The Standard Narrative

Is this the “real” Russia?

“I watched as the people of Chelyabinsk began to search for an identity—a Russian identity that would give them pride. Vladimir Putin’s unexpected ascent to power in 2000 was, for many, a godsend.”

How does the beloved Anne Garrels, formerly foreign correspondent of the dismal, faux-liberal but also mysteriously beloved NPR, know all this?

She claims she knows because she made repeated visits to Chelyabinsk, in Putin’s nonexistent “heartland,” over twenty years.

I gather she’s now even published a book about this fairy kingdom to great acclaim.

The problem is the story she pretends to have dug up has been the standard narrative for western journalists and academics pretending to cover or study the “real Russia” for a long while now.

The problem with the standard narrative is that it is not true, although it was partly spun from a combination of half-truths, outright but persuasive sounding lies, and thoroughly unexamined “facts.” It was cooked up, back in the day, by masterful Kremlin spin doctors like Gleb Pavlovsky and Vladislav Surkov and a whole team of other spin doctors.

Over the last eighteen years, it has been drilled into the heads of “ordinary Russians” and the legions of pollsters, academics, and journalists who have feigned to be studying what “ordinary Russians are thinking.” All of the above-named parties, including some “ordinary Russians,” have then gone on to vigorously scrubbing each other brains with the narrative in a completely closed feedback loop.

Or is this the “real” Russia?

However, the Putinist standard narrative was never true even when easy oil money made it seem partly true, and it’s even less true now when that money has dried up, and the Russian economy has been driven into the dirt by crisis, mismanagement, cosmic-scale corruption, and sanctions.

Yet the less true the standard narrative becomes, the more determined the western media and the west’s dubious posse of “Russia hands” (who don’t live in Chelyabinsk but always know what is best for the people of Chelyabinsk: twenty more years of Putin’s “heartlandism,” apparently) have been to pound the narrative into our ignorant little readerly, viewerly, and listenerly heads.

It’s no wonder the odious phrase “the Russians”—as in “the Russians think this” and “the Russians do that”—has come into vogue again. As if 144 million people all think and do the same thing, as if the eighteen years of Putin’s faux “heartlandism” hasn’t, in fact, been one long “cold civil war,” as a friend of mine aptly put it many years ago.

That is a really complicated story to report. Most western reporters are not up to the job for various reasons, so they have just rung the changes on the standard narrative, “heartlandism,” and Putin’s amazing “popularity” (measured by pollsters whose methods should not be trusted, and whose results should not be taken at face value in circumstances where polling cannot by definition produce objective feedback, if it ever could), and have called it a day.

Since editors and newscast producers are usually none the wiser and have lots of other stories to shepherd, they have let the journalists and their sources in the world of Russia hands spread the Putinist standard narrative up and down and round the west, so that schoolkids and soccer mums in Melbourne, Grimsby, and Cuyahoga County, if pressed, could regurgitate it almost as convincingly as Garrels does, in the “Comment Is Free” piece for the “liberal” Guardian readership, as quoted above.

If there is anything worth preserving about political and social liberalism, it is the desire to reject canned truths and dogmas and find out what has really been going down somewhere.

“Real Russians” are upset “the west’ has swallowed the standard narrative hook, line and sinker.

Instead, nearly the entire western press corps and a good portion of its academic experts on Russia have bought the whole bill of goods, freeing the Russian elite from any responsibility for its cynical, destructive, dysfunctional, and dangerous governance of the world’s largest country.

Amidst the fake moral panic over “hysterical Russophobia” this has always been the real story: how western political, media, and academic elites have mostly been letting the heartlandist-in-chief get away with it, in effect, aiding and abetting him and his old friends in the Ozero Dacha Co-op, serving as cashiers to him and the Laundromat, helping him amass his supplies of real and symbolic capital.

This shell game will all come to a screeching halt one day, however, and all the back stocks of bestsellers like Garrels’s will have to be pulped because they won’t be worth the paper they were printed on. TRR

All photos by the Russian Reader

How Hybrid Warfare Really Works

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This is how hybrid war really works.

Whenever the US and EU make a (usually milquetoast) move the Kremlin doesn’t like, the Kremlin responds by punishing its own citizens, either collectively or individually, through measures like the counter-sanctions against produce imports (involving the massive confiscation and destruction of perfectly good food in a country where the populace spends 80% of its income on essentials) or the “foreign agents” law, which the wildly misnamed Russian Justice Ministry has been implementing with sheer abandon the last couple of years, doing palpable damage to Russian civil society and social research in the process.

The latest victim in this war of attrition or “cold civil war” against what should be the Kremlin’s home team but which it treats as its sworn enemies is Moscow’s estimable SOVA Center. If the SOVA Center had not existed all these years, we would know 500% less about homegrown racism, discrimination, neo-Nazism, and the Russia state’s quirky battle against “extremism” than we actually do know thanks to the terrific research, monitoring, and analysis carried out by the SOVA Center.

But all the clueless blowhards currently having fun mocking and sending up the so-called red scare gripping, allegedly, the US and Europe, know nothing (or pretend to know nothing) about how the Putin regime has been chewing up the scenery at home for years, leaving an institutional and organizational void in its wake, and the grassroots pushback against this academic, cultural, and political scorched earth campaign. They could not care less about the “white” menace (if we’re getting our political colors right) that was unleashed years ago when Putin took over the country, and they are way too lazy to investigate the myriad of ways the Kremlin has been exercising its imperialist hard and soft power for years right out in the open.

So does it matter whether the Kremlin responded immediately or not to the expulsion of its diplomats? No, it doesn’t. It “gets back” at the Great Satan every single day by relentlessly pounding Russia itself into an unpalatable meat patty.

Now that’s “smart.”

Thanks to Comrade SH for the inspiration and Comrade GV for the heads-up. Drawing by Helena Rönkä, as published on the website of Verkauden Lehti newspaper on June 12, 2015.

Sorry, We Have No Medicine

Unlike life-saving prescription drugs, hashish and other narcotics are easy to come by in Russia. Photo by the Russian Reader
Unlike life-saving prescription drugs, hashish and other narcotics are easy to come by in Russia. Photo by the Russian Reader

Sorry, We Have No Medicine
Alfia Maksutova
Takie Dela
November 24, 2016

What doctors and officials do to avoid giving patients the free drugs they have coming to them

“You’re not ill.”

“You don’t have that.”

“You don’t need that drug.”

“You need that drug, but a cheaper substitute will also do.”

“You need the drug, but we’re out of it, so you’ll have to wait.”

This is how doctors and officials respond to thousands of people who, by law, are supposed to receive subsidized medicines. They trick them. They know these people are ill, and they know what drugs they need. According to rough estimates, however, the state now lacks 45 billion rubles for providing drugs to the populace. In certain regions, only 10% of applicants can be supplied with subsidized medicines. Officials and doctors turn down patients in such a way that it is as difficult as possible to prove they have broken the law. The Health Ministry and the health care regulator Rosdravnadzor regularly report that things are stable when it comes to preferential drug provision in Russia. The figures underpinning the reports bear no relation to reality. The true scale and brutality of the war between patients and the state is striking.

***

“Every time, they say, ‘Sorry, we have no medicine. There is nothing we can do about it.’ But by law I am supposed to get them. If they are out of them today, the state should purchase them tomorrow. Isn’t that right?”

Veronika has repeated the question over and over, but her voice still sounds surprised. When she speaks, her hands, with their long, elegant fingers, tremble slightly, as if they too are incapable of coping with the surprise. She has used hormonal inhalers for fifteen years. Without them, she cannot breathe. She has asthma, a host of related ailments, and official status as a disabled person. She is entitled to get the necessary dose at the pharmacy for free, but the medicine has not been issued for a year and a half now.

“It was always given out intermittently,” says Veronika. “You had to find out ahead of time the day when the drug would show up and run to the clinic when it opened to be in time to get it. If you were late, they would tell you they had run out, and it was your problem. But it was only last year I had to deal with the medicine not being available for months at a time.”

Then, after waiting six months, Veronika first turned to the Moscow Health Department for help. It was enough to file an application and the inhaler, which the pharmacy did not have in stock in the morning, turned up in the evening. But the magical effect of phoning the health department did not last long. A couple of months later, the drug was once again no longer available. When Veronika called the health department this time, she was told the situation was complicated. She could file an application, but no one knew when the drugs would arrive. The same day, the pharmacy called her and said her request was pointless: the drugs would not be available. Currently, relatives have been paying for her inhalers to the tune of several thousand rubles a month. According to Veronika, many of the people queued up to see the pulmonologist could not afford to pay this amount. The phrase “we are out of drugs” is tantamount a death sentence to them.

Veronika’s case is one of thousands. It suffices to peruse the regional press for the past month to read a dozen such stories. In Mordovia, the pharmacies not only have no prednisolone for patients entitled to the free drugs benefits, but no iodine or bandages, either. In Oryol Region, a woman suffering from lymphoma managed to get medicine only after local media wrote about her case. In Khakassia, the Audit Chamber will be investigating the problems with subsidized medicines due to the large numbers of complaints by patients. Organizations involved in protecting patients’ rights talk constantly about the growing number of pleas for help. The Movement against Cancer, for example, has noted an uptick. In September of this year, there had been so many cases of cancer patients turned down for subsidized drugs that the Prosecutor General’s Office investigated legal violations in a number of regions. According to online monitoring data for September 2016, done by Alexander Saversky, head of the League of Patients, over 80% of those surveyed had trouble obtaining subsidized drugs. Only 35% of those people had managed to get a prescription for the drugs in question without problems. Similar figures were adduced in a survey done last year by the Russian People’s Front: half of the patients surveyed were not issued the medicines they requested on time.

A 2016 government report stated the subsidized drugs provision program was suffering a shortfall of 45 billion rubles [approx. 660 million euros]. This was no surprise. The standard cost per person receiving free drugs has dropped from 849 rubles a month, in 2011, to 758 rubles, in 2016. According to Rosstat, however, the price of drugs has increased this year by 24%. In 2015, the government allocated an additional 16 billion rubles to alleviate the situation, but, unexpectedly, they were not used. The Health Ministry has said that all necessary drugs have been purchased. Roszdravnadzor regularly monitors the supply of drugs nationwide and has remained satisfied with its results. According to the reports issued by these agencies, around 98% of beneficiaries in Moscow Region, for example, receive their drugs, and the situation in other regions is stable. The Health Ministry’s ability to force public health officials to bend reality for reporting purposes has amazed even the president. Continue reading “Sorry, We Have No Medicine”

Nous sommes tous la cinquième colonne

They Got Out of Their Tractors
Why the so-called common people are increasingly joining the ranks of the so-called fifth column
Gazeta.ru
August 29, 2016

A fifth column of tractors? Photo courtesy of @melnichenko_va/Twitter

The arrest of the people involved in the tractor convoy, as well as new protest rallies in Togliatti after Nikolai Merkushin, governor of Samara Region announced wage arrears would “never” be paid off, are vivid examples of the top brass’s new style of communicating with people. After flirting only four or five years ago with the common people, as opposed to the creacles from the so-called fifth column, the authorities have, in the midst of a crisis, been less and less likely to pretend they care about the needs of rank-and-file Russians. Moreover, any reminders of problems at the bottom provokes irritation and an increasingly repressive reaction at the top.

Previously, top officials, especially in the run-up to elections, preferred to mollify discontent at the local level by promising people something, and from year to year, the president would even personally solve people’s specific problems, both during his televised town hall meetings (during which, for example, he dealt with problems ranging from the water supply in a Stavropol village to the payment of wages to workers at a fish factory on Shikotan) and during personal visits, as was the case in Pikalyovo, where chemical plant workers also blocked a federal highway. Nowadays, on the contrary, the authorities have seemingly stopped pretending that helping the common people is a priority for them.

It is telling that the alleged charging of the tractor convoy’s leader with extremism and the Samara governor’s disdainful interaction with ordinary workers (who responded by blocking a federal highway on Monday) has nothing to do with political opposition.

The people have made no political demands in these cases. Moreover, the main players in these stories almost certainly belong to the hypothetical loyal majority.

The people who took part in the tractor convoy against forcible land seizures even adopted the name Polite Farmers, apparently by analogy with the patriotic meme “polite people,” which gained popularity in Russia after the annexation of Crimea.

In 2011–2012, the authorities used approximately the same people to intimidate street protesters sporting political slogans. That was when the whole country heard of Uralvagonzavod, a tank manufacturer whose workers promised to travel to Moscow to teach the creacles a lesson. Subsequently, the company’s head engineer, Igor Kholmanskih, was unexpectedly appointed presidential envoy to the Urals Federal Distrtict.

Back then, the cultivation of a political standoff between working people from the provinces and slackers, “State Department agents,” and self-indulgent intellectuals from the capitals seemed pivotal, but in the aftermath of Crimea and a protracted crisis, it has almost been nullified.

The people are still important for generating good ratings [via wildly dubious opinion polls — TRR], but it would seem that even rhetorically they have ceased to be an object of unconditional concern on the part of the government.

Nowadays, the authorities regard the requests and especially the demands of the so-called common people nearly as harshly as they once treated the Bolotnaya Square protests.

The government does not have the money to placate the common people, so people have to be forced to love the leadership unselfishly, in the name of stability and the supreme interests of the state. Since politics has finally defeated the economy in Russia, instead of getting down to brass tacks and solving problems with employment and wage arrears, the regime generously feeds people stories about war with the West. During a war, it quite unpatriotic to demand payment of back wages or ask for pension increase. Only internal enemies would behave this way.

“We are not slaves!” Coal Miners on Hunger Strike in Gukovo. Published on August 25, 2016, by Novaya Gazeta. Miners in Gukovo have refused a “handout” from the governor of Rostov Region and continued their hunger strike over unpaid wages. Video by Elena Kostyuchenko. Edited by Gleb Limansky.

 

So the coal miners in Rostov, who have continued their hunger strike under the slogan “We are not slaves,” have suddenly proven to be enemies, along with the farmers of Krasnodar, who wanted to tell the president about forcible land seizures, and the activists defending Torfyanka Park in Moscow, who were detained in the early hours of Monday morning for, allegedly, attempting to break Orthodox crosses, and the people defending the capital’s Dubki Park, slated for redevelopment despite the opinion of local residents, and the people who protested against the extortionate Plato system for calculating the mileage tolls paid by truckers, and just about anyone who is unhappy with something and plans to make the authorities aware of their dissatisfaction.

Grassroots initiatives, especially if they involve protests against the actions or inaction of the authorities, are not only unwelcome now, but are regarded as downright dangerous, almost as actions against the state. This hypothesis is borne out by the silence of the parliamentary opposition parties. In the midst of an election campaign, they have not even attempted to channel popular discontent in certain regions and make it work to their advantage at the ballot box.

The distinction between the so-called fifth column and the other four has blurred.

Nowadays, the fifth column can be a woman who asks a governor about back wages. Someone who defends a city park. Farmers. Coal miners. Even the workers of Uralvagonzavod, which in recent years has been on the verge of bankruptcy. The contracts the state had been throwing the company’s way have not helped, apparently.

If the authorities, especially local authorities simply afraid to show federal authorities they are incapable of coping with problems, continue to operate only through a policy of intimidation, they might soon be the fifth column themselves, if only because, sooner or later, they will find themselves in the minority.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sean Guillory for the heads-up

________

A surprisingly frank and dead-on editorial from Gazeta.ru, who usually have not struck me as wild-eyed radicals, about how the Russian authorities have increasingly come to behave as if nearly the entire Russian population, including the so-called common people, is a gigantic fifth column arrayed against them.

The reason they have sunk into this black pit of reaction is that the current regime is simply incapable of solving the country’s numerous political, social, and economic crises, because it has directly or indirectly generated nearly all of them, including the utter lawlessness in Krasnodar Territory that was finally too much for a group of farmers who climbed into their tractors and set out for Moscow several days ago. But because even allegedly simple farmers can become a fifth column as soon as they draw attention to their sorry plight and the role of the authorities in it, they got only as far the neighboring Rostov Region on their tractors before the police shut them down.

This editorial is also valuable for its catalogue of similar conflicts, most of which you probably have never heard of because they are not well covered or covered at all by the western press and only marginally better by Russian print and online media. Russian mainstream TV outlets mainly avoid them altogether, as do most of the opposition parties currently contending for seats in the Russian State Duma and regional legislatures, as the editorialists point out.

So the hunger-striking miners in Gukov and their wives are left to their own devices when dealing with their creepy regional governor, no doubt a KGB vet, who all but accuses them of acting on behalf of the CIA, although they just want to get paid for their hard, thankless work.

The only grain of salt one should chew while reading this editorial is the fact that these local grassroots campaigns have been going in rather large numbers across Russia throughout Putin’s 17-year reign. And in many cases the altogether uncommon common people who fought these battles were fifth-columnized (through beatings, murders, and jail time) as badly as the current grassroots campaigners mentioned by the editorialists. During the fat years of the noughties, however, times were much better economically in the Russian capitals for a lot of people than they had been just a few years earlier, so they preferred not to notice too hard what was going on in their midst, much less some part of their country they would never dream of visiting even.

The Putinist state has been waging a cold civil war against the people of Russia for seventeen years whether the media has noticed it or not. But a lot of the common people have noticed. TRR

Seven Years Later: How Things Were Done In Submariners Garden

How Things Were Done in Petersburg: The Destruction of Submariners Garden
July 24, 2008
Chtodelat News & The Russian Reader

The current regime presents itself, at home and abroad, as having brought “stability” and prosperity to Russia. Russians, the storyline goes, are enjoying the fruits of their new consumerist society, and thus social conflict, much less outright resistance to the powers that be, is insignificant. Russians are buying into this new “de-ideologized” ideology because it allows them to buy a better life.

Closer to the ground, however, the picture looks different. In fact, all over Russia, workers are struggling to create independent trade unions and improve the conditions of their work; antifascists are battling to stop the scourge of neo-Nazi attacks on the country’s minorities and foreign residents; and human rights activists, opposition activists, and just ordinary folk are working to make the country’s commitment to democracy and law meaningful (to mention only a few, obvious examples). Because the regime has a near-total lock on the media, most of these conflicts are kept out of the public view or presented to the public in a distorting mirror. And, it has to be said, the numbers of resisters nationwide are such that it would be wrong to say that society at large is (for now) gripped by a revolutionary mood.

In Petersburg, the most significant front in this “quiet” or “cold” civil war in the past few years has been the conflict surrounding the rampant architectural redevelopment of the city. The attention of observers both foreign and domestic has been focused on mega-projects such as the planned 400-meter skyscraper that will serve as the centerpiece of Gazprom’s Okhta Center, just across the Neva River from downtown Petersburg, the demolition of the city’s grand, plentiful “architectural heritage,” and the creative, nonviolent resistance mounted by such grassroots groups as Living City. Less attention is paid to efforts to prevent infill construction, which has become a particular plague in the city’s “non-classical” outlying neighborhoods, most of them built during the post-Stalin, pre-perestroika period.

These neighborhoods offer developers an advantage they cannot find in the historic center: “open” space. In reality, this means the tree-filled courtyards, gardens, and parks that Soviet city planners designed into these new estates in order to give citizens the fresh air, greenery, and recreational areas they were so desperately lacking in the densely built environment of the city center.

These “empty” spaces also present another advantage: they already have the infrastructure (gas, water, and sewerage mains, electrical grids and telephone lines, paved roads, and public transportation) that would be expensive to install in the truly undeveloped territories farther away from the center. Developers also do not have to worry about the building height regulations that still, however feebly, hold sway in the inner districts. They are also encouraged by an overheated economy whose main beneficiaries have few other avenues where they can invest their newfound wealth, and by a plentiful supply of cheap labor in the form of immigrants from the impoverished former Soviet republics.

On the administrative side, they are assisted by the “legal nihilism” of which President Medvedev has spoken so eloquently of in recent months, and by the central state’s identification of new housing construction as a national priority. (It matters little that much of the new housing created in Petersburg is functionally and nominally “elite,” meaning that is both unaffordable for most people and, in many cases, principally serves as a financial instrument for local administrations, banks, real estate agents, and buyers. I.e., it is not built as part of a social welfare program.)

In one seemingly insignificant block in the Piskarevka-Polyustrovo micro-district, in the far northeast of the city, all these factors have recently combined to destroy Submariners Garden, a large inner-courtyard grove dedicated to the memory of Soviet and Russian submariners who lost their lives in peacetime. Local residents have known about plans to build a housing complex on the site of the garden and have been resisting them since 2006. Piquancy has added to their struggle by the fact that the project is backed by the FSB, the Federal Security Service, whose officers have, allegedly, been allotted a certain number of apartments in the new buildings.

In May, the conflict went from simmering to hot when construction contractors tried to install a concrete wall around the garden. They were met with furious resistance from residents, who were assisted by local environmental and political activists. In June, further, unsuccessful attempts to install the wall sparked new stand-offs between construction workers, police, neighbors, and activists. This in turn prompted Alexander Vakhmistrov, one of the city’s vice governors and its construction “czar,” to declare a temporary moratorium on all work.

City officials and legislators also tried to calm residents by claiming that their block would be slated for “renovation”—which is what the administration has dubbed its new, ambitious program to replace many of the city’s Khrushchev- and Brezhnev-era residential buildings with new dwellings that will supposedly be built on the same sites as their dilapidated predecessors and will house the people temporarily resettled from those same buildings. The activists and residents of Submariners Garden have mostly rejected this plan, seeing it as an attempt to put a good face on a bad (con) game that never had anything to do with “renovation.”

Despite all these assurances and promises, however, in the early morning of July 21, construction workers, backed by police and “security guards” (i.e. low-level thugs), arrived at Submariners Garden and began clearing trees. Activists and residents sent out a call for help and tried to mount what resistance they could under the circumstances. They were badly outnumbered, however, and in the event, four of them, including their leader, Yelena Malysheva, were arrested. By evening, the “developers” had accomplished what they had set out to do. They had cut down all the trees in the vast, central section of the courtyard and had surrounded it with a concrete barrier.

Activists promised that the fight has not ended, but, in the absence of a solidarity network capable of reacting quickly and in larger numbers to such “fires,” it is difficult to imagine how they and other Petersburgers in similar straits throughout the city can successfully defend their homes and squares. More important, what is lacking is a compelling alternative political practice that would enlist greater numbers of people in the struggle against hegemonic “aggressive development” (Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko’s coinage) and the other predations of oligarchic capital by advocating real grassroots participation in planning and socially oriented development.

Nevertheless, what prevents its emergence most of all are the many micro-practices and everyday discourses through which both the hegemons and the hegemonized persuade themselves and each other that only silly “beautiful souls,” old women, and hysterics worry about old buildings, beautiful panoramas, and humble groves in shabby Soviet-era neighborhoods. Worse, these “losers” are often represented, by politicians and the media, as paid agents of more sinister forces who wish to undermine Russia’s long-sought “stability.” In this case, as in so many others, solidarity with such unattractive types is out of the question. Everyone has more important things to worry about.

Here we present video testimony, in Russian, by some residents of Submariners Garden, Each video is accompanied by a transcript in English.

For a good summary of the day’s events and the conflict in general, see Sergey Chernov’s July 22 article in The St. Petersburg Times (which has been reproduced in full, below).

Submariners Garden, Petrograd, July 21, 2008

[Yekaterina:] Wherever we called, they told us that this was all renovation, although it’s not renovation at all—it’s infill construction. We all were against it. There were public hearings: we all signed [petitions] against this project. There was a vote for [or against] renovation: we signed [petitions?] against this renovation when we learned how it would be carried out. There are two children’s institutions here. They want to build two buildings for the FSB [and] a 150-car parking lot, which we really don’t need here.

They began working around seven-thirty. Who exactly gave them permission? This mainly comes from our governor [Valentina Matviyenko]. That is, she gave them the green light, although there is a law protecting green spaces. There is also a law about human rights in general: [one has the right] to live in one’s neighborhood and have one’s say about what will be [built] there and what won’t. We have been stripped of this right.

We have already filed a suit in the [European Court of Human Rights] in Strasbourg, and we are waiting for our case to be reviewed. What is going on here is total lawlessness: the land was sold, but no one asked us [what we thought about it].

What is at stake here is the value of the land and the value of our infrastructure (our gas mains and electrical cables), which is all ready to use. And the value of our lives: the outer walls in our buildings shake even when a freight train passes by way over there. When a truck passes by below, the outer walls here shake like crazy. We have these huge cracks in the walls, and the ceilings leak in many apartments.

This renovation is not [being done] for us; it’s for someone else. I don’t know what this is. It’s infill construction, ordinary infill construction. We, the residents of Khrushchev-era blocks and five-story houses, are simply being driven out. We have no rights.

My name is Yekaterina. I live literally in the next house over. I have been fighting here for two years. Some people have been fighting for this garden for three years—for this garden, for our green spaces, for our air. The laminated plastics factory periodically sends out fumes. All the children here have allergies. The Avant-Garde plant regularly spits out who knows what. If there is no foliage here, there won’t be any air to breathe. And if there are also going to be 150 cars here or maybe more, then I cannot vouch for what will happen to the health of our children and our own health. I have asthma myself. I cannot breathe the air downtown and I cannot live there.

[Yekaterina:] Our neighborhood has been slated for infill construction. They have slated this place for infill construction, as if it were an empty place. The law on green spaces was passed in 2004. But they slated this little patch—this beautiful, green patch—for infill construction in 2006. Isn’t that a violation [of the law]? It’s a violation. Isn’t it a violation of human rights when we speak out, when we have spoken out against [this project] more than once? They don’t hear us. No one listens to us, no one hears us.

And all the newspapers are silent. We read only articles commissioned [by the authorities or other interested parties]. [We read] that here there is a pitiful bunch of people who have nothing to do with this district. No, we live here. People have lived for forty, fifty years under these trees. How they can ignore this? We plant everything here, we clean the garden up as well as we can, and we have regular volunteer Saturday workdays. Our children ride their bikes here; there’s nowhere else for them to ride. Where should they ride? On the street, on the pavement? Our children play here, parents walk their babies in prams. What kind of demographics will we end up with if our children breathe exhaust fumes and do not see a single green tree their entire childhood?

[Old Woman:] They think they are chopping down trees. They are chopping down our lives. These trees survived the Siege [of Leningrad, during WWII]. Why are trees being felled in the center of the city? Who gave permission to do this?

[Yekaterina:] They included [this neighborhood in the infill construction program] as an empty place, not as a garden, not as a green zone, but as if there were an empty space here. We have a map on which every tree is marked. The city administration has remained totally deaf to our complaints, to our requests. They came and nodded their heads: “Yes, we’ll suspend the project. We’ll put you on the renovation list. Everything’s fine. We’re temporarily suspending construction.”

Now it turns out that [Vice Governor Alexander Vakhimistrov’s] letter ordering a temporary halt in construction was “recalled.” That is, the construction company got the green light to go ahead here. They have already been selling apartments [in the buildings planned for construction on the site of the demolished garden].

[Old Woman:] In Russian, the law is like the shaft on a wagon. They changed their minds [about whether to include our block in the] renovation program three times: first we were in, then we were out. They changed their minds about our park twice: first they included it [in the list of protected green spaces], then they excluded it.

[Yekaterina:] Nevsky Alliance [real estate agency] started selling apartments [in the unbuilt buildings] as soon as the land was sold. In a building that had not been built, apartments have been sold. They have been selling apartments right and left. People have already bought up apartments here.

[Irina Dmitriyevna:] Sixty apartments have been sold in these buildings. Nevsky Alliance is selling them.

[Irina Dmitriyevna:] Only eight percent of these apartments will go to the FSB. The rest are up for sale. That is, when they tell people that the block will be renovated, it’s not true. This is a purely commercial project.

[Yekaterina:] When the head of the local council tried to talk with Sergeyev from the FSB, she got five minutes of pure threats in response.

“You’re standing on the FSB’s land. We’re warning you for the last time. We’ll give you the full treatment if you don’t get your residents off our land.”

I am quoting Mister Sergeyev word for word. All of us were standing nearby.

[Irina Dmitriyevna:] Four people were arrested today: they nabbed them. Moreover, they knew whom to go after. They nabbed our leader, Yelena Malysheva. They [also] nabbed three others. They are active [in our struggle], but not so active as to drag them in.

[Yekaterina:] They weren’t doing anything illegal. One guy was simply standing with us on the sidewalk and was trying to prevent them from beating women. He simply grabbed a policeman by the jacket and was trying to pull him off the women. After that, he was beaten up. Yes, we tried to pull them off, and they tossed us around. They kicked our legs and punched us. They twisted our arms. Six or seven guys dragged [Malysheva] across the asphalt and threw her into the police van. Five men against one woman. She had a heart attack: they took her to the hospital.

[Yekaterina:] Maybe we will win [the garden] back and plant new trees… We still have to live here. No one is going to move us anywhere.

When the project was up for discussion, they showed us this project. The project started right from that little road, as if our houses were not there at all. That is, our houses aren’t taken into consideration in this project at all. No one intends to move us out [to new buildings] or repair [our houses]. Our houses shake as it is, and we don’t know what will happen if they start building here. There is quick clay everywhere. Our gas main also lies on top of this quick clay, unless they end up re-laying it. If they begin building here, we don’t know what will happen. That is the geodesic situation. I suspect we will lose everything.

[Woman:] Seryozha wouldn’t hurt a fly.

[Yekaterina:] He wasn’t doing anything. He was just trying to defend [Malysheva]. [They are] impudent men. Look over there at our beauty. [Points to a falling tree.]

[Yekaterina:] How can we hold on? How can you can hold on when strapping guys beat up women and old ladies?

This is what the deputy head of the [local] administration said. “Hold on a little longer. We’ll help you and get to the bottom of this.”

They are still getting to the bottom of this. When all that is left here is a wasteland, and they start building houses on it, that is when they’ll get to the bottom of it.

[Yekaterina:] They almost cut off his arm with those chainsaws. They were just swinging at him with those saws.

[Yekaterina:] They—the entire mainstream press, the radio stations—officially announced that we had started a riot here. There was no riot. We simply surrounded the construction workers and got them off their equipment. None of us struck a single blow.

Half of them left on their own. They just left everything and turned off the compressor they had been using when they were welding the fence together. Everything was calm and peaceful: there was no riot. The riot began when the police showed up and began beating up the old women who were trying to stop the equipment from getting through. That is when the riot—old women versus the police, if you can call that a riot—began.

[Old Woman:] I said to them, “Who are you fighting? Look at me: I’m eighty-one years old.” He grabs me by the arms and tries to drag me away. All we did was stand in front of the crane so that it couldn’t get by us. How they were tossing us away from that crane, our police!

[Yekaterina:] That’s how our police defend us. People from the FSB arrived; they stood around and observed. Anything happens and they come flying in at the drop of a hat. Last time, when we began to push the fence over, a lot of people got taken down to the precinct. Because last time the fence was illegal however you look at it. [The construction company] was told to take it down, but they didn’t take it down. We tried to push it over: half the green activists were arrested for “unlawful actions.” Putting a fence up without a permit, that’s not unlawful. But pushing it over turns out to be unlawful. That is how the law is interpreted in Russia. Whatever is profitable, whatever is sold, that is legal. But what ordinary citizens, poor citizens, the people, pensioners, ordinary workers and clerks want, that is against the law. Because what they want is not in the financial interests of our powers that be. The regime here is antidemocratic [against the people]. Our authorities are antidemocratic. I have become wholly convinced of this. I don’t believe there is any social safety net, I don’t believe they are worried about demographic growth. What kind of demographic growth will there be if children have nowhere to play?

[Old Woman:] We have no authorities: there is a power vacuum in the city. A total absence of authority. And the power of moneybags. The guy who stole a lot of money, he is the power.

[Ykaterina:] We don’t have democracy; we have oligarchic capitalism. And this is real proof of that. This isn’t a democracy; this is antidemocratic. It’s so antidemocratic. This is visible proof that here, on this lot, oligarchic capitalism has triumphed.

[Old Woman:] Matviyenko promised to make the city green. This is how she is making our city green. Vakhmistrov wrote that there were 16.5 square meters of greenery per person, and by the end of 2008 there would be 20 square meters of greenery per person. Vakhmistrov said this: I still have a copy of the newspaper. Is this how he intends to produce 20 square meters per person?

[Yekaterina:] We gathered 1600 signatures against this. 1600 signatures.

[Old Woman:] They took them to the Smolny [city hall] a few days ago. The police barely let them in. Matviyenko didn’t receive them. [Her assistants] gave her the packet with the signatures. And what did we get in reply? Silence and our trees cut down.

[Yelena Fradkina:] As one of the developers put it, “You’re lumpens.”

[Yekaterina:] They told us this outright: “You’re lumpens. You won’t be able to do anything. We bought this land. Go home, you lumpens, and keep your nose out our business.”

[Other Woman:] “We’ll bury you here, and we’ll build here all the same.”

[Yekaterina:] They will bury us. They will bury us under the ruins of our homes, which will collapse when construction begins.

[Old Woman:] This house is forty-three years old. A prefab building, and forty-three years old. It has not once undergone major renovations. It’s barely standing as it is. What will happen when they begin driving piles in the ground? It’s the same with these five-storey houses. We’ll end up homeless.

[Yekaterina:] Even if they drill them in. The railroad is over there, behind the hospital. When a train passes, my windows shake, the outer wall shakes. What if they begin drilling here? The soil here is quaky. There is quick clay here, quick clay there. There is unstable karstic sand here.

[Yelena Fradkina:] There is vegetation here, greenery, but they don’t understand greenery. The only greenery they understand is dollars. Now that is “greenery,” but this?

[Old Woman:] Vakhmistrov came here. He stood over there and looked at all this. He said, “I don’t see any trees: this is an empty lot.” That’s what Vakhmistrov said right to our faces.

[Yelena Fradkina:] One of their ladies was quoted in the papers (in Novaya Gazeta, I think), one of the developers who has been walking around here. “We could spit on your children, your old people, and your trees. We’re going to build.” What is there to say to that?

[Yekaterina:] The first public hearing was about reconstruction, about resettlement. Infill construction wasn’t discussed at all. When they showed us this project they announced that this was the second hearing. [NB. Russian law requires two public hearings before a construction project can go ahead.] Naturally, we didn’t recognize this second hearing as legitimate. We said that there had been no initial hearing on the project, and nothing was decided during the second hearing. We were categorically against any and all projects. We were totally against any construction in our courtyard. When they tried to palm off this document on us—“Are you for or against renovation? Send us your comments” (they simply circulated this document in our buildings)—we explained to everyone that [the authorities] were trying again to foist infill construction on us under the pretext of renovation. Once again we marked “against” [on the forms], and we went around [to residents] and gathered signatures. We gathered statements from people saying they were against the project. Everyone was against it. But the land had already been sold. So what is the use in our being against this? Who is going to listen to us?

There were constantly these sham members of the public at the hearings, people who aren’t registered in this district, who do not live here. They were just alcoholics who hollered louder than everyone else, “I’m for [the project because] I’ll get resettled.” No one is going to be resettled. The only people who are for the project are the ones whom they tricked by telling them they would get apartments [in exchange for their support]. But for the time being no one is resettling us anywhere, and no one intends to give us apartments. In short, people were simply conned. Even the ones who put down their signatures “for” the project and live on this block, they have simply been conned. Conned in the most elementary way.

They conned us and lied right to our faces. “This [building project] will pay for your resettlement.” “What’s with you? Do you not want your district to be improved?” And many people [fell for this] Or rather, most people didn’t. The majority, the people who have been actively participating [in the protests] [are against the project]… But everyone is at work for the most part, from morning to evening, doing twelve-hour shifts. And so not everyone can take part. Not everyone can actively support [our cause].

So now they simply picked the right moment: half [the neighbors] are at their dachas, half are at work, and it is a Monday. And this is the outcome. The police arrested the kids from the youth organizations [anarchists and National Bolsheviks] who have been supporting us, and their trials are today. They are being tried for these [protest] actions. [They are being tried] for our courtyard, for the fact that they came to the defense of our green spaces and, generally, for defending a normal human life. Their court hearings are today, and that is why they could not come. [The construction company and the authorities] chose the moment, on purpose, so that we wouldn’t be able to do anything. And they will say again that this was an empty spot. The police are standing over there smiling impudently. There you have it.

[Old Woman:] 1600 signatures against renovation. 1600. They didn’t let them into [the Smolny]. A woman came out to meet them at the entrance. She took a look [at the petition] and said, “Okay, maybe. We’ll take it into consideration.” But we haven’t got a response to the documents that were delivered to Matviyenko in the Smolny. We have not heard anything from the Smolny, but meanwhile here they’re already [cutting down the trees]. [The builders] know quite well that they have to break through [our resistance] while no clear decision has been made yet [in the Smolny]. And there [in the Smolny] they are waiting for them to break through. We understood this quite clearly, too. [Matviyenko] and Vakhmistrov are on vacation: how is that? Because [the builders] were told, “If you break through [the residents’ resistance], then you will be in the right here.” And now they have broken through.

They made preparations. They were walking around here for a whole week, surveying everything, and checking everything out. They smiled mockingly at us; they greeted us in this insolent way. And today they are executing all the plans they made over the last week.

Why should they wait for Matviyenko’s decision, for the Smolny? Because they know that the Smolny will decide in their favor all the same, not in ours. Nowadays, the city’s inhabitants are just mud that gums up the works. They’ll knock down our buildings and send us God knows where, beyond the city limits.

Most of the people who live here are native Leningraders. They are quite sharp-tongued and have to be sent away from here.

[Off-screen Voice:] Yeah, there are no New Russians here for sure. Everyone here is a local.

[Old Woman:] Everyone is a local, everyone has worked hard for what they have. And now, in our old age, this is what we get.

When we were young, the war hit us. At least then it was the Germans who attacked us. They were foreigners: we understood who it was that wanted to break us. But we defended Leningrad. Half of our families remained here to lie [in this ground]. The trees stood their ground with us, too.

During the Siege we didn’t cut down trees. People were dying of hunger and cold. They burned furniture, they burned their own books. I lived in wooden houses on Krestovsky Island. Later, we were moved into large buildings, and these houses were leveled and the logs were used for fuel. But not a single tree was touched. Do you have any idea how many trees there are on Krestovsky? They all survived the war, and these trees here also survived the war. But now our new rulers [do things this way], with one flourish of Matviyenko’s pen. If she had come here just once. We asked, “Look at what you’re signing. Why are you doing this?”

Vakhmistrov tells her, “It’s an empty lot.” Okay, people are endlessly asking her to sign things, they are trying to get in to see her. One [TV] channel, then another channel show that there is a park here, that people are struggling [to defend it]. Why does she [act this way]? It was easier to get an audience with the czar than it is to get in to see Matviyenko.

[Old Woman:] First it’s one law, then it’s another. First they put [our garden] on the protected list, then they take it off. First they put us in the renovation program, then they take us off. Then they put us back in. What kind of mockery is this? How long can they mock the people? How many little blazes like this are burning all over the city? Are they waiting until this flows together into one [great blaze]?

The Russian people takes its time getting into the harness, but then it travels quickly. Do they understand this or not? Why are they pushing people to extremes?

Okay, we are old. But we have children and grandchildren. They will come home from work now and see this; they’ll hear our stories. Do they really think the people will be silent forever? The people won’t be silent.

[Vladimir Dmitriyev, deputy in the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly, member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation:] [I was just at Vice Governor Alexander Polukeyev’s office, because Vakhmistrov isn’t here, he’s on vacation. Polukeyev called Roman Filimonov, chairman of the city construction committee, into his office and told him that they had cut down around twenty trees here. [Filimonov] says to me, “Vladimir Yakovlevich, they’re cutting down only old, rotten poplars.”

[Residents:] Go there and look for yourself. Those are birches, maples. . .

[Dmitriyev:] . . . And he says that last week he met with the residents, that he carefully explained everything to them, that people understood everything. . .

[Residents:] Scoundrel.

[Dmitriyev:] . . . true, there were a few individuals who didn’t quite get it.

[Residents:] What a liar. What impudent lies. What an impudent liar. We were promised renovation, but what is that, “renovation”? We were against renovation, we signed a petition against it. 1600 signatures were submitted to Matviyenko in the Smolny.

[Dmitriyev:] I now asked Polukeyev—they went to Pushkin to do an inspection with Matviyenko—I asked him to personally report to her about what is happening here: three people were detained, arrested. . .

[Residents:] Four people. None of them has been released yet. One woman’s heart started acting up, but they are holding her at the police precinct.

[Dmitriyev:] Which precinct?

[Residents:] The 61st Precinct. [The police fought with us.] They dragged her on her back through a puddle. Six guys beat her up and threw her in a police van. We are all witnesses. The boy got a concussion: what do you call that?

The important thing is to stop this somehow: they will destroy our entire courtyard. Can you stop this? Do you have the power to stop this?

[Dmitriyev:] No, of course not.

[Dmitriyev:] [At the moment, it looks as if they have badly] deceived us. Vakhmistrov said, “Include this block in the renovation zone. At the very first session [of the city government?] I’ll raise the issue of”—they’re planning to build not one building, but two buildings for the FSB; for the time being we are talking about two buildings—“We will table this issue then: the administration’s decision to permit construction of these two buildings is declared null and void, and this entire block goes into the renovation zone.”

This is what you were also talking about now. First, there is a search for investors, and then a project proposal. Before a proposal is made, each resident is surveyed and everyone comes to a common denominator. When everything suits everyone, only then do people move from the blueprints to working directly on the lot. And that is what Vakhmistrov [said] to us about this. . . I’ve just come from the Smolny. I sat there for an hour and half waiting for the small cabinet meeting to end.

[Residents:] Stop this before they have cut down all the trees. Can it be stopped?

[Dmitriyev:] I’ll say it again: no one is going to stop this. The highest-ranking official in the city right now is Polukeyev. He said to me, “Vladimir Yakovlevich, you know that this isn’t my issue. It’s Vakhmistrov’s issue, and he is on vacation now. I’m taking care of some of his affairs, but I don’t have a total handle on this issue.”

I said to him, “Then inform Valentina Ivanovna [Matviyenko] right now, when you’re on the bus (they’re going to Pushkin). Lawlessness has broken out again. They’re grabbing people, beating people, and this is happening in plain view.” He said, “Okay, fine.” Then he summoned Filimonov. Filimonov told me that after lunch (he has a meeting now, and people have been called in), right after lunch he will come here himself and have a look.

[Residents:] There is no longer anything to look at. Everything will be chopped down [by the time he gets here].

[Old Woman (looks at the square being destroyed):] Accursed bandits. Bandits. The park stood here for sixty some years. It survived the Siege. And these scumbags. . . A band of thieves.

P.S. A quick glance at the website of the Nevsky Alliance real estate agency confirms many of the fears and arguments of the residents of Submariners Garden. The colored illustration of the future apartment blocks does not include the houses currently on the site. More amazingly, this is how the agency describes the location:

“Compared to other northern districts, the Kalinin District has a quite well-developed social infrastructure. It is characterized by a satisfactory ecological climate [and] a sufficient number of parks and green spaces. The Piskarevka-Polyustrovo micro-district, where the new house is situated [note the use of the present tense: the house has not even been built], is not far from Pioneer Park and Academic [Andrei!] Sakharov Park.”

And, we should add, at 60,400 rubles (1,648.38 euros) per square meter, it’s a steal.

___________

This past winter, Sanoma Independent Media closed the St. Petersburg Times, the city’s only English-language newspaper, which had been published for over twenty years. Sanoma Independent Media also switched off the newspaper’s website, so its invaluable online archives have gone invisible as well. I am thus extremely grateful to reporter Sergey Chernov for providing me with the copy of his July 22, 2008, article on the conflict in Submariners Garden.

Disputed Submariners Garden Hit By Police, Demolition Begins
By Sergey Chernov
STAFF WRITER
The St. Petersburg Times
July 22, 2008 (page 2)

Backed by dozens of policemen and hired guards, a construction company invaded Submariners Garden (Skver Podvodnikov) on Monday to fell trees and install a concrete fence around the perimeter. A number of the area’s defenders were beaten and arrested, according to residents.

Located at the Block 43 Polyustrovo in the north of the city, the garden was named to commemorate Russian submariners who died in non-combat operations after World War II. When visited early afternoon on Monday it had already been partially demolished.

Old women cried as another massive tree trunk fell under the chainsaws and axes of the workers, who were encircled by the policemen and guards. “I planted these trees during the war,” said one. “During WWII, we defended the city, but then it was from foreigners, so it was more clear-cut; it’s worse now,” said another. The defenders said the company’s representatives failed to present any documents showing they had permission to perform the work.

Earlier in the day, four activists who tried to protect the trees, including Yelena Malysheva, leader of the local residents group, were detained by the police and taken to Precinct 61, the residents said, adding that the detainees had also been beaten.

“We tried to stop it, but the police started to beat us,” said local resident Yekaterina, who only gave her first name.

“We were also beaten by some strange men, allegedly from a private security firm. They didn’t identify themselves or show us any papers.” One defender was hospitalized with concussion, while another experienced heart problems, according to the residents.

The latter was also later hospitalized.

“Courageous women have been on watch here every day from morning to evening,” said Yelena Fradkina, a translator and local resident.

“We stopped them before, but today they brought so many men that we couldn’t do anything. Since 8 a.m. we’ve just been standing here, watching [the destruction] and crying.”

Listed in the city’s official register of public parks and green spaces, Submariners Garden, which includes a monument, a memorial oak lane, a playground, and hundreds of trees, has been under threat since 2006, when it became known that developers had plans to build two to four apartment buildings on the site. The apartment buildings have been ordered by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet KGB, according to the construction company, Stroikompleks XXI.

Direct confrontation with the authorities and developers began on May 23, when Stroikompleks XXI attempted to erect a fence around the garden. Since then, residents have been guarding the area and on several occasions have tried to stop the workers, who were escorted by guards and the police. Multiple protests and rallies have been held.

Arrests and beatings were reported on several occasions in June when the company attempted to resume work.

Then, on June 17, Vice Governor Alexander Vakhmistrov asked the company to stop any work in the area “due to heightened social tension.” Last week, the residents were promised by the authorities that no work would be undertaken at least until September, when a “renovation” plan would be put into action, instead of the infill construction attempted by developers.

“They deceived us,” said Vladimir Dmitriyev, a Communist Party deputy in the Legislative Assembly, who arrived at the scene on Monday.

According to Dmitriyev, Vakhmistrov was on vacation while Governor Valentina Matviyenko was scheduled to inspect Pushkin, in the south of the city, in the afternoon. He said his faction would appeal to the Prosecutor’s Office to inquire into the construction company’s “unlawful” activities.

The works in the former garden continued, as this issue went to press, with virtually all the trees cut down and the workers surrounding the area with a concrete fence, according to a telephone report from a local resident.

“Of course, it all comes from Matviyenko. [What happened today] means she gave the go-ahead, despite the law protecting parks and gardens, and in violation of our human rights,” said Yekaterina, adding that the garden was the residents’ only protection from the poisonous smoke emitted by local factories.

The residents also worry that construction will adversely affect their fragile Khrushchev-era houses (many of which were built hastily in 1961), as well as gas and sewage works that were designed to serve only a limited number of buildings.

__________

Editor’s Note. I have reprinted this post from seven years ago (which was originally published on Chtodelat News, a blog I edited for a little over five years, and cross-posted the same day on this blog) for a few reasons. First, because I think it is the best thing I ever did on a blog, despite myself, and despite the disparaging remarks I will make about it, below.

However, it never got the attention it deserved, neither then nor since, although it tells you everything about the Putin regime in a nutshell and what many perfectly invisible, ordinary Russians thought about the regime and still think about it now.

I suggested to the nominal publishers of Chtodelat News that they reproduce the post in an anthology of their own written work they were compiling for a big show at an important art institution in London, but was told it “didn’t fit the format” of the planned publication. Although, at the time, the vigorous efforts being made by grassroots groups in Petersburg, Moscow, and all over Russia to push back against things like infill construction and “neighborhood revitalization” (but not only these things) were the biggest story in Russia, and should have got a lot more coverage everywhere else, and a lot more solidarity from leftist intellectuals and creatives back here at home.

But it was not until the much sexier, endlessly self-enamored (and virtually nonexistent) “Snow Revolution” of 2011–2012 that the international media big guns started cranking their rusty turrets in the direction of Moscow (although not anywhere else in Russia, really) because the “revolutionaries” feebly taking to the streets to oppose Putin’s return to the Kremlin and faked election results were supposedly “middle class people just like us and our readers.”

As you can gather from the videos shakily shot by me with a crappy camera, the resisters at Submariners Square were not sexy or middle-classy enough to warrant such top-flight coverage, although the story got (more or less biased) coverage from local media, especially then, because stories of corrupt city officials allied with greedy developers versus folks from all walks of life defending Petrograd’s historic built environment, whether tsarist, modernist, Stalinist or post-Stalinist, from the wrecking balls, was the hot button topic in town at the time.

All the Submariners got “internationally,” however, was my half-assed blog post and an excellent article, also reproduced here, by the stalwart chronicler of alternative culture and the political grassroots in Petersburg, veteran reporter and photographer Sergey Chernov, most of whose efforts from that period have been reduced to naught, as I have already mentioned, by Sanoma Independent Media’s decision to turn off the website of the St. Petersburg Times and thus kill off at least ten or fifteen years of the city’s political, social, and culture history for people who do not read Russian.

By republishing this post, I do not want to suggest that the ultimately futile defense of Submariners Garden was a revolutionary or utopian moment, or a historical bifurcation point, where the wrong turn was taken by society at large, because, first, there have been zillions of such turning points over the past twenty-five years, and the wrong turn has been taken, collectively, at nearly all of them, and second, the mood at the time was black as pitch in any case, not upbeat.

Who knew that it would only get blacker? I think I did. If only because if you are the powers that be, you cannot continuously lie to ordinary people and grind them into the dirt time after time without it finally going to your head and making you think you can get away with anything. Which is what is happening right now.

And if you are the “vanguard of the proletariat” (the anti-Putin intelligentsia, whether leftist or liberal) you cannot continually opt out of such little skirmishes because you have a conference in Budapest to prepare for or an article to write for a Marxist journal published in Chapel Hill, because, in the end, you will wind up in a totally different moral and mental universe from that of the “lumpens” whose testimony we see and hear in this post. Not, of course, that all local leftists and liberals took such an escape route then. To their credit, many still have not.

But the most compelling reason for republishing this post is to show the world at large that ordinary Russians (i.e., “Putin’s base”) are well aware of how things are done in their country, are perfectly capable of puzzling out who profits and who gets shafted by this state of affairs, and even, God forbid, of sometimes organizing themselves and putting up a fight without some newfangled twenty-first-century Lenin leading them into the fray.

That is, they are hardly “lumpens.”

What is strange to me is that the powers that be and the so-called intelligentsia (liberal and leftist) either do not know this or pretend not to know it. And yet they chatter endlessly about these mostly fictional creatures, “the folk” (narod), either in their supposed defense or, on the contrary, to blame their fabled benightedness for all their country’s woes.

What is most amazing is that all this chatter and flagrant manipulation is thought, by the powers that be and the intelligentsia, to constitute “politics,” “political discourse,” and “populism” in Russia.

Woe is them.

P.S. According to an acquaintance who went to school in the neighborhood, those FSB residential buildings did finally get built. This is borne out by Wikimapia, which shows two buildings, euphemistically entitled the Family Residential Complex, occupying the spot where Submariners Garden once flourished, which Wikimapia does mention, to its credit. It also correctly identifies the developer as the Leningrad Regional Directorate of the Federal Security Service.

The original text of my introduction and the testimony of the residents have been lightly edited to make them more readable.

This Is Your Brain on Russia

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
“I had always thought better of you.” Graffiti on Vasilyevsky Island, Petersburg, July 24, 2016. Photo by the Russian Reader

More people need to listen to Peter Pomerantsev:

The new Russia doesn’t just deal in the petty disinformation, forgeries, lies, leaks, and cyber-sabotage usually associated with information warfare. It reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action. Take Novorossiya, the name Vladimir Putin has given to the huge wedge of southeastern Ukraine he might, or might not, consider annexing. The term is plucked from tsarist history, when it represented a different geographical space. Nobody who lives in that part of the world today ever thought of themselves as living in Novorossiya and bearing allegiance to it—at least until several months ago. Now, Novorossiya is being imagined into being: Russian media are showing maps of its ‘geography,’ while Kremlin-backed politicians are writing its ‘history’ into school textbooks. There’s a flag and even a news agency (in English and Russian). There are several Twitterfeeds. It’s like something out of a Borges story—except for the very real casualties of the war conducted in its name.

[…]

“If previous authoritarian regimes were three parts violence and one part propaganda,” argues Igor Yakovenko, a professor of journalism at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, “this one is virtually all propaganda and relatively little violence. Putin only needs to make a few arrests—and then amplify the message through his total control of television.”

[…]

Ultimately, many people in Russia and around the world understand that Russian political parties are hollow and Russian news outlets are churning out fantasies. But insisting on the lie, the Kremlin intimidates others by showing that it is in control of defining ‘reality.’ This is why it’s so important for Moscow to do away with truth. If nothing is true, then anything is possible. We are left with the sense that we don’t know what Putin will do next—that he’s unpredictable and thus dangerous. We’re rendered stunned, spun, and flummoxed by the Kremlin’s weaponization of absurdity and unreality.

Peter Pomerantsev, “Russia and the Menace of Unreality: How Vladimir Putin is Revolutionizing Information Warfare,” The Atlantic, September 9, 2014

__________

Here is a tiny illustration of how reality really is up for grabs in the Kremlin’s increasingly hot “cold civil war” against Russian society and, now, the rest of the world:

As I stand in the courtyard of a Moscow arts and craft center, a dark-haired, 20-something woman turns to me and asks: “Is this the venue for the ‘Is Vladimir Putin God?’ lecture?”

She smiles nervously, seemingly worried that I’ll think she’s crazy.

She’s not. The title of the lecture is actually “Will Putin Become God by Divine Grace?” but I decide not to correct her. Instead, I nod and show her the way to one of the oddest events in the Russian capital this year.

The lecture took place on Sunday and was first advertised by well-known radical Russian Orthodox activist Dmitry Enteo on VK, the Russian version of Facebook. In the post, Enteo promised to reveal the answers to the following questions:

“Is it possible to bow down to Vladimir Putin as God on earth?

“Will Vladimir Putin’s will fuse with the will of God?”

“Will Vladimir Putin receive endless pleasure through the completeness of the knowledge gifted to him by God?”

Not surprisingly, the lecture stirred up controversy online, as some Internet users accused Enteo of blasphemy, while others suggested he’d lost his mind.

“Let’s get this straight, Dmitry,” one VK user wrote. “Do you believe Putin will sit at the right-hand side of God’s throne when he dies?”

“Possibly,” replied Enteo.

The lecture kicks off with a hip-hop track by an African rap duo now based in Russia. The title: “I Go Hard Like Vladimir Putin.” When the song ends, Enteo fiddles with his laptop until Putin’s face appears on the screen behind him.

The Orthodox activist then addresses the audience of roughly 80 or so Muscovites, an apparent mixture of curious hipsters and true believers. (There’s also a middle-aged man in a suit that a fellow journalist immediately suspects of being an agent of the FSB, Russia’s principal security agency.)

“I’ll keep it brief, in the style of the subject of today’s lecture,” Enteo says.

At times his voice is barely audible, but when he quotes Putin, he makes sure to speak louder.

The hipsters behind me erupt in ironic applause. Enteo presses a button on his laptop, and the photo of Putin is replaced by swirling psychedelic images and low-volume break-beats. He proceeds to read a poem by Vladislav Surkov, the mysterious Kremlin ideologue. The overall effect is an atmosphere reminiscent of a secret cult meeting held at a nightclub.

Enteo then takes us through the history of Putin’s apparent transformation from hard-nosed KGB officer to Orthodox Christian believer. “Putin realized that his goal in life was God, and the Almighty entered into the body of Vladimir Putin,” Enteo says. “Then Vladimir Putin began to do good deeds, like break up opposition meetings.”

At one point, the activist curiously declares: “We disappoint Vladimir Putin. While he tearfully prays for us at night, we smoke hashish.”

The lecture lasts about an hour, before Enteo builds on a final riff in which he determines that, yes, Putin will transform into a godlike being, and like all good Orthodox believers, eventually grow a beard.

After a brief Q&A, the crowd files out. “That was creepy,” says one attendee.

Others seem puzzled by the whole affair.

“It’s a response, in many ways an ironic one, to Putin’s de facto domination of everything from the economy to the media,” says Anna Arutunyan, author of The Putin Mystique, who attended the lecture.

“Most of it, of course, is just Enteo publicizing himself, but some of it is also taking what we see around us to its grotesque logical conclusion.”

Russians have a long history of venerating their leaders, from the reverence of the czars to the terrifying cult of personality that developed around Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. While Enteo didn’t directly say that Putin was God, he felt comfortable posing the question, which shows just how powerful the Russian president has become.

Not everyone, of course, sees the hand of God in Putin’s politics. In Ukraine, where a Kremlin-backed separatist movement is slowly tearing the ex-Soviet state apart, the country’s spiritual leader, Patriarch Filaret, recently suggested the Russian leader was possessed by the devil.

“Like Judas, Satan has entered into him,” Filaret declared, as he accused Putin of turning the two Slavic countries against each other. “Like the first brother-killer, Cain, he has fallen under a demonic influence.”

Regardless of which side you take in the “Putin: God or Satan?” debate, it’s a remarkable development in the life of this former, low-ranking KGB operative. From serving the officially atheist Soviet state in Cold War-era East Germany to being compared to God and the devil, it’s been a long, strange road for Vladimir Putin. And it’s not over yet.

—Marc Bennet, “Do Some Russians Think Vladimir Putin Is God?” Vocativ, September 8, 2014

__________

Dmitry Enteo, a Russian Orthodox activist known for his controversial and sometimes violent public stunts, will hold a lecture and roundtable Sunday in Moscow about President Vladimir Putin and his connection to God.

“You will understand the secret of secrets, after which your life will never be the same. You will receive direct answers to questions that face Russia today,” reads an advertisement for the event posted on the VKontakte social networking website.

One of the questions due to be addressed in the lecture is whether Putin will become God “by grace.”

As of Tuesday evening, 1,429 people had signed up for the event, according to the website.

Enteo is head of the God’s Will movement, which has earned notoriety for its public campaigns targeting what it sees as blasphemy against the Russian Orthodox Church.

In November, Enteo and a female accomplice disrupted a performance of a contemporary play based on Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” at the prestigious Chekhov Moscow Art Theater. In an outburst that many audience members believed was part of the performance, they shouted that the play “mocks our faith” and admonished the audience for not protesting.

Enteo’s group has also previously assaulted LGBT activists and Pussy Riot supporters. They have never been charged by law enforcement agencies.

—”Radical Russian Activist to Lecture on Whether Vladimir Putin Will Become God,” The Moscow Times, September 2, 2014