Maria Kuvshinova: What Sentsov Could Die For

What Sentsov Could Die For
Maria Kuvshinova
Colta.Ru
May 25, 2018

Detailed_pictureOleg Sentsov. Photo by Sergei Pivovarov. Courtesy of RIA Novosti and Colta.Ru 

On May 14, 2018, Oleg Sentsov went on an indefinite hunger strike in a penal colony located north of the Arctic Circle. His only demand is the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. According to Memorial’s list, there are twenty-four such prisoners.

In August 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to twenty years for organizing a terrorist community and planning terrorist attacks. The second defendant in the case, Alexander Kolchenko, was sentenced to ten years in prison. Mediazona has published transcripts of the hearings in their trial. Around three hundred people have read them over the last three years. The transcripts make it plain the only evidence of the alleged terrorist organization’s existence was the testimony of Alexei Chirniy, who was not personally acquainted with Sentsov. It is police footage of Chirniy’s arrest while he was carrying a rucksack containing a fake explosive device that propagandists often pass off as police footage of Sentsov’s arrest.

Before his arrest, Sentsov was an Automaidan activist. In the spring of 2014, he organized peaceful protests against Crimea’s annexation by Russia.

“Yesterday’s ‘suicide bomber auto rally’ took place in Simferopol yesterday, but in quite abridged form,” Sentsov wrote on Facebook on March 12, 2014. “Only eight cars, six reporters with cameras, and twenty-five activists/passengers assembled at the starting point. I would have liked to have seen more. Unfortunately, most of the armchair revolutionaries who were invited were afraid to go. The traffic cops and regular police also showed up at the starting line, insisting we not leave for our own safety. We told them our protest was peaceful. We had no plans of breaking the rules, so we suggested they escort us to keep the peace for everyone’s sake.”

The second defendant, Kolchenko, admitted involvement in the arson of an office that was listed in the case file as belonging to the United Russia Party, but which in April 2014 was an office of Ukraine’s Party of Regions. The arson took place at night. It was meant to cause physical damage while avoiding injuring anyone.

The Russian authorities tried to prove both Sentsov and Kolchenko were linked with Right Sector, a charge that was unsubstantiated in Sentsov’s case and absurd in the latter case due to Kolchenko’s well-known leftist and anarchist convictions. Gennady Afanasyev, the second witness on whose testimony the charges against the two men were based, claimed he had been tortured and coerced into testifying against them.

Sentsov and Kolchenko’s show trial, like the show trials in the Bolotnaya Square Case, were supposed to show that only a handful of terrorists opposed the referendum on Crimea’s annexation and thus intimidate people who planned to resist assimilation. The Russian authorities wanted to stage a quick, one-off event to intimidate and crack down on anti-Russian forces. But two circumstances prevented the repressive apparatus from working smoothly. The first was that the defendants did not make a deal with prosecutors and refused to acknowledge the trial’s legitimacy. The second was that Automaidan activist Oleg Sentsov unexpectedly turned out to be a filmmaker, provoking a series of public reactions ranging from protests by the European Film Academy to questions about whether cultural producers would be capable of blowing up cultural landmarks. Segments of the Russian film community reacted to the situation with cold irritation. According to them, Sentsov was a Ukrainian filmmaker, not a Russian filmmaker, and he was not a major filmmaker. The owner of a computer club in Simferopol, his semi-amateur debut film, Gamer, had been screened at the festivals in Rotterdam and Khanty-Mansiysk, while release of his second picture, Rhino, had been postponed due to Euromaidan.

The Ukrainian intelligentsia have equated Sentsov with other political prisoners of the empire, such as the poet Vasyl Stus, who spent most of his life in Soviet prisons and died in Perm-36 in the autumn of 1985, a week after he had gone on yet another hunger strike. The Ukrainian authorities see Sentsov, a Crimean who was made a Russian national against his will and is thus not eligible for prisoner exchanges, as inconvenient, since he smashes the stereotype of the treacherous peninsula, a part of Ukraine bereft of righteous patriots. Sentsov’s death on the eve of the 2018 FIFA World Cup would be a vexing, extremely annoying nuisance to the Russian authorities.

Sentsov is an annoyance to nearly everyone, but he is a particular annoyance to those people who, while part of the Russian establishment, have openly defended him, although they have tried with all their might to avoid noticing what an inconvenient figure he has been. Although he was not a terrorist when he was arrested, he has become a terrorist of sorts in prison, because his trial and his hunger strike have been a slowly ticking time bomb planted under the entire four-year-long post-Crimean consensus, during which some have been on cloud nine, others have put down stakes, and still others have kept their mouths shut. Yet everyone reports on the success of their new endeavors on Facebook while ignoring wars abroad and torture on the home front. Sentsov represents a rebellion against hybrid reality and utter compromise, a world in which Google Maps tells you Crimea is Russian and Ukrainian depending on your preferences. To what count does “bloodlessly” annexed Crimea belong, if, four years later, a man is willing to die to say he does not recognize the annexation?

The success of Gamer on the film festival circuit, which made Sentsov part of the international film world, and his current address in a prison north of the Arctic Circle beg three questions. What is culture? Who produces culture? What stances do cultural producers take when they produce culture? There are several possible answers. Culture is a tool for reflection, a means for individuals and societies to achieve self-awareness and define themselves. It is not necessarily a matter of high culture. In this case, we could also be talking about pop music, fashion, and rap. (See, for example, the recent documentary film Fonko, which shows how spontaneous music making has gradually been transformed into a political force in post-colonial Africa.) On the contrary, culture can be a means of spending leisure time for people with sufficient income, short work days, and long weekends.

Obviously, the culture produced in Russia today under the patronage of Vladimir Medinsky’s Culture Ministry is not the first type of culture, with the exception of documentary theater and documentary cinema, but the founders of Theater.Doc have both recently died, while Artdocfest has finally been forced to relocate to Riga. The compromised, censored “cultural production” in which all the arts have been engaged has no way of addressing any of the questions currently facing Russia and the world, from shifts in how we view gender and the family (for which you can be charged with the misdemeanor of “promoting homosexualism”) to the relationship between the capitals and regions (for which you can charged with the felony of “calling for separatism”). Crimea is an enormous blank spot in Russian culture. Donbass and the rest of Ukraine, with which Russia still enjoyed vast and all-pervasive ties only five years ago, are blank spots. But cultural producers have to keep on making culture, and it is easier to say no one is interested in painful subjects and shoot a film about the complicated family life of a doctor with a drinking problem and a teetotalling nurse.

When we speak of the second type of culture—culture as leisure—we primarily have in mind Moscow, which is brimming over with premieres, lectures, and exhibitions, and, to a much lesser extent, Russia’s other major cities. So, in a country whose population is approaching 150 million people, there is a single international film festival staged by a local team for its hometown, Pacific Meridian in Vladivostok. All the rest are produced by Moscow’s itinerant three-ring circus on the paternalist model to the delight of enlightened regional governors. It matters not a whit that one of them ordered a brutal assault on a journalist, nor that another was in cahoots with the companies responsible for safety at the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam, where 75 people perished in 2009. What matters is that the festival movement should go on. There is no room in this model for local cultural progress. There can be no free discussion generated by works of art when everyone is engaged in total self-censorship. After I went to Festival 86 in Slavutych, whose curators have been conceptually reassessing the post-Soviet individual and the post-Soviet space, I found it painful to think about Russian film festivals. This sort of focused conceptualization is impossible in Russia. It is of no interest to anyone.

There are two more possible answers to the question of what culture is. Culture is propaganda. Or, finally, culture is only the marquee on a commercial enterprise profiting at the taxpayer’s expense. It is not a big choice, and the kicker is that by agreeing today to be involved in churning out propaganda, milking taxpayers, supplying optional leisure time activities, producing censored works, and colonizing one’s own countrymen for the sake of money, status, and membership in a professional community, the people involved in these processes automatically stop making sense. It is naïve to think the audience has not noticed this forfeiture. It is no wonder the public has an increasingly hostile reaction to cultural producers and their work.

No one has the guts to exit this vicious circle even in protest at the slow suicide of a colleague convicted on trumped-up charges, because it would not be “practical.” The events of recent months and years, however, should have transported us beyond dread, since everyone without exception is now threatened with being sent down, the innocent and the guilty alike.

Post-Soviet infantilism is total. It affects the so-called intelligentsia no less than the so-called ordinary folk. Infantilism means being unable to empathize, being unable to put yourself in another person’s shoes, even if that person is President Putin, a man with a quite distinct sense of ethics, a man who has been studied backwards and forwards for twenty years. Apparently, the message sent to the creative communities through the arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov was not registered. If you want to be a dissident, start down the hard road of doing jail time for misdemeanor charges, facing insuperable difficulties in renting performance and exhibition spaces, becoming an outsider, and experiencing despair. If you want a big theater in downtown Moscow, play by the rules. Like your average late-Soviet philistine, Putin regarded the creative intelligentsia with respect at the outset of his presidential career. (See, for example, footage from his visit to Mosfilm Studios in 2003.) However, a few years later, he was convinced the creative intelligentsia was a rampantly conformist social group who would never move even a millimeter out of its comfort zone and would make one concession after another. A lack of self-respect always generates disrespect in counterparts.

By signing open letters while remaining inside the system and not backing their words with any actions whatsoever, the cultural figures currently protesting the arrests of colleagues are viewed by the authorities as part of the prison’s gen pop, while people who live outside Moscow see them as accomplices in looting and genocide. No one takes seriously the words of people who lack agency. Agency is acquired only by taking action, including voluntarily turning down benefits for the sake of loftier goals. The acquisition of agency is practical, because it is the only thing that compels other people to pay heed to someone’s words. I will say it again: the acquisition of agency is always practical. At very least, it generates different stances from which to negotiate.

Sentsov has made the choice between sixteen years of slow decay in a penal colony and defiant suicide in order to draw attention not to his own plight, but to the plight of other political prisoners. Regardless of his hunger strike’s outcome, he has generated a new scale for measuring human and professional dignity. It is an personal matter whether we apply the scale or not, but now it is impossible to ignore.

Thanks to Valery Dymshits for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Advertisements

The Socialist Revolutionary Alternative

Socialist Revolutionary election poster, 1917. “Party of the Socialist Revolutionaries. Through struggle you will attain your rights. Land and freedom.” Courtesy of Wikimedia

The SR Alternative
Yaroslav Shimov
Radio Svoboda
March 8, 2017

“On the morning of February 23, the workers who had reported to the factories and shops of the Vyborg District gradually downed tools and took to the streets in crowds, thus voicing their protest and discontent over bread shortages, which had been particularly acutely felt in the above-named factory district, where, according to local police, many had not had any bread whatsoever in recent days.”

Thus read a report by agents of the Okhrana on the first day of a revolution that forever changed Russia, February 23, 1917 (March 8, New Style).

Revolutionary events such as the unrest in Petrograd, which the bewildered tsarist regime failed to put down, Nicholas II’s abdication on March 2 (15) at Dno Station near Pskov, and the establishment of the Provisional Government were recalled by contemporaries as happening so swiftly that they were unable to understand where Russia was headed so wildly and who would ultimately benefit from the changes. In February 1917, no one would have predicted that less than year later the Bolsheviks, a radical faction of the Social Democrats who had been on the sidelines of Russian politics, would emerge victorious, and Bolshevik leaders themselves were no exception in this regard.

But an enormous thirst for social justice was apparent from the revolution’s outset. Russia had emerged a quite leftist country. In the stormy months following the monarchy’s fall, it transpired that a definite majority of the country’s citizens sympathized with socialist ideas in one form or another. This was reflected in the outcome of the first free elections in Russian history, which took place in the autumn, when the chaos and anarchy on the war front and the home front were obvious. The newly elected Constituent Assembly was meant to define the country’s future. The Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), a party that had consistently, albeit violently and bloodily, waged war against the Romanov Dynasty, but in 1917 had favored peaceful but radical reforms, primarily land reforms, scored a convincing victory in the elections.

Soldiers who had gone over to the revolution and armed city dwellers on the streets of Petrograd, 1917

If the country had managed to slip past the threat of dictatorship, issuing from the left (the Bolsheviks) and from the right (radical counter-revolutonaries), the SRs would definitely have been post-revolutionary Russia’s ruling party for a time, argues Konstantin Morozov, a professor in the Institute of Social Sciences at RANEPA and convener of a permanent seminar, Leftists in Russia: History and Public Memory. In an interview with Radio Svoboda, he reflects on why this did not happen and what the SR alternative would have meant to Russia.

*****

What was the condition of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in February 1917?

I would say the the party was then in a state of organization disarray. A considerable part of its prominent leaders was abroad, while the other part was in prison, exile, and penal servitude. It had to be rebuilt from scratch, and it was the SRs who had withdrawn from revolutionary work in 1905–07 but who basically returned to the party in 1917 who mainly engaged in the rebuilding. It was they who organized all the party’s new cells. There were also serious problems among the SRs in terms of internal rifts, especially due to differing viewpoints on the war.  In March, the SRs began to rebuild themselves as a single party, which was implemented subsequently at the party’s 3rd Congress in May and June. In my view, this was a mistake, because the disagreements within the party were such that it could not function, manage itself, and take decisions as a united party. A factional struggle immediately ensued. Accordingly, it ended in collapse and the inability to hew to a single internal party policy in 1917.

Due to the first phase of their history, the SRs are associated in the popular imagination with violence and terrorism, which they had long renounced by 1917. What were the views of the SRs and the leaders on violence as a principle of political struggle? The baggage of their terrorist pasts still haunted Viktor Chernov and other party leaders, after all. How did they view it in 1917?

The Socialist Revolutionary Party discussed the question of terrorism throughout its existence. At first, such figures as Mikhail Gots and Viktor Chernov, who advocated he inclusion of terror in the party’s tactics, had the upper hand. But even then the SRs included people who advocated a popular, mass-based party, who favored propaganda and agitation among the peasantry and proletariat rather than focusing on terror. Their ideal was a grassroots socialist party, something like the Second International’s exemplary party, the German Social Democracy. It went from bad to worse. During the 1905 Revolution, the party’s grassroots combat squads were keen on practicing expropriation and many other things that party leaders dubbed “revolutionary hooliganism.” But after 1909–11, in the aftermath of Evno Azef‘s exposure, the voices of those SRs who had argued for giving up terrorism grew ever stronger. By February 1917, there was no longer any talk of terror. The last terrorist act carried out by SRs had taken place in 1911, after which they basically ceased engaging in terrorism. Terrorist sentiments in the Socialist Revolutionary Party were resurrected only in the wake of October 1917, especially after the Bolsheviks forcibly disbanded the Constituent Assembly. Even then, however, the greater number of SR leaders were against engaging in terrorism against the Bolsheviks. These SR leaders argued that first they had to get the grassroots on their side using the methods of a popular political party.

In his memoirs, Boris Savinkov quotes his friend Ivan Kalyayev, a member of the SR Combat Organization who killed the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Kalyayev said that an SR without a bomb was not an SR. In reality, however, the majority of SRs were not involved in terrorism, and they would have disagreed with Kalyayev’s statement. It can be argued that use of terrorist tactics dealt a huge blow to the Socialist Revolutionaries who wanted the party to be a grassroots socialist party, a party that could carry out the will of Russia’s “triune working class” (in which the SRs included the proletariat, the working peasantry, and the working intelligentsia), and a party that proposed an evolutionary and democratic path to progress. Essentially, the SRs were not terrorists, of course. They had more or less given up terrorism in 1911. What mattered politically was that they were able to propose a program, both agrarian and federalist, that excited the sympathies of millions of people. By the autumn of 1917, the Socialist Revolutionary Party had more than a million members, while the Bolsheviks had only 350,000 members. Most important, the SRs won the elections to the Constituent Assembly, taking 41% of the vote.

Эсеровский террор начала ХХ века: уничтоженная бомбой террориста карета министра внутренних дел Вячеслава Плеве, убитого 15 (28) июля 1904 года в Петербурге
SR terrorism in the early 20th century: the carriage of Interior Minister Vyacheslav Pleve, killed on July 15 (28), 1904, in St. Petersburg

So 1917 was the heyday for the SRs: they had a million members, and they won the elections to the Constituent Assembly. Why, ultimately, were they unable to take advantage of this? How did it happen that the SRs,  despite their popularity, ceded power to the Bolsheviks later as well, despite attempts to the contrary? What predetermined their failure?

There are two sets of causes, objective and subjective, meaning, the mistakes made by the SRs themselves. What I think is fundamentally important is that it is extremely difficult to campaign for democratic reforms while a world war is underway. The fact that the Revolution took place during the First World War considerably predetermined the entire subsequent course of events. What is a world war? On the one hand, it involves a collapse in living standards and a aggravation of all the contradictions that have been accumulating in society over decades. On the other hand, it involves millions of people getting used to killing other people. This causes quite serious psychological changes. Extreme cruelty is combined with societal expectations pushed to the limit. These expectations had amassed to such an extent that in 1917 very many people wanted everything right away. Say, workers were no longer satisfied they had trade unions that the selfsame socialists would meet halfway. The workers wanted more. They wanted control and management of the factories. Practically, the Mensheviks and SRs could not take this step, because it would have led to serious industrial management issues. And the peasants wanted the land right away.

Here we turn to the mistakes made by the Socialist Revolutionaries. It was wrong to delay the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. Rather, it was wrong to go along with the liberals in the Provisional Government, the Kadets, who tried to postpone the Constituent Assembly any way they could. The liberals realized the leftist parties were stronger. They would have an outright majority in the Constituent Assembly, and consequently the peasantry and proletariat would get much of what they had been demanding. So the Kadets postponed the Constituent Assembly. That was a big, serious mistake.

Did the subjective factor play a role in the fact that the SRs failed? Let’s take a closer look. On the one hand, they were a party who styled themselves as the party of “land and freedom.” They were supported by the peasants. On the other hand, most SR leaders were members of the urban intelligentsia, not the salt of the earth. Did this contradiction factor in the SR electoral victory, but one in which their supporters were unwilling to secure their political power?

It was a lot more interesting than that. The program for socializing land ownership, advocated by the SRs, did not fall out of the sky. It was the outcome of quite serious work on the part of Populist economists and sociologists. It was revenge, if you like, for the failure of the “going to the people” campaign of 1874. In the aftermath, Populist economists, sociologists, and statisticians undertook a serious study of how peasants really lived. Within twenty or thirty years, they had figured out how the Russian peasantry really lived and what it wanted. The SRs based their own land socialization program on this research. Moreover, the SRs tended not to act like typical Russian intelligentsia, who often preferred philosophizing and imposing their own values on others. The SRs always tried to maintain feedback from the peasantry. I came across a quite curious document, a survey of sorts, which the SR Central Committee sent out in 1906 or 1907 to their local organizations, who were supposed to conduct this sociological survey, which asked peasants about their attitudes towards the regime, the army, and the clergy, and what they thought about the land, and how it should be distributed and managed. So it was no wonder the Socialist Revolutionary Party and their program, crafted over many years and through the efforts of many people, were seen by the peasants as their party and their program. On the other hand, there was a fairly powerful peasant lobby in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The grassroots level of party activists and functionaries consisted of the so-called popular intelligentsia: physician’s assistants, schoolteachers, agronomists, surveyors, and foresters.

Один из самых известных эсеров, Борис Савинков, в юности. Фото из полицейского досье
One of the most prominent SRs, Boris Savinkov, in his youth. Photos from his police file

The problem was that the SRs did not fully take the peasantry’s interests into account in 1917. The revolutionary authorities were afraid to cede land to the peasants, because, on the one hand, the army’s quartermasters argued that the supply of provisions to the army would immediately collapse. On the other hand, there were fears that the rank-and-file soldiers, who were actually peasants dressed in greatcoats, would immediately desert the front and run home.  Later, at the party’s Fourth Congress, Yevgeniya Ratner, a member of the SR Central Committee, put it quite aptly. She said that for the war’s sake, for the front’s sake, they were forced into compromises with the bourgeois parties and thus were unable to defend the class interests of the peasantry and workers, and this was their huge guilt in the face of history. According to Ratner, they should have convoked the Constituent Assembly two or three month earlier, i.e., in August or September 1917, and set out to implement agrarian reforms. We should point out that some of the SRs had wanted to do this: Chernov, for example, insisted on it. There were ideas for forming a socialist government. In September 1917, the SR Central Committee was leaning towards this option.

By a socialist governmment, do you mean one that would have included all leftist parties, including the Bolsheviks?

There were two options. The first was the most leftist and quite adventuresome, or at least it seemed that way to the SRs themselves. It was proposed by Maria Spiridonova. She suggested the SRs should simply take power and form their own homogeneous SR government.

Meaning, they should have done what the Bolsheviks did finally?

It’s another matter that the Bolsheviks immediately set about tweaking their slogans and their actions. That is, they adopted the same slogans, but over time all of this was transformed into something else entirely. But getting back to the SRs, the majority of them wanted a coalition socialist government that would have included the Bolsheviks. At some point after October 1917, there were negotiations between the Bolsheviks and the socialist parties about forming such a government, but without Lenin and Trotsky. It was Lenin who in many ways destroyed this option. Was the formation of a socialist government a viable alternative if it had been agreed, say, in September? I think so. This would have been followed by elections to the Constituent Assembly, where the socialist parties obtained a majority. The SRs took the top spot, and the Bolsheviks won 25%, meaning they were the second largest faction. Clearly, they would have carried a lot of weight, but this course of events would, nevertheless, have made it possible to maintain a parliamentary democracy. Obviously, after a while, the SRs would have lost power in elections, as we see in Europe, where power swings back and forth between the right and the left. There was a chance then to set up a similar scheme for changing power through democratic procedures, via parliament. After all, the Constituent Assembly was highly regarded in society. It had been elected in the first genuinely free ballot in Russian history.

You have already touched a bit on the period after the Bolshevik coup. But let’s go back in time a bit. One of the key figures of 1917 was Alexander Kerensky. How did the other SRs regard him, and what role did he ultimately play in the party’s history?

It’s a very good question, but before answering it, I would like to voice a more general consideration. You just mentioned the “Bolshevik coup.” On the one hand, centrist and Right SRs used the term themselves. On the other hand, the Left SRs and anarchists would later come to favor the concept of a single Russian revolution that lasted from 1917 to 1921. That is, they saw it as a unified revolutionary process in which there was February and October, followed by the civil war. Currently, this is more or less how it is discussed. Those who rejected the concept argued that October 1917 was not a revolution on its own terms, because it did not involve a spontaneous popular movement. Until the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks themselves would also often speak of a coup, of their coup. But some of the SRs, Mark Vishnyak, for example, rightly noted, in my opinion, that the events of October 1917 could be interpreted as a sort of “staff revolution,” organized from above. It was a symbiosis of a revolutionary process with traits of a coup. When someone simply speaks of a coup, that is not entirely right, because there was definitely support from the workers and soldiers. Besides, the word “coup” itself suggests an analogy with Latin American-style military coups. Whatever the case, we must continue to make sense of those events conceptually.

What if we return to Kerensky?

The SR leadership definitely saw Kerensky as a fellow traveler, as the term was then. He had been in the SR movement during the Revolution of 1905–07. Elected as an MP to the State Duma, he tried to unite different Populist groups. On the other hand, some SRs might have simply envied him. Kerensky was one of the most popular people in Russia. Socialist Revolutionaries who had spent years fighting in the underground and building the party, wound up in the background, while he, who had declared himself an SR, was regarded by society in 1917 as the most important SR. Chernov had harsh things to say about Kerensky. According to Chernov, Kerensky played a quite negative role in the Socialist Revolutionary Party, because he had almost no contact with the SR leadership and did not follow the Central Committee’s instructions. The Right SRs and right-centrists supported Kerensky, while the Left SRs tried to break with him. At the party’s Third Congress, in May and June 1917, the Left SRs sabotaged Kerensky’s election to the party’s Central Committee.  He was rejected outright. It was a real slap in the face.

Александр Керенский, министр-председатель Временного правительства, стал в 1917 году символом демократической России и ее краха
Alexander Kerensky, chair of the Provisional Government, was a symbol of democratic Russia and its collapse in 1917.

What does that tell us? That, unlike the Bolsheviks, the SRs were not a leaderist party, remaining a more collectivist force?

Democrats are generally less inclined to leaderism, and this was fully borne out by the SRs. This does not mean there were no authoritarians among the SRs. It was another matter that the leaders had to adapt to the moods and ideas of the revolutionary milieu, to the subculture of the Russian revolutionary movement. The notions of decentralization, self-reliance, and independence fromthe leadership were quite strong in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Initially, they had a sort of collective leadership. At various times, it consisted of different people, usually three or four people. Plus, we have to speak here of three or four generations of SRs. The first generation had been been members of the People’s Will, while the last generation joined the party in 1923–24. Meaning, we are looking at a fairly complicated picture. But generally, yes, there was no single leader. Many historians and contemporaries were of the opinion this was a cause of the failure of the SRs in 1917. Chernov argued that if Gots and Grigory Gershuni had still been alive, the three of them could have led the party in 1917. Gershuni was highly charismatic, even more charismatic than Lenin, and perhaps he would have had a chance to keep the party under control. On the one hand, there is a certain point to these hypotheses, but we have to consider the weakness and division existing within the party at the time of the revolution, in particular, the strong differences between the SRs on the issue of the war. Very many people regarded Chernov as a good theorist, but not as a leader and organizer. However, he had the outstanding ability to reconcile different points of view, and he played a unifying role. His opponents dubbed him the “universal bandage.”

Let’s try and sum up. Should we regard the SRs as a failed historical alternative to Bolshevism? Or, given their looseness and perennial internal division, did the SRs nevertheless lack the strength, ideas, and people to lay claim to a truly great historical role?

I think that victory in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, in which they received a plurality and, in fact, adopted the first two laws, including the law socializing land ownership, were in fact the beginnings of a democratic alternative, an SR alternative. Would they have been able to lead the country down this road? I support the viewpoint of my German colleague Manfred Hildermeier, who as early as 1992 wrote in an article that, since one of Russian’s main problems was the huge gap between city and country, the SRs were well suited to play the role of a party voicing the interests of the peasantry, proletariat, and intelligentsia. I would also add we should not exaggerate the extreme peasantness of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. If you look at their program, you see they attempted to unite a European conception of socialism with certain nativist ideas. They argued that the peasantry’s skull was no worse than the skulls of the proletariat and intelligentsia, and was quite capable of taking the ideas of socialism on board. It was one of the first attempts in the world to fuse European values and ideas of modernization with the values of a traditional society, to merge a significant part of the Russian peasantry into the new society as painlessly as possible. The SRs assumed that for many decades to come progress would follow the bourgeois path and there would be a market economy: socialism would not soon emerge. In this sense, they were evolutionists. They were essentially the first to propose an idea that is currently quite fashionable around the world, the idea of peripheral capitalism, according to which capitalism in developed countries and capitalism in second-tier and third-tier countries are completely different things. In peripheral capitalist countries, including Russia, capitalism shows it most predatory features and is the most destructive.

Мария Спиридонова, будущий лидер левых эсеров, в юные годы
Maria Spiridonova, future leader of the Left SRs, in her youth

The SRs also argued the Russian people were definitely capable of adapting to democracy. Moreover, they thought that the Russian traditions of liberty and community self-government afforded an opportunity for magnificent democratic progress as such. The SRs wanted to unlock the people’s democratic collectivist potential. By the way, they did not idealize the peasant commune, arguing it had to be transformed, of course. They counted on the cooperative movement, which had progressed quite powerfully in early twentieth-century Russia. It was entirely under the ideological leadership of the SRs. They believed it was necessary to rely on the working peasant economy. It would then be possible to modernize the country and eventually follow a socialist path. The main thing was that despite a certain utopianism to their views, the SRs were capable of evolving, of course. Another important thing was that the SRs, more than the other parties, were capable of acting as a venue for reconciling different interests. This is basically the road European social democracy took. However, the party’s looseness and internal conflicts were important features of its history. I think that sooner or later the Socialist Revolutionary Part would definitely have split into several parties. If we speak of the SRs as a democratic alternative, then the Maximalists and Left SRs do not fit this bill. Unlike the other SRs, they cannot be considered adherents of democratic socialism. By the way, the SRs and Mensheviks used this term quite vigorously from the 1920s onwards. Later, in the mid twentieth century, the European socialist parties would also speak of democratic socialist values. From this perspective, some SRs and Mensheviks were, undoubtedly, adherents of democratic socialism, which gave rise to the Socialist International.

********

The demise of the Socialist Revolutionary Party was tragic. During the Russian Civil War, the SRs finally split. The Right SRs were involved in the anti-Bolshevik movement, while the Left SRs tended to collaborate with the Bolsheviks. In the summer of 1918, however, finally convinced that Lenin and his entourage were taking Russia down the road to dictatorship, the Left SRs undertook a failed attempt to overthrow “commissarocracy,” their term for the Communist regime. In the 1920s, the party was finally finished off. In the summer of 1922, twelve SR leaders were sentenced to death at a special trial. The executions, however, were postponed, turning the convicts into hostages in case the remnants of the Socialist Revolutionary Party decided to return to its terrorist methods, now against the Communist regime. One SR leader, Yevgeniya Ratner, was held in prison with her young son, causing her to complain to Dzerzhinsky. Subsequently, their death sentences were commuted to various terms of imprisonment and exile. Most prominent SRs who stayed in Russia were victims of the Stalinist crackdowns. Several former SRs, including Maria Spiridonova and her husband Ilya Mayorov, were among those massacred in the Medvedev Forest, outside Orlyov, in September 1941.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up

Fighting the “Faggot Kids” in Russia

LGBT Teens Called “Faggot Kids” at Meeting with Russian Children’s Ombudsman
Ruposters.ru
November 2, 2016

Russian Children’s Rights Ombudsman Anna Kuznetsova

During a meeting in Tula featuring children’s ombudsman Anna Kuznetsova, homosexual teens were called “faggot kids,”  reports Kommersant newspaper

Denis Davydov,  director of the Safe Internet League, made the statement. Speaking at the meeting, he talked about the harassment organized against psychologist Lydia Matveeva. Her expert opinion had contributed to banning the [online] community Deti-404 (Children 404), which had helped gay children.

“Maybe you remember the website where underaged faggot kids held up signs and promoted this lifestyle?” said Davydov.

The remark provoked laughter in the auditorium. Davydov continued his speech, emphasizing that sects, “psychocults,” promotion of dangerous behavior and alternative realities, computer games, and “aggressive information” posed the main risks on the Internet to children.

Kuznetsova suggested tightening Article 110 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code (“Incitement to Suicide”) by adding a paragraph to the article that would outlaw “inclining minors to suicide” by virtual means.

In turn, Nikolai Abramov, deputy head of Roskomnadzor‘s Tula office, proposed leaving Russia with three to five access points to the world Internet and filtering all data through these points.

On September 9, President Vladimir Putin dismissed Pavel Astakhov from the post of presidential envoy for children’s rights and named Anna Kuznetsova to the post.

Translated by a Sack of Potatoes. Thanks to Comrade Sergey S.  for the heads-up

The People versus the Package

"I think therefore I'm a terrorist." Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg, July 22, 2016
“I think therefore I’m a terrorist.” Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg, July 22, 2016

Varya Mikhaylova
Facebook
July 23, 2016

It doesn’t matter whether you come to the people’s assembly against the so-called Yarovaya package at 7 p.m. on July 26 in front of the arch of the General Staff Building on Bolshaya Morskaya or not. There is already enough evidence to put you away.

***

On July 7, 2016, President Putin signed the so-called Yarovaya package, a series of flagrantly repressive amendments to the Russian Federal Criminal Code. The official objective of the amendments is to combat terrorism.

IF YOU DON’T INFORM YOU’LL GO TO JAIL
An article on non-informing has been added to the Criminal Code. “Failure to report a crime” will entail a sentence of up to one year in prison. This law applies to such crimes as terrorism, seizure of power, and attempts on the life of a public official.

ALL YOUR COMMUNICATIONS WILL BE SAVED AND READ
Monitoring of correspondence has been toughened. Records of all your telephone calls, SMS messages, and emails will be saved for six months, and the security forces will be provided with the means to decode encrypted communications.

"Words don't make me a criminal." Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg, July 22, 2016
“Words don’t make me a criminal.” Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg, July 22, 2016

YOUR PACKAGES WILL BE VETTED
Postal workers will now be obliged to search vigorously for prohibited items in our packages: money, narcotics, weapons, explosives, and “other devices that pose a threat to human life and health.”

YOU INVITED A FRIEND TO A PROTEST RALLY, YOU GO TO JAIL
The Criminal Code will now include an article on “inducing, recruiting or otherwise involving” someone in organizing a “riot.” The law stipulates a penalty of 300,000 to 700,000 rubles or a prison sentence of five to ten years.

YOU REPOST THE “WRONG” THING, YOU GO TO JAIL
The punishments for “extremist” entries, reposts, and comments on the web have been toughened. Despite the fact that freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Russian Constitution, you can now be fined from 300,000 to 500,000 rubles or sent to prison for two to five years for making certain statements. By the way, 369 people were convicted of “enciting hatred by means of the Internet” in 2015.

YOU’RE STILL A KID? YOU’RE GOING TO JAIL ANYWAY
14-year-olds will now be tried as adults not only for serious crimes but also for involvement in riots and non-informing.

At 7 p.m. on July 26, a people’s assembly on behalf of liberty and against the Yarovaya package will be held on Bolshaya Morskaya in the pedestrian area near the arch of the General Staff Building. The people’s assembly format does not permit the use of political symbols and placards. But no one can forbid us from going outside, talking about the Yarovaya package, and hoping the voice of peaceful protest will be heard.

More on the Yarovaya Package:

"Inform on me and maybe  you won't go to jail." Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg,  July 22, 2016
“Inform on me and maybe you won’t go to jail.” Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg, July 22, 2016

The Package

"My grandfather was imprisoned for a joke, while I'll go to jail for a repost."
“My grandfather was imprisoned for a joke, while I’ll be going to jail for a repost.”

Varya Mikhaylova
Facebook
June 24, 2016

As you know, the so-called Yarovaya package, a series of flagrantly repressive amendments to the Russian Federal Criminal Code, whose official aim is combating terrorism, was passed today by the State Duma in its third and final reading.

You can read here why this is bad:


Aleksandra Ermilova and I summarized the worst things about these amendments and went to Nevsky Prospect to hand out leaflets. Or rather, I handed out the leaflets, while Sasha stood holding a remarkable autobiographical placard [pictured, above].

This is what we wrote in the leaflets:

IF YOU DON’T INFORM YOU’LL GO TO JAIL
An article on non-informing has been added to the Criminal Code. “Failure to report a crime” will entail a sentence of up to one year in prison. This law applies to such crimes as terrorism, seizure of power, and attempts on the life of a public official.

ALL YOUR COMMUNICATIONS WILL BE SAVED AND READ
Monitoring of correspondence has been toughened. Records of all your telephone calls, SMS messages, and emails will be saved for six months, and the security forces will be provided with the means to decode encrypted communications.

YOUR PACKAGES WILL BE VETTED
Postal workers will now be obliged to search vigorously for prohibited items in our packages: money, narcotics, weapons, explosives, and “other devices that pose a threat to human life and health.”

YOU INVITED A FRIEND TO A PROTEST RALLY, YOU GO TO JAIL
The Criminal Code will now include an article on “inducing, recruiting or otherwise involving” someone in organizing a “riot.” The law stipulates a penalty of 300,000 to 700,000 rubles or a prison sentence of five to ten years.

YOU REPOST THE “WRONG” THING, YOU GO TO JAIL
The punishments for “extremist” entries, reposts, and comments on the web have been toughened. Despite the fact that freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Russian Constitution, you can now be fined from 300,000 to 500,000 rubles or sent to prison for two to five years for making certain statements. By the way, 369 people were convicted of “enciting hatred by means of the Internet” in 2015.

YOU’RE STILL A KID? YOU’RE GOING TO JAIL ANYWAY
14-year-olds will now be tried as adults not only for serious crimes but also for involvement in riots and non-informing.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Gleb Astafiev: Trampled by the Madding Herd

Gleb Astafiev
Gleb Astafiev

Trampled by the Madding Herd
Darina Shevchenko
16-year-old Gleb Astafiev is being tortured in a psychiatric hospital because of his picket in support of Pyotr Pavlensky
Radio Svoboda
June 11, 2016

In late May, Gleb Astafiev, a 16-year-old resident of the village of Ketovo in Kurgan Region, held a solo picket in defense of artist Pyotr Pavlensky,  then on trial in Moscow for setting fire to the doors of FSB headquarters. The young man sewed his mouth shut, grabbed a placard on which he had written the inscription “Pyotr Pavlensky’s action was a replay of Varg Vikernes‘s famous gesture,” and stood next to a store in downtown Kurgan. This was a reference to Pyotr Pavlensky’s first action, Seam (July 23, 2012), in which the artist sewed his mouth shut and took to the streets of Petersburg with a placard that read, “Pussy Riot’s action was a replay of the famous action by Jesus Christ.”

Astafiev was taken to a police station, and then sent to the Kurgan Regional Neuropsychiatric Hospital.

On the day Pavlensky was released, Astafiev was able to access the Internet for the first time during the thirteen days of his incarceration at the mental hospital and contact the outside world. He told Radio Svoboda how he had wound up in the hospital and what was happening to him.

Gleb, who sent you to the psychiatric hospital?

After the police detained me when the picket was over, my mother talked for two hours with them. I think they did a number on Mom, because she came back for me accompanied by an ambulance crew, and I was hauled off to the looney bin. My mom thinks I am crazy. She is convinced that normal people don’t sew their mouths shut and take to the streets bearing placards. Mom is a simple woman, and she doesn’t understand my action was an artistic metaphor. The closed mouth is a symbol of the absence of freedom of speech in Russia. My mom watches TV too much, so her mind has been warped by propaganda. It’s very hard to explain the message of my action to her. Mother did not support my creative experiments, but after the action she got angry at me. She doesn’t even bring food to the hospital. Grandmother, on the contrary, has been treating me better since the action. Now she sympathizes with me. The relatives are not planning to spring me from the nuthouse for the time being. The doctors have not said anything to me about the subject.

You sound very calm and confident. How do you feel? Have you been forced to take meds?

They tried to vegetate me with pills, but I spit them out. The first five days I was held in the special supervision ward. They tossed me in with the worst crazies, but I was forbidden to leave the ward. I was in there with eight oldsters. Three of them rarely showed any signs of life. The other five screamed at night, beat the floor with their fists, and raved. They tried to force me to kowtow: to wash the floor and clean up. I refused. I am currently under routine supervision, but I cannot leave the wing.

Do you know that Pyotr Pavlensky has been released? Do you regret you wound up in the mental hospital because of your action in support of the artist?

Of course not. I am very glad for Pavlensky! Maybe it was thanks to the support of different people, including me, that he was released. The regime really doesn’t like people like Pavlensky, because a real actionist is a free spirit and openly declares it. I think I did my bit for free speech with my action, which was, of course, a reference to Pavlensky’s actions.

What were your feelings when you were standing there alone holding a placard, surrounded by strangers who were probably aggressive to you? Did anyone support you during the action?

I thought up and did the whole thing myself. My action was entitled F.P.P. (an abbreviation for “Free Peter Pavlensky”). Passersby reacted differently. Mainly, people were surprised. There were lots of riffraff there. One creep swore at me at the top of his lungs for twenty minutes. Some people came up to me and had their pictures taken. There was an old couple who stood next to me the whole time. Once, the old woman came up to me and said, “You’re a fool. One man does not make an army.” The old man periodically yelled loudly, “Look, people! He is holding opposition placards!” I ignored all of it.

Around thirty minutes after I started the action, two grown louts in black vests (security guards, apparently) came out of the Pushkin Shopping and Entertainment Center. One of them jumped me and tried to grab the placard. I wouldn’t give it up. A dude who was around twenty saw the scene from the window of his car. The fellow jumped out of his ride and told the guard to leave me alone. It’s a pity that many people don’t understand the difference between art and hooliganism and madness. Actionism is lovely! I really love actionism, especially Viennese actionism.

Why are you able to see the difference?

Hard to say. I’m an ordinary schoolboy from a simple family. I read a lot, especially science fiction. I think a lot about what’s going on with my own head. I want to have a vivid, interesting life, not a life like the majority’s: home, work, and television. I can’t talk anymore. I see the medical staff coming.

Gleb Astafiev standing next to the door at FSB headquarters that Pyotr Pavlensky set on fire
Gleb Astafiev standing next to the door at FSB headquarters that Pyotr Pavlensky set on fire

Gleb Astafiev’s action has sparked a fierce debate among Kurgan Region residents on social media. Some Internet users have admired the young actionist’s audacity and honesty. Others have written that Astafiev is as abnormal as Pavlensky. Astafiev has said he is uninterested in the negative feedback of philistines. He is suffering from a lack of communication most of all now. A girlfriend has been visiting Gleb at the hospital. She asked that her name not be printed, because she did not want to attract any public attention.

“That hospital is a hellish place: closed, stuffy, and miserable. Gleb is now all alone there. He is very depressed: almost no one comes to visit him. He doesn’t even have anything to read. Gleb asked me to buy him science fiction books. Gleb’s pupils are dilated: apparently, they are medicating him. I don’t know Gleb that well. Before his incarceration in the hospital, we had seen each other only five times. We met by chance at a concert by a local band. He wanted to have his picture taken with me and my ex-boyfriend. Then Gleb seemed like a cheerful, carefree, very dear and open boy, a young idealist with a dream. He and my ex-boyfriend then traveled to a Krovostok concert. A bit later, I realized that Gleb was very independent and intelligent, and had a very strong spirit for his age. Even today at the hospital he didn’t complain and didn’t ask for anything special except a couple of books and a bit of food. I know nothing about Pavlensky, but Gleb had the right to support him. I am surprised his mother sent Gleb to the hospital, but he is definitely not a whacko, as the majority thinks. The opinion of the herd is often wrong.”

Pyotr Pavlensky is not the only artist whom Astafiev has tried to support. In November of last year, the team at the news website Mediazona shot a documentary film about Astafiev. The reporters there were touched by the story of a young man who had borrowed money to travel from his village to the trial of the band Krovostok. In November 2015, Yaroslavl Regional Court considered rescinding a district court’s decision to ban the group’s songs and block its website. The trial resembled a comedy with a happy ending: the court took the side of the musicians. The members of Krovostok liked Astafiev so much that when the trial was over they took him along with them to Moscow for a big concert.

Margarita Filippova, photo and video editor, Mediazona:

“We were making a series of documentaries about the Krovostok trial. I noticed a long commentary by Gleb on Instagram. He wanted to know when the next hearing was and whether he could come to Yaroslavl to get the autographs of the guys in Krovostok. The photographs in Instagram initially made him look too eccentric. But when we saw him at the train station, we realized he was a very modest, friendly guy. That was when it occurred to me to show this absurd trial through the eyes of a touching 16-year-old boy who made the long trip from Kurgan to support his idols. Gleb is like a kid from another world, a world distant from our reality where we lazily follow insane trials on our iPhones, sighing and voicing our dissent, at best, on Twitter.

“Gleb sees the world like an artist, but at the same time he has a very rational attitude to reality. He has a good sense of the country in which he lives, and he really wants to change his life. I’m sure it will work out for him. Gleb feels responsible and concerned about other people. When I was sixteen I wasn’t worried about protesting artists, and I sure didn’t know what a court trial was.”

Zarina Kodzayeva, camera woman, Mediazona:

“Gleb is a very independent and open person. It seemed to me that Gleb didn’t have a drop of the infantilism you would expect from a teenager. He argues things sensibly and behaves like an adult. He and I chatted a lot when we were shooting the film. I found it very interesting to listen to him. Gleb writes things himself. When he speaks, you can tell he loves the Russian language. I got the sense this kid believed in the power of deeds. It really was important to him to support Krovostok and Pavlensky. One of the most important questions in documentary filmmaking is who can be a main character, the hero, and who cannot. Aside from the context, which might turn into a story, there is always an intuitive understanding that probably has to do with a person’s energy. I think Gleb is an absolute hero. And now he continues to prove it with his actions.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade AM for the heads-up. Photos courtesy of Radio Svoboda