“If It Were Up to Me, I Would Kill You”

baburova-women's historical night“Anastasia Baburova. #Women’s History Night,” Central Petersburg, May 22, 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

Marchers Detained at Markelov and Baburova Memorial Event in Moscow
Mediazona
January 19, 2019

Police have detained people attending a march in Moscow marking the tenth anniversary of the murders of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Novaya Gazeta reporter Anastasia Baburova, Kommersant reporter Alexander Chernykh has reported on his Telegram channel.

According to Chernykh, police have detained journalist Igor Yasin, who was carrying a rainbow-colored flag, and five other people. The reasons for their arrests are unknown. The march has been halted.

OVD Info has reported that four people have been detained. Aside from Yasin, the detainees include Nikolai Kretov, Dmitry Borisenko, and Mikhail Komrakov.

Komrakov told OVD Info that when he was detained, a policeman said to him, “If it were up to me, I would kill you.”

According to Kretov, policemen hit him after he was put in a paddy wagon.

The Markelov and Baburova memorial march began at two o’clock on Tverskaya Boulevard and was scheduled to end with the laying of flowers at the spot where they were murdered on Prechistenka Street.

On January 19, 2009, Nikita Tikhonov, a member of the Russian neo-Nazi organization BORN (Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists), shot and killed Markelov and Baburova in downtown Moscow in broad daylight. Tikhonov and his accomplice Yevgenia Khasis were subsequently convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment and eighteen years in prison, respectively.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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“The Blacklist” Rewrites Recent Russian History (The Murder of Stanislav Markelov)

Watching the third season of my favorite crime thriller, The Blacklist, starring the scintillating James Spader, I was surprised when the show’s other star, Megan Boone, launched into a briefing for her FBI colleagues about the real-life Russian human rights lawyer and antifascist Stanislav Markelov, murdered by Russian neo-Nazis in broad daylight in downtown Moscow on January 19, 2009.

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The show’s Wiki reinforces this revisionist history by describing the sinister Karakurt as follows.

“Known in the intelligence community as ‘the Left Hand of the SVR,’ Karakurt (Turkic languages: kara (black) and kurt (wolf)), whose real name remains unknown, is an assassin employed to silence Russian dissidents and known high-profile critics of the Russian regime. He specializes in making his murders look like non-criminal causes, such as accidents, suicides, or the actions of other criminals. He has at least [two] assassinations to his name. The first was Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer who was shot to death in Moscow in January of 2009. The murder was blamed on a Neo-Nazi youth group. The second is Boris Berezovsky, another critic of the Russian regime, who died in a staged suicide in 2013. Karakurt is also known to have lent his skills to the Cabal.”

I don’t know how teachable this odd plot twist in The Blacklist‘s lethal fairytale spy-versus-spy kingdom is, but it is worth recalling the real life and death of Stanislav Markelov, as reflected on this website and its predecessor, Chtodelat News.

Although it sounds fun on TV, it’s ludicrous to suggest the SVR would have had anything to do with Markelov’s murder. It is not, however, ludicrous to suppose his real killers, the neo-Nazi group BORN (Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists), had ties with high-ranking government officials.

As artist Victoria Lomasko wrote in her graphic reportage of their 2015 murder trial, “Only one thing was forbidden in [presiding Judge Alexander] Kozlov’s courtroom: mentioning that the criminal case had obvious political overtones, that the ultra-rightists had been communicating with people from the presidential administration through a series of intermediaries, and that BORN itself was a project that could not have been conceived without their involvement. Kozlov ruthlessly barred all attempts to discuss this.”

So, The Blacklist is not as far from the truth as we might have imagined at first. TRR

Nikolay Mitrokhin: Right-Wing Saints

Alexander Mikhailovich (center), a co-founder of Sorok Sorokov (Multitude), a militant Russian Orthodox organization that Patriarch Kirill has identified as his personal guard
Alexander Mikhailovich (center), a co-founder of Sorok sorokov (“Multitude”), a militant Russian Orthodox organization that Patriarch Kirill has identified as his personal “guard”

Right-Wing Saints
Nikolay Mitrokhin
October 26, 2015
Grani.ru

Last week at a meeting of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), three decisions were adopted that illustrate the further transformation of church leadership into a fascist-type extreme right-wing organization.

The rank of bishop was awarded to Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), abbot of the Sretensky Monastery in Moscow, who is closely linked to Black Hundreds-like organizations. For the last fifteen years, at least, his public and political reputation had prevented him from moving up into the ranks of the church’s “generals,” despite his successes in advocacy (the Sretensky Monastery’s publishing house is the largest in the ROC) and close ties to the Russian state establishment. Now decency has been cast to the wind, and the path to a big church career has been opened to him.

In another decision, the Synod formed a joint commission of the Russian and Bulgarian Orthodox Churches on the issue of canonizing Archbishop Serafim (Sobolev) of Bogucharsk. It has been emphasized that the commission was created at the personal behest of Patriarch Kirill, who on May 5 sent a formal request to the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. An émigré from Russia and, subsequently, one of the leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Serafim is known not only as the man who practically founded modern Bulgarian monasticism. He also penned many xenophobic essays (just like Putin and Nikita Mikhalkov’s favorite philosopher Ivan Ilyin) that mixed the Russian nationalism of his day with a hatred of other faiths. In the 1930s, he vigorously campaigned against the theologians of the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, insisting on rejecting all forms of ecumenical cooperation. And of course, like the other so-called Karlovites, the European bishops of the ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia), he actively collaborated with the Nazis. This did not stop him, as a Russian patriot, from collaborating just as successfully with the Stalinist regime after the war.

Sobolev’s most prominent Russian disciple and protégé was the young émigré priest known to us as Archpriest Vsevolod Spiller. To a large extent swayed by the ideas of his teacher, he returned in 1949 from Bulgaria to Moscow, where as deputy head of the Department of External Church Relations he was an influential church official. But then his ideas came into conflict with the political reality and, maintaining his post as prior of the Church of St. Nicholas in Kuznetsy, he became an equally influential figure in unofficial church life. In particular, he vigorously supported resistance groups within the church, which attempted to reconcile right-wing views with human rights rhetoric in order to gain greater autonomy for the clergy and the ROC as a whole.

A group of young disciples from the Moscow intelligentsia formed around Spiller. In the early 1980s, they were ordained as priests, and by the middle of the decade they had begun to confront their own former comrades who had chosen a more liberal vision of the church’s future. During perestroika, they founded the most successful ecclesiastical education project of the new era, St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Institute, and in the early 2000s, as a result of a large and successful intrigue, they became the leading ideological faction within the ROC. Members of this faction have held a variety of leadership positions in the church and still control at least two posts at the overall church level. One of these clerics is Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov, head of the Patriarchal Commission on Family and Youth Affairs. Smirnov is known for his aggressive xenophobic and extremist rhetoric (and his involvement in at least one major violent protest action), and he virtually acts as the church’s liaison with the extremist group God’s Will.

There is no doubt that the prospect of Archbishop Serafim’s canonization and, therefore, the church’s blessing to republish and promote his works is the handiwork of St. Tikhon’s Institute, now known as St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of [the] Humanities, especially since the university’s rector, Archpriest Vladimir Vorobyov, one of Spiller’s principal disciples, is on the canonization commission.

Finally, the third ideologically significant accomplishment of the Synod was the resolution it adopted in connection with the report made by Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, chair of the Synodal Department on Church and Society Relations, on “proposals for countering neopaganism.”

“[We] consider concerns about the increasing spread of neo-paganism in countries for which the Moscow Patriarchate is canonically responsible, including the cultural and information sectors, reasonable. [We] emphasize the need to work more vigorously on the overall church and diocesan levels in order to refute the neo-pagan errors. This works must be conducted primarily with young people, with communities of athletes and sports fans, members of military-patriotic clubs, law enforcement officers, and persons in places of incarceration,” wrote the Synod in its resolution.

This is a response to the clear failure in recent years of the Moscow Patriarchate’s efforts vis-à-vis “socially congenial” categories of young people. Despite the patriarchate’s desire to harness the energy of right-wing extremists and militarists in the youth subcultures to its own advantage by implementing the concept of military sports clubs in the parishes (there are definitely two or three such clubs in every region), it has become more and more obvious that the ROC’s “sluggish” stance did not satisfy its “flock” of extremists. Emblematic in this regard was the sensational renunciation, in 2013, of Russian Orthodoxy by Alexander Povetkin, a boxer popular among Russian nationalists, and his virtual conversion to neo-paganism as publicly demonstrated by the tattoos and amulets on his body.

Obviously, the ROC’s balanced position the Ukrainian conflict and its rejection of public anti-Ukrainian rhetoric has also caused dissatisfaction among patriotically minded right-wing radicals and facilitated their rejection of the church’s leadership. No wonder that Vsevolod Chaplin, whom the neo-Nazi gang BORN had considered as a candidate for assassination “for betraying the interests of the Russian people,” is now so worried about the religiosity of football hooligans, policemen, and convicts.

But maybe, in this case, the Moscow Patriarchate really is concerned about the morality of young people? This could be admitted as a possibility if the patriarchate and the patriarch personally had not hired those very same right-wing football hooligans and neo-Nazis as their personal bodyguard. Nor in the text of the Synod’s decision is there a single word of condemnation of “sports fans.” After all, they create idols and worship them, which is a direction violation of the commandment “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”

Alexander Mikhailovich (center) and his comrades from Sorok Sorokov (Multitude)
Alexander Mikhailovich (center) and his comrades from Sorok sorokov (“Multitude”)

In my opinion, these decisions by the Synod, which hammer away at the same point, are symptoms of the fascization of the church’s leadership. In this case, “fascization” is an academic term describing the process by which a subject of public space is indoctrinated with a certain set of ideas and practices. When it was under the authority of the communist regime, the ROC was frozen in terms of its ideological evolution for seven decades and is now going through the same stages that the major Christian churches of Europe went through during the twentieth century. If the “pre-modern” mystical obscurantism of the Black Hundreds had dominated under Alexy II, Kirill’s ROC has shifted into the phase of modernist fascist experiments, typical of Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. Statements by church leaders about the role of the “national leader,” the desired “unity of the people,” the sacred duty of war, and the special rights of collective subjects, which are more important than individual rights, and even the particular focus on young people are all phenomena from that earlier era and its rhetoric, just like militarized youth organizations in ecclesiastical communities.

Everything having to do with the Russian profession of fascism and other versions of right-wing radicalism, which was quite popular in the Russian émigré community of the 1920s and 1930s, is thus only welcomed in the church at the moment. The Synod’s recent decisions testify to this fact.

While it is a big problem for the church, “fascization” is not of paramount importance to society. The church is too small in terms of numbers [of parishioners] and too fragmented in terms of organization and ideology for these processes, which primarily affect the church’s administrative apparatus, to have a real impact on Russian politics on the federal and even local levels. However much some in the church leadership would enjoy commanding strictly serried ranks of militants, there are fewer and fewer people who would want to join the ranks of these militants, especially just for the heck of it. Therefore, there are many more generals in this army than soldiers.

Meanwhile, the process of fascization, despite its unacceptability to modern society, has a variety of consequences. By itself, fascism was for its time a revolutionary movement, a form of catch-up modernization. It brought with it not only anti-democratic and xenophobic impulses but also the destruction of obsolete social institutions and barriers. It paved the way for new technologies, and provided means of social mobility and opportunities for young people.

In this regard, the work of Patriarch Kirill and his team does not appear so straightforward. The ideological component of Kirill’s reign and his blunders in the realm of information policy have overshadowed to outside observers the efforts made by the patriarch and his supporters within the church over the past five years. Reform of the ROC’s administrative apparatus (the establishment of the Supreme Church Council, changes to the number and function of departments), the creation of quasi-democratic institutions (the Interconciliar Assembly, ecclesiastical courts, congresses of various categories of clergymen), the unification of church law, a significant increase in the number of bishops, and, finally, the retreat from old-fashioned ways of confessing the faith (i.e., the fight against eldership, mysticism, superstition, and flagrant ethnic and confessional xenophobia) and a policy of actively recruiting educated young people all have laid the foundations for the ROC’s further transformation into a more modern church.

For an enormous number of rank-and-file (and not so rank-and-file) priests and lay people, it is not that all the games with black-shirted militants and the flagrant Russian nationalist rhetoric are completely unacceptable, but rather that they are absolutely trivial compared with other truths and values they associate with Russian Orthodoxy. Daily concerns about Sunday school, soup kitchens for the homeless, and, finally, their own wallets are much more important to them than the ideological “deviations” of the Moscow Patriarchate’s leadership. Especially because, even within the church, the leadership has been incapable of ensuring that brains are being washed in the right direction, much less clearly signaling its wishes.

Thus, the real needs and concerns of these people in a modern, post-industrial society make it possible to express very different priorities in the work of Russian Orthodox communities than as seen by the higher-ups. Sooner or later (it is a matter, here, not of years but of “five-year plans”), these priorities will obviously come to be at odds with the church’s ruling elite and its small groups of radical supporters on the ground. And then the ROC will have its own version of the Second Vatican Council, “post-Gulag theology,” priests organizing pancake feeds for aggressive congregants, and all the other things modern Russian society expects from the ROC.

Nikolay Mitrokhin is a research fellow at the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen. He is the author of groundbreaking books on the current state of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian nationalist movements in the postwar Soviet Union. Photos courtesy of atheism.dirty.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader

Victoria Lomasko: The BORN Trial

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Defendants Isayev, Baklagin, Volkov, and Tikhomirov

BORN: A Graphic Reportage by Victoria Lomasko
How the most brutal nationalist gang in Russia was tried
Apri1 21, 2015
Meduza

On Tuesday, April 21, the Moscow Regional Court will render its verdict in the trial of the Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists (BORN), one of the most violent nationalist gangs in Russia. They have a series of murders of immigrants and antifascists to their credit, as well as numerous attempted murders. In addition, BORN members murdered a federal judge, Eduard Chuvashov. A jury tried the members of the gang. In their verdict, the jury acquitted one of the defendants, Yuri Tikhomirov (who continues to serve a sentence, handed down earlier, for involvement in the murder of antifascist Ilya Dzhaparidze). The three other defendants—Mikhail Volkov, Vyacheslav Isayev, and Maxim Baklagin—were declared wholly or partially guilty, but deserving of leniency for most of the counts of the indictment. However, prosecutors have requested life sentences for Baklagin and Isayev, and twenty-five years in a maximum-security facility for Volkov. The final decision is now up to the judge.

Throughout the trial, artist Victoria Lomasko worked in the courtroom. Meduza presents her graphic reportage on the BORN trial. Meduza special correspondent Andrei Kozenko, who also followed the trial, has annotated the drawings.

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Isayev, Baklagin, Volkov, and Tikhomirov. December 10, 2014

Photography was strictly forbidden at the trial. It was Tikhomirov who petitioned the court to ban photography; he was the only of the four who completely denied involvement in the gang. The other defendants supported his claim. They said that Tikhomirov was “slow on the uptake,” and was of no use at all in serious matters, such as planning murders.

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Judge Alexander Kozlov. December 10, 2014

Moscow Regional Court Judge Alexander Kozlov presided over the trial. Overall, he was exceptionally tactful and pointedly polite.

“I understand nationalism and all that, but why did you have to kill?” he asked at one point.

Only one thing was forbidden in Kozlov’s courtroom: mentioning that the criminal case had obvious political overtones, that the ultra-rightists had been communicating with people from the presidential administration through a series of intermediaries, and that BORN itself was a project that could not have been conceived without their involvement. Kozlov ruthlessly barred all attempts to discuss this.

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Baklagin: “I came to the conclusion that the state weasels out when immigrants commit crimes.” December 10, 2014

 

Baklagin is a lawyer by training. He honestly testified that one of the murders was committed on a particular day, because on other days he had to be in court early in the morning. Baklagin was charged with six counts of murder, accessory to murder, and attempted murder. He said that he committed the crimes to restore the justice that was absent in the Russian state.

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Volkov: “I regarded my actions as self-defense in the broadest sense, as an attempt to put the thugs tormenting my people in their place.” December 22, 2014

 

Mikhail Volkov is a veteran football hooligan and member of the skinhead gang OB-88. He did hard time for a nationalist pogrom at the Tsaritsyno Market in 2002. Several times he was forced to explain he got neo-Nazi tattoos when he was “young and stupid,” but had later changed his views. Volkov was charged with one murder committed on his own and another murder committed with an accomplice. He himself said that his motives were about the same as those of Robin Hood.

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Goryachev: “I have never seen these people before. Until I was arrested I had never heard their names.” December 22, 2014

Ilya Goryachev’s testimony was billed as one of the key episodes in the whole trial, but it did not turn out that way. Educated as a historian, nationalist and spin-doctor Goryachev is regarded by investigators as the organizer of BORN. His case is being tried separately; it has only just been sent to trial. He served as a witness at the main BORN trial. He was expected to name the names of people close to the Kremlin who had in some way been involved in the Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists. But Goryachev denied everything. He allegedly did not even know any of the defendants.

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Tikhomirov: “I do not consider myself guilty, and was not a member of BORN. FSB officers cajoled Isayev and Baklagin into testifying against me.” January 12, 2015

The testimony of the defendants was riddled with inconsistencies. Judge Kozlov occasionally accused them of trying to shield themselves and evade responsibility. One of their main arguments was that BORN did not exist. Volkov, in particular, insisted he had heard the acronym only after he had committed the crimes.

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Tikhomirov and his lawyer. January 12, 2015

Yuri Tikhomirov sat quietly and spoke the least of all. He had never heard of any such gang, had been involved in only one point of the indictment, and had received a ten-year sentence for that crime before the others had been charged. The jury believed him.

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The court views a video recording. January 12, 2015

A significant part of the evidence against the defendants consisted of photos and video. In particular, thanks to surveillance cameras, prosecutors were able to prove that Volkov had committed one of the murders.

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Prosecutor (addressing jurors): “The BORN members were not in the habit of verifying information. Unverified information served as grounds for murders.” February 11, 2015

Prosecutors repeatedly attacked the ideological aspect of the BORN case. The nationalists did not want Russia to become like France, which was “swamped with immigrants.” However, they themselves had never been to France. And yet they sought information about future victims on ultra-rightist websites and in the media.

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Prosecutor (standing behind BORN’s attorneys): “As you have seen yourselves, the gang had more than enough weapons.” February 11, 2015

The hearing during which the physical evidence—the weapons seized from the gang—was presented was like a trip to a theme park. The BORN members used sawed-off hunting rifles and pistols, manufactured in the early twentieth century. They came by these weapons, apparently, through people who illegally excavate battlegrounds.

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Donara Dzhaparidze, mother of a murdered antifascist (Yuri Tikhomirov is seated to the left): “I can’t go into the apartment: Ilyusha is not there.” February 11, 2015

The mother of antifascist Ilya Dzhaparidze left Moscow for Georgia after her son was murdered. She could not go back to the flat where she lived with her son. Few cursed the defendants as she did. The defendants only looked away.

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Isayev’s attorney: “Baklagin has correctly pointed out that the antifascists are just another gang, but with different ideas. They were involved in a turf war.” February 16, 2015

Another mitigating argument mustered by the defense was that contemporary antifascists are nothing like the ones we saw in Soviet films about World War Two. They are an aggressive subculture with whom the nationalists would fight, including on the streets. It sounded plausible, but still did not answer the question of why it had been necessary to commit murder.

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Volkov (his mother seated in the foreground): “What sort of bandit am I? I have a family, kiddies… I read them to sleep at night.” February 16, 2015

The defendants’ relatives rarely came to the hearings and never together. They sat with the reporters, glancing occasionally at the ultra-rightists as they gave testimony. They flatly refused to talk to the press.

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Baklagin: “When the war in Ukraine began, I immediately applied in writing to join a penal battalion.” February 16, 2015

Baklagin asked to be sent to fight in the Donbas: his blood would atone for what he had done. BORN is closely linked to Ukraine. Volkov had escaped there before being extradited back to Russia. One of the most violent members of BORN, former FSB officer Alexei Korshunov, had escaped to Zaporozhye and died when a grenade he was carrying exploded. Finally, another suspect is still in hiding in Ukraine. According to unconfirmed reports, he is even fighting against the separatists.

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Tikhomirov’s lawyer: “Khasis and Tikhonov called each other ‘bunny rabbit’ and ‘kitty cat.’” February 20, 2015

Nikita Tikhonov and his common-law wife Yevgenia Khasis gave the most detailed testimony against the BORN members, which visibly irritated the latter. Tikhonov is serving a life sentence for the murders of lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova. Khasis is serving eighteen years as an accessory to the murders. On the sidelines, the lawyers did not rule out that Tikhonov was taking responsibility for more than what he had done so that he could stay in a Moscow remand prison—near the crime investigation scene—rather than in the transpolar prison for lifers with its incredibly poor living conditions. Khasis just wants to get out early.

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Judge Kozlov: “If you decide that Isayev, Baklagin or Volkov deserve leniency, the court cannot sentence them to life in prison.” March 30, 2015

It took a very long time to empanel the jury in the BORN trial. Ordinary residents of Moscow Region were not chomping at the bit to serve on the jury. The defendants themselves rejected several candidates for “looking like antifascists.” Nevertheless, a jury was seated and they produced a verdict in the trial. The defendants were found worthy of leniency. But not Baklagin and Isayev, who had shadowed Judge Chuvashov. (The late Korshunov was deeemd to be his killer.) The chance of a life sentence for them persists.

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Jury forewoman: “Has it been proven that Tikhomirov was a member of BORN? No, it has not been proven. Six jurors voted yea; six, nay.” March 31, 2015

Those who followed the trials called the jury’s verdict a little too soft on some counts. But be that as it may, only Tikhomirov was acquitted.

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The jurors

Court juries have this peculiarity: all parties to the trial focus the attention of jurors less on the legal aspects and try more to play on their emotions. No lawyers are empanelled, after all. Both the prosecutors and the defense asked the jury to be fair. It rendered its verdict. The judge will turn the verdict into specific sentences for the BORN trial defendants.

Editor’s Note. I thank Victoria Lomasko and Meduza for their permission to translate this article and reproduce Ms. Lomasko’s reportage here. All illustrations courtesy of and copyright Victoria Lomasko and Meduza.  Translated by the Russian Reader

Russia vs. Russia: Political Art and Censorship

Victoria Lomasko
April 14, 2015
Facebook

During the last discussion at the Russland vs. Russland. Kulturkonflikte forum, the event’s title finally paid off.

Kristina Leko, an artist and teacher at the Berlin Institute of Art, opened the discussion. The organizers had invited her to comment on the forum and the exhibition of Russian “critical art.”

She wondered how much the objets d’art for Marat Guelman’s Perm project (documented at the forum) had cost, whether the money had come from the city’s budget, and if it had, whether the citizens for whose sake this monumental street art had allegedly been made had agreed with this. Leko noted that she had found it unpleasant to listen to the presentation of the project, during which it was stated that the residents of Perm were “insufficiently educated to understand art.” She also said that after carefully viewing the video documentation for MediaImpact, she could not understand where the audience for this sociopolitical art was. Did Russian “critical” artists even want to communicate with the general public? Leko asked whether it was possible to make “critical art” now without taking Russia’s aggression in Ukraine into account, and whether one could be a “critical artist” while ignoring gender and racial discrimination.

Her talk was suddenly interrupted by artist Alexander Brener, who burst into the circle of panelists and yelled, “All of this is shit! We must talk about what matters most!” Brener was not a forum participant. He had come every day to listen to the speakers and several times had expressed his dissatisfaction, but in much more acceptable form.

Brener had interrupted Leko’s talk and continued to shout about shit, but the panelists interpreted his stunt variously. One group sided with Brener, calling him a great Russian artist. This was a performance, a compliment to the forum’s organizer. The talk had been boring: let Brener have his say, they said. The moderator, sociologist Alexander Bikbov, demanded that Leko be allowed to finish her talk. He was backed up by cultural studies scholar Olga Reznikova, who told Brener that there had been many boring and offensive presentations over the past three days and asked him why he had not felt the urge to shout down a high-profile male who had been talking “shit.” The only Ukrainian participant in the forum, Vasily Cherepanin, director of the Visual Culture Research Center in Kyiv and editor of the Ukrainian edition of the journal Krytyka Polityczna, said he felt sorry for us, since we were accustomed to rudeness and could not tell the difference between it and art. As a manager of an institution, he himself kicks out such “performance artists,” no questions asked.

While this was happening, Leko’s hands were shaking. The German audience was shocked. One of the German participants asked perplexedly, “Why is there no solidarity among Russian artists?”

I am certain that the majority of men in Russia who identify themselves as “leftists” are incapable of uniting with women on an equal footing and dealing with our professional work appropriately, without loutishness. Personally, I have no desire to identify with those “leftists” or liberals who try talking down to me or do the same thing with other women. I had had enough of that at the Feminist Pencil show at MediaImpact.

I said that sexism was one of the causes that prevented people from uniting.

Hearing the word sexism, some of the Russian participants began laughing and making faces. They then pointedly left the room altogether when the topic of gender was picked up by Olga Reznikova, Heinrich Böll Foundation coordinator Nuria Fatykhova, and the German audience.

Vasily Cherepanin raised the next topic. He spoke about the war in Ukraine, stressing it was a war of aggression on Russia’s part. At the same time, many Russian socially and politically engaged artists have preferred to remain apolitical on this matter and not make anti-war statements. One of the Germans asked why the Russians were trying to depoliticize the discussion of sexism and the war in Ukraine. After this question, another third of the Russians dashed from the room, while the artist Brener, who had been sitting quietly in the corner, again broke into the circle of panelists, screaming at Cherepanin, “Fuck off!”

Moderator Alexander Bikbov summarized the discussion by noting that too few “critical” artists had stayed for its final part. As soon as the conversation had turned to the things that mattered most—politics within the art scene and the war in Ukraine—many were not prepared to discuss them.

But then at the farewell dinner, the participants who had left the discussion early continued giggling among themselves about gender and feminism.

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Russia vs. Russia: From Censorship to Self-Censorship
New Russian laws—from a ban on swearing to protections for the feelings of religious believers—have made life difficult for artists. But the main obstacle to freedom of creativity has become self-censorship.
Yekaterina Kryzhanovskaya | Berlin
April 13, 2015
Deutsche Welle

lomasko-courtVictoria Lomasko, Prisoners of May 6, from the Drawing Trials project

For several years, Victoria Lomasko has been doing socially engaged graphic art, producing graphic reportages from court hearings and political rallies, and drawing the real stories of juvenile prisoners, migrant workers, rural teachers, and Orthodox activists. But the Russian woman can now longer speak openly about what concerns her through her drawings: now her black-and-white “comics” could be subject to the articles of the Russian Federal Criminal Code.

“My work Cannibal State, in support of political prisoners, today could be regarded as insulting state symbols. Liberate Russia from Putin clearly rocks the boat; it’s a call for rebellion, for revolution, and this is ‘extremism.’ A work from the Pussy Riot trial, Free the Prisoners! Shame on the Russian Orthodox Church!, featuring Patriarch Kirill, no doubt insults the feelings of believers,” the artist recounts.

Could she now, as she did earlier, freely post her political posters in social networks or show them at exhibitions?

“Hardly. But just two years ago several of them were even published in magazines,” notes Lomasko.

From censorship…

At the forum Russia vs. Russia: Cultural Conflicts, held April 10–12 in Berlin, Lomasko was not the only one bewildered about the prospects of protest art.

“In Russia nowadays you cannot do anything,” states Artyom Loskutov, an artist and organizer of the annual May Day Monstration marches in Novosibirsk.

In 2014, the Monstrators took to the streets of Novosibirsk holding a banner that read, “Hell is ours.” When the Russian media were excitedly talking about the virtues of federalizing Ukraine, Loskutov and his allies announced they would be holding a March for the Federalization of Siberia.

“If people in Russia hear every day that separatism in Ukraine turns out to be a good thing, that cannot slip through the cracks. We have simply hastened the next stage, when separatism will be seen as good for our country as well,” Loskutov emphasizes.

Russian federal media watchdog Roskomnadzor responded by sending fourteen letters to various media, including Ukrainian publications and even the BBC, demanding that they delete even mentions of this protest.

…to self-censorship

According to many forum participants, however, censorship was not the worst that was happening to them today.

“The worst thing that infiltrates our heads is self-censorship. It is impossible to know about the new laws and not to think about the consequences if you make a work about something that really concerns you,” argues Lomasko.

A congress of ultra-rightist nationalists was held in March in Petersburg, completely legally. And yet the media could not publish photographs of congress participants in clothes featuring swastikas because they would be fined for extremism.

“I really want to speak out on this subject. But if I were to draw something, I could be accused of spreading fascist ideas. And if I put it on the Web, everyone who reposts the picture automatically becomes my accomplice,” explains Lomasko.

Consequently, she said, there have been almost no artworks openly criticizing the annexation of Crimea or the war in Ukraine. Doubts about the legitimacy of Moscow’s actions are now also subject to the Criminal Code.  A rare exception is the graffiti piece Broads Will Give Birth to New Ones, in which a pregnant woman holding a Molotov cocktail is depicted with an infant soldier in her belly. But it was produced anonymously by members of the Petersburg group Gandhi.

Monumental propaganda

On the other hand, you can express your joy over the actions of Russian politicians without the sanction of officials. Thus, on the eve of the referendum in Crimea, a monumental graffiti proclaiming “Crimea and Russia: Together Forever” suddenly appeared on the wall of a house in Moscow’s Taganka Square where an officially authorized map of the Tagansky District was supposed have been painted.

“The contractor himself decided that the Crimean agenda was more topical and interesting, and he willfully painted what he did, not the map he had been commissioned to paint,” explains Anna Nistratova, an independent curator, researcher, and artist.

0,,18377432_401,00Victoria Lomasko

Later, such monumental propaganda began to appear all over the country, both as commissioned by the authorities, and at the behest of the population, including activist artists, many of whom also believe, according to Lomasko, “Crimea is ours, Donbass is ours, and Ukraine basically doesn’t exist.”

“In matters of propaganda, orders from the top are not obligatory. Our citizens themselves are capable to taking the initiative,” notes Nistratova.

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IMG_5964“Memory” (P = Pamiat’), one of a series of “graffiti” murals produced by the pro-Kremlin youth group Set (“Network”) to celebrate Vladimir Putin’s birthday in October 2014. The five murals, which appeared in different cities, each featured a different letter from the president’s surname; each letter was associated, children’s primer-style, with a different “patriotic” virtue (e.g., such as “memory” of the war). This mural was painted on an apartment block on Petersburg’s Obvodny Canal. Photograph by The Russian Reader

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Lost status

Nistratov points out that there are very few artists involved in political art in Russia. Besides, neither exhibitions nor the very best artworks nor inscriptions on the streets have any effect on society, in her opinion.

“The artist in Russia today is a strange, marginal subject. His status as an intellectual, as a moral exemplar, which existed earlier, has been completely forfeited,” says Nistratova.

Confusion is, perhaps, the feeling that is prevalent throughout the talks given by the participants of the forum Russia vs. Russia: Cultural Conflicts. By and large, the activist artists have no clear strategies for operating under new conditions.

“The only thing that seems to me worthwhile is maintaining one’s own little environment, a bubble inside the shit. Because if this nightmare ever ends, we have to make sure we are not faced with a scorched, absolutely bare field, bereft of political and social art, activism, and civic consciousness,” argues Lomasko.

♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

This is a real courtyard in my neighborhood, near a playground. Parents stroll around the yard with their children, discussing the news from “fascist” Ukraine.

Do I have the right to draw and show you this landscape featuring a swastika, a landscape that is fairly typical in Russia? During the recent trial of the Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists (BORN), their lawyer argued that the anti-fascists are just another street gang like the fascists. So why not label any denunciation of fascism “propaganda” of fascism itself?

Nationalists freely held an international congress in Petersburg in March. The only people the police arrested were the anti-fascists who protested the congress. Nationalists can walk around sporting neo-fascist symbols, but the authorities will prosecute publications that dare to publish photos of them. Juvenile prisons are filled with skinheads, but nationalist ideas are fomented on television.

Attn: Center “E”. I am opposed to fascism.

fashizm_colourThis yard is not in Ukraine. There are many swastikas in Russia, too. But if Russian citizens try to expose fascism, they can be charged with “extremism.” Inscription on wall: “Russ [sic] is ours!”

Alexei Gaskarov: “The Desire for Justice Has Not Faded”

“The Desire for Justice Has Not Faded”
Alexei Gaskarov (as reported by Maria Klimova)
29 December 2014
MediaZona

On August 18, 2014, the Zamoskvoretsky District Court in Moscow sentenced four defendants—Alexei Gaskarov, Ilya Gushchin, Alexander Margolin, and Elena Kokhtareva—in the so-called second wave of the Bolotnaya Square Case. Judge Natalya Susina found each of them guilty of involvement in rioting (Article 212, Part 2 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code) and using violence against authorities (Article 318, Part 1). Gaskarov was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. On November 27, the Moscow City Court dismissed an appeal against the sentence filed by all four defendants.

Antifa: “We Were Able to Tell Good from Evil”
There are different people in prison. The majority are not the same people we are used to interacting with on the outside. There are different sorts: junkies, criminals, and outright riffraff. But I still find myself thinking I had seen a number of these characters in the yard of my building back in the day. I have flashbacks when I encounter these people. So when you ask why my friends and I became antifascists, you have to imagine the environment we come from.

Photo_Gaskarov_behind_barsAlexei Gaskarov

I remember well what was happening on the streets in 1998–1999. The first skinheads and football hooligans had appeared, ethnically motivated killings were becoming more frequent, and rabidly fascist ideas were gaining popularity. A reality emerged that was invisible to the majority of people. With each passing year, the situation worsened, and the violence increased. We wanted to oppose it. We were able to tell good from evil. The neo-Nazi scene, on the contrary, attracted people not blessed with intellect, frankly. Most of them were up to nothing more than wasting their time on inciting racism and making fake videos of racist attacks. People like Artur Ryno and Pavel Skachevsky, the White Wolves, and other asinine teenagers bought into this.

Society has paid no mind to the killings of migrants, because it is quite xenophobic itself. Its attention has been drawn when Russians square off against Russians, when neo-Nazis murder antifascists in stairwells. But, in fact, at least one hundred ethnically motivated murders occurred in 2008–2009, and this should have been cause for concern.

BORN and Donbas: “They Have Been Hoodwinked”
I have tried as much as possible to follow the trial in the BORN case. It is complete nonsense that the accused are now pretending their actions were motivated by concern for the Russian people. This crazy fascism has nothing to do with defending ethnic Russians.

The boneheads (neo-Nazi and white power skinheads) were a product of society as it existed then. Maybe if Russia had been a democratic country, as it is on paper, the right-wingers would have had the chance to realize themselves in the political arena. In fact, all they had was street politics. The question is whether all those murders would have been committed had they been able to register their own political parties officially.

As we see from the testimony given at the trial by Nikita Tikhonov and Yevgenia Khasis, the neo-Nazis tried to get their own political party, but to create it they needed a combat organization. By creating BORN (Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists), they were hoping to force the regime’s hand, to show they were capable of violence, but that there would be no violence if they had legal means of pursuing their ends.

The antifascists never had the goal of killing anyone. It was the neo-Nazis who first embarked on the path of violence, but this was because there was a certain political will for this. It is important to realize that, despite the street battles, until the mid 2000s the ultra-rightists did not see the antifascists as people whom they needed to shoot first. However, after Maidan 2004, the regime clearly tried to find support within society, including among potentially loyal young people. The nationalists were regarded as just such young people. There were lots of them, and they could be organized around football. This was when the first Russian Marches took place, and nationalists were allowed to set up semi-militarized training camps.

The neo-Nazis were supposed to oppose the so-called threat of orange revolution, the people dissatisfied with the current regime. Antifascists and anarchists were then considered part of this threat. This was when the turning point occurred: it was now considered a priority to destroy us.

Ilya Goryachev and Nikita Tikhonov, BORN’s ideologues, were apparently able to get the message to the presidential administration that they could confront left-liberals on the streets. And they would tell rank-and-file members of their gang that, for example, Pavel Skachevsky’s sister had been attacked by antifascists. This is complete nonsense: I know for a fact that antifascists Ilya Dzhaparidze and Koba Avalishvili didn’t do it. I don’t know whether Skachevsky’s sister was actually attacked at all. At the time, the website of DPNI (Movement against Illegal Immigration) was active, and it would publish information that was untrue, and simply meant to incite people. The fact remains that Dzhaparidze, who was murdered by the neo-Nazis, had nothing to do with this business. But the morons from BORN just believed it and did not even bother to verify the information. The same goes for why Ivan Khutorskoi was killed. It is, of course, complete rubbish that he broke the arms of underage nationalists. He might have talked to them and given them a slap upside the head, but no more than that.

The people from the far-right groups are no nationalists, of course. We know that many of them have gone off to Kiev to fight with the Azov Battalion, for example. This is not the same segment of nationalists that protested on Bolotnaya Square, but the marginal part of the movement, which took advantage of the fact that young people often go into denial when they see society’s existing problems.

I have the feeling that the BORN case, the case of neo-Nazis who sincerely believed they were defending the Russian people, has not taught anyone anything. We now see how this anti-Ukrainian hysteria has been whipped up. It is largely due to this hysteria that Russian citizens have been going off to Donbas to fight. They sincerely imagine they are going there to defend the interests of the Russian people. But in fact they have been hoodwinked. Like Vyacheslav Isayev and Mikhail Volkov, two of the defendants in the BORN trial.

Ukraine and Television: “Discrediting the Very Idea of Protesting”
Many people are too susceptible to television, to what they hear said on it. We have returned to 2004, when Maidan was a threat to the Russian regime. As then, our country’s authorities are trying to discredit the very idea of protesting against an existing regime.

We all remember the invasion of Crimea by “polite people.” It is clear that Ukraine has the right to resist—not their own populace, of course, but the armed men who entered their country and occupied government buildings. They entered the country, occupied cities, cut off access to information from the outside world, and pumped people full of propaganda.

Russia has done much to ignite chauvinist attitudes in eastern Ukraine, but neither have the Ukrainian authorities used all the means they have for negotiating. They should have introduced institutions of political competition and made their arguments with words. It would have been much better if they had tried to use democratic levers.

I know what European integration is fraught with. In Ukraine, all the political forces got behind integration with Europe. And then Russia suddenly adopted an antiglobalist stance. Yet it was obvious that being in a customs union with Russia would not have brought Ukraine any benefits. It needed reforms: hence the decision to unite with Europe. I do not agree with this decision, but I understand the arguments in its favor. At any rate, the choice for European integration was democratic. It is also telling that Maidan did not go massive when integration was being discussed, but only after the police forcibly dispersed a student demonstration.

I have much less access to information than people on the outside, but I believe the referendum in Crimea was held in such a way that it is impossible to say whether it was conducted properly or not. It is not possible to determine this right now, because even the current mood is largely shaped by propaganda that is broadcast in the absence of an alternative viewpoint. I cannot imagine holding a fair referendum at the moment, unless, perhaps, Ukrainian TV channels were allowed on the air there.

The question is who, exactly, will bear responsibility for its having happened this way.

Outcomes and Know-How: Why Be Involved in Russian Politics Today?
The verdict in our case, the closure of independent media, and all the hypocrisy around events in eastern Ukraine point to the fact the Kremlin has adopted a policy of self-preservation. This entire authoritarian system has begun to rot, but there are things allowing it to remain afloat. That is why it has to nurture the oligarchic elite, cops, and FSB officers.

This year has shown that banking on a majority consolidated at Ukraine’s expense and shutting out the twenty per cent who are dissatisfied with current policies is impossible without the loss of economic prosperity. Everyone has now been talking about restructuring our country’s resource-based economy. But why was this impossible to do over the past fifteen years?

You cannot constantly tighten the screws without the public welfare’s deteriorating. I have no illusions about violent revolution: however many people take to the streets and whatever it is they might oppose, there will always be more people from the security forces. So people have two ways of making an impact now: the first is going out and voicing their concerns, while is the second is quiet sabotage—leaving the country, not investing in anything. I know there are many people in business who are leaving because they cannot breathe here. The authorities can, of course, use the same scheme as they did on Bolotnaya Square, but that will trigger another outflow of people and capital; even more money will be taken out of the country. There will be fewer and fewer resources, but the salaries of the cops will still have to be paid. This, in turn, will lead to a split within the elite.

The current power structure is similar, in some sense, to the structure of BORN: it is just as completely opaque. Because of this, complete morons can be wind up at any point in the decision-making chain.

My sense is that the authorities will soon be forced to liberalize, to back off a bit. There will be breaks for businesses. For some, this will be enough to continue developing them. We will return to the old, slow path of growth. Maybe in some ways this is better than this crackdown and gradual slide into hell. They might stop dispersing opposition rallies or not jail Alexei Navalny, for example. The regime has many ways of avoiding a deplorable sequence of events.

Ukraine has shown that this pro-government crowd, who occupy niche positions, can just up and disappear one fine day. A year ago, no one knew that there would be tours of Yanukovych’s residence. When this happens, the old system has to be replaced with something.

The difference between federal and local politics in Russia is still not very great. This was shown well by the recent elections in my hometown of Zhukovsky, where local activists ran for city council and got half the votes, but in the end only two of them won seats.* This is not a good outcome. It has been impossible for activists to have an impact on anything. It did not work out when they wanted to defend a forest. The authorities shut down all such grassroots pressure campaigns.

It is not the outcome that matters nowadays, however, but the process of being involved, because what remains is a community with experience of solving problems. That community is not going away. And if certain changes suddenly begin in the country, then it is certainly a good thing such communities will already be there at the local level and can be the basis of new institutions. Yes, many people are now demoralized, but the desire to get justice and resist thievery has not faded.

Jail, Bolotnaya Square, and Me
I am certain that nothing would have changed had I not gone to the May 6, 2012, opposition protest on Bolotnaya Square, for example. No matter what I did, strange criminal charges would have been filed against me anyway. This is evident even from the news, where everything is presented in such a way that even popular TV presenters Tatyana Lazareva and Mikhail Shats, who were on the Opposition Coordinating Council [along with Gaskarov], are depicted as criminals.

The point is not Bolotnaya specifically, but the fact that if you are involved in activism, criminal investigations will be opened against you. That rubbish with Navalny and the stolen picture is a specific story stemming from Bolotnaya Square. I did foresee that this might happen.

I have no particular hopes for another amnesty. I have the sense the authorities might go for an amnesty for people convicted of economic crimes, because there is a theory that they could help improve the current economy, that the businessmen will one way or another add a fraction of a per cent to economic growth. The authorities could decide to do this. As for us, I have huge doubts. In prison, though, people always pin great hopes on amnesties. In reality, all the prisons are overcrowded: in violation of all European standards, there are two and half meters of living space per prisoner. And when Putin said, recently, that amnesties need not happen too often, he cannot but have known that practically no one got out under the first prisoner amnesty.

You can survive in the pre-trial detention facility, of course. There are no rats running around in the cell or moldy walls in here. And they take us out for a walk every day. True, the courtyard here is bare, and you cannot even see the trees. It is hard to keep track of the seasons: time flows differently on the inside. In short, they do not let you forget you are not at a health spa.

In terms of building relationships, the experience I gained while jailed for two months in the case of the attack on the Khimki town hall has come in handy here. I am used to the fact that people come and go at the pre-trial detention facility. You come across different characters. Recently, there was a guy in here who had lived in the woods for two months. He had been working in construction when he got screwed out of his pay. He didn’t know what to do and went into the woods. He drank hawthorn berry tincture there and had become something like a vagrant. He was nicked for stealing a bike.

I really want all political prisoners released as quickly as possible. And not only released, but released into a free country. I would like the space in which we all have to live to be freed up, to be less gloomy. This is my wish. That a thaw finally comes.

* City council elections took place in Zhukovsky, a town of 105,000 residents forty kilometers southeast of Moscow, on September 14, 2014, Russian general election day. Observers reported massive vote rigging, ballot box stuffing, and tampering with vote tally reports by polling station officials. A month later, members of the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights brought the matter to the attention of Vladimir Putin. The president promised to order the prosecutor’s office to investigate the election violations in Zhukovsky, but the outcome of the election has still not been officially challenged or amended.

Editor’s Note. This translation was previously published, with an excellent introduction and afterword by Gabriel Levy, on People and Nature. Translated by The Russian Reader.