Solidarity? (The Case of the Penza and Petersburg Antifascists)

fil_0Viktor Filinkov, Petersburg antifascist, torture victim and political prisoner

Solidarity? No, They Haven’t Heard about It
The Security Services Are Using the Case of the Antifascists to Test Society: If We Keep Silent, the Torture and Arrests Will Continue
Yan Shenkman
Novaya Gazeta
March 22, 2018

On Election Day, March 18, which was simultaneously Paris Commune Day and Political Prisoner Day, Theater.Doc in Moscow staged a performance entitled Torture 2018, a reading of the interrogation transcripts and diaries from the Penza-Petersburg “terrorism” case.

The case has disappeared amid the flood of political and election campaign news, so I should briefly summarize it.

In October 2017, a group of young antifascists was detained by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in Penza. They were accused of organizing a terrorist community code-named The Network. They were allegedly tortured. Nearly all of them confessed to the charges, telling the FSB what the FSB wanted them to say.

Recently, for the first time in history, FSB officers admitted they used electric shockers when interrogating Petersburg antifascist Viktor Filinkov. In their telling, however, it was not torture, but a necessity: the detainee allegedly tried to escape.

The arrestees are kindred souls of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, murdered by neo-Nazis in downtown Moscow in January 2009. A march to honor their memory has been held on the Boulevard Ring every year since then.

Less than ten years have passed since their deaths and we are confronted by a relapse, an attack on antifascists by the Russian state.

The harsh language of the interrogation protocol is more expressive than any op-ed column. Dmitry Pchenlintsev was tortured day after day: he was hung upside down and different parts of his body were shocked with electrical current. Vasily Kuksov was badly beaten: his face was a bloody pulp, his clothes torn and blood stained. Doctors in Petersburg discovered a fracture to the lower wall of Igor Shiskin’s eye socket, as well as multiple abrasions and bruises. They noted numerous injuries, including burns from an electric shocker. FSB officers took Ilya Kapustin to the woods, tortured him with an electric shocker, and threatened to break his legs.

We heard similar reports from Chechnya and Donbass, but this is the first time something like this has occurred in the middle of Russia and on such a scale.

The young arrestees in Penza, none of whom is over thirty (the oldest is twenty-nine) played airsoft, listened to independent music, and read anarchist books, like thousands of other young people. Now, given the will, any of them can be arrested on terrorism charges.

Alexei Polikhovich, who spent three years in prison as part of the Bolotnaya Square case, and produced the performance at Theater.Doc, did not have to make up anything, no monologues or dialogues. What has happened in reality is not something you would make up.

“I was panicking,” leftist activist and former political prisoner Alexei Sutuga says, reading Viktor Filinkov’s statement aloud. “I said I didn’t understand anything, and that is when they shocked me the first time. It was unbearably painful. I screamed and my body went straight as a board. The man in the mask ordered me to shut up and stop twitching. He alternated shocks to my leg with shocks to my handcuffs. Sometimes, he shocked me in the back or the nape of the neck. It felt as if I was being slapped upside the head. When I screamed, they would clamp my mouth shut or threaten to gag me. I didn’t want to be gagged, so I tried not to scream, which wasn’t always possible.”

“It’s probably the worst thing happening now in Russia,” Polikhovich told me after the performance. “But we have no means of putting pressure on them. Complaints filed against the FSB are redirected to the FSB, meaning they are supposed to keep tabs on themselves. Naturally, they are not about to do this. The only thing that can save the guys is public pressure.”

“But for several months there were no attempts to pressure the FSB. Why?” I asked.

“Location is vital in this case,” replied Polikhovich. “There are tried and tested support methods in Petersburg and Moscow. There are independent journalists and human rights activists. There is nothing of the sort in Penza. The environment also makes a difference. The Bolotnaya Square case, in which many leftists were sent to prison, meant something to the entire liberal democratic opposition. It was a story the average Moscow reporter could understand.”

“In this case, however,” Polikhovich continued, “the accused have been charged with very serious crimes. They are not liberals. They are not Moscow activists. We have to break through the prejudice towards them.”

While Moscow was silent, brushing the case aside by mentioning it in a few lines of column inches, the case, which originated in Penza, had spread to Petersburg, then to Chelyabinsk, and finally, in March, to the capital itself. Several people were detained after a protest action in support of the Penza antifascists. (OVD Info reports that nine people were detained.)

“They put a bag over my head. Then they shocked me, constantly increasing the intensity and duration of the electric charge, and demanding I make a confession,” Moscow anarchist Svyatoslav Rechkalov, released on his own recognizance, told Novaya Gazeta.

The protests against the FSB’s use of torture in this case have mainly followed ideological lines: anarchists and antifascists have been doing the protesting. Solidarity protests have been held in Copenhagen, Toronto, Berlin, and New York. Finnish anarchists and antifascists held a demo outside the Russian embassy in Helsinki. In Stockholm, the way from the subway to the Russian embassy was hung with Filinkov’s diary and posters bearing the hashtag #stopFSBtorture.

A concert in support of the arrested antifascists was held at a small bar in Petersburg. The organizers were able to collect 42,500 rubles in donations. By way of comparison, a year ago, at a similar concert in support of Ildar Dadin, who was tortured in a Karelian penal colony, organizers collected 29,000 rubles in donations. But there no incidents at that event, while there was an incident at the Petersburg concert. Ultra-rightwing thugs burst into the bar and started a brawl.

In Moscow, the riot police or the security services would have telephoned the club’s owner and insisted he cancel the event, as happened with the anti-war Deserter Fest. In Petersburg, however, the rightists showed up.

“The situation has come to resemble the mid-noughties,” said Maxim Dinkevich, editor of the music website Sadwave, “when every other punk rock show was attacked.”

Pickets in support of the antifascists have been held both in Moscow and Petersburg, and there will probably be more pickets to come. But this story has not yet made a big splash. The public is more interested in discussing the falling out between Sobchak and Navalny, while anarchists draw a blank.

This case is not about anarchism or antifascism, however. It is about the fact that tomorrow they could come for you for any reason. Electric shockers do not discriminate.

The regime has been testing us, probing the limits of what is possible and what is not. If we keep silent now, if we do not stand up for each other, it will mean they can continue in the same vein. It is clear already that the case of the antifascists will expand. The arrests will stop being local, becoming large scale. We have no methods for pressuring law enforcement agencies that torture people, no authorities that could slap them on the wrists. The only methods we have are maximum publicity and public pressure. They are the only ways to deter the security service from making more arrests and keeping up the torture.

There is a group page on Facebook entitled Project No. 117, named for the article in the Russian Criminal Code that outlaws the use of torture. It is a clearinghouse for news about the Penza case and other anti-antifascist cases. It also features six videtaped messages in support of the arrested men, as recorded by the well-known Russian cultural figures Dmitry Bykov, Andrei Makarevich, Dmitry Shagin, Kirill Medvedev, Artyom Loskutov, and Artemy Troitsky.

I would like to believe that, in the very near future, there will be six thousand such messages, not six. Otherwise, we will be crushed one by one.

Dmitry Bykov (writer)

“Absolutely Gulag-like scenes of strangulation, beating, and abduction. Stories like this have become frighteningly more frequent. The return to the practice of torture is a relapse into the roughest, darkest period of Russian history.”

Andrei Makarevich (musician)

“If the authorities are trying to pass young antifascists off as terrorists, it begs the question of who the authorities are themselves. Have you lost your minds, guys?”

Dmitry Shagin (artist)

“I experience this as torture myself. By torturing these young men, they are torturing all of us.”

Kirill Medvedev (poet, political activist, musician)

“The Russian authorities have been posing as the most antifascist regime in the world for several years now, and yet they are cracking down on antifascists. Is this not hypocrisy?”

Artyom Loskutov (artist, political activist)

“If you arrested me and tortured me with an electric shocker, I would confession to terrorism, satansim, and anything whatsoever. And if the FSB officers were tortured, they would also confess to anything. Antifascism is not a crime, nor is anarchism a crime. But torture is a crime, a very serious crime indeed.”

Artemy Troitsky (writer, music critic and promoter)

“Torture is a sure sign the case doesn’t hold water. If they have evidence, they wouldn’t torture the suspects.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Autonomous Action. Videos courtesy of Project No. 117 and Novaya Gazeta. If you have not heard about the Penza-Petersburg “terrorism” case, you can read the following articles and spread the word to friends, comrades, and journalists.

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Sholom Shvarts

Boris Smelov, Portrait of Sholom Shvarts, 1995
Boris Smelov, Portrait of Sholom Shvarts, 1995

“Shalya”: Artist Valentin Gromov Remembers His Friend Sholom Shvarts

I don’t remember what year we met. I have no particular first impression. We were ordinary students. We were in the second class, and he was in the second class, too, only in a parallel class. That class came to our class, and we would go to their class to look at their work. Shalya did not especially stand out from the rest. He did everything the way his teachers told him to do it. One time, Arekh (Alexander Arefiev) asked us to come look at how they were drawing nudes in the other class. He pointed out Shvarts’s work. He said, “Look at his sense of line!” Later, Arekh told me he had been to Shalya’s house and seen his other drawings and paintings, and that it was day and night compared to what he was doing at school. He suggested going to visit him. Shalya and his parents lived then not far from the Finland Station, in the slums, on some side street. Shalya, his father, and his mother were sitting in the corner. Shalya tossed pieces of paper all over the place. I saw that tons of the drawings had been done on drafting paper. I asked him whether he didn’t have normal paper, and he replied that his father worked somewhere and had all these leftover finished blueprints for frame-and-panel houses that had been built and he did not need, so he brought them home, and they were great for drawing on. And we saw these stunning sketches on these blueprints. It was then we became pals.

Sholom Shvarts, Portrait of Roald Mandelstam, 1958. Tempera on canvas, 33 x 24 cm. Collection of Valentin Gromov
Sholom Shvarts, Portrait of Roald Mandelstam, 1958. Tempera on canvas, 33 x 24 cm. Collection of Valentin Gromov

All of us got the boot [from school], so Shalya was the only one in our band of friends who graduated from the Arts High School at the Academy of Arts. When we were expelled, we spent a long time hanging out. We couldn’t find a place for ourselves anywhere; we were in state of complete uncertainty. Shalya’s family had moved at that time to Ligovka [Ligovsky Prospect], where the three of them lived in a single room. He was still in school, and we were independent artists, but we saw a lot of each other at that time.

In terms of character, he was calm, reserved, and quite private. When we were still in school together and would go out on the landing to smoke, I noticed that Shalya was a little bit afraid of Arekh. Arekh’s say-so meant a lot. He argued in a quite strange way, but quite professionally. So Shalya was filled with respect and loyalty towards him.

We once got talking about indoor scenes. Shalya was quite taken with this topic and said a lot about how he saw it. Arekh suggested that Shalya paint an indoor scene for him. He said the topic should really be up his alley. Shalya accepted the challenge, and they agreed he would complete it in a week. We met again, and Arekh asked whether Shalya had finished the painting. He said he still had not finished it and asked for another week. Arekh saw him a week later, and Shalya again made excuses for why the painting was not done. Arekh then told him, “If you don’t have it painted within a week, I’ll smack you in the kisser!” When Shalya finally painted this indoor scene, Arekh’s jaw dropped. From then on he stopped treating him like a master treats a disciple and spoke with him as an equal.

Shalya was not a talkative person, but once in a great while he could get carried away with some topic and then you could not stop him. He turned a deaf ear on topics that did not interest him.

Shalya never drew people from life. He simply memorized the images and drew his “memories” of these people. He had no contact with women. We all had girlfriends and got married off, but Shalya was the only one of us who was virtually a monk. So his depictions of women were inspired by memories of passersby and acquaintances, by youthful fantasies.

shvarts-v lodke
Sholom Shvarts, In a Boat, 1950s. Ink and pencil on paper, 15.5 x 21 cm. Collection of Oleg Frontinsky

Nowadays, the post-war avant-garde is highly prized, so it is no wonder that so many forgeries surface, including forgeries of our work. The forgers try to fake Arekh’s work and sometimes they succeed in producing something that bears a fair resemblance. Shalya’s work is absolutely impossible to forge, given his technique and the way he worked with his media.

I have four works by Shalya, and all of them are masterpieces. I donated one of them (At Home, 1954) to the Tsarskoye Selo Collection. It was hard to part with it, but it seemed less individual than the rest, a little bit like scenery.

Sholom Shvarts, Canal, 1960s. Ink on paper, 31.5 x 19.5 cm. Collection of Dmitry Shagin
Sholom Shvarts, Canal, 1960s. Ink on paper, 31.5 x 19.5 cm. Collection of Dmitry Shagin

When Shalya’s mom died, he and his father stopped living together. Shalya moved to Ordinarnaya Street, where he lived until the end of his life. He lived in a five by four meter room with a single window. He almost never left that room. I can never remember seeing him, say, in the kitchen. There was a pile of pots, jars, tin cans, dirty plates, and cigarette butts everywhere. It was a hell of a mess. There was nowhere to sit down.

Shalya was a big fan of the cinema. There was not a new movie he had not seen. He constantly watched television at home. Once, Rikhard [Vasmi] and I went to see Shalya. He said he wanted to watch a film. His TV set was quite old. To turn it on you had to twist this screw and then, finally, the screen would light up. But that was it: you could not distract him with conversation of any kind after that.

Shalya lived on the third floor on Ordinarnaya. His window overlooked a street with a movie theater nearby. He was always watching passersby from the window, memorizing them, immediately pouring out his impressions on paper, and then tossing these fantastic drawings under the table, where they would intermingle with half-eaten bowls of porridge. He produced his masterpieces amidst this muddle, amidst dirty duds, leftover food, and cigarette butts. Any of these pieces would be the pride of the most prestigious museum. It was his drawing Feast that wound up on the frontispiece of the album The Arefiev Circle (Saint Petersburg: Avangard na Neve, 2002). It is absolutely stunning.

shvarts-ballad of little tug boat
Sholom Shvarts, Sketch for an illustrated edition of Joseph Brodsky’s poem “Ballad of the Little Tugboat,” 1989-1990. Colored pencil on paper. Collection of Dmitry Shagin

Shalya was the only fellow in our circle who adored Lenin. We all were anti-Soviets, but he felt Lenin had done many good things. Ordinarily, this way of thinking would have been off-putting, but art always mattered the most to Shalya, and so we figured that if he liked Lenin, then so be it.

If you talk about drawings, then of course Shalya would have to be ranked in first place among us.

Excerpted from Sholom Shvarts: Paintings and Drawings (exhibition catalogue), ed. Irina Kogan, Saint Petersburg: K Gallery, 2015. Excerpt translated by the Russian ReaderK Gallery’s posthumous retrospective of work by Sholom Shvarts (1929–1995) runs from October 8 to October 31, 2015, at Fontanka River Embankment, 24, in Petersburg. Images courtesy of paldenlenka.livejournal.com, parizhskoye kafe, and K Gallery’s VKontakte page.