We Will Stop at Nothing to Make Sure You Have Fun

fullsizeoutput_976A migrant maintenance worker fixes a rooftop on Kolomenskaya Street in downtown Petersburg, September 25, 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader

Immigrant Janitors to Be Evicted from Tenement Houses for World Cup
Maria Tirskaya
Delovoi Peterburg
January 15, 2018

The scandal caused by plans to evict students from dormitories in order to house the Russian National Guardsmen and policemen who will provide security at this summer’s World Cup matches in Petersburg has taken an unexpected turn. Accommodations for the law enforcement officers have now been found in city-owned tenement houses.

In November 2017, it transpired that the Russian Federal Education and Science Ministry and the Russia 2018 World Cup Organizing Committee had recommended to major universities in several cities where matches would take place to evict out-of-town students from their dormitories before the football tournament kicked off. The plan was the rooms thus freed would house the regular policemen and Russian National Guardsmen who would be policing the sporting events. To this end, universities in Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Saransk, and Yekaterinburg were forced to amend their curricula and examination timetables so students would be able to take their exams and clear out of their dormitories before the World Cup began. A scandal ensued. The Russian Student Union asked Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to prevent the forcible eviction of students.

Petersburg officials have come up with another way to find temporary housing for police and the Russian National Guard during the World Cup.

The city’s Housing Committee has drafted a municipal government decree that would provide housing to “legal entities performing tasks related to the provision of enhanced security measures during the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Petersburg” in commercial housing stock under lease agreements. The draft decree has been published on the Housing Committee’s website.

In other words, the Housing Committee plans to house law enforcement officers in tenement houses owned by the city.  The first tenement house designed to accommodate out-of-town janitorial and maintenance workers was opened in 2010. Currently, the city’s State Housing Fund owns seventeen tenement houses, which are located both in the city’s central and outlying districts. The cost of renting a single bend in these houses ranges from 2,900 rubles [approx. 42 euros] to 4,600 rubles [approx. 66 euros] a month. We can assume the most popular spots will be in the tenement house at 22 Karpovka Embankment on the Petrograd Side, since it is located closest to the stadium on Krestovsky Island, where all World Cup matches hosted by Petersburg are schedule to be played.

The Housing Committee declined to comment on its undertaking.

Earlier, it was reported most of the events relating to the 2018 World Cup would be policed by Russian National Guard units. They would be responsible for the personal safety of players, coaches, and referees, and monitoring stadiums, fan zones, training pitches, and areas around the stadiums, including the transport infrastructure sites that will handle the movement of fans.

In 2017, during the FIFA Confederations Cup, which took place from May 26 to July 2, and was considered a rehearsal for the World Cup, security in Petersburg was ensured by over 15,500 officers and servicemen from units of the Russian National Guard’s Northwestern District.

The World Cup will take place in Russia from June 14 to July 15 of this year. The matches will be played in Moscow, Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Sochi, Samara, Nizhny Novgorod, Kaliningrad, Volgograd, Kazan, Rostov, and Saransk.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Every Tree in the Forest Would Understand You

Every Tree in the Forest Would Understand You
Anastasia Lotareva
Takie Dela
August 11, 2017

In Russia, there are six people left who can tell tales, sing songs, and simply converse in one of the world’s most ancient languages.

The dialects of the Selkup language are unique. For example, they have retained semantic stress (that is, stress that changes the meanings of words). It was inherited from Proto-Samoyedic, the language spoken in Siberia before our era. Researchers from around the world study the Selkup dialects, and Russian linguists recently were awarded an unprecedented grant to research them. If the language of the southern Selkups disappears before scholars are able to record it, what the language has preserved for thousands of years will disappear forever. 

“God got paradise, the Devil got Narym Territory,” laughs an elderly mustached man as he tosses another heavy bag on board the speedboat or kaeski. The boat is moored directly to the shore, since there is no dock. It is loaded with food, parcels, and medicines, as well as children.

“He’s going to his grandma’s. You see that he doesn’t forget to get off at Shpalozavod.”

There are no strangers here at all. The first mate, who sells tickets printed back in Soviet times, regards us with suspicion.

“May I ask where you’re going? To Narym? Whatever for?”

“We’re writing an article about the Selkups.”

“Ah . . . More researchers going to see our Ostyaks.”

He closes the door to the deck. It is strictly forbidden to go on deck when the boat is under speed: the weather is poor, and the boat is badly buffeted. In short order, the small craft jumps right into the middle of the Ob River. On the right is the taiga, on the left is the taiga. For several hours and many kilometers there is nothing but the taiga.

Like Sverdlov and Stalin
There are now less than fifty indigenous minorities in Russia. The list of these peoples was approved at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and it has been constantly revised downward. The Selkups are relatively numerous. There are a few thousand of them in Tyumen Region, fifty in Krasnoyarsk Territory, and nearly two thousand in northern Tomsk Region, where Narym is located. The term Selkup emerged and gradually came into usage in the 1930s. Previously, the names Ostyak and Ostyak-Samoyed were used. They are still used in ordinary, non-scholarly language, and sometimes they seep into official documents. The Selkups tend to call themselves Ostyaks.

Narym. This building was the police station before the revolution. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

The Selkups have been divided the last three hundred years or so. There are the northern Selkups, who live along the Taz and Turukhan Rivers, and there are the southern Selkups, the Narym Selkups, who live in the middle basin of the Ob River. They have different folkways, now nearly erased by time and assimilation, and different dialects. If Selkups speak their native tongues, southerners would not understand northerners. Only they do not speak it. The Selkups started to disappear and assimilate as early as the nineteenth century, and the language retreated when the Selkups settled in Russian villages. Their secretive, forest way of life came to an end.

“An airplane flew to Narym once a week, and ships would arrive daily, not just one, like nowadays, but many. But now we’re like Stalin and Sverdlov, like Sverdlov and Stalin. Hey, young folks, do you know who Stalin is?” a female fellow passenger asks us.

Narym was a free land. In the sixteenth century, it was ruled by the Skewbald Horde, a group of four hundred Selkups, according to the written sources, or five million, as a beautiful brochure published by the local authorities claims. The horde was led by Prince Vonya, an ally of Kuchum Khan, ruler of the Khanate of Sibir. Battered by Cossack detachments and tsarist military governors, the khanate fell. The Skewbald Horde surrendered only after construction of Narym Fortress in the late sixteenth century.

A street in Narym. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Narym was no longer a free land. Common criminals and enemies of the regime were exiled there, including the Decembrist Nikolai Mozgalevsky, the Latvian communist Jānis Pieče, the Bolsheviks Yakovlev, Shishkov, and Tomsky, and Stalin and Sverdlov, the latter along with his youngest brother. The political prisoners were not guarded very closely, and many of them managed to escape. Stalin, for example, spent only forty-one days of a five-year exile in Narym before grabbing a steamer to Tomsk and traveling from there to Switzerland, where he resumed his revolutionary career.

Little People
“You Russians distort everything. Ostyakh is not what Selkups called themselves, but what the Khanty called them. It means ‘here I am.’ Or take nyar’m, ‘marsh’ in Selkup. But no, you turn it into Narym.”

We are told this by Ludmila Shadrina, a Narym Selkup and former elementary school teacher.

Ludmila Shadrina. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Ludmila walks quickly, almost at a run, over the boardwalks that do the work of sidewalks in Narym. It is late and quite cold. The museum, which contains three rooms on political exiles and one room on the Selkups, closed much earlier in the day, but Ludmila has agreed with the people who run it to open it for us.

“Not all Selkups like it when people come and interrogate them.”

“But you like it?”

“My cow has been waiting for over an hour to be milked, and yet I’m running around here. But I realize we have to tell people about ourselves.”

I ask Ludmila why this is necessary.

“Because we exist,” Ludmila says.

In front of the little house of the peasant Alexeyev, where Stalin was quartered, is a karamo, a Selkup dugout. The house is authentic, but the karamo is a reconstruction: the Selkups ceased living in them in the early twentieth century. However, Ludmila says her nephew builds the very same dugouts when he hunts sables. Selkups still also build lean-tos, sheds mounted on piles to keep rodents from pilfering victuals.

Dugout at Narym Museum. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Exhibits at Narym Museum. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Ludmila, whose Selkup father died young, grew up in a small Selkup village with her Russian mother. All traces of the traditional way of life had vanished. The village was dying.

“Dad took me fishing with him,” says Ludmila. “What can you say? He was an Ostyak and fished well. We were still eating dried fish several years after his death. He was ill and that’s why he took me along. He thought if he kicked the bucket, then at least I, a living soul, would go find people and tell them where his body was. When Dad felt weak, he would lie on the sand, half asleep, half breathing. I would lie next to him, gazing at the forest, at all the bugs. The trees would sway, but what was beyond the trees? Bears? People? I was frightened.”

Ludmila takes us to her sister Raisa’s house, telling us on the way that bears have become more frequent in Narym in the past year. Тhey snatch cows, stroll down the street, and rip dogs to shreds. If people guard one side of the village, they will infiltrate it from the other side. Ludmila feared them as a little girl and still fears them as an adult. Bears are inventive, cagey animals. The surrounding area is chockablock with them.

When she greets us at the door, Raisa suggests “freezing” us, that is, getting out cold fish, so-called chush, cut into large rings.

“Do you go far to fish?”

“We fish right here on the creek.”

The “creek” is Raisa’s name for the Ob, Russia’s longest river.

Narym. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Neither Raisa nor Ludmila speaks Selkup. They know only certain words.

“It wasn’t the done thing. Yeah, the old people spoke Selkup. We understood them, but replied in Russian, especially after going to boarding school.”

All the children from the tiny Selkup villages were not sent to a regular school in nearby towns, but to special Selkup schools many kilometers away. They were part of the special welfare system for the indigenous minorities of the Russian North, a system crowned by the Institute of the Peoples of the North, which still functions in St. Petersburg. During the impoverished postwar period, the boarding schools provided their young charges with everything from food to clothing. Being sent to such a boarding school was considered good fortune and a privilege. But this same privilege almost completely destroyed the Selkup language and eroded ethnic self-identity. The children would come back home speaking Russian, but more seriously, they no longer wanted to living in the small, impoverished Selkup villages.

Narym. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Narym. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

I ask Ludmila and Raisa whether they liked boarding school. They answered yes without hesitating. Nourishing food, good clothes, and friends, with many of whom they are still in touch.

A minute later, however, Raisa adds something.

“The boarding school influenced us. We got used to getting ourselves out of scrapes. We worked and we studied, and our parents helped us. But our own children are not independent. They are softer. They cannot do the things we did. I always told myself when I had a child I would not give it away to anyone. This is probably because of the boarding school.”

Boarding school students were teased, but Raisa remembers this without malice.

“Well yeah, we were teased, of course, and people said we drank a lot, that we were poor and narrow-minded. Only certain people would get stuck on this, and I would put my arms on my hips and say, ‘Yeah, I’m an Ostyak. What of it?!’ They didn’t know what to say.”

According to Ludmila, many of her fellow villagers are embarrassed of their ethnicity and identify themselves as Russians.

“Then the neighbors say to them, ‘You have passed yourselves off as Russians, but what you going to do with your Ostyak mug? We’re forest people, little people. Everything gives us away, including our faces and figures.”

The Last Native Speaker
Parabel, the district center, is a large, rich village, founded in the seventeenth century on the site of several old Russian settlements. Nowadays, major oil and natural gas pipelines run through it. Gazprom runs a compressor platform and oil pumping station in the village, and so its freshly paved streets are filled with foreign-made cars, and the rooms in certain hotels are never vacant, because there are many business travelers. There is a cinema, a cultural center, and a large museum, which has grown over the nearly thirty years since the Soviet Union’s collapse from a small in-school museum to a large-scale history and ethnography museum.

“When the Selkups organized themselves, culture got involved. What did you expect?” Irina Fokina, head of the local culture department explains. “They said it to me just like that: ‘Irina Petrovna, the time has come to deal with the small peoples.'”

“Did you know anything about the Selkups before this?”

“When I was at school, we didn’t know any Selkups. The Ostyaks, on the other hand, lived with us, and they were sometimes spoken of poorly,” Fokina falters, choosing her words carefully.

Irina Korobeinikova is the last native speaker of a rare Selkup dialect. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

“They called us ‘second class,'” laconically notes Irina Korobeinikova, the last native speaker of the Narym dialect of Selkup and the person who launched the southern Selkup renaissance.

The notion of a “native speaker” is a quite broad concept, a concept with numerous gradations, ranging from people who remember a few words of their native language from childhood to those who converse with household members in their native language as adults. There are no such people left among the Selkups. Irina speaks Selkup fluently and publishes fairy tales and legends in her native tongue, but as reverse translations. First, she recalls a story or reads a Russian transcription of it, as recorded by ethnographers, and only then does she translate it into Selkup. Her children do not know the language. Even her brother, who grew up with her and has heard his fill of Selkup, converses with his sister in Russian.

“But why doesn’t he want to speak his native language?”

“He says he doesn’t want to and that’s that. Who can say?”

Irina spoke only Selkup until the age of seven, mainly with her grandmother, who raised her six grandchildren. Grandmother hunted and fished. Irina’s mother was also a good hunter. She and her sister would bring in two thousand squirrels per season and turn them over to the Soviet state in return for fabric to make a dress or a cashmere scarf. Did the Russian women hunt? Irina says she cannot recall such a thing. It was a purely Selkup practice.

“Did you call yourself Selkups?”

“We called ourselves chomilkups, forest people. Mom and Dad were identified as Ostyaks in their internal Soviet passports, while I was identified as a Selkup. By the way, when I went to the first Congress of Indigenous Minorities, in Kolpashevo, I raised this question when the head of the passport office spoke. I was indignant. Am I not related to Mom and Dad? I was told the academic world had settled on it. This was how our people were now called.”

Irina’s grassroots activism kicked off during perestroika.

“The authorities really supported us then.”

Korobeinikova recalls with pleasure the Congress of Indigenous Minorities of the North, this time held in Moscow, and meeting Mikhail Gorbachev.

Parabel. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

The place in Parabel where the speedboats to Narym dock. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

“The Yakuts and I went up to him. He had only recently been elected. We congratulated him. He shook our hands, and what soft hands he had. He had only ever held pens and papers in them, not shovels, as we had.”

The Soviet Union’s collapse opened borders, and foreign linguists came to see the Selkups. Irina shows me the first Selkup-Russian dictionary, published in Hungary. She tells me about a trip to Hamburg, where she was invited to translate texts in Selkup, written down by German scholars way back in the late nineteenth century. When I see a photograph of a jolly Japanese woman, dressed in a reconstructed Selkup costume, I cannot stand it anymore.

Hungarians, Germans, and Japanese. Why do the Selkups matter so much to them?

Irina smiles subtly and says, “That is because we’re so interesting.”

Happy People
“One of them just left. She was writing down everything. Either researchers are showing up or Irina comes. They sit down with their laptops and off they go. How did you do this? How did you do that?”

Illarion Ivanovich Izhenbin, a Belomorkanal cigarette dangling from his mouth, pumps the tire on his granddaughter’s bike. He lives in a two-storey stone house. There is a nest in the entryway: five swallow chicks protrude from it. Illarion says it’s a good omen, but the chicks are too loud. Sometimes you can hear them in his flat.

Illarion Izhenbin. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

“Are you tired of talking with researchers?”

“Would that I could remember something. I have lived among Selkups my whole life. When I go fishing, and it’s quiet and there is no one else round, I look at things and translate them silently. What are the Selkup words for stars, moon, and water? I spoke only Selkup until 1957. Do you know Selkup’s distinguishing trait? It has no foul language.”

“How did people curse?”

Homo tat! is the most you can say. It means ‘I’m sick of you,’ ‘Go to hell,’ ‘Don’t hang around here.'”

Illarion was also raised by his grandmother. His father was burned to death in a tank near the Reichstag four days before the Second World War ended, while his mother constantly worked in the fishing fleet of small Selkup village. As a boy, he fashioned arrowheads from tin cans, hunted with a bow, set traps, and fished.

“Granny taught me so well that if you left me in the wild with a knife and matches, I could survive,” he says. “She also always told me to look backwards, between my ears, to make sure there were no animals or bad men behind me. The taiga is not evil, but you can’t say the same thing about men.”

Illarion still goes out hunting, but he brings almost nothing back.

“When I catch sight of a squirrel or chipmunk and take aim, I feel sorry for them. After all, I converse with them. If I kill them, with whom will I converse? We are always asked what constitutes our identity, and it is bound up with hunting and fishing. So now my identity has left me, because I almost never kill animals.”

Illarion’s internal passport lists him as Russian, while his military service card identifies him as Ostyak.

“They came up with these Selkups of yours only when Khrushchev ascended the throne,” he says.

“How were Ostyaks treated?”

“Ostyaks were respected everywhere. I have been through the mill, but I was and always will be an Ostyak. When I meet old acquaintances at the police station, they say, ‘Illarion, for the things you were sent down for, you wouldn’t get three days in jail in our day and age.’ I went to prison camp six times.”

“Did the people in prison know you were an Ostyak?”

“Until I was fifty that was my nickname: Ostyak. Afterwards, they started calling me Grandpa. It means my life is over.”

The docks in Parabel. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Izhenbin recalls visits by researchers from the University of Vienna and the University of Budapest. There have been lots of Germans.

“I got such a kick from one professor. He and I went fishing. He got himself muddy from head to toe, pulled out some crap half a palm long from the river, and said, ‘Wonderful!’ Do you know what that means in English? The little fish is excellent. Then I took him out to pick pine nuts, and after that we made fish soup and drank vodka. He told me that for him to spend a day like that at home, he would have to work for a whole year, but we live this way all the time. We are happy people.”

Every Tree in the Forest, Every Fish in the River
“There’s a lot of terra incognita in researching Selkups in general and Selkup culture in particular, but you reporters always ask the same questions,” says Grigory Korotkikh, displeased. “For example, why did I, a Russian, take up the study of the Selkup language, and what is written on my t-shirt?”

The slogan on his t-shirt reads, “Every tree in the forest, every fish in the river would understand you if you spoke Selkup.”

Grigory, who is 17, grew up in Seversk, a closed city not far from Tomsk, but we meet in Moscow, where he is attending a linguistics camp.

“I had tried learning different languages of the indigenous minorities of the North. It’s just that I was able to making a living connection with the southern Selkups,” says Korotkikh.

Grigory stresses he is primarily interested in the academic, linguistic aspect, but he almost immediately interrupts himself to say nothing has been done for the Selkup people. There are no books in Selkup, and the language has not been studied in a centralized way.

“We publish academic articles, but only for each other, for other researchers. It means nothing to the Selkups themselves,” he says excitedly. “The Selkups may, in fact, be happy to study their own language, but they have no means to do so.”

Grigory is the Seversk representative of the grassroots organization Kolta-Kup, which promotes the interests of the indigenous peoples of the North. His colleagues predict a big future for him in grassroots activism. There is a lot of work to be done. Local officials say the right things to indigenous peoples, but in practice they are treated as colorful ethnographic attractions, entertainment for tourists, and a means of reporting to higher-ups that the officials have been solving the problems of the local populace. Activists have not even been able to get a full-time position of Selkup language teacher established in the schools. Ludmila Shadrina in Narym and Irina Korobeinikova in Parabel ran their Selkup language and culture clubs at their own behest.

Non-Russian Languages
Tomsk is a university town. When you drive down the city’s main boulevard, still called Lenin Avenue, you pass Tomsk Polytechnic University, Tomsk University of Control Systems and Radio Electronics, and Tomsk State University. Nadezhda Fedotova, a linguist at TSU, tells me how Tomsk and Moscow scholars managed to get the first academic mega grant in the field of linguistics, thus becoming part of an unprecedented program for financing university-level research in Russia.

The linguists’ overarching goal, which they stated in the application for the mega grant, is to describe the languages of Southern Siberia as fully as possible. Andrei Dulzon, a Soviet linguist, ethnologist, and archaeologist, began tackling the problem in the mid twentieth century. Exiled to Tomsk in 1941 as an ethnic German, Dulzon had lost everything from the ability to work in his profession to his unique card catalogue of dialects. In 1943, he was enlisted to work in the mines, but a year later the authorities relented and allowed the researcher to work at the Tomsk Pedagogical Institute. Dulzon had specialized in German dialects in Moscow, but in Tomsk he took up a new area of research, the indigenous peoples of Siberia, and carried out a revolution in the field. He encouraged archaeologists to excavate Siberian burial mounds, and he organized regular ethnographic and linguistic expeditions that collected so much raw data it is still being processed.

Nadezhda Fedotova, researcher at Tomsk State University’s Linguistic Anthropology Lab.  Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

“Our ethnologist colleagues in Tomsk had already won a mega grant, and the tradition of researching minority languages has been a good one,” says Fedotova, “so it was decided to set up a linguistic anthropology lab here under the direction of Anna Dybo. And there she is!”

A corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the linguist and Turkologist Anna Dybo rides her bike toward the university library, which houses the lab. It is eight in the evening, but no one is planning to go home, despite the fact the linguists had to attend continuing education lectures all day.

According to Dybo, the lab currently employs seventy people: its funding is incomparable to any research group in the west. The most expensive line item in its budget are the expeditions to meet with native speakers of minority languages, but a lot of money is also spent on processing the data they collect and publishing it in the shape of huge dictionaries and text corpora. A text corpus is a gigantic structured set of texts, selected and processed according to certain rules, which is used to study a language, test statistical hypotheses, and validate linguistic rules. For all this to work, programmers and linguists must engage in a nonstop collaboration. At first, they worked for the sheer joy of it, but nowadays Russian technical designs are a product willingly purchased in the west. In addition to processing material that has already been collected, computer technology is used in field work, for example, a system that catches the way a person perceives a spoken word by tracking certain eye movements.

“Did you know the Selkups have a word meaning all colors at once?” asks Yulia Normanskaya, doctor of philology and head of the university’s Uralic languages department. “Green, blue, yellow, gray . . . Simply put, in their language, grass, the sky, and dandelions are the same color. When you ask them to translate it into Russian, they imagine it as one color.”

Yulia Normanskaya, senior researcher at Tomsk State University’s Linguistic Anthropology Lab. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Normanskaya got interested in minority languages in her youth after she learned her ancestors had translated the Gospels into the Chuvash language. Consequently, nearly all of them were shot during the Revolution.

“In the late nineteenth century, the Russian Orthodox Church set up a Translation Commission to publish books in non-Russian languages,” she explains. “The primary aim was to spread the Word of God among minorities, but they published not only liturgical literature but also dictionaries and children’s tales.”

There were also medical brochures, e.g. “On Cholera,” “On Trachoma,” and there were moral tracts. Many of these publications have been lost irretrievably, although some have been preserved at the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. Another set was unexpectedly discovered in Finland. Normanskaya was looking through the card catalogue at the Helsinki Library [sic] and found information there about the publications of the Translation Commission. The booklets were simply lying in boxes, unsorted. No one had been making use of them or done any research on them. The find included three large books in Selkup, among them a complete translation of the Old and New Testaments, although the received opinion was that alphabets had been devised for the vast majority of indigenous peoples, including the Selkups, in the 1930s under Stalin. In Soviet times, the books of the Translation Commission were discussed pejoratively and accused of being primitive. However, by working with modern native speakers of minority languages, researchers have shown that, in fact, the books were a quite accurate record of the living languages.

“When you compare a map of native speakers of minority languages in the early twentieth century with the current map, the impression is, of course, completely catastrophic,” says Normanskaya. “Even when Dulzon was active, there were dozens of villages where people spoke only Selkup. Currently, there are six people who can tell tales, sing songs, and generally speak the central and southern dialects.”

Statuettes in the park at Tomsk State University. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

The Selkup dialects are unique. For example, they have retained semantic stress (that is, stress that changes the meanings of words). It was inherited from Proto-Samoyedic, the language spoken in Siberia before our era.

“On the one hand, we see an impoverished daily life in which people barely speak their native tongue, and many are ashamed to admit they are Selkups. On the other hand, we find a unique language that has retained ancient features over the millennia, a language that converts into Enets, Nganasan, and other geographically remote languages with mathematical accuracy,” says Normanskaya.

If the language of the southern Selkups disappears, and researchers do not record it in time, what has been passed down through the centuries and preserved in the language for thousands of years will remain unknown forever.

“But if we described these dialects,” adds Normanskaya, “it would be one more proof that languages change in an amazingly systematic way. By converting words from one language into another according to mathematically exact rules, we can restore the pronunciation of the Siberian languages that existed before our era.”

I ask Normanskaya whether we should preserve a language if people do not want to speak it. Norman smiles and, instead of answering my question, recounts how the Soviet linguist Valentin Rassadin invented the Tofa alphabet in 1988. At the time, the Tofas themselved did not converse in their native tongue at all. In the 1990s, actvists in the Tofalar ethnic movement got the Tofa language, as written in Rassadin’s alphabet, on the curriculum of schools and kindergartens, and currently there are whole villages that speak Tofa. The Tofalars consider the linguist Rassadin a national hero.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Russia’s Working Poor

Employed and Poor
Andrei Bespalov
Takie Dela
December 13, 2017

According to official statistics, at least ten million Russians work hard all their lives but cannot escape poverty. 

Russia has no clear criteria for poverty. The concept is absent from Russian legislation. There are poor people throughout the world, but not in Russia. We vaguely define them as “low income,” meaning people whose income is below the subsistence level. Each region of Russia has its own subsistence level. For example, for a person of working age to make it for a month in Omsk Region, he or she needs at least 9,683 rubles [approx. 140 euros]. In Moscow, the minimum income is twice as high: 18,472 rubles [approx. 267 euros]. If your income is lower than the officially approved subsistence level, you are living below the poverty line. True, this in no way mean you cannot be paid less this same minimum for your work. You can indeed be paid less: if your monthly wage exceeds the minimum wage at least by one kopeck. Currently, the minimum monthly wage in Russia is 7,800 rubles [approx. 113 euros].

Story No. 1: Olga
We imagine you have go looking for poor people far from Moscow, and the farther you get from Moscow, the more flagrant poverty you will encounter. It is not true. There are large numbers of people living below the poverty line in the capital. I should emphasize that, in this case, we are talking Russian nationals, not about migrant workers from the former Soviet republics.

Take Olga. She works in a lab at Moscow Medical University. In her fifteen years there, she has risen from senior lab assistant to head of the lab. Olga’s monthly salary is 12,000 rubles [approx. 173 euros], and it is her entire income.

True, she gets the occasional bonus, but they come “a little more often than once in a lifetime.” Ordinary lab employees are paid 11,000 rubles a month [approx. 159 euros]. Such salaries are hardly a rarity in Moscow.

Olga was educated as a programmer. She graduated from Bauman Technical University, but she has not worked as a programmer for a long time. She believes she cannot catch up and has lost her qualifications. Olga worked as a programmer before her children were born. Her family had enough money for everything, and besides, she had the opportunity to earn money part-time. When her maternal leave was up, she was unable to go back to her old job: her department has been disbanded. She was able get the job in the lab at Moscow Medical. Olga likes everything about the job—her colleagues respect her, and her work team gets along well with each other—except the salary. Management occasionally permits her to work from home. This is good for Olga: she does not have to spend money on commuting. (Olga lives in Moscow Region, not in the city.) This comes to around 300 rubles [approx. 4 euros] a day for the trip to the city and back on the commuter train and a round trip on the subway to the university.

When her children were small, Olga did not try and find better-paid work, and when they were older, she tried, but was turned down everywhere she applied. To her surprise, she realized no one wanted to hire a woman in her forties.

“First, you can’t find work because of the children, who are constantly ill, and then you can’t find work due to your age. Although what age are talking about? I’m forty-five!”

Olga had wound up in the category of people with no prospects. The only place she could get a job was a school. Olga worked there for several years before quitting. She had never been offered a full-time position, and her monthly salary of 6,000 rubles [approx. 87 rubles] was only enough to pay for her commute.

“I don’t want to leave these folks. It’s easy working with professors. They are quite cultured, decent people. It would be a pity to quit the job. I feel I’ve become a highly qualified specialist over the last fifteen years,” said Olga.

If it were not for her husband, a programmer, she would have a hard time feeding them and their two children. The family of four’s overall income is above the subsistence level, if only by a little. It comes to around 80,000 rubles [approx. 1,155 euros] a month. (The per capita subsistence level in Moscow is 18,472 rubles, meaning Olga and her family make around 7,000 rubles more in total than the subsistence level.) It was their good fortunate both her sons were admitted to university as full scholarship students. Olga and her husband would definitely not have been able to pay their tuition.

Olga’s family took out loans to improve their living conditions. They started out in a room in a communal flat and, after several steps, moved into their own two-room flat. However, they had to rent housing for three years, since construction of their apartment building had been postponed. Renting meant additional expenses. Subsequently, Olga had to take oout a loan to fix up the flat in order to move in as quickly as possible. That was five years ago. Of the original loan of 500,000 rubles, they still have 300,000 rubles [approx. 4,300 euros] to pay off. The monthly minimum payment is 20,000 rubles [approx. 290 euros].

In her free time, Olga tries to earn extra money by knitting. She says she is very good at it. But she is unable to supplement her salary by more than 4,000 or 5,000 rubles a month, and this happens extremely irregularly. Olga says a master knitter would have to work all month without taking a break to earn that kind of money. Everyone likes the things Olga knits, but people are willing to buy them if they do not cost more than mass-produced Chinese goods, that is, they are willing to pay the price of the yarn. Olga is not ready to give up her job at the university.

It’s Unique
The poverty experienced by employed people harms the economy and hinders its growth. This was the conclusion reached by the Russian Government’s Analytical Center in a report published in October 2017.

“The poverty of workers generates a number of negative economic and social consequences, affecting productivity and quality of work, shortages of personnel in the production sector, especially manual laborers, the health of the population, and educational opportunities,” wrote the report’s authors.

Olga Golodets, deputy prime minister for social affairs, has spoken of the fact that the working poor have no stake in increasing productivity. Judging by a number of recent speeches, the authorities are aware that grassroots poverty threatens the country. Golodets called poverty among the working populace a unique phenomenon in the social sector. A uniquely negative phenomenon, naturally.

Story No. 2: Nadezhda
Nadezhda works as a history teacher at a technical school in Barnaul. She has been teaching for twenty-seven years, and her monthly salary is 12,000 rubles [approx. 170 euros]. Nadezhda has been named Teacher of the Year several times. The regional education and science ministry awarded her a certificate of merit for “supreme professionalism and many years of conscientious work.”

Nadezhda works with a cohort of students that includes many orphans and adolescents with disabilities: the visually impaired, the hard of hearing, and the deaf and dumb. It happens that her class load is as much as eight lessons a day.

Nadezha and her eleven-year-old son share a room in the technical school’s dormitory. Nadezhda has been on the waiting list to improve her living conditions for fifteen years.

“Last year, I was ninety-fourth on the list. This year, I’m ninety-first. At this rate, I can expect to get a flat in thirty years or so,” she said.

Nadezhda thought long and hard about applying for a mortgage, but she decided against it, although the bank had approved a loan of one million rubles [approx. 14,500 euros]. But what income would she have used to pay back the loan, when the monthly payment would have been 21,000 rubles?

In Altai Territory, where Barnaul is located, 12,000 rubles is above the subsistence minimum, which has been set at 10,002 rubles for the able-bodied population. In addition, the state pays Nadezhda’s son a monthly survivor’s pension of 8,300 rubles after the death of his father. Officials cite this as grounds for rejecting her request that her son should receive additional social benefits. The family’s monthly budget is 20,000 rubles, so they should be living high on the hog from the official viewpoint, apparently.

In 2013, Nadezhda suffered a severe concussion involving partial loss of hearing and eyesight. She was struck by a student high on drugs, she said. She spent over two months in the hospital. Ever since then, she has had to take pills that run her 3,000 rubles a month.

“Working with classes in which there are many orphans is not easy at all. They demand your constant, undivided attention. When I say ‘demand,’ I mean ‘demand,’ and they get that attention. But then conflicts arise with the parents of other children: the class doesn’t consist entirely of orphans. They say I don’t give their kids enough attention.”

Over the course of her life, Nadezhda has never been able to earn enough money to buy a standard 600 square meter dacha plot. Thanks to her former father-in-law, however, she grows vegetables on his plot.

“I hear the call to be a patriot from every radio, TV set, and kitchen appliance. What are you going on about, guys? I have been humiliated my entire life, paid crumbs for a difficult, responsible job. I’m hit on the head by students, and they go unpunished. I’m told to quit if it doesn’t suit me: no one is holding me back. They tell me they will find a way to evict me from the dormitory, although they are unlikely to succeed as long as my son is a minor. I’m a teacher of the highest category, with a certificate of merit from the education ministry. Our family income exceeds the minimum subsistence income by 700 rubles, meaning that officially we are not poor. Thank you very much, it makes life so much easier.”

A Trend
Since 2005, the poverty level in Russia has decreased threefold, note the authors of the study. At the same time, they write, “We cannot recognize as normal circumstances in which over ten million employed people have incomes that do not allow them to provide decent living conditions not only for themselves, but for their families.”

The researchers at the Russian Government’s Analytical Center have noticed a trend in recent years. There have been more people working in needy families, but “this has not vouchsafed their exit from poverty.”

Story No. 3: Igor
Igor Kurlyandsky, a PhD in history and senior researcher at the Institute of Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, cannot be categorized as belonging to the working poor. His monthly salary exceeds the minimum subsistence income for someone living and working in Moscow by 600 rubles. His monthly after-tax income is 19,300 rubles [approx. 279 euros]. There are freelance jobs, of course, but they are irregular and do not change Igor’s circumstances for the better.

“Generally, the salaries at the institute are pitiful. Doctors of Science and senior employees are not paid much more than I am, three or four thousand rubles more,” Kurlyandsky said.

FANO (Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations) is supposed to pay quarterly bonuses based on performance indices, for example, academic publications. But this year, according to Kurlyandsky, FANO has not paid out any of these bonuses, and it has canceled old bonuses as well.

“It’s wrong to demand that scholars publish frequently. They might work for a year in the archives, collecting material for future academic articles. Or they might take several years to write a book. I worked for four years on a book about the relationship between the regime and religion during the Stalin era. I will not be paid a fee for the book. I might get a salary bonus for it from FANO. But whatever it is, if you divided it by four years, it would amount to kopecks. The institute has nothing to do with selling books. Authors earn nothing except complimentary copies.”

According to Kurlyandsky, the Institute of Russian History, one of the principal historical research institutions in Russia, with many wonderful scholars on its staff, is itself a beggar.

“It literally has no money for anything. The state hardly finances it. Of course, for many years, its fellows can travel for business only at the expense of host institutions.”

“If memory serves me, the last time researchers got a raise was around fifteen years ago. Life becomes more expensive, but our salaries stay the same. Over this period there were several spikes in inflation, but our salaries were not indexed. I have to skimp on lots of things,” Kurlyandsky confessed.

Where Are There More Poor People?
If you look at the situation by sector, the majority of the working poor are employed in housing services and utilities, education, culture and sports, agriculture, forestry, and a number of other sectors. The sectors with the fewest working poor are the resource extraction industries, finance, public administration, the military-industrial complex, and social security administration.

Generally, the statistics say that, since 2005, the number of working poor has decreased from eight million to two million, and the percentage of poor people from 24.4% to 7.3%, and this has occurred mainly due to the private sector, not the public sector.

Story No. 4: Svetlana
Forty-four years old, Svetlana works as a senior librarian. She arrived at the library immediately after graduating from a teacher’s college. Twenty years on the job, Svetlana has a huge amount of experience and a monthly salary of 8,300 rubles [approx. 120 euros].

“When I was a student, I imagine my future job as a perfect idyll: silence, lamps glowing on the tables, people reading, and me bringing enlightenment to the masses. It’s funny to remember it. I didn’t think about the money then, of course, but nowadays it’s the thought with which I wake up and go to sleep. My husband teaches at a university and makes a little over 14,000 rubles [approx. 200 rubles] a month. We have two sons in school. My dad is quite unwell, and my husband’s mom and dad are also quite ill. So we earn our 23,000 rubles a month and divide it among seven people. Among seven people, because my dad and my husband’s parents have pitiful pensions, public pensions, despite the fact they worked in factories for thirty years. It’s my perennial puzzle. What should we buy? Medicine for the elderly? Shoes for the kids? Pay off part of the debt we owe on the residential maintenance bill? Buy decent trousers for my husband? I haven’t given myself a thought for a long while. Honestly, I wear blouses and skirts for ten years or so before replacing them. I can’t recall the last time I bought cosmetics.

“Earlier, we bore our poverty more easily, maybe because we were younger. So what there was nothing to eat with evening tea? Who cared that we dressed modestly? It was a style of sorts. We tried to make sure the children had better shoes and clothes.

“The most terrible thing right now is not that we are paid kopecks. My husband used to believe we would struggle through, that we would work off our debt. But then he burnt out. He forces himself to go to work. The children are perpetually dissatisfied, and our parents are always ill. Only I don’t pretend it’s okay, that everyone lives like this. I have caught myself sizing up how people are dressed on public transport, and at the store I look into their baskets. What fruits, meat, and wines they buy! We are always eating buckwheat groats with bits of chicken and meatless soups. I hate the dacha, but it really does put food on our table.

“I have no prospects. I won’t live long enough to be promoted to head librarian, because our head librarian is my age. I lack the strength for side jobs. My real job is not easy: there is lots of scribbling involved. Plus, we divvied up the jobs of the cleaning woman and  janitors, so we either mop the floor or chop ice on the pavement. I crawl home barely alive. Frankly, I don’t see how my life could change, and I’m used to it. What worries me is my sons’ future. I’m horrified when I think that soon they will be applying to university. What if they don’t get full scholarships? We definitely don’t have the money to pay for their educations. So it turns out we have doomed our boys to the same poverty.”

It’s Shameful to Admit
Nearly everyone with whom I spoke when writing this article asked me not to use their real names and places of work. They all made the same argument. First, it is shameful to admit you work for mere kopecks. Second, their bosses would be unhappy and punish them for “disclosing information discrediting the organization.” Many of my interviewees actually had signed such non-disclosure agreements, entitled “Code of Ethics,” at work.

All illustrations courtesy of the artist, Natalia Gulay, and Takie Dela. Translated by the Russian Reader

________________________________

Labor ministry: about 13% of Russian population live below poverty line
TASS
December 28, 2017

The number of citizens with incomes below the minimum cost of living is around 20 million people, according to the Russian labor minister

The incomes of about 13% of Russia’s population are lower than the minimum cost of living, Labor Minister Maxim Topilin said in an interview with Rossiya 24 TV channel.

“According to current estimates, the number of citizens with incomes below the minimum cost of living is still around 20 million people, which is 13–13.5% of the country’s total population,” Topilin said.

He noted this is “at least an unpleasant indicator.” The minister attributed this figure to price increases in the last two years and, as a result, the growth of the subsistence minimum.

Topilin stressed the government has already taken the first steps to reducing the number of people with incomes below the subsistence minimum. He recalled that under a law that was adopted recently and would come into effect on January 1, 2018, the minimum wage would rise to 85% of the minimum subsistence level, and to 100% on January 2019.

“For the first time in the history of the Russian Federation, we have managed to bring the minimum monthly wage to the minimum subsistence level,” Topilin said.

NB. This article was lightly edited to make it more readable—TRR.

Sixty Percent of Russian Doctors Make Less than 360 Euros a Month

IMG-20161117-WA0025It’s hard to say why these alleged Russian doctors are so happy, since sixty percent of them make less than 360 euros a month. Maybe they’re not real doctors, but paid actors.

Survey: Sixty Percent of Doctors Make Less than 25,000 Rubles a Month
Takie Dela
December 11, 2017

Over half of Russian doctors earn less than 25,000 rubles [approx. 360 euros] a month. Only 8.4% of them earn the nationwide average monthly salary of over 50,000 rubles a month.

RBC reports on a survey conducted by the Russian People’s Front and Zrodovye, a health services monitoring foundation, according to which 59.4% of doctors earned less than 25,000 rubles a month. 21.4% of respondents noted that their income from one salary [Russian doctors often work at more than one clinic or hospital to make ends meet—TRR] was less than 15,000 rubles a month. 21.7% of them reported they made between 15,000 and 20,000 rubles a month, while 16.3% reported a monthly income between 20,000 and 25,000 rubles.

13% of doctors reported that their salary varied between 35,000 and 50,000 rubles a month; 11%, between 25,000 and 30,000 rubles a month; and 8.5%, between 30,000 and 35,000 rubles a month. Only 8.4% made more than 50,000 rubles [approx. 720 euros] a month.

According to Rosstat, the current average salary for doctors is 53,100 rubles a month. Eduard Gavrilov, staff member at the Russian People’s Front and director of the Zdorovye Foundation, argues that the difference between reality and statistics has to do with the high amount of moonlighting among physicians. Due to low salaries, doctors are forced to work two jobs or a part-time job in addition to their full-time job.

Among medical support staff—nurses, midwives, paramedics, and others—nearly 80% of employees earn 25,000 rubles a month. Only two percent earn more 50,000 rubles a month.

According to President Putin’s May 2012 decrees, doctors would be receiving double the average monthly salary in their regions by 2018. Achieving this goal would require spending 266 billion rubles [approx. 3.85 billion euros], but officials do not know where to find the money.

In March, analysts at the Academy of Labor and Social Relations found that, as of the end of 2016, the average monthly salary of doctors at their main jobs was 21,700 rubles a month. When part-time jobs were figured in, doctors made 28,500 rubles a month on average.

Over the last four years, less than a third of medical workers have experienced pay growth, and only four percent have seen significant pay rises. A third of respondents said they had felt a drop in incomes, while a fifth of them reported a significant drop in wages.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Smolensk State Medical University

P.S. When you read an article like the one above, you naturally imagine the incumbent president would have a hard time persuading voters to re-elect him to what amounts to a fifth term, given his pathetic record when it comes to improving people’s lives, including the incomes of highly educated professionals such as doctors.

But if you imagined that, you’d be forgetting a few things.

First of all, the fix is in, so Putin will be “re-elected” in March 2018 no matter how many promises he has broken during his first four terms or “decrees” he has failed to implement.

Second, despite the new school of unthought that argues Putin is not omnipotent, and we (whoever “we” are) should not be so afraid of him, attributing powers to him that he does not have even on the homefront, the problem here has nothing to do with the old “good tsar vs. bad boyars” paradigm.

It’s much simpler than that. Putin and his cronies are gangsters, concerned only with enrichening themselves and increasing what they regard as political power. For them, political power has nothing to do with making good things happen for as many people as possible or addressing more specific, urgent. They see political power as a means of disempowering ordinary people and all possible constituencies other than their own clique so they have a free hand to do with the country what they will.

To that end, Putin’s so-called May (2012) decrees were so much sand kicked in the face of Russians to blind them to the basic facts of life in their country, of which they could hardly be unaware.

At nearly the exact same time, the so-called Bolotnaya Square Case was launched to show the whole country what the Putin mob did to people who did not like having sand kicked in their face all the time.

As luck would have it, a week ago, I had to have an emergency eye exam at a fairly swishy private medical clinic on the Nevsky. Since I know quite a few Russian doctors personally and have blogged a lot on this website about the rotten state of healthcare in Russia, including pay and working conditions for Russian doctors, and nascent attempts by doctors in Moscow and elsewhere to organize militant trade unions and stop rampant hospital closures and mergers, I dared to ask my new (terrific) ophtalmologist how she liked the swishy clinic and whether she was well paid.

She avoided the second question entirely, confessing only that she liked the good working relationships at the private clinic, where she had worked three years.

The takeaway message is that Vladimir Putin is a very powerful man indeed, perhaps the most powerful man in the world. But that will remain the case only until Russians decide they have had enough of the degradation to which Putin and his mob have subjected them and their country for seventeen years and do something about putting an end to it collectively. TRR

“Life Is Very Difficult for People”

“Life Is Very Difficult for People”
Yelizaveta Mayetnaya
Radio Svoboda
November 30, 2017

The announcement first appeared on the doors of a cafe in St. Petersburg, and then on the social media networks: “Olivier salad, kharcho, vegetable ragout with chicken, compote or ale, bread. 200 rubles. Free of charge to veterans and impoverished pensioners.” The whole town learned about the charity campaign literally within a few days, and old people flocked from all ends of the city to enjoy the free lunch special.

No one asks for any letters, verifying a person’s income. Pensioner ID cards are not required, either. You just have to sit down at a table and you will be fed.

Czech Yard, the cafe that will not let pensioners go hungry, is a family business. 25-year-old Alexandra Sinyak, the cafe’s co-owner, came up with the idea for the charity campaign.

“It all started with an old man who came into eat, but had little money on him. My husband was working in the cafe that day. He felt sorry for the man and said that lunch specials in our cafe would be free to pensioners,” recounts Sinyak. “The old man came for lunch every day for three weeks or so. We thought we should be feeding all the old people in our neighborhood, and not once, but on a permanent basis. We hoped our colleagues would support us, and one or two cafes that fed old people would pop up in each district. We did not imagine, of course, that they would come from all parts of the city to our cafe, but life is clearly very difficult for people. They spend forty minutes, an hour traveling one way to come here. We feed everyone. We do not turn anyone down.”

At first, Sinyak recalls, for some reason the old women brought their pension receipts along with them. The amounts listed on them were 6,200 rubles, 8,000 rubles, and 10,000 rubles. [That is, these women receive, at most, a pension of 143 euros a month.] They brought other receipts as well, such as the receipts for their apartment maintenance bills, which contained almost identical sums. [In fact, the amount of my latest apartment maintenance bill is 6,285 rubles and 20 kopecks. It tends to be lower by two or three thousand rubles in the summer months, when the centralized heating system is shut off—TRR.] Many of them have adult children who are employed, but they cannot help their own old folks, because they are barely making ends meet themselves.

According to Rosstat, around two million employed Russians are paid wages below the subsistence level. If we account for the fact that this money is also spent on other family members, the number of employed but impoverished Russians is over twelve million people or 16.8% of the population, according to calculations made by experts at the Russian Federal Government’s Analytical Center. Analysts at the World Bank have argued that the percentage of economically vulnerable people in Russia is over fifty percent.  According to a World Bank report, the proportion of Russians with a daily income of less than $10 has risen to 53.7%, while 13.8% of Russians spend less than 5$ a day.

Sinyak has seen her share of employed poor people in hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Four years ago, she and her husband gave birthto a premature baby. Doctors told the couple the girl would not be able to walk, talk or see, and they could not even dream of sending her to school. The Sinyaks threw all their efforts into making their baby daughter well. Now she has a slight limp, but is otherwise a normal child.

“We organized charity concerts for the children, and my husband and I simply gave their parents money because we really wanted to help them,” says Sinyak. “Now we are thinking about organizing a New Year’s party for the old people.”

At first, they posted the announcement about the free lunch specials on the cafe’s front door, but only one person showed up. It was only after Sinyak posted the announcement  on social media sites that the whole city discovered her and her husband’s lunches. Now they serve at least twenty-five free lunch customers daily.

То самое объявление

The initial announcement outside the cafe: “Dear patrons! The restaurant invites needy people of pension age and veterans to enjoy free lunches daily from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.” The post on the VK social network reads, “Czech Yard Cafe at 73 Sixteenth Line. All veterans and elderly people can eat lunch for free from noon to four p.m. […] We will support all cafes that can afford to do it. There are three of us for the time being. We are reposting this. Maybe a whole bunch of cafes in every district of the city will join us.”

One of their customers is 66-year-old Lyubov Volkova. She lives nearby, but she ordinarily does not walk on the side of the street where the cafe is located. She saw the announcement on VK. She spread the word to all her girlfriends in the neighborhood so they could lunch together.

“The lunch specials are a tremendous support to me. I worked my whole life. I have the title of veteran worker, but my monthly pension is 10,200 rubles, and the maintenance bill for my two-room flat is at least 7,000 rubles during the winter. I’m left to my own devices,” says Volkova, sighing heavily. “The electricity has been shut off for non-payment, and I have 15,000 rubles in unpaid fines, but I have not paid them, because I do not have the money to pay them. There are lots of people like me in our district. The people at the housing maintenance service and the electric company have become insolent. They constantly raise rates. They could not care less whether we can pay their bills or not. It is a good thing that Alexander appeared on the scene. Her cafe is charming and serves tasty food, and it is just nice to come here.”

Александра Синяк с мужем Евгением и пенсионеркой Любовью Волковой

Alexandra Sinyak, her husband Yevgeny, and pensior Lyubov Volkova

Volkova leads a rather active lifestyle. She is a member of the human rights public monitoring commission, inspecting pretrial detention centers and prisons, and she also volunteers at several public veterans organizatons. But all this work is unpaid.

“Most of the work in Russia is done by migrants. Our own people struggle to make ends meet, and they cannot get jobs. I have two sons, but they themselves have to squirm to feed their families. And I have lots of girlfriends: we left jobs at research institutes in the nineties to trade on the streets in order to raise our children. The situation was no better: everyone’s pensions were tiny. You know, I really love Russia, but everything that is happening makes me terribly sad. I want to go back to the Soviet Union. There was stability and calm then. Sure, we did not live high on the hog, but nor did we go begging. We had enough to pay for the essentials.”

Igor Bukharov, president of the Federation of Restaurateurs and Hoteliers of Russia, says the vast majority of restaurateurs have been feeding the needy for many years, but they do not talk about it.

“Societies for disabled people ask us for help, as do war veterans, as do veterans of military operations, as do the orphanages. Who doesn’t ask us for help?! Some ask to be fed breakfast, some ask to be fed lunch, some ask for help with charity suppers, and I have never heard of anyone being turned down,” claims Bukharov. “Generally, I think helping the needy is everyone’s personal affair, and we should not talk about it.”

For the time being, according to Alexandra Sinyak, they have been contacted by one only restaurant, in Sestroretsk, about arranging lunches on a permanent basis, rather than a one-off basis, and businessmen have turned up who are willing to supply their cafe with produce. Municipal councils in some large cities arrange free lunches for pensioners, but there are waiting lists, and the pensioners have to provide documented proof of their neediness. On the other hand, you can then eat free twenty-one times per quarter, says Lyubov Volkova.

Social organizations also provide assistance in the form of produce and groceries. For example, the Rus Food Fund has distributed 20,000 tons of produce and consumer goods to the needy during the five years it has operated. Right now, for example, the fund has been collecting “Food for the Backwoods” in time for the New Year’s holiday. The food will be delivered to the poor and lonely who live in villages in seven regions. Fifteen thousand people will receive assistance.

Anna Kirilovskaya has taken charge of so-called foodsharing in St. Petersburg. Volunteers collect food from various businesses, and distribute it for free to the needy. Originally, Kirilovskaya explains, the idea was to save edible produce from being discarded. The project now employs around 400 volunteers. The produce is collected almost daily, and thirty businesses give away their leftovers on a constant basis. According to the project’s website, over 113,000 kilos of produce have been saved in the different regions where foodsharing exists and there are teams of foodsavers.

“The volunteers decide themselves what to do with the food. They can take unsold soup from a cafe and pour it into sixty packets, freeze them, and eat them for the next two months. But I know that many of our volunteers take care of neighbors, families with lots of children, and old people. Some volunteers will take leftover meat that has been given to them, turn them into cutlets, and hand them out to the people they look after, but we get the most donations from vegetable warehouses. We mainly distribute fruits and vegetables,” says Kirilovskaya.

According to Kirilovskaya, the businesses most willing to help are owned by green-minded people who promise their customers fresh products and goods.

“Imagine how bakers at a private bakery feel when they have to throw their unsold goods into the trash in the evening?” Kirilovskaya wonders. “But everyone, employers and employees, likes giving away food to the needy. By the way, employees appreciate their employers more when they have this considerate attitude to their work.”

Alexandra Sinyak says she does not know what to do if hundreds of people come every day for their lunch specials, and whether she and her husband can continue to feed them at their own expense for very long.

“We decided we would do it as long as we were able,” she says.

In the coming days, she plans to make the rounds of the cafes in neighboring districts to personally persuade their owners to provide similar lunches to their own local pensioners. Sinyak is certain that someone will respond to her request.

Lyubov Volkova argues that Sinkyak should keep a count of the people who come for lunch, and if there are really too many of them, to refuse to serve everyone.

“I would not want these wonderful, kind folks to end up beggars themselves because of us poor pensioners,” she says.

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

The Subtle Art of Vanganizing

Human languages are amazing things. In English, for example, it is relatively easy to change a word’s part of speech simply by using it as a different part of speech. So, we can wonder (verb) when I will publish something really worthy of wonder (noun) on this blog.

Since Russian, on the other hand, is a so-called synthetic language (i.e., a language whose nouns, verbs, adjectives, and pronoun are fully declined and conjugated) you have to do a bit of prestidigitation to turn, say, a noun into a verb. The easiest (though by no means the only) way to do this is to add the verbalizing suffix -ovat’ to the noun or other part of speech in question.

One of my favorite such newfangled verbs is vangovat’, which means “to predict, to prophesy.” It has a heavily ironic connotation, since it was formed from the familiarized Christian name of the blind Bulgarian mystic and clairvoyant Vangelia Gushterova, née Dimitrova (1911–1996), more popularly known as Baba Vanga or Grandmother Vanga.

Despite having passed away over twenty years ago, Baba Vanga and her prophecies are still extraordinarily popular amongst Russians who go in for a what an old friend once referred to as “spooky knowledge,” while she is an object of ridicule amongst sane Russians. I have no evidence to prove it, but I take it that it was a member of the latter group who coined the verb vangovat’, which we will translate as “to vanganize.”

I thought of the verb this morning as I was perusing the electronic edition of one of Russia’s most respectable newspapers, the liberal business daily Vedomosti. Today’s edition features a gallery of photos of the stadiums in major Russian cities that will host the 2018 World Cup later this year.

An innocent enough feature, you would think, before I realized that Vedomosti‘s caption writer might have engaged in some full-blown vanganizing, to wit:

default-1d86“The arena in St. Petersburg is meant for 67,000 spectators. Here, the Russian team will play one match in the group stage and will get through the semifinals.” Photo courtesy of Yevgeny Yegorov/Vedomosti

But maybe not. The original caption (“Арена в Петербурге рассчитана на 67 000 зрителей. Здесь сборная России сыграет один из матчей группового этапа и пройдет полуфинал”) could also be translated as follows: “The arena in St. Petersburg is designed for 67,000 spectators. Here, the Russian team will play one match in the group stage, and the semifinals will take place.” That is, with or (probably) without the Russian team.

Whatever the case, the so-called Zenit Arena, situated on the western tip of Krestovsky Island, has been like a bad Baba Vanga prophecy from the very start. First of all, to make way for its eventual construction, the old Kirov Stadium, a lovely immense thing designed by the great constructivist architect Alexander Nikolsky, a grand oval open to the sky, the sea, the sun, and all the elements, and surrounded by a beautiful park, was demolished in 2006. Quite illegally, I might add, because it was a federally listed historical and architectural landmark.

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The Kirov Stadium in the summer of 2006, when it briefly served as the site of a sparsely attended alterglobalist counterforum, organized in response to a G8 summit, hosted by President Putin in the far south of the city, in the newly restored Constantine Palace in the suburb of Strelna. Enclosing the alterglobalists in the already condemned Kirov Stadium was a brilliant move on the part of local authorities, who thus invisibilized the entire event and made it nearly inaccessible to the general public. Although a subway station has been planned for the new stadium, it was not in operation in 2006 and probably will not be online in time for the World Cup, either. Photo by the Russian Reader

Since then, the project to construct the new stadium has been a raucous debacle, involving endless delays and extreme cost overruns; the employment of North Korean slave laborers, one of whom was killed on the job; the multiple firings and hirings of general contractors and subcontractors; and numerous revelations of newly discovered structural defects.

The construction of Zenit Arena has also been part of the general uglification and rampant redevelopment of the so-called Islands, a series of parklands situated on several smallish islands in Petersburg’s far north. It now seems that city officials and developers thought all those parks and all that greenspace were taking up too much valuable potential real estate and pumping too much oxygen into the atmosphere, because in recent years they have gone after the Islands and their environs with a vengeance.

Zenit Arena, the Western High-Speed Diameter (ZSD), and Gazprom’s Lakhta Center skyscraper are merely the most visible aspects of this mad greedfest, its crowning jewels.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGazprom’s Lakhta Centre skyscraper, under construction, as seen in April 2017 from another site of urban planning greed and madness, a nearly 500-hectare “reclaimed” island plopped in the Neva Bay immediately west of Vasilyevsky Island. The new island, which remains nameless, will eventually be built up with high-rise apartment blocks. Local residents vigorously protested the land reclamation project in the planning stages, but the authorities roundly ignored them. Photo by the Russian Reader

Getting back to my original topic, I think the Vedomosti captioner might have been taking the piss out of readers, after all. Here is another photo and caption in the series:

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“The stadium in Yekaterinburg is a cultural heritage site. Part of the historical façade has remained after the reconstruction.” Photo courtesy of Sport Engineering Federal Unitary Enterprise

When I slipped this photograph onto my desktop, the filename caught my eye: “default-1huy.jpg.” I took this to mean that someone at Vedomosti was not terribly impressed with Yekaterinburg’s blatantly criminal attempt at “historical preservation” and decided to tag it with one of the most powerful cursewords in a language positively crawling with them. But since this a family-oriented, Christian-values website, I will let the experts explain the particulars.

Like the Sochi Olympics, I vanganize that the 2018 World Cup will be an unmitigated disaster for any and all locals who do not manage to escape the vicinity of the venues in time. I would also vanganize that the World Cup has already been a disaster for cities such as Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, which had venerable, heritage-listed stadiums put to death for the purpose, but I don’t think you can vanganize retroactively. TRR

Käppäselgä: A Godforsaken Corner of a Would-Be Superpower

Resident of Karelian Village Käppäselgä: My House Might Not Survive the Winter 
Maria Dmitriyeva
7X7
November 28, 2017

Galina Ryaziyeva

Galina Ryaziyeva, a pensioner living in the Karelian village of Käppäselgä, is afraid the roof of her home might collapse. The adjacent flats are dilapidated and are pulling the only remaining habitable section of the wooden barracks down with them. A lawsuit filed against the district council, which owns most of the house, has dragged on. Our correspondent tried to get to the bottom of the story.

The Back of Beyond
Käppäselgä is located the backwoods of the Kondopoga District. It is not just that you can encounter real bears in the village but also that it is one of the district’s northernmost corners. It is closer to the town of Medvezhyegorsk [Bear Hill] than the district’s seat, Kondopoga. Despite the seeming proximity of the Kola Highway, it is no easy trick getting to Käppäselgä, due to twenty kilometers of dirt road, reduced to rubble by lumber trucks. It took us three hours to drive to Käppäselgä from Petrozavodsk, capital of the Republic of Karelia. The last hour of the trip was spent traveling over those twenty kilometers of dirt road.

Кяппесельга.jpgKäppäselgä’s train station. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Socially, the circumstances in Käppäselgä are typical of Karelian villages. Nearly all the young people have left for the city long ago. There are ever fewer jobs available, and children can study at the local school only until the ninth form. The housing stock consists entirely of wooden houses. The amenities are outside, and fresh water is truck into the villaged. When a house is uninhabited, it rapidly deteriorates, and the roof eventually caves in. Currently, there are many such dilapidated barracks-style houses in Käppäselgä. There are also problems with transportation. A commuter train used to run twice a day (Käppäselgä has its own train station), but several years ago the schedule was reduced to once a day. So, if they want to go to Kondopoga or Petrozavodsky, villagers have to be at the station at four in the morning. The bus runs only once a week.

4Ramshackle roofs, broken windows, and empty houses are a common sight in Käppäselgä. 

Given these conditions, living in Käppäselgä is an accomplishment in itself. But the villagers face another obstacle: the unwillingness of the district council, which owns a considerable portion of the housing stock, to fulfill its responsibilities.

“It Could End in Disaster”
“I’m still afraid to sleep at night, because when the roof collapsed, it made such a racket. I jumped out of bed. I couldn’t understand what the cracklonging noise was. I went up to the attic. I could see my part of the roof was still intact, but the rest of the roof had collapsed into the flat next door,” said Ryaziyeva.

Ryaziyeva is sixty-two years old. She has had a stroke, suffers from diabetes and hypertension, and lives in a wooden house whose roof, she argues, could collapse at any moment due to inaction by the district council.

All the locals know Ryaziyeva: she worked at the local hospital for several decades. In the early 1980s, she and her husband moved into a four-flat wooden barracks, built in 1953, on Central Street. In 1984, the house was refurbished. The common corridor shared by the flats was removed, but the roof was not repanelled and reshingled. Consequently, for many years the roof would leak after heavy rains, dousing “either the ceiling lamp or the sofa.” In the 2000s, Ryaziyeva managed to get the council to repair the roof by threatening to take them to court, but according to her, the roofers the council hired for the job repaired only her portion of the roof, and slipped the old roof slats back under the new shingles.

There has not been a thorough renovation since then, and repairs that were carried out from time to time, such as replacing the window frames, were done by the residents themselves. Several years ago, when there was a hullabaloo about the nationwide housing privatization program’s coming to an end, Ryaziyeva privatized her flat. The other three flats in the house remained the council’s property.

Ryaziyeva now lives alone in the deserted barracks. Her children, grown up, have moved to the city, and her neighbors have either moved away, died or gone to prison. So, the other flats in the house are uninhabited and unheated, and so they are falling apart. The damage is so extensive that the roof in one flat has collapsed: this was the incident described by Ryaziyeva, above, when a terrible racket woke her up in the middle of the night. There is still serious danger that the rotten section of the roof above the empty flats will collapse, taking the roof over Ryaziyeva’s flat down with them. She has had to close two rooms in her own flat. The furnaces in those rooms, adjacent to the flats next door, could no longer be heated. The cold and damp swelled the wallpaper on the walls, and the window frames sagged and succumbed to rot.

2An uninhabited room in Galina Ryaziyeva’s flat

There is another problem. Uninvited guests have taken to visiting the uninhabited part of the house.

“The housing inspectorate ordered the council to make the house inaccessible to strangers. But this was not done. My son-in-law and I had to drive them out. Two men got blotto in there and fell asleep. Then I boarded up the doors myself. It could end in disaster.”

The Council Was to Blame
Ryaziyeva first sounded the alarm in 2014, but her patience ran out in 2016, when part of the roof collapsed. She made several appeals to the Kondopoga District Council, which has recently been tasked with managing all the housing stock in the district. She also contacted the prosecutor’s office, the housing inspectorate, Alexander Hudilainen, former head of the Karelian Republic, and even federal MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Her son Alexei has twice written to President Putin’s public liaison office and recently sent a letter to Artur Parfyonchikov, the republic’s new head. Their appeals and letters were not dismissed. Recognizing the problem and receiving instructions from the relevant authorities, local officials promised to deal with the situation and carry out repairs, initially, after the snow melted, and later, in the spring or summer. So, in the voluminous archive of official correspondence and documents Ryaziyeva has amassed in recent years, there is a letter, signed by acting district head Dmitry Kirpu, in which the latter writes, “By Decree No. 535, dated 9 September 2016, of the Kondopoga Municipal District, flats no. 2, 3, 4 in the multi-flat house on Central Street in the village of Käppäselgä will be demolished in 2017. (The work is tentatively scheduled for the spring or summer of 2017). You will receive more information about the dates and deadlines of the work.”

The letter even mentioned a specific estimate of the repair’s cost: 300,000 rubles [approx. 4,300 euros]. According to Yelena Paltseva, who represented the Ryaziyev family in court, this figure was also mentioned later in the process. However, an independent inspection, which the family later commissioned, showed that more money would be required to rebuild the house.

Spring and summer came and went, but no work was done. Ryaziyeva appealed to Parfyonchikov’s community liaison office on several occasions, and Anna Lopatkina and Andrei Pogodin insisted she file a lawsuit, which she finally did.

The independent inspection determined the list of repairs necessary to save the Ryaziyev family flat. While reconstructing the house, it would be necessary to separate their portion of the house from the other, uninhabited parts of house, which would involve dismantling the chimneys and removing the roof, and then partly restoring the roof, the walls, and the foundation. Currently, assessors have evaluated the physical state of their flat as unsatisfactory: “It can be inhabited provided capital repairs and reconstruction are carried out.” The work should cost approximately 400,000 rubles.


An excerpt from the court’s ruling on the inspection: “An inspection has established that part of the residential building (flats no. 2, 3, 4) are dilapidated. Major leaks in the roof, deformation of the walls, subsidence of the foundation, and buckling of the window frames and door frames have been detected. The walls are subject to massive worsening cracks, severe rotting, and penetration by draughts and frost. Flats no. 2, 3, 4 are not heated. Their furnaces and chimneys have been destroyed. The wiring is in disrepair, and the load-bearing structures are dilapidated and partly destroyed. The dilapidation of the load-bearing structures in flats no. 2, 3, 4 has caused the deformation and destruction of the adjacent walls and ceiling beams in flat no. 1, and consequently the dilapidated flats should be dismantled. It is technically possible to eliminate their negative impact[.]” 

The district council has questioned the outcome of the assessment.

“Actually, the house is not currently dilapidated,” claims Dmitry Kipru, now deputy head of the Kondopoga Municipal District. “I agree that things look bad. But currently there is no danger to the Ryaziyev flat. There are all sorts of independent assessors. We could commission a second assessment and get a different finding and a different estimate.”

In court, however, the defense refrained from challenging the assessment’s objectivity.

10The adjacent flats are in this condition.

The trial spanned several hearings. The plaintiff was present for all of them except the final hearing. Ryaziyeva would often have to get up at night, in the dark, to go to the train station to catch the train that would bring her to Kondopoga at five in the morning—sometimes only to hear that the defendant was not ready for the hearing and had asked it be postponed.

“Those trips have really worn me out over the past two years,” Ryaziyeva confesses.

In turn, Paltseva claims the defense sometimes came to hearings unprepared.

“For example, we wanted to hear the testimony of the engineer who had declared the house dilapidated. But we were constantly offered supposedly valid reasons why he could not make it to the trial. Since their lawyer was not an engineer, he could not comment on certain matters, and he would ask that the hearings be postponed. I think they were dragging things out,” says Paltseva.

Judge Olga Sysoyeva personally traveled to Käppäselgä and saw the picture with her own eyes, a picture that had earlier consisted only of testimony, documents, and photographs.

7The condition of the roof worries Ryaziyeva most of all. 

The Ryaziyevs won the lawsuit. According to the court, it was the district council’s inaction, which has the three empty flats on its books, that reduced the house to its current condition.

“The court has sufficient grounds to conclude there is a causal link between the condition of the residential building and inaction on the part of the proprietor of the council flats and the common property in the house, who has failed to carry out capital repairs,” reads the court’s ruling.

Taking into account the nature and scope of the reconstruction work and the time needed to complete it, the court set a deadline: three months from the day the ruling entered into legal force.

But this is not the end of the story. The Kondopoga District Council has appealed the ruling in the Karelian Supreme Court. In particular, according to the appeal, the defense was not satisfied the lower court had “removed the plaintiffs from equity involvement, having assigned the duty to reconstruct the multi-flat residential building singlehandedly to one of the proprietors […] the Kondopoga Muncipal District.”

During the trial, the defense attorney requested the Ryaziyevs should, in keeping with their share of the house’s overall floor space, pay 33% of the repairs. The court declined the request.

Commenting on the situation, deputy district head Kirpu repeated the demand that the Ryaziyevs co-finance the repairs, as indicated in the appellate complaint. When we asked him why no such demand had been made when he issued the decree, which was never carried out, to demolish the dilapidated flats during the spring or summer of 2017, he found it difficult to respond.

“Our lawyers vet every decree. Maybe someone overlooked something,” Kirpu speculated.

Moreover, at the end of our conversation, Kirpu informed me that money for reconstruction of the house (around 500,000 rubles) had been found among the district’s nonappropriated funds, but they had not been allocated, because the Ryaziyevs had filed suit against the council.

17Galina Ryaziyeva has to take care of her half of the house and the adjoining half of the house.

“In Karelia’s districts, people are held hostage by the inaction of the local authorities. They file lawsuits not for the fun of it, but to force councils to look for funds and fulfill their direct responsibilities in maintaining the housing stock,” argues Paltseva. “Besides, by law, a propietor can demand satisfaction if their rights have been violated, although the violations were not connected with dispossessing them of their property. A lawsuit petitioning the court to compel a defendant to act must be upheld even in cases in which the proprietor shows there is a real threat of violation of their rights due to inaction by the authorities. The assessment commissioned by the Ryaziyevs proved there was a direct causal link between the destruction of their flat and the council’s behavior. A date for the appeal hearing has not yet been set, but Karelia is already snowbound.”

This means that 25 Central Street will have to survive yet another winter. Who knows whether the roof will hold out or the lintel will collapse. According to the Ryaziyevs, the the local council has deliberately delayed the process so that there will be nothing left to save and restore.

All photos by Maria Dmitriyeva and courtesy of 7X7. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to the always reliable Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up