No One to Call Them on the Carpet

karlshorst tankA WWII-era Soviet tank, its muzzle pointed toward downtown Berlin, in the yard of the so-called German Russian Museum in the city’s Karlshorst neighborhood. Until 1994, it was known as the Capitulation Museum, since German high command formally surrendered to the Soviet high command in the building that houses the museum. Photo by the Russian Reader

At this point in their downward spiral towards worldwide moral and intellectual superiority, it is sometimes as hard to compliment Russians as it to make common cause with them or, on the contrary, argue with them.

I was thinking about this in a different connection when my attention was drawn to this column by Masha Gessen, published two days ago by the New Yorker.

The column is an odd beast.

First, Ms. Gessen makes a sound argument, based on hard, easily verifiable facts, but then she does an about-face and acts as her argument’s own resentful, miserably uninformed whataboutist, drawing false parallels between commemorations of the Second World War in Russia and the US, and the roles played by Putin and Trump in tarnishing these memorial events with their own sinister political agendas.

She is thus able to set readers up for the column’s takeaway message: “[T]he Trumpian spin on [the Second World War] is all maga, which makes it essentially the same as Putin’s.”

Ms. Gessen once was one of my favorite reporters, especially back in the days when she wrote for the weekly Russian news magazine Itogi.  Later, I adored her poignant, richly rendered dual portrait of her grandmothers and the turbulent times of their younger years. I would still urge anyone curious about what the Soviet Union was really like under Stalin and after his death to put the book, Ester and Ruzya, at the top of their reading lists.

Nowadays, however, Ms. Gessen finds herself in what should be the unenviable position of having no one willing to call her on the carpet . Whatever she writes and says is regarded as the gospel truth, apparently, by her editors, readers, and listeners. In any case, I have never come upon any criticism of her work, at least in Anglophonia.

Her editor at the New Yorker, David Remnick, himself a Russia expert of sorts, has gone missing in action when it comes to editing critically what she writes about the country of her birth, and so has everyone else who could be bothered to notice the sleights of hand and sophistry in which she now indulges all too often.

In this case, it is simple. In the United States, there has been nothing like the overbearing politicization of victory in the Second World War as there has been in Russia since Putin took power twenty years ago.

The US does not even have a public holiday commemorating victory in the war, whether on the European front or the Pacific front. I think this says something. Maybe what it says is bad, but the importance of the “victory” for US society, especially now that nearly seventy-five years have passed since the victory was declared, has been waning with every passing day.

More to the point, whatever deplorable uses Trump may have made of the war, he has had a mere two years in office to do his damage, while “decisive victory” in the Great Fatherland War (as the war is called in Russian) has long played a central role in Putin’s eclectic, opportunist but extraordinarily reactionary ideology.

It is an rather odd stance, since the Kremlin regularly speaks and acts almost as if the Putin regime and the current Russian Armed Forces achieved victory over the Nazis in 1945, rather than the Stalin regime and the Red Army.

Victory in the war has been used as much to bludgeon the regime’s “traitors” and “enemies” into submission as it has been used to brainwash the Russian people into a false sense of national unity and international moral superiority.

Of course, there have been periods since 1945 when victory in the war was politicized by the US establishment, too. We need only think of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation” and, years before that last gasp, the ways movies and TV shows about the war functioned as surrogates for reinforcing western capitalist ideology during the Cold War.

As should naturally be the case, however, since the war ended a long time ago, and most of the people who witnessed it and fought in it have died, it has meant less to the rising generations in the US than it did to the generations of my grandparents (who fought in the war, if only on the home front) and my parents (who were born just before or during the war), and even to my own generation (who grew up in a vernacular culture still permeated by memories of the war, sometimes embodied in our own grandparents and their age mates, and a popular culture still awash in books, comic books, TV serials, movies, toys, and other consumerist junk inspired by the war).

A gradual waning of interest in the war should have happened in Russia as well,  albeit in a manner that acknowledged and honored the war’s much greater impact on the country and all the other former Soviet republics.

In the nineties, under the “villainous” Yeltsin, this was on the verge of happening.

I remember going to the Victory Day parade on Nevsky Prospect in Petersburg in 1995. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s end in Europe, but the main event consisted only of columns of real war veterans, some in uniform, some in civilian dress, all of them wearing their medals, marching down the Nevsky accompanied by a few marching bands and a military honor guard, if memory serves me.

Tens of thousands of Petersburgers lined the pavements, cheering the veterans, crying, and occasionally running out into the parade to hand them flowers, kiss their cheeks, and thank them personally for their courage.

It was simple, dignified, and moving.

But then a new mob took over Russia. The new mob wanted to rob the country blind and install themselves in power for as long as they could, so they had to convince their victims, the Russian people, of a number of contradictory things.

One, the highway robbery, as committed by the new mob, was for their own good. Two, the highway robbery was making them better and their country great again; it would bring “stability.” Three, the highway robbery was spiritually underwritten by the former country’s former greatness, as demonstrated, in part, by its victory over the Nazis in the Great Fatherland War.

It is not true that all or even most Russians have swallowed all or even most of this dangerous nonsense.

Putinism, however, has destroyed politics in Russia not only by demolishing all democratic institutions and persecuting grassroots activists and opposition politicians in ever-increasing numbers.

It has also disappeared most real political issues and replaced them with non-issues, such as nonexistent “threats” to the glory of Russia’s victory in WWII, as posed by “traitors” and hostile foreign powers, the completely astroturfed “upsurge” in “love for Stalin,” and several other fake zeitgeist events that have been designed purposely to set the country’s dubious troika of official pollsters polling like never before and take up oodles of space in the real media, the social media, and ordinary people’s minds and their bar-stool and dinner-table conversations with strangers, friends, relatives, and coworkers.

I am much too fond of French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s distinction between “politics”—what happens in the public space around real sources of political and social conflict in democratic societies or societies striving towards freedom and equity) and “police”—the opposite of “politics,” the utter control of public space and a monopoly on decision-making by a tiny anti-democratic elite.

“Police” as a concept, however, encompasses not only real policemen kicking down the doors of “extremists” and “terrorists,” and casing and tailing everyone suspicious and “unreliable” every which way they can.

In Russia under Putin, it has also involved tarring and feathering all real political discourse and political thinking, while promoting sophistry, scuttlebutt, moral panics, two minutes hate, and intense nationwide “debates” about non-issues such as “the people’s love of Stalin” and “victory in the war.”

The point of substituting artificial “police” discourses for wide-open political debate has been to prevent Russia from talking about bread-and-butter issues like pensions, the economy, healthcare, housing, the environment, war and peace, and increasingly violent crackdowns against political dissenters, businessmen, migrant workers, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities.

Russians are capable of talking about these things and do talk about them, of course, but a steady diet of nothing, that is, immersion in a topsy-turvy world in which the state, mainstream media, and many of your own friend will try, often and persistently, to engage you in “serious” conversations about chimeras and phantoms, has had an innervating effect on serious political discourse generally.

Try and talk to Russians about politics and, often as not, you will soon find yourself talking “police” instead.

If Ms. Gessen had decided to write a substantive article about the Putin regime’s use and abuse of the “victory,” popular acquiescence to its campaign, and grassroots pushbacks against, it would have familiarized Ms. Gessen’s readers with a story about which they know either nothing or almost nothing.

I cannot imagine anyone better qualified to tell the story than Ms. Gessen herself.

But, as is the case with many other Russians, the straight talk in Ms. Gessen’s recent printed work and media appearances about what has been happening in Russia under Putin has been veering off, sooner or later, into whataboutism and a series of well-worn memes whose hysterical repetition passes for political argument these days.

There is a different but curiously overlapping set for every political tribe in Putinist Russia, from nominal nationalists to nominal liberals and leftists.

What is my own takeaway message?

There can be no politics in Russia in the Rancierean sense or any other sense until the Russian liberal intelligentsia (with whom Ms. Gessen has explicitly identified herself on several occasions, obviously considering them vastly superior intellectually and morally to the American mooks with whom she has been condemned to spend too much time, Russiansplaining everything under the sun to them as best she can, mostly to no avail) and all the other intelligentsias and political tribes in Russia give up their pet sets of non-issues and non-solutions and revive the deadly serious politics and political discourses of the pre-Revolutionary period, if only in spirit.

However, the efficacy of “police” under Putin has been borne out by the way in which nearly everyone has united, time and again, around the very non-issues the regime and state media has encouraged them to discuss.

On the contrary, several painfully real issues, for example, Russia’s ruinous, murderous military involvement in Syria, have never been vetted by “police” for public hand-wringing of any kind.

As if obeying an unwritten rule or a tape reeling in their heads, nobody ever talks about them, not even the great Masha Gessen. {TRR}

Thanks to Comrade GF for bring Ms. Gessen’s column to my attention.

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Tatyana Schukina: Why Russian Schoolchildren Protest

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Tatyana Schukina
VK
September 10, 2018

“Gendarmes Savagely Nab Teenagers”

Who are the teenagers who go to protest rallies? Blind rebels who would oppose any system or children who have realized this country has no future?

Yes, I believe my views are oppositional, sometimes to extremes. But I want to at least try and examine this topic objectively.

I think there are both kinds of children at protest rallies. The scary thing is that if absolutely all children came to protest rallies merely to have a laugh, feel they were part of something meaningful, and yell at the government, basing their arguments on someone else’s words, it wouldn’t be so terrible.

At the [anti-inauguration] rally on May 5, my friends and I saw a boy who was six or seven. He wore a blazer and had a school bag on his back. He marched with the crowd. He was not yelling, but he was part of the rally.

One of my friends wanted to take the piss out of him.

“Our little rebel. You against the system, too?” he said.

“Systems are inevitable,” the boy replied. “I’m against this one.”

We freaked out. We delicately asked him whether he was frightened.

(The atmosphere was frightening. There were tons of paddy wagons and helmeted polizei wielding truncheons. The crowd was screaming. Protesters were getting nicked and marched off to the paddy wagons. Some people were crying.)

The boy laughed.

“It’s frightening when they explain to me at school why I could be punished if I’m strolling out here,” he said.

“You’re frightened you’ll be punished?”

“I’m frightened I don’t know why I would be punished,” he said.

I’m scared that children talk like that. I’m scared that children speak beyond their years and in their own words. I’m scared they could be sent to jail or expelled from school in their own city, yet no one can properly explain to them why. For pictures posted on the internet? For attending peaceful protest rallies? Even though the authorities herd children to a rally if it’s a pro-Putin rally. That’s the difference. Children are simply bused to pro-United Russia rallies and hold placards made ahead of time for them.

They go to opposition rallies on their own.

I know the schools are flooded with propaganda. I know because I was a schoolgirl until recently. I also know that political campaigning and propaganda is legally forbidden in schools.

I remember one September first, the first day of the school year. We sat in our classroom, and the teacher told us about the plans for the years. Another teacher walked around the room, taking snapshots of diligent pupils at their desks. A slide with an image of Putin flashed on the screen. It was captioned, “Russian Federation President V.V. Putin.”

It was no big deal. The next slide flashed on the screen.

“Wait, bring Putin back. I’ll take a snapshot of the class with him in the background,” the teacher with the camera yelled to the pupil running the projector.

It was a trifle. Totalitarianism is made up of trifles such as children seated in front of the supreme leader’s picture. But wait, it’s the twenty-first century. Everything’s cool. The picture is digital.

That teacher takes a class snapshot with Putin in the background. Another teacher stuffs ballot boxes on election day. Yet another teacher tells pupils why they are forbidden to attend protest rallies. Finally, a fourth teacher takes children to a pro-United Russia rally. But children don’t understand what’s happening. Children ask questions. Children are interested in politics. Children understand this is where they will have to live. Children watch investigative reports, children see the poverty, and children go to protest rallies.

Thanks to Leokadia Frenkel for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader. Photograph courtesy of Reuters and Ms. Shchukina’s VK page

“9 Stages of the Supreme Leader’s Decomposition” (Solidarity Fundraising Campaign Update)

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Varya Mikhaylova (center, with megaphone), carrying {rodina}’s 9 Stages of the Supreme Leader’s Decomposition as she marched with the Party of the Dead bloc in this year’s May Day demo in Petersburg. Photo by Elena Lukyanova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

On Friday, June 8, 2018, a Petersburg district court sentenced local feminist and democratic activist Varya Mikhaylova to a fine of 160,000 rubles (approx. 2,180 euros) for carrying a picture at this year’s May Day demonstration, during which she was detained by police.

The court also ordered the picture in question, 9 Stages of the Supreme Leader’s Decomposition, by the Petersburg art group {rodina} (“motherland”), burned.

stages-4{rodina}, 9 Stages of the Supreme Leader’s Decomposition. A Petersburg judge has ordered this artwork torched.

How can you show your solidarity with Varya Mikhaylova? By helping her pay the hefty fine. It would be exorbitant anywhere, but it is purposely burdensome (that is, designed to discourage people from protesting by impoverishing them) in a city where the average monthly salary is around 500 euros.

How can you show your solidarity with {rodina}, whose artwork faces the fiery flames of censorship? By ordering a t-shirt, poster or postcard embossed with 9 Stages of the Supreme Leader’s Decomposition. Proceeds from the sales of these mementos will go towards paying Varya’s fine. Any money left over will be used to make more revolutionary art.

You can order a postcard for 100 rubles (approx. 1.30 euros), an A3-sized poster for 500 rubles (approx. 6.80 euros), and a t-shirt for 1,500 rubles (approx. 20.40 euros).

The cost of shipping your order anywhere in the world via Russian Post is 500 rubles.

Place your orders on {rodina}’s merch page. When you go there you will need to click on the “Message” button and chat with someone who can help you with your order.

{rodina} stalwart Darya Apahonchich modeled the t-shirt recently.

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stages-2

stages-1

I was so taken with the 9 Stages t-shirt I already ordered and took receipt of mine. Now I’ll have to wear it on the mean streets of Petrograd while also avoiding sudden arrest.

the shirt

You can also send money directly to Varya via her PayPal account (bukvace@ya.ru). The proceeds will also go towards paying her fine. // TRR

Thanks to Comrade KB for the final photograph and taking delivery of my t-shirt.

This Russian Life

medicinal lettersFeatured Letter: But There Is Sun in the Countryside! ‘You know how hard life in the countryside can be, especially in the winter when the snow drifts so badly you cannot leave the house. All the more so because I needed to help the young folks when our granddaughter was born. We moved to the city, but we could not live there long. Of course, the stores and the clinic were nearby, and that was convenient, but what was the point? It’s abnormal to breathe exhaust fumes from cars and gaze all winter at a grey, gloomy sky. You cannot open the window because of the noise and soot. And the ailments you get when you are trapped between four walls are not slow in coming. In the countryside, the sun makes an appearance every day, even in the winter, the pure snow glitters, and the air is like a salve. And we get Medicinal Letters regularly, in which there are prescriptions for nearly any ailment. It was a good thing we didn’t sell the house. Our son had to fix it up and insulate it, and now everyone is happy. Our granddaughter comes for frequent visits. We have everything for her: a sled, skies, and skates. The girl is сheerful and kind, and Grandma and Grandpa’s little helper, not something you can say about every city kid. May God bless you and your loved ones with health and happiness. A.E. Vikhrova, Perm.’ Our Readers Know How to Be Healthy.” Cover page of Medicinal Letters 4 (400), February 2018

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rita-evilScreenshot from Danish TV series Rita. Courtesy of Netflix

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wine-dear or cheap“Should you cook with cheap wine or expensive wine?” Source unknown

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fridge magnet calendar2018 refrigerator magnet tear calendar. Published by Bronze Horseman Publishers (www.mvsadnik.ru) in an edition of 3,000 copies. Rated 0+

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destroy floridaScreenshot of the imaginary obliteration of Florida by Russian missiles, as broadcast live on RT at 1:24 p.m. MSK, 1 March 2018. Video courtesy of the Daily Star,  1 March 2018

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fdd choco bar.jpeg“February 23. Fatherland Defenders Day. Dark Chocolate.” Manufacturer unknown. Purchased at Bukvoyed Bookstore in Galeria Shopping Center, 30A Ligovsky Prospect, St. Petersburg, for ₽121 (approx. €1.73) on 23 February 2018

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tokarev's eyesVasily Yegorovich Tokarev, Arkhangelsk. Right after the army I got a job as a welder. I worked for many years in the tundra on various gas and oil pipelines. The job was hard on the eyes in itself. There were the constant flashes from the welding equipment, and the weather conditions in the north were also extreme. So, I would get conjuctivitis and styes from time to time. My eyes were always red and caked with pus, and nothing could relieve the gritty feeling and smarting. Farsightedness became a problem, and I had to drag glasses with me everywhere. During a routine exam, the doctor diagnosed glaucoma! I went through all the drugs available at the chemist’s, but the payoff was practically nonexistent. That was when I decided to try Okapin drops. At first, I went through a whole course of treatment, but now I only use them sometimes as preventative. The results have been excellent. My eyes are not red and inflamed, I no longer have that feeling of burning and grittiness, and my eyesight has rebounded so that I no longer have any need of glasses or doctors. The pressure in my eyes has dropped to 17 mmHg. I see great both far and up close, I don’t squint, and nothing bothers me!” Excerpted from the front page of the Health Herald [March 2018], an advertising circular disguised as a newspaper.

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sms.jpg“March 18 is the election of the president of the Russian Federation. You can choose a voting station in advance, including the one assigned to your registered domicile. To do this, before March 12 you must submit—.” Excerpt from an SMS received on my mobile phone at 1:24 p.m. MSK, 3 March 2018.

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all goes well 1Refrigerator magnet “All Goes Well.” On the reverse side of the magnet, the human being is identified as “The President of the Russian Federation. Vladimir Putin.” The dog is not identified by name.

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Old Woman Crossing Street on Cold Day in Petersburg, 27 February 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

Assembled and translated by the Russian Reader. Dedicated to Comrade SG on his birthday

Personality Cult Pinups

putin-2018 calendar-january
The president has the appropriate attire and beverage for a chilly January photoshoot.

Earlier today, I was shopping at my local Auchan hypermarket when I happened upon this “2018 Gift Calendar,” featuring Russia’s well-known President for Life and foremost sovereign democrat in twelve inspiring poses.

At 37.09 rubles apiece (around 54 euro cents), the calendars are a steal. Some of my friends and relatives may balk and even barf when they unwrap their presents on Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and New Year’s this year, but decades from now they will thank me for having given them a collector’s item that is sure to quintuple in value, at least, as its subject’s fourth term in office extends to a fifth, segues into a sixth, drags on into a seventh, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.

Sure, the cashier looked at me a little funny when this and another personality pinup calendar I had found in the store were rolling down the belt towards her scanner, but she was probably just a tad envious. TRR

putin-2018 calendar-cover
“Our President: A 2018 Gift Calendar”
putin-2018 calendar-page one
2018 at a glance with the world’s favorite marathon mansplainer.
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“Jack of all trades and a master of none, how can a person get anything done?”

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If you’re led around by the nose
You’ll never get to see how the garden grows.
And if you go for the shovel and the hoe
You can’t stop and smell the roses.
Eighteen things at once,
You spread yourself so thin.
You could not find a basket
To put all your eggs in.
Well, Mike, he rowed the boat ashore,
The emperor got some brand new clothes,
But when you walk and chew the gum
You gotta lose a little of something.
Jack of all trades and a master of none,
How can a person get anything done?
You can fool yourself, you can fool anyone.
Jack, jack, jack, jack, jack, jack, jack, jack,
Jack of all trades . . .
—Volcano Suns, “Jak,” from the 1985 LP The Bright Orange Years