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

Another End of an Era: Pinta Shot Bar to Close in Central Petersburg

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Pinta Shot Bar on Stremyannaya Street in Central Petersburg

In the last ten or fifteen some years, signs of the city’s extinction have been coming hot and heavy, tumbling into view one after another. A few more years, and there will be nothing left of the late-Soviet and perestroika-era Leningrad/post-perestroika Petersburg where we misspent so many years of our youth and felt perfectly at home, despite the fact the ex-capital of All the Russias could never be described as homely. TRR

* * * * *

One of Petersburg’s Oldest Shot Bars to Close on Stremyannaya Street
Bumaga
June 27, 2017

One of Petersburg’s oldest shot bars [ryumochnaya], located at 22 Stremyannaya Street, is closing. [Known officially as Pinta or “The Pint,”] it has been in operation for over thirty years.

Sources at the bar confirmed the bar’s impending closure to us, but refrained from revealing the rationale behind the decision. According to unconfirmed reports, the establishment has been purchased by a third party. It will close on Sunday.

Urban legend has it the shot bar on Stremyannaya was frequented during different periods by writers Sergei Dovlatov and Joseph Brodsky, and rock musician Mike Naumenko, since it was near the popular so-called Saigon Café. Historian Lev Lurye told Bumaga that Brodsky and Dovlatov were unlikely to have visited the bar. It opened in the mid 1980s, after both had emigrated from the Soviet Union.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Ksenia Astafieva for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Foursquare and Ksenia N.

Let’s Cancel the Party and Call It a Night

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

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

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

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

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

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