Cat Scratch Fever

If I didn’t know it would get me into big trouble with the law, I would devote the rest of my life to physically assaulting Russian fascists until they finally cried, “Uncle!” and let this country breathe again. As it is, they and their supreme leader are quickly suffocating it.

By “Russian fascists” I don’t mean people who celebrate Hitler’s birthday and march around in silly outfits. I mean Putin’s mainly middle-class, fairly well-off, professionally educated supporters, without whom he would never have got anywhere in his ascent to immortality.

A particularly ugly encounter this evening at a shindig persuaded me once again that these people, who live mostly in the two capitals [Petersburg and Moscow], are Putin’s real base, not the mostly poor, disempowered, and utterly disabused people who live in the completely imaginary “Russian heartlands.”

What surprises me is how savvier folk than me haven’t been writing more and more often about this fact of life in Russia, which has been staring at us in the face for years.

Russia doesn’t need a proper bourgeois revolution. It needs a revolution to unseat the reflexively nationalist, increasingly fascistic bourgeoisie generated by the Putinist counterrevolution and, of course, the Putinist elite that manages and cultivates this fairly tiny nationalist bourgeoisie. Otherwise, the richest country on earth is doomed to collapse. ||| TRR, 13 May 2018, Petrograd. Photo by the Russian Reader

Going Fascist: Eight Years Ago Today

“Rolls at cost. Cucumber roll: 31 [rubles]. California: 99. Philadelphia: 147. Hookah: 58. Unfiltered beer: 88. White Russian: 132. You are charged for time [spent in the bar]: 180 rubles per hour. The bar’s entire menu is priced at cost. Stremyannaya 3 | selfcost.com.” Central Petersburg, 23 April 2018. One USD was worth approximately 62 rubles on that day. Photo by the Russian Reader


From the chronicles of the fascization of the world’s largest country, straight from a “suggested post” on Facebook:

“По шкале «Экономика» все суперэтносы распределяются на трех уровнях: High (американский суперэтнос), Middle (российский суперэтнос) и Low (китайский, латиноамериканский арабский суперэтносы). Давайте обсудим, почему именно так, а не по-другому.”

“On the scale of ‘Economics’ [sic], all superethnicities are divided into three levels: High [sic; in English in the original] (the American superethnicity), Middle (the Russian superethnicity), and Low (the Chinese, Latin-American, and Arab superethnicities). Let’s discuss why it is this way, and not otherwise.”

If you think this is some kind of quirky, meaningless nonsense, think again. Huge segments of Russian media, “culture,” “public discourse,” and “scholarship” have consisted of such proto-fascist, sub-Gumilevian drivel for years on end. It’s a wonder everyone is not completely loony, but of course that isn’t the point (and they aren’t, thank God). The point has always been to make this radical far-rightism the “background noise” and “common sense” that prevents people from escaping the Putinist cage, mentally at least, and enables them to swallow any number of “necessary measures.” ||| 23 April 2014, TRR

Standers

“Immortal Regiment standers: A3-size + holder, from 550 rubles.” The window of an art supply store in central Petersburg, 14 April 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader

It’s amazing how touchy Russians are about their language. If you have a slight accent or make a grammatical mistake now and then, you are automatically stripped of the right to discuss anything with them at all.

In any case, if you have any of these “speech defects,” Russians never fail to point them out to you. It’s not that they are grammar nazis. No, they’re flesh-and-blood nationalists.

By the way, these are the same Russians who have been ripping their precious language to shreds the last several years by filling it to the brim with unassimilated anglicisms and other garbage, and by utterly abandoning the fine traditions of painstaking translating, editing and scholarship that once existed in this country.

Russia, I’m afraid, is headed straight down the tubes to full-blown fascism. Every other country in the world should make contingency plans for that eventuality. ||| TRR, 14 April 2018

Election Day: 18 March 2018

The “get out the vote” mobile just made its second pass down our street today.

The speakers mounted on its roof blared out at deafening volume the recording of a song that mentioned something about a “strong team” and resembled a jingle for potato chips or tampons more than anything.

Russia’s leaders take the Russian people for idiots.

Minutes later, the “get out the vote” mobile made its third pass down our street today, driving in the opposite direction.

This time, the speakers on the car’s roof were not terrorizing the neighboring with the ear-splitting jingle about the “strong team.” Instead, a middle-aged man with the velvety-toned voice of a Soviet news presenter explained — again, at extremely high volume — that today was a “celebration” in which Russians were “making a choice” that would “determine the country’s future.” 

The “get out the vote” mobile just made its ninth pass down our street in the last four hours. It drove slowly. The speakers on its roof were cranked up to eleven, playing a particularly unpleasant song.

I gather this is now the punishment phase for everyone on our street who hasn’t voted in the “celebration” to “re-elect” Russia’s dictator for life today.

It goes without saying that people like that deserve the worst. Even many of their own alleged friends and political allies have been emotionally abusing them online for the last several days, so strong is the Putin personality cult, especially among the Russian liberal and leftist intelligentsia.

Not that any of them would admit it. They are Putin’s real base, because they have the means to do something about his tyranny, but most have chosen to engage in more personally pleasant pursuits, some of which they have managed to pass off as “opposition” or “grassroots” politics.  ||| TRR, 18 March 2018

“People Are to Blame”

Alexander Kynev: “A moment of patriotic joy. I don’t know if there is anything more bogus. Even the Young Pioneer line-ups of my childhood were more natural.”

The video Mr. Kynev has embedded on his Facebook page is entitled “Zapolarye Za Mir” — “The Arctic for Peace.” The activists identify themselves as “residents of the Murmansk Region” (and, indeed, are standing on a hill overlooking Murmansk itself.) In addition to the newfangled Russian “Z” swastika, the hoodies sported by the lead troika of “activists” are also emblazoned with the “We Don’t Abandon Our Own” slogan that featured heavily in Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and has been revived for the new invasion. ||| TRR

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A Perekrestok chain supermarket in Moscow. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

“People are to blame…”

I stopped by Perekrestok and was blown away. Bananas were 140 rubles a kilo, pre-washed carrots were 100 rubles a kilo.

The hypermarket itself is open until eleven p.m. nowadays, not around the clock.

“Prices have really gone up. Is this all because of the w*r?” I say to the middle-aged woman at the checkout.

“No, it’s not just because they’ve attacked the neighbors. It’s because of the people.”

“The people who unleashed it all? I hope they will be held responsible…”

“No, because of the people, all of us, who allowed this gang to take over Russia. And each of us will bear our share of responsibility for this. And bananas at 140 a kilo are still just icing on the cake… We are to blame for what happened. Everyone who let this happen. Everyone who ‘wasn’t interested in politics.'”

Source: Alexei Sergeyev, Facebook, 15 March 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

Vox Pop

Vadim F. Lurie, Yaroslavl, 13 March 2022. From left to right, the shop signs read, “I Want It Beauty Salon,” “Blind Tomcat Men’s Haircuts,” and “Power Bar: The Power of the Present.” Reprinted with the photographer’s kind permission

The biggest surprise for me (and my biggest miscalculation) has been the number of people supporting Putin.

I had expected something else after two years of idiotic measures against the pandemic (measures that caused the deaths of more than a million people), after the [economic] crisis and the pension reforms.

This support cannot be explained solely in terms of propaganda. The regime’s propaganda is eclectic: it doesn’t supply people with a holistic worldview or logical arguments. It supplies them with mind-numbing slogans. The Russian Federation still has a fairly educated population, with a relatively broad outlook inherited from the Soviet education system. Over the years, I have learned from my own experience as an activist how difficult it is to convince such people using slogans alone.

In all the conversations [about the war] that I have had with people, it was they who initiated the conversations, vigorously advanced their positions, and went on the attack. This is completely atypical. Usually, it’s the other way around.

In all cases, the conversations boiled down to “we don’t know the whole picture” and “there must be good reasons,” segueing to “we don’t decide anything” and “it’s all completely pointless anyway.” A friend said that mothers refusing to look for their sons killed in combat have been saying, “There is no point, [the authorities] won’t give us anything.” A colleague at work ended our conversation [about the war] by saying, “Over in Khabarovsk they protested in defense of [Sergei] Furgal for three months and what of it? It’s completely useless.”

Now I have the feeling that people are very alarmed. They expect the worst and manifest the “social instinct” typical of post-Soviet society — siding with the strongman and rallying round “our guys” whoever they are.

That is, it is not propaganda that encourages them to support [the war], but “instinct.” Propaganda, on the other hand, only satisfies the demand for an explanation after the fact, the need for an indulgence and an analgesic.

Probably we should have expected something like this because the Russian Federation has been living in “counter-terrorist operation” mode for twenty years with berserk cops and crazed lawmakers. Nevertheless, I expected something different.

I don’t see any positive prospects yet. To do something, you need an organization, resources, intelligence, bases of support, media, and experience in underground work, finally. None of this exists. We are now in circumstances resembling those faced by the White Rose — only the authorities are not killing us yet, they can only send us to prison for ten years. And we don’t have the slightest preparation for working in such conditions.

The worse the situation in the country, the more people will consolidate. No introspection or arguments will break through the barrier generated by fear, guilt, and the imperial complex. Partisans [guerrillas] must have the support of the populace, but we don’t have it. One-off heroic actions would simply send crowds armed with pitchforks and torches to the houses where the heroes’ relatives live.

On the other hand, there are admirable examples of protesters mobilizing. They have also been consolidating and learning self-organization and mutual support. (Their leaders have all been jailed.) Theirs is not a left-wing mobilization, nor is likely to become one.

The left had a mobilization two years ago and we wasted it on another round of party-building projects.

These reflections were posted friends-only on social media by an experienced and extraordinarily thoughtful Russian grassroots activist whose day job as a tradesperson brings them into contact with Russians from all walks of life on a daily basis. They have kindly permitted me to translate their remarks and publish them here. Translated by the Russian Reader

“It’s Terrifying to Be Here Amidst This Hell”

I’m a translator, an academic, and a US citizen. Over the past week I have received many dozens of emails from people all over Russia who are desperate to leave and looking for any way out of Russia and into a stable academic or arts-related position.

The one I’ve translated here (with permission from the author, whose personal information has been removed) is both characteristic and particularly exhaustive, and reveals a lot about the situation in Russia now. Just as the prospect of a “war in Europe” and “World War III” has activated memories of the Second World War, in Russia the new crackdown on free media and civic protest has dredged up a lot of cultural trauma around Stalin-era repressions, particularly among the intelligentsia. Postmodern apocalypse rules, with totalitarian concentration camps and 1984 rubbing shoulders (see also Nadia Plungian’s piece analyzing the 20th-century’s death-grip on the modern-day cultural imagination in Russia).

The specters of the twentieth century are additionally deleterious in the way they constantly bring back and elevate specifically Russian suffering. While this suffering is linked to real, undeniable and still largely unprocessed trauma, it feeds into the self-absorption and political passivity that underpins the state of things in Russia today (I don’t have to point out certain parallels with the US and mainstream American culture). It’s not my place to blame Russian citizens for what their insane government is fomenting in Ukraine; there is just clearly much work to be done to build civic consciousness and a functioning society.

Hello.

Although I was born and have spent my whole life in Russia, I am, ethnically speaking, half Russian and half Ukrainian: my grandparents are from Ukraine, and even quite recently I was thinking about applying for Ukrainian citizenship in order to move to a normal, free country, all the more so since I have roots there, but I took too long to decide and now the war has canceled all of those plans. What’s happening right now in Ukraine puts me literally into a state of shock, and what’s happening in Russia makes my hair stand up on end from horror and the realization that this is not a bad dream or nightmare that one might at least eventually wake up from.

This inhumane and senseless war that Putin is waging against Ukraine, which the Russian governmental media insist on calling a “special operation” (while using the word “war” carries the threat of criminal charges), this is only half of the hell, the other half is happening inside Russia. In downtown [city’s name redacted; it is not a capital city], I witnessed the police arresting he small number of people protesting the war. The police used truncheons to shove a grandma holding a “NO WAR!” sign into a paddy wagon. I can’t get my head around the fact that being pro-peace is a crime now. But there are very few protests, the people capable of thinking, the ones who understand how absurd what’s happening is, they’re spooked and scared of protesting lest they end up crippled or have fabricated criminal charges pinned on them.

But the worst thing is that many people, including my former colleagues from the theater, absolutely support this hell that Putin is creating right now in Ukraine, this totally unprovoked and unjustifiable, senseless and bloody slaughter. A huge majority of people has been zombified by the propaganda on TV and are openly welcoming this war, thoughtlessly reproducing the TV propagandists’ fascist, misanthropic slogans. And it’s impossible to convince them otherwise, they brand any rational argument a “fake” and hate the people who argue with them. Today, near my building, I saw that my neighbors had painted the “Z” symbol on their cars, this new swastika that marks the Russian military equipment going to attack Ukraine. They’re all in favor of the hellishness, the blood and death, the war. It’s so scary.

The most absolute insane and absurd madness is being fomented, madness that has no sense and virtually no grounds. Besides this bloody war, besides the sanctions that the entire civilized world has imposed on Russia, here inside the country right now the most severe censorship is being implemented, the last free media outlets that covered the last alternative points of view are shutting down. This is the end. They have been destroyed simply because they called the war a war. There are new laws being passed that threaten fifteen years in prison for telling the truth, and who knows how long it will take before they bring back the firing squad for any kind of freethinking. The prime minister already voiced his support for [restoring] the death penalty. Every day things get worse and worse, and the end is nowhere in sight.

This is a surreal nightmare! Reality just all of the sudden lost its mind. In the blink of an eye everything turned from a vague sort of dictatorship into a totalitarian concentration camp along the lines of Orwell’s 1984, and this is no exaggeration. Soon nothing will be left here besides crowds of insane, poverty-stricken people, completely turned to morons by fascist propaganda, their last bit of reason lost, roaring bloodthirsty slogans, and they will simply destroy anyone who allows themselves to think differently.

I just don’t know how to go on living in this concentration camp that Putin is building here in Russia. Before the start of the war, one could at least try to live one’s life, to be free, to make a living through one’s art and not engage with the universal vector of militarization and dumbing down, to have some kind of hope and plans for the future, but now that’s over, there is no hope left. Navalny is in prison, the opposition has been totally crushed, and the state media, radio and TV, all without exception just repeat one and the same lies, lies, lies and nothing but lies, while the non-governmental sources of information are either already closed or are being destroyed and persecuted. The state is mercilessly rooting out even the weakest rudiments of free speech and of rational thinking in general. It’s terrifying to be here amidst this hell.

While I was writing this I got the news that PayPal and Payoneer announced that they would not be doing business in Russia anymore, and that means I will literally be left without any source of income for my creative projects, while working as an actor in this country involves propaganda in one way or another, because free creative activity has not been possible here for a long time. I became convinced of this myself when I left a theater whose management literally threatened the acting troupe to get us to vote for the candidate they wanted.

I’d like to just live peacefully, make art, learn new things, create beauty, and work to build a bright and joyful future. But now wanting peace will just get you beaten up and thrown in prison. I don’t know what to do and how to go on living.

Translated and prefaced by the Fabulous AM. Photo by the Russian Reader

“Dese funny folks. Glad I aint none of em.”

This comment, addressed to a friend of mine who had liked the original post (a link to this dispatch from Petersburg), was made last night by a Vasily Milykh on The Russian Reader Facebook page. My friend confirmed that Mr. Milykh is a real person, whom they had met many years ago while raising money for a very worthy charitable cause in Russia.
This is a snapshot of Mr. Milykh’s Facebook page. He is a former vice president at Alfa Bank, a former analyst at CSIS (Center for Strategic & International Studies), and was educated at Harvard and the University of Wyoming, among other places. I hope this gives the lie to the common prejudice that Putin’s “base” is the unwashed, uneducated provincial hoi polloi. ||| TRR

“Russophobia” (Abashin, Akunin, Averkiev)

Sergey Abashin, who teaches anthropology at the European University in St. Petersburg: Another reflection on “Russophobia.” Many people are now exercised about external criticism [of Russia], which is often emotional and indiscriminate. For us [in Russia], however, it is more important not to retreat into resentment. Instead, we should think hard and long on what in our public reflections proved to be wrong, why what has happened did happen, and where we made mistakes. Why the Chechen war with its thousands of victims and refugees did not teach us anything. Why we were unable to comprehend all the consequences of the war in Georgia. Why we completely failed to notice the bombing of the civilian population in Syria. Why the disputes over who Crimea belonged to caused us to miss the emergence of a new imperial project with its now terrifying consequences. That’s the task that awaits us after it’s all over.

Source: Sergey Abashin, Facebook, 7 March 2022. Photo courtesy of Central Asia Program. Translated by the Russian Reader

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I watched this serious conversation between bestselling Russian writer and popular historian Boris Akunin and Russian vlogger and interviewer extraordinaire Yuri Dud last night before I went to sleep. Despite the overall grimness of their discussion, it left me feeling upbeat, oddly. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been subtitled in English, but I have translated the annotation and section headings, as published on YouTube on March 4, 2022. In any case, over 13 million (Russophone) viewers can’t be wrong. ||| TRR

 

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0:00 What is this episode about?
1:41 Why did Putin start the war?
5:44 Putin = Nicholas I?
7:47 The Crimean War
11:27 An important announcement
11:36 “Russia has never attacked first.” Really?
12:17 Why is Putin so interested in history?
13:20 Is being an empire bad?
16:09 Why do so many people in Russia support the war?
19:35 WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL THESE PAST 8 YEARS?
21:17 Crackdowns
23:13 Was your grandfather a Chekist?
25:57 “You never need to listen to what a secret service agent tells you”
27.34 Can a KGB officer be president?
28:36 How did Mikhalkov influence the finale of “The State Councilor”?
31:35 Is the West to blame for the war?
34:54 Who breaks promises?
35:36 The bombing of Belgrade, the invasion of Iraq and Syria – is this normal?
37:27 Is America an empire of lies?
38:46 Is the death penalty good or bad?
41:58 Propaganda in Soviet schools
44:16 The (dubious) benefits of censorship
46:44 Opening up of Siberia = colonization of America?
50:42 Does another collapse await Russia due to this war?
55:15 The best period in the history of Russia
56:19 Why does Russia have a special path?
1:01:39 The worst period in the history of Russia
1:04:07 How does Stalin influence Russia today?
1:06:13 Will there be a nuclear war?
1:10:16 Should people flee Russia?
1:11:41 In 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Japan. How do those two countries get along now?
1:13:40 Will Russians and Ukrainians be able to mend their relationship?
1:16:20 Is it right to claim collective responsibility for the war?
1:17:36 What will happen to Russia next?

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A policeman in Krasynoyarsk (Siberia) erases a “No war!” message written in the snow. Igor Averkiev writes: “People who are losing their minds never realize they’re losing their minds.” When I reposted this on my Facebook page and erroneously attributed the footage to Averkiev’s hometown of Perm, he wrote to me: “No, it’s not in Perm. It’s in Krasnoyarsk. But such ‘everyday madness’ is possible everywhere in Russia today. Of course, this hassle will pass. The question is when and at what human cost.” ||| TRR