Cause for Optimism

From left to right, the Trinity (Izmailovsky) Cathedral, Kazan Cathedral, and Singer House, in central Petersburg,
as photographed by Alexander Petrosyan

Yesterday I met a neighbor lady from our floor whom I hadn’t seen for a long time. She was in high spirits, and we talked for a minute about the current realities. I asked her how she managed to maintain such enviable optimism, and her answer amazed me.

“Why be sad?” she said. “We live in the heart of the city, and if they fire a nuclear missile, we would automatically find ourselves in the very epicenter. We would be instantly transformed into elementary particles. Isn’t that what many people can only dream of?”

Source: Alexander Petrosyan, Facebook, 30 September 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader. Our beloved Petersburg neighbor lady Ludmila Borisovna said something strikingly similar during the “tensions” in 2014.

Vladimir Ufliand: “The human world is fickle”

Vladimir Ufliand (1937–2007)

Мир человеческий изменчив.  
По замыслу его когда-то сделавших.  
Сто лет тому назад любили женщин.  
А в наше время чаще любят девушек.  
Сто лет назад ходили оборванцами,  
неграмотными,  
в шкурах покоробленных.  
Сто лет тому назад любили Францию.  
А в наши дни сильнее любят Родину.  
Сто лет назад в особняке помещичьем  
при сальных, оплывающих свечах  
всю жизнь прожить чужим посмешищем  
легко могли б вы.  
Но сейчас.  
Сейчас не любят нравственных калек. 
Весёлых любят.  
Полных смелости.  
Таких, как я.  
Весёлый человек.  
Типичный представитель современности. 

1957

Source

Joseph Brodsky recites “The human world is fickle” (1957) by his friend the poet Vladimir Ufliand

The human world is fickle.
It was planned that way by them who made it way back when.
A hundred years ago, people loved women.
But nowadays they more often dig chicks.
A hundred years ago, people went around ragged,
illiterate,
in kinky furs.
A hundred years ago, people adored France.
But nowadays they fancy the Motherland more.
A hundred years ago, you easily could
spend your whole life as someone's laughing stock
in a manor house
lit by greasy, guttering candles.
But nowadays.
But nowadays people don't care for emotional wrecks.
They like funny folk.
People full of moxie.
People like me.
A cheerful sort.
The very model of a modern bloke.

1957

The original poem and the video were gifted to her friends and acquaintances, today on her birthday, by the fabulously courageous and definitely cheerful Leokadia Frenkel, to whom I dedicate the translation, above. I also had the good fortune to be acquainted with the gentle, funny, gracious Vladimir Ufliand in real life. His photo, above, was taken by Vadim Egorovsky (1940–2020) in 1995, and is courtesy of Rosphoto and the Tamizdat Project. ||| TRR

“Telephone Terrorism”

Alexander Petrosyan, “Today on Sennaya Square [in Petersburg],” Facebook, 24 September 2022

In Petersburg, police have searched the homes of activists, as well as the home of Sota journalist Victoria Arefieva. The security forces broke down the door to Arefieva’s apartment, seized electronic devices belonging to the journalist and her sister, and detained her for forty-eight hours on suspicion of making a phoney bomb threat to the St. Petersburg City Court, Sota wrote on Saturday, September 24.

In addition, searches were conducted at the homes of persons implicated in the case of the Vesna Movement activists Yevgeny Fateyev and Valentin Khoroshenin, whom a court has banned from “engaging in certain activities.” The security forces also visited the home of activist Pallada Bashurova, against whom two “telephone terrorism” investigations have been launched, OVD Info reports. Yevgenia Litvinova, a member of the Petersburg Human Rights Council, was also detained in connection with a “telephone terrorism” case.

New protests against mobilization scheduled for September 24

According to Sota, the searches are connected with protests, scheduled for September 24, against the “partial mobilization”; law enforcement agencies thereby are attempting to prevent their coverage in the press. Vesna, a democratic youth movement, called on Russians to engage in a new round of protests in the wake of the first wave that occurred on the day Russian President Vladimir Putin made the announcement. “Mogilization [“grave-ization”] is actively going on all over the country. Soon thousands of our men could go to the front. We can and must oppose it!” Vesna said in a statement issued on September 22.

According to the online human rights project OVD Info, on September 21, the police detained more than 1,300 protesters in thirty-nine cities across Russia. Most of the arrests occurred in Moscow and Petersburg. In some police departments, the detainees were handed summonses to the military enlistment office right on the spot.

Source: Olga Lebedeva, “Homes of activists and journalists searched in Petersburg,” DW, 24 September 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

Day of Knowledge: “It’s Not Scary to Die for the Motherland”

In twenty regions of Russia, a school pupil’s start-of-the-year supplies costs more than the average monthly per person income.
This schematic map of the country show how much of the average per capita income has to be spent to ready a pupil for the school year.
Source: Unified Interagency Statistical Information System (EMISS), Russian Federal Statistics Service (Rosstat); calculations by iStories

About one hundred thousand Russians have signed a petition to the president demanding that they be paid 10 thousand rubles [approx. 163 euros] for children’s school expenses as was the case in 2021.

But instead of Russian families, this year parents of schoolchildren from the parts of Ukraine occupied by the Russian army will receive 10 thousand rubles each, while Russian citizens are being expressly told to go to war so that they can afford to send their child to school.

We calculated how much it would cost to send off a pupil to school in Russia’s regions, and we talked with the parents of schoolchildren.

What we learned:

In twenty regions of Russia, buying everything needed for school costs more than the average per capita income for a whole month. For example, in Tyva, one family member has an average income of 15.5 thousand rubles [approx. 253 euros] per month.

This money is usually spent on the bare necessities: food, clothing, medical treatment, transport and other needs. A schoolchild’s kit in Tyva costs almost 24 thousand rubles [approx. 393 euros] — money that parents don’t know where to get. In another fourteen regions, more than ninety percent of income will be spent on school-related expenses.

Parents told iStories that many goods, especially clothes and notebooks, have risen in price twofold or more. And yet, wages have not increased, and some parents have lost their jobs altogether due to sanctions.

Many parents have had to take out loans for everyday needs (this is corroborated by the data: before the start of the school year, the number of applications for consumer loans increased by 20%) and scrimp on vacations.

Prices have increased by thirty percent, but I have no salary, so I’ve felt the difference enormously. The option that I found this year is credit cards. And we scrimped on vacation, of course. It has become quite expensive to take the children somewhere and liven up their leisure time. Whereas earlier I could afford to spend the weekend with my children somewhere in a holiday home in the Moscow Region, now we choose places without an overnight stay, and we take food along with us.

[…]

You take shoes for physical education, light sneakers. The kids hang out in them all day [anyway], so you save money on school shoes.

[…]

I tried to tell [the children] that war is always a very bad thing, that you should aways try to negotiate.

Natalia, Moscow, who is raising a son and a daughter, both in school

On average, I spent around 35-40 thousand rubles [approx. 660 euros] on everything. Clothes have become much more expensive compared to last year, and the quality has become worse. […] I am now on maternity leave, raising the girls alone. I get alimony. We have spent all the new allowances for children between 8 to 17 years old on school expenses. […] I think we will cope with it all. Everything will end and be fine — [the war] will not affect us in any way. I think that everything is being done here [in Russia] so that we do not feel the effect of special military actions.

Elena, Novgorod Region, who is raising two school-age daughters

In which regions of the country does a schoolchild’s kit cost more than the average per capita monthly income?

Could the Russian state afford to cover the expenses for all 15 million Russian schoolchildren?

Source: iStories, email newsletter, 29 August 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader


Igor Stomakhin, from the series When we leave the schoolyard… Moscow, 1980s

My street exhibition will open on the fence of Danilovskaya Alley on September 4 at 1 p.m. as part of the project #SundayKhokhlovskyStandoffs. Photos from my Moscow cycle of the 1980s–1990s will be presented. At 2 p.m., I will give a tour of the show beginning with an account of the capital in that vivid period when Soviet stagnation was replaced by Gorbachev’s perestroika. The defenders of Ivanovo Hill will treat guests to tea from a samovar, so you can bring sweets to share. Address: Kolpachny Lane, between house no. 7 and house no. 9.

Source: Igor Stomakhin, Facebook, 1 September 2022. Click the link to see a dozen more photos from Mr. Stomakhin’s poignant perestroika-era Moscow school series. Translated by the Russian Reader


“It’s not scary to die for the Motherland.”
“Conversations about what matters” — mandatory lessons on love for the Motherland — have been introduced in Russian schools. During these lessons the war in Ukraine will be discussed.
The lessons will be held every Monday before first period after the raising of the flag and the national anthem.
The first “conversation about what matters” will take place on September 5.
Pupils in the first and second grades will be told about nature in Russia. Pupils in the third and fourth grades will be told about how it is necessary to defend the Motherland. The teaching manuals cite proverbs that can be used to explain this to children: “It’s not scary to die for the Motherland,” “Loving the Motherland means serving the Motherland,” and “The happiness of the Motherland is more precious than life.”
On September 12, pupils in grades 5–11 will be told about the war in Ukraine. “We also see manifestations of patriotism nowadays, especially in the special military operation,” it says in the course packet.
And to pupils in the tenth and eleventh grades, the instructors, as they conclude the conversation about the “special operation,” should say the following parting words: “You cannot become a patriot if you only spout slogans. Truly patriotic people are ready to defend their Motherland under arms.”
Attending the “conversations” is presented as mandatory. If pupils skip them, instructors are advised to have a talk with their parents. If talking to them doesn’t do the trick, instructors are advised to cite the law, which states that the school curriculum consists of lessons and extracurricular activities.
By law, pupils may skip extracurricular activities at the request of their parents. Teachers are afraid, however, that in the case of the “conversations about what matter” school administrators will be keeping a close eye on attendance.
“We find ourselves in a reality in which you have to keep your own opinion to yourself to avoid losing your job, at best, or ending up behind bars, at worst,” says a teacher in one Moscow school. “There are those [teachers] who actively support state policy. If a teacher diverges from the subject matter of the ‘conversations,’ he might find himself in a dangerous situation.”

Source: Current Time TV (Radio Svoboda), Instagram, 1 September 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

Continue reading “Day of Knowledge: “It’s Not Scary to Die for the Motherland””

Hellbent

Hellbent on having fun in the midst of a terrible war — a frightening panorama of Petersburg by virtuoso photographer Alexander Petrosyan. Source: Alexander Petrosyan, Facebook, 7 August 2022


As Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds into its fifth month, Moscow is a city doing everything it can to turn a blind eye to the conflict. It is a champagne-soaked summer like any other in the Russian capital, despite the thousands of dead and many more wounded in a war increasingly marked by acts of savage brutality.

In Gorky Park, outdoor festivals, cinemas and bars were all jammed on a recent evening, with young couples twirling to ballroom dance music as others stopped for selfies along the Moscow river nearby.

“Yes, we are having a party,” said Anna Mitrokhina, one of the dancers at an outdoor dance platform on the Moscow river, wearing a blue-sequin dress and heavy eye-makeup. “We are outside of politics, we want to dance, to feel and have fun. I can’t worry any more and this helps me forget.”

Walk through the city or switch on a VPN to scroll through Instagram or Facebook and you might not even know the country’s at war, a word that the Russian censors have banned from local media and that, even among many friends, has become taboo.

A lifestyle Instagram blogger with more than 100,000 followers who was opposed to the war said that she had consciously decided to stop speaking about the topic — because of the official restrictions but also the backlash she received from subscribers.

“Nobody wants to hear about the war, the special military operation, any more, they tell me to stop talking about this and get back to normal topics like beauty and fitness,” she said, asking that her name not be used. “Every time I mentioned it I would get so much hate in my messages. It hurts me, it hurts my business. I stopped mentioning it. It just doesn’t exist for many people.”

“What hurts the most is it is not really [because of the law], there is just no desire to talk about this,” she said. “People are turning off.”

[…]

Source: Andrew Roth, “‘People are turning off’: Muscovites put the war aside and enjoy summer,” The Guardian, 30 July 2022

118 Years Ago Today

From Boris Savinkov’s Memoirs of a Terrorist:

It was a clear sunny day. When I approached the square at the Church of the Intercession [in Petersburg], I saw the following scene. Sazonov, sitting on a bench, was exhaustively and animatedly relating to Sikorsky how and where to sink the bomb. Sazonov was calm and seemed to have completely forgotten about himself. Sikorsky listened to him attentively. Borishansky sat on a bench in the distance, his face imperturbable as usual. Even further away, at the gates of the church, stood Kalyayev who, doffing his cap, crossed himself.

[…]

When I approached 7th Company of the Izmailovsky Regiment Street [currently known as 7th Red Army Street], I saw a policeman on the corner stand at attention. At the same moment, I noticed Sazonov on the bridge over the Obvodny Canal. He walked, as before, with his head held high, carrying the projectile at his shoulder. Immediately, I heard loud trotting behind me, and a carriage pulled by black horses rushed past.

[…]

Suddenly, a heavy, strange, unwieldy sound rent the street’s monotonous hubbub. It was if someone had struck a cast-iron stove with a cast-iron hammer. At the same moment, the broken glass in the windows rattled pitifully. I saw a pillar of grayish yellow, almost black smoke rising from the ground in a narrow funnel. This pillar, ever expanding, flooded the entire street to the height of the fifth floor. It dissipated as quickly as it rose. I thought I saw some black debris amid the smoke.

For the first second, my breath caught in my throat. But I was waiting for an explosion, and so I came to my senses more quickly than the others. I ran kitty-corner down the street to the Warsaw Hotel.

One hundred and eighteen years later.

Pokrovsky Square (Church of the Intercession Square) aka Turgenev Square, in central Petersburg
Izmailovsky Prospect in Petersburg. The former Warsaw Station, now a shopping and entertainment center, is in the background.
The end of Izmailovsky Prospect, with a clearer view of the former Warsaw Station. A statue of Lenin once stood in front of it.

Source: Aleksandr Ermakov, Facebook, 28 July 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader, since a copy of Joseph Shaplen’s 1931 English translation of Boris Savinkov’s Memoirs of a Terrorist is hard to come by in print and nearly invisible online. I also added the captions to Mr. Ermakov’s snapshots.


The routes taken by Savinkov, Plehve, and the members of the SR Combat Organization on 28 July 1904. Source: Visions of Terror

On 15 July 1904 [28 July 1904 in the reformed, post-revolutionary calendar], the notoriously oppressive and unpopular Minister of the Interior, Viacheslav Konstantinovich von Plehve stepped into his armored carriage, complete with an entourage of bicycle detectives, and set off from his dacha to the Warsaw Station on his way to regular meeting with Tsar Nicholas II, now residing at his summer palace in Peterhof. Plehve, who had already survived several attacks on his life, probably took this trip in stride, but as he approached his destination, a young man, Egor Sazonov darted towards his carriage and threw a bomb underneath its speeding wheels. Sazonov was just one of several assassins that day who were poised and ready to trade their own lives for the Minister’s. They were members of the Combat Organization (Boevaia Organizatsiia), the terrorist branch of the Socialist Revolutionaries who ultimately murdered a number of prominent political figures, most notably […] Tsar Alexander II.

Source: Visions of Terror

A More (or Less) Perfect Union

Russian naval vessels on parade on the Neva River in downtown Petersburg, July 2022. Photo: Alexander Petrosyan

I dreamt that all wars had ended and a united humankind was amicably celebrating good’s victory over human nature’s age-old curse.

Since my dream took place in Petersburg, the warships had been turned in recreational vessels, equipped with swimming pools, gyms, spas, dance halls, hotels, bars, restaurants, etc.

The towering masts were outfitted with convenient spots for those wishing to photograph the city’s river embankments from above. The deck was dotted with deck chairs, and the holds, instead of rockets and shells, housed barrels containing every variety of alcohol from around the globe!

I remember strolling around one of these ships, shooting a reportage about the triumphantly heavenly lives of its inhabitants, but I was not able to finish the dream. As always in the morning, the cat’s meowing and the children waking up on time woke me up. Otherwise, I would have been late for my next photo shoot.

Source: Alexander Petrosyan, Facebook, 25 July 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader


[…]

I never would have thought that I would speak out in defense of the Soviet Union. But now I am forced to do it.

I grew up in a small village in the middle of Russia. The adults in my life did not read samizdat and tamizdat, nor did they oppose the system — they just lived their lives. But from their conversations, loose talk, and slips of tongue, I was able to draw conclusions. I realized that I didn’t have to unconditionally believe the agitprop posters and the folks on the TV. Life was more complicated and, apparently, worse than the picture that the big bosses were trying to foist on us.

And yet there were certain things I took for granted. I knew that my country had clear, intelligible notions of good and evil, of how everything should work, and I considered them correct. Socialism had to emerged victorious. We didn’t seem to be doing everything right, but we knew what we were supposed to being doing.

To a large extent, of course, this belief was also based on a complete ignorance of how people actually lived outside the socialist bloc. There were simply no people in our midst who had seen it and could tell us about it. In our village, perhaps the only person who had visited this capitalist hell was my grandfather. He was in Vienna when the war ended. But he died before I was born, and besides, as my elders told me, he was a taciturn person and did not like to reminisce about his life.

I knew — just like Leonid Brezhnev, the guy on TV, who had fought in a real war — that it was wrong to even hint at using nuclear weapons. Nuclear war was terrible and the end of everything.

I also knew that we would never attack anyone. The Soviet Union had a militarist bent, and a sense of the coming war’s inevitability filtered into my childish mind. But there was only one possible scenario: the enemy would come to us, maybe even occupy our country, but then we would throw them out, win the war, and clean up the motherland. There was no other way. We wouldn’t attack first.

The Soviet Union, by the way, was bashful about its wars. It concealed its involvement in conflicts abroad. Only the Afghan War broke through the curtain of lies. I don’t know whether it was because of the magnitude, or because the giant was on its last legs and had even forgotten how to tell a fib.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (far left) and Russian military officers at the consecration of the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, 14 June 2020. Photo courtesy of Spektr

Modern Russia is not shy. Go to the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces in Patriot Park. It is worthwhile and instructive. There are mosaics depicting Russian soldiers and heroes — the heroes of the Battle of Kulikovo, the Patriotic War of 1812, the Great Patriotic War … and a huge panel depicting the heroes of the wars that the Soviet Union waged after the Second World War. The figures in the foreground are easily identifiable as “Afghans,” but the picture’s authors quite clearly hint that it’s not just about veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

Soviet ideology was putrid and phony, but there was also a real humanism in it that filtered through the rot and falsity.

Modern Russia doesn’t even have this going for it.

[…]

Source: Ivan Davydov, “An apology for the Union: which USSR Vladimir Putin is resurrecting,” Republic, 21 July 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

We’re Not in the Same Boat

One in a series of photos, taken recently in Petersburg, that the photographer Alexander Petrosyan
posted under the heading “Life goes on”. Source: Alexander Petrosyan, Facebook, 3 July 2022

The main stumbling block in communication between Ukrainians and Russian/Belarusian oppositionists is that the latter believe, for some reason, that they understand the former very well.

As one Belarusian oppositionist (from New York) wrote, “In the areas occupied by the Russian Federation, unarmed people behave the same way, both in Belarus and in Ukraine.”

That’s what they think—that all of us are suffering from an identical disaster. They often go even further and claim that, up until February 24, 2022, people in Ukraine were living the life of Riley, while people in the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus faced crackdowns.

As one Russian oppositionist (from Warsaw) told me, “[Opposition] pickets [in Russia] end stupidly, and [protesters] also get the shit kicked out of them. How long did you [Ukrainians] face such things? From January to February 2014?”

To hear them tell it, they endured misfortunes for years and years while we had an easy time of it here in Ukraine. That is, until February 24, we should have sympathized with them due to their immense suffering. But now, after February 24, we must recognize them as equal sufferers.

Firstly, a lot of different mass protest campaigns and protest rallies have taken place in Ukraine in addition to January-February 2014—from the Revolution on Granite, the miners’ strikes of the 90s, and Ukraine without Kuchma, to the Orange Revolution, the Language Maidan, and the Euromaidan. The fact that Ukrainians were able to learn and reflect on the experience gained during each such event, so that the next one would be even more effective, testifies only to the literal fact that you have to learn from your mistakes and do your homework. There is no doctor who can cure you of the fact that you were not able to do it, dear Russians and Belarusians. It’s certainly not the fault of us Ukrainians.

Secondly, the war began in 2014. While things were generally relatively quiet in the Republic of Belarus, and while oppositionists were being jailed in the Russian Federation, artillery was already destroying villages in Ukraine, albeit in a limited area, in two regions.

And, thirdly: half an hour ago, thunder rumbled somewhere in Kyiv. It was ordinary thunder, presaging a thunderstorm. But everyone tensed up. Passersby scoped out furrows in the terrain where they could take cover. Even the courtyard drunks who could still move their legs after the morning rondel, moved closer to building entrances, fences, and other shelters from shrapnel.

No crackdowns in the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus, no matter how terrible they are, bear any resemblance to what the absolute majority of Ukrainians are enduring now.

War is different. You can’t sign a police charge sheet and hope that they’ll stop pounding you. You can’t make a deal with a police investigator and get off lightly. You can’t even protect yourself by not “getting mixed up in politics” so as to avoid having any problems in future with the police and prosecutor’s office. Because you’re just getting the shit beat out of you. You go to the shopping center for tea and coffee every time a little like it’s the last time. But then you see that no, a shopping center in another city has been bombed today, and the black bile rises from your guts to your throat as you watch it burn.

And this is in the relatively peaceful cities and towns far from the front. In the frontline areas, they pound the fuck out of you as they grind the cities into piles of concrete and rebar.

And no, Belarusians now are not feeling the same things in “occupied territory” as Ukrainians do. As long as there are no camps there which the absolute majority of the population in the occupied villages and cities must go through. And from which buses bearing the “non-filtered” go somewhere, returning empty. Belarusians do not huddle in apartments without windows and electricity, reading the bulletin from the occupation administration that there will be no cold-season heating in any case. And so.

Everyone has their own sufferings, of course. When the weather changes, someone in Miami, even, suffers from pain in a joint that was dislocated by the cops back in the motherland and smears it with ointment. But objectively, no, we are not in a situation that is equivalent to the one the Belarusians and Russians are in currently. Until they understand this, there will be no dialogue.

UPD. I’m not accusing anyone of anything at all. I am pointing out a difference in our plights, which many do not notice. Otherwise, I have nothing against people being different and having different stories. That goes without saying.

UPD2. And I’m not talking about what passports people have or their ethnic background. In my universe, people who are currently fighting [against the Russian army] and working in Ukraine are “our” people.

Source: Dmytro Rayevsky, Facebook, 29 June 2022. Translated, from the Russian, by the Russian Reader


Yurii Brukhal, an electrician by trade, did not have a very dangerous role when he volunteered for Ukraine’s territorial defense forces at the start of the war. He was assigned to make deliveries and staff a checkpoint in the relative safety of his sleepy village.

Weeks later, his unit deployed from his home in the west to a frontline battle in eastern Ukraine, the center of the fiercest fighting against Russian forces. He was killed on June 10.

Andrii Verteev, who worked in a grocery store in the village, spent the first months of the war guarding a small overpass after work and returning home to his wife and daughter at night. Then he, too, volunteered to head east. He died in battle in Luhansk, only weeks before Mr. Brukhal.

Their deaths have driven home the extent to which the war is reaching into every community across the country, even those far from the front. It has also underscored the risks faced by volunteers, with limited training, who are increasingly heading into the kind of battles that test even the most experienced soldiers. Their bodies are being returned to fill up cemeteries in largely peaceful cities and towns in the country’s west.

[…]

Oksana Stepanenko, 44, is also dealing with grief, along with her daughter Mariia, 8. Her husband, Andrii Verteev, was killed on May 15.

Like Mr. Brukhal, he had been a volunteer, tasked with protecting an overpass just up the road during the early weeks of the war. Then he joined an anti-aircraft unit of the military and was redeployed to the east.

His death added a new level of pain to the family. Ms. Stepanenko’s son, Artur, died of an illness at age 13 three years ago. Now a corner of their small living room has become a shrine to the boy and his father.

Ms. Stepanenko said she found solace in her faith and the fact that it was her husband’s choice to go to the front lines. But, like so many others in Ukraine, she asked, “How many guys have to die before this ends?”

Source: Megan Specia, “Ill Prepared for Combat, Volunteers Die in Battles Far from Home,” New York Times, 2 July 2022

Funny Things Happened at the Forum

The phenomenal Petersburg photographer Alexander Petrosyan snapped this hyperrealist folk-conceptual photo at this week’s international economic forum in Petersburg, where the honored guests include the Taliban and the “president” of one of the fake Donbas “people’s republics.” There has been a lot of coverage of the remarks made at the forum by this snapshot’s ostensible subject. I have excerpted one article about them, below. This excerpt is followed by my translation of an interview with Sergei Khestanov about the forum and the broader Russian economic outlook in the light of the war and western sanctions.


As is traditional, the forum was dominated by a plenary session involving Putin. Earlier in the week, Peskov announced that Putin would make “an extremely important speech”. A couple of days later, he went out of his way to insist that the president was not about to announce a mobilization. It’s unclear why this was necessary – it’s no longer early March when this rumor was widespread.

The speech itself (which lasted for almost 90 minutes) contained no surprises. Putin spoke Friday about how “crazy sanctions” were not hurting the Russian economy, but, instead, causing pain for the Western countries as they wrestle with a crisis caused by an ill-conceived coronavirus response. “Our special military operation has nothing to do with it,” Putin said. More than once, Putin insisted the Russian economy remained open for business and reaffirmed his belief that the West would come to its senses and that Western companies would soon return to operating in Russia as normal.

But the most interesting part was when the moderator, Margarita Simonyan (head of state-owned RT and a prominent hawk on Ukraine) began putting questions to Putin and Tokayev. Along with the president of Armenia, Tokayev was one of only two heads of state to travel to the forum. It was painfully clear that Tokayev’s presence was repayment for Putin’s support back in January when troops from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) helped to re-impose order in Kazakhstan and, at the same time, marginalize Tokayev’s predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

However, Tokayev’s gratitude knows some bounds. That was apparent two days before he shared the stage with Putin when he gave an interview to state-owned Rossiya 24 in which he confirmed that his country would fully comply with Western sanctions on Russia.

Judging by what followed, Putin was aware of that interview. The highlight of the session was Putin’s attempt to pronounce his colleague’s name and patronymic – Kassym-Jomart Kemelevich. In January, when Kazakhstan was at the center of international attention as a result of civil unrest, Putin was already struggling with this difficult – but not impossible – name and twice uttered something incoherent. This time, at the start of his speech, Putin got it right – but during the Q&A session he again referred to Tokayev as “Kemel-Zhemelevich”, prompting a highly suspicious look from his supposed ally (this is clearly visible in the video).

Tokayev’s answers to Simonyan’s questions were far from the platitudes of an ally and some of what he said ran directly counter to Putin’s position. Diplomatic and courteous (Tokayev is a former UN Deputy General Secretary), the Kazakh president told Putin:

  • Kazakhstan “takes sanctions into account” (a response to a question from Simonyan suggesting the West must be pushing Kazakhstan to stop cooperation with Russia).
  • No economy can successfully pursue a policy of self-reliance and import substitution.
  • Ukraine’s accession to the European Union must be accepted as a new reality, even though its economy is in a dreadful condition.
  • The U.S., and the West in general, are not in the throes of a major crisis. At present, the U.S. economy is “modern and dynamic.”
  • That there are some Russian politicians, journalists and cultural figures who make “absolutely incorrect statements about Kazakhstan” and other states and “sow discord between our peoples.” This is likely to refer to occasional calls in the Russian parliament to protect the Russian-speaking population of Kazakhstan, which is concentrated in the north of the country. Such pronouncements are very reminiscent of the rhetoric in Russia about the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
  • Finally, without prompting, Tokayev dismissed the possibility of Kazakhstan recognizing the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. He dismissed the republics – recognized by Russia – as “quasi-state entities.”

You can watch the whole of the plenary session here, or read a transcript here.

The scandal continued Saturday when Kazakh media reported Tokayev had turned down the Order of Alexander Nevsky bestowed on him by the Russian government. The official reason was that Kazakhstan’s president is not permitted to accept honors from foreign countries while in office – Russian state-owned media devoted half a day to reporting this explanation.

Source: “Showcasing Isolation,” The Bell, 19 June 2022


The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) wrapped up this weekend. The feelings it generated are complicated. On the one hand, there was a heated discussion of the forum in social media; on the other hand, it was mainly not economic news that was discussed, but the juicy scandals that happened at the forum. Does the international forum have a future in the face of total western sanctions? And have the speeches at the SPIEF made it clearer what will happen next with the Russian economy? We talked about this with Sergei Khestanov, a well-known economist who has developed dozens of financial theories and techniques. He also serves as an adviser on macroeconomics to the CEO of Otkritie Investments.

Judging by the discussion of SPIEF on social media, the hottest guests were the Taliban (an organization that is banned in Russia) and Philipp Kirkorov. Is this due to the exoticism of their being at the economic forum or the absence of significant guests?

— The Taliban were just a kind of exotic highlight, I think. By the way, they were not particularly visible in the latter part of the forum. There weren’t many notable guests, really, but then again there hasn’t been an abundance of such guests for many years. What was unusual was that some guests of the forum (Russians, by the way) were asked not to advertise their participation and to wear name tags that did not spell out their companies and positions, lest they be hit by sanctions. From the economic point of view of, it doesn’t mean anything, but it is a quite interesting reflection on how the forum is seen.

Was western business represented at the forum in general?

— It was practically absent. Many [western businessmen] simply cannot attend without spoiling their reputations, even those who have not yet abandoned the Russian market.

And what was interesting from a substantive point of view?

— In terms of the forum’s substance, I would draw attention to the statement made by [Sberbank chief] Hermann Gref that the Russian economy would be able to reach the level of 2021 in ten years. That’s quite a frank recognition of the state of our economy. Vladimir Putin’s statement about banning audits of businesses is also welcome if the number of such audits is really reduced. However, it bothers me that they have been talking about this for so many years [without doing anything about it.]

Putin also announced a reduction in the preferential mortgage rate to seven percent.

— Volumes of orders have been falling in the construction industry, so we need to support it. And since, as a rule, the construction industry is closely affiliated with local and, sometimes, regional authorities, the desire to support it is quite understandable. Plus, the industry is a multiplier, so helping it helps the metals industry, manufacturers of cement, lumber, and so on. However, the decline in volumes is not yet tremendous, so nothing terrible would happen without help, but nor do I expect the support to trigger a boom.

There is another danger here: real estate prices in Russia, especially in the megacities, are overheated. if the decrease in mortgage rates is not coupled with an increase in down payments, we could end up with a mortgage bubble. And then, under certain unfavorable circumstances, of which there might be many going forward, we could face a terrific downturn in prices and a serious mortgage crisis. I would not say that the danger is great now, but it cannot be ignored.

Wait, what collapse? What crisis? It followed from Vladimir Putin’s speech that we have been successfully coping with western sanctions. Supposedly, foreign exchange earnings are so great that they almost equaled the volume of the frozen portion of Russian gold and foreign exchange reserves.

— Russia is bursting with money that it cannot digest because of import restrictions and the threat of frozen accounts. It turns out that money has been earned, but what to do with it? It isn’t possible to use it constructively. And this madness with shoring up the ruble is due to the fact that there is no demand for non-cash payments: exporters need controls, but they cannot sell currency. So, it’s like a pear is dangling in front of you, but you can’t eat it.

But Central Bank head Elvira Nabiullina in her speech suggested a way out for exporters: they should focus on the domestic market.

— Those are pretty words, but most exporters have been working for the domestic market for a long time. The problem is that the domestic market’s capacity is limited. For oil and petroleum products, for example, domestic demand accounts for about a quarter of current production. That is, if we refocus on the domestic market, we need to cut production threefold. Will that make things better?

Export industries perfectly satisfy domestic demand, and everything else is exported. This also applies to the metals industry, both ferrous and non-ferrous metals, and the oil industry, and the petrochemical industry. Nizhnekamskneftekhim, the world’s largest producer in its class of raw materials for plastics, supplies its products to both the domestic and foreign markets, but only a very small portion of what it produces goes to the domestic market, because such is the demand.

And, for example, aluminum and titanium are used mainly in aircraft construction. Given current conditions in the domestic market, they can be used, at best, to make kvass cans.

— Exactly. The domestic Russian market is simply not able to absorb everything produced by exporters. So, this call to pivot to the domestic market is like that joke. “Bunnies, become hedgehogs, so the foxes won’t eat you.” “Great, but how do we do it?” “I don’t know — I’m a strategist, not a tactician.”

To be fair, Nabiullina had also talked about structural adjustment in the past.

— What the Central Bank head said about structural adjustment is right, but it doesn’t make much sense yet. Unless we note the speech made by [Alexei] Kudrin, who said that it would take two to three months to develop a strategy. I consider him one of the most serious public figures in terms of macroeconomic analysis, so his words carry a lot of weight for me. Two or three months is a realistic amount of time, I think. It would bring us to the beginning of autumn, and all over the world at this time, business picks up after the summer lull. Plus, statistics for macroeconomic indicators will have been reported, and the relevance of the data will have increased. So I’m eighty to ninety percent in agreement with him.

 But what don’t you agree with?

— My main disagreement is that, since the sanctions have not yet ended, the effectiveness of strategies is low. No matter how good a plan is, it will have to be changed quickly and often. Moreover, so far most of the sanctions have impacted imports, and that is not so terrible. Of course, it’s sad that Ivan Sixpack can no longer buy a new smartphone, but this has little effect on the economy. Export sanctions are much more serious when it comes to filling the state coffers. But I think it’s too early to talk about them before next year.

Well, so far, Ivan Sixpack does not seem to be suffering much. Many people say that the sanctions are not really hurting us.

— Since demand has dropped a lot, people are under the illusion that nothing terrible has happened. But by the second half of September, I think that stocks in the warehouses will be exhausted, and it will become clear what is happening with durable goods.

— Especially with spare parts for cars. This topic is now of concern to many people. A friend of mine is now glad that she didn’t buy a foreign car, as she had originally wanted, but a Russian-assembled Renault.

— She shouldn’t be too glad. Some of the spare parts for inexpensive Russian-assembled foreign cars are made in Russia, but only some. The rest are imported.

— So, we will have to establish a shuttle trading business for the delivery of spare parts.

— Maybe, but the whole business will be tedious, time-consuming and, accordingly, much more expensive. As in the 90s, people will have to buy cars that Russian spare parts fit. They will have to learn how to do their own repairs. In Soviet times, I went abroad to buy a used car with cardboard templates in tow to determine whether the wheels from a Lada would fit it, whether the filters would fit. I knew how to re-rivet brake pads. Basically, I can fix anything on a car, except the carburetor. Most of the motorists of that time could do the same. Maybe they couldn’t do everything, but they could do the most basic things like cleaning the spark plugs and changing the oil and filters. Those were the necessary skills. But nowadays, many people don’t even know how to change tires.

— They’ll have to learn. Once again the menfolk will gather in garages on weekends, although many people don’t have their own garages anymore. They only have spaces in multi-story parking lots, and you can’t repair a car there.

— And the skills have been lost. Of course, a parallel import market will be established, and people will learn how to do repairs, but it will be difficult for motorists. It will become immensely more expensive and more difficult to maintain a car.

— Speaking of cars. Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov announced plans to resume production not only of the Moskvitch, as discussed by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, but also of the Volga and even the Pobeda. The latter, by the way, was produced in the 50s. Is the [Russian] car industry really that bad off? What about the Chinese? Wouldn’t they help us? After all, they are switching to electric vehicles. Could they transfer the production of internal combustion engines to Russia?

— As I understand it, Manturov was actually talking about reviving the brands, not the cars of that generation themselves. Because if there is a demand for classic Ladas now, it’s not very big. In the back country, the fact that they can be repaired easily is appreciated. But all the other cars [of the period] were total tanks. I used to drive a Pobeda back in the day. It really, you know, encourages you to develop your shoulder muscles, because turning the steering wheel involves great physical exertion. The brakes are the same way.

But what they probably have in mind is producing new models under those brands, maybe even stylized to look like the old ones. Aesthetically, the Pobeda is beautiful — it’s just hard to drive it. The Volga 21 is beautiful, and so are the Moskvitches up to the 412 model. And if you also give it a two-tone paint job, like the Moskvitch 403, you could make a very popular model. Volkswagen also produced an updated replica of the Beetle.

 And how will they make them?

— They will probably buy the platforms from the Chinese, or [the Chinese] will even supply the assembly lines. Then designers will be commissioned to come up with designs, maybe even stylized to look like Soviet cars. And so the brands will be reborn.

— In conclusion, let’s return to the guests at SPIEF. In terms of foreign leaders, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev attended the forum. Chinese President Xi Jinping also made a short speech via video link. There is probably no point in asking whether SPIEF can now claim the role of the “Russian Davos.” I wanted to ask you abpit something else. Given the current conditions, is there any point to this event?

— Tokayev, I think, just couldn’t help but show up. Everyone paid attention to how he spoke relatively harshly about the DPR and the LPR. Of course, he is a professional career diplomat and spoke in such a way that you can’t find fault with him, so it’s quite difficult to extract any one definite message from his speeches.

— What about when he said that Kazakhstan had no choice but to support western sanctions?

— But this is quite obvious: he didn’t say anything new. It is clear that the economy of Kazakhstan cannot fight a consolidated decision by the western economies. This would not only be difficult, but also not really necessary. So, where its own interests are not affected, Kazakhstan can help Russia — but no more than that. By the way, the Chinese have the same attitude towards us.

Is that why Xi Jinping not only did not come to SPIEF, but was also brief in his video message?

— There is not much to talk about in the current circumstances. So it’s not that Xi didn’t want to talk. There was nothing in particular for him to talk about. It is clear to everyone that the Russian economy is not doing very well. So, our corporations signed contracts with each other, which they happily reported before going their separate ways.

The question of whether SPIEF should be held is another matter: the degeneration of such forums is not only a Russian problem. The Davos forum has also been experiencing a lack of serious ideas. Ten years ago, the substantive part of it was much larger, but nowadays everyone is for all the good things and against all the bad things. And all other [economic] forums face similar problems: a lack of substance and a focus on narrow subjects. So, what is happening with the Petersburg Forum is not unique.

Russian pop singer Philipp Kirkorov at the 25th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum
Photo: Maksim Konstantinov/Global Look Press. Courtesy of Republic

It’s hard to say what the reason is for this. Maybe the format has worn out its welcome. As in art, there is a fashion, a trend, and then times, traditions, and tastes change, and the format goes away. Maybe it is due to the fact that the world economy has been slowing down. When the forums were interesting, the economy was growing; intense economic processes were underway, and reforms were being undertaken in the countries of the former USSR and Eastern Europe. But now there is stagnation everywhere, even in the IT field, about which I know a thing or two. What can I say? Moore’s law has been disproven! The number of transistors on a single chip no longer doubles every eighteen months. So, this is a universal problem. I don’t know whether this trend is reversible or permanent, but for the time being it’s like this. Do you remember the Central Committee plenums in Soviet times? The “resolutions” that were “submitted for consideration” and instantly “approved”? The long tedious speeches about nothing? It’s all coming to look a lot like that.

Source: Tatyana Rybakova, “‘Do you remember the Central Committee plenums in Soviet times? It’s all coming to look a lot like that’: Sergei Khestanov on the St. Petersburg Economic Forum and the future of the economy,” Republic, 19 June 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

Olivier

Olivier Food Market on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles

Russia took aim Sunday at Western military supplies for Ukraine, launching airstrikes on Kyiv that it claimed destroyed tanks donated from abroad, as Vladimir Putin warned that any Western deliveries of longer range rocket systems would prompt Moscow to hit “objects that we haven’t yet struck.”

The Russian leader’s cryptic threat of military escalation did not specify what the new targets might be. It came days after the United States announced plans to deliver $700 million of security assistance for Ukraine that includes four precision-guided, medium-range rocket systems, as well as helicopters, Javelin anti-tank systems, radars, tactical vehicles and more.

Military analysts say Russia hopes to overrun Ukraine’s embattled eastern industrial Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists have fought the Ukrainian government since 2014, before any U.S. weapons that might turn the tide arrive. The Pentagon said last week that it will take at least three weeks to get the U.S. weapons onto the battlefield.

Ukraine said the missiles aimed at the capital hit a train repair shop. Elsewhere, Russian airstrikes in the eastern city of Druzhkivka destroyed buildings and left at least one person dead, a Ukrainian official said Sunday. Residents described waking to the sound of missile strikes, with rubble and glass falling down around them.

A detail from Judy Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles. The second inscription is in Yiddish. It reads, “All Jews [united] in the battle against fascism.” Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the translation.

“It was like in a horror movie,” Svitlana Romashkina said.

Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko urged city residents to leave, saying on Facebook that ruined buildings can be restored but “we won’t be able to bring back the lives lost.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said air-launched precision missiles were used to destroy workshops in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, including in Druzhkivka, that were repairing damaged Ukrainian military equipment.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s General Staff said Russian forces fired five X-22 cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea toward Kyiv, and one was destroyed by air defenses. Four other missiles hit “infrastructure facilities,” but Ukraine said there were no casualties.

Nuclear plant operator Energoatom said one cruise missile buzzed close to the Pivdennoukrainsk nuclear plant, 350 kilometers (220 miles) to the south, and warned of the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe if even one missile fragment hit the plant.

On the Telegram app, the Russian Defense Ministry said high-precision, long range air-launched missiles were used on the outskirts of Kyiv, destroying T-72 tanks supplied by Eastern European countries and other armored vehicles in a train car repair shop.

But the head of Ukraine’s railway system rejected the claim that tanks were inside. Oleksandr Kamyshin said four missiles hit the Darnytsia car repair plant, but no military equipment has been stored there. He said the site was used to repair gondolas and carriers for exporting grain.

“Russia has once again lied,” he wrote on Telegram. “Their real goal is the economy and the civilian population. They want to block our ability to export Ukrainian products.”

In a television interview that aired Sunday, Putin lashed out at Western deliveries of weapons to Ukraine, saying they aim to prolong the conflict.

“All this fuss around additional deliveries of weapons, in my opinion, has only one goal: to drag out the armed conflict as much as possible,” Putin said. He insisted such supplies were unlikely to change the military situation for Ukraine’s government, which he said was merely making up for losses of similar rockets.

If Kyiv gets longer-range rockets, he added, Moscow will “draw appropriate conclusions and use our means of destruction, which we have plenty of, in order to strike at those objects that we haven’t yet struck.”

The U.S. has stopped short of offering Ukraine longer-range weapons that could fire deep into Russia. But the four medium range High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems in the security package include launchers on wheels that allow troops to strike a target and then quickly move away — which could be useful against Russian artillery on the battlefield.

The Spanish daily El Pais reported Sunday that Spain planned to supply anti-aircraft missiles and up to 40 Leopard 2 A4 battle tanks to Ukraine. Spain’s Ministry of Defense did not comment on the report.

In Kyiv’s eastern Darnystki district, a pillar of smoke filled the air with an acrid odor over the charred, blackened wreckage of a warehouse-type structure. Soldiers blocked off a nearby road leading toward a large railway yard.

Before Sunday’s early morning attack, Kyiv had not faced any such Russian airstrikes since the April 28 visit of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. The attack triggered air raid alarms and showed that Russia still had the capability and willingness to hit at Ukraine’s heart, despite refocusing its efforts to capture Ukrainian territory in the east.

When I arrived at the Great Wall of Los Angeles, I was thrilled to see so many other people there taking it in. I soon realized that they were glued to their smart phones, playing some kind of game. It was such a serious game that many of them were playing on two or three devices at the same time. None of them was paying any mind to the magnificent Great Wall of Los Angeles.

In recent days, Russian forces have focused on capturing Ukraine’s eastern cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. On Sunday they continued their push, with missile and airstrikes on cities and villages in the Donbas.

In the cities of Sloviansk and Bakhmut, cars and military vehicles were seen speeding into town Sunday from the direction of the front line. Dozens of military doctors and paramedic ambulances worked to evacuate civilians and Ukrainian servicemen, and a hospital was busy treating the injured, many hurt by artillery shelling.

The U.K. military said in its daily intelligence update that Ukrainian counterattacks in Sieverodonetsk were “likely blunting the operational momentum Russian forces previously gained through concentrating combat units and firepower.” Russian forces previously had been making a string of advances in the city, but Ukrainian fighters have pushed back in recent days.

Source: John Leicester, “Russia hits Kyiv with missiles,” Associated Press, 5 June 2022. Photos by the Russian Reader