Alexei Gaskarov: What Politics?

Alexei Gaskarov: Many People Ask Whether I Am Going to Take up Politics. But What Politics Are There Nowadays?
Olesya Gerasimenko
Snob
November 1, 2016

Anti-fascist Alexei Gaskarov has been released from prison after serving three and a half years in prison for alleged involvement in the Bolotyana Square riot in Moscow in 2012. Snob asked Kommersant special correspondent Olesya Gerasimenko to meet with Gaskarov to discuss the Bolotnaya Square case, life and education in the penal colony, and the death of the protest movement. 

Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob
“Why would they ask me about organizing a riot if they knew no one organized it?”

Was your trial fair?

I regret we agreed to be involved in it. Like Soviet political prisoners, we should have stood with our backs turned and kept our mouths shut, and not treated it as an attempt to get at the truth. I had illusions after Khimki. [In 2010, Gaskarov was arrested and charged with attacking the Khimki town hall during a protest in defense of Khimki Forest, but the court acquitted him. — Snob] Several videos showed clearly that the incidents involving me happened before the riot kicked off, according to police investigators themselves. In the end, I ticked off the evidence, the judge nodded her head, but there was no reaction. The entire trial looked as if the decision had already been made, the sentence written out, and let’s get this over as quickly as possible.

So did you push a policeman and pull a soldier out of the police cordon?

I never denied it from the get-go. A year had passed since the rally on Bolotnaya Square. I was working on an important project. I had a week to go, and it was uncool to have to go to jail. I had to go to work on the Sunday the cops came for me. I had gone to the shop to buy food for the cat, and the whole clown show was waiting outside my building: two jeeps and a van. Young dudes half dressed like boneheads stepped out of the van. I decided they were from BORN [a group of radical right-wing nationalists who carried out a series of murders and assaults — Snob]. I was pondering what moves to make, but they produced their IDs.

Did you feel relieved?

No, just the opposite. I could have run from BORN or done something else. So they detained me and kept mum about what the charges were for a long while. They made me lie face down in the van and  the whole works. There were lots of things they could have detained me for. We had been defending the tenants of the Moscow Silk (Mosshyolk) dormitories from eviction and the Tsagov Forest in Zhukovsky from logging by developers. And shortly before my arrest, people who are now serving in the Azov Battalion attempted to assault my wife and me. I tussled with them, and it ended up on camera. So there were different possibilities. I was not thinking about Bolotnaya at all. When it finally became clear why I had been detained, I stared at them.  It was total rubbish. I told them I agreed to admit what I had done. We had been walking amid the crowd, when a riot cop attacked this dude. A dogpile ensued, and people pulled them apart. I was accused of pulling a policeman’s leg. The evidence was a poor quality video and a forensic report that concluded it was not me. But I knew it was me. So I told them right away, Guys, let’s do this the right way. But they could not have cared less whether I admitted my guilt or not. It would have been a different story if I had confessed to violating Article 212 of the Criminal Code (organizing a riot) or testified against someone else.

Were you asked?

They didn’t even mention it. Why would they ask me about organizing a riot if they know no one had organized it, including from their own wiretaps? They kept the charges to the incident with the leg pulling. Then they found a second incident. A stampede started in front of the police line. People were falling on the ground, and I tugged one policeman by the shoulder to make room. The indictment said I had broken the police line so that everyone could get to the riot. But this line had been at the passage in the other direction.

OIesya Gerasimenko and Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

Did you expect such a sentence?

They had already told me at the Investigative Committee they were going send me down. I said, Well, of course. Later, the Center “E” guys showed up and threatened me with ten years in prison, but I know that could not happen. The rules of the game are still followed, and punishment for a particular crime is usually consistent with ordinary practice.

How do you feel about the case of Udaltsov and his associates?

I have very negative feelings about it, of course. I ran into [Leonid] Razvozzhayev in the pre-trial detention facility, but I wasn’t really able to chat with him, because he was always in very bad shape. Udaltsov and his associates operated like real con men. Before May 6, 2012, they had no clue how the march would go, and there is no mention of sitdown strikes and rushing police lines in the wiretaps. But after everything had happened on Bolotnaya, they began acting in their meetings with Targamadze as if everything had gone according to their plans. Their initial excuse, that they had traveled to Georgia to talk about wine and mineral water, was pure idiocy. Naturally, it is not against the law to have meetings and discuss business. But there is a political ethic that does not let you behave this way. You go meet dudes from the government of another country, a country with whom [your country] recently had a conflict. You ask for money, and you take money. If these meetings had not taken place, the Kremlin would have failed to generate the image of the Bolotnaya Square case that it did. We should not have had to answer for things over which we had no control. The benefits to Udaltsov were personal, but everyone shared the risks.

So you received no money from Givi Targamadze?

Are you kidding? What money?

Who was the anonymous anarchist informer who testifed against you?

I didn’t even find out. I have had nothing to do with them for many years. The guys still have their little movement. Like Tolkien fans, they attend meetings and discuss for hours on end how they should make a revolution. They have been doing this for the last twenty years. It was of no interest to anyone. The FSB sent its people in. They went and had a look at it and said, Well okay, you have a cool club. When Center “E” was established, they went after them big time to push up their arrest stats. All anarchist meetings are open, anyone can come. So they are known to the authorities. The teenager from this scene who went to Bolotnaya and was involved in breaking through police lines was identified in this way. They put the squeeze on him: either we send you down or you tell us what we want to hear. I have no idea why this was necessary, because he just said I was a bad dude and the leader of the anti-fascists and anarchists. But nobody charged me with that.

“The rules of survival are simple: don’t do anyone harm”
Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

 

Tell me about life in prison. Everyone is interested in that. You know, reveille at six, lights out at ten.

Yeah. As you understand, people who are drug addicts, people going through withdrawal, basically live at night. After lights out, they either smoke or brew chifir [a super strong tea brewed in Russian prisons]. You just set that aside. You have your routine, and basically it is good for you. No one limits the amount of exercise you do: there is a horizontal bar, parallel bars, and a few weights. You are either working or busy with your own things. I got into shape there like I never have before. The point is to come up with as many things to do as possible so you have no spare time at all.

What did you read?

The library there was okay, because everyone who does time gets books and then leaves them behind. They see who has been nominated for the Booker Prize and order their books. It’s not hard to find new releases in prison. I also subscribed to several pro-Kremlin publications, and I read lots of your articles, too. And I read The New Times and Novaya Gazeta. I wanted different viewpoints. Plus, there is a legal video link in there. It is limited to fifteen minutes a day, but in fact nobody keeps track of the time.

Who were your cellmates? 

I spent half my sentence in a pre-trial detention facility. The dudes in there had been charged under Article 228 of the Criminal Code [purchase, storage, production, and sale of narcotics — Snob]. Their stories were horrible. One group of teenagers had gotten hash in the mail from Holland, and they had been sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Or there were the dudes who decided to cook amphetamine using a recipe they found on the Internet. They got nineteen years in prison. I was even ashamed to explain what my case was about, because I was surrounded by people facing over ten years in prison.  When the trial began, we were kept in Butyrka Prison. They were thieves, crazies, teenagers, street kids, and Dagestanis in there. I also met defendants in the Rosoboronexport case, the APEC Summit case, and the Sochi Olympics case, and I went to the gym with Alexander Emelianenko.

The general population at the penal colony consisted of three hundred men. Eighty percent of them were local dudes from Tula Region who had attacked somebody while drunk, stolen things from dachas, and committed petty robberies. But what is the catch about the general population? That a homeless man who broke into someone else’s dacha to spend the winter got sent down to the penal colony, and his life there is better than on the outside, and he is in the same place as a big-shot businessman who has lost a billion rubles and used to go sailing on his yacht on the outside.

Does this lead to lots of conflicts?

There are lots of conflicts, but the instigator always takes the rap for a fight. That doesn’t mean there are no fights. They are criminals, after all, and they tend to take risks. But the rules of survival are simple: don’t do anyone harm. If you watch TV after lights out, turn down the sound. Don’t drag in dirt. It’s all basic.

Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

Was it easy for you to understand them?

Yeah. In 2010, I was in a pre-trial detention facility with repeat offenders and learned the tricks. And during my early days in the penal colony I read Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn’s stories about the prison camps.

Like a set of rules?

Yes. The Center “E” officer who led the investigation in my case told me a lot and advised me what books to read. When I was on the inside, people asked my advice on how to behave.

When you got out you said the main thing had been to maintain contact with reality and your health. How did you maintain your health? Was the food there okay?

Due to the fact that support from the outside was good, I almost never ate in the cafeteria.

But what about hot meals?

There is a microwave there. The Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) now has taken the approach of not keeping you from improving your living conditions. They need to implement their strategy for improving conditions in the penal colonies, but their budget has been trimmed. When you arrive, everything is crappy. Water is dripping from the ceilings, and there is mold. But they don’t mind if you want to invest your own resources. You write everything up as humanitarian aid, and you get electric kettles and microwaves. We had a projector hanging in our cell for watching films.

Now everyone will want to roll back two years to read books and watch films on a projector.

We also purchased a bunch of armchairs from IKEA. So when the head office comes to make an inspection, they show them how cool everything is in their colony.

I think you wanted to get another degree in prison.

Unfortunately, it turned out the university with which the colony collaborates is just a degree mill that sells them for money. I did something else there. At work, I would often teach the basics of entrepreneurship and planning. There were people doing time in the colony with whom it was interesting to talk, bank chairmen and ministry officials. There was a space, an evening school. I brought around fifty people together and asked the wardens permission to run something like seminars. Everyone had to come up with his own project, and over eight months (my sentence was coming to an end) we would try and whip it into shape, with a business plan as the outcome. At first, they turned me down outright, saying I was in for the Bolotnaya Square case and would lead political discussions. But then there was a change in management at the penal colony, and they met us halfway. It was like a little piece of the outside world.

Generally, of course, the colony’s disciplinary and educational function has been tapped out. There are no resources. The majority of guys in there do not have the most basic skills. They cannot write a letter, but there is no one there at all to educate them. There is this option of watching films on the weekends. They show this rubbish, total nonsense. I went to the wardens and said, Let’s make a selection of good films; we can watch ordinary films in our cells. But they could not even decide to do that. They get their action plans from the head office, where the theorists work. They say, Let’s hold a sports day, even though athletic clothing is prohibited in the general population.

“They aren’t winning this game by turning to crackdowns”
Olesya Gerasimenko and Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

While you were away, the Khimki Forest was cut down. The Moscow Silk tenants were evicted. Anti-fascists fell out over Ukraine. Many of the people who rallied on Bolotnaya have emigrated. When you all; were being arrested one by one, everyone said it would be the case of the century, that everyone would close ranks because of you and for your sake, but ultimately you have got out of prison, the Bolotnaya Square case is still underway, and there is no longer any interest in it. Maybe you went to prison for nothing?

What does that mean, “nothing”? I had no choice. It’s good that the anti-fascist thing is no longer on the front burner. Nowadays, there are no more clashes with neo-Nazis, who were killing people in the early 2000s. Back then, they really needed a counterweight. Our job was to point out the problem and make things decent on the streets. We succeeded in doing this. But the anti-fascist movement cannot defeat xenophobia in society.

What do you think about the split among anti-fascists, that one group went to Kiev, while the other went to Donbass? They were at each other’s throats.

I always assumed that very different people joined the anti-fascist movement, and that was fine. There were aspects that just did not make sense to me. For example, why were European leftists strutting their stuff in Donbass? It looks as if they were totally conned.

As for Bolotnaya, choosing to be involved in this movement was fraught with risks. If we draw an analogy with Ukraine (although many people don’t like to do this), I don’t think that if the events on Bolotnaya had gone further those people would have balked at shooting the crowd. A bunch of people were killed in Kiev, while here in Moscow we were supposed to be scared off by prison sentences. They randomly picked a group of people and put them in prison. The rationale is clear. Whoever you are, if you oppose the tsar, you will suffer. How can we respond to this? We have to debunk the myth that such crackdowns are effective.

But that is what happened. Everyone really was afraid of being hit once with a truncheon, to say nothing of prison. Many members of the opposition have said the fight against the regime is not a worth a centimeter of their personal comfort. You are practically the only who does not think this way. Don’t you feel lonely?

Most people haven’t been to prison, and they really imagine it is the end of world. If I go to prison, I can kiss my life goodbye, they think. I just dealt with it more or less normally. But this is how I see it. When the authorities crack down on dissent, people lower their level of activism. They lose the desire to invest themselves in something. Ultimately, the system falls apart, rather than becoming more stable, as the authorities imagine. The country becomes less competitive. In prison, I saw many people who were doing time for economic crimes, and they all said approximately the same thing. People who have satisfied their material needs develop political demands, and that is fine. Everyone wants to be involved in changing things. When this desire for change is blocked, they are blocking the segment of society that generates the most added value. They aren’t winning this game by turning to crackdowns. Especially because the system is not as terrible as it makes itself out to be.

But people need to remain minimally active. It is too bad that many people have chosen the passive way. I have just got out, and it really seems to me that a lot has changed, even in Moscow itself. Although, theoretically, I saw it all ten years ago, only in Europe. We can live this way a long time. Hence the complexity of the political arguments around Bolotnaya. Given the resources we have have, we could live better, but the way things are also suits lots of people. In this case, the system can survive for a long while. We should not get involved in direct confrontations. This was clear to me on Bolotnaya Square as well. We wanted to get the hell out of there, because it was obvious the sitdown strikes and so on were just what the authorities wanted. But there are other ways of doing things. We don’t have to limit ourselves to demonstrations and rallies.

Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

What ways?

There are the demands made at Bolotnaya—fair elections and the transfer of power—but there is the option of engaging in specific targeted campaigns in order to develop one’s ideas under the existing regime.

You mean the theory of small deeds?

Among other things. For example, I read that many Bolotnaya activists have gone into charity work. In fact, that is not so bad. What matters is maintaining the energy. Or there is the successful fight against corruption, all those publications that impact the system, whatever you say. Or there are people in the leftist milieu who think there should be progressive taxation: they can also advance their arguments. Or form an anti-war movement given all the conflicts underway.

In prison, I realized how strongly the regime affects people’s brains. There are people who show up there who are not inclined to heavy discussions. Real peasants. All the myths that exist are in their heads. But when you are around them, you don’t even have to argue. Even the most impenetrable guys would change their minds just as a result of conversation. So any work aimed at disseminating information and minimal education is vital.

What did you change their minds about?

A variety of things, including their overall attitude to the opposition. In the beginning, it was even convenient for me, like there were only drug addicts at Bolotnaya, that they all had gone there to score heroin, and everybody would leave me alone [after I would say that]. But over time people see what you read, what films you watch on the Culture channel, that you can help draft a court appeal, and they understand you are not an idiot and would not have gone to a protest rally for a dose of heroin. There were lots of conflicts over Ukraine, especially because there were many people doing time who had managed to fight in Donbas, come back to Russia, and get sent to prison.

Olesya Gerasimenko and Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

For what?

Disorderly conduct, theft, and armed robbery. They were typical soldiers of fortune. We even managed to talk about this most difficult issue and iron out our differences.

Is Crimea ours?

I have a simple position on this issue. People went out on the Maidan because they did not like the current regime. I think what happened to Crimea was Putin’s attempt to punish them for this. The Ukrainian people made their choice, Putin didn’t like it, and [Russia] acted like the interventionists during the Russian Civil War. It is not a matter of what the inhabitants of Crimea wanted. It was an action directed against all the values we tried to defend on Bolotnaya.

So it’s not ours?

I consider it a real violation of international law. It was unethical and wrong. Clearly they did this to stick an example in everyone’s face: see what protests have done to the country. But I don’t have an opinion about what should happen next.

To return it or not?

Well yes. Because it is clear that most people who live there want to be part of Russia.

You went to prison in one country, but came out of prison in another country. What was it like finding out on the news about the historic events that were happening on the outside? Did you feel sorry you were observing them from afar? Or, on the contrary, was it easier?

To be honest, the latter. It was often difficult to make up my mind. For example, when refugees left Ukraine en masse, they would come work in the penal colony. You communicate with them and realize there is ideology, and then there are people’s stories, and it was hard to make up one’s mind. I actually thought it was cool this was going on in the background.

Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

What is your work situation? What are you planning to do?

Of course, I would like to do the work I was educated to do, as a financial systems analyst, as it says in my diploma. My old job did not survive the crisis. I will have problems, of course.  I have even asked acquaintances at several companies, but I was told no way, especially in offices that work on state commissions or state projects. So things are rough. I will have to start everything from scratch. But I am sure that the fourteen percent have some businesses. [Gaskarov has in mind VTsIOM’s polling data, showing that 86% of Russians support Putin — Snob.]

Earning money is my priority now. Many people have asked me whether I am going to take up politics. Everyone has so many expectations, but what politics are there nowadays? It is impossible to be involved in politics without having your own resources. Of course, I say you shouldn’t be afraid of prison, but it is a serious setback all the same: three and a half years. A lot of missed opportunities and a backlog of problems.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Gabriel Levy for the heads-up

The Partisans of Suna

The Partisans of Suna
Karelian pensioners have gone into the woods to save a pine forest from logging
Alexei Vladimirov
Fontanka.ru
October 26, 2016

Сунские партизаны

Residents of the small village of Suna in Karelia’s Kondopoga District, mainly pensioners, have rebelled against the authorities, loggers, and a mining company that plans to develop a sand and gravel quarry in the scenic pine wood alongside their village. The area resembles the front lines during a war. The loggers have brought in their equipment, but have been stopped in their tracks by the pensioners, who have set up camp there. The pensioners have been keeping a 24-hour vigil in the woods for four months. Local journalists have dubbed them the “partisans of Suna.”

“Extremist” Pensioners
The conflict flared up much earlier. Saturn Nordstroy, a company specializing in the development of sand and gravel beds in Karelia, had its eye on a plot of land in the vicinity of Suna and decided to open a sand quarry there. The Karelian Nature Management and Ecology Ministry supported the idea. Permissions were received, an auction was held, and the company was awarded a license in 2011 to extract sand and gravel at the site for a period of twenty years. However, neither the officials nor the businessmen suspected they would encounter vigorous resistance from local residents, mainly pensioners, who have strongly opposed the quarry development plan and exercised their inalienable right to a decent life.

Suna Forest

There is a pine forest on the site where the businessmen have decided to dig the quarry, the only one in the whole area, a place where the locals harvest berries, mushrooms, and medicinal herbs. The wild plants are a good supplement to their tiny pensions. Once upon a time, the village of Suna was known throughout the Soviet Union for the nearby poultry farm, also called Suna. The farm was considered one of the best in the country, but in the “fat years” of the noughties, it was shut down. This has meant a slow death for the surrounding settlements. Young people have left the area in search of work, while the old people have stayed in the village to live out their lives. The money to index their pensions could not be found, but the prime minister has told them to “hang on.”

Suna Forest

The locals learned a quarry would be dug near their village only at the presentation of the development plan. Opponents of the logging of Suna Forest planned to hold a people’s assembly on May 14, but they were forced to abandon the idea. On the eve of the assembly, police visited one resident of Suna, pensioner Nina Shalayeva. According to the elderly woman, the police all but accused her of extremism.

In the autumn of last year, the Center for Extremism Prevention (Center “E”) began investigating the pensioners. One of them had rashly said it would be a good idea to block the Kola Federal Highway, which runs from St. Petersburg to Murmansk, since the village is located a kilometer and a half from the highway. That would get Moscow’s attention right away. Naturally, someone snitched to the proper authorities. Law enforcement and the secret services reacted instantly. The settlements along the Kola Highway were mobbed with large numbers of law enforcement officers, from riot police to the highway patrol. To stop the protest rally in its tracks, the pensioners were threatened with criminal charges for extremism.

“The deputy head of the Kondopoga police was polite. He gave me a warning for extremism and left. I had run into him in the spring, when I had also been accused of organizing an unsanctioned rally. The local beat cop said they had learned we were planning to block the highway, and that I was organizing the whole thing. What kind of organizer am I? There was also an FSB officer from Kondopoga. He asked to talk with me privately. He said flat out that they had specially trained people who did not like to be bothered. They would arrive, break all of us, and imprison us, despite our age,” recounted Nina Shalayeva, an anti-quarry activist.

Then the villagers suddenly had a bit of luck. In the spring of 2015, scientists from Petrozavodsk State University discovered a valuable species of lichen in the Suna Forest, Lobaria pulmonaria. It is listed in the Red Book of Russia as an endangered species: destroying species listed in the Red Book is not only forbidden by law, but is even considered a criminal offense. The scientists’ find occasioned an inspection by the prosecutor’s office in the area of the planned digging. Consequently, the Karelian Interdistrict Environmental Prosecutor’s Office issued a warning to the director of Saturn Nordstroi about the inadmissibility of violating the law while extracting sand and gravel from the South Suna Quarry. The pensioners now had grounds to sue.

Lobaria pulmonaria

Litigation
The plaintiffs demanded “the license issued to Saturn Nordstroy LLC be terminated and the company prohibited from engaging in all exploratory and economic activity that may lead to the destruction of protected plant species and their habitat in the pine forest near the village.” In April of this year, the Petrozavodsk City Court partly granted the claim lodged by the residents of Suna. The company was forbidden from carrying out exploratory and other work detrimental to endangered species discovered in the forest. However, the court could find no grounds for terminating the license for subsoil extraction issued to the company.

However, the Karelian Supreme Court has overturned the Petrozavodsk City Court’s ruling. The case is currently under investigation by the Russian Supreme Court. The pensioners think the case will be heard in December or thereabouts.

The Partisans of Suna
Immediately after the Karelian Supreme Court’s ruling, logging equipment was moved into Suna Forest. People formed a human shield to block the road to the loggers. The whole village came running to see what the noise and fracas were about. The villagers told police, businessmen, and officials of various ranks they would not surrender the forest: they would have to chop them down with it. Arriving on the scene, the police warned the pensioners they would be forced to detain them if they did not leave the logging site, because they were interfering with the work of the loggers. The pensioners set up camp and kicked off a round-the-clock vigil in the forest.

The Partisans of Suna

forwarder lager_lesorubov lesoruby_prokl_dor lesozag_tehn

“Medvedev said we had to be patient. We are patient. Just don’t take away the last thing we have! I don’t know what price we’ll have to pay, but we are not going to give up this forest, because we won’t survive without it. The [Karelian] Supreme Court’s ruling made us sad. However, it is only the latest step in the case, albeit one not in our favor at the moment. We will defend our rights!” said pensioner Tatyana Romakhina.

The logging equipment retreated, and a “pre-election” calm set in until October 7.

On the morning of October 7, the engines of the forestry equipment could again be heard droning in Suna Forest. The first on the scene was Nina Shalyaeva. She stopped the harvester.

“When I went to my shift in the forest, I saw that a harvester was running. I stood in front of their equipment and said that my fellow villagers would be right behind me, and we wouldn’t let them cut down the trees. They promised the police would come and take me to Petrozavodsk. However, after we talked, they stopped logging and drove off the lot,” said Shalyaeva.

Karelia’s Suna Forest has become something like Khimki Forest. District police officer Vitaly Ivanov, summoned by the loggers, interviewed the locals, wrote down their internal passport data, and said that if the actions of the loggers were ruled legal, the defenders of Suna Forest who impeded the logging would be forcibly removed from the allotment. In turn, the pensioners promised the entire village would rise in rebellion. The loggers conversed with the pensioners rather unceremoniously. They demanded to see papers [prohibiting them from doing their work] and told them in harsh tones to go back to the village. Everyone’s nerves were on edge. The loggers were irritated by the annoying, unplanned downtime, while the pensioners were annoyed by police’s actions. They could not understand why the police had asked them to produce their passports, written down the information in them, and tried to drive them out of the woods. In the end, the loggers retreated. Fortunately, things did not come to blows.

The partisans’ camp
nina_makkoeva
Nina Makkoyeva
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“You’ve signed up to defend the forest!”

pens_sob_zimovat shtab_kvartira sun_partiz

Meanwhile, the controversy over the forest has spread beyond Karelia. Major publications and national TV channels have covered the “partisans of Suna.” In Petrozavodsk, a grassroots movement has been organized to help the pensioners. Young people have begun standing watch in the woods along with the old people. Residents of Murmansk Region have sent them a winter-proof tent.

The pensioners are still on watch in the woods and getting ready for winter, while officials and businessmen are looking for ways to resolve the conflict.

An “Artificially Simulated” Conflict?
After a long silence, the Government of Karelia finally organized a round table on the issue. Officials believe the controversy surrounding the Suna Forest has been “artificially simulated.”

“We organized a meeting to discuss the situation with the development of a sand and gravel quarry in the South Suna subsoil resources allotment, and the reasons why the license holder has been hindered from engaging in legal activities, and to work out a solution to the conflict that has emerged.  A situation around Suna Forest really has emerged, and it is our job to figure what caused this artificially simulated social conflict. I would like to draw the attention to the people involved in the process that the question of the legality of the license holder’s activities has been considered in court, and the rulings, which have entered into force, were in their favor. Multiple studies have not established evidence that endangered plant species are being destroyed. Thus, the license holder has all legal grounds to engage in their business activities,” Alexei Pavlov, first deputy minister for nature management and ecology in Karelia, said at the outset of the round table.

Igor Fedotov, director of Saturn Nordstroy LLC, was of the same opinion.

“Everything is too seriously organized. When we presented the project in Yanishpole in May of last year, the experts told us someone was stage-managing this drama. Everyone accuses me of wanting to come in, dig everything up, destroy everything, and do nothing [for the area]. So let me do something. I want to do something good for Suna. I can donate the material I am going to be extracting. The district needs it: they do not have good sand. I can help out the local council, which is gasping for breath, just like every district in Karelia. We are building a road to the quarry, and it will still be there [after we are gone]. I am not planning to build anything there. The local residents will be the better for it. And the reforestation of the area will begin,” said Fedotov.

No decisions were made at the round table, however. Talks have been rescheduled for October 26.

All photos courtesy of Alexei Vladimirov/Fontanka.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade VZ for the heads-up

Yevgeniya Chirikova and Nadezhda Kutepova: Open Letter to Dr. Jill Stein

Yevgenia Chirikova
Yevgenia Chirikova

Yevgeniya Chirikova
Facebook
September 6, 2016

Open Letter to Dr. Jill Stein, 2016 Green Party Candidate for President of the United States

Dear Dr. Stein,

We are writing to you in the spirit of green values and principles, which include fighting for a sustainable future, defending the environment and human rights, and engaging in international solidarity. We are also writing to you as eco-activists, women and mothers.

In November of this year, you will face an important challenge which will have an impact all over the world, even far from the US. As Russian eco-activists, we are following the US presidential election with curiosity and fear. Curiosity for your democratic system and fear for the impact that the result of this election could have on our lives and the lives of our children.

As environmentalists and human rights defenders, we often support Green candidates all over the world when they run in local, national or continental elections. However, we are asking ourselves if we can support your candidacy for the Presidency of the United States of America. We have carefully read your program and your website, and we have to admit that we are deeply shocked by the position you expressed during your visit to Moscow and your meeting with Mr. Vladimir Putin.

During the last few years, the Russian authorities have continued the destruction of the rich and unique Russian environment. The Kremlin is heavily contributing to global climate change and the destruction of global biodiversity by overexploiting Russian natural resources and promoting unsafe nuclear energy. The corruption and anti-democratic behavior of the current Russian government have also led to negative impacts on Russia’s unique forests and natural heritage. Russian eco-activists and human rights defenders are also facing an increasingly repressive system which was constructed under Putin’s regime. The list of the victims of this system is unfortunately becoming longer and longer. Russian environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko spent 22 months in prison for a non-violent action. Journalist Mikhail Beketov was violently attacked in 2008, suffered serious injuries, and died in 2013. Our personal cases are also symbolic: because of our activism, and in order to protect our children, we were both forced to leave Russia and to seek political asylum in the European Union.

Nadezha Kutepova
Nadezha Kutepova

After your visit to Moscow and your meeting with Vladimir Putin you said that “the world deserve[s] a new commitment to collaborative dialogue between our governments to avert disastrous wars for geopolitical domination, destruction of the climate, and cascading injustices that promote violence and terrorism.” We agree with you. But how can this new “collaborative dialogue” be possible when Mr. Putin has deliberately built a system based on corruption, injustice, falsification of elections, and violation of human rights and international law? How is it possible to have a discussion with Mr. Putin and not mention, not even once, the fate of Russian political prisoners or the attacks against Russian journalists, artists, and environmentalists? Is it fair to speak with him about “geopolitics” and not mention new Russian laws against freedom of speech, restrictions on NGOs and activists or the shameful law that forbids “homosexual propaganda”?

By silencing Putin’s crimes you are silencing our struggle. By shaking his hand and failing to criticize his regime you become his accomplice. By forgetting what international solidarity means you are insulting the Russian environmental movement.

Dr. Stein, you still have several weeks before the election in order to clarify your position on the anti-democratic and anti-environmental elements of Putin’s regime. We sincerely hope that our voices will be heard and that our questions will not go unanswered.

Best regards,
Yevgeniya Chirikova
Nadezhda Kutepova

Yevgeniya Chirikova is a Russian environmental activist who gained renown as one of the leaders of the fight to save the Khimki Forest, outside of Moscow. She currently lives in Estonia. Nadezhda Kutepova, an anti-nuclear activist from the small town of Ozyorsk in the Urals and founder of the NGO Planet of Hopes, was forced to flee the country last year with her four children after being accused on state TV of “espionage.” Photos courtesy of East West Blog and RFE/RL, respectively. NB. This letter was very lightly edited to make it more readable. TRR

Alexei Gaskarov Denied Parole

Alexei Gaskarov on Bolotnaya Square, Moscow, May 6, 2012
Alexei Gaskarov on Bolotnaya Square, Moscow, May 6, 2012

Alexei Gaskarov Denied Parole
Grani.ru
June 17, 2016

Novomoskovsk City Court in Tula Region has denied Bolotnaya Square case convict Alexei Gaskarov’s request of parole, Gaskarov’s wife Anna Karpova [sicreported on Snob.ru.

“Novomoskovsk City Court Judge Irina Sapronova turned down the request. The spokesman for the penal colony also testified against the request, because Gaskarov had been reprimanded for not greeting a penal colony employee in March,” wrote Karpova.

According to Karpova, the penal colony gave Gaskarov a negative character report. The report noted that the convict had been issued two disciplinary reprimands in solitary confinement and two in the colony for violating the daily routine and not greeting wardens.

And yet the report states that Gaskarov has not violated the internal code of conduct or the terms of his sentence, has been working at the colony and taking part in social activities, has qualified as an electrician, and has been studying to be a welder. Gaskarov has received two commendations for hard work and good behavior. He is polite with the wardens, neat, has a positive effect on new inmates, attends events, and has no outstanding writs of enforcement, the report states.

Gaskarov was arrested in late April 2013. On August 18, 2014, Judge Natalia Susina of the Zamoskvorechye District Court in Moscow sentenced the activist to three and a half years in a medium-security penitentiary facility under Criminal Code Articles 212 (involvement in rioting) and 318.1 (use of non-threatening violence against a state official).

Gaskarov was found guilty of tugging police officer Pavel Bulychev’s arm and police officer Igor Ibatulin’s leg. Gaskarov claimed he tugged Bulychev’s arm to break a police chain that was causing the crowd to stampede. He attempted to pull Ibatulina away from a detainee lying on the ground.

Gaskarov himself was severely beaten at Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, sustaining lacerations to his head. And yet the Russian Investigative Committee refused to file criminal charges in response to his complaint.

On November 27, 2014, a panel of judges at the Moscow City Court (with Tatyana Dodonova acting as reporting judge) left the antifascist’s verdict unchanged.

On June 24, 2015, Novomoskovsk City Court Judge Elena Gorlatova denied Gaskarov parole, citing an outstanding reprimand he received while still in custody at Pretrial Detention Facility No. 5 in Moscow.

Alexei Gaskarov was born in 1985 in Zhukovsky, Moscow Region. A graduate of the Government Finance Academy, he worked at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 2010, he was arrested and charged during an investigation of the campaign to defend the Khimki Forest but was acquitted the same year.

Translated by the Russian Reader. No thanks to anyone for letting one of Russia’s finest young men rot in prison for the crime of acting like a decent human being in a horrible situation deliberately provoked by the police. Photo courtesy of bolotnoedelo.info. Read my previous reports on Alexei Gaskarov’s case and the futile efforts to free him.

Moscow: Migrants, Newcomers and Nomads

Burrow City versus Hipster Urbanism
Sociologist Victor Vakhshtayn on why Moscow is a metropolis for newcomers
Viktoria Kuzmenko
August 1, 2015
Lenta.ru

Why do Moscow residents not trust each other? Why do they not want to live here? Why is Moscow still “rubbery”? Who perverted the concept of hipster urbanism and why? Lenta.ru discussed this with Viktor Vakhshtayn, director of the Centre for Sociological Research at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) in Moscow and a professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences[.]

You have repeatedly said that one percent of the population in Moscow trusts each other, meaning this is a society of mutual distrust. But what is Moscow really like in terms of interpersonal communication?

Victor Vakhshtayn: When sociologists talk about interpersonal communication in cities they usually mention two interrelated topics.

The first is the problem of public spaces, places where urbanites meet face to face. It is thought that such spaces shapes the identity of the city, because this is where its inhabitants face each other not as colleagues, friends or drinking buddies, but namely as urbanites. In Moscow, (as, indeed, in many large Russian cities), the problem of public spaces is very serious. In recent decades, they have either been privatized and redeveloped or strategically destroyed. The example of Moscow’s Manege Square, a source of constant concern for the authorities, is telling in this instance. When the Okhotny Ryad shopping center was being designed, the architects were tasked with making it impossible for large numbers of people to gather in this space. The problem was solved elegantly. The square was made the roof of the [underground] shopping center, which, however, did not prevent protesters from spontaneously mobilizing a few years ago.

A city that has no public spaces is rigidly divided into home, work, and transit. Your life is divided among apartment, office, and subway, car or commuter train. Hence the horror of the entryways in Russian apartment buildings, and the specific perception of the city that architects dub “burrowness.” (Bedroom communities are containers for burrows, and the subway is the crossing point between apartment-as-burrow and office-as-burrow.)

Things packed for moving, outside the entrance of a residential house on the outskirts of Moscow. Photo: Grigory Sobchenko/Kommersant

In recent years, much has been done in Moscow to bring public spaces back to life, but now the process of revitalization have stalled. We partly have ourselves to blame: the theme of public space very quickly began to be perceived à la the hipster urbanism of Richard Florida and Jan Gehl, meaning in terms of things like bike lanes, lawns for doing yoga, and eating cotton candy outdoors. The people who returned public spaces as a focus of discussion and planning preferred not to recall that the prototype of such spaces is not the promenade, but the Greek agora and the Roman Forum. Khimki Forest and the field in Troparevo-Nikulino are much more public spaces than Sokolniki Park.

But what about local communities?

The problem of local communities is the second talking point about communication in the city. Two thirds of Moscow’s permanent residents were not born here. More than half of them do not own their own dwellings. The average apartment rental lasts between two and three years. In other words, this is a city of nomads constantly on the move between rented encampments and the steppes of the office blocks. That is why it is nearly impossible to answer a seemingly simple question: how many people live in Moscow? According to official statistics, the figure is twelve and a half million people. But economists have calculated that twenty million people consume food daily in Moscow. It is hardly the case that twelve million people are eating for twenty million.

So the argument that Moscow is overpopulated has to be corrected. The nomads have not overpopulated the steppe. At worst, they have trampled it.

The metaphor of a city of nomads also nicely describes Moscow’s relations with the surrounding areas. When Pavel Stepantsov and I attempted to measure the density of social ties in Moscow and Moscow Region, we discovered that an alienation belt had formed round Moscow. In the surrounding towns, no urban life as such is left. Moscow attracts all the resources (primarily, of course, human resources).

So talking about local communities, as urbanists in Moscow like to do, is just ridiculous in such circumstances. As recent studies by the Moscow Institute of Sociocultural Programs (MISCP) have shown, local ties and identities have been preserved primarily in New Moscow and Zelenograd Administrative District. But these are the areas that are the least urbanized.

Photo: Sergei Kovalyov/Russian Look

The price for the nomadic lifestyle is people’s total mistrust of each other and the place where they live. Moscow is a rare metropolis where parents see their children to the subway and ask them to call when they get downtown. People see their own neighborhoods as more dangerous than the city center, although statistics show the exact opposite: most crimes are committed in the central districts. According to our study “Eurobarometer in Russia” (RANEPA) and the latest research by MISCP, half of Muscovites do not know the neighbors on their landing, much less in their stairwell. More than sixty percent believe that returning home late at night is either dangerous or very dangerous. About a quarter of the Russian population believe that people are not such malevolent creatures, and they can generally be trusted, but in Moscow this figure tends toward zero. (More precisely, only one percent of Muscovites believe people can be trusted.)

Hence the expectations for courtyard culture and local communities as little factory for the production of trust in the city. The argument that we need to work with local communities has become the new ideological cliché (like a few years earlier the argument that we had to make this city an interesting place to live). But I would caution against such community optimism. City and neighborhood are antonyms. As a final illustration, I can give you fresh data from MISCP’s project “Mechanics of Moscow.” It turned out that people feel anxious about their places of residence if they don’t know any of their neighbors by sight and have no acquaintances living in the neighborhoods. The feeling of insecurity wanes if they recognizer neighbors by site and develop a few weak, friendly ties. But when strong ties of friendship emerge in people’s habitat and their number grows, the feeling of insecurity and mistrust of the area is again high. When neighbors and friends are the same people, it is the first sign of ghettoization. In the end, the urban community’s ultimate is the ghetto, not the courtyard.

As a person who considers himself a Muscovite, you think that twelve to twenty million residents is a normal figure for Moscow and doesn’t need to be reduced, that the city and its transport system can serve so many people?

Again, nomads cannot overpopulate the steppe. If you cannot say for sure whether twelve or twenty million people live here, it is strange to speak of overpopulation. Is twelve million people a lot? What about eleven million? How many people is normal? At what point does it begin to be a lot?

It’s not a matter of infrastructure or service, but the impact people make. The economic rise of Moscow in the 2000s was in part an effect of its overcrowding and hyperconcentration of resources.

Photo: Sergei Kovaylov/Russian Look

Okay, your stance on the issue of the number of people living in Moscow is clear. But this raises another topic: the capital’s population is constantly increasing. You yourself mentioned the economic upturn of the 2000s was triggered by the influx of new people in the city. Hence the conclusion: if Russia has this center of gravity that is constantly growing, is it worth leaving everything as it is and keep expanding the city? And then everyone will want to move to Moscow, it will expand, and in thirty years or so, it will be twice as big. In this case, is a metropolis where, thirty years from now, forty million people, for example, a problem? And is it necessary to address this issue, for example, by moving some administrative offices and headquarters of major companies, developing other cities, and making them more appealing places to live?

That’s a good question. But first, let’s deal with the economic history. There was an American urban planner Robert Moses, to whom we owe much of the look of modern New York and the whole despised ideology of modernist urbanism. Moses was a bit like a New York Luzhkov, but with a better understanding of the urban economy. He understood that the main competitive advantage of the metropolis is the hyperconcentration of heterogeneous resources in a limited area. His idols were the density, speed, and mobility that make the city a “growth machine.” The more human, economic, administrative, and cognitive resources  are compressed in one place, the higher the return, the faster the pace of urban development.

Now let me digress a bit. In 1997, a UK parliamentary committee led by Ron Dearing tried to answer the question of why Scottish universities were consistently outperforming English universities on all fronts. It turned out their competitive advantage was historical: the first (“ancient”) universities of Scotland—Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow, and St Andrews—were founded as centers of English political influence, and hence they were built in the major cities of the time. Conversely, the English universities of Cambridge and Oxford were established far from the bustle of the city, in the image of the monasteries. When rapid industrialization kicked off in the nineteenth century, urban universities stood to gain due to their location. They become resources for the economic growth of their host cities, and the cities, resources for their development. This is why ideology of hyperconcentration—having the all universities, factories, people, money, and power in one place—is not so absurd and outdated an idea as it might seem to a normal person.

Moscow today is a hypermobile city, 1870s Edinburgh and 1950s New York at the same time. I hesitate to say 1930s Vienna, although in some respects, this parallel is also not without grounds. The city’s economic growth in recent decades is not so much the cause as a consequence of the influx of migrants. Moreover, the migrants are very different: they include qualified young professionals willing to work for thirteen to fourteen hours a day to pay for food and rent, and unskilled migrant workers, who have become targets of exploitation unknown in Marx’s time. People who with a contemptuous grimace hold forth today about the “problem of migration” are usually the same people whose incomes and rapid career growth have been secured by the influx of migrants, who took the jobs they otherwise would have had to take.

Photo: Dmitry Dukhanin/Kommersant

Decentralizing Moscow is not just a utopia. It is a dystopia for a city that is a melting pot of people, money, power, and knowledge. As long it is being stoked with firewood, it can afford to grow. Forty million? Even fifty million people is possible if nothing changes. But change is inevitable. It can be triggered by both internal and external factors.

The external factors are more or less clear, and we are now seeing their effect on the city’s economy. The internal changes begin with the question, What it is like to live in a melting pot? What is it like to raise children and ensure a decent life for elderly parents in a melting pot? When such issues arise, then the stage of economic history in which the city is a machine of economic development is over.

Rising prosperity has side effects such as increased expectations for the quality of the urban environment. People no longer want to live and die in an office or on a construction site. The above-mentioned “Eurobarometer in Russia,” recorded an interesting effect two years ago: Moscow’s appeal had begun to rapidly decline, and within Moscow even more rapidly than outside Moscow. A rather remarkable group of potential migrants who put the quality of the urban environment above economic opportunities had taken shape. Economist Sergei Guriev and I then came up with a project: calculating the value of the ruble in Moscow. Because if you make money in a city where you don’t want to spend it, if you feel deeply unhappy and leave whenever possible (for example, on the weekend) for somewhere far away, it is possible that at some point you would prefer to make less money but in better conditions. And then the Moscow ruble is worth less than, for example, . the Petersburg  ruble. Alas, for obvious reasons [Sergei Guriev’s emigration from Russia – Lenta.ru], the project has not been implemented.

This, then, is an interesting point. If the capital’s appeal is shrinking, the quality of the urban environment does not satisfy people, could Moscow in thirty years become a city for migrants only? As you say, one big office, only on a larger scale, where the houses have been turned into dormitories for workers and employees, and Muscovites themselves, no longer wishing to live in this office, en masse become rentiers and depart, for example, to comfortable suburban agglomerations or Thailand? Many are already doing this now. Will Moscow 2045 be a city unfit for normal life?

No, of course not. By 2045, Moscow will be radically decentralized. All the organs of state power will have been transferred to Petersburg and Vladivostok. Left without work, migrants will disperse to other cities and countries, and the residential areas, inhabited mainly by indigenous Muscovites, will all fit inside the Boulevard Ring. People will again visit each other at home and move around the city on foot.

But what will be left for them to do when unemployment is at seventy percent? By the way, there is a remarkable study, done at Columbia University, on how the pace at which men and women walked changed when there was mass unemployment. It was found that during the most severe years of the Great Depression in the United States, men began to walk more slowly around the city, and women, more quickly. Because women, unlike men, did not have less to d0.

Town-planning scale model of Moscow at the VDNKh. Photo: Vasily Shaposhnikov/Kommersant

Both scenarios we have described, yours and mine, are probably products of a morbid Muscovite imagination and have little to do with the urban reality. But yours is more realistic, with suburban Moscow dachas playing the role of Thailand, bedroom districts standing in for workers hostels, and the very meaning of normal life in the metropolis rapidly mutating. It is this situation that brought the ideology of hipster urbanism, probably the best thing that has happened with Moscow in recent years, onto the scene. But this is a separate and a slightly sad story.

I will elaborate on the topic by mentioning two talking points. The first is changing perceptions of law enforcement under these circumstance. According to “Eurobarometer in Russia,” forty-three percent of Moscow residents believe that “the police are a threat to ordinary people, perpetrating lawlessness and violence.” (Fifty-one percent of respondents hold the opposite opinion). This is even more than in the Republic of Dagestan (34%), which holds the second place in our sample.

Another talking point is who in Moscow feels most like Muscovites. According to our data, it is not people who were born in Moscow, but those who came here over ten years ago. They have the strongest Muscovite identity. They are the most active users of the city (from museums and exhibitions to citywide celebrations). It is they, rather than the notorious hipsters, who have shown the most lively response to transformations of the urban environment in recent years.

The main thing to remember is that these people arrived in Moscow ten to twenty years ago not for a “normal” life but for the sake of self-realization. And it is they who now define Moscow.

I understand that you are not a big fan of hipster urbanism. What is bad about it?

To be honest, today I regret that a few years ago I came up with the phrase hipster urbanism. Then it was necessary to more accurately capture the object of our study: the impact on specific urban spaces of the metaphor of the city as a stage, which had gained a foothold in the language of policy makers and officials. I naively supposed that if this concept were terminologically defined in an academic paper, the risk of erosion would be minimal. However, the phrase hipster urbanism caught on first as a cliché in critical journalism, then as a self-designation. Sergei Kapkov [Moscow’s former culture head] then decided to give a lecture on hipster urbanism. Some people in Samara, responsible for the reconstruction of the embankment, authoritatively reported they were working in terms of hipster urbanism. These words can stand for anything today. They do not refer to anything specific and only vaguely link Kapkov’s Moscow and abstract hipsters in a loose associative unity.

Photo: Konstantin Kokoshkin/Russian Look

Essentially, the modern city is less an arena where social groups, stable community or collective agents clash, and more an arena where languages, models of representation, and different urban ideologies clash. The metaphor of the city is the hard core of ideology; it determines how people see urban space, and what decisions they take in regard to it. Imagine officials from two rival departments at a planning meeting on “mayor’s Tuesday” dealing with city parks. For the some of them, the city is a giant organism in which the parks have been the given the place of “green lungs.” The parks are tasked with producing oxygen. Accordingly, they should be financed in terms of the number of green spaces. For the other officials, parks are public spaces, the city’s “stages.” And they should be financed according to the number of activities staged there, the number of people who attended them, and the public eventfulness they generate. The conflict of metaphors will have real consequences for the city.

At some point, the hipster metaphors—city as stage, city as generator of experiences, city as a set of events—suddenly comes into competition with the two Big City metaphors of the twentieth century: city as growth machine (modernist urbanism) and city as generator of inequality (Marxist urbanism). Moreover, in Moscow the hipster ideology beat out the other ways of thinking about the city for a short period. This is a very curious phenomenon that remains to be researched.

My criticism of hipster urbanism concerned the rhetorical strategies it employed (the way it substituted societal [obshchestvennye] spaces with “public” [publichnye] spaces, its use of vague clichés like creative class and livability), its blind spots (its inability to discuss, for example, migration), and its superficiality and unbending utopianism.

But today, it must be recognized, it is a quite workable ideology that changed the look of the city. Now, when a very different rhetoric and semantics has engrossed the minds of city managers, hipster urbanism looks like the last conquest of public policy. It reminds us of those glorious times when decisions were still determined by the clash of metaphors and ways of thinking, and even city managers needed to answer the question, What is a city?

Under these new cultural circumstances, I will defend the achievements of hipster urbanism to the last.

People relaxing on Olive Beach in Gorky Park. Photo: Alexander Miridonov/Kommersant

How do you think the city has changed under the impact of newcomers from the Russian provinces and migrants?

That is a funny way of putting the question. You used the words migrants (apparently from Central Asia) and newcomers (apparently from the provinces). I do not want to upset you, but the newcomers are also migrants, and the migrants are also newcomers. And, given the statistics I cited above, the category of migrants and newcomers must encompass two thirds of the adult population of Moscow, including the Russian president and the mayor of the capital. I find it difficult to answer the question of how their migration has impacted the image of our city.

In general, the notion of the city and migrants as two opposing forces (something like the Eternal City of Rome and the barbarians besieging it) is mistaken, to put it mildly. Because the city equals migration. This just applies to Moscow a bit more than to other Russian metropolises.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade ASK for the heads-up.