An abyss of silence. You shout at the top of your lungs, but there’s no response, only silence. It’s like in a dream when you need to shout, but you have no voice at all. It’s gone. In a dream, however, you can wake up, while in this case…
On the placard, I had tied a bell to a symbolic spool of the white thread that was used to sew the shaky case against Alexander shut. It trembles in the wind, and passersby hear its “ding-ding.” For whom does the bell toll? Don’t walk on by, don’t look away…
Why did I get involved in the case of Alexander Merkulov (aka Aleksandr Peĵiĉ)? We weren’t friends, just acquaintances. Why, even though I hate court hearings, did I attend three court hearings last week?
The bell has a tongue. Many people in prison don’t have a tongue. The Russian Themis does not hear them. Not only has she blindfolded her eyes, but she has also put earplugs in her ears and plugged them tight. Whether you yell or not, you will be sentenced The judicial ear is sensitive only to the sovereign’s oprichniks. Gulag-minded, the courts presume that you are guilty, nor are their verdicts subject to review or appeal.
So it turns out that the only voice prisoners have is their circle of support on the outside. These groups are different for everyone. The famous blogger has hundreds of thousands of subscribers. The arrested journalist enjoys the corporate solidarity of the media: the major newspapers publish editorials about him, while his colleagues devote columns and radio and TV broadcasts to him.
A prominent public figure is supported by ordinary Russians, his fellow activists, and human rights defenders. And doctors, actors, truckers, feminists, LGBT activists, etc., have the support of their own communities. But Merkulov’s case has nothing to do with LGBT issues, so LGBT organizations can’t give it the proper attention and resources.
Sometimes, it is possible to raise a regional case to a national and even international level of publicity, as many people have managed to do in the case of Yulia Tsvetkova by pooling their efforts. While it is no guarantee of victory, it increases the chances.
But most cases in Russian courts are heard in complete silence. People are sentenced, transported to prison, and serve their sentences or die trying, and yet nobody says a word. Of the five cases that were heard in Petersburg City Court on Wednesday morning in the same courtroom as Alexander’s case, only his hearing featured a few members of the public in the gallery. The other defendants faced indifferent silence before hearing the judge say, “The appeal is denied, the defendant will remain in custody.”
Recently, the Perm human rights activist Igor Averkiev wrote an excellent post entitled “The Personal Usefulness of Crowds.” It’s not about people, it’s about animals—about the chances a hypothetical “introverted reindeer named Sergei,” a “social reindeer named Kostya,” or a “young musk ox named Proshka” would have against a pack of predators, a pack of “Lake Taimyr wolves.” I will quote a couple of passages from it.
“I’m a reindeer named Sergei. But I’m a very introverted, nearly autistic reindeer, and I only really feel good when I’m alone. And so, being the only other reindeer for many miles around, I come across a pack of hungry wolves. My chances are almost zero: I run faster, but they are more resilient. Moreover, when I’m alone, it’s easier for the wolves to work together smoothly as a group. Basically, I’m no longer here… Natural selection is why we don’t see ‘nearly autistic introverts’ among reindeer.”
“Any danger forces people (and not only people) to band together in a group, in a crowd. This happens instinctively. The import of this instinct is obvious: it depersonalizes the threat. When I am in a crowd, the danger is not focused on me personally, but rather is distributed over a large number of people, which increases my own chances of survival. But you can not only hide in a crowd, the crowd can also protect you. When it comes to self-defense, the size of the crowd matters.”
Any metaphor has its limits, of course. So, returning to Alexander, I want to talk about more than just him. We know that he is one of Averkiev’s “autistic introverts.” Not only does he lack media fame, but he also lacks a large number of what are called “stable social connections.”
(The topic of how the system cracks down on people with psychiatric or mental peculiarities deserves a separate post).
And this was where I said to myself: Stop, Alexei. There is no retreating. If it weren’t for you and the few colleagues who have got involved in this ‘hopeless case,’ and for Alexander’s mother, Alexander would be a goner.
I think this was what Olga Masina, who is seriously ill and undergoing medical treatment, and yet still works, said to herself. She stubbornly spends the few free hours and energy she has covering Alexander’s case. And then, like ripples on water, other people plug into the campaign. Svetlana Prokopyeva, who was convicted of the same “crime,” wrote an article about Alexander between her trial and her appeal. And Grigory Mikhnov-Vaytenko has got involved, too.
This story is not so much about Alexander, it’s about all of us. This is a test of our personal commitment, of our capacity for overcoming ourselves and our circumstances. Do we do something, however small, or do we just turn away and make excuses?
Of course, even a serious public response does not guarantee a 100% positive outcome. But the lack of support almost guarantees a negative outcome. And, at least, our involvement is felt by Alexander, and it is important for him, he writes about it in his letters.
I will end this post with two actual quotations.
“We’re not going to Merkulov’s court hearings. He’s not as cute as Yegor Zhukov,” writes a gay man.
“I’m not ready to picket yet. The case itself is quite murky.”
Does this warrant up to 7 years in prison? Do we need to keep Alexander in jail for three months running as if he were a particularly dangerous criminal? For me, the answer is obvious, and the point is clear in this sense: there were no calls for violence in Alexander posted. On the contrary, when reposting, he wrote that he did not approve of violence.
There is no counting the streets in our country that still bear the names of terrorists, but our valiant security forces could not care less. We LGBT activists send notarized bundles of the threats we receive to the police, but they don’t open criminal investigations because, they say, “the threats are not real.” Assaults, domestic violence, and poisoning are “not grounds for criminal prosecution.”
But Alexander’s actions are a “threat to national security”? The criminal case against him is a joke. The article in the criminal code under which he has been charged [Article 205.2] a mockery of the law. In my opinion, if it is left on the law books, then at most it should be an administrative offense.
We’re talking about people’s lives here. We’re talking about Alexander’s life. Will his fate be decided in silence, or will we pass this test of caring? We don’t have horns and hooves like musk oxen and deer, the only things we have are our voices and our conscience.
At 12:30 p.m. on September 10, the appeals hearing on Alexander’s remand in police custody will take place at Petersburg City Court.
Save Alexander Merkulov (Peĵiĉ) Telegram
September 10, 2020
The Petersburg City Court upheld the original decision to remand Alexander Merkulov in custody. In the photo, you see the face of this “justice”: Judge Tatyana Matveyeva Tatyana , hiding behind the monitor.
Prosecutor Minina didn’t even stay for the announcement of the court’s decision. Apparently, she already knew it in advance.
Alexander was present via video link and was very happy to see us in the camera🙂
Petersburg Activist Becomes Victim of Online Hate over “Russian” Cinema Activatica
September 13, 2020
Petersburg activist Guzel Leman has been harassed and sent threatening messages on social networks because she suggested that the Russian film website Kinopoiskrename its russkoe [“ethnic Russian”] cinema section rossiiskoye [pertaining to Russia as a multi-ethnic country], reports Fontanka.ru.
The young woman started corresponding with the website’s admin, and on September 10 received a response that her request had been sent to the relevant specialists. Two days later, however, she began receiving threatening messages on a personal account.
According to Leman, in literally just a few hours on the morning of September 12, while she still “did not understand what was happening,” she received more than 400 angry messages on social networks, in which unknown people threatened her, called her names, and “told [her] where and how to go there.”
The activist wrote about her correspondence with Kinopoisk and the idea of renaming the website’s “Russian” cinema section on a separate Telegram channel, where she published screenshots. According to Leman, her subscribers discovered that her correspondence with Kinopoisk had been leaked to nationalist community pages.
“Guzel Leman. ‘So, yeah: I’ve been ratted out on a chat for racists. They attacked me by writing nasty things in the comments.'”
Leman was accused of racism on one of these pages.
“The racist and Russophobe Guzel Leman, who calls for stopping calling Russian [rossiiskie] films russkie [‘ethnic Russian”] complains in her chat about being bullied by ‘racists.’ In unison, the chat’s multi-ethnic participants brand the victims Russian fascists. What a lark,” someone wrote on the Telegram channel Russkoe budushchee [“The ethnic Russian future”].
The channel published several indecent posts about Leman.
“The Ethnic Russian Future. Reposted from Fantastic Plastic Machine. Here some little lady demands that ‘Kinopoisk’ no longer call ethnic Russian films ethnic Russian. Because that would be discrimination. Moreover, half of her channel is devoted to his, and she also calls on her subscribers to turn up the heat on ‘Kinopoisk’ and force them to rename the relevant section. I don’t even want to mention that the girl is named Guzel. It goes without saying that she’s not named Katya or Masha.”
Leman explained her idea about renaming the section on the Kinopoisk website.
“A few weeks ago I got sick and started looking for something to watch. I hadn’t paid attention to it before, but then I saw that there is a section of movies listed as ‘[Ethnic] Russian’ and ‘Soviet.’ There is no ‘Russian’ [rossiiskii] section. I contacted Kinopoisk, and we started discussing it. I explained that there are notions of belonging to a country and belonging to an ethnic group, and that such things should be kept separate. We talked about paronyms, and what the criterion russkii [“ethnic Russian”] is, and I consulted with linguists,” Guzel told Fontanka.ru.
She added that, as an example, she had cited a film, listed on Kinopoisk, that had been shot in Yakutia at Sakhafilm Studio.
“Everyone in the film crew were from different ethnic groups. It can’t be an ‘[ethnic] Russian’ film,” she said.
Now Leman has closed the messages and her pages on social networks, and yet insults have still managed to pop up in the comments on her Instagram blog. Posts about her have been published on the Telegram channel Karaulny [“Watchman”], which has over 100,000 subscribers, as well as on community pages and in hat rooms that call themselves nationalist and generate content for tens of thousands of followers.
Thanks to Darya Apahonchich for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader. For contrasting views of the present-day geopolitical implications of the adjectives russkii and rossiiskii, read these recent essays on the subject by Pål Kolstø and Marlene Laruelle.
“I Don’t Think Punk Rock Is Very Viable”: Andrei “Swine” Panov’s Widow Talks to Us About Him and the Soviet Underground Ona Razvalilas (It Fell Apart) Sergei Vilkov April 1, 2020
A week ago Andrei “Swine” Panov, the now deceased founder of the first Soviet punk rock group, Automatic Satisfiers (AS), would have celebrated his 60th birthday. In an interview, his widow, Olga Korol-Borodyuk, talked to our community page about how Soviet youth of the late 1970s managed to move in sync with the second wave of British punk; what ideology Swine and his crowd professed; what he thought of the political events of the Yeltsin era; Panov’s image in the movie Leto; how the current troubled times differ from the troubled times back then, and much more.
What kind of person would he be now, if he’d lived this long? I didn’t want to touch on this topic because I can’t say anything good. I think it would have been very hard for him to survive. When he left us he was 38 years old; what his health would be like now, 22 years later, is unknown, you understand. When everything commercial is totally alien to a person . . . It’s really difficult to live, to survive in Russia nowadays, even in comparison with those years that were so . . . precarious. Incomprehensible, troubled years. It’s become 100 times worse now. So, I can’t even imagine what he would have been like in this situation. Holding those same noncommercial punk festivals without money would be impossible.
To me personally it’s a great shame that Andrei couldn’t realize himself as an actor. Because in that capacity he was astonishing, profound. His origins as an actor were the main thing about him. Back in the day, he had left the theatrical world: he didn’t want to play Communist Youth League members. Well, it’s also unclear how it would have played out in the Soviet period. It all somehow fell by the wayside.
On his attitude towards politics: the events of 1993, Yeltsin, the war in Chechnya I’m probably going to deeply disappoint you: Andrei tried as much as possible to separate himself from [politics], because he had had very negative experiences in his life. In the first place, there was his father, who went abroad permanently. (Panov’s father, a well-known ballet choreographer, abandoned his family and emigrated to Israel when his son was 14 — editor’s note.) In the Soviet period, that caused particular complications in one’s life: you were the “son of a traitor,” as it were. Then, you see, the word “punk” itself means “anti-social.” The punk denies his own social affiliations, he cannot take an interest in politics in principle. [Andrei’s] attitude towards [the Soviet Union] was of course negative, but he never went into it and didn’t discuss it.
How it was possible to play punk rock in the USSR in the late 70s It’s very simple. At that time there was a whole cohort of music lovers who practically lived on the musical “can.” They bought records and hung out with each other. Basically, new records got to the Soviet Union rather quickly. There are at least four versions of our crowd first heard about the Sex Pistols: all of those stories are credible but different. The main thing is that Andrei found out about the Sex Pistols practically right away. Meaning that in 1976 the Sex Pistols album came out. [Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols actually came out in 1977 — TRR], and AS was formed in 1978. There was a crowd led by [Yevgeny] Yufit (one of the founders of Soviet “parallel cinema” — editor’s note). It included Andrei, Khua, [Alexei] Rybin [co-founder of Kino], and [Viktor] Tsoi. They fooled around, ran around the garbage dumps. Basically, they were having fun. Then they started shooting their escapades, first with photo cameras, later on video. This was where Yufit got his genre [necrorealism] and how Andrei formed AS. At first, it was all a lot of fun. But there’s nothing surprising about this: information was getting to us very quickly.
Was Panov a punk? Andrei never called himself a punk at all. He very much disliked it when he was called that: he considered it a label. They called themselves “anarchists.” They denounced the established order. Another very telling point is that this crowd had this thing. You know the song “Commissar”? (Also known by such titles as “A Bullet Whizzed Past,” “My Steed is Black,” and others, the song is mistakenly thought to be a 20th-century Cossack folk song — editor’s note). The song has been attributed to any number of people. In point of fact, the song’s lyricist, Misha “Hefty” [Tinkelman], is alive and well. We’re friends. He lives in Petersburg. He’s just a humble person and doesn’t want to get mixed up in this story and that’s it. And it was like this: when they were at school, they had this crowd who amused themselves by making up songs à la the White Guards.
Since it was the Soviet period, this was the form their internal protest, or hooliganism, took. They liked that kind of aesthetic, and so on. “Commissar” is one of those songs. The aesthetic was White Guard-anarchist, at the level of denying the Soviet system. Is it really possible to compare this with the way Sid Vicious wore a swastika for the shock value? I don’t think it’s worth comparing them: all these stories are completely different. I wouldn’t draw any parallels at all.
They were schoolboys, and theirs was a very romantic generation. But the romanticism was expressed idiosyncratically, and it included White Guard lore. All of the people from this crowd who are still alive are still the same hopeless romantics. There’s nothing like them nowadays: people are very cynical and pragmatic.
How they met We met at LenFilm studios in around 1985. They were filming Burglar(in which Leningrad rock stars Konstantin Kinchev and Oleg Garkusha also acted; Panov himself appears in one scene — editor’s note). A group of punks was hired as floor hands on the set: Alexander “Ricochet” Aksyonov, Yuri “Scandal” Katsyuk, Andrei “Willie” Usov. Alexei Rybin was also among them: his wife worked there officially. I’d been working there since 1983 in the costume shop. We had such a cheerful Komsomol committee, headed by Masha Solovtsova. Later, she also had a group, 88 Air Kisses, but unfortunately, Masha’s no longer with us. She would simply take the keys to the snack bar, and in the evenings we would go there, lock ourselves in, and hold improvised concerts. Andrei was still playing the guitar then, and he would be squatting down on his haunches with the other musicians in the middle of the room. And he still smoked then. Basically, the young people at the studio were very progressive and very tight-knit.
Andrei was a person who thought in his own utterly particular way, who hungered for knowledge, who read an awful lot. He had a good knowledge of history, including art history. He had his own brand of logic, which couldn’t be simplified. I remember him being asked whether it was true that he’d begun to play as soon as he heard Iggy Pop. He only laughed in reply. He was a very complicated figure psychologically.
On the character “Punk” in the movie Leto It’s a confusing story: the screenplay was rewritten numerous times. I know this well, because I’m friends with the guys from Zoo (Mike Naumenko’s group – editor’s note). At one point, a girl from the film crew called me to ask whether I could find an actor who outwardly resembled Andrei. I expressed the opinion that playing Swine was madness: there was no way to make a copy of him. I proposed that instead we proceed from a prototype, keeping the concrete person somewhere in the back of our minds. Thus arose the character by the name “Punk,” who was conceived with Andrei in mind, of course. The most interesting thing is that he was the most authentic character in the whole movie. [Alexander] Gorchilin, who played him, was able to capture exactly that childlike quality, the purity of a harmless fifth-grade delinquent. That was the essential thing about Andrei. Even his mother, Liya Petrovna, admitted that he was really quite similar.
On punk rock in our time For 22 years I’ve been organizing a festival in memory of Andrei. This year I’m doing it for the last time. You have to pay for everything, and I do it at my own expense. I’m a one-woman organizing committee. And so very little remains of the audience for whose sake I do it. More and more people drop in just like that, because it’s a freebie: entry is free, and they’re simply random people. In 2004, when I did it at Port [a music club in Petersburg], which is rather large, the place was packed: I gave out only 800 free passes. But now I can hardly herd them in. Many folks have died. There are ever fewer people to whom it matters, people whom I know by sight. And none of the musicians are left: everyone’s died. Its time has probably passed. I don’t think that punk rock is very viable. Each musical genre has its own audience, but there’s just no mass audience [for punk rock in Russia]; There was Korol i Shut, but that’s not punk rock at all. It was called punk, yes, but that’s another story. Andrei’s punk is pure punk, it’s not for the mass market.
All photos courtesy of Ona Razvalilas. Translated by Mary Rees
On August 9, three new Last Address plaques will be installed in Petersburg.
At 12:00 p.m., relatives will install a plaque in memory of Anatoly Viktorovich Abramson at 77 Chaykovsky Street. Educated as a lawyer, Abramson worked an economic planner. In 1935, as a “socially dangerous element,” he was exiled to Saratov along with his family. He was arrested there in December 1937 and shot on January 6, 1938, after being convicted by an NKVD troika.
At 1:00 p.m., a plaque in memory of Artemy Markovich Markov, a mechanic with the Kirov Railway, will be installed in the courtyard of the house at 44 Ligovsky Prospect. Markov was shot on December 10, 1937, as a member of an alleged “Polish counter-revolutionary sabotage group” of railway workers. The grandson of one of the men shot as part of the case has been installing memorial plaques for all of his grandfather’s co-defendants.
At 2:00 p.m., a plaque in memory of Iosif Kazimorovich Kazanovsky will be installed at 1 Dzhambul Lane. A 38-year-old technician at the Plastics Factory, he was arrested on September 16, 1937, and shot on September 28, 1937, along with classmates from the Polish High School. The plaque is being installed at the behest of the son of one of the executed men.
All three men were exonerated in the 1950s.
We invite you to join us for the installation ceremonies, while asking you to assess the risks and observe safety measures in connection with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic (such as wearing a mask and maintaining physical distance).
Courtesy of the Last Address Petersburg mailing list. Photo and translation by the Russian Reader
So, here is a more detailed account of my arrest and trial.
Yesterday, I was stopped by police officers on the street near work. They would not let me pass, grabbing my scooter and saying that I should go with them, because they had “material” on me. I said I wasn’t going anywhere, so they just forced me into a vehicle.
In the vehicle, they refused to tell me what the reason was for detaining me. We drove to the first police precinct for a very long time, and the car broke down along the way. All the way, I scolded them, appealing to their conscience and reason. There were four of them and a vehicle, they had spent the whole day on me (probably more than one): did they have nothing more important to do? Later, I found out that they had been waiting for me since 5:30 in the morning, but I had left the house only at 2:00 in the afternoon. (So many resources wasted on me! Whatever for?) By the way, it’s funny that they were waiting for me near my house, but they only arrested me near my work, because I when I left the house I immediately jumped on my scooter, so they probably didn’t have time to grab me there. I can imagine how annoyed they were.
Varya Mikhailova and Darya Apahonchich waiting for her hearing at the October District Court in Petersburg, August 4, 2020. Photo courtesy of Ms. Mikhailova’s Facebook page
Around six o’clock, I was taken to court and tried on the two charges at once. It was there that I had a gander at my case files. They were quite hilarious. There was a touching insert from Center “E” [the “anti-extremism” police] where you could see the photos from all my old [internal] passports, in which I was fifteen, twenty-one, and so on. Then there were screenshots of videos, and disks containing these same videos. In short, it was a cool folder, better than my pathetic portfolio. Another funny thing was that all the performances had been taken from a page on the MBKh Media Northwest website. They also wrote in my file how many likes and comments there were. There were very few likes.
I was found guilty (under Article 20.2, Part 5 of the Administrative Offenses Code of the Russian Federation [“violation by a participant of a public event of the established procedure for holding an assembly, rally, demonstration, march or picket”] and was sentenced to pay two fines of 10,000 rubles each [approx. 230 euros]. We will appeal the fines, of course, and I think we will also file a complaint against police officers for unlawful arrest.
I am upset, of course. (My “joking” program clicks on in such situations, but then when I get home, the “get scared” program turns on.) I don’t like living in a world where people in uniform grab you on the street and shove you into a paddy wagon. (I told them, “Don’t touch my scooter!” They said, “We’re not touching it!”—and then they grabbed the scooter.) I’m also sorry, of course, that I said I worked at the Red Cross. In the past, I usually didn’t tell them where I worked, but I didn’t get picked up on the street like this in the past. It’s an important lesson for everyone who has a “civilian” job: don’t tell the police about it.
I’m also upset that I have to constantly be ready for violence from all directions. Today, I have again been getting messages containing insults from strangers. Thank you for only sending messages. I categorically don’t like that, in this world, I constantly have to prove I have the right to voice my opinion. You see, the system thinks that if you are a teacher, a mother, then okay, that is a normal job, a normal life, you have the right to be (a little) dissatisfied, to engage in a little activism. (Moms cannot be held overnight at police stations on administrative charges.) But employers rarely like it when you are an activist. This system is very complicated and stifling.)
But I cannot help doing what I do. My support for Yulia Tsvetkova, for Angelina, Maria, and Krestina Khachaturyan is a very important part of my life. It is my freedom, my fight for the safety of all women, and my contribution to my children’s future. (I am really, really worried that my daughter is growing up in an unsafe world, that my son is growing up in an unsafe world, that society imposes places on them in the hierarchical meat grinder.) I am still going to be involved in activism: I cannot do it any other way.
(I had a year in my life when I worked at a college and was quite afraid that my name would be googled at work and I would be fired. Consequently, I tried not to do performances, and then I was fired anyway, because the college was shuttered, and my students were deported to boot.)
I want to say a huge thank you for your support. Yesterday, I got calls and emails, and my wonderful friends came to the courthouse. (No one was allowed inside, but we met outside when it was all over.) I am very glad for this a world of solidarity, thank you.
My public defender suggested that I should immediately announce that I was soliciting donations to pay the fines. I decided this was probably reasonable. There is hope that we will be able to get the fines reversed. In this case, I will transfer all money donated to Yulia Tsvetkova and Mediazona.
Bearing the proud name Yellow Submarine, the commune at 28 Primorsky Prospect [in Leningrad] arose in August 1977 and lasted for just one year. Its organizers were university classmates Alexander Skobov and Felix Vinogradov, who had dreamed about a place where everyone could experience personal freedom, where everyone could distance themselves from the current regime and express themselves freely.
The history of the commune’s emergence as a nonconformist association and, simultaneously, a haven for free thinkers originates in western culture. However, as Skobov notes, there were no concrete prototypes, meaning that its inner workings were shaped by the intuition of the people involved in it.
And so, a commune. What the heck is that, and what has brought us here? For nearly a year, several of us had been building magnificent castles in the air, which unexpectedly acquired an extremely firm earthly foundation. First and foremost, who are We? Let’s identify ourselves in full: students Marina Nikitina (Vinogradova), Felix Vinogradov, Tatiana Komarova, Alexander Skobov, Igor Malsky, Andrei Antonenko, and Alexander Volkov (aka Lupus). [From the commune’s log book]
The commune was located in a private, two-story wooden house (something rare for Leningrad) on Primorsky Prospect that Felix and Marina Vinogradov had rented not long before their son was born. The first people to join them in the commune were Skobov’s university crowd and several acquaintances from their school days. Later, Andrei Reznikov, one of the founders of the so-called Leningrad School, and Alexei Khavin, who was involved in creating the dissident magazine Perspektiva, joined the commune. Then the commune gradually became a refuge for Leningrad hippies and various acquaintances who were looking for temporary housing or simply а “crash pad.”
Alexander Skobov and Felix Vinogradov outside the Leningrad University history department, circa 1976–1977. Photo courtesy of the Iofe Foundation
One of the motives for founding an “island of liberty” like the commune on Primorsky was the desire to live an independent life and leave home.
“It was a way of dropping out of society,” Skobov said in a 1991 interview.
The commune was created not simply as vehicle for internal emigration and distancing from Soviet reality, but also as an alternative cultural and ideological space based on establishing certain shared values of freedom and mocking certain existing official norms. This was expressed even in the commune’s interior decor, including yellow walls with wild strawberries drawn on them and homemade ironic posters that played off Soviet and western symbols. The parodic decrees and decisions issued by the Yellow Submarine and its separate “holds,” as well as poems and songs that turned propagandistic clichés inside out, were an ironic response to the meaningless words of the official Soviet discourse. One inhabitant of the commune on Primorsky, Igor Malsky, even claimed that the communards collectively invented the folklore genre “sadistic verse.” The peak of the commune’s creative powers is considered the “rock poem” “Lazha” (“Crap”), among whose characters one can recognize the residents of the Yellow Submarine.
Felix Vinogradov, Seal of the Yellow Submarine commune, 1977. Image courtesy of Felix and Maria Vinogradov
In an interview with us, Skobov said that his idea, subsequently, of engaging in political activity, printing flyers, etc., came to him while living in the commune. Many participants named as their motive for moving into the commune the “total crap,” i.e., the lies that surrounded the celebrations of the October Revolution’s sixtieth anniversary and the adoption of the new Soviet constitution [in 1977]. As for revolutionary sentiments, Skobov said that those went no further than kitchen table conversations “berating the authorities.”
Daily life in the commune took shape as in a large family: arguments periodically arose among its inhabitants. The commune was supported by various means, but everyone tried to contribute in accordance with the main rule, “a little bit from everyone each day”: one person received a university stipend, another was working, while a third person “dragged it out of their parents.” The refuge itself was a two-story wooden house whose first floor belonged to the “dissidents,” and the second to the “hippies.”
“Two rooms, two kitchens, a wooden staircase. All of it was quite exotic, except for the fact that the decor was even more exotic,” Skobov said when describing the interior. The commune residents took care of decorating and the “cozy touches” themselves.
We can divide the commune into two ideological centers: those who took part in publishing Perspektiva magazine (which was originally Skobov’s initiative), and those who were “Soviet hippies.” For example, Felix Vinogradov, one of the commune’s founders, was interested exclusively in the cultural aspect of the process—art, music, lifestyle, and language. All of it was inspired by western ideas of nonconformism, hence his choice of name for the commune. His opposite number was Alexei Khavin, another striking member of the Primorsky scene. He was actively involved in the protest movement: he typed up leaflets on a typewriter in the commune and wrote articles criticizing the government for Perspektiva. Khavin was eager to go beyond kitchen conversations and do something more concrete.
The confrontation between the inhabitants of the first and second floors of the commune—the more bourgeois “upper level” and the anarchic “lower level”—at times began to resemble the intensity of a cold civil war, complete with mutual insults, reproaches, and accusations. [Andrei Antonenko and Felix Vinogradov, press release for the exhibition The Yellow Submarine Commune, 1977–2007]
This internal division could not but determine the community’s fate. Felix Vinogradov was the first to leave the house on Primorsky, followed by almost all the hippies.
The KGB took an interest in our magazine: its destruction was imminent, and our commune was threatened along with it. They didn’t nab us at the house itself. The thing was that its residents felt that something was brewing and departed to their own homes. My friend from the university, an idealistic hippie, rented apartments for the commune with me, and his father was a colonel in the Border Guards, and they were under the KGB. He worked in [the KGB’s famous local headquarters] on Liteiny Prospect. It was then a rather widespread phenomenon, not only here but also in Europe: the children of wealthy parents and security forces officers turned into hippies. And so this hippie’s dad pulled up to the house in a small truck filled with soldiers. They loaded up his things and drove him and his wife away. The others understood what was going on, and they left too. [Alexander Skobov, “Our Oppositional Communism Was an Oddity”]
Alexander Skobov, Tatiana Komarova, and Felix Vinogradov, 1977. Photo courtesy of Felix and Marina Vinogradov
The only residents remaining were those who were primarily interested in publishing Perspektiva and were organizing a meeting of opposition groups, which the New Left group planned to hold on the Karelian Isthmus. But because information about the upcoming meeting was leaked to the KGB, the group’s members were also forced to urgently remove everything from the commune having to do with their political activities. Alexander Skobov and Arkady Tsurkov were soon arrested, and the apartments of other members of the New Left group were searched, while the house on Primorsky Prospect was completely abandoned. After the dissidents left their Yellow Submarine, the house was razed, and no photos of it remain. But the phenomenon of the Yellow Submarine commune itself is one of the most striking examples of the “islands of freedom” adrift in the space of Soviet Leningrad.
I exit the remand prison on Shpalernaya Street—and find myself in a sunny downpour. From inside, the storm seemed much darker. (Many things probably seem much darker inside the prison.). I stand under the awning of Center “E” and look across the road at the prison, dazzling in silver drops from the sky, in the spray made by the wheels of passing cars. I’m under the awning and safe, but my feet are getting a little wet. For a short time the street is quiet, there are no people or cars. A small rainbow falls directly on Shpalernaya from the sky, vanishing in a few minutes.
I will tell Vitya [Viktor Filinkov] about this when we meet, just I told him about the bat that flies at night in the courtyard near the prison. And he told me how a pigeon had flown into their prison cell and landed on his trousers, and how he and his cellmate had caught it by donning plastic bags. They had chased it out of the window and fed it prison bread.
About the verdict.* Vitya had received it on Thursday and immediately read it, but he hadn’t looked at it again. Tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, he plans to write and send an appeal. When I asked him to comment on the verdict, he could not say anything printable—he cursed loudly and waved his hands. When I asked him one more time to make a publishable statement on the matter, he slumped his head on the table. That was when I realized that it was his verdict and his seven years in prison, and he could comment or not comment on them as he wished.
He will write an appeal, of course, there is no doubt about it. Although he doesn’t feel like doing it at all: he says that he is always busy with something, and there is not enough time. He reads a lot about math (I only remember something about graph theory, but there are a lot of other topics), devises assignments for a training course on “pogromming,” and studies English. He’s apparently in good health, and his mood is also cheerful. However, the last couple of weeks he has had increased problems with sleep. He falls asleep in the morning, when it is already time to get up. (And this is despite the fact that since February, he has been taking drugs that should also level out his sleep.)
The censor is on vacation, and for three weeks, Vitya has received no letters from the outside world. (I don’t think he is able to send letters, either). But he gets Novaya Gazeta once a week, so Vitya is more or less aware of all the news. The library has been undergoing repairs of some kind, so a month ago, Vitya and his cellmate had to return all their library books, but they cannot take out new ones yet.
Update (added here from the comments). The coronavirus restrictions, imposed in early April, have almost all been lifted: the receipt of care packages and parcels has resumed, as well as visits with relatives. Meetings with lawyers no longer take place through glass, but all visitors must still wear masks and gloves. The mysterious “cleaning day” on Friday, when lawyers cannot visit clients, is also still in place.
*The verdict has been mailed to Vitaly [Cherkasov] and me by mail, and is still on its way, but Olga Krivonos has posted it here, so you can read it.
Photo by and courtesy of Jenya Kulakova. Translated by the Russian Reader. Please read my previous posts on Viktor Filinkov and the Network Case (see below), and go to Rupression.com to find out how you can show your solidarity with him and the other defendants in the case. All of them now face long terms in prison unless their guilty verdicts are reversed on appeal, which is not going to happen as long as the current regime remains in power, unfortunately.
What would the flowers say if they could? They would demand the release of Yulia Tsvetkova, of course! The reproductive organs of all living beings are important and worthy of respect, and disseminating information about them is not a crime. This is clear to everyone, from the youngest begonia tubers to the huge redwoods. The time has come for people to understand this. And if, instead of persecuting female activists, the law enforcement agencies of the Russian Federation would take up gardening, how pretty the world would be! Elect a Scotch marigold president and begonias to parliament! Grow your own gardens! Leave others alone! Free Yulia Tsvetkova!
Caution! Your children could see the sexual organs of these French marigolds!
These daisies demand an end to the persecution of Yulia Tsvetkova!
These nettles support sex education for children, adults, and police officers.
You can use the stamens and pistils of these lilies explain to children where they came from and not go to prison for it.
These smart violets know that a schematic drawing of a vulva is not pornography.
These Scotch marigolds insist that you should plant flowers, not jail female artists.
These petunias permit you to seek and disseminate information about the female reproductive system.
Yulia Tsvetkova’s surname is based on the Russian word for “flower,” tsvet. You can read more about the Putinist state’s case against her and join the international solidarity campaign that has arisen in her defense at Free Yulia Tsvetkova. Thanks to Darya Apahonchich. Translated by the Russian Reader
Moving along from street to street, the tram gains speed, brakes, stops and lets passengers out and on. They make for a seat or stay on their feet, leaning against the doors or hanging from the handles above. Then the tram gets underway, off to the next stop. The down-to-earth driver talks about her job and her life in St. Petersburg (still known as Leningrad when the film was made), the second biggest city in Russia. As she drives, she is filmed from above so we get to look her in the eye. The expressions of her passengers are also captured as they peer out the window, look at one another, read the paper, daydream or just stare off into space. This is all about observing and being observed, a game that Russian documentarian Lyudmila Stanukinas loves to play. She intercuts the microcosm of the tram with telling observations from outside: a statue filmed through the trees, and the rippling water of the Neva River, the bubbling heart of the city. Stanukinas develops a Russian variation on direct cinema, combining it with the visual poetry of city symphonies from the 1930s, made by countrymen such as Dziga Vertov. Though this is the Soviet Union of the 1970s, communism seems far away for the moment. For now, it’s all about the day-to-day goings on in the tram. (Kinoglaz)
[Voiceover] That’s how it goes. I drive myself around in the morning, the car is half-empty. Familiar places that I ran around as a child. Before the war, my mother also worked on the trams as a conductor out of the Leonov Depot.
That is where I went to kindergarten.
I love my tram, I love it more than any other job. If you do a good job of getting ready and get a good night’s sleep, it’s a joy to work. I’m rarely in a bad mood. Although one of our drivers says that going to work is like walking uphill. For me, it’s like walking downhill.
It’s always quiet in the car in the morning. My passengers are half asleep, half dozing. They’re not talkative now. That’s okay: by evening, they’ll be talking up a storm. It’s quiet. They’re reading newspapers.
My kids, Zhenka and Galya, also want to be tram drivers. Zhenka can oversleep and be late for school, but s/he will come to meet my tram, even at night.
[Newspaper headline] “A strategy for peaceful coexistence”
Oh, look how many people the subway has coughed up: it’s a throng.
Sometimes, a passenger is coming to getting on my tram, supposedly, but they move so lazily, in no hurry, flailing around trying to figure out what door to enter. I immediately get angry and close the doors. You have to decide right away whether you’re getting on or not. A passenger who is slow on the uptake. In the evening, I wait for all of them to get on: they have to make it home. It’s a long wait between trams.
Soon the commercial workers will go to work: their time is approaching.
What’s it going to be, old woman? Are you and I going to avoid a collision?
People are like pigeons. They don’t hurry and they don’t fly. And they walk on the tracks. I read them. I don’t take my eyes off them. They always run out onto the tram tracks, thinking it’s a safe area. So, I have to think for them in order to save their lives. You need to have a sense of pedestrians, of which ones will run out on the tracks, and which won’t.
I love the morning shift. At twelve o’clock that’s it: you have the whole day ahead of you. You still have time to cook lunch.
[Loudspeaker] “The next stop is Nevsky Prospect. . . Transit tickets are available for sale.”
They keep traveling. Some have caught up on their sleep, while others are headed to the night shift. Why do they keep on traveling? Where are they going?
Our interactions with people are very limited. That’s why I suffer heart and soul over the fact I can’t chat with them. I watch them in silence: that is my only way of interacting and getting to know them.
Our work is not so nerve-wracking. It just requires maximum concentration. Basically, you have to like people. If you don’t like them you might jam them in the doors. You have to keep your eyes peeled the whole time. When I sneeze and my eyes close, I get scared. When I close my eyes, the car can travel eight meters in that instant, but there is no way I can sneeze with my eyes open. Soon the tram would be going sixty kilometers an hour, and then, I think, I could run someone over.
I remember the war, the Siege [of Leningrad]. I remember that Mom would lock me in our room. I was very afraid when the sky blazed red. The neighbor lady would be cooking wood glue [to eat], and it smelled really delicious.
[Title] Wednesday: shift from 1:06 p.m. to 5:41 p.m.
What weather today! It’s the most typical Leningrad weather.
Now there are more female passengers, including old women, wallets in hand, going to the market. They’re a cagey lot: potential nannies, who are in short supply.
Here, on the fifth floor, my child draws blueprints. It’s been a month since my daughter Galka became an adult.
Everybody bothers the elderly passengers. Why are you traveling during working hours? Are you having trouble sleeping? Once, this one old woman was standing next to the door. People kept asking whether she was getting off. She kept answering, “I’m thinking about whether this is my stop.” Finally, everyone lost their cool and told her to get off. She said, “I’ll get off, I’ll get off, dears, it’s a big day.” It was like a comedy.
I think I’m the first to see “natural phenomena”: how people dress, what the fashions are, what the trends in colors are. It all happens right before my eyes. I manage to see everything. If a housewife is drinking tea on the second floor, I see what she’s having with it.
Galka and I often talk about life and love. Galya keeps asking me, “How do you get to know a person?” Spend more time talking to them, I tell her. Their personality will come out, they’ll reveal themselves.
[Title] Friday: shift from 6:30 p.m. to 12:49 a.m.
My No. 40 tram sails through the city. People keep waiting and waiting. They keep putting their hands over their eyes to see whether the tram is coming.
When my children were little, I would tell them poetically, “When dusk descends on the city, the tram’s green eyes light up.” Yes, she’s a fashionable one, my No. 40. [Leningrad-Petersburg trams use a system of two lights and a combination of four colors—red, blue, green, and yellow—to indicate their numbers in the dark. The code for Tram No. 40 is two green lights.]
I tell Galka that, in my opinion, unofficially, behind the scenes, a matriarchy exists: you have to raise not only your kids, but your husband as well. You’ve got to plan the weekend. He’s not going to think about where to go, what to take along. You have to make all the preparations and discuss everything. Basically, the way the woman organizes life is how it’s going to be.
How marvelous! The cold is so palpable. When there are fireworks here, we travel slowly along this section, and even the passengers don’t want me to go faster. You can see how beautiful it is. Just imagine: our city stands on one hundred islands. And all the bridges: there are almost six hundred of them. Where else can you find a marvel like our city?
In the evening, there is light in the windows and you see what kind of furniture people have, how they’ve decorated their places in their own way, the way they feel it. On Science Prospect there is a small room whose walls are lined with bookcases. When I drive by in the evening, I always look at it.
We really love the opera, we go to the ballet and to hear music. When we go to a concert and take Zhenka with us, and I see on the program that there will be an evening of organ music, I manage to read the entire program, trying to calculate when Galka and I will have an evening off.
My Galka doesn’t use make-up or paint her face. That’s my influence. By the way, she doesn’t like perfume or cologne. She likes it when people don’t smell of anything, like clean dishes.
It happens that, when you’re returning to the depot in the evening or even late at night, some people feel like chatting, but usually acquaintances are not struck up then. Sometimes, though, you look in the mirror, to take a break for a second, and wink back. The drivers sometimes make eyes at each other, too. It’s okay—if they like each other’s looks, if they’re working the same route. Generally, though, I put on a strict, official face: when I’m driving I don’t give anyone cause to make eyes at me.
[Loudspeaker] “The next stop is Labor Square.”
Those two will be out all night. The wanderers and the strays ride the trams in the evening.
Transcribed and translated by the Russian Reader, with timely assistance from Comrade Koganzon. To help me continue translating and editing this website you can donate at your discretion at paypal.me/avvakum.
Lyudmila Stanukinas, the film’s director, died in Jerusalem on July 8, 2020, at the age of 89. Her distinguished career as a documentary filmmaker included a series of films about famous Soviet writers, actors, and musicians, as well as Moving Day (1970), which won a Silver Dragon at the 7th Krakow International Short Film Festival. Viktor Kossakovsky has made a film about Stanukinas and her husband the filmmaker Pavel Kogan, the award-winning Pavel and Lyalya (1998).
The 1973 Leningrad Public Transport Route Map. Although Lyudmila Grigorovich, the narrator and heroine of A Tram Runs Through the City, says that she is driving the No. 40 tram, its route, neither nowadays nor in 1973, has ever passed through all the stops she calls out in the film, which are located in very different parts of the city.