Dmitry Skurikhin’s Anti-War Protest Store

Dmitry Skurikhin

On Yandex Maps, almost all the roofs of houses in Russko-Vysotskoye, a settlement near St. Petersburg, are gray, but one sports the colors of the Russian flag. This is Iren, a shopping center owned by local businessman Dmitry Skurikhin. He had the tricolor painted on the roof ten years ago. But this year he ordered a nine by two meter yellow banner from a friendly printing house and on May 7 installed it on the blue section of the roof.

“I defiantly sided with Ukraine. And everything is fine — the villagers say hello to me, no one tells me to buzz off. I regard this as unequivocal support,” says Skurikhin.

He has turned the front of his store into a political statement and, despite numerous fines, he has no plans to stay silent or leave the country. Dmitry Skurikhin told The Village why he doesn’t worry when people scrawl the word “traitor” on the walls of his store, how he drives a vehicle with a “No war!” sticker (while his former best friend drives a car marked with a Z), and what tricks the activist has for communicating with rural policemen.

The front of Dmitry Skurikhin’s store: “Peace to Ukraine! Freedom for Russia!” is painted on it, along with the names of Ukrainian cities and towns attacked by the Russian army.
Russian businessman and anti-war activist Dmitry Skurikhin

How the protest store works
Dmitry Skurikhin is forty-seven years old. He was born in Russko-Vysotskoye and graduated from school there. He studied electrical engineering at the Voenmekh (Military Mechanical Institute) in Petersburg, and is an officer in the reserves. He went into business in 1996. In 2009, he went into politics when he was elected to a five-year term as a municipal councillor in Russko-Vysotskoye.

Dmitry has five daughters. The eldest recently married, while the youngest are still in school. “Four years ago, there was this incident. I came to the school and saw a portrait of Putin on a stand in a classroom. I demanded that the teacher take down this poster. They took it down!”

The businessman has two stores in total. The first is in the neighboring village of Yagelevo, and it has no political murals. The second one is in his native settlement. This is the Iren shopping center, named after the river in the Perm Region, where Dmitry’s parents came from. On Iren’s ground floor are Wildberries, Ozon and SDEK delivery points, a flower shop, a shoe repair shop, and a small gym; on the second floor, there is a tailor’s, a manicurist’s, a hairdresser’s, and a game room. Behind the facade of the building inscribed with the slogan “Peace to Ukraine! Freedom for Russia!” is a 256 square meter banquet hall. “Weddings, wakes, and rural discos-cum-fistfights are held there,” says Dmitry. According to him, there have been an especially large number of wakes recently.

How the war has impacted Russko-Vysotskoye
“Words are my weapons. I am trying to convince my fellow villagers that freedom, democracy, human rights, local self-government, and separation of powers are the road to prosperity,” the businessman says.

“We basically have nothing to say about Dmitry Skurikhin’s activism. It is, rather, reflected only in his posts on the internet, not in the life of the settlement,” the moderators of the Russko-Vysotskoye group on the VKontakte social network wrote in reply to a query from The Village.

The first mention of the settlement dates back to the sixteenth century, but there are no historical buildings left except for the ruins of the Church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. The population of Russko-Vysotskoye is about five thousand. Many worked at a poultry plant, the main local employer (in terms of volume, it was among the top five agricultural enterprises in the Leningrad Region). But in the second month of the “special operation,” the factory management announced its closure, citing plans to build housing on the site. Then Leningrad Region Governor Drozdenko reversed the closure, and in June, after two months of downtime, the poultry plant is scheduled to resume production.

“Our store survives due to the fact that we sell on credit. We’ve got debtors up to our eyeballs. These are people who are three days away from retirement, but have no money. They come to buy bread and potatoes. We sell them in irregular batches. For example, there are people in the village who cannot buy a dozen eggs and buy four eggs instead. This is telling,” Skurikhin replies when asked about the war’s impact on Russko-Vysotskoye’s economy.

How the activist is fined for posters
The inscription “Peace to Ukraine! Freedom for Russia!” appeared on Skurikhin’s store in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea. This was followed by many (about two hundred) political posters. Skurikhin orders them from the same company that made him the yellow stripe for the roof, whose name he won’t disclose. “You can say that I am a small-town activist who voices his stance on any occasion. Some event happens — for example, [Russian opposition politician Boris] Nemtsov was killed [on 27 February 2015 in Moscow] — and I put up a poster.” The businessman fastens the posters with screws at a height of six meters on the same wall as the inscriptions.

The posters hang for an average of two to three hours. Then the local council sends an employee with a ladder and a screwdriver, and the police arrive from the 114th precinct in Annino, fifteen minutes from Russko-Vysotskoye. The posters are taken down. “The police officers in rural areas are smart, intelligent, decent, normal people. Not like in the city. They’re almost all on my side. It’s another matter that they have their orders and their oath,” Skurikhin argues.

Then Dmitry is fined. At first, the fines for “violating landscaping rules” were 300 rubles, but then they went up to three thousand rubles. (“As the secretary of the administrative commission told me, ‘They increased it especially for you, because no one else in the region is being punished under this article.'”) The last fine was issued under the new law on “discrediting the army.”

How they’re trying to prosecute Dmitry for “discrediting the army”
On March 5, the State Duma passed a law according to which people can be fined for “discrediting the army.” On March 6, Skurikhin hung a poster on his shopping center depicting residential buildings bombed in Kharkiv and a Ukrainian girl who had been killed. On Facebook he wrote, “Perhaps this is my last publication. Just in case, goodbye, my friends.”

“This is Kharkiv. Everyone speaks Russian there. Who are we defending there and from what?”
Photo courtesy of Dmitry Skurikhin’s Facebook page.
This image was not part of the original article on The Village, although there was a link to it.

The farewell was premature — Dmitry was only fined 45 thousand rubles [approx. 750 euros]. (He has challenged the fine in court.) And not so much for the poster itself, as for the story he told about it on Telegram, which follows from the charge sheet for the administrative offense: “68 views were made [of the post]; the channel has 23 subscribers.”

Later, another charge was filed against the activist under the same article in the administrative offenses code (there has been no court hearing yet) for reposting one of the blogger Rustem Adagamov’s posts. Skurikhin says that now he has a “standing invitation” on WhatsApp to come in and face a third set of charges, and shows us his correspondence with the policeman involved. The summons is preceded by the New Year’s greeting car that the law enforcement officer sent to the businessman six months ago.

Earlier, Dmitry says, the local beat cops themselves came to deliver the summonses, but they got tired of it. “Rural police,” he says, “have a lot of cases to deal with, and here they’re being sent to deal with nonsense. They said the hell with it.”

How the activist was called a traitor
While we are talking, a local passes by and asks Dmitry how things are going.

“I’m alive and well and at large,” the activist replies.

Dmitry Skurikhin, as one of the few public anti-war activists who have not left Russia, is regularly visited by journalists. Recently, three foreign media outlets were doing stories about him at once: the BBC, Belsat, and Stern. Reporters like to ask the opinion of passerby about Skurikhin’s “protest wall.” “He’s an idiot,” one of the respondents told Steve Rosenberg of the BBC. Another noted that Dmitry “has the right to express his opinion.”

Skurikhin is grateful to journalists. “If it weren’t for their attention, activists would be” — he rubs an imaginary powder in his palms — “and everything here right down to the lawn would be demolished,” he says.

At the end of March, the activist painted the names of Ukrainian cities that had been attacked on the front of the store. Then he regularly supplemented the red list. When we were there, he painted in two more names: Dnipro and Sloviansk.

But on the night of April 15, three unidentified people scrawled the word “traitor” on the Iren shopping center and deposited a pile of manure outside the entrance.

“They thought they would present me in an unfavorable light to my fellow villagers. It turned out the opposite. A woman passes by: ‘Dima, don’t touch the manure, I’ll take it myself, I need it for the garden.’ Or I go out with a bucket of yellow paint to paint over the graffiti, and an old-timer stops me. ‘Are you going to paint over the [names of the] cities?’ he asks. ‘No, just the word “traitor,”‘ I say. ‘Ah, paint over “traitor,” but don’t touch the cities,'” the activist recounts.

As this article was going to press, the walls of the shopping center were again vandalized. An unknown man on a bicycle wrote the words “traitor,” “freak,” and “moron” next to the names of the cities.

How the businessman interacts with his opponents
“A person can come up to me on the street and yell that I’m an asshole. Be my guest,” the activist says. He has many opponents in the settlement.

As for the Z symbol in Russko-Vysotskoye, according to Skurikhin, there is one on the car of the deputy head of the local administration.

“We were in school together for eleven years. We were very friendly. I wrote to him: ‘Lyosha, what did you put such a thing up for?’ He replied: ‘Dima, you have reached a new low.'”

His friendship with his classmate, according to Skurikhin, was long ago undone by political differences.

“It’s his people who take down my posters,” the activist explains, adding about his former friend, “He’s a good guy, but he’s an UnRus [a member of the ruling United Russia party].”

The official told us in a telephone conversation that he really was in the same class in school as Dmitry Skurikhin, but they were never friends. He did not comment on the activist’s work, saying only, “Our positions are diametrically opposed. You could say that we are ardent opponents.”

The businessman himself pastes a “No war!” sticker on his car.

“The response has been only positive. No, sometimes I see a sour expression on someone’s face. But people who do react [give me a thumbs-up] — attaboy!”

How Skurikhin decided not to shave his beard
“I’m afraid. What then? I can’t stop campaigning,” the activist says in answer to our question whether he is afraid of facing criminal charges for spreading “fake news” about the army, like artist and musician Sasha Skochilenko, “ordinary person” Vika Petrova, Skurikhin’s ally the activist Olga Smirnova, and many others.

He has no plans to leave Russia. But he does not condemn emigrants — on the contrary.

“Good, decent anti-Putin people are leaving. And there is a plus in this. Perhaps the whole world will judge Russia by them. ‘Look, not all Russians are idiots!” But I’ll go on here. If they put me in jail, I’ll sit in jail.”

At the end of the interview, Dmitry asks us to ask him a question about his beard and immediately tells us that on 23 January 2021, he shaved and went to downtown Petersburg for a rally in support of Alexei Navalny. There he was detained and jailed for twenty days. During those three weeks, Skurikhin grew out his beard and made a bet with a cellmate that he would not shave while Putin was in power.

“My cellmate told me, ‘Dima, you’re going to be playing Santa Claus without makeup.’ We’ll see. For some reason it seems to me that I will be shaving my beard off soon.”

Source: “‘A man can come up to me on the street and yell that I’m an asshole’: How a businessman turned his store into a political statement,” The Village, 14 June 2022. Thanks to JG for the story. All images courtesy of The Village, except where noted. Translated by the Russian Reader


“It’s our soldiers, our [Russian] troops, fighting there. Not Martians, but our people. And we are responsible for them. These people exist on taxes, including my taxes. I pay roughly 1,200,000 rubles [$19,500] a year in taxes. Our authorities buy weapons with this money and dispatch our fellow citizens to murder Ukrainian children.”

On the front of his village store, Dmitry Skurikhin paints the names of Ukrainian cities that have been bombarded.

“My heart simply aches when I see what is happening there. I simply cannot stand it. I paint the [name of the] city and I feel better. What if I could do something more? But it’s society that has to do something. I’m campaigning for our society to understand and accept this viewpoint — that we cannot be doing this, that we urgently have to stop it. At first I thought that half [the Russian people] supported the ‘special operation,’ but now it is fewer. It has begun to sink in that this is madness.”

Dmitry Skurikhin has opposed the actions of the Russian authorities since 2014. 

“The Putin regime should simply be eliminated. They are occupiers — they have occupied our country, do you understand? And they treat our country like occupiers, meanwhile fooling our people with their propaganda.”

Businessman Dmitry Skurikhin regularly hangs up posters featuring anti-war slogans on his store.

“The police just come up and take them down. I’ve been charged twice with the newfangled crime of ‘discrediting’ [the Russian army]. From their point of view I’m discrediting our Russian army simply by showing my fellow villagers what is happening in Ukraine.”

Fines for discrediting the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation can lead to up to five years of imprisonment. 

“People see this and it stays in their heads. Now it is just sitting there, but later it will become an itch and then turn into something unbearable. Putinism is a cancerous tumor, a disease of our society. We have to vomit it up somehow. Russia is now on the side of evil, on the side of Putinism. Putinism is an evil, definitely, for unleashing such a hell in Ukraine. Consequently, Ukraine has the motivation — they are fighting for their lives, for their families, for their homes, for their land. What are we doing there? Putin has forced our society to fight against a neighboring society, instead of doing business and exchanging knowledge and services to our mutual benefit. We could live together wonderfully, but now they are our enemies for hundreds of years to come.”

Despite the fines, Dmitry continues his campaign in the village. 

“Not a day goes by when I don’t think about my security. But this is more important. It’s important to campaign, to convince people to come over to this point of view. And I won’t spare any expense or effort on it. Well, what could happen? If they imprison me, I’ll go to prison.”

Source: Current Time TV, Instagram, 21 August 2022. Subtitles translated by the Russian Reader

“To Become White in the Eyes of Whites”: Astrakhan Kazakhs and the War in Ukraine

Monument to the Kazakh composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbayuly in Astrakhan. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

According to official statistics, ethnic Kazakhs [so-called Astrakhan Kazakhs] make up 16% of population of the Astrakhan Region. At the same time, 80% of the region’s residents who have been killed in the war in Ukraine and whose deaths have been publicly acknowledged by relatives or the authorities, are members of this particular ethnic group. Idel.Realii talked to several Astrakhan residents to understand why this is the case and what reaction it causes in the local community.

The situation is similar in regions without the status of “republics” — the Astrakhan Region is sending mainly ethnic Kazakhs, not ethnic Russians, to war. According to our figures, the regional and municipal authorities of the Lower Volga have acknowledged, as of today, the deaths of twenty-six natives of the region in the war in Ukraine. Based on the names of the victims and their places of birth, it is possible to say with a high degree of probability that twenty-one of them are ethnic Kazakhs.

Kazakhs are the second largest ethnic group in the Lower Volga after Russians. The 2010 census revealed that around 150 thousand Kazakhs live in the Astrakhan Region. Thus, the ethnic Kazakh population makes up 16% of the region’s residents who indicated their ethnicity. But Kazakhs are in the majority among the acknowledged war dead. Twenty-one out of twenty-six is 80% — that is, the disparity is fivefold.

Fragmentary reports coming from Astrakhan’s rural areas in the early days of the war suggest that the number of the region’s residents killed in Ukraine may be significantly higher than the official data admits. The ethnic imbalance is also noticeable in unconfirmed cases. Reports of war dead appeared mainly in the chats of residents of the Volodarsky District, the only part of the Astrakhan Region where Kazakhs make up the absolute majority of the population.

Idel.Realii talked to several residents of the Astrakhan Region to understand the possible causes of this imbalance and what people in the region think about it. The names of the interviewees have been changed for their safety.

“THE ONLY WAY TO FEED A FAMILY”

“This is not a new story: Kazakhs have always been represented in the uniformed services more than other Astrakhan residents,” says Aisulu from the Volodarsky District. “If you walk around the regional center, you will notice that almost half of the police officers are Kazakh in appearance — which is also much more than the proportion of Kazakhs in the entire population. You see the same picture among contract soldiers in the military.”

She believes that this is due to the fact that Astrakhan Kazakhs have traditionally been settled in small villages in rural areas.

“Many of them are located far from the city. They do not have permanent transport links with the outside world. They are separated from the main roads via one or more ferry crossings,” she says. “There is a high unemployment rate in such areas, and if you have bigger ambitions than working in agriculture, the main ways are rotation work or service in law enforcement and the military. The second option, of course, is regarded as more stable (not to mention respectable), so young guys from villages go en masse into the army and the police. This is often the only way for them to feed their families.”

According Aisulu, Kazakhs also choose to serve in law enforcement and the military more often than ethnic Russians because they have fewer job prospects in large cities: due to xenophobia, many employers prefer to hire a person of Slavic appearance, automatically considering them more competent and presentable. According to Aisulu, this further narrows career choices, motivating Astrakhan Kazakhs to go into voluntary [contract] military service, where ethnicity does not play such a huge role.

“WE DO NOT AND CANNOT HAVE INTERESTS IN UKRAINE”

“In the context of the current war, there may be another factor — ideology. Yes, there are an unusually large number of Kazakhs among Astrakhan military personnel, but they are clearly not the absolute majority. Why do we hear almost only about their deaths? We can assume that the command deliberately sends soldiers of non-Russian appearance to the front line to emphasize the formal justification for the attack on Ukraine: ‘the multi-ethnic people of the Russian Federation’ are fighting ‘fascism,'” says Adilbek, a native of the Narimanov District.

In his opinion, this is ironic.

“This is, allegedly, a campaign by a multi-ethnic people, in which there are Kazakhs, among others, and Putin says, ‘I am Lak, Jewish, Mordvin, Ossetian,’ but this campaign is aimed at expanding the ethnic Russian world and promoting Russian ethnic interests. It has nothing to do with the interests of Laks, Ossetians, or Kazakhs. We do not and cannot have interests in Ukraine at all, we have nothing to do with it. I see a sad irony in this. Russian fascists are waging an aggressive war, leading minorities into battle and taking cover behind fictional anti-fascism. Consequently, our guys are dying for people who actually despise them and are just using them.”

“WE DON’T WANT OUR CHILDREN TO DIE”

Rufina, a relative of an Astrakhan Kazakh who has died in the war in Ukraine, and a native of the Astrakhan Region’s Kamyzyak District, says that many residents of her village have gone to fight. Two other relatives of her parents are currently in Ukraine.

“My mother, grandmother, and other women who remain in the village are rather apolitical people with no coherent system of views. They are, in fact, now opposed to the war, but in their own way: ‘We don;’t want our children to die god knows where and god knows for whom.’ This does not prevent them from chewing out Ukraine and making fun of Zelensky, but they also chew out Putin. The only thing they really want is for all of it to stop and for their children to come home. The men are a little different: my uncle wears a T-shirt emblazoned with a Z, and some people in the village dress up children in these symbols. But I don’t consider this a direct endorsement of the war. In my opinion, their motivation, rather, is just to support their brothers, since they are [in Ukraine],” explains Rufina.

She actively opposes the war and puts up anti-war leaflets in the courtyards of residential areas in Astrakhan, but admits that this stance is not very popular even among her peers — people of high school age.

“Propaganda, unfortunately, does a bang-up job in these parts: many people believe in the ‘special operation’ and despise all Ukrainians. Our Russian-language teacher told us in class about ‘Ukrainian Nazis’ and went to a rally celebrating the ‘reunification’ of Crimea and Russia. I don’t see much opposition from schoolchildren,” says Rufina.

“On the other hand, I met some like-minded women who helped me with leaflets. We made small handwritten posters featuring slogans like ‘Silence is consent,’ ‘No death, no war,’ and ‘Bring flowers, not destruction,’ and pasted them on poles and bulletin boards. They were quickly torn down, however — whether by janitors or ordinary people who didn’t agree with [our message], I don’t know,” says Rufina.

“THE SENSELESSNESS IS STUNNING”

Kanat, who lives in Astrakhan, believes that the region’s residents are gradually losing interest in the events in Ukraine.

“War, like any other topic, cannot grip people’s attention for a long time. During the first month, I heard condemnation and discontent from the people around me and noticed that they were depressed. Now everyone is immersed in their daily problems again,” says Kanat. “There are more of these problems, but for some reason people no longer link them to what the army has been doing at the behest of the authorities. At the same time, it is clear that there is no freedom of speech, there is no criticism of the government and its actions, and we are thinking about how to live with what we have at the moment.”

“A colleague of mine says that when a war is on you must not condemn your country’s army. You can figure things out afterwards, but for now you can only support them. I don’t understand this. If this were a war to defend our own territory, to defend our rights and freedoms, then yes, we could say that, for the moment, we could close our eyes to certain crimes committed by the army or by individuals, and we would get to the bottom of them later. But now the exact opposite — a war of aggression — is happening,” claims Kanat.

According to him, he finds it “strange to see the posthumous medals for Kazakhs.”

“Maybe Kazakhs are not the only soldiers from Astrakhan Region who are getting killed, but I don’t really remember the others, to be honest. The senselessness is stunning. If you believe the rhetoric of the authorities, ethnics Russians are not loved in Ukraine, but ethnic Kazakhs from the Volodarsky District are dying for their interests. But I think that protests in Kazakhstan are more important to them than the rights of Russian-speaking residents of Odesa,” Kanat argues.

“TO BECOME WHITE IN THE EYES OF WHITES”

“Why are Kazakhs and other non-ethnic Russian Russian Federation nationals fighting? I would like to say that it is impossible to explain, but in fact I understand it,” says Rasul, a Kazakhstani national who moved to Russia to study at university. “First of all, these are people from poor regions, for whom the army is a way to move up in life, to become white in the eyes of whites, to become ethnic Russian in the eyes of ethnic Russians, to join something big and supposedly majestic. Secondly, Russian propaganda has this amazing property — it takes all imperial narratives that have existed in this country and fascistizes them to the limit. If you love the Russian Empire, here’s Christ for you. If you love the USSR, here’s the red banner. If you love Russia, here’s the tricolor. Are you a Tuvan who speaks Russian poorly? Here’s the opinion that [Russian defense minister Sergei] Shoigu is the reincarnation of Subutai. Are you a Kadyrovite? Here’s jihad for you. It all affects you, staying somewhere in your head, and when you are sent off to war, you easily find a moral justification for what you are doing.”

Rasul notes that he, perhaps, “would like to denounce ethnic Kazakhs involved in the war, to ‘discharge’ them from the Kazakh people, to say that they are all traitors.”

“From the viewpoint of sharia, they actually are traitors: all muftis, except the pro-Putin ones, have condemned this war. At the Last Judgment, these soldiers will be asked, ‘What did you die for? For Putin and his yacht? Well, then go to hell with them.’ But, to be honest, I feel more sorry for them on the purely human level than for the ethnic Russian guys, because after three years of living in Russia I understood how this propaganda works, how this society as a whole is organized, what the dynamics of interethnic relations are. I myself have many questions for our government, many problems with ethnic Kazakh and Kazakhstani identity, but over these two months I have repeatedly discussed Ukraine with my friends from Kazakhstan — with ethnic Kazakhs, ethnic Russians, ethnic Uyghurs, ethnic Dungans, ethnic Germans, and ethnic Poles — and we have always agreed that if Russia invaded us, we would go to war and shoot at the occupiers. We may speak Russian perfectly and have an excellent grasp of Russian literature, but this is our land, and we don’t need any ‘Russian world’ in it,” the Kazakhstani concludes.

Source: Idel.Realii (Radio Svoboda), 18 May 2022. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

The People You Meet

Prison camp acquaintances, of course, slightly tweak the picture that can take shape when you read only anti-war media.

I talked to a friend from Krasnoyarsk today. He is currently doing time in a camp in Mari El (he was transferred there from Krasnoyarsk). He says, “A lot of people have left Mari El [for the war].” “Voluntarily?” I ask. “Voluntarily. And why not, the money is good, so they go. Plus there’s looting: they drag things back from there too.” In response to my remark that they might come back home in a coffin, he tries to explain, although he himself does not approve of their actions. “Well, a one-way ticket… People have been pushed to the limit. There’s nothing to live on. But there you can make decent money.”

Basically, you can’t argue with the material attractiveness of going to fight in the war. Here, in the countryside, some earn 20 thousand rubles a month [approx. 300 euros], but there they are promised 200 thousand [approx. 3,000 euros]. Plus looting. And there is seemingly nothing you can do about it. If they are paid, they will go. Especially because it has become harder to survive.

Source: privately posted social media entry whose author is afraid that it could be grounds for charging them with violating Russian Criminal Code Article 207.3. (‘”Public dissemination of knowingly false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.” The new law provides for a prison sentence of up to 15 years for knowingly disseminating false information about the Russian Armed Forces.’) Photo and translation by the Russian Reader

Pioneer

The withdrawal of the American company Corteva Agriscience (Pioneer) from the Russian market may trigger problems in the country’s agriculture. Experts are already warning about a shortage of seeds for certain crops.

Marina Petrova, deputy chair of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s committee for entrepreneurship development in the agro-industrial complex and CEO of Petrova 5 Consulting, told Delovoi Peterburg that while the level of self-sufficiency with domestic grain seeds exceeds 75%, import dependence remains high for sunflower, at about 70%, and for corn, at more than 50%. Leftover seeds held by suppliers and Russian-produced varieties and hybrids are an alternative source.

“Domestic seeds often have poorer traits than foreign varieties. But Russia has a scientific base and decent domestic wheat, oat, rice and buckwheat seed products,” says Petrova. In her opinion, domestic selection and seed production is in need of structural transformation and state support. Over the past decade, the share of foreign seeds has increased significantly in Russia. This is primarily due to their higher yields. The largest players also offered package solutions involving seeds, agrochemicals, and management via digital platforms. Third-party designs may thus often be incompatible with existing ones.

Corteva Agriscience is a well-known producer of alfalfa, rapeseed, corn, cotton, rice, sorghum, soy, sunflower and wheat seeds, as well as plant protection products (including herbicides, fungicides and insecticides). According to the Leningrad Regional Committee for the Agro-Industry Complex and Fisheries, the region does not depend on Corteva Agriscience’s seeds. The committee’s press service clarified, however, that rapeseed, which is cultivated in the region, is actually grown from imported seeds. But corn and wheat seeds are domestically produced, while wheat seed is produced in the Leningrad Region itself.

Prinevskoye Breeding Farm CJSC (which grows rapeseed, among other things) reported that they had managed to purchase all the seeds they needed for the 2022 sowing campaign. “If there is no possibility of sourcing foreign rapeseed hybrids, we have a domestic analogue, Oredezh 6, which at the moment we can use to cover the needs not only of our farm, but also of the region,“ says Alexander Peretyatko, deputy general director for commercial affairs at Prinevskoye.

According to experts at the Agrophysical Research Institute, Russia has the potential to replace imported corn and rapeseed. This can also be said about wheat, which Crimea supplies in fairly large volumes. At the same time, seeds for protected soil (tomatoes, cucumbers, greens) are limited on the market. The chief researcher at the Institute’s Laboratory for Plant Biophysics, Professor Mikhail Arkhipov, recalls that back in 2016, a decree was issued ordering the production of original and elite agricultural plant seeds in the areas of domestic crop production that were highly dependent on foreign-made seeds. According to Arkhipov, the decree has still not been properly implemented.

“75% of the agricultural holdings that produce grain are owned by foreign companies. Foreign seed companies also continue to be actively involved in the Russian market. However, domestic seed growers can also solve the issue of supplying grain-growing areas with domestic wheat seeds. We have the necessary agricultural resources to produce our own seeds,” the expert notes.

In late 2021, President Vladimir Putin said that within a decade the country would be able to provide farmers at least 75% of the seeds they required. Arkhipov believes that this is a real prospect in the seed market for most agricultural crops. Petrova points out that many seed-growing enterprises need to improve their physical facilities and increase their technologization. Another problem that hinders the industry’s development is a shortage of personnel.

Source: Darya Dmitrieva, “Fresh ground: farmers prepare for shortage of imported seeds,” Delovoi Peterburg, 11 May 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader, who grew up on a farm in the Upper Midwest.


Corteva to Withdraw from Russia

Corteva has made the decision to withdraw from Russia and, having already paused new sales, is initiating a plan to stop production and business activities.

Our priorities remain the safety of our employees and global food security. Since the onset of this tragic war, we have taken all possible action to support and protect our Ukrainian colleagues and their families, our customers, and the communities in which we operate, including through direct and indirect aid to address the immediate humanitarian needs.

We have also put in place direct action to help assure as normal as possible 2022 growing season in Ukraine.

Given the war’s impact on global food security, the Company will donate seeds to Ukraine, Africa, and the Middle East region for the 2023 growing season, to lessen the impact on global food production.

Corteva joins with many others around the world in advocating for peace.

Source: Corteva.com, 28 April 2022

A Nu-Ka Babushki: Tserkovishche (Russian Songs from Pskov Region)

72nd release from Antonovka Records

The village of Tserkovische is known as the place where the famous folk singer Olga Sergeeva lived the most of her life. Here she sang the songs included by Andrei Tarkovsky in his film “Nostalgia” and called by him “the sign of the Russian”.

Our album is released in 2022, the year of the centenary of the birth of Olga Sergeeva and the ninetieth birthday of Andrei Tarkovsky.

A Nu-Ka Babushki (meaning “Come On, Grandmas”) Ensemble consists of fellow villagers of the celebrated singer. The age of the participants ranges from 60 to 90 years, which makes them, on average, the next generation after her.

Song genres: wedding (1-5), lyrical (6, 7, 9, 14), harvesting (😎, Maslenitsa (Winter Carnival — 10, 11), dancing (12), wedding/dancing (13), table (15), folk romance (16), Kupala (St. John’s Day — 17), modern (18), witty ditties (19-22).

A Nu-Ka Babushki Ensemble, from left to right on the album cover photo:
Anna Ivanova: vocals (1-15, 17-22)
Anna Karpenko: vocals (1-15, 17-18)
Valentina Poleshchenko: vocals (1-22)
Irina Malysheva (manager): vocals (1-15, 17-18)

Session musicians:

Ivan Strutinsky: button accordion (19, 21, 22)
Polina Gotsmanova: fiddle (20)

Thanks to all performers, Ksenia Goncharova, Dmitry Solomin.

Source: Antonovka Records, Facebook, 26 April 2022. Embedded recording courtesy of the Antonovka Records Bandcamp page

The Last of the Vepsians

The Last of the Vepsians: A Supposedly Nonexistent People in Leningrad Region
Elena Mikhina and Yulia Paskevich
7×7
November 26, 2020

The Vepsian region begins just five hours by car from Petersburg. The Veps (alternately, Vepsians) are a minority ethnic group who seem to have miraculously survived near the metropolis, despite wars, revolutions, and centuries of assimilation. Petersburg journalists Elena Mikhina and Yulia Paskevich went in search of “the last of the Vepsians” to hear their still living language and meet their sorcerers—the noids.

Where Did the Chud Go?
Who are the Veps? We are not talking, of course, about the Yakut shaman who set out to save Moscow from Putin, but the story of the Veps is also well known. They are mentioned in school textbooks on the ancient history of Russia: “The neighbors of the Eastern Slavs were the tribes of the Chud [Veps], the Vod, and the Izhora.”

In the summer of 2019, the Russian president read out an “unusual question” during a live TV call-in show: “Where have the Chud people gone?” He answered, “They have been assimilated. But I’m sure they haven’t completely disappeared yet.”

A Bad Joke
In the regions where the Veps live, a bad joke appeared soon after Putin’s televised comment about “assimilation.” When it is told, the tellers change the name of the regional governor in question:

Putin telephones [Leningrad Region Governor] Drozdenko and asks, “Do you have Veps?
“I do,” Drozdenko replies.
“Send me a couple for a fur collar,” Putin says.

Since the ninth century, the Veps have lived in the region between Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega, in the present-day Republic of Karelia, Vologda Region, and Leningrad Region. According to the 2010 census, almost six thousand people identified themselves as Veps, which is not such a tiny number in comparison with the Kereks, of whom there were only four ten years ago. There were many more Veps in the late nineteenth century—25,000 in Petersburg Province alone. Now there are 1,380 of them left in Leningrad Region.

The area settled by the Veps. Courtesy of knk.karelia.ru

The Russian Center of the Vepsian World
Nowadays, the village of Vinnitsy is considered the center of Vepsian culture in the region. The irony is that the village was never Vepsian. On the contrary, it was considered Russian. Local people remember an old saying: “if you go to Vinnitsy, forget the Vepsian language.”

“Vinnitsy was mentioned in the chronicles a whole ten years before Moscow was,” local resident Vera Lodygina says with a hint of pride. She made a unique discovery in the 1980s, when she worked in the local trade union committee and bought up everything she found on the history of Podporozhye on each trip around the district. In one of the pamphlets, she read that the first written mention of Vinnitsy is found in the Charter of Prince Sviatoslav Olgovich in 1137.

Women at the Vepsian festival in Vinnitsy

“I told my party secretary, who reported it to the city committee, then to the regional committee. And since 1987—the 850th birthday of Vinnitsy—we have held the Vepsian Tree of Live celebration in the village,” says Lodygina.

Every year, Veps from all over Leningrad Region, Karelia, and Vologda Region come to the festival. They sing songs in their native language, cook traditional food, and hold a crafts fair.

It is a big event by local standards. The current governor of the Leningrad Region, Alexander Drozdenko, comes regularly. He buys wool socks for his daughter and teas.

Traditional Vepsian embroidery. The piece on the right is inscribed with the phrase “tree of life” in Vepsian and Russian

In 2015, the villagers took advantage of the governor’s goodwill and asked him to build a Veps folklore center for them. The money was found, and the building was built. From a distance it looks old, but in fact it is made from concrete and has an elevator and double-glazed windows. Everything that had accumulated over the previous fifty years in the museums of the local school and cultural center was moved to this “hut.”

One of the first collectors of antiquities was the former school director Viktor Yershov. When he would drag home “all sorts of stuff” from the villages (e.g., spinning wheels, bast shoes, and cast-iron pots), the teacher’s family thought he was crazy.

Vera Lodygina has long been retired, but continues to study Vepsian culture.

“Schoolchildren helped create the museum,” says Lodygina, who joined the antiquities preservation movement even before perestroika. “We would get up at four in the morning, get on the bus at five, travel to the villages, and collect exhibits. Sometimes people would retrieve caftans, dishes, and tools from their attics. I remember this one old woman running after us holding her boots: ‘Here,’ she said, ‘the grandchildren threw them in the trash (the boots were like new). They were cleaning the attic and threw them out. Take them to the museum.’ At home, we washed, boiled, and cleaned all these items. My mother used to say, ‘When are you going to get this dirt out of the house?'”

Although Lodygina is retired and no longer works in the museums, she has set up a home office chockablock with books and brochures. She is especially proud of an album with photos of national dishes prepared by herself, and a plump guest book, in which she collects feedback from all the tourists who come to her house.

People in Vinnitsy are generally happy to comply when asked to talk about the Veps. We had not been standing outside the churches in the town for five minutes when we were nabbed by another local historian, Mikhail Kurilov. First, he took us to a nearly moribund church, which had served as a waste paper warehouse under the Soviet regime, then dragged us to his home to drink tea. Over tea, he regretted that his wife had not backed “wickets”: they are the main local treat, and Kurilov’s wife is the winner of a Vepsian bakers competition. He spoke at length and in detail about the history of the region and the language.

“When the Novgorodians came to the lands where the Veps settled, they set up their own churchyards. It was also a means of propagating their faith, and a place for collecting taxes,” explained Kurilov.

Generally, however, the Veps experienced what everyone else did: villages ruled by landlords, followed by revolution, the Stalinist crackdowns, dekulakization, and an ethnicity forgotten for several decades. From the late 1930s, Veps were identified as ethnic Russians in their internal passports. The Chud turned into ordinary Soviet people. It was only at the end of the twentieth century that they remembered their roots again. Today it is even fashionable to be a rare Veps.

240 Years Old
The pagan Veps converted to Russian Orthodoxy in the tenth century. They converted without conflict, without resistance. Alexander Svirsky, one of the most revered saints in Russia, was a Veps, for example. He was born in a village on the Oyat in 1448 and was named Amos before he took monastic vows.

Although they converted, the Veps did not forget their pagan gods and their spirits—hobgoblins, mermaids, and dryads. They still pray to the lord of the forest, Izhan, when they go mushroom picking.

Noids, Vepsian sorcerers, still live in the villages. Traditionally, noids were men, but many did not return from the Second World War, so women took over the practice of witchcraft.

Veps do not tell strangers about noids nowadays. No matter how hard we searched for a noid, they had all “petered out” in a surprising way a couple of years, months, or even days before we arrived: they had all died, left town, got sick, or got old.

“The ones who could heal used to be here. But now there are no such people, and we take pills when we’re ill. It’s easier and faster,” Klavdiya Yeremeyevna from the Vepsian village of Nemzha assured us. Her friend told us a terrible story from the old days, how a witch had made sure that her father did not return from the war. No one in the village doubted that it was the noid’s fault.

Nemzha is only ten kilometers from Vinnitsy. Previously, more than 300 people lived here, but now people in the village appear in public on schedule: postal delivery and a traveling grocery truck operate three times a week for the thirty remaining residents.

Veps Lyudmila Mikhailovna, Klavdia Yeremeyevna, and Tamara Grigoryevna are some of the last residents of the village. They have known each other almost all their lives. They even calculate their age as a trio: they recently turned 240 years old.

“The old people are dying. There is no work. How can the young people avoid leaving if there are no jobs? The timber plant has closed. The the tree farm has closed. The collective farm has closed. The post office has closed. The shop has closed. The clinic has closed,” they said.

The Nemzha Homemakers: Tamara Yevseyeva, Lyudmila Popova, and Klavdia Nikonova sing the song “Under the Window the Cherry Tree Sways” translated into Vepsian. (In the original Russian, the song is called “A Maiden’s Heart,” and is based on a poem by Boris Timofeev.)

In retirement, three friends—a former librarian, the director of the village cultural center, and a mail carrier—decided to get creative. Their group is called the Nemzha Homemakers. The old women perform Vepsian songs and ditties. They have to borrow their costumes from the Veps Center, however: all their own treasures were donated to the museum long ago.

Unexpected Guests
The road along the northern Bank of the Oyat River—from Alyokhovshchina to Vinnitys—is unofficially called the most beautiful in Leningrad Region. But no one is a hurry to promote tourism here: there are no hotels or camp sites in the area. So if you don’t want to spend the night in the woods, you’ll have to do some fancy footwork. In Yaroslavichi—one of the largest Vepsian villages—we first went to the village store, where the clerks quickly arranged for us to spend the night at Aunt Galya’s house. It didn’t matter that we were nobody to them: they could not leave two young women on the road at night, nor was any question of paying for lodging.

The story of our hostess differed little from those that we had heard in the afternoon: she was born in a neighboring village, married, and worked on a collective farm, and her children have long lived in the city.

In the morning, we wake up to the sound of conversation in the kitchen: pure Vepsian is being spoken. A neighbor lady has come to see Aunt Galya, followed by two thirtysomething twin brothers who make a living by working as day laborers in the village. As soon as we poke our noses out from the curtain, everyone instantly switches to Russian.

In the morning, Aunt Galya feeds us breakfast (pasta with chicken) and tries to explain that there is nothing special there to justify traveling around for a few days. She looks at us as if we are touched in the head. She advises us to travel up the nearest hill, where other people like us (Petersburgers) live in the village of Lashkovo.

An Environmental Life Hack from Old Vepsian Women

Aunt Raya (left) and Aunt Galya live in the same house, each in her own half. Their children have moved away and now they spend most of their free time together.

This mat made from plastic bags can serves its purpose for decades.

In any local history museum they will tell you that homespun rugs are a unique symbol of folk life. Today’s old Vepsian women have gone further, producing something that should be in a museum. They knit mats from plastic bags: a real example of recycling plastic, and the dream of environmental activists.

Not Accepted by His Own Kind
Lashkovo is fifteen minutes away by car. The village is located on the top of a high hill that offers one of the best views in Leningrad Region—it looks almost like the Alps from bottom. In the second house from the road lives Sergei, a legendary character in these parts. We were told about him in almost every conversation, so it was impossible not to stop by his place. The folklore center is proud of him: “We also have young men in our community.” The old ladies tenderly say of him, “Seryozhenka is a good man, but strange.” They are worried that he has separated from his wife. They say that she could not stand the village life: one winter she asked to go to the city and did not return.

Sergei Krylov next to his house in the village of Laskhovo

Sergei Krylov was born and lived all his adult years in Petersburg. A political scientist by education and a graduate of the philosophy faculty at St. Petersburg State University, he never worked a day in his chosen profession.

“In Russia, the people who work as political scientists don’t have the necessary education, and people like me, on the contrary, do not find jobs,” says Krylov.

Consequently, he tried his hand at everything from selling plastic windows and modular partitions to working as a security guard. And at the age of thirty-four, he realized that he was a Veps.

“There is an expression: if you scratch a Russian, you might find a Tatar. Isn’t that how it goes in the original? I scratched myself and found a Veps. I was obsessed with learning the language, and starting a household and a family,” says Sergei.

He is now in his early forties, although he doesn’t look a day over twenty-five. He moved to the village of Lashkovo in 2013. He even remembers the exact date: April 16.

“And on May 1, I had already had a goat, twelve chickens, a rooster, two cats and a dog,” he says.

Sergei found Vepsians under a Russian “shell” on both sides of his family. His grandmother and great-grandmother were from the area. But their villages, and even more so the houses where they lived, are long gone, so Sergei searched for a house via the internet and found one for the price of a heavily used car. He studied farming on YouTube.

“Of course, I was wearing rose-colored glasses: I didn’t have an entirely realistic conception of what I was capable of. That is, if you have never lifted anything heavier than a ballpoint pen in your life, surviving in the village, of course, is not an easy challenge for you. There are exceptions, but I am not one of them,” he says.


The village of Lashkovo, where Sergei Krylov settled

The first challenge was the house. According to the documents, it had been standing for almost a century, but by the time Sergei arrived, it was in decline, rotting and sinking into the ground.

“I thought I could fix the house myself. Or that if I couldn’t do it myself, I could hire people to do it,” Krylov says. “But I never did find any people to do the work. I call that business Vepsian style. You tell people that you have the money and will help them with the job, and everyone tells you that they’re old or their back hurts or make other excuses. I consider myself a Veps, albeit many times removed, and I have great respect for the Veps people, but Veps do not know how to do business. It’s true.”

The second challenge was the household. Sergei kept goats, sheep, a pig, chickens, and bees. He mastered the old-fashioned Russian oven, which he saw for the first time in his life: he threw everything he found into a cast-iron pot and left it to cook, almost like in a slow cooker.

The hardest part was butchering animals.

“The first two times I asked local people to do it, but then I felt ashamed asking them over to slaughter my animals. It is very unpleasant. It’s hard when you raise them yourselves. At such moments, you first pump yourself up emotionally. (Not with alcohol, which I don’t care for.) You have to remember how this kid goat [you’re slaughtering] got loose in the garden, making a mess and gnawing your apple trees. So you psyche yourself up, then quickly go out and do it, and that’s it. I can’t say that it has gone perfectly. But I was managing to do it pretty fast lately,” says Sergei.

While Sergei  managed to get a grip on daily chores, but he has not been able to go native. He started learning his “native” language in Petersburg, but the language that is taught in the city and the one spoken by real Veps are different. The political scientist understands, according to his own estimates, sixty-five percent of what the old ladies in the villages say to him. But he is unable to reply.

During the first few years, he enjoyed getting to know the locals, visiting neighboring villages, and going to tea parties at the folklore center, and the old ladies regarded him with curiosity. It was harder to find male friends.

“They either drink or having nothing to do with [the Vepsian culture revival]. They can speak Vepsian perfectly, but they are bashful about their origins. Unfortunately, the Soviet government broke the back of the Vepsian people. In our conversations, I would ask them about the census, about whether they identified themselves as Veps. No, they would tell census takers that they were Russians. But you’re Veps! I would say to them. Yes, they were Veps, they would say, but they had no idea why they identified themselves as Russians,” Sergei recounts.

Sergei would have identified himself as a Veps. And he would have kept studying the language and helped revive the culture. But the true Veps have refused to adopt this odd guy from Petersburg as one of their own.

“If you were born here, if your history and pedigree are known, then you are a Veps, and they will treat you like a Veps. But if you come from somewhere else, then no matter what you say about your roots, you are Russian. That is, you could say that I am a stranger among my own kind and an insider among strangers. Veps support their own people. A Veps won’t rat on another Veps, but they’ll turn in a Russian at the drop of a hat. For example, in the first or second year of my life in the village, a store in neighboring Yaroslavichi was burglarized. The criminologist was sent to me first. He came, copied down my passport data, and asked leading questions. It was assumed that I had robbed the store. Who else could have done it? Everyone else is a local,” recalls Sergei.

A year ago, Sergei gave up and went to spend the winter closer to the city. Of his entire farm, he left only the bees: they were especially dear to him.

A Literary Newspeak
Veps have no special distinguishing features. If they had any, they left them behind in the ninth century. You cannot tell a Veps from a Russian, Ukrainian, or maybe Izhorian from the neighboring districts of Leningrad Region by looking at their faces. The Veps have also long adopted average Russian names and surnames. Local historians, of course, can talk for a long time about their unique patterns—the “very special” curls and squares with which the Veps decorated clothes and towels. But all this is a matter of the distant past, too, and now everyone shops for clothing in the same stores.

The language is the only thing that has miraculously survived, distinguishing the Veps from everyone else. Vepsian belongs to the Balto-Finnic group, and is closely related to Karelian and Estonian. It is not far from Finnish, so during the Second World War, Veps were employed as translators from Estonian and Finnish to Russian.

For almost a millennium, the Veps lived happily without a written language. The new Soviet government decided to endow them with an alphabet. In 1931, scholars in Leningrad devised a Veps alphabet based on the Latin alphabet and recorded all known words in the language. Textbooks in Vepsian were published, and teachers were trained.

It all came to a grinding halt in 1937. The handful of Vepsian intellectuals were arrested and punished. The Vepsian language was banned in schools. Vepsian textbooks were confiscated.

A Vepsian primer from 1936. Photo: Finno-Ugric Libraries of Russia

Vepsian again became an exclusively oral language. It was spoken at home. Once Veps stepped out of their homes, all conversation was in Russian. Therefore, children had to learn the Russian language specially for school. However, some people were forced to do this before they went to school.

“When the need comes, you learn without noticing it,” says Alevtina Shustrygina, a resident of Vinnitsy. At the age of five, she injured her eye. The case was complicated, so the child was sent to Leningrad on a crop duster. Her parents stayed at home.

Alevtina Shustrygina on the porch of her home

“I didn’t know a single Russian word,” Alevtina recalls. “How did the doctors communicate with me? There I lay for a month, and my entire childish mind was focused on learning the language: there were other children, everyone was talking, and what could I do? When my dad came to pick me up, I had already learned the language. The children in the village were all happy to see me, but I didn’t know Vepsian. I had forgotten it! I probably didn’t speak Vepsian or Russian for a day or two. Then I started speaking Vepsian again and forgot Russian. I had to learn it again in school two years later, but it was easier there.”

The creation of the written Vepsian language began anew in the late 1980s. Now its development and promotion is headquartered in the Karelian capital of Petrozavodsk, where the first Vepsian Culture Society was founded. Books appeared again, and there was even a newspaper in Vepsian. In 1991, textbooks for the first grade were published in Karelia. And while everyone is used to seeing a watermelon (arbuz) on the first page of Russian primers, the Veps primer begins with the word ahven (perch).

But there is a problem. The new language was created artificially. Originally, the northern, central and southern Veps spoken different versions of Vepsian. Moreover, each village could have its own dialect. And native speakers still speak the way they learned in their village. In these circumstances, the literary newspeak is like another dialect: the letters are the seemingly the same, but they’re incomprehensible.

“The northern dialect is almost completely extinct in Leningrad Region. The western vernaculars of the central dialect are still extant. It is spoken in Yaroslavichi, Kurba, Ozera, and Nemzha,” says Igor Brodsky, an associate professor of philology at the Herzen State Pedagogical University. “The southern dialect is extant in the Lodeynoye Pole district, but it is very different from the central one. And the literary language that was invented in Petrozavodsk is based on the eastern dialects of central Veps, which at one time were simply the best-studied in Vologda Region. But this is not the language that is still spoken in Leningrad Region. People in Ozera don’t understand it.”

Brodsky argues that the triumphant propagation of the new Vepsian language is a mistake. While it is happily being taught to beginners, and its advocates report on their successes and show off little books, published in neo-Vepsian, the old dialects are dying off.

Brodsky is outraged.

“What kind of cultural revival can we talk about if we are asked to revive the culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a patriarchal community that has long sunk into oblivion? This culture does not exist and will not exist again. And at the same time, there are no attempts to do a futuristic interpretation of Vepsian culture,” he says.

A Good Evening

“Yesterday” by the Beatles, sung in Vepsian

The Vepsian language, as native speakers explain, was a household language in the twentieth century. During the Soviet years, many songs, tales, and ditties were forgotten. Now Veps are making up for this by, among other things, translating Russian folklore into Vepsian. An old woman sings something in an incomprehensible language, and you recognize “Ryabinushka” or a song from the repertoire of Nadezhda Kadysheva. It has got to the point that “Yesterday” by the Beatles has been recorded in Vepsian, but with new lyrics about “a good evening.”

The Stuff of Legends
“And ‘The Wind Blew from the Sea’ in Vepsian? How do you like that?”

Vyacheslav Vasiliev does not hide his indignation. While playing the accordion, he sings a Vepsian song about fishing, or about an aged beaver that has been bitten on the nose by a carp. As in the north of the Veps region, where everyone is sent to make the acquaintance of Sergei, so in the south everyone has to meet Vyacheslav.

Vyacheslav Vasiliev, leader of the Veps folk group Varasta, sings a Veps song about an old beaver.

The “Vepsian south” consists of villages in the Tikhvin and Boksitogorsk districts, a remote hinterland compared to Vinnitsy. There is no folksy sheen out in these parts, and Veps are often called (somewhat contemptuously) chukars. In the villages, there are also stories of how they conjured up damage and diseases, and destroyed families. Explanations of why they did it, however, have not been preserved in the popular memory

“We were completely forgotten,” says Vasiliev, who is a native Veps. “In our region, say the word ‘Veps’ and people will reply that they live in Vinnitsy. I remember the taunts at school. We were forbidden to speak Vepsian even during recess. Although before that I had heard some words in Russian only when my parents had visitors, distant relatives from the city. And I found it amusing when they spoke Russian.”

After school, his parents sent Vasiliev to study in the city, where he became a successful lawyer. He lived in Leningrad-Petersburg for thirty years, until he was drawn back to the village. He returned and renovated his parents’ house. He recently acquired a horse that he will raise to plow fields and gardens. For the time being, he mows his hay with a scythe. His young wife Anna, also a Veps, keeps busy with the housework.

Vasiliev is not yet ready to move to the village once and for all: there are still things to do in the city. Friends often come from the city to visit him. They say that the lawyer’s house is cozy and pleasant, like grandmother’s house in childhood.

The chapel in Bobrozero is now one of the main attractions.

There is a wide range of opinions about the origins of this stone.

In addition to agriculture, the lawyer is passionate about two things: his folk music group Varasta (he considers it the most proper of such groups, since they stick to the Vepsian repertoire and do everything according to the canons) and the construction of churches. One of them stands in the center of Bobrozero. The door is always open. Inside there are a few icons, brochures, candles—all on trust. A flat gray stone protrudes from the wooden floor in front of the altar.

“I remember there was an old chapel here, then a store was built in its place, but this stone was always there, they didn’t throw it away,” says an old woman we meet in the village.

“What does she remember? The rock? Since childhood? Indeed,” says Vyacheslav sarcastically. “I brought this stone from my grandmother’s house in 1997.”

In neighboring Radogoshchi, the legends are even more interesting. There Vyacheslav built a “chapel” over a spring. True, the “spring” is a water distribution column, where water is supplied by a pump, but those are pesky details.

“The local residents complained that in winter it was difficult to get water from the column because it would be covered in ice. First I built a box over it so that snowdrifts wouldn’t form there. And then a woman said that there was a chapel in Bobrozero, but nothing in Radogoshchi. So then I built a dome with a cross and put it over the column,” explains Vyacheslav.

Like everyone else, Vyacheslav told us about noids who disappeared at the most inopportune times. In one of the neighboring villages, shortly before our arrival, an elderly man had disappeared: he went into the forest down a path and did not return. Rescuers, police, and volunteers went out to search for the missing man, but they did not find him.

“I remember that it happened before: people would get lost in the woods. And each time the locals went looking for them without any appeals to the public, and the noids would stand and say their prayers, and the person would come back. Relatives always went to my grandmother, who knew the incantations. But this time no one thought of such a thing,” Vyacheslav says sadly.

“An Honest-to-Goodness Chukhar”
We had been looking for Veps for five days now. The noids had escaped us in the most magical way: those who “remembered and knew” had traipsed off into the other world. On Friday, we were standing in Bobrozero and looking at the chapel built by the Petersburg lawyer Vyacheslav, when Vitya emerged from a thicket of fireweed, singing a Vysotsky song and carrying a square wicker basket for picking berries.

“Who are you guys looking for?” he asked.

“Veps.”

“You have found what you were looking for. I am a Veps, the last of the Vepsians,  an honest-to-goodness chukhar. I’m going to show you something that will blow your minds.”

We didn’t find a noid, but Vitya offered to tell our fortunes. He didn’t promise anything good.

Vitya is forty-seven years old. He has just returned from picking berries in the woods, and he has big plans for the rest of the day. He trades the berries for money, which in twenty minutes he trades for “the goods” in a neighboring village. A farmer’s wife sells “the goods”: in the evening, milk; in the afternoon, vodka. Vitya is not interested in milk. He calculates as follow: one bottle of vodka per man, one bottle to give away (he had “borrowed” one earlier), half a bottle for us (we are young women, and we do not drink much, but we must be entertained), and two cans of stewed meat for a snack.

“We chukhars are a forest people,” says Vitya, offering a free signature tour of the local swamps and his native haunts.

He desperately wants to show us the real wilderness and laments that we can’t stay for a couple of days.

We follow the Veps to the sound of the bottles clinking in his backpack. It gives Vita strength. “The last of the Vepsians” eagerly tells us about his life. His mother was from a dekulakized family. His father was a troublemaker who roamed with his family from village to village. His brother died sixty days ago. There was also his wife, Tanya, who died in 2014.

“Just as the sun shines and suddenly goes out, so everything became superfluous in an instant when she was gone. I just live and wait for the moment when I will meet her again. I loved her so much,” the honest-to-goodness chukhar says, almost crying.

However, he is still fairly young and quite willing to look for a girlfriend with whom to spend the rest of his life. So he soon goes into “light flirting” mode with one of us.

“What kind of decoration is that on your teeth?” Vitya asks. He has never seen braces.

Vitya casually passes by a dugout boat.

“Tolka sails in that boat,” he says.

“We’ll get to the Island soon. Back in the day, the village was surrounded by water on all sides. Then the water receded, and the Island remained,” Vitya says, continuing the tour. “There used to be lots of houses here. Here is where Grandma Masha lived. Sometimes, when I was coming from the store, she would come out on the porch and tell me to come in. I would tell her I had to go to the village, but she would tell me to come in. She lived alone and wanted to talk. We would have tea and talk.”

The extinct villages are overgrown with grass up to the chest and look like islands in the wild fields.

To the right of Grandma Masha’s house is Grandma Nyura’s hut. There is the same decay and hopelessness: photos scattered on the floor showing what things were like when the village was still thriving; frames without icons (they were removed either by relatives or illegal collectors); a stove that takes up half of the hut.

“And here, if you are believers, we shall stop and pray,” suggests Vitya. “This chapel was built for a reason. Under it there is a stone on which the footprints of Jesus Christ are imprinted: He left them after the resurrection. I’ve seen them myself. But the chapel is locked. It’s old, built in seventeen hundred something, and the boys have made a new roof for it.”

Next to the chapel, Vitya takes out a bottle: “Oh, the vodka is fogging up. Forgive me, Mother of God.” Vitya crosses himself, then takes a sip straight from the bottle. He does not wince. He does not have a bite to eat with his shot. He once again apologizes to everyone.

Vitya has been drinking for several days, and one sip is enough to send him reeling. Suddenly, he switches to politics, saying that he doesn’t need anything from Putin, and just as suddenly he recalls Politkovskaya: “Did they kill her?” The topic of the Veps is exhausted, and we make a difficult decision to part company. Vitya goes into a thicket to collect cloudberries. There has been a good crop of berries this year, and the chukhar knows where to look for them. “The last of the Vepsians” disappears into thicket. The forest welcomes him. It doesn’t welcome us.

We stomped dejectedly home through the forest, past the swamp, through the dead villages, and past another swamp, pouring the water out of our boots for the third time.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos are by the authors. Photos courtesy of 7×7. Translated by the Russian Reader

Dmitry Markov: Life in the Russian Provinces

Thanks to my long-term employment in one organization, I traveled all over Northwest Russia. Going to provincial cities and meeting local social activists was the most inspiring part of the job. When I returned from such business trips, I would tell everyone about the wonderful people I met there and say that they saw everything that was happening around them much more clearly than those who lived in the capitals. In every provincial city, there was always a person who loved their town incredibly, knew everything about it, knew everyone, and did everything they could to make life in that town better.

Or rather, they were trying to keep those towns and villages alive and save what they and the rest of the inhabitants knew and loved from destruction. They wanted to stop the demolition of old houses, the cutting down of forests, and the closing  of schools, hospitals, and clinics, because without all this, their hometowns were doomed to extinction. There was nothing “provincial” about these people, and, most importantly, they were not complacent, unlike, distressingly, so among many activists in the capitals. And what the activists in the provinces said was a hundred times more interesting, original and subtle than what I heard from their colleagues in the capitals, who were always in the limelight and knew how and what to say to make the right impression. It seemed to me that it was the regional activists who, inconspicuously but firmly, were saving my country from complete degradation.

I liked going to Pskov most of all. There, many years ago, I met and then became friends with several wonderful people. I always felt sorry that almost no one I knew at home in Petersburg understood why I admired these trips and these people so much. I had nothing to show them, and I didn’t know how to explain my feelings.

Although I had heard about Yuri Dud, I hadn’t watched any of his videos and didn’t want to know anything about him until he made a video about the HIV epidemic in Russia. My friends who help people with HIV said that this film alone has done more to raise awareness than all previous public education campaigns combined. So I watched Dud’s latest film, because I had heard about the Pskov photographer Dmitry Markov. It turns out that Dmitri Markov is even cooler than I had thought, and that I had seriously underestimated Dud.

The film contains everything that I have seen many times with my own eyes, but could not describe: “simple” people who are amazing in their complexity, people completely ignored by the smart set in the capitals. How is it, for example, that young people who were abandoned as children by alcoholic parents and seemingly have known nothing in their lives but a provincial orphanage and the army actually understand everything that needs to be understood about the world around them much better than many of their peers who grew up in well-off families in Petersburg and Moscow?

Valentina Koganzon

Markov: Life in the Russian Provinces / vDud
10,542,688 views • Nov 18, 2020

Dmitry Markov https://www.instagram.com/dcim.ru
Help Nochlezhka in Kostroma https://www.voskreseniye.ru/pogert/
Help Rostok https://www.deti-rostok.ru/donate
Denis from Porkhov https://www.instagram.com/exstreme_power_show_na_predele/
A 2016 article about the criminal youth movement AUE in the Baikal region, featuring photos by Dmitry Markov https://takiedela.ru/2016/02/aue/
Dud http://vdudvdud.ru/ https://t.me/yurydud

0:00 What is this episode about?
1:16 Why does Markov photograph Russia the way he does?
4:52 Who smartened Dud up a bit?
9:04 Why did we meet Markov in rehab?
15:46 The creepy realization that you’re a drug addict
20:24 Workshops for the mentally disabled
23:25 “Mom left me at the Three Stations”
28:18 Leaving Moscow for Pskov and a salary five times less
33:15 The main problem in the Russian provinces: version #1
37:55 A Russian bogatyr in 2020
41:30 Don’t try this at home
44:06 The main problem in the Russian provinces: version #2
45:26 “Moscow is distant and different”
49:00 How much do you earn?
53:45 Why do we need independent media?
1:00:06 Russia’s best photographer
1:02:03 A region where the 90s never ended
1:06:58 What are Russian orphanages like?
1:11:22 Lyokha and Dasha
1:17:37 The main problem in orphanages
1:24:23 An important argument worth several million eyes
1:27:37 Why does Russia booze it up?
1:30:59 From being a paratrooper fighting in hotspots to helping the homeless
1:33:30 “I was in prison 6 times for a total of 19 and a half years”
1:35:03 How do people get into the Kostroma Night Shelter for the homeless?
1:38:38 A Russian star is born
1:40:07 “I fought for our side, for the Donbass”
1:45:01 “If everyone thinks that there are no problems, you might believe it yourself”
1:46:45 Help for the Russian provinces from an unexpected country
1:51:10 How realtors swindle orphanage kids
1:55:12 Do you believe in God?
1:56:51 Dud’s new hairstyle
2:04:04 What does Markov dream of?
2:07:21 What has happened to the stars of this episode since we filmed it

Translated by the Russian Reader

“Pupils at the correctional boarding school in Khilok, involved in the attack on the police station. The children are facing the courtyard of the boarding school, an old Soviet building without running water and sewerage.” Photograph by Dmitry Markov, originally published by Takie Dela in February 2016. Markov mentions the attack on the police station in his interview with Yuri Dud, above

Grassroots

The English term “grassroots” is often used around the world to denote local civic activism.

The documentary film Grassroots explores three landmark environmental struggle—the fight to save the Suna Forest in Karelia, the ongoing work of EcoWatch in Krasnodar Territory, and the fight to save the Khopyor River in Voronezh Region—using them as a springboard for trying to answer the main questions facing environmental activists in our country today.

In the film, we hear the voices of many environmental activists and listen to the opinions of the most experienced of them, including Yevgeny Vitishko, Andrei Rudomakha, Konstantin Rubakhin, Suren Gazaryan, Yevgeniya Chirikova, Tatyana Chestina, and Grigory Kuksin.

Some of these extraordinary activists have been forced into exile, while others have done serious prison time.

What does it cost to defend our forests, parks, and cities? Who is up to the task?

Director: Konstantin Davydkin
Producer: Maria Muskevich
2018, 58 min., Russia; in Russian with no subtitles
Production: Regista Studio / Make a Movie Production Center

Annotation translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for encouraging me to watch the movie.

Total Victory for Protesters in Shiyes

znakcom-862247-580x387Shiyes Railway Station. Photo courtesy of Znak.com

Arkhangelsk Authorities Announce Closure of Shiyes Landfill Project 
Znak.com
June 9, 2020

The Arkhangelsk regional government has unilaterally terminated its agreement with Technopark LLC on overseeing the investment project for the construction of a landfill at Shiyes. The decision was announced on June 9 by the press service of the region’s governor and the regional government.

The project has lost the preferential granted to priority investment projects in the region, including tax incentives and special conditions for leasing land plots. Arkhangelsk authorities had earlier asked Technopark to terminate the contract by mutual agreement, but the company did not respond, officials explain.

“Alexander Tsybulsky, the acting governor of Arkhangelsk Region, ordered the regional government to terminate the Shiyes Ecotechnopark project,” said Yevgeny Avtushenko, the regional government’s deputy chair. “The decision to remove it from the register of priority investment projects in the Arkhangelsk Region was the next stage in this process.”

Construction on the landfill near Shiyes railroad station in Arkhangelsk Region began in 2018. The plan was to bring about half a million tons of waste annually from Moscow and Moscow Region over twenty years. Technopark LLC invested in the construction project. Residents of the region strongly opposed the dump, and environmental activists set up a camp near Shiyes station and declared an indefinite protest campaign. In 2019, there was a series of clashes between opponents of the landfill and security forces.

Construction of the landfill was supported by the now-former governor of Arkhangelsk Region, Igor Orlov, who called environmental activists “riffraff.” Orlov was forced to resign in early 2020. Alexander Tsybulsky, who took his place, had criticized the landfill.

Construction work at Shiyes was suspended in June 2019 due to protests, and a few months later Shiyes was excluded from the list of places where authorities planned to ship Moscow’s garbage. In January 2020, the Arkhangelsk Regional Arbitration Court ruled the permanent buildings on the site of the future landfill illegal, ordering the investor to demolish them. The lawsuit, which took almost a year, was filed by officials in the neighboring village of Urdoma with the support of the local population. Environmental activists hailed the court’s decision as a historic victory.

Translated by the Russian Reader. If you’d like a sense of what the struggle in Shiyes looked like before the court and local authorities took the side of the protesters, read “Shiyes: The Cost of Solidarity” and “Neocolonialism.”

“Take Off Your Underpants and Squat Five Times”: Nadezhda Belova’s Journey from Grassroots Activism to “Exonerating Terrorism”

nb-1Nadezhda Belova. Photo by Vladimir Lavrov. Courtesy of RFE/RL

“Take Off Your Underpants and Squat Five Times”: A New “Terrorism Exoneration” Case
Svetlana Prokopieva
Radio Svoboda
June 2, 2020

Two years after the bombing in the Federal Security Service (FSB) building in Arkhangelsk, law enforcement agencies continue to launch criminal cases against people who comment on the case on social media, claiming they have violated the law against “exonerating terrorism.” The story of Nadezhda Belova is more proof that the bombing carried out by 17-year-old Mikhail Zhlobitsky, resulting only in his own death, has been turned into a tool for persecuting undesirable activists.

Nadezhda Belova is 36 years old. She was born and lived her whole life in Novaya Usman, the largest village in Russia, near Voronezh. She had never been involved in politics or protest movements. She first came to the attention of the authorities in 2019, when she organized and brought to a victorious conclusion two protest actions defending the interests of her fellow villagers. In 2020, a criminal case was opened against her for “exonerating terrorism.”

“You’re in Big Trouble”
Criminal Code Article 205.2 came into Nadezhda Belova’s life on March 31—”probably at around nine in the morning, under the guise of a search for coronavirus-infected Asians,” Belova says.

“First my husband opened the door. They told him they were doing a search. Naturally, they weren’t wearing masks. First, they asked who lived there. (We rent a flat in Voronezh.) My husband told them that no one lived there but us, the two of us and our son. I came out and asked them why they weren’t wearing masks. When they saw me, they said, ‘Nadezhda Belova, you’re coming with us for questioning.'”

Nadezhda, her 15-year-old son, and her husband were taken to the police station and questioned. On the advice of a lawyer friend, she invoked Article 51 [of the Russian Constitution, which gives people the right not to incriminate themselves].

“I expected to be punished for all my campaigns in Usman,” Belova says, but investigators showed her a comment she had posted on the VK community page Lentach under one of the very first reports about the bombing in Arkhangelsk. Nadezhda had forgotten all about it.​

“This circus lasted for an hour and a half,” she says of the first interrogation. “‘You’re in big trouble,’ they said. Of course, they threatened me—with five years in prison, and with sending my son to an orphanage if I didn’t confess. I asked them what I should confess to and told them I didn’t know what they were talking about. ‘Here,’ they asked, ‘did you write this comment in 2018?’ ‘Can you hear yourselves?’ I asked them, ‘A comment in 2018!’ The investigator says, ‘If I had written this, I would have remembered.’ I wouldn’t have remembered the comment even if they had tortured me, although the investigator said, ‘If we want you to confess to the Kennedy assassination, we have ways of making you talk.'”

Leaving her family at the police station, the investigators took Nadezhda with them to search the rented flat in Voronezh and her home in Novaya Usman. They confiscated all the gadgets they found, including four phones, a laptop, two hard drives, and a flash drive. They released Nadezhda only late in the evening, dumping her in the middle of the city without a phone and without a single kopeck.

“I walked three kilometers at night, bawling my eyes out and hungry,” she says.

The next day, Belova filed complaints with the prosecutor’s office, the Interior Ministry, and the Investigative Committee. (They, of course, would respond to the complaints by claiming that everything that had happened to her was “legal.”) At first, Belova was named as a witness in the “exonerating terrorism” case, but in May she was named a suspect.

“On May 13, they came up to me on the street, shoved a piece of paper in my face, and said, ‘If you don’t show up now, police will arrest you and bring you there,'” Belova says. “I told them I was going to hire a lawyer, that I wouldn’t come without a lawyer. But things turned out badly with the lawyer, too.”

Nadezhda had bad luck with her lawyer. The person she hired on a friend’s recommendation “turned out to be either a pro-Putinist from the get-go, or he changed his stripes along the way,” she says.

He tried to persuade Nadezhda to “tell the truth” and had no objections when the investigator decided to arrest his suspect right in the middle of questioning.

“You wouldn’t confess. Now you’re going to sit in jail, think things over, and see what lies in store for you,” Nadezhda recalls him saying. She spent twenty-four hours in a temporary detention facility.

“They were not locking me up just to teach me a lesson. They put me in a cold, smoky kennel crawling with bedbugs. There were streaks of blood on the walls: apparently, the people before had been crushing the bedbugs. I was given tea and a piece of dry bread in a metal bowl and a mug, like a dog. I called an ambulance. They just give me a shot of painkiller, that was it. I hung in there till morning. In the morning, they put an actress in my cell who immediately started chewing me out. Her performance lasted fifteen minutes. ‘What’s your name? What you in for? If you’re in here, there must be a reason. Clear the dishes. Act normal. I’m going to smoke, you mind?’ I told her I did, because I was a non-smoker. ‘I’ll do as I like.’ She stood next to the bed and lit up a cigarette. I turned toward the wall and thought, ‘If only she doesn’t strangle me.’ But I knew she was an actress, so she stopped talking, too. She had played her role. Then a policeman came in: ‘Hands behind your back. Against the wall.’ They took me to another room and did a complete body search. They told me to strip naked, and patted down all my things. I was told to take off my underpants and squat five times: the idea was that I had drugs stuffed in there,” Belova recounts.

“It’s going to be like this from now on. You’re suspected of committing a really terrible crime,” she was told.

When she left the detention center, the investigator met her, promising to send her back to her cell if she didn’t immediately sign a confession stating when, where, in whose presence, and on what brand of telephone she had posted the comment.

“I said, ‘You do understand that this is really a lie? It’s nonsense.’ Well, then the three of us—the lawyer, the investigator, and I—wrote an essay entitled ‘What I Wrote on October 31,'” Belova recounts. “‘You do understand that you could go to prison for forcing a confession and lying?’ But the investigator said, ‘In 1937, we would have tortured you for an hour, and you’d have confessed right away. We wouldn’t have had to drive you here and there, we wouldn’t have wasted time: we would have needed only an hour.’ They all laughed.”

__________________

[Prokopieva:] They have blood ties with 1937 . . .

[Belova:] I’ll say even more—they’re waiting for the go-ahead. Once they get permission, I don’t think they’ll even need to be persuaded. They’re too lazy to drive me here and there and waste time. They want to turn torture me quickly and get on with their lives. I said to them, “If you were ordered to shoot at children right now, you would shoot without flinching.” 

You later retracted the confession?

Yes, of course! On May 13, I was put in the lockup. On the 14th, I confessed to everything. On the 15th, I got a new lawyer and completely recanted my testimony. I wanted them to write that I had been coerced with the threat of prison, but the investigator categorically refused to do it. “Do you think I’m going to denounce myself?” he asked.

nb-2Screenshot of the social media post, dated October 31, 2018, under which Belova posted the comment that prompted the criminal case against her. The post reads, “There has been an explosion at the FSB building in Arkhangelsk. One person has been killed. The cause of the blast is under investigation.” Courtesy of RFE/RL

Belova was unable to recall the comment for which she was being prosecuted. But she did find the post on the social media community page and reread it. She called the slain man a “martyr” and wrote that he would “go to heaven.” Nadezhda now suggests that when she wrote it, she thought that an FSB employee was the victim since, at the time, there was no information about the identity and fate of the terrorist. Her comment also included the word “pushback.”

“Yeah, and there was also the phrase ‘Putin’s devils,'” Belova recalls.

Although her comment has been deleted, the responses to it are still there, including this one: “Nadezhda, they’re already coming to get you. Take care of yourself and your loved ones.”

“Many times I’d seen comments to many people on VK like ‘They’re coming to get you’ and ‘You’ve been reported to the FSB,’ but I’d always thought they were jokes. I’d been threatened many times in my life, after the campaigns for the parking lot and the jitneys, and people had filed ‘rioting’ complaints against me when I still lived in Usman. So I would have only laughed at such comments. I didn’t really believe people were jailed for the things they said. I didn’t realize that crackdowns like that were happening in Russia,” Belova says.

“There Was No Time to Choose Who to Be the Hero”
Belova has now been charged with violating Article 205.2 of the Criminal Code and released on her own recognizance. Her new lawyer, in whom she has confidence, is being paid by OVD Info.

The answer to the question of why it took the security forces almost two years to charge her with a “really terrible crime” is incredibly simple. In 2018, Nadezhda Belova was still of no interest to the regime’s watchdogs.

“I was born in Usman and had lived there all my life. My mother worked as a commercial freight forwarder, and my father was a mechanical engineer. I graduated from high school with a silver medal. I was a goody two-shoes, even a little bit of an outcast, you could say. I spent summers in the countryside reading books—Natasha Rostova, Chekhov, and Bunin,” Nadezhda says about herself.

nb-3Nadezhda Belova’s native village. Photo by Vladimir Lavrov. Courtesy of RFE/RL

She graduated from the Voronezh Technological Academy in 2005, giving birth to a child in her fifth year there.

“After that, as it happens, nobody hired me because I had a child and later nobody hired me because I had no experience,” Belova says.

An economics and information specialist by education, Belova worked at the post office, then as a clerk “punching out invoices.” She had a failed marriage, which she describes as “useless and unnecessary.” Finally, five years ago, she met Sergei, with whom she has started a real family and a family business. Sergei was teaching robotics and programming to children, their son had gradually begun helping out, and Nadezhda handled advertising and moderating group pages on social media. This year, to be closer to work, they moved to Voronezh.

“By the way, we had wanted to register as self-employed, but the coronavirus and the arrest have blindsided us,” Belova says.

Even before moving to Voronezh, Nadezhda had been in the public eye as a grassroots activist. She was motivated not by power, money or popularity, but by the sense that her “shoulders were pressed to the mat.”

“They have started taking away the last things we have. As it is, they haven’t been doing anything [for us], just skinning our hides,” she says by way of explaining the reasons for her activism. “That’s how I look at it. I took it as an occupation, a war, an attack by fascists. There was no time to choose who to be the hero, so I decided, ‘Who would do it if not me?'”

Belova was annoyed by the decision of the local authorities to let a parking lot next to the ospital be redeveloped as a store. She wrote posts on local community social media pages, invited journalists to Novaya Usman, and appeared on television herself. The protest campaign was successful: the construction site was moved, and a new “huge paved parking lot, four times larger” was built in place of the old one.

nb-4The parking lot that Nadezhda Belova and other people in Novaya Usman stopped from being redeveloped as a store. Photo by Vladimir Lavrov. Courtesy of RFE/RL

Six months later, in June, Novaya Usman faced a more serious problem: the governor of Voronezh Region, Alexander Gusev, announced that the area’s public transport routes would be optimized. Jitneys from Usman would be forbidden from entering Voronezh. People would have to transfer to Voronezh municipal transport routes on the outskirts of the city.

“We realized it would be a disaster for us,” Belova says. “I told people we shouldn’t wait for them to cut us off. We just needed to make ourselves heard: we’d make a video and circulate a petition, letting them see we were opposed. Naturally, people said yes, that nothing good could come of [the governor’s plans]. I wrote a post on a community page, asking people to meet at the shopping center to collect signatures on a petition. All that was written there was that we opposed the cancellation of suburban transport routes and banning jitneys from entering the city. That was it! No posters, no rallies against Putin.”

Belova again wrote social media posts, made media appearances, and met personally with various officials. She and her fellow campaigners successfully defended the right of rural public transport to make stops in Voronezh. Her fellow villagers thanked Belova in the comments to reports on the campaign’s progress: “Such a fragile young woman has been dealing with three big, experienced men trying to defend the rights of all the inhabitants of New Usman! And she’s not afraid to tell the whole truth to their faces! Thank you, Nadezhda! You’re a smart cookie!”

“Everyone supported me at that moment. When I wrote on the community page that someone was denouncing me to the authorities, they told me not to fear, that they would defend me, that I was doing a great job, that I should run to become village head, that they supported me,” Nadezhda recalls. “A year goes by, and people have forgotten. Not only did they not support me, but some of them suggested I should think hard about what I’d said. Back then they told me I should run for head of the village, but now they’re telling me to think about what I’ve done. People have forgotten.”

__________________

2019 was much quieter in terms of public politics, unlike 2017–18, when there was Navaly’s presidential campaign and then the elections. Where were you during this time?

I have never voted for Putin. I realized back in 1999 that our country was coming to a gradual end. I was only 16 years old—my brother, who is four years older, said, “That’s it, this country is over. The monster has come!” His phrase summed it up for me. Then there was the Nord-Ost siege, the Beslan school siege, and the annexation of Crimea. I already looked at our country with sadness and pain. When would the people wake up? I asked myself. I realized it would never happen! Where was I? We have no elections in Usman. There are some local clowns who either shuffle papers around or aid and abet corrpution. Usman is the total pits in this regard. We have no politics: there is no opposition in Usman, just bottomless corruption, theft and nepotism.

So you weren’t involved in politics or activism of any kind?

Absolutely not! By the way, I once went to meet with officials about the jitneys. One of Gusev’s people asked me, “You probably want something for yourself, right? To be a village head or a council member? What do you want? Money? power?” I told him, “No matter how poor I am, I will never join your party or knuckle under.” No, I live a dignified life, and I won’t be ashamed to look my grandchildren in the eyes in the future. I’m not a vegetable. That matters most of all. In fact, that’s what I have been punished for.

You haven’t missed Usman after moving to Voronezh?

I loved that village and am still happy when something happens there. I don’t regret speaking out, I don’t regret being arrested, because I am a human being. I always wondered who I was. For example, I could say that I was a mother, that I was a daughter. I realized in 2019 that I was a human being and a citizen. I’m not a punching bag, I’m not a pushover—I’m a citizen. I can say this with absolute certainty, and it gives me strength and confidence. Even if I were alone, I would be a citizen. That is the highest calling I could have.

nb-5Nadezhda Belova on the limits of Novaya Usman. Photo by Vladimir Lavrov. Courtesy of RFE/RL

You’re not resentful that your home village has turned its back on you at a difficult moment?

In the house where I lived, a neighbor lady has knocked together a playground—there are some benches and chintzy swings. I recently went there to paint pictures on the walls. I paid for the paint with my own money. I breathed this paint and cleaned up dog poo and empty bottles. As a child, I saw puddles of sewage, drunks and drug addicts. Books were my only salvation, as I lived in utter poverty and was hungry all the time. May their children grow up amidst beauty. If at least one child doesn’t become a drug addict or go to prison thanks to this beauty, I will feel that I haven’t lived my life in vain. These are children, these are our children! After all, someone did not provide warmth, kindness and morality to the people who detained me and undressed me. They grew up to be monsters. This is a universal problem. It is sad that children escape into drug addiction, that they blow themselves up. I have tried to change this little world as much as I can. Everything I could do, I have done and will do. I won’t be made into a monster. I won’t retaliate, I won’t hate, and I’m not going to kill myself.

Nadezhda Belova is the latest in a growing list of Russians who have been prosecuted for allegedly publicly “exonerating” the suicide bomber Mikhail Zhlobitsky. Belova has joined the ranks of Lyudmila StechOleg NemtsevIvan LyubshinSvetlana ProkopievaAnton AmmosovPavel ZlomnovNadezhda RomasenkoAlexander DovydenkoGalina GorinaAlexander SokolovYekaterina Muranova15-year-old Moscow schoolboy Kirill, and Vyacheslav Lukichev. Translated by the Russian Reader