We All Live in a Yellow Submarine

ys_02The Yellow Submarine’s log book. Image courtesy of Felix and Marina Vinogradov 

We All Live in a Yellow Submarine
Ekaterina Nezvankina
Islands of Freedom (Iofe Center)

Bearing the proud name Yellow Submarine, the commune at 28 Primorsky Prospect [in Leningrad] arose in August 1977 and lasted for just one year. Its organizers were university classmates Alexander Skobov and Felix Vinogradov, who had dreamed about a place where everyone could experience personal freedom, where everyone could distance themselves from the current regime and express themselves freely.

The history of the commune’s emergence as a nonconformist association and, simultaneously, a haven for free thinkers originates in western culture. However, as Skobov notes, there were no concrete prototypes, meaning that its inner workings were shaped by the intuition of the people involved in it.

And so, a commune. What the heck is that, and what has brought us here? For nearly a year, several of us had been building magnificent castles in the air, which unexpectedly acquired an extremely firm earthly foundation. First and foremost, who are We? Let’s identify ourselves in full: students Marina Nikitina (Vinogradova), Felix Vinogradov, Tatiana Komarova, Alexander Skobov, Igor Malsky, Andrei Antonenko, and Alexander Volkov (aka Lupus). [From the commune’s log book]

The commune was located in a private, two-story wooden house (something rare for Leningrad) on Primorsky Prospect that Felix and Marina Vinogradov had rented not long before their son was born. The first people to join them in the commune were Skobov’s university crowd and several acquaintances from their school days. Later, Andrei Reznikov, one of the founders of the so-called Leningrad School, and Alexei Khavin, who was involved in creating the dissident magazine Perspektiva, joined the commune. Then the commune gradually became a refuge for Leningrad hippies and various acquaintances who were looking for temporary housing or simply а “crash pad.”

1009_crAlexander Skobov and Felix Vinogradov outside the Leningrad University history department, circa 1976–1977. Photo courtesy of the Iofe Foundation

One of the motives for founding an “island of liberty” like the commune on Primorsky was the desire to live an independent life and leave home.

“It was a way of dropping out of society,” Skobov said in a 1991 interview.

The commune was created not simply as vehicle for internal emigration and distancing from Soviet reality, but also as an alternative cultural and ideological space based on establishing certain shared values of freedom and mocking certain existing official norms. This was expressed even in the commune’s interior decor, including yellow walls with wild strawberries drawn on them and homemade ironic posters that played off Soviet and western symbols. The parodic decrees and decisions issued by the Yellow Submarine and its separate “holds,” as well as poems and songs that turned propagandistic clichés inside out, were an ironic response to the meaningless words of the official Soviet discourse. One inhabitant of the commune on Primorsky, Igor Malsky, even claimed that the communards collectively invented the folklore genre “sadistic verse.” The peak of the commune’s creative powers is considered the “rock poem” “Lazha” (“Crap”), among whose characters one can recognize the residents of the Yellow Submarine.

ys_10Felix Vinogradov, Seal of the Yellow Submarine commune, 1977. Image courtesy of Felix and Maria Vinogradov

In an interview with us, Skobov said that his idea, subsequently, of engaging in political activity, printing flyers, etc., came to him while living in the commune. Many participants named as their motive for moving into the commune the “total crap,” i.e., the lies that surrounded the celebrations of the October Revolution’s sixtieth anniversary and the adoption of the new Soviet constitution [in 1977]. As for revolutionary sentiments, Skobov said that those went no further than kitchen table conversations “berating the authorities.”

Daily life in the commune took shape as in a large family: arguments periodically arose among its inhabitants. The commune was supported by various means, but everyone tried to contribute in accordance with the main rule, “a little bit from everyone each day”: one person received a university stipend, another was working, while a third person “dragged it out of  their parents.” The refuge itself was a two-story wooden house whose first floor belonged to the “dissidents,” and the second to the “hippies.”

“Two rooms, two kitchens, a wooden staircase. All of it was quite exotic, except for the fact that the decor was even more exotic,” Skobov said when describing the interior. The commune residents took care of decorating and the “cozy touches” themselves.

We can divide the commune into two ideological centers: those who took part in publishing Perspektiva magazine (which was originally Skobov’s initiative), and those who were “Soviet hippies.” For example, Felix Vinogradov, one of the commune’s founders, was interested exclusively in the cultural aspect of the process—art, music, lifestyle, and language. All of it was inspired by western ideas of nonconformism, hence his choice of name for the commune.  His opposite number was Alexei Khavin, another striking member of the Primorsky scene. He was actively involved in the protest movement: he typed up leaflets on a typewriter in the commune and wrote articles criticizing the government for Perspektiva. Khavin was eager to go beyond kitchen conversations and do something more concrete.

The confrontation between the inhabitants of the first and second floors of the commune—the more bourgeois “upper level” and the anarchic “lower level”—at times began to resemble the intensity of a cold civil war, complete with mutual insults, reproaches, and accusations. [Andrei Antonenko and Felix Vinogradov, press release for the exhibition The Yellow Submarine Commune, 1977–2007]

This internal division could not but determine the community’s fate. Felix Vinogradov was the first to leave the house on Primorsky, followed by almost all the hippies.

The KGB took an interest in our magazine: its destruction was imminent, and our commune was threatened along with it. They didn’t nab us at the house itself. The thing was that its residents felt that something was brewing and departed to their own homes. My friend from the university, an idealistic hippie, rented apartments for the commune with me, and his father was a colonel in the Border Guards, and they were under the KGB. He worked in [the KGB’s famous local headquarters] on Liteiny Prospect. It was then a rather widespread phenomenon, not only here but also in Europe: the children of wealthy parents and security forces officers turned into hippies. And so this hippie’s dad pulled up to the house in a small truck filled with soldiers. They loaded up his things and drove him and his wife away. The others understood what was going on, and they left too. [Alexander Skobov, “Our Oppositional Communism Was an Oddity”]

ys_15Alexander Skobov, Tatiana Komarova, and Felix Vinogradov, 1977. Photo courtesy of Felix and Marina Vinogradov

The only residents remaining were those who were primarily interested in publishing Perspektiva and were organizing a meeting of opposition groups, which the New Left group planned to hold on the Karelian Isthmus. But because information about the upcoming meeting was leaked to the KGB, the group’s members were also forced to urgently remove everything from the commune having to do with their political activities. Alexander Skobov and Arkady Tsurkov were soon arrested, and the apartments of other members of the New Left group were searched, while the house on Primorsky Prospect was completely abandoned. After the dissidents left their Yellow Submarine, the house was razed, and no photos of it remain. But the phenomenon of the Yellow Submarine commune itself is one of the most striking examples of the “islands of freedom” adrift in the space of Soviet Leningrad.

Further Reading
Interview with Alexander Skobov, recorded at Memorial Research and Information Centre, 1991. Iofe Foundation Electronic Archive

Juliane Fürst, “We All Live in a Yellow Submarine: Life in a Leningrad Commune,” in Juliane Fürst and Josie McLellan, eds., Dropping Out of Socialism: Alternative Spheres in the Soviet Bloc (New York, 2016), 179–207

Alexei Sochnev, “Our Oppositional Communism Was an Oddity,” Russkaya Planeta, March 19, 2014 [Interview with Alexander Skobov]

A.F. Belousov, “Igor Malsky’s Memoir ‘The Crooked Mirror of Reality’: On the Origin of Sadistic Verse,” Lotman Anthology, vol. 1 (Moscow, 1995), pp. 681–690

Thanks to Jenya Kulakova for the heads-up. Translated by Mary Rees

 

Operation Pigsty (“Condoning Terrorism”)

merkulov-pezhichAlexander Merkulov (aka Aleksandr Peĵiĉ), pictured here, is the sixteenth person in Russia to face prosecution for “condoning terrorism”—that is, for publicly mentioning in print (virtual or otherwise) Mikhail Zhlobitsky’s alleged suicide bombing of the FSB’s Arkhangelsk offices on October 31, 2018, and trying to understand his motives. Photo from Merkulov’s VK page courtesy of Elena Popova

Elena Popova
Facebook
July 9, 2020

We had only just sighed in relief that Svetlana Prokopyeva had not been sentenced to six years in prison, but had been fined simply for trying to talk about the need to deal with the reasons that push people toward terrorism, when suddenly there is a report of a new criminal case on charges of “condoning terrorism.”

Aleksandr Peĵiĉ is opposed to [compulsory] military service and violence.

I know him online, I saw him once offline.

I’m very worried about him. I wish him strength, health, and a speedy release.

“Condoning terrorism” doesn’t mean publishing a little post on Vkontakte about the bombing at the FSB building in Arkhangelsk.

“Condoning terrorism” is when investigators refuse to open criminal investigations into allegations of torture, when judges ignore testimony by defendants that they have been tortured. The FSB is the main terrorist.

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Petersburger Charged with “Condoning Terrorism” over Vkontakte Posts on Bombing of Arkhangelsk FSB Directorate 
Mediazona
July 8, 2020

According to the Russian Investigative Committee’s website, charges have been filed against a 23-year-old Petersburg man under Article 205.2.2 of the criminal code (“condoning terrorism”) over posts on VKontakte about the bombing in the reception area of the FSB’s Arkangelsk Directorate [on October 31, 2018].

According to investigators, from November 2018 to October 2019, the Petersburg man published posts about the bombing on VKontakte that “acknowledged the ideology and practice of terrorism as correct and warranting support and emulation, with the aim of encouraging others to carry out terrorist acts.”

According to Interfax, the man in question is Alexander Merkulov, who works as a food delivery person for a Petersburg restaurant. Investigators say that Merkulov was registered on VKontakte under the nickname Aleksandr Peĵiĉ. Fontanka.ru has identified Merkulov as a member of the LGBT movement and moderator of a social media community page devoted to Eurovision contestant Bilal Hassani.

The Petersburg court system’s press service told Fontanka.ru that the October District Court had remanded Merkulov in custody until September 5. Allegedly, he has fully admitted his guilt.

A bombing occurred at the Arkhangelsk Regional Directorate of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) [on October 31, 2018]. The bomb was, allegedly, detonated by 17-year-old anarchist Mikhail Zhlobitsky. In the wake of the incident, people around Russia have been criminally charged with “condoning terrorism” for making statements about Zhlobitsky.

Alexander Merkulov is the sixteenth person in Russia who has been prosecuted for, charged with, or accused of “exonerating” or “condoning” the alleged suicide bombing in the FSB’s Arkhangelsk offices by Mikhail Zhlobitsky on October 31, 2018. The others are Alexei Shibanov, Nadezhda BelovaLyudmila StechOleg NemtsevIvan LyubshinSvetlana ProkopyevaAnton AmmosovPavel ZlomnovNadezhda RomasenkoAlexander DovydenkoGalina GorinaAlexander SokolovYekaterina Muranova15-year-old Moscow schoolboy Kirill, and Vyacheslav Lukichev. Thanks to Yana Teplitskaya for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Operation “Pigsty”
Alexander Skobov
Grani.ru
July 6, 2020

Svetlana Prokopyeva did not even remotely “condone terrorism.” She merely tried to draw attention to its causes. I condone terrorism and, in some cases, I even approve of it. I condone the terrorism of the People’s Will. I approve of the terrorism of the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs). I approve of the murder by Yegor Dulebov, a member of the SR’s Combat Organization, of Ufa governor-general Nikolai Bogdanovich, who had ordered soldiers to fire on workers protesting outside the home of a mining chief. (The so-called Zlatoust Massacre of 1903 left 69 people dead and 250 wounded.) I approve of the murder of Tambov provincial councillor Gavriil Luzhenovsky, who had distinguished himself in his crackdowns against revolutionary demonstrations, by Maria Spiridonova, future leader of the Left SRs.

The word “terrorism” refers to two very different concepts. One meaning is a politically motivated armed attack by people who are not representatives of the official state power on representatives of the official state power. In this sense, all partisans, insurgents, or mutineers (choose the word you like depending on your degree of sympathy for them) who are engaged in armed struggle with the government are “terrorists.” It is in this sense that the word “terrorists” is used by all governments facing armed resistance. For them, all insurgents are terrorists.

Another meaning of the word “terrorism” is a politically motivated attack by any group of armed people on any group of unarmed people. In this sense, the Russian National Guard troops who disperse a peaceful rally are just as much terrorists as a person who blows up subway passengers. This is not to mention the Russian occupation forces who bombed and shelled Chechen cities and the columns of refugees escaping them. They are the real terrorists. This is terrorism in the bad sense of the word. Terrorism in this sense cannot be condoned. Terrorism in the first sense of the word can be condoned and even approved.

On August 22, 1978, a group of Sandinista guerrillas fighting the hereditary dictatorship of the Somoza clan took the dictator’s entire puppet “congress” hostage. Somoza had turned the “congress” into a sinecure for relatives and friends. Somoza was forced to back down. The Sandinista manifesto was read on the radio, and around a hundred guerrillas and political prisoners were released from prison. Well, and if we’re being honest, the “terrorists” were also given a little money on top for their muskets, which cost money, too. The guerrillas were provided transport to the airport. On the way, their convoy was greeted by enthusiastic crowds.

The whole thing was called Operation “Pigsty.” It was organized and led by Edén Pastora, whose subsequent career was a topsy-turvy affair. After Somoza was defeated, Pastora opposed his own recent comrades-in-arms when he saw signs that tyranny was re-emerging in Nicaragua. Then he made up with them, after which he fell out with them again and (again) reconciled with them.

Pastora was drawn, of course, to the comrades of his youth. But as an old man he sold out completely. In 2018, he supported violent crackdowns on mass protests against pension reforms. (Yes, there were “pension reforms” in Nicaragua, too!) Pastora organized squads of titushky. It was a sad ending to the guerrilla commander’s long life. But he will still go down in history as the organizer and leader of Operation “Pigsty.”

I condone, and sometimes approve of, terrorism. If the beings who cynically and viciously fabricated the case of Svetlana Prokopyeva turned into victims, I would feel no sympathy for them. I regret that Russia does not have its own Eden Pastora, someone who could carry out, say, Operation “Tereshkovnik” surgically and bloodlessly, even if he sold out later. So, to be clear: this text of mine amounts to “condoning terrorism,” not what Prokopyeva said. Feel the difference.

Blessed are those who take up arms against tyranny. And no criminal laws can prohibit people from expressing sympathy with them. The ancient Athenians revered the tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton as national heroes, and composed poems about them. They were the first mortals to be honored with (paired) bronze statues on the Acropolis. In a Russia liberated from Putin’s evil spirits, there will be a monument to Mikhail Zhlobitsky, who blew himself up at the FSB’s Arkhangelsk headquarters. There will also be a monument to Khava Barayeva, who blew herself up along with Russian occupiers. The monument will be erected in Moscow.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Alexander Skobov: The Myth of “Good” Liberals in Power

toppala

Alexander Skobov
Facebook
August 18, 2019

I have to reiterate my fundamental disagreement with mainstream liberal political analysts. Stated briefly, their big idea is that the Russian political elite consists of two parties, so-called civic liberals, who support bourgeois modernization, and the security forces, who support the restoration of the Soviet Union in both its manifestations—as a totalitarian political regime and as an economy totally subordinated to the state. All recent events are thus interpreted in the light of the alleged struggle between the two parties, i.e., the party of the security forces has gone on a decisive offensive.

This is a liberal myth. The Russian liberal crowd, who are mainly right-wing liberals, concocted the story that increasing crackdowns and the Putin mafia state’s transition from a soft-core authoritarian imitation democracy to a hard-core authoritarian regime has been opposed by a party of court (systemic) liberals, a party informally led by former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin.

Can anyone produce even a single bit of evidence corroborating the so-called Kudrin party’s opposition to the policy of increasing crackdowns? Right-wing liberals would tell me the Kudrinistas are forced to act out of the public eye and play by the rules governing infighting among courtiers (apparatchiks). The fact this infighting has no outward manifestations is no proof that there is no showdown between the two parties, they would argue.

Let’s assume this is true. Where, however, did Russia liberals get the idea there is even one cause for such a showdown? Kudrin and other systemic right-wing liberals have always advocated an authoritarian modernization in which a “progressive” elite imposes unpopular social and economic reforms on the unwashed masses with an iron hand. By and large, their ideal is shared by the so-called Russian fascists, i.e., the “patriots” and statists. The occupation regime running mainland China carried out the very same economic reforms after crushing dissenters on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Has Mr. Kudrin ever said publicly that he is a principled opponent of such methods of strangling the opposition? He has not. Then why have Russian liberals decided he opposes the mass detention of peaceful citizens for protesting in public at certain times?

Liberals should stop imagining they have intercessors in the top ranks of the Putin organized crime group. There are no such intercessors.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader

When the Masks Come Off

800px-Red_Guards

Alexander Skobov
Don’t Underestimate the Enemy
Grani.ru
May 14, 2015

Igor Yakovenko has questioned the sanity of those MPs who supported Red Guardist Irina Yarovaya’s latest amendments to the anti-extremism laws. At issue is a ban on travel abroad for people whom the FSB has issued a warning about the inadmissibility of activities that, in the FSB’s opinion, are potentially fraught with terrorism, war, and genocide. Under the current rules for issuing warnings, no formal grounds are needed except the opinion of the agency issuing the warning. Meaning that if it wishes, the FSB can crank out warnings to anyone whose activities the authorities simply do not countenance.

Yakovenko asks, why not let the undesirables leave the country if you cannot stand them? Let them leave and thus reduce the ranks of the so-called fifth column. These measures will not stop an increase in protests, and if protests do kick off, they will only add fuel to the fire. Yakovenko’s conclusion is that the folks on the other side of politics are completely off their rockers. But I would not underestimate the enemy’s intellectual capacities. Yes, they suffer from an acute totalitarian itch to ban and restrict. But they know what they are doing.

In my opinion, Yarovaya’s notorious amendment to ban travel for “warnees” is absolutely rational and quite precisely calculated. It is targeted at the segment of Russian society that,  according to Yakovenko himself, suffers from pathological anemia and dystrophia of the will. These are successful and well-off people who still believe that if they have done nothing unauthorized, they will get off scot-free for their not entirely loyalist public activism. They have become accustomed to the fact that one can be involved in not entirely loyalist but quite respectable and moderate media, cultural, and human rights projects without especially risking one’s own comfort. Our stunted civil society largely rests on such lovers of performing  “small deeds” in their spare time.

And now take a guess at what percentage of these outstanding people would be willing to sacrifice travel abroad for the sake of continuing their outstanding social activism, who would be willing to sacrifice the principal attribute of the post-Soviet lifestyle, without which life would be unthinkable? Anyone like Yarovaya would realize that the majority of them will choose either to give up their activism or leave the country before receiving a warning. To predict these people’s future behavior it suffices to recall Ksenia Sobchak’s recent philosophical musings about the lives of frogs.

And where will all these popular newsmakers find themselves if they are banned from leaving the country for the piquant statements they occasionally permit themselves in public? This is not to mention the fact that many civic initiatives will simply be paralyzed if the people involved in them cannot take numerous business trips and attend various international clambakes.  The current regime is quite consistently pushing for the complete suffocation of not only the independent but even the semi-independent civic organizations that have managed to stay afloat. The period when Putin’s clique had a stake in maintaining a legal oppositional ghetto on the margins of public life, thus imparting a certain seemliness to its own image, has come to an end. In recent years, this image has become so disfigured the Kremlin has lost interest in touching it up. It has realized it no longer has anything to lose.

And so there will no longer be any legal bounds vouchsafing the opposition from crackdowns. Any public organization that violates the informal ban on discussing issues the regime finds touchy will be crushed. All the Kremlin’s recent significant steps, beginning with Moskalkova’s appointment and ending with the latest round of purges of semi-independent media, have been focused on this. In this long series of steps, however, the ability to ban any undesirable from traveling abroad is a symbolic step. It finally undermines the social milieu whose entire life strategy was built on the proposition that however disgusting Putinist authoritarianism was, it was better than Soviet totalitarianism because the freedom to travel abroad existed. That meant one could live with it, adapt to it, and come to terms with it. By obeying certain rules imposed by the regime, one could maintain a minimal amount of freedom.

This slightly dissatisfied milieu has become used to living high on the hog. Our consumptive civil society must come to its natural biological end. It must be replaced by professional revolutionaries who will have no such problems since their activism conforms with the law as interpreted by people who have arrogated to themselves the exclusive right to interpret it. For them, Yarovaya’s fascist laws will be neither more nor less than a profound insult to their moral sensibilities.

Alexander Skobov, a left-liberal writer and activist, is a former Soviet dissident and a political prisoner. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade AM for the heads-up. Image courtesy of Wikipedia