Two Petersburgers on June 22: Yelena Osipova and Mikhail Piotrovsky

On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. On 22 June 2022, artist Yelena Osipova held a solo anti-war picket on Nevsky Prospect in Petersburg. On 22 June 2022, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the official Russian government newspaper, published a lengthy interview with Mikhail Piotrovsky, the longtime director of Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum,, in which he justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of his country’s greater historical and cultural “mission.” Ms. Osipova and Mr. Piotrovsky were born a mere eleven months apart, in November 1945 and December 1944, respectively. If Ms. Osipova’s bravery doesn’t bring honor on her hometown, it’s not for her want of trying. Despite having much greater resources at his disposal and a bigger bully pulpit, Mr. Piotrovsky has definitely brought shame on his city. As long it is run by people like him, Russia’s great “cultural capital” has no future. In any case, Ms. Osipova’s barely audible message makes a jarring juxtaposition with Mr. Piotrovsky’s arrogant, “learned” apology for Russian fascism. ||| TRR


Yelena Osipova, photographed in front of Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospekt in downtown Petersburg on 22 June 2022. Photo courtesy of Irina Bogdanovskaya, as posted on the public Facebook page Yelena Andreyeevna Osipova. Artist. Citizen. Thanks to Maria Mila for the heads-up. The placard on the left reads, “To the unknown soldier, 1941–1945. He was buried in the earth.” The placard on the right reads, “22 June 1941–1945. In memory of the Patriotic/Second World War. Become a pacifist! Pacifism – pacificus – peaceable. Pacifists condemn all wars and campaign vigorously and publicly to prevent them.” On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, a massive invasion of the Soviet Union. Ms. Osipova was born on 11 November 1945, that is, six months after the end of the Great Patriotic War.


Mikhail Piotrovsky. Photo: RIA Novosti via Rossiiskaya Gazeta

[…]

[Elena Yakovleva]: We have all been shocked by the fighting not only on the fronts of the special operation, but also on the cultural front, by all the attempts to cancel Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concerts, and the Russian language. What is behind “cancel culture”? Having ourselves escaped from the dictates of ideology, are we now witnessing its return in the West?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: The attack on us in the realm of culture is, of course, a semblance of what we had in Soviet times, when all connections were cut off by command, at a moment’s notice, at the snap of someone’s fingers. I have the sense that the Soviet Union, with its ideological dictates, has spread to the West. I did not expect that I would read in liberal Western newspapers such things as “The Hermitage is an imperial museum that preaches imperial ideology. It should not be allowed anywhere! The Hermitage’s [planned branch] in Barcelona should not be opened under any circumstances!”

I have been inundated with ultimatums. How dare you not speak out against the special operation in Ukraine?! Go out and protest immediately! Why are there no protests in your country?

But in this case we should understand that we have been subjected to such a powerful attack in the field of culture because culture is an area in which we are absolutely competitive.

We have the initiative here. We are trendsetters.

Are we an exporting country?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Yes, and our cultural exports are more important than imports.

Our recent exhibitions abroad are a powerful cultural offensive, a kind of “special operation,” if you wish. Which many people don’t like, but we are advancing. No one can be allowed to thwart our offensive.

In response to calls to cancel Tchaikovsky, smart people in Russia have been saying, “We won’t cancel anything. On the contrary, we will continue to love the Europe that we learned about while studying at universities.” Is the asymmetry fundamentally important in this case?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Of course. Given our cultural advantage, we don’t have to loudly announce that we are reneging on one cultural agreement or another in response to their bans. They can do it unilaterally. There is definitely no need for bilateralism — precisely because we are winning.

I think that under no circumstances should we succumb (and we shall not succumb) to the seductions of “cancel culture.” I believe we are immune to it because we have already been “canceled” six ways to Sunday. First, the entire culture of Tsarist Russia was canceled, and then Soviet culture was canceled. Monuments were demolished dozens of times. But we also know something else: monuments come back, everything is restored. The knowledge that memory and culture come back is in our blood. That is why we are not eager to overdo it when it comes to “cancelations.” Besides, you can’t cancel Tchaikovsky, except, perhaps, performances of Tchaikovsky by Russian orchestras. But this is just unfair competition.

Why is the West so passionate about “cancel culture”? And about the dictates of “public opinion”?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: I would not exaggerate the difference between the dictates of Soviet ideology and “public opinion.” Public opinion is bound up with governments or regulated by them.

As for “cancel culture” in the West, it is part of a large wave that was born amidst BLM, and linked to the culture of guilt and repentance for guilt. It suddenly surged: they began pulling down monuments and not standing for the American flag. They think that Voltaire is bad, and this guy, and that other guy. It’s a little ridiculous. How much can you repent for the terrors of colonialism, which in fact was so entirely categorical? Or for the unfortunate slave trade, which after all began not in Europe, but in Africa?

They seemingly had already begun to sense that this road leads nowhere, but then Russia turned up by chance. So let’s “cancel” Russia, they said. Although the glee with which they have rushed to condemn us, to tear us up and expel us, again speaks to the fact that we are strong in culture.

When the Bizot group boycotts Russian museums, it’s just ridiculous. I was one of the people who founded the group, and I know that we actually created it to help museums do cultural exchanges unencumbered by politics. But now it’s apparently been ideologized on the Soviet model. If this Soviet-style infection has gone so far, let them be sick alone. We don’t need to be sick too. We have historical immunity against this. I think we will spread it to others.

[…]

Since it hasn’t succumbed to the hype of cancellations, has the Hermitage keep its exhibitions abroad going?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Not only the Hermitage. When the special operation in Ukraine began, exhibitions by Russian museums were everywhere. We have a Morozov [Collection] exhibition in Paris and exhibitions in Italy. Our most controversial exhibition, a Fabergé show, was in London. The Russian Museum had an exhibition in Spain.

This was our “special operation,” if you like, a great cultural offensive.

As soon as all the ideological sirens were turned on due to the special operation in Ukraine, we initially announced that we were pulling everything out immediately. But then we thought it over and said that we had been given guarantees. The organizers were quick to confirm them. We organized the Morozov exhibition in Paris in cooperation with the Louis Vuitton Foundation, and suddenly realized that this global commercial company was a much better partner in today’s “Soviet” Europe than government entities were. Having no freedom of maneuver, they were “ordered” to break off relations with us, while the business people who made promises to us did EVERYTHING to fulfill them. It was a matter of honor for them: they promised us that [they would send] everything back on time.

But then people in Russia started yelling, “Why did you take our treasures there? They’re worth so much money!” And all hell broke loss on the other side: “Since they’re worth ‘that much’ money, let’s impound them!” People with tormented mercantilist mindsets could not really understand the essence of the matter, so very provocative things were shouted on both sides. I must say that the provocation by the press was the main complication in this whole special operation. Yesterday, I was sent a copy of the FT featuring a discussion by journalists in their art (!) department on the topic of whether Russian paintings should have been impounded. It was due to such journalistic caterwauling that pieces from our museums were detained at the Finnish border. It was the weekend, and Finnish customs officers had read their fill of newspaper articles about how everything should be confiscated from the Russians. Although before and after that, ten of our truck caravans passed through their border post.

From our side, it was the bloggers shouted more. The journalists have been schooled by you.

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Only there are few real journalists left and just a couple of newspapers. Everyone is like a blogger now. And bloggers don’t understand that this is a cultural offensive, that the Shchukin and Morozov exhibition in Paris is like the Russian flag flying over the Bois de Boulogne. Do you know how everyone appreciated it in Italy? They said, “If the Hermitage can leave its paintings with us at a time like this, it means that they know what they are doing over there in Russia.”

It is also very important that the protagonists of our exhibitions were [Sergei] Shchukin and [Ivan] Morozov, Russian businessmen from the Old Believers community who largely defined the evolution of European culture. Matisse was once asked if he would have painted Dance had it not been for Shchukin. “And for whom would I have painted it?” Matisse said. Shchukin suggested things, commissioned things, was capricious, and great works were born. I was recently awarded the Demidov Prize, and it was an occasion to recall how Nikolai Demidov and the great French jeweler Pierre Thomire created this Russian style of malachite with bronze. They had such fights! Thomire said they should do things one way, Demidov said no, it must be done another way. But consequently, there is the Malachite Canopy in the Hermitage.

Does a producer [sic] have the right to interfere in an artist’s plans like that?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: He absolutely has the right. Yes, sometimes such interventions can be bad. But sometimes they can be good. In the case of Shchukin and Morozov, it was a good thing. They were the RIGHT customers.

Let’s not forget that it was the Old Believers who revealed to us the beauty of the old Russian icons. They were the first to clean them and preserve them. And Shchukin brought Russian icons to Matisse, in particular, to reverse the influence of Persian miniatures on him.

At the Morozov exhibition, we presented Russian paintings collected by him and showed art through the collector’s eye. Morozov collected Manet and [Valentin] Serov, and I would hear people say when they were leaving the exhibition, “You look [at their paintings] and you realize that Serov is no worse than Manet.”

The Fabergé exhibition made a very big splash. That is another Russian phenomenon that influenced the West.

So, we in fact did undertake a big cultural offensive. And we came out of it, having done everything we had planned to do.

[…]

Europe has long been a cultural model for us. The “RG” had a conversation with the writer Eugene Vodolazkin about attitudes to Europe. With reference to Dostoevsky, we talked about the fact it is almost dearer to us than to the Europeans.

Mikhail Piotrovsky: We recently held a round table at the Council of the History of World Culture at the Academy of Sciences, which we were going to call “Is Russia Europe?” but instead called “Is Russia Europe? Is Europe the EU?” The general sense of our debate was this: we are Europe, as much a part of it as France or Germany, and maybe more than the United States. If Europe were not us, Gogol would not have written Dead Souls while living in Italy. We recently held another round table on visual art, at which we recalled that Dostoevsky wrote about the Sistine Madonna.

This is our long-standing choice: we are inseparable from European culture and from Europe itself. The special military operation in Ukraine does not change anything. There have been plenty of disagreements and wars within Europe, from the Thirty Years’ War to the First World War. We are Europe and at some moments more Europe than many of its classic [sic] countries. And certainly more than the EU, which is now turning into the Soviet Union.

Of course, we also have an Asian aspect. But Peter the Great already knew how to balance all this wonderfully. We at the Hermitage understand this like no one else, because our main theme is world culture in the Russian context. I constantly talk about our right to be Europe, because in the south of Russia we have a Classical heritage — Chersonesus, Kerch, Taman. And whoever has a Classical heritage is Europe. In Norway, for example, there is no Classical heritage; there were neither Greek colonies nor Roman legions.

Therefore, it is all ours. We must dispose of it as our own, and not think that we are opposing Europe. Do we have different values? But they all have different values. Do we have special Orthodox values? But there are Orthodox values in Europe as well. In many ways they are consonant with Catholic values and not consonant with various secular ones. As an absolutely full-fledged and equal part of Europe, we will never be isolated. It’s just our sense of self. And the Hermitage is a symbol of this self-awareness. I keep repeating that the Hermitage is an encyclopedia of world culture written in Russian. The Hermitage’s Rembrandts, which have been in Russia for three hundred years, are Russian Rembrandts. The Russian Shakespeare is impossible without [Grigori] Kozintsev and [Innokenty] Smoktunovsky. Other doors — to Asia — are always open. But this does not cancel our presence in Europe.

Since people who value Russian culture have not yet gained the upper hand in Europe, must we now form a European model for ourselves?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: We must form this model now. And we are forming it.

Although there seem to be no Shchukins and Morozovs in Russia nowadays.

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Shchukin and Morozov shaped tastes. But now we are shaping, for example, international law. For many years, we have been carefully fashioning guarantees for the return of our paintings by changing international laws and creating immunity from impoundment. All this was first elaborated for Soviet exhibitions, and later, already in my own time, we constantly worked on developing it. The descendants of Shchukin and Morozov tried to sue us, so I urgently got the pictures out of Rome by plane. But every year we have strengthened our legal safeguards. We said, “Do you want our exhibitions? Then give us real guarantees. Spell it out in the contract: the exhibition will be returned on time even in case of lawsuits.” Europe accepted all these terms. The Americans didn’t, so we haven’t had any exchanges with the Americans for ten years. Although people who wanted to host exhibitions from Russia introduced a new law in the United States that enabled the government to give us guarantees and immunity. But it was too late; now it’s not enough. But with Europe, all the guarantees worked. In particular, when paintings from our Italian exhibitions were detained at the Finnish border, our diplomats and Italian businessmen helped us. They immediately sent all the paperwork to the Finnish government: “We gave guarantees, how can you not trust them?!”

At the last moment — even amidst the sanctions — our Western partners introduced a clause stating that prohibited luxury items do not include items that are in exhibitions of Russian museums abroad. It was even stipulated that Russian transport companies have the right to transport exhibitions throughout the EU. We didn’t take the risk — we transported [the exhibitions] in foreign vehicles — but this point was specially inserted. So, we not only look at Europe as a model, but also try and shape the international rules ourselves. This is quite important, especially now, when there are disputes about every [piece of art] in the world over who it actually belongs to.

[…]

Has the attitude towards the Hermitage changed among its Western fans?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: We’ve been getting stabbed in the back a lot lately. Outside the country, the Khodorkovskys of the world have been slinging mud at us, while here at home, as always, certain people have been calling for draconian audits. On the other hand, we have gotten a better sense of who our friends are and who are our enemies. The “society of friends of the Hermitage” have proved their mettle. In Israel, for example, they comported themselves brilliantly. They immediately spoke out. “How can we be friends of the Hermitage, using this honorary title, and then suddenly severe ties [with the museum]?”

We can see everything now. We see that there are people who break off their relationship [with us], but it makes them suffer and cry. But there are also those who happily took advantage of this opportunity. Apparently, they were friends solely due to the political conjuncture. Now we have a good “blacklist” of journalists and politicians This is very important. The world is not uniform.

Has your “blacklist” gotten a lot longer?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: It changed a lot. But besides those who have been writing maliciously about us, unexpected friends have appeared — for example, those French and Italian businessmen I mentioned.

What should we be doing in the field of culture?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: I think we have to do everything in such a way that we are seen, but we don’t have to travel anywhere at all to do this. After becoming director of the Hermitage, I announced a moratorium on exhibitions inside Russia because it was dangerous to transport things then: there were thieves everywhere, there was no money, no real insurance, either. So we didn’t send exhibitions around Russia for ten years. But now we are announcing a moratorium on exhibitions abroad.

I urge everyone now to look back at the experience of the Siege of Leningrad — at the know-how for saving things in an organized manner that was acquired then, at the understanding that when guns speak, the muses should not be silent. On the contrary, they should speak loudly. The experience of the Siege also taught us to address the world beyond the encirclement. During the Great Patriotic War, the Nizami and Nava’i exhibitions and evenings at the Hermitage were examples of this appeal. They showed the whole Soviet Union and the whole world that we remembered the great poets even in the midst of famine and war. Therefore, we are now, as part of the “Great Hermitage” program, going to be doing everything to make the whole world see us and, roughly speaking, envy us.

Now, for example, we are opening an exhibition of works by one of the most famous Danish artists, [Vigilius] Eriksen. He painted Catherine the Great and her court, and for the tricentennial of his birth he earned an exhibition at the Hermitage. We requested pieces from Denmark for the exhibition, but they were not given to us. Well, we have more of Eriksen’s works than they have in Denmark. So, an excellent exhibition is now opening in the Nicholas Hall featuring huge portraits of Catherine and the Orlov Brothers, accompanied by the amazing stories of how they were created, how they were repainted and the medals on the uniforms were altered. The exhibition is on the internet, including a lecture in English. We are broadcasting a message to Denmark: look, a small but very important piece of European culture is the great portrait painter Eriksen in the Hermitage.

[…]

What do you say to those who demand that you repent for Russian policy?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Our country has now shifted into another time. The first period of the Scythian War is over. We retreated and retreated, now we are not retreating. A pivot has been made. And it is already clear that it’s the final one. Everything began in 2014 in Crimea. Crimea created a situation in which there was no other way, in which we had to pivot.

Our country is making great, comprehensive transformations. And we, respectively, are part of them and with her. Working calmly and normally is our stance.

The Hermitage has done exhibitions about war many times. What can you say about how it’s perceived? For example, a totally pacifist reaction is not something I find congenial. Apparently, I’m a militarist.

Mikhail Piotrovsky: We are all militarists and imperialists. (laughs)

First and most important, it is my country, and I must stand with it. I sometimes repeat the jingoistic formula: this is my country, such as it is. There are situations when it is absolutely clear that a person must stand with his country. In the West they understand that these are all substantive things — that we stand with our country. When a very serious issue is being resolved, there are no options.

I am currently reading Alexei Varlamov’s wonderful book about [Vasily] Rozanov, and [there is a section in it] about 1914 and his hyper-patriotic sentiments. This patriotism at the beginning of the 1914 war is [a phenomenon] known to everyone, but it has not been explained very well. We are somehow dismissive of it, but it was a quite important thing in fact. We, people of culture, must now understand our involvement in everything that is happening. A person involved in history, first of all, must do well what it is that he does [as a vocation], in keeping with the principle that when guns speak, the muses should also speak. And in keeping with the realization that culture, which for us stands above politics and everything else, will later ask us to account for what we did for it. As we were asked after the war, after the Siege: what did you do — on your own?

For me, the attitude to war is established by the great Pushkin in A Journey to Arzrum. Where is he rushing the entire book? To see the demoted Decembrists and then go into battle?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Arzrum was also the only foreign land Pushkin visited. It expanded the world for him. There is nothing wrong with the fact that a person wants to have the most complete set of sensations. This is especially true when he wants to embody his deep feelings in something, to see and do something new. If he has grounds for it, he throws himself into it. It is an element of self-esteem. I always say that Russian patriotism is a sense of one’s own historical dignity. An individual understands that he must go to war, while another person understands that he must do something else, but which is no less important. Behind this is a sense of one’s own historical dignity, the desire to live up to one’s history and the mission of one’s country. It sounds quite dramatic, but we understand our country’s historical mission. This feeling that our country is changing world history, and that you are involved in it, is crucial now.

Nor are things so simple when it comes to attitudes towards armed hostilities. On the one hand, war is blood and murder, but on the other, it is a means for people, for a nation, to assert themselves. Everyone wants to assert themselves, and in their stances on the war, they undoubtedly assert themselves. We have all been brought up in the imperial tradition, and an empire unites many peoples. It unites people by finding things that are common and important to everyone. It’s very tempting, but it’s one of the good temptations, let’s say. Although we don’t have to succumb to it, ultimately, and we must be able to regulate it within ourselves. Nor should we forget the principle that a person should do what he must do, come what may. For museums, “doing what we must” means preserving and promoting culture. And keeping in mind all the time what is beyond the besieged territory. And speaking not only to people inside it, but also “outside” it.

Source: Elena Yakovleva, “Mikhail Piotrovsky explains why you have to stand with your country when it makes a historical pivot and choice,” Rossiiskaya Gazeta, 22 June 2022 (No. 33/8781). Translated by the Russian Reader, who omitted only the brief introduction and section headings, as printed in the original text. Mr. Piotrovsky, the longtime director of the State Hermitage Museum in Petersburg, located a short walk down the Nevsky from where Ms. Osipova held her anti-war picket on Wednesday, was born on 9 December 1944, that is, five months before the end of the Great Patriotic War.

Buryats and the “Russian World”

Radjana Dugar-DePonte. Photo courtesy of After Empire

As soon as the march “The Slavic Woman’s Farewell” began to play, my mother would cry. She was eleven years old when the Great Patriotic War began. In the small Buryat village of Khandagai, in the Irkutsk Region, all men between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five went to the front. They were sent off to the strains of “The Slavic Woman’s Farewell.” Few of them came back alive from the war.

Siberian divisions played a key role in the great turning point of 1941, when the enemy was halted outside Moscow. Pride in the deeds of our forebears is a significant part of the Siberian identity, but until recently this pride was suffused with the bitterness of loss. My mother always remembered the price of that victory: she saw them in her mind’s eye, the young handsome lads and men who left forever to the sound of trumpets and timpani. I was told how, in the early 2000s, members of the Buryat diaspora in Moscow were invited to a meeting of battlefield searchers in the Moscow Region to receive a list of dead soldiers whose remains had finally been found, identified, and properly buried. One of the searchers came up to the delegation and said with undisguised respect, “So this is what you are like, Buryats!” It turned out that all the fields near Podolsk, where his search party had worked, were simply littered with the remains of my countrymen.

Someone witty once very aptly called Putin a reverse Midas. The Phrygian king Midas turned everything into gold with a single touch. Putin turns everything he touches into a foul-smelling brown substance. The regime’s appropriation of the May 9th Victory Day is just one example. The celebration of Victory Day in Russia for me is now associated exclusively with pobedobesie [“victory frenzy”], with vulgarity, and with the slogan “We can do it again!”, whose true meaning dawns on us only today, after the invasion of Ukraine and the horrors of Bucha.

The irony of the current situation, in which members of my nation, the Buryats, are involved in this shameful war for Russia, is that images of Russian occupiers with Asian faces are now being injected into the public’s mind, while in the Great Patriotic War the role of the warrior-liberator was reserved exclusively for ethnic Russian soldiers.

Soon after Bucha, fake reportsw spread online that it was Buryats who committed the atrocities there, and these posts were illustrated by photos of Yakut soldiers holding the flag of the Sakha Republic, taken in 2018 in the military garrison in the Russian Far East where they served. Why would anyone want to shift the blame for the massacres to Buryats? My Ukrainian Facebook friend Dmytro Kanibolotskyy answered this question best of all: “Russia’s attempts to declare ‘Ukrainian nationalists’ guilty or to pass off the footage from the Bucha district as ‘staged’ have failed. Satellite images clearly showed that the bodies of the dead were lying in the same places when Russian troops were still in Bucha. The involvement of ethnic Russians in the mass murders is also evidenced by their intercepted conversations and the testimony of local residents. But now Russian propaganda is trying to tell a different story, to Ukrainian readers at least: the Russian Federation’s ethnic minorities, who got drunk and disobeyed orders, are allegedly to blame for the whole thing. It is convenient to encourage Ukrainians to think that their enemies are not ethnic Russians, but Buryats (as well as Yakuts, Chechens, Dagestanis, and other peoples of the Russian Federation), that they must fight not against Russia or ethnic Russians, but against the nations that Russian has colonized.”

The investigation of the war crimes in Bucha and other towns and villages is already underway. Ukrainian presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych has spoken unequivocally about the preliminary results: the atrocities in Bucha were committed by “burly Slavic guys,” and not by Buryats, “as they like to say.” I am sure there will be a new Nuremberg trial after the war, and if it transpires that there were Buryats among the war criminals, they will have to be punished. But I hope that there will also be room in the dock for warmongering propagandists, and for the Kremlin’s disinformation agents in Ukraine.

Recently, I have often been asked why so many Buryats are fighting in the “special operation.” There are really a lot of Buryat soldiers fighting in this war. The Telegram channel Mongolian Knot reported that “according to various estimates, there are about ten thousand Buryats at the front.” Other sources report that there are five or six thousand Buryats in combat. Most likely, as a percentage per capita among all the peoples of Russia, the Buryats fighting in Ukraine are in the lead.

I have been told that there is not a single Buryat village that does not have at least a dozen or two dozen contract soldiers at the front. The situation is particularly difficult in the Agin-Buryat District of the Transbaikal Territory. The absence of young Buryat men in public places is striking. There are places where Buryat families go in full force — the so-called countryside and the datsan. There are generally few Buryat men between the age of twenty and forty years in the datsans. According to my relatives, none of the ten Buryat families who came to services at the temple had fathers. In the countryside vacation spots, there were at best two men among every three or four families with children.

Buryats make up only 0.3% of Russia’s population, but they make up 2.8% of the official war dead. In terms of numbers of war dead, Dagestan is ahead of Buryatia, but Dagestan’s population is three times larger. The moderators of the Telegram channel Demography by Raksha looked at the stats for Buryats whose age was known at the time of their deaths in the war, and calculated how many men in Buryatia died on average over the same (fifty-three-day) period during “peacetime” (in 2019-2020). On top of this, they sorted those who have perished in the war in Ukraine into the appropriate age groups.

Thus, only the confirmed cases of combat deaths of men from Buryatia in the war in Ukraine increased the mortality of Buryat men aged 18-45 years by 70%, and the mortality of young men under the age of thirty by 270%. Think about those numbers! There are approximately 462 thousand Buryats in the Russian Federation. What will happen to this nation if it loses so many young healthy men of reproductive age all at once — a tenth of the strong young men who could have raised twenty to thirty thousand children?

The causes of this catastrophic situation can be discussed endlessly. The Buryat territories, consisting of the Republic of Buryatia proper, as well as parts of the Irkutsk Region, the Ust-Orda Buryat District, the Transbaikal Territory, and the Agin-Buryat District, are a large economically depressed region. High unemployment, meager salaries, and the indebtedness of the population have led to the fact that almost the only choice a young man faces in finding a way out of economic impasse is either illegal migration or contract military service.

The traditional upbringing in Buryat families also plays a big role in the conscious choice of a military career. Boys are taught from an early age to be independent, work hard, stand up for themselves, and protect loved ones. Traditional sports are very popular in Buryatia, especially the national form of wrestling, buhe barildaan.

A young guy from a small Buryat village, accustomed to harsh living conditions, hard work, getting up early, and discipline, adapts easily to military life, and after signing a contract, receives a preferential military mortgage (which is almost the most important factor for young families) and a guaranteed salary that is decent by the region’s standards.

Buryat tank crewmen were involved in battles on Ukrainian territory long before February 24 of this year. One of them, Dorzhi Batomunkuyev, who suffered severe burns in the Battle of Debaltseve in 2015, gave an interview to Novaya Gazeta’s Elena Kostyuchenko in which he called Putin “cunning” and admitted that he and his comrades had painted over the numbers of their tanks and removed the chevrons and stripes from their uniforms to “disguise” them before being sent to Donbas.

Dmitry Sapozhnikov, a Russian national and the commander of the DPR’s special forces, told the BBC Russian Service that the role of Buryat tank crews in the battle for the Debaltseve bridgehead had been decisive. Even then, the Buryats were the most combat-ready segment of the Russian army. It was not for nothing that a Buryat crew won the international tank biathlon shortly before our contractor soldiers were deployed to Donbas.

Thus, their professionalism, a respect for elders laid down by their upbringing, their strict adherence to orders, and the way they perform in combat, including their willingness to sacrifice themselves, all make the Buryats excellent soldiers. In 2010, news came of the heroic deed of Aldar Tsydenzhapov, a 19-year-old sailor from the Agin-Buryat District. On September 24, 2010, the crew of the destroyer Bystry was on board and preparing to sail on a combat mission to Kamchatka. Aldar and four of his mates took over the watch. When a fire broke out in the destroyer’s engine room, Aldar rushed to its epicenter and shut a red-hot valve with his bare hands.

The ship and more than 300 crew members were saved, but Aldar was fatally burned and died in a military hospital. The then President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev considered Aldar unworthy of the title of Hero of Russia. Initially, the authorities planned to award him only the Order of Courage. Only after public outrage, a petition campaign on Change.org, and appeals from parliamentarians and party officials, was he posthumously awarded the title of Hero of Russia.

I understand perfectly well that many readers will now accuse me of trying to whitewash my own people. There is most likely some truth to this. I will repeat once again that if it transpires that there are war criminals among Buryats, I will be the first to demand that they be punished. In the meantime, I will give some first-hand evidence of the behavior of Buryat soldiers in occupied Ukrainian territory.

In the first days of the war, in the comments under a post in the Facebook group Buryatia Is Our Home, someone mentioned that the Buryat tank crews were not marauding, but instead were going house to house and trying to buy food from local residents. They said that they were going on maneuvers and had not known about HQ’s plans to cross the border with Ukraine. One Buryat contract soldier said the same thing in a telephone conversation with his family on the eve of the invasion: he had been looking forward to coming home soon, but instead he ended up at war.

A woman from Ukraine, whose brother and niece had spoken with the tank crews, wrote on the Buryat group page that they were hungry since they had been issued dry rations for only one day; they were not aggressive, and wanted to go home. Many of them were conscripts, eighteen- and nineteen-year-old lads who had urgently been “made” contract soldiers. A resident of Chernihiv region wrote about an incident in Mykhailo-Kotsiubynske: “Belarusians, who are stationed there as occupiers along with Buryats and Muscovites, took a horse from a villager, slaughtered it, and ate it. Like in the First World War… And what to do if the Muscovites simply confiscate food? Buryats are the most cultured among the occupiers, they buy [food] for money, while the Belarusians say they are ‘peaceful people.'” (My translation.) There was the testimony from a resident of Bucha that Buryats had tried to warn her to be careful when “they” (probably Pskov paratroopers or Wagner Group mercenaries) came. And in Borodyanka, people said, “The Buryats did not shoot.”

Subsequently, videos with blaring titles like “The Buryats are worse than the Kadyrovites,” etc., were dumped on the web. When you watch the videos, however, it transpires that the most terrible crime of the alleged Buryats (soldiers of Asian appearance, whom the interviewee called “flat–faced”) was shattering a door with an axe, which is not a good thing, of course, but not remotely as bad as torture, rape, and summary execution.

Outright fakes and “crucified boys” have now come into play, like the video featuring a volunteer who allegedly survived Bucha, which was thoroughly and expertly demolished by Dmitro Kanibolotskyy. Such sleaze is manufactured in an attempt to “save face” for ethnic Russian soldiers. This is the point of the image of the savage Buryat, who allegedly slices flesh from live dogs in order to “chow down.” A post containing such outlandish content actually has been making the rounds on social media.

Unfortunately, involvement in an unjust war of conquest eventually hardens and corrupts even the most steadfast and moral people. In such a war, there are no soldiers in clean white jackets, if HQ encourages looting and violence against civilians. The Russian army and the people of Russia are guilty of the aggression unleashed by Putin. The blood of thousands of Ukrainians will remain on our conscience forever. The war has brought shame on Russia. But this inglorious coin has another side. The Russian leadership is responsible not only for criminal aggression against the people of Ukraine, but also for the death of thousands of its own soldiers, especially non-ethnic Russian soldiers whom the Kremlin obviously feels less sorry for, regarding them as cannon fodder that can be dumped on the front line.

It is possible to understand on a personal level the Ukrainians who believe that the majority of war crimes have been committed by Buryats. They are under stress, they are distraught and grief-stricken, they are not up to rational arguments now. Some Russians comport themselves much worse in this situation, and I’m not talking about Putinists and my completely brainwashed fellow citizens. I mean the so-called “cultured” liberal crowd.

Many people today are wondering why so many Buryats are fighting in Ukraine. Video blogger Karen Shainyan even bothered to go to Ulan-Ude to get an answer, where he shot a video that has racked up almost 300 thousand views on YouTube. Shainyan sought out a wide spectrum of experts, only Buryats themselves were not invited to his intellectual symposium. However, we Buryats were still shown in the form of visual aids, as illustrations to the expert opinions of the sahibs. It is simply impossible to imagine a whole ethnic group, outside of Russia, being so unabashedly deprived of its subjectivity.

A few days ago, the Buryat political exile Dorjo Dugarov and I had a chance to speak on the same topic – “Why are Buryats going off to fight for the Russian army?” – on the Ukrainian TV channel FreeDom. I saw Shainyan’s show literally the next day after our broadcast, and I couldn’t help but notice a parallel: Shainyan denies the subjectivity of Buryats in about the same fashion as Putin denies the subjectivity of Ukraine! That is why it is not surprising that Ukrainian TV journalists bothered to invite Buryats to talk about Buryatia, while a Moscow blogger could not or did not want to find a single Buryat in Ulan-Ude! It is the same imperial rationale, the same disrespect for “inferior” nations as Putin’s. And until Russians rid themselves of imperial thinking, Russia will keep stepping on the same bloody rake over and over again.

Alexander Nevzorov, Russian imperialist and erstwhile champion of Russian armed force in Chechnya, but now an idol of the Russian opposition crowd, has since the beginning of the war repeatedly allowed himself statements suggesting that “the Buryats don’t care who they rape.” The views of the flip-flopping hybrid democrat are especially congenial to those who, wrapped in the redesigned flag of “the other Russia, the good Russia,” want to shift the collective blame for all crimes onto the country’s minorities. But no, the shame of this war will have to be shared equally by our whole country, which has gone off the rails.

Source: Radjana Dugar-DePonte, “Buryats and the ‘Russian world’: ‘The shame of this war will have to be shared equally,'” Sibir.Realii (Radio Svoboda), 12 May 2022, and the slightly different version of this article published on the Radio Svoboda website on 17 May 2022. Radjana Dugar-DePonte is a historian and exiled Buryat political activist. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Standers

“Immortal Regiment standers: A3-size + holder, from 550 rubles.” The window of an art supply store in central Petersburg, 14 April 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader

It’s amazing how touchy Russians are about their language. If you have a slight accent or make a grammatical mistake now and then, you are automatically stripped of the right to discuss anything with them at all.

In any case, if you have any of these “speech defects,” Russians never fail to point them out to you. It’s not that they are grammar nazis. No, they’re flesh-and-blood nationalists.

By the way, these are the same Russians who have been ripping their precious language to shreds the last several years by filling it to the brim with unassimilated anglicisms and other garbage, and by utterly abandoning the fine traditions of painstaking translating, editing and scholarship that once existed in this country.

Russia, I’m afraid, is headed straight down the tubes to full-blown fascism. Every other country in the world should make contingency plans for that eventuality. ||| TRR, 14 April 2018

Ballad of a Soldier

Igor Ivkin, 19, was killed in heavy fighting outside Kharkiv. Family photo, courtesy of the Moscow Times

IT JUST BREAKS YOUR HEART… This is hard to read. And it should be.

“Born Under Putin, Dead Under Putin: Russia’s Teenage Soldiers Dying in Ukraine”

Different people will react in different ways, of course, but for me two things stand out in the story of 19 year old Igor Ivkin of Pskov. First, I could’ve taught this kid. Others actually *did* teach him, but he reminded me of more than a few Russian students I taught English and History to over the years: good kids, salt of the earth, with their whole lives ahead of them. Now, just like that — and for no good reason — he’s gone.

Secondly, the beginning of Igor’s exchange with wife Yulia, as recorded here — when he says “I promise to come back” — cannot help but remind people of my generation (and older) of another Russian 19 year old soldier who doesn’t come home alive: Alyosha Skvortsov, the hero of Grigorii Chukrai’s classic film “Ballad of a Soldier” (1959), who tells his mother near the movie’s end “Mama, I’ll come back.”

The movie is set up as a retro-narrative, so the audience already *knows* he doesn’t make it back home; and that is part of what makes it an enormously effective cinematic moment in a film that is manipulative in both good and bad senses. The short version of a viewer’s reaction, in any case, is as predictable as it is earned: if you are unmoved when Alyosha makes his promise to his mother, you need to check your wrist for a pulse.

Finally, and hardest of all to take, is a third thought born of the first two: Alyosha Skvortsov died for a good cause, one that everyone remembers; Igor Ivkin did not have that honor, dying for a cynical parody-version of Alyosha’s cause that his country’s leaders keep advancing but can never justify.

These evil people somehow succeeded in making a fine young man, Igor Ivkin, husband and father, one of the Bad Guys in Europe’s first new-millennium war-as-morality story. He didn’t deserve that.

It is important to hold the people responsible for this accountable — and even more important to do whatever we can to end the Russian leadership’s war against Ukraine, a tragedy beyond any telling of it, as soon as humanly possible.

Source: Mark H. Teeter, Facebook, 8 April 2022. Thanks for his kind permission to reprint his remarks here.


Yulia Ivkina would have preferred her husband to become a carpenter, not a soldier. 

But as the coronavirus pandemic dented the Russian labor market and the newlyweds from the western city of Pskov tried for a baby, 18-year-old Igor Ivkin reasoned a short-term contract in the army was the best option to safeguard his family’s future. 

Igor enlisted in February 2021, shortly before Yulia realized she was pregnant. A little over a year later, he was killed in heavy fighting outside Kharkiv amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He was seven months short of his 20th birthday.  

“People from the draft board told me about his death, they came to me with a death notice on March 25. He was buried on March 30 in the village of Vorontsovo where he was born,” Ivkina, 24, told The Moscow Times. 

Igor Ivkin is one of at least 25 teenage Russian soldiers to have died fighting in Ukraine, according to a review of official statements and social media posts by The Moscow Times.

Source: James Beardsworth, Yanina Sorokina, and Irina Shcherbakova, “Born Under Putin, Dead Under Putin: Russia’s Teenage Soldiers Dying in Ukraine,” Moscow Times, 8 April 2022. Read the rest of the article by clicking on the link.


Grigorii Chukrai’s “Ballada” is the movie that probably best represents how Russia’s Greatest Generation saw World War II — or wanted to see it, rather, at a decade’s remove. The film is an undisputed classic of postwar Soviet cinema, combining a multi-dimensional, wide-angle depiction of Soviet soldiers & civilians during the war w/ the extraordinarily successful close-up manipulation (largely in a positive sense) of its sympathetic young hero (wonderfully played by Vl. Ivashov) and his 2 nearest and dearest (Zhanna Prokhorenko, Antonina Maksimova).

How was “Ballada” perceived outside the USSR? In an era when Soviet propaganda, actual and historical, was routinely dismissed in the West, Chukrai’s film was a revelation to American critics and audiences, producing an emotional reaction many art-house and festival viewers found overwhelming: as Time magazine’s awed critic put it, the movie “brings back the kind of catch in the throat that Hollywood movies used to achieve on occasion.” And indeed, if you find yourself unmoved as the teenage Private Alyosha Skvortsov tells his mother at the end of his odyssey through war-torn Russia, “Mama, I’ll come back” (“Mама, я вернусь”), you need to check your wrist for a pulse.

Some of the crew who made “Ballada” were unhappy w/ parts of the film during production, apparently, and some day an enterprising dissertation writer will tell us why. What emerged on the screen, in any case, became the most decorated Soviet-produced World War II film ever made, taking home something over a hundred international and domestic awards altogether (including an Oscar nomination).

Tune in and see what so impressed the world in the early 1960s about this groundbreaking Mosfilm effort — and then decide for yourself just how true its message rings two decades into the new millennium, when Moscow gears up to commemorate the next anniversary of what official Russia will always call the “Great Patriotic War.”

Source: Mark H. Teeter, Facebook, 8 April 2022. Thanks to him for his kind permission to reprint his review here.

Happy New Year, Veteran!

Novosibirsk city councilman asks prosecutor to investigate complicity of United Russia reps in veteran’s death
Sibir.Realii (RFE/RL)
January 7, 2022

Novosibirsk city councilman Georgy Andreyev has asked the prosecutor’s office to investigate whether the United Russia party was complicit in the death of 100-year-old Second World War veteran Nikolai Bonkin. The veteran died of covid-19 five days after he was visited by United Russian party members, who congratulated him on the New Year. They were without masks and did not observe social distancing. As part of its “Happy New Year, Veteran!” campaign, United Russia congratulated hundreds of veterans in the Novosibirsk region alone.

Andreyev told Sibir.Realii that he was outraged by the carelessness of the United Russia members. Party rep Tatyana Sazonova published a report on their visit to Nikolai Bonkin. The pictures she posted on Instagram show that not all the congratulators were wearing masks. Not only did they not maintain social distancing, but they also hugged the veteran, even pressing their cheeks to his face. Packages with gifts from State Duma member Dmitry Savelyev are also visible in the snapshots.

A screen shot of Tatyana Sazonova’s Instagram post about United Russia’s allegedly fatal visit to WWII veteran Nikolai Bonkin

“A legendary war veteran has passed away: this is a great loss for the city. Five days before [his death], United Russia party ‘envoys’ had come to see him. Nikolai Sergeyevich Bonkin had survived the war, the 1990s, and the Yeltsin-Putin reforms, but he was apparently unable to survive, unfortunately, United Russia’s desire to hype itself,” Andreyev said.

The councilman appealed to the prosecutor’s office in response to this incident. (Sibir.Realii has obtained a copy of the complaint.) In addition, he has discovered that the campaign “Happy New Year, Veteran!” was a nationwide affair, and that United Russia had visited around 400 veterans in the Novosibirsk region alone. In snapshots featuring veterans, published on the party’s website, the party’s elected officials and representatives are not wearing masks and do not maintain social distancing.

Andreyev noted that in late October, when the State Duma was considering a bill to exempt war veterans from utility bills, 297 United Russia MP “simply refused to press the buttons” [and thus vote in favor of the bill]. Among them were four Novosibirsk MPs, Andreyev said.

There are four points in Andreyev’s complaint. He asks the prosecutor’s office to investigate whether United Russia rep Tatyana Sazonova was complicit in Nikolai Bonkin’s death, whether the individuals in the photos were vaccinated against the coronavirus, and whether they are currently symptomatic. The councilman also asked the prosecutor’s office to find out whether there were other Great Patriotic War veterans who died during or after the “Happy New Year, Veteran!” campaign. In addition, the councilman wants the prosecutor’s office to determine whether there were signs of genocide, [as defined by the Criminal Code,] in United Russia’s actions.

“There is a clause in the article [defining genocide in the Criminal Code] about persecuting a group of people for political reasons. I don’t see anything other than political motives in these actions,” Andreyev explained. “It is important for me to understand who initiated the visits to veterans in local communities. Where did United Russia obtain the personal data of veterans and their relatives? What were their grounds for entering the apartments of elderly people? Who are these people [who paid the visits]? Who verified whether they were political reliable?”

The regional prosecutor’s office did not return our telephone call.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Andrei Kolesnikov: Hooked on Militarism?

new hope“New Hope. All drug addicts quit using. Some manage to do it while alive.” Photo by the Russian Reader

Where Militaristic Infantilism Leads
Society’s Losing Its Fear of War Is More Dangerous Than What Happens in the Absence of an Anti-War Movement
Andrei Kolesnikov
Vedomosti
November 28, 2018

The “polite people” in the Russian military have taken to ramming ships, shedding their politesse. A military coming out has happened. Either so-called hybrid war has become more hybridized in terms of the variety of its methods or it has become more like good old-fashioned war, involving actual armed clashes. Politically, Russia has become not merely toxic but hypertoxic. A premonition of war prevails among more timid folks, although the footage of the ramming at sea, as painless and triumphal as a military parade on Red Square or a football match (“Crush him!”), still make military operations appear unscary and toylike. We will carry the day in any case, sans victims and blood (ours, that is), as in a cartoon by Putin.

This militaristic infantilism—the loss of the fear of war, the loss of the idea that war is terrible—is the worst outcome of our country’s daily intoxication with the thought of its own greatness for several years running. The army is greatly respected nowadays. People need to trust someone, and the armed forces have bypassed another institution, the presidency, in trustworthiness ratings.

Does this mean Russians are ready for a real war? To put it more plainly, are Russian parents willing to let their eighteen-year-old boys be called up to fight Ukrainian boys just like them? Does anyone understand what they would be fighting for? Is it really all about cementing the nation, “Crimea is ours!” and the personal ambitions of several high-ranking figures in the Russian establishment?

Since 2012, Russia’s collective identity has been built on negative foundations, on awakened resentment, which had been dozing, but had no thought of waking up. The plan has worked quite well. This resentment, however, is verbal and fictitous. Public opinion supported “coal miners” and “tractor drivers” verbally. In Syria, the official army and private military companies fought, or so Russians imagined, at their own risk. The proxy war with the US has gone very far at times, but in the summer of 2018 it did not stop the majority of Russians from abruptly improving their attitude [sic] to the States and the west in general.

But suddenly there is the threat of a real war. On the other side of the border, in the country [i.e., Ukraine] that the Russian imperialist mind never really considered sovereign, a mobilization is underway and martial law has been declared. Is this reality capable of changing popular opinion and rousing Russian civil society, which has a lot going for it except an anti-war movement? No, because so far the war has not been regarded as real.

Identification with the military is the last bullet in the Russian regime’s gun, but it is a blank or, rather, a prop. Exploiting what Russians regard as sacred—i.e., privatization of the memory of the Great Patriotic War [WWII] by a particular group—is a tool that is still in play, but militarism as such has lost its power to mobilize and consolidate Russians. If “German POWs” are marched around Novgorod on January 20, 2019, in an absurd attempt to reenact the NKVD’s Operation Grand Waltz, and on January 29, a military parade is held in St. Petersburg to mark the latest anniversary of the lifting of the Siege of Leningrad, it will not raise Putin’s approval rating from 66% to 80%. Those days are gone. So, the props have been dropped in favor of direct action in the Kerch Strait, but its power to mobilize people is not at all obvious.

You can cynically throw the ashes of those who perished in the Siege of Leningrad to stoke the furnace of fading ratings as much as you want. You can march people dressed up as German POWs round Novgorod as much as you like. When, however, pollsters ask Russians between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four what countries they regard as role models, they list Germany, China, and the US. This is not because young Russians are unpatriotic, but because not everything comes to down to the top brass feeding on the poisonous corpse of the Stalinist past. The present day, progress, and visions for the future matter, too.

Can we do it again? We cannot. Nor is there any reason to do it. Infantilized by the regime, Russian society’s maturation will be measured by the numbers of people who are convinced that we cannot and should not do it again.

Andrei Kolesnikov is program director at the Moscow Carnegie Center. Translated by the Russian Reader

Surviving the Siege

“I Only Want to Take a Bath, Nothing More”
Alexander Kalinin
Rosbalt
May 15, 2017

Anna Yegorova is ninety-eight years old. She defended Leningrad all nine hundred days of the Nazi siege of the city during the Second World War. On the seventy-second anniversary of Victory Day, the combatant did not even get postcards from the government. But there was a time when she wrote to Brezhnev—and got a reply. 

Anna Yegorova. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt

Anna Yegorova was born in 1918 in the Kholm-Zhirkovsky District of Smolensk Region. When she was ten, her parents decided to set out in search of a better life and moved to Leningrad with their daughter. They settled in a wooden house near the Narva Gates on New Sivkov Street, now known as Ivan Chernykh Street. Yegorova finished a seven-year primary school and enrolled in the Factory Apprenticeship School, where she graduated as a men’s barber.

“Oh, what beards didn’t I trim in my time,” the Siege survivor recalls.

After acquiring a vocation, the 19-year-old woman married Alexander Vesyolov, a worker at the Kirov Factory. As soon as the war broke out, her husband volunteered for the first division of the people’s militia. Nearly the entire division fell in battle during July–September 1941 on the southern approaches to Leningrad. Vesyolov is still officially listed as missing in action.

Yegorova was drafted into the air defense brigades at the war’s outset. The young woman served in a basement, equipped with seven cots, in one wing of the Kirov Factory. It was the headquarters of the local air defense brigade.

Yegorova still remembers the war’s outbreak, her military service in the besieged Leningrad, and victory in May 1945.

Фото ИА «Росбалт», Александр Калинин
Anna Yegorova as a young woman. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt

“How did the war begin? We were going to the cinema, but my mother told me I should go to the factory instead. Then I got a notice stating I had been drafted to serve in the headquarters of the local air defense brigade at the Kirov Factory. I spent all nine hundred days there. I was able to come home only once a month. My parents starved to death. Dad passed away on February 3, 1942. He was a first-class carpenter. His comrades made him a wooden coffin: they could not bury a carpenter without a coffin. Mom died a month later. They just carried her off to the Volodarsky Hospital in a blanket. I don’t even know where she is buried. Maybe at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, maybe in Moskovsky Victory Park,” says Yegorova.

Her duties included running to other parts of the city to deliver dispatches, carrying the wounded, and standing on guard at the factory, armed with a rifle. The young woman would look into the sky and watch what planes were flying overhead: planes emblazoned with red stars or planes bearing black crosses. Once, during a heavy bombardment, she was shell-shocked.

“I still remember how we chopped up houses in the Kirov District. Once, a girlfriend and I were dismantling a house near a railroad bridge, and a woman called out to us, ‘Girls, girl, come here, come.’ We didn’t go: we were scared. There were all kinds of people back then, you know. Once, this girl stole my food ration cards, and my mom’s earrings were also stolen,” recalls Yegorova.

Фото ИА «Росбалт», Александр Калинин
Yegorova’s collection of war medals. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt

The Siege survivor recounts how she would travel to the Krasnoarmeysky Market to buy linseed cakes and oilseed meal.

“The oilseed meal was like sawdust. Oh, how I gagged on that oilseed meal! But we had nothing to sell. We were poor.”

When Victory Day arrived, her house was nearly totally destroyed. Only an ottoman was rescued from the ruins.

Yegorova remarried after the war. Her new husband was a military officer, Nikolai Yegorov, who had fought not only in the Great Patriotic War (Second World War) but also the Finnish War (Winter War). In peacetime, Yevgorov became a first-class instrumentation specialist. In 1946, the Yegorovs gave birth to a daughter, Lydia. Yegorova worked as a secretary at the Kirov Factory, latter becoming head of a bread and confectionery department at a store.

In the late 1960s, Anna Yegorova wrote a letter to Leonid Brezhnev, secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. The essence of the message was as follows.

“Leonid Ilyich, no one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten. But it has so happened that I, a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad, awarded the medal For the Defense of Leningrad, and my husband, a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, have to huddle with our daughter in a sixteen-square-meter room on Lublin Alley.”

Image courtesy of slideshare.net

Yegorova does not believe her letter reached Brezhnev personally, but she does think it wound up in the hands of a “kindly” secretary who helped the family move into a one-room flat in the far southern district of Ulyanka. She lived in the neighborhood for around thirty years. She was civically engaged, working with Great Patriotic War veterans. She says she even worked as an aide to Sergei Nikeshin, currently an MP in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, who was then quite young. Nikeshin and she inspected the fields then surrounding Ulyanka.

The certificate accompanying Anna Yegorova’s medal For the Defense of Leningrad. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt

In 1996, Yegorova took seriously ill. She was struck down by deep vein thrombosis. Her left leg “was like a wooden peg.” Her husband Nikolai died in 1999.

“After that, Mom stayed at home. I took care of her. This is my cross. We would take her to the dacha only in the summer. Otherwise, she would move about only in the apartment. She would get up in the morning and make her bed, come into the kitchen and sit down on the couch. She would turn on  and call the station to request a song. She loved Boris Shtokolov’s “Dove.” Or she would request “A White Birch Weeps,” or something by Nikolai Baskov. But a month ago she took to her bed. Now all she does is lie in bed,” recounts her daughter Lydia Kolpashnikova.

Boris Shtolokov, “Dove” (a Russian adaptation of “La Paloma”)

Kolpashnikova is herself a pensioner. She has a third-degree disability. According to her, Petersburg authorities have practically forgotten her mother. True, three years ago, the Moscow District Administration called and said she could get a wheelchair. The women’s joy was short-lived. It transpired that the wheelchairs were used: they had been brought to Petersburg from Holland. To make use of the chair, they would have had to pay to have it repaired. The women decided to turn the gift down the gift.

Фото ИА «Росбалт», Александр Калинин
Congratulatory cards and other memorabilia sent to Anna Yegorova over the years as a Siege survivor. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt

Yegorova has received no substantial help from the local Siege survivors society. The organization can only offer trips to museums and theater tickets. This is not an option for Anna Yegorova, who is in no condition to leave her apartment. On memorial days—the Day of the Lifting of the Siege and Victory Day—however, cakes used to be brought to her. But this time around, however, she was completely neglected. According to the pensioner, the city did not even congratulate her.

Yegorova’s daughter Lydia decided to remind the authorities of her mother’s existence after hearing President Putin’s speech on TV. The president demanded that the heads of the country’s regions do a better job of caring for Great Patriotic War veterans.

Фото ИА «Росбалт», Александр Калинин

“I clung to Putin’s words that veterans needed help, for example, if they needed help with home repairs. I called the district administration and asked them to repair our bathroom,” says Kolpashnikova. “Mom is completely ill. She is almost completely out of it. She has gallstones, heart failure, and atrial fibrillation. She is classified as a first-class disabled person. She survives only on sheer willpower. But now she cannot make it to the bathroom. I wipe her off in bed. She talks to me about the bathroom all the time, however. She wants to take a bath, but wants the bathroom repaired. The tile has crumbled in there. I called the Moscow District Administration and asked them to repair the bathroom, but I was told that ‘sponsors’ deal with these issues. Now, however, there is a crisis, and there are no sponsors. What sponsors were they talking about? Mom also needs medicines and diapers. There are social workers willing to run from one office to the next to get hold of diapers for free, but they also need to be paid to run around. The local Siege survivors organizations cannot do anything: they are the weakest link. I have no complaints against them.”

Фото ИА «Росбалт», Александр Калинин

Anna Yegorova gets gifts from the authorities only on round dates. When she turned ninety, they gave her a towel, and they presented her with bed linens when she turned ninety-five.

“I called them in the autumn. I said that Mom would be turning ninety-eight on November 25. I suggested they come and congratulate her. They said to me, ‘We don’t have the right. When she turns one hundred, we’ll congratulate her,” recounts the Siege survivor’s daughter.

Anna Yegorova does not want to ask the authorities for anything.

“I have no strength. What should I do? I cannot stand up straight. I fall. I just want them to fix the bathroom. I want to take a bath. That’s it.”

All photos courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up

The Call of War

call-of-war

Smash the fascists in World War II and become a Soviet hero!
A New Online Strategy [Game] about the Second World War
Tank battles, naval and air war fought on historical maps! Command your troops and destroy the enemy with nuclear missiles! Are you ready to rewrite history?

ru.callofwar.com

NB. Call of War is an online game available in different languages. It was created by Bytro Labs GmbH in Hamburg Germany.

The Voting Dead

Vladimir Putin leading Immortal Regiment march in Moscow, May 9, 2016. Photo: Ilya Pitalev/Sputnik
Vladimir Putin leading Immortal Regiment march in Moscow, May 9, 2016. Photo: Ilya Pitalev/Sputnik

Proposal to Give Voting Rights to Those Killed in the War Made at Conference Financed by Petersburg City Hall
Fontanka.ru
May 20, 2016

The Alexander Nevsky Monastery has been hosting a conference entitled “Faith and Works: Corporate Social Responsibility in Times of Crisis.” Petersburg city hall’s department for relations with religious associations allocated part of the funds for the conference.

Andrei Ageyev, director of the Institute of Economic Strategies of the Russian Academy of Sciences spoke at the conference. Reflecting on the Great Patriotic War as a point around which society had consolidated, he proposed considering the possibility of giving the right to vote to the twenty-seven million Soviet citizens who died during the Second World War.

Explaining his idea to our correspondent, Ageyev noted that the dead could in this way have an impact on current affairs in Russia, with whose progress and salvation they were directly related. For example, their families could vote in their stead, Ageyev added.

“The Immortal Regiment marches are an example of this expression of opinion,” the scholar argued.

Ageyev also argues that the right to vote may have to be given to several previous generations, and not only to those who died in the war. The reason is the same: they must be able to influence current events since these events are a continuation of their own lives.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Sputnik

The Immortal Regiment: The Regime’s Human Shield

Crimea Prosecutor General Natalia Poklonskaya leading the Immortal Regiment in Simferopol, Crimea, May 9, 2016. According to TASS, she carried a "wonder-working" icon of Holy Martyr Tsar Nicholas II.
Crimean Prosecutor General Natalia Poklonskaya leading the Immortal Regiment memorial procession in Simferopol, Crimea, May 9, 2016. According to TASS, she carried a “wonder-working” icon of Holy Martyr Tsar Nicholas II that had been sent to Crimea from Moscow for the event.

The Regime’s Moral Defense: The Immortal Regiment as a Shield 
Andrei Kolesnikov
Forbes.ru
May 9, 2016

On December 5, 1966, sitting as his dacha in Pakhra, Alexander Tvardovsky, an agonizingly conscientious and grimly self-reflective poet, recorded in his diary thoughts that nowadays would cause the higher-ups to stop inviting him to receptions at the Kremlin, and hired “patriots” to douse him, as is the custom nowadays, with brilliant green disinfectant.

First, Tvardovsky writes about the essence of Victory Day and its semi-official recension, including the myth of the Panfilov Division’s Twenty-Eight Guardsmen, whose debunking now costs people their jobs.

“Those who perished in the war for the Motherland have a indubitable, sacred right to be remembered and honored. […] However, there is a considerable admixture of ‘educational policy’ in all this as well, considerations on how to manipulate the moods of the ‘masses’ […] such as the tomb of the unknown soldier organized recently (God forbid he should prove to be a known soldier), a lot of needless bother, like the five or six of the twenty-eight [Panfilov Division Guardsmen] who utterly embarrassingly turned up alive.”

Tvardovsky then goes on to write about what is totally and even furiously excluded from the national memory and reflections on the topic nowadays.

“No doubt those who perished on the eve of the war and during the war, not at the front, but in the mad regime’s prisons, camps, and torture chambers, also deserve to be remembered in this way.”

Half a century has passed since Tvardovsky penned this diary entry, but nothing has changed at all or has been reborn in circumstances reminiscent of the Brezhnev period in terms of ideology and political strategy. The regime’s legitimacy was then directly linked to memory of the war, moreover, the official memory of the war, with many of the unpleasant particulars concealed. Today, too, the regime feeds on the juices of the past, powerful evidence of the effects of path dependence in the vast nation’s collective consciousness. Back then, however, there were still a couple of things that brought people together like conquering outer space and romanticizing the 1920s. (Fidel Castro and Cuba reproduced the spirit of that era.)  Our day and age parodies the things that consolidated the Soviet Union. But then again, Nikita Khrushchev would never have deigned to be personally involved in launching rockets from a cosmodrome, as did Vladimir Putin, a man who endeavors to inherit the Soviet Union’s achievements.

The current Russian regime’s final privatization of the Soviet victory in the Second World War and the amazing propagandistic transformation of each new war, including the Syrian campaign, into a direct sequel of the Great Patriotic War has divided the nation instead of consolidating it.

And the minority, who are not at all against remembering the great war, but are opposed to hysteria, official narratives, vulgarization, schematic renderings of the war, marking “friends” with Saint George’s Ribbons, and rejecting critical takes on historical events, have been virtually excluded from the ranks of citizens.

If you did not take a Saint George’s Ribbon foisted on you at a football match, and your kid was not involved in an Immortal Regiment event at school, you are a renegade, not a citizen. Everything the state gets its hands on immediately acquires an imperative and moralistic aftertaste and helps to identify an individual as friend or foe. Strangers have no place in this political system. People who think about the Gulag, for example, have no place. They are attacked, even if they are children, as happened during a Memorial school essay contest, and declared “national traitors.”

In our hybrid political framework, these prescriptions and nearly obligatory moral codes, sometimes reinforced by the Criminal Code, have been rented not even from authoritarian systems but from totalitarian ones.  In this model, morality is immoral, Russia’s heroes are anti-heroes, and vice versa. The nation has repented of the repentance it felt thirty years ago. It turns out that iPhones can peacefully coexist with the most primitive variety of Stalinism, and supermarkets, with archaization of the mind.

The Great Patriotic War is used, including to sell nonexistent threats to the general public. These threats strengthen the authority of the man commanding the besieged fortress and expand the food supply of the military and security services elites.

Today’s Russian society is a society of people who have been insulted a priori and attacked before the fact. We were attacked in 1941, and we are attacked now. We are attacked, so we defend ourselves and conduct just wars. These wars are triumphal and victimless, and ennobled and sterilized by TV. They resemble computer games where the players have a big supply of extra lives.

You cannot die a hero’s death in such wars, although you can go as a tourist. (According to Christopher Coker of the LSE, modern war is often a continuation of tourism by other means.)

In the name of the Soviet victory in the Second World War, you can do anything whatsoever. You can even crack down on the opposition, conduct a wild goose chase for “national traitors,” annex Crimea, invade Syria, and do battle with “Banderites.” Ceremony, rather than real success, has become a ritual means of “consolidating” the nation. Anyone who has avoided being consolidated during collective rituals is an internal enemy.

The victorious official narrative is a set of rote answers in the absence of questions. It is the triumph of simplification, the refusal to understand that history is complicated. It is the refusal to imagine the war as a tragedy. The topic of the unnecessary sacrifices and wastefulness of the Stalin regime, which did not count soldiers and devalued their lives, has disappeared from the discourse. Simplifying complicated things has also ben a means of simultaneously justifying the current regime and Stalin’s regime at a single blow, of dividing the nation into right and wrong, moral and immoral, by tying the “right” folks together with a single Saint George’s Ribbon, by marketizing the war and making it fashionable.

Everything in Russia is hybrid: the wars in Donbass and Syria, the political system itself, and now the celebration of Victory Day. Sacred memory has been placed at the service of solving a single albeit blistering problem: preserving the power of the current leaders and current elites as long as possible. To do this, the regime takes cover behind the Immortal Regiment’s morally impeccable shield, which, however, makes it look even more immoral.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Leokadia Frenkel for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Roman Dobrokhotov and TASS. For more on this topic, see Peter Hobson, “How Russian Authorities Hijacked a WWII Remembrance Movement,” Moscow Times, May 6, 2016.