Three Years Later: Suicide by Crimea

Suicide by Crimea
Nikolay Klimenyuk
oDR
March 17, 2017

As long as Russia maintains its grip on the Ukrainian peninsula, significant changes for the better at home are impossible.

In the three years that have passed since the annexation of Crimea, a consensus has taken shape in Russia. Everything having to do with the Ukrainian peninsula is Russia’s internal affair, and far from the most important one.

The “accession” of Crimea has even quite succesfully happened in the heads of the regime’s opponents. In November 2016, while arguing on Facebook with Crimean Tatar journalist Ayder Muzhdabaev, Mikhail Khodorkovsky expressed a stance then supported by many publicly prominent liberals, including activists and intellectuals. Russian society, he argued, wants to deal with other problems. The opposition’s biggest task is regime change, but returning Crimea to Ukrainian jurisdiction by democratic means would be impossible because public opinion would be opposed. Crimea is not mentioned at all in Alexei Navalny’s 2018 presidential campaign platform.

Russian media outlets generally considered “liberal” (these media usually eschew the word “opposition”) havealso swallowed the annexation and most of the rhetoric surrounding it without a peep. TV Rain, RBC (even before its top editors were replaced), and the online Meduza, which operates out of Latvia and is not not subject to Russian laws, have all long routinely called and depicted Crimea as part of Russia. The standard explanation—it is required by Russian law, and insubordination is fraught with penalties—sounds like an excuse. The law does not require that questions about Crimea be included in a quiz on knowledge of Russian cities (which was amended after public criticism) or that reporters term the annexation a “reunification” (Meduza edited the latter term to “absorption.”)

At the same time, Russian reporters usually have no problem demonstratively violating Ukrainian laws (which require them to enter the occupied territory through the checkpoint at Perekop) and flying to Crimea from Russia (as Deutsche Welle reporter Yuri Resheto did), because it’s cheaper, faster, and simpler, and because Ukraine’s rules are cumbersome, inconvenient, and nonbinding.

After that, you can write critical reports on human rights violations in Crimea till the cows come home, but it won’t change what matters. The voluntary observance of inconvenient Ukrainian rules is tantamount to acknowledging Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea, and hardly anyone in Russia wants to do that.

In fact, the seizure of Crimea has been the cause of many pressing problems in Russia that have been on the Russian opposition’s agenda. It has laid bare peculiarities of Russian society that existed longer before the attack on Ukraine.

For example, not only did the extent of imperialist moods become clear but also Crimea’s place in how Russians see themselves as a society and a nation. The imperial myth, still alive and well in Russia, was concocted during Catherine the Great’s reign. From the moment they were implemented, Peter the Great’s reforms had provoked a mixed response. They smacked of “sycophancy,” and modeling the country on Holland seemed somehow petty.

Catherine, on the contrary, conceived a great European power, rooted in antiquity, Byzantine’s direct heir, the Third Rome, a Europe larger than Europe itself. Her ambitious Southern Project, which involved defeating Turkey, uniting all the Orthodox countries in a single empire, and installing her grandson the Grand Duke Constantine on the throne in Constantinople, was brought low by political reality. The only one of her great fantasies she made come true was seizing the Crimean Khanate, in 1783.

The conquest was extremely atypical of Russia. A troublesome neighbor was not subjugated. Rather, the annexed lands were completely reimagined and rewritten. The rewriting was attended by the first mass expulsion of the Crimean Tatars. They did not fit at all into the pictures of the radiant past that Grigory Potemkin was painting in reality on the annexed lands. Crimea was resettled with Plato and Aristotle’s Orthodox descendants: Pontic Greeks, Great Russians, and Little Russians (i.e., Ukrainians). Naturally, all these particulars have been forgotten long since. What has not been forgotten is Crimea’s central place in the self-consciousness of a “great European nation,” as manifest, for example, in the absurd, endlessly repeated expression, “Crimea has always been Russian.”

The saying perfectly illustrates the peculiarities of historical memory in Russia. Crimea’s current “Russianness” is the outcome of over two hundred years of the uninterrupted genocide and displacement of the “non-Russian popuation,” which culminated during the Second World War. After the two Soviet deportations of 1941 and 1944 (ethnic Germans, Greeks, Bulgarians, Italians, Armenians, Karaites, and Crimean Tatatrs were deported), losses during battles, and the Nazi extermination of Jews and Crimeans, only a third of Crimea’s pre-war inhabitants were left. It was resettled with people from Russia and Ukraine, especially by military officers and veterans of the Party and the secret services.

Naturally, few people in Russia today regard Crimea as a conquered and ravaged country, in which a full-fledged state existed until relatively recently, an indigenous culture was long maintained, and Russians were never the ethnic majority even during the lifetimes of the present elder generation.

Regarding Crimea as a territory, not a society, and treating Crimeans as an annoying inconvenience, was a habit in Catherine’s times and has survived into the present. The formal excuse for the Russian incursion was the “defense of Crimea’s Russophone population,” and yet the “Crimea is ours” attitude of Russians to the peninsula’s residents has been quite skeptical from the get-go. They imagine the main business of Crimeans is leaching off tourists, and the only thing that attracts them about Russia is high wages.

Moreover, this opinion is common across the entire political spectrum. Sergei Parkhomenko, a liberal journalist and public figure, expressed it in a very telling way.

“If first you take five days to explain to the population of Crimea that if they return to Ukraine’s jurisdiction, their wages and pensions will be increased, and they’ll also be permitted to build even more chicken coops for holidaymakers in the coastal zone, and only then you ask them to vote in a referendum, 95% will vote for going back. […]  These people have proved they could not care less what country they belong to. And if there is anyone for whom I now feel not an ounce of sympathy as I read about how they are being fooled, robbed, milked, and put under the rule of gangsters pretending to be officials and bosses, it is the population of Crimea.”

The massive support of Russians for the annexation has much more serious and immediate consequences than a display of deeply rooted chauvinism. Having signed off on “Crimea is ours,” Russians have deemed their own power above the law and sanctioned its use in violating all laws and treaties for the sake of higher interests or “justice.” The Russian authorities had behaved this same way previously, but now they have obtained the relevant mandate from society. Quite naturally, the crackdown following the seizure of Crimea has been chockablock with spectacular acts of lawlessness.

One such act was the demolition of commercial kiosks and pavilions in Moscow, which happened despite legalized property rights and court rulings. There was nothing accidental about the fact the Moscow authorities justified their actions by citing the law adopted for settling real estate disputes in Crimea. And the twenty-year-sentence handed down to Oleg Sentsov set a new ceiling for verdicts in political trials. Before Crimea, activists would get a dvushechka (two years) for especially vigorous protests. After Crimea, the Russian authorities have been sentencing people for reposts on VK and holding solo pickets.

Actually, any regime that tasks itself with establishing the rule of law in Russia will first have to annul this “mandate to lawlessness.” The Russian opposition’s attitude to Crimea shows the rule of law is not among its priorities at all. Bewitched by the figure of Putin, the opposition does not regard regime change as a product of the rule of law. The fact that it cannot offer a realistic scenario for regime change is not a problem in itself. Russia’s currrent regime does not presuppose a peaceful change of power. Systemic change might happen as it did in the Soviet Union, at the behest of the bigwigs and under the impact of external circumstances: the state of the economy, public sentiment, foreign policy factors.

The opposition’s most serious problem is that it doesn’t have a meaningful outline of what would come next.

If we believe the alternative to Putin is neither Navalny, Khodorkovsky nor anyone else, but a democratic state based on the rule of law, there are two obstacles in our way: Crimea and Chechnya. The opposition has no vision of how to establish control over Chechnya and incorporate it into Russia’s legal system, but it is possible in theory, at least. There is no such possibility with Crimea. It is impossible to hope for international recognition of the peninsula as part of Russia, and if we keep regarding it as part of Russia, it will thus remain a legal anomaly. Moreover, no rule rule of law is even formally possible without observance of international law.

When discussing Crimea, the Russian opposition evinces a notion of democracy that differs little from Putin’s, although it is consonant with the rhetoric of Donald Trump and the European populists: that democracy is rule based on majority support and not burdened by the observance of laws, procedures, and international obligations. Khodorkovsky, for example, considers “democratic procedure” not the restoration of law, but the adoption of a decision on Crimea based on the opinion of the majority, which, allegedly, is against giving Crimea back to Ukraine. Navalny has suggested holding a new, “normal” referendum.

Yet what the majority really thinks, whether there is such a thing as public opinion on any issue and how to measure it, obviously means nothing at all either to Khodorkovsky, Navalny or many other members of the opposition. By the same token, since Putin is supported by the majority of the Russian population, there is nothing for the opposition to do at all. All these contradictions can be eliminated only by unconditionally recognizing both the illegality of Crimea’s annexation and the total impossibility of keeping it in the Russian Federation on any grounds.

With Crimea in tow, Russia has no positive alternative to the current regime. And as long as the Russian opposition is concerned only about regime change and avoids discussing Crimea, the only thing it can offer is a Putinist Russia sans Putin. Whoever ends up in his place, however, the changes won’t be too noticeable.

Nikolay Klimenyuk writes about politics and culture in Germany and Russia. He was an editor at Forbes Russia, Bolshoi Gorod, and other periodicals. He has lived in Berlin since 2014 and writes for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and other German mass media. Translation and photo by the Russian Reader

“The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov” (Panel Discussion, Berlinale 2017)

Panelists: Agnieszka Holland (Director), Askold Kurov (Director), Mike Downey (Producer), Dmitry Dinze (Lawyer of Oleg Sentsov), Natalya Kaplan (Cousin of Oleg Sentsov), Sylvia Schreiber (Translator)

Thanks to Alexei Markov for the heads-up

___________________________

oleg-sentsov
Oleg Sentsov. Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

Berlin Film Review: ‘The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov’
Owen Gleiberman
Variety
February 11, 2017

A documentary about the Ukranian filmmaker imprisoned for his support of Crimean independence is a scrappy testament to the true nature of the Vladimir Putin regime.

It has to rank as one of Donald Trump’s most shocking statements — which is really saying something. Asked by the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly how he could respect Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom O’Reilly characterized as a “killer,” Trump replied, “There are a lot of killers. Boy, you think our country’s so innocent?” Over the last year, Trump has presented himself as a racist, a bully, a manhandler of women, a mocker of the disabled, and a loony-tunes conspiracy theorist. But whoever thought he’d come off sounding like the second coming of Noam Chomsky? The notion that the United States government routinely engages in “killer” behavior commensurate with that of what Russia does is, of course, a left-wing idea. (Just ask Oliver Stone, another Putin apologist who should know better.) But Trump put a new spin on it: Whatever the motivation (his desire to tilt the axis of global power against China? Burying those rumored water-sports videos?), he was so intent to claim that his new BFF Vladimir is, you know…not so bad that he was willing to hijack 50 years of radical academic moral relativism by reducing it to a Trump sound bite.

All of which makes me wish that Trump would sit down and watch “The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov,” a documentary that just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s a peek into how the Russian state actually operates, and though it raises more questions than it answers, it leaves you with a shuddering chill. The central figure, Oleg Sentsov, is a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker known for his 2011 movie “Gamer.” In Russia, it made him a directorial star, but during the 2014 Crimean crisis he became part of the AutoMaidan movement, devoted to keeping Ukraine — and, specifically, Crimea — independent of Russia. He delivered food and supplies to Ukrainian servicemen, but on May 11, 2014, he was arrested and charged with organizing a terrorist cell, plotting terrorist attacks, and trafficking in illegal arms. He was held indefinitely and is now serving a 34-year prison sentence in Siberia. (The movie ends with clips of that Siberian prison. Have you ever seen Siberia? It looks like … Siberia.)

We’re shown footage of Sentsov in TV interviews during his moment of indie-film fame and then, a few years later, speaking from behind bars in the courtroom (yes, there’s a jail cell in court). Tall and husky, with dark cropped hair, popping eyes, and a grin of goofy optimism, he’s the father of two teenagers, and if you were looking for someone to play him in a movie, it might be Bradley Cooper; he has that kind of rubbery resilience. A number of noted directors — Wim Wenders, Agnieszka Holland — show up to testify to his status as a filmmaker.

In “The Trial,” Sentsov embraces his role as a political prisoner, yet the movie reveals what the stakes are: When he talks to his daughter on the phone, we see the price paid by any dissident — not just the personal agony of incarceration, but the ripped bonds of family. Sentsov was subjected to torture in prison, all to produce a confession to activities that never happened. (He didn’t confess.) The reason “The Trial” is a valuable document, even though it’s not an especially good movie, goes right back to Putin. It was Sentsov’s status as an art-house celebrity that made him a target in Russia. The regime arrested many “terrorists,” but he was held up as an example to the elite, intellectual class. The message was: If we can do this to him, we can do it you. The real terrorism came from the government, a way of driving fear into those who might speak out.

Russia swims in a daily ice bath of fake news (and real-news clampdown), which is why documentaries have been some of the only vehicles for revealing Vladimir Putin’s thug tactics. Ten years ago, the barely seen film “Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko File” was the first inquiry to amass serious data suggesting that what Bill O’Reilly said about Putin is true. In “The Trial,” we see extended clips of Putin addressing the Sentsov case (a member of the Russian Parliament bows and scrapes before Putin so nervously it’s like seeing an outtake from “The Godfather, Part II”), but Putin, in public, is no glowering fascist. He comes off as impeccably civilized and almost geekishly seductive. He makes you want to be his friend. That, of course, is his version of smoke and mirrors.

Directed and shot by Askold Kurov, a Russian filmmaker as brave as his subject, “The Trial” is a thrown-together movie that doesn’t have much of an arc. It’s 75 minutes long, and to be brutally honest, I would have been just as happy watching Sentsov’s story compressed into a “60 Minutes” segment. Yet whatever its flaws, a movie like this one is necessary. It speaks the truth about the Russian regime — the truth that’s buried by Putin, and now buried by our own president, who only dreams that he could do the same thing to his enemies. More than ever, global film culture needs every documentary that lets you stare into the face of oppression with eyes wide open.

Berlin Film Review: ‘The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov’
Reviewed at Cinemaxx (Berlin Film Festival), February 10, 2017. Running time: 75 min.

Production
A Ceská televise, Prag production in cooperation with the Polish Film Institute.

Crew
Producers: Max Tuula, Maria Gavrilova, Dariusz Jablonski, Izabela Wójcik, Violetta Kaminska.

Crew
Director: Askold Kurov. Oren Moverman. Camera (color, widescreen): Kurov. Editor: Michal Leszczylowski.

With
Oleg Sentsov, Vladimir Putin, Agnieszka Holland, Wim Wenders.

Journalist Vladislav Ryazantsev Assaulted in Rostov-on-Don

Vladislav Ryazantsev

Anton Naumlyuk
January 10, 2016
Facebook

Vladislav Ryazantsev has been assaulted in Rostov-on-Don. Vlad and I covered the entire Sentsov-Kolchenko trial and Nadiya Savchenko’s Donetsk saga together. I arrived in Rostov the first time a couple of days before the Sentsov trial to get my bearings. The next day, I was joined by cameraman Nikita Tatarsky, and we shot a short report about how even the local opposition knew nothing about the trial that was going to take place in their city. Amongst the people we interviewed was Vlad.

Later on, he, a journalist from Mediazona, and I were often the only reporters at the hearings in Donetsk City Court. When people say that Ukrainian media did a great job of covering the Savchenko trial, I recall Vlad sitting alone in the courtroom with his laptop. Mediazona’s correspondent and I would be sitting just as alone in the room where the trial was broadcast. It wasn’t always like this, of course, but it happened.

I would be remiss not to mention the fact that the attack was literally preceded by threats from Chechnya made to the editor-in-chief of Caucasian Knot, for which Vlad wrote. Another Knot correspondent, Zhalaudi Geriev was sentenced in Chechnya to three years in prison for narcotics possession a day before he was scheduled to attend a conference in Moscow entitled “The Media and the Constitutional Court.” You get my drift? It’s not a fact that the attack was connected with the threats. Maybe the local Center “E” guys did their best: they are active in Rostov. Maybe it was pro-Russian militants and mercenaries, who have flooded through Rostov on their way to Donbass. Vlad had publicly taken a pro-Ukrainian stance, and he had a falling out with Sergei Udaltsov‘s leftists and his wife over this point. Maybe it was these leftists who got to him. Whatever the case, threats and aggression towards journalists, made by people who enjoy a special extrajudicial status, open the way to unchallenged violence by anyone whomsoever.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Read more about the attack (in Russian): “Caucasian Knot Journalist Attacked by Unknown Assailants in Rostov,” Radio Svoboda, January 10, 2017

Johnny Depp and Oleg Sentsov

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“Oleg Sentsov is a Ukrainian filmmaker. When Crimea was annexed by Russia, he became a prime target to make an example of it in order to stifle dissent. He’s been tortured and sentenced to 20 years in prison, but Oleg is not backing down.” Image and text courtesy of Represent and The Voice Project.

Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s are just around the corner. This year, think about giving your friends and loved ones t-shirts, produced by The Voice Project, featuring the mug shots of Johnny Depp, Nadya Tolokonnikova, Peter Gabriel, Tom Morello, Ana Tijoux, and Alex Ebert.

This is their way of bringing attention to the plights of political prisoners around the world, including Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, now serving a twenty-year sentence in Siberia on trumped-up charges of “terrorism.”

I’ll definitely be buying the Johnny Depp t-shirt. Not only has Mr. Depp been one of my favorite actors ever since the days of 21 Jump Street, he has chosen to draw attention to Mr. Sentsov’s imprisonment.

artists-800x520
Image courtesy of The Voice Project and The Kyiv Post

The Voice Project speaks up for those who speak out, for those imprisoned around the globe for having raised their voice in dissent. We have to support each other, no matter the distance, no matter the borders. You never know when you’ll need the same in return.

For singers Trần Vũ Anh Bình and Nûdem Durek, filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, writer Dawit Isaak and poet Ashraf Fayadh, these individuals have fought for change, used their voices to speak out, and are paying with their freedom and their lives. We owe it to them to speak up now on their behalf.

Source: Represent

Masha Alyokhina: Speech in Parliament

olegsentsov
Oleg Sentsov at the 2012 Rotterdam Film Festival. Photo courtesy of De Telegraaf and nvt

Masha Alyokhina
Speech in the British Parliament
October 10, 2016

Because of the Pussy Riot case, I spent two years in prison. In recent months, I have been performing every night on stage as an actress with the Belarus Free Theatre. Every night, I have been trying to convey to the audience part of my life in prison. I do this so people understand and experience the mundane hellishness all political prisoners go through in Russia.

One such prisoner is Oleg Sentsov.

Oleg is a well-known, talented Ukrainian filmmaker. Perhaps he could have been debuting a new movie at the film festival taking place in London this week, but instead he is isolated in a penal colony in faraway Siberia. After being tortured, he was sentenced to twenty years in a maximum security prison on charges of terrorism. He was accused of planning to blow up a monument to Lenin in Crimea. The charges are absurd, total nonsense.

Masha Alyokhina speaking in Parliament, October 16, 2016. Photo courtesy of her Facebook page
Masha Alyokhina speaking in the British Parliament, October 16, 2016. Photo courtesy of her Facebook page

We need to stop talking and start acting. We need to get Oleg Sentsov released from prison and save his life. When I was in prison, it was thanks to your support and scrutiny that nothing threatened my life. In Sentsov’s case, there is not enough scrutiny, and there is such a threat to his life. That has to change.

Sentsov’s trial was not just yet another instance of political persecution by the Russian regime. It was a symbolic attack on the liberties and values you espouse. Oleg still has eighteen years left to serve in prison. He was given this sentence only because he is a brave man who spoke out on behalf of these same values. We can learn a lot from him and what he did, but we must not accept the fact he remains imprisoned. We must pressure the Russian authorities. I am here to urge you to make Sentsov’s release our common cause. I am confident we can see this cause through to the end and free Oleg from prison.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Masha Alyohkina for her kind permission to translate the original Russian text of her speech and publish it here.

People and Nature: Punitive Psychiatry Back in Vogue in Russia

Russia: punishment psychiatry back in vogue
People and Nature
February 17, 2016

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.

Pavlensky has been charged with “vandalism motivated by ideological hatred,” whatever that means, and appeared at the Tagansky District Court several times. At his first appearance he compared his case to those of Crimean activists jailed on false “terrorism” charges – including Oleksandr Kolchenko and Oleg Sentsov – and said he would not address the court further.

Oleksei Chirniy, who was charged along with Kolchenko and Sentsov, was also detained at the Serbsky Institute prior to his trial. His supporters alleged he had been mistreated with psychotropic drugs.

Pavlensky is also awaiting trial for charges arising from an earlier performance, Freedom (Svoboda). In February 2014, days after the removal  of Ukrainian president Viktor

Separation (Otdelenie). Pavel Pavlensky protesting against punishment psychiatry, October 2014. Photo courtesy of Calvert Journal

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.

Human rights campaigners are focusing on Pavlensky’s case and Amnesty International have expressed concern about it.

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.

In October 2013, Mikhail Kosenko, one of the defendants brought to trial after those demonstrations, was sentenced to indefinite psychiatric treatment after the Serbsky Instititue declared him insane. Psychiatric treatment was also used in the recent case of Crimean activists, three of whom are serving long jail sentences in Russia and are widely regarded as political prisoners.

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!)

Revolt Pimenov in his student days. Photo courtesy of the Chronicle of Current Events

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 the same 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

Meaningful art: the Lubyanka ablazePeople & Nature, November 2015

■ For the latest on the Crimean political prisoners, read the website of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

Editor’s Note. A huge thanks to Gabriel Levy for writing this timely and pointed essay and especially for his permission to republish it here.

Contemporary Art Killed My Dog

On a number of issues and events you have opposed Putin’s policies, and now you are at the Moscow Biennale [of Contemporary Art] at the VDNKh, a venue where the order of things is supposed to be questioned [sic]. Do you believe that here, in the current political situation, there can be a place for real criticism that is both anti-Putinist and anti-capitalist?

Yanis Varoufakis, anti-anti-Putinist
Yanis Varoufakis, anti-anti-Putinist

[Yanis Varoufakis:] Absolutely. But let me clarify something. I am not an anti-Putinist.  Anti-Putinism is too strong a word. I am very critical of Putin, but his demonization in the West is something I also resist. We should be smarter and think about what it means to be critical. I am extremely critical of what Putin did in Chechnya, and I have not forgiven him for it. But on the other hand, Putin was absolutely right about what happened in Georgia, and the West was absolutely wrong. I think that the West’s position on Crimea has also been inconsistent. Russia was surrounded [sic] by NATO when Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and other countries were included in the alliance. And for Russia it was an insult, as well as something close to violating the agreement between Reagan and Gorbachev [sic]. And Putin has been right about this, too. So I have never supported the policy of demonizing Putin. And I am afraid that Russians will have to suffer the awful consequences of this process, consequences which they do not deserve.

So I believe that spaces like this give us hope for the existence of another, rational, critical approach that does not take one side or the other and allows people from the West and Russia to get together and develop a more sophisticated optics for seeing the world and politics, for being critical without demonizing.

—Excerpted from Sergei Guskov, “Yanis Varoufakis: ‘Being critical without demonizing,’” Colta.Ru, October 2, 2015. Translated, from the Russian, by the Russian Reader

__________

There are only a few things I would add to Mr. Varoufakis’s remarks, above. First, he presumably made them in English, not Russian. Since he is an extremely persuasive speaker and conversationalist, it is quite possible some nuances in what he said at the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art were flattened or distorted when translated from English (?) into Russian, and these distortions have only been amplified further in my back translation.

But I doubt this is the case. The point of his remarks seems quite plain, so they are either a fabrication on the part of Colta.Ru or what Mr. Varoufakis more or less said in the event, minus the “static” of two consecutive translations.

If this is what he said, then Mr. Varoufakis is only another in a long line of Western leftist thinkers and activists who, seemingly, have found something “anti-hegemonic” or “anti-imperialist” or “productively” anti-American or, God forbid, “anti-capitalist” about Putin’s policies and actions, or have found it possible to hobnob with or shill for Putinists, on the Putinist dime, in the name of some kind of “criticality” or “third position” above the current fray, or just because they were bored and wanted an all-expenses-paid junket to Moscow or Petersburg or Rhodes.

A smarter person than me (and an actual Russian leftist activist to boot) has pointed out that Putin is nothing remotely like an anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist. On the contrary, my smart friend has argued, folks in the west should make an effort to find out about grassroots social and political activism and activists in today’s Russia and look for ways to make common cause with them. Or, at least, not stab them in the back by supporting Putin explicitly or implicitly.

Because Russia, like “the West,” is not a monolith. And that is the second way in which Mr. Varoufakis went wrong in his remarks in Moscow. “The West” is not a single entity, even among its political, intellectual, and media elites. It is not an organism singularly hellbent on “demonizing” Putin, whatever that means. It requires no effort at all to compile a very long league table of Putin’s wholehearted or partial supporters in “the West,” from Stephen Cohen to Donald Trump, from Silvio Berlusconi to Mary Dejevsky, from Nick Griffin to any number of leftist and centrist politicians in Europe. For reasons I haven’t been able to explain, that table has been growing fatter as Putin’s actions have become more aggressive and “demonic,” both at home and abroad.

Neither is Russian society nor the fabled (and utterly imaginary) “Russian people” monolithic, but over the past fifteen years the Russian state apparatus, the Russian mainstream media (especially television), and Russian mainstream political parties have become a monolith, one of whose primary goals, especially in the last two or three years, has been to demonize “the West” and the domestic opposition any way it can, no holds barred.

You would have to have been in the middle of this properly demonic media hysteria, moral panic, and “cold civil war” to appreciate just how thoroughgoing and thoroughly frightening it has been, and since I have been following Mr. Varoufakis’s own adventures over the past year or so, I can imagine he simply has no clue about what has really been happening in Russia since the blocks came off completely post Maidan, because he was very busy with more important matters.

One job this blog has taken on has been to provide little snapshots of that awfulness while also, more importantly, giving non-Russian speakers a chance to hear Russian voices other than Putin’s, however unimpressive or inaudible they might seem to big shots like Putin and Mr. Varoufakis.

Finally, I would like to address the question of why Mr. Varoufakis imagines, apparently, that big hoedowns like the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art are such perfect places for elaborating a “sophisticated optics for seeing the world and politics, for being critical without demonizing.”

Just a year ago, my hometown of Petrograd hosted Manifesta 10, another such prominent venue for “criticality.” In the midst of an occupation and invasion of a neighboring country by the host country, the host country and host city’s continuing legal demonization of LGBT, and a local election campaign, for the city’s governorship and district councils, that involved making sure the non-elected incumbent in the gubernatorial race would face no real opposition in his bid to legitimize his satrapy and, on election day, threatening independent election observers with murder, the Manifestashi did absolutely nothing that would really ruffle anyone’s feathers, least of all their sponsors from city hall and the State Hermitage Museum, and they barely reacted to the maelstrom of neo-imperialist hysteria and officially authorized criminality raging around them. Basically, they partied like it was 1999, while providing their fellow citizens with the welcome illusion that the shipwreck wrought by fifteen years of Putinism in politics, the economy, civil society, culture, education, medicine, science, industry and, most painfully, people’s minds could be conjured away or endured and understood a little better by taking a sip of contemporary art’s renowned and heady “criticality” and pretending Petersburg was Helsinki or Barcelona, if only for a summer.

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What has got better on Russia’s broken social, political, and art scenes since last autumn to make it even more desirable to engage in “criticality” at a biennale in one of Russia’s capitals, this time with the Russian Federal Ministry of Culture footing the bill?

Latterly, a cynical lunatic named Dmitry Enteo has smashed up a bunch of sculptures by the late Soviet sculptor Vadim Sidur and gotten off almost scot-free for his crimes. On the other hand, the list of political prisoners in Russia has continued to grow, and it now includes Crimean activists Oleg Sentsov and Alexander Kolchenko, sentenced to hard time in prison for no particular reason.

And then there is Alexei Gaskarov, who, if he lived in a more democratic country, would be running a party like Syriza or Podemos (minus the “criticality” and verbal cuddling up to other people’s dictators), but instead looks to be facing another two and half years in a penal colony, again, for no particular reason other than his own staunch opposition to Putin’s regime.

In the current dreadful “conjuncture,” a good day is a day that goes by without news of yet another anti-Putinist activist being arrested, an art exhibition’s being trashed by “Orthodox activists” or otherwise shut down because it might offend the sensibilities of someone’s grandmother, or a new law’s speeding down the State Duma assembly line so as to tighten up the screws on dissent and “treason” yet again.

In fact, I had a bit of such good news earlier today, when I learned that Andrei Marchenko, a Khabarovsk blogger whose case I have been following, was only fined 100,000 rubles (approx. 1,350 euros) instead of being sent down for two years to a work-release prison, as the prosecutor had demanded, for the horrible crime of writing one untoward sentence about Putin’s Ukrainian misadventure on his Facebook page in 2014.

Where does Mr. Varoufakis fit into this picture? Probably nowhere, which is probably where he should have stayed instead of playing to Moscow’s art and hipster crowd, always happy to let itself off the hook when it comes to taking responsibility for the ongoing disaster, and to the invisible figure up in the emperor’s box, especially at an opera with the almost deliberately ham-fisted and parodical title of Acting in a Center in a City in the Heart of the Island of Eurasia.

Thanks to Comrade AW for the heads-up. Images courtesy of BBC News and the Manifesta Biennial Facebook page