Valery Dymshits: Petersburg as Mistletoe

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Valery Dymshits
Facebook
October 26, 2017

In May 2016, the Akhmatova Museum hosted an event entitled Debates on Europe, featuring all sorts of outstanding people. I don’t know why, but I was invited, too. We were asked to talk about Petersburg and its place in Europe. I was also part of a special panel, entitled “How Do We See History? How Do We Deal with the Past?” I spoke my mind honestly. Today, I came across the two talks on my computer and thought I mostly agree with myself, so why not post them. So I am posting them. This is the first one, about Petersburg.

The City as Mistletoe
I probably will not be saying anything new if I note that Petersburg was originally built as the world’s largest cargo cult site. Peter the Great and his heirs firmly believed that by reproducing certain forms—and only the forms!—of European architecture and town planning, they would create a great country, a country that would rival or surpass Europe’s best countries.

When I went to Amsterdam, I was amazed by Petersburg’s resemblance to it. (Yet Amsterdam does not look at all like Petersburg, just as children resemble their parents, not vice versa.) In Amsterdam, I noticed that most of the buildings in the historic center had been built in the mid seventeenth century: the dates they were built were displayed on the façades. The entirety of Amsterdam’s huge historic center had been developed literally over twenty to thirty years. It was then I understood Peter the Great’s choice. It was not just the case that Amsterdam was among the magnificent, rich cities of Europe, but unlike Paris and other cities, it had been built not over the course of centuries, but in a few decades. Peter the Great realized that if he built another Amsterdam, so to speak, there was a chance of not only creating a hotbed of European civilization in Russia but also of living to see the project completed. This, of course, is a pure manifestation of the cargo cult.

An airplane hewn from the trunk of a palm tree may never fly, but it can be the pride and joy of an ethnographic museum’s collection. Russia did not become Europe, but Petersburg and its environs came to be a wonderful artwork, a huge artifact. I mean the Petersburg of the palaces and parks, cathedrals and embankments.

But there is another Petersburg, the one were we live. This is the city of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, built after the launch of Emperor Alexander II’s great reforms. It is the city of huge tenement houses, lush façades, and endless courtyards. This Petersburg was not a frozen magic crystal nor a miraculous receptacle supposed to attract the spirits of Europe with its outward shapes. It was a city of banks and factories, shops and slums: a normal city. We love it no less than we love the city of palaces. The loading cranes in the port and factory smokestacks dominate the city’s skyline as much as its domes and spires do.

But this city, in turn, woud not have emerged if the the first city had not been built. (And it was certainly built on the bones of its builders: animist religions involve human sacrifice.) A cargo cult is a religion and, as such, is no worse than any other religion. A religion’s truth is defined by the fanaticism of its adherents. The Russian cargo cult fashioned a great, artifact-like city. Like a colony of honey fungus inhabiting an old stump, another city sprang up from the first city, and this second city was real.

In fact, the Slavophile critics of Petersburg and the Petersburg period of Russian history were right when they argued that substantial homegrown grounds were needed to really build a great country, not empty, borrowed shapes. But by the time this criticism had become widespread, from the Populists on the left to the Black Hundreds on the right, it had already lost its main justification. Petersburg had become a natural, organic phenomenon, something that had sprung from the culture, not from the soil. As second nature, culture is no worse than nature per se.

Petersburg resembles mistletoe, a parasitic plant that grows on the branches of other trees. Mistletoe is quite beautiful. Since antiquity, it has been a symbol of life, and it was used as an amulet. The Romans and the Celts believed in mistletoe’s miraculous powers. It was a symbol of peace among the Scandinavians. It was hung on the outside of houses as a token travelers would be provided shelter there. If enemies happened to meet under a tree on which mistletoe grew, they were bound to lay down their weapons and not fight anymore that day. Mistletoe protected houses from thunder and lightning, from witches and maleficent spirits.

I would argue it is productive to compare Petersburg with mistletoe, with a beautiful, sacred, safeguarding parasite. We know that people do not quarrel under the mistletoe, but kiss and make up. Petersburg did not make Russia Europe, but the city has become a place where Russia can meet and talk with Europe. This is more or less understood by everyone, by the Russian regime and by its opponents.

Every country, region, and city tries to develop by relying on its own resources. Our resource is distilled culture, cut off from all soil. Let us imagine the Hermitage Museum is a typical mineral deposit, something like an oil well. It differs from other major museums since it is not a cultural feature of a major country and major city, as the Louvre is a a cultural feature of France and Paris. On the contrary, to a certain extent Petersburg is a feature of the Hermitage. I am not speaking of tourists. They have places to go besides Petersburg. I am arguing that, having emerged as the shrine of a cargo cult, Petersburg gradually turned into a condensed expression of European cultural know-how, projected onto a wasteland. The know-how was all the more important, since European cultural shapes have been purged, in Petersburg, of all ethnic specificity. It is a generalized Europe.

The question of how to fill these shapes is open. It is open to everyone: to Europeans, Russians, and Petersburgers alike.

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader. I would like to thank Valery Dymshits for his kind permission to let me translate his essay and publish it here.

“Authoritarian Democracy”: Dark Sarcasm in the Classroom

“I Don’t Impose My Opinion”
Maria Bobylyova
Takie Dela
April 11, 2017

Just as in Soviet times, schoolteachers are now forced to hold political information lessons, to talk with schoolchildren about the current political conjuncture. But a new generation of savvy schoolchildren has emerged. We talked with two teachers about their political stances and how they argue with pupils.

“We Must Raise Mentally Healthy Children with Traditional Family Values”
Thirty years old, Natalya lives in Stavropol, where she teaches history and social studies at school. She supports the current regime and teaches children to think freely, love the Motherland, and practice correct family values.

I support the current regime and the policies of our president. I don’t like everything that is done. For example, I don’t quite understand why the regions are not entirely rational in spending federal money. But basically I’m satisfied with everything, especially our foreign policy. I’m insanely proud that Crimea is now part of Russia. I believe this is historically just. If you look at past wars, about forty percent of them were over Crimea. I believe that when Khrushchev gifted Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, it was a big mistake. Crimea is strategically important to us and we cannot let our enemies make the region a sphere of their influence.

You don’t think it was done illegally?

Why illegally? Ninety-three percent of Crimeans voted in a referendum to join Russia. There was no pressure or coercion.

Are the subsequent sanctions fair?

They are inevitable consequences. If you want to take something, you have to understand there will be consequences. We are paying for them even now. But they’re trivial compared to the benefits: the Black Sea, Sevastopol, and the navy. We didn’t annex Crimea forcibly. We didn’t send in troops. There’s a propaganda campaign against our country underway in the world. We live in the provinces, but we have free access to all sources of information, and that’s good. Generally, having access to information is empowering, and the recent elections in the US have shown that.

You’re happy with the outcome?

Very much so. I supported Trump from the beginning. He didn’t voice such an anti-Russian stance as Clinton did. I don’t like her at all.

You weren’t embarrassed by his sexist attacks?

They’re trifles. He’s such an eccentric, extravagant man. Moreover, this is not only America’s sin but Europe’s as well. Things are far from normal when it comes to morality there. Their so-called tolerance alone suffices. They call it tolerance. I would call it something else.

They didn’t call Trump’s outburts tolerant.

It doesn’t matter. They’re in a state of degradation. Take, for example, all those same-sex marriages. They will cause the death of mankind, although I can’t say I’m against such relationships. Everyone has the right to a private life, and I won’t be the first to cast stones at such people. By the way, this topic really interests my pupils as well. For example, in social studies, we cover the topic of marriage, and we say that it’s a union between a man and a woman. Yet every time in class there is someone who says, “But what about same-sex marriages”?

How do you reply?

That it absolutely contradicts our country’s and our mentality’s moral foundations. And that it will cause mankind’s extinction.

But same-sex couples can also have children.

I believe this is wrong and has a bad effect on the children. If a child grows up seeing this example, he will think he can repeat it, too, and that there’s nothing wrong about it.

You believe homosexuality can be taught?

Yes, to a large extent. Even if there is something innate about it, it can either emerge or not under society’s impact. So society is obliged to beat it in time.

Do you have any LGBT pupils?

Absolutely not. I would have noticed. A girl once came to me for tutoring who didn’t hide the fact she was a lesbian, and she was clearly different from other children.

In what sense?

She openly told me she believed same-sex unions were normal.

What would you do if there were a same-sex couple in your class?

I would definitely tell the parents, as I did in this girl’s case. But her parents were aware: her family had given her a liberal upbringing . If parents consider it normal to raise their child that way, there’s nothing I can do and I won’t intervene, nor do I have the right.

What if you had the right?

I would talk with the teenager and find out the cause of the problem, probably more for myself, so that I would know how to raise my own children later. Because I really wouldn’t like my future child to turn out like that.

What would you do then?

I would have a talk with him. I would take him to a psychologist. I would do everything possible to fix it.

What if nothing helped?

That wouldn’t happen. In adolescence, children don’t have a clear position that cannot be broken. I would break it.

What if you found out a fellow teacher was gay?

It wouldn’t affect my relationship with him, but I wouldn’t let our families become chummy so my own child wouldn’t be exposed to his example. Children really do copy the behavior of adults. We must raise mentally healthy children with traditional family values. There are things we had nothing to do with devising and that we have no right to change: family, patriotism, and decency.  What kind of family can there be without children?

As I already said, same-sex couples can and do have children.

How is that? How can two men have a child? Only through a surrogate mother. But I don’t think you’ll find many women willing to bear a child for two gays even for money, not in our country, at least.

What about adoption?

That’s impossible in Russia, thank God. I think it is extremely wrong. Children should be raised in normal, full-fledged, traditional families.

What if you had to choose between an orphanage and same-sex parents?

Who said that an orphanage is necessarily a bad thing? I know many children from orphanages, and they are full-fledged individuals who are grateful to their minders and to the state, which provides them with both real estate [sic] and material support.  Many of the children in our school come from orphanages. They are all well adapted both in terms of education and in terms of socialization with other children. Our work involves smoothing out the differences and avoiding bullying and conflicts. We’re good at that here in the Caucasus.

You probably have multiethnic classes?

Yes, and different religions. It’s a very complicated topic, because we have many different ethnic groups. Turkmen, Chechens, Armenians, and even Syrians go to our school. Teachers have to deal with the topic of religions and ethnic groups delicately. Someone puts on Alisa‘s “Sky of the Slavs,” and you’re immediately on the lookout, because the song can provoke very different reactions and feelings from children. You always have to think before speak. Children react instantaneously. You aren’t able to reverse time or take back what you said. But religious topics really interest children.

Alisa, “Sky of the Slavs” (2003, dir. Oleg Flyangolts)

What exactly interests them?

They closely monitor the material well-being of priests, for example, the story about Patriarch Kirill’s watch and all that. They come to me and ask whether it’s true.

What do you tell them?

That I don’t know myself. Like them, I read the same news. But I think when it comes to religious issues there can be no freedom of interpretation.  No wonder we have a law against insulting the feelings of believers. Believing or not believing is a personal stance, but there shouldn’t be any blasphemy or mockery. What happened to Pussy Riot is indicative in this sense.

You think the verdict was fair?

One hundred percent fair, of course. If anyone would be able to go into a church and do as he wishes, what would become of us? We need to respect the feelings of believers, especially in our country, where Orthodoxy has always played such an important role. Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality: that’s how it was, and it’s still that way to some extent. Yet all religions are respected equally in our great country. I’ve never heard Vladimir Vladimirovich give a single speech in which he called on everyone to become Orthodox.

Do you like Putin?

A lot. He’s a charismatic leader, in my opinion: this is obvious to everyone. He arrived at a complicated moment and immediately won people over. There is something attractive about him. He always finds a way to get out of any complicated situation gracefully. He can joke or scold, but he always comes out the winner. He deserves to be the most influential politician in the world, and he is the most influential politician. The western media accuse him of being an authoritarian, but I would call it authoritarian democracy. It’s not the worse option for Russia.

Do you following the corruption scandals plaguing the regime?

Of course. Be we have to understand that corruption is a mindset in Russia. In my history lessons, I always tell the children about how Peter the Great decided to eradicate corruption and asked Prince Alexander Menshikov’s advice. Menshikov replied, “You’ll run out of rope and be left without subjects.” We know that Menshikov was the biggest embezzler in Peter’s court. So there has always been corruption and there will always be a corruption. Do you think that if Navalny took power he would beat corruption without getting bogged down in it himself? On the other hand, these stories are not always true. They are often just PR campaigns to tarnish someone who has fallen out of favor. Besides, I think corruption thrives partly due to our political passivity and popular legal illiteracy. If you decide to go with the flow, don’t be surprised when you get to the river bed and see what you see. You have to start with yourself.

How do you start?

Don’t give bribes, for example, even it makes things simple and quicker. Obey the law even in those particulars where you imagine you can violate it. However, there is much more order than before. I remember what happend under Yeltsin. [Although she would have been twelve when Putin took power — TRR.] Those were horrible times. I grew up in a village. There were five children in our family, and Mom traded hand-me-downs with the neighbors. We took turns wearing them out. Dad wasn’t paid his wages for months at a time, Mom couldn’t find a job, and Grandma wasn’t paid her pension. We had a garden. We grew what we could, and it was our only means of survival. I remember well how everything changed with Putin’s arrival.

In the material sense as well?

Of course. When I went to work at the school, I got a young specialist’s bonus for three years. Although I didn’t go to work at the school right away. I put in time as an administrator and a real estate agent, and I worked in management. So I have something to compare it with. I have worked at the school for six years and I sense the state’s support. I get a decent wage and I am able to satisfy most of my material needs. I feel calm and confident. I live in a country where there is no Chechen War to which soldiers could be sent.

Soldiers can now be sent to other wars.

If you mean Ukraine, I have no information our troops are fighting there, except for professional or special units. All the rest is western propaganda. I don’t like the war in Ukraine, just as I don’t like any war.

What about Syria?

What about Syria? Yes, we’re fighting there, but it’s not our country. Everything is calm within Russia. There are no longer any separatists sentiments, as there were under Yeltsin, and I am personally grateful to Vladimir Putin for this. Historically, we have been attracted by strong individuals who can establish order by any means. In this sense, I see Putin as a man of his word. He never makes promises he doesn’t keep.

Who is your favorite historical leader?

Peter the Great. Russia flourished under his reign. We got a navy and an empire, and we were victorious in war. Of course, there were excesses, but there is not a single politician in the world who doesn’t have them. Basically, you should always look at things objectively. So when we cover Ivan the Terrible, I always teach the children that besides the bad things there were also good things: centralization, the annexation of Astrakhan and Kazan, and the conquest of Siberia. Expanding territory is a good thing. It means resources, people, culture, borders, and a geopolitical position.

Do you think that Russia has its own way?

I really like the position of the Slavophiles. I like thinking that our history and our people are typified by a certain exclusivity. History proves it. We have never been ready for a single war, but we win all the wars we fight. This makes me proud, and I teach the children to be proud of this, to be proud of their country, its heritage, and its great culture. That’s what real patriotism is about. My pupils and I look at the facts together and learn to analyze rather than just label things and divide them into black and white. My job is to provide the children with full access to all historical information. I never impose readymade conclusions. For example, in the tenth grade we’re now studying the Emperor Paul. My children love him terribly and feel sorry for him. They say he was unloved by his mother, and then he was killed. Although I relate to him coolly, to put it mildly.

Do discussions arise a lot during your classes?

Constantly. I think it’s very important to let children speak. Our job, after all, is to educate individuals, not homogeneous clones. Our country needs strong, independent people who are able to think. Teachers who don’t let children speak undermine their own authority. If you’re not willing to argue, you’re a despot who imposes her own opinion, not a teacher. Children fear and hate you, and I don’t want that. One of the places that history happens is right outside the school building. So I never stop lively discussions, because they teach children to think and analyze. Of course, if a discussion goes on for three classes in a row, I’ll find a way to get back to the lesson plan. But I really like lively discussions. It’s so great when you see individuals growing up right before your eyes.

Are your pupils interested in politics?

Very much so, especially the upperclassmen. They watch the news, ask questions, and argue. Political debates happen both during lessons and recesses. They are interested not only in politics but also in everything that is going on, for example, the recent story of Diana Shurygina really agitated them. But they are also interested in the elections. They can’t wait to vote for the first time.

Do you voice your own political views to them?

I express my viewpoint, but I never impose it. I think children have a right to their own opinions, so I let everyone speak. There are lots of different children among my pupils, and I wouldn’t say all of them support the regime. They read RBC and Life and Meduza. I have a boy in the ninth grade, Yegor, who is an ardent oppositionist, and I find it fairly interesting to discuss things with him. He never descends to demagoguery,  but reads and watches lots of things, and supports his opinion with facts. I also watch TV Rain and listen to Echo of Moscow to be familiar with a different point of view and be able to rebut Yegor.

Are you trying to change his mind?

He and I just discuss things: he’s not going to change his mind, nor should he. It’s not my goal to impose my opinion. Although, of course, when my pupils grow up and become patriots, I’m pleased. It happens that a child transfers from another school. He sees everything in a bleak light and is quite unpatriotic. But then he learns to think critically and gradually realizes what a great history Russia has and what a great country it is. When I took over my own class from another history teacher, the children constantly referred to our country as “Russia.” But when, several months later, they said “We” instead of “Russia,” I was so proud I got goosebumps. Fifteen Armenians, three Turkmen, and five Russias are seated in front of you, and they all say “we.” They’re genuine patriots.

“I Feel Lonely, Insecure, and Misunderstood”
Olga lives in a regional capital in the central part of European Russia. She is fifty-four years old, and she has taught at a pedagogical college her whole life. Students are admitted to the college after finishing the ninth and eleventh grades, which means that Olga deals with teenagers between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. She is a liberal, but she tries to hide it, because most of the people around here don’t understand her.

I didn’t always have liberal views. When the Soviet Union collapsed and life got bad very fast, I was opposed to it and voted for the Communists. But then there was some trouble in my family and I came face to face with the system and the state. I saw from the inside how the laws and state agencies function in Russia, and my eyes were opened as it were. I realized what mattered is that a person has freedom and should have freedom. People in Russia are fond of saying that what matter is one’s health, while we can put up with the rest. I think that people should not have put up with anything and then they’ll be healthy. But if there is no freedom, health won’t be of any use to them.

Why do you hide the fact you’re in the opposition?

At first, I tried to talk with my colleagues and voice my disagreement with the current regime. They didn’t understand me. They would say, “Aren’t you Russian? Aren’t you a patriot?” Initially, I would argue. I’d say I was in fact a real patriot, and that Pushkin, Akhmatova, Vysotsky et al., were on my side, while they had only one person on theirs. Then I realized it was pointless. They are seemingly decent, pleasant people, but completely alien. Or I’m talking to a colleague who tells me how a friend of hers has made it big. He works in a company that produces asphalt. They’ve learned to dilute the asphalt somehow to produce twice as much so they could sell it under the table. This same colleague of mine claimed to be a patriot, yet she also was a driver and had to drive on those roads. I don’t understand that. I’m surrounded by people who watch the national channels and don’t want to know a thing. They have university degrees, but they watch Kiselyov and Solovyov and listen to them like zombies. So there is no one with whom to talk.

No one at all?

There are one or two people who will hear me out, and I’m grateful for even that much. However, sometimes I’m aware I’m not alone. Recently, during a continuing education course, I was pleasantly surprised by the progressive woman teaching the course. She talked about our regime’s idiocy and that we had to filter what the leadership was sending down to us from above, because we were responsible for the kind of teachers we graduated. She also advised us to watch Dmitry Bykov’s lectures, can you imagine? I was simply amazed there were people like that in our region.

Who do you vote for?

The last time, I just crossed out my ballot so no one would get my vote. I voted for Prokhorov during the last presidential elections, although everyone tried to prove to me he was a pet project of the Kremlin’s. Now they say Navalny is a pet project of the Kremlin’s,  although I have a hard time believing it. I read and listen to all the opposition politicians, including Navalny and Yabloko. My day begins with Novaya Gazeta and Echo of Moscow. I don’t watch TV except for RBC’s channel. When I catch Mom watching Channel One, I chew her out. But lately I’ve weaned her off it, thank God.

Do you broadcast your views to your students?

Directly, no, and besides, I can’t do it because I could be punished. Yet if you support the regime you can say anything at all. Like the school principal from Bryansk in that video. I’m 100% sure she was completely sincere. People like that can speak out, but I can’t. All I can do is introduce the younger generation to some works and give them the freedom to speak their minds and think. Making someone think like you is the biggest crime. They should think as they see fit. But our teachers sin by imposing their views. I teach Russian and teaching methods, and my students are future primary school teachers. So I can influence them only though quotations and by asking them to read things. Recently, I asked them to listen to Vasya Oblomov’s song “A Long and Unhappy Life.”

Vasya Oblomov, “A Long and Unhappy Life” (2017)

What political views do your students have?

They have different views, but many of them sincerely upset me. Recently, they asked me whether I would steal food and take it home if I worked in the cafeteria. They think there is nothing wrong about it. Everyone does it and it’s normal. I wonder where a sixteen-year-old gets this view of the world. Obviously, at home, although my past communist views had their origins in school. I remember our teacher telling us we had to be like Volodya Ulyanov [Lenin], and I really wanted to be like him. I would go to the library and ask for a book about Lenin, but the librarian would be surprised and suggest a book of fairytales. Later, when the teacher said I was like the young Volodya, it was the highest praise I could imagine.

Do you experience any pressure from up top in terms of what you can say and what you can’t?

There’s no direct pressure. The fact is we have quite heavy workloads. I think it’s done on purpose so we don’t have time to think and approach the work creatively. I’m buried in papers and forms, and there is no time to do anything worthwhile. Plus I’m forced to work one and a half to two jobs just to earn something, and that isn’t conducive to quality, either. Sometimes, we’re asked to go somewhere. Three years ago, we were ordered to attend a pro-Crimea annexation rally, and although I was against it I went anyway. But I don’t go to May Day demos. They ask me to go, but I say I don’t support the goverenment. They look at me funny and leave me alone.

You’ve never thought about changing jobs?

I have thought about it, and more than once, but it’s not so easy to find a job in our region. I really wanted to leave ten years ago or so, when we were buried in paperwork. But now I think, why the heck should I go? I love my work and I’ve been at it thirty years.

Has your life changed since Putin came to power?

You know, I did alright in the nineties, if it’s possible to say that. We got paid on time, and as for everything else our province is half asleep. But in the noughties I started to feel personally uncomfortable. When the old NTV was dismantled, and the news program Nadmedni was shut down, it made me tense. And then there have been all these strange laws, Crimea, and sanctions. I have no hope at all that anything will change.

So you watched the old NTV and yet voted for Zyuganov?

Yes. I arrived at my liberal views the long way around. On the other hand, if a person doesn’t change, she stagnates. Only there is no point in these changes. I feel lonely, insecure, and misunderstood. I look at the people around me, and they’re in a patriotic euphoria. Ninety percent of them really support the annexation of Crimea. I have always traveled to Crimea and I’ll keep on going to Crimea, because I love it and I have family there. But I try and avoid discussing the topic with them. They’re happy: they got a rise in their pensions. I agree that Crimea has always been ours, but the way it was annexed was wrong.

Does your liberalism extend to all areas of life?

Generally, yes. But there should be moderation in all things. For example, it’s wrong if a young woman with tattoos and a shaven head plans to be a primary school teacher. In any case, I imagine freedom as a certain set of internal constraints. Teaching is a conservative profession, and if you choose it, you have to agree to certain restraints.

What other things should teachers not let themselves do?

Rather, they shouldn’t demonstrate them openly. You remember how in Ostrovsky’s play The Storm, the sister-in-law tells Katerina she can do anything as long it’s hush-hush. If this is what our society is like, you shouldn’t rub someone the wrong way. It’s a private matter for everyone. If I were principal, I would not care less about sexual orientation. But I’m against making it a matter of public record and discussing these topics widely. It’s the same thing with religion.

What about religion?

In our country, if you’re a religious person, you can speak your mind freely and often impose your opinion as well. If you’re not, you are forced to keep your mouth lest you offend, God forbid, the feelings of believers. So I keep my mouth shut. I keep my mouth shut about one thing or another. Basically, I’m a cowardly person.

Translation and photography by the Russian Reader

The Lowdown

the-lowdown

Despair as a Sign of the Times
The general mood of discouragement has been growing because Russia has shifted into idle, and it is unclear when and how it will end
Nikolay Mironov
Moskovsky Komsomolets
September 6, 2016

Pain and despair have seized the country. Russians are losing their jobs. They cannot pay back their debts and feed their children. Due to constant problems and the lack of apparent prospects, families are falling apart. Some make desperate decisions, finally putting an end to their lives. Russia is losing people.

In July, an employee at a sports school in Trans-Baikal Territory committed suicide after he was not paid. In early August, a married couple in Blagoveshchensk, who were up to their eyeballs in debt,. jumped from a fourteenth-floor window, leaving their young child orphaned. This spring, a father of five in Kiselyovsk in Kemerovo Region hung himself because of debts. Large numbers of similar reports have been coming from different parts of the country.

Can you live on a wage of 10,000 to 15,000 rubles a month when prices are rising continuously? [15,000 rubles is currently equivalent to approximately 200 euros. — TRR.] Or on a pension of 8,000 rubles a month? How do you raise children on this kind of money? And what if, God forbid, you have emergency expenses, for example, for expensive medical treatment, whose cost exceeds the family budget many times over? Well yes, Russia has free medical care, so to speak, but we all knew what it is really like.

It has terrible consequences. The wave of cancer patients voluntarily departing from life continues. After a series of well-publicized cases in  2014–2015, the situation has not improved this year. In mid August, a man suffering from the cancer in the Moscow Region committed suicide with explosives. In June, another cancer patient committed suicide in Yaroslavl. Despite numerous similar suicides, the Russian Health Ministry continues to claim there is no link between the suicides of cancer patients and a deficit of pain medication. Just as there is no link, of course, between the despair felt by cancer patients in our country and the state of Russian medical care, which generally gives little chance to defeat the disease to those who have no money.

According to Rosstat, 24,000 to 26,000 people take their lives each year in Russia. But the causes of this and the means of remedying the situation are not discussed seriously. Instead, Rospotrebnadzor (Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare) have drafted recommendations for reporters on how to cover suicides.

Fewer and fewer people in our country know what they are going to live on tomorrow, how they will pay for rent and medical care. Russia is plunging into poverty. People have lost their sense of stability and security. The government, on the other hand, ignores these problems. It clearly has no strategy or even tactics for solving them.

There are a gazillion “public servants” in Russia, more than in the Soviet Union, but they serve only themselves and their bosses. High-ranking officials and the business clans that have fused with them live in a secure and comfortable world, whereas the common people are forced to survive alone. The civil service has lost its effectiveness. It has turned into a caste of masters and lords from whom we cannot defend ourselves, because they are the power, while we are “cattle.”

Can fear of policemen really be a norm of a civilized life, of a civilized country? Yet lawlessness on the part of the police has remained. All the talk about combating it has been just that—talk. Here is a recent case. Igor Gubanov, a resident of Magnitogorsk, protested against police lawlessness by cutting off two of his fingers. He could find no other way of making himself heard. In January, Gubanov and his wife, who live in a communal flat, were taken to a police precinct where, according to Gubanov, policemen raped his wife. A criminal investigation was launched, but soon the police investigators closed it, accusing the victimized woman of making false charges.

Despair is felt not only by people who have decided to commit shocking acts. The overall mood of discouragement has been increasing due to the fact Russia has shifted into idle and got stuck in the doldrums, and it is unclear when and how it will end.

The national anthem and memories are all that remain of the once-great country: outer space, victories, and prestige. The country’s most recent major achievements happened fifty years ago. The “unbreakable union” has been replaced by “our great power Russia,” but what is next? Great and poor, great and impoverished. Do these notions go together? How long can we live like this?

The Russian welfare state exists only on paper. Such declarations, by the way, have also been inscribed in the constitutions of Latin American, African, and Asian countries. A Brazilian in his favela reads that he lives in an wonderful welfare state, and he is amazed. The same is true of our fellow Russians, with their miserable wages and pensions. True, unlike their brothers from the country “where many wild monkeys live,” they do not live in huts yet. But, as they say, the night is young.

The main problem nowadays is that the country lacks a locomotive capable of pulling it out of crisis. The regime is concerned only with self-preservation. Officialdom is corrupt, inefficient, and lacking any strategic benchmarks. The “elite” (which I put in quotations, because they really are not the best people in the country) have been thoroughly denationalized: they have no stake in developing Russia. Until a normal and non-corrupt state makes the “elite” serve the country, it will never move it forward. In this case, what is wanted is the bloody-mindedness of a Peter the Great, who once put an end to mestnichestvo and forced the boyars and gentry to serve the country, or the statesmanship of Alexander II, who abolished serfdom over the lamentations of the landlords.

Instead, pro-government spin doctors have been increasingly ratcheing up the propaganda machine, searching for enemies, and heavily sugarcoating reality. Jingoism has already bored everyone to death. The people directing the show do not believe in it themselves, and the audience has stopped believing in it as well, despite the sunny ideology foisted on them, because Russia is running in place, and no one is solving its problems. The propaganda spiel that enemies are to blame for everything is still functioning, but even it cannot serve as a perennial explanation for each new outburst of social turmoil and, especially, the government’s extremely poor performance. So fine, Obama is a bad guy, but what does that have to do with indexing pensions?

The only thing the regime can really boast about is reinforcing itself. But it is a regime presiding over a country losing its vitality. As a priority, the self-preservation of the “elite” deprives Russia of the chance to put itself back in motion. Yet the purged political arena, in which there is almost no opposition to speak of, much less plain old independent people who think about their country, has stopped generating leaders. There is only one leader left in the country, and he presides over a multilayered horde of bosses and oligarchs, embezzlers and dolts  perched on their estates and thinking only of themselves.

Except for United Russia, a product of the same regime, Russia’s political parties have no weight nationwide. The same goes for grassroots organizations. The media have been muzzled. Those who try and shout louder than the rest face either a harsh crackdown or a trivial payoff. Many people have taken to making oppositional noises in the hope they will be paid to shut up. Imitating protest has become a business, just like imitating patriotism. Amid the mob of clowns and crooks, the reasonable speeches made by the few real patriots who are rooting not for themselves but for their country are drowned out by the overall senseless din.

By eliminating potential enemies, the regime has also destroyed the very possibility of an alternative emerging, of a reboot. The current policies are clearly ineffective, but what and who should replace them? Reasonable prescriptions, for example, for supporting the national non-oil economy and import substitution, restoring consumer demand through social assistance to an impoverished population, ending capital flight, going after offshore companies, and clamping down hard on corruption have been voiced. These ideas, however, have come from second- and third-rank players who can advise the authorities but cannot demand anything from them. So the regime has ignored them year after year, thus exacerbating the crisis.

I am not trying to whip up a frenzy. I would like to say something positive, but the situation is firmly deadlocked. It is clear what reforms are needed. It also clear how to implement them and where to begin: with the “elite,” the civil service, the budget, and the tax system. The only open question is who would be capable of doing all this. We have already talked about the government. Russia’s active middle class is small, and it is extremely demoralized. We are left with the rank-and-file population, who have suffered most from the crisis and seemingly have a stake in launching reforms. But for the time being only a few ordinary people have been willing to take responsibility, allowing the regime quickly to localize protests, as happened with the farmers.

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Nikolay Mironov. Photo courtesy of the Center for Economic and Political Reform (Moscow)

In the current environment, self-organization, society teaming up with honest people in the civil service and law enforcement, could be effective. Those honest people are undoubtedly there, but not in leadership roles. The country needs a grassroots organization, a movement, a party that could unite people and impose its own rules on the authorities. Society has to make the first move itself, which will serve as a signal to the honest people inside the system. We have to get the ball rolling.

Responsibility for what will become of the Motherland and us tomorrow lies with each of us today. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

All we have to do is not be silent, not relinquish our right to speak and act to someone else, not to count on an unknown savior of the Fatherland showing up. If he has not saved the country already, why would he do it now? And, needless to say, do not be afraid. We have to overcome our isolation to put an end to the senseless suicides, severed fingers, and broken lives, to put an end finally to the shameless plunder of the people and the export of the loot abroad. Even the smallest action, as long as it is collective, carries more weight than the most desperate individual deed.

We can, of course, wait for the moment when the country finally goes to hell in a hand basket, as in Tsarist Russia or the late Soviet Union. But do we really have to go through turmoil and destruction every time we need a new impulse to development? Are victims so necessary to the process of recovery?

The country is at a standstill, and the dump truck of history is rushing toward it. There are two options. Either we start the engine and drive, or we wait to get run over and tossed onto the roadside.

Nikolay Mironov is head of the Center for Economic and Political Reform, in Moscow, and a frequent columnist for Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. I published a translation of his column “Whipping Bear: Why the President Needs a ‘Bad’ Prime Minister” in June 2016. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sean Guillory for the heads-up. Photo by the Russian Reader

The Toponymic Commission

 Социалистическая улица. Первоначально — Кабинетская (с 1776 по 1822 год). Название дано по Кабинетскому двору
“Socialist Street. Originally called Cabinet Street (from 1776 to 1822). Named after the Cabinet Court [sic].” Source: Partizaning, Facebook, November 19, 2015

Actually, the apparently much reviled Socialist Street was named Cabinet Street from 1784 to 1821. From 1821 to October 1918, it was named Ivan (?) Street (Ivanovskaya ulitsa), allegedly, after St. John the Baptist Church, which Wikipedia claims was located on the street itself (at No. 7). However, the redoubtable website Citywalls.ru says the church at this address was called the Church of the Transfiguration.  Another source (K.S. Gorbachevich and E.P. Khablo, Pochemu tak nazvany? Leningrad: Lenizdat, 1985, p. 357) asserts the street was so called (Ivan is the Russian equivalent of John) because it “led” to the church of that name. The only extant St. John the Baptist Churches in modern-day Petersburg are the renowned Chesme Church at 12 Lensoviet Street, whose official name is, indeed, the Church of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. But it is located approximately eight kilometers to the south of Socialist Street. An identically named church on Stone Island is nearly as far away: it is seven kilometers to the north of Socialist Street.

The former Leningrad Food Industry Workers House of Culture, now the State Hermitage Hotel. Pravda Street, 10, Petersburg, October 20, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader
The former Leningrad Food Industry Workers House of Culture, now the State Hermitage Hotel. Pravda Street, 10, Petersburg, October 20, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader

This is not to mention the fact that most Petersburgers with more than a passing interest in krayevedenie (local lore and history) would know it was the current Pravda Street, which intersects Socialist Street and is so named because the first issue of the newspaper Pravda was run off the presses there in 1912, that long bore the name Cabinet Street, from 1822 to 1921. The street was called that because the quarter was inhabited, among others, by clerks from His Imperial Majesty’s Cabinet, the agency in charge of the Russian imperial family’s personal property and other matters from 1704 to 1917.

Pravda Street, 3. October 20, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader
Pravda Street, 3. October 20, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader

His Imperial Majesty’s Cabinet was headquartered in the imposing neoclassical building, on the corner of Nevsky Prospect and the Fontanka Embankment, built in the early nineteenth century by Giacomo Quarenghi and Luigi Rusca. The funny thing is that most locals, if asked, would probably identify the building as part of nearby Anichkov Palace, which originally housed His Imperial Majesty’s Cabinet and then, years later, served as the residence of the future Alexander III and his family. In Soviet times, the Anichkov Place became the Young Pioneers Palace, but is now known as the Palace of Youth Creativity. TRR

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On the Question of Renaming
Sergei Babushkin
babs71.livejournal.com
November 9, 2015

Recently, there has been a vigorous public discussion of renaming Voykov subway station in Moscow, just as earlier, the renaming of Bela Kun Street in Petersburg was discussed. I will add my own five kopecks to the topic.

The arguments of those who support renaming the station can be summarized as follows. Pyotr Voykov was a terrorist involved in the murder of the royal family and basically a bad man. Opponents of the renaming argue, on the contrary, that the charges leveled against Voykov are exaggerated, to put it mildly. Apparently, Voykov did not take part in the murder of the royal family personally (except that, along with other members of the Ural Soviet, he was party to the decision to execute them), and many other charges are based on articles published in the yellow press. (You can find the particulars here.) However, in my view, even if all the allegations against Voykov were valid, the station should not be renamed. Why not?

On the one hand, toponymy is just as much as inalienable part of our history as folk songs, architectural landmarks, literature, music, and all the rest. Attempts to change place names many years after they emerged only because our attitude to historical figures has changed are just as much acts of vandalism as demolishing landmarks and destroying historic buildings. In my view, this species of vandalism is much more shameful than the similar renamings committed by the Bolsheviks. At least the Bolsheviks were consistent. They demolished historical landmarks because they wanted to start with a clean slate. Nowadays, on the contrary, the restoration of history is advocated, but the methods used to “restore” this history are Bolshevik and anti-historical.

On the other hand, condemnation of the Bolsheviks is an attempt to judge figures of the past in terms of today’s standards. Such an approach, again, is anti-historical, and this pretext can be used to call for demolition of monuments to any historical figure. Let us condemn Peter the Great for killing his son and the numerous fatalities incurred during implementation of his projects, many of which, in all honesty, the country did not need. Let us condemn Catherine the Great for carrying out a coup and murdering her husband. Let us condemn Alexander I for complicity in the plot to kill his father. Sound good? Moreover, many of Voykov’s opponents say he murdered innocent children. However, the monarchical system was organized in such a way that these same innocent children might have presented a direct threat to their political foes, since they could have served as a standard around which monarchist forces could have rallied. Let us recall that the rule of the Romanovs began with the hanging of three-year-old Ivashka Voryonok (Ivan Dmitryevich), son of Marina Mniszech. But he was no more to blame (and no less to blame) than the Tsarevich Alexei.

In addition, the current situation is also marked by flagrant hypocrisy. There is a lot of talk in Russia nowadays about national reconciliation. However, for some reason, reconciliation takes the form of dismantling monuments and changing place names associated with revolutionaries, while the cult of their opponents (primarily, the “innocent martyr and holy tsar” Nicholas II, who bore direct responsibility for the country’s downfall) is assiduously propagated. Excuse me, but I cannot call that anything other than a scam.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Busts of the Tsetsarevich Alexei, Emperor Nicholas II, and Empress Alexandra, all identified as "holy martyrs," outside the Theotokos of Tikhvin Church, Petrograd, April 25, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader

Busts of the “Holy Martyr” Tsarevich Alexei, “Holy Tsar and Martyr” Nicholas II, and “Holy Tsaritsa and Martyr” Alexandra, outside the Theotokos of Tikhvin Church, Petersburg, April 25, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader 

Welcome to Nyen, Capital of Ingria

map of nyen

Leonid Storch
Facebook
March 26, 2016

This is one of my favorite maps. Drawn up between 1635 and 1645, it is a snapshot of my hometown seventy years before it was supposedly founded by Peter the Great. In reality, it has been founded by the Swedes way back in 1611 and consisted of the town Nyen (i.e., the Swedish name for the Neva River) and Nyenskans Fortress, situated on the right bank of the Neva. In the late seventeenth century, Nyen’s population had climbed to two thousand. It had a town hall, a hospital, and two churches (Swedish and German). On the other side of the Neva, where the Smolny Monastery is now, there was also an Orthodox church. Nyen had a number of good sawmills, and sturdy ships were built in the town. Merchants from all across northern Europe came to Nyen for the traditional three-week fair held in August. Rye, oats, peas, pork, beef, bacon, butter, salmon, tar, resin, hemp, flax, and timber were brought here from Novgorod, Tikhvin, and Ladoga. The Oriental fabrics (silk, plush, damask) that were all the rage in Europe, as well as skins, leather, fur, and canvas, came via Novgorod. Metals (iron, copper, lead) were shipped from northern Europe, as well as mirrors, English and Dutch cloth, German wools, velvet, and hats.

The Greater Nyen area encompassed forty villages, both Izhorian and Russian, and several Swedish estates. The village of Hirvisaari was situated on Vasilyevsky Island, where I grew up, on the shores of the Little Neva River. We can assume that by the time Russian imperial troops showed up, the population of the Greater Nyen  area was at least four to five thousand people, which was quite a lot at that time.

Russian historiography has preferred to efface ninety-two years of the city’s history and has presented the matter in such a way that, when the Russian imperial troops arrived, the Neva estuary was a deserted “forlorn shore,” on which stood Peter, who, “rapt in thought,” had decided to found the capital city of Sankt-Peterburkh there. Despite the “desertedness” of the Neva’s shores, the newly arrived Russian nobles settled in homes previously owned by the local Swedish aristocracy (e.g., the estate of Swedish Major Eric Berndt von Konow was turned into the Summer Garden); the bricks used to build the Peter and Paul Fortress had been produced right there, in Nyen; and produce was delivered from the villages of the Greater Nyen area.  Subsequently, Peter ordered Nyenskans destroyed, apparently in a bid to destroy his rival in the battle over historical primogeniture. The remains of the fortress were unearthed during archaeological digs in the late 1990s in the vicinity of Krasnogvardeyskaya Square.

The paradox lies in the fact that every city tries to find the roots of its origins and takes pride if it is able to prove its lineage was even a dozen years more ancient than had been previously thought. On the shores of the Neva, however, an entire chapter of the city’s history has been pitilessly expunged, robbing it of ninety-two years of life, at least. Personally, I refuse to recognize 1703 as the year the city was founded. The founding of the Peter and Paul Fortress by the Muscovites in 1703 was an event no more meaningful than the founding of Nyenskans Fortress by the Swedes in 1611.

P.S. The map is aligned from south to north (as was customary in those days) or, to be more precise, from northeast to southwest. To make it easier to recognize the locale, I realigned the image. Thus, in order to read all the inscriptions on the map, you must turn the image around again [as I have in fact done, aboveTRR]. You can find Russian translations of the Swedish inscriptions here. The same website also contains a description of the maps’s history and the principles by which it has been dated.

P.P.S. For more information about Nyen and the pre-Petrine history of our city, see also [in Russian]:

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to the nearly indispensable Comrade AK for the heads-up

Anti-Americanism Is the New Black

“If the growth of anti-Americanism testifies to anything, then only to the success of Russian propaganda”
Olga Serebryanaya
February 19, 2015
online812.ru

There is a new trend on Facebook: folks complain to President Obama about the mess and collapse in Russia. Exemplary in this sense is a post written by Oleg Bulgak.

“Why the fuck, Mr. President, is there no seat on the toilet and no toilet paper in the only bathroom for younger visitors at Children’s Clinic No. 133 in northern Moscow? Have you shed your last shred of conscience back there in America? You are personally to blame for the fact the children have to climb onto the toilet bowl, although they could fall off it! Why are you taking such ingenious revenge on us? You make me mad, Barak Obama! Stop playing your little tricks!”

There are many such posts on Facebook, and yes, they are parodies, parodies by sane “outsiders” on the majority opinion, announced last week by Levada Center. According to the pollsters, 81% of Russians have a negative view of the US. Do I need to spell out the fact that if the growth of anti-Americanism testifies to anything, then only to the success of Russian propaganda?

The aim is clear: to shift attention from domestic to foreign issues. At first, this was done by means of a news agenda consisting wholly of events in Ukraine. Now, on the contrary, Russian events are served up only with a foreign connection.

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On Twitter, everyone had a laugh at “Obama is killing Kaluga auto industry,” a headline in a regional newspaper, but few people noticed the following news item, because “outsiders” have long ago stopped reading the news.

“Environment Minister Sergei Donskoi told RIA Novosti that the insects destroying boxwoods and palms in Sochi could have been brought into the resort city deliberately on the eve of the Olympics. ‘We have asked the prosecutor general’s office to establish who introduced the pests. I would like law enforcement agencies to get to the bottom of it,’ said the minister.”

The rhetorical device of propaganda has proven to be a very convenient governance strategy. If you have a problem, blame saboteurs, who will surely turn out to be foreigners or agents thereof. Hence, the capture of the female “spy” with a large family from Vyazma or the crazy Russian Orthodox Church staffer with an FSB ID.

Kirill Rogov explained the idea behind it.

“[The project] is called ‘legalizing repression.’ The idea is inure the public to arrests ‘for treason.’ The arrestees will be weirdos, people around whom there is no consensus in society, and with whom the ‘majority’ finds it hard to identify. The guidelines suggest that the number of arrests that go public should be between twenty and thirty. Then the chief executive will come out and say that the excesses trouble him. […] After this statement, which will be widely publicized, within a month, approximately, the intensity of the arrests will increase tenfold.”

Rogov’s hypothesis is confirmed by the fact that the spy mania has already been substantiated historically. Literaturnaya gazeta made a breakthrough on this front last week. Responding to a question posed by a reader from Stavropol, Nikita Chaldymov, Ph.D., explained that Russia’s woes had begun with Peter the Great’s modernization. Peter badly tarnished the country’s mores, сaused the subsequent persecution of Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov, and cut out that very same window through which “crowds of foreign adventurers began infiltrating” Russia. How could it have happened? The answer is clear: the sovereign was switched with someone else during the Grand Embassy.

“Could the tsar, being an Orthodox man, have so quickly turned into an alcoholic and libertine who dispatched his wife to a convent and married a Baltic washerwoman?” Chaldymov asks readers.

It stands to reason the real Peter could not have done these things. Foreigners had planted a spy on the throne.

There is only one hitch with this spy strategy. Another question might occur to the reader from Stavropol. Who occupies the Kremlin now? The real president? Or, God forbid, a changeling?