Over the Transom

From a friend in Leningrad:

“L. and I got our second covid shot today. There are no queues here. The majority of the population, as you know, is afraid and has no plans to be vaccinated, and no public awareness campaign is underway. L. telephoned the clinic, and they signed us up for the next day!”

Meanwhile, according to the Moscow Times, the pollocracy rolls on, scientifically confirming all our worse fears about the deplorable Russisch hoi polloi (some of which may be true if only in the sense that “independent polling” in Russia is meant to reinforce the authoritarian “mindset” it pretends to unmask by asking “ordinary people” whether they’ve stopped beating their wife):

Nearly two out of three Russians believe the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus is a bioweapon created by humans, a survey by the independent Levada Center polling agency said Monday.

According to Levada’s results, 64% of Russian respondents said Covid-19 was artificially created as a new form of biological weapon. That compares with 23% who said the virus emerged naturally and 13% who couldn’t answer.

[…]

Vaccine hesitancy is also on the rise, with 62% of respondents saying they don’t want to get Russia’s Sputnik V jab compared with 30% who do. Younger Russians were more skeptical of the domestically manufactured vaccine than their older counterparts by a 74-to-56 margin.

Among the most cited reasons for declining interest in Sputnik V are fears of side effects, incomplete clinical trials and the sense that “there’s no point” in a vaccine, Levada said.

Still, four out of five Russians said they or someone they know had already gotten sick with Covid-19, while 28% said they have not come across anyone who got sick.

Levada conducted the survey among 1,601 respondents from 50 regions between Feb. 18-24.

Completing this depressing picture, Masha Gessen finally admits to what I’ve long thought was the reason that she and lots of other “liberal” Russians had nothing to say about the Yuri Dmitriev case and other sketchy frame-ups of Russia’s undesirables (e.g., the Network Case defendants and the Jehovah’s Witnesses) perpetrated by the country’s insecurity services: because when the Kremlin and its info cronies “heinous” political prisoners and dissidents, it work. Proper people like Gessen don’t want to have anything to do with their solidarity campaigns. To wit:

The Russian regime has used both its vast media infrastructure and its judicial system to vilify its opponents. An army of Kremlin trolls appears to be working to keep Navalny’s old xenophobic statements in circulation, and on occasion it seems to have manufactured new ones (I am not repeating the fake here). Perhaps the most egregious example of smearing a political opponent is the case of the memory activist Yuri Dmitriev, who has been convicted of sexually abusing his adopted daughter. There is little doubt that the persecution of Dmitriev is political, but the charge is so heinous that I, for one, have refrained from writing about the case. Amnesty hasn’t named Dmitriev a prisoner of conscience, either. As the Kremlin continues to crack down on the opposition, I would expect many more opposition activists to be revealed to be indefensible, as though only morally impeccable people had the right to be free of political persecution.

The City of St. Peter the Apostle

MBKh Media Northwest
Facebook
February 12, 2021

On Palace Square, accompanied by an orchestra, Vyacheslav Makarov, chair of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly, presented letters of thanks and certificates of honor to the soldiers and officers of the Special Police Regiment who worked at the pro-Navalny protest rallies. This news was reported on the parliament’s website.

“Your faithfulness to the call of duty and exemplary attitude to the performance of your duties vouchsafes the defense of law and order, and the protection of the lives and safety of our citizens. You have been entrusted with the huge responsibility of being the guardians of our beloved city of St. Peter the Apostle,” Makarov said.

According to OVD Info, the security forces detained 575 people at the protest rally on January 23 in St. Petersburg, and 1,336 people at the rally on January 31.

Photos courtesy of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly’s website. Thanks to Nancy Enskaya for the link. Translated by the Russian Reader

Kill the Bill (That Will Kill Independent Culture and Education and Introduce Total Censorship in Russia)

“This is direct censorship. Withdraw the bill—don’t disgrace yourselves!”
Nikolai Nelyubin
Fontanka.ru
February 8, 2021

Vladimir Putin has received a letter from the progressive intelligentsia. The masters of culture, science and education have asked the guarantor not to touch the law on education by introducing “licenses for educational outreach.” For the depths are lower, and Gorky has nothing to do with it.

Professionals in culture, education and research involved in educational outreach work in our country, are concerned about the future of culture, education, and research. The reason is the draft law “On Amendments to the Federal Law ‘On Education in the Russian Federation,'” adopted by the State Duma in its first reading, which, in particular, would make official vetting of “educational outreach programs” mandatory.

On February 8, more than a thousand Russian professionals in the field of educational outreach published an open letter to the authorities demanding that they reject the amendments, since they  would “open the door to repressive regulation and censorship.” [See my translation of the open letter, below—TRR.]

On February 9, the details of the legislative initiative are slated for consideration by the State Duma Committee on Education and Science, chaired by Vyacheslav Molotov’s grandson Vyacheslav Nikonov. The bill could pass its second reading as early as February 10.

A co-author of the legislation, Dmitry Alshevskikh, a United Russia MP representing Sverdlovsk Region, earlier shared with Fontanka.ru his arguments for adopting the new norms, which would destroy “anti-Russian propaganda” disguised as “educational outreach.”

“Certain forces are trying to introduce Bandera,” the people’s deputy explained.

The authors of the open letter to President Putin, Prime Minister Mishustin, State Duma Speaker Volodin, and all the co-sponsors of the sensational bill are no strangers to post-postmodernism in art, but in this case they are unanimous. There is nothing to be quibble about: we are getting closer to obscurantism and pathological tendencies that are better to nip in the bud.

It will be more difficult to work
Supporters of the independent cultural scene are convinced that the regulations governing educational outreach would complicate the work of people who organize exhibitions, lectures, discussions, and other public events.

“There are currently no requirements for vetting exhibition projects and the educational programs that accompany them (lectures, seminars, and meetings) except for cases when the project is funded by state grants,” says Tatiana Pinchuk, director of Petersburg’s Street Art Museum, about the current state of affairs.

Natalia Karasyova and Elizaveta Zinovieva, co-founders of the Big City Art project, which holds “art breakfasts” featuring lectures and excursions, are afraid of the vagueness of the mechanisms for obtaining a license, the lack of a list of documents for making such application, and, importantly, the cost of the entire procedure.

“It will be virtually impossible to obtain a license due to the cost and bureaucratic hurdles. So, we will be operating outside of the law,” they say.

Moreover, players on the independent education market cannot understand what exactly they would have to license.

“It is not clear from the bill what exactly ‘educational outreach’ includes,” wonder the women at Big City Art. “It is one thing to get a license for an educational center, and another thing to get one for small-scale meetings and blogging.”

Art scholar Anastasia Pronina also argues that the bill is vaguely worded.

“Officials would have additional levers for pressuring and regulating us, while those engaged in educational outreach work would find themselves in a tough spot,” says the curator. “If the bill is passed into law, it will be a problem to vet the topics announced by our speakers, and we will be obliged to draw up contracts for all our lectures and public events. The lectures at Benoit 1890 Cultural Center are educational in nature and free to attend. During the pandemic, we have introduced a nominal entry fee to regulate attendance. Our project promotes contemporary art in a bedroom community in Petersburg. I think it is clear that this is not an easy job, and we are grateful to all the lecturers who speak to our audiences for free.”

Curator Lizaveta Matveeva notes that a separate item in the draft law would require organizations that partner with and hire foreign specialists to obtain special permits.

“This is another go-round in our government’s maniacal desire to rid us of the presence of foreign colleagues and stop the dissemination of their ‘values and information,'” Matveeva argues. “My field cannot function without interaction with foreign colleagues, without a bilateral exchange of know-how. Culture and art cannot survive in isolation. Our country has already been through this experience, and it led to nothing good.”

Where have the censors been rummaging?
“The more vague a law is, the more repressive it is,” Matveeva argues. “Currently, oversight is implemented correctively, but there are concerns that this draft law and subsequent secondary laws may introduce preventive regulation that would require vetting educational materials before they are published, and this is real censorship.”

“It could reach the point that talking about Andy Warhol’s paintings would be considered promotion of the western way of life,” say Karasyova and Zinovieva. “It is absurd, but it is possible.”

According to the organizers of informal cultural events, censorship can manifest itself even more easily in the field of contemporary art. The young women give examples.

“This could concern projects that criticize the government by artistic means, or projects produced in cooperation with foreign colleagues,” they say.

“If cultural institutions are required to clear every exhibition project involving a cultural program with the state, then implementing any project would turn into a bureaucratic hell,” argues Pinchuk. “Also, it is not clear how broad the powers of the supervisory authorities would be. If they don’t like the theme of an exhibition or the subject of a lecture, would they simply ban it?”

Historian Lev Lurie is horrified.

“Educators also tell us about Ohm’s law, after all,” he says. “The question arises: aren’t they hyping the achievements of foreign scientists? Maybe they underestimate the successes of the virologists from the Vector Center in Novosibirsk? We need balance in the natural sciences, too! So, now we need to expand the training of these facilitators. Retired officers—political workers—can handle it. If, God forbid, [Vyacheslav] Makarov is not re-elected to the [Petersburg] Legislative Assembly, he could well attend such events, because he has a sense of who has the “Siege of Leningrad gene” and who doesn’t. He could run such events himself, but monitoring them is more important.”

Who would be affected by the law?
No one has actually counted how many independent educational platforms there are in Russia today. It is clear that this sector was growing quite dynamically until quite recently. There are professional educational platforms and schools, and there are hobby clubs.

“Meetings and lectures are also held in bookstores, libraries, cafes, independent galleries, and other places,” Matveeva explains.

“Based on the blanket statements [in the draft law] we can surmise that a project dealing with the oeuvre of a single artist and a show of his works would be defined as educational outreach since an analysis of the artist’s career constitutes, in one way or another, dissemination of information about the artist’s know-how and expertise,” argues Pinchuk. “Along with doing exhibition projects, museums, including the Street Art Museum, also do cultural and educational projects, and various events—meetings, seminars, and lectures—are held as part of these projects. During these events, knowledge about art is disseminated, and members of the cultural scene share their know-how and competence. That is, the activities of museums fall under the definition of educational outreach as provided in the draft law.”

It comes down to money
“Russian citizens, including vulnerable segments of the populace, would thus also lose the opportunity to gain knowledge from highly qualified specialists on a regular, often pro bono basis,” it says in the open letter to Russian officials.

Matveeva answers the question “why.”

“If organizers and lecturers have to produce and reproduce paperwork to get permission to hold each of their one-off lectures in a library or a cafe, it would be easier not to organize anything at all and wait for better times to arrive in Russia,” she says. “Many events are organized by enthusiasts, by professionals passionate about their work. Events are often held for free or for a nominal fee. They are attended by people who don’t have the opportunity to pay for an expensive course or time to study, but they can periodically go to lectures to learn something new, and maybe meet and hobnob with other people. Educational events are also popular among the elderly: for them it is a form of leisure.”

Karasyova and Zinovieva agree.

“If commercial educational events simply increase in price and part of the audience peels off, then non-profit organizers are likely to fall by the wayside, as they will not be able to carry the costs,” they say.

Lurie is categorical.

“People will show up and say that you are not telling the right story about hedgehogs. ‘You can’t talk about hedgehogs like that,******!” they will tell you. ‘And if I give you fifty thousand, will I be telling the right story about hedgehogs?’ you will ask. ‘Well, for fifty it would be better, but for sixty it would definitely be a good story about hedgehogs.’ That’s all you need to know about this law,” he says.

What history teaches us
“Increasing the amount of paperwork has never helped the cause of popular education,” Pinchuk argues.

There are also examples in history of how to introduce state control.

“The Cultural Revolution in the USSR at the turn of the 1920s and 1930s,” recalls Lurie. “Then all private NEP outfits were put under control. They became state-owned. They were made part of the overall structure. In particular, the Knowledge Society (Obshchestvo “Znanie”) emerged from this arrangement. Or there were the times of [Konstantin] Pobedonostsev, when a bailiff came to every event and could shut it down.”

“We are being dragged into the Middle Ages. Or into the USSR,” says Marina Rudina, an employee of the Russian Museum who specializes in its educational and research work. “This know-how was perfectly tested back then. There is a persistent sense of obscurantism. And, from my point of view, strange information is flowing from every corner, including from federal and state TV channels. We need protection from extremist influences? There is already a law for this. I don’t understand why we have this business about ‘combating extremism’ in the new law again. Apparently, this is a clear formula: there are only enemies everywhere, and we must defend ourselves from them. Are we going to sacrifice everything?”

Lurie recalls other specific examples.

“We feel great about the valiant deeds of Alexander Matrosov and Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, Valentina Tereshkova and Dmitry Donskoy. We don’t expect anything bad. The problem is that there is imperfect censorship in Russia. There are no firm guidelines, for example, on whether Pobedonostsev and [Georgy] Malenkov are positive characters, and so we don’t know what to expect. There is uncertainty. We are afraid to talk positively about Malenkov. What if suddenly it turns out that he was working against the Motherland?”

To avoid this, says Lurie (who even at the start of Putin’s constitutional reforms spoke about the inevitability of total censorship), there must be “special people” who attend excursions and other events, lectures, and quests, either openly or undercover.

The historian sketches a new dystopian novel on the go.

“They will write a note to their superiors. They will have to record everything with surveillance devices so that it won’t be their word against [their opponents]. Then it will transpire that someone berated Matrosov. This means that a regulation stating that Matrosov cannot be derided will be needed. After all, such thoughts about Matrosov could be whispered by the enemy, while an educator might not have known it was forbidden. We must protect educators!”

“Why are they doing this?”
“The bill will drive another nail in the coffin of private cultural institutions in Russia. It seems that the current policy is aimed at ensuring that there are fewer and fewer educated people with a broad outlook, and that knowledge outside of the school curriculum can only be obtained abroad,” Pinchuk argues.

“The censorship and repressive laws already adopted by our government have greatly changed the climate and environment, and have complicated the already extremely difficult lives of cultural professionals,” says Matveeva. “We can no longer publicly and openly touch on certain topics, we cannot work with certain organizations, and it is better for us not to receive grants from international organizations and foundations. Given that the government provides no support to artists, art historians, and other producers of culture and art, it is not quite clear how officialdom expects people to work and support themselves.”

“Why are they doing this?” Rudina asks, immediately answering her own question.

“To completely obliterate education, to make it impossible for there to be flights of thought and broad spaces to think. There should be many opinions, many sources of knowledge and trends. When everything is regulated, is approved by people at the top, this is direct censorship, the exclusion of any opinions other than those ‘approved by the government line.’ Just withdraw the bill—don’t disgrace yourselves!”

Late last year, Petersburg MP Elena Drapeko told Fontanka.ru that voters had asked the State Duma to introduce censorship in Russia.

As of February 9, over 210,00 people had signed a petition against the proposed amendments.

__________

This session of Petersburg’s Street University, held on Elf Square in the city center circa 2008-2009, would have been impossible under the proposed amendments to the Law on Education. 

__________

February 8, 2021

Open Letter

To:

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin

Chairman of the Russian State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin

Russian Federation Council Members A.A. Klimov, E.V. Afanasyeva, A.V. Vainberg, L.N. Glebova, and O.V. Melnichenko

Russian State Duma Members V.I. Piskarev, A.G. Alshevskikh, N.I. Ryzhak, A.K. Isaev, R.D. Kurbanov, I.V. Belykh, N.V. Poklonskaya, D.I. Savelyev, A.V. Chep, A.L. Shkhagoshev, E.A. Yampolskaya, V.V. Bortko, S.M. Boyarsky, O.M. Kazakova, E.G. Drapenko, A.M. Sholokhov, O.L. Lavrov, S.A. Shargunov, O.M. Germanova, V.Yu. Maksimov, N.N. Pilus, and S.B. Savchenko

Russian Federal Minister of Culture O.B. Lyubimova

Russian Federal First Deputy Minister of Culture S.G. Obryvalin

We, the undersigned, are cultural, educational, and academic professionals engaged in educational outreach work in Russia, as well as Russian citizens concerned about the future of culture, education, and research in our country. We write to you in connection with Draft Law No. 1057895-7 “On Amendments to the Federal Law ‘On Education in the Russian Federation’” (hereinafter referred to as “the Draft Law”), which was passed by the State Duma in its first reading. If the Draft Law becomes law, it will, in our opinion, open the door to repressive regulation and censorship. In its current form, it threatens the constitutional rights of Russian citizens and the growth of our country’s educational and cultural fields due to its vague wording and rawness.

The Explanatory Note to the Draft Law states, “The federal draft law is aimed at improving the legal regulation of educational activities in the Russian Federation,” and “the draft law […] would generate additional conditions for developing human culture, encouraging individual socialization, and motivating individuals to form an active civic stance.” However, it contains no detailed comparative risk-benefit analysis proving that the stated goal would be pursued, rather than its opposite.

At the same time, the rules and regulations that would be issued if the Draft Law were passed, as well as the content of the Draft Law itself, have rightly caused fears among professionals that administrative barriers to educational outreach work would be raised that infringe on constitutionally protected rights and freedoms, including:

  • the right to education (per Article 43, Paragraph 1 of the Russian Federal Constitution)
  • the right to seek out, receive, transmit, produce and disseminate information (per Article 29, Paragraph 4 of the Russian Federal Constitution)
  • and freedom of literary, artistic, scientific, technical and other types of creativity, as well as freedom of instruction (per Article 44, Paragraph 1 of the Russian Federal Constitution).

The Draft Law is extremely restrictive

According to Article 43, Paragraph 5 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, “The Russian Federation establishes federal educational standards, [and] supports various forms of education and self-education.” In its current version, however, the Draft Law and the accompanying regulations adopted if it is implemented (as suggested by the public statements of its authors) are aimed not at supporting but at limiting educational outreach as sponsored by federal cultural and educational organizations, as well as by independent platforms, private organizations, and grassroots groups.

The text of the Draft Law defines educational outreach work as “activities, implemented outside the framework of educational programs, that are aimed at disseminating knowledge, skills, values, know-how and competence in order to develop individuals intellectually, spiritually, morally, creatively, physically and (or) professionally, and meet their educational needs and interests, and that touch on relations regulated by this federal law and other legislative acts of the Russian Federation.” The vagueness of the wording means that educational outreach work can be defined as any public activity in which knowledge and competencies are disseminated. Hence, we can conclude that educational outreach work could include not only individual lectures and workshops organized by licensed educational institutions, but also exhibitions, festivals, conferences, the work of popularizers of science and art, openly accessible blogs and vlogs, and much more.

The Draft Law introduces redundant regulations and opens the door to censoring educational outreach work

The Draft Law prohibits incitement to social, racial, ethnic or religious strife, and incitement to actions contrary to the Russian Federal Constitution. At the same time, the dissemination of information for these purposes is already prohibited by current Russian federal legislation, whose norms are also applicable to educational outreach work (per Article 10 of the Federal Law “On Information,” Article 13 of the Federal Law “On Countering Extremism,” and the corresponding provisions in the Administrative Offenses Code and the Criminal Code).

Currently, oversight is implemented correctively (ex post). We are concerned that the secondary legislation could introduce preventive (ex ante) regulation requiring that educational materials be approved before they are published, thus restricting freedom of opinion, as well as significantly complicating the work of law-abiding educators while not affecting the activities of banned extremist organizations.

The Draft Law is isolationist

The Draft Law obliges educational organizations to obtain the approval of the executive authorities when negotiating educational agreements with foreign organizations and foreign nationals involving expenditures. The provision would cover not only financial contracts involving state educational institutions (to which the laws on public procurement apply), but also other agreements, including non-financial cooperation agreements, which are signed in large numbers by all major educational institutions, as well as contracts made by non-governmental educational organizations.

The introduction of additional restrictions and controls on international exchanges and the engagement of foreign nationals by educational organizations inevitably entails an additional bureaucratic burden that most non-profit independent organizations would not be able to handle because they lack the necessary resources. Consequently, international exchanges would face the threat of significant cuts, leading to the stagnation of culture and research in Russia: growth in these fields is impossible without a constant exchange of know-how and ideas with colleagues from other countries. The lack of an opportunity to build stable, permanent relations with the international professional community would inevitably lead to a lag in the growth of culture, research and education in our country.

Educational outreach is carried out not only by large state institutions, but also by independent non-profit organizations, as well as by grassroots groups who find it difficult to secure the minimal resources needed for engaging foreign colleagues and implementing international projects. In this regard, introducing requirements for obtaining additional permits to engage foreign nationals in educational outreach projects would make it impossible to implement grassroots and non-profit undertakings. Russian citizens, including vulnerable segments of the populace, would thus also lose the opportunity to gain knowledge from highly qualified specialists on a regular, often pro bono basis.

The Draft Law delegates unregulated oversight to the Government

The Draft Law adopted by the State Duma in the first reading is extremely vague: it does not specify procedures and boundaries for overseeing educational outreach work, does not delimit regulatory entities, and does not define the types of international cooperation pursued by educational organizations that would require official approval. Essentially, the State Duma (a legislative body) has wholly delegated policymaking in the educational outreach field to the Government of the Russian Federation (an executive body) without setting any criteria and restrictions. This makes it possible, when adopting secondary legislation, to interpret the will of the legislators quite broadly, in a variety of directions. The vagueness of the wording, as well as the delegation of further rule-making to the Government of the Russian Federation, raises concerns in the professional community that the regulation would be repressive and involve censorship, thus considerably complicating the implementation of educational outreach work.

Oversight and restriction of educational outreach based on extremely vague reasons, thus allowing for varying interpretations “on the ground,” are contrary to the constitutional rights and freedoms of Russian citizens. In this regard, we, cultural, educational, and academic professionals engaged in educational outreach work in Russia, call on you to reject Draft Law No. 1057895-7 “On Amendments to the Federal Law ‘On Education in the Russian Federation,’” as its adoption, in our opinion, would open the door to repressive regulation and censorship due to its vague wording and rawness.

[Signed, in the original, by Lizaveta Matveeva (St. Petersburg), curator of the Main Project of the Seventh International Moscow Youth Biennale, the Art Prospect International Public Art Fair, and the DYI Fair, and 1,002 other signatories]

Thanks to Susan Katz for asking me to translate the open letter and sending me the link to the article from Fontanka.ru. Both texts were translated by the Russian Reader

Blockade

“See the rally? It’s there.” How downtown Petersburg was cordoned off with snowplows and fences, although there were no protests
Anastasia Rozhkova
Bumaga
February 6, 2021

On the afternoon of February 6, downtown Petersburg was cordoned off with fences and snow removal equipment. Public transport did not run on the Nevsky and the surrounding streets, and the subway stations Nevsky Prospect and Gostiny Dvor were closed for entry and exit. People had to descend to the icebound Fontanka and Moika rivers to cross the road. No protests were held, however.

Bumaga shows and tells you what the city center looked like on Saturday afternoon.

On Friday evening, fences were installed on Nevsky Prospect and Palace Square. On Saturday morning, even more fences appeared, on Gorokhovaya Street and the Fontanka and Moika embankments. Security forces were also sent into the city center.

At 1:00 p.m, Nevsky Prospekt and Gostiny Dvor subway stations were closed for entry and exit. Around the same time, vehicular traffic was stopped on Nevsky Prospect and surrounding streets. Buses, trolleybuses, and trams were switched to shortened routes. The map of road closures looked something like this.

It was impossible to turn onto Nevsky Prospekt from Liteiny Prospect. Security forces told people to go to Ploshchad Vosstaniia [Insurrection Square] and from there to take Ligovsky Prospect.

Even ambulances had trouble getting through.

Bumaga’s Twitter account: “Vosstaniia Street is closed from Zhukovskogo to Nevsky. A reader reports that even an ambulance was not allowed through for several minutes.”

Last Sunday, downtown Petersburg was also shut down, but the security measures had to do with protests in support of Navalny and against the current government. This weekend, the opposition leader’s headquarters had not planned any rallies, and the authorities were unable to explain the restrictions.

The governor’s press secretary, Inna Karpushina, told Bumaga that questions about the street closures should be addressed to the local Interior Ministry office, where we were told this was not the case and referred to the city transport committee. However, earlier in the day, on its official Telegram channel, the transport committee had published a message saying that the subway would be closed by order of the Interior Ministry.

A Telegram message from the Petersburg city transport committee, informing readers that Nevsky Prospekt subway would be closed at 1:00 p.m. n orders from the Interior Ministry

The city center was shut down because of messages on Telegram, Fontanka.ru‘s source at the Smolny [Petersburg city hall] said. There had indeed been posts announcing a protest action on February 6: unknown organizers had asked people to bring flowers to the Monument to the Victims of Political Repression on the Voskresenskaya Embankment. Due to the road closures, the event was canceled, and consequently only seven people attended the event.

Flowers and a sign reading “It must not be repeated” on the Monument to the Victims of Political Repression in Petersburg. Photo: Yevgeny Antonov/Bumaga

Petersburgers furiously criticized the closure of downtown. People complained that they could not get to their jobs and doctor’s appointments. One social media user wrote, “For the first time in my life I made my way to a museum through the courtyards.”

“This is me this morning with a marshmallow cookie in my month reading the news that Nevsky and the subway stations from which I go to work on Nevsky were closed.”

Because of the road closures, Petersburgers were forced to take to the ice. “The Fontanka and the Moika [rivers] were completely blocked, so people just walked on the ice. At some point on the Moika, [the police] shouted through a megaphone about safety and ordered people to leave. Everyone was escorted off the ice, but five minutes later, there were a lot of people out there again,” Mediazona correspondent David Frenkel told Bumaga.

Petersburgers walking on the Fontanka River near Nevsky Prospect, 6 February 2021. Photo: David Frenkel

The street closures immediately became the subject of memes. Petersburgers joked about “phantom rallies,” which the police and the Russian National Guard had come out to disperse.

“See the rally?” “No.” “It’s there.”

In the morning, police searched the homes of thirty people in connection with a criminal investigation of the “blocking of roads” on January 23. [The “crime” allegedly committed by anti-Putin protesters in Petersburg on January 23.] Police raided the homes of former Vesna Movement press secretary Artem Uimanen, former municipal district councilor Svetlana Utkina, and other opposition activists. Some of them had their electronic devices confiscated.

“Terrific! In Petersburg, the day has begun with [police] searches of the homes of activists as part of the ‘roadblocking’ case, and then the pigs blocked the roads and closed the subway themselves.”

By evening, there were almost no traffic jams downtown Petersburg, and the fences installed earlier were being removed.

_______________

Read about the January protest rallies in Petersburg. To summarize, there are more and more dissatisfied people, the security forces and protesters have become more aggressive, and the authorities are not open to dialogue. Here you can read about the spontaneous protest rally that took place on February 2, at which police used stun guns on people.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The Empire Strikes Back

. . . in the heart of the old imperial capital, Saint Petersburg.

We can thank Vladislav Ivanov for the “footage.” (And I thank Grigory Mikhnov-Vaytenko for sharing it with me.) In keeping with the message of this video, if not its jocular tone, a friend in Petersburg just wrote to me, “Tomorrow we are going for a ‘walk’ on the Nevsky. It was already flooded with police and National Guardsman on Saturday. It’s scary. But we try and overcome our fear, taking our cue from the younger generation.” \\ TRR

 

The Trailer

Ilia Kazakov
Facebook
January 25, 2021

Konstantin Selin is a born cameraman! He worked all Saturday in the epicenter of the largest protests in recent years in Petersburg, miraculously avoided getting shoved into a paddy wagon, and brought back the best video. I don’t know how he does it every time, but it looks like a seamless trailer for a documentary film, something for which Kostya deservedly gets awards the rest of the time. Only in his footage can you look into the eyes of a young man in the police cordon, hear what is being said in the crowd, and look at the faces. And what an ending! There is no need to read a dozen news stories and analysts, just set aside five minutes and watch this video once.

Don’t Let Strangers Wreck Their Minds (Putin’s Palace)

“Protect your children. Don’t let strangers wreck their minds and their lives.” Screenshot of a social media post by the Udelnaya Library of the Vyborg District Centralized Library System in Petersburg. Courtesy of dp.ru

“Protect your children”: Smolny launches mass posting before rally
Delovoi Peterburg
January 21, 2021

On January 21, the social network pages of Petersburg’s district administrations, as well as of municipal schools, libraries, and educational organization, published the same message, appealing to parents not to let their children attend the rally urging the release of politician Alexei Navalny.

“Protect your children from being dragged into destructive actions that can lead to psychological problems in the future, but also to unpredictable consequences in their lives today,” the text of the mass posting says. It stresses that the upcoming rally is a “blatant provocation.”

A search for the phrase “protect your children from being dragged into destructive actions” yielded around a hundred hits on the social media pages of municipal organizations. At the time of writing, the post had been published on the VK pages of the Kolpino and Vyborg districts, as well as the press services of the Shuvalovo-Ozerki, Posadsky, Kronverk, and Sampsonievsky municipal districts, and dozens of schools.

Earlier today, First Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Gorovoy said that the Russian Interior Ministry has “all legal grounds” to charge with misdemeanors those who “in person, on the internet, [or] by sending written appeals” call on people to attend the rally [sic]. The Prosecutor General’s Office ordered the blocking of websites containing posts with calls to attend the [rallies].

Alexey Navalny recently published a large-scale investigation dealing with the construction of a grand residence on the Black Sea. The Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK) founder claims that the palace was built for Vladimir Putin. Navalny and his FBK team have called on their supporters to come out to protest on January 23. He has been supported by bloggers on Instagram and TikTok who have over a million followers.

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Alexei Navalny, Putin’s Palace: The Story of the World’s Largest Bribe, January 19, 2021. [There were over 51 million views as of 1:00 a.m. Moscow time, January 22, 2021]

The printed text of the investigation, including all relevant documents, is here: https://palace.navalny.com/

Navalny recorded this video before his return to Russia, but we immediately agreed that we would release it after he returned: Alexei did not want the protagonist of this investigation—Vladimir Putin—to think that we were afraid of him and that we were telling his biggest secret from abroad.

Today, you will see something that is considered impossible to see up close. Along with us, you will go where no one is allowed. We will go for a visit to Putin’s house. With our own eyes, we will see that, in his craving for luxury and wealth, Putin has completely lost his mind. We will find out whose money has financed this luxury and how it was done. And we will learn how, over the past fifteen years, the biggest bribe in history was paid and the most expensive palace in the world was built.

Alexey was detained at the airport [in Moscow], where he arrived after five months of medical treatment in Germany. He went to Germany after Putin tried to kill him. On January 18, Navalny was illegally arrested and placed in a pre-trial detention center.

Alexei has always fought for our rights, and now we have to fight for his. Vladimir Putin must answer for all his crimes.

At 2:00 p.m. on January 23, go to the central streets of your cities. Don’t stand on the sidelines.

Here is a link to information about the rallies in different cities (this post will be updated): https://navalny.com/p/6454/

Translated by the Russian Reader

“Free Navalny! 2:00 p.m., January 23.” Image courtesy of navalny.com

David Frenkel: The Year 2020 in Pictures

David Frenkel
Facebook
December 30, 2020

I had a poor year shooting photographs: there were few events in [Petersburg], and I missed some important stories due to my arm being broken. But in the end, it seems that the photos still piled up.

January 19, 2020. Activists of the Vesna Movement say goodbye to the Russia Constitution near the Constitutional Court in Petersburg.

January 31, 2020. Authorities analyze the debris after the Sport and Concert Complex (SKK) in Petersburg collapses.

February 1, 2020. Police detain a man for a picketing against proposed amendments to the Russian Constitution on Senate Square in Petersburg.

February 9, 2020. A solo picket in Penza before the verdict in the Network Case was announced.

February 10, 2020. Defendants in the Network Case after the verdict was announced in the Penza Regional Court.

Continue reading “David Frenkel: The Year 2020 in Pictures”

Thanks, Rashid

Rashid Alimov

Thanks, Rashid: How We Remember Rashid Alimov
Greenpeace Russia
December 18, 2020

Violetta Ryabko, head of Greenpeace Russia’s media department
“Better not open the refrigerator: I brought back radioactive mushrooms from Bryansk Region for analysis!” Rashid once said. I remember how, at the office, I had voiced my desire to go picking mushrooms, and Rashid replied, “Brilliant! We need to make a map of where the radioactive mushrooms near Petersburg are, and where it is better not to pick them.”

Rashid had so much energy and desire to solve the environmental problems he was dealing with. He could spend days and nights reading thousands of pages of reports to find the truth, as he did with the 2017 ruthenium leak, whose cause was revealed to the world by Rashid. He knew how not to give into despair and write about each new attempt to import uranium tailings into Russia. He was attentive to every detail, word, and comma in the materials that we prepared. We wrote a lot of releases together, fought against the construction of a waste incinerator, and issued a brochure that is still used by activists all over the country. It was never just a job. We supported each other, made each other laugh, and figured out how not to burn out and maintain our enthusiasm, even when things didn’t work out.

I remember how once Rashid was trying to obtain a official report from yet another Russian ministry. (I forgot which one, and there is no one else to ask.) His latest request was sent back with something like the following runaround from a ministry secretary: “Lyudmila Petrovna would be very dissatisfied were these data published.” Rashid said that he had no idea who Lyudmila Petrovna was, and could not understand why the data that the ministry was required to send by law had not been provided. He then looked at me enigmatically and asked, “What’s your middle name?” He dashed off the following email: “Violetta Vladimirovna is extremely concerned that the documents have not been sent on time and promises to take immediate action.” We had the documents the next day.

Rashid was a very principled man and a consistent opponent of nuclear energy. I knew that I would always find the answer to any question by asking him. This year alone, he made several hundred comments to media outlets that were not afraid to cover the problems with construction of the Northeast Expressway in Moscow and the importation of uranium tailings for storage in Russia.

But not everyone was so honest. I remember receiving a message from him: “Guess who might be the subject of article entitled ‘A Story of Ordinary Fascism’?” It was a disgraceful, slanderous article about Rashid on the website of pseudo-environmentalists. Later, television presenter Vladimir Solovyov took to the air to say that, while he had been unable to find any compromising material on Rashid, he had learned that Rashid had graduated from the faculty of Oriental studies at Petersburg State University. Rashid really did speak several languages perfectly, which only aided him in becoming a brilliant expert and doing research in a variety of languages.

I remember how I was angry at Rashid for something stupid and wrote a message about it to a colleague, but ultimately I accidentally sent it to Rashid himself. He read it and thanked me. I was so ashamed and amused, and later we would remember this story and laugh. He was such a wonderful, intelligent man. I don’t believe I’m writing about him in the past tense.

Alexei Kiselyov, head of Greenpeace Russia’s toxic waste program
I would start with the fact that Rashid is the person whom we have to thank for the fact that garbage is not burned in Petersburg. He also made sure that public hearings on the proposed incineration plant in Petersburg were canceled, the investor bailed, and the governor rejected the project.

Rashid Alimov (center, standing) at public hearings on the proposed construction of a solid waste incineration plant in St. Petersburg

It was Rashid who wrote the pamphlet “What to Do with the Garbage in Russia,” which is still used by thousands of activists around the country.

Rashid was one of the few people for whom the tragedy of the village of Muslyumovo was personal and who always tried to help them. As well as the city of Novozybkov in Bryansk Region, which suffered from the Chernobyl accident. It’s very hard to believe that he is gone.

Kostya Fomin, media coordinator at OVD Info, former media coordinator at Greenpeace Russia
Rashid was the person with whom I seemingly found it easiest to get along at Greenpeace. At first glance, he was calm, intelligent, and even quiet, but he was terribly in love with his work, purposeful, and assertive. He was never an anti-nuclear fanatic. On the contrary, he always advocated careful, sensitive language. But he was a staunch opponent of dangerous technologies that had misfired many times, ruined people’s lives, and poisoned everything in sight for many years to come. He was a genuine old-school Greenpeace activist.

He was irrepressible in a good way and took on seemingly doomed cases. Not always, but not so rarely, either, he got good results, and I am very glad that I was able be with him at those moments and help in any way I could. I remember how he told me about Petersburg poets and revolutionaries as we walked along the embankment, and boatloads of Greenpeace activists sailed toward a floating nuclear power plant: in the end we made sure that its reactors were not activated in Petersburg, a city of five million people. I remember how a guard at a hospital in Arkhangelsk tried to detain us as we measured the background radiation in the yard, where bags of corpses had been piled after the incident in Nenoksa. I remember how we drew a bucket of water from the radioactive Techa River, in Chelyabinsk Region, to prove that people from the surrounding villages were still in danger. I remember how we spent all day and half the night negotiating a press release reporting that Roshydromet recognized that ten of its weather stations had recorded extreme levels of ruthenium in the atmosphere, and in the morning at the airport, I heard our words repeated on REN TV.

Yesterday, Facebook reminded me that exactly a year ago, Rashid and I had been together too. Activists opposed to the import of uranium tailings to Russia set up barrels marked with radiation danger signs outside Gostiny Dvor, in downtown Petersburg, and Rashid had stood next to them holding a poster. No one was detained, and we celebrated the successful protest at a bar. But when Rashid went home, he telephoned to say that a whole squad of police had caught up with him at the front door of his house. Why the front door? Because they had tried to trick their way into his house, but Rashid’s daughter wouldn’t let them in, and the whole ridiculous “tactical team” had to freeze to death. My friends and I thought that Rashid had raised his daughter well. We’ll all miss you.

Rashid Alimov protesting the importat of radioactive waste from Germany, outside Gostiny Dvor in Petersburg, on December 17, 2029

Vladimir Chuprov, project director, Greenpeace Russia
I spent a long time forcing myself to start writing these lines. I couldn’t even imagine that I would have to do this. I don’t want to say anything trivial: Rashid, of course, deserves more. Such blows make you stop and think about how fleeting life is, and how important it is to appreciate each other here and now, in this life. Rashid knew how to do it. With a kind of incomprehensible oriental inner contemplation, he would calmly accept the most unpleasant news and difficult tasks. He would shrug, hunch his shoulders more than usual, and start listening. Being able to hear means being able to hear life, to halt its quiet elusive moments, even if they are compressed in a telephone receiver’s silence.

Reproaches and complaints to others were all things that Rashid somehow knew how to avoid. Or they bypassed him. Sometimes, I would get mad at something or someone, then I would look at how Rashid reacted to it, and realize that it was all a passing trifle. The nuclear power issue has always been difficult and in many ways thankless, since it is almost impossible to help people affected by radiation: the forces are too unequal, and the inhuman system that Rashid struggled with is too clumsy. But it was Rashid who managed to work calmly in the face of this abyss of grief and powerlessness and give people hope.

I am grateful that I was able to work with Rashid for many years and, most importantly, that I was able to communicate with him in his final days. He conversed with me cheerfully and humorously as always, the way he knew how. It is a pity that Rashid did not live to see what he fought for: a harmonious green world without landfills and smog. May the atheists forgive me when I say this, but although we shall not see Rashid, Rashid will listen to us just as calmly tomorrow and the day after. One day I will tell him how he did it. Just wait, Rashid.

Yevgeny Usov, investigative research and expertise specialist, Greenpeace Russia
Rashid and I first became closely acquainted many years ago while inspecting an illegal landfill in the Kingisepp District, where I filmed an interview with him for television. Then there were trips with him to attend a rally in Pushkin and sample radioactivity in Bryansk Region, expert work for the Presidential Human Rights Council and air quality research in Petersburg, long conversations about various matters and editing international reports.

Calm, reasonable, and interested in many different and surprising subjects—that was Rashid. He did many extremely important things for Russia.

Rashid measured the concentration of solid particles outside the window, the level of radiation in the mushrooms picked by his grandmother, was involved in the blockade of a German train, loaded with radioactive waste, going to Russia, investigated the true size of the country’s mountains of industrial waste, and dug up the truth and helped the truth make its way to people.

Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair, Ecodefense
I met Rashid about fifteen years ago when Ecodefense organized a campaign against the importation of uranium tailings. He was a journalist. In 2007, he joined the campaign and organized protests in Petersburg, where uranium waste was delivered by sea. By 2009, we had managed to stop the import of tailings from Germany, and Rashid made a huge contribution to this victory. Later, we interacted a lot in various campaigns against dangerous nuclear projects.

Rashid was one of the most important people in the Russian anti-nuclear movement. An uncompromising activist, he always adhered to the principle of protecting the public interest come what may. Last year and this year, we corroborated a lot as part of a new campaign against the import of uranium tailings from Germany: we organized a number of protests in Russia and Germany, and, in the end, Germany decided to temporarily suspend this activity. I am certain that Ecodefense and other organizations that were involved in the campaign will continue to fight if the imports are resumed—not only for the sake of preventing harm, but also in memory of Rashid. He would have liked that.

Rashid’s family, as well as the environmental movement in Russia, have suffered an irreparable loss. There is no way to compensate for it. We will remember Rashid as a man who made a huge contribution to the fight against dangerous nuclear projects in Russia and other countries, as a great friend and knowledgeable colleague. It is impossible to repair what has happened, but the memory of our beloved friend Rashid will live on, and we will continue to do what we did with him and in his memory.

Elena Sakirko, head of Greenpeace Russia’s energy department
When I became part of the Greenpeace team, Rashid was almost the first person I met. That was when thirty of our colleagues were in the Murmansk pre-trial detention center and a support group was organized in the city. We had to work with lawyers and journalists, and also get letters, food, and clothes (everything they needed) to the detained activists . I was the translator, and Rashid organized the deliveries. Working almost around the clock, we still found time to communicate. Rashid talked about Greenpeace and environmental protection in Russia: it seemed that he knew everything and was acquainted with all the activists and experts.

From the very first day, Rashid radiation so much warmth and attention, so much patience and endurance, that I just wanted to be as brave and calm, as well-versed in environmental issues as him. Another quality of his that saved me was his amazing sense of humor, his ability in the most difficult situations to look deeply and see what mattered the most. And there was his constant willingness to help. The Murmansk period and the case of the so-called Arctic 30 came to an end—all the activists were released and returned to their homes—but the most important thing about Greenpeace for me seems to reside in the calmness, kindness and courage of Rashid, something that put me in touch then with environmental protection.

Then there was my first picket, in which I stood with Rashid on the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. There were also collaborations and projects where we did not intersect, but every time I went to Petersburg, I knew exactly who I wanted to see and with whom I could discuss all my difficulties and problems, who could take me on interesting walks in the city and tell me so much. I think people like Rashid just cannot disappear, they have so much energy and goodness that they shared with us—a whole world.

Rashid had his life’s work to do: regardless of the projects he was involved in, the most important thing for him was always radiation safety. I think it’s very important to continue this work.

Environmentalist and Activist Rashid Alimov Has Died
Activatica
December 18, 2020

Rashid Alimov, an environmentalist, anti-nuclear and climate activist, and project manager of Greenpeace Russia’s energy program, died last night. His death was reported to his wife Olga Krivonos by the doctor on duty at the intensive care unit of the hospital in St. Petersburg where Rashid was being treated for complications of the coronavirus.

Exactly a year ago, on December 17, 20198, Rashid Alimov held a protest action entitled “Russia Is Not a Nuclear Dump” on Nevsky Prospekt outside of Gostiny Dvor. Alimov stood with a banner reading “Russia is not a nuclear dump” at the central entrance to the Gostiny Dvor shopping center. Behind him were activists eleven metal barrels painted with the radioactive danger sign and letters forming inscription “Happy New Year.”

Alimov had worked in environmental organizations since 2001. He was the author and editor of numerous publications on environmental issues, including radiation safety. From 2005 to 2011, he led a campaign in Petersburg against the import of depleted uranium hexafluoride into Russia, as well as the construction of new nuclear power plants. He was involved in Below Two Degrees, a bulletin issued by Russian observers at the UN climate talks.

“Rashid was involved in dealing with issues of waste management, air pollution and nuclear energy. He helped close several landfills, and thanks to Rashid’s work, public hearings on a planned trash incinerator in St. Petersburg were canceled and the governor abandoned the project. Rashid wrote a pamphlet, “What to Do with the Garbage in Russia”, which is still used by thousands of activists throughout the country,” Greenpeace Russia wrote in its obituary.

Two pages from What to Do with the Garbage in Russia, a Greenpeace pamphlet written by Rashid Alimov

Alimov was one of the leading experts in Russia on the problems of toxic environmental pollution. He was a very kind, honest and humble man.

Rashid is survived by his wife, parents, daughter, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.

Photos courtesy of Greenpeace Russia and Activatica. Translated by the Russian Reader

Vera Ermolaeva

Until recently, a plaque memorializing the Leningrad artist Vera Ermolaeva, executed in the Gulag during the Great Terror,  hung here. Photo: MR7.ru

Last Address Plaque for Artist Vera Ermolaeva Removed in Petersburg
Galina Artemenko
MR7.ru
December 8, 2020

The Last Address plaque memorializing artist Vera Ermolaeva has been removed in Petersburg. The news was broken by the Moscow publisher Kirill Zakharov on his social media page after visiting the city.

“[This is] the house on whose first floor Vera Ermolaeva lived. A couple of years ago, a memorial plaque was installed here, but now it has been conveniently removed,” he wrote.

The initiator of the Last Address project, Sergei Parkhomenko, is already aware of the incident and is waiting for information from his colleagues in Petersburg.

“Sometimes it happens that [the plaques] are removed for repairs, then returned. Sometimes it’s different,” he said.

МR7.ru wrote on March 25, 2018, about the installation of a Last Address plaque in memory of Vera Ermolaeva at house no. 13 on the 10th Line of Vasilyevsky Island in Petersburg.

Ermolaeva was arrested on December 25, 1934, as part of the so-called Kirov cohort. As an “anti-Soviet element,” she was sentenced to three years in the camps and sent to Karlag in Kazakhstan. On September 20, 1937, three months before her scheduled release, an NKVD troika sentenced the 43-year-old Ermolaeva to death. She was executed on September 27, 1937 [sic]. She has no grave. We know only the place where the prisoners who died or were murdered in the camp were buried: the village of Dolinka in the Karaganda Region. Ermolaeva had no relatives, so when the 20th Party Congress was held, there was no one who could apply to have her exonerated. She was finally exonerated 1989, due to “lack of evidence of a crime.”

Now you can find everything or almost everything on the internet, including the weather report for December 25, 1934. It was a frosty and clear day in Leningrad— minus 12 degrees centigrade—and the night was cold, too. Ermolaeva’s apartment was probably heated when she left the warm house forever. She lived on the first floor, in apartment number two. She had always lived on ground floors, including at her previous apartment in Baskov Lane, which her father, a landowner and liberal publisher, had bought for her before the revolution. Ermolaeva fell off a horse as a child and could only walk on crutches, so the apartment was purchased because it was next door to her high school and on the first floor. For many years, Ermolaeva lived abroad, studying and getting medical treatment there.

Ermolaeva was a brilliant artist. A member of the Futurist group Bloodless Murder in 1915-16, she was interested in history and graduated from the Archaeological Institute. She was a pioneer of the genre now known as the artist’s book: she designed children’s books as cohesive entities. Her illustrations for the works of Daniil Kharms and Yevgeny Schwartz, and Ivan Krylov’s fables are admired and studied. The famous book written and illustrated by Ermolaeva in 1929—Dogs—has recently been published as a reprint.

The cover of Ermolaeva’s 1929 book Dogs. Courtesy of MR7.ru

Antonina Zainchkovskaya, Ermolaeva’s biographer and the author of a dissertation about her, said during the plaque installation ceremony that it was very important for Russians not to forget about the Last Address plaques. She said that when she was writing her dissertation and studying the relevant NKVD documents, she became psychologically ill. It is impossible to imagine the last three years of Ermolaeva’s life (in the camp, on crutches), nor the last six days, between her verdict and her execution.

Vera Ermolaeva’s Last Address plaque in 2018. Photo: Galina Artemenko/MR7.ru

The person who initiated the installation of the Last Address plaque on the house where Ermolaeva lieved was Ekaterina Yevseyeva, art historian, granddaughter of the collector and Great Terror victim Iosif Rybakov, and wife of the artist Alexei Gostintsev, who was a student of Vladimir Sterligov. Sterligov and Ermolaeva were part of a group of artists pursuing “pictorial and plastic realism.” It was in Ermolaeva’s apartment on Vasilevsky that they met, talked, drank tea, and organized exhibitions. Someone denounced them, and they became part of the Kirov cohort. Sterligov, a student of Malevich, was also arrested, but survived his sentence Karlag and lived until 1975. Gostintsev recalls that it was at the apartment of Sterligov and his wife, the artist Tatyana Glebova, in Peterhof, that he heard from Glebova that Anna Akhmatova had informed her about Ermolaeva’s arrest the very next day.

In mid-October, a property management company decided to remove fifteen Last Address plaques from the wall of a residential building on Rubinstein street. The plaques were found by Petersburg legislator Boris Vishnevsky at the management company’s offices. He was promised that the plaques would be reinstalled after the wall was repaired, but they were not put back in place when the wall was painted.

Thanks to Galina Artemenko for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Vera Ermolaeva

1989 saw the publication of the well-known art album and anthology of articles An Avant-Garde Stopped on the Run. The book’s dustcover bore the caption “A book about how the artist Vera Ermolaeva went missing on the shores of the Aral Sea, and then the sea disappeared, too.” If Kazakhstan has been currently tackling the problem of restoring the Aral Sea, along with its salty waves, a truth that was hushed for many years has been reemerging in society, albeit little by little, a truth that should be openly accessible in the history of all countries that have gone through dictatorships and are seeking to go forward democratically, a truth, however, that should include the actual story of what happened to Ermolaeva. The truth is often not as intriguing and mysterious as the caption on a book’s dustcover.

Researchers at the Karaganda Regional Fine Arts Museum established in the same year, 1989, that Ermolaeva, a colleague and comrade of Marc Chagall and Kazimir Malevich, co-founder of UNOVIS (Champions of the New Art), and Ginkhuk faculty member, had been shot on September 26, 1937, in a labor camp in the village of Dolinka, the headquarters of the Karlag (Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp). How did Ermolaeva end up in Kazakhstan? Why was she shot?

The Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp was established in the Kazakh steppes. It was the largest camp in the NKVD’s Gulag. It was based on the Giant State Farm, and its mission was rural and industrial development. Large-scale arrests in the Soviet Union and forced deportation of whole peoples to Kazakhstan were underway. To this end, the indigenous Kazakh population was driven from their native lands, which caused a famine in 1932–1933 that killed fifty percent of the Kazakh people. Only camp staff, their families, and inmates—an unpaid labor force—lived in the camp. The first inmates were peasant families, accused of being kulaks in Russia, and clergymen. They built the first barracks and railways. They were followed by political prisoners, people convicted of “counterrevolutionary” crimes.

People were left to live in the Karlag in perpetuity, stripped of their right to move elsewhere, which was tantamount to exile, and it was they who built the first labor settlements in the Karlag. The flow of political prisoners and exiles was so overwhelming that so-called troikas—groups of three officials who decided in lieu of the courts whether prisoners would live or die—were set up nationwide.

The murder of the popular Communist Party leader Sergei Kirov, in 1934, sparked a huge wave of arrests. Artists were caught up in this wave, including Ermolaeva, who hosted exhibitions and gatherings of artists in her flat, a fact noted by the NKVD. Everything about Ermolaeva worked against her: her aristocratic pedigree, her education and free thinking, her trips to Paris and Berlin, and her links to Malevich, who had been arrested twice, jailed a year for “espionage,” and was dying of cancer. By order of the Leningrad NKVD, on December 25, 1934, Ermolaeva was denounced as a purveyor of anti-Soviet propaganda and member of a counterrevolutionary group that had tried to establish illegal communications channels with foreigners. She was charged under Articles 58-10 (“anti-Soviet agitation”) and 58-11 (“organizing anti-Soviet activity”) of the Soviet Criminal Code. Article 58 had a total of fourteen clauses, and the first of these dealt with crimes punishable by death. On March 29, 1935, Ermolaeva was convicted by an NKVD Special Council as a “socially dangerous element.” Although her exact crime was not specified, she was sentenced to three years in a labor camp and dispatched to the Karlag. Her sentence went into effect on March 27, 1935, rather than retroactively on the day she was arrested. She was arrested, convicted, and transported to Dolinka along with Vladimir Sterligov, who later founded a painterly system derived from Suprematism, and several other of Malevich’s disciples.

During interrogations, the NKVD staged one-on-one confrontations between Ermolaeva and Sterligov. When they were sent to Kazakhstan, they were assigned to the same train car. Disabled since childhood and paralyzed in both legs, Ermolaeva walked on crutches. She found the trip to Kazakhstan quite agonizing, especially when the guards ordered the convicts to lie down and get up during stops and when exiting the train in the steppes. Emaciated after his spell in prison, Sterligov would help Ermolaeva get up from the ground, scarcely able to lift the tall, stout, heavy woman.

After arriving in Dolinka in April, Ermolaeva was immediately assigned to work as an artist in the Karlag’s agitprop and cultural education unit. Ermolaeva worked a great deal, designed posters, and showed her work at exhibitions in the camp. Her pieces were even sent to a show in Moscow. In Dolinka, she lived among the exiles at 56 First Street. She was noted for her politeness, discipline, and ability to get things done. She attended political education classes, was generally enthusiastic about everything and interested in everything, and was involved in clubs, amateur art activities, and theatrical productions, which she staged along with Sterligov and fellow avant-gardist Pyotr Sokolov, productions in which other convicts performed. She worked overtime, earning the title of “shock worker,” which meant that more workdays were added to her record and, consequently, were supposed to lead to her early release.

The reasons why Ermolaeva was shot and the circumstances of her final days in the camp have been ascertained. On September 14, 1937, Ermolaeva was issued a release warrant, but on the evening of the same day she was indicted under Criminal Code Articles 58-10 and 58-11. She was interrogated, searched, and accused of associating with four counterrevolutionaries, members of anti-Soviet political parties who were convicts in the camp. She had, allegedly, allowed them to use her apartment for secret meetings and sent illegal letters to other sections of the Karlag. Ermolaeva made a huge mistake by pleading partly guilty to the charges, claiming she was merely acquainted with the convicts in question and had conversed with them only about literature, art, and their families. Although her partial conviction was sufficient, eyewitness testimony was also included in the case against her. Thus, on September 17, 1937, Ermolaeva was indicted along with eight other people.

On September 18, due to a bureaucratic mix-up, Ermolaeva was told her release papers were being drafted, and she would be sent under armed escort to Karabas, where her case file (No. 3744/37) was being processed. On September 20, Ermolaeva successfully applied for release from Dolinka and left for Karabas. The very same day, she was retried in absentia by a NKVD troika and sentenced to death. Meanwhile, her case file did not turn up in Karabas, and her name was not on the lists of convicts scheduled for release. Ermolaeva was held in a remand prison in Karabas until September 25, when she was sent back to Dolinka. Upon arrival, she submitted a written explanation of where she had been the past several days. The next day, September 26, 1937, she was shot.

Ermolaeva was exonerated posthumously, due to a lack of evidence, by the Karaganda Regional Prosecutor on November 21, 1989.

Ermolaeva’s life came to a tragic end during the height of the Great Terror of 1937–1938. During this period, Stalin’s totalitarian regime destroyed the pride of the Soviet people, mainly members of the intelligentsia—scholars, educators, artists, and cultural workers—sparing neither women nor children.

Excerpted from Aigul Omarova, “The Tragic Lives of the Artists in Karlag,” Bread & Roses: Four Generations of Kazakh Women Artists (Berlin: Momentum, 2018), pp. 34-43. Translated by Thomas H. Campbell. Photo of Vera Ermolaeva courtesy of MR7.ru