Subtle Forms of Utter Hogwash

Dostoevsky and the Russian Soul

Rowan Williams’ fascination with Russia began when, as a boy, he watched Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible on television. After that he became a born again Russophile, learned the language, and even completed a doctorate on Russian Christianity. But no Russian figure has held his fascination more than Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Dostoevsky is still considered among the greatest novelists the world has ever produced. But his talent for writing complex, often contradictory characters is rooted in a single traumatic moment when, as a young man, he found himself before a firing squad. The event changed his life, his writing, and his views on Russia’s place in the world.

Now that tensions between Russia and the West are once again running high, Rowan considers what the author’s life and thought can tell us about the country today.

Ultimately, Rowan finds, what makes Dostoevsky such a wonderful novelist is his humanity. At a time of deep divides, this is a writer with something to offer us all.

Source: BBC Radio 4

Source: Twitter.com

The Post-Soviet Imaginary

“Tashkent 1930,” reads the caption in the original posting of this photo on Facebook. The girls are wearing shirts bearing the (Latin) abbreviation “UzSSR” (Uzbekistan Soviet Socialist Republic). The cotton boll emblem on their shirts suggests they might be headed for the cotton fields as “voluntary” pickers, an abusive practice that is still common there. Thanks to Sergey Abashin for the heads-up.
Anatoly Belkin, “Persimmon Vendor,” Imperial Porcelain Factory. Posted on Facebook by Andrei Yerokhin. Thanks to Sergei Damberg for the heads-up. Despite this figurine’s “old timey” (Soviet) appearance, underscored by the “Ovoshchprodtorg No. 17” (“Vegetable Retail Organization No. 17”) logo  on the stand, a commenter claims the work is by a modern artist.

The Police

This is the first thing that pops up when you do an image search for “the Russian police.” The caption reads: “A Russian police officer detains a teenager during rally in St Petersburg protesting against retirement age increases. Photograph: Roman Pimenov/AP.” Courtesy of the Guardian

There is no “politics” in Russia anymore, only “police” (per Jacques Rancière’s distinction). And this is what “police” in Russia are up to, 24/7, 365 days a year:

University student Miloslava Malyarova and her boyfriend were detained on the streets of Moscow in August. They were held at the police station overnight without explanation, and their personal belongings, internal passports and mobile phones were confiscated. During the night, Miloslava says, a drunk police officer came into her cell and raped her. The young woman tried to slash her wrists with a razor in order to force the police to release her, but she was held until morning.

The Investigative Committee, with whom she lodged a complaint the next day, has refused to launch a criminal case. They decided that the young woman entered into sexual contact with the policeman voluntarily. After all, no injuries characteristic of rape were found on her body. “She did not resist enough,” they concluded.

Source: “Locals” Facebook page, which cites a proper article on the incident published in Takie Dela (who in turn refer to a post on Russian MP Sergei Shargunov’s Telegram channel). Thanks to Maria Mila for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

More Die of Heartbreak

St. Petersburg Photo Diary
Facebook
October 23, 2021

Orthodontist jumps from 9th floor of Elizabeth Hospital

The young woman made the jump in front of her fellow patients in the ward. The fact was that she had buried both of her parents in the past two weeks. They were also doctors, by the way.

Darya Khorovskaya followed in the footsteps of her parents: she had worked in her field for 10 years.

She was admitted to the Elizabeth Hospital with complications from an infectious disease just a few days after her mother’s death.

Her fellow patients in the ward said that the young women was heartbroken. She constantly talked about the deaths of her loved ones, blaming the coronavirus.

After the fall, she was taken to the intensive care unit, but they could not save her.

Photo courtesy of St. Petersburg Photo Diary. MK.RU Sankt-Peterburg reported this same story on 17 October 2021. They made clear, however, what is not clear from the Facebook post above: that Khorovskaya was being treated for covid-19 when she took her own life, and that her parents had also died of covid-19. P.S. This is a more typical post on St. Petersburg Photo Diary, which partly explains the self-censorship in their post about Khorovskaya’s suicide. Translated by the Russian Reader

Flattening the Curve: Why Official Russian Covid Stats Can’t Be Trusted

Covid isn’t scary anymore: how the authorities stopped reckoning with the coronavirus when it suited them
Tatiana Torocheshnikova
TV Rain
October 15, 2021

The Russian authorities are often criticized for ignoring the pandemic to the good of the political conjuncture. It was with an eye to politics, and not to the numbers for illnesses and deaths caused by covid-19, according to critics, that decisions were made to hold a referendum on amending the Constitution and lift covid restrictions in the run-up to the referendum last year. The same criticism was leveled against the Crimea annexation anniversary concert in March of this year at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, and the Euro 2020 matches and the Crimson Sails event held in Petersburg. How justified is this criticism? To answer this question, TV Rain studied the covid-19 task force’s official data on coronavirus infections and deaths, as well as Rosstat’s data on mortality from the spring of 2020 to the autumn of this year.

“A number of large shopping centers have already received a warning this week. And work on monitoring compliance with the mask mandate will be intensified and implemented even more vigorously,” Alexei Nemeryuk, head of the Moscow department of trade and services, said on Monday, September 27, a week after the elections to the State Duma. A week later, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin noted that the spread of the coronavirus caused “serious concern,” while the head of the consumer and public health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor said that the situation was “extremely tense.”

By this time, the decline in the number of new covid-19 cases, which had continued since late July, had stopped and an uptickd had begun. A similar surge in morbidity was observed in mid-June, when the more contagious delta variant began to sweep Russia. The two other waves of covid-19 epidemic occurred in the spring and autumn/winter of 2020.

How the authorities first reckoned with covid waves, then stopped
If we superimpose the most important events for the authorities in 2020 — the 75th Victory Day Parade and the vote on the Constitution — on the curve tracking incidence of the coronavirus, we can see that both events were held after the first wave of covid-19 had subsided. As this graph bears out, there was no increase in infections after these events either.

The situation was different this year. Only some of the Kremlin’s high-profile events took place in favorable epidemiological circumstances. The concert in Luzhniki, attended by Vladimir Putin, was held at a time when the increase in new cases of covid-19 was at the lowest level for this year. The same can be said about the 2021 Victory Day parade.

A new coronavirus wave kicked off in mid-June, but this did not prevent the authorities from holding UEFA Euro 2020 group stage matches, which ended on the crest of the wave of infections, in Petersburg. It would be difficult to call favorable the numbers of new infections during Petersburg’s Crimson Sails celebration for school-leavers. The cancellation of QR codes in Moscow in late July is also difficult to explain in terms of positive morbidity figures.

Coronavirus infections in Russia between March 2020 and September 2021. Key public events (and cancelled events) during this period are identified and marked in red, including the 2020 Victory Day parade in Moscow, the constitutional referendum in July 2020, the Crimson Sails celebration in Petersburg in June 2021, and parliamentary elections in September 2021. Courtesy of TV Rain

Can we trust official data on numbers of infections?
During the pandemic, demographers and epidemiologists have repeatedly drawn attention to the peculiar numbers issued by the covid-19 task force. “I always start the conversation like this: forget that there is a task force. It is pointless to discuss that today, for some reason, there were exactly one thousand fewer or more cases recorded than yesterday. Why? Because. Because the gladiolus. Because that’s the figure they thought up yesterday,” says independent demographer Alexei Raksha, one of the principal critics of the official figures. Back in July 2020, after the vote on amending the Constitution, he noted an unusual drop in the number of infections. “In late June [2020], we were told that there had been a certain decline in even symptomatic cases, and then the numbers went up again after July 1,” Raksha said.

The 2003 KVN skit by the Ural Dumplings that gave birth to the “Because the gladiolus” meme.

In his opinion, internet searches are the most accurate indicator of covid-19’s spread. “The incidence curve lags way behind. I use only Yandex searches — for example, searches for ‘sense of smell’ reflect the trends better than others,” he explains.

Trends for coronavirus-related searches on Yandex between March 2020 and September 2021. The searches tracked during this period included the following terms: “antibodies,” “second wave,” “call an ambulance,” “home food delivery,” “how to avoid infection,” “buy antiseptic,” “buy mask and respirator,” “coronavirus treatment,” “loss of smell,” “oxygen saturation monitor,” “get tested,”  “coronavirus symptoms,” “what to do at home,” and “what to do if ambulance doesn’t come.” Source: Yandex/TV Rain

Experts have named several possible factors for distortions in the official statistics. “First, the counting is done differently in different regions, and the epidemic moves across the country from month to month. And second, even within a particular region, the local covid-19 task force sometimes starts to do a better job of counting over time — maybe they import more tests, or they start cheating less,” says Dmitry Kobak, a data researcher from the University of Tübingen in Germany. According to him, it is also possible that the covid-19 task forces in some regions report “retroactively” — that is, for example, they issue the stats for July deaths in August.

“No one knows what deaths, exactly, are reported by the task force,” adds Sergey Timonin, a researcher at the International Laboratory for Population and Health at the Higher School of Economics. “I am not aware of regulatory documents that would explain this.”

Kobak draws attention to the fact that since the regions have started publishing statistics, so-called plateaus have regularly appeared in the data, that is, when the number of deaths has remained the same for several days, or even weeks. In September, similar “plateaus” — with the daily number of deaths hovering around 800 — appeared in the overall statistics for the country. “Previously, they showed up only within individual regions. This is interesting: it means that if the stats used to be fudged at the regional level and were added up afterwards, now, apparently, someone has been adjusting the figures after or while summing them up [for the whole country],” explains Kobak.

Verifying official mortality statistics
To get an objective picture of the coronavirus pandemic, experts use the excess mortality rate, which is the difference between real deaths and Rosstat’s forecast (that is, the number of deaths that we would expect if there were no pandemic), which, in turn, is calculated based on mortality data from previous years.

Calculations made by Alexei Raksha specially for TV Rain show that, by the end of 2020, there had been nearly 360 thousand excess deaths in Russia. At this time, the covid-19 task force’s death toll was about six times less — around 57 thousand deaths. By September 2021, excess mortality figures exceeded 675 thousand, but the covid-19 task force reported 180 thousand deaths for this same period. Since there have been no other major factors that could have had a strong impact on the life expectancy of Russians in the last two years, experts concede that it was the coronavirus that caused the serious increase in mortality in the country.

If the excess deaths graph is superimposed on the infections graph, as based on the task force’s data, we can see that they are roughly comparable. Raksha confirms this: the morbidity statistics for Russia as a whole “to some extent reflect reality when squinted at from three meters.” However, Raksha draws attention to the fact that excess mortality has been running chronologically ahead of the task force’s morbidity statistics. This may indicate that the latter are being heavily fudged, the demographer argues.

The trends for excess mortality (in dark blue, as reported by Rosstat), deaths caused by covid-19 (light blue) and covid-19 infections (pink), as reported by the Russian covid task force, between May 2020 and August 2021

The situation is different with the official data on mortality due to covid-19. When the covid-19 task force’s date is combined with Rosstat’s figures, the two curves radically diverge.

At the same time, the “hump” on the excess mortality graph in July 2020 stands out amid falling numbers of infections. Raksha believes that part of the increase in excess mortality that month was caused by the heatwave in the Urals. In his opinion, however, this factor could have added no more than five thousand deaths across the country. The rest of the difference, according to Raksha, is explained by the deliberate “flattening” of the task force’s official data.

Nevertheless, the covid-19 task force’s figures remain the only official data source available to Russians on a daily basis. And as follows from the graphs, above, this year the Russian authorities finally stopped using even these numbers as a guide when making decisions on holding large-scale events.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Just as I was finishing this post, Mark Teeter brought to my attention this article on the same subject (also featuring Alexei Raksha) in today’s edition of the Washington Post.

Darya Apahonich: and (or)

THIS MESSAGE (CONTENT) HAS BEEN CREATED AND (OR) DISSEMINATED BY A FOREIGN MASS MEDIA OUTLET FUNCTIONING AS A FOREIGN AGENT AND (OR) A RUSSIAN LEGAL ENTITY FUNCTIONING AS A FOREIGN AGENT.

and (or)
a booklet by Darya Apahonchich
Foreignlandia, 2021

I add THIS thirty-one-word message, given to me by the Russian Justice Ministry, to all my social media posts, because now I am not a person, but a “media foreign agent,” which is something like a biased foreign newspaper, radio station or TV channel.

“Foreign Agent”

Over the last six months, I have been able to decipher this MESSAGE and the status of “foreign agent,” with which dozens of human rights organizations, media outlets and just plain people (journalists and activists) have to live. Translated from Justice Ministry-speak, it means: “Shut up.”

“Go on, eat these letters”

What is it like? It’s like being force-fed porridge. Only it’s not porridge, but words. And it’s not Mom feeding you, but the Justice Ministry. And you are not you, but (CONTENT) for experiments in state violence.

“Beware of the female agent!”

It’s not just literal garbage. It’s a toxic label that makes it difficult to work, paralyzing you. It’s enough to push everything that HAS BEEN CREATED behind a long verbal fence and distance me and my work from my audience.

I became a foreign agent on the afternoon of December 28, as I was sitting at home with two children after having covid, dazed from the isolation. My son was “hatching” dinosaur larvae. The larvae were beans, and they were hatched mainly in my sock. So, with a sock full of beans, I gave dozens of interviews. In the last six months, there have been more interviews, more beans, AND more agents. I don’t even know what the moral of this story is.

“Newspaper ≠ woman”

At some point I even wrote a fairy tale for the Justice Ministry. It was quite boring, so I abandoned it. But one of the jokes in it was funny. I asked the Justice Ministry, “How do you know, Justice Ministry, whether you’re dealing with a woman (OR) a newspaper?”

Then I went into a long comparison of women and newspapers. I explained where you could find the imprints and headlines in newspapers and women, where you could find their darkest recesses and traces of proofreading. Newspapers were most often regarded as things to be consumed, I wrote, and alas, so were women. Although it did happen that women were considered individuals, this view was not yet widely DISSEMINATED.

“Every part of me is my face. Front-page story. Free Yulia Tsvetkova!”

Look, Justice Ministry, this is a front-page story about Yulia Tsvetkova. You can call her BY A FOREIGN word, or you can use a Russian word, but you know, Justice Ministry, it doesn’t make a woman a newspaper.

I counted how many words I still have to illustrate — I don’t think I can come up with that many jokes. But I can’t afford to give up: it would be a shame not to take the piss out of the Russian Federation. Consider this booklet of mine a form of therapy, a remedy for the Russian authorities. I have often been asked why there are so few foreign agents. And why did they pick me? I think this is due to the fact that the state is still lazy. It takes a lot of effort to engage in large-scale crackdowns, but in this case you take five people and have a little fun with them. You expend the energy you would in a local warlet, but the effect is the same as in a MASSive war. Basically, I’m a figure of a little fun. (While I was writing this text, more foreign MEDIA agents were added to the list.)

“Foreign media reports about the Russian language! Give us more stories about grammatical cases! Everybody’s crazy about grammatical cases!”

I have to say that I haven’t conceived a passion for journalism over the last six months. I wonder how it’s possible to be a mass media OUTLET without an education in journalism and journalistic ambitions. The only things I’ve ever talked about on a massive scale are grammatical cases and feminitives.

The idea of “foreign agents” smacks of crass objectification. The authorities see everything — people, non-governmental organizations, media, activists — as rebellious things, as broken robotic slaves. And what do you do with a machine that is malFUNCTIONING? Reduced to a function, but opposed to it, a thing like this is tagged AS A fuck-up and failure that can now be scrapped.

“Not a foreign land for anyone.”

Once every three months I fill out a report for the Justice Ministry. They ask me in the interests of which FOREIGN state did I do what I did? You know, Justice Ministry, everything I do, I do in the hope that one day there will be no states and borders, that there will be only free people and free lands.

It’s a pity that I can’t be labeled a pan-national no-government AGENT. It would suit me better.

“In hell, Justice Ministry employees endlessly write, ‘THIS MESSAGE…'”

I’ve been swimming in the sea of the Russian language my whole life. AND even though I sometimes thought about leaving, I could never imagine that I’d be able to leave Russia in a matter of two days. But the cops who came with guys from the Emergency Situations Ministry to cut out my door open with an angle grinder and search my flat taught me to be decisive. By the way, hello, you guys! Burn in hell!

“What’s this? And this? I don’t recognize this either. It’s something incomprehensible.”

I walked around the house, which had been turned into a big lump of things by the search, wondering whether to take this (OR) that. I took almost nothing.

“Me and the kids on the road.”

I left the country, taking the children, several books, Russian grammar and fear with me. With this kind of baggage, I’m considered A RUSSIAN national in Foreignlandia, which makes  complete sense.

Living in a world where you have only your flesh and bones, but the state claims to see you as a LEGAL entity, is like being on a virtual reality ride. Only everyone has the special glasses, and you don’t.

“Foreign mass (beauty) outlet.”

Hey, newspaper woman, what’s wrong with your face? Are you an ENTITY?

“Russia . . . functioning as a foreign agent.”

When meeting new people, I take the most time explaining this whole absurd story. It’s a big chunk of time, but I still append these thirty-one words to every post and send reports to the Justice Ministry. Why do I do this? I think it’s my umbilical cord. My country won’t say goodbye to an agent fulfilling the demands of the authorities, and Agent Apahonchich still has a FUNCTIONING hope of returning home.

“Words, words, words, words, words, words.”

What matters now is not to ASsume the functions of the state by engaging in self-censorship and thus fueling state paranoia, to remember that waves of rhetoric are the loudest and fastest. They will subside, and we will go on living.

So I’m sitting on the shore of A FOREIGN language, learning it as if I were combing a field of grass, but I remember that my soul also looks uncombed to the foreign eye. I’m growing my garden and taking care of the dinosaur larvae—my harvest is good!

 

Thanks for walking this way with me. Take care of your own gardens and seas. Warm greetings from your female agentka, whom the sexist Justice Ministry takes for a male AGENT.

________________

Originally published by Darya Apahonchich on her Facebook page on 30 July 2021. Translated, from the Russian, and with the author’s permission, by Thomas H. Campbell

Where Will Sergei Usoltsev Find 60,000 Rubles to Pay His Fine for Insulting Putin and Valentina Tereshkova?

Sergei Usoltsev. Photo: Kommersant/Activatica

Activatica.org
Facebook
October 6, 2021

Sergei Usoltsev, a resident of Sverdlovsk Region, was fined 60 thousand rubles [approx. 716 euros] for “insulting the authorities” (punishable under Article 20.1.3 of the Administrative Offenses Code).

The Sverdlovsk Regional Court rejected the defense’s appeal against the decision of the Shalya City Court, which in June ordered Usoltsev to pay 60 thousand rubles for a comment he made on the social network VKontakte. According to the prosecution, the comment insulted the authorities, specifically, Vladimir Putin and Valentina Tereshkova.

Activists have launched a fundraiser for Usoltsev, who lives in the village of Gora, 40 kilometers from the town of Shalya, Sverdlovsk Region. Recently, Usoltsev’s seriously ill wife, whom he was caring for, died.

The Ministry of Social Policy was paying Usoltsev a social pension of 1,380 rubles [approx. 16 euros] a month as a caregiver, but now he no longer has this income either. Usoltsev will soon be sixty years old, but, according to the new laws, he is eligible to retire only in 2024. He has also been unable to get a job: he is near retirement age, and there is not enough work even for young people in his village.

If Usoltsev does not pay the fine within 60 days, either the fine will be doubled or he will be placed under administrative arrest.

Source: ROSshtraf

Translated by the Russian Reader

UPDATE (9 October 2021). ROSshtaf has reported on its Telegram account that it raised the 60,000 rubles to pay Mr. Usoltsev’s fine in a single day!

Goodbye to All That

One thing I find especially charming about certain Russians, often academics, who have lived for decades in “straunge strondes” (чужбина), is their conviction, now that the current “vegan” times have permitted them to make occasional and even annual junkets back to the Motherland, that life here is now nearly the same in every respect as back in the straunge strondes.

I’ll leave to one side the political aspects of this queer conviction, focusing instead on a single aspect of everyday life. I’ve heard it said a million times by many a Russian not resident in God’s Heavenly Kingdom on Earth full time or even part time (really) that wi-fi and internet connections here are the top of the pops, so much better than wherever they live, surrounded by black people and Mexicans and uncultured rednecks.

I have to admit that, outside of Russia, my only experience of wi-fi and internet connections over the last ten years or so has been places in the States and elsewhere where I’ve stayed for short stretches, including my parents’ farm, my sister’s house in the Cities, and the apartments of friends in other cities and countries, as well as my own secret hideout in Free Finland.

In all these places, I enjoyed shockingly fast, nearly outage-free internet and wi-fi connections. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times there were full-fledged outages in Free Finland, and all of them were sorted out in a matter of an hour or two, if not in a few minutes, with the sincerest of apologies by my Finnish providers.

As for the Cradle of Three Revolutions, everything was cool and seemingly getting cooler until sometime in the past year when, I suspect, the FSB placed so many demands, both physical and financial, on internet providers, that they are now no longer capable of doing routine maintenance on their networks and upgrading their hardware and software, despite the growing demand for their services on the part of the taxpaying and fee-paying populace.

But the ISPs serve a higher power—the siloviki—who are so out of their minds right now as to imagine you can organize a revolution on VKontakte by reposting pictures of Nazis and Navalny or something of the sort. They thus have to have ever-increasing capacities for surveilling the peons they rule over like medieval liege lords (or so they imagine), and they have tasked the country’s internet providers with giving them lots of electronic windows into the souls of these traitorous worms.

At least, I hope this is the case, because otherwise the sheer misery and torment visited on us since approximately last spring by our once faithful internet provider, long ago swallowed up by another company from Moscow and bereft of all the charms and virtues it had back in the days when I was one of its first customers, are inexplicable.

One look at the junction box in our attic will tell you tell that, in fact, is where the problem lies, and yet every time our internet goes under, which can be several times a day, the mumblers who man the phones at our provider’s tech support service run us through the same routines, all meant to persuade us morons that the problem is with our computers or even with our ignorant selves, not with the woeful state of the junction box in the attic or farther down the line.

Things turn from irritating to tragicomic when our provider sends an actual person to fix the mess. Nearly all of them (at this point, a dozen or so have darkened our door since spring) start out by ringing the changes on our wi-fi router, which supposedly has to be replaced, or the plastic snap connector on the end of the broadband cable or the cable itself.

If we can induce them to go up into the attic and open the junction box or just look at the junction box, which has wires poking out from in in all directions, like a Dalek gone south, they break down and admit the problem is on their end. If they’re kind and competent, they might apply a temporary fix by switching out a couple of cables in the box.

Then we have the joy of living humanity’s shared electronic life for an hour or two, or day or three, or, god forbid, a whole week. Sooner or later, though, the plug will be pulled on our meager joy, and our provider, unable or unwilling to give us the real explanation for the problem (our junction box? their servers back at the head office? SORM?), will plunge us back into their rehearsed routine of selling snake oil to their loyal customers, whose nerves shattered and hearts broken, their ability to do their own work suspended indefinitely.

I think all of us who actually live in the real Russia full time could make a long list of the country’s practical shortcomings, without once touching on politics per se, and the list would be long and sobering and, occasionally, incredibly frightening.

But the crypto-Putinists who teach at places like Berkeley and don’t actually live here and never or hardly ever deal with this failed state, don’t want to have the hard talk about how nearly all of these eminently practical failures are caused, ultimately, by wildly bad governance.

And what is the point of having that talk with them? They’ll only get testy and resort to whataboutism, the last refuge of scoundrels. ||| TRR, 19 September 2018. Photo of the beautiful clear blue sky in downtown Petersburg by the Russian Reader

The Fix Is In: Sevastopol

“@novaya_gazeta !! The ballot box at Polling Station 98 in Sevastopol is being stuffed right now, Novaya Gazeta’s correspondent reported. This can be seen on the video surveillance system. About 20 minutes after the site closed, a man is stuffing ballots, and a woman is helping him. Video: Nadezhda Isayeva, Novaya Gazeta.”
#TheFixIsIn