Maria Kuvshinova: What Sentsov Could Die For

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander Morozov: The So-Called Partners

The So-Called Partners: How the Kremlin Corrupted an Unimaginable Number of People in the West
Alexander Morozov
Colta.ru
March 14, 2017

Vladimir Putin and Michael Flynn at TV channel Russia Today’s birthday party, December 2015

Before Crimea, everyone “cooperated” with the Russians. Until mid 2016, there was confusion about this past. The sanctions did not almost nothing to change this mode of cooperation.

But since the elections in the US, quite significant changes have been occurring that are hard to describe accurately and identify. Outwardly, this is encapsulated in the fact that people accused of communicating with the Russians have been losing their posts, and all this comes amidst public scandals. It’s not that people cooperated maliciously, but they were involved in what Russian gangsters call zaskhvar, “getting dirty.”

No one doubted Flynn’s loyalty, but he resigned due to “contacts.” The deputy speaker of the Lithuanian Seimas, Mindaugas Bastys, resigned the other day. He resigned because the Lithuanian secret services refused him access to secret information, although the list of Russians with whom he palled around at different times doesn’t contain anyone special: employees of Russian state corporations in Lithuania, crooked local Russian businessmen, and so on. Recently, the mailbox of an adventurer who has worked for the Kremlin in four countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary), and the Balkans to boot, was hacked. It transpired that Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeev had discussed or conducted ops of some kind during the elections in Bosnia and Poland.

Malofeev is, seemingly, an extreme example of frankly subversive actions in other countries. Perusing the correspondence and knowing the atmosphere of Russian affairs in Europe, you realize that Malofeev’s strategy and tactics differ not a whit from the actions of dozens and hundreds of similar actors operating outside the Russian Federation. Before Crimea, all of this resembled benign “promotion” of their interests on the part of all those who cooperated with such people. But now retrospection kicks ins. What trouble have those who were involved in the Petersburg Dialogue, the Valdai Club, the Dialogue of Civilizations, and the dozens and hundreds of programs where the Russians either footed the bill, generated incentives or simply provided a one-time service got themselves into? I was told by people from compatriots organizations (who fairly early pulled out of Russian World’s programs) that initially they were fooled by Nikita Mikhalkov’s early cultural projects outside Russia. They sincerely supported his appeal to the descendants of the post-revolutionary emigration. Around 2008, however, they sensed they were getting sucked into a system of ideological support for the Kremlin. Many even continued to travel to Moscow to the compatriots congresses, but inwardly they already felt like observers. They had already decided then that this was a new “Comintern,” and it would be wrong to accept grants from it. But others happily kept on taking the grants and sailed off with the Kremlin for Crimea.

* * *

But all these political, humanitarian and media contacts pale next to the vastness of business collaborations. Millions of people worldwide were involved in Russian money for over a decade. After all, so-called capital flight occurred on a massive scale. This capital was then partly reinvested in Russia through offshores, and partly spent on buying various kinds infrastructure outside of Russia (firms, shares in businesses, real estate, yachts, etc.). This entire giant machine for circulating the Putin corporate state’s money was serviced by millions of people as counterparties, including lawyers, dealmakers of various shapes and sizes, politicians, MPs, movie stars, cultural figures, translators, and so on.

The outcome, when Crimea happened, was a huge spontaneous lobby. This doesn’t mean all these people had literally been bought off, to describe the process in terms of the battle against corruption. People simply “cooperated” and received various bonuses from this cooperation. It is not a matter of recruitment, but a psychological phenomenon. Any of us, having once received money from a rich childhood friend, even if we are critical towards him, would still remain publicly loyal to him. Would you want to shout to the heavens about the atrocities of a man thanks to whom, say, you had earned enough money to buy a new house? You would just keep your lips sealed.

* * *

In other words, for around ten years, beginning approximately in 2004, after the takeover of Yukos, the Russian economy “warmed up” foreign strata whose scale is hard to evaluate. It was not a matter of corruption in the narrow sense of the word. Of course, on their part it was regarded as economic cooperation with a peculiar type of “eastern” economy that involved “pats on the back,” kickbacks, exchanges of various bonuses and preferences, trips to the banya, hunting for wild sheep from helicopters, and so on. But it was not criminal. On their part, it was indulged as a “peculiarity.” Russia is hardly the only economy marked by these ways. It was a partnership in the primary sense. The world’s major companies opened offices and production facilities in Russia. Until recently, it was a privileged economy, included in the BRICS grouping.

Crimea turned all the fruits of this decade-long warming-up into a problem. It is obvious Putin used Crimea to implement an instantaneous mobilization amongst those involved in the partnership. He confronted all the partners with the need to define themselves. Putin’s use of the word “partners,” which he pronounces ironically, has often been thought to relate to the diplomatic lexicon. But in fact Putin has in mind other partners, the millions of people who have received big bonuses for dealing with Russian contracts, Russian money, and various undertakings with Russians for a decade.

* * *

Now these partners have big problems, and we must sadly note that the problems are not due to Crimea as such nor to the regime of sanctions and countersanctions, nor to the ambivalence of having been involved in toxic projects with Russians in the past.  The problems lies entirely in the fact that Putin does not want to stop.

This entire massive milieu would sigh in relief if it found out that Putin had “transferred the title to himself” (i.e., focused on Crimea) and called it a day.

But the extreme ambiguity has been maintained and even intensified from 2014 to 2017. It was not Putin who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, but folks mobilized by Malofeev. It was not Putin who murdered Nemtsov, but Chechen security officials. It was not Putin who hacked the Democratic Party’s servers, but volunteer hackers, who maybe were Russians or maybe not, but they used Russian servers. The attempted coup in Montenegro was not orchestrated by Putin, but by persons unknown. It was not Putin who plotted to destroy Ukraine as a country and establish Novorossiya, but, say, Sergei Glazyev. The pro-Russian rallies in European countries were organized not by Putin, but by a guy named Usovsky, who raised money for the purpose from patriotic Russian businessmen. And so on.

The list now grows with every passing day. Yet the Kremlin doesn’t really distance itself from any of it with a vigor that would be comprehensible to its so-called partners. The Kremlin has not conducted an investigation of any of these events, but has played an ambiguous game that can be clearly read as “covering up” all of “its own” people.

So the ten-year economic warming-up has been transformed before our very eyes into “inducement to conspiracy.” Everyone is now looking back and asking themselves, “Who was it we ‘partnered’ with? Maybe it was Russian intelligence? Or, from the get-go, was it just bait to get us involved in an unscrupulous lobbying scheme?”

* * *

There is tremendously frightening novelty at play here. Everything happening before our eyes with the State Department and pro-Russian politicians in Europe lays bare a complex problem. The boundaries between lobbying, partnership, espionage, propaganda, and corruption have been eroded.

A situation is generated in which it it impossible to tell benign partnership from complicity in a politics that erodes the limits of the permissible. Just yesterday you were a Christian Democrat building a partnership with the Russian Federation, but today you are just a silent accomplice in eroding the norms of Europe’s political culture. You are not just tight-lipped, refusing to evaluate the Kremlin’s actions. On the contrary. “Maintaining fidelity,” so to speak, to the fruits of your past partnership with the Kremlin, you even raise a skeptical voice. “What’s so criminal about Putin’s policies?” And others do the same. “The sanctions have been been ineffective. Frankly, Crimea has always been Russian.”

And if you were somehow able to take in at a glance the entire so-called Kremlin propaganda machine abroad as a combination of the work of Moscow news agencies and little-visited European websites run by left- and right-wing critics of American hegemony who for that reason sympathize with Putin, it would be utterly impossible to get a glimpse of the giant roots the Kremlin has put down in the western economy. It is beyond estimation, just like the transformation or, rather, the corruption not only of its own native population but also huge circles in the west, a task the Kremlin has accomplished in ten years.

Three years ago, I imagined Putin was putting together a kind of right-wing Comintern, and I wrote about it. Now it is often dubbed the “black Comintern.” I think, however, the situation is more complicated and a lot worse. The “Putinist Comintern” is the fairly insignificant and well-visible tip of a much larger process taking place on other floors of European life, where people who are not involved in either ultra-rightist or ultra-leftist politics remain silent about the Kremlin’s actions. Condemning it, they remain loyal nevertheless. They considerately wait for Putin to return to European norms of partnership. These people cannot see and do not want to see that the ambiguity fostered by the Kremlin in the matter of responsibility for murders, paramilitary detachments, mercenaries, and destabilization of small countries is not a temporary phenomenon. It has been conceived that way. And it will continue that way in the future.

Alexander Morozov is a Russian journalist and political analyst. Translated by the Russian Reader

Contemporary Art Killed My Dog

On a number of issues and events you have opposed Putin’s policies, and now you are at the Moscow Biennale [of Contemporary Art] at the VDNKh, a venue where the order of things is supposed to be questioned [sic]. Do you believe that here, in the current political situation, there can be a place for real criticism that is both anti-Putinist and anti-capitalist?

Yanis Varoufakis, anti-anti-Putinist
Yanis Varoufakis, anti-anti-Putinist

[Yanis Varoufakis:] Absolutely. But let me clarify something. I am not an anti-Putinist.  Anti-Putinism is too strong a word. I am very critical of Putin, but his demonization in the West is something I also resist. We should be smarter and think about what it means to be critical. I am extremely critical of what Putin did in Chechnya, and I have not forgiven him for it. But on the other hand, Putin was absolutely right about what happened in Georgia, and the West was absolutely wrong. I think that the West’s position on Crimea has also been inconsistent. Russia was surrounded [sic] by NATO when Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and other countries were included in the alliance. And for Russia it was an insult, as well as something close to violating the agreement between Reagan and Gorbachev [sic]. And Putin has been right about this, too. So I have never supported the policy of demonizing Putin. And I am afraid that Russians will have to suffer the awful consequences of this process, consequences which they do not deserve.

So I believe that spaces like this give us hope for the existence of another, rational, critical approach that does not take one side or the other and allows people from the West and Russia to get together and develop a more sophisticated optics for seeing the world and politics, for being critical without demonizing.

—Excerpted from Sergei Guskov, “Yanis Varoufakis: ‘Being critical without demonizing,’” Colta.Ru, October 2, 2015. Translated, from the Russian, by the Russian Reader

__________

There are only a few things I would add to Mr. Varoufakis’s remarks, above. First, he presumably made them in English, not Russian. Since he is an extremely persuasive speaker and conversationalist, it is quite possible some nuances in what he said at the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art were flattened or distorted when translated from English (?) into Russian, and these distortions have only been amplified further in my back translation.

But I doubt this is the case. The point of his remarks seems quite plain, so they are either a fabrication on the part of Colta.Ru or what Mr. Varoufakis more or less said in the event, minus the “static” of two consecutive translations.

If this is what he said, then Mr. Varoufakis is only another in a long line of Western leftist thinkers and activists who, seemingly, have found something “anti-hegemonic” or “anti-imperialist” or “productively” anti-American or, God forbid, “anti-capitalist” about Putin’s policies and actions, or have found it possible to hobnob with or shill for Putinists, on the Putinist dime, in the name of some kind of “criticality” or “third position” above the current fray, or just because they were bored and wanted an all-expenses-paid junket to Moscow or Petersburg or Rhodes.

A smarter person than me (and an actual Russian leftist activist to boot) has pointed out that Putin is nothing remotely like an anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist. On the contrary, my smart friend has argued, folks in the west should make an effort to find out about grassroots social and political activism and activists in today’s Russia and look for ways to make common cause with them. Or, at least, not stab them in the back by supporting Putin explicitly or implicitly.

Because Russia, like “the West,” is not a monolith. And that is the second way in which Mr. Varoufakis went wrong in his remarks in Moscow. “The West” is not a single entity, even among its political, intellectual, and media elites. It is not an organism singularly hellbent on “demonizing” Putin, whatever that means. It requires no effort at all to compile a very long league table of Putin’s wholehearted or partial supporters in “the West,” from Stephen Cohen to Donald Trump, from Silvio Berlusconi to Mary Dejevsky, from Nick Griffin to any number of leftist and centrist politicians in Europe. For reasons I haven’t been able to explain, that table has been growing fatter as Putin’s actions have become more aggressive and “demonic,” both at home and abroad.

Neither is Russian society nor the fabled (and utterly imaginary) “Russian people” monolithic, but over the past fifteen years the Russian state apparatus, the Russian mainstream media (especially television), and Russian mainstream political parties have become a monolith, one of whose primary goals, especially in the last two or three years, has been to demonize “the West” and the domestic opposition any way it can, no holds barred.

You would have to have been in the middle of this properly demonic media hysteria, moral panic, and “cold civil war” to appreciate just how thoroughgoing and thoroughly frightening it has been, and since I have been following Mr. Varoufakis’s own adventures over the past year or so, I can imagine he simply has no clue about what has really been happening in Russia since the blocks came off completely post Maidan, because he was very busy with more important matters.

One job this blog has taken on has been to provide little snapshots of that awfulness while also, more importantly, giving non-Russian speakers a chance to hear Russian voices other than Putin’s, however unimpressive or inaudible they might seem to big shots like Putin and Mr. Varoufakis.

Finally, I would like to address the question of why Mr. Varoufakis imagines, apparently, that big hoedowns like the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art are such perfect places for elaborating a “sophisticated optics for seeing the world and politics, for being critical without demonizing.”

Just a year ago, my hometown of Petrograd hosted Manifesta 10, another such prominent venue for “criticality.” In the midst of an occupation and invasion of a neighboring country by the host country, the host country and host city’s continuing legal demonization of LGBT, and a local election campaign, for the city’s governorship and district councils, that involved making sure the non-elected incumbent in the gubernatorial race would face no real opposition in his bid to legitimize his satrapy and, on election day, threatening independent election observers with murder, the Manifestashi did absolutely nothing that would really ruffle anyone’s feathers, least of all their sponsors from city hall and the State Hermitage Museum, and they barely reacted to the maelstrom of neo-imperialist hysteria and officially authorized criminality raging around them. Basically, they partied like it was 1999, while providing their fellow citizens with the welcome illusion that the shipwreck wrought by fifteen years of Putinism in politics, the economy, civil society, culture, education, medicine, science, industry and, most painfully, people’s minds could be conjured away or endured and understood a little better by taking a sip of contemporary art’s renowned and heady “criticality” and pretending Petersburg was Helsinki or Barcelona, if only for a summer.

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What has got better on Russia’s broken social, political, and art scenes since last autumn to make it even more desirable to engage in “criticality” at a biennale in one of Russia’s capitals, this time with the Russian Federal Ministry of Culture footing the bill?

Latterly, a cynical lunatic named Dmitry Enteo has smashed up a bunch of sculptures by the late Soviet sculptor Vadim Sidur and gotten off almost scot-free for his crimes. On the other hand, the list of political prisoners in Russia has continued to grow, and it now includes Crimean activists Oleg Sentsov and Alexander Kolchenko, sentenced to hard time in prison for no particular reason.

And then there is Alexei Gaskarov, who, if he lived in a more democratic country, would be running a party like Syriza or Podemos (minus the “criticality” and verbal cuddling up to other people’s dictators), but instead looks to be facing another two and half years in a penal colony, again, for no particular reason other than his own staunch opposition to Putin’s regime.

In the current dreadful “conjuncture,” a good day is a day that goes by without news of yet another anti-Putinist activist being arrested, an art exhibition’s being trashed by “Orthodox activists” or otherwise shut down because it might offend the sensibilities of someone’s grandmother, or a new law’s speeding down the State Duma assembly line so as to tighten up the screws on dissent and “treason” yet again.

In fact, I had a bit of such good news earlier today, when I learned that Andrei Marchenko, a Khabarovsk blogger whose case I have been following, was only fined 100,000 rubles (approx. 1,350 euros) instead of being sent down for two years to a work-release prison, as the prosecutor had demanded, for the horrible crime of writing one untoward sentence about Putin’s Ukrainian misadventure on his Facebook page in 2014.

Where does Mr. Varoufakis fit into this picture? Probably nowhere, which is probably where he should have stayed instead of playing to Moscow’s art and hipster crowd, always happy to let itself off the hook when it comes to taking responsibility for the ongoing disaster, and to the invisible figure up in the emperor’s box, especially at an opera with the almost deliberately ham-fisted and parodical title of Acting in a Center in a City in the Heart of the Island of Eurasia.

Thanks to Comrade AW for the heads-up. Images courtesy of BBC News and the Manifesta Biennial Facebook page

Barbarians at the Gates: The Demise of Stroyburo House

The Demise of Stroyburo House
Nadia Plungian
March 8, 2015
Facebook

Tonight, an illegal criminal operation has completely destroyed Alexander Langman and Leonid Cherikover‘s Stroyburo (“Construction Bureau”) House, a monument to the Bolshevo Commune. A fresco, The Working Class, by artist and communard Vasily Maslov, will remain forever buried under its ruins. The fresco had been slated for restoration and measures had been taken prevent its further deterioration. A few days ago, the building had been listed in the Russian Federal Unified State Cultural Heritage Registry.

Along with its fresco, Stroyburo House was a landmark of international significance. During 2013–2014, the ruination of the building was halted through the efforts of architectural heritage activists and experts, including myself, and the facade and the room containing the fresco were left intact. The authorities promised to restore the building and turn it into a museum, and the scandal led to dismissal of Korolyov’s mayor. The media wrote extensively about Maslov, there were programs about him on national TV, and a large show of his graphic work opened at the Avant-Garde Center in Moscow. Quite recently, there had been another exhibition of his works in Bolshevo from the collections of the Korolyov Museum.

Then there was a pause, the restoration was delayed, and the building was given official landmark status. Last night, a group of unidentified criminal raiders, operating practically under the supervision and direction of Korolyov city police officers, brought in wrecking equipment and commenced finishing off the building’s supporting structures. At present, they have destroyed the facade and all the remaining walls. Alexandra Selivanova went there in the morning, and there can be no illusions. According to dozens of observers from Archnadzor and the Korolyov branch of VOOPIK (All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Monuments of History and Culture), the Maslov room no longer exists.

You can talk about impotence and rage, but in fact that would mean saying nothing. The destruction of architectural landmarks is today implemented with methods resembling a real civil war. This war is waged not only against people but against also our right to historical memory. The terrible ruins of Stroyburo House, the ruins of the illusory independence and self-governance of the 1930s communes, reveal to us the reality of the historical stage where we find ourselves. I will say one thing. Criminal lawlessness and official relativism are based on fear of losing power, and in a state of increasing fear it is impossible to act rationally. If the regime strikes out indiscriminately against its own culture, if it forgets the rulings it made yesterday and does not know what to do today, then it has completely lost control of the situation.

__________

“The Islamic State is already outside Moscow”: Korolyov landmark demolished to cries of “Allah Akbar!”
March 8, 2015
Regnum.ru

Today, March 8, Stroyburo House, a cultural landmark in the suburban Moscow town of Korolyov, was demolished to the accompaniment of extremist and neo-Nazi slogans, VOOPIK activists have informed Regnum.

“The Islamic State is already here. The gangsters who were guarding tonight’s demolition of an architectural landmark containing a world-class fresco cried ‘Allah Akbar!’ and ‘Red-assed commies!’ The local police looked on in silence. The Moscow Region police, the Russian Interior Ministry, the Governor of Moscow Region, and the Moscow Region Prosecutor’s Office have remained aloof. At the moment, the demolition is being completed in daylight. The authorities continue to do nothing,” said VOOPIK Moscow Region branch chairman Yevgeny Sosedov.

Sosedov had spent the last twenty-four hours trying to contact Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov through official channels, but to no avail.

“One of the men surrounding the building was drunk and screaming ‘Douse him with gasoline and set him on fire!’ in reference to a local city councilman’s aide. As soon as the police left, he shouted, ‘I’m going to start shooting!’ There were neo-Nazi slogans and swearing,” recounted VOOPIK activist Yevgeny Rybak.

Police who were called to the scene left without taking any action. Attempts to summon the police again through the Moscow Region police’s main directorate and the Interior Ministry’s central office were fruitless.

3-17-bigStroyburo House in November 2014

The illegally demolished, regionally listed cultural landmark was the first brick building at the Bolshevo Commune, which operated in the 1920s and 1930s. Until now, the building contained the world’s only examples [sic] of Soviet avant-garde monumental painting. Activists had managed to save only one fresco by artist Vasily Maslov.

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Building on Bones
Fresco from 1930s Discovered in Constructivist Landmark Threatened by Illegal Destruction
Nadia Plungian and Alexandra Selivanova
November 11, 2013
Colta.ru

Detailed_pictureStroyburo House, November 2013. Photo by Nadia Plungian

In the town of Korolyov, a building that could be a museum is being destroyed. Nadia Plungian, senior researcher at the Institute of Art Studies, and Alexandra Selivanova, a senior researcher at the Research Institute of Theory and History of Architecture and Urban Planning and director of the Avant-Garde Center at the Jewish Museum, visited Korolyov and tried to get to the bottom of the situation.

On the morning of November 8, another arson took place in the suburban Moscow town of Korolyov, and later that night, the first phase in the illegal demolition of the building at Ordzhonikidze Street, 34/2, commenced. One of the first communal houses in the world, the building, known to historians as Stroyburo House (Alexander Langman and Leonid Cherikover, architects), is part of the impressive constructivist campus of the Bolshevo Commune (1928—1935), which has been almost completely preserved to the present day.

In the mid 1930s, the commune’s campus was an interesting complex, which today gives us a complete picture of the early Soviet social and educational experiment in organizing collective living. It included a factory kitchen, a hospital complex, a shopping center (the so-called ship house), dormitories, a kindergarten, a workers club, a building for assemblies of communards (the so-called airplane house), and the residential building, discussed in this article. Among other reasons, it went down in the art history annals thanks to Nikolai Ekk’s famous 1931 movie Road to Life, the first Soviet feature sound film, which deals with the re-education of a teenaged communard.

According to the draft master plan for the town of Korolyov, the entire campus of the commune, except for the shopping center, has been slated for demolition, and apartment buildings will be constructed on the vacated lots. Activists of the Korolyov branch of VOOPIK are currently making every effort to preserve the complex as a whole and Stroyburo House as part of it.

The question of demolishing the house was raised about six months ago. According to Maria Mironova, chair of VOOPIK in Korolyov, a letter writing campaign to various authorities managed to get the entire complex placed on the waiting list for eventual cultural heritage status. After the house was vacated of residents, however, it was not put under protection, and for reasons unknown, municipal documents limit the period prohibiting all work on the premises to the present day, November 11, 2013. During this time, the empty house has been the target of seven arson attempts.

Stroyburo House, Bolshevo Commune. 1930s

Now, while the house is under attack from backhoes and fire, a poll on whether or not to demolish the house is underway on the website of the Moscow Region Culture Ministry. Many local residents support demolition. According to them, the developer, Development 21, Ltd., told them its terms: if the historic building were not demolished, the residents would be evicted from their new municipal apartments. The practice of “building on bones” is not new in Korolyov. A neighboring high-rise has been built on land once occupied by a cemetery used during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which Development 21 ripped up, discarding and destroying the gravestones. The developer’s manipulative rhetoric is seemingly so well established that the senseless demand to chose between the town’s history and its improvement has long been taken for granted by the residents, who obediently support the destruction of their own memory.

It was in these catastrophic circumstances that a week ago, on November 2, architectural heritage activists discovered wall paintings from the early 1930s in two rooms in the house during an inspection.

“[Yevgeny] Rybak phoned me on the second,” recounts local historian and history buff Vladimir Kultin, head of the Podlipki-Kaliningrad-Korolyov Club. “He was at the house with his young son. You know the layout yourselves. Down the hallway to the right, there are two rooms, then a kitchen. If you noticed, there is not a single unbroken window in the house right now, and the terrible draft has caused the wallpaper to peel from the walls. That is how [Rybak] discovered the painting. Our jaws dropped, of course. People have been searching and searching, and there the Amber Room drops into your lap. I even dubbed [Rybak] Schliemann. His son was in the second room. He says, Dad, there are some men here. We take a look, and it is true: it’s a Maslov, a portrait of three workers. There is no doubt it is him: the part of the fresco featuring the bridge is repeated in other works by the artist. We explored further and found geometric shapes, a bright crimson triangle, and a circle, which we later recognized as a locomotive.

“By tapping the wall between the rooms, we realized it had been installed latter. The molding at the top is different, and the doors give the impression of a latter do-it-yourself job. (You can see that laths have been plastered above the opening.) All these partitions are already in the Technical Inventory Bureau plan for 1947. But if we mentally removed the wall and the doors, we would see a large room with identical windows, which was painted with a fresco all round the perimeter.”

fileFresco in Stroyburo House, former appearance. Image © Vladimir Kultin

Fresco in Stroyburo House, former appearance. Image © Vladimir Kultin
Fresco in Stroyburo House, current appearance. Photo © Vladimir Kultin

The discovery in Stroyburo is completely sensational, not only because very few pre-war frescoes have survived, and not only because the work’s provenance is obvious: the daughter of one of the communards, artist Vasily Maslov (born 1905—executed 1938) had kept pre-war photographs of the fresco. It is also sensational because the fresco was known from archival materials and was previously considered lost, since inaccurate information had led historians to believe that the fresco had been painted in another building at the complex, the Spark (Iskra) communard club, which burnt down in 1943.

Vasily Maslov’s personal background is interesting as well. A Yekaterinburg artist who left home as a teenager and earned his living as a painter, Maslov later studied in the mid 1920s at art colleges in Gorky and Baku before arriving in Moscow, where on the recommendation of Commissar of Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky he was given a room in a dormitory and enrolled in a remedial arts college for workers [rabfak]. In 1928, Maslov met Bolshevo Commune organizer Matvei Pogrebinsky through Maxim Gorky and thus became a Bolshevo communard. Even now, Maslov’s frescoes can be put on a par with the works of many of his famous contemporaries such as Vladimir Malagis, Israel Lizak, and Vasily Kuptsov.

Vasily Maslov in the art studio at the Bolshevo Commune

It was decided that information about the frescoes should be temporarily kept on the back burner to prevent deliberate vandalism until experts arrived: activists had already started receiving threats from supporters of the developer. However, on November 8, fire broke out at the house for the eighth time. According to architectural heritage activist Olga Melnikova, everything pointed to the work of a professional arsonist. The roof was destroyed, and the building was burned from top to bottom on several sides. Firefighters privately confirmed that the building had been doused with a flammable liquid, but refused to comment on the record.

Pyotr Shubin, chair of the Korolyov Council of Deputies, who managed to stop Stroyburo House from being vandalized on Friday night, says that the town’s master plan, according to which the buildings are slated for demolition, has still not been agreed with either the Ministry of Culture or the Ministry of Natural Resources. However, the grounds of the former commune continue to be redeveloped.

Almost immediately after the fire was extinguished, Stroyburo House was again subjected to another attempt at rapid demolition. On the night of November 8, a front loader arrived to begin demolishing the left wing. On November 9, a second, much larger loader arrived. In the presence of the police and fire department, the building continued to smolder. We got the impression that constant, repeated attempts at arson were taking place, now under the strict control of the authorities. In between these stages of the demolition, we were able to get inside the house and partially photograph the already heavily soaked fresco in both rooms, as well as disseminating information about it on social networks. It is quite likely that similar frescoes could be discovered under layers of wallpaper in other rooms in the house, but this can be ascertained only when all work has been halted on the premises. Access to the rooms is now forbidden. This has to do with the desire to prevent art historians and architectural experts from carrying out inspections before the building is totally ruined.

To divert the attention of activists from Stroyburo House, another criminal offense was committed: an arson attack on the first floor of the so-called 38th Store—a neighboring constructivist landmark, which had served as the Bolshevo Commune’s shopping center and had been known as the “ship house.” Even the master plan did not call for demolishing this building, but the tacit support of the police and the Emergency Situations Ministry appeared to encourage further unlawful acts.

file-1
“The store is closed”

Over the weekend, the vandalism reached its absurd climax. Yevgeny Sosedov, council chair of VOOPIK’s Moscow Region branch, held negotiations with Moscow Region police, city police, the local fire chief, and a spokesman for Development 21, Ltd. On his Facebook page, Sosedov writes that it was obvious the local authorities, firefighters, police, the ESM, and the developer were in cahoots.

“Under the guise of fighting the fire (which has been out for nearly a day already) it has been decided to inflict maximum, irreversible damage to Stroyburo House. Allegedly in order to extinguish smoldering floor slabs (although there was not even any smoke), it is necessary to smash yet another wall (this is done with a crane) and breach the walls of the house between the first- and second-floor windows in six to eight spots (this is done with a backhoe). No one takes any responsibility for this decision. Everyone refers to a certain committee decision made during a morning meeting at town hall.

“And yet, last night and this afternoon, the firefighters did not deem it necessary to extinguish the smoldering floor slabs, but this evening it was for some reason necessary to smash half the walls in the building to accomplish this same purpose. They tried to begin making the breach earlier today, but the big backhoe broke down and a new one had to be found.  The building is almost completely waterlogged: what else is there to put out? (And why can’t it be put out through the windows?) And what is this new method of putting out fires in historic buildings by breaching half-meter brick walls? Residents say they can see chopped trees and branches through the windows of some first-floor apartments, which apparently have been placed there so that the burning continues and smoke keeps appearing. The work on breaching the walls is done by the developer, who has a stake in destroying the house. The developer is allegedly doing the work on behalf of the local Emergency Situations Commission. And yet spokesmen for the developer and the police unanimously assure us that they will not allow the building to be demolished, because ‘the governor forbade’ them to do it.”


Stroyburo House on November 10, 2013. From the Facebook page of the Korolyov branch of VOOPIK

The building now being destroyed is not only the first building at the commune, the historically most significant part of its campus, and a good example of residential constructivist architecture. It is the semantic heart of the complex, uniting the daily lives of former homeless children and the artistic experiments of the communards with the memory of their tragic lives, arrests, and purges. The personal belongings, photographs, archives, memoirs, and artworks still preserved today would make it possible to turn Stroyburo House into a magnificent, innovative museum that would provide visitors with a clear idea of the social and architectural experiments conducted during the avant-garde period and show them Korolyov’s tremendous importance as the flagship of early Soviet communal culture.

The history being destroyed in Korolyov as we speak is no abstraction. At issue is the material evidence of the lives of the 1920s and 1930s generation, the people who built this town and created its manufacturing base, especially considering that the commune did not run on state subsidies but on the money it earned. Among the communards and the teachers were well-known academics, musicians, athletes, and artists. The building’s facade could be strewn with memorial plaques. The wave of purges in 1937—1938, which killed most of the communards, has prevented this memory from being preserved. Development 21, Ltd., also wants to prevent it.

However, the entire complex of Bolshevo Commune buildings would be a surefire draw for tourists, as completely different types of constructivist buildings have survived there. Strung on a central axis, Communards Avenue (now Ordzhonikidze Street), each of them could accommodate a minimum amount of museum items and tourist infrastructure. The kitchen factory, kindergarten, hospital, department store, education building, and residential houses could accommodate, respectively, a cafe, a children’s center, a pharmacy, commercial zones, open lecture halls, educational spaces, and hostels, which would gradually reveal not only the history of the Bolshevo Commune but more generally the aesthetic and concept of the new organization of daily life in the 1920s. Stroyburo House, which encloses the complex from the right side, could accommodate a hotel on its upper floors, galleries and art studies on the middle floors, and a Bolshevo Commune Museum on the first floor, thus becoming a new cultural center for that entire district of Korolyov. Needless to say, there is no such complex in Russia, just as there is still no Museum of the Soviet Union.

Bolshevo communards. Junior competitions: “Best boy.” Kostino, 1937

Given the rapid growth of “red” tourism around the world and efforts in this direction even within Russia itself (e.g., the Ulyanovsk Region), the suburban Moscow town of Korolyov had every chance to occupy a dominant position in the field. In the 1930s, thousands of foreign tourists flocked to see this “plant for re-education,” and they could easily have returned in even greater numbers in the present day.  The commercial attractiveness and social relevance of this cluster are obvious. A thoughtful and high-quality approach to the complex could have brought economic self-sufficiency and new vectors of development to Korolyov. It could have rejected its lot as just another faceless appendage to the capital, filled with new housing estates.


Track and field athletes from Bolshevo Commune No. 1, women’s team. Metal Worker Stadium, 1934

“I don’t know whether we will save Stroyburo House or not,” writes Yevgeny Sosedov. “But I know for sure that this ‘rout’ will go down in the history of the town and Moscow Region, and the names of those involved will be on a par with those who purged the communards in the 1930s. Those men killed people, while these men are destroying the last memory of them, but the methods are the same.”

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The Bolshevo Commune fresco: discovery of the year or loss of the decade?
Mural from time of the Bolshevo Commune discovered in suburban Moscow town of Korolyov during demolition of 1920s building
Maria Semendyayeva
November 26, 2013
vozduh.afisha.ru

Demolition of the Bolshevo Commune began in November. In the early 1930s, thirteen constructivist buildings, designed by architects Alexander Langman and Leonid Cherikover, were built for the commune in what is now the town of Korolyov but was then the village of Kostino, near the station of Bolshevo. Eleven of the buildings have survived. The Korolyov master plan calls for demolition of all the buildings. The Bolshevo Commune was seemingly doomed—until November 2, when a mural was accidentally discovered in Stroyburo House.

The fresco was identified through photographs as the work of artist Vasily Maslov. It had been considered lost, since, according to historians, it was located in the commune’s House of Culture, which has not survived to the present day. The fresco was produced in 1930–1931: painted in oils, it featured images of industrialization, typical of the 1930s. Stroyburo House was the first brick building at the commune, and it housed managerial staff and communards, explains Alexandra Selivanova, architectural historian and director of the Avant-Garde Center at the Jewish Museum. The early 1930s were a brief heyday at the Bolshevo Commune. Founded in 1924 on the initiative of Dzerzhinsky as an experiment by the OGPU in reforging juvenile offenders, in 1938 nearly all the senior management and teaching staff were executed or imprisoned. 655 people lived in the commune in 1933, but by the late 1930s that number had grown to around four thousand. The communards were former street kids: all of them received an education and worked in the commune’s manufacturing facilities, the income from which allowed the commune to operate autonomously. Bolshevo produced sports equipment that was sold throughout the Soviet Union and brought in a steady income. Until a club was built, the first floor of Stroyburo House was the center of the commune’s cultural life. It was there that Vasily Maslov produced his fresco, which was meant to inspire the communards to work and self-improvement. Then the commune’s population increased, and the room on the first floor was partitioned; the fresco ended up in two different rooms and was later wallpapered over.

98ff540b004345298e4d2138df483366Vasily Maslov’s wife Muza in front of his later fresco at the Bolshevo Commune House of Culture. Photograph courtesy of the Korolyov branch of VOOPIK

Maslov was a fairly well known artist in the thirties, but his name has been absent from the official art histories until recent: in 1938, he was shot along with many other communards. Maslov was born in Yekaterinburg province. After his mother died, he became homeless and earned money drawing portraits on the street. After brief stints at art colleges in Baku and Nizhny Novgorod, he came to Moscow, were Lunacharsky and Gorky intervened in his life. On the recommendation of the latter, he went to the Bolshevo Commune. He almost left to study in the workers faculty [rabfak] of the Vkhutein, but quickly returned.

“Apparently, the regular instruction at the Vkhutein was too academic for him,” says Alexandra Selivanova, “but he was actively engaged in self-education, mainly at the Museum of New Western Art. In addition to cubism and expressionism, ‘revolutionary artists of the west’ were exhibited there. Maslov’s graphic work can be compared with that of Frans Masereel, and his paintings with those of the red artist Heinrich Vogeler. I personally see parallels with the artist Vasily Kuptsov from Pavel Filonov’s school: the same disintegrated space, fragments, and local color. Maslov is a very emotional artist. All his watercolors and oil paintings are quite vivid. Even the faded mural under the half-torn wallpaper makes it plain that it was a painting rich in contrasts.”

Vasily Maslov, Industrial Landscape, 1930s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum
Vasily Maslov, Prostitutes, 1920s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum

Vasily Maslov, On the Quay, 1930s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum
maslov-socialist building sitesVasily Maslov, Building Sites of Socialism, 1930s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum

Vasily Maslov, Men’s Faces, 1930s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum

In 1933, an artistic commission visited Bolshevo. It concluded that the “decorative panels and murals are ill conceived. They suffer from compositional chaos and unsuccessful attempts to introduce decorative elements in the form of garishly colored crystal shapes, as well as the complete absence of an overall tone.”

The opinion of today’s experts is radically different. Selivanova is certain that the mural found in Korolyov is a genuine museum masterpiece. She even draws an analogy with the fresco produced by Diego Rivera at Rockefeller Center. It also depicted Lenin, which is why it was plastered over a year after it was produced.

It is possible that the only surviving wall painting from those years has been found in Korolyov.

“These murals can still be found, under layers of oil paint, in constructivist buildings in Minsk, Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Samara. But no one has done it yet. Maslov did a number of murals in Korolyov. He painted murals in the club house and the factory kitchen. The factory kitchen has survived, but there are offices there now, and we don’t know what is under the plaster,” says Selivanova.

The fact that the wall at Stroyburo House containing the mural has stood fast until now can be considered a miracle. Since the beginning of the demolition, the building has caught on fire eight times, and on several sides simultaneously. The fires were also extinguished in an unusual way—with excavators, which were used to break the floor and ceiling slabs in several places. According to restorers, there are also paintings from the 1930s in one of the rooms that has been caved in, but the developer, Development 21, Ltd., has been scrambling to halt even the examination of the painting that has been uncovered. According to the building’s defenders, staff from the development company are on duty near the ruins every day and even call the regional culture ministry to inform them when the restorers do not come to work on time.

Текущее состояние росписи в Доме Стройбюро в КоролевеCurrent condition of the mural at Stroyburo House in Korolyov (November 2013). Photograph by Konstantin Maslov 

The discovery of the Vasily Maslov mural, argues Selivanova, could help preserve the entire Bolshevo Commune complex. After a long meeting at city hall, a temporary moratorium on construction work has been announced. Restorers are working on the mural, and an official expert analysis to get the building on the protected list is being prepared. Generally, Selivanova is convinced that the constructivist landmarks could draw foreign tourists and help Korolyov find a new identity. The situation is unique in that the Bolshevo Commune campus has almost entirely been preserved: tours have been conducted on similar constructivist streets in Yekaterinburg, for example, for many years. At one time, all foreign travelers who came to the Land of the Soviets visited Bolshevo; George Bernard Shaw, for example, wrote about the commune. If an effort is made to develop the infrastructure and a minimal amount of money is invested, Bolshevo could be made into one of the key tourist spots in suburban Moscow. Korolyov is half an hour’s drive from Moscow, closer than Gorki Leninskiye, which still draws visitors. Korolyov city hall does not even need to make a special effort to build a constructivist museum in the town. It merely needs to preserve what is left, and let engaged professionals do their job.

But the situation could develop in a different way. The mural will be hurriedly transferred from the wall to a canvas and sent for restoration, because six days at most remain until the end of the moratorium on demolition. The expert analysis of Stroyburo House is still underway. Meanwhile, the building, of which only the foundation and facade remain, could be demolished within a week by the developer, Development 21, Ltd., with the complete consent of the local administration. A cookie-cutter residential complex will arise on the site of the constructivist landmark, and people who cannot afford a flat in a high-rise within the Ring Road will eagerly snap up the apartments there. Theoretically, there is the prospect of making more money on a living architectural landmark, transformed into an international museum, than on sales of apartments. In the Luzhkov days, before the emergence of urban planning councils, Archnadzor, and progressive municipal departments of culture, this alternative would never have even occurred: the building would have been demolished long ago, no questions asked. And if Korolyov city hall goes for the easiest option now, it will not just mean the loss of yet another constructivist landmark. It will also be a sign that the reconstruction of old Soviet houses of culture or Ivan Melnikov’s buildings is only a temporary measure, which will last until another company like Development 21, Ltd., comes along and begins digging a foundation pit.

All translations by The Russian Reader

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Recommended further reading and viewing:

1484716_799130750140923_8512887158632087521_nStroyburo House. Image courtesy of Korolyov Branch, VOOPIK

“Smash the Kikes and Save Russia!”

Smash the Kikes and Save Russia (2015)
Hard on the heels of migrants and gays, another minority has begun to fear for its safety: Jews. Svetlana Reiter spoke with two women who feel directly threatened
Svetlana Reiter
March 2, 2015
Colta.ru

Leokadia Frenkel
Program Coordinator, St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center
I set up a volunteer program to help the children of migrants three years ago, in May. Basically, we teach Russian to children of migrants from Central Asia, primarily from Uzbekistan, but there are children from Kyrgyzstan and a few from Georgia. Twice a week, they have Russian lessons, and every Sunday in the summer we go to a museum, take a trip to Pavlovsk or Peterhof, or just walk around the city. The younger group, preschoolers and first graders, we teach conversational language through games. We teach the older children, who already know how to read and write, Russian as foreign language. There are fourteen children in the younger group, and eight in the older group. I cannot say that they attend constantly. Some get ill, while others leave the country.

I myself am a philologist by training. Previously, I taught Russian language and literature in schools. I am Jewish.

detailed_pictureLeokadia Frenkel

When we opened, practically no one was working with migrant children. There were no classes: it had occurred to no one that something needed to be done with them. Naturally, when we opened, various media visited us to shoot segments and write articles. When I read the comments to these articles, I often felt uneasy: people wrote very harshly about migrants and their children. But I could scarcely have foreseen what has happened now.

I posted an ad for volunteers in Facebook and VKontakte. We cannot take just anyone: we need professional philologists, people able to work with children. We cannot take the average person who just feels sorry for migrants, and real teachers are few and far between. So I am constantly posting ads in social networks: look at what wonderful children we have, come and help us.

Not long ago I posted two more ads. A group on VKontakte calling itself Morality reposted one. I had a look. Morality’s moderator, Mikhail Kuzmin, put together an album containing 161 photos of me and published a post in which he wrote that the kike-liberal public goes to protest rallies and teaches Russian to “black” (chernye) children. This group is absolutely fascistic and anti-Semitic. They are constantly writing that migrants commit the majority of crimes in Russia. That “black” children attend our schools and spoil our children, the migrant children are wild animals who are uneducable. And those are the mildest things they write.

When this community was informed that a Jewish woman was teaching migrants, they were faced with what they understood as pure evil. Three and a half thousand people gladly lashed out at me. Kuzmin posted information about my son and my husband, and published an additional post about my family. He was outraged: how could it happen that kikes were teaching savages?! There is no place for either group in our society. Down with the kike-liberal opposition! Moreover, judging by his photographs, Kuzmin himself goes to LGBT rallies and beats up gay activists. He has an athletic physique: he practices boxing and fisticuffs at Sosnovka Park. In one photo, he is wearing a police uniform and sporting a badge. I don’t know whether he is really a policeman, but the photograph exists, just like snapshots where he is giving the Hitler salute or standing next to Deputy [Vitaly] Milonov [author of Petersburg’s infamous homophobic law].

The worst thing, of course, is that he not only haunts the social networks but that he walks the streets. I complained to the administration of VKontakte. They replied that if I didn’t like this group, I shouldn’t look at their postings, and that they close only those groups that directly threaten someone’s life.

I have said nothing to the migrant children. I am a good teacher; I know how to work with children. Ultimately, my job is to help those who have it worse than I do, not to make their lives even more unbearable. You see, in the schools these children accumulate hatred: teachers don’t like them and classmates fear them. These things give rise to reciprocal aggression.

It is hard to say whether the folks from Morality are threatening my life. If they practice fisticuffs at Sosnovka Park, what prevents them from visiting our Jewish center? Maybe one of their three and a half thousand subscribers will decide to harm me directly. And you know, I am less afraid to read things like “the black-assed bastards are uneducable, ask any teacher” and “the kike lady is out of her mind for black-assed goys” than to read what Kuzmin wrote about my son and my husband. I’m really afraid for my family.

The level of aggression is now completely crazy. Some moron could show up when I am teaching the children. We have no security guard armed with a machine gun at our center. The only thing I can do to protect myself somehow is talk about it publicly.

I always remember that the migrants have it worse off than I do. Their children have no beds. They sleep on the floor, and they are lucky if they have a mattress. And yet they go to school and study as much they can until they leave for home.

I have noticed that if I really come to like a pupil, he or she leaves immediately. Rarely do they study with us longer than two years. There were two lovely girls, half Kyrgyz, half Uzbek. They drew beautifully and sang beautifully. They were here for three years, now they have gone back home. I still correspond with one girl from Uzbekistan, Sitora, who is now seventeen years old. I remember she once told me she had never been to the theater in her life. Not once, can you imagine? But we take the children to the theater when we get free or discounted tickets.

During the winter break, we went to the Kunstkamera. Some Uzbek girls later asked why the Chinese have such strange, narrow eyes. And I told them, “Well, I have a big nose. What’s strange about that? All people are different.”

Tamriko Apakidze
Former lecturer at the Petersburg Institute of Jewish Studies
I moved to Germany this fall. I am trained as an Orientalist and religious scholar, and I taught at the Institute of Jewish Studies in Saint Petersburg. I encountered the Morality group quite by accident. A year ago, on March 14, I went to a demonstration at Kazan Cathedral. I had two small placards with me: “Crimea is Ukraine” and “Make love, not war.” Despite the warnings, I took the placards out periodically, not realizing that they turned my actions into a solo picket, especially because there were other people with placards.

fileTamriko Apakidze. Photo by Nikolai Simonovsky

The police nabbed me fairly quickly, at first along with my husband, but he was soon kicked out of the paddy wagon, and I spent four hours in the company of seven rather rude, in my opinion, police officers. It was they who took me to the station.

I had never been to a police station before, so at first I thought it was fun. But when they confiscated my internal passport and did not let me make a phone call, I was not amused. Aside from the rude cops, there was a nondescript young man who was quite polite. He listened courteously and attentively to the questions the police were asking me. He got quite excited when he heard I worked at the Institute of Jewish Studies. He asked what I taught there and whether I had worked there long. Then this guy was released, and I was given an arrest report and told to wait for a summons to court.

I left the police station late at night, believing I had got off very lightly. The next day, acquaintances sent me a link to the group Morality. It turned out that my companion at the cop shop had been Mikhail Kuzmin, the group’s moderator. He had posted his report, where he wrote something to the effect that he had being going to God’s temple to pray, but the police took him for a liberast and arrested him. The report was entitled correspondingly: “Who attends liberast rallies.” My entire biography was there. What surprised me most was that there were details there that he could not have found out from our conversation. He quite obviously had access to other sources.

Naturally, it said there that I worked at the Institute of Jewish Studies but that I pass myself off as a Georgian, although it is not clear who I am. There was this phrase: “The young woman herself is not involved in homopiggery, but she supports homos.” And the best part was an album of photos of me, twenty-five of them: one from the protest rally, and the rest pilfered from Facebook. This was so that the comrades would know their enemy by sight. The album’s crowning touch was a screenshot from the Institute of Jewish Studies website containing my schedule. I felt sick.

I looked at the pictures of Kuzmin himself: he was giving the Nazi salute and wearing a Nazi uniform. My husband wrote, “You shitty Nazi, remove the photographs of my wife immediately.” “I’m not a Nazi, because all Nazis are kikes,” Kuzmin eagerly replied. There was no more discussion with him, but his comrades in the struggle wrote comments under the photographs of me: how many Banderites had fucked me, and stuff like that. I never thought that I would encounter something like this in life. We sent a complaint to the management of VKontakte, but the group was not shut down.

For a while, I was very afraid. Of course, this was not the reason we left for Germany, but when I saw that screenshot of my schedule at the institute, I was quite scared to go to work. I became paranoid that I would be assaulted on the street or that our dog would be poisoned. I suspect that Kuzmin works in tandem with the police. First, I think he was with me at the police station as a provocateur. Second, when I was in the paddy wagon, the cops uttered his surname several times.

We moved to Germany at the end of August. We had been planning to do this for a long time, but had kept delaying and putting it off. After last March, my husband immediately found a job and we left Russia. I haven’t heard anything more about Kuzmin.

The community Morality has been active on the VKontakte social network for a year and a half. At present, the group numbers around four thousand subscribers. The group’s founder and moderator, Mikhail Kuzmin, was born April 12, 1986. He is married, a graduate of the Northwest Branch of the Russian Academy of Justice, and a member of the Petersburg branch of the Great Russia party.

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VKontakte group close for inciting hatred
Ethnic strife flares up on the social network. Petersburg woman with Jewish surname fears for her life
Polina Khodanovich
March 4, 2015
Metro

Petersburger Leokadia Frenkel, who teaches Russian to migrant children, has been victimized by the social network group Morality and its administrator Mikhail Kuzmin.

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Mikhail Kuzmin. Screenshot courtesy of Metro newspaper

“He reposted 161 photographs of me and wrote a text to accompany them entitled ‘The Kike-Liberal Opposition,” Frenkel told Metro. “That Jews were teaching migrants was the ultimate source of indignation for him.”

According to Frenkel, openly threatening comments appeared under photographs of her, and she seriously feared for her life.

“But when my friends complained to VKontakte management, they got evasive replies to the effect that if you don’t like this group, don’t look at it.”

Mikhail Kuzmin himself likes to do the Nazi salute and have his picture taken in Nazi uniform. He invariably refers to Jews as “kikes,” and conducts surveys on topics such as “Should migrants be sterilized?” The group consists of about 3,500 active participants. Unfortunately, we were unable to reach Mikhail Kuzmin for comment.

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“Morality” group  page on the VKontakte social network. The highlighted passage reads, “Reminder: only the total deportation of ALL the Central Asians and Сaucasians who have overrun the country in recent years can solve the problem. For us there is no such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrants. For us there are only occupiers.” Screenshot courtesy of Metro newspaper

Metro asked the Saint Petersburg office of the Investigative Committee’s Investigative Department to comment on the situation. Sergei Kapitonov, head of their press service, was terse.

“Anything is possible anywhere. I don’t understand what the matter is. I suggest you send an official inquiry addressed to our general and explain what you want to him.”

Roskomnadzor told Metro that they could do nothing themselves.

“The law on extremism in the Internet is administered by the Prosecutor General’s Office,” press secretary Vadim Ampelonsky said. “Only they can send us a request to block the group.”

Ultimately, Metro had no choice but to personally ask VKontakte’s press secretary Georgy Lobushkin to pay close attention to the controversial group Morality. And soon the newspaper received the following reply: “Good day. Our moderators are now checking this group for violations of website rules and Russian federal laws.”

On the evening of March 3, the group was temporarily blocked “for incitement to acts of violence.”

Vera Alperovich, expert on nationalism and xenophobia, SOVA Center for Information and Analysis:

“Any incitement to ethnic violence is covered by Article 282 of the Criminal Code. The activities of this group and its administrator should definitely be investigated. That the Investigative Committee is paying no attention to this group means they are waiting until someone is killed. In addition to a criminal complaint, one could start with a warning, which can facilitate getting the offending content deleted. Aside from the Criminal Code, there are also ethical norms. Such groups should cause a wave of public outrage.”

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The Fall of “Morality”
A neo-Nazi group on VKontakte that has bullied a Jewish woman was closed only after public pressure
Veronika Vorontsova
March 5, 2015
Novye Izvestia

Yesterday, after repeated requests by users, administrators at the social network VKontakte blocked the group Morality. The community had positioned itself as a platform for instilling “Slavic values,” but in fact it contained a lot of material prohibited by law, including neo-Nazi material. The group’s closure had long been sought by a female Saint Petersburg resident against whom group members had organized a genuine hate campaign. For a long while, administrators at the social network had turned a blind eye to her complaints, and she succeeded in having the group blocked only after broad publicity and intervention by the media.

The group Morality, which allegedly promotes “moral education based on historical Slavic values,” has been closed for a month for calls to unlawful actions, VKontakte spokesman Georgy Lobushkin informed Novye Izvestia. If the community’s creators do not remove the illegal content within thirty days, the group will be blocked in perpetuity.

The cause of the group’s closure was the campaign of persecution its members organized two week ago against Leokadia Frenkel, program coordinator at the Saint Petersburg Jewish Community Center, whose activities include teaching migrant children and helping socially adapt.

1425494405051Leokadia Frenkel

It all started when Frenkel placed an ad on the social network recruiting volunteers to work with the children at the center. The call was copied to the Morality group, where it was commented in an abusive and illegal manner. As Frenkel told Novye Izvestia, a genuine campaign of persecution was unleashed in comments to the post: group members insulted her ethnicity, and some threatened her with violence. Later, the group’s moderators made a selection of photographs featuring not only Frankel but also her husband and her son, placing it in open public access.

Frenkel decided to send a written request to VKontakte to close the group. Many of her friends followed suit. They soon received a rejection letter. The social network’s administrators explained there was nothing illegal in the information contained in the community. “If you do not like the group, do not look at their materials. We close only those groups which directly threaten someone’s life.” This was the response from VKontakte management.

This explanation did not hold water, says Frenkel. She notes that VKontakte’s published rules contain a list of actions prohibited by company management. Paragraph “e” disallows the “incitement of racial, religious, and ethnic hatred, as well as the promotion of fascism or racial supremacist ideology.” In the group Morality, which was completely open to the public, one could see many images of swastikas and direct calls for violence. Examining group moderator Mikhail Kuzmin’s personal page, Novye Izvestia also found many images of Nazi symbols. In some photos, he was posed in a Wehrmacht uniform; in others, in front of a Russian imperial tricolor.

Initially, VKontakte administrators really did see nothing illegal about the group, the social network’s press secretary Georgy Lobushkin explained to Novye Izvestia.

“There are many discussion communities where users discuss various issues. We do not block them, even if some comments are outside the scope of the Constitution,” he said in conversation with Novye Izvestia. However, “after a more thorough study of this group, experts nevertheless concluded that it contains incitements to violence.”

Two weeks passed between the time of Frenkel’s complaint and the group’s closure. She believes the reason for a more thorough review of her complaint was several reports in the media and the broad publicity they generated.

Although the group Morality has been closed, Novye Izvestia has found a number of similar communities where Frenkel’s identity and ethnicity continue to be discussed to the hilt.

As Novye Izvestia reported yesterday, early in the week, a court ordered Smolensk journalist Polina Petruseva to pay a fine of 1,000 rubles for “promoting Nazi symbols.” The court case was occasioned by Petruseva’s publishing a photograph of her own building’s backyard during World War Two on her social network page. The photograph shows German soldiers standing in formation next to the flag of the Third Reich. On Tuesday, the Russian Constitutional Court confirmed the ban on displaying any Nazi paraphernalia or symbols.

But law enforcement agencies have not yet responded to the controversy involving Leokadia Frenkel. The police are reluctant to accept such complaints, because there is almost no mechanism for working with such cases, Mikhail Pashkin, chair of the Moscow Police Union’s coordinating council, told Novye Izvestia. According to him, criminal charges are filed in such instances only to make an example of someone, “which is probably what happened in the case of the journalist from Smolensk.”

Closed, Destroyed, Deleted Forever: Russian Authorities Crack Down on Lena Klimova and Children 404 on Eve of Olympics

colta.ru
February 3, 2014
Closed, Destroyed, Deleted Forever
Moral crusader Vitaly Milonov is trying to shut down Children 404, a group which supports LGBT teens. Dmitry Pashinsky talked to the group’s founder, Lena Klimova

Detailed_pictureLena Klimova

In Nizhny Tagil, Lena Klimova, a 25-year-old journalist and founder of the project Children 404, which is dedicated to helping LGBT teenagers, has been charged with promoting non-traditional sexual relations among minors.

On January 31, formal misdemeanor charges were filed against Klimova following a complaint by Vitaly Milonov, a member of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly.

According to the charge sheet, law enforcement officers have deemed that the project’s group page on the VKontakte social network, where participants communicate with each other, publish open letters, and get help from psychologists and lawyers, promotes non-traditional sexual relations. Klimova now faces a fine of fifty thousand to one hundred thousand rubles [approx. 1,000 to 2,000 euros]. She also does not preclude the group’s being shut down. In her opinion, this would cause “irreparable harm” to thousands of LGBT teenagers, who would lose a means of sharing their problems and adapting to society.

Commenting on the situation in the media, Vitaly Milonov himself said, “This group is most likely funded by foreign grants. It should at least be declared a foreign agent. It should banned from involvement in politics, and of course this group should be closed, destroyed, and deleted forever.”

Lena Klimova talked about how absurd it was to be accused of promoting homosexuality among minors for letters written by minors themselves.

It’s not clear from what Milonov said who should be declared a foreign agent, me or the group. I hear this nonsense about foreign funding all the time. I don’t know what the basis of these claims is. I would say it’s a bad thing to lie.

Has a court date been set?

Not yet.

How do you plan to make your case? What does your lawyer say?

The lawyer says we will muddle through. I haven’t asked her yet how we’re going to make our case, but I think we have almost no chance of winning. I suspect a political put-up job is underway. When I went to the police investigator in mid-January, he told me he saw no evidence of a violation and would refuse to open a case. But then I was suddenly summoned again, and the same investigator admitted he wasn’t calling the shots and would now draw up a charge sheet. From which I concluded that the order had come from higher up. I imagine he was told, Are you a fool, or what? Don’t you know who Milonov is? File charges right now! The interrogation lasted for less than an hour. I was asked what the group was and why it had been created, for what purpose. I was also asked who LGBTs and transgenders were.

Personally, what is happening reminds me of the lead-up to a show trial. The only thing that is not clear is why the authorities want another LGBT-related scandal right before the Olympics.

The trial will probably be after the Olympics. They hope the Games will take place and the international community will stop worrying about the problems of gays in Russia. Although I’m sure it won’t be that way. Three or four people have already been convicted under this law, the latest as recently as January 30. The newspaper Molodoi Dalnevostochnik was fined for publishing an interview with the fired gay school teacher Alexander Yermoshkin. He said, “My existence is itself the most effective proof that gays are normal.”  The editors were fined fifty thousand rubles for this phrase.

Аs for us, this is totally Kafkaesque. We’re charged with promoting homosexuality among minors, and it is the letters of minors themselves that constitute this promotion. This is nonsense! But we’re told that no, minors will read the letters and be swayed.

How likely is it now that the group will be closed? And what will the consequences be?

I think it’s quite likely. But we are fully prepared for this. Around a week ago we started working on a website. In addition, we have a mirror group on Facebook, and Facebook is much more difficult to block. The site itself will have foreign hosting. It can also be blocked by putting it on the list of banned sites, but such bans are easy to get around. But closing the group on VKontakte will cause irreparable harm. It’s our greatest resource. On Facebook we have 2,500 subscribers, but on VKontakte, where young people mainly hang out, we have over 16,000 subscribers. All the psychological and moral support we provide work only on VKontakte: people write and offer advice, and we moderate the discussions. But the people subscribed to our Facebook page are usually foreigners and people from the older generation. We’ll be sorry to lose the audience on VKontakte.

Have you contacted VKontakte management in connection with this case?

With regard to this case, no. But our opponents have written complaints to VKontakte’s tech support and posted screenshots of their correspondence, from which I’ve gathered that the site’s management is wholly on our side. They say they see no evidence we are promoting homosexuality. If you think otherwise, they write, take it to court. But going to court is not the same thing as writing to VKontakte: you have get your butt off the couch. Only Milonov has been able to do that so far.

Is this the first time the authorities have put pressure on you?

Yes, it’s the first time. Before this, no pressure groups were formed to oppose us, no complaints were filed, and there were no parliamentary inquiries.

How many people are involved in the project team?

There are around ten psychologists and eight coordinators. Everyone has their duties. For example, I’m in charge of corresponding with the teenagers, while other people handle posting the letters on social networks, banning homophobes, and translating from foreign languages. There is also someone who runs our closed group on VKontakte. We have that for teenagers to communicate freely.

Students at the University of Massachusetts Send a Message of Support to Children 404 

Why is a group meant for free communication closed?

Only teenagers and vetted adults who come to help them are members of the closed group. It is closed because the problems discussed there are fairly personal, the sort of problems that could be put up for general discussion only anonymously, the way it happens in the open group.

You have a fairly large team. What motivates these people? What prompted them to work on this project?

Aside from wanting to help, people have very different motivations. Our first admin is a heterosexual with two children. He became an LGBT activist long ago, I don’t know why. Our next admin is a LGBT teen, whose letter launched the project. There is another straight admin, but his daughter is a lesbian. For everybody, it is a fifty-fifty mix of personal motivations and the desire to lend a helping hand.

I find it hard to talk about what motivates other people, I can only talk about what motivates me. Well, sexual orientation also motivates me, as I’m bisexual. And I’ve had to deal with discrimination. When I was suspected of being lesbian, I was fired from my job with a lot of fuss. This was at a state university where I had worked for quite a while. At one point I was called on the carpet and told to write a resignation letter. My boss later added I shouldn’t pretend I didn’t get it. I was in a desperate situation and couldn’t strike an attitude by invoking the Labor Code. It left a huge wound in my soul. I have an acquaintance who says that the basis of all human rights work is deep psychological trauma. Some people, of course, get their skulls cracked, but still that incident forced me to feel the injustice of the world, so I help others. I don’t want them to feel the same thing I did.

Are there many groups like yours on the Russian segment of the Internet?

There are quite a lot. And, in my experience, they sprang up like mushrooms after we appeared. More than once I have had to ask them to change their name, because they were all called Children 404, but there was porn posted on their walls. At least patent the name! Someone will show up and write they saw kiddie porn on Children 404, and then go and try to prove we’re innocent.

But it’s obviously provocateurs who set them up?

No, they are not provocateurs. They’re silly boys from the rainbow community. But I haven’t found any psychological support groups either for teenagers or LGBT people generally. In Russia, only one helpline for LGBT people has remained. Incidentally, it recently stopped taking calls from teenagers for fear of being charged with violating the law on promoting homosexuality.

Does your project receive financial assistance from anyone?

No. We didn’t go looking for investors, either. The reasons for this are many, but the main one is that we are not an organization, a legal entity. We’re nobody. We don’t exist. We’re just a group of concerned people in a social network.

And you don’t envision the possibility of registering Children 404 as a human rights organization?

I’m afraid that no one would register us. But even as a project we get on well. What are the advantages of registration? We’re interested not in financial resources but in human resources. We always welcome new lawyers and psychologists. We find them among those who’ve already worked with LGBT people. We don’t do interviews: we are guided by the assessments of friends. I’ve had to turn down a few students without diplomas who “just wanted to help.” We also need translators from English, because people often write to us from abroad, and because we are planning to translate current research on homosexuality for the website, and most of this in English. All the work is voluntary. It is only Milonov who tells tales about foreign grants.

I suspect he is not too sincere, but he manages the role nicely.

Yes, a journalist who knew Milonov back when he still worked for [the slain Yeltsin-era democratic politician] Galina Starovoitova wrote to me. He was then the most liberal of liberals. The journalist told me not to believe all this homophobia: when the wind blows the other way, Milonov will be the first to be gone with the wind. But nowadays homophobia is trendy. Even the media noticed us only when that red-headed parasite took a swipe at us.  News about his complaint to the police spread far and wide, including outside of Russia. He filed the complaint back in October, and it took two and a half months to get to Nizhny Tagil. I didn’t advertise the fact I live here. He thought I was from Petersburg, so he sent the complaint to the local authorities there. The final countdown to the Olympics had started by the time the complaint found me.

Rally in London in Support of Children 404

How many letters have you received over the course of the project?

We have been around since March 2013, and to date we have received 1,067 letters.

What places do the teenagers write from?

Aside from Russia, they write from Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Canada and Israel. Quite a lot of letters come from the US.

What about the North Caucasus?

There have been only one or two letters. A young woman who called herself Gina sent a letter, but she was already eighteen or twenty. Everything had worked out more or less fine for her, surprisingly. The other day we got a letter from a guy from a Muslim family. He is twenty-two, but he has the same problems as teenagers. He has thoughts of suicide, and his family is quite poor, they have no money. He can’t come out either to his father or his mother.

Recently, literally everyone has been turning to us for help, including teenagers suffering from ordinary romantic tragedies. I remember one amazing letter from a young woman who was dating an older woman with a ten-year-old child. She asked for help in coming out to her girlfriend’s daughter. Usually, kids want to come out to their parents, but here an adult wanted to come out to a child.

Do adolescents suffer more from an intolerant society or from self-loathing?

A psychologist recently said our main problem was that the teenagers who wrote to us had already recognized who they were. But those who are still trying to accept who they are almost never write, because they are sitting around thinking there is something strange happening to them. They type “how to stop being gay” into a search engine, but they definitely won’t find us that way.

But mostly it is people who have accepted themselves who write. Everyone has different problems.  Some are in unhappy relationships, others have problems with their parents, still others are bullied at school. There is a letter for every problem. Just recently, someone wrote to me, “I feel gay, but I don’t like it at all. I want a normal family and children, but I can’t stop looking at boys.” We also publish letters like this. Someone will always write in the comments, “Don’t worry, being gay is alright.” And someone is going to call that promotion of homosexuality? What is the guy supposed to do? Seek treatment? Where? Go pray? It’s all very complicated.

You publish the letters, and the kids get support in the comments. But you’ve said almost nothing about the work of your psychologists, about how teenagers have been helped. Why?

To be honest, I have never thought of doing that. And our psychologists are unlikely to go that route. When I had to find out the details of a situation, they told me they could not say anything specific, because professional ethics and doctor-patient confidentiality forbid it. They described the problem and how it was solved only in the most general terms. And there is not much point in my knowing. As it is, hundreds of young people know we have psychologists and that they can consult with them.

What are the most frequent questions?

The question asked most often is whether to come out to one’s parents. It gets asked so often I’ve worked out a universal answer to it: unless you are one hundred percent sure your parents are not homophobes, it is better not to do it.  It is worth coming out when a few important conditions are in place: one, you have your own place to live, and, two, you have your own source of income. Only when these are the case is it absolutely safe to come out. But if neither the first or second condition has been met, it is risky.

It happens that a letter arrives where a guy writes that his parents are horrible homophobes, but he couldn’t stand it and came out, and his parents abruptly changed their minds about gays. Or vice versa: the parents seemed gay-friendly, and the person came out to them, but then he or she was kicked out of the house practically in their underwear. It is impossible to predict what parents will do, but you also cannot forbid kids from coming out to them.

How did you personally come out to your family and friends?

It was fairly hard. My friends accepted me without question. As for my mom, alas, she still hasn’t accepted me. We had a difficult conversation. I cannot even describe it. I have a difficult relationship with my mom, although she sometimes asks me about both my activism and the project. But she does not want to hear anything about my personal life. She says, When you are around me, pretend you’re ordinary. So I have every right to sympathize wholeheartedly with children in similar situations.

What else do the teenagers who write to you have in common besides their orientation?

It is quite hard to figure that out, because the letters are not written to a template. I once did a survey. A total of 115 people were polled. What percentage had thought of suicide? How many had come out to parents and friends? I wanted to find patterns. If you judge on the basis of the letters, what do they have in common? Geography for sure: most of them come from Moscow and Petersburg. The age range is wide: the youngest was twelve, the oldest, fifty. She was a mom whose daughter was an LGBT person. All her life she had regarded LGBT people tolerantly, but then she had to deal with one personally and had had second thoughts.

Do they often write about suicide?

Not really. Since the majority had recognized who they were, they simply took it for granted. At any rate, this was true for half the people I polled, while the other half had tried to find a way out in relationships with the opposite sex, going in big for religion, reading the “right” books, and consulting with psychologists. Suicide was seen less as a way out and more as an inevitability, because they had been harassed at school and at home. They felt terribly lonely.

I know absolutely hellacious stories. There was one girl, a lesbian. Her mother did not accept her, and the girl swallowed a bunch of pills. The ambulance took her to hospital, were her stomach was pumped. She wrote, “You know what the first thing my mom said when she saw me? ‘Did you think everyone would be happy you’re still alive?'” Can you imagine such a thing?

Anti-Immigrant Pogrom on the Obvodny Canal

http://www.colta.ru/docs/29793
Migrants: “Come out, children, and brush your teeth”
Daniil Dugum
19 August 2013

Morning Visitors

The windows of the pricey Finnish supermarket Prisma, in Saint Petersburg’s former Warsaw Station, look out onto a structure with a half-collapsed roof and scruffy walls. People live there, however. They pay rent to the mysterious “proprietor” of the resettled residential building. He probably managed to “come to terms” with local “law enforcement” for a time, but the building is slated for demolition.

Early in the morning of August 13, uniformed OMON riot police and plainclothes officers raided the homes of migrant workers in this building on the city’s Obvodny Canal.

DSC05079

Human rights activist and sociologist Andrei Yakimov, from the Memorial Anti-Discrimination Center, recounts what happened.

“At around 6:30 a.m., the ‘police’ arrived—about nineteen uniformed men and five or six plainclothes officers. After the riot policemen kicked everyone out of the building (they were not stingy in dishing out insults and shoves, nor did they give pregnant women and mothers with infants any break), they checked everyone’s papers and began ransacking the rooms where people lived, breaking down doors and searching for valuables. The migrants claim that jewelry was pilfered, money was snatched from wallets, and video cameras, tablet computers and laptops were stolen: many of the workers were preparing to leave the country and had bought presents for loved ones in Uzbekistan. Some had taken out small loans to buy tickets home. A pregnant women had the ninety thousand rubles [approx. two thousand euros] she had borrowed for medical treatment (maternity ward expenses) confiscated. The riot policemen handed all these things over to the plainclothes officers, who loaded them into cars. The total loot came to about six large plastic bags. The uniformed thieves made several trips there and back to get everything.”

Three days before the pogrom, the Federal Migration Service and regular police had done a check at the building. After looking at their papers for the umpteenth time and warning the migrants that the building would be boarded up and all tenants must vacate it by August 20, the authorities had then left. They knew that most of the workers were soon returning to their homelands. The robbery thus appears to have been carried out with a suspicious punctuality.

In the Building

Ibrahim, an Uzbek worker, meets me at the threshold of the house on the Obvodny.  Limping, he leads me through a maze of dilapidated walls. In some places, oilcloth covers the leaks in the ceiling and the gaps in the windows. Surrounded by total poverty, people have managed to create some sort of living environment in several rooms. An elderly woman sits in one of these rooms: she is Ibrahim’s wife, Mavlyuda. Next to her is a pregnant woman, the one from whom police confiscated the money she had borrowed to give birth. Mavlyuda tells me that during the raid she lost everything she had earned. The riot policemen had told the plainclothes officers, “Go in and take what you want.” Not only did they steal rings, jewelry, money and new shoes, they even stole an unopened bottle of shampoo. (“What, they have no shampoo? And yet they stole it!”) A twelve-year-old boy had his new tracksuit confiscated. Police messed with the residents’ food supplies. They sprinkled laundry detergent into cooking pots, and tossed food out windows that they had smashed with the same pots. They poured cooking oil and flour onto rugs, clothes and beds. They took special pleasure in disposing of religious objects. Ibrahim holds a board in a broken frame—engraved verses from the Quran. Muslims hang such boards over the door. The riot policemen had trampled and spit on this board.

Ghalib, a construction worker from Uzbekistan, was beaten in the hallway of his refuge while attempting to prevent the robbery. Police confiscated his ticket home and tore it up in front of him. The women say that Ghalib is ashamed to tell where he was beaten. Police beat him in the kidneys and the groin so badly he urinated blood.

On the second floor, a girl of twelve or thirteen recounts how, first, stones were thrown at the windows, then men came and dragged the adults outside, saying to the children, “Come out, children, and brush your teeth.” Then the men began tossing televisions and household utensils out the windows.

His wife had warned Azamat, a truck driver, about the danger that day, and so he watched the pogrom from a hiding place. Later, he discovered that his money and a present (a watch) for his father, who has cancer, were missing. Azamat tells me how three of the policemen beat up a teenager whom he did not know. Non-Slavic in appearance, the boy did not live in the building (none of the residents had seen him before), he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. “He got scared and ran, but they caught up with them and kicked him around like he was a football. When they picked him off the ground, he was limp like a rag,” Azamat says. He lifts a sweatshirt from a chair and shows me how the boy’s body fell.

After the pogrom, Pyotr Krasnov, a lawyer at the Memorial Anti-Discrimination Center, tried to help the victims.

“We filled out seven police complaint statements at the scene and left around sixty complaint forms in the resettled building in the hope that residents would submit them to the police precinct themselves. In the end, three of the seven people who filled out complaints came to the precinct with us, which I think is a huge success in itself,” says Krasnov.

Ghalib, the man who was beaten, took his complaint to the police. The first thing he was asked was, “Why do you live there?” He then sought medical attention. When the doctors found out it was the riot police who had beaten him, they refused to issue him any documents detailing his injuries.

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“Illegals”: How Is That?

After conversing with the tenants of the abandoned building on Obvodny Canal, I got the impression they do not realize they inhabit the premises illegally, and that the “proprietor” to whom they pay rent has no real claim on this “residential space.” “My papers are in order” is the main code in a migrant’s life, and the residents of the building on the Obvodny repeat it like a mantra. Their lives are lived outside the law, and even outside any notion that somewhere it exists and functions. The migrants, especially the young people, believe that buying the necessary documents (it doesn’t matter where) is in fact the correct, legal way of doing things. Many are surprised to learn that a “work permit” that has to be purchased is a fake.

Pyotr Prinyov, from the trade union Novoprof, opens a newspaper and reads a want ad aloud.

“Look here. ‘Wanted: Uzbek nationals with work permits . . .’ But it is the employer who is required to obtain a work permit. That is, it is issued with the employer’s involvement. But if someone shows up with a readymade work permit, then it is 99% certain it has been purchased. There are tons of want ads like this. It is clear that employers are at fault, and that migrant workers are forced to play by these rules.”

But people in the house on the Obvodny do not understand this. It was only the robbery that angered the residents. Document checks and arrests are routine. Regular extortions by police on the streets, and getting ripped off at hard jobs with long hours are things to be endured for the sake of families. But where is the reward now?

We talk with another woman, whose husband is being deported. With tears in her eyes, she speaks about three children in Uzbekistan, how they will have to go back, and that her husband will be unable to re-enter the Russian Federation for five years. At one point, she says something that applies not only to herself.

“Tell the Russians we are honest workers. Tell them we aren’t criminals. My boss at the kitchen [where she works], a Russian woman, almost started crying with me when she found out I was leaving: ‘Where will I find someone like you?’ She’s satisfied with me! Why do you say on television that an Uzbek killed someone? We’re not all like that. Tell them that Uzbeks are honest workers. We’ll leave, but will a Russian woman go clean the streets and stairwells like we do?”

Contrary to the popular myth of the total criminality of migrants, according to official statistics from the Prosecutor General’s Office (a body that checks the police and thus has no interest in fudging the numbers), the majority of crimes are committed not by migrants and guest workers, but by Russian citizens (22.57% versus 77.43%). And Moscow’s judicial department informs us that, in 2012, immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States (i.e., the former Soviet republics) had 17% of the crimes committed in the city on their conscience, but a quarter of these involved faked migration papers and work permits.

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Andrei Yakimov debunks another myth.

“In fact, most of the migrants in Russia would like to forget they are migrants. They would adapt quite quickly were they allowed to. The older generation remembers the Soviet Union as a golden age, when they had it all. The younger generation of immigrants believes that dissolving into Russian society is better than going home. And that fabled Islamic solidarity is actually a fiction. Look at the mood in Tatarstan: Tatars experience the same xenophobia towards immigrants as Russians do.”

For now, though, everything goes on as before and will continue to go on this way. According to Memorial’s calculations, a so-called native Petersburg is twenty-six times less likely to fall victim to police violence than a person of “non-Slavic” appearance.

As you leave these robbed and humiliated people in their ruined shelter, you inadvertently catch myself thinking about what Alexander Herzen once said about the pacification of Poland: “I am ashamed to be Russian.”

Photos © Memorial Anti-Discrimination Center