Sergey Yermakov: Protest Duckies and the Actionism of Fact

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Inflated rubber duckie at June 12, 2017, anti-corruption protest rally in Petersburg. The duckie was later detained by police. Photo courtesy of The Poke

Sergey Yermakov
Protest Duckies and the Actionism of Fact

The final performances by Voina’s so-called Petersburg faction could be termed “actionism of fact” by analogy with “literature of fact,” a project the LEF mob tried and failed to realize in the 1920s.

Voina took ordinary actions from the repertoire of protest and resistance, actions requiring no special skills—turning over a police car, torching a paddy wagon, dousing policemen with urine—and simply did them in their performances.

What happened to the performances due to their actions?

First, the performances simply were carried out, like ordinary actions, bereft of aesthetic and symbolic depth. (We will bracket the question of Alexei Plutser-Sarno’s defamiliarizing press releases.) “They really did it.”

Second, the actions were glorified by the very fact they were performed by the actionists. They were bathed in an aura of glory, but note that this aura was totally colorless. It had no density whatsoever, and it produced no distortions in the albedo. This was because the actions were as commonplace as could be, actions available to everyone, actions to which nothing was added except their execution. (Well, yes, and the group’s signature.)

The actionist readymade (or “readydone”) and actionism of fact, unlike the classic artistic readymade, have no need of a special aesthetic space, such as a museum. Unlike literature of fact (if this literary project had actually been implemented in the twenties), actionism may well avoid the traps of language and representation.

Voina thus directly took on the issue of politically effective action. There is a certain actionist Platonism to it, but if we bypass Plato (no matter how we regard the violence of his gesture) we cannot ask ourselves about art’s attitude and access to politics.

In the Republic, Plato does not suggest banishing all poets for fobbing off the phantom of excellence (εἰδώλων ἀρετῆς) on citizens instead of virtue (i.e., the thought of action). He would let the non-mimetic poets, who glorify the gods and sing the praises of good men (ἐγκώμια τοῖς ἀγαθοῖς), stay in the city. Voina’s Petersburg faction non-mimetically sang the praises not of citizens themselves, but certain actions as such, simply by performing them. Their implicit message was something like: Look, this is up for grabs for everyone, and yet if you carry out this glorious deed, you will not be unoriginal and overshadowed by us, because this is basically something anyone could do. This is a kind of democratic and non-hierarchical political Platonism.

Voina did these performances before the May 6, 2012, clashes between protesters and police on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow. They seemingly had offered the demos who took to the streets a possible repertoire of elementary actions. (Of course, the total number of such actions is much greater, and not all of them are either criminal or so primitive. What matters in this case is only the dimension itself.) But the demos did not heed their call, preferring to play at making witty posters, from the December 2011 rally on Sakharov Avenue to this day, and exchanging anti-regime memes in the social networks. (That is, the circumstances are in some way symmetrical to the exile of the poets. In this case, however, the demos itself has turned its back on genuinely political artists, immersing itself in the carnivalesque mimesis of the meme.) By rejecting the dimension of the glorious deed, however, the demos has refused to be itself, because it is eventful, rather than substantial, in contrast to the phantasm of the ethnos.

It took Pyotr Pavlensky half a dozen performances to get close to the place where Voina had arrived in the spring of 2011, that is, in order to torch the front door at FSB headquarters in Moscow. In many ways, the performance was a step backwards, for example, when it came to the question of withdrawal. The guerillas of Voina insisted on retreating in a well-conceived way and unexpectedly returning to strike again. (This is the only worthwhile “We’ll be back!” It is a far cry from Navalny and Co.) But Pavlensky, in many respects by way of accommodating an aesthetic impulse, stood his ground to the bitter end. He has thus proven to be a more direct follower of the National Bolsheviks than Voina when it comes to this issue.

So Voina is still waiting for its demos and valiant citizens back in the spring of 2011, scornfully gazing at rubber duckies, meme politics, and witty anti-Kremlin t-shirts.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Sergey Yermakov is a professional translator who was involved in several of Pyotr Pavlensky’s performances. My thanks to Mr. Yermakov for his kind permission to publish this essay here.

Happy Russia Day 2017

Office of the Guidance Counselor, Saint Petersburg State University of Film and Television
VK
9:11 p.m., June 9, 2017

Dear students,

June 12 is a public holiday, Russian Sovereignty Day [sic]. Certain people have been trying to use our national holiday to destabilize the situation in the country. Alexei Navalny has called for Russians to take to the streets of their cities in protest against the current regime.

The administration of Saint Petersburg State University of Film and Television asks you to approach the question of involvement in such events responsibly, not to yield to such calls and other provocative proposals whose objective is inveigle young people in unauthorized mass actions and marches aimed at destabilizing public order, calls and proposals that are transmitted via social networks and other sources of information. We cannot let these people achieve their political ambitions illegally.

Thanks to Comrade VS for the heads-up

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“⚡️Gas sprayed on Pushkinskaya Square. Police in gas masks. If you smell gas, wet t-shirts and breathe through them. #12june.”

Alexandra Krylenkova
Facebook
June 12, 2017

So, 658 people were detained [in Petersburg]. Minors whose parents were able to come and get them and people with disabilities have been released. Nearly everyone else will spend the night in jail.

There will be court hearings tomorrow. Everyone who can make it should come. The hearings will take place at the Dzerzhinsky District Court [in downtown Petersburg]. The first detainees are scheduled to arrive at the court at 9:30 a.m. Considering the number of detainees, we will probably be there into the night.

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Field of Mars, Petersburg, June 12, 2017. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Polukeyeva/Rosbalt

Alexei Gaskarov
I was invited to speak at the rally on Sakharov Avenue. I planned to talk about why it was important to support the anti-corruption campaign despite our political differences. In short, in order to put a stop to reaction, dissenters need to be represented on a massive scale, so the elites would not even think about just trampling them or not noticing them.  Everyone has the same goal right now: resurrecting political freedoms. The contradictions among people are secondary. Considering the scale of protests nationwide, things turned out quite well. You can see that people have stopped fearing crackdowns, and that intimidation no longer works. In Moscow, switching the rally to a stroll down Tverskaya was an absolutely apt response to the Kremlin’s behavior. Everyone who wanted to avoid arrest had the chance to do that. There were downsides as well, but given the colossal confrontation, they don’t seem important.

Ilya Budraitskis
Of course, one cannot help but welcome today’s protests on a nationwide scale. We are witnessing the continuing rise of a new protest movement that emerged on March 26. This movement is indivisible from Alexei Navalny’s presidential campaign and owes both its virtues and weaker aspects to that campaign. Despite the fact that Navalny’s campaign could have launched a broad grassroots movement, on the contrary, it has been built like a personalistic, vertical political machine in which decisions made by a narrow group of experts and approved by the leader are mandatory for the rank-and-file. This raises the majority’s political consciousness to the degree necessary at each specific moment of the campaign. The leader’s political strategy, his objectives, and the meaning of decisions are not up for discussion. Navalny must be believed like a charismatic CEO. What matters is that he is personally honest and “he has a plan.” On the eve of the protest rally, authorized for June 12 in Moscow, the rank-and-file found out a new particular in the plan: everyone had to go to an unauthorized protest march, which would predictably end in arrests and criminal charges along the lines of the March 26 protests. The rationale of the organizers is understandable. They have to pull out all the stops to keep the campaign moving at a fever pitch, keep it in the public eye, and use the threat of riots to pressure the Kremlin. Moreover, this radicalization in the media reduces the complicated picture presented by Russian society to a simple confrontation: the thieves in the Kremlin versus the honest leader who has united the nation. This set-up renders all forms of public self-organization and all social movements secondary and insignificant, and their real interest ultimately boils down to making Navalny president. However, even Navalny’s most dedicated supporters should pause to think today, the day after June 12. Would his campaign be weakened if it were opened up to internal criticism, if horizontal discussions of his political program and strategy were made possible, and the political machine, now steered by a few people, turned into a real coalition, where differences did not get in people’s way but helped them agree on common goals?

Anna Ivanova
“Sakharov Avenue is out,” Navalny said in his morning video message.

Navalny’s adviser Leonid Volkov put it more democratically.

“The hypocritical scum who dreamed up the ‘opposition rally on Sakharov’ will fry on a separate frying pan.”

The rally on Sakharov happened anyway. It was mainly attended by opponents of Moscow’s new law on the large-scale renovation of residential buildings: urban activists and residents of the buildings slated for demolition, as well as defrauded investors in residential building projects, foreign currency mortgage holders, and other victims of the construction sector. Many fewer of them came out, however, than on May 14, even considering that some of the outraged Muscovite anti-renovation protesters followed Navalny over to Tverskaya. Protests rise and ebb like the sea, and this time round the excitement was muted. These people—old women, families with children, old men—were not suitable for getting arrested at an unauthorized protest. Although they realize that Moscow’s problems are merely one logical outcome of the Russian political system, they are in no hurry to support Navalny and other inveterate oppositionists, for what is at stake are their housing and property, not supreme civil liberties.

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“Day of Russian Cops” on Tverskaya in Moscow, June 12, 2017

Meanwhile, on Tverskaya, young folks realized that A.C.A.B. Around 700 people were detained in Moscow, and the social networks were flooded with even more photographs of derring-do amidst the so-called cosmonauts [riot cops]. The ultimate damage from the protest might be acknowledged only over time, when we know whether there will be new criminal cases, and if there are, what charges are laid against the protesters. But everyone loves looking at riot porn (and being involved in it), although this hobby devastates and dulls the senses as much as watching ordinary porn. This is the danger of protests “for all things good,” of protests focused on a certain political agenda or figure: neither fat nor thin, neither old nor young, neither socialist nor nationalist, but generally sweet and better than the old protest rallies. In this case, protest risks degenerating into a social order in which everything is decided by Sturm und Drang. Not the worse prospect, some would argue, but others would argue it would be a disaster. But whether you like it or not, “Russia has thousands of young people dreaming of revolution,” for the time abstractly encapsulated in the slogan “Dimon must answer for his actions,” and they have been taking to the streets.

Two worlds did not in fact meet in Moscow today. One world is the world of people who are mostly old, people whose property is threatened with eminent domain and who imagine politics as a way of building an urban environment. The second world is the world of bold young people (and their slightly older idols), who are hellbent on regime change. It would not be a bad thing if these worlds met and acted in concert. This is the only way for a democratic politics to emerge from this.

Source: openleft.ru

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“A crossword in reverse. USMANOV, DACHA, DUCKIE. You provide the clues.”

Carine Clement
Facebook
June 13, 2017

Notes from the field (the Field of Mars). Putting aside emotions:
1. It’s true there were lots of young people. And they are not afraid of anything.
2. There were many young families, who are likewise not afraid for their children.
3. “We’re fed up” is the key phrase.
4. There were slogans about healthcare, infrastructure, and pension. Well, and about corruption, too.
5. The out-of-town students came out because “it is wrong to drive the regions into a pit like this.”
6. There was a sense of support and public acceptance.
7) The people who came out were true patriots genuinely worried about the country’s future.
8) A spirit of freedom . . .

Photos courtesy of Protestnaya Moskva, Rosbalt, anatrrra, and Vadim F. Lurie. Translated by the Russian Reader

P.S. On the Six O’Clocks News last night, BBC Radio 4’s Moscow correspondent had the temerity to refer to yesterday’s protest march on Tverskaya as “illegal.” Is this the new tariff for keeping one’s press accreditation under Putin’s perpetual reign? TRR

In Edenia, a City of the Future

‎אין דער צוקונפֿט־שטאָט עדעניאַ
In Edenia, a City of the Future
Yermilov Center, Kharkiv
June 8–July 9, 2017

In Edenia, a City of the Future is an art exhibition inspired by the eponymous Yiddish-language utopian novella, published by Kalman Zingman in Kharkiv in 1918. Nearly one hundred years later, artist Yevgeniy Fiks has invited an international group of contemporary artists to read the novella and create artworks as if they were from the museum of the imaginary city of Edenia. The artists’ different visions are an invitation to look at our dreams from various angles, to take note of their colors, intonations, forms and rhythms.

Zingman’s Edenia (a projection of Kharkiv twenty-five years in the future) is serviced by “airbuses” and fountains that keep the temperature at a comfortable level year-round; it is a place where ethnic communities live side by side in peace and harmony. The protagonist of the story, returned to his native city from Palestine, makes a stop in the art museum: “He […] looked at the sculptures of Kritsenshteyn, Lisitski and Roza Fayngold, then he went to the top level. The door closed behind him, and he looked for a very long time, thought for a long time, and got lost in his ruminations.”

At a time when many Ukrainians are divided in their respective idealizations of the Soviet past as a golden era of social justice or the European Union as the promise of a future utopia, In Edenia, a City of the Future (based on a novella written in a language that has practically disappeared from Ukraine) invites the public to examine the country’s multicultural history and its early Soviet dreams and nightmares in light of present-day political challenges and potentialities. We urge visitors to think critically about the appeal and comfort of a utopian dream, while simultaneously remembering past actions taken in the name of making an ideal image of society a reality. How many of these dreams and arguments are we still repeating today?

At the same time, we acknowledge the utopian nature of the very project of 21st-century contemporary art, where visibility (as revelation) has come to replace the visionary projects of the past.

Curators: Larissa Babij (Ukraine/US) and Yevgeniy Fiks (US/Russia)

Participating Artists:
Ifeoma Anyaeji (Nigeria)
Babi Badalov (France/Azerbaijan)
Concrete Dates Collective (Ukraine)
Curandi Katz (Italy/Canada)
Sasha Dedos (Ukraine)
Aikaterini Gegisian (UK/Greece)
Tatiana Grigorenko (US/France)
Creolex centr (Ruthie Jenrbekova & Maria Vilkovisky) (Kazakhstan)
Nikita Kadan (Ukraine)
Kapwani Kiwanga (Canada/France)
Yuri Leiderman (Ukraine Germany)
Mykola Ridnyi (Ukraine)
Haim Sokol (Russia/Israel)
Agnès Thurnauer (France/Switzerland)

Exhibition designer: Ivan Melnychuk (Ukraine)
Publishing partner: STAB (School of Theory and Activism Bishkek) (Kyrgyzstan)

Supported by Asylum Arts
Special thanks to Dr. Gennadiy Estraikh

About the Curators
Yevgeniy Fiks is a Russian-American artist, who has been living and working in New York since 1994. His artistic practice, which includes making artworks, exhibitions, and books, often seeks out and explores repressed microhistorical narratives that highlight the complex relationships between social histories of the West and the Soviet bloc in the 20th century. To learn more, please see http://yevgeniyfiks.com.

Larissa Babij grew up in the US and has been living and working in Kyiv as an independent curator, writer and translator since 2005. Her work focuses on representing Ukrainian contemporary artists in the English-speaking world, organizing contemporary art projects (usually in collaboration with artists) in Ukraine, and critically discussing current cultural conditions.

Yermilov Center
Freedom Square, 4
Kharkiv, Ukraine
Tel: +380 95 801 30 83, +380 57 760 47 13
www.yermilovcentre.org
Open Tuesdays–Sundays, 12.00 p.m.–8:00 p.m.

The exhibition will involve several public events, including guided tours with the exhibition curators, meetings with participating artists, and talks by historians specializing in early Soviet Ukrainian history. Please see www.yermilovcentre.org for details.

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A short excerpt from the translation of novella, as kindly supplied to me by Mr. Fiks.

“Where then do you hide the corpses? Or has the Angel of Death discovered another way?”

“Don’t laugh, my friend. For years, our Medical Institute has been conducting tests on rabbits and other animals that have died or been killed, squirting serum into their noses and bringing them back to life. And the Director of the Institute, Professor Rabinovitch, writes in the journal Health that it is possible that very shortly we will be able to insert a new soul into a person who died of old age and bring him back to life. But for now it is still a medical experiment. Yet you asked where we hide the corpses that have died. And I will answer you. Once we’re in the Green Garden, you will see a 40-story building, the Crematorium. There the corpses are cremated, and the ashes of each one are given a separate number and a box. In addition, very few young people die here. Life is so well ordered that one only dies of old age, of weakness, and not as it used to be, from accidents when young. The older generation dies. There has not been a war for the last twenty-one years. The young people only know the term war from history class in school. The other classes are concerned with guarding their health. In the upper grades, both boys and girls learn about sex, not as they did in our time when they went through all the swamps of life before they got married. Here, in our times, no one knows what the swamps of life are. In addition to natural science, a schoolgirl studies history, literature, culinary arts, sex education, and child-rearing. And if you were to see our young mothers—that is, our children! They are completely different from the children of the past, who used to know life, intimate life, only from the pornographic novels they furtively read.”

Translated by Khane-Faygl Turtletaub 

The Socialist Revolutionary Alternative

Socialist Revolutionary election poster, 1917. “Party of the Socialist Revolutionaries. Through struggle you will attain your rights. Land and freedom.” Courtesy of Wikimedia

The SR Alternative
Yaroslav Shimov
Radio Svoboda
March 8, 2017

“On the morning of February 23, the workers who had reported to the factories and shops of the Vyborg District gradually downed tools and took to the streets in crowds, thus voicing their protest and discontent over bread shortages, which had been particularly acutely felt in the above-named factory district, where, according to local police, many had not had any bread whatsoever in recent days.”

Thus read a report by agents of the Okhrana on the first day of a revolution that forever changed Russia, February 23, 1917 (March 8, New Style).

Revolutionary events such as the unrest in Petrograd, which the bewildered tsarist regime failed to put down, Nicholas II’s abdication on March 2 (15) at Dno Station near Pskov, and the establishment of the Provisional Government were recalled by contemporaries as happening so swiftly that they were unable to understand where Russia was headed so wildly and who would ultimately benefit from the changes. In February 1917, no one would have predicted that less than year later the Bolsheviks, a radical faction of the Social Democrats who had been on the sidelines of Russian politics, would emerge victorious, and Bolshevik leaders themselves were no exception in this regard.

But an enormous thirst for social justice was apparent from the revolution’s outset. Russia had emerged a quite leftist country. In the stormy months following the monarchy’s fall, it transpired that a definite majority of the country’s citizens sympathized with socialist ideas in one form or another. This was reflected in the outcome of the first free elections in Russian history, which took place in the autumn, when the chaos and anarchy on the war front and the home front were obvious. The newly elected Constituent Assembly was meant to define the country’s future. The Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), a party that had consistently, albeit violently and bloodily, waged war against the Romanov Dynasty, but in 1917 had favored peaceful but radical reforms, primarily land reforms, scored a convincing victory in the elections.

Soldiers who had gone over to the revolution and armed city dwellers on the streets of Petrograd, 1917

If the country had managed to slip past the threat of dictatorship, issuing from the left (the Bolsheviks) and from the right (radical counter-revolutonaries), the SRs would definitely have been post-revolutionary Russia’s ruling party for a time, argues Konstantin Morozov, a professor in the Institute of Social Sciences at RANEPA and convener of a permanent seminar, Leftists in Russia: History and Public Memory. In an interview with Radio Svoboda, he reflects on why this did not happen and what the SR alternative would have meant to Russia.

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What was the condition of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in February 1917?

I would say the the party was then in a state of organization disarray. A considerable part of its prominent leaders was abroad, while the other part was in prison, exile, and penal servitude. It had to be rebuilt from scratch, and it was the SRs who had withdrawn from revolutionary work in 1905–07 but who basically returned to the party in 1917 who mainly engaged in the rebuilding. It was they who organized all the party’s new cells. There were also serious problems among the SRs in terms of internal rifts, especially due to differing viewpoints on the war.  In March, the SRs began to rebuild themselves as a single party, which was implemented subsequently at the party’s 3rd Congress in May and June. In my view, this was a mistake, because the disagreements within the party were such that it could not function, manage itself, and take decisions as a united party. A factional struggle immediately ensued. Accordingly, it ended in collapse and the inability to hew to a single internal party policy in 1917.

Due to the first phase of their history, the SRs are associated in the popular imagination with violence and terrorism, which they had long renounced by 1917. What were the views of the SRs and the leaders on violence as a principle of political struggle? The baggage of their terrorist pasts still haunted Viktor Chernov and other party leaders, after all. How did they view it in 1917?

The Socialist Revolutionary Party discussed the question of terrorism throughout its existence. At first, such figures as Mikhail Gots and Viktor Chernov, who advocated he inclusion of terror in the party’s tactics, had the upper hand. But even then the SRs included people who advocated a popular, mass-based party, who favored propaganda and agitation among the peasantry and proletariat rather than focusing on terror. Their ideal was a grassroots socialist party, something like the Second International’s exemplary party, the German Social Democracy. It went from bad to worse. During the 1905 Revolution, the party’s grassroots combat squads were keen on practicing expropriation and many other things that party leaders dubbed “revolutionary hooliganism.” But after 1909–11, in the aftermath of Evno Azef‘s exposure, the voices of those SRs who had argued for giving up terrorism grew ever stronger. By February 1917, there was no longer any talk of terror. The last terrorist act carried out by SRs had taken place in 1911, after which they basically ceased engaging in terrorism. Terrorist sentiments in the Socialist Revolutionary Party were resurrected only in the wake of October 1917, especially after the Bolsheviks forcibly disbanded the Constituent Assembly. Even then, however, the greater number of SR leaders were against engaging in terrorism against the Bolsheviks. These SR leaders argued that first they had to get the grassroots on their side using the methods of a popular political party.

In his memoirs, Boris Savinkov quotes his friend Ivan Kalyayev, a member of the SR Combat Organization who killed the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Kalyayev said that an SR without a bomb was not an SR. In reality, however, the majority of SRs were not involved in terrorism, and they would have disagreed with Kalyayev’s statement. It can be argued that use of terrorist tactics dealt a huge blow to the Socialist Revolutionaries who wanted the party to be a grassroots socialist party, a party that could carry out the will of Russia’s “triune working class” (in which the SRs included the proletariat, the working peasantry, and the working intelligentsia), and a party that proposed an evolutionary and democratic path to progress. Essentially, the SRs were not terrorists, of course. They had more or less given up terrorism in 1911. What mattered politically was that they were able to propose a program, both agrarian and federalist, that excited the sympathies of millions of people. By the autumn of 1917, the Socialist Revolutionary Party had more than a million members, while the Bolsheviks had only 350,000 members. Most important, the SRs won the elections to the Constituent Assembly, taking 41% of the vote.

Эсеровский террор начала ХХ века: уничтоженная бомбой террориста карета министра внутренних дел Вячеслава Плеве, убитого 15 (28) июля 1904 года в Петербурге
SR terrorism in the early 20th century: the carriage of Interior Minister Vyacheslav Pleve, killed on July 15 (28), 1904, in St. Petersburg

So 1917 was the heyday for the SRs: they had a million members, and they won the elections to the Constituent Assembly. Why, ultimately, were they unable to take advantage of this? How did it happen that the SRs,  despite their popularity, ceded power to the Bolsheviks later as well, despite attempts to the contrary? What predetermined their failure?

There are two sets of causes, objective and subjective, meaning, the mistakes made by the SRs themselves. What I think is fundamentally important is that it is extremely difficult to campaign for democratic reforms while a world war is underway. The fact that the Revolution took place during the First World War considerably predetermined the entire subsequent course of events. What is a world war? On the one hand, it involves a collapse in living standards and a aggravation of all the contradictions that have been accumulating in society over decades. On the other hand, it involves millions of people getting used to killing other people. This causes quite serious psychological changes. Extreme cruelty is combined with societal expectations pushed to the limit. These expectations had amassed to such an extent that in 1917 very many people wanted everything right away. Say, workers were no longer satisfied they had trade unions that the selfsame socialists would meet halfway. The workers wanted more. They wanted control and management of the factories. Practically, the Mensheviks and SRs could not take this step, because it would have led to serious industrial management issues. And the peasants wanted the land right away.

Here we turn to the mistakes made by the Socialist Revolutionaries. It was wrong to delay the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. Rather, it was wrong to go along with the liberals in the Provisional Government, the Kadets, who tried to postpone the Constituent Assembly any way they could. The liberals realized the leftist parties were stronger. They would have an outright majority in the Constituent Assembly, and consequently the peasantry and proletariat would get much of what they had been demanding. So the Kadets postponed the Constituent Assembly. That was a big, serious mistake.

Did the subjective factor play a role in the fact that the SRs failed? Let’s take a closer look. On the one hand, they were a party who styled themselves as the party of “land and freedom.” They were supported by the peasants. On the other hand, most SR leaders were members of the urban intelligentsia, not the salt of the earth. Did this contradiction factor in the SR electoral victory, but one in which their supporters were unwilling to secure their political power?

It was a lot more interesting than that. The program for socializing land ownership, advocated by the SRs, did not fall out of the sky. It was the outcome of quite serious work on the part of Populist economists and sociologists. It was revenge, if you like, for the failure of the “going to the people” campaign of 1874. In the aftermath, Populist economists, sociologists, and statisticians undertook a serious study of how peasants really lived. Within twenty or thirty years, they had figured out how the Russian peasantry really lived and what it wanted. The SRs based their own land socialization program on this research. Moreover, the SRs tended not to act like typical Russian intelligentsia, who often preferred philosophizing and imposing their own values on others. The SRs always tried to maintain feedback from the peasantry. I came across a quite curious document, a survey of sorts, which the SR Central Committee sent out in 1906 or 1907 to their local organizations, who were supposed to conduct this sociological survey, which asked peasants about their attitudes towards the regime, the army, and the clergy, and what they thought about the land, and how it should be distributed and managed. So it was no wonder the Socialist Revolutionary Party and their program, crafted over many years and through the efforts of many people, were seen by the peasants as their party and their program. On the other hand, there was a fairly powerful peasant lobby in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The grassroots level of party activists and functionaries consisted of the so-called popular intelligentsia: physician’s assistants, schoolteachers, agronomists, surveyors, and foresters.

Один из самых известных эсеров, Борис Савинков, в юности. Фото из полицейского досье
One of the most prominent SRs, Boris Savinkov, in his youth. Photos from his police file

The problem was that the SRs did not fully take the peasantry’s interests into account in 1917. The revolutionary authorities were afraid to cede land to the peasants, because, on the one hand, the army’s quartermasters argued that the supply of provisions to the army would immediately collapse. On the other hand, there were fears that the rank-and-file soldiers, who were actually peasants dressed in greatcoats, would immediately desert the front and run home.  Later, at the party’s Fourth Congress, Yevgeniya Ratner, a member of the SR Central Committee, put it quite aptly. She said that for the war’s sake, for the front’s sake, they were forced into compromises with the bourgeois parties and thus were unable to defend the class interests of the peasantry and workers, and this was their huge guilt in the face of history. According to Ratner, they should have convoked the Constituent Assembly two or three month earlier, i.e., in August or September 1917, and set out to implement agrarian reforms. We should point out that some of the SRs had wanted to do this: Chernov, for example, insisted on it. There were ideas for forming a socialist government. In September 1917, the SR Central Committee was leaning towards this option.

By a socialist governmment, do you mean one that would have included all leftist parties, including the Bolsheviks?

There were two options. The first was the most leftist and quite adventuresome, or at least it seemed that way to the SRs themselves. It was proposed by Maria Spiridonova. She suggested the SRs should simply take power and form their own homogeneous SR government.

Meaning, they should have done what the Bolsheviks did finally?

It’s another matter that the Bolsheviks immediately set about tweaking their slogans and their actions. That is, they adopted the same slogans, but over time all of this was transformed into something else entirely. But getting back to the SRs, the majority of them wanted a coalition socialist government that would have included the Bolsheviks. At some point after October 1917, there were negotiations between the Bolsheviks and the socialist parties about forming such a government, but without Lenin and Trotsky. It was Lenin who in many ways destroyed this option. Was the formation of a socialist government a viable alternative if it had been agreed, say, in September? I think so. This would have been followed by elections to the Constituent Assembly, where the socialist parties obtained a majority. The SRs took the top spot, and the Bolsheviks won 25%, meaning they were the second largest faction. Clearly, they would have carried a lot of weight, but this course of events would, nevertheless, have made it possible to maintain a parliamentary democracy. Obviously, after a while, the SRs would have lost power in elections, as we see in Europe, where power swings back and forth between the right and the left. There was a chance then to set up a similar scheme for changing power through democratic procedures, via parliament. After all, the Constituent Assembly was highly regarded in society. It had been elected in the first genuinely free ballot in Russian history.

You have already touched a bit on the period after the Bolshevik coup. But let’s go back in time a bit. One of the key figures of 1917 was Alexander Kerensky. How did the other SRs regard him, and what role did he ultimately play in the party’s history?

It’s a very good question, but before answering it, I would like to voice a more general consideration. You just mentioned the “Bolshevik coup.” On the one hand, centrist and Right SRs used the term themselves. On the other hand, the Left SRs and anarchists would later come to favor the concept of a single Russian revolution that lasted from 1917 to 1921. That is, they saw it as a unified revolutionary process in which there was February and October, followed by the civil war. Currently, this is more or less how it is discussed. Those who rejected the concept argued that October 1917 was not a revolution on its own terms, because it did not involve a spontaneous popular movement. Until the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks themselves would also often speak of a coup, of their coup. But some of the SRs, Mark Vishnyak, for example, rightly noted, in my opinion, that the events of October 1917 could be interpreted as a sort of “staff revolution,” organized from above. It was a symbiosis of a revolutionary process with traits of a coup. When someone simply speaks of a coup, that is not entirely right, because there was definitely support from the workers and soldiers. Besides, the word “coup” itself suggests an analogy with Latin American-style military coups. Whatever the case, we must continue to make sense of those events conceptually.

What if we return to Kerensky?

The SR leadership definitely saw Kerensky as a fellow traveler, as the term was then. He had been in the SR movement during the Revolution of 1905–07. Elected as an MP to the State Duma, he tried to unite different Populist groups. On the other hand, some SRs might have simply envied him. Kerensky was one of the most popular people in Russia. Socialist Revolutionaries who had spent years fighting in the underground and building the party, wound up in the background, while he, who had declared himself an SR, was regarded by society in 1917 as the most important SR. Chernov had harsh things to say about Kerensky. According to Chernov, Kerensky played a quite negative role in the Socialist Revolutionary Party, because he had almost no contact with the SR leadership and did not follow the Central Committee’s instructions. The Right SRs and right-centrists supported Kerensky, while the Left SRs tried to break with him. At the party’s Third Congress, in May and June 1917, the Left SRs sabotaged Kerensky’s election to the party’s Central Committee.  He was rejected outright. It was a real slap in the face.

Александр Керенский, министр-председатель Временного правительства, стал в 1917 году символом демократической России и ее краха
Alexander Kerensky, chair of the Provisional Government, was a symbol of democratic Russia and its collapse in 1917.

What does that tell us? That, unlike the Bolsheviks, the SRs were not a leaderist party, remaining a more collectivist force?

Democrats are generally less inclined to leaderism, and this was fully borne out by the SRs. This does not mean there were no authoritarians among the SRs. It was another matter that the leaders had to adapt to the moods and ideas of the revolutionary milieu, to the subculture of the Russian revolutionary movement. The notions of decentralization, self-reliance, and independence fromthe leadership were quite strong in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Initially, they had a sort of collective leadership. At various times, it consisted of different people, usually three or four people. Plus, we have to speak here of three or four generations of SRs. The first generation had been been members of the People’s Will, while the last generation joined the party in 1923–24. Meaning, we are looking at a fairly complicated picture. But generally, yes, there was no single leader. Many historians and contemporaries were of the opinion this was a cause of the failure of the SRs in 1917. Chernov argued that if Gots and Grigory Gershuni had still been alive, the three of them could have led the party in 1917. Gershuni was highly charismatic, even more charismatic than Lenin, and perhaps he would have had a chance to keep the party under control. On the one hand, there is a certain point to these hypotheses, but we have to consider the weakness and division existing within the party at the time of the revolution, in particular, the strong differences between the SRs on the issue of the war. Very many people regarded Chernov as a good theorist, but not as a leader and organizer. However, he had the outstanding ability to reconcile different points of view, and he played a unifying role. His opponents dubbed him the “universal bandage.”

Let’s try and sum up. Should we regard the SRs as a failed historical alternative to Bolshevism? Or, given their looseness and perennial internal division, did the SRs nevertheless lack the strength, ideas, and people to lay claim to a truly great historical role?

I think that victory in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, in which they received a plurality and, in fact, adopted the first two laws, including the law socializing land ownership, were in fact the beginnings of a democratic alternative, an SR alternative. Would they have been able to lead the country down this road? I support the viewpoint of my German colleague Manfred Hildermeier, who as early as 1992 wrote in an article that, since one of Russian’s main problems was the huge gap between city and country, the SRs were well suited to play the role of a party voicing the interests of the peasantry, proletariat, and intelligentsia. I would also add we should not exaggerate the extreme peasantness of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. If you look at their program, you see they attempted to unite a European conception of socialism with certain nativist ideas. They argued that the peasantry’s skull was no worse than the skulls of the proletariat and intelligentsia, and was quite capable of taking the ideas of socialism on board. It was one of the first attempts in the world to fuse European values and ideas of modernization with the values of a traditional society, to merge a significant part of the Russian peasantry into the new society as painlessly as possible. The SRs assumed that for many decades to come progress would follow the bourgeois path and there would be a market economy: socialism would not soon emerge. In this sense, they were evolutionists. They were essentially the first to propose an idea that is currently quite fashionable around the world, the idea of peripheral capitalism, according to which capitalism in developed countries and capitalism in second-tier and third-tier countries are completely different things. In peripheral capitalist countries, including Russia, capitalism shows it most predatory features and is the most destructive.

Мария Спиридонова, будущий лидер левых эсеров, в юные годы
Maria Spiridonova, future leader of the Left SRs, in her youth

The SRs also argued the Russian people were definitely capable of adapting to democracy. Moreover, they thought that the Russian traditions of liberty and community self-government afforded an opportunity for magnificent democratic progress as such. The SRs wanted to unlock the people’s democratic collectivist potential. By the way, they did not idealize the peasant commune, arguing it had to be transformed, of course. They counted on the cooperative movement, which had progressed quite powerfully in early twentieth-century Russia. It was entirely under the ideological leadership of the SRs. They believed it was necessary to rely on the working peasant economy. It would then be possible to modernize the country and eventually follow a socialist path. The main thing was that despite a certain utopianism to their views, the SRs were capable of evolving, of course. Another important thing was that the SRs, more than the other parties, were capable of acting as a venue for reconciling different interests. This is basically the road European social democracy took. However, the party’s looseness and internal conflicts were important features of its history. I think that sooner or later the Socialist Revolutionary Part would definitely have split into several parties. If we speak of the SRs as a democratic alternative, then the Maximalists and Left SRs do not fit this bill. Unlike the other SRs, they cannot be considered adherents of democratic socialism. By the way, the SRs and Mensheviks used this term quite vigorously from the 1920s onwards. Later, in the mid twentieth century, the European socialist parties would also speak of democratic socialist values. From this perspective, some SRs and Mensheviks were, undoubtedly, adherents of democratic socialism, which gave rise to the Socialist International.

********

The demise of the Socialist Revolutionary Party was tragic. During the Russian Civil War, the SRs finally split. The Right SRs were involved in the anti-Bolshevik movement, while the Left SRs tended to collaborate with the Bolsheviks. In the summer of 1918, however, finally convinced that Lenin and his entourage were taking Russia down the road to dictatorship, the Left SRs undertook a failed attempt to overthrow “commissarocracy,” their term for the Communist regime. In the 1920s, the party was finally finished off. In the summer of 1922, twelve SR leaders were sentenced to death at a special trial. The executions, however, were postponed, turning the convicts into hostages in case the remnants of the Socialist Revolutionary Party decided to return to its terrorist methods, now against the Communist regime. One SR leader, Yevgeniya Ratner, was held in prison with her young son, causing her to complain to Dzerzhinsky. Subsequently, their death sentences were commuted to various terms of imprisonment and exile. Most prominent SRs who stayed in Russia were victims of the Stalinist crackdowns. Several former SRs, including Maria Spiridonova and her husband Ilya Mayorov, were among those massacred in the Medvedev Forest, outside Orlyov, in September 1941.

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

Terrorism in Petersburg: Then and Now

St. Petersburg Gets a Taste of Terrorism
Vladimir Alexandrov
Kommersant Daily
December 20, 1996

A bomb exploded in the Petersburg subway in the early hours of December 19. By a lucky chance, there were no victims. This was the first terrorist attack in Petersburg [sic].* Until the incident, law enforcement had either received false bomb threats or had found the bombs in time. FSB officers, who have joined the investigation, have not yet put forward any more or less convincing explanations of what happened.

The hands on the clock in the driver’s cab showed 12:10 a.m. when he felt the train tremble violently. (It was then traveling between Ploshchad Lenina and Vyborgskaya stations, on the Kirovsky Zavod-Vyborgskaya Line).

“At first, I thought one of the junction boxes in the train’s pneumatic system had exploded, but several seconds later, I realized something unpredictable had happened,” he said.

The steering system was compromised. The emergency sensors lighted up.  The driver immediately reported the incident to the duty officer at the station, and he contacted the police.

In fact, an explosive device had gone off in the train’s second car. There were two passengers in the car at the time, one of whom was deafened by the blast wave. His face and hands were injured by shards of glass.

Despite the fact the energy supply system was malfunctioning, the train rolled into Vyborgskaya station under its own momentum. The wounded man received first aid. Because he had trouble speaking and was quite disoriented, he was almost immediately taken to hospital. The second passenger, a woman, disappeared from the scene for reasons as yet unknown.

An FSB investigative team soon arrived. They inspected the car. It was an awful sight. The bomb had torn apart the car’s insides. The windows had been knocked out, the doors torn from their grooves, and the seats and upholstery ripped apart. The windows had been blown out in adjacent cars as well.

The damaged train was moved onto a storage track, near the Ploshchad Lenina subway station, where there used to be a depot.

The outcome of the forensic investigation was made public only yesterday. Judging by the blast pattern, an explosive device with no casing was placed in the subway car. It contained approximately 400 grams of TNT. The mechanism used to ignite the explosives has not yet been identified.

“It was our good fortune that there were few people on the train at the time of the attack [according to some sources, there were sixteen — Kommersant]. Otherwise, the consequences of the explosion would have been difficult to foresee,” said an FSB spokesman.

The motives and the people who carried out the attack are also still unknown. According to a few witnesses, when the train was stopped at Ploshchad Lenina, several young men dashed out of the car where the explosion would later occur, but no has yet linked the subsequent events with these men. Nevertheless, they are being actively sought by police.

Traffic on the stretch of track between Ploshchad Lenina and Vyborgskaya was restored by early morning on December 19 because the tunnel had suffered almost no damage. Diagnostic work on the tracks and cable conduits will continue tonight, however.

Nearly all police units in St. Petersburg have been on alert since the attack. Security at all subway stations, on public transport, and at other vital sites in the city has been increased. The FSB has established a special task force to investigate the crime.

Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev was informed about the incident half an hour after the explosion. According to him, it was hardly connected with events in Chechnya. Mentioning recent similar events in different countries, the governor suggested that “terrorism has, apparently, simply become a profitable business.”

This is the first terrorist attack in St. Petersburg in the last three months, although the police constantly receive anonymous bomb threats. (The callers usually claim the bombs have been planted in schools.) The last time police received an anonymous message about a bomb in the subway was in early October of this years. Traffic on the Moskovskaya-Petrogradskaya Line was halted for ten minutes due to the threat.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Norsu for the invaluable heads-up and having a good memory.

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wanted the alleged bomber
Social network users were quick to join the exciting hunt for the “alleged bomber,” especially because the screenshot image disseminated by local media evoked every radicalized Islamophobe’s wet dream of a “Muslim terrorist.”

Man Named as Suspect in Subway Explosion Turns Himself over to Police
Inna Sidorkova and Vladimir Gordeev
RBC
April 3, 2017

A man resembling the man in a photograph whom the media had identified as a suspect in the terrorist attack in the subway has produced himself at a Petersburg police precinct.

“He saw himself on TV, got scared, and came to the police himself,” said RBC’s source in law enforcement. According to him, the man had nothing to do with the terrorist attack.

Earlier, REN TV and online newspaper Fontanka.ru had published a screenshot of a recording made by a CCTV camera. The image showed a man who, allegedly, had carried out the terrorist attack. The still showed a tall, bearded man dressed in black.

Later, Channel Five published the photograph of a second suspect in the terrorist attack.

alleged suspect
The “alleged terrorist” looks very much like a Russian Orthodox priest or seminary student. Photo courtesy of RBC and their sources in law enforcement**

** UPDATE (5 April 2017). His real name is Andrei (Ilyas) Nikitin, and here is the touching story of how this totally innocent man got booted off a plane in Moscow because Islamophobic, panick-mongering Russian media and social media users had already dragged him through the mud and labeled him a “terrorist.”

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Execution of the five Pervomartovtsy, April 13, 1881. Source: Wikipedia

*Pervomartovtsy (Russian: Первома́ртовцы; a compound term literally meaning those of March 1) were the Russian revolutionaries, members of Narodnaya Volya [The People’s Will] who planned and carried out the assassination of Alexander II (March 1, 1881), and attempted to assassinate Alexander III (March 1, 1887, also known as “The Second First of March”).

The 1881 assassination was planned by Narodnaya Volya’s Executive Committee. Andrei Zhelyabov was the main organizer. After his arrest on February 27, he was replaced by Sofia Perovskaya.

Alexander II was killed on March 1, 1881, by a bomb thrown by Ignacy Hryniewiecki. Hryniewiecki wounded himself fatally in the assassination; Nikolai Sablin committed suicide. The conspirators—Zhelyabov, Perovskaya, Nikolai Kibalchich, Gesya Gelfman, Timofei Mikhailov, and Nikolai Rysakov—were tried by a Special Tribunal of the Ruling Senate on March 26–29 and sentenced to death by hanging. On April 3, 1881, five Pervomartovtsy were hanged, except for Gelfman, whose execution was postponed due to her pregnancy. Her execution was later commuted to indefinite penal servitude. She nevertheless died in prison of post-natal complications.

The second “First of March” was planned by members of the so-called Terrorist Faction of Narodnaya Volya, including [Vladimir Lenin’s older brother] Alexander Ulyanov. On March 1, 1887, they went to St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect with bombs and waited for the Tsar’s carriage to pass by. However, they were arrested on the spot before his arrival. All fifteen conspirators, including Alexander Ulyanov and Pyotr Shevyryov (the main organizers), Pakhomy Andreyushkin, Vasily Generalov and Vasily Osipanov (the bombthrowers), and ten other people were tried by a Special Senate Committee on April 15–19 and sentenced. The first five men were hanged on May 8, 1887, while the rest were sentenced to prison, exile or penal servitude.

Source: Wikipedia. The article has been edited lightly to make it more readable. TRR

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A 1988 map of downtown Leningrad, showing Zhelyabova and Perovskya Streets (inside the red oval). The streets were renamed in memory of the People’s Will terrorists in October 1918. The streets reverted to their pre-Revolutionary names (Bolshaya and Malaya Konyushennaya Streets) only in October 1991. (Image courtesy of retromap.ru.)

Yet streets named in memory of their fellow People’s Will terrorists Alexander Ulanov and Nikolai Kibalchich are still firmly in place on the grid of post-Soviet Petersburg to this day.

Alexander Ulyanov Street, in Petersburg’s Okhta neighborhood
Kibalchich Street, in Petersburg’s southern Frunze District

“Hysterical Russophobia”

Nikolai Davydov, successful Russian immigrant Silicon Valley businessman whose life has (not) been ruined by “hysterical Russophobia.” Image courtesy of RBC

Yet another victim of the “hysterical Russophobia” sweeping the US and Europe has been identified.

“The subjects of the new issue of RBC Magazine aren’t afraid of risks: they conceive their own projects and invest in unusual sectors of business. Nikolai Davydov, RBC’s Investor of the Year, left for the US with $100 in his pocket, but now he lives in a house on the California coastline.”

If “hysterical Russophobia” were a real thing, instead of a talking point for crypto-Putinists and just plain Russians who don’t know how to explain to their non-Russian neighbors why their homeland has become so “odd” in the past several years, you would have heard about Russian immigrants to the EU and US suffering the same main violence and putrid discrimination that Muslim, Asian, and African immigrants and asylum seekers suffer there, not to mention the relentless violence and staggering discrimination suffered by such absolutely 100% native Americans as Aboriginal Americans (i.e., Native Americans), African Americans, and Hispanic Americans in a land their peoples have been inhabiting from several centuries to several thousands of years.

But no, you never hear of such violence and discrimination against Russian immigrants, and the fact there is no such violence and discrimination against Russians (at least, not enough to show up on anyone’s radars) is a good thing, of course.

It does, however make you wonder what exactly this “hysterical Russophobia” is that has so many tongues wagging, but has absolutely no negative effect on the ability of actual, individual Russians to lead happy, productive, and violence- and discrimination-free lives in the countries where they have chosen to settle.

That’s an easy riddle to solve, however. “Hysterical Russophobia” is a non-phenomenon invented by a motley coalition of people with various political axes to grind, including sections of the mostly hilarious current western left, who for some reason have not heard the news about what has been happening in the Socialist Motherland the last twenty-five years or so or feign not to have heard it. They’re still defending Russia long after it became the world center of the blackest social and political reaction. That is, they’re defending a corrupt, oligarchic capitalist tyranny.

Why actual Russian immigrants might feel defensive about the old homeland is understandable, but they should figure out what’s worth defending and what’s not. The Putin regime, for example, literally has no redeeming features whatsoever, as a perusal of this blog, for example, and its predecessor, Chtodelat News, should persuade you, although there are thousands and millions of more credible sources of information out there that are even more persuasive than my occasional, half-baked efforts to knock some sense into your heads.

People who nevertheless hotly defend the Putin regime, wherever they’re from, immediately strike me as suspicious or hopelessly naive. And I’m not alone.

“10,000 articles in the left press about anti-Russian hysteria. They would have more impact if they ever acknowledged that this fucking bastard Putin is building a worldwide ultraright movement. Diana Johnstone told Counterpunch readers that Marine Le Pen was on the left, so you can understand how this sort of Red-Brown thing has been gestating for quite some time.” (Louis Proyect, as quoted by Raiko Aasa yesterday on Facebook)

And here is “hysterical Russophobia” at its most sinister!

‘Delfinov and Vrubel are part of a growing community of Russian artists, poets, writers and intellectuals who have turned Berlin into one of the most vibrant outposts of Slavic culture, a kind of Moscow-on-Spree that is light years away from the repressive world of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Delfinov, who moved to Berlin in 2001, says the influx has accelerated in the past five years, a period when Russians’ hopes of democratic change evaporated. Many of them quit the country after Putin returned in 2012 for a third term as president and veered sharply to the right, espousing a new nationalist rhetoric, clamping down on dissent and annexing Crimea. Official figures show there are now 22,000 Russian expats living in Berlin, up 6 per cent on 2015. “They are people who saw no future for themselves in Russia,” says Delfinov. “Middle-class people who just wanted to breathe.”’

Well, you’ve probably guessed I’m just being facetious.

I think it’s great that Russians can go anywhere and make new, happy, productive lives for themselves. It should be that way for everyone, of course. No one is illegal, and all that.

Yet, simultaneously, the Russian government has been working overtime over the last year to exacerbate the Syrian refugee crisis. But you’d be hard pressed to hear any of the nattily dressed émigrés, described in the Financial Times article, quoted above, or their countrymen saying anything whatsoever about that nasty business and their country’s role in it. Mum’s the word, I’ve got my life to live, and all that.

However, a fair number of Russians, in my experience (and not only mine), have had lots to say, paradoxically, about Germany and other European countries being “overrun” by refugees from Syria and other war zones. It turns out these “black” unfortunates, who come from completely other galaxies, apparently, don’t have the same right so seek a safe place to live and work in Berlin, Paris, London et al., as the now-“white” (as opposed to White) Russians do.

Isn’t that funny? TRR

Bhaskar Sunkara: “You Say East Ukraine, I Say West Russia”

Has Bhaskar Sunkara ever been to “West Russia”?

west-russia

Source: Facebook

bhaskartwitter-660x440
Bhaskar Sunkara. Photo courtesy of Magculture

Bhaskar Sunkara (born June 20, 1989) is an American political writer, editor and publisher of Jacobin magazine.

The son of immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago, Sunkara described Jacobin as a radical publication, “largely the product of a younger generation not quite as tied to the Cold War paradigms that sustained the old leftist intellectual milieus like Dissent or New Politics.”

The New York Times interviewed Sunkara in January 2013, commenting on Jacobin’s unexpected success and engagement with mainstream liberalism. In late 2014, he was interviewed by New Left Review on the political orientation and future trajectory of the publication and in March 2016 was featured in a lengthy Vox profile.

Sunkara writes for Vice magazine, Washington Post and The Nation, among other outlets. He has appeared on the PBS Tavis Smiley program, MSNBC’s Up w/ Chris Hayes and the FX show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.

Source: Wikipedia

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Residents in eastern Ukraine face worst fighting in years in war with Russian-backed separatists
Sabra Ayres
Los Angeles Times
February 15, 2017

The news reached Mariupol Mayor Vadim Boychenko via a morning phone call from an assistant: A rocket attack damaged 11 houses on the outskirts of the Ukrainian city.

There were no casualties, but a major concern had become a reality: The escalation of fighting elsewhere in the nation in recent weeks had reached the industrial city, a key component in southeast Ukraine’s struggling economy.

“We’ve gotten used to a peaceful life,” Boychenko said during a recent interview at his office. “I really don’t want to return to the problems we had started to forget.”

Ukraine’s nearly three-year battle against Kremlin-backed separatists in the east erupted into the worst fighting in two years in late January. Exactly why the fighting intensified recently remains unclear, though such encounters have occurred with some frequency during unrest that included Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

The small city of Avdiivka, 90 miles north of Mariupol, became the epicenter of the recent violence. The fighting quickly spread along a 300-mile line separating the Ukrainian government-controlled lands and those claimed by separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Mariupol had seen only sporadic fighting over the last two years, primarily in the region’s eastern villages. But as news trickled in about the bombardment of Avdiivka, Mariupol began again hearing the deep rumble of explosions and heavy artillery fire less than 10 miles away.

The fighting halted vital shipments from Avdiivka’s coal processing plant to Mariupol’s massive iron and steel works plants, jeopardizing production at one of the region’s biggest employers.

Many local residents said they feared the renewed violence could quash the growing sense of confidence in Mariupol after nearly two years of relative stability.

One concern in the region is that President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin could strike a deal that would lift U.S. sanctions on Russia or force Ukraine to make painful compromises with Moscow. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has urged Western leaders to keep sanctions in place.

“Sanctions are the only way to get Putin to the table,” he said last week in an interview with journalists and academics in Kiev, the capital.

Nationally, there is little faith in the Minsk agreements, a road map to peace brokered in 2014 by European leaders between Ukraine, the Kremlin and the separatist rebel leaders. Poroshenko maintains that Ukraine is committed to its obligations to the agreements.

“Minsk is my plan. Putin accepted it. His signature is there,” he said.

Mariupol has gone through a noticeable transformation since war erupted in eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014. Once the epitome of a run-down, Soviet industrial port city with two massive metallurgy plants puffing out pollution day and night, Mariupol in the last two years has emerged as a center of civic activism in Ukraine’s southeastern battlefront.

The city was the center of several violent outbreaks in spring 2014, when Ukrainian forces and supporters of the pro-Russian separatist groups fought gun battles in the downtown streets. The charred former police headquarters and city council buildings still stand as reminders. On Jan. 24, 2015, a missile attack hit an eastern region of Mariupol dense with Soviet-era concrete housing blocks, killing at least 30 people.

The previously politically passive, mostly Russian-speaking city created community groups that mobilized to gather whatever money they could to buy medical kits, food, and flak jackets and helmets for Ukraine’s ill-prepared military. The fighting displaced 1.75 million eastern Ukrainians, but locals opened their homes and about 56,000 newcomers settled in Mariupol.

“We don’t call them refugees anymore,” Boychenko said. “They are ‘new Mariupolites’ and have already become part of our city.”

Once-thriving Donetsk is now occupied by rebel forces, so Mariupol, the largest city in the Donetsk region under Ukrainian control, became the de facto cultural hub of the eastern industrial area along the Don River basin, known as the Donbas.

Displaced activists from Donetsk opened an avant-garde theater and creative space that has hosted some of the country’s big names in modern talent.

Small businesses — grocery stores, small restaurants and mom-and-pop shops — whose owners fled the fighting returned, and new cafes have opened. Ukraine’s most popular music group, Okean Elzy, gave a free concert in May attended by more than 30,000 people.

“We’ve been working all year to create a positive mood in the city,” Boychenko said.

Alex Ryabchyn, a deputy in Ukraine’s parliament who was born in Mariupol, said the city is in the early stages of reinvention.

“The population is starting to think of themselves as being the center of southeastern Ukraine. That’s new, “ said Ryabchyn,  who was an economics professor in Donetsk State University before fleeing to Kiev after the pro-Russia rebel takeover.

Mariupol faces major challenges, particularly in the economic sphere. Ukraine’s economy has been battered since protests ousted a Moscow-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovich in 2014. The war ripped apart the country’s coal mining and steel processing industry, destroying many plants and severely curtailing production in those that survived.

The aging steel plants need modernization and the economy needs diversification to revitalize the region. Highways linking Mariupol to other cities are so bad that drivers are forced to reroute to avoid the worst sections. Train rides from Kiev to Mariupol, about 500 miles, take 18 hours, and the airport cannot accept commercial flights because of its location near the front lines of fighting.

Mariupol can feel like an isolated peninsula in Ukraine, an image many hoped was changing.

“You can see why [an increase in fighting] is a problem,” Irina Chirkova, 24, a waitress in Mariupol, said as a series of explosions pierced the cold air. “We have a lot of potential here — a big port, an airport and nice beaches. But our infrastructure needs investment, and who is going to invest in us now with this war?”