Maria Eismont: The Dmitriev Case Is the Most Important Thing Happening in Russia Right Now

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Yuri Dmitriev. Photo courtesy of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

The Yuri Dmitriev Case
The Accused Should Be Nominated for a State Prize
Maria Eismont
Vedomosti
June 8, 2017

“A person cannot disappear without a trace. People differ from butterflies in the sense that people have memory,” the man with long grey hair and long grey beard said onscreen.

The presentation of books of remembrance for those shot during the Great Terror in Karelia packed the screening room at the Gulag History Museum in Moscow: people even sat on the stairways. The editor of the books, Karelian historian and search specialist Yuri Dmitriev, from Memorial, was the man talking onscreen. He has spent the last six months in a pretrial detention center, absurdly charged with the crime of producing pornography.

Dmitriev sent his greetings and gratitude from prison, not so much for the kind words said about him, as for acknowledgement of his life’s work. Memorial’s historians all concur it is unique. No other region in Russia has such a complete compendium of the names of those who were shot as Karelia does. As his colleagues argue, Dmitriev succeeded in turning the figures of those who perished during the Great Terror into memorial lists complete with names, biographies, and burial sites.

The speakers occasionally slipped into the past tense, but immediately corrected themselves. Dmitriev is still alive, and we must believe he will soon be released, find the execution site of the other two Solovki “quotas” [political prisoners at the Solovki concentration camp who were transported to three different sites outside the camp in 1937–1938 to be shot and buried in secret—TRR], and present the next book of remembrance. This powerlessness, these slips of the tongue, and the trembling voices fully convey the horror of a time when the days when people were shot are long past but people still fall victim to political repression.

The Yuri Dmitriev case is, perhaps, the most important thing happening in Russia right now, first of all, because a patriot who for decades had, bit by bit, resurrected thousands of names of this country’s citizens from official oblivion, citizens murdered cruelly and senselessly in the state’s name, has himself been subjected to persecution. “The introduction to the list of terror victims will be brief: may they live in our memories forever,” writes Dmitriev in the foreword to one of his compendiums, The Motherland Remembers Them, a book in which the names are listed not in alphabetical order, but under the names of the villages where the victims lived before their arrests. “The moral of the story is also brief: remember! As is my advice: take care of each other.” Now there is a Russian national idea for you. The author of these books of remembrance should be nominated for a state prize and a government grant to keep on with his work.

There is another important thing about the Dmitriev case: the charge his persecutors chose for him. He was not charged with “extremism” or “separatism,” which have been commonplace in politically motivated cases, but with child pornography and depraved actions towards a minor. The charges not only guarantee a long sentence and promise the accused problems in prison but also challenge the public to support him. “What if something really did happen?” Dmitriev’s friends and relatives acknowledge that while those who doubt Dmitriev or are willing to countenance the charges are an overwhelming minority, such people do exist, and some of them are “decent” people.

The number of “pedophilia” cases, based on controversial, contradictory, clearly flimsy evidence and flagrantly unprofessional forensic examinations, has been growing for several years. Recently, I attended a similar event in Naro-Fominsk, seventy kilometers southwest of Moscow. It was also a memorial evening for a living person who had been incarcerated on charges of depravity against a child, actions the man could not have committed, according to witnesses who were nearby when the crime was alleged to have occurred. Dozens of people had come to remember what a good male nurse Zhenya had been. Then they corrected themselves: not had been, but is and will continue to be. Then they cried.

“Pedophilia” cases have long been custom-ordered to rid oneself of rivals and used to pad police conviction statistics, but now they have been put to use in political cases.

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

Zinaida Pozdnyakova: Tallinn, Estonia (1964)

Zinaida Pozdnyakova is irreplaceable. While the rest of us were staring at the wall or just not existing (as in my case), Ms. Pozdynakova was exploring the nooks and crannies of Soviet Tallinn in 1964 and, as always, getting it so right you want to hop a train, plane or ferry and go there right now.

Except that city no longer exists, which is one of the reasons why great art and genuine artists are so invaluable to our life together here. TRR

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Continue reading “Zinaida Pozdnyakova: Tallinn, Estonia (1964)”

Terror in the Life of Yuri Dmitriev

Terror in the Life of Yuri Dmitriev
Tatiana Kosinova
Cogita.ru
June 1, 2017

On May 28, 2017, the Anna Akhmatova Museum in Fountain House in Petersburg hosted a presentation of books of remembrance, edited by Yuri Dmitriev, chair of the Memorial Society’s Petrozavodsk branch, who was arrested on trumped-up charges in December 2016.

The presentation was organized and emceed by Anatoly Razumov, head of the Returned Names Center at the Russian National Library and editor of the Leningrad Martyrology.

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Agreeing to Razumov’s request to host the event, the Akhmatova Museum decided not to mention Dmitriev’s name in the event’s poster, on its website, and its mailing lists, as if it were already clear to everyone anyway what and who would be discussed. The event’s ostensible occasion was the eightieth anniversary of the Great Terror. Until the late spring of 2017, this had seemed possible in a museum dedicated to the life of the woman who wrote, “I would like to name all of them by name.” Unnoticed by the majority, however, a new wave of state terror has touched not only Yuri Dmitriev but also Petersburg, far from Petrozavodsk. A public museum risks providing a venue for an event in support of a man persecuted by the state, while making this man a figure of silence.

When the Petersburg Memorial Society found about this approach to Dmitriev, it was too late to find a new venue. It managed only to send out its own mailing list.  The newspaper Moi Rayon mentioned the editor of the Karelian memorial books in its notice of the presentation, and the radio station Echo of Moscow in Petersburg mentioned the presentation as well. Unlike Petrozavodsk, where the presentation was poorly attended, the small hall at Fountain House was nearly packed, and reporters were present.

Dmitriev’s daughter Ekaterina Klodt came from Petrozavodsk for the event, joined by Dmitriev’s defense attorney Viktor Anufriev from Moscow, and Dmitriev’s colleague Nikolai Olshansky, director of the Novgorod Regional Society of Rehabilitated Political Prisoners and editor-in-chief of the Book of Remembrance of Victims of Political Repression of Novgorod Region. Irina Flige, director of the Memorial Research Center, was also involved. TV editor Bella Kurkova, who was scheduled to attend, did not come. In the early 2000s, she had filmed Dmitriev for a program, and Razumov showed an excerpt of this program to the audience.

Razumov has been friends with Dmitriev for fifteen years and considers him an astonishing man not only in terms of Karelia but also nationally. Razumov was involved with Dmitriev in searching for the prison camp cemetery on Sekirnaya Hill on the Solovki Islands. He continues to hope that Dmitriev will find the burial sites of the so-called second and third Solovki quotas of 1937–1938. Razumov still considers his friend’s most surprising find the cemetery of the tortured Belomorkanal construction workers at Lock No. 8.

“When he found himself in his present circumstances, he was accorded incredible support, and I haven’t met a man who would doubt his honest, kindness, and personal qualities,” Razumov said when opening the evening.

Razumov brought two books previously published by Dmitriev to the presentation and displayed them as historical artifacts. The first of these was the Memorial Lists of Karelia, 1937–1938, edited by Dmitriev and Ivan Chukhin, chair of the Karelian branch of Memorial. Dmitriev was Chukhin’s search expert and right-hand man, and after Chukin’s premature death in a car accident in May 1997, Dmitriev also had to master the skill of searching the archives. The book was published only in 2002 and is now rightly regarded as one of the best of its kind.

The second of Dmitriev’s main books, The Sandarmokh Execution Site, originally published in 1999 and long a bibliographic rarity, will be republished. Dmitriev has approved aplan to republish the book under a new title, The Sandarmokh Memorial Site. The new book will be a revised and expanded version of the first book about the memorial cemetery.

“I don’t know what else we can do. But we have managed to do something. We have turned some of the execution sites into memorial sites. May they remain memorial sites forever. That was Yuri’s dream,” said Razumov.

Anatoly Razumov

Razumov discussed two new books by Dmitriev, completed through the efforts of colleagues and friends: The Krasny Bor Memorial Site, which lists people executed at the site, and The Motherland Remembers Them: A Book of Remembrance of the Karelian People. Dmitriev had compiled both books before his arrest, and his friends and colleagues finished editing them and hastily published them in May of this year, before the start of his court trial. The books were presented in Petrozavodsk on May 24. The book will be available in Moscow in a week’s time both as DVDs and paper books. Roman Romanov, director of the Gulag Museum, has found the means to publish them. Five hundred copies will be printed in Moscow for the presentation, which takes place at the museum on June 6, 2017. It took Dmitriev many years to write these books. Krasny Bor was discovered twenty years ago, like Sandarmokh, in 1997. The site of mass executions in 1937–1938, it is located in a forest four kilometers from the village of Derevyannoye in the Prionezhsky District of the Republic of Karelia and nineteen kilometers from its capital city, Petrozavodsk.

According to the website of the Virtual Gulag Museum, Dmitriev conducted a detailed survey of the burials there. On the basis of typical depressions in the topsoil, he discovered around forty burial pits, each of them approximately eight meters in diameter and two and a half meters in depth. The Prionezhsky District Prosecutor’s Office confirmed that the Soviet NKVD had carried out mass executions at the site. According to prosecutors, the executions had been carried out during two periods: August 9–October 15, 1937, and September 26–October 11, 1938. During the digs, Dmitriev ascertained the number of people who had been shot (1,193) and most of their names, which are now included in the book Krasny Bor Memorial Site.  After Dmitriev’s arrest on December 13, 2016, Jan Rachinsky, co-chair of Moscow Memorial, and Anatoly Razumov worked on the book. Dmitriev was able to carry out the final corrections in the Petrozavodsk Pretrial Detention Facility.

Razumov also presented The Book of Remembrance of the Karelian People. Dmitriev favors a geographical principle when drawing up lists of the executed, rather than alphabetical order. In his opinion, it is easier for people to find loved ones this way: the book is thus literally localized and bound up with Karelian history. The Motherland Remembers Them contains lists of Karelians who perished during the Great Terror.

The discs were available at the presentation, and they can also be obtained at the Returned Names Center and Memorial in Petersburg. Razumov reminded the audience that Dmitriev had always handed out all his remembrance books for free, but only to people who could say something about their perished loved ones and who had thus preserved their memory.

Sandarmokh Memorial Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Virtual Gulag Museum

Special Settlers in Karelia is Dmitriev’s latest massive work, on which he has been working for years. It deals with all those who were exiled to Karelia during the Soviet period: dekulakized peasants, deportees, and forced settlers—tens of thousands of people. Dmitriev launched his work on the book in the 1990s, but a great deal remains to be done.

Yuri Dmitriev’s house in Petrozavodsk “has been turned from a workplace into ruins. The police came, stomped about in their boots, and confiscated his computer, which contained his old and new remembrance book, on which work was still underway. But we shall continue the work,” Razumov said as he concluded his opening remarks.



Eldest Daughter

Ekaterina Klodt, Yuri Dmitriev’s eldest daughter

Ekaterina Klodt, Dmitriev’s eldest daugther, is very proud of her dad.

She and her friends were always struck by her father’s deep, penetrating eyes. Outwardly harsh and headstrong, Klodt’s father is a very kind and caring man on the inside.

“He’s a friend, a friend to everyone: colleagues, children, and grandchildren. He puts himself in everyone’s shoes. You can talk to him about anything.”

Klodt is the only person allowed to visit Dmitriev at the pretrial detention facility.

“I’m used to seeing him with his hair grown out and a long beard, like a lumberjack. But in there, his beard has been shaven and his hair cut short. He looks fifteen years younger. He’s had time off from sitting at the computer. At first, of course, I burst into tears,  and he burst into tears. It is very difficult to talk through the tiny window.

“But his spirit, as always, is determined and militant. Father has always been someone we can all look up to, a paragon of strength and self-confidence.”

Klodst visits her father along with her own children.

“When his grandson and then this granddaughter followed me into the room, his eyes lit up. I had never seen Dad cry. He was genuinely happy.”

Klodt said prison was not a place where grandchildren should see their grandfather.

“That’s the reality. The children know where their grandfather is. They come with me to see him and will keep coming with me.”

The last time Klodt saw her father was in mid April.

Klodt said she has been communicating with her younger sister. Adopted by Dmitriev, she loves her dad very much, misses him a lot, and is worried about him. The girl hopes this ridiculous story will soon end, and she will again live with her dad.

“We lived side by side for so many years, as a single family. My children are her age. She and my son are the same age, and my daughter is a year younger. I treat her like one of my children, although she regards me as her sister. She is great friends with my children.”

Klodt cannot see her sister.

“She writes,” Razumov added.

Klodt feels sorriest of all for the confiscated computer. Day after day, she saw her father working, and his work was everything to him.

“The man spent a huge number of hours at the computer. His entire life was working on the computer and the digs. Knowing how much time he worked on the computer, I was constantly worried how he would get along in the pretrial detention facility without his dead ones.”

Klodt was twelve years old when Sandormokh was discovered twenty years ago. Her father took her along on the expedition to the area near Medvezhyegorsk. Klodt’s eldest son, Danya, had recently been traveling into “that huge forest, teeming with gadflies.” Danya is as old now as she was in 1997. This year, whatever the court decides, Klodt and her children will travel to Sandormokh on August 5 for the International Day of Remembrance.

Two Searches

Irina Flige (left)

Irina Flige and Yuri Dmitriev met exactly twenty years ago, in the spring of 1997 at the FSB archives in Petrozavodsk, “a normal place to meet if you’re people working on the memory of the Gulag.”

“That meeting was a point where two searches converged.”

“Such a narrow circle of people has gathered here today that I want to use the familiar mode of address, so I will refer to Yura rather than to Yuri Alexeyevich. At this time, Yura and Ivan Chukhin had located the main sites where executions and burials had taken place in Karelia during the Great Terror. Karelia is the only region or one of two or three regions where the documents stipulate the places where the sentences were carried out, that is, they indicate they occurred in the vicinity of a village or town. By this time, they had managed to compile a complete list of these places. And by 1997, many of the actual locations had been ascertained. For its part, the Memorial Research Center moved from the Solovki in search of the place where the so-called 1937 Solovki quota was executed. This was where our searches converged. We planned a joint expedition of the Petersburg and Petrozavodsk branches of Memorial to an area near Medvezhyegorsk on July 1, 1997. There were four of us who traveled there, not counting Yura’s dog. The expedition was led by Veniamin Iofe, who had done all the preliminary research before we traveled to the site. He had pinpointed the search area to within a kilometer. We set out on the expedition, thinking we would be working there all summer,” Flige recounted, continuing Klodt’s story of the search for Sandarmokh.

Anatoly Razumov took the opportunity to note that all the particulars of the expedition are extremely important, because “Yura was arrested due to Sandarmokh, to put it crudely, due to the fact that the place had become such an irritant.”

Flige illustrated her account with images from the website Sandormokh [sic], which was launched with Dmitriev’s involvement in November 2016. One of the long articles on the website describes the search for Sandarmokh.

Screenshot from the website Sandormokh

“Yura is a restless, active person. At some point, he grabbed the dog and ran off round the forest. Yura has a fantastic intuition. He was running in circles around a place where we had marked out a grid and started systematically digging meter by meter. He ran up to us at some point. ‘Come on, I think I’ve found it.’ Indeed, the place was quite striking. Common grave pits subside in a way that resembles saucers. Yura had seen there many such places there,” recalled Flige.

Sandarmokh was found on the very first day of the expedition, July 1, 1997. The shooting pits, marked by lathe fence, its pales numbered in red lacquer by Flige and Klodt, still constitute the basis of the memorial cemetery.

The lathe fence has given way to poles topped with dovecote-shaped wooden monuments, resembling Orthodox crosses in northern cemeteries.

In 1997, memory was quite alive all over Russia and functioned instantaneously, argues Flige.

“Knowledge and memory were closely related processes. One process immediately followed the other,” she said.

Sandarmokh was officially opened on October 27, 1997. In the four short months since its discovery, road builders had built a paved road to the site in record time, a log chapel had been erected, and the dovecote-shaped memorial markers were all in place. The Republic of Karelia hastily enacted a decree declaring the memorial cemetery open to the public.

“I ran around with the forest managers to mark off the border. I would add space all the time, because what if we had missed a pit? But they would add another thirty meters. It was a breakthrough in common, a breakthrough of knowledge, respect, and memory all at the same time.”

Sandarmokh is the only place in Russia where the August Fifth International Day of Remembrance is held. It has been held since 1998. The people who were shot there were not immediately sentenced to be shot after their arrests, but had spent time in the camps on Solovki and the Beltbaltlag. They had come to the camps from different parts of the Soviet Union. For the last twenty years, delegations from different countries and different parts of Russia have come to Sandarmokh on August 5. It has become the “only venue where people of different ethnic groups and faiths can meet and still speak the same same language, the language of memory.”

The website about the memorial cemetery includes a separate section, “Killed in Sandarmokh,” created by Yuri Dmitriev. It features biographical information about the residents of Karelia executed on this spot in 1937–1938.

It is also telling that Kurkova filmed her program on Sandarmokh with Yuri Dmitriev’s involvement.

A Colleague from Novgorod

Nikolai Olshansky

In Novgorod the Great, The Book of Remembrance has been published since 1993. Late 2015 saw the publication of its fourteenth volume, and there are plans to publish a comprehensive index to the previous volumes that would include information about residents of Novgorod Region subjected to state terror from 1917 to 1970. Nikolai Olshansky, the editor of these volumes, met Dmitriev eight years ago.

Olshansky also continues to pin his hopes on the genius of his Karelian colleague for finding burial sites in his own region. In Novgorod Region, the internment site of fifteen hundred Novgorodians shot during the Great Terror in Novgorod itself has not been ascertained (five thousand Novgorod residents were taken to Leningrad to be shot), nor has the execution site of five hundred residents of Borovichi been located.

Olshansky believes that he once “prophesied” his colleague’s misfortune.

“Yura, your directness and harshness are going to get you put in jail someday,” he told Dmitriev.

During the event at the Akhmatova Museum, Olshansky wished Dmitriev the will to withstand all the trials of detenition. Olshansky does not believe the prosecution’s charges. Under the Soviet regime, he himself was sentenced to four and half years of compulsory treatment in a psychiatric hospital on the basis of a denunciation, an experience from which he has never fully recovered.

The Defense Lawyer

Attorney Viktor Anufriev appeared at the event, answering the audience’s questions. He argued that the law in Russia still exists autonomously from law enforcement. Dmitriev’s rights as someone who has been accused of a crime are observed to the extent they permit the authorities to keep him under arrest by constantly extending the term of his detention. Anufriev is certain of his client’s innocence. There is no evidence of a crime in Dmitriev’s actions.

The case began with one charge, but now there are four, said Anufriev. The case file now consists of five volumes. The indictment now includes an illegal firearms possession charge: the firearm in question is a piece of a hunting rifle, which had been lying around Dmitriev’s house for twenty years and which the prosecution itself does not consider capable of firing. Once upon a time, Dmitriev had confiscated it from the lads in the yard, to keep it out of harm’s way. Why has he been charged with its possession? Anufriev argued that there are two hypotheses. In Soviet times, this article of the criminal code was brought into play if the main charge had been dropped to justify the arrest and pretrial detention.  In our times, on the contrary, the court can find a defendant not guilty on this charge, to make a show of his objectivity.

“But the entire machine of repression is rigged against Dmitriev in such a way that there are very good chances he will remain in custody,” said Anufriev.

Anufriev argued that his job was to prove his client’s innocence on the basis of the law. Analyzing the circumstances with which Dmitriev’s persecution were fraught is not part of that job. But those who follow the trials underway in Russia see that, nationwide, similar things have been happening to people whose work the regime considers unnecessary and harmful.

The upcoming trial will be closed to the public. The first hearing on the merits of the case will take place in Petrozavodsk tomorrow, June 1, 2017, at 2:30 p.m.

Anufriev believes that no one’s testimony would help Dmitriev in making his case. His adopted daughter has said nothing bad about her father. The situation was such that Dmitriev adopted her when she was in a very poor physical state. It was hard for Dmitriev to adopt her: to become her foster father, he had to attend a number of court hearings. Until his own adoption, Dmitriev himself had been raised in an orphanage. Having raised his own children, Dmitriev felt obliged to raise another child. The authorities, who gave him custody of the child through the courts, initially tried to take her away. Three or four months after Dmitriev adopted, “bruises” from “beatings” were suddenly discovered on the girl’s body. They proved to be traces left by a newspaper through which her foster parents had applied mustard plasters to her body. Having gone through this experience, Dmitriev periodically photographed the girl from all four sides, storing the photographs in a file in his computer according to month and year. He did this in case children’s protective services made any complaints about his treatment of the girl. He showed the photos to no one. Over the years, he made fewer and fewer photographers. It would not occur to a normal person that these snapshots could be interpreted as pornographic. According to police investigators, there are 144 photographs, only nine of which investigators have interpreted as “pornographic.” This is the basis of the trumped-up charges that he committed perverse actions by clicking his camera. He clicked it three times a year, and has been charged with violating three articles of the criminal code that could send him to prison for up to fifteen years. The case kicked off with anonymous letter (a denunciation, as we say in Russia) that so-and-so, allegedly, has naked snapshots of his foster daughter stored on his computer.

“As someone who has lived a fairly long life and as the father of several children, I can say there is nothing pornographic about those photos,” said Anufriev.

“Yuri Alexeyevich feels well, as well as he can feel in the place where he is and given his age. He has not lost his optimism and perseverance, either. He understands the situation soberly. As a scholar of the Terror, he has seen and read his fill and could understand that it might affect him as well. Such is our country’s history. I could joke about it and say that the one good thing is people are no longer executed in Russia. But the practice is such that if someone was in custody before his trial, his complete acquittal would be someone else’s complete punishment. That is why it happens so rarely. We would be glad if the case were allowed to fade away.”

You can exchange letters with Yuri Dmitriev. Send your letters to: Respublika Kareliya, Petrozavodsk, ul. Gertsena, 47, SIZO No. 1.

Hyphotheses
Ekaterina Klodt cannot explain who would want to file charges against her father. She doesn’t know the answer to that question, but, according to her, “what he does might not suit everyone.” She regards the criminal prosecution of her father as “completely absurd.”

“It’s frightening, very frightening,” she said.

She said she knows nothing about the search for those did the killing (according to one hypothesis, the charges against Dmitriev were occasioned by his work on drawing up lists of executioners, of the people who implemented the Terror in Karelia).

“We never discussed it, and I don’t think he searched for the executioners. They were not so interesting to him. He always searched for the victims, the people who had been shot. They were the dead who interested him. He wanted to preserve their memory and believed everyone of them should have a grave. He was very concerned for the living, for the descendants, so they would be able to come to a cemetery, to a burial site, pay tribute to their ancestors and remember their loved ones,” said Klodt.

“In Russia, the truth usually becomes obvious after several decades. We can only guess whose toes Yuri Alexeyevich stepped on, and with what upcoming events it is connected. We can analyze our regime’s level of thinking and focus in terms of this case, as well as the direction in which it is headed, and the measures it takes to preserve itself. Yuri Dmitriev was not a member of the opposition in the Republic of Karelia. He did his work in the sincere certainty that it was of use to people and to his country. But it turns that at one point the state says that this work is necessary, that we have to establish what happened, that we have to publish books of remembrance of the victims of the Terror, but time passes and all of this becomes inconvenient to the state. The shadow of the past hinders the current regime. And Yuri Alexeyevich’s work has become not very popular, not so vital, and seemingly unnecessary. By looking for execution sites, Yuri Alexeyevich discredited the previous regime. The time has come when someone has deemed his work unnecessary and even harmful,” argued Viktor Anufriev. “The people who cooked up this case for their own purposes should have long ago understood that the case is so crazy that public opinion has been aroused. I have worked for a long time and know how easy it is to put someone away by planting a bullet or narcotics on him, but trampling a man like this…”

Anufriev argued that the best outcome in the case would be complete acquittal on the pornography charges. Despite the fact that cases involving depraved actions with respect to minors go badly against teachers and priests, this case stands apart.

Anatoly Razumov noted that Karelian children’s protective services had no complaints against Dmitriev during all the years he had custody of his foster daughter. This transpired during a special session of the Presidential Human Rights Council in Petrozavodsk in February of this years, a session in which Razumov, Flige, and Anufriev were involved as invited experts. According to Razumov, Sandarmokh had become the “main sore spot and irritant in the region.” But the authorities were mistaken. Dmitriev had proven to be a man with a man with a strong spirit who loved his children and grandchildren, and almost nobody has believed the accusations.

If Razumov was sure that Dmitriev was arrested over Sandarmokh, whose annual fuss bothered the authorities, Flige argued that closing Sandarmokh by putting Dmitriev in prison was unrealistic. On the contrary, the case had led to a renewed interest in the place, an interest only deepened by speculation as to the reasons for Dmitriev’s persecution. This year, the authorities have createda prisoner of conscience for the memorial cemetery. According to Flige, Dmitriev became a political prisoner the day the TV channel Rossiya 24 broadcast a made-to-order news segment entitled “What Is Memorial Hiding?”

Event photos courtesy of Nadezhda Kiselyova and Cogita.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader

In Edenia, a City of the Future

‎אין דער צוקונפֿט־שטאָט עדעניאַ
In Edenia, a City of the Future
Yermilov Center, Kharkiv
June 8–July 9, 2017

In Edenia, a City of the Future is an art exhibition inspired by the eponymous Yiddish-language utopian novella, published by Kalman Zingman in Kharkiv in 1918. Nearly one hundred years later, artist Yevgeniy Fiks has invited an international group of contemporary artists to read the novella and create artworks as if they were from the museum of the imaginary city of Edenia. The artists’ different visions are an invitation to look at our dreams from various angles, to take note of their colors, intonations, forms and rhythms.

Zingman’s Edenia (a projection of Kharkiv twenty-five years in the future) is serviced by “airbuses” and fountains that keep the temperature at a comfortable level year-round; it is a place where ethnic communities live side by side in peace and harmony. The protagonist of the story, returned to his native city from Palestine, makes a stop in the art museum: “He […] looked at the sculptures of Kritsenshteyn, Lisitski and Roza Fayngold, then he went to the top level. The door closed behind him, and he looked for a very long time, thought for a long time, and got lost in his ruminations.”

At a time when many Ukrainians are divided in their respective idealizations of the Soviet past as a golden era of social justice or the European Union as the promise of a future utopia, In Edenia, a City of the Future (based on a novella written in a language that has practically disappeared from Ukraine) invites the public to examine the country’s multicultural history and its early Soviet dreams and nightmares in light of present-day political challenges and potentialities. We urge visitors to think critically about the appeal and comfort of a utopian dream, while simultaneously remembering past actions taken in the name of making an ideal image of society a reality. How many of these dreams and arguments are we still repeating today?

At the same time, we acknowledge the utopian nature of the very project of 21st-century contemporary art, where visibility (as revelation) has come to replace the visionary projects of the past.

Curators: Larissa Babij (Ukraine/US) and Yevgeniy Fiks (US/Russia)

Participating Artists:
Ifeoma Anyaeji (Nigeria)
Babi Badalov (France/Azerbaijan)
Concrete Dates Collective (Ukraine)
Curandi Katz (Italy/Canada)
Sasha Dedos (Ukraine)
Aikaterini Gegisian (UK/Greece)
Tatiana Grigorenko (US/France)
Creolex centr (Ruthie Jenrbekova & Maria Vilkovisky) (Kazakhstan)
Nikita Kadan (Ukraine)
Kapwani Kiwanga (Canada/France)
Yuri Leiderman (Ukraine Germany)
Mykola Ridnyi (Ukraine)
Haim Sokol (Russia/Israel)
Agnès Thurnauer (France/Switzerland)

Exhibition designer: Ivan Melnychuk (Ukraine)
Publishing partner: STAB (School of Theory and Activism Bishkek) (Kyrgyzstan)

Supported by Asylum Arts
Special thanks to Dr. Gennadiy Estraikh

About the Curators
Yevgeniy Fiks is a Russian-American artist, who has been living and working in New York since 1994. His artistic practice, which includes making artworks, exhibitions, and books, often seeks out and explores repressed microhistorical narratives that highlight the complex relationships between social histories of the West and the Soviet bloc in the 20th century. To learn more, please see http://yevgeniyfiks.com.

Larissa Babij grew up in the US and has been living and working in Kyiv as an independent curator, writer and translator since 2005. Her work focuses on representing Ukrainian contemporary artists in the English-speaking world, organizing contemporary art projects (usually in collaboration with artists) in Ukraine, and critically discussing current cultural conditions.

Yermilov Center
Freedom Square, 4
Kharkiv, Ukraine
Tel: +380 95 801 30 83, +380 57 760 47 13
www.yermilovcentre.org
Open Tuesdays–Sundays, 12.00 p.m.–8:00 p.m.

The exhibition will involve several public events, including guided tours with the exhibition curators, meetings with participating artists, and talks by historians specializing in early Soviet Ukrainian history. Please see www.yermilovcentre.org for details.

*****

A short excerpt from the translation of novella, as kindly supplied to me by Mr. Fiks.

“Where then do you hide the corpses? Or has the Angel of Death discovered another way?”

“Don’t laugh, my friend. For years, our Medical Institute has been conducting tests on rabbits and other animals that have died or been killed, squirting serum into their noses and bringing them back to life. And the Director of the Institute, Professor Rabinovitch, writes in the journal Health that it is possible that very shortly we will be able to insert a new soul into a person who died of old age and bring him back to life. But for now it is still a medical experiment. Yet you asked where we hide the corpses that have died. And I will answer you. Once we’re in the Green Garden, you will see a 40-story building, the Crematorium. There the corpses are cremated, and the ashes of each one are given a separate number and a box. In addition, very few young people die here. Life is so well ordered that one only dies of old age, of weakness, and not as it used to be, from accidents when young. The older generation dies. There has not been a war for the last twenty-one years. The young people only know the term war from history class in school. The other classes are concerned with guarding their health. In the upper grades, both boys and girls learn about sex, not as they did in our time when they went through all the swamps of life before they got married. Here, in our times, no one knows what the swamps of life are. In addition to natural science, a schoolgirl studies history, literature, culinary arts, sex education, and child-rearing. And if you were to see our young mothers—that is, our children! They are completely different from the children of the past, who used to know life, intimate life, only from the pornographic novels they furtively read.”

Translated by Khane-Faygl Turtletaub 

Oriole

I have a confession to make. I am almost exactly the same age as the wonderful Soviet movie We’ll Live Till Monday (Dozhivem do ponedel’nika, Stanislav Rostotsky, dir., 1968), which was filmed during the fiftieth anniversary year of the 1917 Russian Revolution. It is simply the best movie I have ever seen in any language about the value of and balance between formal education and sentimental education, about the conflicts between teachers and pupils, and misunderstandings among generations. It also has plenty to say, mostly between the lines but fairly boldly, about the Soviet Union in its middle age, the teaching of history, the fading revolutionary legacy, and importance of solidarity and “foolish” resistance. And it does all of it in a way that is not trivial or boring or predictable even for a second, and performed by wonderful ensemble cast of mostly teenage actors led by the beloved Vyacheslav Tikhonov and Irina Pechernikova. Pechernikova never became as famous for a number of reasons, but is as wildly charming here as Audrey Hepburn during the same period. So do yourself a favor and treat yourself to one hundred minutes of heartfelt cinematic magic with lots of real, not made-up, lessons to teach audiences. In Russian, with English subtitles.

At the film’s bleakest moment, Vyacheslav Tikhonov’s character, a middle-aged bachelor history teacher and Second World War veteran who still lives with his mother, sings and plays the following song, “Oriole.”

The song’s lyrics are based on three stanzas (the first, third, and fifth) of a poem by the OBERIU poet Nikolai Zabolotsky, “In This Grove of Birch Trees.” Zabolotsky wrote the poem in 1946, the same year he returned to Moscow after eight years of imprisonment and exile in Siberia as a victim of the Stalinist Great Terror.

The full poem, which is considerably bleaker than the already gut-wrenching song lyrics suggest, reads as follows.

Nikolai Zabolotsky
In This Grove of Birch Trees

In this grove of birch trees so white,
Far from woe and misery,
Where the pink morning light
Unblinkingly shimmers,
Where, like a transparent rush,
Leaves shower down from tall limbs,
Sing to me, oriole, a song of anguish,
The song of my life.

Gliding over the forest glade
And eyeing people from a height,
You have selected a wooden,
Inconspicuous pipe.
So that, in morning’s bloom,
After visiting the dwellings of men,
You can greet my morn
With your chaste and humble matins.

But, after all, in life we are soldiers,
And at the limits of what the mind can stand,
Atoms quake and shudder,
Tossing up houses like a white whirlwind.
Like maddened windmills,
Warriors wave their wings around.
But where are you, forest hermit, oriole?
Why have you gone silent, my friend?

Ringed round by blasts,
Over abysses you fly,
Over the river, where the reeds turn black,
Over the ruins of death you glide.
A silent rover,
You guide me into the fray,
And the lethal cloud unfolds
Above you as you make your way.

Beyond the great rivers,
The sun shall rise, and in morning’s gloom,
My eyelids singed,
I shall fall dead to the ground.
Cawing like rabid ravens,
All trembling, the guns shall fall silent.
And then your voice shall sing
Inside my shattered heart.

And over the grove of birches,
Over my birch grove,
Where, an avalanche of pink,
The leaves shower from tall boughs,
Where, touched by a droplet divine,
Cold grows a bit of blossom,
The morning of solemn victory shall dawn
For centuries to come.

1946

You can find the original Russian text poem here or here, among other places. Petersburg critic, poet, and translator Valery Shubinsky has written an excellent critique of the poem, “The Last Battle,” which I hope to translate and publish under separate cover, when I find the time.

Photos and translation by the Russian Reader

Surviving the Siege

“I Only Want to Take a Bath, Nothing More”
Alexander Kalinin
Rosbalt
May 15, 2017

Anna Yegorova is ninety-eight years old. She defended Leningrad all nine hundred days of the Nazi siege of the city during the Second World War. On the seventy-second anniversary of Victory Day, the combatant did not even get postcards from the government. But there was a time when she wrote to Brezhnev—and got a reply. 

Anna Yegorova. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt

Anna Yegorova was born in 1918 in the Kholm-Zhirkovsky District of Smolensk Region. When she was ten, her parents decided to set out in search of a better life and moved to Leningrad with their daughter. They settled in a wooden house near the Narva Gates on New Sivkov Street, now known as Ivan Chernykh Street. Yegorova finished a seven-year primary school and enrolled in the Factory Apprenticeship School, where she graduated as a men’s barber.

“Oh, what beards didn’t I trim in my time,” the Siege survivor recalls.

After acquiring a vocation, the 19-year-old woman married Alexander Vesyolov, a worker at the Kirov Factory. As soon as the war broke out, her husband volunteered for the first division of the people’s militia. Nearly the entire division fell in battle during July–September 1941 on the southern approaches to Leningrad. Vesyolov is still officially listed as missing in action.

Yegorova was drafted into the air defense brigades at the war’s outset. The young woman served in a basement, equipped with seven cots, in one wing of the Kirov Factory. It was the headquarters of the local air defense brigade.

Yegorova still remembers the war’s outbreak, her military service in the besieged Leningrad, and victory in May 1945.

Фото ИА «Росбалт», Александр Калинин
Anna Yegorova as a young woman. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt

“How did the war begin? We were going to the cinema, but my mother told me I should go to the factory instead. Then I got a notice stating I had been drafted to serve in the headquarters of the local air defense brigade at the Kirov Factory. I spent all nine hundred days there. I was able to come home only once a month. My parents starved to death. Dad passed away on February 3, 1942. He was a first-class carpenter. His comrades made him a wooden coffin: they could not bury a carpenter without a coffin. Mom died a month later. They just carried her off to the Volodarsky Hospital in a blanket. I don’t even know where she is buried. Maybe at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, maybe in Moskovsky Victory Park,” says Yegorova.

Her duties included running to other parts of the city to deliver dispatches, carrying the wounded, and standing on guard at the factory, armed with a rifle. The young woman would look into the sky and watch what planes were flying overhead: planes emblazoned with red stars or planes bearing black crosses. Once, during a heavy bombardment, she was shell-shocked.

“I still remember how we chopped up houses in the Kirov District. Once, a girlfriend and I were dismantling a house near a railroad bridge, and a woman called out to us, ‘Girls, girl, come here, come.’ We didn’t go: we were scared. There were all kinds of people back then, you know. Once, this girl stole my food ration cards, and my mom’s earrings were also stolen,” recalls Yegorova.

Фото ИА «Росбалт», Александр Калинин
Yegorova’s collection of war medals. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt

The Siege survivor recounts how she would travel to the Krasnoarmeysky Market to buy linseed cakes and oilseed meal.

“The oilseed meal was like sawdust. Oh, how I gagged on that oilseed meal! But we had nothing to sell. We were poor.”

When Victory Day arrived, her house was nearly totally destroyed. Only an ottoman was rescued from the ruins.

Yegorova remarried after the war. Her new husband was a military officer, Nikolai Yegorov, who had fought not only in the Great Patriotic War (Second World War) but also the Finnish War (Winter War). In peacetime, Yevgorov became a first-class instrumentation specialist. In 1946, the Yegorovs gave birth to a daughter, Lydia. Yegorova worked as a secretary at the Kirov Factory, latter becoming head of a bread and confectionery department at a store.

In the late 1960s, Anna Yegorova wrote a letter to Leonid Brezhnev, secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. The essence of the message was as follows.

“Leonid Ilyich, no one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten. But it has so happened that I, a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad, awarded the medal For the Defense of Leningrad, and my husband, a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, have to huddle with our daughter in a sixteen-square-meter room on Lublin Alley.”

Image courtesy of slideshare.net

Yegorova does not believe her letter reached Brezhnev personally, but she does think it wound up in the hands of a “kindly” secretary who helped the family move into a one-room flat in the far southern district of Ulyanka. She lived in the neighborhood for around thirty years. She was civically engaged, working with Great Patriotic War veterans. She says she even worked as an aide to Sergei Nikeshin, currently an MP in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, who was then quite young. Nikeshin and she inspected the fields then surrounding Ulyanka.

The certificate accompanying Anna Yegorova’s medal For the Defense of Leningrad. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt

In 1996, Yegorova took seriously ill. She was struck down by deep vein thrombosis. Her left leg “was like a wooden peg.” Her husband Nikolai died in 1999.

“After that, Mom stayed at home. I took care of her. This is my cross. We would take her to the dacha only in the summer. Otherwise, she would move about only in the apartment. She would get up in the morning and make her bed, come into the kitchen and sit down on the couch. She would turn on  and call the station to request a song. She loved Boris Shtokolov’s “Dove.” Or she would request “A White Birch Weeps,” or something by Nikolai Baskov. But a month ago she took to her bed. Now all she does is lie in bed,” recounts her daughter Lydia Kolpashnikova.

Boris Shtolokov, “Dove” (a Russian adaptation of “La Paloma”)

Kolpashnikova is herself a pensioner. She has a third-degree disability. According to her, Petersburg authorities have practically forgotten her mother. True, three years ago, the Moscow District Administration called and said she could get a wheelchair. The women’s joy was short-lived. It transpired that the wheelchairs were used: they had been brought to Petersburg from Holland. To make use of the chair, they would have had to pay to have it repaired. The women decided to turn the gift down the gift.

Фото ИА «Росбалт», Александр Калинин
Congratulatory cards and other memorabilia sent to Anna Yegorova over the years as a Siege survivor. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt

Yegorova has received no substantial help from the local Siege survivors society. The organization can only offer trips to museums and theater tickets. This is not an option for Anna Yegorova, who is in no condition to leave her apartment. On memorial days—the Day of the Lifting of the Siege and Victory Day—however, cakes used to be brought to her. But this time around, however, she was completely neglected. According to the pensioner, the city did not even congratulate her.

Yegorova’s daughter Lydia decided to remind the authorities of her mother’s existence after hearing President Putin’s speech on TV. The president demanded that the heads of the country’s regions do a better job of caring for Great Patriotic War veterans.

Фото ИА «Росбалт», Александр Калинин

“I clung to Putin’s words that veterans needed help, for example, if they needed help with home repairs. I called the district administration and asked them to repair our bathroom,” says Kolpashnikova. “Mom is completely ill. She is almost completely out of it. She has gallstones, heart failure, and atrial fibrillation. She is classified as a first-class disabled person. She survives only on sheer willpower. But now she cannot make it to the bathroom. I wipe her off in bed. She talks to me about the bathroom all the time, however. She wants to take a bath, but wants the bathroom repaired. The tile has crumbled in there. I called the Moscow District Administration and asked them to repair the bathroom, but I was told that ‘sponsors’ deal with these issues. Now, however, there is a crisis, and there are no sponsors. What sponsors were they talking about? Mom also needs medicines and diapers. There are social workers willing to run from one office to the next to get hold of diapers for free, but they also need to be paid to run around. The local Siege survivors organizations cannot do anything: they are the weakest link. I have no complaints against them.”

Фото ИА «Росбалт», Александр Калинин

Anna Yegorova gets gifts from the authorities only on round dates. When she turned ninety, they gave her a towel, and they presented her with bed linens when she turned ninety-five.

“I called them in the autumn. I said that Mom would be turning ninety-eight on November 25. I suggested they come and congratulate her. They said to me, ‘We don’t have the right. When she turns one hundred, we’ll congratulate her,” recounts the Siege survivor’s daughter.

Anna Yegorova does not want to ask the authorities for anything.

“I have no strength. What should I do? I cannot stand up straight. I fall. I just want them to fix the bathroom. I want to take a bath. That’s it.”

All photos courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up

The Socialist Revolutionary Alternative

Socialist Revolutionary election poster, 1917. “Party of the Socialist Revolutionaries. Through struggle you will attain your rights. Land and freedom.” Courtesy of Wikimedia

The SR Alternative
Yaroslav Shimov
Radio Svoboda
March 8, 2017

“On the morning of February 23, the workers who had reported to the factories and shops of the Vyborg District gradually downed tools and took to the streets in crowds, thus voicing their protest and discontent over bread shortages, which had been particularly acutely felt in the above-named factory district, where, according to local police, many had not had any bread whatsoever in recent days.”

Thus read a report by agents of the Okhrana on the first day of a revolution that forever changed Russia, February 23, 1917 (March 8, New Style).

Revolutionary events such as the unrest in Petrograd, which the bewildered tsarist regime failed to put down, Nicholas II’s abdication on March 2 (15) at Dno Station near Pskov, and the establishment of the Provisional Government were recalled by contemporaries as happening so swiftly that they were unable to understand where Russia was headed so wildly and who would ultimately benefit from the changes. In February 1917, no one would have predicted that less than year later the Bolsheviks, a radical faction of the Social Democrats who had been on the sidelines of Russian politics, would emerge victorious, and Bolshevik leaders themselves were no exception in this regard.

But an enormous thirst for social justice was apparent from the revolution’s outset. Russia had emerged a quite leftist country. In the stormy months following the monarchy’s fall, it transpired that a definite majority of the country’s citizens sympathized with socialist ideas in one form or another. This was reflected in the outcome of the first free elections in Russian history, which took place in the autumn, when the chaos and anarchy on the war front and the home front were obvious. The newly elected Constituent Assembly was meant to define the country’s future. The Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), a party that had consistently, albeit violently and bloodily, waged war against the Romanov Dynasty, but in 1917 had favored peaceful but radical reforms, primarily land reforms, scored a convincing victory in the elections.

Soldiers who had gone over to the revolution and armed city dwellers on the streets of Petrograd, 1917

If the country had managed to slip past the threat of dictatorship, issuing from the left (the Bolsheviks) and from the right (radical counter-revolutonaries), the SRs would definitely have been post-revolutionary Russia’s ruling party for a time, argues Konstantin Morozov, a professor in the Institute of Social Sciences at RANEPA and convener of a permanent seminar, Leftists in Russia: History and Public Memory. In an interview with Radio Svoboda, he reflects on why this did not happen and what the SR alternative would have meant to Russia.

*****

What was the condition of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in February 1917?

I would say the the party was then in a state of organization disarray. A considerable part of its prominent leaders was abroad, while the other part was in prison, exile, and penal servitude. It had to be rebuilt from scratch, and it was the SRs who had withdrawn from revolutionary work in 1905–07 but who basically returned to the party in 1917 who mainly engaged in the rebuilding. It was they who organized all the party’s new cells. There were also serious problems among the SRs in terms of internal rifts, especially due to differing viewpoints on the war.  In March, the SRs began to rebuild themselves as a single party, which was implemented subsequently at the party’s 3rd Congress in May and June. In my view, this was a mistake, because the disagreements within the party were such that it could not function, manage itself, and take decisions as a united party. A factional struggle immediately ensued. Accordingly, it ended in collapse and the inability to hew to a single internal party policy in 1917.

Due to the first phase of their history, the SRs are associated in the popular imagination with violence and terrorism, which they had long renounced by 1917. What were the views of the SRs and the leaders on violence as a principle of political struggle? The baggage of their terrorist pasts still haunted Viktor Chernov and other party leaders, after all. How did they view it in 1917?

The Socialist Revolutionary Party discussed the question of terrorism throughout its existence. At first, such figures as Mikhail Gots and Viktor Chernov, who advocated he inclusion of terror in the party’s tactics, had the upper hand. But even then the SRs included people who advocated a popular, mass-based party, who favored propaganda and agitation among the peasantry and proletariat rather than focusing on terror. Their ideal was a grassroots socialist party, something like the Second International’s exemplary party, the German Social Democracy. It went from bad to worse. During the 1905 Revolution, the party’s grassroots combat squads were keen on practicing expropriation and many other things that party leaders dubbed “revolutionary hooliganism.” But after 1909–11, in the aftermath of Evno Azef‘s exposure, the voices of those SRs who had argued for giving up terrorism grew ever stronger. By February 1917, there was no longer any talk of terror. The last terrorist act carried out by SRs had taken place in 1911, after which they basically ceased engaging in terrorism. Terrorist sentiments in the Socialist Revolutionary Party were resurrected only in the wake of October 1917, especially after the Bolsheviks forcibly disbanded the Constituent Assembly. Even then, however, the greater number of SR leaders were against engaging in terrorism against the Bolsheviks. These SR leaders argued that first they had to get the grassroots on their side using the methods of a popular political party.

In his memoirs, Boris Savinkov quotes his friend Ivan Kalyayev, a member of the SR Combat Organization who killed the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Kalyayev said that an SR without a bomb was not an SR. In reality, however, the majority of SRs were not involved in terrorism, and they would have disagreed with Kalyayev’s statement. It can be argued that use of terrorist tactics dealt a huge blow to the Socialist Revolutionaries who wanted the party to be a grassroots socialist party, a party that could carry out the will of Russia’s “triune working class” (in which the SRs included the proletariat, the working peasantry, and the working intelligentsia), and a party that proposed an evolutionary and democratic path to progress. Essentially, the SRs were not terrorists, of course. They had more or less given up terrorism in 1911. What mattered politically was that they were able to propose a program, both agrarian and federalist, that excited the sympathies of millions of people. By the autumn of 1917, the Socialist Revolutionary Party had more than a million members, while the Bolsheviks had only 350,000 members. Most important, the SRs won the elections to the Constituent Assembly, taking 41% of the vote.

Эсеровский террор начала ХХ века: уничтоженная бомбой террориста карета министра внутренних дел Вячеслава Плеве, убитого 15 (28) июля 1904 года в Петербурге
SR terrorism in the early 20th century: the carriage of Interior Minister Vyacheslav Pleve, killed on July 15 (28), 1904, in St. Petersburg

So 1917 was the heyday for the SRs: they had a million members, and they won the elections to the Constituent Assembly. Why, ultimately, were they unable to take advantage of this? How did it happen that the SRs,  despite their popularity, ceded power to the Bolsheviks later as well, despite attempts to the contrary? What predetermined their failure?

There are two sets of causes, objective and subjective, meaning, the mistakes made by the SRs themselves. What I think is fundamentally important is that it is extremely difficult to campaign for democratic reforms while a world war is underway. The fact that the Revolution took place during the First World War considerably predetermined the entire subsequent course of events. What is a world war? On the one hand, it involves a collapse in living standards and a aggravation of all the contradictions that have been accumulating in society over decades. On the other hand, it involves millions of people getting used to killing other people. This causes quite serious psychological changes. Extreme cruelty is combined with societal expectations pushed to the limit. These expectations had amassed to such an extent that in 1917 very many people wanted everything right away. Say, workers were no longer satisfied they had trade unions that the selfsame socialists would meet halfway. The workers wanted more. They wanted control and management of the factories. Practically, the Mensheviks and SRs could not take this step, because it would have led to serious industrial management issues. And the peasants wanted the land right away.

Here we turn to the mistakes made by the Socialist Revolutionaries. It was wrong to delay the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. Rather, it was wrong to go along with the liberals in the Provisional Government, the Kadets, who tried to postpone the Constituent Assembly any way they could. The liberals realized the leftist parties were stronger. They would have an outright majority in the Constituent Assembly, and consequently the peasantry and proletariat would get much of what they had been demanding. So the Kadets postponed the Constituent Assembly. That was a big, serious mistake.

Did the subjective factor play a role in the fact that the SRs failed? Let’s take a closer look. On the one hand, they were a party who styled themselves as the party of “land and freedom.” They were supported by the peasants. On the other hand, most SR leaders were members of the urban intelligentsia, not the salt of the earth. Did this contradiction factor in the SR electoral victory, but one in which their supporters were unwilling to secure their political power?

It was a lot more interesting than that. The program for socializing land ownership, advocated by the SRs, did not fall out of the sky. It was the outcome of quite serious work on the part of Populist economists and sociologists. It was revenge, if you like, for the failure of the “going to the people” campaign of 1874. In the aftermath, Populist economists, sociologists, and statisticians undertook a serious study of how peasants really lived. Within twenty or thirty years, they had figured out how the Russian peasantry really lived and what it wanted. The SRs based their own land socialization program on this research. Moreover, the SRs tended not to act like typical Russian intelligentsia, who often preferred philosophizing and imposing their own values on others. The SRs always tried to maintain feedback from the peasantry. I came across a quite curious document, a survey of sorts, which the SR Central Committee sent out in 1906 or 1907 to their local organizations, who were supposed to conduct this sociological survey, which asked peasants about their attitudes towards the regime, the army, and the clergy, and what they thought about the land, and how it should be distributed and managed. So it was no wonder the Socialist Revolutionary Party and their program, crafted over many years and through the efforts of many people, were seen by the peasants as their party and their program. On the other hand, there was a fairly powerful peasant lobby in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The grassroots level of party activists and functionaries consisted of the so-called popular intelligentsia: physician’s assistants, schoolteachers, agronomists, surveyors, and foresters.

Один из самых известных эсеров, Борис Савинков, в юности. Фото из полицейского досье
One of the most prominent SRs, Boris Savinkov, in his youth. Photos from his police file

The problem was that the SRs did not fully take the peasantry’s interests into account in 1917. The revolutionary authorities were afraid to cede land to the peasants, because, on the one hand, the army’s quartermasters argued that the supply of provisions to the army would immediately collapse. On the other hand, there were fears that the rank-and-file soldiers, who were actually peasants dressed in greatcoats, would immediately desert the front and run home.  Later, at the party’s Fourth Congress, Yevgeniya Ratner, a member of the SR Central Committee, put it quite aptly. She said that for the war’s sake, for the front’s sake, they were forced into compromises with the bourgeois parties and thus were unable to defend the class interests of the peasantry and workers, and this was their huge guilt in the face of history. According to Ratner, they should have convoked the Constituent Assembly two or three month earlier, i.e., in August or September 1917, and set out to implement agrarian reforms. We should point out that some of the SRs had wanted to do this: Chernov, for example, insisted on it. There were ideas for forming a socialist government. In September 1917, the SR Central Committee was leaning towards this option.

By a socialist governmment, do you mean one that would have included all leftist parties, including the Bolsheviks?

There were two options. The first was the most leftist and quite adventuresome, or at least it seemed that way to the SRs themselves. It was proposed by Maria Spiridonova. She suggested the SRs should simply take power and form their own homogeneous SR government.

Meaning, they should have done what the Bolsheviks did finally?

It’s another matter that the Bolsheviks immediately set about tweaking their slogans and their actions. That is, they adopted the same slogans, but over time all of this was transformed into something else entirely. But getting back to the SRs, the majority of them wanted a coalition socialist government that would have included the Bolsheviks. At some point after October 1917, there were negotiations between the Bolsheviks and the socialist parties about forming such a government, but without Lenin and Trotsky. It was Lenin who in many ways destroyed this option. Was the formation of a socialist government a viable alternative if it had been agreed, say, in September? I think so. This would have been followed by elections to the Constituent Assembly, where the socialist parties obtained a majority. The SRs took the top spot, and the Bolsheviks won 25%, meaning they were the second largest faction. Clearly, they would have carried a lot of weight, but this course of events would, nevertheless, have made it possible to maintain a parliamentary democracy. Obviously, after a while, the SRs would have lost power in elections, as we see in Europe, where power swings back and forth between the right and the left. There was a chance then to set up a similar scheme for changing power through democratic procedures, via parliament. After all, the Constituent Assembly was highly regarded in society. It had been elected in the first genuinely free ballot in Russian history.

You have already touched a bit on the period after the Bolshevik coup. But let’s go back in time a bit. One of the key figures of 1917 was Alexander Kerensky. How did the other SRs regard him, and what role did he ultimately play in the party’s history?

It’s a very good question, but before answering it, I would like to voice a more general consideration. You just mentioned the “Bolshevik coup.” On the one hand, centrist and Right SRs used the term themselves. On the other hand, the Left SRs and anarchists would later come to favor the concept of a single Russian revolution that lasted from 1917 to 1921. That is, they saw it as a unified revolutionary process in which there was February and October, followed by the civil war. Currently, this is more or less how it is discussed. Those who rejected the concept argued that October 1917 was not a revolution on its own terms, because it did not involve a spontaneous popular movement. Until the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks themselves would also often speak of a coup, of their coup. But some of the SRs, Mark Vishnyak, for example, rightly noted, in my opinion, that the events of October 1917 could be interpreted as a sort of “staff revolution,” organized from above. It was a symbiosis of a revolutionary process with traits of a coup. When someone simply speaks of a coup, that is not entirely right, because there was definitely support from the workers and soldiers. Besides, the word “coup” itself suggests an analogy with Latin American-style military coups. Whatever the case, we must continue to make sense of those events conceptually.

What if we return to Kerensky?

The SR leadership definitely saw Kerensky as a fellow traveler, as the term was then. He had been in the SR movement during the Revolution of 1905–07. Elected as an MP to the State Duma, he tried to unite different Populist groups. On the other hand, some SRs might have simply envied him. Kerensky was one of the most popular people in Russia. Socialist Revolutionaries who had spent years fighting in the underground and building the party, wound up in the background, while he, who had declared himself an SR, was regarded by society in 1917 as the most important SR. Chernov had harsh things to say about Kerensky. According to Chernov, Kerensky played a quite negative role in the Socialist Revolutionary Party, because he had almost no contact with the SR leadership and did not follow the Central Committee’s instructions. The Right SRs and right-centrists supported Kerensky, while the Left SRs tried to break with him. At the party’s Third Congress, in May and June 1917, the Left SRs sabotaged Kerensky’s election to the party’s Central Committee.  He was rejected outright. It was a real slap in the face.

Александр Керенский, министр-председатель Временного правительства, стал в 1917 году символом демократической России и ее краха
Alexander Kerensky, chair of the Provisional Government, was a symbol of democratic Russia and its collapse in 1917.

What does that tell us? That, unlike the Bolsheviks, the SRs were not a leaderist party, remaining a more collectivist force?

Democrats are generally less inclined to leaderism, and this was fully borne out by the SRs. This does not mean there were no authoritarians among the SRs. It was another matter that the leaders had to adapt to the moods and ideas of the revolutionary milieu, to the subculture of the Russian revolutionary movement. The notions of decentralization, self-reliance, and independence fromthe leadership were quite strong in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Initially, they had a sort of collective leadership. At various times, it consisted of different people, usually three or four people. Plus, we have to speak here of three or four generations of SRs. The first generation had been been members of the People’s Will, while the last generation joined the party in 1923–24. Meaning, we are looking at a fairly complicated picture. But generally, yes, there was no single leader. Many historians and contemporaries were of the opinion this was a cause of the failure of the SRs in 1917. Chernov argued that if Gots and Grigory Gershuni had still been alive, the three of them could have led the party in 1917. Gershuni was highly charismatic, even more charismatic than Lenin, and perhaps he would have had a chance to keep the party under control. On the one hand, there is a certain point to these hypotheses, but we have to consider the weakness and division existing within the party at the time of the revolution, in particular, the strong differences between the SRs on the issue of the war. Very many people regarded Chernov as a good theorist, but not as a leader and organizer. However, he had the outstanding ability to reconcile different points of view, and he played a unifying role. His opponents dubbed him the “universal bandage.”

Let’s try and sum up. Should we regard the SRs as a failed historical alternative to Bolshevism? Or, given their looseness and perennial internal division, did the SRs nevertheless lack the strength, ideas, and people to lay claim to a truly great historical role?

I think that victory in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, in which they received a plurality and, in fact, adopted the first two laws, including the law socializing land ownership, were in fact the beginnings of a democratic alternative, an SR alternative. Would they have been able to lead the country down this road? I support the viewpoint of my German colleague Manfred Hildermeier, who as early as 1992 wrote in an article that, since one of Russian’s main problems was the huge gap between city and country, the SRs were well suited to play the role of a party voicing the interests of the peasantry, proletariat, and intelligentsia. I would also add we should not exaggerate the extreme peasantness of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. If you look at their program, you see they attempted to unite a European conception of socialism with certain nativist ideas. They argued that the peasantry’s skull was no worse than the skulls of the proletariat and intelligentsia, and was quite capable of taking the ideas of socialism on board. It was one of the first attempts in the world to fuse European values and ideas of modernization with the values of a traditional society, to merge a significant part of the Russian peasantry into the new society as painlessly as possible. The SRs assumed that for many decades to come progress would follow the bourgeois path and there would be a market economy: socialism would not soon emerge. In this sense, they were evolutionists. They were essentially the first to propose an idea that is currently quite fashionable around the world, the idea of peripheral capitalism, according to which capitalism in developed countries and capitalism in second-tier and third-tier countries are completely different things. In peripheral capitalist countries, including Russia, capitalism shows it most predatory features and is the most destructive.

Мария Спиридонова, будущий лидер левых эсеров, в юные годы
Maria Spiridonova, future leader of the Left SRs, in her youth

The SRs also argued the Russian people were definitely capable of adapting to democracy. Moreover, they thought that the Russian traditions of liberty and community self-government afforded an opportunity for magnificent democratic progress as such. The SRs wanted to unlock the people’s democratic collectivist potential. By the way, they did not idealize the peasant commune, arguing it had to be transformed, of course. They counted on the cooperative movement, which had progressed quite powerfully in early twentieth-century Russia. It was entirely under the ideological leadership of the SRs. They believed it was necessary to rely on the working peasant economy. It would then be possible to modernize the country and eventually follow a socialist path. The main thing was that despite a certain utopianism to their views, the SRs were capable of evolving, of course. Another important thing was that the SRs, more than the other parties, were capable of acting as a venue for reconciling different interests. This is basically the road European social democracy took. However, the party’s looseness and internal conflicts were important features of its history. I think that sooner or later the Socialist Revolutionary Part would definitely have split into several parties. If we speak of the SRs as a democratic alternative, then the Maximalists and Left SRs do not fit this bill. Unlike the other SRs, they cannot be considered adherents of democratic socialism. By the way, the SRs and Mensheviks used this term quite vigorously from the 1920s onwards. Later, in the mid twentieth century, the European socialist parties would also speak of democratic socialist values. From this perspective, some SRs and Mensheviks were, undoubtedly, adherents of democratic socialism, which gave rise to the Socialist International.

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The demise of the Socialist Revolutionary Party was tragic. During the Russian Civil War, the SRs finally split. The Right SRs were involved in the anti-Bolshevik movement, while the Left SRs tended to collaborate with the Bolsheviks. In the summer of 1918, however, finally convinced that Lenin and his entourage were taking Russia down the road to dictatorship, the Left SRs undertook a failed attempt to overthrow “commissarocracy,” their term for the Communist regime. In the 1920s, the party was finally finished off. In the summer of 1922, twelve SR leaders were sentenced to death at a special trial. The executions, however, were postponed, turning the convicts into hostages in case the remnants of the Socialist Revolutionary Party decided to return to its terrorist methods, now against the Communist regime. One SR leader, Yevgeniya Ratner, was held in prison with her young son, causing her to complain to Dzerzhinsky. Subsequently, their death sentences were commuted to various terms of imprisonment and exile. Most prominent SRs who stayed in Russia were victims of the Stalinist crackdowns. Several former SRs, including Maria Spiridonova and her husband Ilya Mayorov, were among those massacred in the Medvedev Forest, outside Orlyov, in September 1941.

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