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

Yekaterina Schulmann
Compulsory Love
InLiberty
July 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Name of Russia: Joseph Stalin, Rossiya TV, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How can people in Russia love Stalin?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Cancel the Party and Call It a Night

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

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

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

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

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

Translation Exercise

Since none of what follows, which I’ve excerpted from RBC‘s Facebook newsfeed just seconds ago, makes any sense in Russian, I’m translating it by way of beefing up my “transsense” (Zaum) chops. You never know when they’ll come in handy. Truth be told, they come in handy way too often. TRR

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В Совете Федерации планируют создать комиссию, которая займется мониторингом враждебной активности иностранных государств.

Таким образом Совет Федерации хочет «продемонстрировать не просто лояльность президенту, но и свою вписанность в патриотические тренды», говорит политолог.

 

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RBC

16 mins

The Federation Council plans to form a commission to monitor the hostile actions of foreign states.

The Federation Council thus wants “to display not just its loyalty to the president but also its conformity with patriotic trends,” says a political scientist.

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Federation Council Decides to Combat Hostile Actions

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Translation and second photo by the Russian Reader

The Russian Economic Miracle of 2017

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“Pilling from 499 rubles. Ultrasound cleaning from 599 rubles.” Photo by TRR

More Than Five Million Russians Have Trouble Paying Back Loans
Takie Dela
May 30, 2017

Around five and half million Russians have trouble servicing their debts. Their debut burden is more than 60% of their income, reports Gazeta.ru, quoting a statement by Vladimir Shikin, deputy marketing director at the National Credit History Bureau.

According to experts, this figure is regarded as a critical indicator. Among the main reasons for arrears are the unreliability of borrowers and the lack of means to finance current debts.

Residents of the Kemerovo, Tyumen, and Novosibirsk Regions are the most indebted. According to the National Credit History Bureau, three million people cannot make payments on loans, which is 8% of all borrowers. Their current debt load exceeds half of their monthly incomes.

According to Shikin, the share of overdue loans remains at 16%, even as the number of new loans grows. The majority of Russian borrowers have several loans, and the average economically active Russian owes creditors 146,000 rubles [approx. 2,300 euros].

Meanwhile, research done by RANEPA shows that the debt burden of Russians is not critical. As Natalya Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank, stressed, the debt of Russians is estimated at 12% of GDP.

“In developed countries, debt is 60% to 80% of GDP, so the market has potential for growth,” emphasized Orlova. However, she argues that Russia issues a relatively small percentage of mortgages, whereas in developed countries, mortgages account for nearly 90% of all loans.

Experts hope that the debt burden of Russians will not rise greatly. After the 2014–2015 crisis, banks were more way about issuing loans, so the debut burden of Russians will fall. In the near future, banks will be even more cautious. In particular, the Central Bank has planned to consolidate the data of major of credit history bureaus in a single data base to combat indebtedness.

Earlier, the United Credit reported that half of Russian borrowers had been applying for new loans to pay off old loans. According to its figures, 45 million Russians with old loans had taken new loans in banks. Over half of them had done this to pay off old loans.

The analysis shows that 53% of borrowers had taken new loans in cash to partially or fully pay off already existing loans. 27% of the borrowers had spent more than half of the new loans on paying debts.

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Almost 60% of Russians Admit They Have No Savings
Takie Dela
May 29, 2017

Around 59% of Russian families have no savings, reports Rambler News Service, citing a report from the polling and market research firm inFOM.

According to a survey commissioned by the Central Bank, the figure has remained stable [sic] the last three months. In December 2016, 64% of those surveyed had no savings.

Yet a quarter of Russians believe that now is a good time to save money, while 44% hold the opposite opinion. According to experts, the tendency to save has grown noticeably since the beginning of the year. In February, fewer than 17% of respondents answered the question positively.

The majority of respondents replied that spare cash should be saved or put away for a rainy day, while a third of Russians would spend the money on expensive, major purchases.

The poll showed that 40% of respondents prefer to keep their savings in a bank account, 26%, in case, and 20%, partly in a bank, and partly in cash.

Two thousand respondents, aged eighteen and older, from fifty-five regions of Russia were involved in the survey.

According to research by RANEPA, the share of Russians who save money dropped by a third in 2016, from 55% to 40%. Moreover, in March, 40% of Russians claimed they had only enough money for food.

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VTsIOM: 67% of Russians Skimped on Groceries during the Past Year 
Takie Dela
May 30, 2017

During the past year, 67% of Russian skimped on groceries in one way or another; 27% of them in a substantial way. Pensioners and residents of big cities had to skimp most of all. These figures were reported by pollsters VTsIOM.

The survey dealt with Russians’ attitudes to government regulation of the food market. 82% of respondents were against the idea of limiting supermarket opening hours on weekdays and weekends. According to 68% of them, if the government decided to do this, it would cause a number of problems. It would be hard to buy groceries in the evenings, and the selection would be reduced. Nearly 40% believed that limiting competition would generate price rises in small shops and produce markets.

Only 15% of Russians favored limiting competition, mostly pensioners aged sixty and older. When replying about what they thought about regulating prices for basic foodstuffs as a way of supporting the poor, Russians were divided in their opinions. Exactly half of them said such restrictions were ineffective, while 32% supported a combination of government and market measures, while 14% believed the government should solve the problem.

The VTsIOM survey showed that Russians were concerned about the government’s restricting prices for basic products. 55% said it would lead to the closure of stores, while 28% said it would lead to shortages, price gouging, and disruption of supplies. However, a quarter of respondents believed that prices would subsequently drop, and life would improve.

Russians see the government’s key role in regulating the produce market in support for domestic producers and developing farming, as well as in quality control. However, according to Yulia Baskakova, head of social modeling and forecasting at VTsIOM, “While worrying with all their heart for domestic producers, supporting improved food quality, and supporting the development of farming, Russians are not willing to sacrifice their comfort and put up with a reduction of the range of goods to which they are accustomed and its becoming less available. The survey showed that 88% of Russians are not willing to put up with a drop in their quality of lives to reduce the price of essential foodstuffs.”

The poll was occasioned by a suggestion, made by Federation Council member Sergei Lisovsky, that regional authorities could decide how large store chains should operate. Lisovky also suggested prohibiting supermarkets from opening at nights and on Sundays, and permitting them to work on Saturdays only until four o’clock in the afternoon. Lisovsky has argued that such measures would support small business and promote small-scale trade.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader. Faithful readers might wonder why I have cited Russian opinion polls at such length after making a big effort, over the past couple of years to show that this pollocracy, while real enough as a practice, does not tell us much or anything at all about what actual Russians thinking or are planning to do.  I have made an exception in this case, however, because I think the three news items, above, show, between the lines, as it were, what really afflicts the Russian economy, and how the feigned populism of the political/economic elite rears its head, quite often in fact, to suggest impracticable solutions to the knotty problems their own mammoth corruption and instinctive hatred of small business and independent individuals generates the dead end they claim to want to alleviate by, among other thing, commissioning one “public opinion poll” after another while stubbornly failing to notice that their enthusiastic terrorizing of Krasnodar farmers, independent truckers, and Moscow street vendors show they have no interest whatsoever in small business, much less reducing the prices of basic foodstuffs for pensioners. The only thing that interests them is getting richer and making their power untouchable. TRR

Nikolay Mitrokhin: God-Given “Extremists”

God-Given “Extremists”
Nikolay Mitrokhin
Takie Dela
April 26, 2017

I met Jehovah’s Witnesses in the mid 1990s in the former Soviet Central Asian republics. I was researching the region’s religious life. When I arrived at each regional capital, I would survey all the prominent communities in turn. The Witnesses were different in one respect from other western-inspired Christian communities. There were lots of them and they were everywhere.

Like now, many were certain back then the Witnesses were a product of the perestroika era’s freedoms. This, however, was not the case. The Witnesses were a legacy of the Soviet Union.

An American Salesman’s Religion

The Witnesses are a typical American eschatological religious group. Put crudely, they believe the world will end soon, during their lifetimes. They believe in one God, Jehovah, a name used during Christianity’s first century. On Judgment Day, Jehovah will destroy sinners and save the elect. The Witnesses reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit). They do not consider Christ God, but they revere him. The day of his death is the only holiday they celebrate.

“A History of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia,” a display in the museum at the Administrative Center of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, located in Solnechnoye, a suburb of St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Alexander Demyanchuk/TASS

A completely and regularly revised theology has produced a set of permissions and prohibitions aimed at maintaining the way of life and behavior of a decent traveling salesman from the lower middle classes.

The Witnesses are allowed the moderate use of alcohol (immoderate use is cause for expulsion) and the use of contraceptives. Premarital sex and smoking are forbidden. The Witnesses must not “rend to Caesar what is Caesar’s”: they are forbidden from being involved in elections, engaging in politics, honoring state symbols, and serving in the army. They are most roundly criticized by outsiders for forbidding blood transfusions and organ transplants. The Witnesses suddenly had something to say when the AIDS epidemic kicked off. They support blood substitutes.

Something like family monasteries—”administrative centers”—have been organized for the most ardent followers. The schedule in the centers is strict, but the conditions are relatively comfortable. The Witnesses can live and work in them, practically for free, for as little as a year or as along as their entire lives.

Waiting for the world’s imminent end is an occupation common to many religious groups, from Russian Old Believers to the Mayan Indians. Such groups isolate themselves from a sinful world, some by retreating into the wilderness, others, by restricting their contact with outsiders.

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The cover of a 1928 Russian-language edition of The Watchtower. When the Russian edition was founded in 1925, it was originally entitled The Guard Tower, but in 1964 the name was changed to The Watchtower. Photo courtesy of Boris Alexeyevich/Wikipedia

The Witnesses differ from similar movements in terms of how they disseminate and maintain their doctrine. The method is based on the commercial practice of distributing magazines in the nineteenth century. Essentially, the entire organization meets twice weekly to read its main journal, The Watchtower, which is produced by church elders in Brooklyn and then translated and disseminated in dozens of languages. Members pay a nominal fee for subscribing to and reading the journal, fees that are scrupulously collected and sent along the chain: from local groups to the regional office, then to the national headquarter and, finally, to the head office in Brooklyn. Free distribution of the magazine and going door to door asking people whether they want to talk about God are aimed at the same thing: increasing the audience who subscribes to and collectively reads the magazine.

Ninety-five percent of today’s public find these religious activities strange and ridiculous, although from a sociological viewpoint they barely differ from going to political party meetings, networked sales of cosmetics, visiting sports clubs, getting a tattoo, the Russian Healthy Lifestyle Movement (ZOZh) or stamp collecting.

If you believe the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own figures, they operate in 240 countries, which is more than belong to the UN.  At the same time, the organization is numerically quite compact, albeit growing rapidly. It has a total of 8.3 million members.

A Religion for Soviet Individuals

The story of how the Witnesses took root in the Soviet Union has been well told in a book published three years ago by Emily Baran, Dissent on the Margins: How Soviet Jehovah’s Witnesses Defied Communism and Lived to Preach About It. Polish and Romanian peasants and market traders adopted the doctrine of the Witnesses at the turn of the 1920s and 1930s, and before the war they unexpectedly were made Soviet citizens when the Soviet Union occupied parts of Poland and Romania.

The Soviet authorities did not tolerate large groups who maintained constant links with foreign countries, so it decided to send the core group of Witnesses, five thousand people, to Siberia. A considerable number were sent to the camps, while the rest were exiled. The crackdown was a misfortune for the victims, but it was a godsend for the exotic doctrine.

The Moscow Jehovah’s Witness community worshiping at the velodrome in the city’s Krylatskoye District, 2000. Photo courtesy of Alexander Fomin/PhotoXPress.ru

As early as the 1950s, the largest communities of Witnesses had emerged in the main place of exile, Irkutsk Region. In the 2000s, the official websites of Irkutsk Region and the neighboring Republic of Buryatia claimed the Jehovah’s Witnesses were a traditional religious community in the region. Irkipedia provides the following figures for 2011: “Around 5,500 people in Irkutsk Region are members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization. Around 50 of their assemblies operate in Irkutsk Region, each of them featuring 80 to 150 members. The assemblies are united into three districts: Usolye-Sibirskoye, Irkutsk, and Bratsk.”

The camps proved a suitable place for proselytizing, the radically minded youth, especially Ukrainian speakers, eager listeners, and the half-baked amnesty of political prisoners, an excellent means of disseminating the doctrine nationwide. As early as the late 1950s, all over northern Kazakhstan, former members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), who were banned from returning home, and former Russian criminals, who had taken jobs as farm machinery operators and welders, were digging dugouts in the steppes to hide DIY printing presses for printing The Watchtower.

Why did peasants, traders, brawny lads from the working classes, graduates of provincial technical schools, mothers of large families, and pensioners need to become Jehovah’s Witnesses? I have the same explanation as the preachers do: to radically change their selves and their lifestyles. The everyday frustrations of ordinary people, their perpetually predetermined lives, and their uselessness to anyone outside their narrow family circle (in which there is so often so little happiness) are things that torment many people. Prescriptions for effectively transfiguring oneself are always popular. However, they usually don’t work, because it is hard to stick to the program.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Minsk, 2015. Photo courtesy of Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters/Pixstream

Like other religious groups, the Witnesses offer their members a disciplinary model for joint action. You can sit at home, chewing through your miserly pension, and watching TV, or you can feel like a “pioneer” again (the title given to missionaries who proselytize on the streets and door to door), do the right thing, hang out with other enthusiastic people like yourself, and make friends with young people. You are a young bricklayer. You are facing a lifetime of laying bricks, but your soul yearns for change and career growth. After spending six months in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, our bricklayer might be leading a grassroots group, and two years later he might have made a decent career in the organization. His wife is satisfied. Her husband doesn’t drink, their circle of friends has expanded, and during holidays the whole family can go visit other Witnesses in other parts of Russia. The children grown up in a circle of fellow believers with a sense of their own uniqueness. Free evenings are spent on the work of the organization, but that is better than drunken quarrels, and better than what most “ordinary” Soviet and post-Soviet folks are up to in the evenings.

Wholehearted Atheists

In 2006, I interviewed Vladimir Saprykin, a former employee of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee’s Propaganda Department. His career had kicked off with a vigorous campaign against the Witnesses in Karaganda Region. I was able to get a glimpse into a period when the Party was on the warpath against the Witnesses. In the early 1960s, literally hundreds of people were sent to the camps as part of the campaign against religion per se.

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The Jehovah’s Witness Congress Hall in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of PhotoXPress

Saprykin had campaigned against the Witnesses wholeheartedly and passionately, and that passion still burned in him fifty years after the events in question. He had dreamed of making them “completely free,” of “returning them to their essence.” He was backed up then by a whole group of provincial demiurges from among the local intelligentsia. They had collectively tried to re-educate the local group of Witnesses through debate, and then they had intimated them and pressured their relatives. Subsequently, they had tried to buy them off before finally sending the group’s core to prison with the KGB’s backing.

Their rhetoric is surprisingly similar to the declarations made by the Witnesses’ current antagonists.

“We stand for individual freedom of choice in all domains, including religion. […] So read, compare, think, disagree, and argue! Critical thinking is in inalienable sign of a person’s freedom. Let’s not abandon our freedom so easily.”

This is not an excerpt from a statement by a libertarian group, but an excerpt from a declaration published by a group of Russian Orthodox clergymen attached to the Holy Martyr Irenaeus of Lyons Center for Religious Studies. It was these clergymen who have now got the Jehovah’s Witnesses banned.

In the early 1960s, the KGB and such local enthusiasts managed to deliver several serious blows to the infrastructure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Soviet Union. Successive leaders of the organization and hundreds of grassroots leaders and activists were arrested and convicted, and archives, correspondence, and printing presses were seized.

“Is there an end to your suffering? Take a copy for free in your own language.” Tuchkovo, Moscow Region. Photo courtesy of Alexander Artemenkov/TASS

This, however, did not lead to the eradication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Besides the three regions where they had constantly been active—Western Ukraine, Moldova, and Irkutsk Region—groups and organizations emerged in the sixties and seventies throughout nearly the entire Soviet Union from Arkhangelsk Region to the Maritime Territory, and from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan.

The movement was spread by ex-camp convicts, labor migrants from regions where the doctrine was strongly espoused, and missionaries.

Soviet construction sites, new cities, and workers’ dorms were propitious environments for the spread of new religious doctrines. The young people who arrived to work there were cut off from their usual lifestyles, family ties, and interests. They wanted something new, including self-education and self-transfiguration—to gad about in suits and have their heads in the clouds. Most of these cadres were promoted through the ranks by the Communist Youth League and other authorities, but there were plenty of pickings for the religious organizations.

By the way, in 1962, Saprykin campaigned to get not just anyone to leave the Witnesses, but Maria Dosukova, a chevalier of the Order of Lenin, a longtime Party member, a plasterer, and an ethnic Kazakh. During an assembly at her construction company, Dosukova had refused to support a resolution condemning the religious organization in which several people in her work team were members.

Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Sochi, 2007. Photo courtesy of Natalya Kolesnikova/PhotoXPress

After Krushchev’s resignation, the systematic arrests of the Witnesses stopped, although some were sent to prison as a warning to the others.  Everyone else was subject to the decree, issued by the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, on March 18, 1966, “On Administrative Responsibility for Violating the Legislation on Religious Cults.” You could be fined fifty rubles—a week’s pay for a skilled worker—for holding a religious circle meeting in your home. In his book About People Who Never Part with the Bible, religious studies scholar Sergei Ivanenko records that, during the seventies and eighties, attempts to combat the Witnesses by fining them and tongue-lashing them at assemblies were just as useless. 

Wholehearted Anticultists

Perestroika legalized the Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the post-Soviet space. This freedom did not last for long, however. The new states of Central Asia and the Transcaucasia followed the Soviet Union’s path in their treatment of the Witnesses, achieving similar outcomes.

In Russia, the Witnesses were officially registered in March 1991 and had no serious problems for a long time. They built their central headquarters, Bethel, in the village of Solnechnoye near St. Petersburg, as well as several dozen buildings for prayer meetings.  Of course, due to their activity, relative openness, and American connections, the Witnesses (along with the Hare Krishna, the Mormons, the Scientologists, and the Pentecostals) were targeted by the various hate organizations that emerged in Russia in the late 1990s, including the Cossacks, neo-Nazis, and professional anticultists.

Protest rally against the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in St. Petersburg, 1997. Photo courtesy of TASS

Anticultism was imported to Russia by the ex-Moscow hippie Alexander Dvorkin, who emigrated to the US in the 1970s and got mixed up in Orthodox émigré circles there. In the early 1990s, he left his job at Radio Liberty and returned to Russia, where he made a successful career at the point where the interests of the Moscow Patriarchate and Russian law enforcement agencies intersect. The above-mentioned Irenaeus of Lyons Center is, basically, Dvorkin himself.

Professor Dvorkin has worked for several years at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of the Humanities. Until 2012, he was head of the department of sectology. In 2009, he headed the council for religious studies forensic expertise at the Russian Federal Justice Ministry. (He now holds the post of deputy chair). It is curious that Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov is also a St. Tikhon’s alumnus and is quite proud of that fact.

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Professor Alexander Dvorkin. Photo courtesy of Yevgeny Mukhtarov/Wikipedia

By supporting the Justice Ministry’s campaign to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Russian Supreme Court has not only put the “sectarians” in a difficult position but also the Russian authorities. In Russia, the Witnesses have over 400 local organizations and around 168,000 registered members. Only full-fledged members are counted during registration, but a fair number of sympathizers are also usually involved in Bible readings, The Watchtower, and other religious events. We can confidently say the ban will affect at least 300,000 to 400,000 Russian citizens. Labeling them “extremists” does not simply insult them and provoke conflicts with their relatives, loved ones, and acquaintances. In fact, this means abruptly increasing the workload of the entire “anti-extremism” system the Russian authorities have been setting up the past twenty years.  The soldiers of the Russian National Guard will find it easy to raid prayer meetings and spread-eagle these “extremists” on the floor. However, given the scale of the organization, they will have to do this a lot and often. And, as experience shows,  there won’t be much point to what they are doing.

Not a single country in the world has forcibly dissolved the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it is hard to imagine that these 400,000 people will all emigrate or otherwise disappear. Even now, as news of the ban has spread, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have received completely unexpected support from all manner media and numerous public figures, including Russian Orthodox priests. Given these circumstances, the successful state campaign to discredit, dissolve, and brush a major religious community under the rug is doomed to failure.

Marquee being taken down from the Surgut office of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in connection with their ban in Russia, April 24, 2017. Photo courtesy of Alexei Andronov/Ura.Ru/TASS

The authorities will have to decide. Either they will sanction the mass arrests of the organizations leaders and activists and send hundreds and thousands of people to the camps, which ultimately will facilitate the growth of the movement’s reputation and dissemination, as in Soviet times, or they will pinpoint those who, according to the Interior Ministry and the FSB, are “especially dangerous” while turning a blind eye to the actual continuation of the organization’s work.

I would like the country’s leadership to have second thoughts and find a legal way of rescinding the Supreme Court’s decision. There is little hope of that, however.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“Extremism” Ruling against Jehovah’s Witnesses: The Popular Will?

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Was it the “popular will” that 500 hectares of land be reclaimed in the Neva Bay right off Petersburg’s Vasiliyevsky Island and developed into densely built high-rise estates, causing untold amounts of environmental and aesthetic damage? No, it wasn’t. In fact, locals were bitterly opposed to the project and they mounted a loud resistance back in the day. But their will was roundly ignored by Petersburg city hall and developers. Under the present authoritarian regime, “popular will” is a friendly phantom, at best, an irritant, at worst. Photo by The Russian Reader.

The Russian Supreme Court has gone ahead and banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses and ordered their property confiscated. This is a colossal insult to hundreds of thousands of law-abiding Russian citizens. A huge new underground has been generated. Massive crackdowns for their faith, new political prisoners, and mass immigration are around the corner. The Russian authorities and Moscow Patriarch Kirill, who is personally responsible for this operation, have curious ideas about the joy of Easter.
—Nikolay Mitrokhin, Facebook, April 21, 2017

Perhaps this is what is most disheartening about the recent legal battle. The state may be the central actor, but its actions reflect the popular will of Russians who, by and large, have decided that Witnesses have no place in their society.
—Emily Baran, “Jehovah’s Witnesses Ban Spells End for Russia’s Religious Diversity,” Moscow Times, April 24, 2017

When did Russians decide this? Did they hold a referendum recently? Are most Russians even aware of how the Justice Ministry has used the Russian Supreme Court to declare the Jehovah’s Witnesses “extremists,” allegedly, at the insistence of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill? I very much doubt it.

Professor Baran only mentions actions by state or quasi-state actors, such as the central press in Soviet and post-Soviet times. Yet they were and have been somehow acting on behalf of the “popular will,” a symbiosis she makes no real attempt to prove in her op-ed piece for the Moscow Times, as quoted above.

As for real popular sentiment, I imagine there are as many Americans as Russians who have reflexively negative attitudes toward Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just think of all the jokes about JWs you have heard in your lifetime that cast them in a negative or ridiculous light, or how many times you have seen their likenesses figuring as the villains on TV medical dramas who refuse proper care for desperately sick children? Then why aren’t they banned in the US? At worst, the American “popular will” sees them as outsiders and obscurantists, at best, as an annoyance.

I can imagine that tenure-track professors in the US have a hard time understanding how disempowered and disconnected the grassroots are in a country that now has the world’s largest income inequality gap, and a long, brutal history of minorities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, getting hammered by the powers that be while putative “majority” either did not mind, looked the other way or did not even notice.

But does Tennessee, where Professor Baran teaches, have an utterly different history when it comes to protecting the rights of its minorities?

The Russian Supreme Court’s decision to declare the Jehovah’s Witnesses extremist is completely despicable in every possible way, but Russians who bother to care about minorities and “minority” interests (like the environment, civil and social rights, corruption, labor rights, migrant rights, and historical preservation and sound urban planning) are often too few and far between to fight every battle and put out every fire. And many of those fighters are themselves currently under the state’s gun. The same Justice Ministry that has gone after Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses like a pit bull has also been branding NGOs, research institutes, and grassroots organizations “foreign agents” like it was at a fire sale.

That is no excuse for the judicial execution the Russian state has just performed on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it was a decision made at the top by the political, ecclesiastical and judicial elites, including the ROC’s Patriarch Kirill. It was not the state’s response to a nonexistent, utterly imaginary “popular will.” TRR

“Authoritarian Democracy”: Dark Sarcasm in the Classroom

“I Don’t Impose My Opinion”
Maria Bobylyova
Takie Dela
April 11, 2017

Just as in Soviet times, schoolteachers are now forced to hold political information lessons, to talk with schoolchildren about the current political conjuncture. But a new generation of savvy schoolchildren has emerged. We talked with two teachers about their political stances and how they argue with pupils.

“We Must Raise Mentally Healthy Children with Traditional Family Values”
Thirty years old, Natalya lives in Stavropol, where she teaches history and social studies at school. She supports the current regime and teaches children to think freely, love the Motherland, and practice correct family values.

I support the current regime and the policies of our president. I don’t like everything that is done. For example, I don’t quite understand why the regions are not entirely rational in spending federal money. But basically I’m satisfied with everything, especially our foreign policy. I’m insanely proud that Crimea is now part of Russia. I believe this is historically just. If you look at past wars, about forty percent of them were over Crimea. I believe that when Khrushchev gifted Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, it was a big mistake. Crimea is strategically important to us and we cannot let our enemies make the region a sphere of their influence.

You don’t think it was done illegally?

Why illegally? Ninety-three percent of Crimeans voted in a referendum to join Russia. There was no pressure or coercion.

Are the subsequent sanctions fair?

They are inevitable consequences. If you want to take something, you have to understand there will be consequences. We are paying for them even now. But they’re trivial compared to the benefits: the Black Sea, Sevastopol, and the navy. We didn’t annex Crimea forcibly. We didn’t send in troops. There’s a propaganda campaign against our country underway in the world. We live in the provinces, but we have free access to all sources of information, and that’s good. Generally, having access to information is empowering, and the recent elections in the US have shown that.

You’re happy with the outcome?

Very much so. I supported Trump from the beginning. He didn’t voice such an anti-Russian stance as Clinton did. I don’t like her at all.

You weren’t embarrassed by his sexist attacks?

They’re trifles. He’s such an eccentric, extravagant man. Moreover, this is not only America’s sin but Europe’s as well. Things are far from normal when it comes to morality there. Their so-called tolerance alone suffices. They call it tolerance. I would call it something else.

They didn’t call Trump’s outburts tolerant.

It doesn’t matter. They’re in a state of degradation. Take, for example, all those same-sex marriages. They will cause the death of mankind, although I can’t say I’m against such relationships. Everyone has the right to a private life, and I won’t be the first to cast stones at such people. By the way, this topic really interests my pupils as well. For example, in social studies, we cover the topic of marriage, and we say that it’s a union between a man and a woman. Yet every time in class there is someone who says, “But what about same-sex marriages”?

How do you reply?

That it absolutely contradicts our country’s and our mentality’s moral foundations. And that it will cause mankind’s extinction.

But same-sex couples can also have children.

I believe this is wrong and has a bad effect on the children. If a child grows up seeing this example, he will think he can repeat it, too, and that there’s nothing wrong about it.

You believe homosexuality can be taught?

Yes, to a large extent. Even if there is something innate about it, it can either emerge or not under society’s impact. So society is obliged to beat it in time.

Do you have any LGBT pupils?

Absolutely not. I would have noticed. A girl once came to me for tutoring who didn’t hide the fact she was a lesbian, and she was clearly different from other children.

In what sense?

She openly told me she believed same-sex unions were normal.

What would you do if there were a same-sex couple in your class?

I would definitely tell the parents, as I did in this girl’s case. But her parents were aware: her family had given her a liberal upbringing . If parents consider it normal to raise their child that way, there’s nothing I can do and I won’t intervene, nor do I have the right.

What if you had the right?

I would talk with the teenager and find out the cause of the problem, probably more for myself, so that I would know how to raise my own children later. Because I really wouldn’t like my future child to turn out like that.

What would you do then?

I would have a talk with him. I would take him to a psychologist. I would do everything possible to fix it.

What if nothing helped?

That wouldn’t happen. In adolescence, children don’t have a clear position that cannot be broken. I would break it.

What if you found out a fellow teacher was gay?

It wouldn’t affect my relationship with him, but I wouldn’t let our families become chummy so my own child wouldn’t be exposed to his example. Children really do copy the behavior of adults. We must raise mentally healthy children with traditional family values. There are things we had nothing to do with devising and that we have no right to change: family, patriotism, and decency.  What kind of family can there be without children?

As I already said, same-sex couples can and do have children.

How is that? How can two men have a child? Only through a surrogate mother. But I don’t think you’ll find many women willing to bear a child for two gays even for money, not in our country, at least.

What about adoption?

That’s impossible in Russia, thank God. I think it is extremely wrong. Children should be raised in normal, full-fledged, traditional families.

What if you had to choose between an orphanage and same-sex parents?

Who said that an orphanage is necessarily a bad thing? I know many children from orphanages, and they are full-fledged individuals who are grateful to their minders and to the state, which provides them with both real estate [sic] and material support.  Many of the children in our school come from orphanages. They are all well adapted both in terms of education and in terms of socialization with other children. Our work involves smoothing out the differences and avoiding bullying and conflicts. We’re good at that here in the Caucasus.

You probably have multiethnic classes?

Yes, and different religions. It’s a very complicated topic, because we have many different ethnic groups. Turkmen, Chechens, Armenians, and even Syrians go to our school. Teachers have to deal with the topic of religions and ethnic groups delicately. Someone puts on Alisa‘s “Sky of the Slavs,” and you’re immediately on the lookout, because the song can provoke very different reactions and feelings from children. You always have to think before speak. Children react instantaneously. You aren’t able to reverse time or take back what you said. But religious topics really interest children.

Alisa, “Sky of the Slavs” (2003, dir. Oleg Flyangolts)

What exactly interests them?

They closely monitor the material well-being of priests, for example, the story about Patriarch Kirill’s watch and all that. They come to me and ask whether it’s true.

What do you tell them?

That I don’t know myself. Like them, I read the same news. But I think when it comes to religious issues there can be no freedom of interpretation.  No wonder we have a law against insulting the feelings of believers. Believing or not believing is a personal stance, but there shouldn’t be any blasphemy or mockery. What happened to Pussy Riot is indicative in this sense.

You think the verdict was fair?

One hundred percent fair, of course. If anyone would be able to go into a church and do as he wishes, what would become of us? We need to respect the feelings of believers, especially in our country, where Orthodoxy has always played such an important role. Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality: that’s how it was, and it’s still that way to some extent. Yet all religions are respected equally in our great country. I’ve never heard Vladimir Vladimirovich give a single speech in which he called on everyone to become Orthodox.

Do you like Putin?

A lot. He’s a charismatic leader, in my opinion: this is obvious to everyone. He arrived at a complicated moment and immediately won people over. There is something attractive about him. He always finds a way to get out of any complicated situation gracefully. He can joke or scold, but he always comes out the winner. He deserves to be the most influential politician in the world, and he is the most influential politician. The western media accuse him of being an authoritarian, but I would call it authoritarian democracy. It’s not the worse option for Russia.

Do you following the corruption scandals plaguing the regime?

Of course. Be we have to understand that corruption is a mindset in Russia. In my history lessons, I always tell the children about how Peter the Great decided to eradicate corruption and asked Prince Alexander Menshikov’s advice. Menshikov replied, “You’ll run out of rope and be left without subjects.” We know that Menshikov was the biggest embezzler in Peter’s court. So there has always been corruption and there will always be a corruption. Do you think that if Navalny took power he would beat corruption without getting bogged down in it himself? On the other hand, these stories are not always true. They are often just PR campaigns to tarnish someone who has fallen out of favor. Besides, I think corruption thrives partly due to our political passivity and popular legal illiteracy. If you decide to go with the flow, don’t be surprised when you get to the river bed and see what you see. You have to start with yourself.

How do you start?

Don’t give bribes, for example, even it makes things simple and quicker. Obey the law even in those particulars where you imagine you can violate it. However, there is much more order than before. I remember what happend under Yeltsin. [Although she would have been twelve when Putin took power — TRR.] Those were horrible times. I grew up in a village. There were five children in our family, and Mom traded hand-me-downs with the neighbors. We took turns wearing them out. Dad wasn’t paid his wages for months at a time, Mom couldn’t find a job, and Grandma wasn’t paid her pension. We had a garden. We grew what we could, and it was our only means of survival. I remember well how everything changed with Putin’s arrival.

In the material sense as well?

Of course. When I went to work at the school, I got a young specialist’s bonus for three years. Although I didn’t go to work at the school right away. I put in time as an administrator and a real estate agent, and I worked in management. So I have something to compare it with. I have worked at the school for six years and I sense the state’s support. I get a decent wage and I am able to satisfy most of my material needs. I feel calm and confident. I live in a country where there is no Chechen War to which soldiers could be sent.

Soldiers can now be sent to other wars.

If you mean Ukraine, I have no information our troops are fighting there, except for professional or special units. All the rest is western propaganda. I don’t like the war in Ukraine, just as I don’t like any war.

What about Syria?

What about Syria? Yes, we’re fighting there, but it’s not our country. Everything is calm within Russia. There are no longer any separatists sentiments, as there were under Yeltsin, and I am personally grateful to Vladimir Putin for this. Historically, we have been attracted by strong individuals who can establish order by any means. In this sense, I see Putin as a man of his word. He never makes promises he doesn’t keep.

Who is your favorite historical leader?

Peter the Great. Russia flourished under his reign. We got a navy and an empire, and we were victorious in war. Of course, there were excesses, but there is not a single politician in the world who doesn’t have them. Basically, you should always look at things objectively. So when we cover Ivan the Terrible, I always teach the children that besides the bad things there were also good things: centralization, the annexation of Astrakhan and Kazan, and the conquest of Siberia. Expanding territory is a good thing. It means resources, people, culture, borders, and a geopolitical position.

Do you think that Russia has its own way?

I really like the position of the Slavophiles. I like thinking that our history and our people are typified by a certain exclusivity. History proves it. We have never been ready for a single war, but we win all the wars we fight. This makes me proud, and I teach the children to be proud of this, to be proud of their country, its heritage, and its great culture. That’s what real patriotism is about. My pupils and I look at the facts together and learn to analyze rather than just label things and divide them into black and white. My job is to provide the children with full access to all historical information. I never impose readymade conclusions. For example, in the tenth grade we’re now studying the Emperor Paul. My children love him terribly and feel sorry for him. They say he was unloved by his mother, and then he was killed. Although I relate to him coolly, to put it mildly.

Do discussions arise a lot during your classes?

Constantly. I think it’s very important to let children speak. Our job, after all, is to educate individuals, not homogeneous clones. Our country needs strong, independent people who are able to think. Teachers who don’t let children speak undermine their own authority. If you’re not willing to argue, you’re a despot who imposes her own opinion, not a teacher. Children fear and hate you, and I don’t want that. One of the places that history happens is right outside the school building. So I never stop lively discussions, because they teach children to think and analyze. Of course, if a discussion goes on for three classes in a row, I’ll find a way to get back to the lesson plan. But I really like lively discussions. It’s so great when you see individuals growing up right before your eyes.

Are your pupils interested in politics?

Very much so, especially the upperclassmen. They watch the news, ask questions, and argue. Political debates happen both during lessons and recesses. They are interested not only in politics but also in everything that is going on, for example, the recent story of Diana Shurygina really agitated them. But they are also interested in the elections. They can’t wait to vote for the first time.

Do you voice your own political views to them?

I express my viewpoint, but I never impose it. I think children have a right to their own opinions, so I let everyone speak. There are lots of different children among my pupils, and I wouldn’t say all of them support the regime. They read RBC and Life and Meduza. I have a boy in the ninth grade, Yegor, who is an ardent oppositionist, and I find it fairly interesting to discuss things with him. He never descends to demagoguery,  but reads and watches lots of things, and supports his opinion with facts. I also watch TV Rain and listen to Echo of Moscow to be familiar with a different point of view and be able to rebut Yegor.

Are you trying to change his mind?

He and I just discuss things: he’s not going to change his mind, nor should he. It’s not my goal to impose my opinion. Although, of course, when my pupils grow up and become patriots, I’m pleased. It happens that a child transfers from another school. He sees everything in a bleak light and is quite unpatriotic. But then he learns to think critically and gradually realizes what a great history Russia has and what a great country it is. When I took over my own class from another history teacher, the children constantly referred to our country as “Russia.” But when, several months later, they said “We” instead of “Russia,” I was so proud I got goosebumps. Fifteen Armenians, three Turkmen, and five Russias are seated in front of you, and they all say “we.” They’re genuine patriots.

“I Feel Lonely, Insecure, and Misunderstood”
Olga lives in a regional capital in the central part of European Russia. She is fifty-four years old, and she has taught at a pedagogical college her whole life. Students are admitted to the college after finishing the ninth and eleventh grades, which means that Olga deals with teenagers between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. She is a liberal, but she tries to hide it, because most of the people around here don’t understand her.

I didn’t always have liberal views. When the Soviet Union collapsed and life got bad very fast, I was opposed to it and voted for the Communists. But then there was some trouble in my family and I came face to face with the system and the state. I saw from the inside how the laws and state agencies function in Russia, and my eyes were opened as it were. I realized what mattered is that a person has freedom and should have freedom. People in Russia are fond of saying that what matter is one’s health, while we can put up with the rest. I think that people should not have put up with anything and then they’ll be healthy. But if there is no freedom, health won’t be of any use to them.

Why do you hide the fact you’re in the opposition?

At first, I tried to talk with my colleagues and voice my disagreement with the current regime. They didn’t understand me. They would say, “Aren’t you Russian? Aren’t you a patriot?” Initially, I would argue. I’d say I was in fact a real patriot, and that Pushkin, Akhmatova, Vysotsky et al., were on my side, while they had only one person on theirs. Then I realized it was pointless. They are seemingly decent, pleasant people, but completely alien. Or I’m talking to a colleague who tells me how a friend of hers has made it big. He works in a company that produces asphalt. They’ve learned to dilute the asphalt somehow to produce twice as much so they could sell it under the table. This same colleague of mine claimed to be a patriot, yet she also was a driver and had to drive on those roads. I don’t understand that. I’m surrounded by people who watch the national channels and don’t want to know a thing. They have university degrees, but they watch Kiselyov and Solovyov and listen to them like zombies. So there is no one with whom to talk.

No one at all?

There are one or two people who will hear me out, and I’m grateful for even that much. However, sometimes I’m aware I’m not alone. Recently, during a continuing education course, I was pleasantly surprised by the progressive woman teaching the course. She talked about our regime’s idiocy and that we had to filter what the leadership was sending down to us from above, because we were responsible for the kind of teachers we graduated. She also advised us to watch Dmitry Bykov’s lectures, can you imagine? I was simply amazed there were people like that in our region.

Who do you vote for?

The last time, I just crossed out my ballot so no one would get my vote. I voted for Prokhorov during the last presidential elections, although everyone tried to prove to me he was a pet project of the Kremlin’s. Now they say Navalny is a pet project of the Kremlin’s,  although I have a hard time believing it. I read and listen to all the opposition politicians, including Navalny and Yabloko. My day begins with Novaya Gazeta and Echo of Moscow. I don’t watch TV except for RBC’s channel. When I catch Mom watching Channel One, I chew her out. But lately I’ve weaned her off it, thank God.

Do you broadcast your views to your students?

Directly, no, and besides, I can’t do it because I could be punished. Yet if you support the regime you can say anything at all. Like the school principal from Bryansk in that video. I’m 100% sure she was completely sincere. People like that can speak out, but I can’t. All I can do is introduce the younger generation to some works and give them the freedom to speak their minds and think. Making someone think like you is the biggest crime. They should think as they see fit. But our teachers sin by imposing their views. I teach Russian and teaching methods, and my students are future primary school teachers. So I can influence them only though quotations and by asking them to read things. Recently, I asked them to listen to Vasya Oblomov’s song “A Long and Unhappy Life.”

Vasya Oblomov, “A Long and Unhappy Life” (2017)

What political views do your students have?

They have different views, but many of them sincerely upset me. Recently, they asked me whether I would steal food and take it home if I worked in the cafeteria. They think there is nothing wrong about it. Everyone does it and it’s normal. I wonder where a sixteen-year-old gets this view of the world. Obviously, at home, although my past communist views had their origins in school. I remember our teacher telling us we had to be like Volodya Ulyanov [Lenin], and I really wanted to be like him. I would go to the library and ask for a book about Lenin, but the librarian would be surprised and suggest a book of fairytales. Later, when the teacher said I was like the young Volodya, it was the highest praise I could imagine.

Do you experience any pressure from up top in terms of what you can say and what you can’t?

There’s no direct pressure. The fact is we have quite heavy workloads. I think it’s done on purpose so we don’t have time to think and approach the work creatively. I’m buried in papers and forms, and there is no time to do anything worthwhile. Plus I’m forced to work one and a half to two jobs just to earn something, and that isn’t conducive to quality, either. Sometimes, we’re asked to go somewhere. Three years ago, we were ordered to attend a pro-Crimea annexation rally, and although I was against it I went anyway. But I don’t go to May Day demos. They ask me to go, but I say I don’t support the goverenment. They look at me funny and leave me alone.

You’ve never thought about changing jobs?

I have thought about it, and more than once, but it’s not so easy to find a job in our region. I really wanted to leave ten years ago or so, when we were buried in paperwork. But now I think, why the heck should I go? I love my work and I’ve been at it thirty years.

Has your life changed since Putin came to power?

You know, I did alright in the nineties, if it’s possible to say that. We got paid on time, and as for everything else our province is half asleep. But in the noughties I started to feel personally uncomfortable. When the old NTV was dismantled, and the news program Nadmedni was shut down, it made me tense. And then there have been all these strange laws, Crimea, and sanctions. I have no hope at all that anything will change.

So you watched the old NTV and yet voted for Zyuganov?

Yes. I arrived at my liberal views the long way around. On the other hand, if a person doesn’t change, she stagnates. Only there is no point in these changes. I feel lonely, insecure, and misunderstood. I look at the people around me, and they’re in a patriotic euphoria. Ninety percent of them really support the annexation of Crimea. I have always traveled to Crimea and I’ll keep on going to Crimea, because I love it and I have family there. But I try and avoid discussing the topic with them. They’re happy: they got a rise in their pensions. I agree that Crimea has always been ours, but the way it was annexed was wrong.

Does your liberalism extend to all areas of life?

Generally, yes. But there should be moderation in all things. For example, it’s wrong if a young woman with tattoos and a shaven head plans to be a primary school teacher. In any case, I imagine freedom as a certain set of internal constraints. Teaching is a conservative profession, and if you choose it, you have to agree to certain restraints.

What other things should teachers not let themselves do?

Rather, they shouldn’t demonstrate them openly. You remember how in Ostrovsky’s play The Storm, the sister-in-law tells Katerina she can do anything as long it’s hush-hush. If this is what our society is like, you shouldn’t rub someone the wrong way. It’s a private matter for everyone. If I were principal, I would not care less about sexual orientation. But I’m against making it a matter of public record and discussing these topics widely. It’s the same thing with religion.

What about religion?

In our country, if you’re a religious person, you can speak your mind freely and often impose your opinion as well. If you’re not, you are forced to keep your mouth lest you offend, God forbid, the feelings of believers. So I keep my mouth shut. I keep my mouth shut about one thing or another. Basically, I’m a cowardly person.

Translation and photography by the Russian Reader