This Is Russia

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“This is Russia. This is the Russia that Americans are so scared of.”

In the background of this photo, you can make out the Galereya shopping mall, located in downtown Petersburg. It’s gigantic, covering the land once occupied by five or six graceful tenement buildings and a cultural center and cinema. They were demolished in the mid 1990s, not to make way for the shopping mall, but so a new train station could be built there, jeek by jowl with the existing Moscow Station, because federal and regional officials wanted to build a high-speed train line between Petersburg and Moscow. Millions of dollars were allocated for the project, but ultimately, the train line was never built nor was the new station erected. No one knows what happened to the millions of dollars allocated for the project. They simply vanished into thin air.

The site of the former-future high-speed train station sat vacant for many years behind a tall, ugly construction-site fence. No one could figure out what do to with all that wasteland, which was in the very heart of the city, not in some forgotten outskirts. However, before the money had vanished, and the project was abandoned, construction workers had managed not only to demolish all the tenement buildings on the site but had also dug a foundation pit. Over the long years, this pit filled up with water. Some time after Google Maps had become all the rage, I took a look at our neighborhood via satellite, as it were, and discovered to my great surprise it now had a small lake in it. It was the foundation pit of the former-future high-speed train station, filled to the brim with water.

Good times came to Petersburg in the 2000s, when the country was flush with cash, generated by high oil prices, a flat tax rate of 13%, and runaway corruption. It was then the city’s mothers and fathers (I’m not being ironic: most of Petersburg’s “revival” was presided over by Governor Valentina Matviyenko, a former Communist Youth League functionary who had converted to the gospel of what she herself called “aggressive development”) decided that Petersburg, one of the world’s most beautiful, haunting, enchanting cities, should be extensively redeveloped, despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, into a mecca of consumerism that would give pride of place to cars and new highways, since cars had become the new status symbol among the city’s rich and poor alike. They also decided that, since other big cities in the world had lots of high-rise buildings, their city, which did not have almost any high-rise buildings, should have lots of them, too.

Basically, they decided to demolish as much of the inner and outer city as they could get away with—and they could get away with a lot, because they had nearly unlimited political power and lots of the country’s money at their disposal—and redevelop it with high-rise apartment buildings, superhighways, big box stores, and shopping and entertainment centers, each one uglier and bigger than the last. Thanks to their efforts, in a mere fifteen years or so they have gone a long way toward turning a Unesco World Heritage Site into an impossible, unsightly mess.

But let’s get back to our miniature inner-city lake. Finally, developers came up with a plan to convert the site into a giant shopping mall. Even better, the architects who designed the mall were clearly inspired by Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect and a leading Nazi Party member, to turn a rather oversized mall into a celebration of kitsch faux-neoclassicism, precisely the sort of thing Speer had championed in his projects. This, indeed, was a bit ironic, because Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, had survived a 900-day siege by the German army during the Second World War. Considered the longest and most destructive siege in history, it killed at least 800,000 civilians, that is, it killed the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of the people who now enjoy visiting this mall, with its distinctly neo-fascist aesthetic.

Along the sides of the street running down towards the photographer from the Albert Speer Memorial Shopping Mall, you see lots of shiny new, fairly expensive cars, parked bumper to bumper. In fact, the Albert Speer has a huge underground car park where you can park your car relatively inexpensively (our neighbor lady, a sensible woman, does it), but most Petersburg car owners actually think parking their cars wherever they want—especially either right next to their residential buildings or, worse, in the tiny, labyrinthine, incredibly charming inner courtyards of these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings—is their legal right. It isn’t, but they don’t know it or don’t want to know it. I know they think this way because many Petersburg car owners have told me so.

To my mind, the precipitous rise in personal car ownership in Petersburg has done more to degrade the city’s beauty than all the underinspired colossal high-rises put together, because the city was purposely designed by its original builders, beginning with Peter the Great, to have a good number of intersecting and radiating, awe-inspiring, long and clear sightlines or “perspectives.” Hence, many of the city’s longest avenues are called “prospects,” such as Nevsky Prospect (the title of one of Nikolai Gogol’s best stories) and Moskovsky Prospect. Nowadays, however, you gaze down these “perspectives” only to see traffic jams and hectares of other visual pollution in the shape of signs, billboards, banners, and marquees. It’s not a pretty sight.

On the right of the picture, somewhere near the middle, you should be able to spot a small shop sign with the letters “AM” emblazoned on it. It’s one of the dozens of liquor stores that have popped up in our neighborhood after the Kremlin introduced its countersanctions against US and EU sanctions, which were instituted in response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine. The US and EU sanctions targeted individuals and companies closely allied with the regime. Putin’s countersanctions, in a manner that has come to seem typical of how the Russian president for life’s mind works, were targeted against Russian consumers by banning the import of most western produce into the country. An exception was made for western alcoholic beverages, especially wines and beers, and this meant it was suddenly profitable again to get into the liquor business. The upshot has been that you can exit our house, walk in any direction, even putting on a blindfold if you like, and you will find yourself in a liquor store in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.

Last summer, I tried painting a little verbal and photographic sketch of the effect this massive re-alcoholization has had on our neighborhood, along with other, mostly negative trends in the use and abuse of commercial space in the city.

Finally, there is one other thing you should know about all those new, mostly oversized cars parked on the street. Since the average monthly salary in Russia barely crawls above 600 or 700 euros a month, even in a seemingly wealthy city like Petersburg, most of those gas-guzzling, air-polluting status symbols were bought with borrowed money.

Just the other day, in fact, I translated and posted a tiny article, originally published in the business daily Kommersant, about how people in the Voronezh Region currently owed banks approximately two billion euros in outstanding loans. In 2015, the region’s estimated population was around 2,300,000, so, theoretically, each resident of Voronezh Region now owes the banks 870 euros, which I am sure is more than most people there earn in two or three months. Of course, not every single resident of Voronezh Region has taken out a loan, so the real damage incurred by real individual borrowers is a lot worse.

I could be wrong, but I think what I have just written gives you a rough idea of how you go about reading photographs of today’s Russian cities, their visible aspect in general, turning a snapshot into something meaningful, rather than assuming its meaning is obvious, right there on the surface. You don’t just tweet a photo of a new football stadium or fancy restaurant or street jammed with expensive cars and make that stand for progress, when progress, whether political, economic or social, really has not occurred yet in Russia, despite all the money that has been sloshing around here the last fifteen years. Instead, you talk about the real economic, political, and social relations, which are often quite oppressive, murky, and criminal, that have produced the visible reality you want to highlight.

Doing anything less is tantamount to engaging in boosterism, whataboutism, Russian Worldism, and crypto-Putinism, but certainly not in journalism. That so many journalists, western and Russian, have abandoned real journalism for one or all of the isms I have listed is the really scary thing. TRR

Photograph by the Russian Reader

 

 

 

Barnaul: Living under the Threat of Demolition

Living under the Threat of Demolition
Andrei Bespalov
Takie Dela
September 20, 2017

Around 200 residential buildings have been deemed unfit for habitation in Barnaul. But people have gone on living in them for many years. 

Four years ago, in July 2013, an apartment building collapsed in broad daylight. A 64-year-old woman and 60-year-old man died under the rubble. The other residents were “only” deprived of their papers and property, left without a roof over their heads. The neighboring houses are still standing, although they are much more dilapidated.

Currently, Barnaul, the capital of Altai Territory, has officially deemed around 200 apartment houses dilapidated or unfit for habitation. No one can tell you the exact number of buildings that could collapse at any minute. It would be a huge exaggeration to say that officials at the mayor’s office are worried about preventing another tragedy.

In 2013, the ruins of the house on Emilia Alexeyeva Street were hurriedly demolished, and now the local boys play football on the empty lot. A criminal investigation into “official negligence” was opened, but quickly closed.

“We were unable to find anyone at fault or evidence of a crime,” Yevgeny Dolgayev, head of the investigative department in the Russian Investigative Committee’s Altai Territory office said at the time.

Пустырь на месте рухнувшего дома в 2013 годуEmpty lot where the house collapsed in 2013. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

But people live in their collapsing houses, afraid of the spreading cracks in the walls and accustomed to picking up chunks of façade that have crumbled and fell to the ground. Residents of the dilapidated buildings see no way out of their circumstances.

Quite Tolerable
A huge number of houses have been condemned in Barnaul’s Potok microdistrict. They are primarily two-storey buildings, with one or two staircases, built after 1945 in the 1950s, mainly by Japanese POWs. The city grew rapidly in the postwar years. It was built quickly as well, and the builders did not especially bother to observe construction standards.

People have fought for years to have their homes declared dilapidated. Those who have succeeded are far and few between.

As late as last year, the residential building at Timurovskya Street, 44, was in excellent condition, according to inspectors. This year, on the contrary, it was declared 86% dilapidated.

You would imagine the building should be demolished, its residents moved out, and a tragedy avoided, but that means looking for funding and building new housing.

It is much simpler to feign, year after year, that these houses and people do not exist. However, sometimes, the so-called populace is made vague promises so they will stop pestering officials for a while.

At first glance, nothing has changed on Timurovskaya Street over the last four years. The dilapidated houses with missing chunks of plaster that has fallen off still stand where they stood then. They are not ruins. But if you look a little closer you will notice the foundation has crumbled in one part of the house, while the brickwork has disintegrated in another, and a crack runs from the sidewall through the entire building.

“That’s nothing! The juicy parts are inside,” says an elderly man who looks like a local. We introduce ourselves. Alexei Oleynik is 76 years old, a retired electrician who worked for nearly fifty years in the trade. He was allocated a flat at Timurovskaya, 44, in the early 1970s when his son was born.

Алексей ОлейникRetired electrician Alexei Oleynik. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

It really is “juicier” inside the building.  A piece of fiberboard has been glued to the ceiling in the entryway.

“The ceiling beams here collapsed in winter,” explains Oleynik. “Workers cleaning the snow from the roof were careless and caused the accident.”

According to Oleynik, they were not all that much to blame: the ceiling beams had rotted long ago. The management got a dressing-down from city bosses and sent over other workers, who patched up the hole with fiberboard and left the site with a clean conscience.

Oleynik’s neighbor Olga Pautova is indignant.

“Well, of course, it’s no one’s fault! The heating system had burst in the attic again. The ceiling beams sagged for three months or so, gradually swelling, until they collapsed. People from the management company and city hall would come and look at this bubble. They would say, ‘What can we do? You all don’t have it bad. It’s much worse in other buildings.’ That was really comforting, of course.”

Pautova bought a flat in the building ten years earlier. The house had seemed quite tolerable. But soon it crumbled right before her eyes. First, there were small cracks, then the cracks became more serious.

“I have no light in either room,” says Pautova. “The wiring short-circuited and burnt out. It was a good thing I was home. I turned off the power and called an electrician. He went up into the attic. He said there were moisture and leaks everywhere up there, so it was pointless to install new wiring. It would also short-circuit and burn, and it would be a good thing if that was all that happened. A year and a half ago, large chunks of the ceiling collapsed in the living room, right on the sofa, where my brother, who was visiting me at the time, had been sleeping. It’s a good thing it didn’t happen at night. My brother had already got up.”

Ольга ПаутоваOlga Pautova. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

“I patched up the hole. It didn’t last for long. The ceiling collapsed again. The management company offered to cover the hole with a piece of fiberboard, as they had in the entryway. I rejected their offer. It’s utter rubbish. I have been up in the attic. Everything up there really has rotted. The ceiling beams have been fastened to something with wire. There’s still a hole in the living room ceiling. Rubbish and leaks are constantly pouring through it. I sweep and wash it all up every day, but what is the point? There are mushrooms [sic] growing there,” says Olga.

As a rule, old residential buildings have a single-pipe heating system installed in the attic rather than the basement. The pipes are old and rusty, and they burst often, leaving the ceiling sagging in five minutes and flooding the flats with boiling water. It is a good thing if someone is at home. They can run up to the attic and switch off the water.

Will It Collapse or Not?
People are eager to discuss the topic of when the house will collapse. They say the building at Emilia Alexeyeva Street, 33 (a mere two minutes’ walk from their house) looked better, but it collapsed anyway.

A year ago, the residents of Timurovskaya Street, 44, chipped in and commissioned a private inspection of their building, hoping it would be declared dilapidated and they could count on resettlement. They got the results of the inspection back quickly, but they were just the opposite of what they had hoped for. According to residents, the inspector hastily examined the house and issued a finding it was in “excellent” condition.

Olga Pautova decided to fight till the bitter end and paid Tercet, a design and engineering company, for another inspection out of her own pocket. Their analyst took three months carrying out his inspection. He measured the size of the crack running through the entire building and recorded its growth. According to his calculation, the house was 86% dilapidated. 65% dilapidation is enough for a house to be deemed dilapidated and unfit for habitation.

Дом № 44 по улице ТимуровскойTimurovskaya Street, 44. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

According to Pautova, the municipal interdepartmental commission for housing assessment, at which the outcome of Tercet’s inspection were presented, was dead set against granting Timurovskaya, 44, the status of dilapidated building. However, Tercet’s analyst had fight in him.

“According to my calculations,” he insisted, “it is dangerous to live in this building. I’ve done my job. It’s up to you to react to the outcome of my evaluation, to declare the house dilapidated or not. But you will be responsible for what happens.”

The commission’s members had no desire to take on that kind of responsibility, and in June of this year the house was declared dilapidated. Residents have been receiving “letters of happiness,” signed by Barnaul’s Deputy Mayor Alexander Alexeyenko, in which he demands the house should be demolished no later than June 21, 2018.

Galina Buloychik is skeptical about the news from the mayor’s office.

“I don’t believe they will demolish the house and issue us new flats. It’s useless. The house will collapse with me in it, and that will be the end of it. That is what is meant to be,” says the 69-year-old woman, who shares a flat with two of her children and her grandchildren.

“I do give a damn,” says her daughter Anna, interrupting. “I have children, and the building is crumbling right before our eyes. You always hear a creaking sound, as if the house were not standing still. My brother installed a PVC window. It would close at first, just like it should have, but now have a look. You cannot close the sash. That means the building has sagged, but somehow crookedly. Don’t pay any mind to the fact the walls in the rooms are even. We covered them with gypsum plasterboard, as if we were doing real repairs. But there is a nightmare underneath them. I saw you taking a picture of the crack that runs from the sidewall of the house. It’s hidden beanth the plasterboard, as if it weren’t there.”

When we were saying goodbye, a photo fell from a chest of drawers. I picked it up and put it back.

“That was me when I was young,” Buloychik explained. “Was I beautiful?”

“You were.”

“Really?”

The Sky in Diamonds
House No. 38, also on Timurovskaya Street, is even famous in a way. In April, the roof beams collapsed and you could see the sky through the hole that formed, as if the building had its own planetarium. Reporters came, TV channels shot footage, the city bosses made calls, all to gaze through the hole. It was also patched up with fiberboard, but not in one piece. Several overlapping pieces were used. When it rains, you do not leave your flat and go into the stairwell without an umbrella.

But to get such minimal care the house’s tenants had to bow and scrape to the management company and city officials. They could have done nothing at all. So, the verdict of the officials in the mayor’s office was that the collapse of the roof beams in the stairwell occurred, most likely, not because the house was dilapidated, but due to repairs: the beams in the attic were being replaced. Since, at the time, the building had not been officially deemed dilapidated, it was the responsibility of residents who owned their flats to fix the problem or the management company’s, seeing as how residents pay them for the building’s maintenance. Only how much money can you make off a two-storey house inhabited primarily by pensioners? Besides, the companies responsible for the maintenance in their building change so rapidly you don’t have time to remember what they are called.

Svetlana Balchis, a resident of Timurovskaya, 38, recounts the accident.

“I got a call at work. I came running home. Horror of horrors! The stairway was piled up to the railings with chunks of slate, broken brick, mangled boards, slag, and shingles. I live on the second floor, and I barely made my way through the wreckage. My youngest daughter was supposed to come home from school at the time. I nearly lost my mind until I got home.”

Fortunately, her daughter arrived home later. Subsequently, Balchis learned that shortly before the beams collapsed, two young mothers had agreed to take their toddlers out for a walk together. One of them, Balchis’s next-door neighbor, was held up at home for five minutes or so. If she had left earlier, the ceiling would have fallen on her and her toddler in his stroller.

Жилец одного из домов в БарнаулеResident of a house in Barnaul. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

“Before that, I don’t know many times we called the management company and the mayor’s office: the roof leaked as if there were no roof. In winter, it was still okay, but the snow began to melt in February. There was a lot of it on the roofs: it had been a quite snowy winter. The day before, the Emergencies Ministry guys had done a drive-through inspection, and they ordered the management companies to clean the snow off the roofs right away. The workers fell through the roof! Everything up there had rotted, after all. We have been fighting to get it fixed since 2001,” recounts Balchis.

Balchis has lived in the building since birth. She was brought there from the maternity hospital in 1959. She grew up there, then had three kids, two of whom are grown-ups and live on their own. It was her father who was allocated the flat as an employee of  Central Heating and Power Plant No. 2, which, in the 1950s, built several houses for employees. Balchis says it was a fine house as long as the power plant’s own maintenance office took care of it. The dilapidation began when the building was turned over to the city.

“Do you know how the furniture in our flat stands? At an angle to the floor. That’s the only way to keep the doors shut, because the floor slopes, although it used to be as even as could be. If we put something under one edge, the doors don’t jam. It doesn’t last for long, though, and then we have to put something else under it, something bigger,” says Balchis.

Some tenants of Timurovskaya, 38, decided to replace their old windows with PVC windows. Measurers came to have a look.

“You don’t need to replace your windows,” they said. “If we touch the wall now, it will collapse.”

Elena Romanova has joined the conversation.

“Until the roof started to collapse, and the boiler rusted, it was tolerable. But, in the winter, boiling water poured into the basement, sent off steam, and the walls would freeze. All that needed to be done was change the boiler valve. But we were told they didn’t have the money to do it. So the foundation burst. The building literally came unravelled. I have a crack in the wall in my hallway. I could run my hand through it. They covered it with plasterboard, but what’s the use?” she says.

“I have the same trouble,” says Balchis.  “Between my flat and the neighbor’s flat you could suddenly hear everything perfectly. I removed the rug from the wall, and there I found a crack as wide as the palm of my hand.”

It’s Your Problem, So You Demolish It 
The tenats of Timurovskaya, 38, also received notifications their building had been deemed dilapidated and should, therefore, be resettled. But hardly anyone believes it will happen. They doubt they will get new housing a year from now. They say that other buildings that received similar letters have been waiting years for demolition.

“The building next door has also been declared dilapidated, but hasn’t been resettled. And in that one, too, and that one, and that one. The tenants in that building way over then have been evicted, but I don’t where they went, since they were not allocated flats and are waiting for them,” Balchis says as she points in different directions.

“But we must do it ourselves!” says Romanova. “We have to find a developer ourselves who would buy the land plot under the house.”

Дом № 38 по улице ТимуровскойTimurovskaya Street, 38. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

It is true that, in the letter from the mayor’s offices, it says in black and white, “Dear Housing Owner Elena Pavlovna! In accordance with Article 32, Paragraph 10, of the Russian Federal Housing Code, we demand that the dilapidated house be demolished before June 21, 2018.”

“Meaning, the city demands that I demolish my own building. Should I make my own arrangements with a construction company? Hire an excavator? Where should I move all my neighbors? If they sent a letter like that, it’s pointless to expect help from the mayor’s office,” Romanova argues.

No one here counts on help from the federal program for overhauling apartment buildings, either. They do not believe such happiness will shine on them. Several years, when the federal program had just been launched, the tenants of Timurovskaya, 38, were told they had been slotted into the program for 2018.  That is, they should have only a year left to wait. Recently, however, they decided to check up on the program’s progress. They called the mayor’s office and were told they had been rescheduled for 2025. The overhaul of Timurovskaya, 44, had also been postponed (to 2022), although right after the collapse of Emilia Alexeyeva, 33, the mayor’s office had promised to resettle the tenants of the building next door, Emilia Alexeyeva, 31, and the tenants of Timurovskaya, 44.

Take the Old Woman Outside at Least Once in a While
Every weekend, Lydia Kostomarova is a hostage. The building is empty: all her neighbors are at their dachas, everyone in Timurovskaya, 38. Kostomarova is ninety. She lives alone. She has been living in the building since it was built in 1957.

“I haven’t complained to anyone my whole life or asked for help. My husband died when he was forty-eight: cancer consumed. I have loved only one man in my life. Then Mom passed away. She lay paralyzed on that bed over there for seven years. She forgot how to talk. I bought her an alphabet and taught her to talk again using letters and pictures.

Лидия КостомароваLydia Kostomarova. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

“I looked after her, worked, and raised the kids. It was tolerable: it was all part of life. But then I had an accident. I went to the shop when the ground was covered in black ice. I fell and broke my hip in three places. The doctors said I couldn’t have an operation, because my heart couldn’t take it. Lord, why, oh why did you not take me away then? Now I am shut in here. I haven’t been outside for two years. But I can’t die just yet. I cannot afford it. Of course, I had been saving up for my funeral, but I spent it all on a caregiver. I paid her five thousand rubles a week. That’s more than my pension. Now I’m saving up again. Renovations? No, I’m not going to repair anything. What’s the point? The ceiling leaks, but you can’t patch it up anymore. The tank in the toilet should be changed. It’s quite old. They don’t make them like that anymore. It’s the kind that hangs on the wall over the toilet. A repairman came to look at it and said to install a new toilet he would have to pound holes in the floor and ceiling, but since the house was old, it couldn’t withstand it and would collapse.”

Kostomarova walks around the flat very slowly, leaning on her walker. Although it is painful, she walks. I ask whether the local social workers come to visit her. Maybe they bring groceries and help with the cleaning?

“Good Lord, what good am I to the social workers? Although no, that’s not true. They inquired about me once. They called from the medical clinic. They said, ‘Get a chest X-ray done, grandma.'”

“Are you making fun of me?” I said to them. “How can I go to the hospital when I can’t leave my flat and get downstairs from the second floor? And what will I take to get to this X-ray of yours?

“They were stubborn. They told me they wouldn’t give me orthopedic shoes if I didn’t do it. But it was so very painful to walk. Did I really need those shoes? Oh, those shoes came at a hefty price. I had to rent a special Italian device to get downstairs. It cost me two and half thousand rubles. But they did give me the shoes. Then I would daydream all the time about renting the device again so I could at least putter around the entryway, touch the flowers and the earth. But where would I get the money?”

“But when that building collapsed, why didn’t you move to your daughter’s place? She lives nearby. You really are like a hostage here.”

“How can I put it to you? It’s hard with her. She’s already sixty-eight, and she gets angry with me all the time, saying I love my son more. She’s stupid. How could I love him more? They’re both my kids. I’m just not used to people helping me. I’ve always counted only on myself. Dad was shot in 1938. Mom, my sister, and I lived in a bathhouse after we were kicked out of our house. Then we built a byre. Things got better and we didn’t starve. I raised kids. I used to ask the Lord to take me away, but now I think that no, I have to wait until my daughter’s house is resettled. They have it worse than we do. It’s like a barracks over there. Nine-storey buildings have been plopped down on either side, and their house is like an eyesore. When they give them new housing, I’ll die in peace. But for now I’ll go on living, because I have to. I also have grandchildren. They work in Moscow and Petersburg as managers? Did I get that right? I’m hanging in there. What else can I do if the Lord won’t take me. Look what cucumbers have grown on the balcony? I love the earth so much, and flowers, but you see I’ve been locked up inside four walls.”

I left. Kostomarova was already out on the balcony, standing and smiling amid the lush thickets of her cucumbers. It was a mere three meters, no more, from the front garden under her windows, with its luxurious golden balls of gladioli, to Kostomarova’s flat. Three meters to happiness. You would imagine social services could have helped. All she needed to get downstairs was that same Italian wheelchair. They could take the old woman outside at least once in a while.

Двор в БарнаулеA yard in Barnaul. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

An old woman in a colorful flannel dressing gown calls to me.

“Did you go see Kostomarova? The whole neighborhood knows you. You want to help resettle us? Oh, you’re so young and naive. Here is what I have to say to you. Those guys from the mayor’s office are only waiting for everything here to fall to pieces. You saw that building over there collapsed? The people who died there were young: a man and woman who were in their early sixties. They had years ahead of them. It’s terrible to remember how the children crawled in the ruins and howled. I think that if all our buildings, these ones here, built after the war, were to collapse the same day, and we all died under the ruins, those guys from the mayor’s office would only rejoice. The excavators would have the bricks and us cleaned up in a jiffy, and they could build nine-storey buildings to their heart’s content. People are moving to the city: they need a place to live. But we are a burden to them: we old people and our old houses. What is my name? I don’t want to tell you. I don’t need the trouble. But I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Every time we get together, everyone says in unison, ‘If we and our houses vanished, they would be so glad.'”

Blame It on the Snow
According to official data, 319 residential buildings have been declared dilapidated in Altai Territory, 183 of them in Barnaul. All of them are subject to demolition, since they are unfit for habitation. Most of these buildings are in the Potok and VRZ districts, the old city center, and Soviet Army Street. There are also many dilapidated houses in Biysk and Rubtsovsk.

In 2017, there were particularly many emergencies in February and March, when a lot of snow had amassed on the roofs, snow packed down by above-freezing temperatures. The old housing stock cracked at the seams. In Barnaul, the roof of the two-storey building on Telephone Street, 30, collapsed under the weight of snow. In Biysk, part of the wall of Leningrad Street, 22, collapsed, while part of the wall and facade of Socialist Street, 34, collapsed. These are only a few examples of the houses that were destroyed.

“After we got the letters, we called the mayor’s office,” says Svetlana Balchis. “We were told that if Putin extended the program, they would begin resettling.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

Eighteen Years Down the Drain

putin elections
“RT in Russian @RT_russian. Central Elections Commmission: Election of Putin will take place in March 2018, ru.rt.com/7a7j.”

Sergey Abashin
Facebook
September 13, 2017

They say that today the time the leader has spent in office has drawn even with Brezhnev’s eighteen years in power. Eighteen years. Of course, it’s a relative figure, since Putin spent six months in the role of prime minister under Yeltstin and another four years as prime minister under Medvedev. But we realize that these premierships can actually be included in the overall Putinist period in Russian history.

Many people remember the Brezhnev period with nostalgia, arguing it was the Soviet golden age, when the country’s standard of living and power undoubtedly grew. Many people think something similar about Putin’s time in office, and not without grounds, of course, if we look at GDP figures, numbers of privately owned cars, and numbers of rockets launched in Syria.

But the Putin and Brezhnev periods have been similar in another respect. Beyond the superficial prosperity, these eighteen-year periods were and have been times of political and moral degradation at home. They were decades the country lost as stepping stones into the future, in terms of establishing a (post)modern society capable of changing and progressing painlessly. The Brezhnevian stagnation inevitably led to a colossal crisis and, ultimately, collapse. I don’t know what the outcome of the Putinist stagnation will be, but we can say for sure there are new troubles ahead for the country, troubles whose growing signs we observe daily.

Sergey Abashin is British Petroleum Professor of Migration Studies at the European University in St. Petersburg. His most recent book is Sovetskii kishlak: Mezhdu kolonializmom i modernizatsiei [The Soviet Central Asian village: between colonialism and modernization], Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2015. Thanks to Mark Teeter for the spotting the “blooper” on RT in Russian’s Twitter feed. Translated by the Russian Reader

The Best Russia Experts Don’t Live in Russia, or, Crypto-Putinism

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“There’s a more likely possibility, and it doesn’t hinge on accumulated historical trauma or some irrational longing to go back to the Soviet system. With the USSR’s fall came the loss of many other things Russians valued: their country’s stature in the world, decent living standards, the welfare state, education, even a sense of community and collective identity. Putin’s apparent promise to restore some of these things is a far better explanation for his widespread popularity at home than the theory that most citizens have been too brainwashed or traumatized to think for themselves.”

But he’s been eighteen years “in office” and he hasn’t restored any of these things really, and he never really promised to restore most of them, not that you would notice if you hadn’t lived here during those eighteen years, as the author of the book review, quoted above, has signally not lived here.

Nor, as far as I know, did the author ever live in the Soviet Union he misses so much, but which lots of former Soviet citizens I know don’t miss at all.

Go figure why the western left misses a country most of its current supporters never lived in or visited for a millisecond, but which millions of its actual former inhabitants don’t miss for a second. It says something slightly disturbing about the intellectual integrity of the western left, doesn’t it?

As for brainwashing, I can’t say anything about Russians, but I know a lot of foreign so-called Russian experts and reporters covering the Russian beat who have been brainwashed by the triumvirate of dishonest Russian pollsters known as FOM, VTsIOM, and Levada Center into believing that Putin enjoys “widespread popularity at home.”

In fact, this popularity is a lot less apparent when you’re actually on the ground day after day for years on end, conversing and dealing with lots of different people who say lots of different things but somehow usually fail to express their ardent love of Putin. Here, in the actual Russia, not the imaginary Russia inhabited by the Russia experts, his “popularity” looks more like a dictatorship for life, reinforced by brute police force, flagrant corruption, major TV channels that have been nazified to the point that almost no one I know has watched them for years, and selective but regular show trials in case anyone has forgotten where they really live.

Why do so-called Russian experts, like the author of the review, quoted above, believe every poll about Russia those shysters and shills publish, including the pap about Putin’s rampant popularitry?

I’ll tell you why.

Because the world’s greatest Russia experts do not live in Russia, nor do they want to live here (they’re not stupid!), but endlessly citing so-called Russian public opinion polls as if they are the gospel truth gives their specious, highly partisan arguments an air of scholarly or empirical knowledge, of “knowing what Russians really think.”

The subject of today’s Russia and what Russians really think is way more complicated (and, sometimes, way more simple) than the certified Russia experts suspect or want to admit, however. TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader

“Das Ordnung”

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Putinism has triumphed not because the majority of Russians have become convinced “Putinists,” whatever that would mean, or have been persuaded by the man’s notorious “power vertical” system of governance, which in reality is an inefficient, irresponsible literal disaster waiting to happen somewhere nearly every single day (witness the fires in Rostov-on-Don).

It has triumphed because people have, seemingly, lost the will to eject, by whatever means would work best under the circumstances, the entire noxious, corrupt, incredibly expensive, and utterly futureless non-system that Putin and his clique have erected over eighteen long years of conspicuous consumption in a few happy oases, mixed with criminal wars, “legal nihilism,” an incredible gap between the super wealthy and the super poor, the destruction of all the things the Soviet Union did right or, at least, not terribly badly, in terms of education, social provision, healthcare, and housing, and the most inconsistent, frighteningly hilarious “national ideology” ever devised anywhere, which pretends to be “conservative” and “authentically Russian,” but mostly looks as if it had been dreamed up one night by three or four Kremlin spin doctors on a bender, as a bad-spirited practical joke.

At worst, people either pretend, especially in the two capitals, to be incredibly busy and content with their lives. At best, they argue about the particulars—say, about the details of the trumped-up case against director Kirill Serebrennikov, arrested in Petersburg yesterday, and temporarily sentenced to house arrest pending trial on embezzlement charges today in Moscow—as if the system didn’t have the power to turn literally anyone except the members of Putin’s inside circle (and maybe even them) into a “vicious criminal” literally overnight, as if Serebrennikov has made some particular fatal mistake that nearly everyone else would never be so stupid to make. Or that they would never be so stupid to get close to so much money or power and end up in the pickle the feckless Serebrennikov got himself into.

The idea that the country could go on being itself, that is, being mostly messed up and weird and not like any other country, because you cannot be like any other country when you’re the biggest country in the world, but a billion times more productive and easier to live in simply by ditching the crappy, greedy junta that will certainly kill it off in the next few years is a thought that either literally everyone is thinking right now or everyone has forbidden themselves to think at all.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid it’s the latter.

So it doesn’t matter whether you call the reactionary regime currently in power authoritarian, post-authoritarian, fascist, post-fascist, post-truth or pre-truth, because eventually it will go down in flames, taking with it, alas, the magnificent country that has had the misfortune to engender it. TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader

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).

Yekaterina Schulmann: We’re Not as Savage as They Say We Are

Yekaterina Schulmann
Compulsory Love
InLiberty
July 27, 2017

When we examine the campaigns, events, and public manifestations that might be dubbed signs of creeping re-Stalinization, the rehabilitation of Stalin, his emergence in the public space amid public approval, we see that each such instance was obviously organized directly or indirectly by the state, rather than by private individuals.

The monuments that have been erected recently and whose numbers have, indeed, been growing, have usually been installed under the auspices of local branches of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). This hardly makes them popular or grassroots endeavors. I would imagine everyone knows what the CPRF’s network of regional branches and our parliamentary parties amount to in reality, the extent of their loyalty to the regime, and the degree to which they coordinate all their moves with local and federal authorities.

It’s Even a Good Thing
Way back in 2002, a street in a city in Dagestan was named Stalin Avenue at the mayor’s behest. It did not happen because the locals came and surrounded town hall, threatening to set it ablaze if the mayor didn’t agree to their demands.

In 2009, in another political era, a line from the Soviet national anthem, “Stalin raised us to be true to the people,” was restored to the visual design of the Moscow subway’s Kurskaya station. Medvedev was then the president. The authorities responded to the indignation then voiced by arguing it was historically accurate. They had simply restored the station to its original appearance.

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“Stalin raised us to be true to the people.” Kurskaya subway station, Moscow. Photo courtesy of Lenta.ru

Since then, the Moscow subway has been rendered a powerful tool of pro-Soviet and Stalinist propaganda: there are the trains in which we encounter portraits of Stalin, and campaigns like this year’s “Times and Eras.” The pretext is sometimes stills from a film or historical memoirs. But you realize none of this comes from the grassroots, from ordinary folk, but from subway top brass or Moscow and federal authorities.

In Mari El, a life-sized monument to Stalin (one of the few; busts are usually erected instead) was erected on the premises of the local meat processing plant. As the town’s main employer and a major local business, the plant naturally could not afford to be in opposition to the regime, so it provided the venue for the monument.

Unveiling of a monument to Stalin in the village of Shelanger, Marii El Republic, September 9, 2015. Photo courtesy of Mariiskaya Pravda

2015 saw the opening of a Stalin Hut Museum in the village of Khoroshevo. It was something of a scandal, because the museum was sponsored by the Culture Ministry and personally approved by the culture minister.

A bust of Stalin was erected in Pskov Region in 2016, also with the knowledge and approval of local authorities.

Art exhibitions featuring images of Stalin in paintings of his era, paintings glorifying him and other Communist leaders, opened in Moscow in 2014, 2015, and 2016—for example, a show of works by Stalinist court painter Alexander Gerasimov, who authored the painting popularly known as “Two Leaders after a Rain.” These cultural treasures were shown in the Tretyakov Gallery not at the request of the art community or the museum’s staff.

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Alexander Gerasimov, Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin (“Two Leaders after a Rain”), 1938. Image courtesy of s-t-o-l.com

What is important to understand is the following. It does not follow from the things I have listed that there are no people in Russia who would, at their own behest, erect a bust of Stalin at their dacha or even be willing to donate money to restore a monument to him. Because we see a video of ordinary people in Sevastopol standing and applauding during the performance of a song about Stalin by a strange man in white trousers does not mean they were all specially dispatched there by the local authorities.

Sergei Kurochkin, “Bring Back Stalin,” August 2015, Sevastopol

What is the function of state propaganda? Speaking from a hierarchically superior stance, it establishes norms. It informs its audience about what is correct, normal, and permissible. It generates the ambience that lets people know that gadding about with a placard depicting Stalin is, at very least, safe, if not commendable generally. It lets them know that numerous books rehabilitating Stalin’s regime, which pack the shelves of bookstores throughout Russia, will not be deemed “extremist,” that their authors, publishers, and distributors will not face criminal charges under Article 282 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code, unlike other books that someone might think to display prominently in a bookstore. People are given to understand this is normal and not punishable, that it is permissible and encouraged.

When television presenters and state officials tell us there is no need to demonize anyone, that we can take a look at the Stalin era from different viewpoints, but whatever we want to say, the war was won, this is a signal that those who actually feel positive feelings in this regard and those who felt nothing in this regard should suddenly have them, that those who had no opinion on the matter should suddenly have an opinion, because they have been told it is permissible, normal, and even a good thing.

“They Want Their Own Stalin”
Theoretically, conformism is a psychological norm. We can rue the fact, but it is nevertheless the case. Individuals are inclined to join majorities. Individuals are inclined to compare their opinions with opinions they imagine are generally accepted. Maybe this is not the noblest manifestation of our human nature, but it is a sign of a mental health. We people, who are social animals, behave in this way for our own safety and to adapt successfully to society. This endows those who speak on behalf of the state, on behalf of generalized authority, with responsibility. Russia’s national TV channels are not considered sources of information and news, but voices of the powers that be. People consume TV in this way.

Let me remind you that such a sweet, innocent New Year’s TV holiday special as Old Songs about What Matters was first aired on January 1, 1996. The first program imitated the Stalin-era film Cossacks of the Kuban (1950). The film was the frame for the star-studded cast’s song and dance routines. 1996 was a presidential election year. Even the hazards of competing with the Communists in a relatively free election did not intimidate Russia’s ideologists and spin doctors. It did not stop them from organizing such a pretty, funny, sly rehabilitation of one of the most terrible periods in the history of the the terrible Soviet regime. This is what we call normalization. Look, they say, it was not terrible; it was pleasant, even. You can make fun of it and smile a good-natured smile when contemplating it. That was when the process kicked off.

Old Songs about What Matters, Russian Public Television (ORT), January 1996

Let me remind you of another early public campaign of this kind. In 2008, which, again, seems like an utterly different political era, there was a TV program, Name of Russia, which purported to pick the one hundred greatest Russians. The idea had been borrowed from the BBC program 100 Greatest Britons (2002), but was done completely in its own way. TV viewers were asked to select the one hundred most outstanding figures in Russian history, leading ultimately to the selection of a single finalist. Huge, persistent efforts were made to persuade viewers that Stalin had “really” won the popular vote, but since this would have been disgraceful, [TV channel Rossiya, known until recently as Channel Two] made the necessary adjustments, and Alexander Nevsky emerged the victor.

Name of Russia: Joseph Stalin, Rossiya TV, 2008

How did this vote really go? Now, with the know-how and knowledge we have amassed since then, we can more or less imagine how the so-called people’s will was determined, especially on television. But Name of Russia was, perhaps, the first time we saw this model fully deployed. The implied message was: they want their own Stalin, but we, the powers that be, are still shielding them from this on the sly. We still need to rein them in a bit.

A similar story involving alleged popular voting occurred in 2013, when Rossiya TV had to pick ten views of Russia, ten pictures, landscapes or historical buildings that exemplified the country. Then, as you remember, an ambitious regional leader organized the voting in such a way that the Heart of Chechnya Mosque would win. Federal officials found themselves in an uncomfortable position, and once again adjustments had to be made to the vote count so the Kolomna Kremlin would win. The ambitious regional leader got pissed off at the cellphone companies Beeline and Megafon, and they were shut down in the Chechen Republic; one of their offices was even pelted with eggs, such was the great indignation over the defeat. I mention this to illustrate how such things are organized and what their real purpose is.

A picture taken on April 14, 2012, shows the high rises of the new skyscraper complex Grozny City (right) and the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque, known as the Heart of Chechnya (left,) dominating the skyline in the Chechen capital Grozny. Photo courtesy of Agence France-Presse

We must face the truth and realize we are dealing with state propaganda, with notions of what is normal, acceptable, good, glorious, great, and outstanding that have been defined and imposed by the state. These notions strike a chord because they are voiced on the regime’s behalf and because they draw their power from actually existing needs.

A Nationwide Need for Authoritarianism Has Not Been Observed
How can we encapsulate these needs, the reality behind Stalin’s “high” rating?

I was first asked this question at an event sponsored by the Böll Foundation in Berlin.

“How can people in Russia love Stalin?”

When a question like that is tossed right into your face, you start to understand the grassroots need for justice, as understood in a peculiar way, the need for a paradoxically anti-elitist Stalin, the Stalin people have in mind when they say, “If Stalin were around, he’d settle your hash.” This Stalin was the scourge of the nomenklatura, foe of the strong and rich, and champion of poor, simple people. The degree to which this conception is mythologized and savage is beside the point, but it does exist. Many people who utter this phrase mean to appeal to strict law and order, to equality, to a primitive apostolic simplicity.

It is a sin, especially for academic researchers, to quote conversations with taxi drivers, but I too have been forced to listen to tales of how Stalin had one greatcoat and one pair of boots, but look at the way folks today live as they please and can afford everything. Meaning that the anti-elite demand is clearly encapsulated in this rhetoric. But the very idea that there is something to which one can appeal, that it is permissible, normal, and safe, was planted in people’s minds by the machinery of state propaganda.

Let’s see how successful this state propaganda machine has been over the course of several decades. Here is the simple, most basic question, as posed by pollsters at the Levada Center: “How do you personally feel about Stalin?” Look at the pattern of responses from 2001 to 2015. It would be wrong to say that any radical changes—sharp increases in respect, admiration, and sympathy—occurred. There is no evidence of this.

“How do you personally feel about Stalin generally?” Surveys conducted in April 2001, April 2006, October 2008, February 2010, October 2012, March 2014, March 2015. Possible answers: 1. I admire him. 2. I respect him. 3. I like him. 4. I could not care less about him. 5. I dislike him. He irritates me. 6. I fear him. 7. I find him revolting. I hate him. 9. I don’t know who Stalin is. 10. Undecided. All figures given in percentages of respondents.
“Do you agree or disagree with those who say that Stalin should be deemed a state criminal?” Polls conducted in February 2010 and March 2015. Possible answers: 1. I completely agree. 2. I rather agree. 3. I rather disagree. 4. I completely disagree. 5. Undecided. Figures given in percentages of respondents.

What emotions have decreased? Dislike and irritation. As part of the same trend, there has been a sharp increase in those would could not care less. What do we call that? The natural course of time. Indeed, Stalin is a quite heavily mythologized figure. When we are told that “our grandfathers fought in World War Two,” we must realize the grandfathers of the current generation of thirty- and forty-somethings saw no combat. Their grandfathers and grandmothers were children during the war years, meaning that for the currently active segment of the populace, the war happened a very long time ago. Stalin has been gradually fading into the pantheon of historical characters in which Napoleon is a beloved Russian cake rather than a French emperor, and Hitler is a meme from the cartoons shared on the VK social network.

Without discussing whether this attitude is moral and good, we do acknowledge it is inevitable, because living historical memory gradually fades away, and the symbolic field remains. So, we see that Stalin is not universally loved. Love of Stalin has not grown, and neither has the need to admire or like him increased. It would be wrong to say that the common folk adore Stalin more and more. It’s simply not true.

How do young people evaluate these distant historic periods? Here is the outcome of a survey on historical events of which we might be proud or ashamed. It was conducted among Russian and American students in 2015.

“Historical events of which students are proud.” Russia: World War Two, 63%; Gagarin’s space flight, 30%; War of 1812 (Fatherland War), 20%; Annexation of Crimea, 10%; Abolition of serfdom, 8%. USA: 1960s civil rights movement, 21%; War of Independence (1775-1783), 17%; World War Two, 16%; Space exploration, 13%; Constitution and Bill of Rights, 10%. Source: Higher School of Economics, 2015
“Historical events of which students are ashamed.” Russia: Stalinist terror, 18%; Collapse of Soviet Union, 11%; 1917 October Revolution, 9%; Execution of the Tsar’s family, 6%; Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), 5%. USA: Slavery and Jim Crow laws, 46%; military interventions (Iraq, Vietnam, Afghanistan), 36%; Genocide of local (Native American) population), 27%; Discrimination in today’s US (violation of women’s and minorities’ rights), 25%; Internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, 17%. Source: Higher School of Economics, 2015

The correlation between the primary source of pride, victory in the Second World War, and the primary source of shame, the Stalinist terror, illustrates the ambivalence that invariably entangles attempts at complete de-Stalinization, which is impossible as long as “victory” and “Stalin” are fused in the national imagination. Nevertheless, we see that young people have a quite healthy moral focus.

Let’s look at a slightly more realistic question. It does not have to do with a person that neither you nor your grandfathers have never seen, but with the period in which you would have rather lived.

“During the past 100 years, there have been different regimes in our country. The peculiarities of each of them had a marked influence on life in our country. When do you think life in Russia was best? (Mark one answer.)” Surveys conducted in June 1993, October 1994, and January 2017. Possible answers: 1. Before the 1917 Revolution. 2. During the Stalin regime. 3. During the Brezhnev regime. 4. During perestroika. 5. During the Yeltsin regime. 6. During the Putin regime. 7. Undecided. Figures given in percentages of respondents.

The outcomes in this instance are indeed interesting. For some reason, after 2014, there was sharp decline in popularity of the reply that the best time to live was before the 1917 Revolution. I don’t know why, but for some reason the amazing effect of the so-called Crimean consensus came down to the fact that this happy time “before tsarlessness,” as the saying goes, has lost its popularity for some reason. Very few people chose the Stalin era, as we see, and there was no change in this case: its popularity was low and has remained low. Meaning that maybe people “respect” Stalin, but no one is especially keen to live in the period during which he actually ruled.

The Brezhnev era is regarded as a more or less comfy, calm, peaceable time, but its popularity has been decreasing. No one likes perestroika or Yeltsin, for that matter.  A good number of respondents were undecided, and since the time span from 1994 to 2017 is quite large, people decided that, given this paltry choice, our own time, perhaps, looked okay after all.

How do these figures—this attitude to Stalin and his era, which, as we have seen, are not at all one and the same thing—correlate with people’s overall socio-political views? I have borrowed data from Kirill Rogov’s research study “Proto-Party Groups in Russia: 2000–2010s,” for which I am extremely grateful to him. The data in question are the outcome of a so-called meta poll, meaning a summary of public opinion polls, conducted over the past eighteen years by the Levada Center.

Here is a survey on a topic most closely bound up with Stalin: “Does our country need a strong hand?”

“The Strong Hand: The Authoritarian, Leader-Centered Model. Are there situations in the country’s history when the people need a strong, authoritative leader, a ‘strong hand’?” Sixteen polls conducted from November 1989 to November 2016. Figures given in percentages of respondents. Possible replies: 1. Our people constantly need a ‘strong hand’ (dark brown); 2. Power should be concentrated in one set of hands (green); 3. We should never allow power to be surrendered completely to one man (light blue); 4. Undecided (beige).

Look at the darkest line, which matches the number of replies that a “strong hand” has been “constantly needed.” The second line represents the opinion that “sometimes this has been necessary, but not always” [sic], while the [light blue] line represents the opinion that it is not necessary in any case. Look at the right side of the chart. Here we also observed the quite strange turning point, as yet unexplained by researchers, that occurred after 2014. Perhaps five or seven years from now we will say the effect of 2014 and its impact on public opinion was not as it was described to us on TV. Look at the upward tendency of the third [light blue] line: after 2014, people suddenly began to say that in no case should all power be handed over to one person. The second line (“It’s sometimes possible, but generally not a very good thing”) has taken a nose dive. The upper line was headed downward, but starting in 2011 it climbed a little, before falling again after 2013. In 2014, it experienced a sustained, short-lived upturn.

What rights do Russians value the most? Let’s look at the trends of recent years.

“What rights Russians value.” The results of sixteen polls conducted between August 1994 and October 2015. Possible replies: 1. Property rights (light blue); 2. Free speech (darker green); 3. Access to information (light beige); 4. Freedom of religion (lighter green); 5. Right to leave Russia and live in another country (crimson); 6. Right to elect one’s own representatives to government bodies.

Here we also see the mysterious, counterintuitive post-Crimea effect, when, in the wake of 2014, Russians gave access to information and freedom of speech a hard look, while experiencing a certain disenchantment in property rights.

Such are the interesting conclusions that Russians make from what they observe. However you look at this character, it clearly follows that we do not observe either a national yearning for authoritarianism оr the longing for a strong hand. Meaning we are dealing with an idea imposed on society about what it is like. Why is this done? Why are people told they long for the return of capital punishment when don’t particularly long for it? Why are they told that the whole lot of them want to resurrect Stalin? Why are they told they enjoy large-scale crackdowns?

European but Weak
The political regime, which wants, on the one hand, to concentrate power and resources in its hands, remain in power, and yet is not a full-fledged autocracy, does not have a well-developed machine of repression. It does not have a ruling ideology and the capacity for imposing it, and it does not want to be subjected to the procedures of democratic rotation. In fact, it finds itself in quite complicated circumstances.

It holds onto power by a whole series of pretty tricky tools. A considerable number of these tools relate to the realm of propaganda and represent different kinds of imitative models and patterns. Democratic institutions and processes are imitated, for example, elections, political parties, and a variety of mass media, which for all their variety report the same thing. Elections are seemingly held, but power does not change hands. Political parties exist, as it were, but no one opposes anyone. (This applies to the CPRF and the other so-called systemic or parliamentary parties.) This is on the one hand.

On the other hand, it is necessary to imitate autocracy’s rhetorical tools, meaning, roughly speaking, trying to appear in the public space as scarier than you are. Second, it is necessary (this is a subtle point, which is often not fully understood) to present oneself not as a terrible dictator, a bloody tyrant, but, on the contrary, as a civilizing, deterring force who is compelled, ruling over such a savage people with authoritarian tendencies, to keep it reigned in all the time, to constantly moderate its thirst for blood.

Meaning that it is necessary to transmit such ambivalent signals as “Let’s not demonize [e.g., Stalin], but let’s consider the issue from all sides.” It is necessary to pretend you are conceding and, simultaneously, resisting constant public pressure, which demands archaization, clampdowns, fire, and blood. If you didn’t resist the pressure, then everyone would have probably already been hung from the highest tree. Yet you are the selfsame power actor who generated the demand. You organized this entire normalization, to which you subsequently respond reluctantly, as it were.

Why is it necessary to fashion such a terrible reputation for one’s own people? To have an excuse for the crackdown on political rights, primarily voting rights, a crackdown in which you constantly engage. If people are savage, bloodthirsty barbarians, it makes sense to prevent them from electing the people they like at elections. For the time being you, a more or less civilized European, rule them, but if you let them have their way, they would immediately elect “Hitler” (the nationalist scarecrow) or Stalin (the left-wing étatist scarecrow). Both are arguments for limiting the rights of Russians to defining their own lives. Hence, the need for Stalin’s popularity.

What is my thesis? Filling society’s heads with false ideas about itself is meant to paint the government as the only “European” in Russia. Given the current social reality, this has long been untrue, to put it mildly. No, the dichotomy of the “civilized regime” versus the “savage society” does not exist, is not borne out by any reality, and cannot be measured by any instruments.

Our society is complex, multifaceted, and diverse. If we try to single out a public opinion, a common idea of values, as shared by the inhabitants of Russia (something that has been confirmed numerous times in research papers), we would see something like the following picture. We would see a society that espouses the values customarily identified as European. We would see a society that is individualist, consumerist, largely atomized, very irreligious, predominantly secular, and fairly intolerant of state violence, again, contrary to what is usually argued. It would be even more accurate to say that those who are intolerant of state violent are much better at joining forces and much more vigorously express themselves than those who put up with it.

We would see a society with values that researchers ordinarily describe as “European but weak.” We would see a society that is basically conformist, relatively passive, not terribly willing to express its opinion, and inclined to weaving the spiral of silence, which consists in people saying what is expected of them. Nevertheless, this society is not aggressive, not bloodthirsty, and does not long for the establishment of an authoritarian regime in Russia.

To govern a society like this with undemocratic methods, of course it has to be represented in a false manner. Of course you have to screw a little flag with Stalin embroidered on it into its head so as then to point at it and say, “See what they’re like.”

I urge everyone not to get involved in this game and not play up to those who engage in it much more seriously than we do, because these ideas about a wild and terrible people, first, do not capture the fullness and complexity of our reality, and second, hinder us, blocking our way to progress and development.

Yekaterina Schulmann is a political scientist at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to the lucid, vigilant Sergey Abashin for the heads-up