. Tempera on cardboard. Courtesy of Mikhail Ankundinova. Image courtesy of the Akhmatova Museum at Fountain House

The work of the artist Vasily Kaluzhnin is presented in the museum of the poet Anna Akhmatova for a reason: Akhmatova and Kaluzhnin were neighbors. And not so much geographically (the artist lived most of his life at Liteiny, 16, across the street from Akhmatova), as in the sense that they inhabited the same cultural and historical space. Their destinies were connected by invisible threads, and their lives were lived in close proximity to each other. They were born and died within a year of each other. Both of them lived long lives, sharing with their generation the full fate of the twentieth century. Both felt a sense of belonging to world culture, in whose space the paths of the poet and the artist so often intersected.

A photo from the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Mikhail Kuzmin’s literary career (1925) is the only document that records the fact that Akhmatova and Kaluzhnin were acquainted, along with a small dark drawing, made with thick charcoal, depicting either Akhmatova or Dante in profile. For Kaluzhnin, the poet who lived across the street from him was of the same magnitude as the great Dante Alighieri. The drawing was probably produced in the 1920s.

Vasily Kluzhnin, Sunbathing, 1930s. Charcoal and sauce on paper. Courtesy of Mikhail Ankundinov. Image courtesy of the Anna Akhmatova Museum at Fountain House

The exhibition represents only a small part of Kaluzhnin’s artistic legacy: ballet and theater sketches, nudes, landscapes, and portraits from the 1920s to the 1960s. One of the important themes is the besieged city and the evacuation of paintings from the Hermitage, made in different versions and media, from colored pencil to paints. The exhibition also includes rare photographs and documents from private collections.

Source: Akhmatova Museum at Fountain House

Thanks to the Five Corners community Facebook page for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Kronstadt as Revolutionary Utopia: 1921-2021 and Beyond

Kronstadt as Revolutionary Utopia: 1921-2021 and Beyond

March 20-21, 2021

Conference to be streamed on Twitch, including discussion/questions and answers

Saturday, March 20, 2021
1) Welcome and opening event – 9:30am Pacific/12:30am Eastern/4:30pm GMT/7:30pm Moscow

2) Historians’ panel – 10:00am Pacific/1:00pm Eastern/5:00pm GMT/8:00pm Moscow

  • Konstantin Tarasov, “Kronstadt self-government in 1917”
  • Simon Pirani, “Kronstadt and the workers’ movements in Moscow and Petrograd, 1921”
  • Dmitriy Ivanov, “Kronstadt 1921 uprising, political identities, and information flows”
  • Alexei Gusev, “Kronstadt Uprising of 1921 as a part of the Great Russian Revolution”

Lara Green moderating

3) Panel: “Disinformation and Counter-Revolution, 1921-2021” – 11:30am Pacific/2:30pm Eastern/6:30pm GMT/9:30pm Moscow

  • Ramah Kudaimi, “The People Want: Syria’s Uprising”
  • Lara el-Kateb, “Disinformation in the age of social media: The case for the Syrian revolution”
  • Omar Sabbour, “On the continuities between imperialism and vacuous anti-imperialism”
  • Javier Sethness, “Marx/Plekhanov vs. Bakunin; from Kronstadt to Neo-Stalinism”

Shon Meckfessel moderating

4) Film screening: The Russian Revolution in Color (2005) – 1:00pm Pacific/4:00pm Eastern/8:00pm GMT/11:00pm Moscow

Sunday, March 21
1) Welcome and opening event: recap of day 1, and agenda for day 2 – 9:30am Pacific/4:30pm GMT/7:30pm Moscow

2) Panel: “The After-Lives of Kronstadt” – 9:45am Pacific/12:45pm Eastern/4:45pm GMT/7:45pm Moscow

  • Mike Harris, “In the Spirit of Kronstadt”
  • Danny Evans, “A Spanish Kronstadt? The Barcelona May Days of 1937”
  • George Katsiaficas, “Enduring Problems of Communist Parties’ Suppression of Popular Movements”
  • Dmitriy Buchenkow, “The problem of power in the anarchist worldview”

Laurence Davis moderating; Irina Sisseikina interpreting

6) Film screening: Maggots and Men (2013) – 11:30am Pacific/2:30pm Eastern/6:30pm GMT/9:30pm Moscow

  • Q&A with Cary Cronenwett, Ilona Berger, and Zeph Fishlyn afterward

7) Kronstadt 1921 and the Social Crises of 2021 – 1:00pm Pacific/4:00pm Eastern/8:00pm GMT/11:00pm Moscow

  • Lynne Thorndycraft, “Kronstadt: Why It Matters”
  • Tom Wetzel, “Worker Congresses as a Form of Working Class Political Power”
  • Bill Weinberg, “Syria: Lessons from Kronstadt 1921”

Javier Sethness moderating

8) Closing event with words from cosponsors – 2:30pm Pacific/5:30pm Eastern/9:30pm GMT/12:30am Moscow

Leila Al Shami: The Case of Syria’s Communes

Building alternative futures in the present: the case of Syria’s communes
Leila Al Shami
March 18, 2021

Originally published at The Funambulist

“We are no less than the Paris commune workers: they resisted for 70 days and we are still going on for a year and a half.” Omar Aziz, 2012

On 18 March 2021 people around the globe will be commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. On this date, ordinary men and women claimed power for themselves, took control of their city and ran their own affairs independently from the state for over two months before being crushed in a Bloody Week by the French government in Versailles. The Communards’ experiment in autonomous, democratic self-organisation, as a means to both resist state tyranny and to create a radical alternative to it, holds an important place in the collective imaginary and has provided inspiration for generations of revolutionaries.

On 18 March another anniversary will pass, but surely to much less acclaim worldwide. On this date a decade ago, large scale protests were held in the southern Syrian city of Dera’a in response to the arrest and torture of a group of school children who had painted anti-government graffiti on a wall. Security forces opened fire on the protesters, killing at least four, provoking wide-spread public anger. Over the next few days protests spread across the country, transforming into a revolutionary movement demanding freedom from the four-decade dictatorship of the Assad regime. In the following years, as people took up arms and forced the state to retreat from their communities, Syrians engaged in remarkable experiments in autonomous self-organisation despite the brutality of the counter-revolution unleashed upon them. As early as 2012, Omar Aziz a Syrian economist, public intellectual and anarchist dissident, compared the first of these experiments to the Paris Commune.

Omar Aziz was not a mere bystander to the events underway in Syria. Living and working in exile, he returned to his native Damascus in 2011, at the age of 63, to participate in the insurrection against the regime. He became involved in revolutionary organizing and providing assistance to families displaced from the Damascus suburbs under regime assault. Aziz was inspired by the movement’s level of self-organisation in its resistance to the regime. In towns and neighbourhoods across the country, revolutionaries had formed local coordinating committees. These were horizontally organised forums through which they would plan protests and share information regarding both the accomplishments of the revolution and the brutal repression the movement faced. They promoted non-violent civil disobedience and were inclusive to women and men from all social, religious and ethnic groups. Revolutionaries were also organising the provision of food baskets to those in need and setting up medical centres to tend to injured protesters who feared going to hospitals due to risk of arrest.

Aziz believed that whilst such activities were an important means to resist the regime and had indeed challenged its authority, they did not go far enough. Through their organisation, revolutionaries were developing new relationships independently of the state based on solidarity, cooperation and mutual aid, yet were still dependent on the state for most of their needs, including employment, food, education, and healthcare. This reality enabled the regime to maintain its legitimacy and perpetuate its power despite people’s wide-spread opposition to it. In two papers published in October 2011 and February 2012, when the revolution was still largely peaceful and most of the Syrian territory remained under regime-control, Aziz began advocating for the establishment of Local Councils. He saw these as grass-roots forums through which people could collaborate collectively to address their needs, gain full autonomy from the state, and achieve individual and community freedom from structures of domination. He believed that building autonomous, self-governing communes, linked regionally and nationally through a network of cooperation and mutual aid, was the path towards social revolution. According to Aziz, “the more self-organizing is able to spread … the more the revolution will have laid the groundwork for victory.”

Aziz was not concerned with seizing state power and did not advocate for a vanguard party to lead the revolution. Like the Communards, he believed in the innate ability of people to govern themselves without the need for coercive authority. In his view the new self-organised social formations that were emerging would “allow people to take autonomous control over their own lives, to demonstrate that this autonomy is what freedom is made of.” Aziz envisaged that the role of the Local Councils would be to support and deepen this process of independence from state institutions. Their priority would be working together with other popular initiatives to ensure the fulfilment of basic needs such as access to housing, education and healthcare; collecting information on the fate of detainees and providing support to their families; coordinating with humanitarian organisations; defending land from expropriation by the state; supporting and developing economic and social activities; and coordinating with recently formed Free Army militias to ensure security and community defence. For Aziz, the most powerful form of resistance to the state was a refusal to collaborate with it through building alternatives in the present that prefigured an emancipatory future.

In November 2012, much like so many of Syria’s revolutionaries, Omar Aziz was arrested and died in prison a short while later. Yet, before his arrest, he helped found four local councils in the working class suburbs of Damascus. The first was in Zabadani, an agricultural and touristic town surrounded by mountains, some 50 kilometres from the capital. The town was quick to join the uprising in March 2011, holding regular demonstrations calling for freedom and the release of detainees. By June, young men and women had formed a local coordination committee to organize demonstrations and carry out media work to communicate what was happening in the town to the outside world. Like the female Communards of Paris, the women of Zabadani also created their own forums. In mid-2011 the Collective of Zabadani Female Revolutionaries was formed. They participated in demonstrations in huge numbers and called for peaceful civil disobedience. They played a leading role in the Dignity Strike in December 2011, a nation-wide general strike that attempted to place economic pressure on the regime. In January 2012 they established Oxygen Magazine, a bi-monthly printed magazine providing analysis of the revolution and promoting peaceful resistance. The group later evolved into the Damma women’s network, which continues to work to support women to build resilience and alleviate the impact of violence in conflict affected communities, as well as providing education and psychological support for children.

Zabadani was liberated by local Free Army militias in January 2012. Barricades were set up and the town was brought under the control of its residents. A local council was established to fill the vacuum created by the regime’s departure. The town’s Sunni and Christian residents came together to elect the council’s 28 members from respected individuals within the community and to choose a president. This was Syria’s first experience of democracy in decades. The council established a number of departments to administer daily civil life, including for health care and humanitarian assistance, as well as a political committee involved in negotiating with the regime, and a court to resolve local conflicts. A military committee supervised the Free Army battalions to ensure security. Whilst the council representatives were all men, the Collective of Zabadani Female Revolutionaries played an important role in supporting the Council’s activities. Like the Communards of Paris, the people of Zabadani, who dreamt of a free and just society, managed to creatively self-organise their community independently from centralized state control.

Local autonomy and grass roots democracy was seen by the regime as its greatest threat. As the government of Versailles, which had refused to fight against the Prussians, turned their weapons on the Communards, so the Syrian regime directed all of its might against the people of Zabadani. The town was subjected to a siege, enforced by the regime and its ally the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and daily bombing led to a dramatic worsening of humanitarian conditions. Inside the town, revolutionaries also faced challenges from extremist Islamist battalions which gained in prominence over time and finally wrested control from the local council in 2014. After a number of failed cease-fire agreements the regime regained control of Zabadani in April 2017, after which many of its residents were forcibly evacuated.

The experience of Zabadani was remarkable, but not unique. Over the course of the Syrian revolution, land was liberated to such an extent that, by 2013, the regime had lost control of around four-fifths of the national territory. In the absence of the state, it was people’s self organisation which kept communities functioning and allowed them to resist the regime, in some cases for years. Hundreds of local councils were established in the newly created autonomous zones providing essential public services such as water and electricity supplies, rubbish collection, and supporting schools and hospitals to keep operating. In some areas they grew and distributed food. People also worked together to set up humanitarian organisations, human rights monitoring centres, and independent media associations. Women’s centres were founded to encourage women to be politically and economically active and to challenge patriarchal mores. One example is the Mazaya centre in Kafranbel, Idlib, which taught vocational skills to women, held discussions on women’s rights issues, and challenged the threats posed by extremist Islamist groups. Unions were established for students, journalists and health workers. In the northern city of Manbij, revolutionaries established Syria’s first free trade union, which campaigned for better wages. Cultural activities flourished, including independent film collectives, art galleries and theatre groups. In the liberated town of Daraya, close to Damascus, revolutionaries built an underground library from books they salvaged from people’s destroyed homes.

After 2011, before the counter-revolution ground them down, communities across Syria lived in freedom from the tyranny of the regime. Power was brought down to the local level and people worked together for their mutual benefit, often in extremely challenging circumstances, to build a pluralistic, diverse, inclusive and democratic society that was the very antithesis of the state’s totalitarianism. They were not motivated by any grand ideologies, nor led by any one faction or party. They were driven by necessity. Their very existence challenged the myth propagated by the state that its survival was necessary to ensure the fulfillment of basic needs and stability. Syrians showed that they were more than capable of organising their communities in the absence of centralised, coercive authority by building egalitarian social structures and recreating social bonds of solidarity, cooperation and mutual respect. There was no one model or blueprint. Each community organised in accordance with its own needs, unique local circumstances and values – the very essence of self-determination – essential in a country which is as socially and culturally diverse as Syria. What they shared was a desire for autonomy from the regime and a commitment to decentralized, self-managed forms of organisation.

Whilst the experience of the Paris commune is well known and celebrated in the West, we must ask why similar experiments happening in our own time in Syria are not – why they have usually failed to attract even the most basic forms of solidarity. Whilst much radical theory holds pretentions to universalism, it often pays little attention to other, non-Western contexts or cultures. When leftists in the West think of Syria they often think of foreign state intervention, extremist Islamist groups, and numerous armed brigades jostling and competing for power and territory. Little attention is given to ordinary men and women and their courageous acts of defiance against a tyrannical, genocidal regime. These people formed the backbone of Syria’s civil resistance. They not only resisted the regime but built a viable, beautiful alternative to it. Their struggle became multi-faceted. They defended their hard-won autonomy from the regime and later numerous foreign forces and extremist groups that saw their existence as the greatest threat. They were shunned and often slandered by the international community, including by people who consider themselves part of the anti-imperialist left. Their existence became an inconvenience to the grand narratives people wanted to indulge in regarding Syria’s revolution and counter-revolutionary war. Epistemological imperialism left little room for Syrian’s lived realities.

As with the Paris Commune, there is much to be learnt from Syria’s revolutionary experience. In times of insurrection or at times of crisis, new ways of organising often emerge which provide alternatives to the hierarchical, coercive and exploitative systems practiced by both capitalism and the state. Through decentralised self-organisation, without the need for leaders or bosses, but through voluntary association, cooperation and the sharing of resources, people can transform social relations and effect radical social change. They show us that emancipatory futures can be built in the here and now, even in the shadow of the state.

*****

All quotes are taken from the English translation of Omar Aziz’s two papers on The Formation of Local Councils by Bordered by Silence, except for the introductory quote which came from Twitter, now deleted.

Thanks to Michael Karadjis for the heads-up. || TRR

Night over Chile

Poster for the 1977 Soviet film Night Over Chile

George Losev
Facebook
March 13, 2021

I watched the old Soviet movie Night over Chile on the TV at work. Despite a certain theatricality that was slightly inappropriate for a Soviet mockumentary (yes, yes), it does a very good job of conveying the atmosphere of fear and hopelessness that we are experiencing now, when faced with the Russian state.

And perhaps that was why the film didn’t cause the average Soviet person to feel anything. They knew what it was about, but they didn’t feel it.

Night over Chile is a film by Chilean film director Sebastián Alarcón and Soviet film director Alexander Kosarev, shot at Mosfilm Studios (USSR) in 1977. The historical drama recounts realistic accuracy the 1973 military coup in Chile and the subsequent crackdown, as seen through the eyes of the young architect Manuel, who is at the center of the events. The 10th Moscow Film Festival celebrated the work of the directors by awarding them a special prize for their directorial debut.

Young architect Manuel’s (Grigore Grigoriu) life purpose is to construct new beautiful houses. He is not interested in politics, showing everyone around him complete neutrality. However the events of 11 September 1973 shatter his perfect little world. The murder of lawful President Allende, arrests without charges and court decisions fundamentally change Manuel’s outlook on what is happening. Because a leftist activist escaped from a raid through his apartment, the architect gets thrown into jail, goes through torture and abuse, and witnesses mass executions (at the infamous National Stadium). Manuel understands that the only way for an honest man is the path of the political struggle, the national resistance.

The film was shot on location in Baku, but the recreation of the events at the National Stadium was filmed at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

Cast:
Grigore Gregoriu — Manuel Valdiva
Baadur Tsuladze — Maria’s Husband
Giuli Chokhonelidze — Juan Gonzalez
Islam Kaziyev – Junta Officer
Sadykh Huseynov — Rolando Machuc
Vytautas Kancleris — Don Carlos
Roman Khomyatov — Junta Officer
Victor Soțchi-Voinicescu — Domingo
Mircea Soțchi-Voinicescu — Roberto
Vsevolod Gavrilov — Padre
Nartai Begalin — Soldier
Maria Sagaidak — Esperanza
Bakhrom Akramov
Leon Kukulyan — Orlando
Oleg Fedorov — Reporter
Sebastián Alarcón
Mayak Kerimov
Nina Pushkova — Pamela

Source: articles on the film published in the Russian and English versions of Wikipedia. Translated by the Russian Reader

Montage of Attractions

Kirill Rein
Facebook
March 5, 2021

I finally came across this photo. I practically grew up next to this monstrosity, a talking map of the October Revolution, located in the Smolny Garden between Smolny Prospect, 6, and School No. 157. Every hour, I think, it turned on and loudly, in a well-modulated voice, read out the chronology of the October uprising. Lights flashed on, clearly marking the places captured by the Bolsheviks, and at the end it played something rousing that was audible throughout the garden, something like “Hostile Whirlwinds” or the Internationale. From the side, you could sneak up top on iron stairs designed for maintenance work: smoking there was an unalloyed, incomparable pleasure in the fourth grade. I remember that when I couldn’t find the thing there, I was totally surprised.

Thanks to the Five Corners community page for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Kirill Rein, photographer unknown. Translated by the Russian Reader

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: 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