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

The Syrian Breakthrough

kuzminNikolai Kuzmin during his solo picket outside the exhibition The Syrian Breakthrough, in Pskov. His placard reads, “Spend budget money on our own schools and hospitals, not on someone else’s war.” Photo by Lyudmila Savitskaya. Courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Yabloko Activist Detained in Pskov at “Syrian Breakthrough” Exhibition
Lyudmila Savitskaya
Radio Svoboda
April 26, 2019

In Pskov, police have detained local Yabloko Party activist Nikolai Kuzmin, who held a solo picket outside an exhibition of military equipment entitled The Syrian Breakthrough. Kuzmin stood behind servicemen queued at the city’s train station to see the exhibition.

He held a placard that read, “Spend budget money on our own schools and hospitals, not on someone else’s war.”

Commenting on his actions, Kuzmin claimed over 25,000 schools had been closed in Russia over the past twenty years. The activist argued that, outside Moscow and Petersburg, it was nearly impossible to get an ambulance, and half of the men in Pskov Region did not live to retirement age.

“As in a dystopia, however, instead of being productive and saving the lives of Russians, we have raised war into a cult that we worship. Lacking reasons to feel proud, we are administered daily injections of patriotism. But patriotism does not mean fighting wars in someone else’s countries. It means building things in your own country and having a critical attitude toward the mania for military victory,” Kuzmin added.

Kuzmin’s picket lasted around ten minutes. During this time, members of the pro-regime organization Team 2018 managed to have their picture taken with him. Kuzmin was then surrounded by military police who asked him to leave. Kuzmin responded by asking them to identify themselves [as required by Russian laws regulating the police] and explain their grounds for wanting to remove him from a public event.

The military policemen were unable to fulfill Kuzmin’s request, so Sergei Surin, head of the Interior Ministry Directorate for Pskov [i.e., the local police chief] came to their aid. He personally detained Kuzmin while repeatedly refusing to explain the grounds for the arrest to Kuzmin and comment on it to reporters who were present.

Lev Schlosberg, leader of the Yabloko Party in Pskov, demanded Kuzmin’s immediate release and the removal from Pskov of The Syrian Breakthrough, which he dubbed a “propaganda scrap heap.”

“Russia must cease military operations in Syria, while government funds should be spent on peaceful goals that further the interests of Russia’s citizens,” Schlosberg said.

In February 2019, the Russian Defense Ministry launched a train containing weapons seized, it claimed, by Russian servicemen during combat in Syria. The train departed Moscow on an itinerary of sixty cities and towns. When it reaches Vladivostok, the train will head back to Moscow. It is scheduled to arrive there on the eve of Victory Day, May 9.

Thanks to Nikolai Boyarshinov for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Schoolchildren in Kemerovo Region Fainting from Hunger

school lunchA stock photo of schoolchildren enjoying lunch in some place happier and more prosperous than Kemerovo Region and other parts of Russia that have been left to die by the country’s rapacious, neo-imperialist ruling class. Courtesy of Siber.Realii

Inspection Confirms Schoolchildren Fainting from Hunger in Kemerovo Region
Radio Svoboda
February 5, 2019

An inspection has confirmed that schoolchildren in Kemerovo Region have been fainting from hunger. Dmitry Kislitsyn, the region’s children’s rights ombudsman, said schoolmasters and regional officials had attempted to hush up the incidents. He has written about the problem in a report to Kemerovo Governor Sergei Tsivilyov. REN TV has published a copy of the report.

In particular, the health worker at the school in the village of Pashkovo, in the region’s Yashkino District, reported three incidents of children fainting that officials had not bothered to register. They were caused by hunger. In the school itself, the water was unfit for drinking, and the cafeteria was in disrepair. At other schools, pupils were divided into those who paid for meals and those from impoverished families. In certain cases, the number of children receiving hot meals during the school day did not exceed a third of the total number of pupils, while the portions of food served were smaller than stated in the regulations.

Kislistyn said the majority of members of the inspection commission had tried to “paper over the incidents.” Nevertheless, the ombudsman had reported the outcome of the inspection to the Russian Investigative Committee, the prosecutor’s office, and the official national consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor.

On January 23, 2019, Kislitsyn told a session of the regional council that incidents of hunger-induced fainting had increased among children in the region’s schools. He claimed he had been contacted by homeroom teachers who had noticed the social stratification of their pupils in connection with school meals. Some children were not eating at school because their parents did not pay for meals. According to Kislitsyn, the parents also could not afford to feed their children in the mornings. The ombudsman said this was the case in village schools, as well as among children bused to school from the countryside. Regional officials, however, had denied Kislitsyn’s claims.

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

Church and State

vladimir sunset

Nearly Fifty Russian Orthodox Church Affiliates Awarded Presidential Grants
Vedomosti
Yelena Mukhametshina
October 31, 2018

At least 47 organizations affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) have been awarded presidential grants totalling 55.3 million rubles [approx. 734,000 euros] in the latest NGO grants competition, according to the Presidential Grants for Civil Society Development Foundation website. They include lay religious organizations, monasteries, parishes, and dioceses.

Thus, the parish of the Church of the New Russian Martyrs and Confessors in Smolensk has been awarded 2.2 million rubles for a project entitled “The Pearl Necklace of Holy Russia,” meant to encourage youth tourism and cooperation with the Belarusian Orthodox Church. The ROC’s Yakutia Diocese has been awarded 2.5 million rubles for a project entitled “Yakutia’s Churches Are Russia’s Historic Legacy.” The grant winners plan to produce three documentary films, ten videos in a series entitled “Reading the Gospel Together,” and one video about Easter. The largest grant awarded to these NGOS was 10 million rubles. Mercy, an ROC organization that helps homeless people, won this grant.

According to Ilya Chukalin, executive director of the Presidential Grants for Civil Society Development Foundation, it is easy to explain why organizations associated with the ROC have won grants. The Orthodox Initiative Grant Competition has been held in Russia since 2005, so these NGOs have know-how in writing grants and also submit numerous grant applications. As Chukalin explains, the more applications submitted, the better the chances of winning.

“Besides, the grant applications are mainly submitted by church parishes, often in villages. Grants have to be submitted by legal entities, and there are only two types of legal entities in small villages: local governments and church parishes. Usually, they apply for small grants—for example, to build a park or sports facilities in the village,” Chukalin said.

Chukalin, however, underscored the fact that Muslim and Jewish projects have also been awarded grants.

Grants totalling 41 million rubles [appox. 554,000 euros] were awarded to eleven branches of the Combat Brotherhood, headed by Boris Gromov, former governor of Moscow Region, and Russian MP Dmitry Sablin. The Combat Brotherhood’s head office won the largest grant, worth approximately 20 million rubles, for a project entitled “Memory Is Stronger than Time,” dedicated to the thirtieth anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. The Russian Union of Youth (RSM) has been awarded 63.5 million rubles [approx. 843,000 euros] to involve young people in developing small towns and settlements.

The largest grant in the competition overall was awarded to the Concerts, Festivals, and Master Classes Agency, which will spend nearly 112 million rubles on a project entitled “Yuri Bashmet to Russia’s Young Talents.”

A total of 19,000 applications was submitted to two competitions in 2018. 3,573 projects were awarded grants. The total amount awarded was 7.8 billion rubles [approx. 103.6 million euros].

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The largest presidential grants awarded to NGOs. 1) Concerts, Festivals, and Master Classes Agency, “Yuri Bashmet to Russia’s Young Talents,” 111.97 million rubles; 2) Association of Art and Culture Schools, “Second Tertiary Degrees for Creative Professionals,” 80.64 million rubles; 3) New Names Foundation, “Russia’s New Names,” 68.96 million rubles; 4) Russian Union of Youth, “The Space of Development,” 63.51 million rubles; 5) Golden Mask Festival, National Theatrical Prize, 50 million rubles; 6) Northern Capital Foundation, “A Road through War,” 40.97 million rubles; 7) Elena Obraztsova Foundation, International Competition for Young Opera Singers, 40.72 million rubles; 8) Butterfly Children Foundation, Compiling a Registry of Epidermolysis Bullosa Patients, 35 million rubles; 9) Tyumen Development Foundation, Local Community Development Centers, 27.04 million rubles; Peace Avenue Foundation, “The Country’s Main Law,” 24.92 million rubles; Urals Musicians Association, Urals Music Night International Festival, 23.86 milliion rubles. Source: Presidential Grants for Civil Society Development Foundation, October 2018

Alexei Makarkin argues that this way of awarding grants has its own rational. The ROC has long been an ally of the government, which can help it implement small projects, for example, to encourage an energetic priest.

The Combat Brotherhood has also been working with the government a long time, and this year marks the anniversary of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

The large grant awarded to the RSM, however, may have been triggered by the protest votes cast in many small towns during the recent local and regional elections, argues Makarkin.

“The hinterland is also vital, because in many small towns there is the sense of having reached the edge. There are no more budget cuts that can be made, and reforms will hit them hard. Therefore, the idea is to support local activists, whose projects do not require a lot of money,” Makarkin said.

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader