Petersburg’s Largest Communal Apartment

Life in One of Russia’s Largest Communal Apartments
Yulia Paskevich
Gorod 812
March 23, 2017

Apartment No. 2 at Detskaya Street, 2, on Vasilyevsky Island, is Petersburg’s largest communal apartment. At any rate, its tenants think so. City officials cannot say for sure how large the apartment is. According to certain documents, its total area is 1,010.7 square meters; according to other documents, the figure is 1,247.7 square meters. All we know for certain is that is contains 34 rooms and 40 common areas. Gorod 812 visited the apartment, concluding it was not the sort of communal apartment where one would want to live.

Art Around the Corner
During my first visit to the apartment, I was horrified. The odors gave me a headache, and I could not understand how people could live in such conditions. I then made a repeat visit, and I discovered the apartment had another, civil half. It left me with a murky impression. The apartment dwellers would tell me things were good, but they would not open their doors, although most of the people I encountered were decent and pleasant.

The apartment probably holds the record not only for sheer size but also for utter neglect. Visitors are usually shown the floor, which is caving in, the rotten wiring hanging overhead, and the crumbling walls. They are usually asked not to take off their coats and shoes at the entrance, as is the custom in most Russian homes, because the stroll down the hundred-meter-long hallway is cold and dirty. Some residents agree to speak with reporters only off the record. They do not want workmates to find out where they live.

The building the apartment occupies was erected in 1958, and is now surrounded by so-called elite residential estates. The Erarta Contemporary Art Museum is nearby. It is not a big hit among the residents.

The building’s first story was originally an outpatient medical clinic. In 1983, the clinic acquired a new building, and its old digs were remodeled as a dormitory for medical staff from the nearby Pokrovskaya Hospital and Children’s Infectious Disease Hospital No. 3. The numbers of doctors’ surgeries are still attached to the doors of some of the rooms in the apartment. There is not a single, thick load-bearing wall inside the apartment. The entire space has been divided by partitions, so voices and noises carry.

“When a neighbor in the next room sneezes, you say ‘Gesundheit’ aloud,” remarks Elena Pogor. “He thanks you.”

Nadezhda Khondakova, an employee at a medical center, took up residence on Detskaya Street in 1989, when three to four people lived to a room.

“I was born and raised in Karelia,” she says. “After graduating from medical college, I was assigned to the children’s hospital and got a place in the dormitory. The room had always been neglected. It was temporary housing, so no one paid much attention to maintenance. Besides, renovations were not carried out there right away.”

Outwardly, the apartment has seemingly been divided in two. The right half is cleaner and brighter, while the floor is sinking in the left half.

“As a technician said, the heating main runs under this half of the apartment,” Khondakova explains. “Every three years, we install a new floor, but they all rot.”

Communal Legends
On March 1, 2005, the dormitory was officially designated an apartment, giving residents the right to privatize their rooms. But little has changed. The entry doors are still unlocked, so anyone can get into the apartment. Previously, homeless people would venture into the apartment to warm up or wash up, sleeping right in the kitchen. Residents try and avoid letting not only children into the hallway but cats as well. Who knows what might happen to them.

In 2011, the apartment was declared unfit for habitation. Two years later, Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko signed an eviction and resettlement notice. At the time of the signing, 27 families (62 people) officially resided in the apartment.

Old-timers recall the queues for the showers and toilets. There were two of each, and people started queuing for them at five in the morning. They also remember showdowns in the kitchen and rats. They lived modestly. If you ran out of something, you could borrow it from a neighbor without asking.

“You would leave detergent in the kitchen and someone would use half the bottle,” recalls Tatyana Pogor. “Spoons were stolen, people had their trousers swiped from the clotheslines. Half a chicken once vanished from the oven. That was unpleasant, but they left a note saying whether they found it tasty or not. Once, there was a knock-down-drag-out fight over the shower.”

When ten families had received authorizations for new apartments, the housing authority ceased issuing the authorizations.

“The apartments were issued chaotically,” says Khondakova. “It was not only people whose housing was subsidized who were affected. My neighbor Tatyana privatized her room and was resettled in a one-room apartment. I’ve been in the queue for separate apartment for twenty years, and I’ve never been offered anything.”

The residents tell me about about a drunken neighbor lady who was moved into a one-room apartment in the Moscow District, about a women who did not want to move out, and a family who happily took up a new life in the Petersburg suburb of Pushkin.

The activists argue the apartment should be resettled completely and everyone should be moved into separate accommodations.

“It’s not the district that issues us apartments. The city has been handling the resettlement,” Khondakova underscores. “We know where residential buildings are being built: Parnas, Veterans Avenue, and Shushary [in the far north and far south of the city, respectively.] But we have not said we want to live only on Vasilyevsky Island.”

After the ten families departed, the residents who were left behind divvied up the remaining space among themselves, including around 40 common spaces, such as washrooms, hallways, and the laundry room. Tatyana Lobunova’s 24-square-meter room includes 40 square meters of hallway and kitchen space, for which she pays the city’s housing authority 4,000 rubles a month [approx. 63 euros]. Khondakova pays rates between 7,000 and 8,000 rubles a month. However, a table in the apartment’s kitchen is littered with bills left unpaid by debtors. Some residents demonstratively refuse to pay the maintenance and cleaning fees for their rooms.

The Residents
Residents are reluctant to let visitors into their rooms. As you gaze at the dilapidated kitchen and toilets, you imagine this shambles reigns throughout the apartment. But you would be wrong. The residents’ own rooms are clean and tidy. Many of them have equipped their rooms with small kitchens and cook food there. The doors to the different rooms vary as well. Residents sequestered behind more expensive doors do not want to chat with reporters, while the activists who demand total eviction and resettlement live in the part of the apartment where the floor caves in.

The author of a petition on Change.Org to resettle the apartment, a petition that has gathered nearly 18,000 signatures, has lived in the apartment six years. An actress at the Ne-Kabuki Theater, Tatyana Lobunova bought her room from builders. They had purchased the room for a song, plastered the walls, and resold it. Lobunova had lived in a communal apartment before. She grew up in a nine-family apartment on Konnogvardeiskaya Boulevard, in the city’s downtown. So the idea of living in a communal apartment did not intimidate her.

The cosmetic repairs in her room quickly crumbled. The new wooden window turned black and rotted, a crevice emerged under the wet wallpaper on the outside wall, and the room smelled moldy. A sofa was tossed out by way of combating cockroaches. Now the room is chockablock with cockroach traps. When I asked her whether she was really unaware of the investment she was making, she shrugs.

“I had to live on Vasilyevsky Island,” she explains. “A family theater means working nonstop. I get four hours of sleep a day. If I lived a ways from the theater, I would probably get no more than two hours of sleep a day.”

Lobunova stores letters from various officials in a folder. She produces one from the presidential administration, who advised tenants to exercise their right to turn to the local authorities to redress their grievances.

Currently, the number of proprietors who actually live in the apartment is not so great. People prefer to let their rooms for eight to twelve thousand rubles a month. It is hard to tell one renter from the next. There are people knocking about, and the heck with it.

A native of Pskov Region, Elena Pogor has lived in Petersburg around six years. Initially, she and her husband rented a room, but then friends suggested they live in the apartment at Detskaya, 2, up money to buy her own apartment or room.

“In Dedovichi, where I grew up, there are no jobs at all,” she explains. “The wages there run from seven to ten thousand rubles a month. You can earn twelve to fifteen thousand rubles a month at the regional power plant. We consider the people who work there wealthy.”

The room where she and her husband live is in the better-maintained part of the apartment.

“It all depends on people and upbringing,” argues Pogor. “We have made friends with the neighbor lady Roza and her daughter. They’re good, tidy people. It’s a shame the repairs were started and not finished. On the one hand, I could not care less. I’m not planning to stay here long in any case, but I want to live decently.”

A Potential Squat 
The Vasilyevsky Island District Administration has its own plans for the apartment. In 2015–2016, an overhaul of the common property was undertaken. Workers showed up, removed the toilets, stripped off the tiles, poured cement floors in the bathrooms, and left. Tenants had to parquet the floor in the hallway themselves. The district administration has dubbed this exercise “works toward eliminating the apartment’s hazardous condition.”

The district administration told us that the “paperwork affirming the elimination of the hazardous conditions [was] currently being vetted.”

Eliminating the apartment’s hazardous status would facilitate its being sold as real estate. The question is, who would buy it and for how much. There is little hope the city’s communal apartment resettlement program would come to the rescue. It has being going sluggishly in the district: in 2016, it resettled a mere forty apartments there. So there is virtually no chance a huge communal apartment will up and vanish by itself. For the time being, the only prospect is that, as conditions worsen, the rent will grow cheaper.

Then the apartment will undergo its latest metamorphosis and turn into a squat.

For Your Information
Communal apartments will celebrate their one hundredth anniversary in the summer of 2018. There are 78,534 communal apartments in Petersburg, housing 250,027 families. 4,816 such apartments were resettled in the city during 2016.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of Yulia Pashkevich/Gorod 812

A Rainbow May Day in Petersburg vs. The Dead in Chechnya

Varya Mikhaylova
Facebook
May 1, 2017

I don’t know what else to on May 1 when LGBT people in Chechnya are facing flagrant genocide, so today this was how it went down. Now we have been detained and taken to the 43rd police precinct. A man who came out bearing a placard that read, “Putin, go away. Putin is evil” was detained with us. It’s forbidden to say that now, too.

Chechen Mothers Mourned Their Bloodied Children on Nevsky

On May 1, 2017, activists staged a performed on Nevsky Prospect, the city’s main boulevard, during which Chechen mothers mourned and sprinkled their children with earth. Prone on the ground, the bodies of the LGBT people were covered with rainbow and Chechen flags. The performance was meant to express solidarity with the people of the Republic of Chechnya as well as draw attention to the horrifying events occurring there now.

Since the beginning of the year in Chechnya, which is part of Russia, there have been numerous illegal detentions, torture, and executions of homosexual men, including men deemed homosexual. We know of hundred of victims, dozens of them murdered. Even as they deny the occurrence of genocide, local officials have publicly justified these atrocities by citing medieval “ethnic traditions” and “Muslim values.”

The persecution of LGBT people in Chechnya and the North Caucasus is nothing new. The region has long been plagued by rampant corruption, violence, and murder, affecting everyone who lives there. However, targeted mass killings are a new phenomenon. Both local and federal authorities are to blame for the state terror. On the one hand, they have vigorously popularized “traditional religious values.” On the other, they have proved incapable of opposing the spread of radical Islam and ensuring the enforcement of the Russian Constitution and human rights. Impunity on the ground encourages terrorism and radicalization, leading to the deaths of civilians not only in Chechnya but outside it. Consequently, terrorists  exploded a bomb in the St. Petersburg subway for the first time in the city’s history.*

“Cruelty is a severe infection that is prone to pandemic. It is not a one-off event. They started with the people of Chechnya and, although many imagined that would be the end  of it, they continued with ‘their own kind,’ as is now the ‘patriotic’ expression,” wrote Anna Politkovskaya.

The escalation of terror is a vivid example of how the violation of human rights and violence against a particular group can quickly balloon into violence against everyone.

We demand the strict observance of Russian federal laws in Chechnya and preservation of the Russian state’s secular nature. We demand that religious fanatics who are calling for violence be punished according to the law. We demand an investigation of allegations of widespread torture and executions of gays in Chechnya and severe punishment for the guilty parties, including government officials.

#MayDay #Chechnya #MayDayLGBT  #RainbowMayday #LGBT

Photographs by David Frenkel, Alexandra Polukeyeva, and Fontanka.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader

* NB. I have translated and posted the above out of a sense of solidarity and friendship with the people who staged this action during today’s May Day marches on the Nevsky in Petersburg.

However, I would be remiss not to note the striking Alexei Navalny-like anti-Caucasus/anti-Muslim rhetoric in the protesters’ communique, which, of course, is not unique to the otherwise admirable anti-corruption fighter, but is a commonplace in the non-thinking of many “ethnic” Russians. As thoroughly deplorable and despicable as the persecution of gay men in Chechnya and anywhere else is (what, are gay men not persecuted in “Russia proper”?), the activists quote the slain journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya while seemingly forgetting why she was assassinated: because she wrote truthfully about what Russian federal armed forces and police were doing in Chechnya. Moscow’s successive bloody invasions of Chechnya in the 1990s and the 2000s, involving the torture and rape of non-combatants, the wholesale slaughter of civilians, and mass displacement of the local population might seem to be more appropriately qualified by the word “genocide” than what has been happening recently to the republic’s gay men, however horrifying. Not to put too fine a point on it, “Russians proper,” with the notable exception of Politkovskaya and a brave but tiny minority of others, have never been able to assign the responsibility for what happened in Chechnya where it belongs, and they have been aided and abetted by the other “world powers” (i.e., the “former” colonial and imperial powers), who were only too happy to turn a blind eye to what first Yeltsin and then Putin were up to in their own backyard, so to speak. If Chechnya is now an out-of-control autocracy, run by an “Islamist” strongman-cum-madman, Russians have only to look in the mirror to find out who is to blame for this deplorable state of affairs.

Nor, finally, is it a given that the recent bombing in the Petersburg subway (which wasn’t even the first such bombing, in fact) was the work of “radicalized Islamists.” Of course, that is one possibility. But there are other possibilities, as any “Russian proper” who hasn’t had his or her memory erased would realize.

When the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly passed its infamous homophobic law several years ago, there was no popular outcry against the law on the part of Petersburgers, the vast majority of whom are not Muslim and thus cannot be suspected of adhering to “medieval Muslim values.” Nobody but a handful of people “rioted” in the streets, and as far as I can tell, Petersburgers still, inexplicably, regard themselves proudly as “Europeans,” although they have this disgusting “medieval” law on the books, and many of the same local Petersburg riot cops (OMON) who wearily drag them into paddy wagons and kettle them when they occasionally want to exercise their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly were, as is well known, on active combat duty in Chechnya during the First and Second Chechen Wars and are, possibly, guilty of God knows what war crimes against the “uncivilized” Chechens, whose tiny, beautiful corner of the world has been ravaged at least three times in living memory by their Great Russian rulers. TRR

Nikolay Mitrokhin: God-Given “Extremists”

God-Given “Extremists”
Nikolay Mitrokhin
Takie Dela
April 26, 2017

I met Jehovah’s Witnesses in the mid 1990s in the former Soviet Central Asian republics. I was researching the region’s religious life. When I arrived at each regional capital, I would survey all the prominent communities in turn. The Witnesses were different in one respect from other western-inspired Christian communities. There were lots of them and they were everywhere.

Like now, many were certain back then the Witnesses were a product of the perestroika era’s freedoms. This, however, was not the case. The Witnesses were a legacy of the Soviet Union.

An American Salesman’s Religion

The Witnesses are a typical American eschatological religious group. Put crudely, they believe the world will end soon, during their lifetimes. They believe in one God, Jehovah, a name used during Christianity’s first century. On Judgment Day, Jehovah will destroy sinners and save the elect. The Witnesses reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit). They do not consider Christ God, but they revere him. The day of his death is the only holiday they celebrate.

“A History of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia,” a display in the museum at the Administrative Center of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, located in Solnechnoye, a suburb of St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Alexander Demyanchuk/TASS

A completely and regularly revised theology has produced a set of permissions and prohibitions aimed at maintaining the way of life and behavior of a decent traveling salesman from the lower middle classes.

The Witnesses are allowed the moderate use of alcohol (immoderate use is cause for expulsion) and the use of contraceptives. Premarital sex and smoking are forbidden. The Witnesses must not “rend to Caesar what is Caesar’s”: they are forbidden from being involved in elections, engaging in politics, honoring state symbols, and serving in the army. They are most roundly criticized by outsiders for forbidding blood transfusions and organ transplants. The Witnesses suddenly had something to say when the AIDS epidemic kicked off. They support blood substitutes.

Something like family monasteries—”administrative centers”—have been organized for the most ardent followers. The schedule in the centers is strict, but the conditions are relatively comfortable. The Witnesses can live and work in them, practically for free, for as little as a year or as along as their entire lives.

Waiting for the world’s imminent end is an occupation common to many religious groups, from Russian Old Believers to the Mayan Indians. Such groups isolate themselves from a sinful world, some by retreating into the wilderness, others, by restricting their contact with outsiders.

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The cover of a 1928 Russian-language edition of The Watchtower. When the Russian edition was founded in 1925, it was originally entitled The Guard Tower, but in 1964 the name was changed to The Watchtower. Photo courtesy of Boris Alexeyevich/Wikipedia

The Witnesses differ from similar movements in terms of how they disseminate and maintain their doctrine. The method is based on the commercial practice of distributing magazines in the nineteenth century. Essentially, the entire organization meets twice weekly to read its main journal, The Watchtower, which is produced by church elders in Brooklyn and then translated and disseminated in dozens of languages. Members pay a nominal fee for subscribing to and reading the journal, fees that are scrupulously collected and sent along the chain: from local groups to the regional office, then to the national headquarter and, finally, to the head office in Brooklyn. Free distribution of the magazine and going door to door asking people whether they want to talk about God are aimed at the same thing: increasing the audience who subscribes to and collectively reads the magazine.

Ninety-five percent of today’s public find these religious activities strange and ridiculous, although from a sociological viewpoint they barely differ from going to political party meetings, networked sales of cosmetics, visiting sports clubs, getting a tattoo, the Russian Healthy Lifestyle Movement (ZOZh) or stamp collecting.

If you believe the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own figures, they operate in 240 countries, which is more than belong to the UN.  At the same time, the organization is numerically quite compact, albeit growing rapidly. It has a total of 8.3 million members.

A Religion for Soviet Individuals

The story of how the Witnesses took root in the Soviet Union has been well told in a book published three years ago by Emily Baran, Dissent on the Margins: How Soviet Jehovah’s Witnesses Defied Communism and Lived to Preach About It. Polish and Romanian peasants and market traders adopted the doctrine of the Witnesses at the turn of the 1920s and 1930s, and before the war they unexpectedly were made Soviet citizens when the Soviet Union occupied parts of Poland and Romania.

The Soviet authorities did not tolerate large groups who maintained constant links with foreign countries, so it decided to send the core group of Witnesses, five thousand people, to Siberia. A considerable number were sent to the camps, while the rest were exiled. The crackdown was a misfortune for the victims, but it was a godsend for the exotic doctrine.

The Moscow Jehovah’s Witness community worshiping at the velodrome in the city’s Krylatskoye District, 2000. Photo courtesy of Alexander Fomin/PhotoXPress.ru

As early as the 1950s, the largest communities of Witnesses had emerged in the main place of exile, Irkutsk Region. In the 2000s, the official websites of Irkutsk Region and the neighboring Republic of Buryatia claimed the Jehovah’s Witnesses were a traditional religious community in the region. Irkipedia provides the following figures for 2011: “Around 5,500 people in Irkutsk Region are members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization. Around 50 of their assemblies operate in Irkutsk Region, each of them featuring 80 to 150 members. The assemblies are united into three districts: Usolye-Sibirskoye, Irkutsk, and Bratsk.”

The camps proved a suitable place for proselytizing, the radically minded youth, especially Ukrainian speakers, eager listeners, and the half-baked amnesty of political prisoners, an excellent means of disseminating the doctrine nationwide. As early as the late 1950s, all over northern Kazakhstan, former members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), who were banned from returning home, and former Russian criminals, who had taken jobs as farm machinery operators and welders, were digging dugouts in the steppes to hide DIY printing presses for printing The Watchtower.

Why did peasants, traders, brawny lads from the working classes, graduates of provincial technical schools, mothers of large families, and pensioners need to become Jehovah’s Witnesses? I have the same explanation as the preachers do: to radically change their selves and their lifestyles. The everyday frustrations of ordinary people, their perpetually predetermined lives, and their uselessness to anyone outside their narrow family circle (in which there is so often so little happiness) are things that torment many people. Prescriptions for effectively transfiguring oneself are always popular. However, they usually don’t work, because it is hard to stick to the program.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Minsk, 2015. Photo courtesy of Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters/Pixstream

Like other religious groups, the Witnesses offer their members a disciplinary model for joint action. You can sit at home, chewing through your miserly pension, and watching TV, or you can feel like a “pioneer” again (the title given to missionaries who proselytize on the streets and door to door), do the right thing, hang out with other enthusiastic people like yourself, and make friends with young people. You are a young bricklayer. You are facing a lifetime of laying bricks, but your soul yearns for change and career growth. After spending six months in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, our bricklayer might be leading a grassroots group, and two years later he might have made a decent career in the organization. His wife is satisfied. Her husband doesn’t drink, their circle of friends has expanded, and during holidays the whole family can go visit other Witnesses in other parts of Russia. The children grown up in a circle of fellow believers with a sense of their own uniqueness. Free evenings are spent on the work of the organization, but that is better than drunken quarrels, and better than what most “ordinary” Soviet and post-Soviet folks are up to in the evenings.

Wholehearted Atheists

In 2006, I interviewed Vladimir Saprykin, a former employee of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee’s Propaganda Department. His career had kicked off with a vigorous campaign against the Witnesses in Karaganda Region. I was able to get a glimpse into a period when the Party was on the warpath against the Witnesses. In the early 1960s, literally hundreds of people were sent to the camps as part of the campaign against religion per se.

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The Jehovah’s Witness Congress Hall in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of PhotoXPress

Saprykin had campaigned against the Witnesses wholeheartedly and passionately, and that passion still burned in him fifty years after the events in question. He had dreamed of making them “completely free,” of “returning them to their essence.” He was backed up then by a whole group of provincial demiurges from among the local intelligentsia. They had collectively tried to re-educate the local group of Witnesses through debate, and then they had intimated them and pressured their relatives. Subsequently, they had tried to buy them off before finally sending the group’s core to prison with the KGB’s backing.

Their rhetoric is surprisingly similar to the declarations made by the Witnesses’ current antagonists.

“We stand for individual freedom of choice in all domains, including religion. […] So read, compare, think, disagree, and argue! Critical thinking is in inalienable sign of a person’s freedom. Let’s not abandon our freedom so easily.”

This is not an excerpt from a statement by a libertarian group, but an excerpt from a declaration published by a group of Russian Orthodox clergymen attached to the Holy Martyr Irenaeus of Lyons Center for Religious Studies. It was these clergymen who have now got the Jehovah’s Witnesses banned.

In the early 1960s, the KGB and such local enthusiasts managed to deliver several serious blows to the infrastructure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Soviet Union. Successive leaders of the organization and hundreds of grassroots leaders and activists were arrested and convicted, and archives, correspondence, and printing presses were seized.

“Is there an end to your suffering? Take a copy for free in your own language.” Tuchkovo, Moscow Region. Photo courtesy of Alexander Artemenkov/TASS

This, however, did not lead to the eradication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Besides the three regions where they had constantly been active—Western Ukraine, Moldova, and Irkutsk Region—groups and organizations emerged in the sixties and seventies throughout nearly the entire Soviet Union from Arkhangelsk Region to the Maritime Territory, and from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan.

The movement was spread by ex-camp convicts, labor migrants from regions where the doctrine was strongly espoused, and missionaries.

Soviet construction sites, new cities, and workers’ dorms were propitious environments for the spread of new religious doctrines. The young people who arrived to work there were cut off from their usual lifestyles, family ties, and interests. They wanted something new, including self-education and self-transfiguration—to gad about in suits and have their heads in the clouds. Most of these cadres were promoted through the ranks by the Communist Youth League and other authorities, but there were plenty of pickings for the religious organizations.

By the way, in 1962, Saprykin campaigned to get not just anyone to leave the Witnesses, but Maria Dosukova, a chevalier of the Order of Lenin, a longtime Party member, a plasterer, and an ethnic Kazakh. During an assembly at her construction company, Dosukova had refused to support a resolution condemning the religious organization in which several people in her work team were members.

Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Sochi, 2007. Photo courtesy of Natalya Kolesnikova/PhotoXPress

After Krushchev’s resignation, the systematic arrests of the Witnesses stopped, although some were sent to prison as a warning to the others.  Everyone else was subject to the decree, issued by the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, on March 18, 1966, “On Administrative Responsibility for Violating the Legislation on Religious Cults.” You could be fined fifty rubles—a week’s pay for a skilled worker—for holding a religious circle meeting in your home. In his book About People Who Never Part with the Bible, religious studies scholar Sergei Ivanenko records that, during the seventies and eighties, attempts to combat the Witnesses by fining them and tongue-lashing them at assemblies were just as useless. 

Wholehearted Anticultists

Perestroika legalized the Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the post-Soviet space. This freedom did not last for long, however. The new states of Central Asia and the Transcaucasia followed the Soviet Union’s path in their treatment of the Witnesses, achieving similar outcomes.

In Russia, the Witnesses were officially registered in March 1991 and had no serious problems for a long time. They built their central headquarters, Bethel, in the village of Solnechnoye near St. Petersburg, as well as several dozen buildings for prayer meetings.  Of course, due to their activity, relative openness, and American connections, the Witnesses (along with the Hare Krishna, the Mormons, the Scientologists, and the Pentecostals) were targeted by the various hate organizations that emerged in Russia in the late 1990s, including the Cossacks, neo-Nazis, and professional anticultists.

Protest rally against the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in St. Petersburg, 1997. Photo courtesy of TASS

Anticultism was imported to Russia by the ex-Moscow hippie Alexander Dvorkin, who emigrated to the US in the 1970s and got mixed up in Orthodox émigré circles there. In the early 1990s, he left his job at Radio Liberty and returned to Russia, where he made a successful career at the point where the interests of the Moscow Patriarchate and Russian law enforcement agencies intersect. The above-mentioned Irenaeus of Lyons Center is, basically, Dvorkin himself.

Professor Dvorkin has worked for several years at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of the Humanities. Until 2012, he was head of the department of sectology. In 2009, he headed the council for religious studies forensic expertise at the Russian Federal Justice Ministry. (He now holds the post of deputy chair). It is curious that Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov is also a St. Tikhon’s alumnus and is quite proud of that fact.

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Professor Alexander Dvorkin. Photo courtesy of Yevgeny Mukhtarov/Wikipedia

By supporting the Justice Ministry’s campaign to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Russian Supreme Court has not only put the “sectarians” in a difficult position but also the Russian authorities. In Russia, the Witnesses have over 400 local organizations and around 168,000 registered members. Only full-fledged members are counted during registration, but a fair number of sympathizers are also usually involved in Bible readings, The Watchtower, and other religious events. We can confidently say the ban will affect at least 300,000 to 400,000 Russian citizens. Labeling them “extremists” does not simply insult them and provoke conflicts with their relatives, loved ones, and acquaintances. In fact, this means abruptly increasing the workload of the entire “anti-extremism” system the Russian authorities have been setting up the past twenty years.  The soldiers of the Russian National Guard will find it easy to raid prayer meetings and spread-eagle these “extremists” on the floor. However, given the scale of the organization, they will have to do this a lot and often. And, as experience shows,  there won’t be much point to what they are doing.

Not a single country in the world has forcibly dissolved the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it is hard to imagine that these 400,000 people will all emigrate or otherwise disappear. Even now, as news of the ban has spread, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have received completely unexpected support from all manner media and numerous public figures, including Russian Orthodox priests. Given these circumstances, the successful state campaign to discredit, dissolve, and brush a major religious community under the rug is doomed to failure.

Marquee being taken down from the Surgut office of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in connection with their ban in Russia, April 24, 2017. Photo courtesy of Alexei Andronov/Ura.Ru/TASS

The authorities will have to decide. Either they will sanction the mass arrests of the organizations leaders and activists and send hundreds and thousands of people to the camps, which ultimately will facilitate the growth of the movement’s reputation and dissemination, as in Soviet times, or they will pinpoint those who, according to the Interior Ministry and the FSB, are “especially dangerous” while turning a blind eye to the actual continuation of the organization’s work.

I would like the country’s leadership to have second thoughts and find a legal way of rescinding the Supreme Court’s decision. There is little hope of that, however.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Stanislav Dorochenkov: Afterword to the Pamphlet of 1942

Afterword to the Pamphlet of 1942
A film by Stanislav Dorochenkov, 2012
28’46”
Featuring Maxim Egorov, O.A. Belobrova, Lydia Smirnova
Camera: Boris Belay
Editing: Claire Beuneux
Directed by Stanislav Dorochenkov
Re:voir Films Paris

In 2010’s stifling heat in St. Petersburg, the regime and the mafia orchestrate the destruction of the city’s heritage for the sake of the nouveaux riche’s luxury. The attempt to remember helps me. I present a little known text by someone who defended this city, Dmitry Likhachev. Several times, he saved it alone by opposing the collective decisions of the Communist Party, thus rebutting an old Russian saying that I would translate roughly as “One man cannot fight an army.”

One can.

I see the phrase “Death will more likely be afraid of us than we of it,” engraved on one of the three stelae at the Piskaryov Memorial Cemetery, placed over the endless mass graves where the millions who died during the Siege of Leningrad lie.

With my Éclair camera, I walk the city during the White Nights to rediscover the  magnificent light of transparent twilight that transforms Petersburg into “the most fantastic city in the world.” The texts of the Russian chronicles (The Hypatian Chronicle, The Laurentian Chronicle, and The Lay of Igor’s Campaign) appear before me, following a broadcast inspired by Likhachev. I become aware of the ancient words, the most accurate account of the disaster of human forgetfulness.

Source: Dérives.tv

Annotation translated, from the French, by Comrade Koganzon and the Russian Reader

Return of the Wreckers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
When they work on construction sites, migrant workers from Central Asia often live in shantytowns like this one in Petersburg. Photo by TRR

FSB director Alexander Bortnikov has claimed that migrant workers from the former Soviet Union constitute the bulk of terrorist groups operating in Russia. He called on businessmen who employ migrant labor and officials who insure compliance with immigration laws to act more responsibly.

This comes from an organization whose direct legal predecessor, the NKVD, arrested and shot fifty-four people on the street where I live during 1937–1938. All these people were found guilty on spurious, trumped-up charges, and all of them were “rehabilitated” in the later, more “vegetarian” times after Stalin’s death, as Anna Akhmatova called them. Meaning the Soviet state admitted then, at least to the families of the victims, that their loved ones had been arrested and shot for no reason at all.

And yet, when the Great Terror was in full gear, the country’s leaders and its henchmen in the NKVD (now known as the FSB) were convinced or feigned that the Soviet Union was chockablock with wreckers, saboteurs, provocateurs, and foreign spies.

Now, in the absence of a public investigation and any trials of the accused (or any accused, for that matter), the agency’s current director wants us to believe that migrant workers from Central Asia are rife with “terrorist groups.”

The street I live on is quite small. It consists of two short blocks and exactly twenty houses. I can imagine the sudden arrests and executions of fifty-four of their neighbors made quite an impression on the street’s more fortunate inhabitants in 1937–1938.

As far as I know, the FSB has never really renounced its direct line of descent from the Cheka, the OGPU, the NKVD, the MGB, and the KGB. On the contrary, if statements made by its more prominent veterans such as Vladimir Putin are to be believed, its past and current officers are extraordinarily proud of this legacy, although they may admit on occasion that the Great Terror was a bit excessive.

So, in the interests of the state (which are nowadays equated with the interests of the members of the Ozero Dacha Cooperative and the so-called Laundromat, not with the interests of the “international proletarian revolution”), the FSB is still capable, I would guess, of lying through its teeth and scapegoating entire groups of completely innocent people, i.e., in this case, migrant workers from Central Asia. According to one expert on Central Asia, whom I trust, there are currently around three million such migrant workers in Russia.

How do you think they are going to feel after hearing Bortnikov’s announcement? Would you like to live and work in a country where you are regarded as a de facto terrorist? TRR

Terrorism in Petersburg: Then and Now

St. Petersburg Gets a Taste of Terrorism
Vladimir Alexandrov
Kommersant Daily
December 20, 1996

A bomb exploded in the Petersburg subway in the early hours of December 19. By a lucky chance, there were no victims. This was the first terrorist attack in Petersburg [sic].* Until the incident, law enforcement had either received false bomb threats or had found the bombs in time. FSB officers, who have joined the investigation, have not yet put forward any more or less convincing explanations of what happened.

The hands on the clock in the driver’s cab showed 12:10 a.m. when he felt the train tremble violently. (It was then traveling between Ploshchad Lenina and Vyborgskaya stations, on the Kirovsky Zavod-Vyborgskaya Line).

“At first, I thought one of the junction boxes in the train’s pneumatic system had exploded, but several seconds later, I realized something unpredictable had happened,” he said.

The steering system was compromised. The emergency sensors lighted up.  The driver immediately reported the incident to the duty officer at the station, and he contacted the police.

In fact, an explosive device had gone off in the train’s second car. There were two passengers in the car at the time, one of whom was deafened by the blast wave. His face and hands were injured by shards of glass.

Despite the fact the energy supply system was malfunctioning, the train rolled into Vyborgskaya station under its own momentum. The wounded man received first aid. Because he had trouble speaking and was quite disoriented, he was almost immediately taken to hospital. The second passenger, a woman, disappeared from the scene for reasons as yet unknown.

An FSB investigative team soon arrived. They inspected the car. It was an awful sight. The bomb had torn apart the car’s insides. The windows had been knocked out, the doors torn from their grooves, and the seats and upholstery ripped apart. The windows had been blown out in adjacent cars as well.

The damaged train was moved onto a storage track, near the Ploshchad Lenina subway station, where there used to be a depot.

The outcome of the forensic investigation was made public only yesterday. Judging by the blast pattern, an explosive device with no casing was placed in the subway car. It contained approximately 400 grams of TNT. The mechanism used to ignite the explosives has not yet been identified.

“It was our good fortune that there were few people on the train at the time of the attack [according to some sources, there were sixteen — Kommersant]. Otherwise, the consequences of the explosion would have been difficult to foresee,” said an FSB spokesman.

The motives and the people who carried out the attack are also still unknown. According to a few witnesses, when the train was stopped at Ploshchad Lenina, several young men dashed out of the car where the explosion would later occur, but no has yet linked the subsequent events with these men. Nevertheless, they are being actively sought by police.

Traffic on the stretch of track between Ploshchad Lenina and Vyborgskaya was restored by early morning on December 19 because the tunnel had suffered almost no damage. Diagnostic work on the tracks and cable conduits will continue tonight, however.

Nearly all police units in St. Petersburg have been on alert since the attack. Security at all subway stations, on public transport, and at other vital sites in the city has been increased. The FSB has established a special task force to investigate the crime.

Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev was informed about the incident half an hour after the explosion. According to him, it was hardly connected with events in Chechnya. Mentioning recent similar events in different countries, the governor suggested that “terrorism has, apparently, simply become a profitable business.”

This is the first terrorist attack in St. Petersburg in the last three months, although the police constantly receive anonymous bomb threats. (The callers usually claim the bombs have been planted in schools.) The last time police received an anonymous message about a bomb in the subway was in early October of this years. Traffic on the Moskovskaya-Petrogradskaya Line was halted for ten minutes due to the threat.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Norsu for the invaluable heads-up and having a good memory.

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wanted the alleged bomber
Social network users were quick to join the exciting hunt for the “alleged bomber,” especially because the screenshot image disseminated by local media evoked every radicalized Islamophobe’s wet dream of a “Muslim terrorist.”

Man Named as Suspect in Subway Explosion Turns Himself over to Police
Inna Sidorkova and Vladimir Gordeev
RBC
April 3, 2017

A man resembling the man in a photograph whom the media had identified as a suspect in the terrorist attack in the subway has produced himself at a Petersburg police precinct.

“He saw himself on TV, got scared, and came to the police himself,” said RBC’s source in law enforcement. According to him, the man had nothing to do with the terrorist attack.

Earlier, REN TV and online newspaper Fontanka.ru had published a screenshot of a recording made by a CCTV camera. The image showed a man who, allegedly, had carried out the terrorist attack. The still showed a tall, bearded man dressed in black.

Later, Channel Five published the photograph of a second suspect in the terrorist attack.

alleged suspect
The “alleged terrorist” looks very much like a Russian Orthodox priest or seminary student. Photo courtesy of RBC and their sources in law enforcement**

** UPDATE (5 April 2017). His real name is Andrei (Ilyas) Nikitin, and here is the touching story of how this totally innocent man got booted off a plane in Moscow because Islamophobic, panick-mongering Russian media and social media users had already dragged him through the mud and labeled him a “terrorist.”

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Execution of the five Pervomartovtsy, April 13, 1881. Source: Wikipedia

*Pervomartovtsy (Russian: Первома́ртовцы; a compound term literally meaning those of March 1) were the Russian revolutionaries, members of Narodnaya Volya [The People’s Will] who planned and carried out the assassination of Alexander II (March 1, 1881), and attempted to assassinate Alexander III (March 1, 1887, also known as “The Second First of March”).

The 1881 assassination was planned by Narodnaya Volya’s Executive Committee. Andrei Zhelyabov was the main organizer. After his arrest on February 27, he was replaced by Sofia Perovskaya.

Alexander II was killed on March 1, 1881, by a bomb thrown by Ignacy Hryniewiecki. Hryniewiecki wounded himself fatally in the assassination; Nikolai Sablin committed suicide. The conspirators—Zhelyabov, Perovskaya, Nikolai Kibalchich, Gesya Gelfman, Timofei Mikhailov, and Nikolai Rysakov—were tried by a Special Tribunal of the Ruling Senate on March 26–29 and sentenced to death by hanging. On April 3, 1881, five Pervomartovtsy were hanged, except for Gelfman, whose execution was postponed due to her pregnancy. Her execution was later commuted to indefinite penal servitude. She nevertheless died in prison of post-natal complications.

The second “First of March” was planned by members of the so-called Terrorist Faction of Narodnaya Volya, including [Vladimir Lenin’s older brother] Alexander Ulyanov. On March 1, 1887, they went to St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect with bombs and waited for the Tsar’s carriage to pass by. However, they were arrested on the spot before his arrival. All fifteen conspirators, including Alexander Ulyanov and Pyotr Shevyryov (the main organizers), Pakhomy Andreyushkin, Vasily Generalov and Vasily Osipanov (the bombthrowers), and ten other people were tried by a Special Senate Committee on April 15–19 and sentenced. The first five men were hanged on May 8, 1887, while the rest were sentenced to prison, exile or penal servitude.

Source: Wikipedia. The article has been edited lightly to make it more readable. TRR

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A 1988 map of downtown Leningrad, showing Zhelyabova and Perovskya Streets (inside the red oval). The streets were renamed in memory of the People’s Will terrorists in October 1918. The streets reverted to their pre-Revolutionary names (Bolshaya and Malaya Konyushennaya Streets) only in October 1991. (Image courtesy of retromap.ru.)

Yet streets named in memory of their fellow People’s Will terrorists Alexander Ulanov and Nikolai Kibalchich are still firmly in place on the grid of post-Soviet Petersburg to this day.

Alexander Ulyanov Street, in Petersburg’s Okhta neighborhood
Kibalchich Street, in Petersburg’s southern Frunze District

Sergey Abashin: Reading about Migrant Workers

Central Asian migrant workers queueing to obtain work “patents” at the Russian Interior Ministry’s migrant workers processing center on Red Textile Worker Street in central Petersburg, March 10, 2017. Photo by TRR

Sergey Abashin
Facebook
March 19, 2017

Very few people are interested in reading about migrant workers in Russia. True, many people readily believe the myths and repeat them, but they don’t want to get to the bottom of things, even if you hand them the data on a silver platter. This apathetic attitude to figures and facts is also typical of how migration is regarded.

I wrote yesterday [see below] about the trends in the numbers of migrant workers from the Central Asian countries in Russia for 2014–2016. Let me remind you that the number of Kyrgyz nationals first fell and then began to grow, exceeding the previous highs by 10%. The figure is now about 0.6 million people. (I am rounding up). The number of Tajik nationals has decreased by 15–25% and has been at the same level, about 0.9 million people, for over a year, while the number of Uzbek nationals has decreased by 30–40%, to 1.5 million people.

Now let us look at the data on remittances, all the more since the Central Bank of Russia has published the final figures for 2016. In 2016, private remittances from Russia to Kyrgyzstan amounted to slightly more than $1.7 billion, which is 17% less than during the peak year of 2013, but 26% more than in 2015. Meaning that, along with an increase in the number of migrants, the amount of remittances has grown quickly as well, even at a faster pace. Remittances to Tajikistan amounted to slightly more than $1.9 billion in 2016, which is 54% less than the peak year of 2013. The amounts have been continuing to fall, although this drop has slowed as the number of migrant workers has stabilized. Remittances to Uzbekistan were slightly more than $2.7 billion in 2016, which is 59% less than in the peak year of 2013. Meaning the largest drop in the number of migrants has led to the largest drop in remittances.

*****

Sergey Abashin
Facebook
March 18, 2017

Data on the number of foreign nationals living and working in Russia has not been made public since April 2016, when the Federal Migration Service was disbanded. But this does not mean there is no such data. The figures exist, and they become available from time to time. For example, an article published in RBC [on March 16, 2017] supplies some data as of February 1, 2017. What follows from the figures?

The number of Kyrgyz nationals has increased since February 2016 by 5.6%, and since February 2015 by 8.9%, and amounts to 593,760 people.

The number of Tajik nationals increased by 0.7% over the past year, and by 13.3% over two years, and amounts to 866,679 people.

The number of Uzbek nationals has decreased over the past year by 15.2%, and by 31.7% over two years, and now amounts to 1,513,694 people.

So we see three different trends. After Kyrgyzstan joined the Eurasian Economic Community [now, the Eurasian Economic Union], the number of its nationals in Russia has continued to grown. After a decline of 15–20%, the number of Tajik nationals has stabilized, while the number of Uzbek nationals has fallen by 30–40%.

There are slightly less than a total of 3 million people from Central Asia living and working in Russia. (I did not take Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan into account. If I had, the figure would have come to about 3.6 million people.)

Sergey Abashin, who teaches at the European University in St. Petersburg, has been a frequent contributor to this website. Translation and photo by the Russian Reader.