It is almost as funny to read that Putin and his fellow gangsters in the Ozero Dacha Co-op and its subsidiaries are “conservative” as it is to read that Putin is utterly powerless (“impotent”!) to reign in his underlings or do much of anything else.
Even in the frightening, undignified mess in which Russia now finds itself, people want to make more of the mess than saying that, when push comes to shove, it is a vast criminal conspiracy that can only be laid low by an equally vast popular resistance, if only because that might commit them to do something about it.
It sounds much more dignified to say the county’s elites, including two “former KGB officers,” President Putin and Patriarch Kirill, who were trained to lie through their teeth, gull the gullible every chance they got, and pretend to be “communists” and “internationalists” and “democrats” and “conservatives” and “Russian Orthodox” and “nationalists” as the situation demanded, have taken a “conservative turn,” than to say the country has been taken over by a band of greedy, unprincipled liars who will not balk at any trick or power play to increase their dominion and grab more money, land, oil companies, yachts, real estate, and other goodies.
It is the same thing with my favorite bugbear, Russia’s completely nonexistent “senate.” Russia’s upper house of parliament is called the Federation Council, and its members are sinecured rubber stampers, not “senators,” but that was what they took to calling themselves (or a spin doctor like Vladislav Surkov told them they should call themselves) a few years ago, and so nowadays almost everyone, including the entire domestic and foreign press corps, part of the leftist commentariat, and even some perfectly sensible, educated people call them that, too.
But they are not senators, if only because there is no senate in Russia. More to the point, Russia’s unsenators are well-connected, highly paid sock puppets who could no more act independently than I could fly to the moon under my own power.
Likewise, a perpetual, self-replicating mafia dictatorship has about as much to do with real conservatism as my dog has to do with the Shining Path. And that is the thing. Given its sovereign wastefulness, major league legal anarchy, hypercorruption, and sheer absurdity, the Putin regime is an exercise, mostly improvised, in a new kind of radical governance by “former KGB officers” and their gangster friends, not in conservatism.
The “conservatism” is a put-on, just as Putin’s public support of democracy was a put-on when he worked as Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak’s deputy in the early 1990s. Then he was the Smolny’s bag man. Nowadays, he has moved up in the world considerably, but he has basically not changed his profession. TRR
Viktor Sigolayev, The Fatal Wheel: Crossing the Same River Twice (Alfa Kniga, 2012)
No one understood how our contemporary, an officer in the reserves and a history teacher, ended up in his own past, back in the body of a seven-year-old boy, and back in the period of triumphant, developed socialism, when, as far as our hero could remember, there was a lot more joy and happiness.
That is how an adult imagines it, but it transpires all is not as perfect in the sunny land of Childhood as the memory would suggest. It transpires that here, too, meanness and greed exist. There are thieves, bandits, and scammers of all stripes, although you did not notice them earlier, when you were a child. But now you have to do something about it. Now you have to fight it, because evil knows no obstacles in time. Enemies—cruel and insidious, clever and merciless—have again emerged on the horizon. Besides, some of them seem incredibly familiar to our hero.
So, the seven-year-old hero, who has two university degrees, combat officer experience, and a memory singed by the hard post-perestroika years, launches his own tiny war, allying himself with none other than the USSR State Security Committee [KGB]. He unexpectedly finds new friends there, the kind of friends for whom you can risk your life.
Putin’s Russia can’t celebrate its revolutionary past. It has to smother it
Catherine Merridale The Guardian
November 3, 2017
November always brings a welcome holiday for Russians. The day off work is about some great historical event, but most use it to catch up with their families. On 7 November 2017, it will be exactly 100 years since Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution, the one that people used to mark with anthems, weaponry and fireworks.
But this year’s official holiday commemorates not the revolution, but an uprising of 1612 against the Poles. National Unity Day was a tsarist invention that Vladimir Putin’s government relaunched in 2005. Marked on 4 November, its timing has been perfect. After three days on their sofas, will anyone really notice that there are no red flags?
The silence is like a dream in which the dreamer is being suffocated. Centenaries are special: everyone can count to 100. But so far Lenin and his comrades have not rated as much as a commemorative stamp. The man himself is still displayed – in a new suit – in the mausoleum on Red Square, but no one wants to talk about exactly what he did. The current Russian government makes ample use of history – no child is likely to forget the great patriotic war against fascism – but Lenin can’t be made to fit.
It is awkward enough, Moscow’s mandarins must think, that the Russian revolution was a people’s uprising against despotic rule, a fight against injustice and the gross excesses of the rich. With terrorism such a real threat, the Kremlin would be unwise to appear to condone violent revolt. Yet it can’t vilify a man whose corpse still lies in state, whose statue is a landmark in hundreds of towns. And what is it to make of Soviet power? If it condemns the Russian revolution, where does that leave Stalin and the people’s triumph?
So far the answer seems to be to keep things bland. Lenin, after all, is boringly familiar. If he will only stay that way, if young people decline to think, then even this annoying anniversary will pass. There are rumours that Russia’s new left may take to the streets this year to mark the anniversary with demonstrations, but most Russians under 50 regard the Soviet story as a dowdy relic, an embarrassment. The state wants it to stay that way, the province of those staunch old trouts who still sell apples outside metro stops. Its very language, “Soviet”, is an antique. It must be held back in the past, exiled along with dissidents, stretch nylon and bad teeth.
The Russian revolution was a moment when the veil of human culture tore. It was a season of euphoric hope, a terrifying experiment in utopia. It tested to destruction the 19th-century fantasy of progress. It was the work of tens of thousands of zealous enthusiasts.
Yet now their great-great-grandchildren are bored. This situation suits their government. A cloud of tedium hangs over any formal gathering that ventures to discuss the thing. Most choose the safest, dullest line. There is to be a round-table meeting held at [the] Smolny, for instance, the building from which Lenin launched the revolution, working around the clock. Scheduled for late November 2017, the theme will not be revolution but the centenary of Finnish independence.
I tried asking in the museums. The Russian state has preserved every relic of the revolutionary year, including Lenin’s pillow and his brother-in-law’s chess set. You can still run a finger around Stalin’s bath, the one that Lenin must have used before fleeing from Kerensky’s police. But nothing special has been planned, no big event, no cameras. The museum of Pravda, the Bolshevik party’s newspaper, is clearly short of funds. In Soviet times, schoolchildren visited in their thousands – it was part of their curriculum – but now the place relies on tourists.
To attract the schoolchildren back, the staff have been forced to adapt. “We call this the museum of tolerance,” my guide explained. “See? Everything in this room has come from somewhere in Europe. The typewriter there is German, the table is French.”
But mere avoidance doesn’t always work. A centenary of this importance is bound to be marked by someone; there has to be an official response. Ten months ago, the independent journalist Mikhail Zygar launched a website to track the events of 1917 as they unfolded, day by day. Belatedly, but with a considerably larger budget, the state-sponsored Russia Today responded with a handsome Twitter feed, lavishly illustrated with archival photographs and featuring imaginary tweets from some of the key figures of 1917. Both are useful resources, though neither has engaged with what the revolution means. That question haunts Red Square like Lenin’s ghost.
The Kremlin is saving itself for another anniversary next year. In July 1918 the Romanov family was shot. The solemn lessons of that crime are something everyone will understand. A strong state is what people need, the message goes, and Russia’s is a special one. Unlike the regimes of the west, it is not only patriotic but orthodox. That is why Nicholas II is now a saint and why his killing by the Bolsheviks was a martyrdom. Through him, right-thinking Russian people can remember every other martyr of the revolution that is now, thank heavens, safely past.
Victims unite a nation, everyone can grieve. In honour of the sacred dead (the millions, unspecified), a new cathedral has appeared in Moscow: vast, imposing, unavoidable. Help with the funds came from Putin’s close friend and confessor Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov.
In Russia now it is an idealised form of nationalism, not the people’s rule or social justice, that is feted and taught in schools. Russia is the new Byzantium, no longer proud to fly the red flag for the world.
There is one more anniversary that will not pass unmarked. The Cheka, Lenin’s feared secret police force, was founded on 18 December 1917. Its successors have included Stalin’s NKVD and the KGB of spy thrillers, but it will be the current lot, the FSB, who celebrate next month with the commemorative medals and champagne. As a lieutenant colonel in the service and its former boss, Putin could well be a star guest.
The fact that many of the revolution’s martyrs died at secret police hands is a mere detail. Lenin had no problem ordering the Cheka to carry out the wholesale execution of priests and the so-called bourgeoisie. By 1918 there were bodies piled up in the streets. But such truths are easily ignored. Shevkunov’s new cathedral to the revolution’s martyrs is itself a stone’s throw from the FSB headquarters on Lubyanka Square.
That just leaves Lenin and his ghost. In life a restless politician, dangerous and quick, he lies on Red Square like a stuffed fox: moth-eaten and obviously dead. As the heart of Moscow has been reinvented as an orthodox and ultra-Russian space, his mausoleum appears more and more anomalous. But though there is no wish to celebrate the man, a preserved corpse remains a tricky object to throw out. As a former Soviet citizen remarked to me: “We have certainly learned one thing from our history, haven’t we? You must be careful who you pickle.”
Catherine Merridale is a historian. Her latest book, Lenin on the Train, is published by Penguin.
I met Jehovah’s Witnesses in the mid 1990s in the former Soviet Central Asian republics. I was researching the region’s religious life. When I arrived at each regional capital, I would survey all the prominent communities in turn. The Witnesses were different in one respect from other western-inspired Christian communities. There were lots of them and they were everywhere.
Like now, many were certain back then the Witnesses were a product of the perestroika era’s freedoms. This, however, was not the case. The Witnesses were a legacy of the Soviet Union.
An American Salesman’s Religion
The Witnesses are a typical American eschatological religious group. Put crudely, they believe the world will end soon, during their lifetimes. They believe in one God, Jehovah, a name used during Christianity’s first century. On Judgment Day, Jehovah will destroy sinners and save the elect. The Witnesses reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit). They do not consider Christ God, but they revere him. The day of his death is the only holiday they celebrate.
A completely and regularly revised theology has produced a set of permissions and prohibitions aimed at maintaining the way of life and behavior of a decent traveling salesman from the lower middle classes.
The Witnesses are allowed the moderate use of alcohol (immoderate use is cause for expulsion) and the use of contraceptives. Premarital sex and smoking are forbidden. The Witnesses must not “rend to Caesar what is Caesar’s”: they are forbidden from being involved in elections, engaging in politics, honoring state symbols, and serving in the army. They are most roundly criticized by outsiders for forbidding blood transfusions and organ transplants. The Witnesses suddenly had something to say when the AIDS epidemic kicked off. They support blood substitutes.
Something like family monasteries—”administrative centers”—have been organized for the most ardent followers. The schedule in the centers is strict, but the conditions are relatively comfortable. The Witnesses can live and work in them, practically for free, for as little as a year or as along as their entire lives.
Waiting for the world’s imminent end is an occupation common to many religious groups, from Russian Old Believers to the Mayan Indians. Such groups isolate themselves from a sinful world, some by retreating into the wilderness, others, by restricting their contact with outsiders.
The Witnesses differ from similar movements in terms of how they disseminate and maintain their doctrine. The method is based on the commercial practice of distributing magazines in the nineteenth century. Essentially, the entire organization meets twice weekly to read its main journal, The Watchtower, which is produced by church elders in Brooklyn and then translated and disseminated in dozens of languages. Members pay a nominal fee for subscribing to and reading the journal, fees that are scrupulously collected and sent along the chain: from local groups to the regional office, then to the national headquarter and, finally, to the head office in Brooklyn. Free distribution of the magazine and going door to door asking people whether they want to talk about God are aimed at the same thing: increasing the audience who subscribes to and collectively reads the magazine.
Ninety-five percent of today’s public find these religious activities strange and ridiculous, although from a sociological viewpoint they barely differ from going to political party meetings, networked sales of cosmetics, visiting sports clubs, getting a tattoo, the Russian Healthy Lifestyle Movement (ZOZh) or stamp collecting.
If you believe the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own figures, they operate in 240 countries, which is more than belong to the UN. At the same time, the organization is numerically quite compact, albeit growing rapidly. It has a total of 8.3 million members.
The Soviet authorities did not tolerate large groups who maintained constant links with foreign countries, so it decided to send the core group of Witnesses, five thousand people, to Siberia. A considerable number were sent to the camps, while the rest were exiled. The crackdown was a misfortune for the victims, but it was a godsend for the exotic doctrine.
As early as the 1950s, the largest communities of Witnesses had emerged in the main place of exile, Irkutsk Region. In the 2000s, the official websites of Irkutsk Region and the neighboring Republic of Buryatia claimed the Jehovah’s Witnesses were a traditional religious community in the region. Irkipediaprovides the following figures for 2011: “Around 5,500 people in Irkutsk Region are members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization. Around 50 of their assemblies operate in Irkutsk Region, each of them featuring 80 to 150 members. The assemblies are united into three districts: Usolye-Sibirskoye, Irkutsk, and Bratsk.”
The camps proved a suitable place for proselytizing, the radically minded youth, especially Ukrainian speakers, eager listeners, and the half-baked amnesty of political prisoners, an excellent means of disseminating the doctrine nationwide. As early as the late 1950s, all over northern Kazakhstan, former members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), who were banned from returning home, and former Russian criminals, who had taken jobs as farm machinery operators and welders, were digging dugouts in the steppes to hide DIY printing presses for printing The Watchtower.
Why did peasants, traders, brawny lads from the working classes, graduates of provincial technical schools, mothers of large families, and pensioners need to become Jehovah’s Witnesses? I have the same explanation as the preachers do: to radically change their selves and their lifestyles. The everyday frustrations of ordinary people, their perpetually predetermined lives, and their uselessness to anyone outside their narrow family circle (in which there is so often so little happiness) are things that torment many people. Prescriptions for effectively transfiguring oneself are always popular. However, they usually don’t work, because it is hard to stick to the program.
Like other religious groups, the Witnesses offer their members a disciplinary model for joint action. You can sit at home, chewing through your miserly pension, and watching TV, or you can feel like a “pioneer” again (the title given to missionaries who proselytize on the streets and door to door), do the right thing, hang out with other enthusiastic people like yourself, and make friends with young people. You are a young bricklayer. You are facing a lifetime of laying bricks, but your soul yearns for change and career growth. After spending six months in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, our bricklayer might be leading a grassroots group, and two years later he might have made a decent career in the organization. His wife is satisfied. Her husband doesn’t drink, their circle of friends has expanded, and during holidays the whole family can go visit other Witnesses in other parts of Russia. The children grown up in a circle of fellow believers with a sense of their own uniqueness. Free evenings are spent on the work of the organization, but that is better than drunken quarrels, and better than what most “ordinary” Soviet and post-Soviet folks are up to in the evenings.
In 2006, I interviewed Vladimir Saprykin, a former employee of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee’s Propaganda Department. His career had kicked off with a vigorous campaign against the Witnesses in Karaganda Region. I was able to get a glimpse into a period when the Party was on the warpath against the Witnesses. In the early 1960s, literally hundreds of people were sent to the camps as part of the campaign against religion per se.
Saprykin had campaigned against the Witnesses wholeheartedly and passionately, and that passion still burned in him fifty years after the events in question. He had dreamed of making them “completely free,” of “returning them to their essence.” He was backed up then by a whole group of provincial demiurges from among the local intelligentsia. They had collectively tried to re-educate the local group of Witnesses through debate, and then they had intimated them and pressured their relatives. Subsequently, they had tried to buy them off before finally sending the group’s core to prison with the KGB’s backing.
Their rhetoric is surprisingly similar to the declarations made by the Witnesses’ current antagonists.
“We stand for individual freedom of choice in all domains, including religion. […] So read, compare, think, disagree, and argue! Critical thinking is in inalienable sign of a person’s freedom. Let’s not abandon our freedom so easily.”
This is not an excerpt from a statement by a libertarian group, but an excerpt from a declaration published by a group of Russian Orthodox clergymen attached to the Holy Martyr Irenaeus of Lyons Center for Religious Studies. It was these clergymen who have now got the Jehovah’s Witnesses banned.
In the early 1960s, the KGB and such local enthusiasts managed to deliver several serious blows to the infrastructure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Soviet Union. Successive leaders of the organization and hundreds of grassroots leaders and activists were arrested and convicted, and archives, correspondence, and printing presses were seized.
This, however, did not lead to the eradication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Besides the three regions where they had constantly been active—Western Ukraine, Moldova, and Irkutsk Region—groups and organizations emerged in the sixties and seventies throughout nearly the entire Soviet Union from Arkhangelsk Region to the Maritime Territory, and from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan.
The movement was spread by ex-camp convicts, labor migrants from regions where the doctrine was strongly espoused, and missionaries.
Soviet construction sites, new cities, and workers’ dorms were propitious environments for the spread of new religious doctrines. The young people who arrived to work there were cut off from their usual lifestyles, family ties, and interests. They wanted something new, including self-education and self-transfiguration—to gad about in suits and have their heads in the clouds. Most of these cadres were promoted through the ranks by the Communist Youth League and other authorities, but there were plenty of pickings for the religious organizations.
By the way, in 1962, Saprykin campaigned to get not just anyone to leave the Witnesses, but Maria Dosukova, a chevalier of the Order of Lenin, a longtime Party member, a plasterer, and an ethnic Kazakh. During an assembly at her construction company, Dosukova had refused to support a resolution condemning the religious organization in which several people in her work team were members.
After Krushchev’s resignation, the systematic arrests of the Witnesses stopped, although some were sent to prison as a warning to the others. Everyone else was subject to the decree, issued by the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, on March 18, 1966, “On Administrative Responsibility for Violating the Legislation on Religious Cults.” You could be fined fifty rubles—a week’s pay for a skilled worker—for holding a religious circle meeting in your home. In his book About People Who Never Part with the Bible, religious studies scholar Sergei Ivanenko records that, during the seventies and eighties, attempts to combat the Witnesses by fining them and tongue-lashing them at assemblies were just as useless.
Perestroika legalized the Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the post-Soviet space. This freedom did not last for long, however. The new states of Central Asia and the Transcaucasia followed the Soviet Union’s path in their treatment of the Witnesses, achieving similar outcomes.
In Russia, the Witnesses were officially registered in March 1991 and had no serious problems for a long time. They built their central headquarters, Bethel, in the village of Solnechnoye near St. Petersburg, as well as several dozen buildings for prayer meetings. Of course, due to their activity, relative openness, and American connections, the Witnesses (along with the Hare Krishna, the Mormons, the Scientologists, and the Pentecostals) were targeted by the various hate organizations that emerged in Russia in the late 1990s, including the Cossacks, neo-Nazis, and professional anticultists.
Anticultism was imported to Russia by the ex-Moscow hippie Alexander Dvorkin, who emigrated to the US in the 1970s and got mixed up in Orthodox émigré circles there. In the early 1990s, he left his job at Radio Liberty and returned to Russia, where he made a successful career at the point where the interests of the Moscow Patriarchate and Russian law enforcement agencies intersect. The above-mentioned Irenaeus of Lyons Center is, basically, Dvorkin himself.
Professor Dvorkin has worked for several years at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of the Humanities. Until 2012, he was head of the department of sectology. In 2009, he headed the council for religious studies forensic expertise at the Russian Federal Justice Ministry. (He now holds the post of deputy chair). It is curious that Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov is also a St. Tikhon’s alumnus and is quite proud of that fact.
By supporting the Justice Ministry’s campaign to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Russian Supreme Court has not only put the “sectarians” in a difficult position but also the Russian authorities. In Russia, the Witnesses have over 400 local organizations and around 168,000 registered members. Only full-fledged members are counted during registration, but a fair number of sympathizers are also usually involved in Bible readings, The Watchtower, and other religious events. We can confidently say the ban will affect at least 300,000 to 400,000 Russian citizens. Labeling them “extremists” does not simply insult them and provoke conflicts with their relatives, loved ones, and acquaintances. In fact, this means abruptly increasing the workload of the entire “anti-extremism” system the Russian authorities have been setting up the past twenty years. The soldiers of the Russian National Guard will find it easy to raid prayer meetings and spread-eagle these “extremists” on the floor. However, given the scale of the organization, they will have to do this a lot and often. And, as experience shows, there won’t be much point to what they are doing.
Not a single country in the world has forcibly dissolved the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it is hard to imagine that these 400,000 people will all emigrate or otherwise disappear. Even now, as news of the ban has spread, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have received completely unexpected support from all manner media and numerous public figures, including Russian Orthodox priests. Given these circumstances, the successful state campaign to discredit, dissolve, and brush a major religious community under the rug is doomed to failure.
The authorities will have to decide. Either they will sanction the mass arrests of the organizations leaders and activists and send hundreds and thousands of people to the camps, which ultimately will facilitate the growth of the movement’s reputation and dissemination, as in Soviet times, or they will pinpoint those who, according to the Interior Ministry and the FSB, are “especially dangerous” while turning a blind eye to the actual continuation of the organization’s work.
I would like the country’s leadership to have second thoughts and find a legal way to rescind the Supreme Court’s decision. There is little hope of that, however.
Russia could be poised to become a super power again after agreeing with the US to launch what amounts to a joint air campaign against the two main extreme Islamist groups in Syria. If the ceasefire that starts at sunset on Monday holds for seven consecutive days and the UN is able to deliver aid to besieged people in Aleppo, then the US and Russia will establish “a joint implementation centre” that will organise joint military targeting by American and Russian aircraft directed against Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda which has relabelled itself – with al-Qaeda publicly assenting to a break with its affiliate – as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
But wait a minute. Isn’t the Independent, where this “wish a little wish for once-mighty Russia” was published, owned by Alexander Lebedev, a “former” KGB officer, and his dashing son Evgeny Lebedev?
I won’t even bother to ask the stupid question of why a “former” KGB officer was allowed to buy one of England’s leading newspapers.
In case you’re wondering why I’ve put “former” in quotation marks, I’m drawing on no less an authority on the subject than Vladimir Putin, who once famously said, “There is no such thing as a former KGB man.”
While having a gander this morning at how Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s premier liberal newspaper, has been covering the Syrian conflict in recent months, I stumbled across this op-ed piece, essentially an open letter to the British establishment, dated November 6, 2015. Published in the (mostly nonexistent) “English version” of the paper’s website and headlined “Britain must make Vladimir Putin an ally in the disaster that is Syria,” the piece is attributed to “Eygeny [sic] Lebedev, Publisher, The Independent, London.”
To cut to the chase, Evgeny Lebedev (his actual name) who has dual UK-Russian citizenship, it transpires in the piece, wants Britain to make common cause with Russia against the Islamic threat, to wit:
“There may be up to 7,000 Russian nationals who are in Syria as a result of being radicalized. Moscow, not a multicultural city in the way that London is, and run by an administration that is much more militarily decisive because it doesn’t put all big decisions to Parliament [sic], is clear: these terrorists must be killed, before they return to Russia to wreak havoc.
“On that point, Britain and Russia should be of like mind. We, too, know that there are many British citizens who have been radicalised and, for unfathomable reasons, decided to flee to this anarchic region and fight against all the things readers of this newspaper take for granted: democracy, peace, civilization.
“We have common cause with the Russians [sic], a common enemy. The biggest threat to humanity today is cancerous, Islamist ideology that is growing fast right across the world—one that claims, with what truth we don’t yet know, to be behind the weekend’s tragic plane crash in Egypt’s Sinai desert.
“Not for nothing did the head of our [sic] security services say last week that the terror threat in Britain is the highest it has been in his 32-year career.
“Destroying this cancer, or plague, at source could hardly be more worthwhile or urgent; and yet, rather than work with the Russians [sic] to do this, we seem intent on cutting ties instead.
“Britain should not be leaving it to the French to mediate between Russia and the West. For all the greatness of this island nation, for all its hard and soft power, there is a laxity in our [sic] approach to the Syrian crisis.”
If you want to find out more about the exciting life of the fine fellow who penned this, avail yourself of Wikipedia’s bio of the man.
I think your eyes should pop out of your head when you realize that the son of a KGB First Chief Directorate spy and Russian oligarch is nowadays a respectable man about town and media mogul in London, the exact same place where his wealthy dad used to do his spying back in the bad old days. But then again, neither you nor I are as worldly as publisher Lebedev and his dad, so what do we know?
The Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky has been sent to the notorious Serbsky Institute of Psychiatry, and his family and lawyers are worried about him.
On November 9, 2015, Pavlensky poured petrol over the doors of the infamous Federal Security Service (FSB) building at Lubyanka Square in central Moscow and set fire to them. He named the action Threat (Ugroza). Friends photographed and filmed him as the flames took hold. (Damage was done, but no one was hurt.) Pavlensky was arrested soon afterwards.
The FSB’s building was inherited directly from the Soviet KGB. Thousands of the regime’s political opponents were tortured and killed behind its austere façade.
Yanukovich, he went with collaborators to the Maly Konyushenny Bridge in Saint Petersburg, setting light to car tires and banging dustbin lids, to recreate the atmosphere of the Maidan demonstrations in Kyiv.
Pavlensky was sent to the Serbsky State Scientific Centre for Social and Forensic Psychiatry last month (on January 27) to be observed by doctors. The centre was then closed due to an outbreak of a strong flu-like virus, and Pavlensky’s lawyers have been denied access to their client.
On February 3, in Pavlensky’s absence, the Tagansky District Court extended his detention to March 5. His wife expressed fears for his health in a Facebook post: “We do not know if they are injecting him with drugs, trying to give him pills. We don’t know.”
Meanwhile, artists are protesting a decision by the National Centre for Contemporary Art to throw Pavlensky’s performance out of the contest for this year’s Innovation Prize.
His action at the Lubyanka was included after an online vote by critics. But on February 15, the organizers of the prize struck it off, on the grounds that it had involved an illegal act. Members of the expert committee that advised the organizers were angry; art critic Anna Tolstova quit the committee, saying: “I don’t consider myself obliged to agree with censorship and become part of the repressive machinery of the state.”
Clearly, the Innovation Prize organizing committee has taken a step backwards. In 2010, the prize was won by the Voina group for painting a large phallus on a bridge near FSB headquarters in Saint Petersburg.
Punitive psychiatry has been on the rise in Russia again since the 2011 demonstrations against government ballot-rigging.
Pavlensky has protested against punishment psychiatry. In October 2014, he sat on the wall of the Serbsky Institute and cut off his earlobe to make his point. He then wrote: “Armed with psychiatric diagnoses, the bureaucrat in a white lab coat cuts off from society those pieces that prevent him from establishing a monolithic dictate of a single, mandatory norm for everyone.”
But punitive psychiatry goes back much further. It was used in the Soviet Union from (at least) the 1940s, to deal with those who defied its tyrannical, misnamed “socialism”, and became widespread in the 1960s. It was the Serbsky Institute that developed the diagnosis of “sluggish schizophrenia” (vyalotekushchaya shizofreniya) which was widely applied to political dissidents.
Not only were internationally known oppositionists, such as the independent trade union organizer Vladimir Klebanov and the Second World War general Pyotr Grigorenko, confined to psychiatric institutions, but psychiatry was used against large numbers of less-well-known Soviet citizens. (Indeed two western writers who studied the phenomenon in Soviet times concluded that the abuse of psychiatry against prominent dissidents was “probably only the tip of an iceberg.” It had a wide-ranging function in dealing with “social deviants,” “suppressing individuality […] so that the state can maintain a stifling social as well as political control.” Sidney Bloch and Peter Reddaway, Russia’s Political Hospitals, Gollancz 1977, pp. 278-279.)
An early (and typical) case was that of Revolt Pimenov, a maths student who resigned from the Communist Party’s Youth League, was diagnosed as schizophrenic and consigned to a psychiatric hospital – the sentence being lifted when he agreed to rejoin the league! His story is recorded in the marvellous archive of the Chronicle of Current Events, a dissident journal. (Thanks to J. who drew that to my attention!)
Finally, a thought about Pavlensky’s art. I am pretty conservative in my artistic tastes, but it works wonders for me. What is an artist supposed to do when his government becomes increasingly repressive and supports military mayhem in a neighbouring state? Paint landscapes?
In my view, setting fire to the doors of the Lubyanka was a cry of sanity in an insane world. I’m not blind to the limitations of individual protest, but this protest tried seriously to deal with the state machine’s monstrous corrosion of humanity.
If you are a western leftie thinking “Well, this is hardly the worst example of state repression,” give me some credit. I know. I, too, see the sickening irony in the denunciation of Putin for ordering Syrian children’s deaths to gain diplomatic advantage by people who had little to say about Tony Blair and George Bush ordering Iraqi children’s deaths on a vastly greater scale. Well, you know what, it’s not a competition! Putin’s violence is part of thesame process as Tony Blair’s, not some sort of answer to it.
For me, this is about the reality with which my friends, activists in social and labour movements in Russia and Ukraine, have to deal.
If you’re a psychiatrist, please get on to your professional association about that institute. If you’re an artist, please get on to that art centre about that competition. If you’re a letter writer, please follow Amnesty’s advice on protesting to the Russian prosecutor, and if you’re fighting for some other cause, big or small, please keep doing what you’re doing. How else can we deal with the inherent madness of the system under which we live? GL, February 17, 2016
Sergei Ilchenko is a professional journalist who has reported for a number of Moldovan, Ukrainian and Russian media. He is currently being persecuted for his professional work by the secret services of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), commonly known as Transdniester or Transnistria.
Ilchenko was arrested by the PMR KGB on March 18, 2015, following his involvement in an opposition rally in Tiraspol, the PRM capital, and his refusal to delete the report and video footage he made at the rally.
The PMR Investigative Committee has brought criminal charges against Ilchenko under Article 276, Part 2 of the PMR Criminal Code (“Public Incitement to Extremist Activities”). If convicted, Ilchenko could face a term of up to five years in prison.
Ilchenko’s colleagues believe that in order to arrest and charge Ilchenko with incitement to overthrow the state the KGB resorted to a provocation by posting fabricated texts under Ilchenko’s name on various Internet forums and social media. Ilchenko denies having written these texts. Moreover, a day before his arrest he informed a number of his colleagues that his Facebook and Skype accounts had been hacked and the passwords changed, and that he had lost all control over the social media groups he was moderating.
Sergei Ilchenko is a left-wing political activist. He has been involved in the work of various trade union forums and has reported for the international trade union solidarity platform LabourStart.
What Can We Do to Help Sergei Ilchenko?
Human rights organizations, journalists unions, and journalist communities in various countries should make statements of support of Sergei Ilchenko, denouncing Internet provocations as a means of persecuting dissidents.
Write a letter to PMR President Yevgeny Shevchuk, demanding Sergei Ilchenko’s immediate release. Letters should be sent to the following address:
г.Тирасполь 3300, Горького, 53, Администрация Президента