Alexei Gaskarov Released from Prison

Alexei Gaskarov and his wife Anna Gaskarov. Photo by Anatrrra
Alexei Gaskarov and his wife Anna Gaskarova, October 27, 2016. Photo by Anatrrra

Bolotnaya Square Defendant Alexei Gaskarov Released from Prison
Ekaterina Fomina
Novaya Gazeta
October 27, 2016

Alexei Gaskarov was released from Penal Colony No. 6 in Novomoskovsk today. He had served his entire sentence: three and a half years in a medium-security penal colony. Gaskarov was twice denied parole.

“I don’t think it was possible to change anything under these circumstances. I said at the trial that if our way runs through prison, we have to go.  Personally, everyone who went to prison lost a lot. But if you compare that with the public interest, someone had to go through it, someone had to have this piece of ‘good’ luck,” Gaskarov said after his release.

Alexei Gaskarov (left). Photo courtesy Ekaterina Fomina/Novaya Gazeta

“The risks are clear, but I don’t think there is an alternative. I don’t think that the path, the values that were professed on Bolotnaya Square can be put on the back burner. Yes, these are complicated times, and we have to wait them out somewhere, but I don’t think you can impact this vector by intimidating people. When I was in prison I read about a hundred history books. Everyone had to go through this. We are just at this stage,” he added.

Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy Ekaterina Fomina/Novaya Gazeta

“The point of my attitude is this: don’t be afraid, guys. Our little undertakings will merge into a river that will lead us to the right path. Prison is not the end of life,” Gaskarov concluded.

Prisoners of Bolotnaya: Alexander Margolin, Vladimir Akimenkov, Alexei Gaskarov, Alexei Polikhovich, and Ilya Gushchin. Photo courtesy of Ekaterina Fomina/Novaya Gazeta

Gaskarov was accused of involvement in “rioting” and being violent towards police officers. However, Gaskarov  claimed he had himself been assaulted on Bolotnaya Square. During the mass arrests, an unidentified policeman pushed him to the ground, beat him with his truncheon, and kicked him.

Gaskarov is a graduate of the Russian Federation Government Financial University and has worked at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Dmitry Ishevsky and Ivan Nepomnyashchikh are currently serving prison terms after being convicted in the Bolotnaya Square case. The latter has lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights. He has complained that Russian authorities have violated three articles of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In October, citing a judgment by the European Court of Human Rights, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the arrest and imprisonment of Bolotnaya Square defendants Ilya Gushchin and Artyom Savyolov had been illegal. Earlier, in June, after a complaint had been filed with the European Court of Human Rights, the Supreme Court declared the arrest of Leonid Kovyazin, a defendant in the same case, illegal.

Anarchist Dmitry Buchenkov awaits trial in a pre-trial detention facility. According to police investigators, he was violient toward lawful authorities and “tried to destroy a portapotty.” Buchenkov himself claims he was not in Moscow during the so-called March of the Millions.

Maxim Panfilov is also awaiting trial. He was charged four years after the opposition rally on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow—in April 2016. He is the thirty-sixth defendant in the Bolotnaya Square case. In October, Panfilov was declared mentally incompetent.

Translated by the Russian Reader. You can read more about Alexei Gaskarov and the other prisoners in the Bolotnaya Square case on this website.

Uneven and Combined Development

On this bright Saturday evening, when the sun has finally come out in the former capital of All the Russias after a week of nonstop rain, I want to offer you two tales of two completely different modern Russias, situated unhappily side by side, but God only knows for how long and at what cost.

Both stories have their fictional and literary precedents, as is often the case in this overly verbalized country.

The hero of the first tale, Valery Slesarev, will remind you of the characters and real-life heroes and victims in nineteenth-century writer and human rights activist Vladimir Korolenko’s fictional sketches and muckracking newspaper articles, while the nearly unbelievable promises and high-powered wheeler dealers in the second tale will conjure up Ilf and Petrov’s world of con men and grifters during the NEP period. TRR

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Smack Them Upside the Head
Tired of waiting for a promised natural gas tie-in pipeline from local authorities, the Yegorevsk Urban District in the Moscow Region asked Obama for gas
Ekaterina Fomina
Novaya Gazeta
June 5, 2016


Valery Slesarev. Photo by Ekaterina Fomina

After collecting 531 signatures in support of his effort, pensioner Valery Slesarev called the US Embassy and asked a specific question.

“How can I get a hold of Barack Obama?”

The embassy promised him to call him back and make an appointment.

Lots of people in Yegorevsk know Valery Slesarev. First, he has tuned and fixed TV sets his whole life, and that is deemed a vital service. Second, he has an artificial skull.

As a child, Slesarev was involved in Pavel Popovich’s Young Cosmonauts Club. One of the activities at the club was parachute jumping from towers. During one such jump, the carabiner from a pull rope slammed Slesarev hard in the head. A year later, a tumor was discovered in his brain, and it was decided to operate. Popovich himself got involved by asking for help from America, where an artificial bone was grown personally for the sixteen-year-old boy. The doctors told his mother he would not survive, but the bone up and took hold.

As the years passed, it transpired that, along with the bone, the doctors had implanted something Soviet people were not supposed to have: a faith in justice and the strength to fight for it.

Initially, the life of the young cosmonaut with the artificial skull rolled down different tracks than it might have, like in a small town in West Virginia: steady, nothing out of the ordinary.

“Maybe the Lord in fact saved me then. Eighty percent of my group at the Young Cosmonauts Club died in Afghanistan. We were all combat ready, you see, and those boys were sent straight to the front,” he says today.

Slesarev studied to be a radio technician, but went to work as a TV repairman. The celestial expanses no longer appealed to him, and he had enough to do down on earth as it was. He drove from village to village fixing TV sets and occasionally chopping firewood for old women.

In the nineties, the business where Slesarev worked fell apart, and he started a small business of his own, a tire repair shop. He called it Autocupola, and indeed the blue, two-storey building housing his shop is crowned by conical metal cupolas. The cupolas, he explains, are in honor of his artificial skull. He is proud of the black swans, carved from tires, out in front of the shop and a gingerbread boy with a painted mug.

Slesarev lives in amazing house, also topped with cupolas, only they are in the shape of little bulbs. The local council has even hung a sign on the house designating it a cultural landmark.

For a time, then, Slesarev was an amusing local landmark. In 2005, however, the Moscow Region began installing natural gas mains in the villages of Yegorevsk. The mains were quickly installed in all public buildings, but ordinary people, those selfsame old women for whose sake the whole program was undertaken, were left without gas. Slesarev says he simply could not look at old women swinging wood mauls anymore. Thus began his fight.

Vladychino
Only twenty-eight people are officially registered in Vladychino, a village in the Yegorevsk Urban District, but around a hundred people live there permanently, most of them people the natives have contemptuously dubbed “summerfolk.” Slesarev is one of the summerfolk too. He has land there, inherited from forebear, and his grandmother’s house, which he has managed to restore and preserve. The entire village stopped by to admire it.

As in the neighboring villages, people in Vladychino buy natural gas in cylinders. A fifty-liter cylinder, which costs a thousand rubles to refill, lasts a month. Arranging privately to have a gas line connected to your house costs at least 500,000 rubles [approx. 7,000 euros].

A spontaneous assembly of local residents has been taking place on the bench in front of Slesarev’s house. You might say he mobilized them.

Grandma Valentina, Grandpa Nikolai, Kolya, who has no front teeth and wears a leather jacket, Nikolai Alexandrovich, and Tatyana have formed a semi-circle. They occasionally get sidetracked and swat a mosquito. It is the height of the season.

“Please forgive my appearance. I came from the garden,” says Tatyana, apologizing as it were for her apron.

“TV Rain came to film, and we all dressed like peasants,” says Valentina, dangling her rubber-slippered feet by way of proof.

“Why are we appealing to Obama? We hope that, if not Obama, some other president will respond,” says Valentina.

“I’ll tell you why,” says Nikolai Alexandrovich, who steps forward, dressed in builder’s overalls. “He is a winner of the Nobel Peace Price, and he is on his way out of office in any case. Let him do one good deed at the end of his term by getting gas installed for us.”

The locals gossip. The village of Rakhmanovo got gas when an MP from the Moscow Regional Duma and a member of the Yegorevsk Board of Deputies moved there. Actually, according to the paperwork, gas lines have been laid to Vladychino and all the other villages too: 300 million rubles [approx. 4 million euros at current exchange rates] from the regional budget was spent on the program. A presidential commission even came looking for the gas, but they did not find it.  To be hooked up to gas lines under the regional program, a village must have no less than one hundred residents, so Vladychino was lumped together with neighboring Parykino. Now, according to the schedule for gasification, Vladychino and Parykino should get gas lines no later than 2018. But no one believes it will happen, because dates for gasification of the villages have been postponed annually since 2005. Last year, the residents of Vladychino wrote a letter to Putin, but half has many people signed it as did the letter to the US president.

“He’s not going to help. His term is never going to end. He’s president for life,” says Nikolai Alexandrovich.

“God willing he will be president for life!” responds Valentina. “He lifted the country up! As for gas, well, we need it. Maybe he just has not been told about us. Our board of deputies should be the ones helping us, but they don’t do anything for us. This year, they didn’t even spray the bushes for ticks.”

“This writing to Obama thing is all a joke, a way of getting us riled up and forcing us to think,” explained Nikolai Alexandrovich. “But what do you think? Is America Russia’s enemy? I knew you’d say that! I’m not going to try and educate you or persuade you. Who is threatened by Russia? The Americans, however, are already in Estonia. Those are facts, Katya, facts!”

By local standards, Nikolai Alexandrovich is also one of the summerfolk, although he has lived in Vladychino for four years, since retiring. He worked for twenty-six years in security at the Kremlin. Nowadays, he is an elder at Nativity of Christ Church.

“They’ll never unleash a war on us, but they are trying to squeeze us economically on the sly,” concluded Kolya, who worked as a plumber at Slavyanka, Ltd., during the heyday of Yevgenia Vasilyeva, but has now retired.

“That is war,” continues Nikolai Alexandrovich. “Was it necessary to drop the bombs on Japan? This is a continuation, just as today’s Russia is a continuation of Soviet life in many ways. Your colleagues from TV Rain were spooked. They were worried lest we go to jail for what we said. We won’t go to jail: we speak the truth!”

“The mosquitoes have already devoured us,” a bored Valentina chips in.

“It’s time for me to milk the cows,” says Kolya.

“Why was she caterwauling yesterday from lunchtime on? She was probably thirsty?”

“She has been yelling because of the bull. I haven’t been putting the pull in with her. He’s been laid low. I called the vet, and he told me over the phone to give the bull vodka. I gave him vodka. Then he told me to give it sunflower oil. I did it: same damn nonsense! Now he tells me to go and buy lactic acid.”


Slesarev outside his Autocupola tire repair shop. Photo by Ekaterina Fomina

“Sufferings, Trials, and Humiliations”
Since 2005, when Valery Slesarev began his fight to have the villages gasified, he has kept a list entitled “My Sufferings, Trials, and Humiliations.” It includes such entries as “Arrest, searches of homes and shops. Bombing of Autocupola. Arson at Autocupola.”

In 2010, unknown men in masks armed with crowbars broke into his tire shop. They methodically and cold-bloodedly beat up Slesarev and his daughter. A criminal case was opened, of course, but to no avail. The police wrote off the incident as a “workplace fight.”

Slesarev wrote to Vladimir Zhirinovsky that he was being prevented from doing business. Zhirinovsky promised to look into the case. Apparently, he is still looking.

Moscow Region Governor Boris Gromov once visited Yegorevsk. Slesarev was going to the meeting when he was pulled over by traffic cops, allegedly, for driving with dirty license plates. He spent the whole day in the detention center and was released without having to pay any fines.

Governors have come and gone, but the story has not changed. Slesarev had to fight his way into a meeting with current Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov at the House of Culture. In the auditorium, he was surrounded by police officers in plain clothes.

“When I stood up to ask a question, they made me sit down. They actually grabbed me by the pants and pulled me down, and everyone was laughing,” Slesarev recalls.

Governor Vorobyov noticed the strange man and asked to speak with him personally after the meeting. As Slesarev tells it now, the governor was so outraged that he promised to dismiss the head of the district the very next day. And he did, in fact, dismiss him. Only, at the next elections, Mikhail Lavrov, ex-head of the district, was elected chair of the Yegorevsk Board of Deputies, a position he occupies to this day.

“Vorobyov left, and the bathhouse we guys in the village had built for the gals burnt down. There was a criminal investigation, of course. But they didn’t catch anyone.”

“The Gas Has Come”
This time, it was the head of the Yegorevsk District and his deputies who were meeting with constituents. Slesarev did not know about the meeting, and so we arrive in the village of Yurtsovo a bit late: the event has ended. But we do find Nina Morsh, head of Yurtsovo Area, surrounded by female assistants, next to the Soviet war memorial. Slesarev knows everyone by sight, all the more so because Morsh was previously head of the Yurtsovo Rural Settlement. But late last year, all the municipalities were abolished when when the Yegorevsky District was redesignated as an urban district. The now-abolished Yurtsovo Rural Settlement included thirty-eight villages. Last year, only four of them had gas mains.

Morsh’s assistants immediately cut us off.

“You’re a little late. The head of the district was at the meeting, and he answered everyone’s questions. Residents who wanted to ask questions got definitive answers. You can ask them yourselves.”

Dressed in a suit with a rose on the chest, Morsh drags me along with her.

“Since 2005, a lot of work has been done on gasification,” she tells me, as if she were reading a report. “First, the central village of Yurtsovo and the main municipal institutions, then, in 2010, the entire residential sector.”

She speaks of natural gas affectionately.

“The gas has come,” she says.

The gas has come to Pochinki, Barsuki, Leonovo, and Polbino. And so it will arrive in Vladychino and Parykino, too, Morsh reassures me. The design plans and specifications are already being drafted.

“You cannot jump higher than the budget lets you,” says Morsh by way of explaining why gasification has taken so long. “This has been explained repeatedly to that man, who doesn’t even live in our area. Whatever emotions he may or may not be experiencing, the program has been well implemented. Just look at our governor.”

It is clear as day the village needs gas, but people have been living without it, getting by with cylinders. Some people even stoke wood stoves. Ninety-year-old Grandma Panya, another resident of Vladychino, signed the petition to Obama, but she is afraid of gas.

“That one woman of ours in Moscow, the one who left to be with her lover, was home alone once, but forget to turn off the gas. She died from carbon monoxide poisoning!”

If it had not been for Slesarev, no one would have the heard the voice of the people of Yegorevsk. But that is how his brain operates under his American skull. If the law says people are supposed to have gas piped into their homes, then that is the way it should be, even it means his having to fight hopelessly for it on his lonesome. Slesarev has lived his whole life this way.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Will Russia Be First to Build Elon Musk’s Hyperloop?
Peter Hobson
The Moscow Times
July 6, 2016

In mid June, Shervin Pishevar, co-founder of Hyperloop One, sat under the high, decorated ceiling of a palace in St. Petersburg.

Men in suits lined the large, rectangular table.

“Eighteen heads of sovereign [wealth] funds and President [Vladimir] Putin. $10 trillion in the room,” Pishevar wrote alongside a photo posted on Facebook. “Then Putin called on me.”

So Pishevar, a burly, bearded Silicon Valley entrepreneur, began to speak. He talked about the Hyperloop trains his company plans to build: Transportation pods levitated by magnets inside an airless tube that could travel at speeds 300 kilometers per hour faster than a passenger aircraft, thanks to the low air resistance. Pods that could whisk goods through Russia from China to Europe in the space of hours, or turn St. Petersburg into a suburb of Moscow.

Putin listened attentively. Then, according to Pishevar, he said, “Hyperloop will fundamentally change the global economy.”

By the time Pishevar left Russia, Hyperloop One had signed its first deal with a foreign government, a partnership with Moscow’s City Hall. It had also been asked by Russia’s transport minister to design a 70-kilometer Hyperloop track in the Russian Far East.

With that kind of support, perhaps the first Hyperloop won’t be built in California, but in Russia.

Dreaming of Innovation

At first sight, all that seems strange. Russia, after all, is suffering its deepest economic crisis for nearly two decades. Much of its infrastructure is hopelessly backward. It is a country in which passengers in slippers shuffle between bunk beds in overnight trains that travel at average speeds of just over 50 kilometers an hour. Freight trains, meanwhile, move at a little over 10 kilometers per hour.

But there are a few things working in Hyperloop’s favor.

First, innovation has once again become a buzzword in government. Officials are, at least in theory, keen to diversify away from the oil and gas industry on which the country currently relies. And they are paranoid that Russia could fall so far behind the technological innovation happening elsewhere that it will never catch up.

That fear has sprouted strategic plans for major infrastructure investment and research into the technology of the future. These plans think big: On the agenda are things like quantum computing, neural interfaces and teleportation. Hyperloop, with its science-fiction-movie tube trains, fits perfectly into that vision.

From Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1.5 Hours

Source: Hyperloop One. View in higher resolution here.

Second, Hyperloop has a powerful Russian investor lobbying its interests, a Dagestani tycoon called Ziyavudin Magomedov.

Tall, handsome and worth $900 million, Magomedov is a true techie. According to Forbes, for his 47th birthday party last year, he hosted a robot-themed ball and gifted each guest a book about Elon Musk, the billionaire inventor who in 2013 launched the Hyperloop concept.

Like Putin, he is emphatically excited about the idea.

“It will kill truck and air transportation at a minimum,” he told Forbes.

Magomedov is also supremely well connected. His investment company, Summa Group, spans businesses from real estate to logistics and has handled orders from state companies worth billions of dollars. He has advised the president and allegedly paid for Putin’s press secretary to honeymoon last year on a super yacht in the Mediterranean. One of Russia’s deputy prime minsters, Arkady Dvorkovich, is an old university friend and, conveniently, oversees the country’s policy on transport, innovation and industry policy, though the two deny any favoritism.

Magomedov invested in Hyperloop One through his $300 million venture capital fund, Caspian VC Partners, and set about bringing it to Russia. Bill Shor, the Russian-speaking American who runs Caspian for him, describes him as “very hands on.”

Magomedov has played the role of Hyperloop One’s deal broker. His Summa Group was a co-signatory on the agreement between Hyperloop One and the Moscow Government, which will create a working group aimed at fitting Hyperloop technology into Moscow’s transport system.

He likely also played a major role in pushing for a Hyperloop to span the 70 kilometers between the Chinese industrial center of Jilin and Zarubino, south of Russia’s Vladivostok, where Summa is investing in port facilities.

Both projects have been billed as revolutionary. In heavily congested Moscow, which is currently ploughing huge sums into expanding its transport infrastructure, Hyperloop One says its technology could potentially “give capital region commuters weeks of their lives back.”

The link with Jilin, meanwhile, would carry 10 million tons of cargo a year, zipping containers to port in minutes, says Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov. He wants Hyperloop One to present a design for the track at an investment forum in Vladivostok in September.

Tapping Into China

The third thing playing in Hyperloop’s favor in Russia is that it could unlock vast amounts of Chinese investment.

The Jilin-Zarubino spur is just the beginning. In the longer term, Hyperloop could create “the heart of the transport infrastructure for the Eurasian landmass,” says Shor. The technology will likely be used for freight before it begins to transport passengers. And the route between China and Europe is one of the world’s busiest trade arteries.

The distance between China’s eastern edge and Central Europe is some 7,000 kilometers. Freight currently navigates that distance by train in around three weeks and by sea in roughly two months. In theory, a Hyperloop could span it in six hours.

Beijing has committed tens of billions of dollars to its “One Belt-One Road” plan to create new infrastructure between it and Europe. Russian authorities have their eyes on some of that money.

“It’s like a tube with an air-hockey table. It’s just a low-pressure tube, with a pod in it that runs on air bearings […] I swear it’s not that hard,” said Elon Musk in 2015. Photo: Patricj T. Fallon / Reuters

Sokolov says he will discuss the Jilin Hyperloop with China’s transport minister at a meeting in August and hopes “we’ll take the next step [in this project] together with our Chinese partners.”

Also, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), a $10 billion state-backed investment vehicle, invested in Hyperloop One earlier this year. The amount was “very modest,” according to its chief, Kirill Dmitriev. But the RDIF also happens to run a joint investment fund with China worth $2 billion.

China is already helping to pay for a planned trans-Siberian high-speed rail line that could cost more than $200 billion. Hyperloop’s advocates say their technology be cheaper. According to Sokolov, the Jilin-Zarubino line will cost around 30 billion rubles ($450 million)—almost one-third less than a high-speed rail equivalent.

“We must be serious about this idea,” he insists.

Where’s the Money?

But for all the enthusiasm, few in Russia are prepared to put down real investment just yet.

Hyperloop One is working “very closely” with the Transport Ministry, as well as local governments and “some of the largest Russian corporates,” says Shor. These reportedly include Russian Railways and Gazprom, two giant state corporations. But these partners are contributing expertise and access, not money. All the cash is coming from Hyperloop One and Magomedov’s Summa, which Shor says has “invested quite a bit of resources, financial and otherwise.”

Even Putin, who in St. Petersburg promised support to Hyperloop One, wasn’t talking about financial support, his spokesman later clarified.

The problem is that while the Hyperloop concept is compelling, no one has yet worked out how to build one. Russia seems content to wait for the technology to prove itself with other people’s money.

The Local Contender

It might come as a surprise to discover that one of those working on the technology is Russian. Indeed, it turns out that Russian scientists were on to Hyperloop long before Elon Musk.

A century ago, before it was derailed by World War I, scientists in Siberia began working on a similar scheme, says Sokolov. Now, at St. Petersburg’s University of Transport and Communications, the project has been reborn.

Anatoly Zaitsev is an engineer who was briefly transport minister in the 1990s. At his lab on the Baltic coast, his team of around 20 people have equipment that can levitate transport containers. He says he could “absolutely” build a levitation track to Moscow, 650 kilometers away, if you give him $12-13 billion—significantly less than the cost of high-speed rail.

The only part of Musk’s plan Zaitsev says he hasn’t figured out is how to put his levitating pods in a tube. But that’s the simple part, he insists, “like dressing [the train] in a dinner jacket.”

Zaitsev thinks his technology is more developed than that of his rivals, whose plans remain mostly on paper. Both Shor and Sokolov praise his work. But despite that, Zaitsev is largely ignored by the ministers and local governments now courting Hyperloop One.

The reason why ultimately comes down to money. Hyperloop One has raised more than $100 million to fund research, pilot projects and investor outreach.

Another California company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, is also rubbing shoulders with big investors. One of its executives has said it is talking with a Russian private investor and is looking at Hyperloop projects in Russia. Its chief, Dirk Ahlborn, also met Putin in St. Petersburg in June.

Elon Musk proposed the Hyperloop concept in 2013 as a mode of transportation between Los Angeles and San Francisco, California.

These companies can fund relentless global expansion, and they benefit from Silicon Valley’s sheen of success. Russian officials can engage with them at no cost to themselves. No wonder, Zaitsev laughs, that “when a foreigner shows up in Russia at the invitation of a resident billionaire, the music and dances start.”

“The Americans are better at getting money,” he says. “I tip my hat to Musk and his followers who so boldly and aggressively offer the world unfinished technology.” By contrast, Zaitsev has enough money to keep his lab operational, and not much more. If Hyperloop is eventually built, it is unlikely to be Russian-made.

Revolution?

But if Hyperloop really is the future of transport, and Putin jumps on board early, it could be a visionary move.

“Russia has a very good chance [of being the first place to develop Hyperloop],” says Shor. If the government acts quickly on regulation, he says it could happen in the next few years. That could put the country at the forefront of a transport revolution.

On the other hand, the whole thing could be a pipe dream. No one knows if the technology can be made cheaply enough to implement.

Russia, meanwhile, still lacks both money and many basics of a modern transport system, says Mikhail Blinkin, head of the transport institute at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and an advisor to the Transport Ministry.

Fifteen years discussing high-speed rail has led to a single line between Moscow and St. Petersburg that travels less than 200 kilometers per hour. The country has only 5,000 kilometers of modern expressways, says Blinkin—less than tiny South Korea and not even enough to span Russia from east to west.

The government should focus more on practical improvements to the transport infrastructure and less on visions of Hyperloop tubes criss-crossing the country, says Blinkin. Otherwise, he adds, the officials cheerleading Hyperloop are just the latest versions of Marie Antoinette, the aristocrat who saw French peasants without bread, and supposedly said, “Let them eat cake.”

Pyotr Pavlensky: “The FSB Has Hammered an Iron Curtain Around Itself”

threatArtist Pyotr Pavlensky holding a petrol can in front of FSB headquarters in Moscow. Photograph: Reuters

Pyotr Pavlensky: “The FSB Has Hammered an Iron Curtain Around Itself”  
Elena Kostyuchenko and Ekaterina Fomina
December 10, 2015
Novaya Gazeta

An exclusive interview with the arrested artist

He stands accused of vandalism for setting fire to the door of the FSB building. Pavlensky himself has requested he be tried as a terrorist as a gesture of solidarity with convicted terrorists Oleg Sentsov and Alexander Kolchenko. Observing a vow of silence, Pyotr Pavlensky refused to answer the court’s questions. He did, however, answer Novaya Gazeta’s questions.

Pyotr Pavlensky’s Works

Seam, July 2012. Pavlensky sewed his mouth shut with a coarse thread and stood for an hour and a half in front of Saint Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral holding a placard that read, “Pussy Riot’s performance was a reenactment of Jesus Christ’s famous performance.”

Carcass, May 2013.  Absolutely naked and not responding to anything, Pavlensky lay wrapped in barbed wired outside the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly. The artist attempted to show the new position Russian citizens had found themselves in after the adoption of repressive legislation.

Fixation, November 2013. Pavlensky nailed his scrotum to a cobblestone on Red Square and sat motionless looking at it. “It is a metaphor for the apathy and political indifference of Russian society,” the artist explained. Pavlensky timed his action to coinicide with Police Day.

Freedom, February 2014. Pavlensky and a group of activists burned around fifty tires on Malo-Konyushenny Bridge in Saint Bridge, thus reconstructing the Maidan in Kyiv.

Segregation, October 2014. Pavlensky cut off his earlobe while sitting naked on the fence of the Serbsky State Scientific Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry. The action was a protest against punitive psychiatry.

Threat, November 9, 2015. Pavlensky set fire to the main entrance of the FSB headquarters on Lubyanka Square. The artist stood before the burning door holding a fuel canister.

What is fear?

I think fear is an animal instinct. You find an example of how fear itself turns into an immediate threat to life in Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The question she returns to time and again there is, who was more to blame for the death to which a hundred concentration camp prisoners were led, the two guards who escorted them there or the prisoners themselves? Because they went willingly to their deaths, making no attempt to kill the guards or escape. Fear is dangerous because it suppresses free will. Without free will man becomes something like a domesticated beast of burden, which is not finished off and turned into food while there is the need to keep working it.

How and when did you conceive Threat?

[The answer has not been published in keeping with the requirements of Russian federal law.]

What did the preparation involve?

The choice of the site, the date, and time were the main things. When they have been determined, all that remains is the technical preparation, in which I try to do with the most minimal means.

Was Threat successful?  What constitutes success? Were the other actions successful?

I find it difficult to talk about, because my access to information is limited. But the fact alone that I managed to do it could be considered a big success.

Is there a common theme running through your works? Have your stance and objectives changed?

Yes, in all my works I talk about the prison of everyday life and the possibility of release from this prison. Seam, Carcass, Fixation, and Segregation are the prison of everyday life. Freedom is the possibility of release. But Threat is the power of coercion in this prison, meaning that it is the main threat to free will.

In most of your actions you haven chosen your own body as the object. Why did you decide to choose an external object this time?

This is not true. I have used my body when talking about the prison of everyday life. The statement about emancipation was constructed completely differently. Freedom was implemented by a collective subject. Now I have discussed the threat hanging over every member of society. This is a direct threat to the manifestation of everyone’s free will. I never said I was doing performance art or body art. I work with the tools of power, and what I do is political art.


Freedom.Photo: Pyotr Kovalyov / Interpress / TASS 

Whom are you addressing?

Society. I do not address people in power. I use them as material for undermining the scenery of power. My objective is to call into question the entire façade concealing the ruthless mechanics of control and administration.

Do you identify with the the society you previously depicted (Fixation and Carcass)? If not, where are you?

Well, now I am actually in jail. But if we talk about how much I feel myself to be part of society, then to the extent that we all are part of the same regime. I travel on the same public transportation, I watch the same news, and I hear the same advertisements. The informational field is the same,  and I have worked with elements of it. I take something from one context and transfer it to another context. The contexts collide and new meanings are produced. In this way I identify the discrepancy between the scenery and mechanics of power.

Do you know how people have responded to Threat? Can you follow events from jail?  How do you get the idea across when discussion of the action itself (the scrotum, the door) becomes primary?

No, I know very little about the reactions. But I did find out about the most interesting reaction: the entrance to Lubyanka was covered in aluminum. I have been told that “Lubyanka behind the iron curtain” is what the authorities called their action. The regime is erecting this curtain around itself with its own hands. No, it is still not easy for me to keep track of what is happening. I am partly cut off from communications. I get letters, and my lawyers can tell me some things. Other prisoners also tell me things, but generally the information is very sketchy.


Segregation. Photo: Oksana Shalygina / Facebook

Some say that the action could have caused harm to employees who were inside the building. Did you think about this?

No, I had no such fears. We could discuss such a threat if I had employed heavy artillery instead of a fuel canister.

You have called the FSB a “terrorist organization.” You see no difference between a suicide bomber at Domodedovo Airport and an FSB employee?

The FSB [excised in keeping with the requirements of Russian federal law] is a militarized, well-equipped, armed organization. And it combats its competitors, people who would like to take its place but who simply lack the resources. I think any state is a political institution that has formed as an outcome of long-term political terror.

Whic actionist artists (past or present) do you like?

There are quite a few artists, and not necessarily actionists. They include the Dadaists, Malevich and Suprematism, the works of Caravaggio, and many others. Chris Burden was one of the few good performance artists. If we talk about actionists, I would include Alexander Brener and the Moscow actionists of the nineties. Voina made a huge breakthrough, followed by Pussy Riot, including their last performance at the Sochi Olympics.

Can art exist separately from politics nowadays?

No, it cannot. Art was forced to served ruling regimes for many centuries. It was an effective apparatus for inculcating ideological paradigms. Art was able to free itself from functional obligations in the twentieth century. But regimes continue to exist, and every year they require thousands of new personnel: they make a lot of effort to produce these units. The very existence of these institutions for producing service personnel is already sufficient demonstration of the link between art and politics.


Carcass. Photo: Sergei Yermokhin / Interpress / TASS

Investigators have on several occasions asked psychiatrists to examine you. Have you ever doubted your own mental competence?

No, I have not yet had any reason to doubt it.

How do you understand the holy fool? Some have called you a holy fool. Can you agree with them?

No, I cannot. I am an artist who does political art. Political art involves methodical research of social responses and sets of codes. Aside from the actions, the work involves dealing with the many tools of the regime: law enforcement, psychiatry, mass media, etc. I do not think you can just call this a way of life. In this sense, early punk culture, the residents of psychiatric hospitals, and hippies like Charles Mansion bore a much greater resemblance to holy fools.

What happened after your arrest?

 Everything was fairly by the book: physical detention, handcuffs, searches, the first attempts at interrogation. Usually, during the first twenty-four hours, investigators try to get as much testimony as possible. That is exactly why you have to pay attention during the first twenty-four hours and say nothing at all. The same thing happens with psychiatrists, only they have more power. But much more important is what it means to me. For me, it is a process of defining the boundaries and forms of political art. And what the regimes calls arrest and paperwork procedures is nothing other than a bureaucratic ritual for producing criminals.

What are your conditions like now? Has pressure been brought to bear on you?

There was only one attempt to get me to sign a confession that I had not wanted to harm and threaten the lives of FSB employees. After an hour of back and forth conversation, they were unable to get what they wanted. I went to lockup to relax, and they left.

Why did you ask to be charged with terrorism?

 I thought about the action I had carried out and came to the rather interesting conclusion that the action of setting fire to a door was quite similar to what ultimately led to terrorism charges against the s0-called Crimean terrorists and the ABTO group. Only in those cases, the FSB added to these groups people who had made deals with investigators, and as a result of this cooperation, ringerleaders of terrorist organizations and their accomplices emerged. So I decided to demand coherent logic from the court and justice from the judiciary and law enforcement.

Are you going to remain silent in the court?

Yes, I am going to maintain my silence until the lawlessness of the judiciary and law enforcement comes to an end.

Does an action begin when it is actually implemented or afterwards? Is the action still under way now? Do you recognize the state as a co-author?

An act begins during its implementation and ends when the law enforcement system or psychiatrists detain me. But cessation of the action per se marks the beginning of the process by which the boundaries and forms of political art are defined. So we could say that it is not the action that continues but the process of political art.

What do expect from the future? Are you willing to continue living in a stagnated Russia? Have you thought about applying your energies somewhere else? Are you struggling for a better life for yourself or for the country? (And is it a struggle?)

Each of us is responsible for the situation of stagnation. And for this reason alone I do not want to live somewhere else. As for me and my life, it is not a struggle, but the only possible form of existence under state terror. Everything else is personal responsibility for the life of society within the bounds of border and passport control.

P.S. On December 10, Pavlensky was transferred to St. Petersburg, where the case of setting fire to the tires is being examined.

Photo courtesy of the Guardian. Translated by the Russian Reader

Alexei Polikhovich: “I Had Begun to Feel I Was Born in Prison”

“I had begun to feel I was born in prison and just had been released for a short time”
Alexei Polikhovich talks about spending three years behind bars for the right to think freely 
Ekaterina Fomina
November 5, 2015
Novaya Gazeta

Alexei Polikhovich after his release from prison. Photo: Ekaterina Fomina/Novaya Gazeta

Alexei Polikhovich, one of the few defendants in the Bolotnaya Square case who had actually been politically active before the ill-fated protest rally of May 6, 2012, has been released from prison. (We now understand this was the reason people were jailed: on suspicion of having vigorous civic stances.) Before Bolotnaya Square, Polikhovich, for example, had defended the Tsagovsky Forest and been involved in the antifascist movement. Some of those now spending their fourth year in prison after being convicted in the case had ended up on Bolotnaya Square by accident, but Polikhovich had chosen this way of life, a life of open struggle, consciously. It is a dangerous way of life to lead in our country, even if the way you fight your cause is ten times within the law. But Polikhovich consciously chose this way of thinking, and marched to Bolotnaya Square in the antifascist column.

However, on Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, Polikhovich caught hell just as randomly as other protesters. Police pulled them from the crowd in the heat of the moment without looking .

Polikhovich insisted on his innocence at his court hearings. He knew he was being tried for his convictions.

Three years in prison were supposed to reform what? Polikhovich’s beliefs? He remained, however, true to his beliefs throughout his imprisonment. If reform meant betraying them, then Polikhovich has not been reformed, as he himself says. But he still learned something.

After his release, Polikhovich talked about the lessons he learned in prison.

__________

I have not seen people in color for three years. I have forgotten what it was like to have women and children around. Simple things seem new right now. After being in the penal colony, I think Moscow is quite beautiful.

When I got to Petrovka [38, Moscow police HQ], I did not understand how serious things were. I took everything as an excursion, a rough excursion, but an excursion nonetheless.

The wording “actively involved in destructive youth organizations” was included in my arrest sheet. The Center “E” officers [“anti-extremist” police] did not have a clear opinion about me, whether I was a rightist or leftist. What group should they assign me to? What mattered was that it should sound terrible.

The police investigators found us interesting. They had been used to dealing with Islamists and neo-Nazis. But leftists, social democrats, and liberals, everyone who had been arrested on trumped-up political charges, were something unfamiliar to them. The investigators enjoyed chatting with us. I remember one such conversation. A crowd of investigators was standing before me, and I was telling them why I was in jail. I explained I had not wanted to hit anyone, that had not been the objective. Well, I expressed it simply.

They immediately tensed.

“What was the objective? Who set the objective?” they asked. They think crudely.

Other inmates knew about our case, and I never encountered flagrantly negative attitudes towards us in this connection. On the contrary, sometimes they would see articles about us and come running with the newspaper: “Oh, it’s about our rock star.” I also encountered not very well-educated people who thought that since I had been jailed for a protest rally that meant I was a nationalist. Several times, I quite seriously cussed people out for saying this: it offended me.

I had expected remand prison would involve total isolation, but it was like a rural village in there: everyone was connected with everyone else. It was its own society. In Butyrka remand prison, they explained to me how to “spur the horses.” In prison, “the horses” is the rope that connects cells and works like an intercom. Books were soaked with narcotics and passed on to those who needed them. Because of this, by the way, the flow of regular books into the prison slowed down. According to the internal code of inmates, formal channels for getting groceries and cigarettes into the prison should not be compromised.

The penal colony, where you are not locked up in eight square meters, seems like the regular world compared to the remand prison. You can see the sky. You can spot newcomers to the colony immediately: we all arrived looking pale. We had almost turned into mushrooms after two years of hearings and trials. I drank up the sunshine with my skin. I got a dark tan right away.

At one point, I even thought I had been born in prison. It was just that I had been let out. I had quickly found myself friends, a wife, and parents. I had screwed up somehow and gone back to prison.

Alexei Polikhovich and his parents. Photo from family archive

In the colony, you can learn to be a tailor, a lathe operator, an electrician or an auto mechanic. The phrase “Labor liberates” is written on the gates of the manufacturing zone. I studied sewing for six months, then I studied to be a lathe operator while also working as a sewing machine operator. Convicts sew sheets, pillowcases, suits, blankets, and bags.  In anticipation of my release, I sewed a rucksack for myself and Tanya, my wife. I had also sent her an apron and some bags.

In prison, people have no way of filtering incoming information. They mainly read bad newspapers. They also would take out the [philosophical and] literary journal Logos, which has no pictures, have a gander at it and be amazed. If you put convicts on a diet of [the national newspapers] Novaya Gazeta, Vedomosti and even Moskovsky Komsomolets for a month, they would catch on to something. But they would watch TV constantly, then would come to me and dump on me about how bad things were in Ukraine and what a trooper Putin was. They particularly liked all the trash on REN TV about reptilians and conspiracy theories.

Few people read good books in prison. They mainly read fluffy stuff, detective novels and bad sci-fi. Books from the outside are rarely “reeled in.” Falanster bookstore and I organized a book fair of sorts: beginning with my time in the remand prison, they sent me an endless stream of books. They sent so many books I would have had to serve another sentence just to finish reading them! When I was released, I took only a single rucksack with me, containing only books and letters. When you leave prison, you have to leave as much behind as possible. Not everyone in there has two pairs of warm socks. I took the books I was certain would interest no one: William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and [Ditmar] Rosenthal’s Russian language textbook. I thought I should finally learn Russian properly, so I would not be ashamed to print what I wrote. I also brought out an anthology of lectures from the Priamukhino Readings.

These three years have happened. I cannot cut them off or cross them out. I probably would not have wanted to spend them in prison, but I spent them there. This foundation, this experience on which I now stand, I cannot push it out from under my own feet. Not because I would fall, but because I just cannot do it physically. It is difficult. It is a rock.

Am I angry at anyone? I did not suffer catastrophically over these three years. I can be angry at the system on behalf of my loved ones. They certainly did not deserve it and are not guilty of anything.

I probably have become angrier over the last three years. And a little weary.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Gabriel Levy for the suggestion