Five Petersburgers on February 24th

There are many women from Ukraine working in Israel, women who were forced to come here to work because of the complete devastation wrought by the war. They are employed in cleaning and in caring for the elderly and children. Nathan’s nanny, Vika, has been here for about five years. She hasn’t seen her own children and mother during this entire time. At first she worked as a cleaner, then, perhaps due to constant contact with toxic cleaning substances, she got sick with blood cancer. She was given medical care at one time, but then she was turned down on an extension of her insurance. Vika’s only chance to survive is a bone marrow transplant operation that costs 285 thousand dollars. As a non-citizen of Israel, she will not receive free medical care here. Vika is only a few years older than me. She has nowhere to go back to go for treatment. (Although, even if she did, they wouldn’t treat it for free either.) This morning I heard another woman, Mila, already middle-aged, weeping and telling her family, “It would be better if I were with you.” I have no emotional strength left for righteous indignation, karma-cleansing public shame, and slogans. I have only a huge desire for Vika to survive and be able to hug her children, and for Mila not to weep in horror for her family.

Source: Olga Jitlina, Facebook, 24 February 2022. Ms. Jitlina lives in Jaffa. Translated by the Russian Reader

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There were very few people [at the protest in downtown Moscow], alas. Thank you to everyone who came, and [I wish] a speedy release to everyone who is in the paddy wagons. But how [only] a thousand people can come to a rally in Moscow against the terrible criminal war unleashed by our country, I do not understand. I don’t blame anyone, I understand that it’s scary, but we cannot manage to do anything, alas. It’s very hard to bear. NO TO THE CRIMINAL WAR WITH UKRAINE!

Source: Alexander Feldberg, Facebook, 24 February 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Today is my birthday. I am 43. I was born in 1979, in Leningrad, in a Jewish family. I grew up very sheltered and very afraid. My grandfather, a survivor of a German POW camp, who managed to escape arrest and prosecution in the USSR, taught me to behave “lower than grass, quieter than water,” showing total submission toward any and all authority figures. At my school, my brother’s teacher tore an earring out of a girl’s ear, tore it “with meat,” right through the earlobe, because of some Soviet prejudice against earrings. That teacher remained a teacher in the school. Two other teachers in two different schools I went to had been known sexual predators who went after boys. One of them was eventually pushed out of teaching, but the other remained. I don’t even mention the daily groping on the bus and subway, on my way to school, that violence seemed so every day that it still feels pointless to speak up about.

At 16, when I had to get my first passport, my family insisted that I try facing the authorities on my own. I tried and got a run-around and received a set of impossible instructions and returned home in tears and full of hatred for all the stone-faced people who refused to help with such an everyday task. (I hadn’t read Kafka by then yet, but when I did, I knew what he was writing about.) The next day, my grandmother came to the passport office with me. She fixed the problem as she always did, by begging and pleading — I’m old and my granddaughter is young and stupid, could you please help us — the skill she had that always horrified me. I refused to imagine how she had come by it. I resisted learning to beg, and I resisted fear, too, but fear was the air I breathed. I left Russia at the earliest opportunity, and in my subsequent visits there, considered: Could I live here now? Could I feel free and unafraid? There were years when I imagined I could.

Today, like so many people I’m watching Russia invade Ukraine, and first and foremost I am afraid. I’m afraid for what might happen to the people of Ukraine, of what Russia might do. But I’m also so proud and so happy to see that so many others, people made differently than me, aren’t afraid, and that so many others are able to put aside their fear to fight. I know many Ukrainians are asking why not more Russians come out on the streets of their cities to protest the war. They are right to ask the question. And, given what’s happening in Ukraine right now, fear is a bad answer. In my experience, however, fear is a very real, all-encompassing and paralyzing feeling. My heart is tightening with it so many thousands of miles away, writing this. And yet again, I see others pushing through their fear and come out on the streets of Russian cities despite the very real threat of arrests. And I see people of Ukraine resisting and the world hopefully waking up and coming together to act against the aggressor. The bully relies on and feeds on our fear. This is also real.

One other thing I’ve noticed. Fear masks itself as so many other things. Anger. Hatred. Cynicism. “This isn’t about me.” “Why rock the boat?” “Why should I get involved?” “I shouldn’t do anything that might hurt my family.” I find my mind going through these motions. My mind isn’t comfortable with fear and tries to bury the feeling inside the ever-longer logical chains. And I, among many of us, who grew up in Russia, am badly trained to unpack these logical threads and to face the fear. It’s ok to be afraid. It’s not ok to attack another country.

Source: Olga Zilberbourg, Facebook, 24 February 2022. Ms. Zilberbourg is the San Francisco-based author of the highly acclaimed Like Water and Other Stories and co-editor of Punctured Lines, a feminist blog about literature from the former Soviet Union.

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“Putin is a war criminal.”

Source: Natalia Vvedenskaya, Facebook, 24 February 2022. Natalia Vvedenskaya is a Petersburg grassroots activist who, among other things, teaches Russian to immigrant children at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center.

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Dear everyone,
[S]hocked as we all are by the nightmare of the news today, whatever you say and whatever your opinions might be on who is to blame and what must be done, please just remember that within Russia there are very different people, with different views — not everyone is supporting the war or the government (in my feed not a single person is, as far as I can see, but that is, sadly, not a universal picture). In my city, St. Petersburg, today over a thousand people came to Nevsky prospect to protest against the war, in spite of the danger. They are in danger because the political regime in Russia is as intolerant to its opponents as it has been over the past decade, maybe more so. Many were detained, which will inevitably mean prosecution — almost certainly fines and possibly arrests, not to mention the following risk of being fired from work. I understand that in other cities, in Ukraine, people are facing a much more immediate danger of being bombed, but believe me, it is also scary to go to a street with a placard “No to war” when you might end up in prison for that. Screenshot is from a video by Fontanka, a local newspaper.

Source: Maria Guleva, Facebook, 24 February 2022. Ms. Guleva studies at Charles University in Prague.

Syrias

Here are four very different but complementary reflections on the dangers of Putin’s new Syrian adventure by, respectively, an electrician and veteran grassroots activist, a sociologist, a magazine editor, and a political scientist and leftist activist.

A video released on YouTube claimed to show Russian air raids targeting the ruins of al-Rabiyah and Shinsharah near Kafranbel
A video released on YouTube claimed to show Russian air raids targeting the ruins of al-Rabiyah and Shinsharah near Kafranbel

George Losev
October 1, 2015
Facebook

Russia pacified the North Caucasus just as the US pacified Afghanistan. The Taliban have disappeared from the news but not from life.

The US has started many wars, and the Russian Federation has already started two. The US has got into conflicts in the Middle East primarily for domestic political reasons, and the Russian Federation has done the exact same thing.

The US lies constantly, and the Russian Federation does, too. (As do the EU, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and everybody else.)

But is there even a single reason to support the dispatch of Russian forces to Syria? There are no such reasons, just as there were no reasons to support the NATO bombing of Libya or the [US/UK] bombing of Iraq.

And now, as in the case of the war in Ukraine, just watch carefully and take note of what you see.

P.S. That is, while there is no chance to do anything more substantial.

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Greg Yudin
October 1, 2015
Facebook

You would have to be Putin, of course, to support Assad by way of restoring order.

Assad is a man who, in the past four years, has:

  • let slip an armed grassroots uprising;
  • permitted a civil war with hundreds of thousands of victims;
  • used chemical weapons against his own citizens;
  • allowed the full-scale deployment of an international terrorist group;
  • and lost control of two-thirds of his country.

And this man, of course, is the man who will pacify all of Syria and calm everyone down.

It has often been said of Putin that he takes a cynical (i.e., “realistic”) approach to foreign policy. It is nothing like this. In the case of Syria, it is Obama, who says we should get together and appoint them a leader who can restore order, who has taken the cynical approach.

The approach of Putin and his elite, however, is not cynical but stupid. The point of this approach is that you should always support the current regime. Simply put, the boss is always right just because he is the boss. They arrived at this hard-won conviction through their own uncomplaining obedience. This belief is the basis of their power and their philosophy in life. For its sake they are even willing to entangle themselves in an international conflict.

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Alexander Feldberg
October 1, 2015
Facebook

Until today, this business with Syria seemed strange to me in the sense that it would not be easy to sweep the Russian people off its feet with it. I understand about small victorious wars, but I imagined that this was not like Ukraine, which is next door, or Hungarian geese, which we could even fondle with our own hands until recently. And then, we are talking about a country that has lived through a war in Afghanistan, despite the incomparable scale of the conflicts and so on. But this morning I was riding the subway and saw this guy, an ordinary guy in his forties with a decent face, even, a guy who looked a little like actor Yevgeny Mironov. This guy was riding the subway and looking at something on his telephone. He was not just looking but literally devouring the phone with his eyes and putting it next to his ear from time to time to make out the sound over the roar of the subway. (For some reason he was not using earphones.) I peeped a little and saw that Sergei Ivanov was on the screen of the dude’s phone. This was when I got curious and a bit anxious, because, on the one hand, it is hard to imagine a situation in which a normal person would get so excited by a speech by Sergei Ivanov. On the other hand, in the morning I had heard on the radio about the Federation Council, which Putin had again asked for authorization, just like that other time, and that had made me a little queasy. So I broke down and gently asked the man what was happening.

yevgeny mironov
Russian actor Yevgeny Mironov

“Sy-ri-a!” he mouthed to me, clearly afraid to miss something important in the broadcast.

Then he briefly turned to me again and sighed, “We are going to bomb!”

He said it as if a weight had finally been lifted from his shoulders, as if the going had been tough, but now, thank God, it had been decided.

And at that moment I had the terrible desire not to be here, to disappear somewhere completely. I realize this was cowardice, a momentary weakness, but I felt it all the same. And I also remember a conversation I had with Bob when we were sailing down the Irrawaddy River, and thought that perhaps he had been right: “You may hate him, but you cannot get rid of him.” I don’t want to be responsible for these motherfuckers. I don’t want to think constantly about whom else they have taken it into their heads to crush or bomb. Let them build underwater chapels for scuba divers and invisible bus stops, but please, please, don’t let them bomb anyone.

invisible bus stop
Officials opening an “invisible” bus stop in the village of Körtkerös, Komi Republic, on September 22

Bob
Bob, an Australian who looked like a gray-haired Homer Simpson, spoke intermittently and passionately, now and then dipping his elongated head into his third glass of claret.

“Very well, I know you Russians have it hard. You always have someone to answer for, either Putin or Stalin. ‘He’s Russian? Very well, let’s ask him about Putin.’ It’s the same crap with the Americans. At the drop of a hat they get told, ‘It’s all because you made a mess of things in Iraq, fellows!” You guys are constantly confused with someone else, with some big, important motherfucker. We have it much easier in this sense. ‘Australia? Isn’t that the place where there are kangaroos ?’ We are just Aussies, you know, Alex? I travel where I wish, live where I can earn money, and nobody is going to torment me with your Putin.”

“I already told you,” I replied, “I don’t like Putin.”

“Bingo!” Bob roused himself. “You may hate him, but you cannot get rid of him. Although I know that things are even more complicated in Russia. You Russians hate yourselves most of all.”

Then, in keeping with the conventions of bad movies, Bob laughed heartily and, winking conspiratorially, said, “I’ve read Tolstoyevsky!”

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Ilya Matveev
October 1, 2015
Facebook

If I were in Putin’s shoes I would think hard about the following paradox. Of course, you can accuse America of “destroying sovereignty” everywhere from Libya to Ukraine all the time. But America cannot just up and destroy sovereignty. It can encourage the opposition. It can even drop bombs. But it is not capable of just up and destroying state institutions themselves. The problem is that wherever a state has collapsed, it had already been weak. And a state’s weakness lies in the absence of its autonomy vis-à-vis narrow group interests, be they elite clans, oligarchs, tribes, and so on. A weak state is also labeled “patrimonial,” meaning it has been “privatized” by particular interests. This weak state syndrome was typical of absolutely all the countries Putin thinks the State Department got to. The paradox is that the Russian state, the Putinist state, is weak. It has low autonomy vis-à-vis elite groupings, and its formal institutions are window dressing for backroom deals. The more Putin “immunizes” the state from the opposition, the “fifth column,” and so, the more he strengthens precisely these same elite groups, all those Sechins and other “friends of the president,” who have an interest in weak institutions. Thus, everything Putin does only weakens the state. The easiest way to illustrate all this is with the dilemma of his successor. Putin has built a state in which no one knows what will happen after Putin, including himself. Ukraine-scale chaos is quite possible at the very least; Libya-scale chaos, at the very most. But unlike Libya and even Ukraine, Putin will only have himself to blame for this. After fifteen years, there is nothing left of the government, the parliament or the courts. All that remains are Putin’s “friends” and his “manual control.” It is a sure bet that the State Department and American imperialism are not to blame for this. In this case, it is homemade.

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My thanks to George Losev, Greg Yudin, Alexander Feldberg, and Ilya Matveev for their permission to translate and publish their remarks here. Click on the links, above, to read their previous contributions to this blog. Images courtesy of the Telegraph/YouTube, Tochka.net, and Zvezdakomi.ru