The Last of the Vepsians

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

Zaharia Cușnir, Rural Moldovan Photographer

zaharia-cusnir-zacu-2520

Found in an Abandoned House in Northern Moldova, Zaharia Cușnir’s Photographs Have Been Published Online
Locals
January 5, 2020

The official presentation of the online archive of works by the amateur photographer Zaharia Cușnir  (1912–1993), who took pictures of northern Moldovan villagers in the 1950s and the 1960s, took place on January 3, 2020.

zaharia-cusnir-zacu-2456

Three and a half years ago, while working on his graduation project, Academy of Arts student Victor Gălușcă found around twenty old photographic negatives amid trash in an abandoned house in the village of Roșietici, 122 kilometers north of Chișinău. He showed his find to his teacher, Nicolae Pojoga. Even this small number of shots was enough to convince Pojoga of their artistic and ethnographic value. A week later, Gălușcă returned to Roșietici hoping to find at least a few more shots by the unknown rural photographer. In a house whose windows and doors were missing, he found a dozen more, and when he climbed into the attic, a real treasure awaited him: a suitcase containing thousands of negatives. Thus began the project of restoring the photo archive of amateur photographer Zaharia Cușnir, who recorded the faces and everyday lives of villagers in the 1950s and 1960s.

zaharia-cusnir-zacu-2450

Cușnir was the youngest of the sixteen children of Iacov and Anna Cuşnir, who lived in the village of  Climăuți (now known as Roșietici Nou) on the Răut River. Zaharia went to the village school in Rogojeni before graduating from a pedagogical lyceum in Iași. He worked for a short time as a geography teacher before the war. We know that he spent time in prison after the war, and later he went from being an individual farmer to working on a collective farm. His work record book contains such entries as “plastered,” “hauled clay,” “laid concrete,” and “carried stones,” but there is no mention of his being employed as a photographer. Photography was Cuşnir’s hobby and labor of love.

zaharia-cusnir-zacu-2541

Cuşnir began taking pictures around 1955. His wife Daria and four children reproached him for photographing everyone, including beggars, who they though should not be in the frame since they could not serve as an example to others. Until 1970, he shot scenes of village life, leaving us nearly 4,000 medium-sized (6 x 6 cm) photographic negatives. Since they were found three and half years ago, the negatives have been thoroughly restored and archived, as well as painstakingly scanned under the direction of the well-known documentary photographer Ramin Mazur. There have been several shows of Cuşnir’s work in Moldova, Romania, and Germany, and Cartier Editions published a book containing 204 photographs by Cuşnir in 2017.

zaharia-cusnir-zacu-2495

Since Cuşnir died in 1993, his house has been abandoned. His daughter lives next door in the same village, and all the negatives were obtained with her permission. Work on the negatives was supported by a project grant from the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Fellowship.

High-resolution scans of Cuşnir’s photographs can be found at zaharia.md.

Thanks to Alexander Markov for the heads-up. Images courtesy of Locals. Translated by the Russian Reader

Oleg Sentsov: “Don’t Believe Putin”

sentsovOleg Sentsov and David Sassoli at the Sakharov Prize award ceremony. Photo courtesy of Deutsche Welle

“Don’t Believe Putin,” or, What Advice Sakharov Prize Winner Sentsov Gave the European Union
Yuri Sheyko
Deutsche Welle
November 26, 2019

Andrei Sakharov, Nelson Mandela… Oleg Sentsov could never have imagined his name would be on a par with these people.

“This is a great honor and a great responsibility,” the Ukrainian filmmaker said during his appearance at the European Parliament.

It was there on November 26 that he was finally given the Sakharov Prize he had been awarded in 2018. This was the second award ceremony. There was an empty chair in the plenary hall in Strasbourg a year ago because Sentsov was still being held in a Russian penal colony. After the exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia in early September, the European Parliament held a new ceremony in which the Ukrainian was able to participate.

Sentsov Warns EU Politicians
The ceremony on Tuesday was simple. The president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, spoke before yielding the floor to the prizewinner. Sentsov briefly mused about what the Sakharov Prize meant to him before quickly segueing to his main message.

“There is a lot of talk nowadays about reconciliation with Russia, about negotiations. I don’t believe Putin, and I would urge you not to believe him. Russia and Putin will definitely deceive you. They don’t want peace in Donbass, they don’t want peace for Ukraine. They want to see Ukraine on its knees,” Sentsov said.

His words were in stark contrast to the high expectations for the summit of the so-called Normandy Four, scheduled for December 9 in Paris, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron’s desire to normalize relations with Russia. Sentsov thus had advice for all EU politicians.

He said that every time one of them thought about extending the hand of friendship to Putin over the heads of Ukrainians, they should also think about every one of the thirteen thousand people who have perished in the war in Donbass, about the Ukrainian political prisoners still held in Russia, about the Crimean Tatars, who face arrest at any minute in annexed Crimea, and about the Ukrainian soldiers “in the trenches, risking their lives for our freedom and your freedom.”

Laconic as usual, Sentsov spoke for less than five minutes, but it was enough to elicit applause from both MEPs and visitors. The balcony was nearly full with visitors and journalists. Most MEPs were also present for the ceremony. There were only empty seats on the edges of the assembly hall, where left and right populists sit. Members of both groupings took their places several minutes after Sentsov left the dais so they could take part in voting.

Sentsov: “No Happy Ending”
The ceremony lasted less than half an hour: no speeches by or questions from MEPs were on the program. Many of them thought this was not enough, however, so the day before the ceremony, on the evening of November 25, the foreign affairs and development committees, along with the human rights subcommittee, which are responsible for the Sakharov Prize, hosted a conversation with Sentsov.

When Sentsov arrived at the event, MEPs lined up to greet him or have their picture taken with him. The session was thus delayed for five minutes or so.

Many of the MEPs who spoke at the meeting praised Sentsov’s courage.

“I admire and respect you not only for your courage, but also for your perseverance. You emerged a winner. And so we are very happy that you are free. By your example, you can inspire people to fight for freedom not only in Ukraine and Europe, but also around the world where there are dictatorships,” observed Sandra Kalniete, a Latvian MEP for the European People’s Party.

However, the praise did not make a big impression on the Ukrainian. He thanked the MEPs for supporting Ukraine in the struggle against Russian aggression, but reminded them the struggle was not over.

“There was no happy ending when I was released,” Sentsov said, reminding the MEPs that over one hundred Ukrainian political prisoners were still behind bars in Russia, and Russian-backed separatists in Donbass held over two hundred captives.

Sentsov’s Creative Plans
Kalniete’s voice was filled with emotion, and she even apologized for being so flustered. Perhaps it was emotion that made foreign affairs committee chair David McAllister mistakenly identify Sentsov as a “Russian” filmmaker, but he immediately corrected himself.

“As a Ukrainian filmmaker and writer, you have been a very harsh critic of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea,” McAllister said.

The MEPs peppered their guest with questions and requests for political advice, but after the first round of speeches by representatives of all the factions who wished to attend the event, Sentsov had nothing more to say.

McAllister decided to take a creative approach.

“There is a second round [of speeches] in this ‘movie.’ You’re a director, and I’m an actor, but this time it’s the other way around. You can say whatever you want, especially about your experience with the Russians,” he said.

After a few more questions, Sentsov no longer refrained from comment.

Speaking about the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which Ukraine relinquished the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal in exchange for assurances regarding its territorial integrity, Sentsov said, “Since they [Russian] took Crimea from us, they can return our bombs.”

If the MEPs had reacted enthusiastically to many of the Sakharov Prize laureate’s statements, there was a heavy silence in the room after he said this. Subsequently, he had to explain what he meant more than once. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, he assured us it had not been an “actual” proposal.

“It’s not a call to return [our] nuclear weapons, but an argument in negotiations: where it all began and what we need to get back to,” Sentsov underscored.

He believes negotiations in the Normandy and Minsk formats are a dead end, and sees the possibility of a real solution to the problem of Donbass and Crimea when Vladimir Putin ceases to be the president of Russia.

“And then Ukraine, Europe, and the whole world should be ready to take a tough stance on the return of those territories,” he said.

The MEPs also asked Sentsov about his plans for the future. The director confirmed he intends to finish shooting the film Rhino first. He interrupted work on the film when the Euromaidan protests, in which he was involved, kicked off. The director has written screenplays for five films, which he would like to shoot in five years. Sentsov warned, however, that he did not mix creative work with public life, so we should not expect him to make films about his time in prison, Maidan or Crimea.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Darya Apahonchich: Closing Doors

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Darya Apahonchich
Facebook
August 13, 2019

Things are so sad I will tell you something sort of funny.

I am an imported Petersburger. I was born in a tiny town, almost a village. It was not the custom there to lock doors. People would close doors to keep out the wind and snow, but not random passersby because we should not hide from other people. On the contrary, we should be ready to help them.

So, people left the doors to their houses open.

Out of provincial habit, I kept my door in Petersburg unlocked up until this year. I have never owned anything valuable. We have always been fairly poor and, sometimes, really poor.

You wonder whether I have been robbed blind or had something stolen? I have been robbed at the hospital, in the library, and at the pediatric clinic, but I have never been robbed at home.

And so, this past spring, when the cops came to our house, beating on the door and yelling, the door was not locked. Can you imagine?

Because it did not occur to us to lock it, just as it did not occur to the cops to turn the doorknob.

So, they banged on the door, but they did not turn the knob.

I have locked the door ever since then. I am not afraid of mosquitoes, people or thieves, but I do not want the police to get in.

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader

Drive Like Jehu

Wonders of OSINT
June 17, 2019

Penza Region Governor Ivan Belozertsev has claimed CIA agents were behind a deadly brawl between Roma and ethnic Russians in a town with the beautiful name of Chemodanovka (“Suitcaseville”).

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This is the state-owned Mercedes, equipped with a flashing light, in which Russian patriot Belozertsev travels around his native land. Someone writing on a forum for motorists described his driving style.

“Yesterday, a Mercedes with a flashing light (license plate P 058 PP58) passed me on the Tambov Highway. He definitely could not care less about obeying the traffic signs.”

What do you expect? When US intelligence agents are all around, you have to drive like Jehu to shake their tail.

Photo courtesy of Wonders of OSINT. Translated by the Russian Reader

Russian Import Substitution Blues

cherry coke 2018“Try Ripe Cherry Coca-Cola.” Billboard, Petersburg, July 28, 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

The Consequences of Countersanctions: Food Import Embargo Makes Russian Producers More Inefficient
Vladimir Ruvinsky
Vedomosti
June 25, 2019

Vladimir Putin has extended Russia’s food embargo until the end of 2020, but the policy’s positive effect has dried up. Instead, it has been making Russian producers less efficient and driving up prices. The Kremlin imagined an embargo would be a good response to western sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, but Russian consumers have had to foot the bill.

Putin’s ban has been in effect since August 2014. It prohibits the import of meat, fish, and dairy products from the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia, and Norway. During his televised “direct line” to the nation the other day, Putin explained that, over the past five years, the sanctions those countries imposed on Russia had led to the loss of $50 billion for the Russian economy since 2014. The west, however, had lost more. According to Putin, the EU had lost $140 billion, while the US had lost $17 billion. Apparently, Russians should take heart knowing they have not been the main losers in the sanctions war.

First, however, the economies of the EU and the US are many times bigger than Russia’s, so, in fact, Russia has lost the most. Second, the losses do not boil down to simple arithmetics. Third, the subject of countersanctions has not really been discussed. Natalya Volchkova, director of applied research at the Center for Economic and Financial Research (CEFIR), has calculated the protectionist policy costs every Russian 2,000 rubles a year: this is the sum total of what we overpay for products in the fourteen categories affected by the countersanctions. She argues that, out of this sum, 1,250 rubles go to Russian producers and 500 rubles go to companies importing food from countries not covered by countersanctions, while the toll on the Russian economy’s efficiency amounts to 250 rubles per person per year.

Full import substitution has not been achieved: suppliers from the sanctioned countries have been replaced by suppliers who work with other countries, who often charge more for their goods. Restricting competition was meant to give Russian agriculture a leg up, and some domestic producers have, in fact, increased output. According to Rosstat, retail food imports decreased from 34% in 2014 to 24% in 2018. Since 2016, however, the dropoff in imports has trailed off. Volchkova complains that most Russian import-substituted goods have increased in price. They are produced by businesses that had been loss-making. This is the source of the overall inefficiency.

Natalya Orlova, the chief economist at Alfa Bank, divides countersanctions into two phases. When they are implemented they have a positive effect, but over time the risks of negative consequences increase.  The only good option on the horizon is the lifting of the sanctions. When it might happen is not clear, says Orlova: it is currently not on the agenda. When it does happen, however, it will be bad news for Russian producers. Countersanctions have helped major players increase their shares of the domestic market. They have become more visible in such cushy conditions but less competitive as well. The longer the conditions are maintained, the less ready the Russian agro-industry will be to face the harsh competition. When the walls come tumbling down, we will see again that European producers are more sophisticated technologically.

Translated by the Russian Reader