What is life like for us under fascism? It’s fine. I eat, sleep, work, play computer games and football, and get laid.
Repairs have begun on the roofs of the Soviet high-rise buildings on my work beat. The contractor drags powerful electric roofing kettles onto the roof, hacks away the old tar, melts it down, and immediately pours it back onto the roof. The kettles are powerful—advanced technology that works quickly and efficiently.
The kettles are also five years old. They are left right on the roofs over the winter, and so they are rotted and burned out. The molten tar splashes onto the cables, and everything in the vicinity burns and smokes. It is no exaggeration to say that you can smell the stench two blocks away. It is unlikely that there is anything healthy in the fumes generated by the molten tar. It is Uzbeks who work on the roofs: their bosses persist in calling them jigits. They work without safeguards or personal protective equipment. On the first day, they asked their bosses for water. Their bosses told them to get it themselves—”otherwise, next time they’ll be asking for broads in bikinis.”
Yesterday the cops nabbed them. The cops told them, “Your registration isn’t in our database. So, you either spend a couple days in jail until we figure it out, or you each cough up 5,000 rubles now.” [At the current—official—exchange rate, 5,000 rubles is approximately 88 euros.]
Do you think there is a database somewhere that says that you are just a human being?
Their electrician is from Bashkiria, a skinny kid in glasses with a typical whistling accent. He graduated from an architectural college back home, came to Petersburg, and worked on a low-voltage network for a couple of months, but now has been hired as an electrician servicing the three-phase fifty-kilowatt kettles. On the first day, he regarded the whole setup with mortal dismay. In his bag he has a set of screwdrivers and a crimper for patch cords. Now he dives into the overheated equipment, changes the burnt-out heating elements, and splices the burnt, beaten cables. Then he unsuccessfully tries for hours to wash off the oil stench.
“Who will pay for your disability?” I ask him.
“They can’t pay us overtime.”
He put up with this as long as he could before breaking down and going on a drinking binge. He squandered all his money, arriving back at work with a black eye and his left cheek puffed up like a pillow. His glasses were still intact, however. He asked me to lend him money for beer.
“How much do they pay you?” I ask.
“They promise mountains of gold.”
“Could you be more specific?”
“It’s daily work. 2,500 rubles a day.”
The word he was looking for in Russia was “daywork” [podënnaia], not “daily work” [podnevnaia]. There is such a thing as “daywork” and “dayworkers.” Who make sixteen dollars a day if you calculate their pay in terms of the actual exchange rate.
How much does the Russian lad Vitya, who made the remark about the “broads in bikinis,” make? How much does their supervisor, a handsome, businesslike, quick-thinking middle-aged man with shifty eyes, make?
What will they buy for themselves by pinching the money budgeted for roof repairs? A car? A tiled path for their dacha? When they walk on this path, will they think about the people whose health has been permanently scarred by tar on hot roofs? I doubt it.
Fascist brutality springs from this everyday, workaday brutality. Indifference to people as individuals grows from this virtually legalized slavery.
Source: George Losev, Facebook, 28 June 2022. Mr. Losev works as an on-duty electrician for the housing authority in Petersburg. He points out that the roofing tar kettles he describes are nothing like the one in the video I inserted, above. They are much larger and electric-powered. This is not to mention that “Alfredo the kettle man” (in the video) is wearing protective equipment, unlike the Uzbek workers in Mr. Losev’s story. Translated by the Russian Reader
I was asked to show how to make a “syllable tram.”
I scanned the roadway (see the links, below). The drawings were quite hastily done, right before class. (
The strip should be glued with adhesive tape on the reverse side. (Leave a millimeter between the sections so that it is easier to fold and store.) The tram, which is approximately 290 mm wide (nearly the same width as an A4 sheet of paper) and 85 mm high, is fitted onto the strip. One window in the tram is cut out, and a transparent sleeve is pasted on the other, into which a consonant is inserted.
The strip needs to be fastened with something. (I fastened it to the table with tape.)
The tram travels from right to left. When it reaches a marked stop, a vowel appears in the cut-out window. When you make the tram, test it and draw the letters on the strip so that they appear in the exact same place as the empty spot.
Source: Natalia Vvedenskaya, Facebook, 28 June 2022. Ms. Vvedenskaya teaches Russian to immigrant children at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center. Most of these children are originally from Central Asia, like the workers in Mr. Losev’s story. The first image, above, is a screenshot of a short video that Ms. Vvedenskaya included in her original post, showing her pupils playing with her “syllable tram.” Translated by the Russian Reader
For the first time in my life (I swear!) I went to the Immortal Regiment march today. Let’s just say I was strongly encouraged to do it. I hesitated, I thought it over, but in the end my curiosity won out. I have been shooting almost nothing for more than two months, because I simply lost any sense of how to go on documenting urban life and civic activism in the new reality. What did I see and hear today? I found super polite people of all ages portraying the ideal “Russian world” in its peaceful aspect. “Nobody here wants war,” a man of about forty-five, holding a portrait of his grandfather and a flag emblazoned with an image of Stalin, told me. He is one of those who sees “pros and cons” in everything and everyone, and who, although experiencing some discomfort, still fully trusts the vision of the country’s leadership. Maybe some of the marchers were forced by their employers to go to the rally, but it seemed to me that people had gone there quite willingly. They were given free food and beverages: in exchange for such generosity, one can walk in the rain and sun for a couple of hours. The Uzbek workers seemed to be happy, because on Victory Day they are allowed to join the people of Great Russia, who for the rest of the year carefully monitor and maintain the existing division of society into “homeboys” and “aliens.” When, instead of periodic enthusiastic shouts of “Hur-ra-a-a-a-h!” or “Ru-u-u-u-sia!”, the crowd started chanting “fascism will not pass” behind me, I should have fought the good fight, but instead my instinct of self-preservation kicked in and I stupidly continued to shoot.
Source: anatrrra, LiveJournal, 10 May 2022. Introductory text translated and photos reprinted with the author’s kind permission. Go to the original post to see their completely stunning photo reportage in full. Translated by the Russian Reader
My concept is “civil war”— or rather, “a quiet (civil war).” Another variant might be: cold civil war. I will talk about how the (global) economy of war—hot war, cold war, civil war—is experienced by victims and bystanders in a place seemingly far from actual frontlines. In reality, the frontlines are everywhere—running down the middle of every street, crisscrossing hearts and minds. This permanent war is connected to the project that posits the presence of civil society in one part of the world, while also asserting the necessity of building civil society in other parts of the world where allegedly uncivil social, political, and economic arrangements have been or have to be abolished. The real effect of this high-minded engineering is the destruction of people, classes, and lifestyles whose continued survival in the new order is understood (but hardly ever stated) to be either problematic or unnecessary. The agents of this destruction are varied—from random street crime, assassinations, inflation, alcoholism, factory and institute closures, to pension and healthcare reform, the entertainment and news industry, and urban renovation. The place I will talk about is Russia and Saint Petersburg, where I have lived for much of the past fourteen years. My concept is intended as a memorial to a few victims and local eyewitnesses of this war—people I either know personally or came to know about through the stories of friends or other encounters. I will also sketch the tentative connections between that civil war and the troubles in this part of the world; and, very briefly, show how the victors in this war claim their spoils.
This term—(a quiet) civil war—was suggested to me by the Petersburg poet Alexander Skidan during a conversation we had last spring. I had been telling Alexander about the recent murder of my friend Alexei Viktorov. Alexei is fated to remain a mere footnote in Russian art history. I mean this literally: in a new book, Alexei is correctly identified as the schoolmate of the Diaghilev of Petersburg perestroika art, Timur Novikov, and the painter Oleg Kotelnikov. I met Alexei in 1996, when Oleg let me live in his overly hospitable studio in the famous artists squat at Pushkinskaya-10. Alexei showed up a few weeks later. He had spent the summer in the woods, living off mushrooms and whatever edibles he could find. In his youth, he had acquired the nickname Труп (Corpse). With his gaunt features and skinny frame, he certainly looked the part. As I would soon discover, he was one of the gentlest men on earth. He was also a terrific blues guitarist. And he was the first Hare Krishna in Leningrad and, perhaps, the entire Soviet Union—which was quite a feat, considering that his conversion took place in the dark ages of the seventies.
Last winter, friends chipped in on a plane ticket, and Alexei was able to fulfill a lifelong dream and travel to India. When he and his companions arrived at the Krishna temple, Alexei was greeted by the community as a conquering hero. Since Alexei’s life had been quite miserable of late back home, his friends insisted that he stay behind in India. Instead, he decided to return to Petersburg. A few days after his arrival home he was walking from the subway in the northern Lakes district of the city to the house of a friend. Along the way he was attacked—the police say by a gang of teenagers. The teenagers beat Alexei within an inch of his life and pushed him into a ravine. The police investigator guessed that Alexei had lain unconscious for some time. When he came to, he had apparently struggled to raise his battered body up and clamber out of the ravine; in his struggle, he had for some reason started tearing off his clothes, perhaps because his rib cage and chest were so badly crushed that he was suffocating. His body was discovered a couple days later. The police held it for another few days while they completed their investigation, which led to no arrests. Alexei’s funeral was held a few days afterwards at the Smolensk Cemetery on Vasilievsky Island. He was buried a few hundred meters from the grave of his schoolmate Timur Novikov, who died in 2002.
It was this story that prompted Alexander Skidan’s remark to me: “A quiet civil war has been going on here.” What did Alexander have in mind? What could the random albeit violent murder of a single human being have in common with the explicitly political and massively violent struggles that have taken place here in the former Yugoslavia and such parts of the former Soviet Union as Abkhazia, Southern Ossetia, Tajikistan, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Chechnya? How could Alexei—who, as the Russian saying has it, lived “quieter than the water, lower than the grass”—be viewed as an enemy combatant in such a war? Can we really compare his unknown assailants to representatives of the opposite warring party? Given what they did to him, it is clear that they viewed Alexei as their enemy—an enemy subject to sudden, violent execution when encountered in the proper (hidden, invisible) setting.
I anticipate serious objections to my line of argumentation. One such objection I have already heard in the person of my friend Igor. Igor, whose father is Ossetian, and whose mother is Ukrainian, grew up in Dushanbe, which was then the capital of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. I have never been to Dushanbe, but I have heard Igor describe it so many times in such glowing terms that I have come to think of it as heaven on earth. While I am sure that much of the paradisiacal tone in Igor’s recollections has to do with temporal and physical distance, it really does seem that the Dushanbe of the sixties and seventies was a kind of cosmopolitan oasis—a place where all sorts of forced or voluntary exiles from all imaginable Soviet ethnic communities and other cities ended up living in something like harmony.
This harmony bore the name “Soviet Union,” and Igor himself has often seemed to me the ideal homo soveticus (in the positive, internationalist sense of that term), a person to whom the refrain of the popular song—“My address isn’t a street or a building, my address is the Soviet Union”—fits perfectly. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Igor was the country’s leading expert on the seismic stability of electrical substations. From the onset of the Tajik civil war, in the early nineties, Igor was unable to return to Dushanbe. This had to do with the fact that in his internal Soviet passport, his place of birth was identified as Khorog, the capital of the Pamir region, which is where some of the “anti-government” forces had their power base. If Igor had returned to Dushanbe, he could easily have been stopped by soldiers during a documents check and executed on the spot. This is what happened to a number of his friends and schoolmates.
After the war was over, Igor’s father was able to reclaim the family home near Vladikavkaz, in Northern Ossetia, which had been confiscated by the authorities when Igor’s grandfather had been executed as an enemy of the people in the thirties. Northern Ossetia was a relative oasis during the nineties, despite the fact that Chechnya and Ingushetia were just over the mountains and neighboring Southern Ossetia had broken away from Georgia. This relative calm came to an abrupt end in September 2004, when terrorists besieged the school in neighboring Beslan. During the siege, members of Igor’s extended family were killed.
This is how Igor puts it: “Civil war is when the bus you’re on is stopped by soldiers and some of the passengers are taken off to be shot. And you sit there in the bus listening to the sound of gunfire and waiting for it to be over so that you can continue on your way. That’s civil war. What you’re talking about is not civil war.” Igor is certainly right.
He is also wrong in another sense. The quiet civil war I am describing here—among whose victims, I claim, was our friend Alexei—draws its energy and some of its methods from the real civil wars that have been fought in the hinterlands that are literally unthinkable to folks in such seemingly safe, prosperous places as Petersburg and Moscow. An immediate consequence of the siege in Beslan was that President Putin abolished gubernatorial elections in the Russian Federation’s eighty-four regions and federal cities. This, it was argued, would strengthen Moscow’s control—its so-called power vertical—over local officials whose incompetence and corruption had led, supposedly, to guerrillas infiltrating Beslan and capturing the school with such ease. Meanwhile, the civil wars and socioeconomic collapse in places like Tajikistan have led to a flood of refugees and migrant workers into Central Russia and its two capitals. The booming building trade in Moscow and Petersburg to a great degree now depends on the abundant, cheap supply of workers from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Moldova, and other former Soviet republics.
These workers are literally visible everywhere nowadays: with the oil economy fueling a tidal wave of consumerism whose major players have now turned to real estate as an outlet for investing their wealth, the capitals have become gigantic construction sites. And yet the conditions of their work and their lives are just as literally invisible. For example, Tajik workers and other darker-skinned Central Asians and Caucasians are subjected to frequent, unnecessary documents checks in public places such as subway stations. This is something that every Petersburger and Muscovite has seen ten thousand times, but it is also something they pretend not to see, judging by the lack of public reaction to the practice. Even less reaction is generated by neo-Nazi attacks on such workers, other foreigners, members of Russia’s ethnic minorities, and anti-fascist activists, which have become more and more common in the past several years.
I want to paint one more, brief verbal portrait of another victim in this quiet civil war. This portrait is connected with the violence inflicted on this city and other parts of Serbia during the NATO bombing campaign of 1999. The official and popular reaction in Russia to this violence was quite harsh. There were massive demonstrations outside the US embassy in Moscow; unknown assailants even fired a grenade into an empty office at the embassy. What surprised me were the more spontaneous reactions to the bombings. One day, a young American artist and I were standing in the courtyard of the squat at Pushkinskaya-10 chatting with a local artist. Two acquaintances of ours—members of a well-regarded alternative theater troupe—entered the courtyard. When they saw us, they shouted, “Don’t talk to those Americans! They’re bombing our Serbian brothers!” Since they said all this with a smile, it was hard to know to what extent we were supposed to take their warning as a “joke.”
It occurred to me then that a fundamental shift was occurring in the consciousness of Russians who had been, both in practical and philosophical terms, “westernizers” and “liberals” not long before. That this shift was also extending into the “masses” was confirmed for me a few days later. Late one night, I suddenly heard a drunken-sounding young man yelling up to an apartment across the street: “Masha! Goddammit, come downstairs and let me in!” Since repeated requests had no apparent effect on the silent, invisible Masha, the young man became more explicit in declaring his unhappiness with Masha’s thwarting of his affections. “Masha, you fucking bitch, come down and let me in! You’re breaking my fucking heart!” The turn the man’s soliloquy took next, however, signaled to me that we all were living in a new world. “Masha, go fuck yourself! NATO, go fuck yourselves!” (Маша, пошла ты в жопу! Блок НАТО, пошли вы в жопу!) This effusive condemnation of Masha and NATO continued for some time, after which the thwarted lover fell silent or fell over drunk.
If I had known that I would be invited to speak at this conference nine years later, I would have recorded the whole performance. Instead of speaking to you now, I would have played back the recording in full. Not in order to make fun of the young man whose heart had been broken in two by the combined forces of Masha and NATO, but so that you could hear what the quiet civil war I am trying to talk about sounds like. This is what I meant when I said, at the beginning of my remarks, that the frontlines in this new kind of war cross through hearts and minds and run down the middle of streets. This is not what happens when civil society breaks down; it is what happens when “civil society” is a code word (pronounced and enacted in tandem with other code words such as “democracy” and “liberal economy”) used to camouflage the incursion into the city of invading forces. The new regime they have come to establish can in reality do quite happily without “civil society,” democracy, and liberalism. But these words and the real actions taken and deals made behind their smokescreen are quite effective in destroying the historic and imaginary forms of solidarity that might have given folks like our unhappy young lover the means to defend themselves somehow. Instead, we end up with the muddle in our heads that lets us imagine that Masha and NATO are allied against us. Or that NATO is bringing democracy and security to Afghanistan. Or that, instead, to thwart NATO’s expansion to the east we have to round up Georgian restaurant workers and deport them back to Georgia—which, paradoxically, used to be nearly every Russian’s favorite place on earth.
As Alexander Skidan himself told me, the NATO bombing campaign of 1999 really had destroyed the illusions that he and most everyone else he knew had both about the west and about the meaning of the radical transformation of Russian society that was carried out under the banner of a rapprochement with the west and a leap forward into liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism. What Alexander and his friends saw as the west’s treachery in the Kosovo crisis had thrown a new retrospective light on a period they had until then been experiencing as a golden age for artists and ambitious young people like themselves—an age of unprecedented opportunity for self-expression at home and dizzying trips abroad. Why hadn’t the massive immiseration and unemployment of the post-Soviet population during the early nineties produced this same enlightenment? Or the violent disbanding of the Russian parliament, in 1993? Or the first war in Chechnya? Or the fact that, in Alexander’s case, his own father, a professor at the city’s shipbuilding institute, had gone in a matter of a year or two from being a respected member of his society to being an outmoded nobody who had to struggle to survive? Somehow, Alexander and his kind had noticed all this, of course, and not seen it. Or seen it and decided that these were the sort of temporary measures and necessary obstacles on the road to a better future. As he sees it now, the whole point of the Russian nineties was to decommission and eliminate whole sections of the population—teachers, doctors, factory workers, the poor, the aging, the less ambitious, and the more gullible. And this civil war, which continues to this day, paved the way to the quite logically illiberal current regime.
Which of course is wholly staffed by the victors in the quiet civil war of the nineties—not by the victims, whose victimhood is converted into ever-greater quantities of political, symbolic, and real capital by those same victors. Thus, the current favorite to win the Russian presidential elections in March announced the other day that his goal was to create a strong civil society where the freedoms and rights of all citizens would be cherished and protected.
This is one way to cash in your chips at the end of a successful quiet civil war. But our globalizing economy is such that you can even profit from someone else’s civil wars. My favorite new example of such capitalization is the American alternative band Beirut, the brainchild of 22-year-old Zach Condon, a native of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Overly sensitive types might wonder how you grow up in peaceful Santa Fe and end up calling your band Beirut—but as we Americans love to say, It’s a free country. (In its article on the band’s “Balkan-inspired” debut album, Gulag Orkestar, Wikipedia helpfully explains that the “Gulag was a system of Russian [corrective labor camps] in Siberia.”)
It is too much to expect that alternative radio stations would play, instead of Beirut’s fake Balkan wedding music, the 1999 lament of Masha’s spurned lover. Besides, I didn’t have the good sense to record it and release it as an album.
 “One of the reasons I named the band after that city was the fact that it’s seen a lot of conflict. It’s not a political position. I worried about that from the beginning. But it was such a catchy name. I mean, if things go down that are truly horrible, I’ll change it. But not now. It’s still a good analogy for my music. I haven’t been to Beirut, but I imagine it as this chic urban city surrounded by the ancient Muslim world. The place where things collide.” Rachel Syme, “Beirut: The Band,” New York, 6 August 2006.
Human rights activist Valentina Chupik has left Russia After ECHR decision prohibits Chupik’s deportation to Uzbekistan, the human rights defender was released from a special detention center and allowed to fly to Yerevan Deutsche Welle
October 2, 2021
The Russian authorities have released human rights activist Valentina Chupik from a special detention center at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. After the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) forbade the Russian authorities from deporting her to Uzbekistan, she was allowed to fly to Armenia, the human rights defender’s assistant Alexander Kim told reporters on Saturday, October 2.
“Uzbekistan has issued Valentina Chupik a new passport. She is currently on board a plane that took off a little over an hour ago for Yerevan. [The Russian authorities] couldn’t hold her anymore,” Kim said.
The human rights defender’s further plans are unknown. Her representatives have submitted an asylum request to the Ukrainian authorities for Chupik and her 84-year-old mother Lyubov Kodentsova, but have not yet received a response. Chupik’s seriously ill mother is still in the Moscow region.
Revenge for human rights work
The 48-year-old Chupik fled to Russia from Uzbekistan after the shooting of demonstrators in Andijan in 2005, fearing torture, and she received political asylum in Russia in 2009. The founder of Tong Jahoni (“Morning of the World”), a migrant rights protection center that provides free legal assistance to migrants facing pressure from the security forces and other problems, Chupik was detained by the FSB at Sheremetyevo Airport last week after arriving from Yerevan.
The Russian authorities had stripped Chupik of her status as a political refugee, banned her from entering Russia for a period of thirty years, and begun the process of deporting her to Uzbekistan. The activist believes that she was punished for criticizing corruption in the Russian Interior Ministry and for her human rights work.
On September 30, the ECHR forbade Chupik’s deportation, invoking Rule 39 of the Rules of Court. This rule is applied as an urgent measure in cases where there is an imminent risk of irreparable harm.
Thanks to Sergey Abashin for the link. Translated by the Russian Reader
I chatted with an 86-year-old woman while I was changing the power outlet on her kitchen stove. She was from a village near Vologda and still pronounced her unstressed o’s as full o’s. She worked for 58 years on construction sites. She started working in ’54 or ’55. She worked for three years as an unskilled laborer, then for eight years as a painter before making the switch to plastering.
“I really liked this work. But then everything fell apart, and anyone could get the job. If you could hold a brush, you could go to work as a painter.”
If I understood her correctly, she said that, in the fifties, sixties and seventies, without a specialized education, it was impossible to get a job anywhere except as a helper.
She said that they had lived quite poorly, that the foreman earned 15 rubles a month. I didn’t understand how this could be and so I expressly asked her again, and she confirmed what she’d said.
In the seventies, the planning got better, and life became easier. But she had still spent her entire life “in poverty.”
“My legs began to give out, and I was forbidden to work. Otherwise I would have kept working. I was already used to this being how things were, that we were working stiffs and this was how we lived.”
Her husband also worked on construction sites, as a finisher. She has a daughter. She lives in her son-in-law’s two-room apartment, renting out one of the rooms. Despite her obvious and visible poverty, the apartment was very clean. She tried to pay me generously, but I didn’t take any money.
We started talking about migrants. She said they were good, hard-working, polite people. They always helped her, carried her groceries. Migrants had saved her life after she had her first or second stroke, which had happened outside. Russians had walked on by, but “Georgians or migrants, basically two non-Russians” had come to her aid, telephoning an ambulance and waiting with her.
“I don’t want to badmouth migrants. I just wonder where our people are, Russians? Have they really all retired? Or don’t they want to work?”
George Losev is a housing authority electrician, veteran grassroots activist and DIY football enthusiast in Petersburg. Thanks to Jeremy Morris for helpful comments on the translation. Photo and translation by the Russian Reader
Students in the middle group of the seventh form at Moscow’s Comprehensive School No. 282, where more than half of the pupils are children of foreign nationals. Photo: Alexey Kudenko/RIA Novosti. Courtesy of Republic
A mishmash instead of an identity. Why do the Kremlin’s attempts to formulate the concept of a “Russian nation” always end in xenophobia? Sergey Abashin Republic
April 3, 2021
On March 30, the Kremlin hosted a meeting of the Presidential Council on Interethnic Relations. Vladimir Putin opened the discussion with the following statement: “In the practice of a number of countries, civic and ethnic identities are often perceived as competitors. I consider this approach (in our country, at least) absolutely incorrect, to put it mildly, and I want to emphasize in particular that it is absolutely unacceptable for our country. A person may belong to one or another ethnic group, but we all have one country—big Russia.” It is unclear what countries the president was hinting at and what he meant by making such a contrast, but there will probably be political scientists willing explain his critique. But the arguments about “civic and ethnic identity” are a clear continuation of the previous search for an answer to the question “who are we?”, to which the current Kremlin, which likes to speculate about its historical purpose, returns regularly.
The intrigue in this discussion revolves around its affirmation of very different versions of self-determination. The Russian Constitution states: “The bearer of sovereignty and the only source of power in the Russian Federation is its multinational people.” The phrase “multinational people” was, in the early 1990s, a political compromise between the idea of the unity and equality of all the inhabitants of the new Russia (“the people”) and its ethnic diversity (“multinational”), which formed the basis of its avowed federal structure. The compromise did not last long, however. After the defeat of Ichkeria/Chechnya, which had declared itself self-declared independent, the Kremlin began systematically curtailing the rights of the Russian Federation’s constituent territories and strengthening the central government. In the political reality of the 2000s, the formula “multinational people” had begun to look unsuitable: new terms were needed that would place a greater emphasis on unity and community.
In the language of the ruling elite, two competing and co-existing constructions emerged, which, although they did not figure in the Constitution, attained de facto official status. The first was the idea of “Russian civilization,” which historically united different peoples into a single community with its own “genetic, cultural and moral code,” as Putin had put it earlier. The word “civilization” imparted to Russia a lofty and important status as a discrete world, not merely one among a number of countries. It accorded well with its claims to being a great power and an alternative geopolitical center, equal in weight to the entire “western civilization,” and it also referred to the imperial and Soviet past, which could be inserted in the “civilizational” framework. Russian civilization has its counterparts—”Eurasian civilization,” that is, the community of Russia and neighboring countries, and the “Russian world”, that is, the community of Russia with separate regions and groups loyal to Russian culture. The set of countries and groups that fall into these latter categories, however, has no precise outlines and depends more on the ambitions of Kremlin politicians. The relationship between the “Russian” and “Eurasian” civilizations and the “Russian world” and their hierarchical ranking among themselves are not entirely clear, but such an internal contradiction does not really bother politicians, who easily switch back and forth between these concepts.
The second idea, which also took root in the official rhetoric, was the formula of the “Russian nation,” which in theory refers only to a civic identity that incorporates ethnic diversity. At the end of his speech at the council, Academician Valery Tishkov said, “The metaphor of the country as a civilization is important, even interesting, but it seems to me that the stricter category—the nation of the state [natsiya gosudarstva]—is more important.” It is stricter in the sense of being in compliance with the Constitution, since it is easier to bridge “the people” [narod] to “the nation” [natsiya]. And it is stricter in the sense of the language accepted in the world at large, where “nations” and “nation states” are part of the picture, which in turn emphasizes modernity. The formula “Russian nation” [rossiiskaya natsia] no longer reflects claims to historical unilateralism and uniqueness, in which one can detect undertones of isolationism and anomaly, but rather, on the contrary, to normality and usefulness to the rest of the world. “Russian nation,” however, does trigger other doubts. Ethnic minority activists see it as part of a plan to assimilate them, while ethnic Russian nationalists see it as belittling and underestimating the role of ethnic Russians [russkie].
The imperialists, for their part, find in the formula a rejection of the country’s superpower past, echoes of the “prison of the peoples” critique, and an unwillingness to maintain continuity with the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
So far, “Russian civilization” and “Russian nation” have been used as equivalents in official rhetoric. The antagonism between the two concepts does not bother political officials, instrumentality being more important in their eyes than theoretical disputes. Officials are also in no hurry to abandon the constitutional formula of the “multinational people,” apparently finding advantages in its ambiguousness and the possibility of multiple interpretations. However, in 2020, along with other amendments to the Constitution, the expression “state-forming people” was introduced, further confusing the entire ideology of self-identification, in which “the people,” “ethnic groups” (“nationalities”), “civilization,” and “world” are now mixed up in the same heap. The emphasis on the special role of ethnic Russians destroys the idea of civic identity, since it assumes that (Russian) ethnicity constitutes it. This contradiction, however, has been ignored out of political expediency.
Rhetoric versus specifics
This scholasticism has become quite tiresome, but it is repeated from time to time at all sorts of official meetings. However, there are now issues that have given a new impetus to the discussion of civic/ethnic identity—i.e., migration and migrants, more precisely, the children of migrants, to whom a good half of all the speeches at the council meeting were devoted. Foreign migrants pose a problem for the concepts of “Russian civilization” and “Russian nation,” because millions of people who are not citizens of Russia live and work here. At the same, many of these people are not fully documented (they are “illegal,” so to speak). Not all of them speak Russian, nor have they imbibed the images of Russian history and life that local residents get in kindergarten. In other words, they are not inscribed in the implicit chain of command and thus provoke fear and prejudice among populace and politicians alike.
From a legal and institutional point of view, the children of some migrant workers from the CIS countries pose a problem to Russia’s central government because firstly, according to the law, they have a fuzzy legal status in Russia and, accordingly, there are formal and informal restrictions on their access to schools, and secondly, the schools themselves do not have a federally approved program for working with migrant children, who immediately find themselves in classes with regular pupils—as a rule, among the underachievers, thus spoiling test score stats for schools. The officials who spoke at the council promised to quickly solve these problems, which for years have generated resentment and complaints from human rights defenders and non-governmental organizations working with migrant children.
Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov called the education of children who come to Russia with their parents “a mission for our education system [and] an urgent challenge for us.” He mentioned the upcoming comprehensive system for assessing the individual educational needs of migrant children, which will be used to chart the right educational path for each child, supporting it with psychological and pedagogical assistance. This would seem to imply the creation of preparatory classes in schools, in which the children of migrants would have to acquire the necessary language skills in order to switch to the normal mode of study in general classes. In turn, Valentina Kazakova, head of the Russian Interior Ministry’s Migration Department of the Russian Interior Ministry, assured council members that the law on foreign citizens would be amended concerning the status of minor children, giving them unhindered access to educational institutions. If you believe these responsible officials, Russia is finally going to establish official mechanisms for working with migrant children.
However, legal measures alone do not explain how the Russian state ideologically integrates migrants into the image of “who we are.” In this instance, legislative and institutional pragmatics do not necessarily match the political rhetoric, which is usually focused on excluding migrants as “dangerous aliens.” The Council on Interethnic Relations has borne out exactly this asymmetry. Commenting on the topic of immigrant children, President Putin declared it an “unpleasant area”; he recalled that in Europe and America, “when the level of migrant children in school reaches a certain percentage, local residents remove their children from these schools,” and “schools are formed that are almost 100 percent immigrant children,” which, according to the president, “in no case should be allowed in Russia.” “The number of migrant children in our schools should be such that it enables [them] to adapt deeply to the Russian language environment. But not only to the language—to the culture in general, so that they can immerse themselves in our Russian values system. It will be good for them, and, accordingly, it will not hurt our families; it will not create problems for educational institutions.”
The words chosen were interpreted in the media as a call to “monitor the proportion of migrant children in schools,” “limit the number of migrant children in schools,” and “regulate the number of such children in Russian schools,” thus only causing a media-induced wave of anti-migrant fears.
It cannot be said that this ritual online discussion in the Kremlin was completely pointless. Specific plans to change the policy on migrant children are a cause for cautious optimism. However, the current political elite’s vocabulary and conceptual apparatus makes the depressing impression of being rooted in the archaic past of the twentieth or even the nineteenth century, but not in the twenty-first century. This elite reconstructs answers to the question “who are we?” from dead and moribund ideologies, condemning Russia not to solve, but to reproduce earlier confrontations and conflicts.
Tomorrow, December 7, a court hearing will be held in the Moscow suburb of Vlasikha on the appeal of the verdict against of Shohista Karimova. The name of this middle-aged woman from Uzbekistan, who worked as a food prep worker in the Moscow Region, surfaced in the media in connection with the criminal case into the 3 April 2017 terrorist attack in the Petersburg subway—and, most likely, it was immediately forgotten. Journalist Natalia Sivohina recalls Karimova’s story.
On 3 April 2017, an explosion occurred in the Petersburg subway on a train traveling between the stations Sennaya Ploshchad and Tekhnologichesky Institut, killing 16 passengers and injuring about a hundred.
The security forces voiced several conflicting explanations of the tragedy, but soon reported that the perpetrators had been found.
In the dock were eleven people, migrant workers from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. According to investigators, they were members of an Islamist organization.
On 5 April 2017, relatives of one of the future defendants in the case of the Petersburg Eleven, Muhamadusup Ermatov, reported him missing. As he later told human rights activists and journalists, he had been kidnapped. The kidnappers (presumably FSB officers) put a plastic bag over Ermatov’s head, beat him up, intimidated him verbally, tasered him, and demanded that he give the testimony they wanted to hear.
Other defendants in the subway bombing case also claimed they had been subjected to the same “investigative methods.” The evidence obtained under torture was the basis of the sentences the defendants received on charges of terrorism. Karimova, the only woman among the defendants, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Karimova worked as a food prep worker in a café near Moscow. According to the case file, she “provided the [terrorist group] with means of communication.” As she said later, she lent a phone to her coworker and, later, co-defendant Abror Azimov. That was the extent of her alleged involvement in the bombing.
When FSB officers came to her house, the Uzbek national meekly complied with all their demands: she held the detonator in her hands, leaving her fingerprints on it, and let them take DNA swabs of her mouth and scalp.
Karimova trusted the authorities and hoped to the last that the truth would out. In the end, however, she was found guilty of possessing a bomb on Tovarishchesky Lane in Petersburg, a city to which she had never been before she was arrested.
Karimova had come to Russia to help her daughter. She worked for 25 thousand rubles a month [approx. 400 euros a month in 2017] and sent money home to her family. The verdict sent her into shock: her terrible screaming during the reading of the verdict was included in journalistic accounts of that day. But few journalists wrote anything about Karimova’s own story.
Screenshot of a letter, quoted below, sent by Shohista Karimova from prison, dated 18 May 2020
“When a guard at Pre-Trial Detention Center No. 2 asked why I didn’t go out for a walk, my cellmate replied that I was afraid. I was so afraid that a man in the uniform might hurt me—I was scared and cried constantly. My brain was just turned off. After a year, I started to recover from the stress and the extreme emotional state. And I was very afraid for my loved ones: they could have been framed as well,” Karimova wrote in a letter to a friend, adding, “I now believe that any innocent person can be charged [with a crime they did not commit].”
What the Defense Says
I spoke with Karimova’s lawyer, Viktor Drozdov.
How did you end up taking Shohista’s case? How did it all begin?
I received a call from a person who had previously been in prison and knew the law enforcement system firsthand, and then from other human rights defenders. They asked me to work pro bono on the case, whose defendants were initially represented by court-appointed lawyers. We met and talked, and I agreed to serve as Shohista’s defense counsel.
The tragedy in April 2017 and the media coverage that followed it had attracted my attention. I followed the case quite closely, comparing various reports. It raised a lot of questions, and I decided to find answers to them. I found them.
You have appealed the apparently wrongful verdict. Why do you think it is important to go all the way in this trial?
The defense lawyer’s job is to debunk the prosecution (during trial) and the illegality of the sentence (as now, on appeal), and always be ready to defend their client in subsequent phases in the process. What does “going all the way” mean? The real end came long ago: the justice system was completely “bankrupted” by this trial. It has neither been willing nor able to respond to any of the defense’s arguments.
Does Shohista believe in the possibility of getting justice? What does she think about the upcoming appeal?
Until recently, she had great faith in Putin. She wrote him letters to which she received no response. I don’t ask her that question now. Shohista is painfully aware of the circumstances that caused her to end up in prison completely unexpectedly and absurdly. She knows perfectly well and shares my position on her defense, which is that by defending her, I am defending the Russian justice system, first of all, and her future depends on it.
Shohista is a hostage to the political interests of people who are now quite powerful.
I have started naming these people on my little Telegram channel. They all were involved or somehow complicit in the #Metro17 case.
After the verdict, Shokhista wrote a letter to Judge Andrei Morozov, congratulating him on finally pacifying Russian society by “finding the terrorists” and wishing him health and happiness.
How many lawyers are currently defending Karimova?
Two: the lawyer Sergei Shostak, who joined the defense at my request, also pro bono, and fully shares my position, and me.
Despite the obvious inconsistencies in the trial of the Petersburg Eleven and the defendants’ complaints of torture, the case did not fall apart in court, and the defendants received huge sentences. Why do you think this happened?
The answer, perhaps, can be found in the verdict itself and in the way the trial was run. The text of the verdict does not cite any of the arguments the defense made, nor does it analyze the events of 3 April 2017 themselves. The court point-blank refused (sic!) to examine the [bombed] subway car as material evidence or the improvised explosive devices, entered into evidence by the prosecution, nor did it uphold any significant defense motion on the merits of the charge. And it allowed the illegal presence of unidentified and unmarked masked persons armed with firearms in the courtroom.
The court was neither independent nor fair. I personally feel very sorry for the judges. They did something vile.
Can ordinary people help defendants in political cases?
“Ordinary people” cannot do anything. But I believe in the capabilities of my fellow citizens—caring, thoughtful, and ready to tell the truth. The internet, petitions, collective appeals, and publicity can help—especially publicity.
* * *
The obvious inconsistencies in the case and testimony by the defendants that they had been subjected to hours of torture during the investigation did not prevent the trial court from finding them guilty and sentencing them to long terms in prison.
So far, there has been no massive grassroots campaign demanding a normal investigation of the case of the Petersburg Eleven. The medieval division into “friends” and “foes” has been firmly established in Russian society. Actually, this is nothing new: this is what usually happens amidst the wreckage of social institutions that have become obsolete.
First, people are evaluated by skin color, then people from the “wrong” ethnic groups are imprisoned: all this happened relatively recently by the standards of history. The country that conquered fascism interrogates hundred-year-old veterans who sacrificed their health and strength in that long-ago war with fascism. The so-called prosecution throws random people behind bars—disempowered construction workers, maintenance men, and kitchen workers from the former fraternal republics. So-called public opinion equates the concepts of “immigrant” and “terrorist.” The so-called state turns into a madman fleeing from its own shadow.
Zanovo Media will keep you updated about the plight of Shohista Karimova and the other defendants in the trial of the Petersburg Eleven.
Earlier today, Natalia Sivohina posted the following on her Facebook page by way of prefacing her article: “Recently, I posted a link to the website Zanovo, and today I published my first article there. The article is about Shohista Karimova, who worked as kitchen prep in the Moscow Region and was a defendant in the case of the terrorist attack in Petersburg. This ordinary, very nice woman visited our city for the first time after her arrest. No one knows the current whereabouts of the people actually involved in the crime committed in April 2017. But it is now quite clear to me that the defendants in the case of the Petersburg Eleven are random people who incriminated themselves under torture. Alas, this is the case in today’s Russia, which likes to rant about the ‘fight against fascism.’ Knowing about this case makes me uneasy. I felt quite scared when I wrote this article and talked to Shohista’s lawyer. But, you know, there are things that you can’t keep quiet about, because they concern everyone. Please, if you haven’t heard anything about Karimova, read this article about her. The hearing of the appeal against her verdict is scheduled for tomorrow. I really want to hope for the best.”
Translated by the Russian Reader. Please read my previous posts on the presumed terrorist attack in the Petersburg subway, the case against its alleged “financers and planners,” its roots in the Islamophobia that has infected Russia under Putin, and the shocking lack of local and international solidarity with the eleven Central Asian migrant workers scapegoated and convicted in the case:
“My name is Bayan Mirzakeyeva. I am 21 years old, and I am an ethnic Kazakh from Almaty. I have been living and studying in St. Petersburg at the Architectural University for several years. It was here, in Russia, that I realized that I was “non-white” and learned about this condescending and contemptuous attitude towards myself. Since almost no one around me talks about racism and migration, I wanted to make my own statement. I posted these pictures on social networks and have faced different reactions, from support to aggression and rejection. This was expected, but it has been a kind of impetus for me to continue working with this problem.”
Bayan sent us her illustrations, and we are publishing them for you.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation has become one of the most important destinations for immigration in the world, second only to the United States and equal to Germany. Unlike Europe, however, the majority of people going to Russia aren’t political refugees and asylum seekers, but economic migrants looking for employment opportunities.
Most of the migrants are from the former Soviet space, with Central Asia at the forefront of this massive human flow. Tens of thousands leave the republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan every year to find seasonal employment in Russia’s main cities. Many stay for years, others never return, but their remittances form an important share of their country’s economy. The World Bank estimates that, in 2014, money sent back home by migrants represented 36% of Tajikistan’s GDP, and 30% of Kyrgyzstan’s.
Moscow’s Little Kyrgyzstan presents the story of ten immigrants from Kyrgyzstan living in Moscow, showing the diverse reality of millions of immigrant workers in Russia in their own words. It also broaches various themes that affect their everyday lives, such as the overbearing and corrupt Russian bureaucracy, harassment from the police, and anti-immigrant sentiment among the general population. It looks into the effect of the current economic crisis in Russia on the lives of migrant workers and the changes that followed Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Kremlin-led Eurasian Economic Union in August 2015.
To provide context, the stories of the ten characters are punctuated by comments from two leading Russian experts on migration—Dmitry Poletaev and Valery Solovei—as well as an exchange between participants to a round table in Moscow on the need to introduce a visa regime for Central Asian migrants to Russia.
Franco Galdini, Producer & scriptwriter
Chingiz Narynov, Director
Susannah Tresilian, Narrator
Soundtrack by Salt Peanuts
Thanks a billion to Bermut Borubaeva for the heads-up. The extraordinary challenges faced by Central Asian migrants in Russia have been an abiding theme of this website over the nearly thirteen years of its existence and will continue to be in the future. // TRR
The young woman (left) and the late Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky (right) have nothing to do with the story, told below, of a Central Asian female migrant, working as a residential building caretaker in Petersburg, and her temporarily misplaced daughter. In recent days, however, this “graffiti” portrait of the Nobel laureate, which was quickly painted over, has been the talk of Brodsky’s hometown. The brutal conditions in which Central Asian migrant workers live in Petersburg and other Russian cities are virtually never the talk of the town, although it is their poorly paid drudgery that makes it possible for the “natives” to lead such rich spiritual and intellectual lives, chockablock with fine poetry and heated debates about “street art” and aesthetics. Photograph courtesy of the Instagram page Dom Muruzi
While I was at work, I found a little girl outside the entrance of a residential building. She was calling for her mother, her mommy. She was lost. Although the girl could speak Russian, she was unable, of course, to say where she lived and when she had last seen her mommy. But she was enjoying playing with a broken plastic motorcycle.
I couldn’t go to the police. Who knew what problems with papers the little girl’s family had? In any case, the police would shake down the girl’s mother and father and rob them.
An old lady in the neighborhood with whom I organized an ACSC (ad-hoc committee for saving the child) agreed with my assessment. During the ten minutes of our existence as a committee, we couldn’t come up with anything. Fortunately, the mother—a local building caretaker—showed up and fetched her daughter.
How disgusting it is to live in a society where you can’t go to the police, because the police are robbers and looters with blank stares.
George Losev is a housing authority electrician and revolutionary leftist activist in Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader