Voices of Russians, Unsorted into Boxes

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Two Russians walking down a sunny street in central Petersburg, 17 September 2017. Do we know what they’re thinking? Unless we talk to them and get to know a good deal about them and their lives, of course we won’t know what they’re thinking. And there are 144 million other Russians like them. Each an individual, not a statistic, they are complete mysteries, like people anywhere else in the world, unless we spend a lot of time in their company, talking to some of them, and living lives much like they live. Photograph by the Russian Reader

Contrary to what Samuel Greene wonders in his recent blog post, namely, “Can we learn to listen to the voices of Russians without first sorting them into boxes that reflect our own insecurities more than their complex realities?”, most “Russia experts” are only interested in listening to other “Russian experts” (especially the ones they agree with) and otherwise promoting themselves as “Russia experts,” a term I define broadly, because it includes, I think, not only the usual suspects, but the relatively small cliques of activists, journalists, writers, scholars, and artists who try very hard to control the discourse about Russia to their own advantage.

I think the best thing I’ve ever done on a blog is this long piece. I won’t say anything more about it here. You can either read it or not read it. But you might notice, if you do read it, that it is chockablock with raw Russian voices, unsorted into any boxes, although I don’t hide my own views in the piece in any way.

But when the group of activist artists whose name the blog on which the piece was first published bore had the chance to do a big show at a super famous contemporary art institution in London, my request to include this piece in a journal of texts by the art group’s authors (which, supposedly, included me at the time) that would accompany the show, I was flatly turned down by the group’s leader, who explained this text didn’t “fit the format” of the publication they were planning.

Not only that but I was later disinvited from attending the show with the group by this same leader.

After you’ve had several dozen experiences like that, you realize that the vast majority of “Russian experts” are in the business for their own professional advancement, not in order to give anyone a clearer picture of the real Russia, which, I’ve discovered over the years, interests almost no one, least of all the tiny cliques of “Russia experts” in academia, art, and journalism.

People like the ones depicted and heard in the my blog post from nine years ago actually frighten most “Russia experts.”

And yet there they are, real Russians, willing to fight the regime tooth and nail, and perfectly clear about the regime’s true nature.

At least half of the world’s “Russia experts” don’t understand even a tenth of what these “simple” Russians do.

So what do we need “Russia experts” for? TRR

Chutzpah

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Here’s the score, boys and girls. This is what happens, sooner or later, to everyone who has a beef, however minor, with the Putin regime. They get a visit from a “policeman” who is indistinguishable, in his behavior, looks, and speech, from an ordinary thug.

Today, it happened to my friends Lika and Alik, who are not only some of the nicest folks I’ve ever met, but run the invaluable Jewish Community Center on Rubinstein Street on a shoestring budget.

Here’s what Lika wrote about their encounter with the Putinist police:

I just got a visit from two plainclothes “policemen.” What was their business? Literally: “Have you been writting all kinds of crap on Facebook about wogs getting beaten up?” I am conveying what they said to me. The prosecutor’s office found your message, which you wrote one and a half years ago. We need a clarification from you. I see he’s holding printouts from the Sova Center. I told them they had woken up on time, since one and half years had passed since then. After I said that, one of the “policeman” was rude to me. “Why do you write garbage? Do you have nothing to do?” I asked him not to talk to me like that and show me his ID. He refused and behaved very aggressively. My husband tried to take his picture on the phone, but he threatened to smash the phone. He really was holding papers from the prosecutor’s office. Supposedly, they had been given three days to take care of the matter. I said I could deal with it on Friday morning. The conversation ended with our promising to call the police and closing the door.

There is no doubt they were from the police, judging by their behavior.))

I am writing a complaint to the prosecutor’s office.

Here is a photo of one of the “heroes.”

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I myself just got chewed out, on a leftist mailing list, for writing a “screed” about how Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky had sold out to Putinism by appearing on RT. What is worse, the super-righteous Hedges, an ordained minister, if I’m not mistaken, has even started presenting a program on the channel.

Why do I object so strongly to this? Because whether they know it or not, Hedges, Chomsky, and everyone who behaves like them is putting their stamp of approval on the way this country is misruled by thugs like the ones who just visited and threatened my friends Lika and Alik.

Make no mistake: this is not a one-off, random incident. This is something that has happened millions of times, and often in much rougher form, since Putin took charge of Russia eighteen years ago.

So, when you say to yourself that your “anti-imperialist” (or whatever) message is so earth-shakingly important that you’ll go on a TV channel paid for by Russian taxpayers, but run as a flagrant anti-US, anti-western, pro-Assadist, pro-Putinist propaganda outlet by thieves, crooks, and thugs who openly intimidate, assault, and sometimes murder these same taxpayers for the “criminal” act of disagreeing with the general line or drawing attention to a wrongdoing or demanding that state officials, including police and judges, actually do their jobs in keeping with the Russian Constitution, the Russian law codes, and the international and European conventions on human rights to which Russia is still a signatory, you have to have a lot of chutzpah.

In fact, you have to have decided, whether consciously or not, that ordinary taxpaying Russians who don’t toe the Putinist line are your enemies, and you don’t mind at all if they’re crushed in the dirt by absolute fucking scumbags as long as self-righteous snake oil salesmen like Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges have yet another “outlet” for their tiresome message, which we all memorized years ago and which, in fact, they’ve had no trouble at all disseminating at will to whoever will listen for years on end.

Pretending that they’re “forced” to go on RT, because they can’t get a hearing anywhere else, is the last refuge of an “anti-imperialist” scoundrel. TRR

Keep Calm and Just Step Sideways

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Muscovites are pretenaturally calm and dressed unseasonably warmly as the world hurtless toward senseless nuclear conflagration. Photo courtesy of RBC

I am only sharing this news flash from RBC with you because of the fabulous photo that accompanied it on RBC’s Facebook news feed, and the way it illustrates the article’s point—sideways, as it were.

“‘It is necessary to remain calm,’ the Russian Foreign Ministry said after North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb. The ministry called for a return to dialogue as ‘the only possible way of comprehensively settling the Korean Peninsula’s problems.'”

That sounds great albeit weirdly kumbayaish from folks whose usual idea of a “comprehensive settlement” is invasion and occupation of a peaceful neighboring country, aiding and abetting a bloody Arab tyrant in crushing a popular revolution, sowing racist and Islamophobic mayhem throughout the world via fake news and bots, especially after the meltdown in Charlottesville, messing with elections in other countries, including plans to assassinate one of the candidates, the incumbent PM, ruthlessly and routinely crushing dissent and protest in their own country, and implicitly declaring anti-Americanism the official state ideology not because they thought it would go down well with the rank and file, or because they themselves hate America so much (it doesn’t, and they don’t), but because it was the only way they could think of keeping Putin in the Kremlin for another six years.

Remember, comrades: he’s already been in the Kremlin for eighteen years.

But the photo is terrific. The people in it are not calm. They could not care less about anything.

Or if they do care, they are not going to let on to it whilst walking down the street in the middle of Moscow.

In any case, RBC originally ran this photo in April of this year to accompany an article about how my friends at Mediazona were suing the Foreign Ministry for refusing to reply to its written request for information about contacts between Russian diplomats in the US and members of the Trump presidential campaign.

What goes around comes around, so just step sideways. TRR

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All We Have to Look Forward to Are Past Wars and Future Wars, but God Help Us from Revolutions

When my charge Abubakar and I emerged from the courtyard of our building earlier today for our afternoon constitutional, we were abruptly confronted by a moving van, almost blocking the exit to the street. The van, which was quite filthy, had two “patriotic” (nationalist) bumper stickers tattooed on its back bumper.

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“Thank you that we don’t know what war is like!” You can say what you like about the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin’s Treptower Park, but the Great Fatherland War was definitely not the “war to end all wars” almost anywhere, much less the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia, which happily intervened militarily in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan after the war, as well as enthusiastically engaging in lesser Cold War shenanigans all over the globe with and without its sparring partner the US. Since its convenient self-collapse, it has twice reduced Chechnya to rubble, occupied Crimea, set Donbass on fire, and razed East Aleppo to the ground. So much for not knowing what war is like. The experience has merely been severely localized to keep the ruling and chattering classes of Moscow and Petersburg from knowing what it’s like.

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“Our armor is strong and our tanks are swift!” This particular (modern) tank is emblazoned with the St. George’s Ribbon that has become a de rigueur accessory for “patriots” (nationalists) on holidays such as Victory Day (May 9). Some particular fervent patriots (nationalists) manage to wear the ribbon all year round, like an amulet against the evil eye.

Here we see the historical semantic switch that is always flicked by Russian nationalists, played out, in this case, on a single, dust-encrusted moving van bumper. Since the Soviet Union made the “ultimate sacrifice” in the Second World War, it now gets a free pass in all present and future conflicts, which are somehow, usually vaguely, provoked by the “raw deal” the Soviet Union and, especially, ethnic Russians supposedly got in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Cold War.

The second bumper sticker should thus be seen as a serious “humorous” threat to invade Europe in the very near future. The really funny thing is it is addressed to a purely domestic, i.e., Russian audience. Perpetually “collapsing” Europe, brought to its knees, allegedly, by Muslim fundamentalists, gays, and political correctness (in the Russian popular imagination), and thus deserving of invasion (salvation) by Putinist Russia, literally cannot see this message, ostensibly addressed to it, not to other Russians, who have it drilled into their heads on a hourly basis, unless they avoid the Russian state media altogether, which many of them have done to keep their heads from exploding.

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Bolshaya Zelenina Street, Petersburg, August 17, 2017. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Kasatkina

An acquaintance came home today to find a once blank or otherwise adorned firewall, as depicted above, painted over with an alarming, menacing war scene. There was a brief period between the collapse of the Soviet Union and Putin 2.0 or Putin 3.0, when the city’s numerous, achingly beautiful firewalls were freed of portraits of Politburo members and exemplary socialist laborers and allowed to be themselves, which was something like the visual equivalent of one hand clapping. But when money and politics poured back into the city in the noughties, the firewalls were an easy means for district council officials to show residents and city hall they were engaged in “improvements” and not just pocketing the budget money entrusted to them. (They were doing that, too, whatever else they were pretending to do.) Hiring a crew of hacks to paint the firewall in an otherwise dreary courtyard and arranging a few benches or a little garden or playground below the mural was just the ticket.

Those days of mostly harmless kitsch are now long past. Firewalls should now say something big and important, if the city is going to bother to put up the hard cash to paint them, and that message has to be aggressive and “patriotic.” As one commentator wrote, upon seeing the image of the Soviet warplanes, above, the impression they make is that Russia must start a war immediately.

Or, as in a series of five murals painted on different walls in five Russian cities on the occasion of Putin’s birthday in October 2014, “monumental propaganda” is made to short circuit all of Russian/Soviet history, especially the country’s triumphs, to the current regime and its ruler for life.

IMG_5964Memory (P = Pamiat’), one of a series of graffiti-like murals produced by the pro-Kremlin youth group Set (“Network”) to celebrate the president’s birthday in October 2014. This mural was painted on the firewall of an apartment block on the Obvodny Canal in Petersburg. Fortunately, it has since been painted over. Photograph by the Russian Reader

Thankfully, there are times when the public meta-historical messages are either unreadable or deeply ambiguous, as in this advertisement and accompanying promotion for the Uberesque taxi company Taksovichkof. (In the interests of full disclosure, I use their services very occasionally.)

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“A first!” claims the ad. “A taxi tour of 1917 Petrograd”!

It transpires the route includes St. Isaac’s Cathedral; the barracks of the Volyhnia Regiment, who decisively came down on the side of the Provisional Government during the February 1917 Revolution; the Smolny Institute, where the Bolsheviks were temporarily headquartered in October 1917; the Finland Station; the nearby Crosses Prison, where many revolutionaries of all stripes, not just the Bolsheviks, did hard time; the revolutionary battleship Aurora, which fired the shot heard round the world, returned to its moorings recently after extensive repairs; the mansion of ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska (currently, the Museum of Political History), where Lenin read out his so-called April Theses (“The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution”) after returning from exile in Switzerland; the Peter and Paul Fortress, which housed many political prisoners and revolutionaries during the tsarist period; and, finally, the Winter Palace, stormed by a unit of Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries on October 25, 1917, as a means of asserting the hard left’s symbolic victory in the second revolution.

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The route of Taksovichkof’s Excursion through Revolutionary Petrograd from 1917 to 2017 [sic]. Image courtesy of Taksovichkof

Unfortunately, knowing a little bit about the political views of the local TV celebrity and historian who recorded the tour’s audio guide, I can anticipate the tenor of the tour will be fairly counterrevolutionary and reactionary (i.e., “liberal”). But it’s better than declaring war on Finland again, I guess. TRR

P.S. The taxi tour costs 1,500 rubles (approx. 22 euros at current exchange rates). It lasts at least an hour and a half depending on traffic conditions, which are usually brutal from morning to night in downtown Petersburg. You can go on the tour from five in the morning (ideal, I would think) to twelve midnight (when the downtown is crawling with merrymakers).

Let’s Cancel the Party and Call It a Night

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

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

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

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

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