Remember the golden days when you could walk into any courtyard in central Petersburg and get a taste of the city’s flip side, or simply shorten your way from one alley to another by taking the backstreets? Yes, you would find yourself in the midst of unsightly façades, graffitti, and smells. But these things have not gone away, while navigating the city on foot has been made more complicated by endless gates and intercoms.
After the terrorist siege of the school in Beslan, large numbers of educational institutions suddenly fenced off their grounds, as if the cause of the tragedy had been the absence of a fence. Consequently, the numerous footpaths in the bedroom communities which ordinary folk had used for decades to shorten their way from subway to home, for example, vanished.
It was not only schools that hid themselves behind bars. Nearly all state institutions did the same thing. The Russian National Library is a vivid example of this. Its old building on Moscow Avenue can be freely approached, while its new building on Warsaw Street is protected by a metal fence that cuts off the library’s paved footpaths. I would urge the library’s director, Alexander Vershinin, to remove the fence. No one is planning to steal your books. It’s stupid.
Russian National Library building on Warsaw Street in Petersburg. Photo by Dmitry Ratnikov. Courtesy of Kanoner
Fenced lawns have been proliferating at an incredible rate in the yards and on the streets. The lawns are not protected from wayward drivers, but from planned footpaths. People find it convenient to walk directly from a traffic light to a store, but thanks to thoughtless officials, they have all instantly become potential lawbreakers, because planners designed a path with a ninety-degree angle.
And what do you make of the fences around gardens and parks? One would imagine these are places of public access, but no, entrance is strictly limited. Why is a fence now being erected around the park of the Orlov-Denisov Estate in Kolomyagi? People got along fine without it. Why was the grille around the Upper Garden in Krasnoye Selo restored? Why is the garden outside Vladimir Cathedral nearly always closed to parishioners?
“To keep drunks from staggering around there,” a female attendant at the cathedral once told me.
The argument is absurd. What is the percentage of drunks amongst those who would enjoying sitting on a bench in the cathedral garden? It’s tiny.
Courtyard gate in Petersburg’s Central District. Photo by the Russian Reader
There are other cases when public green spaces are completely fenced off from the public. You cannot enter Edward Hill Square, for example. The question begs itself. Why did Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko endow the square with that name when there was an intercom on the gate? You cannot get into the little garden on the corner of Kirillovskaya and Moiseyenko Streets, or the little square at 6 Svechnoy Alley. How do local officials respond to these problems? They either postpone making a decision for years, as happened in Svechnoy Alley, or they make a great show of opening the gate during an official inspection, as happened on Moiseyenko Street.
There are also positive examples, however. The unauthorized DIY fences at 3–5 Troitsky Avenue have recently been dismantled.
A scandal has, allegedly, erupted in the new, densely populated area between Kushelev Road and Laboratory Avenue. The local property owners association voiced the desire to erect a fence around the perimeter of its grounds, thus cutting off the way to the local school. Ultimately, the locals report, they would have had to take their children more than a kilometer around the fence instead of walking a few hundred meters in a straight line, as they do now. Residents wrote things like “If they put it up, I’ll cut it down at night with an angle grinder” on the local internet forum. This is not to mention the stupidity of the planned fence. It is no problem to gain access to the courtyard due to the huge numbers of residents going back and forth through the gate every thirty seconds, if not more frequently.
A satellite view of the new estate between Kushelev Road and Laboratory Avenue, in the north of Petersburg. Courtesy of Google Maps
In southwest Petersburg, a petition is making the rounds to close the entire courtyard of a new residential complex to cars. But what does that mean now that many developers are themselves advertising such monstrous car-free courtyards? You wonder why I have used the word “monstrous”? Because developers should solve the parking problems in their new estates, not the municipal government. If developers build a hundred flats, they should provide a hundred free parking spots. Due to the fact that Seven Suns Development erected a huge “anthill” on Krylenko Street, featuring a “car-free courtyard,” all the lawns and clumps of land in the vicinity have been turned into a single hefty parking lot that has made it difficult to drive down the street to boot. Why should the city permit a commercial firm to generate a problem from scratch that the city will have to solve, for example, by spending public monies on parking barriers?
An artist’s rendering of the “anthill” on Krylenko Street. Courtesy of Kanoner
And what kind of fences do we build at our summer cottages? Instead of pretty, cozy hedgerows, many of us prefer sheets of corrugated steel without a single break in them.
Given our maniacal, senseless desire to hide from the world around us, what will become of us? Are we headed towards the city-state depicted in Zamyatin’s novel We?
Dmitry Ratnikov is editor of Kanoner, an online newspaper that indefatigably reports on developments in architecture, city planning, and historical preservation in Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader
On the anniversary of the tragedy, Takie Dela remembers the principal witnesses to the events in School No. 1.
On September 1, 2004, terrorists seized School No. 1 in Beslan. The gunmen herded over a thousand hostages, including small children, into the school’s gym. For three days, the hostages were forcibly held in the building without food and water. The security services assaulted the school to free the hostages.
A total of 334 people were killed in the terrorist attack, including 186 children. 126 of the former hostages were crippled. During the assault, the FSB killed 28 terrorists. The only terrorist taken alive, Nurpashi Kalayev, was arrested. A court later sentenced him to life in prison.
Many articles, investigative reports, and special projects have been written about the Beslan tragedy, and several documentary films and books have been released. Takie Dela recalls the primary witnesses to the events in School No. 1.
“According to the police officers and special forces soldiers with whom we have spoken, the preparations for the assault were vigorous. That the authorities were learning toward this option is borne out by one other fact. They did not, in fact, negotiate with the gunmen. No one intended to meet even their formal demands. They explained to us, ‘It’s not clear what they want.'”
In 2014, on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, Milashina recalled how events had unfolded before and after the terrorist attack .
“The Beslan terrorist attack will go down in Russian history as an instance when the populace was disinformed on an unprecendented level. Up until the assault of the school, officials concealed the scale of the tragedy (the number of hostages). They also concealed negotiations with Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, who was ready to ask the gunmen to put down their weapons. Akhmed Zakayev, Maskhadov’s emissary, was ready to fly straight to Beslan and take part in negotiations with the terrorists.”
In 2006, Novaya Gazeta published a special issue on the outcome of its investigation, featuring forensic evidence, annotated maps, official reports, and eyewitness testimony. The newspaper came to several conclusions. Reliable information about the upcoming terrorist attack was known to the authorities at least three hours before the school was seized, and Alexander Dzasokhov, president of North Ossetia, offered to replace the children with 800 officials and local MPs, but Moscow forbade him under pain of arrest from entering into negotiations. The biggest public outcry was caused by the newspaper’s claims that the school was fired upon by grenade launchers, flamethrowers, tanks, and helicopters on several occasions when the hostages were still in the building. According to the newspaper, the official inquiry, while it was in full possession of these facts, found no wrongdgoing in the actions of those in charge of the operation to free the hostages.
“Vladimir’s dream: “I want to pick a plum. “Now,” I say, “I want a ladder to the plum and to pick the plum.” A young girl below me says, “I’m not your little girl.” I say, “And where is my little girl?” She says, “She is not here. I am another girl here.” After all, she was lying with my wife in the grave. “I’m not your daughter,” she says, “Don’t pick me plums.” I say, “Where is my little girl?” She says, “I don’t know. Look for her.”‘”
Kommersant reporter Olga Allenova was returning from Grozny, when her editors called her and told her about the terrorist attack in Beslan. She went to North Ossetia to write a story.
“‘Don’t let the hostages’ relatives on the air. Don’t cite any number of hostages except the official figure. Don’t use the word “storm.” The terrorists should not be called gunmen, only criminals, because terrorists are people you negotiate with.’ This was what several national TV channel reporters, located in Beslan, heard immediately from the top brass. We were all side by side, and I saw how hard it was for those guys to carry out the orders of the top brass. And I saw one of them crying in the evening after the school had been stormed.”
On October 17, 2004, the newspaper published an article entitled “How Did We Help Them?” The story dealt with the fortieth day after the terrorist attack. [In Orthodox culture, the fortieth day after a person’s death is usually remembered and marked by a ritual.]
“In Moscow, we say that forty days have passed since the school in Beslan was seized. Here those days did not exist. In their place is a black hole, like the hole made by a grenade in the floor of the assembly hall. And every day is a day of mourning.
“The entire city of Beslan is dressed in black. There are houses here in which not a single child is left, and entryways through which three caskets a day are carried out.”
In 2011, an infographic was posted on the newspaper’s website: it features a map of the school on which the main locations where the events took place are illustrated by short excerpts from archival video footage.
In 2006, the Russian edition of Esquire published an article [in Russian] by New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers, in which he retraced the events in Beslan School No. 1 hour by hour: from the beginning of the ceremonial, first-day-of-school lineup at nine in the morning of September 1 to the medical care administered to the victims in the Vladikavkaz Hospital on September 4. Chivers had written the article[in English] o understand who the hostages had felt the whole time.
“Like many people who have been to Beslan, I subsequently thought a lot about what had happened. Like the people of Beslan, I was infuriated by the endless contradictory statements, the lack of information about many important episodes in the hostage crisis and the actions of the Russian authorities.”
Ten years after the tragedy, Tom Balmforth and Diana Markosian published a story on the Radio Svoboda website about the lives of the surviving schoolchildren. The former hostages talked about their memories, features, and thoughts of the future.
“The children behaved heroically. We all grew up immediately. We really supported each other. In fact, we came together like a family there. Even many of the adults did not behave with as much dignity as the children. Apparently, the adults understand everything in terms of their being grown-up and wise, while we children saw it all through rose-tinted glasses, maybe. I know for a fact that, after those three days, we became completely different people,” recalls Zarina Tsirikhova. She was fourteen when the terrorist attack occurred.
Takie Dela published Diana Khachatrian’s story about how, in September 2016, the memorial events in Beslan ended in arrests. During the ceremonial school lineup at School No. 1, five women staged a protest. They removed their jackets, under which they were wearing t-shirts that bore accusations against the regime.
“The female activists of Voice of Beslan stand apart in the gym. The five women are wearing handmade t-shirts on which the inscription “Putin is the executioner of Beslan” has been written in marker pen. This is not a hysterical slogan. Based on their own impressions and evidence from the investigations, the women argue that on September 3, 2004, Vladimir Putin or a member of his entourage gave the orders to storm the school in order to expedite events and prevent negotiations with Aslan Maskhadov. They argue the hostages could have been saved.”
Photographer Oksana Yushko has for many years produced unique photograph projects on the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy. Yushko takes pictures of the children who were taken hostage in September 2004 at different stages in their school careers, both in everyday life and during graduation from school.
In 2005, some of the relatives of those who were killed during the terrorist attack established the grassroots organization Mothers of Beslan. That same year, due to friction within the group, a number of committee members left the group and founded another organization, Voice of Beslan.
Rodion Chepel’s The Committee, released on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, focuses on Beslan’s female activists.
“We have never met such people. They are such uncompromisingly honest people, it was if they would be shot for lying. From a distance it seems that Beslan is god knows what, part of Moscow’s war with terrorism. But when you go there, you understand it is just human grief that has made them so tough and very honest. It’s not a matter of politics. They’re in touch with their humanity. You talk to them and you realize you simply have not met such people. This was what we wanted to show in the film: what these ten years have done with these people is incredible. They just want someone to explain to them what happened, for someone to say, “Forgive me. It was my fault.” Instead, they have been threatened and slandered. People have tried to sick them on each other, drive a wedge through them, and present them as insane.”
Filmmaker Vadim Tsalikov has shot four documentary films about the terrorist attack in Beslan. One of them is Beslan: Memory.
Foreign filmmakers have also shot films about the tragedy in North Ossetia. For example, Joe Halderman shot the film Beslan: Three Days in September for Showtime. The picture was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006.
In 2012, one of the hostages, 14-year-old Agunda Vatayeva, decided to publish her memoir of the terrorist attack. The young woman launched a diary on LiveJournal and wrote three posts in which told from beginning to end the story of the three days she spent in captivity.
“If you deliberately searched for my diary, you probably want to read my memoir of the terrorist attack in Beslan: Day One, Day Two, and Day Three. It is unlikely that you will find my LiveJournal exciting or at least positive reading. It was started once upon a time for quite different purposes. It was a kind of psychotherapy for me.”
The Kremlin reacted to the ECtHR’s ruling by saying that “an emotional assessment is hardly appropriate.”
“Of course, we cannot agree with this formulation. In a country that has been repeatedly attacked by terrorists, and the list of such countries has been growing, unfortunately, these formulations and purely hypothetic arguments are hardly acceptable. An emotional assessment is hardly appropriate.
“All the necessary legal actions related to this decision will be taken,” said Dmitry Peskov, the president’s spokesman.
“Russia is a bird, not a bear”
November 21, 2015 Radio Svoboda
Yelena Osipova’s “naïve” posters remind us of the link between politics and street protests
A cozy basement with uncomfortable pictures: that is how one might describe in a nutshell the exhibition of paintings and posters by Petersburg artist Yelena Osipova currently underway in the Petersburg office of Open Russia, which shares the space with the Petersburg office of the Parnas party.
The exhibition marks a milestone—Osipova has turned seventy—but it is her debut exhibition. She has never been a member of any artist unions and groups, but she has stood outside in the rain, frost, and heat at nearly all the protest rallies that have taken place in Petersburg in recent years. The striking posters that Osipova holds at these rallies expose the latest injustices or crimes, warn of dangers, and empathize with the plight of others, whether they have been victims of terrorist attacks, natural disasters, dishonest elections or civil rights violations.
The exhibition was not easy to put together. The organizers set out to show not only Osipova’s best political posters but also her paintings, mainly portraits and landscapes. The show also includes two large genre scenes, the first featuring an ordinary Soviet beer hall, the second, a group of punks. Perhaps they are the link to the posters, which call to mind not only the tradition of political satire but also primitivist painting.
“This exhibition is the first in my life,” says Yelena Osipova. “And I love the room and these vaulted ceilings and the fact you can see how my paintings segue into the posters. The latest poster, showing a mother with a dead infant, is about the dead Tajik boy Umarali Nazarov, while the first was prompted by the Nord-Ost tragedy in 2002. Then I went to the Mariinsky Palace [seat of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly] with a simple lettered poster, handwritten on a sheet of wove paper. I just could not understand why no one took to the streets then, why everyone was silent. On the fortieth day after the deaths of the hostages, I made a poster in which I painted a picture in acrylics on fabric.
You are a professional artist. Where did you study?
“I graduated from an art school. It was then called the Tauride Art School, now it is the Roerich Art School. Marc Chagall had studied there in his day, though not for long. I had then wanted to apply to the monumental painting program at the Mukhina Academy. I had been influenced by the frescoes of Andrei Rublev and Dionisius, by the size of their figures and their schematic manner. But young women were just not admitted to the monumental painting program, and I have no regrets about it now. What would I have done? Painted murals in the subway? I am an artist and educator. I taught for over thirty years. We organized three art schools from scratch.”
So you mostly painted landscapes and posters, then Nord-Ost happened and you turned to posters. What exactly happened after Nord-Ost?
“An ever more horrible event: Beslan. No conclusions had been drawn! I had two posters: one was lost, while the other version is exhibited here. The lost version was two-sided. On the reverse side, the slogan “Moms of the world, give birth to little princes. They will save the world!” was written on a blue background. I made the next poster, “Don’t believe in the justice of war!” when the war in Iraq began. I stood outside the American consulate, the British consulate, outside the consulates of all the governments who had supported sending troops into Iraq. There was no reaction. When it was the anniversary of the Beslan tragedy, the mothers of the dead came to Petersburg and wanted to walk down Nevsky Prospect to the Russian Museum holding icons and candles. Ultimately, no one joined them. Just one other woman went with the Beslan moms, plus me with my poster. So we marched alone, amidst the general indifference.”
But this indifference has continued. Look how many people came to the rally protesting the death of the Tajik baby Umarali Nazarov, who was taken away from his mother.
“Yes, but more people are coming than before. Civil society is slowly emerging. We have had the Marches for Peace, and certain rallies have drawn a good number of people. It used to be that no one came to these things at all.”
Have you been detained at protests?
“Of course I have been detained. There was a G20 summit here one summer. I went there with two posters: Don’t believe in the justice of war! and another one about the disposal of nuclear waste. The police detained me then, and I have been detained many times since, sometimes quite roughly. There were unpleasant incidents outside the Mariinsky Palace on St. Isaac’s Square when the war with Ukraine began. Yet the people who go to these events think like you do, and that is quite important. You feel you are not alone with your thoughts, that there are other people who think the same way. Okay, so there are not so many of them, but they are out there.
“Now, perhaps, it will become more difficult, and people will retreat to their apartments, as they did in Soviet times. The laws that have been passed [restricting public protests] are tough to deal with even financially. It used to be that the biggest fine I got was five thousand rubles. People collected the money on the web, and later I sent it on to the Bolotnaya Square prisoners. But the fines now are so high that you cannot pay them. It is too bad that society resigned itself from the outset and did not oppose these laws. After all, they could have resisted and taken to the streets, but, unfortunately, when people have begun to live better, they become indifferent.”
Are there any landmark works, works important to you at this exhibition?
“Yes, for example, Theater Entrance. I painted it during my fourth year at art school. I was really into the theater then, and my thesis painting had a theatrical motif. There are also three paintings here from my Vologda series, pictures of fields in Vologda. There is a landscape painting of Gurzuf, in Crimea. The big painting shows a beer hall that was behind the Nekrasov Market. It had these big round arches, and the beer was poured straight from a tap. You could meet professors and students and artists there. I have painted Russia there with a halo, looking sad. It was the nineties, a very complicated time. And my other painting on this subject is Punks in the Subway. I knew all those kids.
And what is Oh mania, oh mummy of war…, featuring two crows?
“It’s an anti-war poster. I drew it after Boris Nemtsov’s murder. I used a poem by Marina Tsvetayeva. She wrote it in Germany, and I saw the resemblance with our circumstances. The poster Not everyone who is naked is needy is about the death of Berezovsky. I play on the birch motif [Berezovsky’s name is derived from the Russian word for birch tree, berëza], and there are funereal crows.
Do you appreciate some of your posters more than others?
Maybe this one, Don’t believe in the justice of war!, and the Beslan poster. In fact, the political posters about tragedies I always rendered in the three colors of the Russian flag.”
Will you continue to make new posters and freeze on the streets?
“At one point I though that maybe there was no need for this and I wanted to quit, but people said I should do it and told me I gave them hope.”
At the entrance to the exhibition is a small poster, Vote for the bird. At the bottom of the poster is a heavy United Russia, pumped full of oil; on the top is a bird.
“The bird has always been the symbol of Russia,” argues Yelena Osipova.
And to her mind, Russia’s color is blue, as in a certain painting by her beloved Wassily Kandinsky. True, Osipova now sees less and less of the color in her homeland’s plumage.
Translated by the Russian Reader. All photos by the Russian Reader except where otherwise indicated. Yelena Osipova’s work will be on view at 19 Fontanka Embankment until November 25, 2015.
Remembering (and Forgetting) Beslan David Frenkel
Special to the Russian Reader
September 9, 2015
On September 3, several dozen Petersburgers came to Malaya Sadovaya, a pedestrian street abutting the city’s main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospect, to remember the victims of the September 2004 Beslan school siege.
Activists lit candles and rolled out a banner featuring photographs of 334 victims. People who attended the event placed flowers and water bottles in front of the improvised memorial.
The number of people who came on purpose to remember the most devastating terrorist attack in Russian history was few. Most passersby who reacted to the memorial made scornful or indifferent comments such as “Again…” and “Ah, it’s Beslan.”
Though the event had not been coordinated with the authorities, police did not interfere.