In the early 2000s, our computer broke down. There were few computer repairmen back then, and a passing acquaintance suggested her husband for the job. The young man came over and quickly fixed everything. Over tea it transpired that he worked at the FSB.
This was still amazing then, so we naively asked him how he could work in such a place, for the heirs of criminals and all that. And this twenty-five-year-old man literally said, “They were right to shoot people. They just should have done it more quietly.”
Now the whole country from top to bottom is run by people from the FSB. Of course, they want to ban Memorial. What need is there to remember if it was “right” to shoot people? What need is there to defend human rights if it is “right” to imprison people now?
The liquidation of Memorial is just the final whistle: the boat is leaving the dock. We’ll still put up a bit of a fight, of course. What else can we do? But all the same.
The acquaintance soon divorced the man because he had begun beating their child.
The document, above, is from the family archive. Roman Troshchenko, a priest, worked as a physician’s assistant in an orphanage after serving time in the camps. He was shot, allegedly, for “spreading rumors among the children and the populace that the Soviet regime would fall and the fascists would come to power.”
Today, September 1, is the Day of Knowledge — the first day of school — in Russia and some other post-Soviet countries. As it happens, it was sometime around the Day of Knowledge thirty-one years ago that I began studying Russian. My first Russian teacher was a Hungarian woman named Zsuzsa, at Portland State University. She was only the first of many wonderful guides to the language over the next five or six years (the time it took me to achieve relative fluency), including Nora, Sergei, Zoya, and an amazing Chinese grad student who explained Russian grammar — in Russian (speaking English in class was forbidden at UDub) — better than anyone I’ve ever met; all the lovely, patient and generous lecturers and instructors at the Herzen Institute, who were selflessly dedicated to their profession at a time when working conditions for teachers in Russia couldn’t have been worse; the incomparable Katya Vidre, who introduced me to the work of Alexei Khvostenko and Sergei Dovlatov and so many other things; and countless other Russians, especially the cast of bohemians who helped me with my thesis project, a translation and line-by-line commentary of Joseph Brodsky’s long poem “Predstavlenie.”
Although you might not always guess it from this blog and its prevailingly grim subject matter, learning (and reading) Russian has been immensely liberating. Becoming a Russian reader and speaker has made me a different person, a person capable of seeing the world, however darkly or brightly, through other eyes.
I was reminded of this tremendous gift and the sheer joy of plunging into a new language by the four “Russian pedagogical moments” below. I hope they inspire some of you to learn Russian. At very least, you can read through this post and learn your first twenty-seven words and phrases in the language.||| TRR
“V or B? Fill in the missing letters.” This is a worksheet made by the RFL teacher extraordinaire Natalia Vvedenskaya for the immigrant children she teaches at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center. The words are banan (“banana”), yabloko (“apple”), vaza (“vase”), kolbasa (“sausage”), divan (“couch,” “sofa”), sobaka (“dog”), rebyonok (“child”), and morkovka (“carrot”). This was originally posted on Ms. Vvedenskaya’s Facebook page.
The words and phrases on the second page of the worksheet are velosiped (“bicycle”), avtobus (“bus”), baton (“baguette”), volshebnaya palochka (“magic wand”), gruzovik (“truck, lorry”), banka s vareniem (“jar of jam”), rubashka (“shirt”), and baklazhan (“aubergine, eggplant”).
Some of Bridget Barbara’s favorite Russian words are arkhiologicheskikh (“archaeological”), zharko (“hot”), delala (“[a female subject] was doing/did”), kavychki (“quotation marks”), prikol’no (“cool”), kuda (“to where”), sovremennyi (“modern,” “contemporary”), ping-pong (“ping-pong”), bifshteks (“beef steak”), and dostoprimechatel’nosti (“sights,” “landmarks”).
Vadim F. Lurie, “Russia for the Sad.” Posted on the photographer’s Facebook page on August 13, 2021, and reproduced here with his kind permission. The textbook in the photo is open to pages headed with the word grust‘, “sadness.” As Mr. Lurie informs me, “The boy is examining a special book about emotions and discussing it with his mother.”
Natalia Vvedenskaya playing language bingo with her pupils at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center. She writes: “We discussed transport today. Bingo is still the best game for all levels of knowledge of the language and ages. Only it’s very exciting. The screaming is fearsome.”
I borrowed this educational comic strip from the Facebook page of Natalia Vvedenskaya, whose name Russian Readers with long memories will recognize as a Petersburg historic preservationist and grassroots activist whose passionate writings have been featured on three occasions in the last four years. Ms. Vvedenskaya is also a marvelous teacher of the Russian language who enjoys sharing on social media the games, comics, and other teaching aids she herselfs draws, builds, and devises for making the language more accessible to her pupils and learning it more fun. In this case, her task was to make the onerous business of dividing words into syllables into a little adventure.
While I had the honor and pleasure to study Russian with many inspiring teachers, a little part of me wishes I could unlearn Russian and starting studying all over again with her. I thank her for permission to reproduce this comic strip here.
Translated by the Russian Reader. To help me continue producing this website you can donate at your discretion atpaypal.me/avvakum
Some of my friends say the regime will collapse soon, while others argue it is only picking up a head of steam. It occurred to me yesterday that we mistakenly use the word “regime” when talking about the processes taking place in our midst. A regime can last a very long time, and crackdowns, no matter how ridiculous or chaotic, are not symptoms of its demise.
Since ancient times, the state has had only two fundamental functions: defending borders and administering justice (making laws). Everything else—medical care, education, pensions, and bike lanes—is a recent superstructure. Political regimes can be different, from totalitarian to democratic, and they can forego treating people when they are ill, teaching them, and paying them pensions while still maintaining stability. But it must perform the basic functions; otherwise, it stops being a state.
In Russia, on the contrary, one of these foundations has been completely destroyed over the past decades. I am not talking about crackdowns. There has never been any justice either for so-called dissidents or people who randomly fall victim to the state apparatus. People understood this in the Soviet Union, and they understand it now: you fight the law, and the law whacks you upside the head. The majority of Russians do not dispute the state’s right to crack down on the opposition or meddle in the affairs of other countries.
I am talking, instead, about ordinary life and everyday justice, about what we find in the Code of Hammurabi, the Law of the Twelve Tables, and Yaroslav’s Law—about the promises the state makes to citizens, about the fact that you cannot just be beaten, robbed, and wrongfully accused for no reason at all.
And what about Russia? What should we think when, for example, as a friend told me, a youth gang orders food deliveries and then beats up and robs the delivery people, and they have been running this scam for nearly a year, but the police simply refuse to do anything about it? When a person cannot find protection from his bully of neighbor, who shoots at his windows? When you go to court because traffic cops confiscated your driving license for no reason and then solicited a bribe to give it back to you, and the trial drags on for a year and a half? When you even win the case but the time you spent on it was worth much more in monetary terms than the bribe itself?
I made a point of giving more or less innocuous examples. Any of us knows several such stories. What is the point of doing public opinion polls and asking people whether they trust Putin? Ask people whether they trust the Russian courts and Russian law enforcement agencies. Their answer will show you the depths of the disaster. The Russian state has forfeited its basic function, and so we are slowly returning to the state of nature. Scattered tribes roam the landscape, and whether you are safe or not depends on the biceps of your fellow tribesmen. Strong communities can defend their members, while loners and weaklings die off.
The current outrage at the prison sentence handed down to an actor is not about crackdowns, but about the degradation of the state’s basic functions. This protest will only grow because the state has been vanishing before our eyes. All that remains are armed men who have monopolized power. What will be next? No one knows.
Two Germans, a respected professor, and his wife and colleague, had supplied the event with its international credentials. For over twenty years, they have invested both their money and their labor in research in Tuva. They had become fans of the place. They had made friends. They were friends to numerous local zoologists and zoologists from other parts of Russia. The professor is an honorary member of the Russian Theriological Society, an affiliate of the Russian Academy of Sciences. For the conference, they minted very nice commemorative medals, paying for them with their own money, to present to their respected Russian colleagues.
Local officials of the Russian Ministry of Science and Higher Education did not let them into the conference at the university and deleted their papers from the conference program. They were not even allowed into the building, all because of Kotyukov’s decree about interactions with foreign scientists. It is clear the decree can and should be roundly ignored regardless of whether it is legitimate or not. It is equally clear that many people will not ignore it because of the stupid need to stay on the safe side and, so, the decree will do what it was meant to do.
It is an utterly shameful disgrace.
Thanks to Natalia Vvedenskaya for her permission to translate and publish her remarks. Thanks to Victoria Andreyeva for bringing Andrey Tchabovsky’s remarks to my attention. Translated by the Russian Reader
I have lived nearly all my life in a neighborhood built in the mid 1980s and nicknamed by locals the “four fools district” in honor of the street names: Mentors Avenue, Shock Workers Avenue, Pacesetters Avenue, and Enthusiasts Avenue. The neighborhood is populated with late-Soviet cookie-cutter buildings: a block of 16- and 14-storey residential buildings, a supermarket, school, and kindergarten, following by another block of identical residential buildings, a post office, medical clinic, an identical supermarket, and identical school.
But sometimes you encounter remnants of the previous civilization among the gigantic prefab Lego sets.
“Zhernovka, a Forgotten Eighteenth-Century Suburban Manor on the Okhta River” was the title of an article published by Nikolai Lansere. The article actually reopened the landmark to architecture lovers. You could write an article about Zhernovka with the exact same title now, nearly a hundred years later, because the estate, which has miraculously survived on the border of an industrial park and high-rise housing district, has been abandoned and forgotten once again.
The renowned architect Giacomo Quarenghi eretcted the manor’s main building in the 1790s. It was built for Gavrila Donaurov, an official in the chancellery of Emperor Paul I. Quarenghi also built an entrance gate and pavilion-cum-pier on the banks of the Okhta, which have not survived. The estate was surrounded by a landscape park.
In the mid nineteenth century, the estate was taken over by the Bezobrazov family, and so it is also referred to as the Bezobrazov Dacha.
Zhernov’s plight after 1917 was tragic and typical. First, it served as a club for workers, then a warehouse, and then a cowshed. The interiors were destroyed to make way for a dormitory, after which “the building’s architecture was disfigured by a reconstruction that was not completed.” The landscape park disappeared after the war.
In 1973, Zhernovka was transferred to Orgprimtvyordsplav, a Soviet enterprise that worked with restorers for ten years to revive the building. Extensions were demolished, the pond was dredged, new trees were planted, and two main rooms, the parlor and a bedroom, were restored.
In 2014, the Soviet company’s successor, Kermet, Ltd., ceded its rights to the estate. Since then, the building has been managed by the Agency for the Management and Use of Historical and Cultural Landmarks (AUIPIK), which has been trying to find a new owner for it, so far unsuccessfully.
However, if you compare Zhernovka with a nearby eighteenth-century landmark on the Okhta, the Utkin Dacha, Zhernovka looks halfways decent. Although the building is not in use, it is guarded and heated, and work has been underway to reinforce the foundations.
By the way, the park is open to visitors in the afternoons. You just have to push open the impressive gate with the coded lock on it.
My excursion was arranged by Open City, a project for familiarizing Petersburgers with the city’s cultural heritage and opening the doors of historical and cultural landmarks, many of which are inaccessible to the general public for various reasons.
The editors of GP thank Open City for the chance to visit the estate. They also thank tour guide and Okhta landmarks researcher Natalia Stolbova.
I realize everyone is already sick to death of the topic of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and that today is a weekend day to boot. But I’ve been mulling this text over in my head for three days and struggling with the desire to write it down. I’ve been persuading myself there are lots of smart people aroiund who will write what needs to be written. But I can’t get the arguments out of my head, so I’ve given in to my desire.
Folks, especially non-Petersburgers, who note melancholically, “Just give it back to the Church. Can’t you spare it?” really amuse me.
Well, no, we can’t spare it.
1. The ROC [Russian Orthodox Church] is not the Vatican, and all comparisons of St. Isaac’s Cathedral with St. Peter’s Basilica are irrelevant in this context. The ROC not only doesn’t know how to preserve architectural landmarks. It doesn’t want to preserve them. It wants to use them, and it preserves them the same way you maintain your apartment, for example. Imagine you’ve decided to put in parquet floors or throw out old furniture. Who is going to stop you? It’s your own business. You can figure out yourself what’s best for you: the new parquet or the old linoleum. This is basically how many church leaders and believers look at it. They believe an icon, however timeworn and whatever the destructive effects shifts in humidity, vibrations, etc., have on it, it should be in a church, not in a museum. Yes, it is has to be handled carefully and respectfully, yet it can be carried in a outdoor religious procession and venerated by parishioners kissing it. If something has happened to it, it means it was God’s will. A new copy of the icon will have to be ordered. I’m not exaggerating. I’m trying to explain that notions of “humanity’s heritage” and “universal value” are empty phrases for most members of the church community. They don’t understand how church property can be the business of unbelievers. Moreover, from their perspective, the right government should be Orthodox. It should maintain churches the way it maintains hospitals and schools.
The problem is not that we know of numerous cases in which the ROC has treated architectural landmarks and museum communities barbarically. The problem is the Church’s leadership has not publicly condemned any of these incidents. It doesn’t condemn them, because it doesn’t consider them important or it even approves them. So it will happen again and again, and heritage preservation authorities are basically powerless.
This is an answer to the exclamation, “Give back to the Church what was taken from it in 1917!”
Parents are given the right to raise their children. But if they treat them irresponsibly, hit them, don’t get them medical care when they’re ill, don’t feed them, etc., society acknowledges the need to restrict the rights of such parents. A hundred years ago, however, this would not have occurred to anyone. But our notions of violence, the value of human life, and children’s rights have changed. Our notions of culture and its right to protection have also changed. The ROC does not guarantee the safety and security of architectural landmarks in the sense regarded as normal in modern society. We cannot hand architectural landmarks over to the Church, at least not until the Church changes.
2. Why should the ROC be the main user of St. Isaac’s Cathedral? If we leave aside money and “historical justice,” the only reason could be to hold services on a full scale—not in the chapel, but in the central nave, for example, with the museum closed on feast days and so on. But think about it. Since the Patriarch can force [Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko] to give back a church, then of course the Patriarch could also obtain the best conditions for church services. Meaning this is not the issue.
The issue, of course, is money and “status.”
So we have a public museum. We know everything about it: how much money it earns, how much money it spends and what it spends its money on, and how much it pays in taxes. And we have the Church. We don’t know anything about it, and that will go on being the case. No, we do know one thing: it doesn’t pay taxes. So we won’t be able to find out whether the Church has the money for routine repairs and restoration work or not. Going back to my first point, the Church might not think that restoration is necessary. So the city will always have to have the necessary sum of money for repairs on hand. Plus there are the taxes, the taxes the cathedral museum pays now and won’t be paying in the same amount after the cathedral’s transfer to the Church. All this means that the “free” entrance with which the church community has been tempting us, will be free for everyone except Petersburgers. Every Petersburger will pay (via the city’s budget), regardless of whether he or she has visited the cathedral or not.
It would be nifty, beautiful, and right if entry to St. Isaac’s Cathedral were free to everyone. But we can’t afford it. A normal family doesn’t sell its only home to buy a Mercedes to show off to the neighbors, but drives a car it can afford or takes public transport. Similarly, Petersburgers cannot afford, for the time being, We should recognize this and live within our means.
Several hundred people rallied outside a St. Petersburg landmark cathedral on January 13 to protest plans to give it to the Russian Orthodox Church.
The local governor this week announced the city was transferring the iconic St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Orthodox Church, sparking a rash of protests in the former imperial city.
Protesters flocked to Isaakiyevskaya Square near St. Isaac’s to protest the move on the evening of January 13. The cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has been an important museum since Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. More than 3.5 million tourists visit it every year.
“The Church should know its place!” one placard read.
Police confiscated one poster but did not otherwise block the protest.
TASS reported that activists have gathered as many as 160,000 signatures on a petition to revoke the local government’s decision to give away the cathedral.
The signatures include people from Moscow, Yekaterinburg, and Krasnodar as well as St. Petersburg, TASS said.
The church takeover of the landmark is part of a growing trend toward social conservatism in Russia. President Vladimir Putin has appealed to traditional values and urged citizens to eschew Western liberalism.