Darya Apahonchich: Closing Doors

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Darya Apahonchich
Facebook
August 13, 2019

Things are so sad I will tell you something sort of funny.

I am an imported Petersburger. I was born in a tiny town, almost a village. It was not the custom there to lock doors. People would close doors to keep out the wind and snow, but not random passersby because we should not hide from other people. On the contrary, we should be ready to help them.

So, people left the doors to their houses open.

Out of provincial habit, I kept my door in Petersburg unlocked up until this year. I have never owned anything valuable. We have always been fairly poor and, sometimes, really poor.

You wonder whether I have been robbed blind or had something stolen? I have been robbed at the hospital, in the library, and at the pediatric clinic, but I have never been robbed at home.

And so, this past spring, when the cops came to our house, beating on the door and yelling, the door was not locked. Can you imagine?

Because it did not occur to us to lock it, just as it did not occur to the cops to turn the doorknob.

So, they banged on the door, but they did not turn the knob.

I have locked the door ever since then. I am not afraid of mosquitoes, people or thieves, but I do not want the police to get in.

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader

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Stanislava Novgorodtseva: Portraits of Angry Muscovites

“The Regime Has No Feedback from the Populace”: What Are People Saying Who Support the Candidates Barred from the Moscow City Duma Elections?
Photographer Stanislava Novgorodtseva took photos of angry Muscovites, trying to find out what it was they wanted
July 27, 2019

3a28b76117eb6539c85008b98b8c8159Viktor, 21, student and programmer. “Ideally, I would like to see all the candidates who were illegally barred put on the ballot and the Moscow City Duma dissolved, respectively. That would make sense to all of us.”

mikhailMikhail, 23, web developer. “I came here to support Ilya Yashin, a candidate in Borough No. 45, which includes the Krasnoselsky and Meshchansky Districts. He is currently detained by the police. My big hope is that at least one election in this country is legitimate.”

vadimVadim, 61, retired doctor. “I wanted to hear the barred candidates speak and support them, and defend our rights, which have been violated. A criminal offense has been committed and we must get to the bottom of it.”

ilyaIlya, 21, artist. “First of all, I would like to stop the lawlessness directed at the populace, the continuing poverty, arrests, and prison sentences. We need to see justice done and hold fair elections so the so-called government stops pushing us around. Because a country is not a bunch of people but a nation.”

klaraKlara, 75, retired engineer and metallurgist. “We came specially to defend our candidate, Yulia Galyamina. She is a decent person, she lectures at two universities. What were the police’s grounds for searching her home? A huge number of people have supported her, but she has been barred from running.”

marinaMarina, 56, psychology lecturer. “We basically cannot change anything at the moment. We are merely showing them we exist because it is impossible to change anything now. But everything will change after a while. When they see we are here, they take us into account.”

Yulia, 42, chief accountant. “I am here to get the candidates who met the legal requirements onto the ballot. We want to see an end to the manipulations, violations, and planting of drugs on people. We just want the laws to be obeyed. I want to be able to go to court and defend my rights.”

Andrei, 43, technical consultant. “It is the only thing left to us: we cannot do anything else. If we stay at home and ‘strike,’ we could die and no one would care. People have to take to the streets around the world. Otherwise, if you are not seen you are not heard. The prosecutor’s offices, courts, and police do not do their jobs. All the state agencies send formal replies or do not respond at all when you complain to them.”

Vera, 56, oil geologist. “We have a problem with infill construction, but our candidate, Elena Rusakova, has been barred from running. We are absolutely certain the signatures [on the petitions supporting Rusakov’s candidacy], are genuine: we signed them ourselves and helped her collect them. We have come to voice our protest.”

Natalya, 62, manager. “We lived in a nice green neighborhood. I was apolitical, but suddenly we were surrounded by construction sites, fences, sidewalks, and paving stones. They have been expropriating green spaces and cutting down trees. Candidates willing to fight against this are barred from holding political office. My mom is 94 years old. She survived the Siege of Leningrad. She does not leave the house anymore, but she told me I definitely had to come to this rally. Otherwise, she said, my children would live in a police state.”

Alexander, 44, activist: “I filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights because my building has slated for [Moscow Mayor Sobyanin’s massive residential building] renovation. That is one of the reasons I came. But Sobyanin and his stooges in the Moscow City Duma are bad guys not only because of the renovation program. They have been robbing and disfiguring the city. We came out to show the authorities what we think, although we have been accused of wanting violent regime change. This is not true.”

Anatoly, 48, programmer: “I came to the rally as part of a social experiment. I am not much interested in showdowns over who gets on the city council. I have more grudges against the current regime than everyone else here combined, but people are fighting for cosmetic changes. Even if [independent] candidates get on the ballot, I don’t believe improvements will follow. The regime has no feedback from the populace, but I don’t think protest rallies can solve the problem.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

Darya Apahonchich: Relaxation for Men

darja-1Darya Apahonchich is one of the artists exhibited at the 2019 Festival of Political Photography at the Finnish Museum of Photography. Photo by Liisa Takala. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat

Relaxation for Men
Darya Apahonchich wanted to make prostitution visible so she photographed men
Jussi Lehmusvesi
Helsingin Sanomat
March 13, 2019

A good three years ago, Petersburg teacher Darya Apahonchich was walking to work when she noticed letters painted on the sidewalk.

ОТДЫХ

Freely translated, the word means “relaxation, rest.” Apahonchich knew it was one of the most common phrases in Russia for advertising prostitution.

Apahonchich was intrigued. On previous walks to work, she had noticed that ads for brothels had spread everywhere, including walls, light poles, and transformer boxes, and now they seemed to have flooded the streets, too. There was also something irritating about the word отдых.

Relaxation.

Or the slightly longer version:

Relaxation for men.

Apahonchich had an idea. She was also a professional artist and had worked in several groups that produced political art. She asked male acquaintances to think about how they really relaxed. Then she took the men to the sex ads and asked them to assume the poses they had chosen for relaxing.

The photographs were produced in the middle of sidewalks as passersby watched.

“I wasn’t trying to take smooth, finished art photos but snapshots,” she said. “People’s reactions were supportive or, more often, indifferent. Petersburg is a big city, after all, and people are not easily surprised.”

After the photoshoot, she posted the photos on social media and waited for a reaction.

Things kicked off after a while.

Apahonchich’s photos attracted attention on social media. The photographer was asked for interviews by more traditional media.

She was more delighted by offers from complete strangers, men who wanted to be involved in the project.

“They said they wanted to relax and asked whether they could help me,” Apahonich says.

Despite what you might imagine, there was nothing suggestive about the men’s requests. They genuinely wanted to be involved in doing something good.

The photographer accepted the offers and new photos were produced.

“It started out just as a fun thing but gradually turned into something more serious,” she says.

darja-2Two young men relaxing. Photo by Darya Apahonchich. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat

The success of Apahonchich’s photos could be explained by their skewed perspective. We have seen plenty of pictures of people victimized by prostitution at exhibitions but the gaze in her photos is focused on men.

This also has its own meaning for her.

“When people talk about prostitution, they usually talk about women, but I hope to make something invisible visible in the images I produce,” Apahonchich says.

It is a reasonable aspiration in the sense that men are active in the sex trade as middlemen, customers and, sometimes, vendors, too.

“Of course, men see my pictures differently. Some see them only as humorous. In the best case, I make the men looking at the photos reflect on their own position on the matter.”

The artist also has a personal reason for approaching the subject seriously.

Apahonchich walks around the Finnish Museum of Photography at the Cable Factory looking at the works of her colleagues in the Festival of Political Photography, which presents the work of twenty artists from around the world in a show entitled Potentiality.

In Apahonchich’s own images, men relax alongside “Relaxation for men” ads. One reads the newspaper, another plays on the train tracks, a third does yoga, and a fourth plays the balalaika.

A fifth man fishes.

According to the artist, the men who wanted into the project hardly represent the majority opinion regarding prostitution.

“Russia is still a conservative country and we have a different notion of women’s rights than in Scandinavia. It is common for men not to see any problem with prostitution. Many of them think it’s quite acceptable if, say, they have problems with their marriages.”

It is illegal in Russia to advertise sex services but, according to Apahonchich, Russian cities are in no hurry to get rid of the ads. She argues that the economic interests of the powers that be are often linked to human trafficking.

“It’s about money,” she says. “In Russia, the media have written about the links between corruption and prostitution. The police, for example, visit brothels regularly. They even have their own term for their visits. They are called ‘Saturday specials.'”

Her drastic claim is supported by a longitudinal interview study in which researchers mapped the experiences of sex workers with police in Petersburg and Orenburg. The study found that over a third of the sex workers had been abused by police.

The study was done in 2014, but researchers have obtained similar outcomes in more recent studies.

Estimates of the total number of people involved in sex work in Russia are as high as three million.

“I don’t approve of the word ‘sex worker,'” says Apahonchich. “In my opinion, it is not work but exploitation. I am talking about women who are involved in prostitution. Of course, there are differences in how people view the matter. If someone wants to call themselves a sex worker, I accept their choice, of course, but I don’t think of it that way.”

She also finds it misleading to talk about “sex.”

“Many girls go into prostitution at the age of thirteen or even younger. I think it is a question of rape culture more than of sex.”

darja-3Man and pillow. Photo by Darya Apahonchich. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat

Apahonchich has a personal reason for regarding prostitution negatively. She earns her daily bready by teaching Russian to women who have come from Syria and Afghanistan, for example. She is painfully aware her students are at high risk of being marginalized and forced into prostitution.

“Since they come to Russia as refugees and immigrants, they are on really shaky ground. They are often undocumented and cannot defend themselves,” Apahonchich says, looking anxious.

She is clearly concerned about her students.

She has not shown her photographs in class.

“I try to keep politics to a minimum,” she says. “A large number of my students are from quite conservative regions and I don’t want to scare them. Also, some of the students’ husbands have a negative attitude to their going to school, so in this sense, too, caution is important.”

“So, I concentrate on teaching the language and I answer their questions.”

There is one subject, however, that Apahonchich plans to raise in class.

She wants to teach the women how to talk to the police.

darja-4A man relaxes by meditating. Photo by Darya Apahonchich. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat

Relaxation for men. Although sex advertising has been moving to the Internet in Russia, the letters on the cobblestones still entice men into becoming customers.

Apahonchich’s own attitude to the advertisements has changed as she has photographed them.

“In the past, I would complain about them and think about all the young women they concealed. But after shooting them I saw them as locations and advertisements.  I would think that one was in a good spot for marketing or this one had really different colors, that I had no photos with yellow lettering in them. Or this image was in a good place for setting up and shooting.”

Another thing has changed. The photographer now knows what to say to men who fiercely defend prostitution.

“I ask them whether they would be willing to do the same job themselves or let their children do it. Since they don’t want it for their own children, why would they wish it on others?”

darja-5.JPGThe ads encouraging relaxation are also in English. Photo by Darya Apahonchich. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat

Apahonchich recounts how one of the men in the photos heard a child ask his parents what the ad meant as the model sat waiting on the pavement.

It was no easy task for the parents to explain what the words meant.

Nor was it easy to tell the child why a price had been placed under a woman’s name.

Translated from the Finnish by the Russian Reader

 

Vrio!

brail-1.jpg

Alexander Beglov was appointed the acting governor of Petersburg or vrio (to coin the acronym for such officials who “temporarily carry out the duties” of one office or another) on October 3, 2018.

His appointment immediately sparked speculation the Kremlin had put him in charge of Putin’s hometown not only temporarily but also so he could run for the post “legitimately” in the upcoming gubernatorial election, scheduled for September 8, 2019.

As luck would have it, the seven-year reign of his predecessor, the dull but mostly inoffensive Georgy Poltavchenko, was blessed by relatively snowless winters.

Petersburg, however, is the northernmost major city in the world and, unsurprisingly, it sometimes snows a lot there in the winter. The “anomalous winter” of 2010–11, during which the local authorities could not get a handle on cleaning relatively heavy snowfalls from streets, pavements, and roofs, spurring wild popular discontent, famously led to the dismissal of then-Governor Valentina Matviyenko and her replacement by the quieter Poltavchenko.

Like all members of Putin’s clique of made men and women, Matviyenko was not punished for her failures. Instead, she was “upmoted” (my term) to the much cushier post of speaker of the Federation Council. There she has been instrumental, I suspect, in persuading the press and the public she presides over a “senate,” peopled by “senators,” not a rubber-stamp entity filled with repellent losers too big to fail who have been rewarded generous sinecures in exchange for total loyalty.

In any case, today’s would-be Russian “senate” is a far cry from the feisty and, at times, mildly separatist Federation Council of the nineties, whose members would never have been so obnoxious as to style themselves “senators” and then get everyone else to go along with this sycophantic malarkey, including opposition activists, reporters, and academics who should know better.

The winter of 2018–19 was another “anomaly,” apparently, and vrio (interim governor) Beglov made it even worse by behaving even more brazenly and clumsily than Matviyenko had done during her own “snow apocalypse.”

You would think the Kremlin would not be so provocative as to shove Beglov, who looks remarkably like Mel Brooks in his salad days, playing the “villain” in one of his hilarious film parodies, down the throats of Petersburgers on Election Day 2019, but that is the plan. All the stops have been pulled out, including a total purge of opposition candidates attempting to run for seats on the city’s district municipal councils, although these underfunded, powerless bodies that have zero say over the Smolny, Petersburg’s city hall, where Beglov and his team call the shots.

The Kremlin is willing to make Beglov the city’s “legitimate” governor over everyone’s dead bodies, as it were, alienating even more otherwise apolitical Petersburgers from the regime.

Finally and, perhaps, apropos of nothing, has anyone ever remarked on the fact that both Beglov and Poltavchenko were born in Baku in the mid-1950s? Does it snow there in the winter?

The picture, above, was taken by Kseniya Brailovskaya in downtown Petersburg during the height of the municipal collapse this past winter. As another heat wave envelopes Europe, you will probably see more of these snapshots in the coming days, especially since I have a post or two in the works about the flagrant purges of opposition candidates in Petersburg. They have mirrored similar purges in Moscow, but without sparking spontaneous unrest of the weekend before last or the heavily attended protest rally that took place in the capital on Saturday{TRR}

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Rotunda
Telegram
July 16, 2019

A friendly meeting between the heads of over twenty Petersburg media outlets and acting Governor Alexander Beglov took place in the Smolny. The meeting was cast as a campaign event at which heated discussions were not welcome.

During the first hour, Beglov cheerfully talked about all the problems he had solved. He said his priority has been to combat depression among Petersburgers. Beglov thanked, in all seriousness, the opposition for keeping him on his toes and informing him about hotspots.

Then followed several questions from the attendees. The most pointed question was, “How can we help you?” or something like that. Despite being a candidate in the gubernatorial race, Beglov was not taken aback by this offer and spent another hour outlining his plans for the near term.

The only question that knocked the vrio off his high horse had to do with the scandals surrounding the elections to the municipal district councils. Beglov said he could not intervene since he himself was a candidate.

As the meeting drew to a close, the heads of the city’s media outlets asked whether Beglov would be willing to meet with reporters in a similar format in the future. Beglov said he would definitely talk with everyone but only after September 8.

Translated by the Russian Reader

They Wore Uniforms

angela davisEast German politician Margot Honecker and Angela Davis at the communist World Festival of Youth and Students. Photo courtesy of Ullstein Bild, Getty Images, and the Wall Street Journal

In yesterday’s edition, the Wall Street Journal revealed the grim truth about actually existing socialism.

“In the Atrium Gallery, the Regimes Museum displays uniforms, flags, posters and other paraphernalia from East Germany. Not only soldiers, sailors and police wore military-style uniforms. So did postmen, bus and streetcar operators, volunteer firefighters and members of the Red Cross.” (Joseph D’Hippolito, “Angela Davis, East Germany and Fullerton,” Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2019)

Mr. D’Hippolito might be interested to know that East Berlin actually had streetcar operators because it actually had streetcars. The last tram made its last run in West Berlin in October 1967. Since reunification, the city’s transport authority has tentatively expanded a few of the East Berlin lines into West Berlin, but there are bigger plans afoot for expanding the city’s “half of a tram network.”

Nevertheless, Berlin has the third longest streetcar system in the world, after Melbourne and Petersburg. I have no clue about what has been going on in Melbourne, but Petersburg has spent many of the last thirty some years devastating its network, once the longest in the world. Trams there have had to give way, as they did in West Berlin, to private cars, thus exacerbating climate change.

But capitalism is superior to socialism, no?

Watch this space for “Was There Life on Mars?”, my report on East Berlin: Half a Capital, a terrific exhibition currently on view at the Ephraim Palace in Berlin-Mitte.

Needless to say, the exhibition’s curators have a slightly more sophisticated take on life under socialism than the WSJ could ever imagine. Tellingly, the day I visited, all the other visitors were my age and older and had the bearing and look of East Germans, meaning they were revisiting their childhoods and youths.

I doubt what they were feeling was the much-dreaded or much-celebrated “Ostalgia,” but something more akin to surprise. After all, the planet on which they were born and grew up disappeared in the twinkling of an eye. Since there was an extraordinarily large, determined grassroots resistance and reform movement in East Germany in the seventies and eighties, a movement wholly or almost wholly absent in West Germany, the country and the world lost a lot when the capitalist vacuum cleaner simply sucked up the country after 1989.

In Berlin, one effect has been the extraordinarily intense gentrification of many former East Berlin districts, especially Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, and Friedrichshain. As I discovered recently, however, there are pockets of wholesale gentrification as far east as Friedrichshagen, now a picture-perfect bourgeois colony for West Germans.

You do find yourself wondering where all the pre-1989 inhabitants of these places have gone.

In Fullerton, California, however, they are still fighting “communism,” something that never existed in any case {TRR}

Simon Kordonsky: The Real Russia Refuses to Be Counted

kordonsky
Simon Kordonsky, academic director of the Khamovniki Foundation. Photo by Andrei Gordeyev. Courtesy of Vedomosti

Sociologist Simon Kordonsky: “There Are No Entrepreneurs Listed in the Census”
The Khamovniki Foundation’s Fieldwork Suggests the Country’s Leaders Know Little about Real Life in Russia
Vedomosti
January 29, 2019

The academic director of the Khamovniki Foundation for Social Research is Simon Kordonsky, renowned in Russia’s analytical circles and a former adviser on federal government policy. Nowadays, he has been looking at things from the other side. How does policy affect the lives of the rank and file? Or, rather, how do the rank and file escape the gaze of politics?

“Rosstat Is a Disaster”
Let us start with a simple question. How many people live in Russia?

I don’t know. Feel free to add ten to fifteen percent to the official figures for the mid-sized cities.

So, many more than 146 million people live in Russia?

There are many more. But we are completely at a loss when it comes to the big cities. It is impossible to count people there.

Why? Aren’t there firm indicators such as bread consumption and use of medical services and public transport?

And who in Russia counts this stuff?

I don’t know.

Sewers are used to count people. Judging by the sewerage, around thirty million people live in Moscow.

How do you use sewage to count people?

A certain volume of sewage is flushed into the sewers, and we have a rough sense of the amount of sewage each person generates. Electricity use, on the contrary, cannot give us a fix on numbers of residents, because people steal electricity. It is a rather complex system.

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The Khamovniki Foundation for Social Research was founded in 2006 by Russian investor and hotelier Alexander Klyachin, who currently serves as the foundation’s board chair. The foundation’s advisory board is headed by Simon Kordonsky, a professor at the Higher School of Economics.

The foundation finances and supports academic field research that contributes to describing Russian society. The foundation aims to make the outcomes of its studies accessible to society as a whole. It has supported over sixty research projects. Among the most discussed have been “Seasonal Workers in Small Russian Towns,” “The Garage Economy in the Russian Hinterlands,” and “The Constructive Role of Informal Relations in State and Municipal Administration.” 

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There are no scams involving shit?

Maybe there is an underground shit trade, but we have not studied it. I am saying that it is awfully hard to calculate the consumption of electricity in the 220-volt networks, which are municipal networks. Superimposed on them are other, high-voltage networks, and there are separate stats on each level. Total loss in the network is around fifty percent. It is hard to quantify how much is used by the populace, and how much by industry, because the rates everywhere are different.

It is the same thing with garages [as workplaces]: they usually survive on stolen electricity. They pay for the hookup, but off the books to the folks who do the maintenance work on the power networks. They pay thirty to fifty percent of the real cost and pay minimum usage rates. So, energy use will not help you count people.

Nor will water use. A considerable number of families do not get their water from centralized mains, but from wells, from their own local networks. Besides, in summer, many families live in the countryside at dachas. In winter, some people temporarily leave the villages, while others stay behind. It is hardly possible to quantify this migration.

Official statistical bodies make no effort to count them?

Of course not, but statisticians know all about it. They have their own professional journal, Statistical Issues [Voprosy statistiki]. Several years ago, the journal published an article explaining the discrepancy between the indicators taken into account and what we see with our own eyes. It was necessary to mislead our enemies in the west.

Camouflage the stats?

Yes. Rosstat is a disaster, you see. Their ontology is Soviet, while they imported their methodology from the west. They carry out the census using western standards, and so all the peculiar aspects of life in Russia disappear from their radar. For example, our census does not count entrepreneurs.

At all?

There are no such people as entrepreneurs in the Russian census. There are people involved in businesses of some kind, and there are people who practice the free professions. The census does not differentiate between them. Rosstat regards people who are paid salaries and people who earn their living by making profits as indistinguishable. So, Rosstat is not an organization from which we should expect anything.

Here is another example. What are cities and villages? There are no cities in Russia as urbanists describe them and, so, there are no villages, either. When he was alive, Vyacheslav Glazychev wrote that Russian cities were conglomerations of settlements. Take the district seat in Tula Region that borders Moscow Region. There are 14,000 people in the entire district. From April to late October, however, the population increases to 150,000 people.

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Simon Kordonsky was born in 1944 in Oirot-Tura (present-day Gorno-Altaysk). He graduated from Tomsk State University with a degree as a chemistry and biology teacher. In 1988, he was awarded a kandidat degree, writing a thesis entitled “Cyclical Procedures in Scientific Research.” State Councilor of the Russian Federation, First Class, he chaired the Presidential Expert Advisory Council in 2000. In 2004, he served as a senior aide to the president. He has been a professor of state and municipal administration at the Higher School of Economics since 2006. In 2011, he was appointed director of the Khamovniki Foundation.

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It increases to 150,000 people? Tenfold?

Yes, tenfold. These people are not accounted for. They do not register their residence.

What about medical services? They are designed to deal with 14,000 people. How do they handle 150,000 people? Or do they handle them?

Nearly all dacha dwellers have cars.

They drive to Moscow for medical care?

Why? Serpukhov and Pushchino are nearby, and they have excellent outpatient clinics. Doctors see patients privately everywhere, and you can always come to an arrangement. Medical care is not the problem. The real problem is trash.

That was going to be our next question. As of the new year, a new trash era has dawned in Russia. Does anyone calculate the amount of garbage Russia generates? Does anyone understand the extent of the disaster?

I don’t know. I saw a business plan drawn up by gangsters in the early 1990s. They wanted to take over the garbage business, and they were partly successful. Everything is alright in the places where they were successful. But in the places where first there were towns and villages, followed by municipalities, and now corporations, there is an utter mess.

Moreover, it has been compounded by another problem: gasification. When people used stoves, garbage was burned, metal and bottles were recycled, and there was relatively little plastic. Nowadays, people prefer to throw things away. As soon as a town or village is hooked up to natural gas, the garbage piles up. There is just nowhere to take it, and there are no institutions or stereotypes for dealing with it.

In the garbage business, there is not only collection but also sorting and recycling.

Yes, garbage collection is not what matters. What matters is sorting and recycling. People live in landfills. They even have conveyor belts. They sort the garbage and sell the recyclables to buyers. It is an ecosystem you cannot change by opening or closing landfills, because these are reliable sources of raw materials, with a production cycle and sales channels. It is difficult and dangerous to describe life in landfills and the cottage trades that thrive there.

Do the authorities give the Khamovniki Foundation a hard time?

Not in the least. But they do not support us, either. So far we have not overlapped with the authorities either regionally or federally, but during our expeditions we cooperate with local authorities, of course.

How do you decide where to go on expeditions?

Accidentally. We have done work in all the federal districts, from Kamchatka to Kaliningrad. We have made fewer trips to the south, but now we have seemingly made connections there, too.

Where you have been in the past year? What new things did you find?

We were in the Far East: Vladivostok, Arsenyev, down to Nakhodka, and back to Vladivostok via Bolshoi Kamen. Thirteen people traveled almost 3,000 kilometers, describing the different local cottage trades and crafts.

Artemy Pozanenko recently completed a series of hunting expeditions. He spent several months with hunters and poachers as an embedded observer. Yulia Krasheninnikova has been studying expert evaluations and expert evidence as an institution. It transpires that it has long ceased to exist in Russia as a professional institution. Instead, crappy quasi-expert evaluations and so-called experts have boiled to the top, especially in religious studies, medicine, construction, and science. Dissernet have gone after fake scientific experts, and you know the success they have had.

Olga Molyarenko has been studying ownerless property. It turns out a considerable segment of existing networks and infrastructure in Russia belongs to no one at all.

She started by examining cemeteries. She discovered there are a certain number of cemeteries officially on the books in Russia, but the real number of cemeteries is nearly ten times larger. It is a typical situation. In the villages and small towns, the cemeteries were located beyond the official border of these settlements. They were overgrown by forests and thus registered as forest lands. It is forbidden to bury people in them, but you have to bury people somewhere.

By the way, the land registry is a problem unto itself. Alexander Pavlov added up all the land registered in Russia. Its total area is 1.7 times larger than the country’s official land mass the country, including the northern lands.

Then it transpired that the Defense Ministry’s closed towns have not only collapsed structurally but have also disappeared juridically. The Defense Ministry has not transferred them to the municipalities because, in particular, the municipalities are not capable of dealing with them. They do not have money in their budgets for completing the paperwork and other formalities. You have probably seen concrete two-lane military roads. Most of them belong to no one in Russia. The same goes for the roads along power lines and other infrastructure networks Usually, they belong to no one. They have no legal owners, and they are not listed in anyone’s inventories.

No one maintains them?

They have de facto caretakers rather than de jure owners. Usually, an economy emerges around these ownerless chunks of property The power transmission lines often have no owners. There was a state-owned enterprise that produced its own heat and electricity. The enterprise vanished, but the power station was left running because it keeps the nearby town heated and lit. However, power station itself and its networks belong to no one. Wherever you poke your nose you find the sewerage and water supply all belong to no one. In Krasnodar Region, people simply refused to talk to Olga about it.

What about the city itself, Krasnodar?

It was the same story. In the region’s coastal areas, if they show anyone the real figures for utilities and infrastructure, it would reveal how many tourists actually go there on holiday. They cannot do that, because they would have to pay a lot more taxes.

But how does ownerless infrastructure operate? Don’t contracts have to be signed? Don’t procurements have to be made?

There are people involved, of course. Alexander Pavlov has been making a study of Ulyanovsk for us. There are observable stereotypes. Everything is kept running by relying on connections, relationships, and unwritten rules.

How are fees collected?

The people who benefit pay in cash or favors. Everything is done strictly by the unwritten rules.

Here is a more general question. Are you saying the Kremlin does not know about any of this?

None of it exists on paper. On a personal level, they know. But as officials… Where do you go with it?

Do the aides in the Kremlin show the big brass anything about it?

I don’t think Kremlin aides are capable of helping anyone solve their problems. People have business interests they lobby by tattling on each other. They ask the top brass to make certain decisions, but the top brass keep their distance. A balance emerges, but it is a really peculiar balance, the outcome of a permanent war for resources in which no one can win, since the amount of resources available decreases during hostilities. In turn, this ratchets up tension among belligerent interest groups. However, what really goes in Russia concerns very few people. At best, information about really goes on can be used as arguments in internecine conflicts.

If they are so poorly informed, how do they ensure presidential decrees are executed? For example, when the Kremlin set out to reduce mortality rates caused by cardiovascular diseases?

The rates did drop. There are three lines at the bottom of death certificates: primary cause of death, secondary cause of death, and tertiary cause of death. A person crashed their car because they had a heart attack, and they suffered internal organ damage during the crash. The statistics take stock of what we write on the first line. This is basically how medical statisticians calculate data about mortality. If the Kremlin orders cancer be put in third place, the statisticians will do it, and if the order comes down to reduce mortality as caused by heart disease, the rates will drop.

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Russia’s Underground Cottage Industries
“One of our grantees found a huge cottage industry in a region in the Volga Federal District: around forty illegal airstrips,” says Simon Kordonsky. “Some of them have markings and hard surfaces. They transport goods, teach people to fly, and work in agriculture. Agriculture is their main gig. There is currently no official agricultural aviation in Russia: not only crop dusting but also the constant monitoring of field required by high-tech agriculture. You cannot check out an entire field by walking around it, but these tiny airplanes, often handmade, can do the job.

“By the way, outside of Moscow, there are approximately fifty people who have different airplanes: handmade, store-bought, and imported. These people have the money for them. The circumstances are dicey: air traffic control is not adapted to deal with these aircraft. Pilots of small aircraft make their own deals with air controllers on the side. There are regulations, but complying with them is impossible, and so an administrative market has arisen around this cottage industry. The pilots make payoffs so no one pays them any mind.

“The cottage industries change when the authorities pay attention to them. They exposed the garage economy and started making rounds of the garages, so people have been gradually moving to workshops. Mansions outfitted with workshops are being built outside city limits, just as in the nineteenth century. In Krasnodar, it is plain to see because it is right downtown. There is the market, and the war monument with its Eternal Flame. They are surrounded by one- and two-storey buildings. These are workshops and dwellings.

“Everything you can sell is made there. They distill vodka, roll out meat dumplings, sew linens, build furniture, and rent appliances. There are hotels, prostitutes, hair salons, and hospitals.

“Yes, and the dental industry has gone off the Health Ministry’s radar in certain locales. Outside of Moscow, for example, there are people who own dozens of different clinics. The clinics have no signs on the front door, but the equipment is top flight, and the doctors are terrific. They treat the local elite, so no one is the wiser.

“Did you know that near University subway station in Moscow there is the Nauka research and production facility, an establishment well known in certain circles

“Close to the bluff there there was and partly still is a community known popularly as Shanghai. A few years ago, it contained around five thousand garages, and the artisans who worked there were into everything, including the high-tech production of spare parts for imported cars. They had huge Soviet-era coordinate drilling machines, heavy asynchronous motors, probably imported, and programmers from Moscow State University, and they did great work. Their products were sold as imports.

“Moscow city hall has recently been trying to demolish the place, but Shanghai has resisted. This was place that had an outpatient medical clinic and a barber shop. The cafeterias were really good, featuring food from all over the world.

“Another type of cottage industry is distributed manufacturing, as in the Novokhopyorsk District in Voronezh Region and the Uryupinsk District in Volgograd Region who produce down goods together. They breed sheep and goats, comb the wool, processing it using high-tech machines, equipped with thermostats that fluff the wool, and finally produce the down and weave it. Everything they produce is sold at a wholesale market two hectares in size, open from two to six in the morning. They sell their wares to Roma wholesalers, who distribute the down goods nationwide.

“The government is now in the midst of a campaign against self-employment, but the cottage industries themselves change all the time, regardless of attempts to combat them. In fact, it is not clear what self-employment is. After his state of the nation address, the president gave orders to define the social status of self-employed people. The comrades from the Finance Ministry and Labor Ministry defined their fiscal status, but this is meaningless without defining their social status. What do we call government officials who take kickbacks? Cops running protection rackets? Are they self-employed or not? How do they differ from a university lecturer who works as university exam prep tutor on the side? Or from a physician who puts an ad on the internet saying he will treat patients at any stage in their suffering at any clinic in Russia? 

“There is no difference.

“If we take this approach, we discover the entire Russian populace is self-employed. As I used to say, first we must force people to pay taxes on kickbacks, and then we can deal with self-employment.”

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What do we do in these circumstances? If, as you say, Rosstat has failed to take Russia’s peculiarities into account, and their stats are at odds with reality, this leaves room for playing fast with the facts. What must be done? Should we change the methodologies?

That is a philosophical question. The possibility of accounting itself arises when there is a market. Modern statistics emerged in the seventeenth century when the market emerged, when goods and money parted ways, and people had to account for goods and money separately. If there is no market in Russia (the only market in Russia, perhaps, is the one at our customs border), then accounting can be done arbitrarily, using any criteria you like. The conceptual apparatus of an economy based on accounting and measurement cannot be applied to the realities of an underground cottage industry economy, a clandestine workshop economy, to life in Russia, to an administrative market state organized around the distribution of particular resources. The problem is neither technical nor methodological, but ontological. This is why we cannot count the number of people who live in Russia. 

When you say there are instructions to reduce mortality to a certain level, where do the instructions come from?

Well, there is a Health Ministry in Russia. It reports on the state of the populace’s health. The phrase “increasing life expectancy” appears in all their white papers, although I have never been able to get either ministers or academicians to specify the connection between medical progress and life expectancy. They have different systemic variables. The Health Ministry drafts a report on its work. The report is discussed—I don’t know where nowadays, maybe in the Security Council, maybe in Prime Minister Medvedev’s inner cabinet. The ministry gets orders to improve its figures. This instruction is called a presidential order or government order. On the back of this piece of paper, this order, are the names of the people who will implement the order. They are the folks who come up with the figures and then vet them. You have never heard of these people who draft white papers and come up with figures. You do not know them and you never will, although their administrative weight is no less than that of public officials

Here is a question linked to inflation and estimates. What did Alexander Surinov do so badly he was forced to resign his post as head of Rosstat?

I don’t know the specific reason. He was from the old school, you know, a man taught by folks who belonged to the old school of Emil Yershov [an economist who ran the State Statistics Committee, Goskomstat, from 1989 to 1993, before becoming a full professor at the Higher School of Economics]. Of course, maybe the whole business with driving up the figures and getting phone calls from the top brass rubbed him the wrong way. Perhaps he just freaked out.

By tweaking the stats, however, or, rather by existing in a system in which stats are tweaked, the state does not have a more or less realistic picture of reality, and all the plans, programs, evaluations of these programs, and adjustments to these programs are based partly on stats that it tweaks and dreams up itself, and partly on stats dreamed up by God knows who, a faceless crowd of civil servants.

“The Oppositions Needs a Position”
There are the polls done by VTsIOM, but they say the FSO (Federal Protective Service) does its own polls that tell the truth. Does the FSO keep statistics that show the president the truth?

The FSO conducts polls that consist of around 40,000 direct interviews without sampling, but in the final analysis their data is quite similar to the data produced by Alexander Oslon (Public Opinion Foundation or FOM), when it comes to public opinion, at any rate.

Our government conceives itself, and it has operated this way for three hundred years. People would go abroad, people like Peter the Great or Dmitry Kozak. They saw something they liked, came home, and decided they would do things the way they were done abroad.

It is quite hard to find anything Russian about Russia. Everything has been built by the state, but part of what it built got away from the state, and it is this fugitive part that is regarded as unreconstructed and outside state control, a gray zone. When something happens in the gray zone—young people act up, say—the state registers it and becomes alarmed. People are on the move, meaning there is something to it, so they want to devise a youth police, establish a state agency, a ministry for youth affairs, and get funding for it. What happens, ultimately, is that young people live their own lives, and on the other hand there is a state agency that squanders the federal money allocated to channel young people and their energy. The state is on the lookout for something living or seemingly alive, and this thing is nationalized, it is assimilated by the state. The Russian state consists entirely of such agencies, which ape things that occur beyond the state’s reach.

The FSO’s officers also keep track of societal stability, the different protest movements and so on. If protest movements kick into high gear, it means it is time either to nationalize them, which initially happened with the nationalist organizations, or crack down on them. Otherwise, God forbid, interregional synchronization might occur, and then you call in the guys whose jobs it is to neutralize such things, the Center for Extremism Prevention (Center “E”) and the Russian National Guard.

Do you mean it is impossible for the opposition or protest movements to consolidate?

It is probably possible in quite extreme circumstances, as in the late eighties and early nineties. Local uprisings are more likely. You see, the opposition needs a position. What is the regime’s position? It has no position, and so there can be no opposition. Opposition is based on the very same rationale. The regime’s position is that it is opposed to opposition.

We travel around Russia and we see no one in the mood to protest. Yes, people are dissatisfied, but they have always been dissatisfied. Their dissatisfaction is based on the sense someone got more than they did and this is unfair. They will complain to the supreme arbiter, they think, and he will set things right. But the kind of dissatisfaction that existed in Soviet times in Novocherkassk and Biysk, in the ethnic republics, does not exist today.

Nowhere? Not in any of the regions?

Something quite interesting has been happening in the ethnic republics within the Russian Federation, in Mordovia, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan, among the Soviet ethnicitie shaped by Stalin in 1927–1928 as part of his policy on ethnic groups. They are not really nations, but ethnic esthates, social groups shaped by the state and bound to particular territories, so that Bashkirs have a particular status in Bashkortostan and a completely different status in Tatarstan. Rustem Vakhitov, who is based in Ufa, has written quite interestingly about this.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, these ethnic groups took on lives of their own: nations have been emerging in all the ethnic republics, sometimes to the point of hilarity, as happened in Mordovia. We went into a shop where the clerks were speaking Russian. When we approached one of them, they started speaking Mordvin. In the local cultural center, the ladies were sitting around a table covered with albums filled with drawings of costumes. They were designing the Mordvin national costume.

You’re saying the process has not been astroturfed from the top down by the regional bosses?

No, it is a search for identity. People are trying to solve a genuinely timely question: who are we?

Ethnic Russians don’t have this problem?

Ethnic Russians alone have not been emerging as a nation. Russians were never the titular nation [in any of the Soviet national republics]. When Stalin’s nation-building was underway, the Russians were forgotten. Everyone who was pushed out from the the ethnic republics became Russians.

So, people in Arkhangelsk Region could have been called Pomors and also emerged as a separate ethnic group?

The Pomors have their own deal. Yuri Plyusnin, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, has described the Pomors as a special ethnic group. Some cunning people politicized his research, and the myth of Pomor nationalism emerged.

These episodes, involving ethnicity, and the absence and search for identity, have been breaking out all over Russia nowadays. What is Siberian identity? People are riled up about this as well. Who are we Siberians? they ask themselves.

Do these trends threaten Russia’s territorial integrity? Will things somewhere boil to the point reached in Chechnya?

This will happen when there is a shortage of resources. Gleb Pavlovsky has described it well. In 1996–1997, when it was obvious the system was disintegrating, it had to be integrated. Two methods of integration were devised. One was financial. There was a multi-currency system. The so-called young reformers nationalized the ruble, turning money into a financial resource distributed by the federal government. The regions and municipalities queued to get their hands on it, competing with each other in the bargain. Elementary order emerged.

The second method was ideological. Vladislav Surkov and his pals dreamed up United Russia and nationalized ideology, trying to manufacture at least a partial copy of the Soviet Communist Party. Their project was generally a success, too, but unlike financial policy, United Russia was not instrumental. No one knew how to use it, except for channeling certain forms of discontent.

So, if there is a threat to territorial integrity, it is a potential threat. However, it is a threat that can be turned to an advantage. An ordinary economy deals with the risks posed by the market: there are winners and losers. Due to its non-market foundations, Russia does not welcome risks. Threats are the dominant tool in Russia’a administrative markets. The people who invent the scariest stores get the cash and the resources. One of the scary stories has to do with the threat to territorial integrity, which the security forces use to obtain resources, because they are supposed to neutralize the threat.

Yet people are always dissatisfied with the way resources are distributed, and so there can be no means of assessing whether threats have been dealt with effectively or not. Once upon a time, threats to public health and public education were identified and prolonged. Resources were allocated for neutralizing these threats, and national projects were launched. Consequently, the threats became even worse. New national projects have been launched, and resources have again been allocated to neutralize the same threats.

We live in the midst of permanent threats, generated by all the stakeholders and pressure groups. The government is faced with the need to emphasize certain threatens and allocate resources for neutralizing them.

Russia was disoriented for a long time, since it had no customary external enemy. Subsequently, different forces united to manufacture this external enemy, and now it is a matter of neutralizing the external threat. I gather that a considerable amount of federal funds and extra-budgetary resources have been earmarked for producing means to neutralized the external threat.

So, we are fighting the good fight against enemies we construed ourselves, against enemies we dreamed up ourselves?

Yes, it’s a good fight. We are winning. We are earmarking resources foor the fight. We are retreating, we are advancing. We are forcing groups to scrap over resources and queue for them. Basically, the scrap going on in the queue is the basis of the current stability.

Russia has been functioning this way for hundreds of years. It generates threats, attempts to neutralize them, and exports its internal tensions through external aggression. This was what happened in Afghanistan.

Can we be completely defeated by such a threat?

We lost in 1991, didn’t we? It was then necessary to generate an internal hotbed of tension, known as “Chechnya,” getting rid of all conflicts in the country and booting them down there.

There were lots of people there who were quite aggressive and itching for a fight. Besides, there was a curious form of self-organization in Chechnya. The first Chechen combat units emerged from construction crews, not from the big clans. Chechens traveled to Siberia together to build cow barns and formed work crews.

“Repeating the Past Is Russia’s Future”
They went there to build cow barns, because there was no work of any kind in Chechnya?

That was not the only reason. It was a very good deal for the local authorities. Building was the only means they had of retaining resources in their area, so numerous construction sites popped up. I was then busy researching construction in the countryside and I saw what was actually happening. I would get an itemized list of the buildings, and there would be ninety sites on it. Then I would make the rounds of the sites and find only forty-two actually being built. The other sites did not exist, but I would find another fifty sites that were not on the itemized list, but which were nevertheless under construction, and it would be Chechens, Ukrainians, and Hutsuls building them. The Chechen work crews came together, because the objective was to protect the forest glades in Siberia.

There is something similar going on nowadays in Tyumen Region, for example. In Dagestan, there are villages that have full-scale diasporas in Tyumen and Surgut. The men have two families, one in Surgut, the other in Dagestan. They ship all kinds of schmutz and fruit to Tyumen, bringing back timber and fish to Dagestan. I imagine it is Tyumen is not the only place where such things go on.

Doesn’t Plato hinder them? It monitors cargo shipments.

Plato monitors the big rigs. There is no system for monitoring trucks under twelve tons. The government farmed out the big rigs with the hope of extending the new system of tolls to low-tonnage transportation. What do I mean by “farming out”? In particular, resources are redistributed from local authorities to corporations. The regions have become less significant in the distribution and redistribution of resources, while corporations have become more important. This will inevitably cause conflicts.

What conflicts?

In the first place, conflicts between the regions and the corporations. And conflicts along the highways, especially federal highways. They are like arteries pumping blood and supporting life: there are tons of gray-zone cottage industries that spring up around them, providing everything from food to prostitutes.

Take the village of Umyot in the Zubova Polyana Municipal District in the Republic of Mordovia, which is on the M5 Ural Federal Highway. Prostitutes are lined up for a dozen kilometers along the highway, along with different roadside establishments. The Zubova Polyana District is home of the famous village of Potma, where five prison camps built during Soviet times as part of the Gulag are still in operation. The district has a population of just over 60,000 people, and around 30,000 of them are convicts, while the non-convict populace are third- and fourth-generation prison guards. So, when a monopolist like Plato appears on the scene, people naturally try and fight back.

There are really interesting migrations underway in Russia nowadays. They say the country is becoming deserted. According to statisticians, people have been moving into the district and regional seats. That is happening, but some of the migrants are regrouping along the big highways. Russia has been shrinking down to a series of highways. New communities are being built, and life there is defined by a highway.

There is another trend, however, of people leaving the cities. These people are adherents of different environmental sects, the Ringing Cedars or Anastasians, for example. We counted several hundred thousand of them. Within a radius of a hundred kilometers from Moscow there are dozens of Anastasian settlements. They have no names,  addresses or anything of the sort. These downshifters are educated people, usually.

Pozanenko sailed several hundreds of kilometers down one of the rivers in the north and counted several dozen settlements that were not registered with the government in any way.  They usually are highly attached to a particular ideology. They go off to live in hermitages, grow cedars, and worship Nicholas Roerich. The ones who survive move away from the ideology after three or four years, becoming ordinary peasants. We have seen this in Altai and other places.

But the inflow is greater from the small towns and villages into the major cities than vice versa?

They are migrants doing seasonal work. Moscow sucks in people who live as far as 400 kilometers to 500 kilometers away. This radius is around 70 kilometers for a large regional capital like Novosibirsk. This is pendulum migration, while migration over great distances is seasonal migration. If we take the Zubova Polayana District again, it is around 400 kilometers from Moscow. The men go to Moscow to work as security guards, while the young women go there to work as “accountants,” meaning prostitutes. This was the case a few years ago, and I doubt whether much has changed.

What a great euphemism!

Here is another thing. A retail chain has agreements with villages to supply laborers for several months. There are several villages, and the villagers take turns going into the city to work. It is very hard to quantify migration like this. On Fridays, it is readily visible at the train stations: the cars are packed because people are going home. Daily migration can be quantified: you just take a look at the terminal stations of the subway and the train stations when people pile into Moscow on the commuter trains. Basically, these are the thirty million people we spoke about at the beginning, the people who shit in Moscow. These are the numbers of people who come to the city. In some regions, as much as forty percent of the population migrates to work.

There is a theory that, in the future, it will be megacities that compete with each other, not countries.

Russia does not have enough oomph for that. What kind of future awaits Russia? Repeating the past is Russia’s future in terms of public opinion and behavior. Look at what people say about the future: the country is going back either to Stalin or Nicholas the Second.

What about a palace coup? Russia has a rich tradition of those.

I don’t believe it.

Why not?

There are way too many competitors.

You said that the Soviet Communist Party collapsed and everything else collapsed with it. Isn’t Putin a similar force for consolidation nowadays?

Putin is not the problem. The problem, as Gleb Pavlovsky says, is transferring power while maintaining stability and territorial integrity. Some people have seemingly decided the problem can be solved by prolonging the leader’s life. Big money is currently being invested in biology and medicine. There are academicians who have long been receiving large sums of money for research on prolonging life.

Do you mean Vladimir Skulachev?

Yes.

They write that he has run into a dead end.

Practically, it is a dead end, of course, but politically the demand for his research is high.

Maybe they will go in search of the Holy Grail?

I think they have gone in every direction they could have. Where do you think their flashy religiosity comes from? What is the cause? They are hoping for a miracle. They really are praying, hoping for a miracle, because there is no rational way out of the impasse.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Yulia Tsvetkova: Blues and Pinks

“He Threatened to Kill Us for Perverting Children”
A Feminist Staged a Children’s Play. She Has Been Accused of Extremism and Interrogated by Police
Larisa Zhukova
Lenta.ru
March 15, 2019

The police department in Komsomolsk-on-Amur has been investigating the work of feminist Yulia Tsvetkova, producer of the activist comedy theater Merak. The ostensible cause of the investigation is her production of a children’s play about gender stereotypes, Blues and Pinks, which the people who denounced Tsvetkova to the police regarded as promotion of homosexual relations among minors. The suspicions of the authorities have also been piqued by the anti-militarist dance productions Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition and Prague Spring, and the VK community page Komsomolka. Lenta.ru recorded Tsvetkova’s account of why regional activists have grown accustomed to threats of real violence and how the local extremism prevention center (Center “E”) inspects children’s dances and drawings.

“Are You Against the Soviet Union?”
Everyone who has known us for a long time agrees that something completely insane has been happening. We have pupils who have been working with us for almost sixteen years, starting with my mom’s early development workshop.

Our theater is me, the actors, and my mom, our manager. We are a tiny theater company in a really small city and the only young people’s theater of its kind. We are not a classic theater company, but a horizontal (egalitarian) and activist theater. We highlight societal problems and look for ways of solving them. We established the theater a year ago. We decided to call it Merak, with the stress on the first syllable. In Serbian, mérak means a buzz, a high, life’s little pleasures.

The actors are twenty-one children aged six and up. They write poems, contribute to the scripts, build scenery, and choreograph the dance numbers. As director, I supply the overall outline, but then I leave the creativity to them. How do you feel in this scene? I ask them. What should it be like? How should the dialogue sound? What words would  you use to say that? How would you dance it? Some find it odd I deal with children as equals, but I believe it has to be this way. We use improvisation, forum theater, gags, and free dance.

Everything was fine until February, until we decided to stage four danced-based plays, which we had been rehearsing for six months. Two plays are staged one day, while the other two plays are staged the next day. We came up with the idea of calling them a festival by way of combining them. It would have been the first activist art festival in the region. A week before the first performance we got a phone call from city hall. The next day, the Youth Center, a venue we had already confirmed, told us they were booked up on the dates we needed, and there were no openings for the next six months.

The telephone conversation with city hall lasted over an our. City officials went over our poster point by point. Why was our play called Blues and Pinks? We wrote, “We can do it again”: were we against the Soviet Union or something? We were asked what we meant by the word “individual.” Obviously, there was something about what we were doing they didn’t like. We also suddenly got the cold shoulder at other venues.

pic_08ab34d1a9a5f76eb7ff4c96411bec73Detail of a poster for The Color of Saffron Festival of Activist Art. The inscription reads “We can do it again. We can ban it!” 

After the news that the festival had been shut down was published, city hall called us and said we had misunderstood them. Actually, they supported our undertaking. They invited us to a meeting at which they made it understood that if we denied the news reports, they would help us find a venue. Since I don’t like having my arm twisted, and I didn’t think I had done anything wrong by talking about the connection between their first phone call and the sudden refusals to give us a venue, I was not about to refute any of the reports. That was when they interrogated the kids.

“The Kids Are Feared like Terrible Dissidents”
To be honest, I thought we would be called on the carpet for our anti-militarist production Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. It is a translation of a song by Serj Tankian, lead singer of System of a Down. He often voices his opposition to war and the arms industry. The big dance number in the play is set to his song. It’s an urgent problem for us, because all the boys who attend our workshop, which has been functioning for over twenty years, try to smuggle in toy pistols at first. But we have a ban on weapons, even toy weapons. Why? We are trying to make sense of things. During the big dance number, one dancer acquires a “pistol.” Then another gets one, too, as a means of defense. A third dance gets hold of a machine gun, and the atmosphere heats up. It is satirical and exaggerated, of course, but it is a quite dramatic play as well.

pic_dc844038f81c1c5c70e0d764a49c0a98

Merak Theater’s poster for its four-play, two-day festival, The Color of Saffron. Originally scheduled for March 16 and 17, it was to have featured (in descending order) Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, Spring [sic], Untouchables, and Blues and Pinks

But when we came up with the play, the shooting at the college in Kerch occurred. The kids were scared: the shooting affected them greatly. We talked a lot about what they thought about the incident and how it could have been avoided. No one at school discussed the incident with the children at all, although it should be said adults generally avoid discussing really important things with teenagers. The kids came up with the play’s finale on their own: it showed how the situation could have been avoided.

Prague Spring is a production based on Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. We pay homage to Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography and Maurice Béjart’s 1955 choreography, using music by John Cage. Coincidentally, I got the idea during the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops: the two “springs” came together in my mind around the subject of human rights and resisting oppression. It’s a simple, obvious subject, but when you grow up in a small city like Komsomolsk, it can seem quite remote and forbidden. But this is just what I read into it, inner thoughts not meant for viewers. The kids simply dance spring. That’s it. Six-year-olds hop up and down and run around in circles, making up half of it as they go along.

Our fifteen-minute play Untouchables focuses on bullying at school and kindergarten. A lot of what the kids told us themselves about their own experiences went into the play. The more we talk things through, the easier it is for them to deal with them.

pic_eda40eabbbb3ba6a6ff95708693a0148Photo from the Merak Activist Comedy Theater’s page on VK 

Blues and Pinks is a play that illustrates stereotypes about girls and boys. According to the script, we run through the list of clichés: girls like pink, boys like blue; boys are messy, girls clean up after them; boy are defenders and warriors and shouldn’t cry, while girls are future mothers who dream only of getting married; girls and boys can never understand each other. This is presented on stage as a lighthearted dance. We try and show the notion that if a boy pulls your pigtail, it means he likes you is a step away from the idea that if a man beats a woman he must love her.

We continue by suggesting a solution. One of the boys dances, releasing his pent-up feelings as it were. The other boys follow his example, realizing that, whether they dance or not, it does not make any more or less guys. The girls share their dreams. One of them wants to be a businesswoman, while another wants to be a director. They recite the names of great women: the first woman to climb Everest, the first woman to win an Oscar, and so on.

Sophisticated audiences in the western half of Russia would probably find it quite naive, but in our city it is timely and relevant. For example, the other day, a local radio presenter, Tatyana Zhemerenetskaya, announced she planned to run for mayor. She was fired: her bosses were outraged by her excessively “unfeminine ambitions.” Women are supposed to stay home and make soup. In the final scene of our play, the kids say they are individuals. They have dreams and passions.

The funny thing is I didn’t even think about the connotation of the play’s title, which the police caught. One of our pupils came up with it. I have hung out with female LGBT activists, and none of them ever call themselves “blues” or “pinks.” They are just colors to me. Honestly, if I had had doubts, I would not have bothered using the words in the title.

Our actors are between six and seventeen, but the authorities fear us as if we were terrible dissidents. Miraculously, we found a woman interested in contemporary young people’s theater who was not afraid to provide us with a venue. We intend to hold the festival there as planned, on March 16 and 17. But we have nowhere to seat viewers: we cannot find people who will give us chairs. One person said yes, but later he was scared off, apparently.

“She Drew the Rainbow of Her Own Free Will”
The policewoman who came to my office could not say out loud the reason for the investigation. The complaint read that we were promoting homosexuality among minors. She showed me the complaint and blushed.

During my interrogation, I was told I was at the local department for extremism and terrorism prevention (Center “E”). Three complaints had been filed against me: for promoting homosexual relations among minors, for inciting hatred towards men, and for “extremism,” I think.

The interrogation lasted nearly four hours.

First, the officers gave me screenshots of various posts and photos from my personal social media page and the community page Dandelion Field, where I write about really simple things like contraception, HIV, and condoms, things that, unfortunately, not all teenagers know about. There was also stuff from Komsomolka, which deals with feminism. By the way, there I don’t write at all about men: it’s a community page about women.

One of the screenshots showed a workshop from last year at which a girl had drawn a picture, and there was a rainbow in her picture. I was forced to write two paragraphs explains that my underage female pupil had drawn the rainbow of her own free will. No one had pressured and coerced her to draw it.

Next, we got hung up on the phrase “gender stereotypes.” The police officer thought gender had something to do with transgenders. I explained to him what gender stereotypes were, what I meant by the term, and gave examples of stereotypes, as if I were sitting for an exam at school.

Then I was shown a screenshot of a post in which I had negatively assessed the “gay propaganda law,” and I had described the persecution of the lesbians in Chechnya and the “corrective” rapes to which they had been subjected.

The detective asked whether I engaged in propaganda. He asked was sex education was, and who needed it and why. He asked what feminism was. He asked what intersectional feminism was. Ultimately, I had to describe to him how I imagined traditional family values, what I thought about families. I wrote that I wasn’t against traditional family values like love, acceptance, and warmth. This ridiculous testimony took up four pages.

This was followed by the persecution of our children and personal attacks on them. There is no other way of putting it.

“The Police Have Come for You. Let’s Go”
The police officers running the investigation are clueless about the questions they have been asking, and this incompetence has only exacerbated the circumstances.

On March 10, they came for one of boys and one of our girls. It is not clear why they were chosen. There are seventeen teenagers in our theater, and they attend different schools. The police did not pick on our oldest and youngest pupils.

The 15-year-old girl was summoned after school from her house and grilled for two hours by five adults: two police officers and three female school employees. They put the screws on her and descended into semi-insults. They quizzed her about LGBT. Did she know what it meant? they asked. How had she found out? Was I promoting homosexuality? Did I encourage girls to sleep with girls, and boys with boys? The subjects they discussed were such that they would have earned an 18+ rating, but the interrogation took place without the girl’s parents present.

pic_7bc908930662b55a0cdbabb1976b5037Photo from the Merak Activist Comedy Theater’s page on VK 

The 13-year-old boy was kept after school. He was summoned to the headmaster’s office. “The police have come for you. Let’s go,” he was told. No one had the presence of mind to call his parents. The police officers showed him the likes I had awarded a post I no longer remembered, but they were showing this to a child! The absurdity was off the charts. They asked the boy and the girl about each other. Maybe they had picked the through the list of  numbers in their telephones.

When, the next day, they came for another of our boys, we warned him to call his parents immediately. He called his dad, who works as a beat cop, so he was not grilled for two hours, but twenty minutes, and the conversation was more polite and less biased.

Everyone is scared. Naturally, it is frightening when you’re interrogated for two hours. For now, no one wants to quit the theater, because everyone is aware of my work. They know I am opposed to violence, and I treat boys and girls equally. But, first of all, the subject itself scares the kids, because they are still kids and not tuned into all these issues. Second, they feel the pressure: they are afraid to say something wrong and inadvertently throw me under the bus.

Their parents and I have now been trying to understand the legal grounds of why we have been persecuted. We have been poring over the laws.

“Rewind to Fifty Years Ago”
Until recently, everyone really loved our theater and told us how cool we were. We did two productions wholly in English about the history of the English language, which were unprecedented in our city. At the Drama Theater, we did a dance performance about the problems of teenagers entitled Evolution. It was about how society puts pressure on carefree kids, but ultimately their friends help them and their problems are solved. This was all performed to poems written by one of the girls involved in the production. The show was a benefit for disabled children and the local organization Lighthouse of Hope. Not a bad track record for a single year!

Children grow up, and the problems they face get more complicated. First of all, they deal with domestic violence. I have had whole black months when it was one story after another, and I cried because I felt so helpless. It’s really scary: dad’s beating mom, dad’s beating me, dad’s beating my brother. Gender stereotypes are also something our kids deal with up close and personal. My fifteen-year-old female pupils are already pestered now with questions of when they are getting married and having kids, and why they should bother with careers. Homophobia is also a force. I know there are LGBT teenagers out there, and I cannot imagine how hard it is for them to cope alone. The streets in Komsomolsk are a really dangerous place, just as in most typical provincial towns, I would guess.

Komsomolsk is one half a factory town, and one half a gangster town. When you hear about us, rewind to fifty years ago. It is not the twenty-first century here, but the twentieth century. I think what really spooked the police was that I had been talking about activism and feminism. These words scare people.

Our local feminist community consists of two volunteers and me. I have an audience of a thousand some subscribers on our community page, but between two and twenty people in Komsomolsk itself. That is the number of people who come to our events. Unfortunately, that is our audience for the time being. It is a infantile scale.

But there have always been plenty of haters. When I decided to do a lecture on abuse, there were threats: we will come and show you what real violence is like, I was warned. Instead, a group of women showed up who sabotaged the lecture by insisting victims had only themselves to blame or something of the sort.

Even our women’s tea party was disrupted. We wanted to make it women-only, without men, so we could talk about our problems. Men wrote to us that they would come and show us what feminism was. There were so many threats that even the young women themselves got scared, along with the venue where we had scheduled the tea party. They asked us not to come.

I have stopped responding to death threats. Now, as we have been chatting, I have received three messages from a young man. The only word in the messages you can print is the word “you.” Yesterday, a man wrote on the community page of our theater workshop threatening to kill us for “perverting children.” This the general background.

After I was interrogated for four hours by the police about feminism and sex education, I felt I had a claim to the hashtag #FeminismIsNotExtremism. Six months ago, I would insert in posts in connection with the case of Lyubov Kalugina, when I was not even remotely in harm’s way. It is one thing to read about persecuted activists, but it is another thing to become one of them. People keep asking why I do it. What is the point?  My run-in with the police makes me think hard about the kind of country we live in. But I can name at least twenty-one people for whom what I do is not pointless. I can name even more people, actually.

pic_55145f4a6ff0238f1689b54bfaa9dccbPhoto from the Merak Activist Comedy Theater’s page on VK 

What scares me most is the kids think they did something wrong. I ask them, You believe in what we do? Yes, they reply. Do you see anything bad about it? No, they answer. But the whole situation puts them under psychological pressure. It is a really terrible precedent, because the kids have been rapped on the knuckles as it were. They really work their butts off staging our plays. They invest a tremendous amount of energy in them. They are sincerely looking for ways to change the world for the better. These kids are really delicate and sensitive, and they are close to each other as group. They volunteer their time, they visit orphanages, they support other social projects. They are totally maxed out: they try and get straight A’s at school, and they are involved in academic competitions. In the midst of all their activities, they manage to come to four-hour-long, physically draining rehearsals.

But then adults tell them activism is bad, activism is evil, without even fully understand what activism is. And when these adults show up a week before our festival and tell us to get lost, both the kids and I are stressed out. They are really worried.

I have not slept or eaten for three days. I am on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I have been summoned again to the extremism prevention department. The phone is tapped, and calls with my lawyer are cut off. But I dream of opening a women’s crisis center in our city and an alternative independent school where the children would be not be bullied and hounded, and continuing to move the theater forward. In late spring, we are doing a production based on Svetlana Alexievich’s book Last Witnesses, about children during the Second World War, and in the summer we are staging a new English-language production.

Thanks to Darya Apahonchich for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader.

UPDATE. DVHab.ru reports that, despite the fact the local authorities ostensibly canceled Merak Theater’s Color of Saffron Festival, the festival went ahead way anyway at “closed” venues. DVHab.ru included a full video of Merak’s performance of Blues and Pinks in its article. I have reproduced it below.