Petersburg Activist Faces Criminal Investigation for Posting “Fake News” About Coronavirus

Criminal Investigation Launched Against Activist in Petersburg for Post About Coronavirus
Sever.Realii (Radio Svoboda)
April 3, 2020

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Activist Anna Shushpanova has been placed under criminal investigation for disseminating fake information about the coronavirus. Officers of the Investigative Committee are searching her home, according to activist Krasimir Vransky. His report to Sever.Realii has been corroborated by Shushpanova’s sister Alyona.

Investigative Committee officers arrived at the Shushpanova home around 5 p.m. According to Alyona, her sister was shown the order to open the investigation. The officer are currently searching the home and have confiscated Anna Shushpanova’s telephone and computer. There are five Investigative Committee officers in the apartment. According to Alyona, the criminal investigation was launched due to a post Anna had published on the VK group page Sestroretsk Activist Group [Sestroretskii akvtiv].

According to Vransky, on April 2, Shushpanova posted information that a local outpatient medical clinic had, allegedly, sent home a patient diagnosed with the coronavirus who was exhibiting mild symptoms. The doctor who allegedly let the person with the coronavirus go home could have been asked to resign voluntarily. The incident was reported to Shushpanova by a local resident who witnessed the alleged situation.

“[Shushpanova] is a voting member of the local election commission, so there are special procedures for her. That is probably why the Investigative Committee came to her house. Instead of doctors who may have been negligent, they harass an activist,” said Vransky.

On Tuesday (March 31, 2020), the Federation Council approved the law on criminal liability  for spreading “fake news” about the coronavirus.

For spreading knowingly false information about the infection, the law stipulates a fine of 300,000 to 700,000 rubles [approx. 3,600 to 8,500 euros], one year of community service or three years’ imprisonment. If spreading the fake news caused harm to a person’s health, the stipulated criminal penalties are more severe: a fine of 700,000 to 1.5 million rubles [approx. 18,000 euros], three years of forced labor or three years’ imprisonment. If a person dies, a a fine of 1.5 million to 2 million rubles [approx. 27,000 euros], five years of forced labor or five years’ imprisonment are stipulated.

Thanks to Grigory Mikhnov-Vaytenko for the heads-up. Photo of Shushpanova courtesy of Grani.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader

Doctors at Petersburg Hospital Rebel over Coronavirus Unpreparedness

Doctors at Pokrovskaya Hospital in Petersburg Rebel over Lack of Protective Equipment, Oxygen and Drugs
Fontanka.ru
April 3, 2020

Doctors at Pokrovskaya Hospital have recorded a collective video message appealing for help. After their hospital was redesignated to treat patients with pneumonia, they do not have enough protective equipment and medications, and they claim not to have running oxygen in the wards. Management had threatened reprisals if they complained.

“We, employees of Pokrovskaya Hospital, appeal to the media for help. What prompted us to do this is that our hospital has been admitting all the pneumonia cases [in Petersburg], including pneumonia caused by the coronavirus. We have no protective equipment. What you see us wearing is no means of protection against viral infection,” begins the video message, which Fontanka.ru received on April 3.

“We are not refusing to work. We love our patients and want everyone to recover. But it is not possible to work in such unprotected conditions. No one is immune to infection. Nor does the status of doctor protect one: the virus is not selective. It spares no one: neither doctors, nor young people, nor the elderly,” the doctors said.

According to them, oxygen is required for the treatment of viral pneumonia, but there is no running supply of it to the wards at Pokrovskaya Hospital. Either this must be done urgently or oxygen tanks must be provided. The hospital does not have the necessary medications. The doctors say that management has already refused to help them, and has promised to “deal” with anyone who complains.

“But we are not afraid, because our lives and the lives of our loved ones are also dear to us. All of us have families, all of us return home after our shifts. And we want to go back to work healthy, and for the people near and dear to us to be healthy,” said the doctors.

The city’s public health committee has promised to comment on the situation later.

Thanks to Victoria Andreyeva for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Employees at Pokrovskaya Hospital recorded a video message about the lack of protective equipment. Their management says this is not true
Bumaga
April 3, 2020

Employees of the Pokrovskaya Hospital in Petersburg, which has been repurposed to treat patients with pneumonia, recorded a video message complaining about working conditions, as reported by Fontanka.ru.

In the video, employees talk about the lack of personal protective equipment, and also note that oxygen has not been supplied to the wards (to operate ventilators). Marina Bakholdina, head physician at Pokrovskaya Hospital, says that what her staff claimed was “not true.”

The city’s public health committee has commented on the appeal by the employees—they say that Pokrovskaya Hospital does not admit patients with the coronavirus. The committee explained that pneumonia is not an infectious disease, so doctors do not need anti-plague suits [sic] to work with patients.

At the same time, the committee admitted that the hospital does not have enough personal protective equipment.

Public Health Committee Press Service

In Petersburg, as in the rest of the world, there is a shortage of personal protective equipment. However, the city is increasing the volume of personal protective equipment. In the near future, the Ministry of Industry and Trade is planning to supply personal protective equipment to all regions of Russia, including Petersburg.

Earlier, the cardiology department at Pokrovskaya Hospital was closed for quarantine due to a patient with COVID-19.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Bless This Mess

metropolitanMetropolitan Varsofonius and his crew. Photo by Andrei Petrov. Courtesy of the St. Petersburg Archdiocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and Fontanka.ru

“Above All, We Must Repent Our Sins”: Petersburg Metropolitan Flies over City with Icon and Prayer Against Coronavirus
Fontanka.ru
March 31, 2020

Metropolitan Varsofonius of Saint Petersburg and Ladoga, following the example of his colleague in Leningrad Region, flew over the city in a helicopter. From the air, he prayed for an end to the epidemic.

This was reported on the metropolitan’s website on March 31. Varsofonius took on board an icon [sic] of the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan after holding a service in front of it at Kazan Cathedral.

“An aircraft containing the reigning archbishop and clergymen flew over the borders of the Northern Capital, crisscrossing its historical part, while a molieben and the akathist of the Intercession of the Theotokos were sung,” the metropolitan’s press service wrote of the devotional flyover.

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The metropolitan emerged from the helicopter with the thought that the ubiquitous virus was a signal that “we [were] not living right.” Varsofonius advised us to take the quarantine as a time to reflect on our lives.

“Let’s not despair. All troubles pass—this too shall pass, and life will return to normal. Most importantly, we must repent of our sins and mend our ways, and the Lord will send deliverance,” Varsofonius concluded.

Two days earlier, a prayer flight passed over Leningrad Region. Bishop Ignatius of Vyborg and Priozersk took on board an icon of the Mother of God of Konevits and the relics of Saint Arsenius of Konevits.

Translated by the Russian Reader

COVIDarity in Petersburg

COVIDarity
In self-isolation, Petersburgers read stories to children over the phone, hang out in online bars, and deliver free food to the elderly
Tatyana Likhanova
Novaya Gazeta
March 25, 2020

There are only penguins about, and they all look the same! You wouldn’t be able to pick out your own mom. And the snow is blinding, your beak is frozen, and your fins are tired. If you think you have problems it’s just because you’ve never been a little penguin in icy Antarctica. He lucked out in the end, however. He found a wise walrus who showed him how to find meaning and a source of strength in everything, to see beauty and come to the understanding that everyone has hard days, but no one can live our lives better than we can. Jory John’s Penguin Problems is one of the books that librarians in Petersburg’s Frunze District now read over the phone to housebound kids.

And not only children—there was a case when a depressed 25-year-old man asked the librarians to cheer him up with a story, and they did. The ten minutes when he became a child again, feeling warm and safe and protected, were the best medicine.

The project has a backstory. Fifteen years ago or so, one of the current on-duty storytellers, Marina, got a call on her home phone from a girl who was bored and dialing numbers at random. Marina read her a story, and the girl began calling every day to listen to one.

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Library storytellers Marina, Veronika, and Serafima. Photo courtesy of social media and Novaya Gazeta

When we were children, there was such a service—Stories by Phone—but it was a paid service and involved no choice or live communication. The voice on the other end of the phone was a recording.

Today’s Telephone Tales are read for free, but the storyteller’s most important duty is to help children feel that they are not alone, they are fun to be with, and the questions occupying them are important. The actual reading of a story usually takes around ten minutes, but a single call can last as long as forty minutes, as happened when Marina read a poem to an inquisitive child who kept having questions. Marina had to tell the child who legionnaires, musketeers, and cowboys were.

Children usually let the storytellers choose books for them. You cannot worry about the outcome with such excellent pilots in the world of children’s literature. Some children hear Ekaterina Panfilova’s The Ashones: A Tale from the Branch of a Rowan Bush, a glorious story of elves who bring comfort, the smell of buns spread with rowan berry jam, and a sense of security to a home. Others are treated to Karel Čapek’s stories of his wire fox terrier puppy Dashenka, poems by Mikhail Yasnov and Artur Givargizov, or something from the works of Roald Dahl or Nina Dashevskaya.

The three library storytellers—Marina Terekhova, Veronika Makarova, and Serafima Andreyeva—read only on weekdays:

  • Marina reads from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; call +7 (921) 595-1596.
  • Veronika reads from 12 to 3 p.m.; call +7 (911) 937-9849.
  • Serafima reads from 3 to 6 p.m.; call +7 (931) 357-5041.

Adults Only
While children are listening to stories read over the phone, adults now have the chance to drink and chat with a motley band of people without leaving home. In Petersburg, a fictional street featuring a dozen virtual drinking establishments could become an alternative to the “restaurant street” on Rubinstein. You can visit the online bar, the brainchild of Mikhail Shishkin, the director of a creative agency, at this link. When you click on one of the neon signs, you end up in a particular group video chat. Depending on the joint’s “capacity,” your screen will be divided into several windows (from four to twelve, depending to number of participants). It’s BYOB, as they say, with everyone drinking what they pour in their own non-virtual kitchens.

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The main page of the virtual Stay the Fuck Home Bar

The idea was a good one: the Petersburg online bar has been gaining popularity in different Russian cities and abroad. A week after it opened, it has not been so easy to find a free spot. As for the patrons, it’s the luck of the draw. There are interesting interlocutors, but you can run into a boorish jerk, just as in real life.

We Are Responsible for Those We Have Fed
Spouses Alexandra Sinyak and Yevgeny Gershevich are owners of Dobrodomik, a cafe that had been providing free daily lunches to as many as three hundred elderly people. Due to the coronavirus, it had to stop its Grateful Lunches for Pensioners campaign.

“But with their miserly pensions, our elderly patrons have grown accustomed to not spending money on groceries to make lunch, and so we can’t stop helping them overnight. Therefore, all the pensioners who visited Dobrodomik can call Alexandra, and we will be happy to bring them food,” the owners announced on the cafe’s social media pages.

Thanks to support from their partners at AgroInvest, Dobrodomik (“Good House”) was able to give away one ton of fruits and vegetables during the campaign’s first week.

The help arrives quickly. On March 20, 83-year-old Nina Zakatova wrote that she was running rather low on food, and it was hard for her to go out. On March 21, she found a full box of produce on her doorstep, including potatoes, onions, cabbage, apple, tomatoes, and tangerines.

In addition to distributing fruits and vegetables, the campaign delivered one hundred food parcels in its first week. Each parcel contained bread, milk, chicken, vegetable oil, pasta, rice, buckwheat, canned peas, and cucumbers.

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An elderly woman with a food delivery from Dobrodomik. Photo courtesy of social media and Novaya Gazeta

“An elderly person comes downstairs, you give them food, and in return you get a look that cannot be described in words,” the instructions continue. “You send a photo of the receipt and, preferably, a photo of a happy elderly person to Dobrodomik, and we will reimburse you.”

Of course, you can buy and deliver food without being reimbursed, if you have the means. Or you can donate money to Dobrodomik using the details on their website.  Or you can help with deliveries. You can also help clean the apartments of elderly people who live alone and cannot manage themselves, or you can help with repairs (Dobrodomik also offers this service), either by buying building materials or taking part in the repairs if you’re handy. Finally, you can donate unwanted clothes, shoes, and appliances.

Helping Is Easy—Easy Peasy
Meanwhile, a whole big family of other equally good houses has come under attack by the evil coronavirus—the ceramic houses produced by Petersburg in Miniature, a project run by the charity space Easy Peasy (Legko-Legko). The houses were made by disabled people in Easy Peasy’s studio on Bolshaya Pushkarskaya, but now the workers cannot get to the studio.

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A replica of the ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska’s mansion on the Petrograd Side in Petersburg, as produced by Easy Peasy’s disable craftspeople. Image courtesy of Petersburg in Miniature

Easy Peasy’s Tatyana Nayko made the following suggestion to people on the Facebook group page Petrograd Diaspora:

“I have an idea. Would historians, art scholars, tour guides, and journalists help us write the stories of buildings on the Petrograd Side? We will post the texts on our website and on social networks. During the quarantine, we will design new miniatures to go with your texts. Write to us about the houses where you live or about buildings that mean something to you, that are dear to your heart. People who are staying at home can entertain themselves while benefiting our project. We have to share our love of Petersburg with everyone now. Let’s write and then read the stories we have written about the houses we live in and the people who have lived in them.”

The same group page, Petrograd Diaspora, also published an announcement that Konstantin Sholmov’s Wonders and Adventures Creative Workshop would be releasing a series of entertaining video lectures on crafts for children. The first lecture (about the properties of different types of wood and ways of working and experimenting with them) has already been posted on YouTube.

Another area in which new grassroots campaigns have emerged is support for small and medium-sized businesses. Groups urging people to buy, order, and eat in their neighborhoods have been proliferating on social media.

The owners of a cafeteria on Aptekarsky Prospect have suggested that neighborhood residents organize themselves through the chat groups of residential buildings and office space renters in the same office buildings to avoid overpaying for orders when they are delivered by third parties. The cafeteria owners are willing to pay for delivery of bulk orders made by these groups.

Heads-Up
Together with the volunteer movement COVIDarity, Novaya Gazeta has launched the COVID Infobot on Telegram. This chatbot allows people to get prompt consultations on questions regarding the spread of the coronavirus in Russia. You can use the bot to see the latest infection statistics and read quick guides about symptoms and prevention. You can also use it to get help, for example, with buying or ordering groceries for someone in self-isolation, consulting with a psychologist, and finding out where to buy protective equipment. Your requests will be forwarded to the volunteers at COVIDarity.

Translated by the Russian Reader

In the Land of Great Achievements

IMG_6258“Citizens! Given our level of indifference, this side of life is the most dangerous!”

Sergei Medvedev
Facebook
March 14, 2020

The cowardly “recommendations” of [Moscow Mayor Sergei] Sobyanin and the Defense Ministry regarding “voluntary attendance” of schools and universities instead of closing them altogether is a very bad sign. It means the authorities fear panic more than the virus itself and have chosen a cowardly hybrid strategy for evading responsibility. “Parents in this case know better,” it says in Sobyanin’s decree. Hang on a minute! This means parents will decide whether their children become potential carriers of the virus, not doctors or the federal epidemic headquarters. This is not just absurd, it is criminal. Just as you cannot be a little bit pregnant, you cannot declare a partial, optional quarantine. Either there is a quarantine or there isn’t one. Even one person who is not quarantined upsets the whole system.

It seems the authorities are torn between the growing need for a full quarantine (as the avalanche of news from abroad can no longer be hidden) and the impossibility of taking this step. The impossibility, as it seems to me, is purely technical: Russia simply does not have the level of governmental and public organization, the kind of screening, testing, equipment, discipline, and strict enforcement of the law that we have seen in China and,  in part, in Italy. Can you imagine the Moscow subway being closed? It would be a disaster not just for the city but for the country: if this megalopolis of twenty million people ground to a halt, it would be like cardiac arrest for the whole country. And secondly, for purely political reasons you cannot declare a state of emergency before April 22 [the scheduled date of a nationwide “referendum” on proposed changes to the Russian constitution] and May 9 [the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory in WWII]. They must be marked in the pompous atmosphere of national holidays, not in the post-apocalyptic trappings of Wuhan, dressed in hazmat suits, getting doused with chlorhexidine.

Therefore there will be no quarantine, only cowardly half-measures like voluntary school attendance, “recommendations” for cutting down on public events (when the authorities want to ban a protest rally, they ban it, with no ifs, ands or buts), the partial restrictions on air travel (just take the ridiculous ban on flights to Europe, but not to the UK, dear to the hearts of oligarchs and members of parliament because they have children, families, and houses there), and so forth. Excuse the pun, but the regime has washed its hands of the problem and told the population that it is to up to the drowning to save themselves. You decide how to protect yourselves, and if something happens, well, we gave you “recommendations,” so we’re off the hook.

Meanwhile, the populace has been eating up tall tales about “just another flu,” reposting memes about more people dying every year from mosquito bites, shaming “alarmists” and “hysterics,” and leading a carefree life. It’s the typical infantile reaction of an unfree, patriarchal, closed society, which denies threats, displaces fear, and is ostentatiously careless.

Meanwhile, the virus has been here for a long time already, and hardly anyone believes the ridiculous figures of 59 people infected in a country of 146 million that is open on all sides. (Before the quarantine went into effect in China, the Chinese freely walked and drove back and forth over the Amur River in Russia’s Far East, while in European Russia, tens of thousands of our compatriots traveled to and from the most infected regions of Europe throughout February and March.) The longer this goes on, the more ridiculous the official figures will be, but the real figures will be ferreted away in overall mortality statistics for the elderly, among figures for “seasonal flu” and “community-acquired pneumonia,” while death certificates will contain phrases like “acute heart failure,” which is what they also write when someone is tortured to death. Just try and object: heart failure really did occur, and facts don’t lie!

I remember the terrible summer of 2010, when there was a heat wave, and the forests were on fire. Moscow swam in a scalding smog, and up to 40,000 old people died, according to unofficial estimates. Among them was my 83-year-old father. When the policeman came, wiping the sweat from his face, to a draw up the death report, he lowered his voice and told me that his precinct alone had been processing hundreds of people day, and that there were tens of thousands of such people citywide. However, there were no statistics on heatwave-induced deaths: the whole thing was disappeared into the usual causes of death for old people.

So, I’m afraid we will remain in the mode of “voluntary attendance,” of voluntary quarantines and voluntary mortality, a regime in which even getting diagnosed will be voluntary because we are the freest country in the world! The regime’s evasion of responsibility, the mighty smokescreen concealing the epidemic’s true scale, and the habitual carelessness of the populace (aggravated by the atomization of Russian society, its low levels of social capital, the absence of trust, discipline, and social solidarity, and the Gulag principle of “you die today, I die tomorrow”) will all boomerang back on us. Yes, the epidemic will reach its natural limits by summer, and maybe Merkel is right that sixty to seventy percent of the population will be infected, and many of these people will not even suspect they are sick. At the same time, however, not only will the [Russian] constitution and Putin’s [previous] terms [as president] be nullified, but so will many lives that could have been saved if not for the things mentioned above. But when did human lives ever count for anything in the land of great achievements?

Sergei Medvedev teaches at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Thanks to Elena Zaharova for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Fedor Pogorelov: “A grand charge. We’re all going to die!” Footage of Zenit fans chanting “We’re all going to die” on March 14 at Gazprom Arena Petersburg.

 

Thousands of Zenit Fans Chant “We’re All Going to Die” at Match
Radio Svoboda
March 15, 2020

More than 30,000 fans attended Saturday’s match in St. Petersburg between Zenit and Ural in the Russian football championship. It was one of the last mass events in the city before restrictions were imposed due to the coronavirus infection. The restrictive measures come into force on March 16.

Fans of the Petersburg club chanted “We’re all going to die” several times.

They also hung up a banner reading “We’re all sick with football and will die for Zenit.” It is reported that the fans had their temperature checked. Zenit won the match with a score of 7-1.

Despite the threat of the coronavirus, the Russian Football League did not cancel matches this weekend. However, the possibility of taking a pause in the championship has been discussed. All the major European leagues have already announced a break, and play in the Champions League and the Europa League has also been suspended. On March 17, UEFA will discuss whether to postpone the European championship until next years.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Don’t Protest Here

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Petersburg historic preservationists gathering for a “sanctioned” protest near the Sports and Concert Complex (SKK), a late-Soviet era landmark in southern Petersburg that recently collapsed while being illegally dismantled, killing one worker. Photo by Sergei Yermokhin. Courtesy of Delovoi Peterburg

Don’t Rally Here: It Will Be More Difficult for Petersburg’s Historic Preservationists to Protest
Svyatoslav Afonkin
Delovoi Peterburg
March 11, 2020

The Petersburg Legislative Assembly is amending the city’s law on protest rallies. The rules for holding protests have become more complicated, especially for historic preservationists.

The city parliament passed in the second reading a new redaction of the law on protest rallies. Thanks to amendments introduced by the parliamentary majority, the minimum number of “Hyde Parks” [locations where it is legal to have public protests] has been reduced from eight, as stipulated in the first redaction of the draft law, to four. Moreover, the parliament’s legislative committee added another restriction: a ban on public events outside dilapidated buildings in danger of collapsing.

Several sites designated as “dangerous” have inflamed the passions of historic preservationists in recent months. The roof on the Petersburg Sport and Concert Complex (SKK) was deemed dangerous. The Basevich tenement building on the Petrograd Side, which has been threatened with demolition, is also considered dangerous. Protest rallies have recently taken place on more than one occasion at both sites. The resettled houses on Telezhnaya Street, which the Smolny [Petersburg city hall] wants to sell, have also been the focus of public attention once again.

Drone footage of the collapse of the Sport and Concert Complex (SKK) in Petersburg in January 2020. Courtesy of Fontanka.ru

Alexei Kovalyov, leader of the Just Russia faction in the legislative assembly and deputy chair of its commission on municipal facilities, urban planning, and land issues, argues that new language in the bill appeared for a reason.

“Of course this will be an obstacle for historic preservationists. Our faction opposed these cretinous amendments. There is no doubt that this is why the new norm was introduced. It was done deliberately,” Kovalyov told DP.

Anna Kapitonova, a member of the presidium of the Petersburg branch of VOOPIiK [Russian Society for the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Landmarks], noted that the amendments could make life more difficult for protest organizers: small protest rallies, such as a series of solo pickets, sometimes take place right on the sidewalks, after all. According to Kapitonova, the authorities were also able earlier to prevent even solo pickets on the pretext that scheduled maintenance or construction work was taking place nearby.

“Last year, I held a solo picket at the entrance to the Smolny. After a while, an official with the law enforcement committee came out of the building. Although the Smolny is hardly a dangerous site, scheduled maintenance of the facade was underway over fifty meters from my picket. But the official told me it was dangerous for me to be there, and asked me to move away,” Kapitonova said.

Denis Chetyrbok, head of the legislative assembly’s legislative committee, told DP that the amendments were introduced in connection with a Constitutional Court ruling, and parliamentarians had no other motives.

“If there is a dangerous building that might collapse located next to the place indicated in the [protest rally] application, then it will be difficult to secure approval for a public event,” Chetyrbok confirmed.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Making Women Visible: Russian Language Classes for Immigrants and Refugees in Petersburg

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Darya Apahonchich with students during class. Photo by Anna Shevardina. Courtesy of Radio Svoboda

“Making Women Visible”: Why Female Immigrants Stay at Home for Seven Years
Karina Merkurieva
Sever.Realii (Radio Svoboda)
March 7, 2020

“My husband and children and I came to Russia from Afghanistan over eight years ago. At first, I had no time to learn the language: I had to help the children and work at home, and then I was unable to find suitable courses. So this is only my second year studying Russian,” says Suraya.

Since she is shy about speaking Russian, she agrees only to a written interview. She has been studying Russian for a second year at courses for female immigrants and refugees in Petersburg. Classes are held at Open Space, a co-working space for social activists, and at two libraries. Groups are divided into several levels according to how well the students speak Russian.

In February, project organizer Darya Apahonchich announced the launch of a new group for beginners. According to her, she saw the need for such courses in 2018, when she worked for a similar project run by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“There were classes for children and adults. I taught Russian as a foreign language. The only problem was that only those who had official immigrant or refugee status could attend. In Russia, not everyone obtains this status. Another thing was that the course was limited in time. Not everyone was able to get the necessary minimum of Russian under their belt in this time,” Apahonchich says.

The group she led mostly consisted of women over the age of thirty.

“Young women who come to Russia at an earlier age and go to university have one set of opportunities. As soon as a woman becomes a mother, her set of opportunities decreases dramatically,” Apahonchich adds.

At one of the classes, a new student from Syria decided to join the group. In order for the students to get acquainted, Apahonchich suggested that everyone introduce themselves by telling what country they had come from, how long they had lived in Russia, and how long they had been studying Russian. It transpired that nearly all the women in the class had lived in Russia around seven years, but had only begun to study the language. According to them, they had no opportunity to study Russian before: they had to raise children. Working outside the home was not the custom in their native countries, so their husbands had not allowed them to take language classes.

apa-2A lesson in Darya Apahonchich’s group. Photo by Anna Shevardina. Courtesy of Radio Svoboda

“I was very shocked at the time. These women’s children have basically grown up in Russia: they know Russia on the level of native speakers, and make jokes more easily in Russian than in their native languages. The women have found themselves linguistically and culturally isolated, however. They stayed at home all those years. They didn’t even have a place to learn the language,” says Apahonchich.

When the Red Cross courses were coming to an end, Apahonchich suggested to the women that they should not quit their studies, but continue studying Russian elsewhere. They leapt at the suggestion.

“I realized that those woman would go back to their families, and that would be the end of their introduction to the Russian language. I didn’t want to let that happen,” she recalls.

Other groups and new teachers have subsequently emerged. The project currently encompasses four groups at different levels of proficiency. Classes are taught by eight volunteer teachers. Some of them, like Apahonchich, majored in Russian language pedagogy at university, while others are native Russian speakers with humanities backgrounds and experience teaching history or Spanish, for example.

“I wanted to create a horizontal structure in which each teacher could organize their own groups and take responsibility for the learning process,” says Apahonchich.

As a result, the teachers work autonomously: they find venues for holding classes on their own, and decide with their groups what topics would be interesting to discuss in class.

In her group, for example, Apahonchich focuses not only on teaching the Russian language, but also on the legal aspects of life as an immigrant in Russia. During classes, her students read brochures on how to behave if you are faced with aggression from the police, how to get a job, and how to rent an apartment without falling victim to fraud.

“Our all-female collective discusses issues related to health and doctor visits,” says Apahonchich.

According to Suraya from Afghanistan, this is one of her favorite topics.

“I also like to read texts about Russia and Petersburg, and discuss the weather and family. I really need this vocabulary when I pick up my daughter from kindergarten or go to the clinic. In the clinic, however, I often encounter aggression. The people at reception shout at me if I don’t immediately know what to say,” Suraya explains.

While the courses are more aimed at teaching Russian, the instructors sometimes also talk to the female immigrants about women’s rights.

“Right now, the easiest way, I think, to get women out of linguistic and cultural isolation is to get them into the world of work. That way they could learn Russian more quickly, adapt socially, and make new friends. At the same time, we have before our very eyes the example of women from Central Asia who come to Russia to work and eventually find themselves separated from their families. That is the other extreme. For the time being, I just want these women to stop being invisible. Currently, the majority of the Russian populace doesn’t even suspect how many female immigrants live in cultural isolation in their country,” says Apahonchich.

According to the UNHCR, about 220,000 refugees and persons with temporary asylum status were registered in Russia in 2019. Most of those people came from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, and Yemen.

Thanks to Darya Apahonchich for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader