The No Choice Movement

putin bench

President Vladimir Putin announced he would be running for president in 2018. He made the announcement at a meeting with workers of the GAZ auto plant in Nizhny Novgorod. The occasion was the plant’s 85th anniversary.

“This is always a very responsible decision for any person. Because the motive in making the decison can only be the desire to improve the lives of people in our country, to make the country more powerful, better protected, and forward looking. And these goals can be achieved only on one condition: if people trust and support you,” he said, as reported by Rossiya 24. Photo by the Russian Reader

Why Putin’s Announcement He’s Running for Re-Election Doesn’t Matter
The only mystery of the 2018 presidential election, already purely symbolic, has died
Maria Zheleznova
Vedomosti
December 6, 2017

The deed is done. On December 6, Vladimir Putin told workers at the GAZ auto plant in Nizhny Novgorod he plans to run for a fourth term as president. “GAZ supports you” [GAZ za vas], the workers chanted in reply. Thus the slight suspense generated by the 2018 presidential election came to a trivial end.

No, there was no mystery as to whether Putin would run. The bashful talk about the hypothetical possibility of his not running died several days after it was born, leaving a slight sense of embarassment. The only mystery was when and where he would say he was running. There were many options, and lots of discussion, and the pros and cons of this or that date were numerous, but there was almost no point to any of it. What the GAZ plant workers heard in Nizhny Novgorod on December 6 could have been said today, yesterday or December 31. It could have been said in Moscow, Penza or Tynda. It could have been said to soldiers, schoolchildren or cooks. On the eve of the announcement, his spokesman said we could expect Putin’s throwing his hat in the re-election ring any day. We had to be ready to hear his annoucement every day. The spokesman sure said it. People waited and waited and grew weary of waiting. Now they can cease waiting.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov dubbed December 6, 2017, a “historic day, a festive day,” of course, but it is unlikely to go down in history as much as September 24, 2011, when it transpired Putin would seek a third term as president, and Dmitry Medvedev would be a one-term president. That was a fundamental choice. Today’s choice was formal, and indeed there is no choice.

On December 6, 2017, the only mystery of the 2018 presidential election, a mystery that was purely formal anyway, died. Yes, we still have the official announcement of election day, the campaign’s kickoff, and the nomination of other candidates to look forward to. (Although Alexei Navalny, who is really trying to win the presidency, is unlikely to be amongst them.) This will be followed by campaigning, the usual refusal to debate the other candidates, voting, and, finally, the vote tally and announcement of the results. But none of it means anything to anyone, except the official election chroniclers and Central Electoral Commission. All these obligatory but purely technical stages and their circumstances are seen by many as a needless hindrance, in particular, by liberal economists, who are forced to wait, first for the election, and then the new old president’s inauguration, as a signal to launch long-overdue reforms (or reject them). Everyone else regards Putin’s self-nomination as something like the coming of the New Year. The next day, life will go on as before, irregardless of New Year’s Eve’s irrational illusions.

Russia faces another six years of life under Putin. We must imagine they will be more or less like the previous seventeen years of Putin’s rule. The workers at GAZ will assemble cars, liberals will talk about the need for reforms, Kadyrov will praise the president to the heavens, and Navalny will fight for the right to get his name on the ballot. While this goes on, people who were born when Putin was already president will become adults, meaning full-fledged voters. An entire generation will come of age, a generation for whom the principal suspense of presidential elections is the choice of the day and the place when the president says he is running for re-election, an announcement they must anticipate every day.

Commentary
Dead Moroze, 7:27 p.m., December 6, 2017
As a “democratic federal state, based on the rule of law, with a republican form of government,” the Russian Federation has ended. So, no announcements regarding Putin really mean anything in this context.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Latifundism in Russia

Land Prices in Russia Reach Five-Year High
Farmland may become cheaper next year
Irina Sinitsyna
Vedomosti
December 6, 2017

The cost of farmland in Russia’s primary grain-producing regions reached its five-year peak in 2017, as valued both in rubles and dollars. This conclusion was reached by analysts at Sovecon, an agro industry research center, based on the results of an annual survey.

Amongst the fundamental reasons were the record profits made by agricultural producers in the 2016–2017 season, sparked by good harvests and relatively high ruble prices for most commodities, says Andrei Sizov, Sovecon’s director.

In addition, there has been consistently strong demand for land on the part of predominantly Russian capital in the guise of industry-specific investors, Sizov adds. Amongst the most active public buyers, Sizov identified the agricultural division of Sistema, the N.I. Tkachov Agrocomplex, owned by the family of Alexander Tkachov, Russia’s agricultural minister, and Volgo-Donselkhozinvest, owned by the family of Sergei Kukura, adviser to Lukoil president Vagit Alekperov. New players, such as the companies owned by Roman Avdeyev, have also continued to expand into the agro business. On the year, from the fourth quarter of 2016 to the third quarter of 2017, Sistema’s subsidiaries increased their land holdings by one and a half times, from 247,000 hectares to 380,000 hectares. In the spring, Volgo-Donselkhozinvest closed a deal to buy the Russsian assets of the Swedish company Black Earth Farming: a total of 244,000 hectares. In late 2016, Avdeyev’s investment vehicle Rossium purchased 99% of the Lipetsk agro holding Agronova-L, which grows grain and oilseeds on more than 70,000 hectares in Lipetsk and Tambov regions.

At the same time, Russian farmlands are still undervalued compared to agricultural land in other countries, for example in Eastern Europe, adds Sizov. In several regions such as Kursk Region, however, land prices are unjustifiably inflated, argues Alexander Krasnov, head of the legal department at the agro holding Miratorg.

Land has gone up in price in recent years, but this year growth slowed or even halted, notes Vladislav Novoselov, managing director of agro industy consulting company BEFL. According to Novoselov, the main cause of the previous price rise was an increase in agriculture’s profitability, due largely to devaluation.

In the coming year, the growth of the value of land in southern Russia could slow down significantly, and in regions located farther from export ports, land prices could stagnate altogether or even decrease, argues Sizov.

Domestic prices for all major agricultural products, especially grain, fell precipitously this year amidst a bumper grain harvest, explains Sizov. According to Sovecon, in November, the main export commodity, fourth-class wheat, was 10% cheaper in southern Russia than a year ago, 20% cheaper in central Russia, and cheaper by a third in the Volga River basin. In 2017, prices for all major commodities declined significantly, Novoselov agrees, and problems with storage and transportation considerably reduced the incomes of market players. Many of yesterday’s land buyers have taken a break in anticipation of lower prices, says Novoselov.

Especially in Russia’s central regions, land prices have already fallen, Krasnov points out.

“You can now buy land for 10% to 15% less than at the beginning of the year,” he says.

At the same time, he adds, the quality of the land on offer has improved. There is a selection of large land plots of 5,000 hectares to 6,000 hectares, and there is more cultivated land on offer. Earlier, they would have been sold for a premium, he recalls, but not anymore.

In addition, the number of speculators has decreased significantly, continues Krasnov. Holding land in anticipation of price rises is no longer profitable due to high taxes and fines for those who do not cultivate their land.

fullscreen-4ltPrices of farmland in Krasnodar (red), Rostov (dark blue), Stavropol (light green), Voronezh (beige), Tambov (violet), and Kursk (light green) from 2012 to 2017, as valued in rubles/hectare and dollars/hectare, and compared with the prices of farmland in Great Britain (Wales and East Anglia), the US (Kansas and Iowa), the EU (Romania), Brazil (Mato Grosso), Uruguay, and Russia (Krasnodar), as valued in dollars/hectare. Source: Sovecon. Courtesy of Vedomosti

___________________

Agrocomplex Owned by Ag Minister’s Family Fourth Largest Farmland Holding in Russia
It lacks 4,000 hectares to claim third place
Yekaterina Burlakova
Vedomosti
April 25, 2017

The three leaders, as determined by the consulting company BEFL, have not changed over the past year. In first place is Igor Khudokormov’s Prodimex group (including Agrokultura’s assets), which controls 790,000 hectares of farmland. Rusagro surpassed Miratorg: they now own 670,000 hectares and 644,000 hectares, respectively (cf. the infographic, below). Rusagro’s director general Maxim Basov confirms the figures. A spokesperson for Miratorg refused to comment on the list. Nikolai Shevchenko, head of Prodimex’s agro division, cites figures that do not take into account Agrokultura, since it is Khudokormov’s personal project, leaving a total of a little over 600,000 hectares.

The N.I. Tkachov Agrocomplex in Krasnodar Territory has risen from sixth place to fourth place, having increased its holdings by 40% to 640,000 hectares. The agrocomplex lacked a mere 4,000 hectares to join the top three. The N.I. Tkachov Agrocomplex was found in 1993 by the father of the current Russian agriculture minister, Nikolai Tkachov. The company grows grain, is one of the major producers of raw milk in Russia, and the second largest rice producer. The agrocomplex also produces produces pork and beef, and has been developing a chain of stores. It currently runs over 600 stores in Krasnodar Territory, Stavropol Territory, and Rostov Region.

In recent years, Tkachov Agrocomplex has vigorously increased its land holdings: in last year’s BEFL rating, it entered the top ten for the first time. In 2015, it purchased the assets of the major agro holding Valinor, which owned land in southern Russia. A former top manager at Valinor informed Vedomosti the Tkachov family acquired 170,000 hectares in the deal. The agrocomplex continued its acquisitions in 2016. In the summer, it was reported the company had purchased over 30,000 hectares of rice fields, previously owned by the Razgulyay Group. Several months later, the Tkachovs bought Parus Agro Group, a major Krasnodar agro holding, from Andrei Muravyov, ex-president of Siberian Cement and ex-Qiwi shareholder. Parus Agro had controlled nearly 100,000 hectares of arable land in Krasnodar Territory, Stavropol Territory, and Adygea. Over the past three years, Tkachov Agrocomplex has increased its land holdings by 440,000 hectares, more than tripling them, according to BEFL.

Tkhachov Agrocomplex director general Yevgeny Khvorostin declined to comment for this article.

Vladimir Yevtushenkov‘s Sistema increased its land holdings most significantly. Its subsidiary, the agro holding Steppe, added 200,000 hectares over the past year, according to BEFL. Taking into account RZ Agro, which Sistema co-owns with the Louis Dreyfus Company, the corporation’s land holdings have risen to 350,000 hectares. Steppe has continued to increase its land holdings by acquiring assets, as stipulated by its overall strategy, says a spokesperson for Steppe. The goal is to increase its holdings to 500,000 hectares, company management has announced.

The past year was quite productive for major agro holdings, according to BEFL’s survey. The companies included in the 2017 list own a total of more than 12 million hectares of land, which is approximately 14% more than a year earlier. BEFL managing director Vladislav Novoselov says the last three years have witnessed a vigorous consolidation of the market. The fact is that, due to devaluation of the ruble, the return on investment in crop production has increased. Sistema’s spokesperson also agrees with this assessment.

In 2016, for the first time in three years, not only ruble, but dollar prices began to grow, Sovecon reported earlier. In Russia’s southern regions, agricultural commodity prices grew from 31% to 83%; in the central regions, from 6% to 17%; and in the Volga River basin, from 1% to 36%.

Late last year, however, it was obvious that in the future the profitability of crop production would not be so high. Domestric prices for agricultural produce have not been growing, and they have even declined for some commodities, partly because of the ruble’s resurgence, says Novoselov. Rusagro’s Basov confirms this is the case. Nevertheless, his agro holding has continued to acquire land. Taking into account the decreasing margin, land prices must drop for deals to go through, he concludes.

mobile_high-2p72017’s top ten corporate owners of farmland in Russia, in thousands of hectares. The second set numbers (in gray, in the far right column) indicates their places in the 2016 rating. 1. Prodimex + Agrokultura (790,000 ha); 2. Rusagro (670,000 ha); 3. Miratorg (644,000 ha); 4. N.I. Tkachov Agrocomplex (640,000 ha); 5. Ak Bars Agro (505,000 ha); 6. Ivolga Holding (489,000 ha); 7. Rosargo (400,000 ha); 8. Avangard-Agro (390,000 ha); Steppe + RZ Agro (350,000 hectares); Dominant Group (320,000 ha). Source: BEFL. Courtesy of Vedomosti

If you are interested in how this runaway latifundism has affected family farming in Russia, read my series of posts on the Krasnodar farmers’ protest movement and their allies in the Russian independent truckers’ movement.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The Poster Maker

“I’ll Go All Out to Ensure Putin Loses”
Yelizaveta Mayetnaya
Radio Svoboda
December 5, 2017

“Citizen Putin! If there is a clampdown on public liberties under the pretext of terrorists attacks, it will be clear to everyone who is behind them!”

“Putin is war. Say no to war!”

“Dimon got what was coming to him. Let’s go after Vovan.”

“We live the way we vote.”

Dmitry Skurikhin, owner of a store in the village of Russko-Vysotskoye, near Petersburg, reacts immediately and visually to every political event in Russia.

Skurikhin immediately hangs each new poster on the front of the store, a small, two-storey building, so it is readily visible from the nearby bus stop. They usually do not stay up for long, however. The record is held by the slogan “Peace to Ukraine,” which stayed up for two weeks.

На митинге Навального

Skurikhin at a pro-Navalvy rally on the Field of Mars in Petersburg

43-year-old Dmitry Skurikhin is a local businessman, whose family owns three village shops. By local standards, he is well off. His family owns several cars, and they have everything they need. However, Skurikhin says the incomes of villagers have taken a nosedive in the past year: “They buy almost nothing, because they barely have enough for food.” Around six thousand people live in Russko-Vysotskoye. Very few of them are holiday cottage dwellers. The majority commute to work in Petersburg. Skirukhin was the first businessman in the village to open self-service stores, but “then the Pyatyorochka and Magnit chains moved in, and we croaked, of course.” He now sells toys, newspapers, clothings, and sundries.

He has been hanging political posters on his store, situated along a road, for almost four years. Before that, he pasted homemade bumper stickers on his car. Skirukhin recalls that the first bumper sticker read, “No new taxes!” The year was 2005.

Skurikhin: They had decided to raise taxes on us local businessmen then. It was one of those taxes you couldn’t avoid paying. Either you worked and paid the tax or you didn’t work and didn’t pay the tax. We businessmen realized they were clamping down on us. We joined forces and beat back the tax. It made such an impression on me that since then I haven’t been able to stop going. There are at least some improvements in our lives, specifically in our village. I’m a local grassroots activist, not even a region-wide activist, but a village-level activist. I was born here, and I live and work here. My kids go to school and kindergarten here. I think I have helped improve life in our village.

Radio Svoboda: How exactly have you improved life in the village?

Skurikhin: As they call it now, I was a municipal district council member from 2009 to 2014. At the time, our district authorities were running this interesting scam. They were “milking” the villages. They would buy heat from the producer and sell it to residents. They marked up the price one hundred percent. When the situation had reached a deadlock, it transpired they were charging residents, but not paying the producer anything. They were getting heat for free. The chair of the district council was mixed up in the scam. Thanks in part to my efforts, the gentleman was conveyed directly from the district chairman’s office to prison. That was in May 2012. Since then we haven’t had any disasters with our supply of heat and water.

We still have problems sometimes, but we are now longer in that disastrous state when a group of people affiliated with district officials were just robbing people by latching onto the flow of payments for housing and utilities. Then we had problems with the road. I organized a decent protest rally. A lot of folks turned out for it: 165 people, which is a huge number for our village. We demanded the road be repaired. The road was repaired. So, by starting with small changes like that, stirring people up, I have been trying to bring them round to the idea that fair elections, free speech, and democracy mean improving the welfare of society. On May 1, we had a rally that wasn’t about the roads (we’ve had the roads fixed), but was about healthcare, fair elections, and responsible authorities. Those were the topics of our rally. 45 people showed up. The rally was authorized. I always try and authorize events with the authorities, but we rallied at the skating rink on the edge of the forest.

Кто будет следующим

“Dimon got run over. Let’s go after Vovan.” This is a reference to Alexei Navalny’s film documentary exposé of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his untold riches, Don’t Call Him Dimon. “Vovan” is a humorous reference to Vladimir Putin.

In 2014, my time as district council member ended for a simple reason: our team doesn’t pay for votes. If you don’t buy yourself votes, meaning if you don’t pay off the right people during early voting, then you’re out of the race, because your opponents do pay for votes. United Russia paid 1,500 rubles per vote! All the other candidates lost.

Radio Svoboda: Did you prove in court they paid for votes?

Skurikhin: It’s impossible to prove in court, because the scam is quite competently organized. They don’t buy votes, but pay for the services of fake campaign workers, meaning they contract out their campaign. United Russia has a team of between ten and fifteen people, depending on the number of seats that are up for grabs in a specific municipal district, and they hire canvassers. But the canvassers don’t have to canvass. They just need to show up and vote ahead of time, for which they are paid 1,500 rubles a pop. That’s it. It’s perfectly legal. All the evidence is circumstantial. When I tried to get hired as a canvasser in a neighboring village, I was told I would not do, because I wasn’t registered in that precinct.

“How’s that?!” I said. “I’m a local resident. I have a store here. I know everyone in the village, and they all know me. I’ll canvass for you like nobody’s business.”

“No, no, you don’t fit us.”

“What’s the deal?”

“You’re registered somewhere else.”

It’s all clear, guys! You don’t need canvassers: you need voters, whom you buy off for 1,500 rubles apiece. I dubbed the technique “bribing a voter under the guise of paying a canvasser.” It works like a charm in all the villages, where the populace is not too savvy. The populace in general is not very savvy, but in the countryside it’s just unbelievable. The salary in these places is commonly 1,000 rubles a day [approx. 14 euros a day]. People who get a 1,000 rubles a day don’t suffer. I ran a counter-campaign against this.

When the villagers were going to vote, I would say to them, “Guys, are you really unaware that when they get seats on the council, they’ll shake a hundred times more out of your pockets?”

“I toss manure on a farm with a pitchfork for a 1,000 rubles a day. But here I’m getting 1,500 rubles for five minutes of my time. Maybe you’d like to go and pitch manure for me?” one guy told me.

That’s their whole rationale! There’s nothing more to say.

Radio Svoboda: When did you hang the first political banner on your store? How long did it stay up?

Skurikhin: It was the spring of 2014. My fifth daugther was born then. I decided to give my wife a present by building a politicized bus stop opposite the store. I fashioned the frame and the foundation. We didn’t have a stop there. People would always stand outside there, and the buses would stop to pick them up. I built a bus stop and draped it with posters. This was when the annexation of Crimea was happening. We had a couple of posters about Crimea: I demanded an end to the disgrace. Then there were posters demaning pay rises for ordinary doctors and school teachers. I was still a council member. I gathered information on how much doctors were paid in Russia. President Putin had literally just claimed that there were no doctors in Russia who were paid less than the average monthly salary in their regions. That was an outright lie. I wrote it on my poster, because I knew how much our doctors were paid. I had gathered the information in my capacity as a municipal district council member.

Radio Svoboda: How much did doctors really make then?

Skurikhin: The ophthalmologist in our village was paid 14,000 rubles, while the average monthly wage in Leningrad Region was 35,000 rubles. I think this as an absolutely proven lie. I hung it up on the bus stop. The local authorities were completely shocked by it. The stop had been turned into a shelter and was hung with banners and pasted with posters. They didn’t know what to do, so the posters stayed up for three weeks or so, I think. Then a major from Center “E” [the so-called anti-extremism police] in Petersburg came and had a long chat with me. That was April 1, 2014. I remembered the date, because it was the day the Russian State Duma issued a resolution condemning restrictions on freedom of speech in Ukraine. And I was sitting there chatting with this little vampire who was directly threatening me and my business.

“We will shut you down if you don’t stop it!” he told me.

The bus stop stood for a month, and then it had to be demolished. All that’s left is the concrete slab, where locals still wait to catch the bus.

Radio Svoboda: Who demolished it?

Skurikhin: I did, on orders from the local authorities. They told me either I had to demolish it and haul it away or they would do it themselves. Since then I have been hanging posters on the store.

I hung up the poster “I congratulate you on the 61st anniversary of the Dragon’s death. The Dragon is dead, but his cause lives on. // Russian citizens, stop being slaves. Become citizens. Kill the dragon inside you.” The poster, which showed Stalin in his casket, used to be coupled with the second part, about citizens, which was swiped by the polizei. The poster “Peace to Ukraine” broke all the records: it hung for two weeks.

Вторую часть плаката

The second part of this poster, featuring a dead Stalin and a call to “kill the dragon inside you” and “become citizens” was “swiped by the polizei.”

The local authorities, by the way, didn’t know how to react. The poster was hanging on my building. It’s my property and my land, and the poster belongs to me. It hung there for quite a long time. Other events took place, for example, the 2014 elections. I hung my campaign posters there. As a municipal district council member, I was competing for votes. I would hang up a poster. It would become stale, and I would hang up a new one. And then, when I clearly campaigned against Putin. . . For example, I had posted a banner reading, “Putin should resign.” It was 9.4 meters by 2 meters. The banner caught everyone’s eye: my store stands next to the road. Well, they just came and swiped the banner. I decided to hang up another banner. Since it was forbidden to demand Putin’s resignation, I demanded Putin be freed. Since he considered himself a galley slave, I wrote, “Free Vladimir Putin! Let’s free this galley slave. Otherwise, he and his pals will row [rake in] too much.” This banner was also 9.4 meters by 2 meters.

Radio Svoboda: It was probably removed immediately, no? 

Skurikhin: I don’t know why, but it stayed up for nearly two weeks. I saw policemen come and look at it. Maybe they didn’t get it? I can’t say how the authorities make decisions. But then they removed it anyway. I have been doing this on purpose. My goal is to ensure President Putin loses this election. During the last election, in 2012, I printed flyers and ensured that Putin got the least number of votes in our district in our precincts, although he won anyway, of course. Our precinct was among the ten worst precincts in Leningrad Region. Numbers decide everything in a democracy. I worked on the electorate the best I could.

Radio Svoboda: Do the security services often summon your for talks and try to reason with you?

Skurikhin: Earlier they did, but recently they have left me alone for some reason. I think they just realized, probably, that they should be talking to me in handcuffs, whereas talking to me just for the heck of it, what’s the point? Besides my chat with the major from Center “E,” a major from the FSB, a colonel from the FSO (Federal Protective Service), and the Investigative Committee summoned me. Each of my posters has been sent off for a forensic examination. Policemen photograph them, and the photos are sent to Center “E” and Saint Petersburg State University for analysis: they have this forensics examination center there. Their forensics experts study my posters and render their findings. If the findings are neutral, the posters are returned to me, accompanied by an official ruling refusing to file criminal charges against me. I’ve had around a hundred such posters. Each one is also accompanied by a description. The police also try to do everything by the book. In Nazi Germany, they incinerated Jews by the book. Here in Russia, they have been trying to shut me up by the book, to put it crudely.

Radio Svoboda: What grounds do the police have for removing posters from private property? How does it usually happen?

Skurikhin: First, they get a complaint either from the local council or from a resident: someone is unhappy with the poster hanging on my store. The police arrive and write me up for violating the regional law that all posters must be vetted with the local council. This little law was invented in Leningrad Region. I disagree with it, so I simply say it wasn’t so. They write me up, then they bring a slave from the local housing authority, whom they force to climb up and remove my poster. Then they leave. After which the situation proceeds as I’ve described it. Unfortunately, the forensics experts have concluded that two of my posters insulted the honor and dignity of the president and incited social discord. I try not to insult anyone. I think through all my posters and make sure that they are worded as properly as possible, because you don’t help things by insulting people. I want to persuade people to vote against Putin, persuade them we need democratic values, freedom, and liberalism. Yet two of my posters have been deemed insulting to Putin. They were the reason I was summoned to the Investigative Committee to talk with an investigator.

Radio Svoboda: Have criminal charges been filed in connection with the two posters?

Skurikhin: You know, I haven’t asked the police about it. But they did get me summoned to the Investigative Committee, where I was asked for an explanation. I was shown the findings of the forensics experts. The poster in question was “Putin is war. Say no to war.” As you remember, it was Anna Politkovskaya who said, “Putin is war.” The slogan was written with bloody smudges, so there was nothing in particular to interpret. It was clear as clear could be. The poster was deemed to have insulted Putin’s honor and dignity. I don’t think I insulted him, but the Investigative Committee does.

Radio Svoboda: What war did you have in mind when when you wrote the slogan?

Skurikhin: Any war. Because Putin is, in fact, war. We were flattening Ukraine at the time.

Radio Svoboda: Have they threatened to close your business?

Skurikhin: The major from Center “E” threatened me, but no one else has. It’s just I’ve been in business for twenty-one years, and all the agencies they could sick on me, I’ve been working with them for a long time. I have a good relationship with them. Most important, all of them are on my side. As they’re tearing down the posters, the policemen say to me, “Damn, what you write is true.” But they’ve taken an oath, they have their orders, they would immediately get hell from their commander, so they can’t say it that way. I can because I don’t have a commander. Firefighters, the guys at Health Inspection Services, they all understand what is happening in Russia. Most of them are smart people.

Против кого на самом деле надо сакции вводить

“Americans, don’t sanction all of Russia. Our head vampires got their jobs dishonestly and run things dishonestly. Sanction them!”

Radio Svoboda: Does your family support you?

Skurikhin: Yes, of course. Sure, they worry about me. The situation in Russia is such that the most active dissenters are shot down. My kids are aged nineteen, fourteen, seven, and four. All of them are girls: I live in a flower garden. If I’m arrested, my wife will feed the family: she’ll be like Vassa Zheleznova. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but we’ve talked it all throgh, of course. So that’s why I try and write slogans that are legal. I have studied a ton of material on the subject. What is an insult? It’s when you compare someone with an animal. The rest can be offensive and unpleasant, but it is not insulting in the criminal sense. You can say, “Skurikhin, you’re an idiot.” Yes, it’s possible for you to have this opinion. But I think differently. But if you say, “Skurikhin, you’re a jackass,” that is an insult.

Radio Svoboda: Have other businessmen put up similar posters?

Skurikhin: There were elections to the State Duma in 2016. As a member of Parnas (People’s Freedom Party), I ran in them in my own electoral district, the southwest  district of Leningrad Region. Sergey Naryshkin, now our top spy, ran in the same district. I made the rounds of all my businessmen friends and asked them to support me. I made banners that read, “Skurikhin and Parnas are your only worthy choice.” In our part of the world, most of the shops are village shops, and they are on private property, so I was able to hang them up for free. No other candidate got that kind of support. The rest had to pay for billboards. I spent 150,000 rubles on my election campaign. My wife later gave me a piece of her mind about that. I took second place in the elections in my own village. Only Naryshkin got more votes. I got support for my posters and ideas, for saying “Putin should resign.” My fellow villagers gave me the number two spot. In my native Lomonosov District, I took sixth place, and I took eighth place in the entire electoral district, which has a population of 500,000. What does that tell you? I would argue the outcome shows that liberal and democratic ideas are popular in society, but they simply never get conveyed to the voters, since the media are totally blocked. I have no other way of telling people Putin should have been dismissed from the Kremlin long ago. I only have my posters. But, generally speaking, it’s very hard for a Parnas member to get around United Russia on the first try.

Radio Svoboda: Do you attend all protest rallies?

Skurikhin: Yes, I try to go to all of them. At the last pro-Navalny rally, in June, I was wearing a “Sick of Him” t-shirt and carrying a flag. I was taken to a police station, but I escaped. This year there were also primary elections—Naryshkin gave up his seat in the Duma when he was appointed head of the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) in October 2016—and this year there were reelections. We also held events that, in my opinion, were meaningful to our district. I couldn’t let my people down, so I had to hightail it from the police station.

Radio Svoboda: Are you following the presidential campaign?

Skurikhin: Yes, of course. I’ll go all out to ensure Mr. Putin loses the election, at least in my precinct. I support Navalny’s registration as a candidate and Ksenia Sobchak’s candidacy, because we need as many candidates as possible in the first round just to take votes away from Putin and get a second round. If there is a second round, that will be a significant victory in itself.

Thanks to Comrade Uvarova for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Emilia Slabunova: Why Is Nikita Mikhalkov Not in Jail with Yuri Dmitriev?

Still from the documentary film “Anna from Six to Eighteen” (1993), Nikita Mikhalkov, director

Why Is Nikita Mikhalkov Not in Jail with Yuri Dmitriev?
Emilia Slabunova
Echo of Moscow
October 24, 2017

Tomorrow, October 25, a court in Petrozavodsk will hold the latest hearing in the trial of Yuri Dmitriev, a historian and head of the International Memorial Society’s Karelian branch. I should explain a few things for those of you unfamiliar with the case. Dmitriev established the names of thousands of victims of the Stalinist terror, and has published several volumes memorializing the victims of political terror during the 1930s and 1940s in Karelia. For thirty years, he searched for secret burial sites of Gulag prisoners in the republic, discovering in the process the mass graves of executed political prisoners at Sandarmokh and Krasny Bor. One of the cofounders of the memorial complex at Sandarmokh, Dmitriev has researched the history of how the White Sea-Baltic Canal was built.

Dmitriev was arrested in December 2016. According to police investigators, from 2012 to to 2015, he photographed his foster daughter, who turned eleven in 2016, in the nude, but did not published the snapshots. The only evidence in the case that has been made public is a photograph of his granddaughter and foster daughter running naked into the bathroom. Dmitriev himself has claimed that he took the snapshots of his underage foster daughter as a record of her health and physical growth after he took her from an orphanage, where she had shown signs of being unwell. Dmitriev stored the photos of his foster daughter on his home computer. They were not posted in the internet.

What does Nikita Mikhalkov have do with this, you ask? Because the world-famous filmmaker shot a quite well-known documentary film,  Anna from Six to Eighteen (1993). In the film, Mikhalkov’s eldest daughter Anna responds to the same questions each year over thirteen years. Her responses are edited together with a newsreel of the year’s events. There are shots in which Anna is shown completely nude. It is easy enough to verify this, because the film is accessible on the Web. For example, watch the scene that begins at the thirteen-minute mark.

Mikhalkov won several awards for the film: a Silver Dove at the 1994 Leipzig International Documentary Film Festival, the Grand Prix at the 1994 Golden Knight International Film Festival of Slavic and Orthodox Peoples, and the Prize for Best Documentary at the 1996 Hamptons International Film Festival.

Why has one man been jailed for doing something for which another man has been celebrated? Why can you show your naked daughter to the whole word, while it is a crime to record your foster daughter’s maturation for child protection services and not show the photos to anyone else?

Is it because Mikhalkov supports the current regime, while Dmitriev investigates the crimes of the Stalin regime, restores the names of those who perished in the Great Terror, and unmasks the executioners? It is noteworthy that the day after tomorrow, October 26, is the seventh anniversary of Mikhalkov’s “Manifesto of Enlightened Conservatism,” in which he singled out “loyalty to the regime, the ability to obey authoritative power gracefully,” and consolidating the so-called power vertical as primary values.

Dmitriev’s arrest was clearly provoked his human rights work. Many people in Karelia know Dmitriev as an honest, decent man not afraid to tell the truth, a truth that is sometimes unpleasant to the authorities and law enforcement agencies. The Memorial Human Rights Center has declared Dmitriev a political prisoner.

The Dmitriev case is politically motivated. This is obvious to everyone, including such well-known Russian public figures as writer Dmitry Bykov, musician Boris Grebenshchikov, actor Veniamin Smekhov, writer Ludmila Ulitskaya, and their numerous colleagues who have recorded video messages in support of Dmitriev. Nikita Mikhalkov was not among them.

Russian filmmaker and screenwriter Oleg Dorman speaks in support of Yuri Dmitriev. Published on YouTube, 22 November 2017

In a few days, the country will mark the mournful Day of Remembrance of Victims of Political Repression. Among them will be the victims of the present day.

Emilia Slabunova is national chair of the Yabloko Democratic Party. Thanks to Gabriel Levy for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

The Subtle Art of Vanganizing

Human languages are amazing things. In English, for example, it is relatively easy to change a word’s part of speech simply by using it as a different part of speech. So, we can wonder (verb) when I will publish something really worthy of wonder (noun) on this blog.

Since Russian, on the other hand, is a so-called synthetic language (i.e., a language whose nouns, verbs, adjectives, and pronoun are fully declined and conjugated) you have to do a bit of prestidigitation to turn, say, a noun into a verb. The easiest (though by no means the only) way to do this is to add the verbalizing suffix -ovat’ to the noun or other part of speech in question.

One of my favorite such newfangled verbs is vangovat’, which means “to predict, to prophesy.” It has a heavily ironic connotation, since it was formed from the familiarized Christian name of the blind Bulgarian mystic and clairvoyant Vangelia Gushterova, née Dimitrova (1911–1996), more popularly known as Baba Vanga or Grandmother Vanga.

Despite having passed away over twenty years ago, Baba Vanga and her prophecies are still extraordinarily popular amongst Russians who go in for a what an old friend once referred to as “spooky knowledge,” while she is an object of ridicule amongst sane Russians. I have no evidence to prove it, but I take it that it was a member of the latter group who coined the verb vangovat’, which we will translate as “to vanganize.”

I thought of the verb this morning as I was perusing the electronic edition of one of Russia’s most respectable newspapers, the liberal business daily Vedomosti. Today’s edition features a gallery of photos of the stadiums in major Russian cities that will host the 2018 World Cup later this year.

An innocent enough feature, you would think, before I realized that Vedomosti‘s caption writer might have engaged in some full-blown vanganizing, to wit:

default-1d86“The arena in St. Petersburg is meant for 67,000 spectators. Here, the Russian team will play one match in the group stage and will get through the semifinals.” Photo courtesy of Yevgeny Yegorov/Vedomosti

But maybe not. The original caption (“Арена в Петербурге рассчитана на 67 000 зрителей. Здесь сборная России сыграет один из матчей группового этапа и пройдет полуфинал”) could also be translated as follows: “The arena in St. Petersburg is designed for 67,000 spectators. Here, the Russian team will play one match in the group stage, and the semifinals will take place.” That is, with or (probably) without the Russian team.

Whatever the case, the so-called Zenit Arena, situated on the western tip of Krestovsky Island, has been like a bad Baba Vanga prophecy from the very start. First of all, to make way for its eventual construction, the old Kirov Stadium, a lovely immense thing designed by the great constructivist architect Alexander Nikolsky, a grand oval open to the sky, the sea, the sun, and all the elements, and surrounded by a beautiful park, was demolished in 2006. Quite illegally, I might add, because it was a federally listed historical and architectural landmark.

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The Kirov Stadium in the summer of 2006, when it briefly served as the site of a sparsely attended alterglobalist counterforum, organized in response to a G8 summit, hosted by President Putin in the far south of the city, in the newly restored Constantine Palace in the suburb of Strelna. Enclosing the alterglobalists in the already condemned Kirov Stadium was a brilliant move on the part of local authorities, who thus invisibilized the entire event and made it nearly inaccessible to the general public. Although a subway station has been planned for the new stadium, it was not in operation in 2006 and probably will not be online in time for the World Cup, either. Photo by the Russian Reader

Since then, the project to construct the new stadium has been a raucous debacle, involving endless delays and extreme cost overruns; the employment of North Korean slave laborers, one of whom was killed on the job; the multiple firings and hirings of general contractors and subcontractors; and numerous revelations of newly discovered structural defects.

The construction of Zenit Arena has also been part of the general uglification and rampant redevelopment of the so-called Islands, a series of parklands situated on several smallish islands in Petersburg’s far north. It now seems that city officials and developers thought all those parks and all that greenspace were taking up too much valuable potential real estate and pumping too much oxygen into the atmosphere, because in recent years they have gone after the Islands and their environs with a vengeance.

Zenit Arena, the Western High-Speed Diameter (ZSD), and Gazprom’s Lakhta Center skyscraper are merely the most visible aspects of this mad greedfest, its crowning jewels.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGazprom’s Lakhta Centre skyscraper, under construction, as seen in April 2017 from another site of urban planning greed and madness, a nearly 500-hectare “reclaimed” island plopped in the Neva Bay immediately west of Vasilyevsky Island. The new island, which remains nameless, will eventually be built up with high-rise apartment blocks. Local residents vigorously protested the land reclamation project in the planning stages, but the authorities roundly ignored them. Photo by the Russian Reader

Getting back to my original topic, I think the Vedomosti captioner might have been taking the piss out of readers, after all. Here is another photo and caption in the series:

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“The stadium in Yekaterinburg is a cultural heritage site. Part of the historical façade has remained after the reconstruction.” Photo courtesy of Sport Engineering Federal Unitary Enterprise

When I slipped this photograph onto my desktop, the filename caught my eye: “default-1huy.jpg.” I took this to mean that someone at Vedomosti was not terribly impressed with Yekaterinburg’s blatantly criminal attempt at “historical preservation” and decided to tag it with one of the most powerful cursewords in a language positively crawling with them. But since this a family-oriented, Christian-values website, I will let the experts explain the particulars.

Like the Sochi Olympics, I vanganize that the 2018 World Cup will be an unmitigated disaster for any and all locals who do not manage to escape the vicinity of the venues in time. I would also vanganize that the World Cup has already been a disaster for cities such as Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, which had venerable, heritage-listed stadiums put to death for the purpose, but I don’t think you can vanganize retroactively. TRR

The Moscow Senators

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The world’s greatest nonexistent baseball team, the Moscow Senators, are back on the field and raising a ruckus.

A new study by a Federation Council commission reportedly warns that Western nations are planning to transform Russian youths “into an instrument for eroding national political systems, realizing color revolution scenarios, coup d’etats, and social destabilization.” The goal of this campaign, the report allegedly concludes, is to create a generation of Russian leaders who, in 10 or 15 years, will come to power and change the country’s constitutional order and domestic and foreign policies to benefit the West.

In one section of the Federation Council’s report, Russian senators [sic] say they will create a “Black Book of Illegal Foreign Interference” to catalogue intrusions into Russian sovereignty, where individuals’ names and personal data could appear. The black book should be ready by mid-2018.

Senators [sic] are also calling for a series of new laws against foreign political meddling, including a formalized definition of “foreign interference” and new legislation prohibiting foreign state programs in Russia without the Russian government’s permission.

Excerpted from Meduza’s Real Russia email newsletter for November 29, 2017. Image courtesy of Twitter user @sarah63712

The Toponymic Commission Strikes Back

smolninsky rayon

A 1967 public transportation map of Leningrad’s former Smolny District. The red lines and numbers indicate tramlines. Nearly all of the line were decommissioned in the late 1990s and 2000s, although they were an important lynchpin in the entire tram system, which was once the largest in the world in terms of sheer length of tracks. In the late noughties, Tram Park No. 4, located at the spot marked by the encircled red number five on the map, was demolished to makeway for a flying-saucer-topped monstrosity known as the Nevsky Rathaus, developed by a company owned by Sergei Matviyenko, son of then-Petersburg Valentina Matviyenko.
The Rathaus’s ostensible purpose was move all of the city government’s farflung committees into a single office building, but since many of the most powerful committees occupy prime downtown real estate in their own gorgeous 19th-century buildings, there is no evidence that things have gone to plan. In turn, completion of the Rathaus has set off a storm of redevelopment in the immediate vicinity, much of it involving the constructi of needlessly large and invariably ugly “elite” housing blocks. Map from the collection of the Russian Reader

“Today, November 24, the [Petersburg] Toponymic Commission will decide whether the Soviet [Sovetskye] Streets will again be called the Christmas [Rozhdestvenskye] Streets, and Insurrection Square [ploshchad Vosstaniya] will be redubbed Church of the Sign Square [Znamenskaya ploshchad]. It will finally become clear who won the Russian Civil war, the Whites or the Reds,” wrote Petersburg’s best-known pop historian in the business daily Delovoi Peterburg the other day.

Forgive me for restating obvious historical truths, but most sane people know the Reds won the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks emerged victorious from the October Revolution, and the Soviet Union, in concert with its allies the United States and Great Britain, won the Second World War, known in Russia as the Great Fatherland (or Patriotic) War.

The reactionaries on the Petersburg Toponymic Commission could restore the “old” names to every street in the city, including streets that appeared on the map only during the Soviet period, but they cannot alter the outcomes of historical events, especially events such as the ones I have just mentioned, which had overwhelming consequences for Russia and the world, however negatively, positively or indifferently we evaluate them today.

Besides, real local historians and history enthusiasts know that the names of many streets changed several times even during the city’s tsarist period (1703–1917), not to mention the Soviet regime, where same thing also happened quite often as the Party line and public sentiment changed from one decade to the next.

First Soviet Street, for example, had several names during the period 1766–1923: New Carriage Street [Novaya Karetnaya], Carriage Street [Karetnaya], Old Carriage Street [Staraya Karetnaya], First Christmas Street [1-ya Rozhdestvenskaya], First Street, and, finally, First Christmas Street againm, before it was renamed First Soviet Street by the Bolsheviks in 1923.

If historical justice were the Toponymic Commission’s real concern they would restore the street’s original name, New Carriage Street. Right?

Twenty years ago or so, perhaps, the Toponymic Commission was doing vital work, but nowadays it is a tool of the blackest, most virulent political reaction.

Indeed, it was also a tool of reaction twenty years ago, too, and I thus am eternally gratefully to my late father-in-law, who never deigned to call Sophia Perovskaya Street and Zhelyabov Street by their newfangled “old” names of Greater and Lesser Stable Streets [Bolshaya Konyushennaya and Malaya Konyushennaya].

Officially empowered experts who can seriously contemplate changing Insurrection Square’s name after a hundred years (a decision they ultimately nixed, although they did rename Insurrection Street [ulitsa Vosstaniya], which runs north from Insurrection Square and Nevsky Avenue to Kirochnaya Street, Church of the Sign Street [Znamenskaya ulitsa]) are sending an unambivalent message to Petersburgers that from here on out their God-given right to rebel and rise up tyrants and thugs has been confiscated, as it were, however murderous and criminal the current and subsequent regimes are.

But it is ludicrous to think it will never occur to people to revolt simply because there is no longer an Insurrection Street or Insurrection Square in their city, one of whose nicknames, in Soviet times, was the Cradle of Three Revolutions.

It is just as queer to feign that, by redubbing the Soviet Streets the Christmas Streets, there was never any Soviet period in the city’s history. The signs and symptoms of the Soviet regime—good, bad, neutral, and controversial—are literally everywhere you look. Completely erasing these signs and symptoms from the collective memory and the visible cityscape will not accelerate real democracy’s advent. On the contrary, it will probably push that happy day farther into the future.

It is the Toponymic Commission itself that should be abolished. It has long been busy rewriting history, not engaging in the non-science of toponymy. In this respect, it has aped the current regime, doing its dirty deeds under the guise of restoring what was lost or doing rhetorical combat with nonexistent malevolent forces that, allegedly, have wanted to revise the outcome of the Second World War or something equally hilarious, impossible, and utterly imaginary.

What the Toponymic Commission and the current regime really want to do is transfigure history, the study of history, and collective and individual historical memory into a total, inedible muddle. If they succeed in pulling off this trick, or so they imagine, it will be easier for them manage and manipulate people and society, and diminishing their will to write and make their own history.

nevsk rathausThe Nevsky Rathaus and its telltale flying saucer, as seen at the far end of one of the now officially former Soviet Streets. Photo by the Russian Reader

P.S. It was oh so vital to immediately rename Petersburg’s long-suffering Soviet Streets. Of course, all good Christian men and women have rejoiced in this collective decision on the part of corrupt city officials and the city’s loyal opposition. But did anyone even peep when Tram Park No. 4 on Degtyarny Allegy (in the same part of town, the Sands neighborhood, that were home to the now-disappeared Soviet Streets) was demolished and, before this, nearly the entire tram network there was dismantled?

What have Petersburgers received in compensation for the deliberate destruction of public transportation in their city? What will they receive to make up for this clear attempt to erase the Soviet past while preserving Soviet decision-making methods and leaving all of the least progressive aspects of the Soviet mindset firmly in place?

First, there was the UFO aka the Nevsky Rathaus, built by the former governor’s son. Now we have been gifted with a gift none of us really wanted, the Christmas Streets, as if this city of five million or more were populated solely by wildly devout Orthodox toponymic history enthusiasts.

In the near future, like a triple layer of icing on an sickly sweet holiday cake, we will be treated to the total “reconstruction” of the Church of the Nativity of Christ in the Sands. This is yet another unwanted gift, a gift made possible, once again, through demolition, in this case the destruction of the cosy, pretty square at the intersection of Sixth Soviet Street and Krasnobor Alley. Local residents campaigned against this so-called urban planning decision. But who the hell are local residents, and what are their opinions worth when the current reactionary regime has been intent on beating it into everyone’s head that its own provenance is nearly divine?

What is worse, the city’s semi-official historical preservation mob indulges the regime in its “religious” aspirations.

This is yet another amazing story about how the nearly perpetual muddle in the heads of the city’s “finest people” (as one commentator called them when I published an earlier version of these remarks on Facebook) produces circumstances in which Petersburg is practically defenseless against urban planning stupidities and revisionist toponymic interventions. You can visit whatever truly satanic outrages on its tender flesh you wish, and most of the so-called opposition and its mostly silent, invisible supporters will either sign on to your crazy undertaking, keep its mouth shut or immediately surrender without putting up a fight.

One of the few exceptions in recent years (the bleak years of Putin 3.0) was when a bas-relief sculpture of Mephistopheles was removed from the façade of a building on the Petrograd Side, apparently on orders from a local housing authority official. A full-fledged public hullabaloo kicked off, featuring a well-attended opposition rally outside the offended building and, ultimately, the restoration of the demonic sculpture.

You see, that was a real crime against history and historical preservation. TRR