Black Joy and the Black Wave

black-power-687x1024“During their medal ceremony in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City on October 16, 1968, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the US national anthem, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ While on the podium, Smith and Carlos, who had won gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-meter running event of the 1968 Summer Olympics, turned to face the US flag and then kept their hands raised until the anthem had finished. In addition, Smith, Carlos, and Australian silver medalist Peter Norman all wore human-rights badges on their jackets.” Source: Wikipedia. Photo courtesy of Storie di Sport

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This is it.

Today is Election Day, and we have been working hard all year to make sure that Black communities across the country have the information and resources that they need to turn out and vote.

Throughout 2018, we’ve had some ambitious training, mobilization, and voter contact goals; but our most important goal has been this: to empower Black Joy.

When Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, my heart sank. Racism, xenophobia, and other forms of fear-mongering were being used to rally millions on the far right, all at the expense of our freedom and well being. At that moment, I knew we as an organization had to do more. Black folks needed a political home that we could call our own. Where we could be our full selves, in community with each other, sharing and lifting up our stories for all to hear.

Two years later, there is one thing that I know for certain. Not only is Black Joy beautiful; it is an effective force to build political power in Black communities. 

Together with all of you, here is what Color Of Change PAC has accomplished in 2018:

  1. We held 87 Black Joy centered events across the country, attended by 14,355 individuals
  2. We started text conversations with 1,352,850 people on the importance of voting, urging them to support Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, Wesley Bell, and more
  3. We made 23,831 phone calls and knocked on 57,293 doors
  4. We opened community offices in Jacksonville, Miami, Detroit, Las Vegas, and St. Louis, where canvassers completed thousands of shiftsthroughout the election
  5. Our digital ads were seen 11,942,692 times in Florida, Michigan, Missouri, and Nevada
  6. All in all, we made 2,376,138 voter contacts throughout the election cycle

These are the numbers, and, while they’re important, there’s a larger story to tell as well. Here is how we accomplished ALL of the above.

It All Started with Brunch

Last year, we did something we had never done before: we invited our members to the inaugural Black Women’s Brunch series in Detroit, Miami, and Las Vegas. Hundreds of people came together to share their stories and celebrate Black women and our experiences.

Our Black Women’s Brunch series was so successful that we decided to launch a national mobilization tour, including HBCU youth voter engagement events, Block Parties, and Black Leadership Camps. In total, we built community in all of the following cities (and more!):

  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Atlanta, GA
  • Dallas, TX
  • Durham, NC
  • New Orleans, LA
  • Miami, FL
  • Orlando, FL
  • Tampa, FL
  • Savannah GA
  • Lansing, MI
  • Grand Rapids, MI
  • Las Vegas, NV
  • St. Louis, MO

Over the past year, 14,355 Color Of Change PAC members have come out to our Black Joy events. In total, we’ve had 87 events in 30 cities!

Our Black Joy event series has been a testament to the collective power and brilliance of Black people. We created a space where Black folks from all walks entered into community with one another, shared their stories, and discussed the importance of the upcoming elections. At these events, we danced to the Wobble, took selfies at our Flower Wall, laughed until we cried, and built strong relationships by launching squads committed to mobilizing voters after the brunch was over.


From Brunch to Building Black Political Power

We started with brunches, and we’re finishing this year with a nationwide movement. Here’s a snapshot of how it happened:

Stephanie, a voting rights activist, first heard about Color Of Change PAC when she received a text message from one of our organizers. The first event she attended was #ServeOurSister in Orlando, FL, where she helped create care packages for women like herself who had been through the criminal justice system. Later, in July, she attended a training camp with us in Jacksonville, where she learned important skills to mobilize Black voters across the state.

Today, Stephanie loves canvassing. Since starting her journey with Color Of Change PAC, she has gone on to recruit and lead other members to canvass their neighborhoods, sharing their stories and turning out the vote.  She and the rest of the Orlando Color Of Change PAC squad have mobilized thousands of Black voters by organizing phone banks, canvasses, and, yes, more brunches to train other leaders!

We couldn’t have made such a deep impact in Black communities across the country without meeting folks like Stephanie in person, and inviting them into our movement. There are countless stories like hers.

It’s because of volunteer leaders like Stephanie and supporters like YOU that we’ve knocked on more than 55,000 doors, made over 20,000 phone calls, and sent over 1.4 million texts this year.

Mobilizing Voters through Digital Strategy

This year we accomplished our goal of mobilizing as many Black voters offline as possible. But we knew from the beginning that we couldn’t reach everybody at a brunch or a canvass. We knew we had to think strategically about how to reach voters online as well. And we did!

  • In 2018, Color Of Change PAC digital ads were seen 11,942,692 times, reaching millions of voters
  • In our ads, we centered the stories and voices of our members. We asked them to record short videos about the importance of voting and why they were supporting candidates like Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, Wesley Bell, Gretchen Whitmer, and more
  • These authentic videos were POWERFUL and watched nearly half a million times. Here’s a thin slice of the videos that YOU have sent us this year:


Click here to watch the video and share the story of our work in 2018.

The Nation is Watching Us Win

As we’ve grown larger and more powerful this year, people have started to take notice:

  • Michael B. Jordan joined us in Atlanta to knock on doors to remind voters of their power
  • Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay created a video that tells the story of our program and thanked our volunteers for working so hard to turn out the vote
  • CNN came to one of our brunches and reported on our efforts to create a “Black Wave”

AND we’ve already started to win key races!

  • Wesley Bell defeated Bob McCulloch, the former St. Louis prosecuting attorney responsible for not indicting Michael Brown’s murderer
  • Stacey Abrams won the Georgia Democratic Gubernatorial primary, garnering over 420,000 votes and winning over 76% of the vote
  • Satana Deberry unseated Durham County District Attorney Robert Echols with 48.8% of the vote. She’s likely to become DA since there are no Republicans running against her this year

When I look back at the work we’ve done together, I can’t help but smile. By centering community and Black Joy, we’ve built an unstoppable movement. A “Black Wave” that’s already been out in force: canvassing, making calls, sending texts, sharing stories, and, most importantly, VOTING.

No matter what happens tomorrow, what we’ve built together this year is beautiful and powerful. Regardless of who wins or who loses, I’m incredibly proud of our work. Let’s wake up on Wednesday morning ready to continue to do the work that our elders pioneered for us. Let’s continue the work to make justice a reality for all Black people in America.

With gratitude,

—Arisha, Hope, Jennifer, Victoria, Kwesi, Shannon, Bhavik, Alicia P., Jade, Contessa, Ashley, Alicia W., Sonya, La’Nae, Dominique, Quiana, Candice, Sadie, Alecia, Daniel, Irving, Kortni, Jacinda, Ariana, Angie, Siera, Reggie, Patrina, Chad, Corina, Angela, Scott, Danie M., Charles, Bradley, Paige, Reagan, Vidal, Ashton—the ENTIRE Color Of Change PAC team

P.S. Text “VOTE” to 225568 to find out where to vote today and sign up here for our post-election strategy call. We’re already planning for what’s next and can’t wait to tell you about it and continue to empower Black Joy going into 2019 and beyond. Message and data rates may apply when texting.

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Editor’s Note. This letter from Color of Change PAC was edited ever so slightly to reflect the fact that Election Day 2018 will kick off later today, rather than tomorrow, in the United States. I was not paid to post this message.

I did post it only because I am encouraged by grassroots campaigns like this, even when they are organized on behalf of a political party for which I have grown tired of voting due to the near-complete lack of viable alternatives.

But even when a campaign like this is not ideologically perfect (what campaign is?) or might even fail (God forbid), it always serves as a tremendous school for the people involved in it, teaching them how to do the practical things all successful campaigns require and, more important, showing them that progressive causes advance themselves this way—as broad-based grassroots efforts that do not pull up stakes when an interim goal is reached or the movement encounters setbacks—or not at all.

While I understand better than most de facto outsiders why campaigns like this are hard to mount in Russia at the moment, I also know the country’s police state regime is not the only barrier. Right-minded Russians often chafe at the notion of focusing on “boring” cool-headed, long-term planning and painstaking organization over spontaneous “popular” outrage. Even ensuring good turnouts at protest rallies by making grassroots organizers personally responsible for small groups of “passive” supporters (and, thus, personally responsible for turning them out to crucial events) seems like a waste of time to them. It is always easier to post a call on social media and then act confused when hardly anyone shows up.

It is no wonder the only Russian word I can think of that would be the equivalent of “canvassing”—agitatsiya—sounds both terribly bolshie and wildly obsolete.

Liberal Russians, leftist Russians, anti-Putinist Russians, and just plain Russians who would like lots of things to change in their country are frequently guilty of a complete disdain for the nitty-gritty of politics and the idea that if you do not have political power in some meaningful way, you are simply disempowered and disenfranchised, not “ennobled” by your alleged distance from corrupt, crooked decision-makers.  {TRR}

 

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

Yevgenia Litvinova: October 28, 2018

october 28Petersburg democracy activist Pavel Chuprunov, holding a placard that reads, “‘Yes, we tasered them, but it wasn’t torture. We were doing our jobs!’ Admission by the Soviet NKVD Russian FSB, 1938 2018.” Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg, 28 October 2018. Photo by Yevgenia Litvinova

Yevgenia Litvinova
Facebook
October 29, 2018

October 28 was the day chosen for publicly supporting people accused of extremism and locked up in jail, i.e., the suspects in the Network and the New Greatness cases. Petersburgers had no choice but to be involved in this international event, since some of the suspects in the Network case are from Petersburg.

The day before, I had listened to Yekaterina Kosarevskaya and Yana Teplitskaya’s brilliant but very heavy report about the use of torture in the FSB’s St. Petersburg and Leningrad Region Directorate. In particular, the report recounts how the young men accused in the Network case were tortured. All we can do is constantly talk about these people publicly, about what happened to them over the last year (they were arrested nearly a year ago), and what is happening to them now.

The rally in support of the young folks locked up in remand prisons on trumped-up charges was not approved by the authorities, although the organizers—Open Russia, Vesna, and Bessrochka (Endless Protest)—suggested a variety of venues in the downtown area. Everywhere was off limits.

You can protest in Udelny Park, in the far north of Petersburg, that is, in the woods. It’s a great place to have a stroll and get some fresh air, but who would be there to see your protest? The squirrels? This proposal is better than the garbage dump in Novosyolki, which the authorities always used to suggest as an alternative venue, but it’s not a suitable place for a political rally.

All that remained was the only form of political protest that doesn’t require prior approval from the authorities: solo pickets.

The protesters had different placards, but all of them were quite persuasive. They got to the heart of these frame-ups, which crush and maim people in order to earn promotions for the policemen and security services officers who dream them up.

Solo pickets had always been safe in Petersburg, unlike in Moscow, Krasnodar, and so on. That was why many people found them monotonous and boring.

“Oh, solo pickets again,” people would complain.

The plan was to take it in turns to stand holding placards on the corner of Nevsky and Malaya Sadovaya. But the folks from NOD (National Liberation Movement) read announcements for the upcoming protests and got there early. We had to move away from Malaya Sadovaya and closer to the pedestrian underpass to the subway. It’s an uncomfortable, narrow spot.

NOD has been a little sluggish lately. What happened to their weekly vigils? When there’s no money, there’s no NOD. But suddenly they had reappeared, which meant they had been asked to take to the streets by people whose offer you can’t refuse.

Recently, solo pickets have ceased to be “boring,” but there’s no reason for rejoicing. Solo pickets started becoming a staple of news reports around a month ago, when Alexander Beglov was appointed Petersburg’s acting governor. Since then, police have made a habit of detaining people at solo pickets. They make up excuses for their actions on the fly.

I knew this, of course, but I naively counted on logic and common sense winning the day. I compiled and printed out a number of laws proving that I and other “favorites” of Lieutenant Ruslan Sentemov, a senior police inspector in the public order enforcement department of Petersburg’s Central District, had to the right to speak out via solo pickets. I was planning to hand these papers to Sentemov on camera. But I didn’t see him at the rally. I thought he hadn’t come at all. Nor did he see me.

I got lucky. Because what logic had I imagined? What common sense? What laws? What right to hold solo pickets?

Sentemov did see another of his “favorites,” Dmitry Gusev. He pointed at him and said, “Detain him.”

Dmitry was not holding anything at all, much less a placard. He had no plans to be involved in the picketing. But that was that, and now he is detained at a police precinct, like dozens of other people. I counted over thirty detainees. But Alexander Shislov, Petersburg’s human rights ombudsman, writes that around fifty people were detained. Around one hundred people were at the protest.

Several detainees were released without charges, while others were charged with violating Article 20.2 Part 5 of the Administrative Offenses Code, but most of the detainees will spend the night in police stations. They have been charged with violating Article 20.2 Part 2, which is punishable by jail time.*

The detainees were dispersed to different police stations, some of them quite far away. They needed food, water, and toiletries. Police stations usually don’t have any of these things, although they are obliged to provide them if they detain someone for more than three hours.

Over ten people who were present with me at the protest traveled the police stations to check on the detainees. The rest came from the Observers HQ at Open Space. We constantly called and wrote each other, makingsure no one had been left without assistance. I hope that was how it worked out. The detainees should have everything they need for this evening, overnight, and tomorrow morning.

Natalia Voznesenskaya and I had planned to go to the 28th Police Precinct, but all the detainees there had been released.

We went instead to the 7th Precinct. The internet told us it was near the Kirovsky Zavod subway station. We wandered for a long time amidst the nice little houses built after the war, supposedly by German POWs. We arrived at the police station only to find that its number had recently changed. It was no longer the 7th Precinct, but the 31st Precinct.

We went to the real 7th Precinct, on Balkanskaya Street. Elena Grigoryeva, Dmitry Dorokhin, and two other men were detained there. (One of the men had been taken away by ambulance.) Unexpectedly, the 7th Precinct was a decent place. It was no comparison with the 76th and 78th Precincts, in the Central District. The police officers on duty there accepted our food packages and spoke politely with us.

We ran into Alexander Khmelyov at the station. Wielding a power of attorney as a social defender, he had come to see what kind of mattresses and linens had been issued to the detainees. There were no bedbugs. What was more, the police officers brought the detainees supper from a nearby cafe. They were obliged to do it, but their colleagues at other precincts never do it, and detainees usually don’t even get breakfast.

So, now the stomachs of the detainees were full, and they could take the food we had brought with them to court. Court hearings can last eight hours or more, although it happens that fifteen minutes is all the time a judge needs. There is usually no difference. The court’s rulings have been written in advance.

Before leaving the house to go the protest in support of the suspects in the New Greatness and Network cases, I listened to a program on Echo of Moscow about the case of Elena Kerenskaya, sister of Alexander Kerensky, chair of the Provisional Government in 1917. Kerenskaya was executed by the NKVD in Orenburg on February 2, 1938.

I don’t want to blow things out of proportion, but it has become easier and easier to under how the trials of the 1930s happened the way they did.

* Article 20.2 of the Russian Federal Administrative Offenses Code covers “violation[s] of the established procedure for organizing and holding meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets.” Part 2 stipulates punishments for people who organize or hold rallies without notifying the authorities in advance. They can be jailed for up to ten days or fined up to 30,000 rubles (400 euros).

Translated by the Russian Reader

Lilia Shevtsova: Gutting Russia

1535459018_stena-1The Wall, one of the Russian National Guard’s new toys for crushing popular unrest. Photo courtesy of Voennoe obozrenie

Lilia Shevtsova
Facebook
September 27, 2018

Gutting the State
“They are crazy!” we wail as we gaze at the regime’s latest stunts.

“What stupidity!” the commentators exclaim in horror as they compile the Kremlin’s list of shame: raising the retirement age; a high-ranking silovik threatening to kill Navalny in a duel; the fiasco of the so-called Salisbury tourists; vote rigging in the Maritime Territory; the Russian fighter plane shot down by the Syrians with our own rocket; the hole in our spaceship, patched up with epoxy; threats to ban use of the US dollar in Russia; more lies about Malaysian Airlines Flight 17; and Navalny’s latest arrest.

The regime’s attempts to rectify its blunders only exacerbate the circumstances, turning them into farces. Did annulling the election in Vladivostok restore people’s faith in elections? Were the elections in Vladimir Region and Khabarovsk Territory not turned into farces when the winners did their level best not to win? And what about the televised interview with the Salisbury tourists? What should we make of attempts to blame Israel for downing the Russian warplane, and the Americans for punching a hole in the Soyuz capsule? The latest act of shooting ourselves in the foot was supplying the Syrians with a S-300 surface-to-air missile system, which is a threat to Israel and, of course, the US. (The Israelis will most certainly respond.)

If we regard all these topsy-turvy achievements as the outcomes of stupidity, the hope emerges that we can fix the stupidity by purging the ranks of officialdom, which is exactly what the Kremlin, in fact, sunk its teeth into today. Actually, what we regard as failure and stupidity have long become the new normal. What we see are the outcomes of a monopoly on political power, which has turned its own replication into an end in itself, and of a negative selection of members of the political elite based on the loyalty principle. In short, a duelist in charge of the Russian National Guard, and poisoners disguised as tourists are the new Russian normal. They are logical and inevitable consequences.

The wailing about a crisis at the top is, therefore, groundless. Russia skipped over the crisis stage. A crisis is a natural turn of events that compels society to look for new solutions and new people to implement them. When this does not happen, society and its superstructures rot. This stinky viscous goo is our current location. Decay prevents collapse: what is rotting cannot collapse. But decay also prevents our country from finding the strength to change.

The ruling class can seemingly take it easy, for the system somehow hobbles along. There are no large-scale protests, and the protests that do occur can either be ignored or quashed, especially since the National Guard has special new crowd-control armored vehicles at its disposal like the Shield, the Storm, the Wall, and so on.

In reality, things have taken a serious turn for Russia. By seeking to ensure its endlessness, the regime has been destroying the Russian state. That is a whole other ballgame. We have reached the point at which the ruling class has been rocking the pillars of statehood, destroying its own guarantee of survival in the bargain.

By outsourcing violence to volunteer oprichniki, the regime has deprived the state of one of its vital attributes: a monopoly on violence. By making Russia a global scarecrow, the regime has undermined the country’s international status and the external habitat in which it dwells. By rejecting strategic planning in favor of tactical maneuvers, the regime has stripped the country of the capacity for progress. By making the Russian state a tool of clan domination, the regime has destabilized the country, since society has been forced to defend its own interests by protesting on the streets.

Finally, by destroying institutions and making the rules of the game relative (there is more than one way to “get things done: in Russia), the regime has plunged the country into a state of lawlessness. When lawlessness ensues, no one is safe from it.

Do the guys in the Kremlin not realize how things will end? Apparently, they do understand, but they are incapable of stopping.

The autocracy survived in 1991 by scrapping the Soviet state. The autocracy has now been trying to survive by turning the post-Soviet Russian state into a lip-synched song about superpowerdom.

Lilia Shevtsova is a well-known Russian political scientist. Translated by the Russian Reader

It Was a Joke

rostovpapaRussians do not swallow the regime’s propaganda hook, line and sinker, argues Ivan Mikirtumov, but use it to guide their public behavior. Photo by the Russian Reader

Why the Russian President Made Fun of Russian Propaganda
Ivan Mikirtumov
Vedomosti
October 22, 2018

Speaking at the Valdai Discussion Club on October 18, Vladimir Putin told his audience the punchline of what would later emerge as a “funny” joke about nuclear war.

“As martyrs, we will go to heaven, and they will simply croak, because they won’t even have time to repent,” said Putin.

Judging by the overall reaction, the joke has been a success.

The genre of the humorous anecdote, including the political anecdote, was typical of the Soviet period, that is, of a communist dictatorship in the midst of the Cold War. Unlike texts and drawings, anecdotes were an oral genre and, therefore, were relatively harmless to disseminate. The technical difficulties of proving someone had told a joke made it a less than reliable tool for snitching on other people. This sometimes had to do with the content. If you wanted to inform on someone who had told you a joke about Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, the KGB, the Politburo, etc., then likely as not you would have had to quote in writing what you had heard or, at any rate, admit you knew the joke. Under certain circumstances, however, this knowledge could be used against you.

In post-Stalinist times, people were rarely punished for telling jokes. Jokes were widespread in Soviet culture, achieving exceptional heights of wit and observation. Jokes could be used to track public opinion, since they reflected society’s critical self-consciousness. Jokes were a form of feedback, but by virtue of its unique incompetence the Soviet regime ignored them, too.

Everything dangerous, hostile, evil, harmful, stupid, and meaningless is made into a figure of fun when it fails and falls through. People do not laugh at things that are huge and horrible until they are rendered pitiful, proven weak, and shown to be a sham. Stalin gave people little occasion to laugh, because he rarely failed, but the leaders of the late-Soviet period and the entire Soviet system were perfect targets for jokes and other species of ridicule. It is said Brezhnev was smart enough to laugh at jokes about himself, but it was not something he did publicly.

Putin told his audience the punchline of a joke whose opening line we can imagine as an oral exam question at the General Staff Academy, a question asked by the examiner in a room adorned with framed photographs of the commander-in-chief and the Russian Orthodox patriarch.

“Tell me, how will the outcome of a nuclear war differ for Russians and people in western countries?

Why is it that Putin’s answer to this imaginary question might seem funny? What was he ridiculing?

Mentioning heaven, martyrdom, and repentance in a military context in Russia, a country in which cynicism has reigned supreme, is tantamount to a direct attack on official religiosity, as instilled by the regime, a religiosity that has become dreadfully tiresome to everyone. The notion Russians will go to heaven wholesale, whether they believe in God or not, whether they are religious believers of any denomination at all, and whether they are vicious or virtuous, is tantamount to a scathing parody of religious beliefs.

Nuclear war is the business of the military. It thus transpires souls are saved and people canonized as martyrs at the behest of the Russian army’s top brass. With Putin in charge of it, heaven promises to be something like an army barracks, so the entire satire on martyrdom and salvation was performed as a “humorous shtick” of the sort favored by Russia’s siloviki.

What do generals have to say about the soul’s salvation? They say what they are supposed to say, as they gaze at the patriarch’s framed photograph on the wall.

Recently, General Zolotov and the two heroic Russian tourists who took a trip to Salisbury this past March found themselves in the limelight nearly at the same time. We can easily imagine these men holding forth on heaven, martyrdom, and repentance. Putin’s joke was clearly a sendup of the symbiosis between state-imposed religiosity and militarism, a crucial concept in current Russian agitprop.

It is short step from a joke like this to jokes about Orthodox secret policemen, monarchist communists, sovereign democracy, the Kiev “junta,” the US State Department’s vials and cookies, and ritual murders, performed by Jews, of course, on Orthodox babies (and the tsar’s entire family in the bargain), and so on. During the years of Putin’s rule, a whole Mont Blanc of drivel has sprung up, and whole hosts of freaks have come out of the woodwork. It is simply amazing there are still so few jokes about Putin and Putinism in circulation, but now, I imagine, things will kick off, since the main character in these jokes has taken the bull by the horns.

This does not mean, of course, that, by artfully telling his joke, Putin meant to take the piss out of himself and his regime. We are dealing here with the long-familiar militarist bravado summed up by the saying “Broads will give birth to new soldiers,” with the teenage frivolity typical of the siloviki, a frivolity they enjoy acting out.

“We’ll wipe the floor with them,” as they would say.

If, however, Putin was publicly ridiculing the concept behind current state propaganda, we are confronted with a bad joke, a bad joke told to the selfsame ordinary Russians who are targets of the propaganda so ridiculed, while the guy who made the cute joke is the same guy who presides over production of this propaganda and benefits from it.

The rules of the genre have been violated, for now it is the audience, the public that has been ridiculed. Clearly, Russia’s ruling elite despises the people it attempts to manipulate, and the propagandists sometimes laugh themselves silly backstage after they have concocted a particularly nimble con.

I don’t think Russians are gulled by the Kremlin’s propaganda. Rather, they register the messages transmitted to them by the regime as signals telling them what to say and do in certain circumstances. This lovely consensus is destroyed when the concept underpinning the propaganda has been publicly turned into a laughingstock, because people who have been pretending in recent years that they take it seriously find themselves in an awkward situation. They have lost face, having themselves been made ludicrous.

How, then, do they answer the question as to why they played along with the regime in its efforts to gull them? The only plausible explanation for this behavior is shameful thoughtlessness, fear, and impotence, things to which no one wants to admit.

Ivan Mikirtumov is a visiting lecturer at the European University in St. Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader

Svetlana Alexievich’s Dead Ends

DSCN2329Repeated endlessly by the Russophone liberal intelligentsia over the past three decades, claims that Russians are genetically programmed Stalinists and thus inevitably suspectible to Putin’s nonexistent charms and his neo-authoritarianism are false and pernicious cognitive dead ends that have done untold amounts of damage to the country’s grassroots democratic movements. Photo by the Russian Reader

With all due respect to the writer Svetlana Alexievich and her imaginary addressee, the late Anna Politkovskaya, Ms. Alexievich’s letter to Politkovskaya, published two days ago in the Washington Post, is the kind of reckless Russian liberal intelligentsia nonsense that saps people of the will to resist in the first place.

It also happens to be wildly wrong in the sweeping claims it makes, both objectively and subjectively.

“Now it is Putin who talks to them; he’s learned from our mistakes. But it’s not about Putin alone; he’s just saying what the people want to hear. I would say that there’s a little bit of Putin in every Russian. I’m talking about the collective Putin: We thought that it was the Soviet power that was the problem, but it was all about the people.

“The Soviet way of thinking lives on in our minds and our genes. How quickly has the Stalinist machine set to work again. With what skill and enthusiasm everyone is once again denouncing each other, catching spies, beating people up for being different . . . Stalin has risen! Throughout Russia they are building monuments to Stalin, putting up Stalin’s portraits, opening museums in Stalin’s memory.”

Really? Throughout Russia? I would imagine these portraits, monuments, and museums (?) number in the dozens, if that many.

Meanwhile, I have it on impeccable authority that Last Address and the hundreds of ordinary extraordinary Petersburgers who have joined them have erected nearly three hundred plaques commemorating the victims of Stalin’s Great Terror over the last few years.

In fact, there are are three such plaques at the entrance to my building. I see people stopping, looking at them, reading them, and taking snapshots of them all the time.

It is an insult to everyone who has been involved in Last Address and the other myriad acts of resistance great and small over the last twenty years, including, of course, Politkovskaya herself, to claim “there’s a little bit of Putin in every Russian.”

In fact, there are millions of Russians who do not have even a teensy bit of Putin in them, whatever that would mean. If you don’t believe me, take a few or several or ten dozen dips into this website and its predecessor over their eleven-year, nearly two thousand-post run.

You will not see and hear what Russia is “really like,” but experience a few or several or ten dozen ways in which Russia is definitely NOT “Putin’s Russia.” You will read and hear the words and the stories of rank-and-file Russians who, remarkably if you believe Ms. Alexievich’s boilerplate, music to certain western ears, are nothing like Putin at all.

When will any of the wiseguys who dictate our opinions about everything from “Putin’s Russia” to the latest Star Wars movies tell us about those other Russians and other Russias? {TRR}

The Gated Community

DSCN9429Courtyard gate in Petersburg’s Central District. Photo by the Russian Reader

Behind a Fence
Dmitry Ratnikov
Delovoi Peterburg
September 27, 2018

Remember the golden days when you could walk into any courtyard in central Petersburg and get a taste of the city’s flip side, or simply shorten your way from one alley to another by taking the backstreets? Yes, you would find yourself in the midst of unsightly façades, graffitti, and smells. But these things have not gone away, while navigating the city on foot has been made more complicated by endless gates and intercoms.

After the terrorist siege of the school in Beslan, large numbers of educational institutions suddenly fenced off their grounds, as if the cause of the tragedy had been the absence of a fence. Consequently, the numerous footpaths in the bedroom communities which ordinary folk had used for decades to shorten their way from subway to home, for example, vanished.

It was not only schools that hid themselves behind bars. Nearly all state institutions did the same thing. The Russian National Library is a vivid example of this. Its old building on Moscow Avenue can be freely approached, while its new building on Warsaw Street is protected by a metal fence that cuts off the library’s paved footpaths. I would urge the library’s director, Alexander Vershinin, to remove the fence. No one is planning to steal your books. It’s stupid.

ratnikov-warsawkaRussian National Library building on Warsaw Street in Petersburg. Photo by Dmitry Ratnikov. Courtesy of Kanoner

Fenced lawns have been proliferating at an incredible rate in the yards and on the streets. The lawns are not protected from wayward drivers, but from planned footpaths. People find it convenient to walk directly from a traffic light to a store, but thanks to thoughtless officials, they have all instantly become potential lawbreakers, because planners designed a path with a ninety-degree angle.

And what do you make of the fences around gardens and parks? One would imagine these are places of public access, but no, entrance is strictly limited. Why is a fence now being erected around the park of the Orlov-Denisov Estate in Kolomyagi? People got along fine without it. Why was the grille around the Upper Garden in Krasnoye Selo restored? Why is the garden outside Vladimir Cathedral nearly always closed to parishioners?

“To keep drunks from staggering around there,” a female attendant at the cathedral once told me.

The argument is absurd. What is the percentage of drunks amongst those who would enjoying sitting on a bench in the cathedral garden? It’s tiny.

gate-2Courtyard gate in Petersburg’s Central District. Photo by the Russian Reader

There are other cases when public green spaces are completely fenced off from the public. You cannot enter Edward Hill Square, for example. The question begs itself. Why did Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko endow the square with that name when there was an intercom on the gate? You cannot get into the little garden on the corner of Kirillovskaya and Moiseyenko Streets, or the little square at 6 Svechnoy Alley. How do local officials respond to these problems? They either postpone making a decision for years, as happened in Svechnoy Alley, or they make a great show of opening the gate during an official inspection, as happened on Moiseyenko Street.

There are also positive examples, however. The unauthorized DIY fences at 3–5 Troitsky Avenue have recently been dismantled.

A scandal has, allegedly, erupted in the new, densely populated area between Kushelev Road and Laboratory Avenue. The local property owners association voiced the desire to erect a fence around the perimeter of its grounds, thus cutting off the way to the local school. Ultimately, the locals report, they would have had to take their children more than a kilometer around the fence instead of walking a few hundred meters in a straight line, as they do now. Residents wrote things like “If they put it up, I’ll cut it down at night with an angle grinder” on the local internet forum.  This is not to mention the stupidity of the planned fence. It is no problem to gain access to the courtyard due to the huge numbers of residents going back and forth through the gate every thirty seconds, if not more frequently.

kushelev-laboratoryA satellite view of the new estate between Kushelev Road and Laboratory Avenue, in the north of Petersburg. Courtesy of Google Maps

In southwest Petersburg, a petition is making the rounds to close the entire courtyard of a new residential complex to cars. But what does that mean now that many developers are themselves advertising such monstrous car-free courtyards? You wonder why I have used the word “monstrous”? Because developers should solve the parking problems in their new estates, not the municipal government. If developers build a hundred flats, they should provide a hundred free parking spots. Due to the fact that Seven Suns Development erected a huge “anthill” on Krylenko Street, featuring a “car-free courtyard,” all the lawns and clumps of land in the vicinity have been turned into a single hefty parking lot that has made it difficult to drive down the street to boot. Why should the city permit a commercial firm to generate a problem from scratch that the city will have to solve, for example, by spending public monies on parking barriers?

seven suns krylenkoAn artist’s rendering of the “anthill” on Krylenko Street. Courtesy of Kanoner

And what kind of fences do we build at our summer cottages? Instead of pretty, cozy hedgerows, many of us prefer sheets of corrugated steel without a single break in them.

Given our maniacal, senseless desire to hide from the world around us, what will become of us? Are we headed towards the city-state depicted in Zamyatin’s novel We?

Dmitry Ratnikov is editor of Kanoner, an online newspaper that indefatigably reports on developments in architecture, city planning, and historical preservation in Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader