Exodus

DSCN3281Human capital is fleeing Russia. Since President Vladimir Putin’s ascent to the presidency, between 1.6 and 2 million Russians—out of a total population of 145 million—have left for Western democracies and some new destinations where they can be freer with their skills put to better use. This emigration sped up with Putin’s return as president in 2012, followed by a weakening economy and growing repressions. It soon began to look like a politically driven brain drain, causing increasing concern among Russian and international observers.

In this report, the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center offers a comprehensive analysis of what we are calling the Putin Exodus and its implications for Russia and the West. It is supported by a pioneering sociological study of new Russian émigrés now living in four key locations in the United States and Europe, through a 100-question survey and a series of focus groups.

[…]

There are two particularly important findings. On the one hand, the new Russian émigrés living in different locations are very similar in the way they use their high cultural capital to adapt to new life and employment in a postindustrial society. At the same time, there is a distinct disparity between those who emigrated before 2012 and those who left later: among other things, the latter demonstrate a growing pro-Western and liberal orientation and greater politicization in general, including stronger support for the anti-Putin “non-systemic” opposition.

John Herbst and Sergei Erofeev, The Putin Exodus: The New Russian Brain Drain (Atlantic Council, Eurasia Center, 2019), p. IX

Although I am the last person who thinks you can find out what people really think using opinion polls, questionnaires, and focus groups, this new report from the Atlantic Council does, at least, deal with something real that has been underreported and little discussed in Russia and elsewhere. Since I have had lots of conversations with many different Russian immigrants over the years, I am also skeptical about the report’s optimistic conclusions about their alleged “liberalism.” Nevertheless, it is worth reading. Thanks to the invaluable Mark Teeter for the heads-up. Photo by the Russian Reader//TRR

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Aliyah

aliyah

Canadian professional wrestler Aliyah. Photo courtesy of WWE

It’s really unpleasant to discover that, for no apparent reason and unbeknownst to you, you have been unfriended long ago by someone you really did think of as a friend,

The funny thing is that, two years ago, I translated a dozen or so pages of essays and other documents this particular friend needed for their Fulbright application. I did all of this work literally overnight, with almost no advanced warning.

The friend didn’t think to offer me any money or anything else for my work, but when they did, in fact, get the Fulbright, they suddenly popped up again to ask for free English lessons.

Since I haven’t heard word one from them since then, I assume they and their family stayed in the States.

What happened to the film I had been helping them make for several years is for me to wonder alone about, too.

This is a lesson I should have learned the hard way when A.S. and I held what proved to be a truly savage and unpleasant “solidarity evening” for our old friend the artist B. in 2008 after he was deported from Brexitland, where he had applied, quite sincerely and on impeccable legal grounds, for asylum as a gay man whose life was threatened in his home country.

All three of us were roundly denouced by the rather odd audience in attendance at the erstwhile artists squat Pushkinskaya 10 (now a municipally subsidized arts center) for advocating the international human rights approach to asylum seeking.

The thing to do, we were told in no uncertain terms, was to trick your way into the promised land of your choice by hook or by crook, not to openly apply for asylum and get mixed up with the allegedly politically dodgy types (i.e., anarchists and other No Borders activists) who support asylum seekers in other countries.

Meanwhile, my wife’s cousin M., who up until a few months ago showed no interest in their late grandfather and his Jewishness, has suddenly decided to make Aliyah. The only problem is that his cousin, my wife, is the only living member of the family who knows anything about their grandfather, his Jewishness, and Jewishness in general, and who has kept anything she could pertaining to her grandfather’s life, because she loved him, and because she finds her fascinating multi-ethnic family’s history fascinating.

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that politics in Israel has been badly skewed  to the hard right by the huge influx of “Russian Jews” who emotionally, religiously, philosophically, and technically speaking had about as much business making Aliyah as I, a third-generation Scandinavian American, would have.

Naturally, since they have no real business being there or, rather, since they know they fudged their way into the country, they are even more resentful of the Palestinians, the natives brutally shunted aside to make room for their illegitimate millions.

This has been borne out by Likud’s strangehold on power in alliance with Avgidor Lieberman and the other radical right politicians heavily supported by immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The only way out of this impasse is to declare Zionism a “triumphant failure” that did the job it set out to do when circumstances for Jews in the world were desperate. Now that they are much less desperate, Zionism, like “communism” in its own time, can phase itself out, giving way to a single Israeli-Palestinian state where everyone would learn Arabic and Hebrew at school, and to which anyone in the world would be eligible to immigrate if they chose to do it.

Of course, it would be a big mess, but it would also be a lot of fun to the current US tax payer-subsidized disgrace in Israel-Palestine.

But what to do about the alleged right of Russians to immigrate anywhere they choose by any means necessary when, in their majority, they themselves refuse to acknowledge the same rights for non-Russians? Spend enough time in these parts and you will realize that really large numbers of Russians do think quite sincerely and distressingly that Muslim, Asian, and African riffraff should not be allowed to live in their precious spiritual homelands of North America, Western Europe, and Israel, and certainly not in their beloved-and-hated Motherland itself.

I have no cheeky pie-in-the-sky solution to this racist silliness. I do know, though, that it had something to do (minus the racism) with why I lost a real friend. {TRR}

The Kids Are (Not) Alright, Part 3: Are You Ready to Defend the Motherland?

30707960_10156005294207203_9089823561300341523_nThe third page of a questionnaire focusing on “patriotism” and “extremism,” allegedly administered to schoolchildren in Petersburg’s Moscow District. Photo courtesy of Daniel Alexandrov, Jr.

Daniel Alexandrov, Jr.
Facebook
April 20, 2018

The most monstrous thing currently in the works is the forthcoming ban on imported drugs. Much has been written about it, emotions have flared, and I have nothing to add. I would imagine we have seen nothing like it in recent Russian history. People are cynicallly willing to sacrifice tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of lives, by sending medical care forty or fifty years back in time, in order to increase the profits of several Russian companies.

But what kicked off the other day in Petersburg’s schools is no less vicious, although it is not such an obvious case of cannibalism. As Marina Tkachova, on whose page I saw the link, wrote correctly, a witch hunt has been launched.

In violation of Article 29 of the Russian Consitution,* which directly prohibits forcing people to voice their political views, the Moscow District Administration, assisted by the Center for Psychological, Pedagogical, Medical, and Social Aid, made schoolchildren fill out a questionnaire.

The questionnaire asked the schoolchildren, for example, to voice the extent to which they agreed with the following statements.

  • Russia’s interests are greater than my own.
  • I am ready to defend the Motherland and the people [narod = das Volk].
  • I feel proud of Russia’s current political influence.
  • I am proud of Russia’s culture and traditions.
  • I live in Russia and I do not plan to emigrate to another country.

31068869_10156005294157203_338838680958886823_nPart 12 of the questionnaire reads, “I don’t consider a person a patriot if . . . ” 1) He experiences no feelings for his country; 2) Believes the interests of ordinary people are more significant than the state’s interests; 3) The historic past of his people makes him ashamed; 4) The policies of our state towards its own citizens abolish patriot sentiments; 5) he want to leave Russia; 6) Other (specify).” Students could chose more than one answer. Photo courtesy of Daniel Alexandrov, Jr.

In addition, the pupils were asked to determine what social phenomena and psychological traits (!) generate nationalist or extremists moods among young people. The people who compiled the questionnaire openly provoked teenagers into violating Article 282 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code [which forbids “inciting the hatred and enmity” against other people based on ethnicity, religion, etc.] by asking them, “Are their religions or ethnic groups you dislike?” and “When faced with people different from you in appearance, ethniicity or religion, you usually . . .” One of the possible answers was, “I act aggressively.”

30742559_10156005294177203_1430095687740250696_nThe fourth and final page of the questionnaire focuses on the attitude of students toward different ethnic, religious, and social groups, thus encouraging them to violate Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code, as Mr. Alexandrov points out. Photo courtesy of Daniel Alexandrov, Jr.

The Education Committee at Petersburg City Hall explained to Fontanka.ru that the questionnaire was part of a “comprehensive plan for preventing juvenile delinquency among minors during the 2017–2018 academic year.” It is a program for monitoring and identifying potential “extremists” among schoolchildren.

I have the sense these people either do not realize what they are saying or they do realize it, which is even worse.

Even the Soviet Union was bereft of such idiocy and meanness, as when minors were asked to fill out questionnaires with questions like, “How much do you love the Motherland on a scale from one to five?” or “Whom do you love more, the Motherland or Mom?”

I have learned the schools on Vasilyevsky Island have not administered the questionnaire—yet—but since the Education Committee has adopted the plan, it means the questionnaire will be administered, if not now, then in September.

This cannot be ignored. We cannot stay silent about this. Interrogating schoolchildren about their love of the Motherland and their willingness to sacrifice themselves, and suggesting they should rat on themselves are real manifestations of fascism, and there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Friends, city council members, human rights activists, public figures, and local journalists: do something about it.

Article 29 of the Russian Constitution:

1. Everyone shall be guaranteed freedom of ideas and speech.

2. Propaganda or agitation instigating social, racial, national or religious hatred and strife shall not be allowed. Propaganda of social, racial, national, religious or linguistic supremacy shall be banned.

3. No one may be forced to express his views and convictions or eject them.

4. Everyone shall have the right to freely look for, receive, transmit, produce and distribute information by any legal means. The list of data comprising state secrets shall be determined by federal law.

5. The freedom of mass communication shall be guaranteed. Censorship shall be banned.

Thanks to Valery Dymshits for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader. I slightly edited the excerpted quotation from the Russian Constitution to make it more readable.

Sergei Krivov: “It Is Not Recommended to Live in This Country”

The other day, a friend of mine who works with kids complained to me that kids in Russia had no real heroes. Like kids most everywhere, they are in love with the wretched, hyper-commercialized Spider-Man and Harry Potter, not with homegrown heroes.

It might be a bit of a reach (because how do you explain this stuff to kids?), but from where I sit there are lots of heroes in modern Russia. Prominent among them are all the people convicted as part of the shameful sham known as the Bolotnaya Square case.

One of those heroes is Sergei Krivov, recently released after serving over four years in prison for the nonexistent crimes of being beaten over the head with a truncheon by a policeman and attempting nonviolently to prevent policemen from doing the same to other peaceable demonstrators in Moscow on May 6, 2012.

In the country I would like to live in, I would go outside and see dozens of people wearing t-shirts with Krivov’s totally ordinary but heroic face emblazoned on them. Krivov’s birthday would be a minor holiday, celebrated with a rousing march down every town’s main thoroughfare, followed by hearty little picnics, to celebrate the fact that Krivov undertook two hunger strikes, nearly dying in the attempt, in order to defend the freedom of speech and assembly in Russia.

Needless to say, Krivov’s would be a household name. Kids would read comics about the adventures of Sergei Krivov, where the hard facts would be mixed with a light helping of fantasy to make them more palatable to childish fancy.

If you have never heard of Sergei Krivov or don’t understand why he is a modern-day Russian hero, you need to read this interview with him. TRR

Sergei Krivov, Nikulinsky District Court, Moscow, December 23, 2013
Sergei Krivov, Nikulinsky District Court, Moscow, December 23, 2013. Photo courtesy of Radio Svoboda and TASS

“It Is Not Recommended to Live in This Country”
Natalia Dzhanpoladova and Nikita Tatarsky
Radio Svoboda
July 26, 2016

Yet another person convicted in the so-called Bolotnaya Square case, Sergei Krivov, a 54-year-old with a Ph.D. in physics and mathematics, has been released. Krivov was released from a prison colony in Bryansk Region, having served his sentence in full. In 2014, a court found him guilty of involvement in rioting and using force against police officers during a May 6, 2012, opposition rally on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow.

Krivov received one of the harshest sentences in the case, three years and nine months imprisonment.

His allies explained this was because the authorities avenged Krivov for the uncompromising stand he had taken throughout the trial. Krivov went on two lengthy hunger strikes. The first, to protest his arrest, lasted over forty days. During the second, he did not eat for sixty days in order to secure transcripts of the court proceedings. Krivov suffered two heart attacks during the second hunger strike.

Krivov was arrested as part of the Bolotnaya Square investigation several months after the events, in October 2012. According to police investigators, on May 6, 2012, when the crowd broke through police lines, Krivov seized a rubber truncheon from a policeman and used it to deliver several blows to police officers. Krivov himself repeatedly claimed he had been beaten by police on Bolotnaya Square, but the Investigative Committee refused to investigate his complaint.

Krivov served his sentence in two penal colonies in Bryansk Region, first at a correctional facility in Starodub. He was then transferred to a penal colony in Klintsy. The wardens put him in solitary, because they felt his life was in danger.

In an interview with Radio Svoboda, Kriov admitted his sentence might have been shorter had he “kept [his] mouth shut.” He spoke in detail about the reasons for his uncompromising stance, what happened on Bolotnaya Square, and how much Russia has changed since 2012.

The changes have been quite huge, and for the worse, although I still cannot say I have figured out what is what. I had been gradually following these changes by watching TV and reading Novaya Gazeta newspaper and New Times magazine, so they did not happen all at once for me and were not news. Nevertheless, I am perfectly aware the country as it was in 2012 and the country as it is in 2016 are two fundamentally different countries. There are far fewer freedoms, naturally, and It is nearly impossible to do anything within this framework.

Do you feel you have changed over these years?

In fact, after I got out, changed my clothes, and bathed, I had the feeling everything was as it had been. Although I did have big problems during the middle of my sentence: lots of things happened. But when it is all behind me, when I have come back to the “free” world, I cannot say I have changed. I think I am the same person I was.

Have you managed to meet with friends and relatives since your release? What are your impressions from these meetings and conversations?

Of course I have managed to meet with them. Let me put it is this way: almost no has chewed me out, except my wife, of course. In general, the feelings have been positive, because everyone has been friendly. They all congratulate me and wish me the best.

Naturally, anyone would find this pleasant. I want to say thank you to all the people who wrote me letters, held pickets, and collected money through the Internet, and to the leaders of the PARNAS Party, who paid my lawyers and sent me care packages: Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, and Ilya Yashin. In addition, Lyudmila Alexeyeva was involved. Despite her age, she attended the court hearings. A big thank-you to everyone for their support.

Last Wednesday, you also met with activists in Sokolniki Park. You mentioned you had no hope of being paroled. [In March, the court turned down Krivov’s parole application — Radio Svoboda.] Did you pin any hopes on the court in this case, that is, the trial court that heard the Bolotnaya Square case?

No. We had no chance from the get-go. What would have been the point of cooking all this up and then releasing us later? Obviously, the authorities conceived a quite definite plan, and they have been carrying it out. From my point of view, there was no reason to change anything, and nothing changed. I had been detained on misdemeanor charges several times., and I knew perfectly well how such matters were decided. There were no doubts in this case.

And yet your tactics in court were quite different from those of the other fellows. You were one of the most active participants in all the court proceedings.

Yes, I was, because I felt it could not make things any worse. That is how it happened, if you look at the sentences handed down. Naturally, my sentence would have been shorter if I had kept my mouth shut. But here, you know, six months more, six months less do not matter.  Naturally, we had to defend ourselves to the hilt. After all, we did not take to the streets only to snitch on the protest movement, to put it crudely. We did not do what we did to make the court rule in our favor. It was a continuation of the protest. Pavlensky said it: court is a continuation of my protest action. For me, it was simply a continuation of the opposition’s fight. It can happen anywhere: in court, outside of court, on Bolotnaya, away from Bolotnaya. It is like a way of thinking. It is as Solzhenitsyn put it: “Not living a lie.” Every single moment you do what you think is right. The situation changes, but the individual does not change in the situation.

Were your fairly long, serious hunger strikes also a continuation of this same story?

Basically, yes.

What prompted you to do it? Do you remember what you felt when you decided there were no other methods left?

During both hunger strikes, I was perfectly aware my demands would not be met. I got carried away with the second hunger strike: let’s put it that way. But retreating? Chapayev never retreated. So the only way was forward. The main objective was to attract attention, to shake up the situation somehow. Because getting results, especially in the first case, when it was a matter of custody measures, was totally unrealistic. All I was charged with (not what I did, but what I was charged with) was causing the bruise on the back of the hand of a policeman who in fact assaulted me. The policeman’s name is Alexander Ivanovich Algunov. He completely flagrantly hit me over the head with a truncheon. I had three lumps on my head, one of which clearly visible on my temple. It was both videotaped and photographed. And there were eyewitnesses who saw everything.

Sergei Krivov during a hunger strike, Nikulinsky District Court, Moscow, November 2013. Photo courtesy of TASS and Radio Svoboda
Sergei Krivov during a hunger strike, Nikulinsky District Court, Moscow, November 2013. Photo courtesy of TASS and Radio Svoboda

But when it was matter of conducting a judicial review or investigatining this conflict… The bruise I allegedly caused the policeman was investigated by the Investigative Committee of Russia, meaning the country’s top investigative body. But what he did to me (and they believe that these actions took place at the same time) has been investigated by another committee. When I filed a written complaint against the officer, the case was not just dropped down to the municipal level, but to a neighborhood precinct, where an investigator wrote there was nothing to investigate. The bruise on the policeman’s hand was investigated by the Investigative Committee of Russia, while beating a person with a truncheon was investigated by a completely different division, the lowest on the totem pole, and it said there was nothing to investigate. I am simply a victim in the Bolotnaya Square case. But I was really visible in the video footage. I was in a confrontation with a policeman who was assaulting me. I grabbed the truncheon with which he was beating me, because at one point I nearly fainted. He hit me so hard on the head it felt like I had been hit with a sharp nail, not a truncheon.

You were not the only victim on Bolotnaya Square, and yet the authorities investigated these incidents so unfairly. How do you explain this?

In the trial documents, for example, there is this bit of evidence. There were two ambulance crews on duty on Bolotnaya Square. They kept a record of injuries in which they wrote down the names and addresses of everyone whom they examined. As far as I remember, there are forty-eight civilians in this list, who suffered something like seventeen concussions and thirteen head injuries and injuries to the soft part of the skull, meaning they had mainly been beaten on the head. There were three policemen who sought medical attention on the square. Of the forty-eight civilians, only two people were deemed injured parties by the authorities. One was hit in the back with a stone, while the other person’s trousers caught fire, and he suffered burns on his leg from a Molotov cocktail. We do not know who threw the bottle or the stone. The authorities assume it was the protesters, so only two individuals were deemed victims. The rest were not recognized as victims, because these forty-six individuals were victims of the police. Who the heck is going to investigate injuries caused by the police? That is not how things are done.

The public commission who investigated the events on Bolotnaya Square came to the conclusion it was the Moscow authorities and police who provoked the confrontation? Do you share this point of view?

I also came to the same conclusion. Only I think it was not the Moscow authorities, but the federal authorities [who provoked the conflict]. Moscow, in this case, did not have the authority to decide these questions. There were provocateurs there. I saw a man in a mask step forward, chunks of asphalt in both hands. At the time, I wondered what was so black, because I was looking into the light. At first, I thought he was throwing black earth, because the asphalt everywhere was so clean. This guy stepped forward and tossed one stone. Then he shifted a second stone [to his throwing hand] and threw the second stone. A policeman was standing there. I was standing there looking back and forth between the two. Either I should have said, “Why are you tossing stones?” or I should have gone up to the policeman and said, “Why are you just standing and watching?” The policeman saw what he did, and then turned around and walked away. The police were completely uninterested in the people who were actually throwing stones, just as the people throwing the stones knew the police were not going to do anything to them.

Yes, and the most interesting thing is the authorities alleged the protesters shouted things about attacking the Kremlin and Red Square, and overthrowing someone. I was there. I heard no such cries. There are twenty-six hours of video footage in the case file. There are no such appeals in that footage. When the police cordon fell apart, people did not run to the bridge. This is clearly visible in the footage. People who were squeezed out of the crowd ran ten or fifteen meters away, because there was a crowd behind them and the danger of being crushed. Then, at a leisurely place, these people fixed their clothes or tied their shoelaces or something, and headed towards the square. This, too, is visible in the footage. Yet the investigators continue to claim, and the courts have not refuted it, but take it as a proven fact, that people were shouting to run across the bridge somewhere and were, allegedly, trying to escape.

So it transpires the whole thing was a planned provocation. How do you explain it? What goals was the regime pursuing via this case? Has it achieved them?

It was the first [opposition] rally after the elections. All the major protest rallies had taken place between the December [parliamentary] elections and the March [presidential] election. May 6, 2012, was the eve of the presidential inauguration: the regime no longer had anything to fear. If they had used force before the elections, naturally, it could have turned against them. But there was nothing to fear after the elections, so they were going to put the heat on people and arrest them. This was followed by the adoption of a series of repressive laws and amendments to the laws on elections, and pickets and demonstrations, not to mention the fact they introduced Criminal Code Article 212.1, which they used to put away [Ildar] Dadin.

You were not detained immediately after the events of May, but around five months later. Did you follow what was happening to the guys who were arrested first? Were you afraid you might become a defendant in the case?

Of course, I followed what was happening. I went and picketed outside the Investigative Committee building. I had this routine: one evening at home with the family, the next evening I would go picketing, and so on. At first, I did not take it very seriously. Why did they take so long to arrest me? First, they checked out everyone who had been detained on Bolotnaya. Despite the fact I had been detained, there was no arrest sheet on me; I had refused to sign some of the pages. They tossed out my arrest documents, and so it turned out I had not been detained. So, apparently, this was the reason it took so long to track me down. But the problem was that I was all over the footage. Despite the fact I inflicted no blows—I would like to emphasize I inflicted no blows, and I am absolutely certain I caused no physical pain to any policeman—I did try and prevent them from assaulting other people. I used my hands to restrain the police. Afterwards, when I found footage of myself on the Internet, I thought to myself: yeah, that was me in action.  My emotional sense was that I had prevented beatings without resorting to violence. But when I watched the videos, I did think I had reasons to be worried. But I decided what was the point of worrying now? I should have thought about it then.

Sergei Krivov picketing the Investigative Committee, Moscow, Summer 2012. His placard read, "Prisoners of May 6: Russia will be free!" Photo courtesy of Natalia Dzhanopoladova (RFE/RL)
Sergei Krivov picketing the Investigative Committee, Moscow, summer 2012. His placard reads, “Prisoners of May 6: Russia will be free!” Photo courtesy of Natalia Dzhanopoladova (RFE/RL)

Four years have passed, but the authorities are still prosecuting people [as part of the Bolotnaya Square case], people whose cases have not even gone to trial, for example, Dmitry Buchenkov and Maxim Panfilov. Do you think this will go on for a long time?

No, I don’t think it will go on for long. They are just running on momentum. The case is not so interesting nowadays. There are many new, interesting articles [that have been added to the Criminal Code]. The authorities can charge people to their heart’s content: for slander, for incitement to hatred. The amended laws have now given them such possibilities they can put away any person who says anything the least bit negative or critical.

The latest cycle of elections has kicked off. Considering all the new legislation and the overall climate in the country, what should we expect from these elections?

Basically, the alternatives are this: either just one opposition party will be seated in the parliament or it won’t. There are also the single-mandate districts, which also helps. A party might not get its list into parliament, but someone can get into the Duma by winning a single-mandate district. I have read that [Alexei] Navalny is inclined to boycott the elections. I understand his resentment: his party was not registered, and he himself was not admitted as a candidate. But there are other parties besides his, and they are also opposition parties. I think all fourteen percent [of Russians who, according to the country’s extremely problematic opinion polls, disapprove of President Putin’s performance] definitely have to go and vote. Anyone who can do it should be an election observer, because it is not enough just to go and vote; we also have to monitor the vote. In the current circumstances, the authorities just cannot do without electoral fraud. Maybe we have few opportunities to stop the fraud, but we have to record the incidents and talk about them. Of course, it is very unpleasant the Democratic Coalition was not able to pull it together, but the law is such that for this to happen, people would have had to join another party. Unforunately, the majority was unwilling to do this. I think they should have come to an agreement whatever the conditions, but they didn’t.

As I understand it, this is part of the old conversation about attempts to unite democratic forces, which have been going on since the 1990s.

First, the law is wrong, because it does not allow electoral coalitions. Second, in my opinion, there should be no minimum barrier [for being seated in the Duma] at all. Democracy is a regime in which decisions are taken by the majority, but the problem is the majority is quite often mistaken. For example, on the stock exchange, the majority always lets the big money get away. The minority turns out to be on the money. The majority differs from minorities in the sense that there is one majority, but there can be two, three, four, five minorities, and so on. The minority has to be allowed to speak its mind, and then, perhaps, the majority will reorient itself. So there should be no barriers. The only barrier should be each physical person. The current laws, naturally, are designed to monopolize power, which is convenient to those currently in power. So they have no need of any competitors. Competitors are harassed, persecuted, and forced off the road.

As far as I know, you were educated as a physicist and worked in science for a long time. How did it happen that you switched from science to grassroots activism and began following political events? What prompted you to do this?

A profession is a profession, but one’s own opinion is something else. I first served as an elections observer in 1989.  I was still working at MEPhI (Moscow Engineering Physics Institute) then. One thing did not interfere with the other, and it even helped. I left science, because salaries in the field had completely dried up, and I completely lost interest in what I was working on at the time. There was no future in it. In 1989, I was a member of an election commission for the first time. I went and found the election commission myself. It was perestroika. People had serious doubts and asked what perestroika was all about. They said perestroika would rearrange everything, but everything would be the same, [the Soviet Communist Party] would again get 99.9% of the vote, and so on. Those were the first actual elections, when Sakharov was elected [to the All-Union Congress of People’s Deputies].

What pleasantly surprised me was that there was no electoral fraud at all. In the evening, MEPhI’s Communist Party organizer came to check out the polling station, to see how we were doing. I tensed up, thinking that now they would come up with something. Nothing of the sort! I kept my eyes peeled. Everything was clean. But in 2011, when I also worked as an observer, everything was dirty, beyond dirty. It so dirty that, for example, there was an old woman, an observer from United Russia, working at our polling station. She did not get up to any tricks herself, but she would come up to us and say, “What is she doing?! Imagine the insolence!” She was referring to the woman who chaired our election commission. The old woman was indignant, her blood was boiling, but it did not go beyond that. She was already quite old, but [the electoral fraud] itself was too much for her. I was very glad a United Russia party member was outraged by our chairwoman’s behavior.

During the four years you spent in custody, how hard was it to get information about what was happening in Russia? How did you find out about events?  What events during this time amazed you the most?

I was given subscriptions to Novaya Gazeta and New Times, although they only started to come regularly when I was in the penal colony. I would read these periodicals and try and watch the news. In some places, this was easier; in some places, harder. For example, the last three months, I was basically without TV, because the guys did not want to watch any news. They would turn on MUZ-TV, which would be spinning a popular music video for the hundredth time. I could not stand to listen to it. But the TV, as you know, is a biased source of information. As for events, of course, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass. Incidentally, there were lots of Ukrainians in the penal colony, because the border is nearby. There was a guy in there who was himself from Russia, but his wife was from over there: he had got married in Ukraine. There was fighting in Kramatorsk. I asked him, “When were you there last?” He said, “Five years ago. Everything there was fine.” “Are Russians harassed there?” I asked. “Are you kidding?” he said, “Everyone lived in perfect peace. There were no problems at all.” Meaning no one discriminated against anyone, neither Russians nor Ukrainians. Where did this all come from? Why does the TV tell us that certain people are in danger there, that there is hostility? Russian TV has been kindling hostility between two sister nations. You cannot just go to war for their “bright future,” if everything in their country is okay. They have to say that everything there is bad.

You served your sentence in two penal colonies. Is it true that there are totally different rules depending on the colony?

The rules are different. That is why they say there are “red” colonies and “black” colonies. But those are the extremes, as it were, because the spectrum is continuous. The penal code is one thing, the laws are another, and if they were all obeyed, then it would make no difference where you did your time, but in reality the differences are fundamental. There is constant trench warfare between the convicts and the wardens over wrestling themselves more rights or forbidding more things. Figuratively speaking, for example, in one colony, the convicts march in formation, while in another they don’t. Even on this primitive level, marching in formation or not, there is constant conflict. The convicts try not to march in formation, while the wardens try to force them to march. It turns out different in every colony. And that applies to everything else.

Considering you were convicted as part of the Bolotnaya Square case, how were you treated in these colonies? Was there any talk about the fact you were basically a political prisoner?

The majority could care less. But some talked about it, especially in the pretrial detention facility, where I would come across sensible people. We would talk about who had been convicted and was doing time for no reason at all. When I was in the pretrial detention facility, it seemed there were many such prisoners. First, this was Moscow. Second, I was told, roughly speaking, that the accountants were on that floor, members of some other profession were on some other floor, and so on. Seemingly around thirty percent of the prisoners were in there for nothing. But when I got to Bryansk Region, this figure was no longer thirty percent, but much lower, somewhere between five and ten percent. A lot of guys were in for petty theft and drugs. Over a third were doing time for drugs. Realistically, a maximum of ten percent were doing time for nothing, or even five percent. As for how I was treated, well, I was repeatedly on the verge of a conflict. There were conflicts.

With the convicts or the wardens?

With both the wardens and the convicts. It is just that the wardens foist their rules on you, and the convicts foist theirs. You are a free man, and you realize you cannot abide by either set of rule.s So you don’t want to carry out either set of orders, and you start weaving and dodging. I was involved in several conflicts of that sort. My age was my salvation. Basically, there are all sorts of kids in there, and they could not bring themselves to hurt old people. Or rather, they could: I saw sixty-year-olds get beaten up in there, but it was still much more complicated. They also look at what you have been sent down for, although I cannot say it is so meaningful. But in this case it was a factor that worked in my favor; it was meaningful. I did not conceal the fact I had not assaulted any policemen, but a conviction is a conviction.

Now you are free and in Moscow. What are your plans? Do you see a future for yourself in Russia? Have you had thoughts of leaving the country?

By and large, I realize it is not recommended to live in this country. If a person has the opportunity and the desire, it is in his or interests to emigrate. But I somehow feel inherently Russian. I am afraid in any other country I would feel like an immigrant, an alien, if not like a guest worker. I cannot imagine living somewhere else. I feel it is okay to emigrate, and some people should emigrate, but I am afraid I am incapable of it.

Sergei Krivov is the twelfth person convicted in the Bolotnaya Square case to have been released from prison. A total of thirty-five people were prosecuted as part of the case. Thirteen of them were amnestied. Eight people remain in prison or under investigation.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The Stability Pit, or, Bend Them like Gandhi

Screenshot of a photograph on the website of the Debt Collection Development Center. The photograph was taken during a conference on debt collection. Source: Tsentr razvitiia kollektorstva
Screenshot of a photograph found on the website of the Debt Collection Development Center. The photograph was taken during a conference on debt collection. The man in glasses displayed on the screen is identified as “M. Gandhi.” Source: Tsentr razvitiia kollektorstva

Russia in the Pit of Stability
The state has disclaimed all liability for the country’s future
Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina
Moskovsky Komsomolets
June 22, 2016

The country has been handed the bill for Crimea, Donbass, and “stability.” The bill includes unemployment, poverty, and hopelessness. The petrodollar dolce vita is over. The only things growing now in Russia are prices, taxes, and utility bills, while incomes, purchasing power, and the standard of living are falling. Nineteen million Russians live below the poverty line. Yet the minimum monthly cost of living in Moscow is 14,413 rubles [approx. 200 euros], and 9,452 rubles nationwide, meaning that a huge number of people who are not officially poor are barely making ends meet. Thirty-nine percent of families do not have spare cash; they spend their entire incomes on groceries. The worst thing is that these people cannot afford to buy not only things but also medicines. Almost fifty percent of the population suffers from structural hunger. And that is not is the limit: the crisis is not over yet.

On the other hand, no one in the government has been sacked, there has not been a single bankruptcy on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires, and the number of dollar millionaires in Russia has not changed. “We picked the sweet berries together, but the bitter berries I pick alone”?

“Berries Are Sweet,” a song from the film Earthly Love (Yevgeny Matveev, dir., 1974)

The propagandists have, of course, been trying to powder the ugly picture with “poll results” claiming that eighty percent of Russians consider themselves happy, ninety-four percent look to the future with optimism, and eighty-two percent support the president’s policies. Not even the most desperately optimistic patriots believe in this anymore, however. Universal jingoistic boldness has given way to a heavy hangover, and instead of talk about Russia getting up from its knees, you more often hear the saying, “It won’t be worse than the nineties.”

It will be worse. In the nineties, it was only the free hand of the market that suffocated ordinary folk, but now the market will be reinforced by the strong arm of the state. More and more new taxes will be introduced: on property, land, vehicles, securities, and anything that moves. More and more bureaucratic dodges will be devised so the state can get its share, but from everyone and for nothing. There will be more and more new construction projects whose price tags will be doubled or trebled so the “elite” can maintain their prosperity. Phrases like “Crimea tax,” “payment for an extractive economy and decades of incompetent sloth,” and “money for officials and security forces” will be inscribed in invisible ink on each new levy, requisition, and massive construction project.

Sensitive to change, since they have something to lose, and quick off the mark, because they are able to leave, the middle class has quickly realized that hard times are coming. Since the introduction of sanctions, its ranks have thinned: some have been ruined, while others have fled. Even before the crisis, the regime did everything it could to make doing business more or less honestly in Russia unprofitable. Even the sanctions and promises to support domestic producers have changed nothing. Those who steal have it good, those who work have it bad, and the smaller the business, the more it gets fleeced. Due to the government’s anti-western rhetoric, many entrepreneurs who do business with other countries also got scared they would be targeted with everything from travel bans to confiscations of money and property. Hedging their bets, they have taken refuge in the Baltic countries, where it is easy to get a residence permit, as well as in Europe, Asia, and even Latin America. So many economic emigrants have left the country in recent years that we could speak of “economic steamships” bearing them out of the country. Many have purchased citizenships in other countries, and many of those people plan to renounce their Russian citizenships due to the passage of new laws. (The question of whether Russia needs such citizens and whether we should mourn their departure is beyond the scope of the article.)

But what will happen to those people who stay here? Will the nineties seem like a piece of cake to them?

People had no money in the nineties, but neither they did have any debt. Today, around thirty-eight million people have outstanding bank loans. This is fifty-nine percent of the working population, and it excludes people in debt to semi-underground micro lenders. Moreover, eight million people have at least three outstanding loans, and every sixth person has no way to pay back his or her debts. More than half the loans taken out in 2016 were used to pay off outstanding loans. In addition, people raised on the ideology of consumption cannot kick the credit habit even in hard time. Impoverished and unemployed, they mechanically keep on acquiring debt, using the money they have left to buy appliances or a trip to a resort, thus getting bogged down ever deeper in debt. The laws are written in the interests of the banks, and the inaction of the police and the connivance of the authorities favor the debt collectors. Banks get away with things mere mortals could not get away with. Billions are spirited out of the country annually using crooked banking schemes, and these crimes go to trial only in exceptional cases. It is one thing, however, to move capital abroad and not returns millions in loans to the treasury. It is almost a safe thing to do.

It is another matter not to give back a bank 100,000 rubles on time. True, a law regulating the work of debt collectors has finally been passe. As of 2017, absolutely criminal methods of forcing people to pay their debts will be prohibited. The law is quite timely, but you can count on laws only in countries where they are obeyed. Debt collection will thus shift from the legal realm to the semi-legal realm. Instead of official bank employees, debtors will now be getting visits from shaven-headed wise guys who supposedly have no connection to the banks.

By the way, bailiffs have recently been permitted to garnish the bank accounts of debtors. No one could care less whether you need the money for a life-or-death operation or you have a whole house of children to feed. The bank needs the money more than you do. The more the debt burden of the population increases, the more such measures will be adopted to help banks get their money back.

In the nineties, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, utility rates had not yet skyrocketed, and people could put off paying bills for years on end, until better times. There were no methods of debt collection, and besides, the housing and utilities sector had not yet been divvied up among contractors, many of whom are now in the hands of officials and their “subsidiaries,” only minus any government liability.

Nowadays, people who are overdue paying their utility bills for a couple of months are threatened with having their gas, electricity, water, and heating turned off, sued in court (which in Russia is always on the side of the strong), and can legally be evicted from their apartments. The regime, of course, serves the interests of the property management companies by increasing fines and simplifying debt collection procedures. Trying to carve up a meager budget, people wonder whether to pay the utility bills or make their loan payments. They base their decision on whom they fear most: the extortionists from the utility companies or the gangsters from the banks. The water and the power will probably not be turned off nationwide, but targeted outages and evictions will definitely kick off, and the most defenseless will be at risk. In my landing, a pensioner living with her sick son has had her electricity shut off, and the widow of a man disabled during WWII has received a “polite” threat from the housing service.

For the time being, Russians are keeping on top of their bills, but according to experts, the numbers of overdue utility bills will skyrocket and grow exponentially. Already sensing the profits to be made, collection services have taken an interest in the matter. (The new law on debt collectors, by the way, does not extend to people in debt to utility companies.) Considering their methods, this is definitely frightening. The website of the Debt Collection Development Center features a special section on extorting utility bill debts that lists such methods of pressuring debtors as special notices in the media and leafletting, participation of debt collection specialists in general tenant meetings, legal threats, and unorthodox options [nestandartnye varianty].* The last point gives me the creeps. What exactly are these unorthodox options? A clothes iron? A soldering gun? Matchsticks under the fingernails?

Another sign of the times that did not exist in the nineties is that no one feels sorry for anybody nowadays. A young family with a child has no way of paying back its foreign currency mortgage? Parents cannot pay for their son’s eduction? People have to sell the TV, car or dacha to pay off the loan used to buy that selfsame TV, car or dacha? You shouldn’t have borrowed money from a bank! You have no money to pay your bills? Sell your flat and buy one you can afford! You cannot pay for medical treatment or pay your university fees? Get a job! There are no jobs? That is your fault!

People have no sympathy for others or sense of solidarity. Nor should we expect protests and rallies in support of these who have gone into debt, even when the whole country ends up in that pit. The police and judicial system insures our government against any disturbances.

In fact, the punitive apparatus (from the police and the courts to bank debt recovery departments) is a single sector in which the state is present in one way or other. But what does the state do for its own people? It squanders state funds, including the pension fund. It cuts spending on everything not associated with the military, abroad and domestically. It has been exiting the social sector, shutting down hospitals, schools, and kindergartens, eliminating further and supplemental educational programs, canceling benefits, and reducing welfare payments that as they were amounted to kopecks. 24,000 schools, 4,800 hospitals, and 4,800 medical clinics were closed in Russia from 2001 to 2013 alone. (There is no data on the Rosstat website after 201. Apparently, it was decided to classify the information.)

The state has disclaimed all liability for the country’s future, but it still costs a lot to its people. In the nineties, the regime attempted to spend the Soviet inheritance, which was so rich that part of it is still left over today. In the noughties, it cashed in on resource extraction.  Today, it has no choice but to shake down its own citizens for money. The entire state vertical, the entire system of power, from the government to the security forces, has focused on this. And since it often has to shake the last kopecks from people’s pockets, the process will be cruel and painful.

Translated by the Russian Reader

* In the interests of fairness, I should mention I could not find this exact wording on the Debt Collection Development Center’s website, although I did find the page where the other methods listed, above, were discussed. TRR